The Captive Flame

Richard Lee Byers



Ananta woke. From a nightmare, surely, although nothing remained of it but a choking sense of dread. Heart pounding, she took a deep breath and looked around the dark cave.

Two luminous red eyes looked back from the entrance.

The body in which they were set was big enough to fill the space and occlude the night sky behind it. Rattled as she was, Ananta had to remind herself that the newcomer’s hugeness wasn’t cause for alarm. To the contrary. It likely meant the creature belonged in this place.

She rose and bowed. “Hail, my lord.”

“Good evening.” The dragon’s sibilant voice was surprisingly soft for something so huge, virtually a whisper, and to her surprise, she’d never heard it before. “Do you live here all alone? I couldn’t sniff out anyone else.”

“I’m the only guardian, yes.”

“Well, that has its good side. There’s plenty of room for both of us.”

She blinked. “My lord?” she asked.

“Come outside and we’ll discuss it at a more comfortable distance.” He backed out of the entrance.

Ananta wrapped herself in her cloak, glanced around for her staff, then hesitated. A dragon would surely recognize the length of carved blackwood for the weapon it was, and might conceivably take offense.

She picked it up anyway. The staff was the symbol of her office, so from that perspective, it would be disrespectful not to carry it when palavering with a wyrm. And in any case, she didn’t know this particular dragon, and she sensed something strange about him. Or was that merely the residue of her nightmare still jangling her nerves?

The ledge outside the cave was spacious enough for several dragons to perch there comfortably. A thousand stars glittered overhead, and the crags rising all around looked like broken teeth. The air was cold with altitude and the coming of autumn.

Up close, the newcomer smelled of combustion. His scales were dark, although Ananta couldn’t make out the true color in the gloom, and mottled with specks and streaks. His dorsal ridge looked black as ebony.

Ananta felt even more wary and uncertain. Her duties had given her abundant opportunities to study the shapes and markings of dragons, but she’d never encountered one like this.

The stranger’s smoldering eyes widened, and she realized he was examining her as intently as she was scrutinizing him. Taking in a head, scales, and talons rather like his own, but married to a wingless, tailless, bipedal frame not a great deal taller or heavier than a human’s.

“You’re one of the dragonborn,” he whispered.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Interesting. The world truly did change while I was away.”

“Away, my lord?”

The stranger stretched his gigantic batlike wings, then folded them again. “Perhaps I’ll tell you the story later. For now, let’s attend to business. I need a lair. Something roomy yet defensible. Where do you suggest?”

Ananta hesitated. “My lord, the word lair suggests permanence.”

“Indeed it does.”

“Perhaps my lord is unaware that Dracowyr is the common ground where the dragon princes hold their conclaves. No wyrm makes his home here.”

“Customs change, Guardian. I’m about to turn this place to a higher purpose.”

“I fear I’m not making myself clear. My master, Prince Skalnaedyr, would wish me to treat you as an honored guest. But you can’t lay claim to Dracowyr. The princes already have.”

“I suspect you have a way of contacting them, or at least of summoning this Skalnaedyr. Get him up here, and I’ll explain the situation.”

Ananta took a deep breath-and a firmer grip on her staff. “The greatest ruler in Murghom won’t come rushing just because you want him to. With all respect, my lord, I fear you may be ill. And since you refuse to behave as a guest should, I must also ask you to leave.”

The dragon snorted, intensifying the sulfurous stink in the air. “Or you’ll make me wish I had? All by yourself? And you claim I’m addled.”

“I understand the strength of dragons, my lord. But it was a circle of dragons who gave me the might to defend this place.” She drew a tingling surge of power from the staff into her body, then took another deep breath and blew it out again.

As it left her mouth, it became a spew of dark liquid so prodigious that her body could never have contained it. The acid spattered the front of the dragon’s body and, sizzling and smoking, ate into it. Holes opened in the membranous wings. Scales and flesh on the wedge-shaped head dissolved, exposing the bone beneath. One shining scarlet eye melted, and the wyrm jerked in pain and shock.

Ananta brandished the staff. Invisible force slammed down on top of the dragon, squashing his body against the ledge. Bones cracked.

But then, despite the harm he’d taken and the power still pressing down on him, he lifted his head. He spat his own breath weapon, and smoke and embers filled the air.

The vapor blinded her and seared her, and she hissed at the sudden stinging. At the same instant, she heard a dragging sound. The dragon was crawling despite the magic shoving him down.

She hurled darts of green light at the noise, and the missiles vanished into the smoke. The sliding sound continued, proof that the new attack hadn’t incapacitated the dragon either. Worse, the reptile would haul itself clear of the zone of pressure in just another moment.

Ananta wouldn’t have believed that anything, even a dragon, could weather the punishment she’d just meted out. She felt a pang of fear, then strained to quash it and think instead.

She shouldn’t stay where she was, not with the smoke blinding and choking her and the drifting sparks burning pocks in her scales. Better to retreat back into her cave, where her colossal opponent would have trouble getting at her. Praying that he couldn’t see her any better than she could him, she backed in that direction.

Cold stabbed into her torso like a knife. The magical attack staggered her. Insanely fast and silent for a creature so enormous, especially one with broken bones stabbing out of its leathery hide and with limbs twisted askew, the dragon lunged out of the smoke.

She only had an instant to react. Somehow that was enough. She drew warmth from the staff to melt the frigid pain from her body, then heaved the weapon high. When she swung it at the dragon’s head, it boomed like a thunderclap.

The blow crumpled the left side of the reptile’s face. Ananta felt a surge of elation, for surely the pulverizing impact had driven shards of bone into the wyrm’s brain. Surely he would finally collapse.

In fact, he faltered for an instant. But then he struck. Like a door coming loose from its hinges, his lower jaw no longer aligned with the top one properly, but his fangs still clashed shut on the blackwood staff. He yanked it out of her grasp and, with a toss of his head, sent it spinning over the cliff.

He raised his foot and whipped it down, catching her beneath it. He crushed her flat against the limestone shelf and ground her as her magic had ground him.

“I’m in considerable pain,” he said, his soft voice garbled, “and your blood would help me heal. I’m also curious as to the taste, as well as annoyed with you.”

She struggled to cling to her courage. “Do your worst.” She had trouble speaking too, in her case because he was squashing the breath out of her.

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