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Fireblade: Chapter 24


“ZANDAR!”

I can feel a kind of echoing resonance in my call this time, as Shadow lifts the deadening effect of his cloaking power. I know my summons has been heard and by the time I have fought my way to Marin’s side I can feel the deep thrumming beat of heavy wings in the air above me. Rapathian warriors back away from the looming threat, leaving Marin exposed in the middle of a bloodstained arena of pain and corpses.

I run across the vacated space to Marin and grab his hand. “Just remember to keep reminding Zandar of his oath to Nissanda and that we are allies of Annubia. It’s the only thing that seems to work.”

He wipes the blood out of his eyes as he looks round at me. Somehow he manages to smile.

“Just in case this is my last chance to say it, remember I love you.”

I wasn’t expecting that, not in the middle of so much death and desperation and I can’t find words to reply. I squeeze his hand and turn to face the dragon as he settles heavily onto the ground in front of us, crushing enemy soldiers under his weight. Those around the perimeter of the arena turn and run, only to create chaos as they try to climb over their slower compatriots. I raise my voice above the bedlam.

“Zandar, I can’t go with you to defeat Annubia’s enemies. But Marin can, if you accept him.”

I have warned you already. Very few survive this.

Before I can answer, Marin steps forward.

“Go ahead. I have nothing to lose.”

As you wish.

Dragonfire engulfs us until all I can see is red and orange flame swirling around Marin’s scarlet cloak and all I can hear are the screams of pain and terror from the scorched fighters surrounding us. When the fire subsides I look around at the scattered bodies, but they are so charred and blackened I have no chance of seeing which one is Marin. I know I should accept what has happened and keep fighting to save my country but…

“Ariel.”

Marin’s voice. Quiet. In control.

I drag my gaze away from the corpses on the ground and look up. He is already there, balanced perfectly on Zandar’s neck as he guides the dragon into the air, steering him into a scalding attack across the enemy cohorts. Another turn, to scorch a great swathe across the back of the legions and then return, cutting a broad path through the lines of heavily-armed soldiers between me and the Rapathian general.

Now is my chance. If I move fast I can make it over there even without Shadow’s help. I start to run, aware that a few of the Eldrin fighters are following. They close ranks behind me, guarding my back as I reach the wide open space cleared by dragonfire. Marin and Zandar are hovering above the burned area, keeping the space clear with occasional bursts of flame every time an enemy soldier tries to enter.

It seems like Marin is watching, waiting for something. I half turn to see Jantian stride forward to stand at my side. He looks directly up at Marin and shakes his head. Marin acknowledges and withdraws almost a full dragon-length from the edge of the arena.

I frown, puzzled. “Jantian? What’s that about?”

“You must not kill General Dragar.”

“What! Not again! I thought that was the point? Kill the commander instead of incinerating the entire army?”

Before Jantian can answer, Dragar strides out from the concealing mass of armed warriors and into the empty space in front of me. He doesn’t speak but his drawn sword and fighting stance speak clearly enough.

Marin and Zandar make no move against him.

A shiver of tense silence falls on the massed horde of fighters, broken only by the dull screams of the wounded and the deep pulsing beat of the dragon’s wings as he hovers in a dark, glittering threat above us.

I take a step forward, only to hear Jantian’s quiet warning at my shoulder.

“Ariel. I will explain later. Just follow orders for once. Capture, not kill.”

I answer Jantian while still making sure I keep my eyes firmly fixed on the Rapathian commander.

“Why should I? You haven’t accepted me into the Eldrin. I’ve sworn no oath of allegiance––”

“Just obey orders.”

There it is again. That edge in Jantian’s voice, demanding compliance. Much as it grates against everything I have been focused on these last few weeks, I have to admit there are things Jantian knows that I only catch up with much later. I stifle the snort of exasperation and yell at Dragar instead.

“Surrender! Or face defeat and death.”

He pulls off his plumed helmet and tosses it defiantly aside. Everyone can see the challenge in it before he even speaks.

“Too much of a coward to face me in battle?” He takes a few swaggering steps forward and I can feel as well as hear the frisson of excitement in the blood-splattered warriors encircling us.

I hesitate, unsure how to respond, how to defuse this standoff before I get caught up in his bravado and start to engage in this fight he seems to want so badly. He is tall, powerfully built, and much younger than I expected. And clearly not the same kind of calculating coward as his predecessor.

I dance out of his way a few times as the heavy sword hisses downwards and I feel its passing as cold wind  on my face. I have to hold this tenuous balance somehow, sensing that so long as the two of us face each other in single combat, the press of Rapathian soldiers surrounding us will hold back rather than shame their commander by intervening. Maybe that reticence will sustain long enough to hear their commander surrender without further bloodshed.

“Commander Dragar, look at it this way. You cannot defeat me in single combat. Even if you did, you and your army would face death by dragonfire. Surrender.”

“I know who you are. King’s champion. Eldrin auxiliary. But you will find me a very different opponent to Akadian.”

Hmph. I seem to have discovered that already.

The speed at which he can swing that monstrous sword of his is equally matched by the speed at which he moves around, forcing me to dodge and weave while at the same time trying to figure out what I’m supposed to say to make this negotiation work.

I dart past him and mark a long cut, red and bloody, down the left side of his face. I had hoped it might prove to Dragar that I could kill him in the next few moves but unfortunately I just seem to have succeeded in making him angry. He ignores the crimson stain soaking into his black and red surcoat and glares furiously at me.

“Better to die fighting and calling the name of Nagal than to surrender in shame to a weakling nation.”

“Nagal is dead. We killed him. Don’t waste your blood or your soldiers for him.”

He hesitates, disbelief fighting shock across his face. I push my advantage.

“Nagal was no war-god. He was nothing but a vengeful petty ifrit speaking lies through your so-called Emperor. Didn’t you ask yourself why your agents suddenly succeeded in killing Purmut? It was only because Nagal was already dead.”

I hear Jantian muttering disapprovingly at my shoulder. He probably objects to the lie. Maybe I should not have denied Nagal’s true origin as an Elemental, but if the Eldrin commander objects to my hastily-composed version, I’m going to suggest that he writes my script for me in advance next time.

Instead of leaving me to invent it out of nowhere while being pursued by an irascible enemy general .


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