The world as I knew it fell away from beneath my feet as I watched Dristan’s body begin to glow. A strange, golden light radiated from his chest and began to devour him whole until I could no longer see him at all. Only a massive ball of liquid gold.
The orb grew rapidly, its mass transforming from the size of a man, to the size of a house, in mere seconds. If I had blinked, I would’ve missed it. And when the light vanished...
There stood a dragon.
I might have screamed as I watched in stunned horror, but I could not longer hear anything save for a loud ringing in my ears.
No, it couldn’t be! The dragons were dead! No one had seen one in over fifty years! I scrambled backward, scraping my hands on the rough forest floor and tearing my dress on the thorns at my sides.
The dragon stood taller than a house. It’s scales were awash with stunning shades of ebony and silver. Two glistening, black horns crowned the beast’s head. They curved elegantly over its skull and toward its spiny back, each as long as my arm.
And it’s wings, oh gods, it’s massive, membranous wings.... Black as night. The sunlight illuminated them from behind, highlighting each vein and muscle, rendering them nearly translucent and making it possible to see the intricate swirls of deep purple and red within the webbing.
Each wing was tipped with a curved talon. They spread wide as it unfurled its spiked tail. The curved claws on its feet were each as thick as my thumb and twice as long.
I clamped my hands over my ears as its narrow, wicked maw opened in a deafening roar, its razor sharp teeth gleaming in the midday sun. Swarms of birds erupted from the trees above, fleeing into the skies. The soldiers began to scream as they beheld the beast.
The Bakru fled into the tree line, their tiny faces alight with humor and glee. The dragon’s slitted eyes seemed to twinkle with delight as it watched the men fall to their knees, some fainting and others flat out running away in horror.
“Cowards!” The Captain shouted. “Stand and fight, damn you, or die without honor!” He pulled the strung bow from his back and knocked an arrow, firing it straight at the dragon’s chest.
Panic flared in my gut as I watched, somehow distantly aware that it was Dristan he was firing at, but my fears were quickly extinguished as I watched the arrow bounce off of the scaly armor in pieces.
Other soldiers began to fire, the petrified expressions on their faces growing more intense as each arrow bounced harmlessly off of the beast’s armored body.
Dristan lashed out at the Captain with a webbed hand. The blow sent the man sailing sideways and into a thick tree trunk, close to where I hid in the thicket. Once the Captain was out of his way, he sucked in a powerful lungful of air.
Even from this distance I could feel the intense heat on my cheeks as fire exploded out of the dragon’s open mouth. The remaining soldiers turned to nothing more than ash in its wake.
An eerie silence fell across the forest as the soldiers screaming finally stopped. There was no chirping of birds, no shouting of men, not even a breeze through the trees. The silence caused my panting breaths to seem excruciatingly loud.
The Captain struggled to his feet and I held my breath. Don’t see me, don’t see me... But he was too transfixed on the creature to even look my way.
The dragon began to glow once more. The ball of golden light shrank back toward the earth, and with a flash of blinding light, Dristan appeared in his human form again. With slow, powerful strides, he stalked toward the Captain.
The Captain did not flee. He did not so much as move a muscle as Dristan descended upon him. I had not moved an inch either, and I wondered if he, like me, was frozen in fear. Dristan wrapped a giant hand around the man’s neck in a vice like grip. He lifted him an entire foot off of the ground with zero effort. The man gagged and flailed desperately, but to no avail.
Dristan was a dragon! I racked my brain for any information that might be tucked away, anything that I might know of such creatures. I knew they used to roam the world, mostly keeping to the mountains. I knew none had been seen in over fifty years.
They preyed on livestock but were said to be indifferent toward men, only killing them when threatened. They weren’t really interested in small villages. They did, however, seem to be attracted to more wealthy areas of the land and were said to steal things of value. I had once heard a story of a dragon who ripped a golden gargoyle clean off the roof of a palace in the east. It then flew away with the statue in its talons.
They were known to be highly intelligent beings, feared and respected. Their blood was even rumored to have magical healing powers. Some people worshiped the beasts... But I could not recall ever hearing anything about a dragon shifting into a man.
“Brenya. Come.” Dristan beckoned me, his voice loud and clear despite the eerie calm within it. I hesitated, still stunned and panting in the thicket. He waited a beat, the Captain wheezing and kicking against his grip.
“Brenya...” The sheer dominance and power in his tone had my body rising, my legs standing and striding out of the trees, without my mind telling them to do so. I walked slowly toward the men, my wide eyes darting around at the piles of ashes scattered around us. Twenty seconds ago, those piles of ash had been living, breathing men. And now they were nothing.
The once grassy trail that divided the walls of the forest was now charred and black. The crispy, scorched earth crunched beneath my boots with each step I took. Minutes ago there had been wild flowers and mossy green carpet here. Now there was nothing but ruin. I absentmindedly wondered how long it would take for the earth to recover and if it could ever bear foliage again.
I stopped a few feet away from the men. Dristan turned his head to me. His nostrils flared with anger and his dark hair was in complete disarray. His clear blue eyes pierced into mine, but he spoke to the Captain as he growled, “I have wanted to kill you since the day you struck her down in the mud.”
His sapphire eyes held so much ferocity that I had to look away. I could have sworn his pupils were still slitted like the dragon’s had been. I pulled on a mask of calm and settled my eyes on the side of the Captain’s face. His lips were turning blue.
Dristan loosed his grip a bit and he set his feet back on the ground, allowing him to speak. The Captain clawed at Dristan’s iron grip uselessly.
“That Fae bitch deserves nothing better. And you deserve far worse.” Dristan squeezed his fist tighter and growled. The Captain gagged. “You... And your Fae whore.... can go to hell.”
Dristan yanked the Captain closer to his face, his feet dragging across the dirt and rocks noisily.
“Such foul words.” He said smoothly. “Where I come from, when one speaks of a High Lady in such a way, their tongues are carved from their mouths.”
“High Lady?” I whispered.
Dristan did not answer, but instead pulled a dagger from the sheath at his hip. “First, I’m going to cut out your tongue.” He purred, dragging the tip of the blade down the Captain’s scruffy cheek. A trail of blood appeared in its wake and the Captain squeezed his eyes shut. “Then, I’m going to cut off each of your fingers. Then your ears. Then your eyes.”
The Captain let out a choked sob and I felt bile rising in my throat. Dristan smiled. “I will cut off as much of you as it pleases me. And right before you bleed out, no sooner than that, I will slit your throat and watch you fade away into nothing. Just as I promised I would.”
I had to turn away when the screaming began.