Paladin Draco glared up at the southern face of the Triones Mountain range. The mountains were in the northern reaches of the Aurelian Empire, though they were a part of the empire in name only. They lay far beyond the center of Aurelian power, and the population was sparse.
Draco had traveled far to reach this place. His current home was in the Solar Cathedral, the center of worship for the Lord of the Sun. The cathedral was located in the world capitol on an island far to the south of the Aurelian southern coast. The capitol was outside the jurisdiction of the six great empires and served as a neutral location for inter-empire politics to take place.
It had taken Draco a full month just to arrive at his current destination. That had included sailing the fastest ship in possession of the Church of the Sun and a trip on the new rail carriage that had brought him to the northern reaches of the civilized land. Now, here he was in the Aurelian wilds. That was his first irritation.
The second was his apprentice, Paladin Squire Khepri. She was from the southern continent, the Iteru Empire. Her skin was a dark bronze color, hair black and curly. She had a delicate face that seemed at odds with her strong, athletic body. She wore a uniform similar to his own, white with golden-yellow and crimson trim. Over the clothing, both wore a breastplate, gauntlets, and greaves, each lightly enchanted to resist damage. This standard issue gear was kept pristine via the use of magic, one of the first uses of magic any apprentice learned after learning to mask their presence from voidlings.
Khepri, being from the much warmer Iteru Empire, had been whining about the cold since they had departed the rail carriage a week and a half ago. Despite his best efforts to tune her griping out, the incessant buzzing in his ear was grating on his nerves.
And, that brought him to the third annoyance. Arrayed behind him was a century of soldiers. Led by Centurion Otis, they were stationed in the north, and it was clear by their uncouth attitude. They were a foul-mouthed, unsanitary lot, with barely more discipline than an untrained mob. His own days as part of a century in his youth screamed at their lack of order.
His final irritation, and the ultimate reason he was here, was the object of his glare. High in the mountain, above the snowline was a jagged black hole. It appeared to have been formed explosively, in a fiery blast. The rock around the newly formed cave was bare of snow, and appeared to be scorched.
A month ago, before setting out, Draco had been informed of the report leading to his current assignment. Centurion Otis had picked up rumors of a creature that had been raiding farms along the southern border of the Triones Mountains. Intrigued by the rumors, Otis choose to investigate, despite the affected region lying outside the normal patrol of the Aurelian Empire. He had concluded that the creature in question was a drake, a lesser type of dragon, and called for backup from a Paladin.
And so, Paladin Drake had traveled north to this backwater part of his homeland. Despite his irritation at his apprentice's whining, he did agree that it was cold. And it would get colder if he wanted to investigate the blast zone more closely. Sighing, he began calling upon ether, the energy readily available for use in magic, and channeled it to decrease the heat leaving his body for the surrounding environment.
Satisfied with the warmth, he turned to Centurion Otis. Speaking in Low Aurelian, he addressed the man. “I am taking my apprentice to investigate the blast more closely.” Draco scanned the chaotic century arrayed before him. “While I am working, I want you to get these men in shape. This camp is a mess, and if we are to use this location for a base, it needs addressing immediately.”
The centurion cocked an eyebrow, but did not argue. He turned and began summoning his octs, the leaders of the squads of eight. Turning from the centurion, Draco summoned his apprentice with a twitch of his finger.
“Sir!” she rushed to his side, snapping briefly to attention. Her posture was broken before he had a chance to comment, as she huddled back into herself, tucking her hands under her arms.
“We are going up the mountain to investigate the blast. I have not yet shared my opinion with the centurion, but I suspect this was not, in fact, a drake.”
Khepri's eyes widened. “What could have done that then, sir?”
Draco turned to face the jagged hole again. “I fear this may be more than any drake. We could well find ourselves against a true dragon.”
“But...” Khepri began, before shivering harshly. “Sorry...” she said between chattering teeth. “It's so... cold.”
Draco rolled his eyes. “I had thought that perhaps the cold would be a good teacher for you. You are good at using the tools you already possess. However I have yet to see you extrapolate from your tools, or use any of them in any way you haven't been explicitly taught.”
Khepri bowed her head. She had heard this lecture before. “Sorry sir,” she mumbled.
“Read my ether.”
She looked at him, her dark brown eyes lightening in color slightly as she channeled ether to them. “Ohhh!” she cried. “Its so obvious now.”
Draco sighed. His apprentice was quite clever, and had proven adept at learning anything new. But, she was not innovative. She would likely never push the boundaries of magic.
Leaving that thought behind, Draco began channeling a small stream of ether to his legs. When he felt they were sufficiently strengthened, he bounded up the mountainside, each jump calculated to land on a stable position further up.
Behind him, his apprentice followed. One thing Draco did give her credit for was her strength and endurance. She was able to use ether as well as any full fledged paladin, and that was on top of her already tremendous physical ability. She followed Drake exactly, landing in his footsteps a mere moment behind.
Drake landed before the edge of the snow drifts and came to a stop. Khepri stopped beside him, pausing for a moment before leaning down to pick up a scoop of snow. She mashed the handful in her fist before letting it trickle to the ground. “Fascinating,” she whispered, attention fixed on the trailing flakes.
“Yes, the snow is all well and good. We can stop to play after the assignment is complete.”
“Spoilsport,” Khepri moaned in mock sadness.
Draco snorted and began marching through the snow. Fortunately, the hole was only a short distance from the snow line, they wouldn't need to enter deep drifts for this investigation.
Stopping where the snow ended once more, Draco was surprised to find the air temperature had gone up, rising until he no longer required his warming magic. Channeling ether, he began looking upon the scene with his magic sight. His breath stopped when he saw the rocks surrounding the hole. There was a massive amount of ether pooled in them that was slowly bleeding off as heat.
“Master,” Khepri began before her words caught. She took a deep breath. “Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”
“Yes.” Whatever had caused this explosion had enough ether to cause the nearby mountainside to store more energy than Draco could use in a day. And that was after a month of radiating the energy off. “Let's move. We don't have the luxury of time.” Draco strode across the blast zone.
Khepri hurried to catch up to him. “Can we beat this thing?”
Draco stopped, peering into the cave that had been unveiled in the blast. “I told you, there is a chance this is a true dragon. Nobody has seen one, let alone fought one, in generations. We can assume, based on remaining evidence, that it can use powerful fire magic. Other than that, we're in the dark. The myths have enough variety that we should be prepared for a dragon to be capable of literally anything.”
“Light of the Sun protect us...” Khepri breathed.
“Indeed. I fear we have little chance otherwise.” Draco knelt to examine the rock at the edge of the cave. His eyebrows rose involuntarily at what he saw. The rock looked to have been melted near to the cave. “Khepri, look.” He gestured for his apprentice to join him.
Khepri moved to squat next to him. “How...?”
Draco snorted. “Better question. Where did the rest of the rock go?”
“What do you mean?” Khepri cocked her head to one side.
“Did you see any rock that looked melted on the way up? How about rock with more ether than you could channel in a day?”
Khepri's eyes widened. “What did happen to it then?”
“That is the best question. If you were a dragon who had just woken from a long slumber, would you bother tampering with evidence? You're the most powerful being around, you don't care if you are followed, and you likely have better things to do than move rocks.”
“No...” Khepri bit her lower lip. “So, if the dragon didn't move the rock, where is it?”
“Right,” Draco said, standing. “Based on the ether remaining in the surrounding mountain, I suspect that the rock directly in the blast zone was vaporized.”
Khepri's eyes widened further and she fell backwards onto her butt. “What!? Could you vaporize stone? What about one of the Arch Paladins?”
“I cannot. There are some of my status that could probably melt stone. As for the Arch Paladins, I cannot say. They generally stick to political matters. Let's see if we can learn anything else inside the cave.”
Draco moved into the cave, channeling a trickle of ether into his breastplate until it glowed with a soft, white light. The cave itself was fairly small, about the size of a small home. In the back, there was a section of floor that glowed with ether to his magic vision. However, it was not radiating warmth as the rock outside had been.
“Sir, look at this!” Draco turned to see Khepri, breastplate glowing like his own, gazing into a small alcove. He crossed the cave to stand beside her, and saw immediately what she had been looking at. The alcove had several open chests piled with valuables, gold, silver, gemstones, and the like.
“Good find. Seems more and more like that this is, in fact, a dragon. Search through this stash and see if you can find anything that might be useful in a fight.”
Khepri gave Draco a nod and turned to sifting through the chests. Draco crossed back to the spot that glowed with ether and sat on the floor to examine it closer. After several minutes of considering, he decided that the most likely cause was from the dragon itself. Best he could figure, the dragon leaked excess ether as it slept, and enough had built up in the stone floor to be noticeable. That was problematic. Everybody had heard stories about how dragons were unstoppable killing machines, when they wanted to be, but the evidence he was seeing painted a clear picture of just how strong that meant.
“Sir, I think this might be what you are looking for.” Draco wheeled at Khepri's voice. She held an arrow, tipped with a black metal. He had crossed back to his apprentice and taken hold of the arrow before he realized he was in motion.
“Adamantine...” he whispered, examining the arrowhead. “And it's enchanted...” Draco focused closer, trying to discern the magic signature that would tell him what the enchantment was exactly. “Wait, is this a dragon slaying arrow?”
“That was the conclusion I came to!” Khepri said, excitedly. “Why would a dragon keep an arrow designed to do maximal harm to it though?”
“If someone made a weapon that would instantly kill you, where would you want it?”
Khepri considered for a moment. “On my weapon belt, I suppose. I can keep a close eye on it that way.”
“Exactly. Lucky for us, this dragon must have forgotten about this in its haste to do... whatever it decided to do when it woke.”
“What now? We have a chance of killing it, right?”
“Yes, probably. Let's reconvene with Centurion Otis and see if we can put together a plan to hunt this thing down.” Draco crossed back to the mouth of the cave and peered down the mountain to the century camped below. He sighed heavily. “I don't like our odds. If things look iffy, I want you to flee. Someone has to inform The Council that we have a true dragon awake once more.”
Khepri nodded, eyes wide and teary.
“Now now, I'm not dead yet, so don't go killing me off just because.”
“Yes....” Khepri's reply was cut off by a piercing roar that shook the stones near their feet.
Draco realized a moment later that he was on one knee, hands clamped over his ears. He channeled ether to his ears, dampening the sound to free up his hands. He signaled to Khepri who nodded. They both grasped their holy symbol, a stylized sun, in hand and felt the power of the Lord of the Sun fill them. This was a special power granted by the god to those who followed and used the power to advance his aims. In this case, slaying a dragon that threatened one of the empires.
The dragon swooped into sight, a great serpentine beast with dark red scales that darkened to black. It was diving towards the century below. “Khepri, go! Aid the century. I will fire the arrow. If I miss, or if you feel there is no chance, then run!” She nodded, handing Draco the dragon slaying arrow before sprinting down the mountain, the power of the Lord of the Sun causing her to glow brightly and allowing her to plow through the short snow drifts with ease.
Draco drew his bow, and felt the power he was borrowing flood the weapon. He nocked the arrow, and turned his sight to the dragon. It had completed its dive, blasting the men below with a mighty stream of fire. Even from the height, Draco could hear their screams. But not all the men were hit. Most of the men had split, forming groups of eight, their squads. They had pulled bows and were firing arrows even as the dragon was pulling out of its dive. Most glanced off of the dragon's scales, but some managed to find purchase in the gaps.
The dragon flew back up, following the slope of the mountain. As it passed Khepri on her descent, it made to snatch her with a claw. Draco grinned as he watched her quickly slide under the dragon's claw and connect a slash with her sword. Where the mundane arrows of the century had been largely ineffective, a sword backed by the power of the Lord of the Sun managed to slice a serious gash. Khepri recovered from her slide and attempted a second attack, but the dragon had sailed past her before she was able.
And now, the dragon was eye level with Draco. It snarled when it saw him standing in its cave. “You. What are you doing in my home? Why have you stolen one of my possessions?”
“I could ask why you decided the first thing to do upon waking was terrorizing the citizens of my empire.” Draco retorted, watching the dragon warily.
The dragon snorted. “Your pathetic people haven't advanced one iota since I began my hibernation. I have long believed that humans should be culled to a manageable level. You would be better off led by beings truly greater than you, rather than allowed to writhe in your squalor. If you had seen the world as I have, you would beg for our rule.”
“Yet I'm the one holding a weapon of slaying.”
The dragon snorted in laughter, coming to a slow landing on the mountain outside the cave. “So you have one way to kill me. You must think yourself mighty. Know that I have dozens of ways to kill you, each more painful than the last. Shall we see how long you can last under my handiwork, Paladin of the Sun?”
The dragon breathed in and Draco threw himself to the side. A powerful stream of fire blasted through the air where he had been standing. Turning his dive into a roll, Draco landed in a crouch, bow ready. He drew and fired with only a moment to sight. The arrow flew true, on target to strike the dragon under its foreleg. It would certainly hit a lung, if not the heart.
Draco's hopes were dashed as the dragon unleashed another jet of flames. He barely had time to watch the arrow swallowed in the blaze before the flames reached him. The agony! Even through the enchantments from channeling ether, and the power granted him by the Lord of the Sun, the fire seared his flesh. His entire body turned bright red instantly, and his skin began to peel away.
Gritting his teeth, eyes closed, Draco dropped his bow, which turned instantly to ash. He drew his longsword, the might of his god allowing him to wield the sword in one hand, and a shield. With the shield interposed between him and the dragon, and a substantial flow of ether reinforcing it, the stream of flames finally became manageable.
It was not a permanent solution. Draco could already see the edges of the shield start to glow a dull red. His best hope now was that Khepri would be running. He could delay the dragon long enough to make it inconvenient for it to chase her down, giving her an opportunity to report to The Council. He could feel his breaths passing over a dry, ragged throat.
Closing his eyes again, Draco wondered how long the dragon could keep breathing fire, when all of a sudden, the flames ceased. They were replaced with a pained roar. Confused by the turn of events, Draco peered out from behind his shield to see the worst possible sight. Khepri had disobeyed his orders and attacked the dragon from behind, leaving it with another great gash in its hind leg, opposite its already bleeding fore leg.
Before Draco could react, the dragon whirled on Khepri, pinning her down with its uninjured fore leg. Its massive head swiveled to look back at Draco. “Your apprentice? You can watch her die first.”
He began to snort a jet of flame, when he was interrupted by a hail of arrows striking his flank. Like before, most of the arrows skittered off the dragon's scales, but it was enough to distract it. Both the dragon and Draco turned to see the remainder of the century, formed up and advancing. The front ranks held shields to cover the back ranks of archers. Draco noticed that the century mage had erected a spell to protect against fire. It overlapped with the shields, and so would hopefully provide some measure of real defense.
“I see you didn't have enough the first time,” the dragon gloated. You cannot harm me. I on the other hand...” the dragon exhaled a blast of fire that exploded against the shield wall. The center of the front line buckled, and several men were sent flying over the rear ranks. “I can harm you.”
Centurion Otis strode out of the ranks, his century mage at his side, clearly using every bit of ether at his disposal to empower his commander. Shrugging off the shock at seeing the men marching up the mountain, Draco made a coordinated charge with Otis, aiming at the dragon's opposite side.
The dragon did not hesitate, striking Otis with its tail, sending him flying over his men. Draco used the opening to slash at the claw holding down Khepri. The dragon recoiled and sent Khepri rolling out of his grasp. It snarled as it turned, glaring at Draco. As it did, another volley of arrows rained into its backside. Draco found himself feeling both gratitude and awe at the soldiers' bravery.
“Enough distractions. I kill you and this whole charade falls apart,” the dragon said, ignoring the soldiers behind him.
'He's right,' Draco thought. 'What options do I have? If I fall, not only does my apprentice fall behind me, so do several dozen men far braver than I gave them credit for.' Striking on a last, desperate idea, Draco called out, “Lord of the Sun! You who hear all that is spoken by your faithful servants! Give me the strength to overcome this obstacle! I desire only to protect your people, but I cannot do it as I am!”
The dragon gave a roaring laugh. “You think that old fool give one whit what happens to you? I was there when he ascended the throne, and he is as much a pretender today as he was then.”
Draco felt anger begin to boil. The attacks on his comrades, he could understand, but to scorn the Lord of the Sun? Unforgivable. He took a step forward, and as his foot hit the ground, he felt a blaze light within him. The pain! It burned like even the dragon's flames had not. The power was too much for him to contain.
He looked up to see shock in the dragon's eyes. “Yes, that's the sort of face you should be making. You insulted my lord, and he will smite you for it. I am his vessel!” Draco leapt forward, sword held point out in front of him. The dragon swatted at him with a claw, and Draco couldn't dodge. He didn't need to. As he hit the ground, head rebounding from the shock, he saw that his sword had pierced the dragon's claw. It roared in agony, before focusing a narrow beam of fire onto Draco.
Draco felt the fire bathe over him, splashing around his armor, no warmer than ocean water in the summer. The stream of fire cut off, the dragon's face contorted in agony. “It burns!? How do you have a fire that burns me?” It pulled its claw back, letting Draco free.
Draco jumped to his feet, feeling stronger and more awake than he had in years. The heat that suffused him was still a bother, but it was distant. No, the real issue was that this dragon was threatening those under his protection. This ended now.
The dragon struck first, lashing at Draco with its mighty tail. Draco held his ground, meeting the tail with a slash of his own. Several feet of the dragon's tail went flying and it bellowed in agony. Dimly, Draco could see the others around him holding their ears, but he was more focused on the task at hand. He leapt forward again, and this time, the dragon was unable to stop him.
Draco felt his sword plunge into the dragon's neck, and he immediately pulled to the side, leaving the dragon half decapitated. Not one to leave a job unfinished, Draco followed up with another slash, and the dragon's head rolled from its corpse in a tide of crimson blood.
As the head hit the ground, Draco felt the fire leave his body. He slumped to his knees, and only then realized that his sense had tuned out everything in the world apart from the dragon itself. He could now hear Khepri as she called his name.
“Draco! Draco!” She was rushing over to him. “Are you okay?”
Draco took stock of himself. He was exhausted, to a degree he had never felt before. Worse, everything ached, as though he had truly been on fire mere moments ago. He felt as though he had been consumed from the inside, leaving him no more than a husk.
“I... I don't think so,” Draco whispered. He could see the century mage rushing towards him, a couple of soldiers with mundane first aid trailing him.
“You were amazing,” Khepri whispered to him. “You were blazing like the sun itself. White fire everywhere.”
“I think... I think the Lord of the Sun lent me power... It came at a cost though...” Draco murmured, his thoughts beginning to go hazy.
“What! No!” Khepri exclaimed. “You can't mean...”
“I am dying, Khepri. No amount of cajoling will help.” The century mage slid to the ground beside him and began probing with his magic. Draco didn't bother to warn him off. Khepri could explain later. “Listen. You are strong.”
“No, no,” Khepri moaned. “Not without you...”
“Listen girl!” Draco said as forcefully as he could. “You need to learn to be decisive... Don't hold back, pick your path and take it...”
“And be more creative?” Khepri asked, eyes now welling with tears.
Draco smiled. “And be more creative... I believe in you... You have what it takes to go as far as you want...”
Khepri pulled Draco into a hug, tears flowing freely now.
“And Khepri, I loved you as I would a daughter...”
“I love you too!” Khepri wailed. “Watch me, from wherever you are. I will make you proud!”
Draco smiled as he passed. The century mage and soldiers backed off as Khepri sobbed over her master.
Later, after Khepri had cried until she couldn't anymore, she met with Centurion Otis, who had broken both legs in his fall. “Girl, your master is a certified hero, you know it?” Khepri nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Nobody has even seen a dragon in centuries... millennia even, and now he's gone a slain one. You'll have whatever support you need to make it back home.”
“Thank you, centurion,” Khepri whispered.
The man talked a while longer, while Khepri half listened. Soon enough, the time to depart had come. Khepri faced her journey home. She was alone for the first time, but as she looked west, the setting sun just peering over the trees, she could feel Draco there, watching. Just in case, she gave a salute. She would make him proud.