THE LAST OF HIS KIND



THE LAST OF HIS KIND, by Bill Ward:

Desert winds churned around Tanout, and sand wraiths struck him to the earth.  On hands and knees, half-buried, blind, he fumbled toward his dead camel. A wraith twisted near, raked his face with granular claws, and gyred back into the howling storm. Another tugged his arm, trying to hold him in place, press him to the earth. Tanout broke from its grasp with a snarl, spitting sand. He wished above all to curse his attackers, to shout them down with vulgar taunts, but his mouth was caked with hot grit and his throat choked dry with dust. Growling deep in his chest, as a bear might, he blundered blindly on through the stinging sands.

A vague and angular form reared beside him — insubstantial malice. The wraith wailed, its voice that of the tempest, its breath furnace-hot. Tanout raised his pistol and fired into its face and the thing dissolved, swirling back into the essence of the storm.  He smiled, and sand filled the deep lines of his face, adhered to his teeth, invaded his eyes.

The pack-laden camel seemed a dune itself as Tanout crawled clumsily across its body, fighting the clinging hands of the storm, sliding into the comparative shelter of the dead beast’s leeward flank. He tore his ground cloth from its back and held it over his head and huddled close to its still-warm flesh, burrowing like a desert mouse as the weight of the storm sealed him in. Tanout spat, sucked from his waterskin, and scowled. The wraith storm was unnatural — drakework — he could feel it in his bones.

He nestled closer to the camel, his head in the crook of its legs, the reek of its crotch adding to the staleness of the air under the blanket. Nothing for it now but patience, at least he was high enough on the bluff to avoid burial if he waited out the storm.  Sand settled over him as he eased into sleep and, once, a hand tugged sharply at his leg but Tanout kicked it away. Gradually he ceased to notice the buffeting winds and eased toward sleep.

Drakework. Squall-masters and wind-shapers, elementalists — the storm bore the stamp of dragonkind. The Glasswyrm knew it was hunted.

Tanout smiled as he slept and dreamed of chariot hunts through mist-shrouded plains, javelin in hand; of stalking rank swamplands in the company of painted savages; of the complicated protocols of the eastern beast-hunts; and of wild, wheeling cavalry pursuits on the vast pampas lands across the Ariontac Sea. He dreamed of spear and trap, hook and glaive, gun and blade. Dreaming of dragons his hands moved of themselves, searching out the lance-head he wore at his side, fingers curling around the broad socket empty now of its shaft. In dreams he slew the beasts, drakes of all kinds from all lands, and in dreaming his wind-stung flesh was hot not with the desert’s scorching but with the mystic blood of dragonkind, bathing him in benediction.

The wyrm knew it was hunted, but not the nature of its hunter.

* * *

A tapping and a warbling transformed his dream drake — a black crocodilian bull from the mossy crags of his homeland — into a twitchy wren, and Tanout grumbled in disappointment. Something scraped and tapped at his hot brownish world, and made sounds that hinted at meaning. Tanout awoke. Flinging the blanket off, he lurched to his feet with a roar, pistol in hand.

“What!” Not a question.

The heat and light of midday punched back at him, and he squinted and reeled at a uniform field of whiteness, a vast erasure. Something small and dark flickered before him, a natural point at which to aim his weapon.

“You are alive, I could not tell. Have you any water?” A boy’s voice.

Tanout said nothing as his eyes adjusted, allowing the world to swim into focus.  First the line between sand and sky snaked across his vision, then colors seeped palely from its length to tint the whiteness. The sun glared above, the waste stretched below, and what in fact was a boy, small and clad in native dress, stood before Tanout.

“You speak Urghoffic,” said Tanout.

“Yes, please may I have a drink?” asked the boy. He was small and sun-darkened, not yet at the cusp of manhood though Tanout, disinterested in children, had no real conception of his age.

“Where did you come from, boy?” The pistol did not stray from its target.

“Our caravan was — you saw the wraiths, yes? Our caravan is gone. Please, water?”

“How many? From where? Djinrras? Nahhouti?” Sweat damped the gray hairs at Tanout’s temple, trickled icily down his back, and rolled in discreet drops over his rounded stomach.

“Please,” said the boy, simply, gesturing at the waterskin just visible in the sandy nook where Tanout had slept.

Tanout squinted, alert now, suspicious. He hefted the waterskin in his left hand, while his right still trained the pistol on the boy. The steel wheellock, polished to mirror-brightness, reflected the sun’s hot malice in a dazzling explosion of light.

“I’ve got ten rats, right? Three I release, four I stomp into paste. How many rats did I kill?” asked Tanout, no inflection in his voice.

“I do not — what mean you by — ”

“No!” Tanout roared at the child. “The next thing you say will be the answer to my question or it will be the last thing you say.” He then repeated the strange riddle.

“Four! You stepped on four you said, but it reasons not — ” the boy stopped as he caught the flung waterskin. He drank.

Tanout holstered his weapon and watched the boy drink. Fragile, like most children in this region, and delicately featured. Well-dressed in a fine cotton kherba, the white robe worn by the desert nations of the Yeq, complete with crimson head shroud. Tanout kept a wary eye on the boy as he shook the sand out of his own clothes, a broadcloth tunic and hide trousers ill suited to the desert.  He squatted, knees popping, to scoop sand off the baggage still harnessed to his camel.

It was midday. He had slept through the night and the storm. It had been two weeks exactly since he made landfall at the port of Nahhouti, ahead of the other hunters. And eight days in the wasteland of the western Yeq, he reminded himself with a growl, eight days in hell.

“Don’t drink so damn much of that water.”

The boy stopped immediately, plugging the skin. “Or I will become sick?” he asked.

“Or I’ll run out.” Tanout began sorting his baggage. He would have to leave much behind. “Your whole caravan killed?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a merchant’s kid, then? That how you learnt my language?”

“Yes, from Nahhouti. Did you kill those men?” The boy pointed southwest, back along the faint tracks of his passage.

Tanout had hired Bhatum and his brothers to guide the way to the caravan town of Djinrras. Two days out and the signs of treachery were already as obvious on them as actors’ masks, but Tanout kept a close watch and waited. Waited for the night around the campfire when the cadence of their unfamiliar speech changed and their glances spoke betrayal. That night he cut their throats while they slept.

“Those men made their own fate, kid. You know the way to Djinrras?” Tanout asked, shouldering a lightened pack.

“Of course, I have made the trip many times. But should we not go back and — ”

“There’s no going back, not ever. Carry some of this stuff — here. Good. Now get us to Djinrras and you’ll have earned yourself a decent fee.” Tanout glared resentfully at the pouches and bags of oiled leather he would not be taking: his traps and snares, his tangler hooks and slip-plates — all the devious aspects of his art.  He gripped the socket of the long lance-head he wore on his belt like a sword.

So be it.

Kicking the swelling carcass of his camel once, lightly, Tanout followed the boy east over a sea of white sand.

* * *

They arrived in Djinrras four days later, a man not yet old and a boy not yet a man, still strangers to each other. They went immediately to the town’s desert-side well, Tanout muscling a few veiled mahdou riders out of the way to hoist the well’s bucket. As he drank he glared at the mahdou, deep desert nomads, challenging them with a look.  They met his gaze briefly before lowering their eyes and casually moving away, chatting and laughing.

“I think it unwise to provoke them, Tanout-gha,” the boy said as he reached for the proffered half-empty bucket and began to drink.

“Wise acts never did me a whole lot of good. Besides,” Tanout said, leaning against the cool stone of the well as he took in the town, a riot of multi-colored pavilions and whitewashed buildings of mud brick, “I’m not the one walking away, am I?”

Djinrras was a caravan town on the edge of the western Yeq, in a region of red earth where the desert meets the scrub and rolls back, and water can be found by those that dig deep. People of many desert nations walked its crooked streets, winding their way between a reasonless assortment of structures, plying the far-traveled wares of waste and jungle, coast and steppe. Unfamiliar smells wafted from its merchant stalls and the tongues of a dozen lands could be heard in its crowds. It was unplanned, ungovernable, and unlike anything Tanout had ever seen.

“Well then,” Tanout said, knocking the sand and dust from his clothes. “You’ll be wanting to find whatever family you’ve got here, and I’ll be wanting a stiff drink. May whatever gods you wrongly adhere to smile upon you boy, and farewell.”

“But — ”

“Oh yes, of course. I hadn’t forgotten. You did me a good turn, worth twice Bhatum and his beggar brothers. Not that I’m paying you double but here’s a tidy fee for a boy your age.” Tanout handed a few coins to the child, the silver not leaving his fingers easily. “And don’t flash that around, you’ll get your head smashed for a brass pfennig around here.”

“I have no family here, Tanout-gha, here or anywhere,” said the boy.

Tanout, halfway to the nearest caravansary, froze, pivoted, then stalked back to the boy with something between a smile and a grimace on his seamed face.

“That’s a poor turn, isn’t it? What I would do, then, if I were a smart boy like you, would be to buy passage with the first group back to Nahhouti, use what coin is left and that gift for tongues you’ve got to hire on as a merchant’s ’prentice and — ”

“I will go with you Tanout-gha because — ”

“Not an option you’ve got kid.”

“Because,” the boy shouted, “I know where to find the wyrm!”

Tanout narrowed his eyes, said nothing.

“And I won’t tell you anything unless you promise to take me.”

“My word isn’t worth much.”

“Promise anyway,” said the boy, firmly.

Tanout bent over the child, brought his face close. “Alright,” he said, voice low, “but understand I’m not your father and I’m not going to bleed to keep you out of trouble.

“And,” he continued quickly, seeing the boy was about to respond, “understand that no one, no one, ever crossed me and got a pinch of sympathy or forgiveness in return. Think on that, and think on those three dead men you saw in the desert.”

The boy nodded.

“Now, for something to eat. Come along, and keep your mouth shut.”

The boy smiled, but it was not the careless smile of a child. He followed Tanout, quickening his pace to match the big man’s stride.

* * *

Theirs was a private room, one of two in the caravansary, much to the relief of the inn’s other patrons that did not relish the thought of sharing with the belligerent foreigner. It was sumptuously furnished by the standards of the town and had a broad view of the western desert. They supped on grilled goat and curd cheese and flatbreads, all slathered in a tangy red sauce Tanout found especially delicious. As he ate he urged the boy to share the details of what he knew of the Glasswyrm.

Once such beasts had filled the lands of the Yeq, just as their kin had populated the world at large, and been both hunted and herded by men.  But their numbers dwindled until, it is thought, only one remained.  It preferred the life of a recluse, perhaps out of fear or infirmity of age, and no longer took to the deep desert or hunted the hills, relying instead on its arcane powers to obtain prey. A trapper of lizards that had been close to the boy’s father had seen certain signs of it in the wildlands to the north, near the hovels of the Arhachbn miners that had settled the area a century ago. He had seen wyrmsigns, said the boy, unmistakable from the legends, and had even heard the great beast’s breathing filtering up from clefts in the rock.

“Before I continue I would tell you my name is Hasn es Bacouli, Tanout-gha. It is not right that we remain strangers.”

“I didn’t ask. About the wyrm,” Tanout pushed his platter aside and reached for a flagon of date wine, “I’ve heard that its passage through the sand leaves tunnels, the sand melts and hardens and the tunnel has a kind of crust of glass that keeps it open. I’ve also heard a bunch of nonsense about this thing actually being made out of glass, or rock crystal, or diamond, and a great lot of other drivel of the kind that grows up around drakes. What can you say of the beast itself?”

“Very little, only that she is spoken of often as a snake, though of immense size, and that she is whiter than the sands. In the sun she must look like glass,” said Hasn.

Tanout nodded, absorbed now in cleaning his pistol.

“But we know it is not completely reclusive, do we not, Tanout-gha? Your people awakened it,” Hasn said.

“And just how many of my people, as you call them, were in your caravan?”

“Five, I think.”

“And you didn’t tell me that when I asked before because . . . ?”

“I only now realized just what they were, Tanout-gha.”

Tanout oiled a rag and began burnishing the steel of his pistol. “Describe them,” he said.

Hasn provided details enough for Tanout to place them, hunters all, men known to him by acquaintance or reputation. Many such had heeded the Theoculator’s call for the wyrm hunt, few had made it even as far as Nahhouti. But Tanout had eliminated nearly half of those that had reached the Yeqi port by using a mix of treachery and intimidation — arranging their arrest with crooked magistrates, feeding them false information so they joined the southbound caravans of the coast road, or taking aside the few he pegged as dilettantes for a quiet conversation that left them bloodless and quaking and eager to book the first passage back to Dekep. Now it seemed five more had died in the desert, their lungs clogged with wraith sand.

“Is — was that not loaded this whole time?” asked the boy, seeing Tanout pour a measure of powder down the snout of his weapon.

“No, what of it?” Tanout placed a lead ball on a small square of cloth and rammed it neatly down the wheellock’s muzzle. He then added more powder to a lidded pan on the weapon’s side positioned in such a way to catch the sparks of its friction wheel. Withdrawing a curious key from his pouch, Tanout inserted it in the wheel and gave it several ratcheting turns, winding the mechanism. Finished, Tanout rested his loaded weapon neatly on the table that held the remnants of their meal and stood up with a grunt.

“That strange riddle that was no riddle at all — the rats — that was a test of some kind?” Hasn asked, eyes fixed on the big foreigner.

Tanout stretched with an audible series of pops. Grabbing the flagon of wine, he wandered over to the broad window. Open though it was to the chill night air, Tanout showed no signs of discomfort as he stood before it and drank.

“Wyrms, drakes of all kinds, all have some things in common, kid. Call it magic, call it insight, whatever — they command certain things. Certain areas. Nearly always they have some affinity with storms, often they have a particular element with which they have an . . . understanding.” Tanout paced as he spoke, and weighed his words carefully, unaccustomed as he was to sharing them. “But the oldest, the strangest, the ones properly called wyrms — well, they know a bit about us, see? People. They’ve dealt with us for centuries or longer. In some ages we were close, you’d be surprised just how close to us they were — sometimes even living with us in the shape of men — and they know a thing or two about commanding us, a lot like with those sand wraiths, or flare snakes, or things of that sort.”

“You thought I was a hruda, one possessed?”

“So you know what I mean. Yea, that name is as good as any, and that’s what I was worried about. A kid would be perfect, most people wouldn’t think twice about a kid. Thing is once the, uh, the hruda is enslaved like that they just don’t do very well with anything complicated, or anything that needs talking or words to figure out. You can spot them by their reactions to riddles and the like — they blank out.” Tanout took a long pull from the flagon, reeling a bit from the wine.

“A dragon would not be fooled.”

“Hah! That’s true, but if you had been a dragon I would have been out of luck anyway, trying to intimidate you with a pistol.” Tanout said, smiling. He gestured at the wheellock were it rested on the table.  “Drakes are completely bulletproof. Not in any form or shape of theirs, not even a cannon or a volley of harquebusier shot will do a thing to ’em. Believe me, I’ve seen it. Which is why you need good steel, something like this beauty over here . . .”

As Tanout scuffed toward his discarded belt to retrieve his lance-head a shadow blotted the clear night sky beyond the open window.  A man, black garbed, dropped into the room, the glint of metal in his hand.

“Tanout-gha!”

Tanout wheeled, took the knife in his shoulder, and was pushed back before the onslaught of his attacker, slamming into the wall. The assassin pressed his forearm against Tanout’s throat, stifling a shout from the big man, and withdrew his dagger — raising it for another strike.

The blast of the wheellock filled the room with a concussive roar and the assassin twisted, dropping the blade. Tanout punched the man twice in the face. Bone crunched.

The assassin writhed on the floor but made no move to get up, blood spurting from the bullet wound in his side. Tanout, cursing between hoarse breaths, bent to recover the man’s knife.

“A mahdou,” said Hasn, clutching the smoking pistol in both hands.

“No.” Tanout cautiously leaned over the shrouded man, keeping his feet away from the spreading puddle of crimson, and yanked the desert scarf away from the man’s face. A foreigner like Tanout, young, round-faced and hairless and almost idiotic of expression.

Steel flashed and the assassin died.

“A Naesrian. Look at his face, Hasn. Remember it.” Tanout grimaced as he probed his bleeding shoulder. Shrugging, he began to gather his baggage.

“I have seen death, Tanout-gha. I need not make it an object of study.”

Tanout stalked across the room and plucked the wheellock out of Hasn’s hand. “I mean his face in particular, you’re going to be seeing it again. Now, grab something and let’s move!”

“But where will we — ”

“Somewhere without a dead man on the floor and preferably without a view. Whoever runs this place isn’t going to ignore that gunshot. Come on!” Tanout shouldered his pack and snatched-up his lance-head in his right hand. Blood seeped through his shirt over the left shoulder, streaking his sleeve red.

They gathered their possessions quickly and left, departing the inn by a ground floor window.  As they moved through the winding streets of Djinrras, alert to danger, Tanout mumbled something under his breath as he led Hasn along with a firm hand.

“What say you, Tanout’gha?”

“I said,” Tanout paused to clear his throat, “I said ‘nice shot, kid.'”

* * *

“The silver ones? No way in hell, I know what that’s worth.” The day had been a long one, a hot one, and Tanout’s freshly stitched shoulder had throbbed incessantly the whole time. Their fruitless search for Hasn’s trapper of lizards lasted until well in the afternoon, and haggling with the shrewd desert merchants was fast consuming the remainder of the day. Tanout’s patience had worn thin, as it always did when he dealt with men rather than beasts. He had not wanted to spend another night in Djinrras, another night exposed to the triplet assassins of the Naesrian Temple, but the shadows had grown long, and the lamps of the town were being lit as he argued his way from stall to stall in the market square.

“No, not this,” said the heavily perfumed Gudrian seller, swiveling his head on a fat stalk of a neck. “Two rakh, white metal. You give.”

Tanout snarled as he gave over the money and took the rope, a thick hempen coil. It had been the same story all day, and had been no better with Hasn speaking as intermediary. They had bought cured meat and dried fruit, flax oil, meal, salt, linen dressings, flints, a bedroll and a knife for Hasn, a short kherba for Tanout to replace his bloody shirt, three large water skins, a hide pouch, a dozen iron spikes, needle and thread, and now a coil of stout rope . . . all for the price of an Urgoffic warhorse. To compound things Tanout had been thwarted in his search for a suitable shaft for his weapon, for in this scrubland of twisted acacias and stunted shrubs straight-grained wood of any length was hard to come by. Tanout patted the empty socket of his lance-head — it seemed his future confrontation with the Glasswyrm was shaping up to be increasingly more intimate.

“Kid, we aren’t leaving here without some more of that wine, but keep your eyes open for — ”

But Hasn was gone.

With the approach of evening the market crowds were thickening, and the square thronged with a chaotic array of buyers and sellers. Tanout scanned the mob, an uneasy feeling churning his guts. Despite a hundred different modes of dress most in the crowd concealed their faces out of modesty or desert necessity. Merchants and their servants had begun lighting an array of lamps and braziers scattered throughout the market square, replacing the weird half-light of the fast setting sun with an orange flicker that threw harsh shadows in all directions.

A commotion near a rug-seller’s stall drew Tanout’s attention and he pushed his way toward it. A boy’s voice raised in protest, speaking the trade tongue of the Yeq.

It was Hasn, struggling in the restraining grip of a tall man, taller even than Tanout, and richly dressed in eastern silks. The man shouted at the boy, and attempted to touch the skin of his face with a — was it a pin? — Tanout did not stop to wonder as he moved swiftly to their side and felled the man with a blow to the stomach.

“Tanout-gha, he is saying — ”

“Shut it, Hasn.” The wheellock was out and pointing at the man on the ground. The market had grown still around them.

The man returned Tanout’s glare coolly, though pain creased the skin around his eyes. His face showed the wasted appearance of the ascetic, or the madman, but he bore the features of the men of Yeq just the same. He smiled mildly and made a placating gesture.

“You are the northern hunter, Tanout, once the best they said. You should know the boy is not what he seems.” The man’s Urgoffic was heavily accented, but precise.

“Still the best.” Tanout said, scowling.

“I had not meant offence, noble guest. Please, I am called Qwazrt, a bond shaman to the Overtaxer of Djinrras. A friend. But he,” the man gestured to Hasn, who had moved to safety behind Tanout, “is dangerous. Bad magic. You make a grave error — ”

“You talk of graves, dog, I wonder if your Naesrian masters will have you dig your own when they are done with you, or just leave you where you’re slain?” Tanout, scanning the crowd,  had caught a glimpse of the face above the veil, the dead eyes and hairless skin of a temple assassin edging along his flank. Tanout took a step backward, and felt Hasn do the same. He was inches from one of the square’s freestanding lamps, and the heat of it reawakened his body’s need to sweat. He hated sweat, hated heat, hated the desert.

“Northerners like you, I care not for your politics; but that boy I can sense . . . cut him, see his blood and you will know he is not of our kind. Unless you are his hruda —

But Tanout was not listening. With a roar he flung down the heavy tripod lamp upon the nearest stall — a cloth vendor’s — and spun to catch Hasn’s arm in an iron grip. Dragging the boy in his wake, Tanout ducked the low canopy of a dye merchant, stiff-armed a mailed bodyguard that had tried to block him, and kicked over another lamp to send flaming oil sliding across the square.  Something whistled through the air near them as they dodged into the nearest alley.

“You know the way to this mining town in the dark?” Tanout panted as they moved quickly between buildings. Behind them the square erupted in chaos, screams and calls and the frightened sounds of a stampede. They stopped abruptly and Tanout trained his weapon down the length of the dark alley, waiting for a figure to appear.

“It is many days from here, Tan — ”

“Dammit kid, I’m not stupid! I know that, can you get us started? Get us up into those hills tonight?”

“Yes,” Hasn jerked his arm from Tanout’s grasp with surprising strength, “I hope you have what you need. Come, this way.”

Tanout, glancing suspiciously behind him, followed the boy, and together they left Djinrras. They did not speak again that night.

* * *

Tanout, puffing for breath, scrabbled up the long, rough southern slope that led to his camp. Things had gone well, the trap had done its job.

“Did it work, Tanout-gha?” Hasn, just visible as a silhouette at the top of the rise, shouted down to him in an eager voice.

“Yea,” Tanout shouted back, waving an arm for Hasn to wait.

“Are they dead, Tanout-gha?”

Tanout ignored him and continued his climb, going on hands and knees when the occasion demanded it, miserable in the heat. The noontime sun, as fierce here as it was in the desert, presided over a broken brown landscape of rocks and hard earth pocked with stunted grasses as brittle and dry as mummies. They were five days north of Djinrras, in hill country. Wyrm country.

“Are they dead, Tanout-gha?” Hasn asked again as he ran to help Tanout up the last stretch of the escarpment. He followed close to the big man as Tanout lumbered into the shade of the standing rock under which they had made their camp. Tanout, face crimson from exertion, unstoppered a waterskin and drank before answering.

“I don’t know, I hope so. Sure as hell enough rock came down in that defile, but it’s impossible to say. If I missed ’em they’re going to be a long time digging through or finding a way around.” Tanout mopped the sweat from his forehead and leaned against the cool standing rock. He felt stiff and old.

“You’re bleeding through the bandage. I will change it.” Hasn knelt to inspect Tanout’s dressing, began unwinding it while the big man grumbled.

“No need.”

But Hasn busied himself with the task, chatting amiably. Tanout ignored him, thinking of the fine trap he had sprung on Qwazrt and the two assassins that had followed them into the uplands. Tanout and Hasn had spent the better part of a day hauling stones and hammering spikes into the splintering shale of a steep-sided passage through the hills, before Tanout sent Hasn back to their camp. He knew Qwazrt could sense the boy, and had not wanted to arouse his suspicions. Tanout stayed at the pass, lying in ambush though the night and into this morning — until the shaman and his Naesrian companions appeared in the defile below and a sharp tug of the rope brought a landslide down around them.

“Ah!” Hasn hissed, dropping his knife and holding his hand. Tanout’s old bloody bandages were heaped in front of him and he was cutting new ones from linen cloth. He held his arm out to show Tanout the faint red smear on the back of his left hand. “A sharp blade — now I have two sets of bandages to prepare.”

Tanout squinted, said nothing.

“Ah, it stings. I imagine to you it would be nothing, as you have suffered many such hurts, yes Tanout-gha?”

The wheellock shown dully in the shade, Tanout blew sand from the mechanism and began to polish the steel.

“It is a good thing I did not cut my right — ”

“Alright dammit,” Tanout snarled, “your blood’s as red as mine. Why don’t you just go ahead and tell me what that lickspittle shaman was on about, huh? You’ve done well avoiding the subject so far.”

Hasn froze, looked at Tanout, smiled. “Yes, you are right. That man, Qwazrt. He sensed my mother in me I think.”

“And what does that mean, kid?”

The boy sighed, and looked north over the vast sweep of the uneven uplands. To Tanout he seemed less a child now, though oddly more innocent, more vulnerable, than at any time since they had met.

“My mother was . . . it may be said that she had insight, a gift. To jealous men like Qwazrt, who know a taste of something akin to it but cannot guess its depths, it was magic. Black magic. I have a little, very little, but he knew I had it just the same.”

“So what do you have?” Tanout asked.

“Very little, as I said. Some understanding of people, my skill with languages, some knowledge of storms.”

“And what about that wraith storm in the Yeq the night before we met?”

Hasn only stared at Tanout, a look halfway between pleading and fear forming on his delicate face.

“Hah! Nothing you could do about that, was there? Magic men, fortunetellers, all that stuff doesn’t rate next to the real thing. I’ve seen drake magic up close and believe me nothing any priest or sorcerer ever played at comes close. Just get that stuff out of your head, and the next time some fool like Qwazrt comes after you — kick ’em between the legs!” Tanout smacked a fist in his palm for emphasis and laughed.

“You are right Tanout-gha, thank you. We should eat and rest here for tomorrow’s climb.”

Tanout agreed and Hasn, smiling broadly, scrambled to share out some food from their packs. While they ate Tanout told the stories of his life, the wild hunts and long treks through the wilderness, the far distant lands and strange beasts and even stranger men that he had encountered. Hasn relished every word, and kindled a fire in the lee shelter of their standing stone, and kept it going long after the sun went down.

“It was that Kirin hunt that brought me, in a roundabout way, to the killing of dragons. It’s not just something you decide to do breaking fast one morning, you know. Most drake hunters are from one or two great families, raised up from birth. That’s their big strength I suppose, but also their weakness. They don’t innovate. Me — I’m nothing if not original.” Tanout chuckled as he sipped from the water skin, pretending he did not miss the wine.

“But why?” Hasn asked.

“Why what?”

“Why hunt dragons? No . . .” Hasn fidgeted on his stone, drew his bedroll closer over his shoulders and leaned closer to the fire, “I think I know. But why this dragon? Why come all the way to the Yeq, after all you’ve already done, after . . . after so many years? You don’t have to.”

Tanout smiled. “More money than you can possibly imagine.”

“Is that it? Only money?”

“Hah! ‘Only money?’ asks the pfennigless boy without a family or trade. Can you think of a better reason?” The talk of drakes had excited Tanout, and he drew his long lance-head and began to sharpen it with a whetstone. It was the length of his forearm, sharply tapered, with a cross piece below the blade to prevent it penetrating too deep on the thrust. It was a thing of palpable power, a weapon that had been made to kill dragons.

“Then why is someone from your land willing to pay so much for the death of a lone creature so far from any care you or your people may have?”

Tanout slid the stone along the blade, and the metal rang with a sound like joy. The wind died and the grassy smoke of the fire fogged the air between them. “The Theoculator, a very powerful man, has a son who is slowly dieing. In his desperation he has turned to old books and rituals for a cure. One hope stands out, but it requires the heart of a dragon. An aged and powerful wyrm, of such a kind that has long vanished from the world save in one remote place—that’s why we’ve come, me, the families, the amateurs, even the temple-bred idiot killers of Naesria.”

“But that is madness! You know that, Tanout-gha, you of all men must know that the heart of a dragon holds no such power. It is flesh like any other.”

Tanout grinned. “Of course, but if the man wants to pay what difference does it make?” The stone snicked smartly along the razor edge of the lance.

“Difference? It’s — you kill an innocent being for — ”

“Innocent?” Tanout said, “Kid, it’s a drake, a goddamned monster. In its hot-blooded youth this thing probably ranged up and down the Yeq for leagues, razing and killing. The world is better off without it.”

Hasn was standing now, visibly angry. “You know that is untrue. I think you love killing too much, Tanout-gha,” Hasn spat the honorific, as if it left a sour taste, “I think you are only here because you feel less an old and weak man when you spill the blood of dragons.”

Tanout said nothing. The whetstone sang along the length of the blade.

“The dragon is probably dead Tanout-gha.” Hasn sat back down, made the effort to calm himself. “I have heard this. You know she is old, you know that her heart cannot help the son of the churchman.” Schreeeet went the stone over ancient steel. “I have heard the account of your deeds, you are a great man. A wealthy and respected man, you do not need to do this.” Schreeeet. “We both can leave, I hate the Yeq. I will travel with you. I can help you with many things. You have no son.” Schreeeet. “No other hunter has come this far, no one need know we turned back. I think we should go back now—you cannot know how sorry I am to bring you here.” Schreeeeeet!

“You’re right, Hasn,” Tanout said in a whisper.

Relief swept over the boy’s features. “Very good Tanout-gha, thank you, you are a great — ”

“No.” Flat, emphatic. Tanout stood up, looming, underlit by the dying fire he seemed as massive and unyielding as the stones around them. “No Hasn, what you said. A weak old man, you said. You are right, I am.”

“I did not — ”

“No!” Tanout roared, brandishing the weapon. “You’re right, everything you said. But you don’t understand any of it. A drake’s heart — just flesh? You think there’s no power in that? The Theoculator’s boy is as good as gone, true, but that’s not why I’m here. You want to see real power, real magic? This!” The lance-head gleamed wickedly in the firelight, “this is power. Bring down a beast, a drake, feel its life ebb, the hot sting of its blood in your eyes — that’s real magic. Just an old man, maybe, but you don’t know a damn thing about me, boy. I’d kill that wyrm with my teeth, if it’s all I had. Kill it and its hatchlings and every other one of its kind even if it meant damning this whole world to ruin. You don’t know me boy, don’t think you can know me.”

Hasn turned away and prepared his bedroll. Tanout stood, swaying slightly, looking at the boy. Hasn did not return his gaze and the killer of dragons lowered creakily back into his blankets. He flung more twigs on the fire.

“Tomorrow we go to the miner’s village.” Hasn said quietly.

“I thought you said yesterday there was no need? It would slow us down and you could find the way as easily as any of the Arhachbn.”

“We need more rope. You used nearly all of it for the trap. We go there tomorrow.”

“Fine.”

They settled into sleep, worlds apart.

* * *

Tanout shielded his eyes from the sun and looked north at the pathetic collection of hovels and tents that comprised the Arhachbn mining encampment. Their long walk over the arid hill country had been done in silence, Tanout’s several attempts to draw the boy into conversation achieving nothing. Hasn spoke no more than he had to, nor was there any friendliness to his words.

“It looks abandoned.” Tanout saw no movement in the village, nor on the slope of the great hill that rose above it, though it was tracked and scarred by the traffic of the miners.

“They rest at midday. The heat.” Hasn had not stopped as Tanout paused to inspect the place, and had to turn and shout back his answer. “Come, they will be glad to sell to a rich stranger, they may even offer you a meal. Come.”

“A meal?” Tanout grumbled under his breath as he resumed his trudge toward the ramshackle camp. “It doesn’t look like they can even feed themselves.”

The place could not be called a village, and it was difficult for Tanout to believe that the Arhachbn had been here for more than a year — though the signs of their digging ravaged the landscape in all directions, and their waste was heaped in a noisome midden downslope of the camp. That they had dealt for a century in copper and quartz with the people of Djinrras and had not in all that time erected anything more permanent than a longhouse of piled stone and turf seemed incredible.

“I don’t like this place,” Tanout said.

“They are poor, that is all. Come.”

Streets little more than footpaths, leaning hovels of unmortered stone and packed dirt and brittle thatch, vacant doorways like the black mouths of caves — the encampment was a place of dry earth and dust. Tanout’s hand moved to his wheellock.

“Come, to the hetman’s house!” Hasn skipped ahead, his voice echoing in the empty space. No wind blew in the hill country.

“Quiet, kid. And don’t get so far ahead,” Tanout said between clenched teeth.

“But you are here to buy goods. Perhaps when the poor miners learn who you are they will not even ask for money! So many stories you could tell them, your great victories! How you trapped and butchered this dragon or that, took their hide for leather, snapped off their claws, took their heads and teeth and spleens and ribs for sale as curios or ingredients for a charlatan’s potion. So many fine stories — ah, look, here they are!”

A man Tanout assumed to be the hetman appeared from the longhouse, and wended his way toward them with a tottering gait. He was ancient.

“Hasn, now isn’t the time for that. Tell this man we are just passing, and that we want to buy some rope or line. Don’t tell him where we are going.”

But Hasn continued to bounce through the street, exuberant. More of the Arhachbn appeared from their huts — what Tanout had taken for age in the hetman was a deathly thinness common to all of them. They did not stop to puzzle at the foreigner and the child, nor to say a word or raise a hand in greeting, but only moved inexorably toward them with precarious steps.

“Should I not tell them who you are? The greatest wyrm hunter in all the world?”

“Dammit, kid, what’s wrong with these people?”

The hetman’s flesh clung to his bones, and a stain darkened the skin around his mouth and the front of his meager garments. His eyes goggled dryly in reddened sockets.

“We’re going back, Hasn. Now.”

The boy stopped, regarding Tanout with a fey expression. There was fury there, and joy, and something of sorrow too. The delicate features took on a half-familiar cast — though Tanout no longer recognized in Hasn the boy he knew.

“But there is no going back, you taught me that Tanout, remember?” the boy said in a voice as hard and sharp as broken glass.

The villagers edged closer, more appearing from side alleys and dark doorways. Tanout stared at Hasn, unwilling to accept what he saw. The boy smiled back.

“How many rats was it?” Hasn shouted. He turned, skipping past the shambling hetman, and disappeared around the corner of a hovel. “How many rats in the riddle did you step on? I cannot remember, but perhaps I should ask the Arhachbn for you before I go?” The boy’s voice trailed in the distance as more shriveled men and women filled the street, intent on Tanout.

Tanout, pistol in hand, moved rapidly back along the path he had come. No time to think about the boy. He trotted past villagers that gazed at him with hungry, vacant eyes and reached for him as he dodged out of the way. He had not seen this before, never to this degree, but he knew it for drakework of terrible power.

The path was clogged with them ahead — a throng of empty, hungry people. He tuned off the street, taking a downward sloping trail between two crumbling shanties, and ran hard into a woman that clung to him with talons of bone.

“Get the hell off me!” he snarled, smashing the butt of the wheellock across her face, staggering her. She released him and stumbled back into the alley wall.

“Off me,” she said, toothlessly, in a voice like that of a sleepy child.

He ran on, but the hruda were everywhere in the meandering, unfamiliar streets. He fired his pistol into an active brute blocking his path, but the man continued his approach. Drawing his lance-head Tanout slammed it in the man’s guts and ripped upward. The hruda dropped, hiccupping. There was surprisingly little blood.

He wanted to go upslope but circumstance forced him down. Tanout, unable to see beyond the crumbling walls of the huts, themselves the color of the earthen streets, dodged and slashed his way along the path of least resistance. Empty faces, empty people cluttered his course. His knees flared in protest, his wounded shoulder throbbed, and his lungs felt thick and scorched as if choked with wraith sand. He had no stomach for this — he realized now that he had been weary long before he started this quest.

A child latched onto his leg from the entrance of a shack as Tanout lumbered past, tripping him face forward onto the hard earth. Tanout twisted, lashed out and punched the boy — of an age not much less than Hasn — who only tightened his embrace. The shadows of the hruda touched him and the stalks of their withered legs filled his vision as Tanout flailed in the dust of the street. He struggled to regain his feet, cuffing at the boy, gasping an inarticulate plea. Many hands were upon him now, hands like claws. The child looked at him with hollow eyes as Tanout poised his lance-head for a strike.

The light went out of the boy’s eyes, though Tanout had not struck.

A shift had occurred. The hands that grasped him seemed nothing but the scraping limbs of dead trees, the hruda that crowded close little more than dry corpses. A quiet droning filled the air, as if a swarm of bees circled the hillside. Tanout broke the child’s grasp and struggled quickly to his feet, shoving the motionless hruda roughly aside, toppling them, not looking at their blank faces.

At the edge of the knot of hruda one such face held a different breed of blankness, but Tanout failed to see it. The owner of that face caught Tanout’s arm as he blundered near and deftly spun him around, locking Tanout’s weapon hand behind his back.  The cool steel of a knife was at Tanout’s neck, and a colder voice in his ear.

“I allow life. Qwazrt insist to use you. Resist and I cut fingers, ears, nose.”

The assassin pushed Tanout forward with cruel strength, and they left the teetering clump of hruda. The warped villagers stood silently in the streets of the encampment, or lay still where the force of their momentum had hurled them to the ground. The rhythmic intonation droned on, at once loud and strangely distant.

“That’s Qwazrt doing this?” Tanout asked.

“You speak not. Two brothers dead from you. Two.” The assassin wrenched Tanout’s arm further back, making him wince in pain. The knife felt like a chunk of ice against his neck.

Tanout growled, jerked his arm to loosen the assassin’s lock, and resisted the urge to comment. No matter what happened, he would live to see a third dead Naesrian Temple brother, of that he was certain.

* * *

Theirs was to be an uneasy truce. Tanout, after being marched up the miner’s hill and out of the village in the sure grip of the assassin, was brought before Qwazrt, who looked every bit the madman stripped to the waste and mumbling through a cloud of perfumed smoke. The droning ceased, the rolled-back eyes refocused, and Qwazrt grinned as if he were greeting an old friend.

“As I said to you Tanout, the boy is bad magic.”

Tanout, free of the Naesrian’s hold at last, rubbed the blood back into his arm and scowled. “You bastards should be dead.”

Qwazrt laughed, though a glance at the grim assassin quickly sobered him. “You were close, I will admit, but my friend here has an excellent sense for traps and the like. Unfortunately, his companion died while we cleared our way through your rockslide — bad luck.”

“Shame about that,” Tanout waved the cloying incense smoke away from his face, “I can’t really take credit for killing him then.” He looked at the temple assassin, crouched on the other side of the shaman’s brazier, expressionless. “So, lets have it, Qwazrt.”

“Yes — have what exactly?”

“The pitch, the ploy, whatever you saved my hide for.” Tanout lowered himself onto a stone, cursing himself for a fool for losing his pack in the village. It would be a cold night.

“I have no quarrel with you, but we both now share a desire to stop this boy, yes? I believe — as surely you must as well — that he has something to do with the wyrm.”

“The heart of Glasswyrm goes to Naesria,” said the assassin in a voice as empty as the faces of the hruda.

Tanout, pointedly ignoring the assassin’s comment, said nothing. The arrogant Naesrian had left him his weapons, and Tanout drew his empty pistol and began the ritual of cleaning it.

“The hruda surely convinced you, as you must know as well as I that only a powerful wyrm could transfix an entire village in such a way. How long do you think those people have been like that? It would take an immense will to do such a thing, to keep them enslaved and alive far beyond the point when they should be dead. And the boy was able to pass by them without incident, yes? Tell me, Tanout, how did you survive the wraith storm in the Yeq? Many were not so fortunate.”

Tanout busied himself with the pistol, looking at neither of his new associates.

“Was it in Nahhouti, or the desert itself, that you met the boy?” Qwazrt donned his eastern silks, but he still retained the air of the hardened fanatic.

“The desert, eight days out. Said his caravan was lost in the storm. Led me to Djinrras.” Tanout, scrutinizing his captors — or were they now his partners? — rammed a ball down the barrel of the wheellock. The assassin tracked his every movement with empty eyes.

“And you did not think to wonder why, or to question the boy’s lack of kin?” Qwazrt asked, a trace of amusement in his voice.

“I’d watch that tone of voice, shaman,” Tanout snarled.

“Fast to die for attempt, hunter,” said the killer.

“That your idiot’s way of threatening me? Now I know why the brood temple always sends you stiffs out in threes, seeing how well you’ve done out here.”

“Enough! You are both now in the service of the Overtaxer, and he will see that you are well rewarded for your deeds. There is no need for conflict. We must rely on one another — I can protect us from the wyrm’s conjurings, Tanout knows the beasts like no other, and the Naesrians are experts in the application of violence. We make a fine team.” Qwazrt had extinguished his smoking brazier and began to build a fire, stopping only to chastise them as a teacher would a wayward class. Tanout knew him for a fool then, to think the promises or the prestige of his Yeqi prince would mean a thing to either of the northerners. He locked eyes with the assassin, who returned his stare blankly.

“Then why don’t we get moving?” Tanout asked.

Qwazrt resumed arranging twigs to kindle a fire. “We face much unknown magic, Tanout — the boy, the wyrm — we will rest and I will prepare for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? The place is days away, Qwazrt.”

“Did you think the boy had told you the complete truth? The tunnels of the Arhachbn above us lead to the wyrm, long their master. Tomorrow we ascend, tonight we stand vigil and I prepare to face the unknown. Eat, rest, but please do so with a minimum of commotion.” The shaman looked from Tanout to the Naesrian and back again.

The sky had already darkened, and the chill of evening had rolled in prematurely beneath clouds the color of ash. Tanout wiped the gore from his lance-head and watched the two men he had hoped to kill. Somewhere above him a tunnel led to the dragon, the fabled Glasswyrm, the last beast of its kind anywhere. Somewhere up there too was Hasn, a boy he thought he had known and trusted. A boy he thought had trusted him.

He wished to think on dragons, but could not, and he doubted he would sleep at all on this night of coming storms.

* * *

“First for you — I follow with many knives.”

They had spent a miserable night beneath unnatural rains and cold winds out of the north — unmistakably drakework. Qwazrt had done his best to restrain the squall, but his preparations for the coming confrontation took much of his time, and for most of the evening they suffered the full force of the storm. Tanout and Qwazrt had sheltered as well as they could in a fissure of stone, nursing their small fire while the shaman assembled components for his wards and consulted scrolls of power. The assassin remained in the open, pelted by rain, impassive and unconcerned.

“You’ve got better eyes, trap-spotter, how ’bout you head in first?”

But such a storm had limits, for the natural world could be warped only so far before it slid back into its inherent ways. Day broke as it always had, though the baleful sun presided over an inundated land studded with brown pools and hills freshly tracked by sliding mud. It was the quietest dawn Tanout had experienced in the hill country; as if the already sparse fauna of the place, shocked by the night’s raging torrents, lay hidden and unwilling to face the alien landscape that had once been their home.

“He is right Tanout, you are going first — and I think we need not pretend at the reasons why.”

And so they gathered their things in silence, made their preparations. Qwazrt sorted his tokens and wards, nothing more than a meaningless assortment of trinkets in Tanout’s opinion. The assassin coated one of his long blades with poison of a kind Tanout was familiar with, a form lethal to dragons — and to men. Tanout dried his clothes as best he could, oiled his blade and checked the priming pan of his wheellock for seepage, and stood in the sunlight, seeking warmth. There was a feeling in him he could not name, as if he had newly received word that all who had ever loved him had died in a faraway place. The start of the hunt should not be like this.

“Fine, I’m first. Don’t either of you crowd me.” Tanout spat, accepted a brass lamp from the Naesrian, and entered the cave mouth. It had taken but an hour to ascend the slippery trail from their camp. The tunnel, one of many, bore the heavy scars of the miners. But it also held the subtle traces of the wyrm, the jags and scrapes of claw and scale where no pick could reach, the high, convex ceiling unnecessary for the passage of men, the scorch marks and the reptilian stink of a dragon. Tanout moved into the dark interior, the assassin and the shaman close behind.

“Do you have to mumble?”

But Qwazrt did not answer, lost in the slow rhythm of an incantation. What wyrm would not hear that? Suddenly the whole venture, the whole trip from Dekep to the Yeq, the blundering in the desert, the brawling in the market square, the limping through the bleak hills and tangling with the hruda — and the boy — it all seemed ridiculous, impossible. That he had planned to face the beast alone, with nothing more than a shaftless lance-head, seemed madder still.

“Light is seen, right center way.” The flat voice of the temple assassin sat heavily in the still interior of the mine, and did not echo. The three had entered an underground crossroads from which rough-hewn passages radiated in all directions. The place had seen a century of foot traffic, and was littered with equipment and debris. Tanout studied each passage in turn, and had to conclude that the assassin’s eyes were sharper than his.

“That’s also our wyrm’s route, seems it wants to be found.” Tanout shifted the lamp to his left hand, and drew his lance-head. It felt heavy in his hand. “Stay sharp, when they hit they hit hard and fast.”

They pressed on, Tanout in the lead, lamp held high in the wide tunnel. The Naesrian assassin was next, crouching low, poisoned knife held loosely in his hand. Qwazrt followed, his step even and serene, an incantation against scrying on his lips. The passage sloped upward, its rough floor testament that it had seen less travel than the rest of the Arhachbn mine. Its black walls beyond the lamp’s pale glow grayed as the three moved ever upward, and enough light soon reached them that the lamp itself was unnecessary. But Tanout kept it burning, for he would not trust in a light provided by his host.

“Looks like glass — what do you think, killer?” Tanout asked.

“Yes.”

He had thought it silver at first, rich veins sparkling in the walls of the mine. Then seemed certain it was water, flowing in a loose wet web over the rock. But it was in fact glass that glistened in the low light, and with each step more of the walls and ceiling were given over to it. The sparse net of glass tightened, thickened, its water-clear skin gradually becoming opaque as pack ice. The clean surface amplified the glow emanating ahead of them — Tanout thought it beautiful.

“We are close,” whispered Qwazrt, breaking his muttering only long enough to issue a warning.

Soon the walls of the tunnel were completely sealed in the smooth substance, though the glass itself retained the uneven texture of the stone beneath, causing the light to ripple and shimmer along its length. Tanout felt as if he walked below the sea, its waters held back to allow his passage, an unsuspected source of light and heat at its center beckoning him forward. He had lost his caution and hurried ahead, ignoring the hushed call of the assassin, and what he saw at the passage’s terminus stole his breath as well as his reason.

The Glasswyrm. Dominating the cavern — glass-walled, beehive-shaped, a vast dome of sacred shape, a place for worship — were the coils of the dragon. In sinuous loops it soared above them, many storied, piled length upon length in colossal segments. Uncoiled, sliding over the sands, it would seem a great gleaming river of molten steel. Coiled, piled in massive profusion like the ramparts of a fortress, it out-dared the stones of the world and seemed itself a mountain, or the silver heart of some tremendous volcano, a vital organ of the earth itself.

But the silver had faded, the steel grown dull, and looking at the head of the wyrm — empty-eyed and shrunken — Tanout knew the beast was dead.

“It is as I suspected, yet . . .” Qwazrt entered the cavern, stepping quietly.

“Simple now — hunter find heart, remove.” The Naesrian walked boldly toward the wyrm, unimpressed by his surroundings. His manner seemed a sacrilege to Tanout.

“What heart? It’s been dead for a decade or more. Whatever’s left inside won’t seem a whole lot like a heart to the Theoculator.” Tanout looked at the creature’s massive head, poised peacefully far above them on the coiled mass of its long body. “We’ve wasted our time. I know it doesn’t look that old, but the scales are the last to go — and that hide is tough enough to armor a warship. It’ll look the same a century from now.”

But the assassin came close to Tanout, the poisoned blade still in his hand. “Your weapon for cut, drake-killer. Find heart.”

“You find the damn heart.” Tanout flung his lance-head at the assassin’s feet. “I’ve had enough. Try the second segment from the top if you like, but I’m not grubbing in a long-dead carcass to no purpose.”

“We still have the boy to find, that is our primary reason for being here.” Qwazrt brandished his charms and threw glances around the cavern. It was growing brighter.

“Stow it! My reason is this dead dragon right here, same as his,” Tanout growled. Pointing at the lance-head, he locked eyes with the assassin. “Go on, take it. Dig the heart out and keep whatever you find — I don’t care.”

The assassin stood impassive, judging Tanout. He sheathed his poisoned blade in one quick motion, and slowly bent to retrieve the lance-head while keeping his gaze fixed on the hunter of wyrms.

A flick of the eye downward to locate the weapon, a second’s lapse in concentration, and Tanout drew his pistol on a level with the assassin’s head and fired.

But Tanout’s finger closed on empty air as the wheellock was slapped out of his hand to slide skittering across the glass floor of the cavern. The assassin was on him then, faster than the eye could follow, knocking him to the ground.

Tanout’s own lance-head in the killer’s fist.

Whiteness exploded hotly around them and Tanout screwed his eyes shut against the sudden light as he flung his hands up to ward off the assassin’s blow. Elsewhere he heard shouts and chants, curses, voices he recognized: Qwazrt shouting gibberish, a boy’s voice raised in defiance. He could see nothing in the glare, it was as if the sun itself had been brought into the cavern.

The assassin’s attack was off the mark, the lance-head ripping the skin of Tanout’s left arm before biting into the floor. Tanout struck blindly, hitting flesh. He locked his left arm straight, pain searing its length, and again the blade came down — digging into the meat of his upper arm. Tanout roared, punched, his fist cracking ribs. A gasp escaped the lips of the Naesrian and Tanout punched again, this time gliding his hand down the killer’s flank and fumbling at his belt for a half-remembered hope . . .

The blinding light receded, the glass walls of the chamber dulled, and Qwazrt’s chanting took on a victorious cadence. Above Tanout the Naesrian assassin focused blandly, unflinchingly, and jerked the lance-head up for another strike. But Tanout struck first. The hunter thought he saw a trace of something — pain, disappointment — in the Naesrian’s eyes just before he collapsed, the assassin’s own poisoned knife jutting from his side. Tanout squinted, trying to see further into the chamber, his eyes protesting the sudden shocks of light and dark. He retrieved his lance-head and, heaving aside the assassin, regained his feet. His arm ran hot with his own blood, and his back felt fused tight from the fall.

“I know you for what you are, wyrm-spawn!” Qwazrt screeched, exultant. Tanout’s pistol was in his hands, the gleam of triumph in his eyes. He aimed the weapon at Hasn, who had backed against the towering figure of the dragon. He seemed small and very alone.

The light faded from the boy, the blinding whiteness that had radiated from him to cascade through the prismatic walls of the cave was in retreat, countered by the shaman’s incantation. The soft glow of his skin was the only remainder of the potent sorcery he had wielded. To Tanout he looked exhausted, frightened, and very much the boy he had known. Tanout shouted a hoarse warning and ran toward them.

Qwazrt fired just as Tanout reached him. The wheellock spat sparks and kicked in the shaman’s hand. Tanout reeled, then staggered forward with a snarl. The look of shock on Qwazrt’s face was replaced by horror as Tanout struck him fatally through the neck and ripped his blade outward in a spray of arterial crimson.

Tanout dropped to his knees, slumped to his side, rolled prone. Blood ran from between his fingers as he tried to staunch the flow of the gunshot wound in his chest. He clutched the lance-head in his right hand until his knuckles shone white — he would meet his death as he had lived his life.

“Tanout-gha!”The boy ran to his side, frantic. “Oh! You should not have done this, Tanout-gha.”

Tanout fought to focus. Above him the boy’s face swam in a field of soft light. “What are you?” he said.

“Oh, Tanout-gha. You should not have done this. I am sorry — you cannot know how sorry. I did not want this — I would have gone with you, away from this place. But—but that night, the killing was so deep within you I did not see a way . . .”

“What are you?” Tanout asked again, his voice thick and liquid. He was drowning.

“I did not know . . . I wished to kill all of you but things changed so quickly. My mother wanted me to learn from your people, so that I might choose which world to live in—our world is nearly gone, Tanout-gha. I never thought I would choose a way other than my own, but I wish now I had.” Crystalline tears wetted the boy’s cheeks, and behind him the massive wyrm glistened dully, shimmering in Tanout’s vision. The boy clung to his arm, and Tanout peered intently at the delicate hand. There was no wound where Hasn had pretended to cut himself.

“Your mother . . . ?”

“Yes, Tanout-gha,” Hasn nodded, turned to peer at the enormous creature looming above them. “She has been dead for many years. She left me alone. When the hunters came I decided to try what I had learned. I did not want you defiling her. I know now that you would not have done so.”

Tanout hitched once, sharply, the laugh stifled by his ruptured lung. He smiled a bloody grin. “Which means — means I took a gunstone for nothing.”

“I am sorry Tanout-gha, you cannot know — ”

“One thing,” Tanout’s world swam, his vision narrowed, the hot blood that flowed from him felt like fire on his chilling flesh. He raised a heavy hand to the boy’s shoulder. “Why me?”

“You I did not understand — the others I watched, and I knew them for what they were. You were alone, like me — I wanted to know you.” Hasn smiled through his tears,  “I still do not understand.”

Tanout nodded. Tightening his grip on the dragon’s shoulder, he struck with his dieing breath, plunging the lance-head deep into its chest, piercing its heart.

They died together, no longer strangers, knowing each other at last.

_________________________________________________

BILL WARD’s fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies such as Murky Depths, Every Day Fiction, Dead Souls, Northern Haunts, and Return of the Sword and Rage of the Behemoth from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Bill is a regular contributor to blogs such as BlackGate.com and Flash Fiction Chronicles, and maintains a site dedicated to all things genre at billwardwriter.com


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