[A/N: I'm sure everyone who's played LoD to the end has their own version of the Dragon Campaign in mind. This is mine.]
"What's he doing now?"
A soldier--young, peach-faced--stood on his toes to watch his commander limp to the enormous, gasping, bleeding monster they had brought down. Fifteen men out of fifty remained of their company, the rest shredded, crushed, or burned to a crisp by the frenzied rage of the dragon. Even now, with wings ruined, back broken, and lifeblood geysering the air with every beat of its belabored heart, its scarlet eyes blazed with unflagging defiance.
No doubt the Winglies hastened their way, summoned by the billowing smoke of the battle. Their magic and their war machines would make short work of the fatally wounded dragon, as well as the soldiers from the rebel human army. Still, Commander Zieg Feld, rather than ordering his remaining martyrs to retreat, approached the still-lethal hulk with grim purpose, clutching his dripping sword and cracked ribs.
Watching, another soldier shook his head. "He's mad. Let's get out of here."
The younger soldier started after his commander, but Belzac, second-in-command and unblinkingly loyal, held him back. His rumbling voice, deep as a canyon, silenced the murmurs of dissent.
"Stay where you are. You've done your part. Wait for the commander."
Belzac handed the boy back to the rest and climbed over the outcrop that sheltered them, following his straying commander across the charred and shattered hillside where they brought the dragon down. He had no more fear of his soldiers fleeing than he did of the Winglies, or of Zieg having misjudged. Belzac was a mountain of a man, patient and inexorable, and Zieg had a beacon blazing in his heart that never led him wrong.
At the crunch of cinders under his feet, Zieg held up a staying hand. He did not look back. "Careful, Belzac. It's still dangerous."
"It's already done for. The Winglies will kill it."
"Diaz doesn't want it killed. He wants it ours." Zieg turned his head, but his eyes remained on the dragon. Ashes grayed his face, and sweat matted his golden mane. "I didn't bring my men out here to waste them."
Belzac studied the dragon. Gasps of dark smoke issues from its shattered mandibles. Eyes like coals fixed on the commander as Zieg approached. "You can't reason with a monster," Belzac said. "It can't be tamed."
"It doesn't need to be tamed. It just needs to yield."
"Zieg. Why did Diaz send us?"
Belzac stayed where he stood, while Zieg's voice grew more distant. "Mayfil. The City of the Dead." The dragon's tattered wings rustled, never to fly again. "The damned Winglies enslave us, body and soul. No one's even controlled a dragon, though. Even the Winglies fear them." Now Zieg stood within striking range. The enormous, dying beast lay motionless, its thoughts--if it had any--unknown. "He sent me to catch a dragon's soul."
"Soa help us."
Zieg knelt at the dragon's misshapen head and took its skull in his hands. It exhaled a cloud of smoke that hid him from sight for a moment. Sparks flew, but Zieg remained, staring into its mad eyes. The passion of one clashed against the rage of the other. Defiance ran in common veins.
"Yield to me. You are beaten. I am stronger. Yield to me," Zieg whispered. The dragon gave no sign of understanding, no glimmer of intelligence. "We will be stronger together. I'll write your name in fire across their cities and across the world. Yield to me and be eternally victorious." On he chanted, voice wavering with strain. Gradually, the spark in the dragon's red eyes flickered and dimmed.
A weary call reached across the scorched earth. "Sir, the patrol..."
High overhead, fluorescent wings glimmered through the billowing cinders. The Winglies had noticed. Soon they would come down.
"Stand your ground," Belzac answered, hefting his war hammer.
Zieg seemed to have put himself into a trance. Belzac could not tell whose will had prevailed, the pain-crazed monster or the rebel commander. He glanced at the sky again. He would be hard pressed to direct the men and protect Zieg simultaneously.
The spark in the ember eyes went out, and as it did, a ruddy light ignited deeper inside the empty husk. So bright that even the dragon's hide could not conceal it, it made Belzac's eyes ache. That would bring the patrol down, he thought, and started forward.
Zieg sucked in his breath and wavered to his feet. He went to the long rent in the dragon's side where, earlier, he had delivered the fatal blow. One of the soldiers shouted, too late, as the commander plunged his arms into the steaming, bloody cavity.
A flash as bright as an exploding star, a ripple of heat, the roar of an inferno, swept over Belzac. He stumbled toward where Zieg had stood, but the commander was gone.
He had neither time for wonder nor room for doubt. The air filled with the crystalline hum of the Winglies descending. He pounded back toward his men, only to have two Winglies drop down to intercept him. Six more flanked his soldiers: tall, slender, frosty-skinned unmen, dragonfly-winged, in armor like mother-of-pearl. The awareness that humans outnumbered them almost two to one did not dismay them. Their weapons could pierce all but the best of human-made armor, and humans had no magic.
The captain singled out Belzac for his height; few human men could look one of the Winglies in the eye. "Runaway slaves and rebels." His voice was music, his eyes cold rubies. "We will take you to Zenebatos for your trial, or kill you here if you resist."
Die without hesitation when there is something to die for: that was Diaz's advice and Belzac's creed. The law codes of Zenebatos allowed for life in prison (or a voluntary return to slavery) for runaways, a classification which included the rebel human army. The human soldiers lowered their weapons. Diaz had too few soldiers to waste in profitless battles to the death.
Promptly the Winglies collected them, herding their captives into a cluster. Their snowy-haired captain surveyed the charred earth, the smoke-filled sky. He hovered well away from the enormous carcass, keeping his feet off the stained ground. "What have you done here?"
An unwary soldier snorted. "We killed a dragon. What the hell's it look like?"
In a blur of light, the captain shot back and struck him to the ground. The soldier did not rise. "Blasphemer," the captain breathed. "You will speak with regret of what you have done. There are not even a dozen of this race in all the world."
They had not known.
"Captain." One of the inhuman patrol pointed. Something moved inside the chest cavity of the dead dragon, struggling to get free. As they watched, it emerged, frail-looking and ungainly: a newborn dragon, although 'born' could not be the word. Belzac held his breath.
The captain gestured with his spear. "Subdue, seal, and bring it in for investigation. This will interest the scholars. We have no records of draconic origin." Two of his patrol flew over to obey.
Belzac stirred. "It's not a d--"
A spear smashed into his mouth, cutting him off. He spat a bloody tooth into his hand and eyed the Wingly who struck him.
"Which of you slew it?" the captain demanded.
"Our commander." The youngest soldier's voice shook.
The captain turned to Belzac, just as the newborn creature let out a shrill of alarm. One of the Winglies had jabbed it. "Leave him be," Belzac rumbled through a mouthful of blood.
"Do not speak unless spoken to, human, or we will add to the charges you're facing."
It squalled again. Belzac stood like a mountain. The captain looked into his eyes, raised a hand, and threw a ball of crackling fire into his chest.
The world inverted; color and sound lost meaning. He gasped for air and found rock against his back. The front of his iron breastplate flaked away in charred fragments. He sat up. A Wingly tried to club him down, and Belzac wrenched his spear away.
"Resisting arrest," the captain declared.
He would not have chosen this death. Belzac was patient, was humble among his fellow men, was rarely moved by strong emotion; but his one crystal of pride lay in never again submitting to his former masters. He surged upright, throwing off his ruined breastplate and his less than useless helm, letting the heated air blow over his sweat-slick skin and shaven head. He had the height of any Wingly man and twice the girth, and all that he feared was cowering.
"Believe Diaz," he told his men, "and follow Zieg, no matter what he becomes."
"Take him down," the captain ordered. "Execute the rest if they move."
Belzac dodged a freezing plume of magic that left his near side numb. The Winglies' power hissed in the air around him. He hurtled onward, unstoppable, crashing through their spears and their shell-light, steel-hard armor like ninepins. Even with his wings, the captain moved too slowly; perhaps he did not believe a mere human could harm him. Belzac plucked him out of the air like a cherry and threw him down. He grabbed a handful of silver hair and smashed the captain's startled face into the ground. Blood spattered, paler than that which ran in any human veins.
A tendril of angry magic snatched him off and flung him sprawling like a child's toy. Invisible hands held him own. They reached into his lungs to crush them. He gulped desperate nothingness, straining to reach just one more of his enemies before the world fell away.
The newborn dragon shrieked, far away.
A second scream overlapped it, fierce and wild.
Belzac forced his eyes open through the swelling spots of blackness in time to see a creature like a comet plummet through the sky, cutting straight through two stunned Winglies, a man-shaped streak of fire whirling dizzying circles through their numbers, leaving a blazing afterimage in the air, a man with wings and a sword alight like the heart of a volcano. A third Wingly burst apart in spontaneous inferno. The magical bonds on Belzac vanished. Still he was too dumbfounded to respond until one Wingly, regaining his senses, drove a lance of light and ice at the burning apparition. The creature tumbled through the air, fast but clumsy with the newness of its own existence.
This was worth fighting for, worth the loss of fifty men. "Now!" he roared. "Kill them all!" To his delight, his men--his unarmed, battered, courageous men--obeyed. They closed in on their former tyrants, battering them with bare hands and stones, wrestling their weapons away.
Two more men died in the frenzy, before the last fleeing Wingly fell to the ground, a charred wreck. Not one escaped. Belzac tied his belt around a soldier's spurting artery and rose as their fiery deliverer came down.
"Zieg. You've done it," he said.
Zieg had the look of a feral god. His golden hair floated in the breeze of his own heat. His old, dented armor had transformed, spreading with its own red life to cover his body. Iron and leather molded into something like scales, spikes, and hide. That living armor had taken direct hits from powerful magic without yielding.
His newly-grown wings beat slowly, holding him a casual foot above the ground. They were not like their enemies' wings, formed of magic and energy, but of membrane, muscle, and heat. The veins in the commander's face glowed. He was half man and half dragon, no longer either, mightier than both.
Zieg seemed to have trouble focusing his eyes. His voice came out in a hiss. "Are they dead? Have we won?"
Zieg closed his eyes. Another shimmering wave of light and heat flowed over the hillside. The soldiers fell back, murmuring. Belzac lunged forward and caught Zieg as he fell, human again, but still radiating a residual heat.
He set his commander down on the outcrop, surrounded by the corpses of the Winglies, and steadied him until Zieg could sit up on his own. The eleven remaining soldiers circled around him. One passed up his canteen, which Zieg drained in a gulp. As the glow faded, he looked drained and gray.
"Four out of five lost," he said, when he could speak again. "You are valiant, my friends. I'm sorry we ask for your lives in such terrible numbers." Better to die free, Diaz always swore. No one needed to say it.
"Sir, what was that? What did you do?"
Zieg breathed deeply. "I went mad. Slightly." They waited for more. "I have... I am not only human now. I think I will have to be something else. I have that dragon's soul inside of mine." A ripple went through the listeners; they had not heard his intentions. "I... saw differently. My heart's still pounding. I could have burned the countryside from here to the mountains. I... I could have destroyed that entire patrol by myself."
They gazed at the smoldering, shattered bodies of the patrol, and the bodies of their comrades felled by the dragon. Zieg held up trembling hands. Belzac, standing beside him, caught the glimmer of liquid in the corners of his bloodshot eyes. Then the commander laughed, soft and hoarse. The sound bordered on hysteria.
Belzac touched his back. Zieg hunched over and vomited.
Almost forty dead men to win Diaz one manic warrior, one more-than-man to chase the Winglies into the clouds and battle them with magic to equal their own. Belzac, not an imaginative man, suddenly envisioned a whole band of dragon-souled soldiers, like a flock of bright and terrible birds, besieging the Winglies in their own accursed sky cities. He kept his hand on his commander's shaking back.
"We're done here," he said to the men. "Check for wounded. Patch yourselves up. Fort Magrad needs to know of this."
A querulous chirp brought his attention back to Zieg. The newborn dragon had crept up to investigate, still flightless, about the size of a large dog. At first it hissed when Zieg, not rising, put out a hand, but then it settled down to gnawing on his gauntlets.
"I thought that was you at first."
"Nope. Still a monster, even a little one." When its teeth punctured the gauntlet, Zieg winced and pulled his hand back. "It senses the dragon in me."
"Can you talk to it?"
"Not in those terms. It's true. They don't think like you or me. Predator-smart... But we can feel each other." Zieg rubbed the short bristle along his jawline, looking away. "Almost forty men..."
Belzac climbed down and joined the survivors, checking for life among the bodies, and collecting identification and salvageable armor. Zieg watched. The dragonling chewed on the dead captain's thigh.
"I want to help," Zieg said, keeping his voice too low for the other men to hear, "but I feel so weak and cold. I could sleep for a week."
Belzac closed the eyes of a man who had escaped slavery with him. His young bride would be heartbroken. He took the man's yellow scarf as a memento for her. "I think your days as a commander are done."
"Yes. Of men."
They gazed at each other, understanding. "There are not many dragons in the world," Belzac informed him, remembering the captain's outrage.
A spark kindled in Zieg's eyes. He stood, holding the outcrop for balance until his legs found their strength. "There will have to be enough to bring the Winglies down."