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Fates Written in Indelible Ink

© Carole Cummings

 
     
     
     
 

The bell tower in the old Winston Square was burning. Smoke rolled, black and thick against a gray sky hung low. Dusk took on a ginger-rose hue to the west; the docks and shops were nothing more than fuel for the fires now. The bridges had been the first things to go, and then the roads, and now any escape via water would have to go through an inferno first.

The dragons had been thorough, but then, their master had already shown he could be both ruthless and clever. The Air Force had sent in the Dragon Corps from the nearest base yesterday morning to attempt to take back the campus; the assault failed, and there had been no sign of a second try so far.

“We’re not getting out,” Tyler said, quiet, as he watched the silhouette of a bull dragon sweep up and out against the campus’s squat skyline that glowed red around its edges. The larger shape of the bull’s cow followed, catching updrafts and coasting on the thermals the fires pushed up from below. They moved slowly, the two of them, dipping in close to the buildings, great wings aslant and stretched wide enough to almost touch tip-to-tip to the dorm-fronts on either side of the street. “And they’re still looking.”

“…I know.”

It was small. Shaky. Threaded through with bone-deep exhaustion.

They’d been on the move for days now.

“You know I’m going to have to—”

No.” Tyler finally let go of the curtain’s hem and turned sharply on Jaime, huddled in the corner and making friends with the quick-falling shadows. Dirty black hair in a short matted ponytail. Torn jeans and a filthy jacket. His dark skin was shiny with sweat, even as the chill of the setting evening seeped in through broken windows, but the fear that had been in brown eyes since the first resonant bellow of a dragon-call had rung through the skies was damped down now. Receding. It scared Tyler more than he thought anything in the past few days had.

“It’s what he wants, Jaime. It’s what he’s waiting for.”

“And how long am I supposed to let people die, then, Ty? How many people, how many of our friends does he have to kill before—”

All of them!” Tyler barked. He paused, shocked himself at what he’d just said and the frantic pitch beneath it. Still, he set his jaw. “The Assembly said you were to keep hidden. That under no circumstance—no circumstances—were you to—”

“The Assembly is gone!” Jaime was breathing hard, eyes glittering, and the hands that had been tucked up close to his chest were now flailing, helpless. “They’re all dead, Ty!”

One by one, all thirteen of them. Trotted out into the common and questioned. Interrogated. Tortured. All of it broadcast live. There’d been no escaping it. Every one of them kept their oath of protection. Every one of them died screaming, but without the one name the Dragonmaster wanted crossing their lips. And even when a band of mages—students; ad hoc resistance fighters—managed to take down the live feed, silence it all before the last three could give the show the Master intended, still the kindred dragonblood he shared with the Assembly’s masters shrieked in Jaime’s veins. Tyler’d had to keep Jaime from clawing at his own ears to make it stop.

“They’re gone, Ty.” Jaime’s voice was hoarse and hard. “They can’t give orders anymore. There are no dragon-kin left strong enough to help, or they would’ve been here by now. No one can help.”

In silent, angry denial, Tyler took another look out the window, hand fisting in the torn curtain. The two recon dragons were slowly circling inward, the bull wafting in close to the street, thermal vision searching through glass and stone. The cow drifted at his back, sensing for kindred magic pinging back at her like sonar. He was nothing special—mud-brown with a mediocre crest and short knobby horns above each eye. The cow, though… any other time Tyler would think her beautiful with her iridescent hide, her long graceful neck, and the furnace in her belly heating her core scales to a delicate buttery madder.

The campus sprawled out beneath them, the sharp cutouts of the buildings turned to jagged teeth backlit by fires run out of control. People gathered in tens and twenties in the street below, dragging the remnants of ruined civilization into barricades and hopeful strongholds. Arming themselves with anything they could find that might have the smallest possibility of piercing dragon hide. Frantically casting spells over makeshift weapons and hoping for a weak spot.

Jaime was right, in a way. Hoping for outside help was pointless. The Master had brought too many dragons.

Those people down there were students, some of them not even old enough to drink yet. Led by scholars and professors and coaches whose battle experience, until five days ago, had only ever been academic. There was no precedent for something like this, not outside of the military. Magical terrorism was something they read about. Attacking civilians with dragons was something that happened Once Upon a Time, when dragons had been considered dumb beasts and tools of their Masters.

A rogue, the news had been reporting before the lights went out. A powerful one. An enemy Master whose sway over the dragons was based on manipulation and lies about a young student who was too strong, whose power would mean the enslavement of dragonkind, instead of the solidarity that had been established centuries ago.

And every single person left on campus—the people who taught them, the people they had class with, the people they got drunk with on Saturday nights—they were all down there, building small fortresses and waiting to die defending that young student. The ones who knew the secret keeping it as safe as they could, because they all understood what it would mean if the Dragonmaster got hold of him.

Tyler turned from the window and peered at Jaime through the dark. Tired and angry and losing hope, Jaime didn’t look like someone to fear. He didn’t look like someone who might instill that kind of stupid-brave loyalty. He didn’t look like someone powerful enough to whisper a request that a dragon would hear as a shouted, inescapable command.

Then again, he hadn’t looked like someone Tyler would love fiercely and with everything in him when Jaime had tripped across a seedy bar’s warped flooring three years ago and spilled a pitcher of beer down Tyler’s chest. And then grinned drunkenly, patted at a pectoral through wet fabric with a slurred, cheerful “Wow. Nice.”

Not a first meeting to go down in history, but one that immediately and irrevocably rewrote Tyler’s future, his fate, in indelible ink.

“Ty,” said Jaime, slow and careful, “you have to trust me. Please.”

Oh God.

Tyler did. Of course he did. He loved him. Would die for him. Would do anything for him. Give him anything he wanted. Would trust him with everything. Everything. Except….

“How can you ask me to—”

“Because it’s not about you.” Harsh words turned gentle in the saying. “It’s about me. What I am. What I’m for.”

Tyler shut his eyes tight. Because it hadn’t really been his choice in the first place, and now….

Choking back too much emotion, Tyler crossed the room, knelt in front of Jaime and took him by the shoulders.

“You know the spells. The commands.”

Jaime’s mouth twisted. “I told you I can do it. I’ve been telling you—”

“I know. I know, I just….” Tyler clenched his jaw and tried not to let his eyes get hot.

Hiding, trying to escape campus before they found him, running—none of it was Jaime’s choice. He was never afraid. “Heart of a dragon” was such a cliché, but all too true for Jaime.

The Assembly had demanded they disappear. Had made Jaime swear an oath and enforced it with their considerable powers. And then they’d all died, the magic of the oath with them, and Tyler had taken advantage of Jaime’s shock and demanded another. For two days of wreck and ruin, that promise had been keeping Jaime from doing what he’d been wanting to do since the first call sounded across the bay. Because Tyler was afraid.

Jaime was still a student. He wasn’t a Master yet. He’d only just last month had his crèche ceremony to find his kindred bond in an egg that wasn’t even hatched yet. There was so much he still had to learn, and what if….

“I can’t lose you.” Tyler bit back a sob. “Jaime… God, Jaime, I can’t—”

“I know.” Jaime’s hand was shaking, but he took hold of Tyler’s, leaned in and kissed him. Almost savage. He pulled back, but not far—only enough to rest his forehead to Tyler’s. “I know. You won’t.”

“Swear it.”

“Anything. Tyler, I do. I swear it, okay?” He ran his thumbs through the dirt on Tyler’s stubbled, probably sunken and too-pale cheeks. He kept quiet about the tear tracks. “I swear.”

It took a while, but Tyler got his shaking under control. Took one long, deep breath, and then another. “Okay.” Too quiet, so he cleared his throat and made himself look Jaime in the eye. “Okay.”

Jaime was trying to smile, so Tyler smiled back, sick with fear, as he dropped the bonds holding Jaime to his promise. Tyler almost took it back when Jaime’s smile turned real, when he sucked in a relieved breath like he’d been set free.

Tyler didn’t, though. He wanted to. He didn’t. He shut his eyes, swallowed his fear, and said, “Let’s go show this asshole what a real Dragonmaster looks like.”

 

 

       
       

 

     

 

 

 

 

       
       

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