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The first thing I noticed was the icy wind. I sat up in the wooden bed I was in and cast a glance out of the open window next to it. Just then, another breeze came through, so cold I felt I would turn into a statue of ice.

Great, another freezing day in Sparanthur, I thought. When is spring going to arrive?

I sat at the window a moment longer, looking at the view. The Sparanthur Air Combat Corps was situated in the midst of a large plain, right next to the city of Sparanthur in almost exactly the center of Narudea, a nation known for its icy climate and even icier people, situated in the northern reaches of the continent Akaros. The plain had grass four or five feet tall in spots. Because it was early morning, there was dew clinging to it, glowing faintly in the dim sunlight. Miles off to the north, mountains struck up like black knives against the sunrise. Sparanthur was a very warm place in spring and summer, but it was close enough to the mountains that, in winter, the wind was still freezing cold, bringing with it the scent of ice and snow. Six stories below, I could hear the sounds of the dragons waking up in the courtyard. Maoraena, my dragon, would be up soon and itching to go hunting, so I threw the covers off and made my way over to my personal dresser, groping through the dark room, trying to not wake the other riders up, my feet slapping against the cold stone floor. A minute later, I was outside, walking amongst the dragons, decked out in the thick, dark brown riding leathers of the Air Corps. It was always a bit of an odd experience, walking through the courtyard. There were hundreds of dragons, glorious beasts of a million different colors and sizes (some of them approaching a thousand feet long), and yet here they were sequestered in a muddy yard surrounded by two-thousand-foot-high walls with less than fifty feet to either side. It was sad. After a few minutes of browsing, I came up on Maoraena. As dragons go, she was beautiful: she was several hundred feet from end to end, and every bit of it muscle. Her scales were a bright, vibrant red that had a way of sparkling in the light, especially when covered in dew as she was now. She lay curled in a ball, her head resting on one forepaw. I went up and tapped her lightly underneath one of her huge jaws. She opened one of her giant red eyes and stared at me blearily for a second. “Gowen! What is it?” she asked groggily.

“It’s time to go hunting,” I said. She got up, stretched for a second, and looked at the sun, which was still peeking out from behind some mountains in the east (the part of the courtyard we were in was atop a hill, allowing us to see over that way). “Oh, it is, isn’t it?” she mumbled. She lowered a wing to the ground, and I nimbly scrambled up into the saddle I had left on her after running a message to a small village yesterday.

We flew in silence for half an hour, both of us enjoying the view and each other’s company, feeling the morning wind blow by us. We had been on hundreds of adventures together ever since she literally fell into my life, crashing through my family’s village and destroying it after a terrible flying accident. This event somehow ended up throwing us both head over heels into the events of the world at large, pressing us together as we depended on each other for survival. As I sat there in the saddle, watching the world glide by under us, peering at the cities and towns barely visible through the morning fog, my mind zeroed in on one night in particular, towards the beginning of our journeys, that would dictate not only the rest of our lives, but the fate of the world at large.

This was years ago, just after Maoraena had healed from the accident enough to be able to fly short distances; she was so badly hurt that it was still difficult for her to hunt, so I had to feed myself using my own (limited) money while she went aloft only long enough to find herself something to eat. So it was that one night, I found myself at a roadside inn. It was dark outside, thundering and lightning. Somewhere, distantly, there was the sound of an explosion. I would have paid no heed to it, but a couple seconds later, I heard a window shatter, and then an unseen force threw me up against the back wall. When I regained my senses an instant later, I was surrounded in darkness. Somehow, the inn was still standing, and I was able to grope my way through the blackness to a door at the far end of the room. On the other side of it, there was a busted window, and through it I saw a city ablaze.

Standing in the middle of it was what I can only describe as a metal spider, twenty stories tall, with the flames reflecting off of it as if it were made of glass. It turned to face me, and a blue beam of light struck the hillside a mile in front of me. Once again, the shockwave hit, this time throwing me back through the door. I quickly regained my feet and raced out to the road.

“Maoraena!” I called. “Maoraena!”

She was nowhere to be found.

For a second, I feared the worst. Then she appeared over the trees to my left, landing in front of me. “I see it too!” she said. “Hurry up, jump on. We need to get out of here.”

I ran up her wing as quickly as I could, and even as I sat down astride her neck, she lifted off. No sooner had we gotten a mile from the inn than another dragon appeared ahead of us. At that moment, the metal spider launched its blue beam at the inn, destroying it. In the resulting light, I saw that the other dragon had a rider, and this rider was holding an L-shaped stick. Another blue bolt fired from it, flying by my head so close that I could feel the heat off of it. Maoraena ducked under the other dragon, then changed course and flew straight up at it, tearing through its belly with her horn. The injured dragon tried to retreat, but died in midair, landing on its back and crushing its rider on the forest floor.

“I want to have a look at that rider’s corpse and see if I can figure out what in the world those blue beams are,” I called over the wind. Maoraena landed next to the dragon and rolled it off of its rider for me. I found a document in his back pocket. At first glance, the document was little more than a bunch of formal fluff, but towards the end of it, there was this:

“…Remember, your job is to cover up the Black Hammer Project as much as possible. Leave no witnesses. Icereach cannot know about it until we attack them. That is all.”

And there were other documents, too, which I read aloud to Maoraena. Legend was that, eons ago, there was another race which was so technologically advanced that their own creations ended up destroying them. Before they went extinct, however, they had managed to store some of their technology in underground caverns for the benefit of anyone who might be around to use it in the future. Through lots of discussion and re-reading the rider’s documents, we came to the conclusion that the Black Hammer Project was an attempt made by an underground cult named the Red Shadow Society to resurrect this technology and use it to depose the Narudean government and allow anarchy to rule. Here, I would like to be able to say that we did the heroic thing and took the fight to them. I would like to say that we fought our way through their ranks and defeated their leader. But we didn’t. Instead, we decided to do the cowardly thing and go our separate ways, hiding and never letting anyone know of what we saw. We were both of us too afraid of the consequences to stand up and face the enemy. The only problem was that neither of us had anything to go back to. Maoraena couldn’t go back to her clan because she knew that she’d have to speak carefully around them, and they would eventually know something was wrong; I couldn’t go back to my village because all it was now was a pile of rubble, and my family was dead. So we stayed on the road for months. I would have nightmares about the destruction of the village by the giant metal spider. Every time I nodded off, I would be transported back in time to that night, and I would either be one of the victims, or I would be back at the inn, watching the spectacle again. Either way, I would always wake up with the screams of the terrified townspeople ringing in my head, and wherever we were, there would be the scent of burning wood and flesh, dashed with a hint of fear. For a split second, I would wish that we hadn’t fled. I would wish that we’d stayed and fought, even to the death, at least trying to do something about the situation. Then, I would have been able to die with a clean conscience.

And, invariably, Maoraena would awaken and offer me a place under her wing, and all of a sudden all my fears would melt away. Though neither of us realized it at the moment, we weren’t just becoming fast friends. This is something I realized one night, sitting by a campfire. Maoraena was just beyond the edge of the light, already fast asleep. I was thinking about why on Earth she would let me climb onto her when she knew that in so doing there was a high chance she would be killed. She didn’t have to do it; in fact, it would have been easier for her to leave me behind. But, in the end, she let me climb onto her. Why? At first, I had no idea, but then it dawned on me that it was because she cared. She wanted to at least try to bear me away to safety. Whether she knew it or not, she was willing to give her life for mine. With that act, we became rider and dragon, the most sacred bond of them all. We were one.

That gave me courage. Somehow, I knew that that bond would see us both through this, even if we decided to go public with what we knew. I got up, walked to the edge of the campfire, and woke Maoraena up. “Maoraena,” I said, “get ready. We’re going to Icereach.”

We left immediately, while it was still night, and flew for all of the next day, and the day after that, barely stopping. Finally, at four in the morning on the third day, we reached the outskirts of Narudea’s capital. Maoraena, exhausted, landed so roughly that I almost hit my head on her neck. After I dismounted, I walked up to her head. “I’m going to the keep,” I whispered. “You stay out here and watch for me. If I’m not back in a couple of hours, then something’s up.”

As it happened, the city was under curfew. Two guards posted at the gate stopped me and asked me my business; I explained the situation, producing the rider’s documents as evidence. They talked it over amongst themselves for what seemed like ages, but in the end one of them darted into the city and emerged a minute later with an escort for me. They showed me straight to the King’s Palace, where I met up with the monarch. He told me he would look into it, gave me a thousand gold pieces, and had a small detachment of his personal bodyguard show me back out of the city.

Surprisingly, the King actually heeded our advice. Not only did he put more guards on watch and amp up the city’s defenses, he also began sending excavation teams out to various places to try and dig up old technology, and in fact Maoraena and I were invited to be part of one such team. Within a month, we had an experimental defensive laser mostly built on the eastern wall.

We would need it quite badly.

Around dusk, roughly five months after the fateful night at the inn, one of the guards sighted two of the steel spiders, being led by a host of more than fifty thousand men, coming towards Icereach at an incredible rate. The local Air Combat Corps branch – which included Maoraena and I – was dispatched, and the city’s army rose to meet the threat. The scale of the battle was massive. One of the spiders was able to fire its laser at the city, obliterating half of it, forcing the city to use its defensive laser, but in the end, we eked out a bare victory.

There was no happy ending, however. Most of Narudea’s nobility were there attending some meeting or other, and nearly all of them were killed, and to make it worse it turned out that Maoraena’s brother was fighting on the other side and had been killed; she would be a long time getting over it. The ground was soaked with the blood of over ninety-five thousand bodies, and it would be years before Narudea was able to even return to a shadow of its former self. But, through it all, Maoraena and I stuck together. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. And that was enough.

Maoraena landed on the forest floor, just hard enough to awaken me from my reflective reverie. Snapping back to the present, I dismounted and grabbed my bow.

“I’ll meet you back here, then,” I said to her, giving her an affectionate rub on the nose. “Good hunting.”

“Right,” she replied, a shadow of a smile coming to her lips. “Good hunting.”

And with that, we parted to begin hunting for the day. As we left the clearing, each heading our separate directions, something occurred to me. Quickly I ran back up to her.

“I almost forgot something,” I explained, tapping her lightly on the neck.


I sighed, staring at her for a long moment. “I love you, Maoraena,” I whispered.

“I love you too.”

I smiled with contentment.