The serpents coiled and dived in the air. They were swimming in the air over the tangle of streets below, just skimming over the tiled roofs. The burning buildings below them were hardly worth their contempt but the scurrying people who occasionally attempted to mount a defense drew their ire. They snatched and bit as they flew low to the ground and the pitiful defenders of the city were left cowering beside the mutilated bodies of their compatriots. The stones of the buildings were tossed about as missiles, the fires blackened the streets, and catapults that had been the centerpiece of the city’s defense lay in splinters.
One man stood watching the scene serenely; he stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the city with quiet amusement. He was almost chuckling to himself as he watched the people begging for their lives. His richly colored clothes were too fine and clean for the wild and he picked at them and smoothed them every few minutes. Lounging next to the man was a massive gray and blue dragon that watched its kin attack the city lazily. The dragon’s eyes were golden and gave the look of all-seeing eyes. His teeth were as long as a man’s arm. He turned his piercing eyes to the city with a desperately thoughtful look, something about the carnage bothered him. With every move the thick scales of the dragon clanked together with a sound of a full cavalry moving in unison. He was by far the largest of the serpents, more than a hundred feet in long, but showed no more passion to join the fight than he did in engaging the man next to him. When the great beast of a dragon sighed, a deep throbbing rumble that shook the ground, the man finally peeled his gaze away from the flaming city to look at his companion.
“Burning cities.” The dragon bemoaned, “Any uneducated barbarian with a torch or hammer can destroy a city. You spoke of doing more Lyria, you spoke of changing the world. Now you use us as nothing more than an army of mercenaries to play with and do your bidding.”
“You are no such thing, Kur. You are my allies.” Lyria game the great dragon a reassuring pat of his hand along the massive jaw. “We will change the world, I promise you that, but to begin that change there are a great many things that we have to do. Some of them are unpleasant, that’s true, but all of them are necessary to reach our greater goal.”
Kur snorted and watched as his friends and family continued to torture and molest the city below them. A rising disgust was taking over the dragon’s senses, he felt blinded by Lyria’s bold promises of making the dragons an equal people. Kur had imagined himself to be the greatest leader in his people’s history, he would be the one who guided them at last to liberty. Now all he could think of himself was that it would be he who turned the dragons into mercenaries. Kur sat ruminating moodily about his own fall from grace and never noticed the dangerous sidelong glances that Lyria started to shoot his way.
When the massacre was over Lyria strolled into the town, accepting the surrender of the mayor with disdain and looking up gleefully as the other dragons, who did not share Kur’s worries, lined up like hunting dogs before him. The rubble of the buildings they had destroyed laid smoking all around them and the townsfolk stood rooted in horror, unable to run away. Lyria went to each of the dragons in turn, offering praise and a heartfelt thanks that made their great spiked tails twitch with pride. Lyria looked over the smoldering ruins of the town, he knew that this would make every other city in Abriciel tremble before they dared to cross him.
Kur finally trooped into the city once the men and women had been sent in a scatter across the country to spread the word. The old dragon had not wanted to face the dead look in their faces. He did not want to face a gloating Lyria either but he knew he had no choice. His fate was tied to the man now. “You have your city now.” He told the finely clothed man as he made his way across the city’s courtyard. He could not bring himself to look at his fellow dragons either, the smug self-satisfaction that they often had on their faces after these slaughters.
“And a fine show your friends made of taking it to.” Lyria said with a gleeful grin. The only thing that saddens me is you stayed on the ground. All the others tell me that you are far and away the best of them.”
“Which is why I fight only when the field is even.” Kur rumbled a bit more crossly than he intended.
Lyria caught the slight but recovered his composure swiftly. “Such nobility, it is a shame that few others share your code of honor.”
Kur shrugged his massive head at this, brushing off the duplicitous compliment, “Where are we going now?”
“Now we move on Abriciel.” Lyria spoke with a malicious light in his eyes.
“Why not? We’re strong enough now to take the city. Imagine, all we will be able to do when we are in power. Word is going to spread quickly about what we did here today, and that is going to have the whole country trembling with fear. The country is ours for the taking.”
“No.” Kur shuddered at the thought of Lyria’s bloody coup. He spoke faster than he had intended, instantly betraying his terror and disgust at the thought of violently taking Abriciel. “We should go home first, rest, and see if they don’t capitulate to our demands without more bloodshed.” He added hurriedly, hoping that Lyria would mistake his earlier tone for weariness.
The flash of utter hatred that whipped across Lyria’s face came and went so quickly that Kur was not sure he had really seen it. It had been the look a man deranged, a demon beast. When Lyria went on it was in the same sweet voice that had seduced the dragons into siding with him all those long months before. “Of course, how silly of me, pushing all of you on like beasts of burden. You must be tired. Perhaps you are right, Abriciel may sue for peace without us having to pitch even one more battle. Forgive me, the excitement of the moment got the better of me.”
Kur did not believe Lyria for one second, but he played along with the madman as they spoke to the others. He even bowed when Lyria praised him loudly. The other dragons cheered their leader exuberantly, completely in love with him. Kur knew that if he was going to break with Lyria he would have to do so very soon, the others were falling in love with the man who had turned them from hunted animals into a feared fighting force. They were too eager to mistake the dread in people’s eyes with respect.
The flight home was an easy one for them, and as Kur watched the others slink away to their caves he felt a pang in his heart, as though he were losing his friends forever. Kur’s own home was a cave that borrowed deep into the earth. The wide walls and high ceiling were grand enough to offer even the giant dragon comfort. Steam shot up through vents, and the air had the acrid smell of sulfur and humidity that soaked the rocks. Deep down in the lair where Kur slept the heat of the magma churning beneath the earth’s crust could be felt. The massive old dragon curled himself up in the sauna and laid his weary bones down to rest. He fell asleep, trying hard to forget about Lyria and the impromptu war that they had been dragged into.
Just as Kar was about to drift off he heard footsteps echoing down the chamber. He looked up just in time to watch Lyria come in, his fine clothes soaked and clinging to his skin. The man’s hair was matted and flat against his head and a malicious grin taunted the dragon. Kar lifted his head up to stare back at him, his mind racing. “How are you this evening?” he finally asked quietly.
“Let us do away with the pleasantries shall we.” Lyria mocked him. He looked around the cave, taking in the jagged rock formations as if he were a guest.
Kar’s golden eyes narrowed to slits. “Fair enough, I’ll speak plain if that’s what you want to do. You’ve gone to far.”
“Have I?” Lyria strolled toward him without any signs of worry. “I think you’ve gone a little soft. We’re in a war Kar, the only thing you can do in a war is fight to win. Doing anything else is foolishness.”
“You want to rule the kingdom, you don’t care about us.” Kar hissed, his breath laced with the kerosene smell of fire about to ignite.
“You have that all wrong, I care about you dragons very deeply, how else am I going to conquer the world if I don’t have you dragons trooping along with me? I care very deeply indeed.” Lyria was close enough for Kar to snap at now, that dangerous smile of his was still teasing the dragon. “The question you have to ask yourself now is this, do you want to serve as my lieutenant or do you want to stand on the other side of the field from me?”
“I can’t believe that I ever fell for you bile.”
“I take it that is a refusal?” the gleam in Lyria’s eyes looked suddenly blood red in the humid dank dark cave. “That is a shame.”
“A shame.” Kar growled. He lashed out suddenly with his jaws at the man, he meant to kill him but his mouth snapped shut over empty air. He wheeled around in the tight corners of the cave to find his prey but the man appeared to have disappeared. He lashed out violently, shattering rocks and shaking the ground. “Hiding little man?” he snarled with contempt.
“Hiding? Hardly, I’m right here.” Lyria whispered by the dragon’s ear. He poured a vile of poison into Kar’s ear and leapt down. It did its work quickly, he watched as the eyes dilated and swam almost at once. Lyria watched his former partner dying with the same blissful gleam on his face that he had while he had watched the city burn. Kar felt his knees go weak and he lowered himself to the ground. Lyria flashed in and out of focus. He tried in vain to make one last lunge and fell with a thunderous groan to the ground. “You see Kar, your people will never fight without you. Don’t worry though; I am going to make your dream come true. You will be remembered as the greatest leader the dragons have ever had. You, my old friend, are going to lead the dragons forever.”
“They will never follow you after this.” Kar only just managed to whisper the words.
“I think they will. You see, it wasn’t me who killed you here tonight. You, my old friend, were the victim of a cowardly assassination by the king in Abriciel. I am going to marshal your followers and we will avenge your horrid death. They’ll be eager to believe the tale, they like to fight.” Lyria was right up next to Kar’s head now, so close that he reached out and put a hand on the dragon’s snout. “And you are going to be there, every step of the way. How you might ask? A fantastic question, you are going to be right in the palm of my hand.”
Kar’s eyelids were heavy and started to droop down. His lungs were empty and he could not draw any air in. He could no longer feel his legs or wings. The last thing he saw was Lyria petting his long snout almost lovingly and drawing his long sword out. He saw the man’s mouth move once more but he could not hear anything any longer. He let go, he stopped fighting and drifted off to sleep.
Lyria set to work at once, hacking away at the dragon’s bulk with his sword, carving up the body like a cow at the slaughter. The radiant red glow was flashing in his eyes. He kindled a fire there in the bowels of the cave, he looked childlike with glee. He stripped the finger bones clean and pulled the teeth from jaws. He stripped away scales from the rough hide. He looked at the forge and the raw materials he now had at hand. An archaic need in him to control the wild grew until he moved without any idea of what he was doing. He fixed the scales along the bone, a black and blue armored shaft, then he lined the two ends with the razor sharp teeth. At the top he worked a medallion that showed through both sides, a golden eye that seemed to penetrate to the soul of anyone who looked at it. Lyria rose out of stupor and looked at his bloodied and blistered hands then over at the chopped remains of Kar. He smiled at the mangled face of the old dragon, “Thank you.” He padded through the pool of blood that was congealing on the ground.
He started the long walk up the tangled web of tunnels to the surface calmly, he gripped his newly made scepter and thought through what he would say to the others, the words would have to be just right. He felt the heat slacken, he finally began to be aware of the sweat pouring out of him and his drenched clothes clinging to his body. He ran a hand through his thick soaking hair and felt the water drip down his face. He clenched his jaw, drew himself up straight, and played the scene through his mind to prepare. He felt the breeze before he saw the light of the moon but when he stepped out into the night he glanced around at the trees and the shrubs with a dismissive look. Nothing was important anymore, not when he was so close to finally making his dream come true.
He set off down the path at once, hacking through the undergrowth with his new scepter, almost caressing the rock hard scales of the handle. When he exploded into the meeting ground he did not even need to take in the landscape. He knew the tall stone cliffs and the barren rock ground, the deep gouge marks of the claws of dragons that had been made over hundreds of years. There was a perch at the top of the centermost cliff, the speaking podium. That was where he had first seduced Kar, he thought there was symmetry to the moment.
He climbed up the cliff face recklessly, desperate to reach the top as quickly as he could. When he got to the top he could see for miles in every direction, the forest canopy sprawling out below him like a carpet of green. He ignored the moonlit view and turned instead to the pile of ash and blackened wood of the old signal fire. Soon he had the fire raging and he waited for the leathery black shapes to streak across the sky.
The flock of dragons came screeching down onto the barren rock, their eyes glowing in the dim night. The scales reflected the flickering light of the signal fire above and the hideous yellowish teeth looked demonic. Lyria stood on the perch facing them, looking small in the presence of the giants even standing above them. “My friends,” he announced clearly, “I have grievous news for us all tonight.” He launched into his speech, a lament for Kar that made the glowing golden eyes of the dragons glisten with sorrow. “We will not take this betrayal, we will not let Abriciel crush us. They have behaved like cowards this night. We will not stand by idly, we will march to war like the heroes that we are.” Lyria watched with greed as the mourning of the dragons turned to marshal hatred. “We will not go into battle alone either, they may have taken Kar away from us in body but his spirit will be at our side every step of the way.” He hoisted the scepter up overhead for them all to see. There were gasps from a few but most of the dragons rumbled with joy and eagerness.
“The time has come for us to seize the day.” Lyria went on, his voice climbing to a rapturous howl. “Swear to me, swear to me here and now that you will follow me to the end of this war, to the ends of this earth. Swear your oath to me now that you will follow, now and forever, he who holds this scepter. Kar will lead you in spirit, he was the greatest of the dragons to ever walk the earth. He put all of his heart and soul into this cause, he died for this cause, let us honor that sacrifice. Let us finish the work that he began.”
One by one the dragons threw open their massive jaws and roared into the night. They spit their fire high into the air, flashes of light piercing the starlight. They prostrated themselves to the man, their talons trembling in anticipation for the fight to come. Lyria watched his army with pride. He signaled to the nearest serpent, and slid from the perch onto the dragon’s neck. “To the skies! We attack tonight!” The flock swung up into the air, the snarling serpents winging to the capitol. With a deep breath the black dragon that carried Lyria erupted a ball of fire ahead of them, a sign of the devastation to come that could be seen across the countryside.