The sanguine wine burned going down, it always does. The blood itself was easy enough to consume, but when mixed with the fermented drink, it symbolized the breath of fire. The new recruit winced as he swallowed, retaining his disciplined composure, kneeling for the ceremony on the pulpit. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat to force down the remnants of the wine while sweat slid in beads across his peach skin. His mind swam as the officiant continued the ceremonial speech in front of an intricate marble statue of a dragon with its vast wings unfurled.
He was bequeathed a set of armor, scaled, resistant to the elements, just like a dragon’s hide. Light and hard, allowing for acrobatic freedom, but also the protection needed in the tasks a Wyrm Striker completes. With that armor, he would dance through the air just like the dragons do.
A set of swords next, rested at his knees with the blades crossing, the grips near his thighs. Then, a spear, held out parallel with the floor. The last resort of a Wyrm Striker, the spear was able to pierce through a dragon’s armored skin. The recruit took it in one hand from the center of the haft, his forearm flexing like chiseled flesh when the officiant released his support of the weapon. The recruit set it down gently.
Fathex watched the ceremony conclude from the second floor of the hall. He rubbed the whitening stubble on his chin, the hair a stark contrast to the black of his skin.
“S’that your new boy?” a soldier asked, his face obscured by a helmet with a slit for vision, and a jagged maw, abstractly emulating a dragon’s visage.
“Seems that way,” Fathex responded, crossing his arms and shifting his weight to his right side. “He has discipline, for the most part.”
The ceremony continued, the officiant reciting the origins of their order while the recruit donned his armor. The officiant howled to the ceiling of the chapel the virtues of the Wyrm Strikers; men who centuries ago had taken up a blood oath with dragonkind as a sign of mutual trust. The dragon’s blood imparted considerable strength and elongated life, and in return, those of the order who partook of that blood would stand between man and dragon, so that the two races might live harmoniously. Fathex had grown tired of the erroneous title of “dragonslayer” he and his colleagues were given by the public over time, and committed himself to upholding the blood oath above all else.
“Brings you back, doesn’t it?” the soldier asked.
“Slightly,” Fathex avoided the memory of his own commencement. It had been so long ago by this point.
“I coughed for the rest of the day from the wine.” The soldier chuckled, brushing the short, leather skirt at his waist.
“That, my friend…” Fathex turned and set a hand on the cool metal pauldron of his colleague’s shoulder. “…is because you are weak.”
The colleague brushed the hand from his shoulder.
“You’re such a tosser, Fath. How long do you think it’ll take until this one outgrows your attitude?”
“Not long, one hopes.”
“Heh, well Gillet requested you in the sortie room.”
Fathex took one last look down his nose at the young man in ceremony, and rescinded into the dark of the balcony.
“Fathex, meet your new whelp, Artois.” Fathex’s superior, Gillet, waved a meaty hand between the two. It was the hand of one who was well past his days in the field, free to grow thick in sedentary work. Fathex wondered when was the last time Gillet had felt the surge of the blood they all partook in. Given the unnaturally long life afforded to them, Fathex surmised it could have been more than a few decades, at least longer than Fathex’s own tenure. It made Fathex slightly annoyed.
Fully dressed in his newly-given armor, the recruit bowed, his body a perfect corner at the waist, his long ponytail hanging from the side of his neck like a brunette vine. His torso quivered, but he held the pose all the same, waiting for Fathex to respond in kind. He wouldn’t.
“Artois, sounds Cadian,” Fathex said instead.
“Oui sir, born and raised.” Artois stood upright. His voice had the remnants of the lilting Cadian accent, before most everyone spoke the same tongue.
“The two of you are being sent south to Eidlewine immediately. There’s been a disturbance with a wyrm in the area. The mayor requested our services.”
“Eidlewine? That far into the mainland?” Artois sounded surprised.
“Avalanches in the Ridges of Hienne are probably shoving them from their roosts.” Gillet leaned back at his desk with a sigh. “The draconologists think they started their migrations early thanks to the cataclysm, and their patterns are a mess.”
“What kind of disturbance is happening in Eidlewine?” Fathex asked, his arms crossing.
“Two sightings so far. A few burnt fields, some missing cattle, and one unfortunate barn. Minor, mostly, like the others.”
“Far too many of these minor disturbances for my liking; that cataclysm in the west agitated wyrmkin more than we had initially thought. Too many have been brought down.”
“Is it not our job to bring the monsters to heel?” Artois chirped, unsure of his place in the conversation.
“Not every circumstance must end in bloodshed,” Fathex muttered.
“How pacifistic,” Artois replied, trying to convey a general sense of acceptance.
“Nothing to be done about it but our job.” Gillet thrust a thick packet of enveloped documents over his desk toward Fathex. “Get out there and calm things down.”
Fathex took the packet and turned away from Gillet’s desk, glancing at Artois from the corner of his eye. Artois straightened, his armor producing muted clanks.
The young man blurted, “It is a pleasure to be working with you.”
“Give it time.” Fathex took steady strides to the door.
“There you are!” A portly man draped in a silk longcoat wobbled over to Fathex and Artois as they trotted into town on their horses.
A small crowd formed in the fat man’s gravitational pull. Eyes were on them as soon as they had appeared at the outskirts of town. Fathex eyed the man from atop his steed, taking his vaguely nicer manner of dress for such an outlying village to mean he was the mayor. He was most likely frowning, but a bulbous mustache covered his lips.
“You must be the mayor.” The veteran striker leaned back in his saddle.
“I requested for aid nary a week ago!” The mayor thrust his plump fists onto his soft hips as a show of both annoyance and dominance. As if they worked for him.
Fathex slowly scanned the growing crowd, many wore the same annoyed face as their elected official, although most simply gawked.
“What kept you?” demanded the mayor.
“Distance.” Fathex dismounted, and Artois followed suit.
The mayor scoffed at the impunity, but quickly changed the subject, ordering some stablehands to put up their horses.
“So, what are you to do with our dragon problem?” the mayor asked, his tone softened.
“Firstly, my colleague will surmise that it does not have a human problem,” Fathex replied.
The crowd clamored.
“What does that mean?”
“Yah! Why not just find the thing and be done with it, dragonslayer?”
“Because we are only dragonslayers by necessity.” Fathex turned to the mayor. “Where was the wyrm last seen?”
“The old church on the eastern skirt of town, near the forest,” the mayor responded.
“Any homes in that vicinity?”
“Not anymore,” the mayor shook his ball of a head. “It was mostly dried up farmland, abandoned from a pandemic.”
“Artois, speak with the mayor and his…entourage, get all relevant information on the wyrm: size, coloration, time between sightings,” Fathex ordered.
“What of you?” Artois responded, removing his helmet to appear more approachable to the folk.
“Meet me at the church when you are done.” Fathex began toward the church without looking back.
The church truly was old, seemingly abandoned a generation ago. The only thing of worship was decay. Ivy invaded the crevices between weathered bricks, and vines stretched out for the heavens. Shafts of light speared the dilapidated roof, leaving spotlights in empty, crumbling pews, their legs penitent with rot. An entire corner at the front of the church had collapsed, and the damage had spread to the threshold of the front door, leaving half an archway with no wall to support. The most recent thing Fathex could find was a clearing made among the wood and stone, with a dried pool of black in its center. The smell was faint, but familiar. Fathex knelt down, brushing his leathered fingertips across the pool. Flakes broke off from the whole, vaporizing with the friction.
“Only a few days old…” he muttered.
He heard Artois approaching, the characteristic clank of the Wyrm Striker’s armor gave it away.
“Our culprit sounds like a wyvern, copper scaled.” Artois leapt over the rubble from the collapsed wall. “Three sightings, one incident during each, around…two days between each.”
“A wyvern can go roughly two days without food when not hibernating,” Fathex responded. “Everything bigger could last longer, and anything smaller wouldn’t cause as much of a stir.”
“It was seen flying off with cattle on the second and third incidents.”
“Which means on the first it did nothing wrong.”
“On the first incident, it torched the fields to the north of town – what we saw on our way in.”
“And did they attack it on that first sighting?”
“They didn’t say.”
“Figures.” Fathex stood up, resting his hands on the hilts of his swords sheathed at his hips. “There’s blood from an injury, dried over what would seem like a week. My theory is the townsfolk saw it roaming the area, looking for a place to roost or something to eat, and tried to fend it off.”
“Why would it stay in the area if it was attacked?”
“It takes energy to migrate – energy it doesn’t have. The cataclysm has probably spooked the wyrms to the point that they are unsure of where it is safe to sleep, hence the muddled migratory patterns the draconologists mentioned. The threat of humans is most likely outweighed by its hunger, and given that humans are as much part of its food chain as cattle are, it is willing to risk the townsfolk’s ire if it means it can rest in a quiet place like this.”
“What do you propose we do about the wyvern, then?” Artois nudged a corroded brick with his boot.
“The problem is not the wyvern, it’s the people.”
“You think?” Artois cocked his head.
“This isn’t the place to raise whelps,” Fathex opened his arms to the shabby surroundings. “The wyvern will migrate elsewhere once it has the strength to…although it might need another Guernsey or two before it does, having been injured.”
“So we tell the townsfolk to…just wait it out?”
“And not attack it.”
Artois took in the sight of the decaying church, sighing audibly.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Granted,” Fathex said, crossing his arms.
“I’m sorry sir, but that sounds a bit absurd.”
Fathex was silent in response.
Artois continued, “As Wyrm Strikers we have a duty to the people to bring this wyvern down.”
“No, whelp – we have a duty to upholding a peaceful coexistence between the people and the wyrms. The wine we drank gave us insight into the mind of the wyrm, their strength, and their heart. It is not something to be squandered, and certainly not for us to lord over them, but to occupy a middle ground. We are as much dragonslayers as we are sheepherders. We are peace keepers,” Fathex responded.
“But the peace is disturbed, sir. It’s our duty to remove the cause of the disturbance.”
Fathex’s head swept from side to side vehemently. Adrenaline shot, hot like lava, through his veins.
“Then we have as much cause to remove the townsfolk as we do the dragon, since they antagonized it. They were afraid of a razing and they pushed the wyvern directly into becoming the harbinger of that fear. There may still be a chance to avoid bloodshed.”
“Why are you so concerned with this wyvern’s well-being?” Artois threw his arms wide open, his raised voice echoing off the crumbling walls of the church. “It’s only a dragon.”
“Listen here…” Fathex took a determined step forward, but screams in the west interrupted his rebuttal.
“The dragon?” Artois turned.
“That explains why it was not here. Come!” Fathex made a large leap forward, over the debris and Artois. Artois followed, mantling over the fallen wall.
A copper-scaled beast dug its claws into the scorched earth, amidst the remnants of a burnt field of crops. Several yards away a group of minutemen had assembled, with the mayor making sure to hide his wide form behind two soldiers in the back of the group. The men held swords, bows, and spears ahead of them, throttling the grips with unease. Fathex and Artois landed from massive bounds in the ample space between man and dragon. Fathex turned to the group of men with a spear held out at his side to bar encroachment, and Artois stood with his back to him, facing the wyvern with swords backwards in hands.
“Hold,” Fathex called.
“What are you doing? There it is! Get it!” The mayor yelled.
Artois held his left palm toward the wyvern, attempting to stay it. He hoped whatever spiritual bond they might have would suffice. The wyvern hunched over, its wings draping over its body and the ground in an attempt to seem larger. Its gaze met with Artois’, and it remained stationary.
“Our investigation found this wyvern was attacked on its first sighting,” Fathex said.
“Who cares? There it is!”
“You failed to disclose that information; you’re the reason this beast has attacked you – in retaliation.”
“Just be rid of it already! It ruined our fields!”
“And our cattle!”
“Yes, because you all attacked it.” Fathex pointed the tip of his spear at the group of men. “Do you not see that you were the problem in this situation?”
“And what of it? Just take care of the thing before it ruins any more of our livelihood!” the mayor yelled.
“Sir, I am unsure of how much longer the beast will be stayed,” Artois muttered.
“This wyvern was migrating, simply trying to find a place to roost. It stopped only but for a moment, and would have left before long if you fools had not wounded it, delaying its leave. Once again, humans are responsible for the problems they have with dragons.”
“This is preposterous!” The mayor rapped the shoulders of the bowman in his group. “Shoot it, while it is off-guard.”
Fathex and Artois turned and shouted in protest, but the arrows were already soaring over them. Shafts plugged into the wyvern’s shoulders, and one directly into its right eye. An ear-splitting shriek carried over the field, and the beast barreled forward, its claws tearing through the dirt. Many of the minutemen, including the mayor, instantly scattered. Artois leapt over the wyvern, and Fathex turned, barring its jaws with a crossing spear as it pushed him back across the grass. Fathex dug his feet in deep with the faux claws affixed to Wyrm Striker boots, and Artois came from behind, slashing at the wyvern’s left ankle.
“No you fool, get back! I will calm it!” The veteran growled.
The wyvern whipped its tail, forcing Artois away, and Fathex twisted to throw the wyvern into the ground to his side. As the wyvern recoiled, Fathex held his free hand out, and the beast snapped in contestation.
“Easy, now.” Fathex pointed his spear away, behind him.
The bowmen loosed more arrows, and Fathex spun his spear in his hand to snap the missiles before they could find their mark.
“Will you fools stop?!”
The wyvern struggled to jump, but lifted itself into the air and immediately spewed a line of fire towards a haphazard collection of minutemen. Artois leapt high into the air, swiping at the beast, only to be knocked away by its one unwounded foot.
“Artois!” Fathex called.
Artois twisted in the air to land spryly on his feet as Fathex approached.
“It is no use, sir. We must subdue it, it is beyond calming,” Artois spoke between heavy breaths. “Surely you can feel the wrath in its heart as I can.”
“There is still a chance, we just have to draw it away…” Fathex shook his head.
Artois slammed his fist into Fathex’s shoulder.
“Come to your senses, you fool! This situation is beyond repair – it’s time for these sheepherders to become dragonslayers.”
The wyvern circled around, roaring the announcement of another threatening pass. Artois readied himself, but Fathex brushed him aside with the haft of his spear.
“I will do it.”
Fathex rushed into the field, swinging the butt of his spear into the ground to propel himself high into the air with an incredible vault. The veteran striker spun in the air, and then rocketed toward the wyvern spear-first. The spearhead landed squarely between the wyvern’s shoulders, and Fathex steadied himself, digging his boot claws into the beast’s rough hide to keep himself from falling off. The beast cried out, losing altitude but remaining aloft. It swooped low, passing by a ducking Artois.
“Finish it, Fathex!” he screamed.
The wyvern swerved near the town, some of the folk screaming at their windows. Fathex’s own angered howl drowned them out, and he gripped the spear tightly, driving the spearhead deeper into the wyvern’s back. A quick stream of blood erupted from the wound, and the wyvern cried and fluttered away from the field, towards the forests to the east. Artois rushed to follow.
Back at the crumbling church, Fathex stood over the stilled body of the wyvern amidst the viscera of a waning struggle. Fresh sprays of blood painted haphazard strokes on the dusted floor as the beast had squirmed. Fathex knelt down, resting his palm gently on the wyrm’s snout as it breathed its final, labored breaths.
“Sir…” Artois said lowly as he came upon the scene.
Fathex rose, swiping his spear in a wide arc to throw blood from its blade.
“It is done,” he responded flatly.
“Are you alright?”
“You asked why I was concerned with this wyvern’s well-being?”
“You asked. Do you really want to know?” Fathex asked, turning.
Artois remained still as their gazes met. Fathex’s eyes were glossy, reddened with sorrow.
“They are as much a part of us, as we are of them. All those centuries ago, when our order was created, the dragons trusted our predecessors. They all understood, both man and wyrm, what was necessary in order for the two to coexist,” Fathex continued. He rested his spear upright in the creaking wood. “Dragons are always honest in their intentions, be they good or ill. Humans…humans are another kind of beast.”
“Sir…I fear you may be more understanding of the wyrms than you are of your own kind,” Artois said.
Fathex’s head faintly tipped vertically.
“My own kind? What makes you think I am human anymore?” he muttered.
Fathex walked forward, his stride sure, but heavy with guilt.
“You think of yourself something more than human? Because of the wine we consumed?” Artois asked. “You might be going mad, I’m afraid.”
Fathex dropped his free left hand on Artois’ shoulder.
“If that is what you believe, then you should be afraid, Artois. For you and I are of the same kind of beast now.”
Fathex passed Artois, letting his hand slide from his partner’s shoulder as he headed for the church’s archway.
This story is part of the Adjacent Anthology, a devised collection of stories that take place in the same world as Blast Back, which you can also read for free by following that link!