Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Blood and Fire by Nick Stead

The fire was everywhere. Rainne desperately scanned the streets for a safe passage through the flames, but the blaze had spread so quickly she had become trapped. The heat was intense, the smoke clogging her throat like a living thing coiling and constricting her from within. Her vision swam as unconsciousness beckoned, but she knew to give into it was to accept her fate, and she wasn’t ready to die yet. But then a dark shape loomed overhead and another jet of flame hurtled towards her.

Rainne’s eyes snapped open, her body slick with cold sweat and her heart racing. The nightmare had been so real, she’d never experienced anything like it before. Still she felt the heat of the flames as if the nightmare refused to let her go, her conscious mind unable to completely escape its grasp. Even the air felt too thick inside her little hut and she stumbled out into the night, breathing deeply as she sought to calm herself, enjoying the coolness of the pleasant breeze on her skin.

Gradually the nightmare began to fade, but Rainne felt too awake to go back to bed. She turned her gaze up to the night sky as she tried to make sense of what had just happened. Dream visions were not unheard of, but usually they lay solely in the province of witchcraft, brought on through the use of herbs and potions. For anyone to experience a true vision without the aid of magic was rare, and it was not a gift Rainne had been aware she possessed. Yet she couldn’t simply dismiss the nightmare as being nothing other than a dream when it had been so intense she’d felt she was actually there, trapped in a ring of fire as something came to finish her off. And then before her very eyes the full moon began to change from its usual milky white to a blood red, and Rainne knew what it meant.

When the moon ran red with the blood of the Heavens, nothing good ever came of it for those on Earth. Blood moons had proven to be ill omens for as far back as anyone could remember, and bloodshed always followed. That Rainne should experience such a dream on the night of the blood moon could not be ignored. The timing surely meant she had indeed been granted a glimpse into the future, a warning of things to come. Blood and fire – it was a sign. Something ancient stirred deep within the cavernous expanse hidden beneath the Pennines, his fiery wrath soon to be unleashed upon the town. And for reasons unbeknown to her, Rainne had been chosen to warn Lancaster of the coming destruction.

With the realisation of this responsibility she’d been given, Rainne wasted no more time. There was no telling how long before her vision might come to pass – they could have days to prepare for the evil soon to be visited on them, or they may have only hours. Only one thing was certain – the need to act quickly, if they were to have any hope of escaping the grim fate awaiting them. So she returned inside and knelt by the foot of her mattress, brushing aside the straw. She’d lived the simple life of a peasant and she owned little of real value, but there was one thing worth hiding.

She dug down into the earthen floor where the coffer had lain almost forgotten these long years. The House of Atkins had been great once, a family much more than mere farming folk. Those days of glory and widespread renown were long past, but a few relics of that bygone era endured, and Rainne sensed the time had come when they would be needed once more.

From inside the chest came the gleam of metal, forged from something stronger than mere steel, and impervious to rust. The last surviving descendant of the Atkins bloodline handled the heirlooms with reverence as she withdrew them from the coffer, donning the armour with great care, though she needn’t have feared damaging it. The responsibility of the task she’d been set weighed heavily on her as she took up the sword of her ancestors, and she felt as if fate shadowed her every step from the moment she set out for Lancaster Castle. The current Duke of Lancaster was not a particularly well loved man among the people and he was known for being impatient, but most considered him to be fair. Whether he would listen and act on Rainne’s premonition remained to be seen, but she knew she had to try.

“My Lord, I bring grave tidings,” Rainne said, when her turn came to speak in that morning’s court. “A great evil is coming to Lancaster. If we are unprepared, it will destroy the entire town.”

“And how did you come by this knowledge?” the Duke asked.

“I was granted a vision,” she admitted, unable to think of any believable lie that might have sounded more plausible. “Last night, during the blood moon.”

“You stand there clad in man’s armour and expect me to issue a call to arms based on some nightmare you had?” the Duke sneered. “I do not cater to the dreams of peasants bored of working the land. Go back to your farm and change into clothes more sensible for a woman, or I will have you thrown in the dungeon for wasting my time.”

His response wasn’t entirely unexpected but it still angered Rainne, though she held her tongue. She bowed stiffly and took her leave, inwardly seething.

Rainne’s anger was as nothing compared to the rising fury in the dark caverns of the lair the ancient beast had fashioned for himself. He gave voice to that rage in a mighty roar which shook the very land above him, a burst of flame briefly illuminating blood red scales, jaws lined with huge fangs, and reptilian eyes. Too long had he been imprisoned beneath the world in the enchanted sleep the sorcerers of old had placed him under, but now he had awoken, and mankind would feel his wrath.

All that remained of the original entrance deep into the hills was a small fissure in the rock, through which the creature could just sense the fresh air of the world above. The stone was no match for his power as he tore his way to freedom, bursting from the hillside in a cascade of stone and earth. He was free.

After leaving the court, Rainne lingered in the town centre, unsure of what to do next. She had half a mind to let the fools burn, but her sense of duty was too great to allow her to simply walk away and leave them to their doom. Lost in thought, she turned her gaze to the horizon and caught sight of something large flying towards them, and smoke in the distance. It could only be the creature from her dream, so she ran to alert the guards, praying they would listen. But such was the beast’s size, the other townsfolk soon began to sight him for themselves.

Archers lined the parapets of Lancaster Castle in response to the coming threat, letting loose a hail of arrows as the dark shadow passed overhead. The arrows clattered harmlessly against the natural armour of hardened scales, succeeding only in angering the creature. He responded with a jet of flame, giving rise to the first chorus of agonised screams as flesh burned and blackened, men quickly reduced to nothing more than a pile of charred bones.

Panic spread through the townsfolk as the streets were set ablaze. Some tried to hide, cowering like rats in the holes they found and praying the fire wouldn’t reach them. Many tried to flee the town, though few made it far. They had no hope of outrunning the fiery breath, and the creature even swooped down to snatch people in his great jaws, swallowing them whole.

A sight both magnificent and terrifying to behold, the dragon circled back round, the noise of his wings beating the dead air almost deafeningly loud as he descended on the town. Knights ran through the streets to meet him, the dragon planting himself in the path of the would-be heroes, crushing the buildings either side of him as he landed. The men charged at him with weapons raised, but another stream of fire spilled from the dragon’s mouth, roasting them alive in their plate armour. The people’s panic increased, and even the most hardened of warriors balked upon seeing so many of their comrades killed. Their nerve failed them, and they ran.

Only Rainne found the courage to stand and face the beast, advancing cautiously with her sword drawn. She’d picked up some skill with a blade from play fighting when she was younger, and had continued to practise with makeshift weapons in her adult years, but she was by no means a master swordswoman. She knew she stood little hope of slaying the dragon or even simply driving him off, and that her chances of escaping the encounter with her life were even slimmer. Yet she felt no fear as she stalked towards him, even when one of the huge slit eyes focussed on her and the dragon turned his head to regard the human foolish enough to challenge him.

Rainne knew her sword was unlikely to do little more than anger the dragon, even if she succeeded in piercing his thick scaly skin. Her only hope was to take out his eyes or stab through the roof of his mouth, so she attacked first, hoping to land a lucky blow before he could retaliate. But the dragon was far too quick, his head snaking out of reach. With a roar, he loosed another jet of flame.

Rainne barely had time to react, just managing to escape the deadliest of the intense heat as she dove to the side. She just managed to scrabble to her feet before the dragon attacked again, this time snapping at her with his jaws, forcing her to leap out of harm’s way once more.

They continued to play cat and mouse until finally the dragon knocked her to the ground, Rainne’s sword clattering from her grasp as she fell, and before she could rise she found herself pinned beneath his clawed hand. Only her right arm was free and she struggled to grab her weapon, but it lay just out of reach. The dragon eyed her as if considering how to kill this latest victim, and Rainne knew she was surely doomed until, inexplicably, she felt the weight of his hand lifting as the creature took to the air once more. She seized her sword and sprang to her feet, but the beast was already out of range. She watched him fly back towards his lair, unable to believe her luck. Why she had been spared she couldn’t say, not that it really mattered at that moment. She had survived!

Others were not so lucky. Many lay dead or dying amongst the wreckage where the dragon had landed, skin blistered and their bodies left raw and bloody. The air was thick with the smoke of the fire which still raged through their homes, and ash fluttered down like grey snowflakes, dusting what remained of the town. The castle still stood, but the rest of Lancaster lay in ruins.

Rainne joined the other survivors as they began to trickle back onto the streets once they realised the danger had passed, and they struggled to douse the flames and save the injured. The few skilled in healing sought to do what they could, but for many their wounds were too great and all that remained was to ease their passing. Both sorrow and anger gripped the people of Lancaster in the aftermath of such destruction. They questioned why them, why their town? And why now?

But most of all they sought vengeance, though none of the men volunteered to take on the role of dragon slayer himself.

Rainne kept quiet while they bickered amongst themselves. It seemed it fell to her once again to save the town from utter destruction, which would surely be the outcome if the dragon returned. So she slipped away unnoticed, saying nothing of her plans to the others. The men would only laugh at the notion of a woman taking up the mantle of dragon slayer.

Most of the horses had either bolted during the dragon’s attack or died with their human masters, but there was one survivor grazing on a patch of grass untouched by the fire, just outside the town. He was remarkably calm and already saddled, though Rainne could see no evidence of his rider. She was no thief, yet she knew she had no hope of catching the dragon on foot and, with lives at stake, she could see no option but to take the horse. If someone claimed him when she returned, then she would give him back to his rightful owner. If she returned. And if she failed, the town would have worse to worry about than a stray horse.

The horse allowed her to mount him and they set off at a fast canter. Finding the dragon’s lair proved easy – all she had to do was follow the path of destruction. It took all day to reach the hole the dragon had created in the hillside, but fortunately she had not seen him take flight during her journey, so she assumed he was in there and that her quest had not been in vain.

Leaving the horse outside, Rainne ventured into the darkness, wishing she’d brought a torch. The light was failing outside with the advance of dusk, meaning she couldn’t get far into the caves before the darkness became complete. She realised she had even less hope of finding and defeating the dragon than she’d had that morning in daylight, and she should probably camp for the night and return with a torch. But she’d barely set foot in the tunnel when she became aware of something big moving towards her. She froze, her courage deserting her.

“So we meet again,” the dragon growled. “Ever do men come questing after my head, seeking fame and glory. Others come with gifts, seeking knowledge in return. You are different from the others, I think. Your purpose is not knowledge, and I don’t believe you truly wish to kill me. So why are you here?”

Rainne had heard tell of the wisdom of dragons, but after the ferocity of the attack earlier, she had assumed they were in reality no more intelligent than any other beast. She couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe in the presence of this great creature, and she began to wonder if it would be possible to bargain with him.

“I would rather not kill you,” she agreed. “But if you leave me no choice I will fight you. I come on behalf of my town, and I seek only to rid us of your evil.”

“Evil?” the dragon roared. “Do I truly seem evil to you?”

Rainne frowned, feeling the first seeds of doubt take root. Had she interpreted her vision wrongly? Blood and fire could only have heralded the coming of a dragon, for what else had the ability to set the land ablaze? And was such utter destruction as she had foreseen not born of evil? Yet she did not sense any malevolence in the dragon as such; nothing to indicate he was inherently evil in nature. Anger burned in his eyes, but it would be wrong to label that as evil. Still, he had taken many lives when he’d attacked earlier, and such an act would have been considered evil if she’d been dealing with another human. Though he had also spared her life, where a creature ruled by malice would surely have killed her along with the rest.

“But the destruction you wrought today – why cause such damage if not in the name of evil? And why Lancaster, of all the towns you could have visited? And why spare me?”

“I have no love for men, after the treatment I’ve received at the hands of your kind,” the dragon growled. “My anger for your race runs deep. Is that so hard to comprehend for a race so quick to kill that which they fear, or do not understand? And why not your town? After all, it was you who summoned me back from my enchanted slumber, and your anger called to my own.”

This dark revelation hit Rainne like a physical blow. Images from the aftermath of the dragon’s attack played over in her mind, and she was horrified to think such death and destruction was her fault. But how could she have been the one to summon him? She had no natural talent for magic that she was aware of.

As if he’d read her mind, the dragon said “I know that blade you carry – you are of the Atkins bloodline. Ever has your family had a gift for communicating with us dragons. It is as much my kind’s doing as it is the heroic prowess of your ancestors that gave rise to the legacy of your House, before we both became no more than legends. I do not know if any others of my kind survive, so many were killed before I was imprisoned here. So do not judge me for my need for vengeance.”

“If what you say is true then I command you to return to this enchanted slumber you speak of.”

“Do not mistake your gift with my kind for power over us,” the dragon hissed. “We are not bound to your will. If I answer your call, it is because of my choosing. But do not insult me by treating me like a slave, human. You are not my master. Besides, you may have need of my aid yet. An evil is about to be visited on this land, a creature as ancient as I am and one which it is in both our interests to fight. If you care about your people so much, you would do well to return to them and prepare for its coming.”

The dragon retreated into the darkness, leaving Rainne no choice but to turn back. She didn’t know if she could trust him, but she couldn’t risk ignoring his advice if there was any chance he was telling the truth. And she already had blood on her hands, whether she had meant for them to die or not. She didn’t want to be the cause of any more death.

So it was she returned to Lancaster, the men jeering to see her empty handed, correctly guessing where she’d been. With the town in ruins and the dragon remaining a threat, the Duke had allowed the people within the castle walls for protection. They permitted Rainne to pass through the gate, but the Duke would not grant any further audience with her. He remained in his tower, planning for the dragon’s return. Rainne supposed it didn’t really matter. The dragon hadn’t told her what exactly was coming, and as long as they were prepared for something, they might stand a chance at defeating it.

For all their plans, the people of Lancaster were still about to be caught unawares. An unseasonable chill crept into the air, cold enough that breath steamed out from between chattering teeth, yet they failed to recognise it as the presence of the dread creature now stalking the streets.

A layer of frost marked the ground where he tread. What little plant life had been left untouched by the dragon’s fire, withered and died as he passed. Even the hardiest of the rodents in the area couldn’t withstand the cold and death surrounding him, their tiny hearts slowing as he drew nearer until finally they beat their last, little bodies lying frozen as if left out in the snow.

The stranger came to a stop before the castle gates, seeming to wait patiently to be let in. He appeared to be no more than a human traveller wrapped in a dark cloak, his hooded head bowed so his face wasn’t visible. But when the sentries posted in the gatehouse called for him to identify himself, he raised his hooded head and spread the leathery material of his cloak outwards, revealing it to be his own bat-like wings. His body was humanoid for the most part, muscular but appearing rotten in places, and with skin the blackened colour of necrotic flesh. He had a long tail like that of a lizard, but most shocking was his head, which took the shape of the great predatory beasts of icy lands they’d heard of only in stories, some ancient, others belonging to the present day, constantly shifting like the landscape of a snowy tundra. One moment he bore the appearance of a wolf, the next a great sabre-toothed cat, and in the next a bear. But worst of all were his eyes, which seemed dull and dead, and yet they fixed eerily on the guards as if the thing could still see through those milky orbs.

Before the guards had time to react, ice began to form on the stone and the metal of the portcullis, creeping into the nooks and crannies like searching fingers until the gatehouse exploded in a shower of rubble and dust, crushed between icy fists. The creature stalked through the wreckage, turning to face the knights rushing towards him. They fell to their knees, clutching their chests as their hearts failed. Terror spread through the rest of the townsfolk. They fought amongst themselves like animals in their desperation to get as far from this thing of cold and death as they could, their ability to reason reduced to little more than feral instinct.

Amidst the chaos, Rainne strode towards the monster with the same confidence she’d felt when facing the dragon. Her armour was imbued with old magic, granting her protection from more than just physical wounds. She alone was able to survive in the creature’s presence, untouched by the terror he inspired in others, shielded from the cold and death surrounding him. The creature realised this and held out an arm, making a fist as if grasping something. He summoned more ice which took the shape of a sword, preparing to fight the human standing in his way.

Why this Lord of Ice was in England and not the snowy plains where he belonged was of little consequence. If she couldn’t stop him he would be the death of not just the people, but the land itself, and Rainne couldn’t just stand by and let that happen. She charged the creature, slashing straight for his monstrous head. He parried the blow, and though his icy blade should have shattered from the impact, it wasn’t even chipped where their swords had clashed. She swung again at the monster but he parried once more, whilst using his tail like a whip to knock the human to the ground. She landed heavily on her back, her sword clattering to the side, and rolled to avoid a vicious cleave attack. Regaining her feet, sword in hand, she renewed her assault on the creature and they continued to trade blows, until she succeeded in stabbing him through his heart.

But the monster couldn’t be stopped so easily. There was no blood on the blade when Rainne pulled it from his chest, only a coating of ice. Suddenly his head began to take on a new shape, one it settled on, and the rest of his body began to change. Now resembling one of the great ice dragons of old, his body grew to match this new form. Rainne attacked him again, hoping he would be vulnerable mid-change, but her sword clattered against icy scales and bounced off in a shower of sparks, jarring her arm. The Lord of Ice towered over her and Rainne knew she would need the dragon’s aid after all, if they were to have any hope of defeating the dread creature. Yet the dragon had never given her his name, if he had one, and she had no idea how she’d summoned him in her sleep. She could only assume she had some kind of telepathic connection with him, so she desperately cried out with her mind, praying he would hear. Then the icy monster attacked, breaking her concentration, and she could only hope the dragon would come in time while she dodged the monster’s fangs and claws, and his icy breath which was a burst of cold too intense for even the enchantment in her armour to protect her from.

As the fight dragged on, Rainne could feel herself growing weary, her muscles beginning to ache. She was forced to dive for cover under the rubble of the gatehouse, and just as she thought it would become her tomb, she finally heard the beating of a second pair of wings and felt a burst of heat. She dared to crawl out to watch, relieved to see her call had been answered.

The red dragon swooped down on the Lord of Ice, too powerful to be stopped by the monster’s deadly presence, and they grappled, each raking his claws against the other’s scales and biting down in an attempt to subdue his opponent. Moments later they broke apart, the icy monster taking to the air and the red dragon following. Each let loose his deadly breath, fire meeting ice and turning to steam. They continued to twist through the air as the fight grew more frenzied, but the red dragon began to tire just as Rainne had, blood dripping from the horrific gashes now covering his body. The Lord of Ice also bore numerous wounds but he didn’t even seem to feel them, and still he did not bleed. He sensed his opponent growing weaker and when they broke apart again he climbed higher into the air, the red dragon struggling to follow. The Lord of Ice didn’t give the red dragon chance to catch him, swooping back down and latching on to his opponent’s back. He tore through the thin membrane of the red dragon’s right wing, causing him to crash to the ground.

The red dragon was too injured to rise as the icy monster descended on him. He just managed to twist onto his back and snapped weakly at his opponent, but the creature’s jaws were closing on his throat and there was nothing he could do.

Rainne yelled in defiance, charging the monster once more and bringing her sword down in a vicious arc that connected with his neck, the sword biting into the rotting flesh where the scales had already been damaged by the red dragon. She hacked at the creature with all the strength she had left, finally seeming to cause him some pain as he emitted a terrible shriek and twisted to face her. The Lord of Ice snapped at her, but the red dragon found the strength to clamp down on the icy monster’s throat and he finished what Rainne had started, his fangs ripping through the thick muscle and severing the spinal cord. The monster’s head fell from the ruins of his neck, body writhing as if fighting death itself until finally it lay still and lifeless. Rainne turned her attention to the dragon, worried the fight had cost him his life.

A deep rumbling came from the beast as she approached and she realised he was laughing. His wounds were healing and with renewed strength he rose, testing his wings in readiness for flight. “I thank you, Rainne Atkins. I would never have defeated the Lord of Ice without your help. Now I shall have my revenge on mankind, but you I will spare, in return for your aid.”

The dragon leapt into the air, leaving Rainne feeling helpless as she watched his great shape become no more than a dwindling speck on the horizon. She had saved the land from an icy fate, and the barren, frozen plains the Lord of Ice would have made of it, utterly devoid of life. But at what cost? The world of men would burn, and there was nothing more she could do.

This story is dedicated to Rainne Atkins, winner of my Facebook competition in August 2015
~Nick Stead

Nick Stead is the author of Hybrid, the first of a horror series about a werewolf. 
He writes mostly supernatural horror but does have plans to write a dark fantasy in future. 
For the latest news on his books and other projects check out his news page
You can also read his short stories for free on his website.

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