Draconic law mandated that whenever something or someone killed a dragon, it was to be observed, assessed, and—if it was deemed a threat to the rest of the kin—systematically destroyed.
Ghokarian spiraled over the smoking wreckage of a human colony, his sharp eyes roving across the burnt dwellings and charred corpses far below. This settlement had been well-established, and its inhabitants had been powerful and healthy. As a general rule, dragons had no interest in human affairs; but Ghokarian had monitored this tribe because Syrsath Terlumen, a former member of his Flight, had been bonded to the human chieftain.
Syrsath was dead now. She'd perished in the fire that had wiped out the rest of the settlement. As the Archon of his Flight, it was Ghokarian's duty to investigate the disaster.
And it would be his job to assess whether retaliation was necessary.
The air was brittle and cold. Sour scents rose from the ruins, and Ghokarian shut his nostrils against the unpleasant aroma. The only sound was the whisper of wind around his leathery wingtips as he dipped lower—that, and the faint cry of some strange animal. Its keening voice rose and fell in odd patterns, piercing at times, low and throaty at others.
He banked when he spotted a large carcass, and glided down to land beside it. The lingering warmth from the fire seeped into his scales as he plodded over to the body. It was Syrsath. Her green hide was streaked with ash and soot and she was half-buried in debris. Her face was twisted into an alien expression.
Ghokarian wasn't an expert on reading expressions, for sovereign dragons had no emotions of their own—only when they formed a bond with a mortal could they come to know such things. But he had taken it upon himself to learn about mortals and their unfathomable emotions after Syrsath had bonded. As he bent to examine her, Ghokarian decided she was not wearing an expression of pain. Her fangs weren't bared, and her slender brow ridges rose and dipped in a shape that might have been described as mournful, if he had understood what it meant to mourn.
Syrsath's body was strangely contorted as well. Ghokarian peeled back one of her blackened wings to reveal that she was clutching a broken body against her chest. The smaller corpse was burnt beyond recognition, but it could only be her bondmate.
The shrieking call of the animal jabbed at Ghokarian's ears. He shut out all external stimuli as he focused on his assessment of the situation. Syrsath's burns weren't nearly as bad as the human's, and Ghokarian began to suspect that she had died in vain, trying to save the fragile mortal from the inferno. The positioning of the debris indicated that she'd barreled into a human dwelling after the flames had already compromised its integrity. From a technical standpoint, the death was no one's fault but her own. Ghokarian could leave now and report his findings to his Flight, and that would be the end of it.
But what had started the fire?
Sovereign dragons had arcane magic that protected them against the base elements, and if Ghokarian had been the one caught in this blaze, he'd have walked away with little more than singed scales. But the moment a dragon bonded with a mortal, the protection of that magic vanished—thus, Syrsath had become as weak and vulnerable as the humans she'd chosen to associate with. Still, it would have taken an unnaturally strong fire to kill even a bonded dragon. Some of her scales had flaked off in the heat, and the flesh beneath was blistered and well-cooked.
Ghokarian wasn't able to be curious, but dragons lived by high standards, and he therefore had to be thorough. It was his responsibility to use his superior intellect to evaluate each problem he encountered and solve it. Regardless of whether or not the fire had been intended to kill Syrsath, something so powerful might still be a threat to the kin.
He turned from the entwined corpses and picked his way through smoldering rubble. As he observed the crumbling colony, he noticed a pattern in the burn marks. He moved along an open thoroughfare, scuffing through a thick, flaky layer of ash. The fire appeared to have eaten its way outward from a central point somewhere to the north. This told him two things: it had been magic, and it had been deliberate.
Corpses lay strewn across the ground. Humans were social creatures and they often gathered together to perform rituals, so he guessed they'd been doing something important. Ghokarian passed bodies large and small, using all his senses to gather more clues. The wailing animal was growing louder. It didn't sound like any beast he'd encountered before. Perhaps it was some opportunistic scavenger hoping to feast on the dead—the metallic scent of blood rose above the smoky smells of burnt flesh and earth, so there might be a meal amongst the devastation.
Ghokarian emerged from between a pair of scorched rock structures and stopped. He couldn't feel horror or shock—he couldn't even feel interest—but he'd never seen anything quite like the sight before him, and it took him a moment to absorb.
He faced a large clearing so tightly littered with bodies that he couldn't tell where one dead human ended and another began. It looked like a black sea had been caught in a tempest and frozen in place: hands and feet and torsos hardened into place by the conflagration looked like dark waves that twisted up, as if touched by gale-force winds. A ring of structures encircled the mass grave. The buildings might once have been grand, but now they were just as burnt and disfigured as their creators. What fire was strong enough to melt stone in such a way?
Movement drew Ghokarian's attention to a post at the center of the square. A naked human child crouched on a granite platform, slowly rocking back and forth. He'd studied the species enough to tell the creature was female. Though her brown skin was badly bruised, she seemed to have escaped without any actual burns. However, her face was smeared with dark red liquid—long gashes had been gouged across both her cheekbones. The scent of blood was coming from her, and she was the one making all the noise. Her mouth stretched wide as she howled.
Ghokarian approached. Unable to avoid stepping on the deceased, he was forced to crunch through bodies. The sound alerted the child to his presence, and she quieted. For the first time since he'd arrived at the settlement, it was silent.
The girl stood to face him as he drew near. She looked malnourished, for he could see the shape of bones poking out beneath her flesh. It was impossible to tell the color of her scalp fur—most of it was plastered to her face and neck, matted with blood and the water that leaked from her russet eyes. She held his gaze with a level stare. Most humans he encountered fled from him in terror, but not this child. Of course, Syrsath had lived here for many cycles, so the girl must be used to dragons.
Ghokarian couldn't be confused, but the evidence around him was beginning to point to a conclusion that didn't make sense. If he'd had emotions, his spine would have been tingling and his gut would have been writhing. As it was, some deep survival instinct made him stop when he was two wings away from the child.
She stood in the epicenter of the scorch pattern. She was untouched, while her entire tribe and all their belongings had burned. She had the coloring of a fire wielder, though it was rare to see that type of magic this far north. And her cheeks bore the marks humans gave each other to denote great power . . . or possibly great danger.
Even someone half as clever as Ghokarian could see what had happened.
If she'd started the fire intentionally, then draconic law stated that Ghokarian must destroy her, to eliminate her as a possible threat to other dragons. If she'd started the fire by accident the protocol became a bit more convoluted, but it still ended with her death. He had never heard of a human so young requiring execution, but he supposed there was a first for everything.
Ghokarian took a few more steps, leaving the sea of bodies. There was a radius of clean ground surrounding the girl's circular platform—perhaps her people hadn't dared get too close to her, or perhaps the power of her spell had liquefied everyone in the near vicinity.
Perhaps she sensed something amiss, for the girl started crying again. She sank to her knees and stretched her hands out to him, her fingers curling and uncurling in jerky, uneven movements.
Dragons weren't cruel—how could they be? Acts of cruelty stemmed from emotions like hatred, anger, jealousy, and fear. Ghokarian had to eliminate her, but he wanted to do it as efficiently as possible. He didn't want to use lightmagic; he suspected it would be better to end her life with one quick talon-slice through her neck. She would never see it coming. There would be no discomfort or fear—just the quiet exhalation of her final breath, then darkness.
She looked up as he took another step toward her, weeping and shaking. Humans were altogether too messy, Ghokarian decided as he placed one of his paws on the edge of the stone dais. Her nose was dripping and her eyes were leaking—such a waste of vital fluids—and dirt clung to her sweaty, bloodstained body like a thin film of fur.
She began squeaking at him, making high-pitched noises in repeating patterns. He recognized a few words in the primitive human language—though Ghokarian had never learned it himself, he had access to the racial memories of his kin. Sovereign dragons were connected through a hive-mind, and he could access worlds upon worlds of information shared by those who had come before him. Still, human communication was inferior to draconic communication. Though he understood snippets of her speech, most of the girl's cries were unintelligible.
One did not need to know fear to know that humans were dangerous. Ghokarian needed to kill her quickly and quietly and be done with it. But then, just as he raised his right paw to strike, he heard a word he knew.
Ghokarian froze, and not just because the girl had commanded him to stop in his own language. He tilted his head and peered down at her, suddenly reassessing everything he thought he knew about her.
“How do you know my language?” he asked. Only the rheenarae, humans who bonded with dragons, could command the draconic tongue in such a way—but this child didn't have purple eyes, which meant she wasn't a dragon-speaker. How then was she able to speak to him?
“I learned words from Syrsath.” The girl had a strange accent, and Ghokarian couldn't understand any of her reply except for Syrsath. She must have picked up some vocabulary from the tribe's resident dragon. Of course, any fool could learn a word and repeat it—but when she'd spoken, there had been true power in her voice. The draconic language was infused with the same arcane magic that flowed in his veins, and only dragons were able to summon that power simply by speaking.
“You have committed a crime,” he told the child, unsure how much she would understand. “The laws of my people state that you must be punished for killing one of my kin, regardless of whether or not it was an accident.”
The girl's eyes grew wide, but he saw no flicker of comprehension in their red-brown depths. More likely she was just impressed by his glittering scales. She even went so far as to crawl forward and place a hand on the talons of his left foot.
“I appreciate that humans are intelligent beings,” Ghokarian went on, “so I am doing you the service of explaining my actions before I take them. I expect that you will submit to your justly deserved fate without a fight.”
The girl ignored him. She was mumbling to herself, rocking back and forth on her heels again. She petted his talon with such tender care that it gave him pause. It was hard to reconcile the image of this pitiful figure with the person who had murdered her entire tribe, plus one dragon. Could he have been wrong? Evidence could be misleading; perhaps he ought to look for more clues before taking a potentially innocent life.
Ghokarian pulled his paw from the girl's embrace and turned away, studying the scene of the crime. He plodded around the dais, looking for anything that might offer further insight. The girl stumbled to her feet. She began chattering as she trailed in his wake, wobbling after him like a duckling.
After two thorough sweeps of the surrounding area, Ghokarian couldn't find a shred of evidence that incriminated anyone besides the tiny child . . . but, he reasoned, the evidence he had found had all been circumstantial. It wouldn't be enough to condemn a dragon on trial before his Elders, so it was not enough to condemn this human.
“I have decided that your guilt cannot be ascertained,” he informed her, twisting his neck so he could watch her running around his hind legs. “Therefore you are free to go.”
No response from the mortal. She crouched beside one of his paws to inspect an old wound on his ankle, the fading remnant of a fight with a necrocrelai. The injury had healed, but the pattern of his otherwise perfect scales had been interrupted, leaving a blank patch of skin exposed.
She looked up, caught his gaze with her own disarming one, and smiled. Even through the blood and filth, her smile was infectious. She was missing a number of teeth—Ghokarian recalled this was something that happened naturally to young humans, just as it did to young dragons—but somehow that only added to her charm.
“You may go,” he repeated, shaking his foot to move her away. “I must leave to deliver my report and assessment of this situation to my Flight.”
The girl scampered off, and Ghokarian spread his wings once she was clear, preparing for takeoff. He beat them once, stirring up whorls of ash, and tensed to leap into the sky.
A shrill shriek stopped him just before he jumped. He turned and saw that the child was trotting back to him, holding something in her hands. Could it be evidence? Was it important?
No. It was a rock.
She held it out, waving it around and chirping in her own language. Ghokarian tried to shoo her away, but she was adamant. She ran to his left hind leg, the one with the old injury, and placed the rock—which was shaped just like a dragon scale—over the puckered patch of bare skin to protect it.
Ghokarian shook her away again, then crouched down to get a better look at her. There was something decidedly odd about this young human . . . odd, and fascinating. He had never been fascinated by anything before. When questions or problems arose, he dealt with them as he was expected to: with rationality, wisdom, and precision. But this girl was an enigma. It was as if a new dimension of time and space had opened up sideways next to him, inviting him inside.
“What is your name?” he asked her.
“What is your name,” she parroted back to him. Her pronunciation was flawless. A frisson of energy ran down Ghokarian's spine as her words settled in his ears. There was power within her, that much was certain.
“Ghokarian,” he said, pointing his right paw to himself.
“Ghokarian,” she echoed, stepping forward and reaching up on tiptoe to brush his armored chest with her fingertips. Then she retreated and pointed at her own chest. “Beledine.”
“Beledine,” he whispered. She grinned in delight, clapping her tiny hands together.
Ghokarian looked around. Even if he didn't kill her, she would probably die if he left her alone in this cemetery. Humans took time raising their offspring, and he knew young children were useless until their tenth or eleventh cycle. This child didn't look that old, and she certainly didn't look well-fed.
He wavered for a moment, uncertain of what to do—doubt was a new feeling, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
In the end, Ghokarian Equilumos, Archon of the Luminous Flight, did not fly out of the decimated human settlement. He walked out on foot, and Beledine Arowey of the Patcha Tribe followed him.