Adaklies knew the moment the bar door swung inward eyes were on her. She’d grown familiar with it all: the suspicions, the disdain, and the silent weight of stares. The accusation. As her dragon claws clicked against the worn wooden floor, she raised her chin. Pretended to ignore it. Acknowledging it wouldn’t help her anyways. She took a quick sniff. Neither honeyed scent of mead nor the bitter of beer were heavy on the air. The patrons would be well-behaved tonight.
Adaklies’s arm twitched, aching from the day’s work. She put the ache aside, walking tall all the way up to the bar where she pulled out the old, wooden stool marked with the wear of too many visits from a particular dragon and sat down. Gremm, the barkeep, sauntered down the bar to her and smirked.
“Well, what’s it tonight? Mead? Ale? Water?”
She gave him a look. “Water? Why the hell would I come to a bar for water?”
He shrugged. “Call it a fleeting hope. It would mean you didn’ need this shit any more.”
“Isn’t that bad for business?”
“Could be. Or maybe I’m just pretending to care so you’ll like me better than the other bartenders ‘round here.”
Adaklies’s face went sour. “Just pour some ale and shut up.” Gremm reached for the lower shelf but Adaklies stopped him. Lower shelf was too weak. “No, something stronger tonight.”
Her mug was half-empty after Adaklies finished her first gulp, smacking her lips and sighing. Thick, bitter and deliciously-dark scented. Hopefully it would hit before she had the chance to think better of a second or third round.
The ambiance painted a calm picture. Typical for mid-week from Adaklies’s experience. Chatter was even but for the occasional holler, the groups thin and contained, monsters and men alike sharing their tales of the day. Adaklies heard her own foot tapping against the floor and silenced it. A good night for drinking. The strong stuff was a fine choice.
“You’ve got a looker,” said Gremm.
Adaklies looked up from her mug. Deciding she wasn’t yet buzzed enough for this, she took the opportunity to finish her drink before saying, “Yeah? How’s it look?”
“Youngin’. Maybe twenty-four summers? Focus’s as sharp as shark teeth.”
“Focused? How can you tell?”
“Eyes haven’ moved an inch since you walked in. Almos’ think they’re painted on at this point.”
Rolling her eyes, Adaklies spun her now-empty mug around. “Another suitor? Was feeling a brawl tonight.”
Her sore arms protested.
“Oop, ya never know. Here he comes,” said Gremm.
Adaklies leaned back, waiting. A moment later, she heard a cough and turned.
She brought her fist down on the bar with the wrath of gods. “It’s Adaklies!”
Silence seized the room with a cold iron fist while Adaklies directed every ounce of anger she could muster at the man that had approached. He broke eye contact, grimacing but properly embarrassed. When the rest of the bar realized it wasn’t turning into a fight, they went back to their business.
“That is just what I was told,” said the newcomer.
“By who?” she snapped.
“The village on the road here.”
Adaklies gnashed her teeth. Ederkleff was the name they remembered? Even after all the times she corrected them? She picked up her mug and shoved it into the newcomer’s chest. “Fill it.”
He stared at it, then looked at her. “Why should I?”
“Fill the cursed thing now or you’ll be flying out of here with a kick hard enough to leave you sore in the morning.”
Nostrils flaring, he leered at Adaklies, chewing the thought a moment before shoving his hand into his pocket, yanking out a coin, and pressing it to the table along with Adaklies’s mug. “Alright. Now in return, I have some questions for you.”
The moment Gremm was done with her refill, she snatched it up and took a healthy drink. Maybe she wouldn’t deck him. Hadn’t made up her mind yet. She took another look at him.
He was just as tall as her, no beanpole but no pile of meat, either. Built like he could jog a few miles and take a fight at the end of it. His hair was well-kept, short, and as bland as the pond water Gremm kept on the bottom shelves. Armored, too. Must’ve made a business of getting into fights.
“Well, out with the questions, I intend to be drunk as quickly as possible,” she said.
“I heard you might know where someone I’m looking for is,” he said.
“I sure hope not.”
Adaklies twitched, her mug freezing a moment before it touched her lips. Hoping he hadn’t seen, she quickly took her drink and set the mug down. “Don’t know where you got that idea.”
“The authorities told me you tried to claim her bounty.”
“Well of demon-bloodied course they did.”
“Then it would follow that—”
“No, I didn’t, and I don’t. End of story.”
He scoffed and mumbled under his breath, “I hate working with criminals.”
Adaklies raised her voice. “Got something to say, say it loud enough for everyone to hear, greenhorn.”
“I am the greenhorn? You looked atop your own head lately?”
“You’re fast overstaying a welcome that was never offered in the first place.”
The man growled, but swallowed whatever comeback he had brewing. “Sorry. My temper has been getting the best of me. The road here was long. But I still need to know where she is.”
Squinting, Adaklies took a concentrated look at both of his ears.
“What are you doing?”
“Just wondering what’s stuck in your ears because I could’ve sworn I told you I didn’t know.”
It took another deep breath for him to stay his tongue. “You are my only lead. You have to know something. Like who might know where she is, where she was headed, or what she wanted to do next.”
“You come trouncing in, getting my name wrong, call me a criminal, then tell me I’m your only hope? Fuck off already.”
The greenhorn’s feet squirmed. While the door may have been across the room, he already had one foot out it. But, somehow, something kept him in place. He took a seat.
“I will buy you another round,” he said through gritted teeth.
Adaklies glanced at him, but didn’t object when Gremm handed her another filled mug. Before it touched her lips, she half-considered putting it down. Enough alcohol could make her crazy enough to actually tell this lawfully-uptight idiot something.
Then again, it might get her that brawl she was feeling, too. She drank.
He spoke up again. “Now, if you would, where can—”
“Why do you want to know? I don’t know what you think the Mother’s gonna do, but she ain’t.” She made a point of looking him up and down. “Not for you.”
“Thank you, but I hardly need your approval. I am…” He paused, looking around the bar, then came in close, voice low. “I need her help.”
A whiff of him made her nostrils flare. Too clean. “For what?”
“I have business with the queen of Ir. Livoetian.”
“What, you wanna meet her?”
“I need the Mother’s help to kill her.”
Demon-bloody-cursed hells. Gods. Adaklies took a long look into the man’s eyes. Gods, the man was serious. Just…
Ir was the strongest monster nation in the world, commanding some of the strongest armies the world had ever seen. Their conflict with Aezerin had lasted more than a century. Claimed millions.
And this fool means to end it. Look at him! He’s a stub! A fence post that’s been hit one too many times on the head, thought Adaklies. That armor couldn’t possibly stand up to Livoetian’s magic. And carrying his sword like that? Did the poker even have any enchantments? She squinted her eyes at it. It might.
Adaklies slowed down and took a deep breath. He was nothing. This was nothing. She should just tell him the location, get him on his way and forget she ever saw him.
Her mug’s handle snapped.
Gasping, Adaklies pulled her claw away as the mug hit the bar. Thankfully, it didn’t spill. A moment of shock froze her before she snatched the thing with both hands and downed it.
That sharp, biting flavor never tasted so good.
“I still don’t think the Mother’s going to help you.”
“Then… you do know her.”
“I did. That whole business was over two years ago, though. She’s long gone now.”
The greenhorn’s face fell. “Might you know where she was headed?”
He signaled for Gremm to get Adaklies another round, but the barkeep was a step ahead of him. Wasting no time, Adaklies brought it to her lips. Then froze.
The drink was bitter. Far, far too bitter. This wasn’t what she’d been drinking. And it wasn’t meant to get her drunk. She looked to Gremm, but the man had put the entire bar’s length between them.
“What is it worth?” The greenhorn reached for his coinpurse. “I’ve got some spare coin. I might be able to offer something.”
Why did they always think she wanted money?
Shaking her head, she snuck a glance at the mirror behind the bar. Three men and a woman were spreading out from the entrance. Their pace was subtle, but not without some urgency. A net.
She peeked at the side exit. Clear. It was easy to overlook. She looked back at the greenhorn. A distraction? No, his story is too ridiculous.
“Were you serious?” she asked.
“Wha—what do you mean serious?” He lowered his voice. “About killing Livoetian?”
“Of course I was. I would not take something of that manner lightly!”
Benethia help him, he wasn’t lying. Either that, or Adaklies had completely forgotten how to read idiots like him.
Seizing his arm, she yanked him out of his seat and dragged him toward the side exit.
“What are you doing?!” he stumbled, trying to get a good grip on her arm.
“Just shut up and follow!”
The stalkers were close behind, but all she needed was a couple seconds.
The door blasted open before her kick and the two of them lurched into the alley. The moment Adaklies heard the door close, she let the greenhorn go.
“By all Hell’s demons! You are ready to punch me one second and the next you’re lugging me around like a drinking cohort! I do not know what sort of impression you got, but I am not trying to get friendly with you.”
Adaklies looked up to the rooftops. “Bounty hunters. Make yourself scarce.”
“Bounty hunters?” He looked down the alley to both exits, then behind himself. “I did not—”
A smirk grew on Adaklies’s face as she watched from the rooftop. The greenhorn scrambled to find her, but like everyone else, he never bothered to look up. In all likelihood, the bounty hunters would leave him alone. It was her they were after.
Attracted by the commotion, two figures approached the greenhorn from the nearest alley exit. Monsters. A lamia and a lizard. At the same time, the four humans from before emerged from the side door. The six of them surrounded the greenhorn. Head down, Adaklies listened in.
“Where’d she go?” asked the lamia.
“I have no idea,” said the greenhorn.
He put his hand on his sword and Adaklies rolled her eyes. The lad was far too quick to accept a fight. These were bounty hunters, not assassins.
“Jumpy?” asked the lamia.
“I am surrounded by a bunch of armed strangers. Sorry, can’t help it.”
“What were you two talking about?” asked the lamia.
“None of your business.”
Dragging a claw across her face, Adaklies almost scoffed. Just make something up! Who cares if you lie to save your skin?
The lamia slithered forward, prompting the rest of her group to close in as well. “We’re not here for you, little one. Just tell us where she is and we’ll be about our way.”
“I told you I do not know. She was here one second and gone the next.”
The lizard growled at the lamia. “I told you this was pointless without a flier. We can’t track her like this.”
The greenhorn nudged his sword from its sheath. Adaklies almost yelled at him. They are about to leave! Don’t provoke them!
The lamia looked at the greenhorn, raising an eyebrow at the half-drawn sword. “Whatever. Kill him.”
To the greenhorn’s credit, his sword was the first drawn, but six-to-one odds were something he’d need to be a god of the sword to overcome. Adaklies had to make a choice.
She dropped. Claws flashed and the lamia’s head hit the ground a second after Adaklies. Flowing into a spin, she aimed her tail at the lizard—but her target leapt back. She smirked at Adaklies and drew her sword.
The clang of other combatants’ steel sung behind her. Her claws met the lizard’s sword in chorus.
As Adaklies expected, the lizard knew her way around a fight. She alternated swings, thrusts, feints, and kicks all together in violent symphony. Adaklies’s breaths beat cadence with her own movement, dodging, parrying, and countering where she could. A strike hummed for her unscaled stomach. She blocked and replied in resonance with her own thrust, only to have it knocked away. Whistling, the lizard’s sword swung for her neck. Eyes locked on the blade, Adaklies leaned backwards, hoping to rebound with a counter in the following opening, but got too greedy. The thirsty steel came away quenched.
Adaklies grunted, resisting the urge to hold the wound. The lizard took no time to celebrate and broke into deadly song again. This time, Adaklies caught it in her bloodied claw and replied with an upward strike. Growling, her opponent yanked her sword away, but the motion stole her speed and she staggered, blood spreading along her chest.
Their brutal melody ebbed and flowed, called and responded, violently sharp and deadly soft against the backdrop of steel antiphony. The longer they fought the more Adaklies bled and, more importantly, the longer the greenhorn had to hold off four opponents on his own. Adaklies had to end this before a sword found her back.
She waited for a thrust.
It came in high, aiming for her face. Resisting the urge to duck backwards, Adaklies crooked her head to the side and nudged the sword a touch to the side with her palm. Then, at the peak of the thrust, Adaklies brought her wing around and swat the lizard’s temple.
The lizard blinked. Then staggered. It was tiny, nothing more than an imbalance on her front foot, but it was enough. Adaklies’s claw found her heart and the lizard danced no more.
Spinning, Adaklies was shocked to see the greenhorn not only standing, but facing only three opponents. The fourth was on the ground and one of the three left had a visible limp. A second of watching showed they were hardly novices: they held steady stances, kept moving for blind spots, and attacked without exposing much. Greenhorn, however, was faster and more efficient. Impassioned. The bounty hunters were just here for a payoff.
Feet digging into the dirt, Adaklies tore into a run, leaping into the air, her wings fast remembering the fierce harmony of battle. Her ferocious cry caught the attention of the nearest man and he turned to her. She raised her claw and he brought up his sword to meet it.
Bait taken, Adaklies adjusted. Instead of swinging with her claw, she tucked her arms and legs in, diverting her wings to turn the low aerial swipe into a tight spin. She stretched her tail out, turning it into a blurred club of muscle and scale.
It hit the ground with a dull thud.
She bounced backward, reorienting herself. The man had dodged and was charging her. Just as she was readying her stance, however, a swordpoint exploded from his chest, his finale marked by a shout and fall.
The greenhorn pulled his sword free while Adaklies watched the last two flee down the alley. Smart.
But it would’ve been smarter to not hunt her at all.
The bite of Adaklies’s wound reminded her what her cockiness had cost her. She covered it with a claw and looked to the greenhorn. His cloak had a new tear, but it was impossible to tell if his armor had gained any dents or if the ones she saw were all old.
“You alright?” he asked, gesturing to her wound.
“Fine.” She walked back toward the bar. Something hard could help with it.
“Wait.” He grabbed her arm as she passed by. She shrugged him off, but not before he had the chance to hold out a rough bandage. “Here.”
Adaklies narrowed her eyes at him, ignoring the bandage, then continued inside.
Gremm didn’t need any prompt to slide her another drink. Tipping it back, she drank long and loud. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t have time to enjoy it. Someone would report that mess in the alley soon enough and they needed to be gone. As the drink came back down, Adaklies heard the greenhorn walk in behind her.
Wiping her mouth, she turned to him. “You’re not bad in a fight.”
“I have too much practice.” He pointed to her neck wound. “Are you sure you are fine?”
Adaklies rolled her eyes, licked her claws and smeared the blood off where she’d been cut, revealing the wound had already closed. “I’m a dragon, greenhorn.”
He scowled at the nickname. “Whatever. We were in the middle of a conversation.”
“And I was in the middle of a drink.” She downed the rest of the mug and slid a few coins across the bar to Gremm. He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sure I don’ need to say it, but this’s too much,” he said.
“It’s a reservation,” said Adaklies. “Don’t throw this stool out. I’ve worked hard to make it comfortable.”
His eyes widened. “You’re headin’ out?”
She nodded. To the greenhorn, she said, “Got a name?”
“Wait a second, where are you going?”
“Not ‘you’. Us.”
His expression hardened. “You do not need to bother yourself with escorting me. I only need a location and I can get there myself.”
“I’m sure you can. Now, again, what’s your name because I’m betting you don’t want me calling you ‘greenhorn’ the whole way.”
Combing his hand through his hair and back down his neck, he bit back a grumble and held out his hand. Adaklies took it.
“I’m Jonas. And I hope you know what you have gotten yourself into.”
“We need to make a detour,” said Jonas.
Adaklies tore her gaze from the sky and her daydreaming, sending a suspicious look back at Jonas. “You want to know where the Mother is and yet you’re not interested in going there?”
“Well, the plan was to get the information and head there after this detour. I was not expecting to pick up a traveling partner,” he grumbled.
“I’m so terribly sorry for ruining your plans.”
“We need to head north.”
“North? There’s nothing that way for miles.”
“There is nothing west for miles, but you are taking me that way anyways,” he said. “Besides, there is something north. Livoetian’s First Army.”
Adaklies needed a moment to process what he said. “You know Livoetian’s First Army is a little larger than that group of bounty hunters we took care of, right?”
Her jeer bounced off him like rain. “We need to head that way now in order to intercept them. If you are not interested, just tell me where I can find the Mother and you won’t need to come.”
She really should have thought this through more before joining him. Killing Livoetian? She didn’t know if the idea sounded more stupid or crazy, but it had plenty of both.
It’s possible, though.
With a growl, Adaklies yanked on her hair. “Alright, have it your way.” Even saying it made her head spin. “But you’re going to tell me why.”
Jonas walked past Adaklies, leading down their new path. “You will find out soon enough.”
“Why not tell me now?”
He paused, his expression wavering. There was conflict behind those eyes, fierce enough for her to see the sparks of it. Eventually, one side won. “You helped me, Adaklies, and do not think I am not grateful. But you are still a criminal.”
Her face soured. Everywhere she went it followed her. At least in Keian enough people had learned to either keep it to themselves or stay out of her way. Watching Jonas’s back as it grew further away, she debated arguing the point, but thought better of it. She’d been down that road a thousand times with plenty of people who didn’t wear their britches half as tight as he did.
Instead, she crossed her arms, looked up at the sky, and fell in behind him.
With their detour, they were sent off the main road and were now cutting through wavy plains. The heat was bearable, though Adaklies had to squint to watch the rolling clouds amble by. It’d been a spell since she’d been this far outside the city. The soft rustling of wild grass soothed her too-civilized ears almost enough to get her to smile. She took a glance backward toward Keian to the rubble that was the mayor’s mansion.
“Why did you do it?” said Jonas.
She knew what he was looking for, but replied anyways. “Do what?”
“Lying to the district adjudicator. For the bounty.”
Ir’s district adjudicators were the most powerful monsters in the entire country, short of Livoetian’s generals and the Demon Lord herself . One of them had it out for Adaklies. Just thinking about her set Adaklies off.
“Why do you even care? You seem like you’ve got your mind already made up about it.”
He couldn’t hide his annoyance, assuming he tried. “Why can you not just deny it like every other criminal? Or at least try to justify it.”
Adaklies opened her mouth, but couldn’t find the right words to say. Deny it? That never worked. If someone’s already decided you’re a criminal, what’s your word worth?
“Alright, you do not want to talk about it. I understand,” said Jonas. “Least it means you still have a troubled conscience about it.”
“Just out of curiosity… what did you hear?” said Adaklies
“You thought you could take advantage of the chaotic encounter in Keian by bringing a fake body to the adjudicator. With the bounty over a thousand gold, I almost don’t blame you for trying. Bounty hunters like you probably have to skim off whatever society leaves behind.”
“You wanted the people to pressure the adjudicator into giving you the bounty without looking at the body too closely. But there was one thing you couldn’t take into account: she takes her job seriously. She found the truth and condemned you for it.”
There it was. Again. That sneer on his face. That raw, mind-killing emotion that turned people into demons, spitting in Adaklies’s face like she was nothing more than refuse spilled on their boots. She’d had enough of it. Before Jonas could say another word she marched off, steps heavy and stiff. She should never have let the conversation get that far.
The day was growing late by the time Jonas caught back up with her. She was on a knee, digging through her pack and pulling out her bedroll. She’d come across the ruins of some sort of stone structure and figured it was as good a campsite as any. Grunting, she gestured to the ruins. She wasn’t about to spend words explaining her thought process.
Jonas surveyed the ruins, looked at Adaklies, and gave a half-hearted shrug before setting his own pack down. The two set up camp in silence.
They sat across from each other, the fire between them and their bodies facing away from one another. Adaklies was acting childish, she knew, but her frustration was still hot enough that she didn’t care. Tomorrow she’d probably have to apologize for that outburst. He was trying to drop the subject when it was clear it made her uncomfortable, she’d just been too impulsive. Why did she pursue it anyways?
Revenge popped into her head as it had many times, but she dismissed it. It may have eased part of her to send that corrupt liar to the grave, but the part of her that screamed for it was merely loud, not important. Wasn’t her style, anyways.
“I’m sorry,” said Jonas.
Adaklies eyed Jonas. Had she heard right?
“I should not have snapped at you. Or assumed the worst,” said Jonas. He was looking straight at her. “I… do not understand why you did it. Or if you did not, why won’t deny it.”
Adaklies hoped the fire was distorting her face from view because she couldn’t string together enough thoughts to form words, much less a response.
“Shouldn’t it be natural for you?” he asked. “To deny it?”
“It should be.”
Her glare doused his question. “Why do you care?”
“My partner told me I should try to be more inquisitive.” His head drooped. “To understand why people act like they do instead of taking them at face value.”
Adaklies sat up, stretching out her wings before facing Jonas. “There’s something else. Something that made you change your mind or at least consider changing it. I was nothing but scum to you before.”
At that he scratched the back of his neck. His head was still down, eyes on the dirt before him. “I have seen that look before, the one you gave me right before you stormed off. When I was a guardsman, I got it all the time.” He finally looked up. “Back then, I thought I was always right. That my judgement was perfect and all citizens should just be grateful for my help. I did not know what that look meant until my guardsman days were far behind me.”
Adaklies did her best to keep her lips from curling into a sneer. It sort of worked. “You were a guardsman. What a surprise.”
“Now is not the best time for your sarcasm.”
She waved off his comment like it was smoke. “Whatever. So you don’t think I did it any more. Do you want a pat on the back?”
“I do not know. In fact, I do not even know what you want. It would have been so much easier to just tell me what I wanted to know for both of us. Traveling with a human limits you to walking. And do you not have some sort of life in Keian? Obligations? Friends?”
“That still does not answer the question. Why are you here, Adaklies?”
It was a good question. What made Adaklies think she had any measure of worth to Jonas or his mission?
“Because I want to be.”
Jonas sighed. “Just be ready for the First Army. They are not far off. We will run into them tomorrow.” He laid down, turning away from the fire. “Put the fire out before you go to sleep.”
“Still not sharing your plan?”
“Merely playing it safe. You will know soon.”
Adaklies leaned back, staring at the treeline, trying to make out the leaves in the darkness. Maybe he had a plan, maybe he didn’t. It made sense he wasn’t interested in sharing it with a random person like Adaklies, and who was she to argue? She wasn’t anyone special.
The First Army, huh? A battalion tens of thousands strong of Livoetian’s best. Even Aezerin’s finest feared open combat with it. And tomorrow, they were going to deliberately cross paths.
Adaklies spent another hour with herself, the sounds of the night, and the breathing of the fire before snuffing it out and curling up to sleep.
In the tiny fraction of a second before Adaklies opened her eyes, she already knew something was wrong.
The voice belonged to a woman.
The morning greeted her kindly with a spear in her face and three armored monsters looking down at her. Adaklies eyed the weapon. “While I do like iron in my diet, the splinters might tear my throat on the way down.”
“Keep that wit up and I’ll see you get a healthy serving,” said the lamia at the other end of the spear. She looked behind her. “Sarge, she’s up!”
Adaklies’s eyes darted between her captors. She had their complete, undivided attention. She shifted, trying to sit up and get a better look around her, but the spear urged her back down.
After a rustling and some footsteps, a rather imposing oni—their leader, Adaklies guessed—stepped inside the circle of monsters surrounding Adaklies.
“What’re you and stick-up-the-ass doing out here?” said the sergeant.
The nickname she gave Jonas made her smile. “Honestly, no idea. I’m just following him.”
“And where might he be going that would lead you directly into the path of Ir’s First Army?”
“Far as I know, ‘Ir’s First Army’ was exactly where we meant to be.”
“What business do a dragon and a human have with the First Army?”
“Like I said—” Adaklies started to sit up, but was again rebuffed by the spear. “Like I said, I’m just following. I don’t know what he wanted with you.”
The oni’s face wrinkled.
“I say we just skewer ‘em and be done with it. No need to take risks,” said the lamia.
“And that’s why you’re not in charge,” said the oni. “There’s plenty of room in the prison for these two. We can make that decision once we’ve figured out what they’re here for.”
“I already told you that!” Jonas yelled. He wasn’t far off.
“Get the shackles on her,” said the oni. “Dragon grade, remember. I don’t need to remind you how strong some of these are.”
Adaklies smirked. “I’m flattered.”
“Don’t be. You were caught sleeping. Should’ve set a watch.”
The soldiers got Adaklies up and shackled, marching alongside Jonas as they set out. Adaklies jabbed Jonas in the side none too gently. “I hope this is part of your plan.”
He scowled. “Not exactly. I thought the sergeant would be more reasonable.”
“Guess the army don’t work like your guard, huh?”
“What exactly did you tell her?”
“I told her what we were here for. I did not lie, if that’s what you’re thinking. It should have been simple enough for her to understand.”
“Great, so even our captors know what we’re here for, but not me? You know, the dragon you’ve been traveling with?”
Jonas stumbled forward, grunting in pain. One of the soldiers behind them had jabbed him with the butt of her spear.
“Enough chatter,” said the soldier.
Adaklies smouldered, her breath leaking in heated fumes, but didn’t do anything more than leer.
It wasn’t long before the group crested a hill and the breadth of Ir’s First Army was laid out before them. The first thing Adaklies noticed was how orderly it all was. A grid of tents covered the plains like a far-cast net and dark blotches of soldiers swarmed in activity about them. Fires burned at regular breaks in the tents, shooting up white smoke in wispy pillars. Groups of soldiers in square formations trained in unison.
Adaklies stole a glance at Jonas and found his eyes locked onto the general’s tent. There was something else on his face, but she couldn’t quite puzzle it out before an impolite prod ended her idle observations.
They passed a perimeter guard and many dozens of curious eyes before coming across a tarp-covered set of sizable metal cages. Jonas and Adaklies were thrown into adjacent cages before their shackles were removed. Much to Adaklies’s annoyance, the cages were built at a height a touch too short to stand comfortably in. Thankfully, the camp was light on prisoners, giving Jonas and Adaklies plenty of room to themselves.
Adaklies turned to the voice. The oni sergeant was talking with a wolfwoman who’d let her hair and fur grow too long.
“Sergeant. I see you’ve given me something to keep myself busy with. Where are these from?”
The two wandered a short ways off and continued their discussion. Gestures were exchanged. The sergeant presented Jonas and Adaklies’s bags, pointing out various things in each. After a short briefing, the warden nodded and started over to her new prisoners while the sergeant turned, gathered her squad, and left. Adaklies was sure to shoot the soldier who’d jabbed her earlier a dirty look.
“Newcomers,” said the warden, addressing Adaklies and Jonas. “I am Warden Yiet.” Her tail twitched and she shot Jonas a look. “The two of you are either far too innocent or far too foolish, stumbling into our camp on purpose. I hope, for your sakes, it’s the former.”
“I—We are telling the truth,” said Jonas, grabbing on the bars of his cage. “The general knows me. All I need to do is see her and she will recognize me.”
The warden raised an eyebrow. “You don’t get to ask me for anything and you certainly don’t get to go anywhere close to my commanding officer, especially in a time of war. If I think you’re harmless, you get to leave. Alive. And that’s the most you can hope for.”
“Surely you can—”
The warden slammed a paw against Jonas’s cage. “What did I just say?”
“That I don’t get to ask you for anything, ma’am,” said Jonas, snapping to attention.
The warden looked at Adaklies. “Sergeant’s report said you were pretty quiet. Sure there’s nothing more you want to tell me before I figure out what to do with you?”
Adaklies jerked her head toward Jonas. “He’s the brains here.”
“How do you know him?”
The warden stepped away from Jonas to stand with arms crossed in front of Adaklies. “Are you enjoying yourself in that cage?”
Adaklies bumped her horns against the woefully low roof to demonstrate. “Not so much.”
The warden leaned in. “I’ve been patient so far because these cages have been barren and I hate idle afternoons, but keep giving me vague one-word answers and you will run through that patience surprisingly fast. Now: how do you know him?”
Adaklies grimaced. Her claws dug into the steel of the cage, frustrated to find it hardly gave to her strength. “He barged in on a perfectly good drinking session of mine a couple days back. Told me he needed a guide. I obliged. Or, I should say, I’m attempting to.” She flicked the cage, making it ring. “Not very able to at the moment.”
“Where are you guiding him?”
“Dragon’s Horns. You do know where that is, right?”
Jonas stiffened, shooting Adaklies a look, asking with his eyes, Really?
Adaklies shrugged back.
“What are you doing at the Dragon’s Horns?”
“Can’t say,” said Jonas.
Adaklies crossed her arms. Did the man not have a bone of deception in his body?
“Why?” said the warden.
“Because I can’t say.”
The warden tapped her foot a few times. “Alright. I’ll come back in a couple days when those cages have hopefully changed your mind.”
At that, the warden left.
“So, genius,” said Adaklies, leaning on the cage wall between them, “What’s your plan to get us out of this?”
“That’s it? Wait?”
“Yes.” He walked to the back of his cage, sat down, and got comfortable. “We will be freed soon enough.”
“And how do you figure that?”
“Weren’t you paying attention? I know General Greyemeid.”
“Of course I am. You think I would have led us into the army if I was not? ”
She knew the name Greyemeid. Pretty much everyone who lived near any form of civilization in Aezerin or Ir did.
Especially those who were unlucky enough to stand in her warpath.
Greyemeid had been the genius behind Ir’s military strategy for many years now. The razing of Thornguard. The First Advance. The rout at Glaris. Aezerin’s human population dwarfed Ir’s monster population and Greyemeid understood how to fight an adversary with far greater numbers than her own. As the war raged on, Adaklies had heard her share of tall tales about the general. That she’d fought the Mother and won. That she’d single-handedly stormed a castle and taken it. That she could wield all three forms of magic.
Adaklies figured she’d be at the head of the First Army, but she kept her distance from armies, so she’d never known for sure. She was a bounty hunter, not a mercenary.
At least, she used to be a bounty hunter.
Eyes scrutinizing, she glanced at Jonas. How exactly did he know the general, then? Was he a soldier, too? He fought like one, but she wasn’t getting the soldier vibe from him. He was too… critical.
True to her word, the warden left them to their own devices for the rest of the day. Adaklies prodded at Jonas a few times, trying to learn more about him and his relationship with the general, but he was oddly reserved.
The war camp gave her some degree of entertainment. Soldiers ebbed and flowed about the area, always active in some fashion. The prison guard changed a couple times. Teams carrying heavy loads of equipment marched back and forth. Squads filed through to the shouts of their leader. But it wasn’t all business. Laughing monsters, joking with each other and drinking, stumbled through the area now and then. Some of them weren’t even in uniform.
What really caught Adaklies’s eye, though, were the men. Men. In Livoetian’s First Army. She’d assumed that the monster nation’s army fighting under the one they called the monster lord would be monsters.
Jonas and Adaklies were served a meager dinner before the camp went back to ignoring them. Once more, Adaklies tried to pry into Jonas’s past, but all she got was, “Just give it some time. I’ll explain later.”
The next morning came with a kick and rattle. Adaklies jumped, bumping her horns into the ceiling of her cage before she remembered where she was. Glaring, she looked to the source of the disturbance.
The warden was at the door of Jonas’s cage. And she didn’t look happy.
“Get up, grunt,” said spat at Jonas.
He was just as quick to rise as Adaklies. She saw him pat his waist where his sword would’ve been. A quick recognition flashed on his face before his focus landed on the warden.
“What is it?” he asked.
“The general has summoned you.” She wrenched the cage open, shackles in hand. “Hands out.”
Once the shackles were on, the warden seized Jonas around the arm. Her grip hardly seemed gentle. “Not a word from you. Got it?”
“Then get moving.”
And the two were gone.
Welp, that proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not that Adaklies thought he was lying, but he may have been tricked by someone claiming to be the general.
Crossing her arms, Adaklies plopped down. It was fair, she supposed. She had her own secrets.
She closed her eyes and remembered.
“I wish to offer you something,” said the Mother, attending her braids, “for watching after my husband and I while we were unconscious.
Adaklies perked up. Humility requested she turn down the offer, but she’d never had much of that.
“Long ago, my children had mastery over their flame in ways the dragons of today have since forgotten. Today I will show how to seize that mastery, at least in part.”
Adaklies crossed her arms. “Are you saying dragons forgot how to use their flame?”
“There is more to dragonfire than breath.” She glanced back at Adaklies with those blackened-green eyes of hers. Adaklies’s throat tightened. Looking down, she squeezed her chest as if she might feel whatever it was the Mother was talking about.
The Mother finished with her braids and walked over to Adaklies. Adaklies craned her neck to meet the Mother’s eyes. Sweet demons, Adaklies would never get used to her height. The Mother held out her hand first as if to offer something, but then closed her fingers slightly.
“This is what I offer you. Watch carefully, but even more importantly: feel.”
Adaklies stared at the Mother’s hand as if her life depended on it.
The Mother breathed. And then she breathed. The room cooked in an instant. Adaklies’s scales hissed and her skin sizzled from the violent flash of searing heat. The air was as thick as water and sucking in a breath was drowning in a sea of fire. Her vision wavered. And just as she thought she’d burn from the inside it stopped. Not just the heat, but her body had cooled like the burning was never even there.
Adaklies blinked. And in the Mother’s hand was a sword.
She believed it a sword from the handle and the blade. But the rest of it… Wicked flames of pure steel licked up the back of the blade, still yet wordlessly violent. The blade itself was gently curved. While the cutting edge glowed white, as the sword dipped toward the cruel flames in the back it fouled to a jet black. The grip melted into the Mother’s huge claw, blurring where it ended and the Mother began. It was made by and meant for no other.
“This is a drekhel. True dragonfire. Steel of the soul. And within every dragon is the spark to bring it forth.”
“That is precisely what I just showed you.” She twirled the sword—the drekhel—around her hand with a simple flick. “There is almost nothing in this world a drekhel cannot cut, for there is little truer than a dragon’s fire. That does not, however, mean it is the perfect weapon. It offers little defense and will wear on your body like the road wears on wheels.”
“In cutting, the blade is an artisan. The substance of a drekhel is not metal, but brittle fire given form. True steel would shatter it.”
As Adaklies’s eyes wandered back to the drekhel, her trepidations began to fade. She’d never seen anything like it and, considering the owner of this particular drekhel, she imagined never again.
“And there is a price,” said the Mother. “As I said, the sword is made from your flame. Once you learn how to summon it, you will be unable to breathe fire. That is not because you will forget, but because to an inexperienced dragon, bringing the sword forth and breathing fire are one and the same. Without many years of practice to recognize the subtle differences between drekhel and flame, you will only be able to wield one or the other.”
“How many years of practice?”
“Hundreds, I suspect. Beyond what a normal dragon could do.”
It was a heavy price. But the Mother had offered this as a gift. Surely the tradeoff was worth it.
The Mother tossed her drekhel with whimsical dismissal. A second after leaving her hand, there was a flash of flame and the drekhel was no more. She spun, a liquid smooth twist of her body, and sat next to the still-unconscious Folsomar.
“I still revel in that moment I realized my defeat at this man’s hand. When I see it in my mind’s eye, a reckless fire ignites within me.” She drew in a deep breath. “Leave us, Adaklies.”
Nodding, Adaklies walked out, hand over her heart.
That familiar pang was back again. Adaklies ignored it.
Tentatively, she opened her claw just enough for a hilt to fit inside of it. Two years since the Mother had told her about drekhels. She’d tried to summon one several times, yet’d always been met with failure. She knew how to breathe, yes, but it came out as fire, not a sword. What would hers look like, she wondered. Would it be fiery yet functional like the Mother’s? Would it look like her?
Adaklies set her jaw in thought. Breathe. Adaklies remembered the absolute heat of the blade, the suffocating pressure that cut straight through her core. Closing her eyes, she evened out her breaths.
She closed her mouth. The fire didn’t need to come out there. It was in her hand, solid. Real. It had a hilt, a blade, an aura of menace. She sucked in a breath, drew it to her chest, let it rumble in her lungs where the fire was created. Breathing fire and bringing the blade were the same. Her claw tightened. And she breathed.
Smoke filled her mouth and leaked out her nose. Coughing, Adaklies stood, patting her chest, trying to get the stagnated fire breath out of her system. The smoke tasted terrible, like dirt and ash. She spat to clear the taste out.
Another failure. Typical. She wondered why she still tried at this point. The Mother could very well be the only living dragon with a drekhel, so what made Adaklies think she was special enough to have one too? Slumping, she sat and looked around for something to distract her.
“Your friend looks happy to see you.”
Adaklies turned. The warden was pointing at Adaklies with one paw and with the other guiding Jonas—a plainly dejected Jonas. His head was down and from his lack of reaction, it seemed the warden’s taunt didn’t reach his ears. His cage opened with a creak and the warden shoved him inside.
The lock clicked. Spinning the key around a finger, the warden walked off without a word.
Still staring at the ground, Jonas mumbled a reply. “She… she said she would think about it.”
Think about what!? Adaklies opened her mouth then snapped it shut. Patience. “What did you ask her to think about?”
“I did not ask her to think about anything. I asked her to do.” He hit the bottom of the cage, finally making eye contact. The brown glint in his eyes was glowing, a spark that ignited something within him. “I thought she was serious.”
“Serious about what?”
Adaklies’s face went blank. Loving him? Her jaw dropped open to a gape. They were dating?
“How in the demon-cursed world did you start dating Greyemeid?”
His mouth twisted and his eyes darkened.
“It was more like she started dating me. It was about a year and a half ago. She blackmailed me into dinner.”
“But, how?” said Adaklies.
“We had been adversaries for a while. I’ve fought many battles as part of the army opposing her.”
Adaklies lowered her voice. “So you’re an Aezerin soldier?”
“No!” he nearly shouted, but reigned himself in. “No, I’m a mercenary. Mostly. I just fought for Aezerin a few times. I did enough to be noticed.”
Eyes locked on Jonas, Adaklies got to her feet. There was no way she could sit for this. “Enough to be noticed? Jonas, Greyemeid must’ve fought against armies numbering in the tens of thousands. You are one soldier.”
Jonas stared back, deeper thoughts churning behind those dark eyes. “I think I am starting to understand how frustrating your position must be when people cannot believe you.”
Adaklies snapped her mouth shut.
“Look, I got lucky. Or unlucky, depending how you see it. I was a lynchpin soldier when she tried to maneuver a smaller force through a pass. I intercepted assassins she sent for my commanding officer. I killed her scouts during one of her rush maneuvers, leaving her blind and forced her to retreat. I made it my personal mission to track her down and stop her when she infiltrated Aezerin’s capital. It was not like I tried to be noticed, I was just in the right place at the right time. Often.”
“That still doesn’t explain why she’d be taken in with you.”
“She told me that she was sick of her enemies underestimating her. I guess the people Aezerin throws at her don’t think much of her because, even with her reputation, she’s still a monster.”
“So after this dinner she blackmailed you into, you started dating?”
“No. Yes?” Jonas clenched his hands then went for the empty spot on his hip where his sword would’ve been. “I don’t know. I rebuffed her, said I could not date the leading general of an army at the head of a war with my home country. She respected my decision and left. But then we just kind of… kept doing it.”
“‘Kept doing it’?”
“She would leave clues, point me to where her army would be next. And I would keep following. At first it was every couple months or so, but we both got more insistent about it.”
“But you’re still a soldier and she’s still a general. Or did you figure that part out?”
“No.” Jonas’s voice again got away from him. “I stopped fighting for Aezerin. We talked about possibilities. But she just would not leave. No matter where that conversation tried to go, it always ended with her still a general and myself still incapable of accepting it. That is why I came here.” His eyes narrowed and cut straight through Adaklies. “I had the solution! I laid it out before her: kill Livoetian. It was so simple. But then she said she would ‘think about it.’”
“Without Livoetian to spur the war with Aezerin onwards, it would end. Then there would be no need for generals,” said Adaklies.
Pressing her lips shut, Adaklies nodded. Several times. Then she gestured Jonas closer. “Come here.”
He walked up to the wall between them.
She slapped him in the face as hard as she could.
He cried out, stumbling backwards. “What in Benethia’s name are you doing?”
“Come here.” Adaklies tried in vain to reach him through the holes in the cage wall. “Come here so I can hit you again!”
“You idiot! Of course she didn’t just say yes! First of all, that’s the dumbest plan you could’ve possibly come up with. Did you even pay her the slightest bit of attention the entire time you were dating?”
“What are you talking about? I gave her an answer to the problem we’ve been having and she threw it back in my face.”
“And have you spent more than five seconds thinking about why?”
He took a moment. “I suppose I could give it more thought.”
“You really thought she would drop everything—her entire life, her responsibilities as a general, her reputation, her friends, and her livelihood—at the drop of a hat? Not only that, but you expected her to react favorably to you asking her to do it?”
Now he looked much less certain. “I knew it would be difficult for her, but she has told me in the past she would do anything for us to be together.”
“She didn’t mean ‘anything’ literally. No one ever does. Do you think you’d still be with her if she hadn’t accepted your decision on your first date? If she didn’t respect your position as a soldier fighting against her?”
A heavy silence preceded his answer. “No.”
“Then why in demon-infested hells would you expect her to be happy about your complete lack of respect for her post? You’ve put her in a terrible position! She has to choose between her army and you!”
Jonas slumped against the cage wall. “I know. I know she does. I never expected this to be easy. I do not enjoy putting this weight on her shoulders, but… this war will not be ended without sacrifice. As a general, I think she understands that better than most.”
“You know why she’s fighting for Ir, right? So you should also know why leaving Ir’s army would be difficult.”
His mouth hung open, but nothing came out of it. He collapsed, a bundle of legs and arms, but his gaze rose, dark and fouled.
Adaklies turned her back to him. He finally realized his mistake.
Why do I care, though?
The question came to her so quietly and so quickly she forgot where she was for a second. What invested her in him all of a sudden? She owed him nothing. She was Adaklies the bounty hunter, not a porter, not a guide, not a navigator.
Adaklies closed her eyes tight until they hurt. Something was telling her the answer to that question was important. She dropped to the ground, looking up at the sky through the grid of steel imprisoning her. If she found the answer, she might also find out why she was here in the first place.
She snuck a glance over to Jonas. He was looking at the ground, hands in his lap, still but for his breathing.
What a wonderful pair they were, bumbling around so aimlessly a compass couldn’t give them direction.
Adaklies and Jonas shared little conversation. She would glance over to him every now and then, unable to hold in her curiosity, but remained careful not to spend too much time staring—didn’t want to get herself worked up again. Occasionally, Jonas looked as if he had something to say, but each time he closed his mouth before giving whatever thought he had a voice.
Adaklies passed the time wishing she had something to drink. While Jonas slept, she tried to ignite her drekhel again, but the attempt gave her nothing but the taste of ash and the question of why she kept trying.
Two days after Jonas’s and Adaklies’s argument, the warden showed her face and, like last time, wasn’t in the best spirits. There was no cage kicking, no growling, just silence as she opened up both their cages and jabbed a finger, pointing to the ground outside.
Jonas and Adaklies exchanged a glance before leaving the cages. Adaklies stretched her arms to the sky, sighing as she gave her back the best stretch it’d had in ages. Jonas did the same.
Adaklies expected shackles next, but the warden had none.
“You’re being released,” she said. “Follow me.”
“Did Greye—” started Jonas.
“The general only told me to release you,” said the warden, then started walking.
The two followed her through what felt like a maze of tents, soldiers, and hills. Their journey wasn’t as short as Adaklies expected, but eventually they made it to the edge of camp.
The warden gestured them out. “Enjoy your freedom. I suggest you not test the general’s generosity.”
“You’re just going to miss us,” said Adaklies.
“Nor my patience.” She locked eyes with Adaklies.
Jonas took a step, paused, then marched away without a word. Adaklies gave the warden a little wave then trailed him, a skip to her step.
They dove straight into the forest, following a fresh path likely forged by the army itself. It didn’t take long for them to break sight of the camp and with a few minutes more its clamour faded as well. After glancing backward to make sure they were alone, Adaklies hurried up to Jonas and tapped his shoulder. “You’re not going to say anything?”
“Not interested in talking right now.”
“But Greyemeid letting us go should be encouraging.”
“I am not sure. I figured she would let us go either way, but if she were to accept my offer, I would have thought she’d done so personally. Or at least something other than just dumping us outside the camp.” His face fell. “This feels like an answer. The one I did not want.”
“I think it’s a little early to give up hope,” said Adaklies. “I mean, think of all the attention she would’ve gathered personally escorting a couple prisoners free.”
“I guess… I am still not sure.” His inflection put little hope in his words.
“You should listen to your friend, dear.”
Adaklies and Jonas’ eyes snapped to the source of the voice.
A black dragon clad in ornate armor was leaning against a tree, watching them. Her smug grin and crossed arms gave Adaklies the impression she was quite enjoying herself. But there was something more to it as well. An unbreakable confidence.
Adaklies’s first thought was that it was odd to see a dragon in real armor. Polished metal protected her chest, shoulders, and thighs, but the rest was a mix of softer, more flexible leather and cloth. No tears, little wear, and there was a certain gleam to it.
“Greyemeid!” said Jonas.
He stepped forward but stopped himself from anything more.
“You always were an observant one,” She pushed away from the tree and approached the pair. “But my prison is not the best place to contact me from.”
“Lack of time lead to some improvisation,” said Jonas.
Greyemeid looked Adaklies up and down, scrutinizing Adaklies’s face before speaking. “And you’re his new traveling partner. Adaklies Grenekk.”
“You’ve got an interesting bounty on you. Attempting to falsely claim the bounty on the Mother? Quite bold, especially for a dragon.”
“Pleased to meet you too, general,” said Adaklies. “I see you’re taken with half-wit, here.”
Greyemeid’s smile hardened. “Do not so casually insult my partner in front of me.” She gave Jonas a sidelong glance. “Even if your assessment isn’t entirely wrong.”
“So,” said Adaklies. “No guards or anything like that.”
“Yes.” Greyemeid’s smile faded. “Now, how exactly did you meet Jonas?”
Adaklies shrugged. “Same as you heard.”
“The two of you met in a bar over drinks, then? That doesn’t sound all that encouraging for you, Jonas. If that is the full story, however, why are you still with him? Why not simply tell him where to go?”
Adaklies sighed, pretending to be annoyed, but she could feel Greyemeid’s iron focus still pressing down on her.
Jonas coughed. “So, Greyemeid, I take it you coming out here means…”
The weight of the general’s gaze vanished. “It does,” she said.
He brightened up a bit. “Good. I mean, thank you. It means a lot.”
“I said I loved you, Jonas, and I believe it when you say you do as well. Though you do have the oddest ways of showing it sometimes.”
“Am I the only one concerned that the disappearance of Ir’s First Army’s general might not be the best for us?” said Adaklies.
“I’ve prepared contingencies,” said Greyemeid. “There are many officers I can trust in the army. They will maintain a normality long enough.”
“Sorry if I’m not entirely convinced the head of an active war campaign can disappear on a whim,” said Adaklies. “I’m not interested in the attention any search will bring us.”
“I find it quite amusing that someone with clearly limited logistical experience is so comfortable questioning my ability to execute. If nothing else will sway you, realize that, by the time we are done, either Livoetian will be dead or we will. In both cases, your fretting is irrelevant. Now let’s be off to the Dragon’s Horns. And the Mother.”
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