Zara ran the whetstone once more along the blade of her heavy falchion and her breath was a mist in the pre-dawn cold. Next to her, Evakhet shifted morosely against the straps of armor and saddle. Zara carefully sheathed the sharpened length of steel, then patted Evakhet’s wing with equal care. Together they had traveled far from the Burning Sands to this chill, dark island. She had heard her commanders call it “Wraithfire Keep”, though she had seen little of fire or fortress.
All around her was the quiet morning shuffle she had heard before many battles. But the accents, sounds, and even scents from the hasty camp around her were different from any other encampment she had been in. Dragon nobility and riders had been roused from the length and breadth of Atlas and gathered in ships far off the coast of the keep until all had arrived. Only last night did they finally disembark at dusk and made a staging camp for the attack this morning. Zara veered away from thinking of the impending assault and she instead remembered the weeks waiting in a reeking ship with dragons hidden in the hold. Her small nose wrinkled at the memory and she patted Evakhet’s wing again in sympathy. This was a refined dragon-hawk, meant for imperial courts and shining parades. She still wasn’t sure why it had taken a liking to her, the seventh daughter of a minor noble too poor to afford dragons. She took a step back, nearly slipping in the mud of the camp, as she felt Evakhet stretch its wings and shake itself.
In the distance Zara heard the muffled voices of the camp start to rise in intensity. Sergeants would be kicking awake the infantry now, who would follow after the thunder and fury of the dragon riders. Zara took a deep breath of the early morning air. It was time. She climbed up on Evakhet and, once she was settled, pulled her falchion partly out from the worked leather scabbard and tested the edge with her thumb. She rubbed the resulting little bead of blood into Evakhet’s feathers, for luck she supposed.
* * *
Ahead of Zara were the bristling walls of Wraithfire Keep. Below her were falling dragons swatted from the sky moments ago by a terrible glowing orb squatting at the center of the keep. Around her were whirling projectiles that made her teeth itch with wrongness whenever they slashed past her and Evakhet. Other dragons soared nearby in the dawn light, dozens and dozens, but while minutes ago that sight had filled her heart with courage, now they just seemed so many targets.
She breathed deeply and centered her mind. With a nudge of her knee she banked Evakhet down, searching for something, anything. The direct approach to the keep was a quick path to death, so she looked at the rocky landscape with sharp eyes for another solution. There! A glimmer of blue in the side of a cliff. She dove down at it without hesitation, hoping some of the other riders would follow her lead.
Evakhet leveled out near the cliff face and Zara peered into a cave mouth that was now revealed. She was briefly dazzled by the glowing crystals that encrusted the cave walls but her focus quickly settled on the towers and fortifications built in the cave. Zara smiled then, her white teeth flashing amidst the russet brown of her face, and she drew her falchion with a scrape of steel. She waved the blade up at the dragons floundering high above her, hoping their riders would at least see the flash of metal, and then she gritted her teeth as Evakhet burst into the cave. She didn’t know where it went, but the strange masked people manning the towers down here were clearly protecting something.
* * *
Zara patted Evakhet’s flank and whispered words of encouragement that slipped away in the wind that swirled around them. The wing to her right was bleeding slowly and she could feel the rough, shuddering breath of the dragon beneath her as they flew away from Wraithfire Keep. Flew away in defeat. Other dragons flapped along nearby in the mid-morning light, some even more injured than her Evakhet. All carried an air of crushed hopes as they made their way back to their hasty camp, which would have to become something more substantial now. Their duty was not yet done.
Zara looked back over her shoulder at the unbroken walls of the keep behind her, gleaming with malice, at least in her mind. Just a few hours ago the dragon nobles had promised their riders a quick victory, a brief sortie of shock and awe. There had been no mention of any enormous orbs who dealt death, much less any other information about the extensive defenses the riders had discovered at great cost. Zara could feel her gloved fists tightening and she forced herself to relax. There would be plenty of time to be angry now that a surprise attack had turned into a siege. Zara coaxed Evakhet onward, back to the camp.
* * *
Her dragon was stabled, fed a potion of healing, and now slept peacefully. Zara walked away from the flimsy canvas tent serving as a dragon stables and she did her best not to stumble much from exhaustion as she made her way through the muddy roads and slippery paths of the military camp. She felt a faint, numb desire for food but didn’t feel much else. After dodging aside from one rumbling wagon she half-heartedly tried to knock off the dust and grime that caked her once-white surcoat, but she gave up on that after coughing from all the dust and continued on her dazed walk towards the smell of food.
Until she was knocked down flat. Zara looked up in confusion to see a strange woman looming above her, offering a hand.
“My abject apologies, my dear. This close to the portal, I simply cannot see well,” the woman said in a voice that reminded Zara of sweet lotus syrups from the deep desert. The woman pulled Zara up and continued, “Ah, you’ve just come from the very first assault--you smell like dragons, sweat, and blood. My name is Vivian. What is yours, brave soldier?”
Zara made a show of brushing herself off before replying, though she suspected the jolt from falling down might have knocked more dirt off than it added. “I am Zara, of the Burning Sands,” she said tonelessly. She took in this Vivian’s appearance, tapped fearlessly at her radiant metal blindfold with a jagged fingernail, then was finally struck by an unusual word Vivian had said: “Wait, what portal?”
Vivian looked in what Zara knew was the direction of Wraithfire Keep, hidden by grey mountains, and frowned. “To your eyes, it would glow balefully. Perhaps it is blue? Orange? It is a pulsing, floating wound and it leads to the Void.”
Nodding like she understood much of that, Zara took a half step back from the strange woman and said, “That must be the orb I saw, then. It spat wrongness at us.”
Vivian spun to look at Zara, who reflexively reached for her sword hilt. “You saw it then? Good. You need to see something else, or someone, really. Look upon Kharnyx, who dared to open this portal.” With that, Vivian reached with pale, spindly fingers towards Zara’s face. Zara grabbed her hand with contemptuous ease but as soon as their skin touched her mind was filled with the image of a terrible lich.
Zara let go of Vivian’s hand and stumbled back a step, blinking away the vivid intrusion into her mind.
Vivian smiled then, possibly a worse sight than the undead creature that Zara still saw faintly, and spoke: “Kharnyx made a deal with the... wrong sorts and she will pay for her improper choices. I will help you people,” Vivian waved dismissively at the camp around them, “close that portal. It leads to the entirely incorrect part of the Void, at least from the perspective of my masters. You understand how everyone is beholden to someone, right, brave soldier?”
Zara nodded numbly and wondered which god she had angered to have such an unfortunate day. Probably a god from whatever this Void place was.
“Excellent, you and I have an understanding then, Zara of the Burning Sands. I’ll surely see you at one of the many upcoming attacks on Wraithfire Keep,” Vivian said with cheery finality. She held up a thin hand and waved forward, like she was commanding a hunting dog, and from a dark alley between tents silently emerged a dragon Zara could swear she had never seen before and definitely never wanted to see again.
Vivian and her monstrous dragon strode away along the muddy road and Zara could only shake her head. She hadn’t known what she was getting into when she had clambered aboard a ship with Evakhet months ago and she surely didn’t know now. She shrugged expansively, feeling some of the tension in her shoulders bleed away, and she resolved to just follow orders and do her duty. But first she’d go find some food.