Chapter 3, Part 1
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 3, Part 1
The bitter wind beats against my leathery wings, and I use it to propel me forward. I embrace the burning chill as the ice crystals nip at my scales, letting it wrap around my rage, turning my fury into a cold calm.
The thought slides into my mind, and I glance over at the familiar indigo dragon on my right flank. I’ve known Kr’ash since I could crawl out of the nest. Our families have been friends for ages. Accepting him as my second in command was one of the greatest privileges I’ve received as Elite General. We’re currently flying in a military-V formation over elven lands near the Wylds.
I briefly nod and open my mind.
“Dare,” he asks mentally, “you think we’re running into another plague? Or do you think we’ll find an army waiting for us?”
“This close to the Orc’s lands and the Wylds, I’d give it even odds either way. Does it make a difference? Whatever it is, we can handle it.”
“This is bullshit. I think the Emperor is trying to get us killed.”
I give out an astonished “What?”
“Sending us outnumbered into fight after fight, or else we’re cleaning up some deadly plague every damn day for the last six months.”
My heart stutters for a moment. The Emperor doesn’t need a reason to order someone killed. “Why do you think he would do that?”
The Emperor is trying to get us killed… sending us outnumbered into fight after fight
“He’s jealous of my good looks.”
With a scoff, I refocus on the flight and the Elven village we were sent to investigate. He has a point. No other team is pushed beyond their limits like we are over and over again. Little time to rest, no time to train, and even our weapons and supplies are limited.
When I was first promoted to Elite General, I handpicked this team to help me guide the army. They were going to be my personal advisors because I know and trust each and every one of them.
Then the Emperor had a one-time personal favor for me because he couldn’t trust anybody else. That was about six months ago, and we’ve had an increasing number of these personal favors nobody else could possibly be trusted to fulfill for him.
Far below me, an Elven village hides under the local fauna. Ahead of us, a tower formed from the living limbs of the tallest trees rises above the canopy, its silver leaves contrasting sharply with the rainbow of summer trees. This close to the Wylds, it’s hard to tell what color leaves you will find on the plants. Even harder to tell which trees are carnivorous.
“Bring the flight in for the landing. Use extreme caution,” I mentally command Kr’ash.
“Yes, sir!” Kr’ash replies. “Alright, single file. Land, shift, and exit; you know the drill. Get to it.”
“We know the drill,” says Irongut, easily the smallest dragon in the flight. “Go in, save the day, retire to some lord’s manor for well-deserved drinking and wenching.”
Rumbling laughter sound throughout the flight.
“Girls, I think we should go out ‘wenching’ without the boys tonight. Pick us up some Elven hunks to take to bed,” Jade teases.
“Don’t listen to him, ladies,” Kr’ash protests. “They’ll just stick him at the kid’s table again and —”
“One time! It was ONE TIME …” Irongut sputters.
“I think our Halfling hybrid is a little sensitive about his size. Hmmm, if he’s half dragon and half Halfling, does that make him a Quarterling?” Filigree wonders.
“Ha ha, very funny. I’ve never heard that one before.” Irongut locks his wings and dives to the ground. As First Scout, his job is to go first.
“Enough,” I say. “We don’t know what we’re facing down there. Eyes alert. Ears sharp.”
One by one, the remaining scouts – Jade, Whisper, and Gristle – dive to the ground, land on the platform, and shift to their other shapes. The landing platform in this village is barely large enough to hold a single grown dragon. Larger elven settlements have platforms designed to land a full flight of dragons and streets wide enough for us to walk without knocking over buildings by the Emperor’s royal decree, but Qwyllyeleth was never designed with dragons in mind.
As my team lands, one by one, I take another turn around the tower. Something feels … wrong here. Aside from my troops, I am picking up no minds in the area, not just the village but the surrounding woods as well.
I’m the last to descend into the village square, my wings beating quickly to slow my dive, and land lightly on my feet, a gust of wind blowing dirt and leaves around me. Folding myself, my essence, I chain it deep down inside before shoving it Out into nothing, outside reality.
Naked in my human form, I scan the empty town before turning to my team.
“Groups of three.” I point in four directions, and nine of my soldiers head out. Including myself, there are twelve in the flight, easily divisible by three, four, or six, depending on what we need. When divided into four groups, each team has a scout, a specialist, and an officer, all strong and powerful, trained to work as a unit. When I send them out, they already know who they’re working with and what to do.
Jade and Tundra, both in human form, stay with me. Tundra hands me padding and my dragon scale armor, made from my own molted hide, and I start putting it on. “Stop staring, Jade.”
She quirks an eyebrow at me, her slanted green eyes matching the jade scales in her dragon form, one of them glittering with a bit of challenge in it. In her human form, she wears the beautifully delicate face of a woman with almond shaped eyes and silky hair the color of the night sky.
“You have a lot of scars, sir.” She absently traces the scars on my chest reminding me of my half-dressed state and how long it has been since I’ve been touched.
I force those thoughts down. Fortunately, my mental walls are strong; she won’t pick up on that. However, with her touch, she is an open book to me: concerned and worried about me … and confused as to why.
I gently remove her hand off my chest. “Unlike you, I’m one-quarter human. My wounds don’t heal when I shift.”
“That’s not it, sir. In my two-hundred years, I have known many hybrids. None of them have a tenth of your scars.”
“So? What’s your point.”
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
I gesture for her to continue.
Her green eyes settle on my face, studying me with an intensity that leaves me uncomfortable. “You fight like you have a death wish, Dare. You don’t care about getting hurt, and that’s what makes you so deadly. That’s why the entire army respects you. Why you were promoted to Elite General. But that’s not why I follow you, why we follow you. You actually care about us. That’s rare these days. If you hadn’t stepped in last week when Jinx’s spell backfired, he would be a corpse, or worse.”
“He was just an Elven wizard, not even part dragon. Most of the Emperor’s commanders wouldn’t care, let alone put their own lives in danger to save one.” Circling behind me, she touches a scar on my back, a patch of melted flesh where the warped spell breached the armor’s protection. “If you’re not careful, you’ll end up dead.”
“I appreciate your concern.” I pull the dragon scale shirt over my head. “But we have a job to do, and I don’t have time to protect my skin while these plagues are picking off one town after another.”
“But what about us? What do you think will happen to the team if you die? Sir.” Jade steps in front of me and studies my face, her brilliant green eyes vibrant and intense. For a moment, her mental walls drop.
I see through the eyes of a young hatchling. She watches two beautiful tianlong dragons, one pearlescent, one crimson, join a swarm of dragons flying to protect the castle. Wizards intercept them. Spells and dragon breath clash, filling the air with death.
The scene changes and she huddles beside their cold corpses. Both gone, taking their love with them, destroying a family, breaking one small dragon’s heart.
Military barracks follow – long days full of drills and lessons, lonely nights in a sterile dorm room … and so much sadness. Why is she letting me see this?
I glance at Tundra, her gaze to the ground, her face guarded, which is unusual for her open nature. Is that a tear? I don’t understand women.
I place a hand on Jade’s shoulder. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, and I’m not planning to get myself killed anytime soon. But, if you want to keep me safe, we need to get moving. Jade. You’re our scout, so scout. We’re covering the north sector.”
With a nod, she takes point, and Tundra follows a few paces behind, some kind of electronic reader in her hand. Over the sound of static and crackling, it beeps like an uncontrolled heartbeat.
I strap my great sword to my back, check the rest of my knives strapped to my legs, heft my ax, and follow. Our footsteps echo down the empty streets. There is a stillness to the air as if the wind itself is afraid to blow through the town. House after house, we find nothing but death. Parents and children, sitting at their breakfasts, hours-old food cold on their plates. Piles of bones, picked clean of all flesh, lay mingled with Elven clothing. Dogs, cats, horses, birds – dead. Each pile is another victim of this deadly silent war the Earthers wage upon us, or so the Emperor tells us. I’m no longer certain what to believe anymore.
Tundra’s device gets louder, the clicking more agitated.
“What is that thing?” I ask.
“It’s a modified Geiger counter, an earth gadget used to detect radiation. I had it with me the last time we had a plague event and found it could detect the magic-warping field, without anyone having to use magic to find out. So I made a few adjustments and thought I’d try it here. It should work. At least, I hope it will. See, I switched the wires with –”
“Wait, you had this last week. Why didn’t you warn Jinx? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did. I said, ‘Sir, I’m picking up a reading.’”
“When? What was I doing?”
“You were running past me yelling ‘Not now, Tundra,’ and pushed me out of the way.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Then you tackled Jinx, and everything went boom. Anyway, I figured if I could find a way to amplify the range, it might be more useful. So I boosted the …” Tundra turns her dazzling grin on me, her eyes wide with delight. Oh no, I’m going to get a whole lot more information than I wanted.
“Not now, Tundra.”
“That’s what you always say. Sir.”
I grit my teeth. “You think something’s wrong here?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” She waves her contraption back and forth until the clicks get faster still. “Something in that building is giving off a strong reading, sir.”
“Good job, Tundra.”
She grins, preening.
Jade opens the door and we advance cautiously. The first room is empty, cloaks hanging on pegs by the door, rocking chair by the fire. In the kitchen, a family of skeletons sits around a rough-hewn table, the stove long since cold.
“Huuunnngry,” a voice says in my head.
“Where is it coming from?” I look to Tundra.
Rotating slowly, she holds her gadget, scanning the walls, and when the static beeping noises grow more urgent, she points at a cabinet. “There.”
I ease the door open and peek inside. A blob of translucent pink goop, about the size of my pinky, black and white mold spotting its back, slides across the cabinet floor toward an unsuspecting mouse nibbling on a bag of flour. The moldy fuzz on its back quivers as it gets closer.
“Huuunnngry,” the voice says again.
Without warning, it leaps through the air, landing on the mouse’s back. The tiny mold blob sucks, sickly sounds emitting from it.
The mouse squeals and tries to run, but the skin on its back begins to sizzle. I watch in horror as the mouse’s fur and muscles dissolve before our eyes.
“It’s growing bigger, sir,” Tundra says, peering over my shoulder. She shudders and looks away as the mouse squeaks one last time before the blob creeps over its face and mouth.
“Have we come across this type of plague before?”
I sigh. The Emperor’s orders are to bring new plague specimens home to be studied, to find a cure. If it were up to me, I’d burn them all before they have the chance to hurt anyone else. “You know the drill. Jade, start recording. Tundra, are you ready?”
Tundra pulls out a crystalline globe and touches a triggering rune before tossing it at the blob. The globe shimmers and expands engulfing the mouse and blob. A popping sound accompanies capture.
“Good job. Let’s see what you’ve caught.”
The flesh-eater abandons the mouse taking the muscles with it as it darts around the rapidly shrinking bubble. It spreads and stretches to cover the interior surface completely.
“It seems to be trying to escape,” Tundra observes as she kneels down to pick up the sphere.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” Jade deadpans.
A purple flash surges from one of the runes before it goes dark.
“Uh … that can’t be good.” Tundra falls backward and scoots quickly away.
More runes flash and die.
“Ready your amulets,” I order. The amulets are magical vessels Jinx loaded with elemental magic. We only need to draw the correct glyph to unleash its power. Since dragons have no magic and no strength or armor while we’re in human form, it helps us get our job done. Though the Emperor and many of commanding officers frowned on my decision to bring him in, having an elven wizard in my flight has helped us through some sticky situations.
The containment sphere shatters in a brilliant flash. Tundra sends a jolt of electricity at it. Rather than stunning the flesh-eater, the blast causes it to grow, doubling its size.
“Delicious. Give me more.”
It turns toward us. A thrill of fear and excitement burns through my blood. I can’t keep the grin, the joy of battle, the love of a good challenge, from spreading across my face.
I send a jolt of ice at it, and it grows to the size of a jackalope. Finally, Jade blasts a wall of flame to surround it. The blob backs away toward the center of the circle, sending tendrils questing out toward the fire as if afraid.
It looks like our plan might work. A quick hand signal gets the ladies headed toward the door. They’re not immune to fire like I am since fire is my breath attack. Being trapped in a burning building isn’t likely to kill them, but it would hurt them. The fire begins to spread. The blob darts into the ring of fire, gulping down the magic within it, snuffing out the flames … but not those flames from the burning wood floor.
With a burst of speed, the blob, now the size of a unicorn, crashes through the window out into the street beyond. Shit, it got away.
The fire races throughout the wooden room, burning through the dry tinder of the home. Normally Elves make their homes impervious to flame with magic, but the flesh eater must have eaten away at those spells the way it gobbled the ones we threw at it. Smoke belches through the room, obscuring our vision.
“Quickly, get outside. Tundra, shift as soon as you are out.”
“I don’t know if I can, sir,” she says. “The streets are pretty narrow. I don’t think I can fit without collateral damage.”
I can see the entrance ahead through the smoke. “No one’s coming back to these houses, and the fire is the bigger danger. Put it out with your ice breath before it spreads.”
As we stumble out, Tundra is already removing her armor and gear. Jade and I quickly help her with the straps. In mere moments, she is free of her clothes and starts shifting. Bones crackle and pop as they rearrange, stretching and thickening. Scales form over her skin, glacial blues, greens, and purples. Her face stretches into a snout, horns like icicles form above her brow line. The houses across the street snap and topple as her increased mass shatters them.
She opens her maw breathing out a frosty gale that leaves the entire tree encased in glacial ice. All traces of the fire vanish, except for the frozen smoke that clouds up the glassy ice.
“Well, done. Specialist.”
She preens a little, smoothing out the scales on her face. Her tail swishes in joy, tapping the fallen timber behind her but not disturbing it.
“Sir, is that your team making all that noise on the north side?” Gristle says in my head.
“We had a situation,” I answer, “but it’s dealt with. What do you need?”
“You’ll want to see this. We’re at the café with the silver leaf design on the door, on the main street, second tier. South side.”
“See you in five, Gristle. Elite General out.”
We take a minute for Tundra to shift back and dress. Shifting makes us hungry, so I toss her a bag of jerky.
Following Gristle’s instructions, we head south. Tundra pauses by a quaint, little café where an overturned chair blocks the doorway, and her little machine goes crazy.
“All right, let’s see what’s going to jump out at us.” I step over the chair and shoulder my way inside.
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