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Brent Waller
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I am never writing long form fiction in someone else's world again!
The guard stepped forward, motioning Javed through the large double doors into the dragon lord's chamber.  The only source of light in the vast room was a large opening in the center of the roof, where dragons could enter and exit through.  The light did not reach to the edges of the room, concentrating in a beam in the center.  There he was directed to stand.

He could hear sounds reverberating off the walls, loud shuffling and the heavy fluttering of wings, yet he could not see their source.  He had been told that this was an audience with Dragon Lord Dromoka.  From the sound, he could tell that she was not the only dragon in attendance.

Javed waited, having been instructed to wait for Dromoka’s instruction as to what he should do.  He felt utterly vulnerable and alone.  Out on the wastes, facing the berserkers, he had had his comrades for support.  Even when he had faced of against the dragon, it had not been like this.  Here he felt like a sand rat, being watched by the vultures.

A throaty trill called for silence.  Though all dragons spoke in their version of the draconic tongue, the dragons of the Dromoka clan lived and worked in such close proximity with their humans (and aven and ainok, the bird and dog peoples, respectively, of Tarkir) that they did not need translators to understand the common tongue.  And the non-draconic peoples of the dromoka clan in turn could decipher the sounds and gestures of their dragon overlords.

The other dragons fell silent at Dromoka’s command.  In the silence, Javed could hear the blood pumping through his ears, and feel his heart pounding in his chest.  He didn't have to wait long.  

Step forward, young one.

Javed obeyed.  Looking out of the sun light and into the gloom, he could barely make out the massive form of the progenitor of the clan.  She who had lived for over a thousand years.  She who had led the clan, unchallenged, for those thousand years.  She who, along with the other four Dragon lords, stood above every other life form on Tarkir, as Elder Dragons.

Dragonlord Dromoka.  Though obscured, she stood at attention, peering down at him.  Her body was covered in the tough scales that defined her brood.  No other dragons on Tarkir were as resilient.  That was why they had settled the sun burnt wastes of Arashin.  They set the example for the clan, of enduring.

Javed was seized by a combination of animal fear and holy reverence.  Normally he would consider it the greatest honor of his life to stand in the presence of his dragon lord.  But that presupposed that he wasn't called forth for accidentally killing his scalelord.

Dragonlord Dromoka took an active role in leading the clan.  Javed had seen her in person before, though from a distance, when she had made her visits to his aerie city.  Her inspections were mostly positive, except for the thief who was a repeat offender, and so was eaten as punishment.  

Javed had never had a reason to fear Dromoka, or any of the dragons.  He had always believed in the clan, and what it stood for.  The dragons were their guardians, their protectors.  Each member working together for the good of the clan.  Even now, he was tempted to meekly accept their ruling.  But another part, that may have been awakened by Anafenza, wanted to fight to live.  To stand up for himself.  It was a new concept for him.  But he reasoned that since he hadn’t intended to do anything wrong, if he just explained himself, they might see it that way too.

He hesitated, wondering if he was free to speak.  After a moment, he was about to clear his throat to begin, when Dromoka spoke.

Javed.  He felt a thrill go through him at recognizing the sounds for his name in the dragon tongue.

You have been through much, Javed.  Do you know why we have called you here?

Javed felt the nerves come rushing back.  “Oh Dragonlord Dromoka.  I throw myself on your mercy.”  He fell to one knee and bowed his head.  “I have sinned greatly by taking the life of my scalelord, Katar.”  He heard a rustling from the dragons observing.  “But I did not intend it!  I wanted to help her.  But I failed.”  Javed felt his words in his heart, and his eyes were tearing up.  “And by my failure, our clan feels the loss.  My heart is filled with grief, both for the loss of my lord, but also for the loss that my clanmates are feeling.”   Whatever happened, he wanted to be judged based on what was in his heart.

Because Javed was standing in the light, and the dragons surrounding him were set back in the lesser light, his eyes couldn’t adjust.  He could make out their forms, but their expressions were inscrutable.  Most non-draconics had trouble discerning dragon expressions anyway, but after much time spent in their presence, one could recognize and interpret their body language and gestures.  But Javed couldn’t even do that now.  He waited in tense silence.  He had said all that he cared to say.  He didn’t want to muddy the water with many words.

Then he heard a exhale of air from Dragonlord Dromoka.  She adjusted her body position, and then began speaking.  

I know, young one.  Javed gaped.  Her voice wasn’t angry, or condemning.  It was measured.

I know that you didn’t intend to kill Katar.  You have grown up under our eyes, and have always been a worthy clanmate.  You believe in the values of our clan, and have striven to serve to the best of your ability.  Your clanmates can’t understand what happened, but they all testified of your integrity.  Whatever happened must have been under extreme exigency.

Javed swallowed, not daring to hope that this interview was going much different than he had feared.

Dromoka went on.  What is more, we cannot deny that your swift action won the battle, and saved many of your fellow scaleguards.  It is what Katar would have wanted.  What she would have given her life for.  Dromoka sighed.  Javed heard murmuring from the other scalelords in the room.  Only now he could think of how much this death might have affected the other dragons.  They had lost one of their own.  And not in glorious battle against the enemy, but in an accident.  Javed felt a rush of gratitude for their treatment of him in spite of that.

In light of the facts of the situation, which have been corroborated by witnesses, we have decided that no punishment is necessary for your actions.  Javed gasped and let out the breath that had been holding in his lungs.  Dromoka let out a chuckle at the display.

However, the results of that battle do require attention.  Javed recomposed himself.  Until the meeting was over, he must show the proper respect, and pay attention.  Javed, due to your actions in the battle, the decision has been made, to advance you to foremost.

Javed nodded once before doing a double take and feeling the world drop away.  WHAAAAAA?!

Dromoka was still talking.  We feel it is only right in light of your accomplishments to put you in position to make use of your talents for the good of the clan.  Do not think of this as a reward.  It is a solemn duty, and will require every ounce of your body, mind, and spirit.

Javed stammered, almost interrupting, “B-but...how is it done?  I don’t deserve this honor.”

Dromoka preened her scales.  We have discussed this.  We felt that you could redeem yourself better in service to the clan, in light of your record and the accidental nature of your crime, than merely executing you.  Make no mistake, this calling may mean your death as well.

“But in service to the clan!” Javed blurted out.  “A chance to redeem myself!”  Javed bowed down on his knees and pressed his forehead to the ground.  “Thank you, oh great Dromoka.”  He wanted to say he was in her debt, but that would be redundant by this point.

I can see we have made the right decision, Dromoka said, looking around at the other scalelords.  They nodded in return.  Though Dromoka was the utmost authority in the clan, she valued the opinions of her draconic brethren, and even those of certain skilled humanoids.

Javed tried to settle his breathing.  His understanding of the world had been turned on its axis.  Going from fear of death to jubilation and honor.  Then Dromoka reached behind her for something.  Javed noticed that other attendants had come to flank him.  It seemed his audience was over.  But then Dromoka turned and stepped into the light.

Up close, she was breathtaking.  Massive and scaled, she stood above even the other dragons of the clan.  In Javed’s eyes, at this moment, he knew what a god looked like.  She rose onto her hind legs, holding something in her claws.  Finally, Javed caught on.  He would have realized sooner, as it was the defining moment of a promotion ceremony, if he had not been at the center of it.

Javed gulped, and tried to keep breathing.  Dromoka held in her hands a large scale that had once been part of herself!  It was the highest of honors, to receive of their overlord’s natural armor, to weave into their own.

The Dragonlord moved with stately grace, reinforcing the solemnity of the ceremony.  Javed held out tremulous hands to take the scale from her hands.  He had to hug it against his chest to keep it steady.  It was light for its size and strength, unmatched by any metal on Tarkir.  If he proved true, he could earn other scales to create more pieces.  Some of the oldest, and most decorated Foremost had full suits of Dragon Scale armor.

After he took the scale, Dromoka nodded in acknowledgement, and turned back to her seat.  As she retreated, the attendants ushered Javed out of the room.  Javed’s head was spinning so much that he wasn’t sure he could have managed it on his own.

After he emerged from the Dragonlord’s chamber, a nearby aven approached him.  “Javed?”  Javed nodded dully.  

“Javed, my name is Mirza.  As you know, you have been appointed to Dromoka’s foremost.  You will also be assigned to magic training.”  

“What?” Javed gasped, “I wasn’t told-”

“We are always on the lookout for potential Magic users,” Mirza said, winking.  “We’d never noticed such potential in you before, but your feats during the battle are undeniable.  If you show promise, we will continue your training, but regardless, you will fight as a Foremost.”

Javed could only bow, clutching the dragon scale he had received.  Mirza laughed.  “Let’s get you to the armory, and incorporate that scale into your new set of armor.”  Javed listened with as much attention as he could muster.

“You will receive introductory training here, at your aerie.  After a month, once we’ve seen your baseline, we will send for you at Arashin.  You’ll complete your training at the capital, and then be assigned to a post along the border.  You’ve already faced the Kolaghan, so you know battle, but the first station for most new foremost is along our border with the Ojutai.  It’s not as volatile.”

Javed had heard of the Ojutai.  They studied at monasteries high in the mountains.  Meditation, martial arts...a buncha crap.  Navel gazers, the whole lot of them.  There was more to life, like duty, and honor.  Let the Ojutai sit in their mountains.  The Dromoka would brave the desert sands, and protect the precious trade route known as the Salt Road from bandits and the Kolaghan.

Of course, the peaceful nature of the Ojutai meant that such a post would probably not see much action.  Javed couldn’t decide how he felt about that.  One part of him relished an easy post.  No point in looking for trouble.  But his loyalty to his clan made him feel guilty, knowing that he wished to avoid that which others would have to do.  He settled his mind by resolving to follow his Dragonlord’s orders, and not wish for more, but execute them to the best of his ability.  No one could be blamed for that.

The aven gave Javed the details of his training, and then paused for a moment.  “One last thing, soldier.  Since you’re going to be in training soon and then posted, the scalelords decided to assign you a turn on breeding assignment before you ship out.”  Javed’s eyes bulged.  “In case anything happens to you, we want your strength to be passed on to the next generation.”  Mirza gave a wry smile.

“What?  But how-?  Who?”  Javed stuttered.

“Don’t worry about it.  We’ll handle it.  You don’t have to wrack your brain.  Just do your duty, as always, ok?”  The aven smiled, then sobered up and gave Javed an official nod.  Javed returned the acknowledgment, and they continued on to the armory.

***

Javed groaned as he left his physical examination.  Even though each soldier was required to prove their fitness on a regular basis, since he was moving into a new division, he needed to do it again.  They had really put him through the paces.  It was far beyond regular soldier work, but having seen real battle now, Javed could see the purpose.  It didn’t replicate true battle conditions, but if you couldn’t handle training, then you probably weren’t cut out for the real thing.

He had some time before he had to report to his first session of magic training, which he was both excited and nervous about.  He had never done magic.  That was the long and short of it.  They thought Anafenza’s displays of power in the battle had been him!  Javed shook his head.  He really didn’t want to think about that right now, for a lot of reasons.  He just had to hope that magic was a teachable skill, and that he could grasp it.

But before that, he wanted to check in on Ester.  He hadn’t been able to see her since the battle.  When he had been rescued, one of the first things he had asked about was her, and his other comrades.  He had been assured that everyone who was still living had been taken for treatment, and she was among them.

It felt good to know that at least something good had come of this.  Javed had meant to see her when he arrived, but of course he had been detained for debriefing.  And then he had reported to the armory to receive his new dragonscale armor.  He took a moment to appreciate his new gear.  The large scale had been used to create a breastplate, and the rest of the armor was metal and leather to match.  Skilled warriors knew how to move so the impenetrable dragon scale took the brunt of an attack.  He even had a new steel shield and saber.  He momentarily wondered what Ester and his fellows would think of him now, then blushed.

When Javed got to the infirmary tent though, he found that Ester had already been released.  Hmm…  He wondered where she could be.  He wavered for a moment on whether he should go look for her.  She’s probably resting, and I do need to get to my magic training.  He resolved to see her after his training.

***

“The two schools of magic that we use are based on the elements that make up our lives.  That is to say, the Sun, and sand.  It may sound simple, but it’s true.”  Javed was being tutored by Sanaz, the ainok.  They stood to the side of the training grounds, watching the soldiers drill.

“Most people lack the ability to channel magic.  That’s alright.  There are plenty of ways for even the least among us to serve.  But to some, this greater gift is given.”  She turned to Javed and met his eyes.  “Most who do have the gift show promise in either sun or sand, as each requires different things of the user.  And then they focus on honing their skills in that school.  With experience and training, both schools can be learned, although even then, usually one comes easier.”

Javed nodded, focusing his attention on her words.  Being able to use magic would be vastly preferable to putting his body in harm’s way.  If it were all the same, he would like to serve from outside of range.  Of course, whatever the clan needed of him was his duty.

Sanaz led him to a nearby table.  On the table were a bowl of water and a plate with some sand on it.  “This will be your first test.  We will see which school you lean towards, or if it is perhaps both.”  Javed nodded again, waiting for her to explain the test.

She gestured to the plate.  “We will begin with sand.  Sand is all around us.  It easily blows in the wind.  We all know about the destructive power of Sandstorms.  But it can also be used to conceal.  We Dromoka use our sand magic to conceal our troop movements, and plan ambushes, or to waylay and lose our enemies.  They may wander in the sands, never making progress.  But we can also call down the fury of the Sandstorm, flaying flesh from bone.  None can withstand it, not even the dragons of other clans.  Whether they flee or hide, the sand will find them.”

Sanaz motioned to the plate with sand.  “You have not yet been trained.  So we are not focusing on actual spells or anything complicated.  I just want you to focus your will on this sand and make it move.  If you can do that, you have the potential to learn sand magic.”

Javed nodded again, sweat now beading on his brow.  This was the moment this had all been building towards.  He wanted to be successful, but he couldn’t help being aware that everything they saw in him had been done by Anafenza.  He could end up embarrassing himself, or worse, exposing himself as a fraud.

He stood by the plate of sand, and stared at it.  Every ounce of his being focused on it.  He reminded himself to breathe.  Every once in a while, he clenched in force, trying to will the sand to move.  He moved his hand over the sand, and held it rigid, trembling.

“That’s enough,” Sanaz said.  Javed slumped, sucking air.  He had tried so hard, but nothing.

“This is strange.  The reports from the battle indicated that you summoned a sandstorm.  Even if it was done in exigency, you should have been able to move a little bit of sand.”

“I don’t exactly know what happened, “Javed lamely explained.  Sanaz watched him for a moment.  It was clear that she had expected him to be able to do this.

“No matter,  It might just be another case of faulty intelligence,” Sanaz reasoned.  “The heat of battle can play tricks on memory.  Or perhaps you’re just having a bad day.”  She raised an eyebrow at him, and Javed flushed, burning with shame.  Why?  Why had he agreed to this?  It would have been better to be condemned by Dromoka than pretend to be something he wasn’t.

“Well, let’s move on.  Perhaps you are of the sun, after all.”  She gestured to the sun above, though neither needed to look directly at it.  “Sun magic is of two main parts.  We use the power of the sun to heal, and strengthen our bodies to meet the demands of battle.  We can also concentrate the light of the sun to blind and even roast our foes.  In this form, we can even approach what our dragonlords are able to do effortlessly, with their breath.  So Sun Magic is offensive as well as defensive.”

She motioned to the bowl of water.  “We have this water here as a receptor for the healing magic.  The offensive aspects are more difficult, so we’ll leave those for later.  I want you to focus on this water, and try to generate a warm healing aspect to it.  Don’t force it.  It requires a calm and confident mind and heart.  If successful, the water will begin to glow.  Once again, don’t force it.  This is why most magic users focus on one or the other.  They require different things of the user.”

Javed nodded.  He was trying to keep peace inside with his coming humiliation.  He had no idea how to make this work, no more than with the sand.  If he was some chosen, as Anafenza had said, it certainly didn’t manifest as added skill in the magical arts.  

Javed took a deep breath.  He focused on the water, but didn’t let it take up his focus.  He tried to remember how he had felt when Ester had been hurt.  His pulse quickened, but he refused to give in to the panic.  He didn’t have the right to panic.  He needed to be calm.  He needed to remember the sun, its warmth that kept them alive, and channel it to the water.  Let it warm, let it heal.  Let it do the work.  

Sanaz smiled.  The water had taken on a supernatural glow.  “That’s enough,” she said.  Javed’s trance was broken and he gasped as he saw the glowing water.  Without his concentration, the glow slowly faded.  “So, it seems that we can explain how your friend survived.  Not everything was hogwash.”  Javed was too excited to notice her cynical tone.

“You seem to have the gist of it, Javed.  We will work on it, but the main thing you need to remember is that state of mind you just had.  It is the hardest thing about spell casting.  Simple, but difficult.  If it were easy, everyone could do it.”

“Before we end, I want to see if you can focus the sun magic for offensive capabilities.”  Sanaz led him to a training dummy.  “This will be your target.  Once again, don’t force it.  This magic isn’t coming from within you.  You are accessing its power.  Think of justice, think of our enemies who would destroy us.  Cultivate thoughts of righteous judgment.  Cutting them down so the innocent may live.”

Javed nodded, and felt those feelings rushing through him.  He thought of the Kolaghan, who swept everything before them and destroyed all they could, leaving nothing behind.  He thought of the venomous Silumgar, who concocted plots in their swamps and committed unspeakable atrocities on anyone unlucky enough to be in their power.  Javed wished for the power to protect the innocent of his clan, and any who were powerless.  They wouldn’t have to fight if those other clans would just leave them alone!

He felt the heat rising, and realized that he had gathered the power.  How to release it?  Go! he thought, and let all of the feeling pour out of him, aimed towards the dummy.  In a split second, he saw a beam of light bridge the gap between him and the dummy.  It was incredibly hot!  The dummy burst into flames, but only burned for an instant before being reduced to ashes.  Javed was amazed that he had done that.  He felt closer than ever to the scalelords

He turned to Sanaz, who was watching approvingly.  “Well done.  You do indeed have the talent.  We will work at refining that talent.  The most important thing is understanding the nature of magic, and putting yourself in alignment with those principles.”  Javed smiled.  He had done it.  He was useful.

***

He decided to head back to the barracks and lay down for a bit before dinner.  Then he heard a voice call his name.  “Javed!”

Javed turned and saw Ester walking towards him, along with Mirza.  He smiled.  Though he had been told that she was ok, it was good to see her up and about.  It was strange to see her out of armor and with her hair down.  He wondered why she was with Mirza.  A thought occurred to him, but he brushed it aside.

When they met, Javed and Ester embraced with a hearty pound on the back, then separated.  “It’s so good to see you, Ester!” Javed said.  “I didn’t get a chance to check in on you before now.”

“Oh, it’s ok, Javed.  I know you were occupied.  I’m just glad that they found you after the battle.”  Ester smiled.  “I hear you’re coming up in the world.”  

Javed blushed and shook his head.  “I’m just trying to serve as asked by our dragonlords.”

“Speaking of that,” Mirza began, “that’s why I’m here.”  As Javed gave him his attention, he noticed Ester look at her feet shyly.  “Remember how I said your breeding assignment had been moved up?”  Javed froze.  “Well, Dragonlord Dromoka has approved a match.”  He gestured to Ester, who stepped forward and met his eyes.

Javed didn’t know what to say.  This was highly irregular.  Usually, breeding mates didn’t know each other before hand, in order to avoid baggage.  It also encouraged feelings of duty to clan as the driving force behind the union, instead of unseemly feelings of preference.  But Ester was...a close comrade!  And he had saved her life!  It was impossible for there not to be conflicting feelings here.  Why would Dragonlord Dromoka choose this-  And then he realized he was questioning his Dragonlord.  Javed took a deep breath to calm himself.

Mirza went on.  “You are both healthy humans, who have shown great loyalty to the clan.  Dromoka wishes to preserve those qualities for future generations.  It will also partially coincide with Ester’s rehab assignment, so she can continue to serve in full capacity.”

“It is my honor to serve Dromoka,” Ester said.  She met Javed’s eyes.  There was a question in them.

Javed swallowed.  Of course, no matter who it was, or when it came, there would have been awkwardness.  He squared his shoulders.  Some things were more important than awkwardness.  Like doing the right thing.  “I am also honored to serve Dromoka, and to be paired with such an exemplary fellow servant.”  

Ester smiled, but Mirza waved off the compliment.  “Of course.  Dromoka has spoken.  So let it be.”  Javed and Ester echoed his words.  “There is no specific rush, other than Javed’s deployment.  So you have a month.  You know that this isn’t an endorsement of any relationship between you two, other than that of clan mates and for the time being, breed mates.  Once this assignment is completed, your status as breedmates will expire, until Dromoka sees fit to assign you again.  And there is no promise that you will be paired again.  Understood?”

Javed felt the weight of duty.  He was nothing more than a clan mate, and breed mate, to Ester.  And she must be nothing more than that to him.  While attachment wasn’t the worst crime, it belied a lack of commitment to the cause.  And that was often the beginning of greater dereliction of duty.  He knew it could be hard.  He had seen others struggle with this assignment, and some fall under the weight.  But it wasn’t a surprise.  He had grown up in this world.  It was all he knew, and if others could do it, so could he.  He briefly thought of Anafenza, then put her from his mind.

“I understand,” he replied.  Ester looked at him, then nodded.

“I understand as well.”

Mirza nodded.  “Very well.  I’ll leave you two alone then.  You are still expected to attend to your duties.  Javed with training, and Ester with your rehab assignment.  However, your free time will be spent together until your breeding assignment is fulfilled.”

Javed and Ester nodded, and Mirza bid them farewell.  Javed looked to Ester, who was studiously watching Mirza leave.  “When did they tell you about this?” he asked.

She turned to meet his glance.  “I was approached earlier today.  They told me I was being considered for a breeding assignment, since I was injured.  When Mirza came to get me, he told me I would be partnered with you.  I found out only a little before you.”

Javed breathed.  This was completely new territory for him.  And he knew it had to be also for Ester.  They both were fresh out of basic training.  Javed had always been aware that this could happen, been taught and indoctrinated to know that this was the way of things, but it was very different to be living it.

“Um, I was just going to get dinner.  Would you like to accompany me?” Javed ventured.

“Yes, that would be good,” Ester replied awkwardly.  Javed hesitated for a moment, then headed towards the mess hall.  Ester followed slightly behind.

As they waited in line with their fellow soldiers, the silence stretched.  Javed took a breath to speak, but realized he didn’t have anything to say.  Ester looked at him expectantly, so he just shook his head.  Ester hmm’d and went back to studying the ground.

They got their food and found a seat at one of the tables.  No one paid them much mind.  Soldiers mostly hung out with others from their unit, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule.  And it was considered bad form to make a big deal out of those currently serving breeding assignments.

They sat in silence for a moment.  Then Javed barged ahead.  “I’m really glad you’re ok, Ester.  I know there’s been a lot to deal with in a little bit of time, but I wanted to say that.”  He smiled nervously.

Ester returned the smile.  “I am grateful to your swift actions.  Many clan members were saved due to your quick thinking.”  Javed blushed, but his smile left and he looked down at his food.  Ester noticed this and also frowned, looking away.

Ester tried again.  “I...heard what happened with...Katar.  That must have been…”  She trailed off, and Javed didn’t know how she would have ended that sentence.

His eyes teared up as he forced himself to go back to that day.  “It was the worst moment of my life.  No pain I’ve ever felt could compare.”  Ester flinched and instinctively reached out a comforting hand, although it didn’t make it all the way across the table.  Javed weighed the pain of trying to save Ester and of killing Katar, and it didn’t even compare.  One was trying to save a comrade, to pull together, to win.  But if she had died, it would have been an honorable death.  He could have remembered her bravery.

But the other…

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Ester said.  Javed swiped his hand as if to brush those words away.

“I’m actually glad to talk about it.  To talk to someone who understands.”  He again thought briefly of Anafenza.  He banished the thought.  Dromoka had already judged him, and given him his sentence.  Maybe if Ester could forgive him, he could forgive himself.

He opened his mouth to continue, but Ester spoke first.  “Let’s go for a walk.  We can go to the groves.”  She quickly stood up and took her dishes.  Javed had to swallow his thoughts, and follow.

***

The Sun was setting behind the city walls as they made their way among the trees.  Each aerie city, though they lived in the desert, was built around stable water supplies, and so there was greenery and life.  It provided a stark contrast to the endless sand of the wastes.

Ester took a moment to enjoy the cool air of dusk.  “Everything seems so different today,” she said.  “Even though it’s only been a few days, it feels like a lot longer.”  She looked at Javed.  

“You’re telling me.  This morning I was sure I was going to be executed, or exiled.  Now I’ve been promoted to Foremost, I’m learning Sun Magic, and…”  He trailed off, but what was left unsaid hung in the air.

Ester choose to let it lie.  “So, tell me...about what happened.  I still don’t know the whole story, beyond what I’ve heard from others.”  Javed looked down in though for a moment.

“There was, some kind of sandstorm.  I thought it might have been magic, but now it looks like it was just a random occurrence.  I couldn’t see clearly.  I wanted to help Katar.  She was losing to the warkite!”  Javed’s voice started to rise, but he paused to compose himself.  “And I screwed everything up.  I killed my scalelord.  And my fear is that I’ll carry this weight for the rest of my life.”

Ester reached out her hand and rested it on Javed’s arm.  “Javed...Of course you will carry that weight.  But Dromoka has given you an opportunity to redeem yourself.  In lieu of death, she has given you the opportunity to be of use to the clan.  Not everyone who offends so gets that opportunity.”

“I know,” Javed said, almost sniffling.  “And I’m glad.  But it’s still hard.”  Ester watched his slumped shoulders, and felt an overwhelming urge to comfort him.  She reached out and took him into a comforting embrace, his head resting on her shoulder as she stroked his hair.

“I know,” was her reply.

They stood there in silence for a moment.  Then Javed’s hands slowly lowered from where they had been wrapped around her back, trailing down and coming to a rest around her waist, on her hips.  Ester felt a strange feeling.  She became more aware of his body in contact with hers.  She looked up into Javed’s eyes.  There was an intensity there that had not been there before.  Then he gently pulled her hips closer to him.

“Javed…” she managed to croak out.

“Ester…” he whispered.  Her lips parted, and she felt her eyes torn between his gaze and his mouth.  Her heart was beating faster, almost like a training exercise, and she could almost swear she felt the same rhythm under his armor.  Something was happening.  

Javed leaned in towards her, slowly.  Time seemed to slow down.  Even though she couldn’t have fathomed anything like this happening when this walk had started, things had moved so fast.  Like a switch had been flipped.  And she wanted this, whatever this was.  She was ready.

Then their gaze was broken, as Javed looked up at something behind her.  And like that, the spell was broken.  “Is someone there?” She asked, quickly turning around and scanning for any passerby.  She didn’t feel ashamed.  After all, they had been assigned to each other.  But she did feel a self conscious heat rushing to her cheeks.

“No...I just remembered something…” Javed replied, his hold on her loosening.  Ester looked up at him perplexed.  He looked back down at her.  “I’m sorry, I just remembered I had somewhere to be.  It’s important.”  They finally separated, though Javed watched her, as if checking with her.

“Oh, uh, ok,” Ester jumbled.  “I understand.  You have a lot of new responsibilities.  We’ll have plenty of time to...uh…”

“Thank you,” Javed replied, saving her from trying to think of what to say.  He began to walk past her, as she wondered what had happened.  But he paused beside her, and quickly gave her a peck on the cheek.  “I will see you tomorrow.”

Ester put her hand to where he had kissed her, as she watched him leave.  My training had nothing to prepare me for this, she thought.

***

Javed shook his head as he took his leave.  What had that been about?  Javed could remember looking at female clan members before, and being interested, but this had been on another level.  His body had been trembling!  Was that supposed to happen?

And then he had had to leave Ester there!  He still didn’t know how things would have played out if he had stayed.  He decided to put it out of his mind for now.  There were more important things to attend to right now.

When he had looked over Ester’s shoulder, he had caught a glimpse of the spirit Anafenza.  Within the city walls no less!  In the hustle and bustle since he had returned, his visit with the spirit had seemed more and more like a dream.  Yet there she was, visible in the dim light, almost glowing.

She had beckoned him, and then turned and faded away.  Javed had had to lie to his comrade...to Ester, in order to get away.  He felt bad for doing so, but the alternative was unthinkable.  He came to the building where she had been standing, and peeked around it.  Nothing.  He pressed on, and then saw an alley between two buildings.  Javed felt a pull, so he gave a glance in both directions before slipping into the shadows.

Once he reached the middle, he waited, leaning against the wall.  Gradually a glow appeared in the darkness, filling out to show the spirit warrior Anafenza.  She who had first approached him in the desert, who had helped him in that ill-fated battle, who had helped him save Ester’s life.  Yet it was also she who had told him about the alleged history of his clan, who had told him that he was meant for a great calling, who probably wanted him to commit treason.

“Greetings, Javed,” she said.  She was floating a few feet off the ground, and glowing faintly, enough to appear visible in the dark night air.

Javed bowed low at her greeting.  Though she had never requested it, he couldn’t help but be polite to such an unusual figure.  When he looked up at her again, she had a crooked grin on her face.  Javed blinked, frowning slightly in puzzlement.

“I’m sorry, did I interrupt something?”  She was outright grinning now.  Javed gaped and felt the blood rush to his cheeks.  Had she been watching him and Ester?  “I guess she was showing her gratitude.”  Anafenza laughed.  “I almost thought you two were going to go at it right there.”

Javed gasped, scandalized.  “How vulgar!  Please, leave her out of this.  I feel bad enough about meeting with you already.”

“Relax, it’s not like you’re cheating on her,” Anafenza replied with a wink.  “It’s not like there’s anything to cheat on, anyway.  Am I right?” Anafenza said as she raised an eyebrow at Javed.

“It almost feels like I am,” Javed replied.  

Anafenza did a double take.  “Whuh?  ...Oh, right.”

Javed grimaced at his boots.  “Everyone in the clan thinks I’m a hero.  I was promoted, I’m learning magic, and now I get the chance to breed, that some never get!  And yet here I am, listening to traitorous rhetoric from an blasphemous spirit.”

Anafenza rolled her eyes.  “Are you listening to yourself?  The only reason you think any of that is normal is because you were raised in it.  Why do you and little soldier girl need permission, if that’s what you want?  Why are human families so dangerous?  Why is the past such a problem?  Because our people didn’t always live that way!”

“You dare to talk about our people!” Javed hissed.  Anafenza halted, grudgingly taken aback.  “I don’t know about you, but I know some of the things we’re asked to do are hard.  I know it’s easy to find fault.  But I believe in my clan!  I believe that our way of life has preserved us in this harsh land, and against the dangers of the Kolaghan and the Silumgar!  It may not fit everyone, but it is right for us!”

He finished, breathing heavily.  Though his voice hadn’t risen above a loud whisper, it had been so emotional that he felt exerted.

Anafenza glared at him.  “Is that really how you feel?”  Javed stared at her, then nodded.  “Then I guess this is over,” she said.  Javed gasped in surprise.  “I’m not interested in corrupting you, boy.”  Her omission of his name hit him.  “If you’re that much of a believer, then I guess we’ve got nothing to talk about.  Though I think you’re fooling yourself.  After all, who followed me here?”  Her lip curled.  “You could have stayed.”

Javed could only glare in response.  He had no rebuttal.  Anafenza ignored him, but he stayed where he was.  When he didn’t say anything, she started to fade away.

“WAIT!” he actually shouted.  Anafenza quickly reappeared and shushed him.  

“Not so loud!” she hissed.

“I thought you were going to leave!” Javed replied.

“I was.  Why?  Does that bother you?” Anafenza mocked.  “Did you think I was going to be your little spirit buddy?  Ha.  If you’re not in, I’ve got other things to do.”

Javed groaned.  His fists clenched and grasped, as if wrestling with his decision.  “If I let you go, I will always wonder.  Talking with you has introduced the sin of doubt into my mind.  I need to see this through.  I need to get your side.  I need to soothe my conscience.”

Anafenza regarded him seriously.  “And what if you don’t like what you find?” she asked imperiously.

Javed growled.  “Then...I’ll do the right thing.”

Anafenza suddenly smiled.  “That’s all I want from you,” she said, as her hands floated to the sides, and she leaned down towards him.  Javed gaped.  He had never been this close to her before.  She truly was beautiful.  She laid a tender kiss on his forehead, and though he could not feel a physical touch, a warm feeling spread through his body, like the feel of sun magic.

Javed sucked in his breath.  The reason he had listened to her in the first place, was because of this feeling.  He had reasoned that no one who engendered this feeling could be corrupt.  If he was to judge good and evil, he had to believe in his instincts.  And yet she was leading him to apostasy and treason.  If he followed her, he might never be able to fit in again.  And yet, a part of him wanted, no, needed to know.  It was already too late.  If he turned his back now, he would never be at peace.  

“Alright, now that that’s settled,” Anafenza continued, “I’m going to let you know where to go to learn the truth about our history.  Once I give you this information, your fate is sealed.  If you betray us, or try to turn us in, we will kill you.  I will be watching you to make sure.”

Javed gulped at the threat, but he knew it made sense.  He would go along for now.  But if it came down to it, if there was something he could not countenance, his life was a small price to pay.  He nodded his agreement.

Anafenza waited, as if expecting more complaints.  When none came, she nodded as well.  “Javed, keep calm.  I’m going to implant the memories in your mind.  That way there’s no evidence left behind.”  She descended to his level, and after a moment of hesitation, approached him.  He was surprised when she came very close, and then melded into his body.  He felt her presence, distinct and rushing, slightly disturbing his own equilibrium.  Then, as they aligned, he could feel her mind!

He saw the location of a grove of trees.  They had names carved into their bark.  Fruit grew on them, but not like any that was common in the Dromoka gardens and groves.  There, the trees were tended in secret.  And spirits lived in the trees.  He saw it with such clarity that it was as if he had been there a hundred times.  And he knew the way.  There were other images and feelings whirling around, but they couldn’t overtake the main vision.  Yet as always, he couldn’t feel anything negative or ugly in her presence.  Then, as suddenly and forcefully as it had started, it was over.

Anafenza emerged from his body and went back to her floating position.  Javed, for his part, was forced to lean against the wall to hold himself up.  “Wow.”

“What did you see?” Anafenza asked.

“I saw the grove.  I saw how to get there,” Javed replied.

“Did you see anything else?” she pressed.

“No,” he replied defensively.  “Should I have?”

“No, that’s fine,” Anafenza said.  “I just haven’t had to do that often, and when we’re merged, our thoughts are open to each other.”

Javed thought a moment.  “Wait a minute.  Does that mean you saw into my mind?”

Anafenza merely smiled.  Javed felt a cold sweat rise up on his skin.  That could mean anything.  He wondered if there was anything incriminating.

“Don’t worry,” Anafenza reassured him.  “I won’t hold it against you.”  Then she winked.  Javed blushed.  Now he wasn’t sure if she had seen anything, or she was just making it up to tease him.

“Alright, then, I’m glad we dealt with that.  Now we need a way to get you to the grove without arousing suspicion.  We have a few collaborators in town who can get you an alibi.  It won’t hold up to much scrutiny, but it should do for what we need.”  Javed nodded, wondering how far this conspiracy went.

“What about my training?” Javed asked.

“We’ve thought of that.  Don’t worry.  We’ll send our person in the morning.  We’ll get you to the grove, you’ll hear our whole spiel, and then we can get down to business.”  As she spoke, Anafenza gave him a stern glance that preemptively answered any questions about his choice in the matter.  Javed understood.  There was no turning back now.  But he would always have a choice.

“Ok, Javed, you should head to the barracks.  Just act normal and don’t draw attention to yourself.  I’ll know if you do.”

A thought occurred to him.  “So you’re going to watch me while I sleep?” he teased, trying to pay her back for earlier.  

Anafenza smiled, but didn’t rise to the bait.  “Absolutely.”

The smiles faded from their faces, and they watched each other for a moment.  Then Javed turned to go.  He paused, then turned around once more to look back at the spirit, but she was already gone.

As he made his way to the barracks, his mind was racing.  He had nothing substantial to offer, even if he wanted to turn her in.  He could lead them to the grove, but he knew he would be dead long before they would arrive.  He thought briefly about Ester, but decided that she would have to buy whatever excuse they came up with for him.

As he lay in bed, he wondered how he had gotten caught up in all this.  He thought about his life in the clan.  Things were building for him.  If he kept himself clean...who knows how far he could advance?  But on this path he was walking...the least he could expect was a traitor’s death.  And the alternative...was worse.  His stomach twisted as he tossed and turned.

***

Shortly after Javed left to meet with Anafenza…

Ester made her way back to the womens’ barracks.  There wasn’t much to do, now that the sun had set.  As she approached the building, she saw Mirza waiting at the entrance.  She knew immediately why he was here.

“Ester, how are you this fine evening?”

“Well, and yourself?” she responded politely.  Though he wasn’t a dragon, Mirza acted on their behalf, so he was due her respect.

“And how was Javed?” he questioned.

She blushed, remembering their encounter.  “He was fine too.  Nothing to report.”

Mirza raised an avian eyebrow.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure!” she retorted.  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are asking me to do.  As I understood it, Javed and I have been assigned as buh...breeding partners.  Why am I under investigation?  I’m following orders.”

Javed sighed.  “You are not the one under investigation.”

Ester’s eyes widened.  “Javed?”

Mirza shushed her.  Ester looked around, but there weren’t many people about at this hour.

“Javed?” Ester whispered.  “Is this about Katar?”

Mirza eyed her imperiously.  “I’ll only tell you what you need to know.  Javed’s story of what happened to Katar sounds legitimate, and his record is clean.  But the dragons are not sitting well with one of their own dying.  Let’s just say they don’t believe in coincidences.”

Ester looked puzzled.  “Why would someone want to kill one of our scalelords?”  Then a thought occurred to her and she gasped.

“Whatever you just thought of, forget it,” Mirza warned her.  “I’m not asking you to go prying or snooping.  Whatever is going on, the dragons are paying serious attention.  It would be best to be completely ignorant, if you know what I mean.”

Ester nodded, then burst out, “Hey, then what’s the big idea of pairing me with Javed then, if he’s under watch?”

Mirza schooled his expression.  “We picked you for this specifically because you are close with Javed.  Watch him.  Stick close to him.  Keep an eye out.  If he acts suspicious, tell me.  But don’t go any further than that.  If he shows no signs, than that must mean he’s innocent.”  Mirza shrugged.  “In which case, your assignment stands.”

Ester stared at the aven.  “You’re serious.”

Mirza glanced back at her.  “Deadly.  When it comes to open warfare, the Dromoka can hold our own.  When it comes to conspiracies and secrets, we have a hard time.  Dromoka came up with this plan herself.  You should be honored to play such an integral part.”

Ester stammered, “I...I am.”  Though her feelings were not as settled.

“Good.”  Mirza nodded.  “Look, we haven’t said anything because you’re on rehab and breeding assignment.  But the plan is, once you have the child and we place it in another aerie, to promote you as well.”  Ester gasped.  “We know you were in the fray as well.  Just do your duty.  Obey your orders,  And you will be rewarded.  As all are in the clan Dromoka.  Understand?”  

“...Yes.”  

He nodded goodbye, and turned to leave.  Ester watched him go, still thinking about everything that had changed in just one day.
A Tale of Two Tarkirs, Ch. 3
In one life, Khans ruled Tarkir. In the other, Dragons. One man is called to decide, which life will have a future.

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Heat.  Warming, comforting, searing, killing heat.  Through closed eyes, he could feel the sun beating down.  It pierced his eyelids to invade his fitful sleep.  He was too weakened to cover his face or even turn away.  Indeed, he was too weak to even look around or call for help.  Javed felt as if he were already dead.  Which was just an inevitability.  The desert did not show mercy.

He tried to think back, but he could only remember bits and pieces.  The initial charge, the warkite, Ester, a sandstorm...  Yet something was missing.  It lingered at the edges of his mind, conspicuous in its absence.  When he probed further...pain.  And he wasn't in a hurry to add to the coming pain his numb body foretold.

The sun filtering through his eyelids almost served as a second sight.  Slow moving patches of shadow signified clouds.  Nothing enough to provide shelter from the realities of the desert, though.  If he had the strength, he might burrow into the sand for shelter, and wait until nightfall.  He might harvest moisture and even his own sweat to stay hydrated.  And he would definitely try to signal one of dragons that would come looking for them.

He would do these things...but in his current state he couldn't.  And unless something changed soon, he would fade away and die.  The desert could kill a strong man in hours.  And he was not that right now.

Javed faced the end, and waited.

***

Javed started awake.  The fact that he even could was a surprise.  He squinted cautiously at the feel of...shade?  He looked up from where he lay on the ground to discover that he was in a grove of trees, protected from the harsh sun.  An oasis!  Could it be a mirage?  But a mirage couldn't maintain itself at this distance.  It couldn't actually shade you from the sun.  Even the ground was not sand, but soil.

It felt wonderful.  Yet his lips were still parched and his body aflame with thirst.  He let his head fall to the side, to take in his surroundings.  As he did, he saw it.  A small pool of water.  Javed's eyes dilated at the sight.  His universe shrank to the size of that pool.  He knew, even in the shade, that he must have water, soon, or die.

He felt a surge of adrenaline fighting against his weariness.  His tired body wanted nothing more than to lay where he was.  Yet he knew that if he did, he would loose strength until it was impossible for him to move.  He had to act, now!

He rolled onto his side, facing the pool.  Pause.  Then once more, onto his stomach.  Deep breath.  He tensed and gathered his body together.  Wedging his legs and feet against the ground, he pushed his upper body forward.  He focused on keeping his body tight and letting it slide over the soil.  When he had fully stretched out, he dug his hands into the dirt.  Then he gathered his body again, this time keeping his hands and arms firm against the ground, and letting his legs slide behind him.

It was unintuitive and draining, but Javed knew it allowed him to conserve the most energy in his weakened state.  The alternative was flailing about, or trying to get to his feet.  Javed didn't want to waste energy trying to stand when he didn't even know if he could in his current state.

He crawled for an eternity.  His aching muscles protested every movement.  To his fevered eyes, the water seemed no closer after each lunge.  Unwanted thoughts crept into his mind, that he'd be dead before he got to the water's edge, that the water could be bad and finish him off, that this was all a dream and he was still cooking out in the sun.  He let those thoughts pass through and out, focusing on repeating his awkward crawl.  

Once more, once more, once more.  I might be doing this forever, he thought.  That idea didn't bother him as much as it should.  He had set his mind on this course of action, knowing it was his best chance.  Now he just had to keep on.  Once more...once more...once more...

When his hand splashed into the pool, it took Javed a moment of dumb contemplation to realize he had done it.  By this point, he was too tired to even celebrate.  He cupped his trembling hand and brought it to his mouth.  The water seeped through his fingers and trickled down his arm, but he didn't care.  He just needed moisture.  

Javed rubbed his wet fingers over his parched lips.  It felt like heaven.  The cool water was instantly absorbed into his skin.  He dipped his hand again, this time washing the rest of his face.  Javed had purposefully avoided drinking any water yet.  He needed to prepare his dehydrated body, and avoid succumbing to water madness.  Too much water could kill you just as surely as too little.

Once he had cooled his face, and felt a bit more human, he decided to take his first drink.  Javed reached out again, dipping his hand.  This time when he brought the water back, it felt like a solemn ritual.  His eyes focused on the water.  Bringing it to his lips, and restraining himself, he took a sip.

Even with all his mental preparation, he almost lost control.  That first taste of cool water pierced him to the very soul.  He had to remove his hand, so that he wouldn't mindlessly gulp the water down.  His eyes subconsciously darted to the pool, and his body trembled as if he would leap into the waters and roll about like a beast.  

No.

Once the feeling passed, he brought his hand back to his lips.  He sipped the water down, and then sucked on his fingers.  Javed took a moment to dwell on the pleasure he had just experienced, then reached out his hand again.  Once again, and once again.  Each time just as deliberate as the first.  He focused on the sensation in his belly, and when he felt the slightest bit full, he pulled back his hand and forced himself to stop.  He had witnessed the tragic cases of survivors who drank themselves to death after surviving the harsh desert.

Now that he was done, he crawled a few feet away from the water's edge, and fell back into slumber.

***

The second time he awoke was much more pleasant.  He knew where he was, and he wasn't on the brink of death.  He decided to try getting to his feet, using one of the trees for leverage.  Though he wobbled a bit, he managed to keep his feet.

Javed's entire body was aching and weary, but at least he felt human.  He went back to the water's edge, and squatted down to get a drink.  Despite the water he had drank before, it still felt like he was filling up a bottomless pit.  His body had put every ounce of water to work.  He still made sure not to drink too much.  Life in the desert did not last long if you lacked discipline.  

Straightening up, Javed surveyed his surroundings.  He was in a grove of trees, surrounding a natural spring.  The fresh water bubbled up from some fortuitous source.  Many questions pressed upon his mind.  How had he arrived here?  He had been in no condition to travel, and even if he had, he wouldn't have known how to get here.  Did someone carry him?  If so, who, and where were they now?

Javed longed to strip off his armor.  It weighed him down, and he longed to feel the cool oasis breeze on his skin.  There was even dirt in his armor, from all the crawling around he had been doing.  But the thought of some stranger lurking about gave him pause.  If there was someone, they had helped him.  That did not automatically make them trustworthy.

Yet as he scanned the small grove, Javed could sense no one.  He peered out into the desert, which even now seemed like a certain doom that he had only narrowly escaped.  He could see no signs of life for as far as he could see.  Javed sighed pensively.  Then he gladly shucked off his breastplate.

He arranged his armor carefully at the base of a tree.  A Dromoka warrior never took their armor for granted.  The success of their clan was based in endurance.  To endure in battle required the necessary protection.  Those warriors who attained the rank of Foremost were even given the honor of receiving some discarded scales from their revered scalelords, to use as armor.  Javed was just a lowly scaleguard, but he had seen such armor before, worn by Foremost on leave from the borders.  The common scaleguard armor was fashioned in its likeness, with metal worked to resemble dragon scale.

With that weight off his shoulders, Javed almost felt comfortable.  With protection from the sun, and the water here, he knew he could survive.  These trees didn't look like they bore fruit, but that was of far lesser importance.  He could live here for days, maybe weeks.  But he needed to get home.  He had to report on the attack, as well as report back for duty.

As Javed's thoughts went back to the battle, a searing flash burned his mind.  He quickly retreated from the pain, and instead preoccupied himself with the parts that he could remember.  The shouts, the clangs of metal against metal.  He could remember, as though in a dream, the fear and confusion.  He remembered the awful Kolaghan dragon, and Katar, his honored scalelord, battling it.  Here the heat grew in his mind again, but he sidled away from it.

He remembered Ester being hit by the lightning.  She was dying.  Then not dying.  She had been saved.  How?  By the golden light.  Sun magic, like the magic used by Dromoka mages.  But without a caster.  And the sandstorm, reminiscent of powerful sand magics, often used by the Dromoka to conceal their movements or to blind their enemies.  Sand storms were an ever present danger of the wastes, but Javed couldn't believe that one of that size and intensity could have struck with no warning.  The Dromoka lived in the desert, and in order to survive, they studied it inside and out.

So more magic, and once more without a caster.  Javed wanted to believe that he was a fool, that he had been imagining things.  Perhaps Katar had summoned sun and sand mages when she had arrived to warn them.  But something about that felt off.  If Katar had arrived with reinforcements, the majority would have been scaleguards.  Yet Javed had seen none.

“Ugh, I'm getting nowhere with this,” he sighed.  Never let what you don't know, overrule what you do know, he reminded himself.  Once the storm had arisen, he had left Ester, breathing...A flash of pain.  “Ugh,” but he refused to give up.  He circled this painful memory.  I will wear you down, he thought.  Gingerly poking and prodding at the memory, he avoided the worst of it, and was able to continue.

He had been going to help his scalelord.  Even just as a distraction.  Instead...another flash.  He grit his teeth.  I saw the light, and strength flowed into me.  Classic sun magic, empowering and healing his wounds.  And he...had been led.  He remembered now!  That feeling of guidance, like nothing he had known before.  It had led him through the whirling sands...onward...onward...

The pain was consistent now, a dull roar, but he pushed past it.  He had to know!  He couldn't abide this blocked memory!  A small part of him wondered if he should really want to know.  Maybe this is a warning-but he pushed past that thought as well.  Whatever it was, better to know and deal with the fallout.

He had been led...and came upon the two dragons, locked in combat.  The dull pain receded completely, leaving a hollow vacuum in its place.  His ears were ringing.  He remembered seeing Katar fall.  Then the sand returned.  He leapt, he was guided, he would not fail!

And just as it had then, Javed's heart skipped a beat when he remembered what he had done.  His breath caught in his lungs, and came in shallows gasps.  He staggered and threw his arms around a nearby tree to keep from falling.  The sight of Katar, his scalelord, the one who he had...who everyone in his aerie had...devoted their lives to...dead.  And at his hand.

“No.  Nooooo.  NoooOOO-AAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!” Javed screamed.  It couldn't be, this had to be a dream.  The enormity stared him in the face.  Violence against a clan member was the greatest crime in their laws.  Yet that paled in comparison to what he had done.  Excuses and reasons once again flowed through his mind, trying to justify, trying to allow him to come to grips with what he had done.  But he refused to consider them.

Was this his divine punishment?  To be outcast?  No.  It couldn't be.  If he was a true son of the clan Dromoka- and nothing that had happened would change that- then his duty was clear.  Find a way to return to civilization, and turn himself in.  The scalelords, and most likely Dragonlord Dromoka, would hear his case, and then administer judgment.  Javed could only hope that his penitence would show, by accepting his rightful death.

Now that he had made peace with his fate, he was able to hear his mind reasoning, that perhaps there would be leniency, taking into account the circumstances.  It didn't bring him joy, to consider getting off on technicalities, but he needed something to hold onto right now.  Something to give him hope.  He hadn't wanted to kill his scalelord!  They had to see that!  But even if they didn't, he would accept their verdict.  In this way, he would be justified, and at one with his clan, even if it were only in death.

***

Well, no use wasting time, Javed thought.  He pushed off the tree where he had leaned, and began to gather sticks to start a signal fire.  Then Javed heard a sound that gave him pause.  He could have almost thought it to be the wind, if it weren't for the feeling of omen that pierced him to the bones.  He listened intently for it to sound again.

...Javed...

Chills ran down his spine.  His name?  Who out here could be calling for him?  Was it a search party, already on the lookout for him, their calls carrying from a distance?  Javed strained his ears, holding himself as still as possible.  He tried to ignore the sounds of his breath, and the blood pounding in his ears.  He tried to filter out every sound except for the strange sound, the one he sought...

“Javed!” the figure who spoke stepped out of nowhere right in front of him.

“Ahhh!” Javed cried as he jolted backwards, falling flat on his back.

The figure laughed in spite of itself.  Javed could see now that it was a young woman, clad in armor, like a Dromoka warrior.  Friend, he thought.  Yet there was something off about her.  For starters, he could clearly make out the trees on the other side of her!

“Who-” what “are you?” he stammered.  He noticed that she was standing in the air, a few feet off the ground.  Well, that narrowed things down a bit.  He expected to feel afraid, but for some reason, his fight or flight responses had not kicked in yet.

The woman -spirit- smiled reassuringly.  “Do not be afraid.  I am a friend of the Dromoka Clan.”  Javed let out the breath he had been holding.  Well, that was a comforting start.  And yet the situation was so far outside of his experience that he could not make heads or tails of it.  She continued, “My name is Anafenza, and in life I was one of your peers.”

“Anafenza?  In life?  Wha-?  How?  Uhh...?”  Javed's mind was chugging slowly under the weight of so much new information.  The Dromoka Clan did have its stories of ghosts and evil spirits.  Javed had often wondered about such things.  But he had never experienced anything like this.  Everything he had been told said that spirits were ominous and capricious, dangerous and unreliable.  As such, those who chose to deal with and call on such were put to death.

Yet he could feel nothing untoward about this spirit.  Her face held a comforting expression.  Javed supposed that at any moment it could be replaced by a ravening maw, but in the meantime, he could only go by his senses and gut, and both were calm.  Besides, the best way to avoid trouble was to be polite.  If that didn't work, go for the sword.  If that didn't work, and he supposed it might not work on a spirit, then run.

The spirit laughed again, watching his brain process.  “I know this must be new for you.  It's ok, take your time.”  She hadn't moved from her initial position, and a small part of his mind noticed and appreciated it.  He had enough on his mind with the existence of a spirit.  He didn't need to deal with a MOVING existing spirit.

“Ok...uh, Forgive me, oh spirit,” Javed began.  

The spirit laughed again.  “Oh my, ha ha, how formal!”  She smiled, and Javed was entranced.  “I guess this is why it's easier to work behind the scenes.”  She held her hand, palm up, in a placating gesture.  “You can just call me Anafenza.  It's why I told you my name to begin with.”

“Ah!”  Javed bowed low from the waist.  He had inadvertently put the his visitor out.  “I'm sorry, Anafenza, I will do better!”  He clipped the words out like a roll call.  His cheeks flashed in shame, but he was determined to come off well to this spirit.  He had done enough wrong today.  He didn't want to anger some Dromokan spirit.  Even though a part of his mind was still wondering where this Dromokan spirit had come from, as the clan didn't revere or tolerate spirits of any kind.

The spirit called Anafenza quirked an eyebrow at his response.  “I guess...that's a start.  Javed,” she continued, her voice never wavering from a calm and comforting tone, “I am not here to hurt you.  I am not here to judge you.  I am here to help you.”  She smiled again.  “Indeed, I already have.  You just don't know it was me.”

Javed's mouth gaped, and his eyes opened wide.  Her words, it had to mean...the magics that had helped him in the battle...had been...her?

Anafenza resisted to urge to giggle at the truth dawning on Javed's face.  “That's right Javed.  You needed me, and I came to your aid.  Do not fear me.  I am on your side.”

Javed had so many questions.  He felt a supreme aura of love and acceptance, but something niggled at him.  “Wait, you guided me, yet...I killed my scalelord!”  His look of awe was replaced by one of horror.  He dropped his gaze in shame, missing the disappearance of Anafenza's smile, replaced by slight annoyance.

Now, with someone to talk to, Javed felt he could unburden his feelings of guilt.  Perhaps this spirit of his clan could tell him how to pay penance.

“Javed...so what?”

He gaped.  The spirit Anafenza didn't seem to be grasping the enormity of the situation.  “Anafenza, I killed my scalelord!  I!  A human!  Killed my scalelord!  One of our rulers!”

Anafenza scoffed.  “Javed, it was the only way to save everyone.  If you hadn't acted then, that warkite would've killed you, and then killed every one of your fellow soldiers.  Including that one you were trying to save.  If the situations were reversed, your scalelord wouldn't have hesitated to roast you for the good of the tribe.”

“As it should be!” Javed yelled.  He didn't care anymore if he offended this spirit.  She was treading dangerously close to treason, if she hadn't already walked over that line.  Javed could understand the technical aspects of her argument, but it presupposed that human lives were equal to dragon lives, which they very obviously weren't!

Anafenza sighed.  “Javed, look, I know you feel bad about what happened.  I shouldn't have been so cavalier about it.”  Javed harrumphed.  “I know you didn't want to kill your scalelord.  You,” she hesitated, “are a loyal soldier of your clan.”

Javed sighed.  His face went from defensiveness to forlorn.  “I guess.  I'm sorry too, for being cross.  I just...when I found out what had happened, I wished it had been me who died instead of my scalelord.”

“Wow, Javed,” Anafenza replied.  “I mean, I get it, but Javed...”  Javed looked up at her questioningly.  “Javed, you have worth and value as an individual.”

“I know I have value, to the clan,” Javed began.  But Anafenza cut him off.

“Not to the clan.  Or rather, not just to the clan.”  Javed gave her another quizzical look.  Anafenza sighed.  “Maybe it would be better if I started at the beginning.  Over a thousand years ago, the Dromoka clan did not exist.  These sands were inhabited by another clan.  The Abzan.  This clan lived here in peace.  But then the Dromoka dragons attacked.  They overthrew the Abzan, and ruthlessly eliminated their history and identity.  The survivors were assimilated into what would come to be known as the Dromoka Clan.  Humans serving under dragons.”

Javed didn't look impressed.  “Isn't that what happens though?  One clan conquers another?  And you say this happened over a thousand years ago.  All I've ever known is the Dromoka, and you expect me to feel sympathy for some ancient, unknown clan of humans, who for all I know, may have been complete monsters?”

Anafenza set her expression in response.  “I didn't expect you to care right off the bat,” although her annoyance betrayed that sentiment.  “I just wanted to lay out how things are.”

“And you, are you from back then too?” Javed demanded.

Anafenza narrowed her eyes.  “Does this armor look familiar?” she demanded.  It was indeed the modern style of Dromoka armor.  It looked similar to his own, except where his was made of metal shaped to look like dragon scales, hers looked like the real deal!

“You were...a Foremost?” he whispered.  She paused, then nodded.

“I died two years ago.”

Javed cringed.  “I'm sorry.”

“Don't be.  I gave my life for what I believed in.  Just like any of my brothers and sisters would.”  She looked pensive for a moment, and then moved on.  “My only regret, is that there are things I can't do in this state.  That's why I've come to you.”

“Me?” Javed questioned.  “But why me?  I've done nothing special.  In the battle, you helped me so much!”

“Javed,” Anafenza looked him in the eyes, “You have been chosen for a reason.  You are a loyal servant, and you are willing to sacrifice for the greater good.  There's more too.  Our mission will fail without those qualities.”

“Our mission?  What is-”

“In time, Javed,” she assured him.  “Our time here is limited.  Even now, a search party is headed in this direction.”

“But how-” he cut himself off.  She smiled at him.  Of course.  “You've given me a lot of new information, Anafenza.”

“I know.  And I'm sorry to dump it all on you like this,” she admitted.  “The good news is that you have time to think about this.  You don't have to decide right now.  But do think about it.  I will find you when the time is right.”

Javed smirked.  “So you're not afraid I'm going to sell you out to my Dragonlord?”

Anafenza grinned back.  “You have nothing to sell out.  All I've done is tell you about the Abzan.  If you decide to blab, they'll probably just kill you.”  Javed hesitated.  He knew she was right.  He was on thin enough ice as it was.  It wouldn't do to appear knowledgeable about conspiracies.

“Look, Javed,” she continued.  “I know you have no reason to trust me.  I know you've been taught one thing for your whole life.  But there are things you don't know.  And they will change your view on the life you are living.  You deserve to know these things.  The world deserves to know.”

“Wow,” Javed whistled.  “You make it seem like this is some life changing stuff.”  Anafenza nodded.  “And you're right, I don't know you, not really.”  He looked at her levelly.  “And yet, I do trust you.  I feel something...familiar around you.  I definitely don't feel anything bad.  And if I'm going to be able to judge anything, I need to follow my gut.”

Anafenza smiled.  “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“But, Anafenza,” and now his expression turned serious, “I will never betray my clan.  Regardless of how I feel, if you ask me to do that, we're through.”

Anafenza gazed back at him.  “Fair enough.  I won't force you to do anything you don't want to do.  I know you won't betray your clan.  You're loyal.  You're selfless.  And I also know, once you have the full story, you will do the right thing.”

Javed returned her gaze.  The atmosphere was tense, yet not ominous.  Like a firm handshake.  Then she smiled, and gave him a salute.  He watched stunned as she faded away, halfway returning her salute.  

***

After she left, Javed gathered up his armor, reattaching it so that he would be ready to travel when the search party arrived.  He went to the spring and got another drink, and splashed some water onto his face.

Then he walked to the edge of the grove and looked out onto the desert.  The sun had sunk from its height, but he was surprised by how little time had appeared to pass.  Javed felt like a different person.  Like a lifetime had passed.  He tried to decide how he felt about all of this, but it was too much to handle.  He would need time, and ideally, he would need more information.  Anafenza had made it seem like more would be forthcoming.  Well, he wouldn't do anything until he felt satisfied.

He began gathering sticks for a signal fire.  Even if the search party was being led to him, it would be good to give them a concrete indicator of his location.

Javed wondered why he was able to take this so well.  He had just conversed with a traitorous spirit, that seemed to bear a grudge against the Dromoka.  Compared to everything else, this was the worst thing he had done all day.  Then he reconsidered that statement.  He hadn't agreed with her.  And he wasn't sure that he could have exercised any type of power over her, as she was a spirit.

He had killed his scalelord, under her direction.  And yet it was his hand.  And yet it was her direction.  And yet she was right.  By so doing, he had saved his patrol.  Was it really ok to look at it that way?  Would Dromoka see it that way?

He had spoken with a spirit.  The penalty for calling on spirits was death.  Necromancy in all its forms was abhorred by the Dromoka.  And yet he hadn't asked for this, unless he had, by calling for her aid during the battle.  Was he expected to have attacked a spirit to prove himself?  Was he expected to have run away?  All he did was listen.  Was that a crime?  How would a scalelord see it?

Javed didn't like these questions.  He didn't like having questions.  This morning everything had seemed so normal, so secure.  Now, if anyone knew of the thoughts he was entertaining, he would at the very least be banished.  And more likely executed.  Such ideas could create dissension in the clan.  And unity was necessary for survival.  He knew this!  

He wanted to blame Anafenza.  To curse her for telling him these things.  But he couldn't bring himself to do so.  I don't know if it is something to do with spirits, or just her, but I trust her.  She feels...good, and right.  If I had felt anything cold, or uncertain, I would have fled.  I never did.  I felt like I was talking to a friend.

Javed finally succeeded in getting the signal fire going.  He knelt by it, fanning the flames and doing his best to shield it from the wind.  He watched the smoke as it rose through the air, into the trees above.  The wispy vaporous quality felt evocative, reminiscent.  He felt subdued.  He could remember events from the day, divorced from the emotions that had accompanied them.  Maybe he had just used up all his energy.

Javed heard a call.  He bolted up right and searched the wastes.  Quickly he saw the group of his fellow scaleguards.  They were accompanied by a supply wagon.  He was saved!  He yelled and waved.  They returned the wave, and began making their way to him.  Javed smiled widely to see their approach.  It was good to see them.

He would return to civilization.  He would be judged for his crimes.  He would accept his fate.  He would not tell of what he had seen here.  Javed smiled.  Soon, all would be normal again.
A Tale of Two Tarkirs, Ch. 2
In one life, Khans ruled Tarkir. In the other, Dragons. One man is called to decide, which life will have a future.

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It was, Javed decided, one thing to brave the Arashin wastes.  It was another to to do so in broad daylight, in full armor, on patrol.  Sigh.  He reinforced his determination again.  It would do no good to whine or complain.  In fact, feeling sorry for oneself was a good way to get killed.  Not by a commanding officer, who knew exactly how much marching through the desert sucked.  Not by their scalelord, who had better things to do than manage individual morale.  No, the danger was all around them.  The wastes themselves.

The desert could kill a strong man in hours.  In order to survive, you needed to be mentally strong.  Never let down your guard, never slack on discipline.  The desert had no mercy.  Yet the Dromoka clan knew how to endure.

One of the ways was to carry plenty of supplies, Javed thought as he made his way to the supply wagon.  “Water!” he called out, firm but calm.  Just enough to attract the attention of the quartermaster, but not enough to seem brash.

The driver shook his head.  “We need to make five more miles before we stop to rest.  You'll just need to wait.  Or ask someone to share,” he smirked.

Javed narrowed his eyes in irritation, turning away.  “Yeah right,” he muttered.  He wasn't deathly thirsty, but he wanted to keep away from the edge if at all possible.  Apparently the quartermaster's idea of where the edge lay was different from his.

“Javed!” he heard a voice call.  He turned to see one of his fellow soldiers, a young woman named Ester, making her way to his side.  They had been in the same training class, and were both now experiencing, or rather, enduring, their first patrol.  They hadn't been sent to the borderlands, so there was little chance of seeing action out here.  Which was fine with Javed.  He was just getting used to the strenuous pace.  He didn't need a battle to break out on top of that.

“Ester!” he smiled as they fell into step together.  She reached into her side bag, and pulled out her water skin.

“I still have some water left, here have a drink,” she held it out to him.

Javed shook his head.  “No, I couldn't.  I can make it.”

Ester insisted.  “It's not like we're gonna have to wait that long to get restocked.  Plus, you're way bigger than me.  You need more water anyway.”

Javed felt terribly guilty, but didn't want to deny Ester's kindness.  In the desert, working together was the only way to survive long.  Pride had to fall out of the picture.  He bowed his head in gratitude, and accepted the proffered drink.  He brought the spout to his lips, then hesitated.  It was natural instinct to drink your fill.  But natural instinct would work against you out here.

He mindfully wet his lips first.  Then he took the slightest sip to acclimate his dry mouth.  Then a little more, and then a little more.  A mouthful at a time, with a break between them.  It was important to maintain this discipline.  Ester watched him out of the corner of her eye.  If he lost himself, she would stop him.

When he felt the slightest bit more hydrated, he forced himself to stop.  He knew what it was like to drink too much water, as strange as that sounded.  The only way to deal with constant lack, was to condition yourself to live with less.  Any indulgence would derail that conditioning, and destroy the discipline that was essential to survival.

Ester took the water skin back with a smile, and drifted off a few steps.  Now that their conversation was finished, they each desired to focus on the march.  Javed let his mind wander.  That had been kind of Ester.  She was a loyal comrade, and a true servant of the clan.  She was easy to get along with.  All of these were the standards that he valued as well.  If it were up to him, he might even ask her to go for a walk with him, after they got back to the aerie.

But it wasn't up to him.  The scalelords, and often Dragonlord Dromoka herself, decided who among them would be allowed to enter into relationships of that nature.  Service to the clan was a large determining factor, though not the only one.  You had to be healthy and have a reputation for loyalty.  And then the scalelords would take into account some compatibility, enough to ensure a satisfactory relationship.  But since the children born to these couples were taken to other aeries to be raised, thereby distributing the family of the clan amongst the whole, there was no need for a long term relationship.

Javed surely knew of some couples who stayed together, but the norm was for couples to pair up as necessary and mate.  Then the father would move on, his role finished, while the mother carried the child to term while serving the clan in non-combat roles.  During this time, the clan rallied around to support the expectant mother, as the role of mother was highly praised in Dromokan society.  Once the child was born, he or she was taken to another aerie to be raised there.

All of this helped ensure the unity of the clan, while avoiding the formation of selfish bonds based on blood line.  Family meant the aerie where you lived, and the scalelord whom you served.  Anything else was unbecoming of a member of the Dromoka clan.

As Javed pondered these things, he heard a familiar cry ring through the air.  He turned quickly to witness the imminent arrival of their scalelord, the dragon Katar.  The main formation, with Katar's mobile aerie, was far distant, yet the dragon made up the distance with ease as she cut through the air.  An air of expectancy fell over their patrol, and Javed allowed himself to admire the power and majesty of their scalelord.

The approaching dragon barked out commands in the guttural draconic.  Thanks to the close proximity in which the humans, ainok, and aven lived with their dragon overseers, Javed was able to understand most of what was said.  A pack of Kolaghan raiders had managed to sneak into Dromoka territory, and were waiting in ambush over the next dune.  Katar flew over the patrol, watching as the leaders relayed that information into orders.  

The patrol marshaled into formation.  The primary weapon of the scaleguard, and especially against the Kolaghan and their horses, were long spears.  The scaleguard could protect themselves from arrows and other projectiles with their shields.  But the best protection against a crazed berserker charging headlong at you was a sharp pointy stick.

Thus forewarned, and prepared, they waited for the enemy to approach.  Now that the element of surprise had been spoiled, the Kolaghan could either retreat, or attack anyway.  Javed knew which option he thought was more likely.  The Kolaghan could have been a bogeyman created by elders to frighten the young into obedience.  They seemed to be antithetical to everything the Dromoka stood for.

Yet Javed knew they existed, for he had heard the tales firsthand from Foremost who had faced them in combat.  Stories of cannibalism.  Stories of killing their own.  Stories of drinking blood.  Stories of killing children and the infirm and old, and everyone who had the misfortune to lie in their destructive path.  As far as anyone had been able to ascertain, the Kolaghan did all they did, just for the hell of it.  They didn't build, they didn't rule.  They destroyed, and then moved on.  Almost like a force of nature.  

Yet this was a force of nature that you could fight, and every scaleguard worth their salt stood ready to beat back the ravening hordes from their homes.  And in doing so, you could be promoted to Foremost, the elite of Dromoka's human servants.  Though individual glory was not as important as serving the clan.

Javed found himself a few rows back from the edge of their formation.  He could see Ester to his left, also not on the front lines, and felt relieved.  Not that he doubted her combat abilities.  Every scaleguard needed to be able to fight, or at least die, for the clan.  But wrapped up in that was a solicitousness for their comrades.

Those warriors on the outside of the formation linked their shields and held their spears outward, in a complete circle.  This prevented the Kolaghan from flanking them with their superior mobility.  Those not on the edge held their shields upward, to protect both themselves and those close to them from arrows.  They added their spears to the defense, creating a resilient break point to resist any charge.  They blocked off a space in the middle of the circle to allow for the supply cart and any wounded.  For they knew that there would be wounded.  They could only hope that would be all.

These tactics had been honed over a millennia of combat.  The Dromoka knew how to defend, especially against their hated enemies, the Kolaghan.  No mercy could be expected, so they just had to become stronger.  And of course, they had their dragon circling overhead, to provide support.  Javed smirked.  He almost felt sorry for the bastards.  Almost.

Now he could hear it, the war cries and screams of the approaching raiders.  They knew that their ambush had been foiled, and now they were going to try the overwhelming frontal assault.  Despite the Dromokan defenses, that fearsome charge was often effective.  This first strike would go the furthest in determining the victor of this battle.  The Kolaghan could throw a mean first punch.  The Dromoka had to be able to take it.

Of course, with Katar in the mix, she would probably strafe the Kolaghan charge before it could even get to them, weakening their strength.  In battles between clans, your best bet was a dragon.  They were so far above the normal combatants, that having one on your side often trumped all other concerns.  That didn't mean you could slack off, so Javed kept his mind focused, vowing to give everything he had, to the last drop of blood if necessary.  

Then the Kolaghan breached the hill.  Javed felt a chill go through him.  This was real.  He could see their bloodstained faces, their black horses.  He could see their mad expressions, and the cruel joy that seized them.  Now that they saw their prey, the Kolaghan redoubled their frenzy, if that were possible.  They urged their mounts down the hill, only gaining speed.  Such misuse would destroy a horse over the long haul, but this was about a quick strike, and maybe one of two more, if needed, to clean up the scraps.  

Javed felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins.  His grip grew shaky, til he had to take a breath to calm himself down.  No need to worry, no need to wonder.  There was no tomorrow, there was no yesterday.  There was only now.  This moment.  Focus, breathe.  Don't think.  Watch them come.  Ease your grip.  When the time is right, then clench and thrust.  He heard others in the formation shouting last minute directives and encouragement.

Then something streaked across the sky, and BOOM!  Something crashed into Katar and sent her hurtling through the air.  A deafening screech made the hair on Javed's body stand up.  Lightning crackled through the air as he beheld a Kolaghan Dragon, or warkite, in all its fearsome glory.

A dismayed cry went up from the formation.  Javed whipped his head back to the charging Kolaghan skirmishers, who were roaring with blood lust at their dragon's arrival, then back to the hovering Kolaghan, who had turned its head to regard them for a moment.  Then it screamed, charging up its deadly lightning breath.

This was not good.  Javed's patrol had had a tenuous advantage before, but now things looked decidedly grim.  He couldn't tell where their scalelord had gone.  And without a dragon of their own, they were caught between a rock and a hard place!

“Roaarr!!!”  Javed felt his heart lift at the familiar sound.  A blast of purifying light caused the warkite to cut off its attack and dodge.  It turned back to see Katar making a line towards it.  As Katar charged, she let loose with her breath of light, hoping to destroy her foe, but if not, at least to cover her advance.  The warkite, however, moved impossibly fast, even compared to their scalelord.  It was able to dodge the attacks easily, then close to range.

Now it was the warkite's turn to attack.  Its preliminary strike had been a lightning assisted battering ram, that had transferred most of the force into Katar, leaving it relatively unharmed.  But a mere look showed that there was no way the slender dragon could compete in physical strength with Katar's bulky and muscled build.  So it drew close, but just out of reach, where it could leverage its superior mobility to avoid Katar's attacks, yet lash at her with its own lightning breath.  Each strike caused Katar to pause, but she doggedly kept up the chase.

Javed snapped out of his reverie.  He had been transfixed at the dragon battle in the sky.  He hadn't seen anything like it before.  But he knew the raiders' charge must be close.  He looked, and sure enough they were almost upon them.  For an instant he wanted to scream, to run away.  Instead he took a calming breath, and shouted, “Eyes forward!”  His comrades noticed their peril, and joined the refrain.  There was nothing they could do for their scalelord if they got swept away here.  The concern they felt for their dragon was channeled into their focus, and as one, they let out a rallying cry.

It was met from the Kolaghan with a cry of their own, and then the two sides crashed.  Just as the first waves came into reach, Javed and his fellow scaleguard clenched their grip on their spears, waited one beat, and then thrust with all their might.  The impact was tremendous.  Spears shattered up and down the line.  Horses pushed themselves onto the spears until the points came out the other side.  The force would have easily knocked the scaleguards at the front off their feet, if they weren't braced by their comrades behind them.  As it was, the circle bent and shifted, but held.

Seeing as the initial charge hadn't worked, those Kolaghan who came after were forced to turn their charge and begin circling the formation.  They tried to bat down the spear tips with their swords so that they could ride in and trample, but the rows of spears shored up any weak spots.  A few of the Kolaghan tried to shoot arrows into the formation, but the scaleguards' interlocked shields formed an impenetrable wall.

Now that the greatest danger had subsided, though by no means passed, a few of those scaleguards on the inner most of the formation drew their bows and fired back.  The few Kolaghan archers fired direct line shot into the formation, which were easily blocked.  The Dromoka archers, on the other hand, had to arch their shots to avoid their comrades.  Even with their aim obscured, they were able to thin out the Kolaghan ranks a bit.  However, some intrepid bowman set their sights higher.

Above them, the battle between dragons had continued.  Each lightning blast sapped more strength from Katar.  She replied with her own blasts, but the surprise attack from the warkite had left her behind for most of the fight.  The archers noticed, and began firing at the warkite, seeking to aid their dragon.  The warkite regarded the volley, and easily dodged.  But the archers didn't give up.  They kept firing, forcing the warkite to divert its attention.  

Katar used this time to make up the distance and advance to close range.  Just as the warkite was preparing to turn its deadly lightning upon the archers, Katar crashed into it bodily.  Though it was nowhere as fast as the warkite's own charge, it had almost as much effect.  The Kolaghan dragon lost quite a bit of altitude, almost brushing its wing tips against the desert sand.  However, it regained its equilibrium just as Katar charged down on top of it. The warkite just manged to dodge the blow, which would have flattened it, but Katar followed up with a nasty bite.

Utilizing the distraction, the Kolaghan warriors had left off their fruitless circling, and had gathered halfway up the hill for another attempt at an alpha strike.  The warkite noticed this, and let off a point blank lightning blast at Katar which bought it enough time to escape.  It flew to the head of its forces, and as it turned, they all charged.  This was different from the first charge.  This was what was meant by the Kolaghan charge.  The warkite breathed its lightning breath over its own troops, and they welcomed it!  Some of the Kolaghan had metal rods sticking up at their backs which channeled the lightning into their own charge.

Javed kept his focus, but a voice in the back of his head told him he was witnessing his own demise.  He made peace with that thought, and pushed it aside.  He didn't know if there was anything that could withstand such a charge as this.  Even the very earth seemed as if it would rend.

Then Katar flew over them, towards the foe.  “Yes!” Javed cried out.  His spirits were lifted, though things still were grim.  Katar would protect them.  If she could just keep that dragon off of them, then they might be able to deal with that horde.

However, Katar had something else in mind.  As she charged the Kolaghan forces, she unleashed her scorching breath upon the riders, instantly incinerating many, and blasting many more to the ground, leaving them to die from agonizing burns.  The charge was decimated, and there did not remain enough riders to pose a threat to the scaleguard formation.  However, this left Katar open.

In that split second of diverted attention, the warkite attacked.  It didn't give an ounce of consideration to its followers, but instinctively pressed its momentary advantage.  Gripping Katar with its claws, it unleashed a full force point blank lightning blast into her face.  Katar convulsed and went limp, falling out of the warkite's grasp and crashing to the sand.

“NO!” Javed screamed.  The formation loosened and then broke.  The scaleguards charged to their scalelord's aid.  The war kite took to the air and loosed a lightning blast upon them.  “Aaagghh!” Javed screamed as searing electricity flowed through his body.  He dropped his spear and fell to his knees.

He looked around and saw his fellow scaleguards in varying states.  Some lay on the ground, not moving.  Others were staggering around, dazed.  And still others were already regrouping.  Ester rushed up to him.  “Javed, you're still alive!  Come on!”  She dragged him bodily to his feet, and gripped him with her free hand until his feet were steady enough to stand.  

She still held her spear, although her shield was missing.  His shield was still gripped tightly in his hand, the aftershocks of electricity causing his grip to clench, knuckle white, on the handle.  His spear had fallen, and though he took a groggy glance around, he could not imagine finding it in this chaos.  Time for plan B, he thought, as he pulled out his scimitar.

Ester pointed at some soldiers that were struggling to rebuild some type of order, and they began making their way towards them.  However, the remnants of the Kolaghan band were hellbent on destruction, especially now that the Dromoka's secure formation had been broken.  The scaleguards that Ester and Javed had been approaching were cut down without ceremony.  Then the riders continued towards them.

Ester bent her knees, holding her spear at an angle.  Without the benefit of her comrades to brace her, she needed to wait until the last possible moment, and then brace her spear against the ground.  Javed stood nearby, feeling impotent with rage and stricken with grief.  Why?  Why did this have to happen?  He wished he could charge his opponents like a dragon, and tear them from their saddles, and send them fleeing before his wrath.  But he could not do those things, so he seethed and waited, resolving to protect Ester's flank.

The riders were almost upon them.  Ester set her spear into the ground and braced for impact.  At that moment, the warkite appeared.  It had been chasing and harrying the remnants of their patrol, and now it was here for them.  Javed yelled, raising his shield and running to put it between Ester and the blast.  It was too far, and everything seemed to be moving too slowly for him to ever get there in time.

He didn't.  The blast cut through them like a knife.  Even the Kolaghan riders were caught in the blast, crashing to the ground in their charge.  Javed's shield protected him from the brunt of the blast, though he was still thrown to the ground, throbbing with pain.  However, Ester was unshielded from the blast.

Though he couldn't see her face, he could hear her scream.  She flopped to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut.  Javed struggled to his feet, staggering to her side.  He could still see electricity arcing through her metal armor, so he removed her breastplate.  Then he checked her breathing and heart beat.  She wasn't breathing, and though her pulse was still there, it was irregular.

“Ih-kohm-neh,” he cursed.  He tried to breath air into her lungs, but nothing happened, and he felt foolish.  If only there were a sun mage around!  Javed pulled at his hair in stress.  Ester was going to die right in front of him!  His only consolation was that they all were probably going to die, with that dragon still around.

“Please!  Please...” he cried to no one, anyone.  Gradually he noticed a light shining above Ester's chest.  It coalesced and grew in intensity.  “Sun magic!” he gasped, though where it was coming from, he could not guess.  Suddenly Ester gasped, and her eyes flickered open for a moment, before she lay back, unconscious, on the sand.  Javed could barely believe his eyes.  She was breathing!  He checked her pulse, and it had stabilized as well.  

Javed felt weak.  In the midst of his powerlessness, something had aided him.  He whipped his head about, trying to sight the Kolaghan dragon that was still a threat.  He saw it, closer than he had thought.  It was engaged in battle with Katar.  Katar!  Such was to be expected of the enduring dragons of the Dromoka brood.  He grabbed Ester's spear, whispered a prayer that she would be watched over, and started making his way to the two battling dragons.

As Javed half walked, half crawled towards the battling behemoths, his mind was filled with thoughts.  Where were reinforcements?  He had no idea how long they had been fighting.  Maybe it hadn't been long enough for word to get back, or for others to arrive.  After all, no one had expected combat like this, inside the borders.

What was he going to do?  He had no idea.  As long as dragons had the power of flight, they had the advantage.  Javed knew that there were some among the humans in Dromoka's service who were specifically trained to combat dragons, but they were the most trusted of the Foremost.

In the end, did it matter?  If the Kolaghan dragon was left to attack, all of the scattered and wounded of his patrol stood no chance.  Even Katar was struggling.  If it were to help his brothers and sisters, and his scalelord, he would gladly sacrifice himself.  And right now that looked like the plan.

Gradually he noticed the wind picking up.  Sand started flying through the air.  A sandstorm?  But there had been no signs.  It quickly grew in intensity.  Javed shielded his eyes, and wrapped his scarf around his face, leaving the slightest space for him to see.  This speed and intensity, it seemed the work of a team of sand mages!  But there had been no sand mages assigned to his patrol, or nearby enough to have reached them.

Don't question it, he thought.  You've got bigger problems.  It was within the realm of possibility that this sand storm had spontaneously generated.  Not probable, but possible.  However, with visibility reduced, it meant that the Kolaghan warkite would have trouble flying away, or maneuvering.  He almost laughed at the idea that he didn't want this fearsome dragon to fly away.  But knowing that it wouldn't stop until they were all dead, grounding it gave them an advantage.

It also made it difficult for him to find them.  He tried to keep going on the line he had been on when the storm started, but the buffeting winds and approximately 5 feet of visibility made it impossible to know if he was still on the right track.  He hesitated to take his next step, and doubt began flooding his mind.

Then he felt something tugging him in one direction.  It was soft and light, almost enough to be missed in the raging storm.  Yet he could feel it.  He focused on it, trying to ignore everything else. The faint feeling drew him onwards, occasionally correcting him when he went off course.  His heart went out to the source of this guidance, and what he felt must also be the source of the storm, and the healing of his friend.

Eventually, he came to the place where the two dragons had been fighting.  The sudden sand storm had paused their combat.  He could barely hear them roaring and thrashing about trying to find each other.  Then it was if the sand let up slightly, just in the very vicinity, and he saw them.  Katar caught sight of her opponent, and charged.  With a mighty bite, she severed one of the warkite's wings from the bone.  The warkite screamed, and then let off a rage and pain filled blast.  After all the damage Katar had taken, she went down, and was slow to get up.  The Kolaghan let out a roar of triumph, and advanced on its prey.

“NOOOOO!” Javed cried, and the sands returned with renewed intensity.  Now he couldn't see at all.  He reached out to the source, whatever had been guiding him to this point.  “Please,” he whispered, “guide me.”  He felt the tugging again, and trusted in it.  He advanced confidently.  He began to feel a glow and energy flow into his body.  The weariness and fear from the battle was overlaid with strength, and vigor.  He felt stronger, better, than he ever had before.  He felt like a bow, stretched taut, ready to loose the fateful shot.

He still couldn't see, but when he felt, rather than heard, the command, NOW, he leapt!  Springing high, and arcing down towards his unseen target.  He put every ounce of his new found strength into the blow.  Once, for all time.  Whatever the outcome, he would not hold back.

He felt something as he struck, large flesh.  The spear went through with almost no resistance.  He heard a rage filled scream, tinged with agony and pain.  The spear was wrenched from his hands, and he fell to the ground.  As he struggled to get to his feet, the sandstorm cleared.  He looked up and saw the Kolaghan warkite, poised upon Katar, having been ready to deliver the final blow.  His spear had struck clean through its neck, pinning and killing it.  However, as he looked on in horror, he saw that the spear had continued down, into the chest of Katar!

Javed couldn't believe his eyes.  His heart constricted and he gasped for air.  Katar moaned and looked at Javed with pain and anger filled eyes.  She growled out one final draconic word, Why?  Then she slumped to the ground and Javed watched the life leave her body.

Javed sat there a moment.  His brain couldn't process what had just happened.  He had been trying to save his scalelord.  Yet he had killed her!  Various excuses and reasons flew through his mind, but he grasped at none of them.  A stream of gibberish whimpered from his lips.  Then he screamed to the sky.

The scream was loud and long, and when he finally ran out of breath to scream, he collapsed to the sand and knew nothing more.
A Tale of Two Tarkirs, Ch. 1
In one life, Khans ruled Tarkir. In the other, Dragons. One man is called to decide, which life will have a future.

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“Tenzin, could you take this in to Tonraq?”  

Tenzin looked up and saw that Pema had prepared a tray of food.    In that instant he felt a surge of love for his wife.  It was the little things she would do that helped make life worth enjoying.  He quickly enveloped her in a warm hug, pecking a kiss on her forehead.  She smiled and sputtered, feigning surprise, but was slow to let him go.  They all needed something, something positive, to overcome what they had just been through.  He took the tray from her and glided off, towards Korra's room.

When he arrived, he hesitated, then knocked twice softly.  It wasn't a request for entry, as much as an announcement of company.  He turned the knob and entered, taking in the scene.  Korra's bed took up his initial focus.  There she lay, sunken, breathing shallowly, sleeping, healing.  Anyone seeing her could tell that she had been through a lot.  Few, if any, could fathom how much.

His peripheral vision took in Korra's parents.  Tonraq sat at Korra's right hand, cradling it gently, yet with a determination that bordered on fierceness.  He had manned a lonely vigil since their return.  Not for lack of company, but for lack of the notice he gave to anyone else.  Even as the others made preparations for life to return to some kind of normalcy, yet he waited.  Even though the healers told him that Korra was through the worst of it, yet he waited.

Tenzin was not surprised to see Senna at the other side of the bed.  When she first arrived at Air Temple Island, she had been just as much a fixture at Korra's side.  She would fetch water and towels and anything that might make her child's suffering a bit less.  But as Korra settled in, and the only thing they could do was wait, Senna began to try to help Pema and the Acolytes around the compound.  Cooking meals, cleaning...  But in any spare moment, she would slip away, and they would find her later, at her daughter's bedside.  They didn't mention it, and though they still tried to involve her when she joined them, they understood.

Tenzin was struck by her stance.  Tonraq sat bowed over the side of Korra's bed, knees touching her sheets and her hand in his, eyes staring as if he could heal her with his will (and if such a thing were possible, Tenzin could believe it would happen here).  In contrast, Senna stood, a foot or two away from Korra.  Tenzin looked at her expression, and was reminded of the statues of Air Nomad women, carved and impassive.  Yet there was a weight of grief there too, as if her facial muscles had shut down from the strain of trying to communicate her grief.  She seemed to be forcing herself to witness, even though she knew there was nothing she could do.

The weight in the room was heavy, almost oppressive.  Intruding on this scene felt like an unacceptable invasion.  Korra's friends and well wishers had all come to see her, but now found other ways to deal with their grief.  Now only the occasional visitor and the nurses came, not out of neglect, but consideration.

Tenzin felt it.  It washed over him, and he couldn't fight it.  He knew how he himself would react.  Yet he pressed on.  Not knowing any better how to interject, he spoke out.  “Senna, Tonraq.”  They both blinked and turned to him, as if woken from sleep.  Then Tonraq returned to his watch.  Senna cast a glance back to her daughter, but then pushed herself to engage with him.  

“Hello, Tonraq, it's good to see you.”  Senna glanced at the tray of food in his hands.  “Oh, these are for us?  Thank you, and thank Pema for us.”  She sighed, smiling a wan smile.  “She has been so good to us.  You all have...”  Tenzin could see her struggling to make niceties, as if they were a foreign language that she barely remembered, her voice trailing off at the end.  She took the tray from him and walked around to where Tonraq sat, setting it on a nearby table.  Her task accomplished, she returned to where Tenzin stood near the door, dutifully entertaining his presence.

He looked past her at Korra.  “Any signs?” he asked, not having anything else to add, but not feeling like he should leave just yet.  

Senna forced a wispy laugh, but it left her eyes as cold as before.  “Yes.  Sometimes she tosses fitfully.  Sometimes she talks in her sleep, or even tears fall from her eyes.  We watch carefully, but she doesn't wake yet.”  Tenzin's stomach fell a few inches at the barely checked agony in her voice.

He had to do something.  He wanted to put his hand on Tonraq's shoulder, but the man seemed like a bow strung too tight.  So instead he gave Senna a hug, whispering some heartfelt condolence that still felt hollow.  She responded with verbal gratitude, but it also felt empty.  She raised one arm to return the hug, while her face continued to portray stone.

Tenzin felt bewildered.  He knew that there wasn't a solution here, that there wasn't anything he could say that would fix this, but it seemed so wrong to leave them like this.  He tried to think of something to say, but his mind was blank.  The words wouldn't order themselves, and all he knew was a vast desire to say something coming over him as from an outside force.  So he opened his mouth, without any idea of what he was going to say.

“I...Sometimes...We wish...” He stumbled through his words, feeling embarrassed, yet not able to stop.  Senna patiently watched him, as you would wait for a child to make their point.  There was no physical sign from Tonraq.

“I often find...that we wish...that...we could suffer...for our loved ones.”  He almost stammers, but as he continues, he begins to feel more confident.  “We wish that by our pain, we could lighten their load.”  Tenzin could sense his own mind racing to supply a reassurance that this desire was normal and acceptable, but the force compelling him to speak wouldn't allow him to second guess it.  Senna was staring openly at him now.  Tonraq still hadn't moved, but Tenzin could feel, rather than see, that he was listening.  

“Unfortunately for us, that is not the case.”  Tenzin inwardly groaned.  So then what was the point of that whole bit?  But before he can think, his mouth continues.  “Yet...”  And here he lost the thread for a moment.  Suddenly humbled, he besought whatever force, that had led him to speak, to not abandon him now, because his mortal, finite words were not enough.  

“Yet if we cannot take their burden, at least we can suffer with them, that they may know that they didn't suffer alone, or in vain.”  Once again, he mentally questioned that statement.  It wasn't that he disagreed with it, but more that he couldn't ever remember having arrived at that conclusion.

Tears now fell openly down Senna's face, and she risked a glance to her side where Tonraq sat and Korra lay.  Tonraq still hadn't moved from his position, but he seems to be shuddering, or hiccuping. Tenzin couldn't take the time he wanted to ascertain which, because he was urged onward.

“Korra loves you,” and here Senna broke down into audible sobs.  Tonraq was now making noise, and Tenzin now recognized that he was also crying.  “She was willing to die to save the Air Nation.”  Here Tenzin choked up, but he soldiered on.  “She has done well, and she will awaken.”  He couldn't tell if this was some truth, or just what he wanted to believe, but it resonated with such force that he couldn't resist it.  

“The world still needs its Avatar” the force pushed his voice onward, and both Senna and Tonraq were watching him now.  His thoughts were so scrambled by this point that he couldn't even wonder where these words were coming from.  The only thought that remained was that he must convey them.  And just as he submitted to the force, it left him.  He could feel it almost as if it were the air, whooshing out of the room.  And like the last bit of air leaving a bag, one last statement, quietly.  “So worry not, my friends, but believe.  You will have your daughter again.”

Tenzin blinked.  He didn't know what had just happened, didn't know what had came over him, but he knew it was real.  He cast his eyes over to Senna and Tonraq, and they were quietly sobbing.  He could barely remember what he said, and it was vanishing like a dream.  He hoped that he hadn't put his foot in his mouth, but even though he can't remember the specifics, he felt assured that he had spoken well.  That it was what Korra's parents had needed to hear.  

Senna approached him, returning in earnest the hug he had offered earlier.  “Thank you,” she whispers fiercely.  She repeats herself, softer this time.  “Thank you.”  She went over to her husband, and put her hands on his shoulders.  

Tonraq wiped his eyes.  “Thank you, Tenzin, Thank you.”  His voice carried none of the force that Tenzin was accustomed to from him, but it did have all of its warmth.  Neither of them said anything else, and Tenzin's mind wondered at what he had experienced.  But another part of him was calm.  

I think we are all through the worst of it.

The next day, Korra woke up.
Bedside Manner
I originally wrote this after the Book 3 Season finale.  it was an attempt for me to sort through my emotional reaction to Korra's state at the end.  I didn't intend to publish it, but while looking through my old things, I found it and decided to clean it up and post it.

It's short and personal.  I hope that it's enjoyable as well.
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Lacedra Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2015
Thank you for the +favHeart 
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Omar-Dogan Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thanks !
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Omnipotrent Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2014
Howdy, you like Azula I see
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shorewall Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2014
Yes I do!  :D
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Omnipotrent Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2014
Well I have adapted her in modern apparel for a crossover series i've made
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shorewall Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2014
Sounds interesting!  I'd like to check it out!  :)
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Andi-Scissorhands Featured By Owner May 20, 2014
Thank you much for the Watch dear!!:D
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shorewall Featured By Owner May 20, 2014
No prob!  I really like your AT stuff, so I figured I'd support!
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Danimarion Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for the watch. :)
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shorewall Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2014
:)
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