"The Dragon and the Princess" by Varangaard of Unity
he Lich King's forces were on the move again.
Some days past, Imperial scouts and some adventurer groups had spotted multiple undead companies moving out of the Eastern Deadlands . The army was making a two-pronged thrust, east along the Long Walk and southeast towards the Healer Tower. Strategists quickly determined it was an attempt both to devastate settlements close to their borders and to probe the Empire's battle-readiness.
Imperial command mobilized local forces to meet the enemy and summoned an assembly to Tazoon to discuss strategy for the battle. Valkoth himself went there too, having taken personal command of Dralk's force.
I was honored to act as one of his bodyguards during the meeting, as I had been one of the first to volunteer to the task force.
It was decided the Imperial force would be led by a human, some Jatell or something like that; I really can't be bothered to memorize any naka names. However, the man left me with a keen impression of wanting to prove himself, something that isn't a very good trait for someone in a commanding position.
Well, that didn't concern me. I wasn't there intending to add to his glory or serve the Empire out of my sense of duty, but to even the score a little between us the dragonkind and the Lich King. His pilfering of our graveyards hadn't exactly endeared him to us, to put it slightly.
Revenge was why Valkoth had taken command. He intended to demonstrate this would-be monarch what kind of enemy he had made. I fully agreed with the sentiment.
While Dralk would fully cooperate with the Empire in this battle, the lunus would have their own objectives besides those of our biped commander.
The battle went as smoothly as could be expected. The southern undead force and imperial army met in Tazoon desert near Dryart. Apparently secure in their superior numbers, the obsidian knights' commander engaged the Living despite unfavourable terrain. They had to attack uphill to reach imperial positions, heavy obsidian golems finding no easy purchase in shifting desert sands. We knew the tactic from previous engagements: to overwhelm with superior numbers, then reanimate everything they could. Losses were meaningless as long as they had the day.
Their commander's numbers game failed. The obsidian knight had neither anticipated the desert tribes striking at the flanks, nor the arrival of large number of dragons who could land their force pretty much where they pleased. Plan called for a rear attack. Personally, I'd much have preferred to face their shock troops at front, but our orders from Valkoth were quite clear: contain, annihilate. If none survived, there'd be nobody there to pick the bones and reanimate the force.
By sundown the battle was done. We were left with just mop-up, as the nakas had let some squads and a particularly large golem escape and run off into the desert. The chase began...
surveyed the meadows and copses rolling past me below. Nothing. No sign of our quarry. For five days now, the massive obsidian golem had eluded us. It was heading south, moving day and night like the tireless construct it was. Managing to slip past us time and time again, it had left Tazoon desert and reached the northern fringes of Vandus March.
Moving past Tishlar, the golem was clearly trying to reach thicker forests.
I feared if we let it get that far, we'd lose it for good. The golem would attempt returning to the Deadlands, that much was certain. Perhaps it would even head for the shore and simply walk across the bottom of the ocean to get back.
This golem was not ordinary. Despite being half again as tall as others of its kind, it had evaded us each time we had set it a trap. The tracks it left behind were arbitrary, forming no continuous path. Had I know better, I almost would've claimed it was capable of turning invisible, undetectable, and move right past our snouts without us being any the wiser. It had some tricks under its wing - metaphorically speaking - which allowed it to escape our attention. We needed to figure how it did that and fast.
Valkoth had taken charge of the hunt. He was just as keen to bring this monster down as the rest of us. This powerful and strange golem was without a doubt highly valued by the Lich King. To let it escape back to Deadlands was unacceptable.
I banked to my right and slowly corkscrewed down, my wings guiding the wind with carefully measured yet instinctive motions. My ambush point was a level meadow covered by tall grass, offering a good view to north and west. If anyone, or anything, attempted to reach the forest by this route, it wouldn't escape notice.
I settled down onto all fours, and into the waiting game. The day was creeping towards its end, sun washing the world with its golden light.
The only sounds were that of the wind, the song of birds, and rustling of nearby wild animals. I opened my mind to the whispers of my Gifted brethren, ready to move if anyone spotted the golem elsewhere.
Something bumped lightly against my leg. An animal maybe, a mole perhaps, or an exceptionally blind gruok? Then, another bump. I craned my neck and looked, realizing it was a human pushing at my side. Angling my head and lowering my vantage point even further, I noticed it was quite short; a human hatchling. It was always so hard to tell with their stunted growth and near-identical looks.
"What are you trying to do," I spoke, "if I may inquire?"
The human stopped and looked up at me, exclaiming "Naughty dragon! Get off my dad's field!" The timbre of its voice was what I had come to associate with female humans. "You are ruining the crops!"
I slowly looked around as she resumed pushing me. Only one type of plant was growing there, all of them of even height. The extent of the field was conveyed by clearly defined, straight boundaries. More than likely, it had been planted and managed by intelligent hands. Had humans learned that from the elves? Or was it the other way around?
"This field looks manmade," I replied, "I'll give you that."
"Get off the field," the girl demanded again, "or I'll tell my dad, and he will get very angry with you!"
"Now really?" I asked half amused, turning to look at her again. Just how many years old this human was, six? Ten perhaps? Humans had no horns or scales so it was nearly impossible to tell. The girl was dressed in rather typical biped female manner, multiple colours arranged to geometrical patterns that pleased human eyes. She wore a wide-brimmed atop her head. No dirt, no tools. Contrasting all this with what I've seen in Tazoon, Dalimond, and elsewhere, I could judge her family was wealthy and influential by biped standards.
"Yes! My daddy owns these lands," she asserted. "My parents are very important persons around here."
"Owns?" I let out a low laugh at the audacity. "By ancient right, this land is the claim of the draconic empire and her successors. You are merely allowed to trespass."
The girl stomped the ground with her leg. "Don't lie, lying is bad and makes Istara cry! My daddy says he has the deed for these lands, so he owns them not you!"
"I didn't say I claimed possession of this land." I turned back to surveying the land before me. Still no sign of my quarry. "You young cultures, you define your borders with ink and word and blood. Such transient invocations have no true permanence. This is why your actions are a seed of conflict, so easily transgressing those imaginary lines while ignoring anything not of your devising. You do not understand that there is only the claim. A true claim is known by all and inviolable. You naka-duskael do not even comprehend the concept. . . are you listening to me?"
The girl had taken off her hat produced some small item out of her bag, repeatedly pushing it through her hair. She observed the results through a small mirror.
"You are so boring. You sound just like my teacher."
"Teacher? Don't humans teach their brood by themselves?"
"My mom hired a teacher for me. He lives in our manor. Now go away before I have to summon the knights."
How strange the human society had become! It seemed there were many more things wrong with them than I had realized. "I don't understand. How will your parents ever know you learn all the right things, ways and means if they don't do it themselves?"
Apparently satisfied with her handiwork, the girl put away her things and donned her hat again. "You don't sound very dragon-like," she said, staring at me with suspicious eyes. "Are you really a dragon?"
"Am I a dragon?" I repeated incredulously. "Most assuredly I am! Haven't your parents - or your teacher for that matter - ever told you anything about dragons?"
"No," she remarked offhandedly and sat down onto a stone, swinging her legs. "But I've read all about them in my storybooks. They're biiig angry lizards with wings and treasure piles and they breathe fire."
After a short pause she added, "since you are a dragon, you must be here to kidnap me right?"
"What, kidnap? What nonsense is that?" I ruffled my wings and coiled my tail around my legs. The whole discussion was starting to annoy me.
"In all the stories," she explained patiently, "dragons steal princesses and take them to their lairs to ransom for gold and treasure. I have decided to become a princess when I grow up and marry a handsome prince."
"What kind of a daft story is that?" I growled angrily. "Kidnap a human? How utterly absurd! We don't need to do something like that. We have never done anything like that! Some helian too short of horns must've said something he shouldn't have." I paused and stared at the little human. "Human storybooks really say things like that?"
She clapped her hands excitedly. "Yes! First a vile dragon takes the princess away, then a prince in shining armor appears, wielding a sword--"
"This is getting ridiculous," I interrupted her. "I don't need to hear any more."
I shook my head and quickly glanced towards the horizon. For a second I had forgotten what I had come here for. Perhaps the golem would never come and I'd be stuck with the girl until the hunt was called off.
"Human, you should remove yourself from this place with due haste. A monster is on the loose and might come this way. Why are you here alone, anyway? I can't believe humans are so uncaring they let their get run loose this late."
The girl looked at me down her nose and stuck out her tongue - a biped expression of defiance, I've gathered. "I don't need to listen to a mean dragon. I snuck out of the manor on my own because they wouldn't let me out alone. It is a good thing I came as I can now chase you away from my dad's fields. You know, he belongs to the House of Vandus. You should just-"
"What? Of the Ashlander's descent?" That name was not well received by any dragon, lunus or helian. I jumped up to my feet and turned around to face the girl, which turned out to be a fortuitous act.
At the exact spot I had just vacated, the ground burst open in a fountain of dirt and stones. Something massive, all black and gleaming leaped to surface, wildly swinging its extremities. It was the obsidian golem we had been hunting down! So fast was its attack that it managed to swing its massive fist at me before I could even think of dodging. The blow landed on my side and sent me reeling backwards.
I realized this must've been the secret of the golem's escape. It was capable of burrowing through ground at great speed. Moving in that manner it could easily bypass all our ambushes. There probably was some limit to this ability else it would have never resurfaced after fleeing the battle at Dryart.
The girl let out a shrill shriek at the golem's appearance but at least seemed to have the wits to back away.
I shifted my focus on the golem. It had briefly paused to pull its feet out of the ground. That was all the excuse I needed to grab the initiative, leaping at its face. Putting my entire weight behind my claws, I aimed at the golem's joints and rent deep scars across its body, showering sparks and obsidian fragments in every direction.
The golem went down onto one knee but recovered its balance quickly.
Rotating like no living creature could, it swivelled around and sent a crushing blow at my side with both arms. I rolled with the attack the best I could, trusting to my thick scales' protection. Still, I could feel the blow had broken a rib or two. This one was massively strong as befitting its size, towering over even me.
The monster closed in again, but I whirled around and smacked it across the chest with my tail. As it fought to maintain balance, I took a deep breath and let loose massive gouts of dragonfire. I could hear sharp cracking sounds as unevenly heated obsidian split apart at places.
Regardless, the golem was not quite ready to give up fight. It swung at me again. I took the hit squarely to my chest and grabbed hold of the arm with both of my forelegs, then bit savagely at its shoulder.
Tortured stone gave way and the whole arm fell loose.
Being made of stone the golem naturally didn't feel any pain. Not stopping to contemplate loss of a limb, it stepped hard on ground, sending out an unnaturally massive wave of tremors. Attempting to remain on my feet, I inched away before it could strike again. Instead of chasing after me, it grabbed the severed arm and threw it. The chunk missed my head by mere inches.
We both paused to stare at each other across the gap of eight meters or so between us. This gave me a chance to study the golem more closely for the first time. The nicks, cuts and spell-scorches on its surface told of many past battles. Arrowheads and several weapons from the recent battle still clung to its limbs. There was a sick green glow in its deep-sunk eyes, suggesting some simple, primitive intellect was housed within that heap of stone.
I spread my wings wide and hunched low, grinning widely at the creature.
"How nice of you to bring materials for your tombstone with you. What'd you please for an epitaph? 'Brought low by a lunus' sounds good."
If it was capable of speech, I'll never know. A small rock hit it on the side of its head. Rotating on one leg, the golem turned to face this new threat. It was that human girl again.
"Evil monster!" she shouted at it. "Go away!" Although she tried to sound angry, her wide eyes told me she knew she had done a very foolish thing.
I made use of the distraction and charged at the golem's flank. Reaching deep within myself, I summoned all my strength behind the strike. My claws took upon a silvery glow as they tore deep gashes across the golem's flank and back. The fractures ran even deeper, completely splitting it in twain. The halves crashed down and fell apart, the magic that bound the creature together unravelling slowly.
I made sure the golem was dead then turned towards the human. "You. Girl."
She blinked and turned to look at me with a pale face and eyes still wide.
"If you want to grow to adult size, learn the difference between bravery and foolhardiness." She nodded, unable to find her tongue.
I fell silent for a moment, considering what I was about to do. I picked up a piece of obsidian and closed my eyes in concentration. Guiding the primal force with my claw, I cut out a small piece and carved dragon runes upon it. "Here. When you think you're old enough, seek this one out. Remember this: there are no princes in shining armor riding around. But there are dragons. And princesses? You decide that."
She accepted the stone mutely. Without another word, I took onto my wings and ascended into the darkening sky. It was almost night, and the golem's blows started hurting.
Before long, Valkoth arrived at my side. The sun, nearly beyond the horizon now, drew him in massive silhouette.
"Blood of Var," he acknowledged me.
"Honored elder," I replied, lowering my gaze in respect.
"You have accomplished a great deed today, destroying one of the Lich King's creations. But I must say I am slightly surprised. I was expecting you'd torch the nosy human. Perhaps your flame has gained some focus since we last met, during your Rite."
"It would only burn brighter for all of that. I consider myself a warrior, honored elder, not a murderer. We could hardly call them our inferiors if we stooped to their level."
"You didn't mind her interfering with your battle," the ancient observed.
"Battles are about opportunity. Rarely has any fight been fair. In the end, the only thing that matters is victory and defeat."
Valkoth remained silent, expecting me to say something more.
"I wrote a name on it. It will lead her to the Historian. Should she pursue it, she will learn about the Sleeper and the Peak of Storms . What the Ashlander's descendant will do with the knowledge...I'm curious."
"We live in interesting times," Valkoth replied to that. "We have achieved our objectives here. We will now return to Dralk."