When Hebror Daividien, Polemarchos of the Vayloric Elves’ armed forces, gave an order, it was obeyed. In this case, the order was to gut part of the great city of Vayloraheim in order to exterminate a group of Goblin officers, thus throwing the Goblins’ war efforts into disarray. The Elf who would be carrying out the order, along with his squadron, was Aemlin Ciharaz, Dragon Rider.
Aemlin bowed upon receiving the command, fixing the Polemarchos’ face in his mind before he turned and swept out of the room. Hebror Daividien was a six-foot, aged Elf with long, silver hair tied back in a tight knot at the back of his head. His grass-green eyes were piercing, his chin was strong, and he wore garments of enchanted maroon silk that could protect him better than any armour, turning aside any blade or arrow meant for his heart. His expression seemed perpetually stern, and he even had a few lines to mar his smooth, pale face – almost unheard of, save in Elves of very advanced age.
Almost a thousand years old, he was more than twice the age of young Aemlin and was a living legend in Vayloraheim. He was the Elf who had kept the Vaylorici, or High Elves, together when civil war had beleaguered the city, when the Goblins, Pygmies, lesser Elves, lizards and men had turned on their beneficent overlords without provocation. Hebror Daividien was the most powerful Elf in all the city, save for the Gods’ Voice, the Vayloric Elves’ spiritual leader.
Aemlin Ciharaz was proud to serve the Polemarchos and walked with head held high from the sky-vying tower in which Daividien delivered his orders to where Brimstone, his flame-coloured Dragon, awaited him out front in the quartz plaza. In the wide open space was a forest of two hundred narrow marble pedestals on which sat busts of some of the greatest warriors and statesmen in the history of the Vaylorici. In the middle of the pseudo-forest, atop a plinth, was a crystal statue depicting the first Gods’ Voice, Semshin Alohola. Weaving between these pedestals, Aemlin looked on them and the statue much as he had done the Polemarchos; with great respect and envy. He was honoured to be permitted to walk among the Stele Forest, as it was known, and to meet the Polemarchos in person.
Aemlin’s own enchanted blue silken pantaloons, shirt and robe billowed in the gentle breeze that cooled the otherwise stifling hot morning. The garments afforded him similar protection to those of the Polemarchos, although Aemlin assumed Daividien had many more enchantments woven into his fabric than did the squadron leader. His Dragon awaited him beyond the steles, beyond the entrance arch that led to the tower, swishing his tail back and forth and snorting smoke impatiently. His large, golden eyes with slit pupils expressed boredom. Aemlin glanced back at the Polemarchos’ tower one last time as he mounted the Dragon, ascending to the saddle by stepping on his foreleg. The Great Tower of Ahman-Raa was not a sight he would soon forget, shaped by magic from a giant chunk of topaz as it was into the shape of a pyramidal, tiered tower with several levels of outcropping eaves.
He tugged his gaze away from it to where his squadron awaited him, already seated in the saddles on the backs of their own Dragons. “Well, team, we have our orders! Follow me to Gordaga’s End!”
With a spring and a flap of leathery wings, his Dragon took to the skies, followed closely by the others. Brimstone’s buckler-sized scales glittered the colours of sunset under the sweltering rays of the morning sun. The vast city of Vayloraheim, which meant Home of the Builders in an old dialect, dwindled to a calico crystalline playground beneath them, a toddler’s sandpit. Smoke curled up from the city at war with itself, but besides that it appeared deceivingly peaceful at a distance.
High in the sky, the Dragons were like Gods, able to swoop across the land and cover leagues in heartbeats with a few motions of their huge wings. With snakelike, winding bodies some forty feet long and squat legs, the great beasts were far more at home in the air than on the ground. Dragons’ feelers – like those of an insect – were believed to be used primarily to detect changes in air current, although Aemlin was sure they had a hundred uses he did not understand. Brimstone’s deep blue mane, running from his feelers to his tail tip, fluttered like a long banner in the wind as he ascended into the firmament and sprayed fire at the clouds from his maw in youthful exuberance. Barely a hundred years old, Brimstone behaved like an oversized puppy on occasion.
As he sped ahead of the others, Aemlin laughed and called back to them, “Keep up! You don’t want me to deal with the Goblin scum all by myself, do you?”
Laughing, they raced one another across Vayloraheim to Gordaga’s End in the heart of the Goblin district of the city, named after one of the city’s founders. Once above their target, the Dragons dropped like falcons on the hunt, nosediving toward the headquarters where the Goblin officers were gathered. As they cleared the cloudbank, the Goblins saw them.
An inverse rain of bright energy globules, beams and spears lanced up at the Dragon Riders from the ground, lighting up the sky better than fireworks. Calling out superfluous orders to evade, Aemlin ducked down close to Brimstone’s neck and allowed the Dragon to control their descent, using his reflexes to dodge attacks. Deadly bolts and rays of energy speared close past Aemlin, scorching his ivory skin and singeing his streaming white locks, but none touched him. One of his squadron was not so lucky; struck by an energy javelin, Rider and Dragon both went whirling down to the streets below like sycamore seeds.
“Skiriss, catch him!” Aemlin barked, and another of his squadron – a lithe female Elf atop a sea-blue-scaled Dragon – broke formation to dive down after the falling Rider lest he lose consciousness and be unable to levitate on his own.
The fallen Dragon had been struck by the energy attack and as such was presumed dead, although Aemlin knew every effort would be made to find and revive it once he reported it downed. For now, though, he knew the protocol; he would not give up on the mission to rescue a dead Dragon. He and the other two in his squadron flew on; five Elves and five Dragons was usually enough to complete any mission, no matter the difficulty. So, while Skiriss diverged to catch Hamlador, Aemlin, Earincol and Yempola continued to dive headlong into the barrage. When they came close enough that dodging was no longer viable, Aemlin shouted an order and Yempola threw up a shining, semi-translucent bubble of golden energy around them all – no mean feat given the size of the area it needed to cover. This eldritch aegis absorbed the energy bolts, beams and globules with a series of flashes and sizzles, allowing none to pass through. The Dragons and their Riders were safe inside the bubble, and they plummeted on.
When they were close enough, Yempola allowed the magic bubble to dissipate in a cloud of sparks and an instant later fire erupted from the three Dragons’ fanged, gaping maws. Torrents of it, like a beam of liquid fire, poured from the mighty beasts’ gullets and wreathed the Goblin headquarters and all of the surrounding buildings in flames in an instant. The gemstone buildings trembled, blackened, cracked and then began to crumble under the continuous assault. Soon, the structures had melted into a steaming pool, along with all of those inside.
Whooping and cheering, punching the air in joy, the Dragon Riders congratulated one another on a job well done and set off back to the Great Tower of Ahman-Raa.
“Glad to see you’re not dead, Hamlador!” Aemlin called from atop Brimstone. “Good work on catching him, Skiriss!”
Skiriss bowed in her saddle, golden hair flapping, and Hamlador – seated behind her on her blue Dragon – smiled and waved, looking even paler than usual. His reply was lost to the wind as Brimstone accelerated.
By the time Aemlin stood in front of the Polemarchos once more, he was windswept but practically beaming with pride, while trying to maintain a stoic demeanour.
Hebror Daividien gave the squadron leader the briefest glance from beneath his eyebrows as he was studying the map laid out before him. “Hmm,” he said, his voice soft but edged, “I see you’ve returned. What of the Goblin headquarters? Did you follow my orders, squadron leader?”
Aemlin saluted. “To the letter, Polemarchos! All the Goblins in the area have been incinerated.”
“Excellent, excellent,” murmured Daividien without looking up, skimming a finger along the map. “I have another task for you if you suffered no heavy losses?”
“Only one Dragon, Polemarchos.”
“Excellent. Well then, for your next mission, I need you to rout a gang of pesky humans in Riddark’s Mark that have been a thorn in my side for some time.” He proceeded to detail instructions on the location to be obliterated, all while staring at the map, and Aemlin nodded agreeably. “You may, of course, rest and eat before venturing out again,” the Polemarchos added, flicking a glance up once more. “I do not seek to drive you into the ground.”
Aemlin bowed. “My thanks, Polemarchos, you are kind. My squadron and I will rest only for the time it takes to eat and recuperate, and then we will take to the skies, to Riddark’s Mark, with all haste. Count on it.”
Hebror Daividien nodded and waved a dismissive hand without lifting his head, and Aemlin spun on the ball of his foot and began to stride from the room with a spring in his step. Moving fast, he almost bumped into an officer in jade robes as he was leaving and apologised absently to the man. Before he quit the room, he heard the jade-clad Elf report to Daividien.
“Polemarchos, Vaya Porsa has been devastated by the lizard-folk in a raid! They have plundered and set fire to the whole area! If we do not act fast, the whole district will be ablaze!”
Aemlin’s blood ran cold, and his stomach clenched into a tight knot. Before he knew it he was back at the table, leaning down to meet Daividien’s eye, his hands splayed on the map.
“Polemarchos, permit my squadron to retaliate against the lizards in Vaya Porsa,” he said in a more commanding tone than he had ever expected to take with the military leader. “I have a friend there whom I would see safe.”
Hebror Daividien finally bestowed a full-blown look upon him; more, he glared at him. “No,” he bit off the word angrily, pointing a stern finger. “You will take the fight to the humans in Riddark’s Mark as ordered, squadron leader!”
“But, Polemarchos, please, I –”
“You will do as I command, squadron leader!” the Polemarchos screamed, cutting him off, face turning the colour of beetroot. “Do I make myself clear?”
Aemlin returned Daividien’s glare in kind for a long moment, fury threatening to spill regrettable words from his lips, career-ending words. Finally, he swallowed and muttered, “Yes, Polemarchos.”
“What was that?” sneered Daividien. “I didn’t hear you. Speak up!”
Aemlin was already leaving.
“Do not turn your back on me!” the Polemarchos screeched. “Guards, do not allow that wretch to leave!”
Aemlin stopped as two guards blocked the exit. Fists clenched, he turned back to face the man he had idolised earlier that day.
“Now,” said Daividien, adjusting his silk robe, “you will answer me when I ask you a question. I said, do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Polemarchos,” Aemlin stated loudly, trying hard to keep the venom from his voice.
“Good. Now, apologise for your conduct and you may leave.”
Aemlin took a deep breath, strangling the wrath pulsing in his chest. “I … apologise, Polemarchos.”
“Excellent. You may leave.”
When he finally stepped outside the bounds of the Great Tower of Ahman-Raa, Aemlin took another deep breath, savouring the flavour of freedom. The noontime sun glared down at him, a weight on his brow. He did not gaze with affection on the busts manning the Stele Forest as he passed through it this time, nor did he stop to admire the statue of the first Gods’ Voice. He stalked past them, his steps fast, purposeful.
“We have our orders,” he said to his squadron as he mounted Brimstone once more. “No time to rest. The Polemarchos orders us to Vaya Porsa to retaliate against the lizard-folk who have attacked our people there.”
His squadron followed him without question. Rising high into the air once more, the Dragons soared through the blue sky, traversing the city in minutes. The wind was cold as it rushed over Aemlin’s face, as cold as his heart.
When they descended through the cloudbank once more, it was to a scene of utter desolation. Vaya Porsa had been ransacked and ruined just as the officer had reported. Viewing it from Dragon-back, Aemlin thought the whole region resembled a shattered bauble. Gaudy fragments of ruby, sapphire and emerald littered the sundered streets where the buildings had all collapsed, and unnatural fires had taken root in the gemstones in places.
Lesser Elves, winged and incapable of magic, squawked to one another as they swooped over the city here and there, diving into the streets when they saw an opportunity for murder and plunder. They looked up in fear and flew away when the Dragons’ shadows passed over them. Aemlin could hear the occasional deep, booming bellows of ground-bound Bull Elves too as they neared the rooftops, but he did not spot any of the brutes.
Aemlin made like an arrow for his friend’s home, knowing before he got there that his search was in vain. As expected, his friend’s house was destroyed; only rubble remained. In shock, the Dragon Rider wondered whether anyone could possibly be trapped under all that weight and still live. Of course, with magic it was possible, but he could not see a single soul in the area. Trying to banish the image of his friend’s face, still and lifeless, from his mind, Aemlin shook his head and heard a noise. He cocked his head to listen for it and heard it again.
“D’you hear that?” he asked. His squadron looked nonplussed. “It sounds like … fighting. Come on, follow me! Follow that sound, Brimstone!”
“Yes!” Taciturn by nature, Brimstone tended to speak only when voicing his excitement for battle.
With a flap of his wings, the Dragon sped through the wrecked city, the others close on his tail. The clamour grew as they neared it until all could hear it. It was unmistakeably the sound of battle. They could hear the shouting of spells as well as the hiss, hum and bang of magical assaults being flung back and forth. In a rush of wind, they were close enough to see the flashes and bright blobs and beams. With another flap of wings, they were close enough to see the combatants.
“Farredar!” Aemlin cried out in anguish, seeing his friend alive and unharmed, but surrounded by levitating, six-foot lizard-folk who were subjecting him to a bombardment of spiteful spells from above.
Similar to his friend, Farredar the Elf wore gauzy silken clothes, save that his were emerald in colour. His long, pale crimson hair slashed at the air as he swung this way and that, loosing bolts of lethal silver energy at his enemies. The bolts sang through the air like larks, before hissing like snakes as they struck. Wherever Farredar managed to land a hit, a scaly, tailed reptile went up in smoke, vaporised in a flash with an acrid stench. Beams and spears of crackling energy scarred the ground all around him, but failed to touch him as he danced back and forth across the sundered street, unable to erect a magical shield to protect himself without cutting off his ability to retaliate.
“With me!” Aemlin roared to his squad. “On, Brimstone! On and save my friend!”
The Dragon beat his wings, and the world rushed past in a blur as the great beast accelerated to attack speed. Aemlin hurled golden spears of energy ahead of them, managing to skewer two reptiles and attract the attention of the rest. The Dragon squadron tore into the lizard-folk a moment later like fanged and clawed hurricanes. Off-balancing their foes with buffets of their wings, the Dragons could then pick them apart at their leisure with a casual claw swipe or a nonchalant snap of the jaws.
At least, it seemed that way at first.
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