Dragons Honor, 2 of 3

A Fantasy Short Story by Joe Jackson

Dragon’s Honor, 2 of 3

by Joe Jackson

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Laeranore was considered elven territory, respected by the other races who made certain to never encroach upon its borders. It was not, however, solely the land of the elves. Many creatures made their abode in these woods, and in just a scant few months, Kari had witnessed things she never thought existed, much less expected to see. The tree nymphs and the walking trees had only been the beginning of her elven-land education. She was no stranger to dragon-kind, having killed a couple of the oft-volatile creatures before, but that had been in the company of several friends and a powerful priestess.

I’d be a fool to tangle with one alone, Suler’s training be damned, she mused, thinking of her former lover. Suler, the king of the shakna-rir empire, had taught her his fighting style, horsemanship, and how to accept the love of another again. But more remarkable than that had been his lessons on fighting and killing dragons. Kari wasn’t sure where he’d learned such things; she was certain he’d never actually fought one. But his lessons and his theories had been sound – at least to her – and when put to the test, she and her companions had found those theories worked.

Still, it wasn’t a risk worth taking when failure meant more than just her own death. She could accept being killed and eaten, but setting a vengeful dragon upon the longer-lived elves? That was another matter. No, she had to make sure she entered the dragon’s valley, killed the demons she was looking for, and then left before she provoked it. If she had to deal with it, her best bet would be to try diplomacy and then excuse herself from its territory. Perhaps, if it hated the demons as much as she did, it would accept her help and let her leave without incident.

She crouched down and inspected the soil again. Her eyes utilized the light better than a human’s would, and even under the filtering canopy, she had no trouble finding the trail. The brys, created to be assassins, were adept at moving without leaving traces, but the elves had taught Kari how to look beyond the immediate signs and see the deeper ones. Their feet may have left no tracks, but the movements of their tails and wings did. What many hunters may have initially taken as signs of a pair of corlypsi passing through the area said something much different to Kari.

There aren’t four, she thought. Got to be at least six. They’re masking their trail as well as they can. But what are they up to?

Serilian demons were far from subtle. The brys could be when they wanted to – after all, an assassin that doesn’t know how to be subtle isn’t particularly useful. But their nature was difficult to suppress, and when given the opportunity to kill innocents, it was generally what they did. A few random arrows that left bodies as a warning to anyone else that might get in their way did wonders for their reputation. Here, though, if they were up to something, the brys were undoubtedly the brains behind the plan.

The corlypsi, cowardly as they typically were, would be the muscle. Brys were deadly, but they were far more effective striking from a distance with the bow or other projectiles than in melee. They were capable hand-to-hand fighters, but their slight frames and short statures left them at a disadvantage much of the time. Speed and dexterity could only protect them so well from trained fighters. This pair had apparently rounded up some of their cowardly but stronger brethren to serve as the front line against someone or something, but what?

They couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to attack a dragon, could they? What would they hope to accomplish?

While the demons could use the dragon’s treasures to conduct business on the fringes of society, it didn’t seem like a strong enough motivation to risk fighting such a powerful foe. Was there something else living here in the forbidden valley, then? Something the demons saw either as a threat or that possessed something they wanted? On that note, could the dragon possess some trinket they were after? Or could their presence be due to a specific mission given to them by the Devil Queen herself?

Kari stopped her contemplations and continued following the tracks. Slight deviations here and there to urinate were the only irregularities she came across along the trail. The demons had speed in mind, and were proceeding down to the lower floor of the valley by skirting the hill’s edge and gradually circling down. Once she realized the floor of the valley was their destination, she began a more direct descent, and crouched down every so often to check for their circular tracks again.

Nearly two-thirds of the way down, she found the trail once more. Now, she could see the signs more clearly: The brys still left nary a trace, but the subtle signs were there. Her reassessment proved correct, the tracks denoting four corlypsi and two brys. At first, they had traveled in single file well enough to fool her budding tracking skills, but now, they left errant footprints and ignorantly marked the nearby trees and bushes. The canopy was opening up, which meant underbrush could thrive here in the lower valley, and the scent told her why.

I should go get help, she thought, but she continued down toward the water. There’s no time. And at least if I die here, the elves are likely to avenge me before these bastards can get out of Laeranore.

She managed to reach the lake’s edge without finding another set of tracks, and she glanced both ways along the shore. The trees encroached as close as they could, but here it was mostly bushes and even some reeds. There was something odd about this area, almost like it didn’t fit in with the rest of Laeranore. Maybe it was the lack of tree spirits, driven off as easily as the elves by the presence of an irritable dragon. Maybe the valley itself was unnatural, and had been formed by some badly-managed magic.

Or maybe it’s a nest of demons even larger than this group I’ve been tracking, Kari thought somberly. Every possibility she considered just got worse. And yet, she felt no fear. I’m dying anyway; what’s the difference?

She headed north along the lake’s shore, making every effort to avoid disturbing the trees and bushes so as not to give away her pursuit. She wasn’t sure how large the lake was, but if the demons were able to circle it at least once in the time she’d been tracking them, she imagined it couldn’t be expansive. She resolved to be quiet and take her time; if she lost them, she could always return to the trail. In her mind, she noted the area she’d descended using some specific and peculiar trees, and then continued on.

Movement ahead got her attention, and she ducked behind the widest bole she could find. A flash of red skin, the whap of wings hitting trees and then dragging through bushes, and she knew she had found at least one of her quarry. She ducked out from the other side of the tree and began to give chase as it sped westward, and she slid her twin scimitars from their sheaths with little regard to the sound.

Which was just as well, since the sharp ears of the brys picked up her approach instantly anyway…

Kari was surprised when the demon didn’t turn to engage or even draw its bow. The way it crashed through the trees and ignored her said it was running from something. Had they gone after the dragon, or at least come across it? She realized she might be running right into a trap or ambush of some kind, but she’d fought her way out of worse mishaps before. The brys was fleet of foot, but Kari’s longer strides and less direct route up the hillside allowed her to gain ground. She could only keep this up for so long in her condition, but the brys didn’t know that.

As if in answer to her thoughts, the demon snarled over its shoulder, its dragon-like eyes narrowed in a scowl, but then it crashed into some dense brush. By the time it extricated itself, Kari was nearly upon it. The demon drew a pair of short, straight blades from the sheaths at its belt, and turned to face her as she bore down upon it. Its leather armor was torn, and dried rivulets of black blood streaked its form when she got a good, close look at it. It had clearly tangled with something, and whatever that was, Kari surmised it had come out on the better end of their fight.

Kari hardly slowed in her charge, but just as the brys moved to receive it, she cut right and spun, using her wings to slow herself before whipping her scimitars around. She felt the satisfying squelch of her blades ripping through flesh as she came back to her frontal stance. The brys now had a pair of deep lacerations on its left shoulder to match the punctures up its belly and side. It grimaced, showing those sharp black teeth in its draconic snout, but its left arm fell limply to its side. It started to stumble away, but Kari drove her first scimitar deep into its side, and then hooked the other over its head and under its chin. She hardly paused as its head rolled free from its shoulders. Instead, she looked for cover.

She ducked behind a tree and crouched, watching the forest behind her for any sign of the other demons. All was still and silent in the wake of the brys’ passing, but she waited patiently; it was possible the other one had taken up a position to shoot at her. Soon enough, though, the birds in the area returned to filling the air with their songs, and Kari crept over to the corpse.

These wounds are old, she thought, pulling away the damaged armor to note the many punctures and lacerations on the brys’ side. They’d been slow to heal, but none of them looked fresh. Had she misread the trail signs? Were the tracks older than she thought, and she’d already missed whatever happened?

She followed the brys’ apparent path of egress from the edge of the lake, and continued to pick her way carefully along the shore. Her gut started to knot up, a combination of doubt, fear, and the illness that had a never-ending hold upon her. She stopped to lose her inadequate breakfast behind a tree, and slipped down to one knee when she saw it was laced with blood.

“What the hell am I doing?” she asked herself again. It took several minutes to get the shakiness out of her legs, but they still felt unsteady when she got to her feet. She was in no condition to confront half a dozen demons, but that didn’t stop her. She pressed on.

The walking seemed to do her some good. After a couple of hours, she saw what had to be the entrance to the dragon’s lair. It was along the shore of the lake, partially submerged, and wide enough that she recognized this was no whelp or young dragon. When the wind swirled around the lower bowl of the valley, she caught the trace scent of sulfur, but along with it came something far worse.

Retching, Kari put the back of her hand before her draconic nostrils. The sickly-sweet stench of rotting flesh was unmistakable, and in this instance, even more remarkable because it was the smell of dead demons. She looked back over her shoulder, remembering the state of the brys she’d killed. Clearly, the demons had come out on the wrong end of their scrap with the dragon, but that one of them had escaped alive made the demonhunter wonder.

Her curiosity, sense of duty, and the memory of Sebastian’s warning had a lovely three-way argument in her head. Entering the dragon’s lair was likely to cost her life, and just as likely to cost the elves many of theirs. But she had to find out if the demons were all dead, or if they may have succeeded and were now using the dragon’s lair as their own. The stench of decay seemed to counter that, but then she considered what little she knew of dragons. By all accounts, the great reptiles had sharp senses of smell; would a dragon lie willingly among rotting corpses?

Kari took a step forward, then another. I have to know, she thought. But I can’t risk the lives of the elves. Maybe it’s time I put my old life back to use.

The demonhunter got as close to the cave as she could, taking her time to make as little noise as possible. She shed her armor and heavier gear, piling it behind a stand of trees. She kept only her scimitars and casual clothes, and she waded out into the water in slow increments. She submerged herself completely and found she could see fairly well underwater, so she gave a swish of her tail and a half-beat of her wings and glided, underwater, into the cave mouth. She came up just far enough for her eyes to breach the surface, and waited until her stronger low-light vision took over.

A couple of the demons were nearby. They looked like they had tried to flee, but she thought better of that after a moment. They had been hit by the dragon’s claws, no doubt, and thrown violently into the walls near the cave mouth, where their bodies now festered. Kari was thankful her nostrils were underwater, but that wouldn’t be the case for much longer. From here, she couldn’t see the dragon, so she emerged step by step in an effort to make sure the dripping of water from her body sounded natural.

There was a grunt from deeper in, and Kari’s heart nearly stopped as she took in a sharp breath and put her back to the cave wall. She regretted the breath, getting a mouthful of that awful stench, but she hoped her black skin and the dark clothing she wore might let her camouflage against the wall, at least. There was another demon just ahead of her, but she saw only half of it was there. The brys was missing from the ribs down, and Kari wondered if it had been bitten in half or simply torn in half by the dragon’s powerful foreclaws.

Kari crouched and peered around the corner, and saw that the cave opened up just below the hillside. Roots and bits of rock that had been melted to reinforce the roof hung down, and it became obvious the cave was only partially natural. Most unnatural about it was the massive reptile lying in its center, the beast’s body scores of feet from nose to tail, and yet its form was sleek. Its wings lay about it haphazardly, and if not for the grunt and the sound of its raspy breathing, Kari might have suspected it was dead.

One of those slit-pupiled reptilian eyes fixated on her, and the dragon started to lift its head and pull in a lungful of deadly fire. Kari had only a moment to make a decision, and she dashed in, not wanting to be caught in the cave mouth with nowhere to dodge. She ran along the dragon’s side and brought her scimitars to bear, making her way toward its rear legs. The most potent strike, by Suler’s lessons, was to groin a dragon. He had often spoken of the groin being the crossroads of the body’s lower arteries, and taught Kari well that if one stabbed and slashed there, even the greatest of creatures would succumb to blood loss.

The trouble was, the dragon was lying down, and made no move to rise up to its feet. Kari found herself with limited room to run, and she turned, putting the dragon’s wing between herself and its fiery breath. That breath never came, though, and the demonhunter spun out from behind the wing on instinct when a deafening crash reverberated through the cave. She went into a defensive crouch, one leg poised slightly to the side to spring out of the way of an attack, but again, nothing came, and at last she focused on the dragon.

Its head was lying on the floor, its tongue lolled out between its teeth, its pupils dilated a bit in the dizzying haze of pain. Kari’s senses came back to her slowly, and she picked up on the smells more strongly now. The dead demons – all five of them – made for quite a stink, but they weren’t the extent of it. The dragon was wounded: There were claw marks and torn-off scales here and there, and the brys had found the few weak points in its scaly armor and sank their arrows into them. All of those wounds were festering, and Kari realized the dragon was alive, but likely not for long.

The demonhunter narrowed her eyes, striding toward the dragon’s head, and she looked at all of the demon corpses. The dragon tried to lift its head, again in vain, and it fixed Kari with one pain-wracked, slit-pupiled eye. She stopped a few paces away, her scimitars still gripped tightly in her hands, and wrestled with the decision before her.

Go… ahead,” the dragon rasped. “Finish me… while you can, mortal.”

Kari sidestepped over toward its foreleg, where a section of scales had been shredded by claws, and the soft flesh beneath was bulging with infection. She ran the edge of her scimitar along the wound, and put the back of her hand to her nostrils again at the stench that came forth with the pus. She put one of her blades away and pushed against the side of the wound, which brought forth a hissing whine of pain from the dragon, but soon its blood oozed out of the wound, free of the infected pus.

Kari put her hand to the wound and closed her eyes, calling upon the limited connection she had to her deity, Zalkar the Unyielding, as a demonhunter. She focused his power through her soul and channeled it into a healing touch. It wasn’t strong enough to completely heal the wound, but it stanched the bleeding, and would hopefully keep it from getting infected again.

The dragon turned its head as much as it could in its weakened state. “What… what are you doing?”

Good question, Kari thought.

It took her a minute to find her voice, but she spent the time productively. She used the sharp tip of her scimitar to dig out an arrowhead, drawing another hissing whine from the great beast. She turned over the thoughts of what she was doing while she worked, but never slowed or stopped. Three arrowheads came free while she considered what she was going to say, but she found herself drained by the channeling of the divine power.

It seems we have each other at a disadvantage,” she said, and the dragon’s pupil widened and then narrowed. “You’re defenseless, and I have a code to uphold.”

I do not… understand,” the dragon managed, its breath barely sufficient to get out the words in a language she could comprehend.

Kari walked over and stood before the dragon so it could fix her with both eyes. She took in a deep breath and blew it out through her nostrils in a drawn-out sigh. “I am Karian Vanador, Devil-hunter, by Zalkar’s Grace,” she said. “My Order has a code of conduct, and while you may be a real thorn in the side of the elven nation, I’m sworn… to Love justice, but do mercy… and to help those who’ve been attacked and wounded by demons.”

The dragon laughed, but each short chortle came between grunts of pain. “You… must be… jesting,” he said. “But no… you have followed… our code as well. I am… Ashurinax the Black, the Shadow Walker… the Flame of the Night… the Lord of the Evening Sky.”

The demonhunter bobbed her head after a moment. “Unfortunately, I’m not a proper healer, so there’s only so much I can do before I have to rest,” she said. “But first… I need to get these disgusting corpses out of here.”

Ashurinax made no gestures or sounds of approval or protest. “Why… would you help me?” he asked.

I told you: It’s part of our code.”

And you would… uphold this code even for an… enemy, knowing you could… kill me and take… my things for your own?”

Kari leaned to the side and looked beyond the dragon to the pile of clutter. There were coins and other shiny things in there, but she grunted a laugh before she pulled her shirt up over the end of her snout. “I have absolutely no use for any of that,” she said. She took one of the dead corlypsi by the wrists and began to drag it out of the cave.

Kari spent the better part of an hour dragging the demons’ remains from the cave, and then a couple more hours burying them as best she could on the hillside. She was filthy and exhausted by the time she finished. She washed off briefly at the lake’s edge, then collected her things and brought them into the cave. After piling them up inside, she headed back out to the forest to collect wood for a fire.

Soon, evening was falling, and she had a sizeable pile of sticks set up inside the cave. She looked at the ceiling before lighting it. “No way out for the smoke,” she muttered.

There are chimneys… up above,” the dragon said. “A small fire… should not be a cause for concern.”

Kari nodded and looked back at her pile of wood. “Now here’s irony: I have to use old scouting techniques to start a fire to keep a dragon warm.”

Ashurinax managed what had to be a smile, showing off his dagger-like teeth. Kari found herself chilled by that regardless of whether it was meant to be friendly. She built up a little bird’s nest of tinder and got to work setting the fire, and had one going before long. She stood up and pulled off her shirt and trousers to let them dry properly. Despite the fact that she was in the presence of a dragon and her people weren’t fazed by nudity, though, she kept her undergarments on.

Your ribs… I can see so many of them,” the dragon commented.

Kari looked down at herself and sighed. Her breasts were nearly gone, her ribs showed through in places as though she’d been starved, and now that she paid attention to her unarmored form, she could see the effects of the slow death that was coming to her. “Yeah, won’t be much longer now, I imagine.”

Until your death?”

The demonhunter turned and faced the dragon squarely. “That’s right,” she said. It had taken her so long to come to terms with her illness, but as death crept inevitably closer, she was less and less disturbed by it. There was something alluring about the prospect of a good, long rest somewhere in the heavens, in Zalkar’s realm. She was proud to be a demonhunter, but the life was wearying, and the further her disease progressed, the harder it was to keep pushing herself. That never stopped her, of course; in fact, it often led her to make foolhardy decisions and push the bounds of her abilities – such as walking into the lair of a dragon alone. “That’s why I was stupid enough to come in here by myself.”

Ashurinax remained silent, merely watching, cat-like in his stillness.

I need to get some rest,” she said. She knew she should have something to eat first, but between the grip of her illness and the stench that still pervaded the cave, she doubted she could hold anything down. She laid out her cloak on the cave floor and rested her head on her curled up arm. The last thing she remembered seeing was the dragon staring at her with those golden eyes, but she thought if he killed her in her sleep, it would be a mercy.

~ * ~ * ~

Kari woke with a start when she felt hands upon her, and she scooted up into a seated position. She cast her gaze about for her scimitars, but realized she’d been dreaming. She brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The fire had burned down to embers, and it was still dark outside the cave mouth. Always with the bad dreams…

She rose to her feet and the dragon’s eyes opened in response. He still didn’t seem to be able to move his head. Kari walked over and touched the end of his nose plate. “When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

The dragon stared at her, but said nothing until she strode along his flank and began to let the pus out of another infected wound. He showed his teeth, but didn’t make a sound to go with it. Once Kari stanched the flow of blood, she returned to face him squarely. “You would not so humiliate me by feeding me like an invalid, would you?” he queried, though his tone was more shame than indignation.

I can’t heal you,” she answered. “I can keep you from bleeding to death, and tend to these infections somewhat, but I’m no priest. If you want to live, you’re going to need to heal on your own for the most part, and that means you’re going to need to eat.”

Why are you aiding me?”

Thought I already explained that,” Kari said, returning to her piled equipment. She ate a few handfuls of her trail rations and then began to put on her armor. “Maybe you’re familiar with that old human expression about the enemy of my enemy being my friend? Well, I guess that’s how my Order looks at everyone. You don’t have to be my friend, but the demons are my enemies, and they’re your enemies. At the very least, we have that in common.”

How much do you know about my kind?”

Kari grunted a laugh. “Don’t engage unless you have to,” she quoted her instructors. “That’s about all we really need to know of your kind.”

The dragon let out a deep, rumbling sound. It was somewhere between a growl and a grumbling sigh, but Kari wasn’t sure which was more accurate. In that, she realized, he had made his point.

Once armored, Kari motioned toward the cave’s exit with her head. “I’m going to fetch some firewood and see if I can hunt up something big enough for both of us to eat. Do you feel up to eating?”

Though it shames me, I will eat if you bring food.”

I think I saw some deer tracks yesterday,” Kari said, ignoring his embarrassment. “I’ll see if I can fell a young buck with one of those brys’ bows.”

Ashurinax blew a sigh out through his reptilian snout, and Kari took her leave. She half-swam, half-walked out of the cave exit, and climbed back up onto dry land. She hadn’t fought all that much the day before, but she certainly felt the effects now. Between being sick, exerting herself, and then not eating before she went to sleep, she was exhausted and ravenous, the trail rations having barely taken the edge off of her hunger.

At least I’m hungry now, she thought. Better make sure I fell something I can take a share of as well. But just how large a game animal do I have to fell for him?

The demonhunter made her way slowly up the hillside. She walked along it in a spiral to lessen the strain on her tired legs and get back to the tracks she’d seen the day before. She got her bearings, the angle of the sun a little easier to see with the lake nearby. She glanced to the east, then, toward Xii’briiosel, and wondered how long it would take Sebastian to reach the court of his queen in the cliff-side palatial city.

Doesn’t matter, she thought, and let forth a sigh. I’m on my own here.

Doubt crept back up on her as she knelt down and examined the deer tracks. They weren’t the same ones she had followed the day before; these were fresher, quite recent if she wasn’t mistaken again. She strung the bow she’d taken from the dead brys and took an arrow between two fingers as she began to follow the trail. Her legs were still a bit weak, but as she considered the hunt, the pain and the weariness fled in the face of the excitement.

But what am I doing? she wondered, at last giving proper attention to the nagging doubts. If I feed him, and he heals up, he could kill me and then many of the elves. Am I foolish enough to hope he might do neither in exchange for helping him? Am I making the wrong choice?

It took little time to find the buck that had left the tracks, and Kari crouched low, her wings tucked tight to her back. She stayed silent and motionless behind some dense bushes that were grabbing what purchase and sunlight they could near the lake. She turned her draconic snout up to the air, testing the direction of the wind; she was properly downwind from the animal. She had approached it unnoticed, had a sufficient blind, and was able to mask her scent. Now, she had only one issue to deal with before felling her quarry.

There is no choice, she thought. This is the code of my Order, and I don’t get to decide who is and isn’t worthy of protecting from demons. If I do the right thing and die on account of it, at least I’ll have done the right thing. If that means the elves suffer, then it’s the law of Zalkar that needs to change. If I die, I guess I can talk directly to him about it…

She nocked the arrow and drew back the bow. Brys were slight of frame, but the bow had a powerful draw to it, and Kari had to put effort into getting sufficient pull with her weary arms. She lined up her shot, calmly exhaled, and loosed the arrow in the space between two heartbeats. The dull thrum of the brys’ bow wasn’t enough to warn off the buck, and it dropped without a sound under the huntress’s shot. Nevertheless, Kari drew her hunting knife and dashed to the fallen animal as quickly as she could; she didn’t want it to suffer if her shot had not been immediately fatal.

The life had already left the young buck’s eyes when Kari reached it, but she knelt down beside it and stabbed it as her elven friends had shown her. The elves weren’t consummate hunters, but neither were they strictly vegetarian. There were also times when they needed to cull animal populations, and they knew the quickest and most humane ways to do so. Kari generally didn’t hunt anything larger than a game bird, as she most often traveled by herself and required little enough food. She hadn’t dropped a buck since she had traveled with Carly Bakhor and her friends more than a year ago.

The demonhunter sighed as she considered the woman who was so much like a sister to her. She felt terribly for Carly, who had already lost her husband after they’d conceived a child together. And now, it was only a matter of time before Kari’s own end came. At the least, Carly had that coming child to sustain her and bring her joy. Kari only hoped she lived long enough to see Carly’s child born.

And there was no guarantee of that if she continued to help this dragon…

Thank you, Earth Mother,” Kari said, mindful of the elven deity. “I do not take the sacrifice of your child lightly.”

There was something else to contemplate there, whether the dragon was considered a child of nature as well. But Kari couldn’t let herself become paralyzed by indecision.

Kari unstrung her bow and secured it, then hefted the buck over her shoulders. She was unsteady on her feet, but used her wings and tail to balance herself. She began to carry it back toward Ashurinax’ lair, and hoped she’d get at least a good deal of the way there before her legs gave out on her. She remembered how, when she was a bit younger, she could’ve carried the slain buck halfway to Solaris. Now, though, Dracon’s Bane had done most of its foul work, leaving her body only a shell of what it once was. She’d been sick all her life, but the last couple of years had been particularly difficult.

There was no denying it: She was dying, and more quickly by the day.

The demonhunter found what looked to be a good spot to descend toward the lake. She missed a step, though, and overbalanced with the buck weighing heavily on her neck and shoulders. It fell on her, slamming her face-first into the dirt, and she watched it slide away from her briefly before her vision went black.

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