I gaze out across the valley from my perch on the cold, gray cliff. I watch a band of knights ride toward me, scarlet flags embossed with white lions flying defiantly in the light breeze. They are followed by a crowd of villagers eager to view my slaying. I close my eyes for a moment, digging deep inside my fiery heart, and then I lift my head, letting a flame twenty yards long stream from my mouth.
I see the knights look up, pointing at me, and I can hear the word shouted and whispered from each human's lips. Dragon. I spread my wings, each the span of twenty feet and cloaked in deep sapphire and sparkling silver. I rise up, my great snakelike body impressive in the misty morning air. With my hawk's vision, I find the lead knight and fix upon him the glare of my color-shifting eyes and let loose another flame. Dragon.
The villagers begin to shout, as do the knights, and a few of both begin to turn back. I smile, revealing teeth sharp as swords. I turn and begin down the mountainside, planning to meet the slaughter party at its base.
As I walk, my wings pulsing and my tail lashing against protruding stones, shattering them into a thousand flying pieces, I think about the cause of this confrontation. I have done nothing. Nothing—it is merely my size and my power that frightens them into the thought that I must be annihilated. But really, I am nothing compared to some dragons. Like Keicro, with his beautiful amber skin and deep crimson wings he seemed to have the sunset painted onto his scales . . .
I shut out the thought, gritting my teeth into a grotesque grin. After what they did to Keicro, after what those humans did to my family—to condemn me to death for an imagined crime—after the mass slaughter of those I loved . . .
I glare ahead, the crowd of people coming into view. I will think of my family as I battle—of the great scaly beasts who dropped from the skies like stones and the blank eyes of those who had already passed into the next world while swords flashed like silver death. Banners flew in tatters as arrows rained down on the remainder of us. Yes, I will think of them in battle and it will give me strength.
I step into the valley and the knights step back while the villagers flee to hide behind the boulders scattered throughout the lush green vegetation of the valley. I let loose a ground-shaking roar, my rage echoing in each vibration. The leader of the knights slides off his horse and draws his sword, stepping bravely to fight me. I glower at him through the morning mist, my eyes shifting from smoky shadows to glittering turquoise to intense amethyst. The knight glares back at me with bronze eyes. Bronze eyes I recognize. Suddenly I see a scene play before my eyes. Keicro lies on the blood-stained ground, eyes closed, his last breath escaping his lips. A knight pulls his sword from my brother's heaving side and as he turns I can see his eyes. They are a gleaming bronze. The knight turns away and wipes his blade on the grass.
I cannot control the rage boiling inside me and release it in a stream of fire. The warrior dodges and narrowly avoids the licking red and gold. I snort with annoyance. I lift my wings, spreading them so wide they block the rising sun, throwing the cowering humans into darkness. I roar and beat my wings. I rise into the air, feeling my ally the wind help me mount the sky. I take a deep breath, feeling the winged beast stir in my blood. I feel at ease off the ground, the spaciousness of the air. I open my eyes and turn to the knight. I swoop down on him, seeing nothing but the man who murdered my brother.
The bronze-eyed warrior takes a swipe at me with his sword, but I knock it away and catch him in my iron claws, pinning him against the grass. He looks up at me. I smile, my teeth white and long.
How does it feel? I want to ask him. How does it feel to be small and helpless? How does it feel? Does it feel terrible, like a cold wind that races through your blood and chills your heart? Do you feel the terror?
I look deep into his eyes, and I am surprised. In this man's eyes—this man, who I have hated for years for the death of my brother—I see fear, not for himself but for his family. I am drawn into his mind by my natural power of telepathy and I see a woman with blond hair falling in waves down her back and by her feet a small human. The small human only comes up to the woman's knee and its eyes are bronze also, curiosity and innocence swirling within. And then I see the woman, obviously the knight's mate, lying on a bed, sweating from fever and crying out. I see his little girl crying, afraid for her mother.
I stare at this man and realize that, while I have lost my family, he is in danger of losing his. I try to convince myself that it is what he deserves, but I just cannot. No one—no one—should ever have to lose their loved ones. Never.
I lift my claw to release him but as I do, I feel a pain in my foreleg and turn to see another knight attacking me. I roar and bat him away, but another knight attacks me and then another and another. Suddenly I am surrounded by yelling humans wielding swords and sinking them into my flesh. I roar and swipe at them, but they keep coming back at me. I try to burn them with another flame but my aim is compromised as a human manages to pierce my stomach, and I bellow as I go down. And then they are all upon me, the noise and screaming bringing me back to the bloodbath they initiated so many years ago. I see my family members fall before my eyes and realize that it is now my turn to die . . .
Suddenly the onslaught stops and all is quiet. I hear the breathing of the horses, the pounding hearts of the villagers watching. I hear the wind whispering to me in the voices of my lost family and I ease my eyes open. Standing before me is the knight with the bronze eyes. He takes a step toward me cautiously, and when I do not try to cremate him, he takes another step. Soon he is right beside me. Carefully, he lays his hand on my face, looking into my eyes. He whispers something to me, but I cannot understand his language. Instead I look into his eyes and there is a question. I think a moment, and then nod.
Yes, I think, feeling that I could cry if I had not exhausted my tears years ago. I am the last dragon.
He leans forward and lays his head on my cheek and whispers again. I cannot understand the words, but I understand the feeling of sorrow and the rhythm of the words is so comforting. I close my eyes and I see the Keicro. He says something, though I cannot hear him. A white light engulfs me and the faces of my family appear around me. They are all saying the same thing and at last I can hear the words.
Come home, Liljuka. Come home to your family.
I smile, tears falling down my cheeks as I fly to meet them. I do not have to be alone anymore. I do not have to be angry in that lonely existence ever again.
* * *
The knight stands, looking down at the ground. He is too late. The sun reflects off azure scales in a mockery of life, but the dragon is already gone. The knight wipes the wetness from his eyes and turns back to his men. He walks silently to his horse, mounts and rides back toward the village.
The villagers and knights watch him leave with silent confusion. This should be a moment of triumph—of celebration—but the air is weighted down with sorrow and regret. The great dragon lies still, lifeless and sad. Soon the crowd begins to leave, trying to escape this scene.
* * *
The bronze-eyed knight plods along on his horse, thoughts of his wife and child swirling in his mind. He sighs so heavily it is almost a sob. He feels a cool breeze on his back and looks up. The morning mist is almost completely gone, but as he looks up at the sun he sees a shadowy image pass through the remaining mist. The shape is familiar . . .
He smiles when he sees a flash of blue and silver through the haze.