At the precipice of a daunting edge, a single edge amongst hundreds like it in the White Maw, with his eyes, Koran purveyed the single, twisting path that navigated through the entirety of the valley—a vast, jagged wound in the mountainous region, deep as a gouge from a serrated blade, and bordered by mismatching mountains guarding the perilous expanse. At the zenith of the mountains and others placed upon their mantles, light towers bearing pale flags gleamed intermittently like giant fireflies, the enchanted pyres within set atop runic hearths that kept the replenished stores of wood burning perpetually.
Cinching his cloak tighter around his neck, Koran stepped through the high winds, surprised to find this walk to his post being almost bearable despite the weather’s insistence to break through the numbness that was his skin beneath his leathers.
Just beyond the valley was the Broken Sea, and sitting atop it like trapped steam was a thick wall of fog. At its edge, Koran spotted a large pair of wings held out in a gliding formation, the quiet body of the beast not hinting at the magnitude of destruction it could inflict should it choose to. The dragon, rider and all, disappeared into the fog like a phantom, its white armor that reinforced its scaled catching the gleam of the ivory tower nearest it.
It was one of the last reinforcements spared by the Pale Hold this month.
Allowing himself only a moment to fret over the war, he turned his gaze back to the nearest watchtower. Even wrapped in all her furs and tucked with a pipe under a hood, Koran recognized Morgan instantly, though her gaze was lost in the low glow of her pipe’s embers.
Dawn was a red stain on the horizon bleeding brighter, though it came without hope of warmth, as if winter was stuffing the spreading hues into the corner it was trying to spring from.
Eager to return to the Pale Hold, Morgan dabbed her scarred thumb onto an ink pad and slapped it onto the Scaled Watch’s shift list hanging on one of the tower’s stone walls. Each flame keeper had a unique symbol carved into the base of their thumb, renewed every six months, or until the wound became all but permanent. As such, shifts could not be fabricated. In the past, potential artists would attempt to mimic each other’s print or credit themselves with extra shifts, failing always at the minuscule details of the thumb print itself bordering whatever symbol lay at its center.
“How many have more left since last shift?” Koran asked her once inside the tower, the same question he’d asked her the previous morning when he’d arrived to relieve her.
Her eyes were bloodshot and sunken deep into the circles that made her look years older than she was. Morgan scoffed and shrugged her satchel of supplies—a bow, quiver, and sword, almost purely for effect than necessity—over her back tiredly. “Seven, twelve, half a hundred, the whole damn fleet, what does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” Koran murmured, feeling both the sting of her moodiness and the sinking realization that he’d be sitting in that same, damn frosted chair for the next twelve hours. “We all have family fighting right now.”
“Not me,” Morgan said.
“But that’s only because yours have—”
“Don’t.” It was less than Morgan wanted to say.
Koran bowed his head and apologized, setting down his own satchel of supplies. “Have any returned?”
Against her better judgement, Morgan stopped at the top of the stairs. The dirtied, pale stone of the tower that they’d been sharing for the past three months was becoming more and more of an eye sore and less of a prideful statue that the Morelands boasted of. When they called for soldiers to join the Flame Keeper’s Watches, they neglected to advertise just how few keepers they had to man the shifts, just how unkempt the towers were on the inside despite the gleaming, white appearance of the untouched exterior stones, and just how frigid the conditions were so high in the mountainous region that acted as natural gates to the Moreland’s military capital, the Pale Hold.
“What do you think, Koran?” she asked, her tone more sad than cynical.
When the relief shift said nothing in response, Morgan neglected the usual hand gestures but unenthusiastically hailed, “Long burn the heart of the Pale Hold.”
Koran quickly fell back on his habit of muttering to himself as he listened to Morgan’s quick footsteps descend the long, spiraling staircase of the ivory tower.
In the curtain of fog, a light bloomed, a thin glow like the beginnings of a candlelight marred by dirtied glass. The longer Koran looked, the more he seemed to hear what accompanied—a kind of siren, a long wail, almost a cry for help. In the training grounds of the Pale Hold, he’d heard it before, even if its origin was in the far distance of the Rider’s Enclave where soldiers were taught how to tame drakes. Though miles away, the sound carried like none other.
And it did now.
“Morgan!” Koran called
She issued a groaned muffled by the stairwell in response. “I’m going home, Koran. To fucking sleep, sweet mercies …”
“Morgan, wait!” Koran said excitedly. “One’s returning!”
Morgan ran back twice as quick as she left and dropped her satchel before grasping the handrails of the tower. The flame in the distance blinked, then started again. Dragon fire.
“But why is it …” Morgan began, squinting at it. “Ah—uh—flame! Flame, now. Guide them, you idiot!”
Following suit of the other ivory towers, Koran pressed his thumb to the runed hearth at the heart of the tower and let the sigil leech some of his energy. The light behind them gleamed a bright, unnatural white.
Then the shriek was clarified, and the light in the distance became suddenly dwarfed by one other. A far greater gout of flames sprouting from the mouth of a second dragon. Only this dragon was armored, but not by the white plate of the Morelands, rather the uncolored steel of Fellcrest.
And in its claws, a lesser drake sagged like a defeated doll, its white armor dripping with its own blood.
“But that’s … that’s our …” Morgan said in disbelief.
“Attack?” Koran asked.
The watchmen stumbled back from the guardrails, too dumbstruck to say anything else, to do anything besides watch as that massive shadow brought the only allied message from the war in its own claws—a corpse.
The Fellcrest elder dragon loosed the smaller drake from its hold. As if from a catapult, the drake was flung into one of the ivory towers overlooking the Broken Sea. Fractured by the impact, the misplaced stones in the center began a cascading reaction, sending that tower over the edge with painful slowness, making it look as fragile as a toppled stack of cards.
As it made contact with the reefs below, the stored tinder and energy went off with a final, shuddering blast that erupted against the side of the cliff.
And on that broken hilt of a tower, made small by the unfathomable size of the Fellcrest elder, the dragon took its perch and, with the help of the black-armored rider pulling back on his reigns, loosed a shriek that trembled the air harder than any quake.
Koran turned the color of his pyre to scarlet.
But just beyond that tower, there were dozens upon dozens of shadows just beginning to pierce the dense veil of fog.
At last, there were dragons returning to the Pale Hold.
Just not their own.