Chapter 36: What is a King
Daken remembered Xari’s final words. You should have changed the world. It’s about time you started. Now, his only thought was: could he? He was no Taren. He could get his hands dirty, he could fight, but he was not the Garrenin that Anaria so badly needed.
‘So what did Xari see in me? What did she see that would make anyone, make her, willing to die for me?’ He had no idea, but he had decided that it was about time he found out. A handful of Dragons and their Riders had been hiding in Agrista with Marrdin. Something had called them back to Airachni. Five Riders were kneeling in the throne room, waiting for their Morschcoda to tell them what he wanted. “I want the Meclaryan people to know they are free. I want the Drogs to know that they have allies. I want the world to know that Xari Gundara martyred herself for the freedom of Meclarya. Any Deshika found in Meclarya will be hunted. Any servant of Vorteez will denounce him or die.” He paused, hating what he had to say next. “And one of you will have a job more dangerous still. One of you needs to fly to Ra-Diavere, to carry a message to The Kindler and his dog Vorteez. To declare Meclarya free.” Each rider looked at the others. “I volunteer.” A young man stood, over six and a half feet tall. Daken knew the lad before he even spoke. “My name is Shtaric Tendornin, Morschcoda. My father died for a free Meclarya and a free Anaria. I am willing to die for that as well.” Daken nodded as he accepted the boy’s statement. “Your father was a great man, and I will forever be proud that I could call him my friend.” Daken took the boy’s hand. “Shtaric, no one has a better right to refuse to go than you, but, if this is your choice, fly with Lasheed’s own wings.” …
Daken watched all five Dragons take off to fly their Riders on Daken’s missions. One of his Morieden companions stood beside Daken to watch them leave. “Prince of Dragons, what do you hope to accomplish by challenging the Seven? The Whip will not lose Meclarya without burning it first.” “No. He won’t.” Daken turned around to walk into his castle. “But is Vorteez willing to die to keep his hold on this land?”
“Will he come for you to find out?”
“I think he will.”
Vorteez paced up the white carpet that stretched the length of Meclarya’s throne room. His eyes never left the short hairless man who was sitting on his throne. He didn’t care about the dozen Morschledu waiting in the shadows. They would all die slowly and painfully once the whelp sitting down was dealt with. And the whelp would watch every death and their screams for mercy would break him. One thing that Vorteez loved about Mortals was how willing they were to accept blame.
He stopped about halfway down the room. “You realize that I’m going to enjoy this.”
Daken didn’t blink. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t move at all beyond what was required to speak. “You talk like you think I care what you enjoy, Vorteez.”
“But you do. You know that whatever little flag you’ve raised, I will use to burn you alive. Meclarya will perish in—”
“Dragonfire? Where are you going to find one?”
“Fire, ice, water, eternal night. There are many ways to crush a land. Water would be most effective, on this narrow country, pushed up against the sea, where it can be easily ignored by the real Lords of Anaria.”
“You intend to drown my little land?” Daken mocked Vorteez in turn. “With what Drogs? Alquendiro is unconquered, and Druoth is lost to you. There isn’t a Ringlord that can make a wave who serves you or The Kindler.”
“And who serves you, Prince of Dragons?” Vorteez threw the head of Shtaric Tendornin the remaining distance to the throne. It came to a rest, facing Daken, at the bottom of the steps. A coiled whip had been branded onto each of his eyes, and as the head tipped over, its tongue escaped the mouth. The tongue had also been branded, with The Kindler’s candle. Daken didn’t need to hear Shtaric’s screams to know that he had still been alive for the branding.
“Free Meclaryans, like that man, serve me. Men and women, who make their own choices, without the fear of your tortures and your mercurial moods, serve me. Men and women who would rather die defying you than live in a world where you hold sway. That is who serves me.” Vorteez bared his teeth and licked his lips. “The free men and women of Meclarya serve you? They will all die my slaves. And you will die last.”
“You think so?”
Vorteez laughed. “I know so. I have never killed one captive before I meant to. You will be no different.”
Daken stood. The cloak he was wearing separated, revealing ancient scale armour of superb craftsmanship. “Death will find someone. It might not be me.”
The Devil drew himself up to his full height, looking down his nose at the short Meclaryan, even though Daken had the higher ground. “You think you will be a challenge for me, the Master of Pain? I am one of the Seven, gods among the mortals of this pitiful world to which you cling so dearly.” Vorteez bared his teeth.
“You may be the Master of Pain, but I am Morschcoda of the land of Meclarya.” Daken began to shout down his accusations on Vorteez. “You imprisoned and tortured my people, slaughtered the Dragons, hunted my brothers and sisters. I want you dead far more than you want to kill me.” “I am a god. You are a puny mortal king.”
“You are no god, and I am no king.”
“You rule this land, you said. What are you then?”
“A Dragon. And a Dragon fears no god.”
Daken drew his sword. Vorteez unclipped a long whip from his belt. The two faced each other, the hatred, the rage, the contempt, pouring out of them, filling the room. Slowly, Daken walked down the steps from his throne.
Vorteez didn’t wait for Daken to be ready. He raised his whip and unfurled it, cracking it at the short, angry, bald man who was walking towards him, trying to look intimidating. Daken raised his sword at the last possible second and cut at the whip, slicing off the final three inches of one of its plated tongues. Vorteez brought the whip back and cracked it again, aiming for Daken’s face. Daken ducked, and cut at a point closer to Vorteez, but missed. The Devil pulled back quickly, and one of the whip’s metal plates cut into Daken’s left shoulder, though not deep enough to draw much blood. Daken stood up straighter, and charged at the Devil. Vorteez laughed, and curled his left hand into a fist, trying to magically crush the life out of Daken. Daken did stop, and seemed to struggle mentally, but then, he took one more step, and grunted in pain. Then he took another step. And another. Soon, Daken was breathing heavily, but he was slowly making progress towards Vorteez, who was also struggling to breathe.
Daken forced himself to keep taking one painful step after another, willing himself to keep moving. He would walk the whole length of his throne room if he had to, if that’s what it took to get him within striking distance of the Master of Pain.
Vorteez had honestly believed that, whatever titles and traditions the mortals had kept, the Blood of Dragons could not still flow in the Meclaryan people. But only Dragon-Magic had ever had this kind of stubborn, relentless strength. Vorteez refused to admit himself that he was tiring. He could not maintain his attempts to crush the little lord for much longer. Desperately, he raised his whip one more time, while Daken was still fighting too hard to move closer to notice the attack.
Daken felt the whip’s metal tongues curl around his ankle and cut into it. He screamed in pain as they burned into him, bringing him down to one knee. He heard Vorteez laugh, but it sounded a long way away, and Daken couldn’t hear very well over the sound of the rushing wind that he did not remember summoning. Vorteez stumbled as he braced himself against the wind. Daken took the opportunity to swing his sword at the leather wrapped around his ankle, cutting himself loose. He silenced the wind.
Vorteez looked at what remained of his whip. About six feet was all that he had. He dropped the weapon in disgust that it had let him down and refocused his energy, ready to once again attempt to crush the Meclaryan Morschcoda.
Daken forced himself back to his feet. He looked at the discarded whip, and then he looked at the sword in his left hand, hanging somewhat limply with its point almost touching the floor. He stopped and threw the blade at Vorteez’ feet.
“That is my sword. While I would love to kill you with it, there is a blade that deserves to taste your blood even more.” Daken held his right hand out. One of the Morschledu that Vorteez had seen left the relative safety of the wall and brought Daken a sword in a blotched, faded, cracked leather sheath. The hilt looked like it was made of black ivory. Daken pulled the sword out of the sheath, and Vorteez suddenly understood that Daken had spoken truly. Daken was a Dragon. And he did not just mean to truly kill the Master of Pain. He knew how he was going to do it.
The Dragonbone sword felt good in Daken’s hand. Like the scale armour that he wore, the sword was a treasure of immense antiquity, ancient before El Bendro Dakoia and the dawn of Morschen time; long forgotten when Dishmo Kornara was a city newly built. The first Morschcoda of the Calmi line, Daken’s eleventh great-grandfather, had found the crypt of the Dragon Kings of Meclarya, each buried with their weapons forged from the bones of Dragons. The Calmi Morschcoda had taken great pains to keep their treasure hidden from Anaria, but Daken had descended into the vault when he had sent his message to Vorteez. He had found a sword that fit his hand, and whose balance suited him well enough to fight. He had known before beginning to fight that he would need it, but he wanted Vorteez to learn gradually to fear him and the wrath of the Dragons. That fear was something that Vorteez was hiding well … to normal eyes. But Daken could smell, and almost see, the stench, sweet enough to make him sick, rising from the Devil he intended to cut down.
Daken raised the blade. Briefly, Vorteez wondered what it would be like to die. According to legends that he had been taught as a young student, the Dragon Kings had buried the magic, which he himself had rediscovered, that had been used to make him immortal. But the Dragon Kings, he had thought, were long dead. Briefly, the part of his mind that had once been a Storinean Morschcoda wondered if the Calmi line was the heir to the Dragon Blood, far more ancient even than House Garrenin. Then, pain bit into him as the Dragonbone, still sharp, heavy with magic and enchantment, stabbed through his stomach with no difficulty. Vorteez looked down at the black ivory hilt that was pressed against his darkening coat and thought that his hands, and the hands of the Dragon-King who wielded the blade, were oddly pale, almost milk-white by comparison. Vorteez’ eyes shifted upwards, looking the Dragon-King in the eye. Had he really dared to challenge that? Any sense that a mortal stood before him was gone. Burning eyes raging with inner fire and breath so hot it felt like an inferno were all Vorteez understood about the being before him. He looked around again, but everything, like his own hands, had become that same milk-white. He couldn’t see the other beings in the room, except as smudges in the white, except for the man who had just killed him. ‘He killed me.’ Vorteez’s mind understood that, and realizing that something was taking too long, he felt his own mind begin to turn to that same blank, milky-white. Slowly, the Master of Pain sank to his knees, his body pulling itself off of the ancient weapon. He keeled over, and breathed no more.