Kama leapt from rock to jutting rock, slipped down a slight incline and into the once mighty city of Ebenell. Dead and silent, if not for the ghosts that drifted between the deserted buildings like wisps of smoke. At night their screams echoed in the dark over and over, never answered, never appeased.
Increasing speed, Kama didn’t pause or look back at the man chasing her. No need. His wheezing breath was enough of a guide, sounded like he was about to drop from exhaustion.
He was game though, Kama grinned, dodging weathered stones from a broken cistern and shards of granite that tumbled across the ruined central road of ancient Ebenell.
Skidding over the cobbles, Kama slid around a corner, sped along the narrow alley between what used to be a sort of temple and its adjoining accomodation block for resident priests and priestesses.
On her way through the courtyard, Kama saluted the transparent figure of a robed man who copied her motions in a well rehearsed manner, never looking her in the eye or speaking to ask questions.
Running into the mouth of a tunnel that led from the temple into an abandoned marketplace, Kama just caught sight of the familiar ghosts drifting about in the shadows like a spectral audience.
A burst of swirling dust exploded to block her path with a small tornado that turned on its axis and tracked her movements like a bloodhound when she tried to dodge the thing.
Kama blew out a breath and glared at the rotating storm. ‘Hadwan! This is no time for games!’
Sand and dirt coalesced into a man, his musculkar bulk wrapped in a plain brown robe. His mop of unruly black hair couldn’t disguise his piercing blue eyes that cut to the bone or scowling expression.
His deep voice boomed, ‘Who said I was playing?’
Glancing over her shoulder, Kama cursed at the figure catching up with her. ‘This I don’t need,’ she muttered, turning back to Hadwan and giving him a look she hoped he was smart enough to read.
Hadwan crossed both arms over his barrel chest and adjusted his stance. ‘You must learn.’
‘Bugger!’ Kama snarled, twisted on her heel, meeting her pursuer’s blade with one of her own.
Metal clashed in a typical meeting of steel on steel, edges grinding, sparks flying.
Kama’s curving blade skimmed her so-called assassin’s bulkier broadsword.
Her potential killer leapt back, narrowed his eyes, reassessed his opponent.
He came back at her, motions quick, reflexive, deadly.
Pulling sharply away, Kama grimaced as after-effect of the man’s blade biting into the curve of skin between thumb and forefinger burned like a brand, slicing through her earlier resolve.
It was just a taste, but the message was clear. She was no way near to being ready.
That was the advantage her opponent had been waiting for.
His bland expression creased into a tight grin as he pressed Kama into a corner, back up against a crumbling wall, sweat in her eyes, blurring vision to a smudge. Her opponents sword flashed silver.
And the swordsman screamed.
Steel clattered to the cobbles.
Kama blinked. That couldn’t be right. The man was literally smoking, like he was on fire.
No, he was on fire. Kama swallowed. She wanted to look away. Couldn’t. Her gaze was fixed.
Flesh melted and the man’s vocal chords could no longer sustain any sound.
The silence reverberated with the memory of the man’s screams.
Kama felt the heavy wetness of tears on her face, but didn’t have the strength to wipe them away.
A man-shaped lump of blackened firewood thudded to the ground and crumbled to cinder blocks, smoking lazily in the chill mountain air. Parts glowed like an ember. His leather clothing was charred.
Kama turned away from the body to regard the great monstrosity Eros, looming behind her like a vast bronze beast of cogs and gears. ‘Was that entirely necessary?’ she asked, sheathing her steel.
The dragon wheezed. ‘He would have killed you, Daughter.’ Metal scraped as he shifted his weight to the other clawed foot, gouging a deep track in the hard earth with his sharply extended steel talons.
Kama used her sleeve to wipe away the telltale tears. She couldn’t afford to be weak.
She glared up at Eros. ‘When will you stop being so damn protective and allow me to fight my own battles?’ She fixed her full attention to Eros, ignoring the hulking shadow of Hadwan.
The dragon blinked his deep green eyes, golden flecks shimmering like precious metal. ‘Once you are ready, then I will gladly let you experience your first kill.
‘Until such time, I am your guardian and only seek to keep you from unnessasary harm.’
Kama snorted. ‘Why have Hadwan forge me a blade if you won’t let me use the stupid thing?’
‘Because, Daughter, you must first learn to master your anger and sharpen your skill before any of us will let you loose on our enemies.’
Kama threw up her hands, the Kusari mail armour that Eros insisted she wear at all times, scraped as she moved. It gave her pause. All the protection Eros and Hadwan foisted on her sometimes made her feel as if she too were just some mechanical creature built by the long dead Elders of some dusty civilisation that no longer existed and which the Vadran wanted to exterminate. Kama’s temper flared.
‘This is so unfair!’ She stomped off to glare past the ragged line of broken stones that formed the barrier between the mountains and the vast expanse of nothing that seperated her from civilisation.
Gravel crunched as Eros moved closer, body pulsing heat and the power of whatever magic made up his construction. ‘Your frustration is that of a child, such tempers are beneath you, Daughter.’
Kama whirled to face the dragon. ‘I’m not your daughter.’ She went rigid as a statue. Yet the air all around crackled with a static charge. Stones jumped off the ground, exploded, settling as a fine dust.
Steam puffed from Eros’ nostrils as the outer casing of steel that covered the vulnerable sections of his steel-encased body heated to a cherry red, gradually boiling the dragon in his own metal skin.
Hadwan stepped between them. ‘Enough!’ His voice cracked sharp as a whip, cutting deeply.
Kama dropped to her knees. She lowered her head, loose strands of hair draped over her face like a damp ebony shroud. ‘I’m so sorry..’ she whispered. ‘I’m so…sorry..Eros…’
Eros gently rested his still warm head on her shoulder. ‘Be still, Daughter,’ the words hissed like an exhale of steam in the dragon’s metallic throat. ‘Your path remains unchanged.’
Kama sagged beneath the weight of the dragon’s head and the heavy burden she carried always. ‘Why, Eros? Why did the Gods make me this way?’ She began to cry. Still the child. So much alone.
Hadwan’s usually tanned features were slightly pale as he walked Kama back to their meagre home, stacked out of the weathered blocks salvaged from Ebenell and used to build small one-roomed huts.
There were a few workshops scattered about the place, kept well away from the residential areas of their rudimentary village, in case of accidental fire and the like. Hadwan’s forge being one of them.
He guided her there now. Ducking under the lintel, Hadwan entered the gloom, barely lit by the dull glow of the coals of the forge, which took up the majority of the room in the cramped workshop.
Pushing aside a bundle of unfinshed blades hanging from one of the sturdy beams, Kama followed Hadwan in silence. It wasn’t that her head wasn’t bursting with opinions, she just didn’t voice them.
Plus, she grimaced, Hadwan obviously needed to get something off his chest. The way he refused to even look at her was a big clue as to the man’s mood. Kama hoped he’d just get on with it.
Sitting on the edge of a work scarred table, Hadwan fixed her with a baleful stare that made look so much older than her, when in actual fact, there was no more than six years difference. He just had the advantage of being older. It was his misfortune Kama rarely had time for rational contemplation.
‘Don’t start,’ she warned. ‘I’ll tell you now, I have no patience for your observations!’
Hadwan kept his dark eyes fixed on her face. ‘When do you ever have the time?’
‘Oh, please, not that old argument. How many times do I have to say, not interested.’
Hadwan’s expression set hard as stone. ‘Fine. It’s your choice.’
Kama glared back. ‘Yes, it bloody well is. Perhaps, it’s time you considered your own advice.’
Picking up a dagger carved from oak that’d been polished to a deep ochre with oxblood and oiled, the timber looked like it’d been dipped in fresh gore, Hadwan turned the wooden blade in his hands.
‘I’ve got better things to do than watch you play all day,’ Kama snapped and turned for the door.
‘Wait!’ Hadwan riased his voice. ‘Just wait!’
‘What is it?’ Kama regarded him over her shoulder.
Hadwan held out the oak blade hilt first. The image of Eros was expertly carved, almost realistic.
‘Take it. Please, Kam.’ Hadwan’s hand shook so much, the blade vibrated to a scarlet blur.
Reaching out to take it, Kama closed her fingers on the small replica of the dragon’s skull.
Hadwan looked into her eyes for a moment longer than necessary, then let go of the blade.
‘It’ll help keep you safe.’ he muttered, glancing aside before shuffling off to his forge.
Kama sighed, but she did sheath the new blade in her belt. It might just come in handy.
‘He is only looking out for your wellbeing, Daughter,’ Eros wheezed.
The cogs and gears making up his construction clanked as the wheels turned like bronze spinning tops, and steam puffed out of pistons like jets of pale smoke. The dragon eased his metal frame down onto the hard ground. The emerald that powered his body and mind glowed darkly in the steel casing of his skull, shining behind his glass eyes and turning them a deep shade of green that reflected back the copper parts of his inner workings, giving his expression a depth that would otherwise be lacking on his skeletal features cast from steel and bronze. Kama sighed and sat on the dragon’s forepaw.
‘How has it healed?’ she asked, trying to change the subject.
Eros rumbled a sound she had long ago come to associate with amusement. ‘I am well, Daughter.’
Kama nodded. ‘Good. I’m glad. Hadwan did a decent job of repairing the damage.’
‘Yes,’ Eros hissed softly. ‘And you performed your duties well seeking him out.’
‘I suppose.’ Kama shrugged and looked at the broken down wall of the outer defenses.
‘You are troubled, Child.’ Eros creaked a littlke as he turned his head to regard her.
She felt his gaze upon her, but didn’t turn her head. ‘I need more training,’ she answered quietly.
The dragon was silent for a such a long time that Kama shifted her gaze from the wall.
The dragon’s eyes were dark in the thickening twilight, voice harshly metallic. ‘Another comes…’
Kama sucked in a sharp breath. ‘An assassin?’
‘In the beginning.’
‘That is uncertain. He travels a hard road. A bounty hunter in desperate need of a sword.’
Kama flinched. There was a sort of dry humour to the dragon’s tone, but personally, she didn’t see anything to laugh about in this situation.
Her mouth was dry as scorched bone, her words rasped a desperate hope, ‘Will he die out there?’
‘In a way,’ Eros replied cryptically.
Her gaze returned to the gap in the wall. ‘Why doesn’t he use a Portal?’
‘He has no magical ability of his own.’
What lat beyond those decaying stones was an emptiness of grit and dirt.
With only the prospect of a slow death.
‘What are you thinking, Daughter?’ Eros broke her contemplation.
‘That, for once, I don’t envy the poor sap who’s been sent to kill me.’
‘You believe he will succeed?’
Kama tore her gaze from the wall and desert and back to Eros.
‘Perhaps,’ she replied, mimicking the dragon’s cryptic tone.