I carried Katryn up the stairs into the fractured cathedral.
We were scattered, like leaves blown in the wind. It was over.
Zanst and the norn woman were tending to the injured. The female looked up as I came in and motioned me to put Katryn beside the others.
I ignored the shouting of Dhalik, Javikarth, Krasst and the charr as I laid my burden down. “She’s just unconscious,” I assured her. “She became frantic and tried to run back to the dragon… I had to incapacitate her.”
The norn nodded her acknowledgement of the information and continued to bandage whichever furry beast was closest to her. I stood, turning to leave, when the human boy caught my eye. The sacrifice for the ritual.
He was breathing, shallowly. Caleb had died for this boy.
If it weren’t for the child, he never would have been here.
If it weren’t for me, he never would’ve been here.
I tilted my head to the side, studying the black-haired child. From what I knew of human physiology, he was somewhere between the age of eight and ten… he was around my age.
He was lucky. Already ten and he’d never even had to kill. He wouldn’t ever have to live with the scars he’d received at the hands of the Flame Legion.
None of us were going to live.
Caleb died for us.
We would survive.
I would make sure that Katryn and the boy would survive.
“Enough!” I barked, stepping towards the bickering warriors. “This isn’t helping anyone. Either we’re dead or we’re not—stop arguing!”
All of them, even the assassin, lapsed into silence—momentarily. Then they kicked back louder than ever.
“You’re not in charge here,” the charr snarled.
“I am the superior intellect—”
“Nobody’s in charge anymore,” I said, raising my voice. “Dhalik, how did your team do?”
“Does it look like that thing out there is being controlled by anyone?” the white-haired man snapped. “We succeeded.” He swallowed, hard. “Vorathil escaped, but the Court’s counter-ritual was interrupted.”
I nodded. “Good. That means it’s mindless. That means it can be beaten.”
“Actually, its regenerates—” Krasst began to say.
“Denied, then, if not destroyed.” I said harshly, cutting him off.
“It regenerates at a rate too accelerated for us to decimate it!” The asura shouted back.
“I’m not talking about killing it. It hungers. It wants to eat. And it will. Caleb is already dead. He died buying us the time we needed to even stand here, arguing. More of us are going to die. But it doesn’t have to be all of us.”
Javikarth closed his eyes in defeat. “What are you proposing?” He already knew, and he would volunteer.
“I saw it up close, watching Caleb fight it. I know, Krasst, that it heals massive wounds in almost no time at all. So we hit it hard, as hard as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can.”
“And then we die,” one of the warband said snidely.
I nodded. “Yes. And we get as many people out of the city as we can while it’s distracted with us. The boy deserves to live. I want Katryn to live. There are others here we need to get out so they can warn the Citadel, and Hoelbrak, and Lion’s Arch.”
Javikarth opened his eyes and smiled. “Glory.”
After several long moments, Krasst nodded. “I have something that will help us keep it occupied. How do we decide who goes and who stays?”
“Why are you here?!” a leonine voice thundered from the top of the cathedral.
“Did you come here to die? Because I didn’t!” he continued, taking steps down to rejoin us in the center. Beside me, the charr bristled in rage.
I just tried to hide my grin.
“Unfortunately, that’s what fate has dealt us. You’ve all realized that we’re going to die. Some of us might escape it today, of course. You might run and escape this city.
“And where will you go then? Jormag lies to our north. Zhaitan is to the south. Will you try to flee into Kralkatorrik’s desert, perhaps? Run from one dragon and find yourself in the maw of another.”
He paused, tilting his head to the floor. Angry murmuring was filling the room.
“Enough. I’ve spent my entire life running from dragons, internal and external. This is just one more—and I say enough. I have drawn the line.
“The dragons will come. They will come to me, they will cross the line, and they will pay in boiling blood. I may die, but they will suffer for their transgressions.
“I will not let my fate be dictated by anyone or anything.
“I stand now upon an idea that cannot be corrupted.
“I stand now upon a mountain that cannot be shaken.
“I stand now upon a foundation.
“I will not be moved.”
He had moved to stand among us, blind and so full of sight. He waited.
I did not.
“Ayroh Kaenes. Shadowsoul. The Lion of the North,” I said, moving to stand directly before him. I chose my next words carefully. I was speaking not only for myself, but for an idea that was still being birthed. “You know me. I am Dryetn Kyrantel, the Dreamless One, of the Cycle of Dusk. I know you to be a scythe… and I will be your shield. Let us slay a dragon.” My heart quickened as I spoke those last words.
This was always my destiny.
All I had to do was hold the line. A dragon, the Fury of Ascalon itself, would come rushing into my waiting grasp, tight between these alleyways. All I had to do was hold it back.
My hands twitched with anticipation.
“It’s here,” Ayroh said from behind me.
Krasst came careening around the corner as fast as his little legs could carry him, and disappeared down a side street.
Behind it, a spectral behemoth made the turn, crushing stone with every movement, crumbling buildings with its flank. Its wings were pressed tight against its sides, though clearly not by its intention—they were furrowed and creased, some outside force continually pushing them down. Whatever Krasst’s machine had done, it stopped the dragon from extending its wings.
Now it was grounded. Trapped here with me.
Explosions went off along the street, tumbling buildings into the gap behind the Fury—and behind Ayroh and me.
“I’m casting,” the Ascendant announced, and behind my back I felt magic begin to pulse.
In front of me, the dragon opened its jaws wide and purple mist began to swirl between its teeth.
I set my feet into a defensive position and poured my energy outwards. Beginning from my core, spreading through my left shoulder, down my arm, through my shield—my life force expanded, surrounding Ayroh and I in a thin green orb of light.
The Fury breathed. Its vapors roiled and spun against my ward, searching for any fault, any weakness.
There was none.
The mist ceased its assault, and in response I dropped the aura. Shadows danced and leapt against the alley walls as flashes of light from Ayroh shot into the air.
The Fury charged.
I roared in response, channeling my force into my mace. It too was surrounded by a sickly green aura—and then that aura expanded, extended, forming a veritable obelisk of magic in my hand. As the dragon’s jaws reached for me, much too far away to succeed, I slammed my mace into the side of its head, sending it crashing into the buildings on my left.
The snap of its lower jaw breaking was audible even over the sound of impact. The snap of it instantaneously leaping back into place was just as clear.
I gritted my teeth as it turned back towards me—and then Ayroh’s magic reached a plateau, and dark hands flew through the air past me in the hundreds. They sought a grasp on the Fury’s writhing skin, but the blue ghosts trapped within its squirming shell gave no opportunity for purchase.
The dragon returned its attention to me. I shifted my feet, dropped my shield, and gripped my mace in both hands. It snapped its head forward again, snake-like, to receive another crushing blow to its maw. Once again, its head slammed heavily into the nearby buildings. It retreated, then pressed forward, to the same effect.
And yet, despite each blow, its feet moved ever closer. The neck stopped whipping quite so far.
It was too close now.
I heard Ayroh cry out in triumph, and suddenly the spectral hands were burrowing through the dragon’s ghost-flesh unimpeded. Ripping and tearing filled the air and they sought a destination only they could see.
The Fury roared and thrashed, and I summoned another ward between us. As its flailing teeth and claws pressed against my aura with abandon, I felt my energy draining rapidly. It was all I could do to keep the defense active.
And then it revealed itself—floating, rising, out of the dragon’s right shoulder. Glowing bright gold in the dark alley—the first mark.
Javikarth appeared then, atop one of the buildings, mammoth greatsword in his hand. Without hesitation he leapt, he fell—and buried the sword deep into the mark.
And that was all I could see. The Fury renewed its frantic attack, and I snarled as I let my ward drop. Instantly, my second mace leapt into my offhand, and I channeled energy through both of my weapons as the dragon lunged forward once again.
Again, I smashed its head to the side. It snapped forward—and I crushed its jaws without fail.
And then the second symbol appeared. Dhalik, the assassin, leapt from the rooftops and buried his daggers into the left shoulder.
And then the Fury slowed. As the magic healing it, sustaining it, began to fade—it stopped charging. It stopped its frenetic assault.
No. No, don’t slow.
I swung my right mace with all my force, everything I had left trying to redirect it. The dragon flinched, but its renewed focus—its inexorable march—kept its head still. Its neck extended, and those terrible fangs advanced.
My maces were a blind flurry, each swing smashing teeth into nonexistence. I couldn’t step back. I had to hold the beast here. I wouldn’t fail Ayroh. I wouldn’t fail Katryn.
I wouldn’t fail Caleb.
Each swing devastated its jaws, pulverized its fangs, shattered bone structure in its face and nose.
It reformed as quickly as I could destroy it.
Its head was slowly moving towards me.
Its jaws were slowly closing around me.
I would not give in.
I would not give in.
The jaws wrapped around me, ever so deliberately. Achingly slow. I felt my armor begin to press against my sides, an unstoppable force driving the metal to its will. I felt my feet begin to lift off the ground, an irresistible strength refusing to be denied, refusing to acknowledge my will. I felt death rear its head and roar a final challenge at me.
I did not feel fear.
Ayroh leapt over my head, exuding magic black as death, bearing a spear of distilled night. He landed between the dragons eyes—the impact shaking the dragon’s head, its jaws, as metal began to puncture my skin.
A blinding flash of silver followed Ayroh’s flight. The Fury trembled.
The runes were destroyed.
I grinned, sap beginning to drip from my lips, as I took one of the dragon’s fangs in my right hand and snapped it off with ease. It didn’t reform.
Reverberations shook the beast as explosions hammered it from all sides—from rifles, from arrows, and from magic let loose with abandon. Every attack drained the dragon of strength, and I saw blue clouds vanish into the air as the ghosts of the dead were released by the hundreds.
And still, in its last defiance, the Fury’s jaws closed.
I heard something in me crack.
I did not know fear.