Across the expanse of this land, his eyes explored. Like ancient lovers finding each other after ages apart, he had longed to be home for longer than he knew.
After five years at war, five years of death and suffering, of lost men and heroes dying before their time, it was done. The time of widows was ending, the age of the father would soon begin.
Kneeling down among his many soldiers, his brothers, his sons, Markus dug his claws into the moist, rich soil. No shale, no stone, no weed, and no thorn. After thousands of years of war and suffering, of countless deaths exchanged in payment for a debt that could never be called, this land belonged to its masters again.
As clear in his eyes as it was in his heart, the tribune could see his people in the land. Every rock was the eyes of a mighty warrior, claiming his right to be alive from any monster who would take it from him. In every lightly glittering drop of dew, he saw a mother with her child, partaking together of the beauty of new and abundant life. In the forests that mixed together with the prairie to form a sea of green and yellow, he saw the beauty of youth, freed from death and conflict, given over to the simple joy of being alive.
“Tribune!” a familiar voice called out to him from behind. Enjoying the wages of a penance paid in full, Markus rose to his feet and turned to face the source. Galar Windblade, one of the centurions under his command, casually stood on the edge of the clearing. “If we’re going to make it to the Citadel on time, we need to keep moving.”
Reluctantly, Markus nodded. His gravelly voice echoed through the silence of the early morning forest, “I know.”
“It’s just been so long since I’ve been home, I wanted to make sure that I haven’t forgotten.”
Smiling, Galar leaned against a tree.
“Respectfully Sir, with everything you’ve done for us, I don’t see why you’d be in a hurry.
“You’ve got a long life ahead of you, that you’ve paid in full with the sum of your own blood.
“Nothing can take that from you.”
The elder charr smiled back at the musing of his protege; he was ready for the young voice to be true.
Irah rolled over in her bunk; her bruised ribs paining her still. The voices of the doctors had died down for the day. Like celestial beasts, the surgeons came with the sun and vanished under the moon.
She wasn’t sure they were real.
Maybe specters, come to haunt her still as was her lot.
The horizon of the city still lingered on her mind and wandered through her dreams. The young charr held up her white hand and, like a shield, used it to block out her eyes. Spent and weak, she fought with the last of her strength to push the thoughts from her mind. Helpless, she was overcome.
A weight, tentative at first, but bolder next, settled down in the bed next to her. “We’re alive.” Akant’s voice was like a hammer smashing into the thin veil of her sanity. Despite the protests of her wounds, she rolled over in bed and threw her arms around him.
After days of keeping herself composed, sane, steady, she had enough. Shedding all of the pride she built up for herself, Irah wept.
She was alive, and she had no idea why.
She should have died in the Dragonbrand.
She should have died in the Crystal Desert.
She should have died in Ascalon City.
She should have died to the dragon.
And yet, she drew breath.
“Don’t fret; we’re safe now.” Akant’s voice has older, steadier now than it had been before. Gone was the youth and cheer, replaced by determination and wile. “What do we have to fear now?”
She lifted her head to stare at him through blurry eyes; he was gazing through the window. Silent, the wind cautiously slithered through the empty room. “Has it dawned on you yet?”
“We slew a dragon.
“The beasts that live only to consume and destroy, that know no reason nor sympathy. And we slew it.”
A weak smile passed his face, “I don’t know how I could ever look at the world the same again.” A flame flickered behind his eyes. “It’s as though every door I thought was closed now is open, begging me to challenge them all, to seize every opportunity because they have all been given over to me.”
Abruptly, he turned his head to gaze back at her. “What would you like to do?” Completely overwhelmed, she simply stared back at him. “Irah, the world has offered itself entirely to us. What should we make of it?”
A sound reverberated down the hallway; a metal door drawing closed. Footsteps. Curious, the young charr fell silent. The slow, soft pace had grown familiar to them over the past few days. He never spoke, but was always present. Always listening. Always watching.
The first day after the warband had returned, they all were called into a quiet ceremony in the Ruins of Rin beneath the Black Citadel. Some tribune that none of them recognized commended them for their bravery, promoted Ayroh to a centurion, and promoted Srin to legionnaire. Despite their success, the order came down definitively, do not speak of what happened in the city. Do not speak of Emberclaw. Do not speak of the dragon.
Over dinner that night, Zanst explained what happened. The Citadel couldn’t let Ayroh be the face of the victory and it was willing to do whatever necessary to make sure he wasn’t. What would that say to the divided charr if the first dragon they had ever slain was done with black magic by a former renegade? The flame legion was dangerous enough as it was, the last thing that the Citadel could allow would be for them to score that magnitude of philosophical victory.
And so the battle never happened; Ayroh would be promoted and rewarded because he was too useful to simply discard, but their victory would be quietly swept under the rug.
There was no room for shaman among the leadership of the Iron Legion.
A voice drifted in, low in the air. If not for the silence of the room, the pair would never have heard it. Broken and weak, Ayroh’s voice wandered through the iron corridor.
“Oh, my lovely, things are clear,
Hate me but, I’m staying here.
Last we’d fall but never fear,
For I’ll wait ’til you are near.
Water, water, on my seas
Left and right, where I do bleed
What a sight for all I need
Lonely, only, done, in deed.
How would you reach out to me?
I thought you asked me not to leave?
I thought you wanted us to be,
But lonely, only, left, is me.”
He passed by the doorway to their room, a traveling bag on his back.
Ayroh was leaving.
The six warbands under his command fell into line behind him as they continued their march across the rolling plains. Long since passed were the dangers of war, and like birds carried aloft in the sky, the soldiers’ spirits soared. Those with cubs boasted about whose progeny would be legionnaires first; those without were already plotting such that their condition wouldn’t last long.
Laughing, Markus rolled his eyes at the younger charr’s ambitions. “Galar, let me warn you.” Preparing himself for the verbal offensive impending, the younger charr readied a flanking attack of incredulous sarcasm. “Despite our best musings, it’s all for naught.”
“I don’t believe that, and you know that I can’t.”
“You have to though! The basis of any belief has to be demonstration in fact, and in that regard your argument is wholly deficient.”
“You’ve been spending too much time listening to Mukr, Sir. He must be infecting you with his positivism.” From further back in the column, a lone voice shouted something about invoking his name in vain. The two charr laughed even harder.
Slowly recovering his composure, Markus relented not, “Even then, you are a fool if you think that you can make sense of a female’s heart. It is an endeavor for fools like yourself or poets who have lost their spark.” Galar’s sarcasm was bunching its lines, preparing to attack. Instead, Markus continued his charge, hoping to break the younger charr’s contingent through sheer force. “You are too good of a soldier for that brand of silliness. Choose who you cannot have and do what it takes to have her, that is all you need to know about love.”
As the final word fell from Markus’ mouth, he heard, faintly and in the distance, a voice crying out. The pitch and the tone were immediately familiar to him; a thousand times before, he had heard the same cry. With a single wave of his arm, Markus’ soldiers collapsed into a perimeter, prepared for an attack from any direction. Standing tall in the center of the circle, the tribune watched as his lead scout, Askal, came tumbling out of the woods further down the path. Alone and sprinting with the same raw speed that had earned him his position, Askal had arrived inside their lines before half of the soldiers even knew that he had left the forest.
Gasping, and out of breath, he fell down to a single knee as he fought for air. Galar knelt down beside him, waiting for the young scout to recover enough to speak.
For a few tense seconds, the warbands remained tense, as though an attack could originate from any direction, at any time, while the scout regained his composure. The first word out of his mouth was all they needed to know to understand the gravity of the situation.
And here they were, moving en masse inside of hard won and blood-paid land, as though the sacrifices to own it meant nothing. With every step, they defiled the honor and memory of the Citadel, and all for which it stood. Unity among the charr. It was a monument to the greatness of the charr, brought together and united in peace and harmony. And these usurpers dared to march against its borders.
Markus’ voice spoke to the hearts of his men as each wondered what the proper response was. They were so close to freedom, to peace, to rest. Would he really order them to war so close to home?
“I know what you’re thinking, my brothers. Why fight if we’re so close to freedom and home?”
The golden-furred tribune tightened the metal latches on his armor, checking for any weakness or flaw that might give way in battle.
“We will fight precisely for those reasons. What is freedom if it can be infringed upon? What good is home if monsters only lie in waiting to put it to the flame?”
“Home or not, they will not take it from us.”
“The weight of our debt in blood demands this of us.”
The tribune’s voice was steady as he laid out the plan. The invaders were trying to set up camp in a gully nearby, likely to establish a command post. The invaders significantly outnumbered the Tribune’s forces, but this could be used to their advantage if the battlefield could be defined.
And so the tribune would.
The plan laid out, Markus called Galar over quietly, taking him aside to speak.
“This is our final battle, make sure that the soldiers fight safe and smart. We’re too close to home to take casualties.”
With a brief nod, Galar turned and began scolding the soldiers for not tightening up the straps on their armor, irrespective of if they had already or not. Within minutes, the warbands were ready for their final battle. Veterans of years of war, the same stillness of battle settled over them as they prepared. None cried, none complained.
There was simply a job that needed to be done and it was their lot to do it.
Bloody and stumbling, the defeated centurion was dragged before Markus. The giant rifles bolted to his armoring glowed red still from the battle; the dozens of shots the tribune had fired into the bottlenecked invaders lost amid the carnage and gore.
Silver-furred and scarred from war, the centurion limply collapsed to his feet after only a slight shove from Galar. “Pitiful,” the charr mumbled as he took a step back from the cowardly fool.
“Why have you chosen to attack our homeland?”
Coughing up blood, the invader growled, “This land isn’t yours, monster.” Sighing, Markus knelt down on one knee before the defeated officer. Slowly, Galar came to a rest, standing by his leader’s side.
For all of the centurion’s defiance, he had been helpless against the tribune’s forces. When massive, flaming boulders came rolling down each entrance to his command post, he had no escape route. With murderous efficiency, his forces were routed. Fish in a barrel.
And that was that.
“That is where you are mistaken, meat. It is ours, as it always has been. You are just a blip in history, a temporary diversion, and the time is coming soon when you all will see this.”
More blood, “You’re a dirty liar.”
Shaking his head, Markus stood. There was nothing he could do for the worthless coward. Simply kill him and be done with it.
“Askal, bring me a loaded….”
As the tribune spoke, the world suddenly slowed to a crawl. From his jacket, the defeated charr drew a small pistol, loaded with a single explosive shot. Grasping for any victory he could amid the loss of his soldiers, he had chosen. Before anyone could respond, the centurion leveled the pistol at Markus’ chest.
“Death to the Flame Legion!”
He pulled the trigger.
At point blank, the blast tore through Galar’s chest, shredding his body into a fountain of blood and bone as he dove in front of his tribune’s body. Stumbling back, covered in the blood of his centurion, Markus released his twin rifles, which loudly thundered into the ground.
Markus dove forward, claws bared, and dug them into the centurion’s chest. Wrestling the coward, the murderer, to the ground, he bound his fists into weapons and beat the Ash legion heretic’s head until it was nothing but a bloody, gurgling stump.