Ghokarian stood on unsteady limbs, sides heaving. He should have felt relief, perhaps even triumph—they'd won, hadn't they? Wasn't that how these emotions worked?
Instead he felt only the continued simmer of anxiety deep in his abdomen.
Who had that dragon been? The Archons of each dragonflight, while emotionless, still kept a watch on their former flightmates. Overt violence and aggression were understood to be detrimental to the image and wellbeing of all dragons, and warnings of rogues were spread as fast as the speed of thought. Why then had Ghokarian heard no whisper of that monster, who had been powerful even by draconic standards? That was the type of thing any dragon, bonded or sovereign, would mention at first mind-touch.
More worrying still was the manner of its death. Beledine hadn't seemed affected; perhaps her human mind had been overwhelmed by the battle and she couldn't put any more thought toward worrying about what was, ostensibly, a blessing. But Ghokarian was on edge. A dragon-killer was near. It out there, perhaps waiting to strike again.
Being bonded, his species' rules no longer applied to him. He was under no obligation to launch an investigation. But his sense of honor, and his desire to protect his kin, pulled at him. He wanted to find the murderer and destroy it. Draconic law mandated it, and so did his sense of self-preservation. Moreover, if this new, unknown enemy was powerful enough to kill a large dragon in the height of his prime, then it was by definition a threat to Beledine and all the Araxi, as well as Ghokarian himself.
Much as he longed to go analyze the crime scene, something still stronger pulled at Ghokarian. He sensed Beledine's upset. Mota was leading her into the caves to see something.
Ghokarian sighed and followed in their footsteps. Tribesmen milled about, shaken and out-of-sorts. A few bodies were strewn across the ground. The women were beginning the clean-up process. The lake shore was a wreck. Ghokarian's gaze flicked up the slope and saw the unnaturally straight scorchlines where dragonlight had been seared into the mountainside. Smoke was drifting up from beyond the nearest copse of trees, and he winced, hoping it hadn't been one of his errant spells that had hit the camp.
None of the tribesmen approached him, but nor did they impede his entrance to the caves. He had to admit, Badger had done a nice job. The passageways were well-formed and spacious, for Ghokarian only had to duck his head a little to fit. He smelled Beledine some ways ahead of him and snaked after her.
The tunnels were lit partly by bioluminescent lichens—a Sirnese species which Falme and Saanug had grown—and partly by fires built in recessed holes, each of which had a thin chimney leading to the outside world. He didn't need the fires—he had excellent night vision, and Beledine's worry was tugging at him. It would have drawn him on even if he were blind.
He turned into one of the chambers off the main hallway and froze. A bonfire had been built in the corner of the room, and pleasant warmth seeped into the pads of his paws, working its way up his aching limbs. The scent of fire, however, was not enough to cover the stench of blood. A pile of dried reeds and furs had been laid out on the floor. Resting upon these was Skyrel, as still and pale as a corpse.
Beledine had knelt down next to him. Embre, who had a background in healing poultices, was crouched on his other side. Mota stood behind them, his eyes downcast. Kibar stood guard in the corner, swatching over the chieftain.
“I am a mage,” Beledine was saying, her voice low but firm. “I can wield lifemagic. I can save him.”
“I know, but this is . . .” Embre trailed off, shaking his head.
Beledine leaned forward and laid her hands softly upon Skyrel's chest. He spasmed beneath her gentle touch and his eyelids fluttered.
“May I see?” she whispered, her eyes flickering up to Embre's strong face. He pursed his lips, then drew back a corner of the heavy fur entombing the Araxi chieftain. His bare chest, crosshatched with scars from battles past, gleamed with smears of crimson. Four gaping wounds glistened in the firelight, grisly and gut-wrenching. The sharp, metallic smell of blood became overpowering, and Ghokarian shut his nostrils against it.
“I can fix it,” Beledine maintained. She sounded so confident, but Ghokarian felt a maddening pang through their bond and knew she was at the edge of self-control. She wanted to cry, scream, throw things, fix Skyrel, but she had no idea where to even start with such deep and wretched wounds.
“I applied a sylphskin poultice to stem the bleeding,” Embre explained, “but he had already lost too much blood.”
“I can patch him up. I can fix all the blood vessels.”
“I've no doubt of that, but it won't matter. In the time it would take you to right all that's wrong inside him . . . well. Given how much blood he's already lost, it's a wonder he's even conscious.”
Beledine's hands curled into fists in her lap. “I will try anyway.”
Embre opened his mouth to argue, then shook his head and rocked back on his heels, allowing her to do as she pleased. She raised her hands again, squinting at his wounds. Ghokarian assumed they'd come from some earthen missiles—perhaps smaller versions of the earth spike that had murdered the dragon.
“Is that her?”
The cracked and raspy voice of the chieftain broke the stillness, and every human in the room tensed. Kibar stepped forward and crouched down beside Embre.
“She's here, Skyrel. As you requested.”
Skyrel raised a hand slowly and twitched a finger, beckoning Beledine closer. She obediently scooted forward and leaned down over Skyrel, her hair falling in waves before her face, obscuring her trembling lips and her purple eyes, brimming with unshed tears.
“Beledine,” he breathed. She turned an ear toward his blood-caked lips. His voice was weak, but Ghokarian's ears caught every word. “Thank you . . . for saving us.”
“I didn't help. You were injured. How many others were injured?”
“Less than you fear.” He wheezed out a soundless laugh. His body shook with the effort. “You are not used to the ways of the human world. An attack like this . . . would have been the death of us before you. To lose only five . . . is a blessing.”
“It's five too many.”
Skyrel let a slow smile steal across his features at her words.
“Who is gone?” she asked in a timid voice, afraid of the answer.
“Kamber.” Beledine flinched. “Bogs. Wevro. Rahxus.”
“You said five. Who else?”
Skyrel's smile thinned and his cheeks twitched. Kibar hung his head.
“When I am gone . . . the Araxi will need a leader,” Skyrel continued. “Someone they trust. More important, someone . . . they love.” He raised one shaking hand and sought blindly in the air for a few moments before Beledine caught on. She raised her own hand and he grasped it with what little strength he had left.
“Beledine, we need you now. You are strong. You care for every last one of us, though you haven't been with us long. You . . . can provide . . .” He had fought to speak with the force and command befit for his station, but he was running out of breath. He lay there, gasping, while Beledine and the men stared down at him.
“I don't understand,” she said.
“A chieftain . . . names his successor. I name . . . you.”
Beledine blinked. She tilted her head questioningly at Skyrel, but his eyes were closed. Ghokarian barely suppressed a shudder, for the sickly-sweet aroma of death was thickening in the air.
She glanced to Kibar, but Kibar's eyes were latched on Skyrel's ashen face. She looked at Embre next, who appeared as lost as she felt. Then she looked at Mota, who simply shrugged. Finally, she met Ghokarian's gaze.
<You know what he's asking of you, Beledine? This is a heavy burden, one that is perhaps more permanent than you would like. You are not obligated to accept.>
His thoughts snapped her back into motion. “I can't be chieftain,” she told Skyrel. “What about Kibar? He's your second-in-command. The tribe loves him. It should be him, not me.”
“Loyal old Kibar.” Skyrel managed to crack one eye open and he peered up at the grizzled earth wielder. Hearing his name put a spark of life back into Kibar. He laid a bloodstained hand on Skyrel's shoulder, then smiled sadly at Beledine.
“I'm not a leader, Beldine,” he murmured. “As Skyrel rightly knows. I follow where my chieftain leads me, and I listen to his orders. I don't make decisions. I can't give commands. But by Golem's teeth, I can follow them.”
“Mota, then.” She indicated the water wielder. “Or—or Falme, maybe.”
“Mota . . . does not want the burden. Falme cannot bear it.”
“Even Yalon would be a better choice,” she protested, though her words rang false in everyone's ears.
“Not Yalon.” Skyrel let a long, slow breath escape his parted lips. Ghokarian heard his heartbeat slow. A stillness came upon the occupants of the little cave.
“Sky.” Her voice was a desperate plea. She sounded like a little lost child. “It can't be me.”
“I have never once benefited from doubting you, and I have never once regretted trusting you,” he told her. “You made me believe . . . that you loved the Araxi people. That you would fight with everything you had . . . to protect them. If you . . . are the woman I think you are . . . then it must be you. There is no other I would give my tribe to. No other I want.”
Ghokarian felt dampness in his eyes. Even bonded dragons rarely cried—it was a frivolous waste of vital fluids. But the raw emotion pouring into him from Beledine was too much to bear. And if he was honest with himself, his own emotions were getting to him, too. He hurt for his bondmate, for he never wanted to see her in such pain as this. But he hurt also for the fragile mortal man, broken beyond repair, who knew his time had come. Here lay Skyrel, facing death with as much dignity and courage as he could muster, trying to ensure with his last breaths that his family would be protected. Perhaps more than that—trying to ensure his legacy would live on.
It was more than Beledine had ever bargained for, of that Ghokarian was certain. She understood what was being asked of her, she just wasn't sure she was ready. She was thinking about the mistakes she'd made, wondering if Skyrel wouldn't be dying had she done even one thing differently. She thought herself unworthy because of those mistakes.
<Mistakes are part of being human, Beledine.> Ghokarian sent his thoughts as a whisper to her mind, not wanting to intrude on her grief—or her decision. <Here is a man you have trusted and admired. Do you trust his final words?>
Beledine bit her lip. Of course she trusted Skyrel.
“If this is your wish, chieftain, I will comply."
Skyrel shook his head. “I am not chieftain. You . . . you are chieftain, Beledine.”
“On my honor and my blood, I vow that I will do everything within my power to protect my people,” she declared, finding strength in her voice even though her throat was painfully tight.
Skyrel offered her another smile. Ghokarian knew it would be his last. Most of his major organs had shut down. His lungs were barely working, and his brain was too tired to fight on. He raised his other hand and sought Kibar. The older man grasped his fingers.
<He is leaving,> Ghokarian thought unnecessarily.
Beledine bent over and pressed her lips and the tip of her nose to Skyrel's brow—the ultimate sign of respect amongst dragons. Ghokarian heard the human's heart stop. The buzz of neural activity, not so much heard as sensed, faded away.
“May your wanderings be blessed,” she murmured.
Then Skyrel was gone.
Each human male whispered his own ritual of passing in his own tongue, speaking to his own god. Kibar offered a prayer in Surdri and drew the fur back up to cover Skyrel's visage, which had relaxed in death's embrace. Embre murmured a blessing for lost souls in Nordri. Mota mumbled in Taoli, shaking his head.
And Beledine Arowey, chieftain of the Araxi Tribe, wept.