The cool morning dawned bright, just a few lazy clouds hanging around like tufts of used cotton-candy in the colour-washed blue of the clearing atmosphere. Dante soared elegantly, wings caressing the gentle thermals that arose from the foothills below as the golden orb of life crept between the two snow dusted peaks to the right of him. The lances of light glanced of his obsidian scales which absorbed the heat, while reflecting away the rays in a shimmering mass of rainbows where condensation had formed from the effects of the altitude upon his body. A whim came upon him then; and with stronger beats of his muscular wings he tore through the air to face the bringer of life head on, as he was embraced by its comfort, and the promise of the day ahead.
‘Yes,’ he mused, ‘He was a dragon in every sense of the word. Lover of fire, forged from the heat of his parent’s loins, reveller in the freedom of the skies. And lonely…The only member of his proud race for several leagues…Life was cruel to him…’ he thought as his mood swung quicker than the muscles in his shoulders. He had the whole mountain range that stretched before him to himself, and yet no-one to share it with.
A twinge of hunger clawed at his belly, the feeling temporarily overriding his sudden funk as the memory of the failed hunt on the previous day stabbed at his body in a rude reminder of his mortality. His emerald eyes filtered the strong light as he started a sweep of the mist strewn landscape below, in search of his next potential meal. It didn’t take long, his ocular ability far outstripping that of lesser aerial predators like the hawks…in fact they were rather tasty when caught unaware. He chuckled to himself, bony as hell though!
A young farmer, looked to be a goat, was perched precariously upon a well fed, if exhausted stallion…The horse’s flanks were heaving with effort as it rested in an attempt to regain its wind, sweat streaks marring the smooth chestnut hair as billows of hot breath plumed from its nose with each strained breath. They might as well have lit a campfire, for no smoke could have given them away clearer to one overhead.
A slight adjustment of his wings, and Dante began the stoop that would end a bare quarter league from where he started with the death of one or both parties in the grip of his talons… meat was meat after all. He had no idea there was a second source of breathe lying in wait for its target, or for that matter that the target was not the same one…
Rena silently lay in wait for her prey. She had muzzled her nose with a cotton handkerchief so that no betraying breaths would condense into the frost laden air from where she crouched, concealed inside a lightening hollowed tree. It had not been easy tracking down this particular prey… after all, it usually preyed on the peoples like her…but she was resourceful. A copper here, a penny-bit there, and a flagon of ale in the right taverns, loosened the right jaws. All of which had led her to the village in the valley around three leagues away. She had no idea of course if the black dragon that had been seen circling the peaks was the one she was after, but after laying eyes upon it, she was as sure as she could be.
You would think the villagers would want someone to hunt the beast, therefore ridding them of a pest that depleted their herds, game reserves…and population on occasions…but no. They knew that if she failed, well attention would be drawn to them, which was not something they wanted. She couldn’t really give a fuck to be honest about the village…if she succeeded today, well they would be living in peace until the next threat came along… and she would be happy knowing that her master’s killing had been avenged. If she failed…well she would be joining her master wherever he was, and the villagers would just have to live or die by the consequences…they meant nothing to her.
The bait for example…She knew that dragons were intelligent, spoke the language of the peoples, but did not live with them due to well…the impracticalities of being at least twice the size of anyone else. As a general rule, they did not attack the people, but hunger, evil or madness drove them to it on occasions…they did help themselves to flocks and herds though…occasionally leaving payment, but more often than not, not. The stallion ‘Charles’ was her own, the boy sitting astride him, a quarter-wit she didn’t even know the name of who had received a good kick to the head by a mare in heat a few years back. A burden to the family, he had recovered just enough to stand, but nothing else…Two silvers had all it had taken for his parents to ‘Forget’ where he was so she could collect him from the barn and tie him to the saddle. She had then ridden hard, covering three or four times the distance required to ensure that Charles was winded enough to provide a plume big enough for a blind granny to see.
Patiently, she crouched still in her uncomfortable perch until she spotted the bastard she was hunting three hundred yards away in the glare of the dawn. Slowly she brought up her yew longbow, reaching back to her full quiver for an arrow. Taking her time, she nocked the fine ash shaft to her string, not wanting to rush herself as she aligned the barbed steel tip with her target carefully. She drew upon her body’s internal reserve of energy, before pouring most of it into the scale ripping steel. Pulling back on the bowstring, she sighted, and with her breath held for steadiness, released her grip on it and watched as it began to close the distance. 250 yards…200 yards…100…50… Just as the arrow struck the unsuspecting dragon, Rena spoke the words to activate her spell, causing the pent up energy inside the steel to ignite with the destructive force of a careless alchemist on a bad day.
The effect was greater than she had hoped for. For a moment, the only thing visible was a flaming tornado of fire spiralling around the very surprised dragon. Before it could so much as cry out in pain, her prey fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
The last thing Dante saw before unconsciousness claimed him was a female anthro-wolf drop from a tree, before walking towards him as his vision sunk into darkness, and he knew no more.
His world consisted of nothing but pain. Dante ached all over, each and every breath he took sending waves of agony crashing through his body. Panic took control momentarily and he tried to stand up, to flee, far, far away from the agony, only to discover his limbs were bound by some sort of rope which resisted all his efforts to break.
A voice he didn't recognize penetrated his ringing eardrums, and he turned his scorched eyes in an attempt to focus upon its source. "Enjoying your stay? I made it especially comfortable for you," it said sarcastically.
Dante realised the voice belonged to his attacker, the wolf he saw drop from the tree in his last seconds of clarity before his mind shut down. She now approached his face with a sick glee on her phizzog. "Do you remember me, Kalaw? I remember you clearly, you evil bastard. After what you did to me and my master, I’d never forget about you." She hissed out the last few words, savouring the moment.
Dante was dumbstruck by the accusation. He’d done what? That wasn't his name! "You're crazy! I've never met you before in my life! My name is Dante!" he exclaimed in response, struggling a little harder against his bonds, despite the pain from his burnt scales lancing through him.
"Don't lie to me! You know EXACTLY what you did!" Fury coloured her voice, twisting her fair features, "You murdered Master Sekal! Five years ago, you KILLED him in cold blood, and before you die I want to know why!?" A tear ran down her face as the memory of her master lying bent and bleeding in her arms her came rushing back to her.
"I’ve told you already. I didn't…I have never known any Sekal, and I certainly don’t know you!"
"Liar! Don't you dare lie to me!” Rena lost what little control she was hanging onto. She walked over to Dante and grabbed a hold of the rope that was looped around him and readied herself for what she was about to do. She focused her anger inside the rope, imbibing part of her energy into it, creating a link between herself and it. "He was all I had, and now you are about to die for your actions."
"I didn't kill your master! What the hell do you want from me? What do I need to prove in order for you to stop this madness?" He pleaded. Why wouldn't she see reason? Why wouldn't she see she was making a mistake? A vendetta had obviously blinded her to the obvious, but the red haze of insanity blurred her eyes and bunged up her ears.
"What do I want from you? Why I want you to die and rot in whatever hell-pit you dragons go to when you expire," she spat.
The strength of her anger surged into the rope, causing it to constrict around him. Dante let out a wordless shriek as his bones were crushed, wings mangling as the fine bones splintered beyond repair and blood began to pour from his orifices. He panicked. He was not ready to die. Not here. Not before he figured out who he was. Not before he recovered his memories that kept vanishing without warning. He was NOT going to die now.
"Nooooo!!!" Dante bellowed with what was surely his last breath. Suddenly, something deep inside him rose to the surface. The band of metal on his wrist glowed green for a second, and his dying body erupted into bright green flames, reducing his magical bonds to mere ashes in seconds. His bones popped back into place, healing as if nothing had ever happened to them, cuts and gashes disappeared without scars, his only signs of injury long gone…with the single exception of the long jagged scar that marred his chest…the one that he had no recollection of ever receiving.d
Rena could not believe her eyes. Why hadn't he died? She didn't have time to react before Dante lunged forward, pinning her to the ground with his claws. His eyes had changed with the green fire as well; they now glowed with a faint orange hue and seemed to peer straight into her very being. Frozen with fear, she had no choice but to lie there as he spoke with a pained voice, one full of sorrow and despair.
"Please just leave me alone."
Rena just nodded, unable to form any reply of her own. She knew that her life could well be over as she couldn’t reach for any of her assassins’ knives with her arms pinioned as they were by her quarry’s superior weight, not that they would have done much good against a beast that had just resurrected himself in front of her. Dante released her from his grip, and turned to walk away, barely making it three feet before collapsing beside her, the green fire fading away.
What had just happened? He was supposed to be a cruel, ruthless monster who had killed her master without remorse or pity… And yet he hadn't put up much of a fight, even after she had almost killed him! Well she had killed him, if he had been a normal dragon, but that was something that also puzzled her. She tried to crawl towards his wrist, the one with the mysterious band of metal on it, but the gem in the middle flashed warningly as her hand approached it, a wash of magical power more ancient than anything she had encountered before washing over her senses…She backed off immediately.
Was this really Kalaw? The dragon before her certainly looked like the Kalaw she remembered from that fateful night. Rena began to question her own judgement, which was something she hadn't done in many years. Not since that day... She shook off the thought; it brought back too many bitter memories that were best to remain buried in the past. Could this dragon…Dante as he called himself really be innocent? Something wasn't right here. He was safe for now though, her honour as an assassin wouldn't allow her a second attempt at his life, unless he attacked her, or until proof of ‘Dante’s/Kalaw's’ guilt could be found. She'd have to wait until he woke up so she could question him more thoroughly to find out for herself.
Dante awoke the next morning tied uncomfortably to a tree. ‘Figures…That crazy bitch must still want something from me,’ he thought, though how the fuck she had managed to move his huge body on her own he had no idea. The stallion that she had lured him into the trap with was tied to a ground tether on the other side of the clearing, grazing contentedly, seemingly ignoring the beast that would have been quite happy to make him his breakfast the previous morning. Fresh blood tainted his nostrils with its scent, and he turned his head to see the young goat farmer’s corpse, stripped of clothing and dead from a single stiletto wound to the heart lying within reach of his neck.
“Awake finally, killer?” the bitches voice asked, and he swung his head to try and locate her, but couldn’t.
“Looks like it,” he replied groggily.
“No need to be sarcastic…As you were hunting yesterday, I assumed you were hungry. Breakfast won’t run away from you now, I made sure of it,” the bitch replied.
“And you call me a cold blooded killer…” Dante spat.
“His family was paid, he was a burden. It would have been crueller to leave him out here to starve to death…now are you going to eat him, or should I bury him?” Rena replied flatly.
“Hmmmph! Where are you anyhow?” he asked as he shifted against his restraints, his eyes still not being able to spot his captor. The ropes were too tight and too strong to break free from…Wherever she was, she definitely knew her knots! “If you let me free, I will dispose of the evidence of your ‘gift’ to me then. As you can probably hear, my stomach is grumbling rather louder than it should be.”
Rena dropped from the branches overhead, bouncing of his snout in a tease before hitting the ground and rolling out of his reach, “And what is to say that if I let you free I will not become the horsderves?” she asked as she brushed herself off.
“You obviously know something about my kind…what if I give you my blood word that I will not kill or eat you, unless in self-defence?” Dante asked.
“You would bond yourself magically to me in that way?” Rena asked shocked. The beast she had tied to the tree was puzzling her more and more with his actions. She had no doubt that the evil Kalaw would be more willing to die than do what her captive was suggesting. At least from the arcane knowledge she had gathered on said Kalaw while she hunted him. There was one way she could determine if this was a ruse of course…but it would be a serious commitment for both of them…“Add that you will protect me from harm until I release you, on pain of your own death, and we have a deal dragon.” She stated firmly.
“My name is Dante, not dragon. And why should I protect you? You have tied me up in the night for no reason.”
“Ha! No reason eh…I fought and near killed you yesterday, but somehow you revived yourself fully. I would have cut your throat while you slept, but the mage in me wants to know how you did it. I would also not kill some-being who I was not sure of the identity of. You say you are Dante, I say you are Kalaw, the murderer of my master. You are identical in every way.”
“I know of no Kalaw; and what did you say happened yesterday?” Dante asked, shaking his head to clear it of its persistent sleepy fug.
“What happened is you should be dead. I shot you with a mage arrow that was charged with my anger over the murder of my master by a dragon who looks identical to you. You survived that, so I wrapped you in a mage rope, and charged it to slice and dice you into salami sized pieces! You then suddenly burst into green flames, dismissed all my enchantments like they had been placed by a rank amateur, healed in front of my eyes, pounced on me, but did not attack me, and then collapsed. What would you have done in my situation exactly?”
“Ha ha…I am fat enough as it is! I tied you up so I would be safe.”
“Well if what you are saying is the truth, I remember nothing past an explosion and hitting the ground. And then you appearing out of the smoke before I blacked out. Why exactly did you try and kill me again?”
“Because I thought you had killed my master. I thought you were Kalaw…I am now so confused.”
“What is your name?” Dante asked as tears began to form in the huntress’ eyes.
“Rena,” she sniffed.
“Well Rena…I can’t feel my wings, but I can feel my stomach. Does this Kalaw have a scar on his belly like me…because that is something I seriously doubt can be covered up, hell knows I have tried often enough. Not exactly a dragoness puller either if it appears you have been gutted by something in the past.”
“Erm…no,” Rena answered hesitantly.
“Then can you cut me free, and we can discuss further the terms of my blood word. You will have to make one with me to, if you want that trust from me.”
“Of course…Oh fuck it! I will cut you down then. One false move though, and I will try and kill you again.” She stood and approached him carefully, slipping her razor sharp kunai knife from its sheath on her belt. She was now almost certain this dragon was not Kalaw…but he could still kill her in a heartbeat for revenge. “How did you get that scar anyway?” she asked as she cut the first rope cleanly.
“No idea…had it as long as I can remember…which as you gather is not long. I do not remember my life as a hatchling, my parents, nothing…apart from the fact that this mountain range is my home.” He dropped to the ground and began carefully stretching his wings and limbs out to make sure he had suffered no muscle strains. “I think I am around 300 years old.”
“300 years with no real memories, must make for an interesting life.” Rena commented, turning her head a little as Dante bent and swallowed the goat boy whole, without chewing.
“What? No, a lonely one actually…I never remembered my friends, so they just drifted away. Not very polite with the dragonesses either if you have some fun and then wake up the next morning and call them the wrong name. Though I always remember it about a week later…by which time of course they have fucked off to another area of the land. I can probably remember the last 50 or so years give or take, but if something happens that exhausts me, I can’t remember twelve hours. So you must have exhausted me…though from the conversation, not in a nice way,” Dante explained with a sideways leer.
“You can go fuck yourself if you think that was part of the deal!” Rena said, returning the grin slightly.
“More fun with another…”
Rena laughed and cheered up slightly. “So…Dante. Were you serious about that blood word?” She queried again.
“Deadly…puts your mind at rest, and I wouldn’t mind a friend to talk to every now and again. You may have to remind me who you are though,” he replied with a chuckle.
“How about you bind yourself to protect me like I suggested…And then join me on the quest to destroy your doppelganger. Kalaw is guilty of more than one crime against the peoples… you wouldn’t want another hunter to come after you like I did. What are you like as a fighter?”
“I have no idea…but from this scar, not good. What would I get out of that aspect of the deal?” Dante queried.
“A friend as you suggested, adventure, and I will use everything in my mage powers that I can to try and solve your mystery for you.”
“The mystery of why you can’t remember anything clearly…and of the band on your wrist which I cannot get near because of its power. I have a distinct feeling that the two are connected.” Rena said as she ate one of her journey rations.
“Mmm…I agree, but only for a period of twenty four moons. If we have not found Kalaw by then, if you have not solved the puzzle of me…then we go our own ways. Friends for life, unless we can’t stand each other. I am sure you don’t want to be saddled with a dragon for the rest of your life, I would get in the way of pups a little, yes?”
Rena laughed, “No pups for me…friend. The path of the Mage and assassin is a lonely one. Future husbands don’t like the idea that they could be fried by a mage-bolt if the catch me in the wrong mood, or wake up with a knife in their backs.”
“You could always find another of your kind,” Dante suggested.
“Sorry…I work alone. We are too highly strung. A shared flagon or two in the Inns is a far as we take it. The males of course take a serving wench to bed for stress relief.”
“And you?” Dante teased.
“Heat suppressant herbs, and an iron conviction to my craft… Ask another question of that nature and I might make sure you will never have a stress relief issue of your own in the future…” She waved her knife at him suggestively, and he held his paws up in defeat with a grin on his face.
“Sorry…!” Dante protested, “So you in on the amendment?”
“Yes…so what happens next?” Rena asked, “I have never exactly done this sort of thing before.”
“Oh that’s easy… pass me your knife.” She handed it over, hilt first. Dante carefully used the point to pierce the scales in the centre of his left front paw. “You do the same with your left hand,” he instructed, handing the knife back. She did as instructed, watching as the red elixir bubbled up from the clean incision. “Right, grasp my paw, palm to palm so our bloods mix.” She followed his instruction, wincing a little as his blood stung in her open wound. “Now we make the oath. I Dante, hereby swear by my blood that for the next twenty four moons I will never attempt to cause harm to, kill, or injure Mage Rena…” he looked askance at her.
“Cresentstar,” she filled in for him with a smile.
“…Cresentstar. I also pledge to do all I can to protect her from coming to personal harm while attempting to fulfil her quest.” He gestured with his free paw to her.
“Ahem…I Rena Cresentstar hereby swear by my blood that for the next twenty four moons I will never attempt to cause harm to, kill or injure the dragon called Dante. I also pledge to do all I can to solve the mystery of his wrist band and memory loss.”
“Then by the sun’s witness, I pronounce us bound!” He sparked his healing fire and bathed their hands in the ethereal flame as both cuts healed without scars while pressed together. “Now you know that if either of us breach that bond, we will sicken and die?” Dante asked.
“I do,” Rena replied.
"So what now?" Dante asked.
Rena glanced up at the sky, gauging the position of the sun, “I would suggest that we try and find Kalaw’s cold trail again, but I am still a little tired from our altercation yesterday, so I vote for staying put another night.”
“What led you to me?” Dante asked, nodding in agreement with a yawn.
“Rumours…I should have listened to them more I suppose, as the villagers did say you had been around for a while, and I have travelled over three hundred leagues to get here. Everywhere I went, someone said that a black dragon had been seen before me, so I assumed I was trailing Kalaw.”
“Mmm…could Kalaw have mage powers himself? It is not unknown amongst my kind,” Dante asked.
“Possible I suppose,” Rena mused.
“Then could what you have been following have been an illusion or a mage wraith. Sent in this direction to confuse you?”
“But why would he do that? Master was far more powerful than I am? I would have barely caused him to pause…”
“Was your master’s blood the only blood present at his murder scene?” Dante pressed.
“I…I didn’t check…” Rena replied breaking into tears, “I was too busy trying to save him as he died in my arms.”
Dante edged over towards her huddled form, and placed a paw on her shoulder, “It’s all right… it is easy to forget things in moments of great stress, we are all fallible. You loved him didn’t you?”
“Y…yes…but as a father. I was dumped by my parents, and he adopted me, trained me, and nurtured me as his own. His loss was like a knife to my own heart.”
“You have not grieved yet have you?” Dante asked quietly as he ran a paw through her head fur.
“Then let it all out…I am here for you.”
With that Rena broke down completely and turned into Dante’s chest as he hugged her close as the frustrations and tears of grief tore from her soul to splatter upon his scales, the dust washing away to expose the armoured black leafs like Jet pebbles tumbling through the tides of time.
He held her there like an upset hatchling for a few hours until both the sun lowered in the sky and her hysteria died down to just a few gentle sobs, “Better?” he queried gently.
“Y…yes…Why did I just do that? I am always in control of myself, I have to be.” Rena asked, but she didn’t pull away from him.
“Oh, maybe I am just the cuddly listener you needed…”
She punched him with a grin on her tear stained face, “You are anything but cuddly you great oaf!” she replied, rubbing her fist as it had not even dented a scale.
He grinned down at her, “Oh some would say that I am…but I have been thinking for these last few hours. I would guess that Kalaw was injured in the fight and then sent an illusion of himself in this direction. He could have heard of me, even if I have not heard of him. And he assumed that you would find and kill me, thinking it was him. He must not have known of my…well let’s call them powers of healing until we know otherwise.”
“Mmm…so I have travelled all this way for no reason?”
“It would appear so…and Kalaw is likely to be healed and back to full strength by now.” Dante pointed out.
“Shit! Well I suppose we had better head back to my home then and start the trail again. At least I have an indestructible dragon at my side now,” Rena teased.
“I would rather not be nearly killed again thank you…it rather hurt! You have to try and stop that from happening you know…I am not bait!”
Rena chuckled, “I will see what I can do…now the night is upon us. If I gather some wood, could you light a fire for us to sleep by?” she asked.
“So I am just a perambulating pyrotechnic now am I?” Dante teased.
She punched him again… “Sod off…I will go fetch that wood. We will set off at dawn’s first light.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Dante quipped, and darted out of the way when she brandished her knife at him with a smile on her face…