Chapter 4:

The Rite of War

Drowned Gods

Auron’s blood felt like lead. Balatier had reached out its claw, but he was sinking from it. Beneath him the ground had turned to sand, and his feet had already disappeared. He noticed the claw had stopped moving towards him, and he looked up towards the dragon. There was a light in its eyes. It was amused, and at first Auron felt rage and the impulse to throw himself at the dragon, pluck out its eyes, and smash its skull down. All of this passed before his mind in vivid detail, but he still couldn’t move. Suddenly, as he stared at his legs begging them to move they changed to the color of molted ash.

No, no, no, he screamed inside his head. I am not coal.

It was the marking of the weakest members among the earth tribe. The designation enraged him. The cracks along his body lighted up in flashes of red, scarring him with the insignia. Saleel flashed before him, her words from the night before resonating in his head. His anger cooled. He felt cold, calculating, and looked at everything around him. There was only sand, but as he sharpened his mind, he could see shocks of light chaining the sand together. Light bounced and sparked in a myriad of impossible angles. Confused he looked down to only see the sand around him, inside him. He was transparent. The dull yellow of the sand refracted off the edges of where his body should have been.

Somehow, he was creating the show of sand and light that played before him. It was then when he noticed the look of amusement had disappeared from Balatier. His claw was reaching out for him again. The tip of his claw, which had begun emitting its own light, a pure white of erasure, was trying to pierce through the clouds of sand.

Auron worried that the light would steal everything from him. That he would forget something. That he would forget something he shouldn’t have seen, even though he didn’t know what that was. So he fought with all his will, igniting the entire world into a blur of yellow dust.

Breathing hard, Auron saw himself reflected in the pool at the bottom of the cavern. He could hear shouts from above, and an arm roughly grabbed at his shoulder. But he couldn’t look away from his reflection. His hair had grown past his shoulder, and, and it was black. Beneath the bangs that now fell to his nose, his eyes had changed as well. The pupils were silver, as if pearls had been plunged into them, while each iris was a crimson halo. The hand gripping his arm slackened, and Auron turned to see the Seer fall into the pool, his neck broken. Before him, one of the guards stood with his sword pointed toward Auron’s throat. The guard was smirking. Just like Balatier was.

“A brand new member of the coal family, huh?” the guard laughed.

Before he even knew what he was doing, Auron flung himself at the man, his empty hand reaching towards the man, who laughed all the harder at Auron’s pathetic attempt. Auron closed his eyes as he watched the soldier bring up his sword, and then all he could hear was the laughter. The laughter was still ringing in his ears as he opened his eyes to see the terror stricken eyes of the soldier. The man coughed up blood as his hands gripped futilely at Auron’s elbow. Auron looked down and recoiled in shock, finally letting the man slip to the ground. His entire forearm had embedded itself into the man’s chest and was now covered in blood. It was still his hand, just flesh and bone. The sight caused him to double over and throw up. It took a minute, but soon he found his bearings.

The screams from above demanded his attention. What of his parents? What of his friends? What of Saleel? Somehow he knew they wouldn’t kill her. At least not right away. Breaking him from his concentration was a shriek, a blood curdling shrill that froze his body and mind. A guardian and his dragon were part of the barrage. This was not a simple raid or coming of age battalion. This was the beginning of a war.

Again he heard the cry of the dragon burden the cave with its thunder. This time, though, his heart surged against his chest. A lust for battle and blood overcame him, and all he could see was red. He needed the taste of metal. Slowly, by instinct, he brought his arm covered in blood to his mouth and began to drink. It went down slow, building an ecstasy in him that he had never felt before. Then he was moving up the stairs, taking four at a time until he burst into the center courtyard of the city.

The grounds were flooded, stone bodies littered the courtyard, entire houses were crumpled to the ground, others frozen, and perched above Balatier’s Altar was the water dragon. Its body draped over the entire building with its claws scarring the scaffold. Its eyes darted towards him immediately, narrowing at the sight of him. The beast’s nose twitched forcing its mouth open. Between its sword-long teeth saliva and blood poured.

The guardian, General Skies, was strapped to the base of the dragon’s neck. Sensing the sudden excitement from his familiar he closed his eyes and asked:

What’s wrong, Aires?
The boy below, he’s an ancient.

Skies eyes shot downwards towards the lone body standing in the middle of the
courtyard. The boy was covered in a glow, a blackish red smolder, and his eyes were staring straight back at Aires, a gaze most would never dare to meet.

If he just came from below then his power was just awakened. He’s not tamed.
He’ll be difficult, but worth taking alive.
Then shall we go.
Hold on tight.

Just as the bell suddenly rang with clarity, Aires flung herself into the air, caving in the altar’s ceiling in the process. She watched Auron’s body begin to move, running up the nearest building, and jumping from its roof to the next roof in pursuit of Aires.

He’s fast.
What did you expect?
Let’s get this over with.

Saleel, with the rest of the first year recruits, had been tasked with the evacuation of the women, children, and elders. At first they were moving as pincers to defend the city outskirts, but when they heard the roar of the dragon, plans changed. Saleel, being the only steel member of the first years, had been put in charge of the operation. She had split the group into teams of three with each team to move down a street and help with evacuation. By herself she traversed the main street with her primary goal to activate the stone guards and ring the bell on top of the Balatier Altar.

Thankfully, most of the families throughout the city were already alert after the dragon’s roar. Almost everyone was already outside, nervous, talking to their neighbors, and trying to figure out what was going on. Saleel gave a heartfelt thanks to Balatier for that and doubly so as no one was causing a panic. Instead of having to warn the families individually to mobilize, the bell would explain it all. Still, she shouted for an evacuation, explained in detail to a couple families she knew well, and stopped momentarily in homes where she new the elderly or infants might need some help.

Despite her relative quickness, when she made it to the courtyard it was then that heavy wings beat the air like slow steady drums. She didn’t turn around to see where the dragon was, if the dragon had entered battle or not. She knew she needed to complete her mission now.
The cathedral stood several stories above the rest of the city. It was a tower built from one slab of obsidian with spires that looked like they could puncture the ceiling. Inside, statues of the great seers and heroes lined the side walls, their features sharp and grim. Past the altar and organ stood a carving of Balatier surrounded by the three imperial dragons.

They always struck a chord in her. Their wings spread out with the tips touching one another, as their heads stayed bowed, noses touching the ground, in reverence to the Earth, reminded her where she came from: the Earth. The sight helped calm her as he moved to the center altar, and took a moment to fully collect herself. She would need to concentrate to make sure the next steps went accordingly.

Gripping the podium, she let the coolness of the stone floor seep into her legs and then rise throughout the entirety of her body. With a deep breath, she pressed her hands against the insignia carved about the podium, exerting her magic into it. Cogs began to grind, chains rattled, and then the cathedral came to life with motion. Balatier alone raised his head, revealing a stairway, as the heroes and seers of old formed a semi circle around him. The three statues of guardians clambered onto the necks of the imperial dragons, and then as a unit the stone watch began to march out of the obsidian church.

Now it was time to get to the bell. However, as she made her way to the stairway the entire structure shook with the cry of the dragon. She fell to floor and looked to the doorway half expecting the head of a water dragon to be sliding in. What she saw was no less shocking. Jets of water rained down from above, knocking over houses and tearing into the stone soldiers. Again the dragon’s roar shook the building, but before the shaking even stopped, Saleel was up and running up the stairway.

It came to her mind that she should just focus on getting out. Everyone by now knew evacuation was necessary. If the dragon had made its way to the cathedral then the whole city could see it. However, the possibility of someone not having noticed, or, perhaps, it was just her inability to accept that she had failed kept her moving up the stairs. The dragon, after all, was in the center of the city before she could warn half of it. Every death now would be hers to bear, her responsibility, her fault. So her feet didn’t stop moving, one in front of the other, as fast as they could until she reached the bell.

The bell was placed in an open enclave near the top of the tower that one could see the whole city from. It was a view of beauty that she could not even take in, let alone enjoy as she placed her hands on the bell. Once more she would need to concentrate and put her energy in order for the bell to ring. A task that only soldiers of the steel class could perform as the toll it took was immense. If she didn’t keep focus now, she would likely waste too much energy and collapse, possibly never to get up again.

But as she tried to give her energy into the bell’s stonework, she was knocked to the ground by a buffet of wind. When she looked up she saw the claws of a water dragon scarring the inner dome of the enclave and golden, glowing eyes. The beast let out a sound that took Saleel’s breath from her chest. She could not move her legs, she could not move at all as the dragon’s head started curling in towards her. Closing her eyes, she said a prayer to Balatier.

A moment passed, and then another without fangs or claws closing around her. Confused she opened her eyes to see the dragon staring intently towards the courtyard. Its head still and eyes needle thin. A burning resolve grew within Saleel at that moment and she threw herself at the bell, exerting as much magic as she could. The bell rang just as the dragon launched itself from its perch, tearing open the ceiling, and caving in the top floors of the cathedral.
Saleel barely felt the sensation of falling as she went down with the debris of the tower. She did, however, notice a figure burning. She thought it looked like Auron before everything went to black.