CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
Flying low over the largely unspoiled wilds of the lush forests and rolling hills of Bentrci, a pair of large dragons swooped into a low-lying clearing north of the normally peaceful village of Alistin. Riding their momentum, the two literally hit the ground running. Their iridescent scales were shimmering rainbows of color, serpentine bodies undulating as they gamboled south. Maintaining a measure of the buoyancy that allowed their deadly forms to soar among the clouds, the dragons bounced along the landscape with ease, propelled by their great stores of internal energy and claws that barely touched the ground.
Even had they been reduced to the level of awareness of the humans who lived in the area, it would have seemed obvious that Alistin was in crisis as columns of black smoke rose above the sprawling town. Keen dragon senses told them that fires still raged in the light industrial community as surely as they knew the scents of blood and panic in the air. Drawing near the outskirts of the town, still intending to evade detection, dragon flesh quivered and changed. In the span of a few heartbeats, dragon forms had become snaking clouds of indigo smoke, roiling among streets and alleyways.
“Well, child,” Aan-kresk said as the two finally settled on a rooftop, hidden from human eyes by the concealing gift of the dragons’ mime, “would you agree that we have something worth reporting home?”
“I’m confused, ancient,” Kss-kaak responded. “I see a lot of military equipment, calm warriors with strange smiles and there’s no question about the uniforms. Albani warriors have clearly penetrated deep into Bentrci, but this place isn’t ablaze. The ones without uniforms appear to match reports of the natives being largely farmers and crafters. Why keep them alive?”
“Without a military force to offer resistance,” the elder dragon proposed to his young charge, “it’s possible they could’ve surrendered to escape slaughter.”
“Well, no uniforms,” he replied, “and they have both a look and smell that tells me they’re comfortable with dirt and work. They also don’t look as happy as the soldiers. They reek of tension and they walk like they’re being herded. Those are unhappy human faces, right?”
“Yes, also, the black smoke columns can be strong indicators of crisis in human communities,” the elder dragon confirmed, “but it could just be signs of industry since we haven’t seen any open fires. The Albani appear to be building in multiple locations and fortifying along the Larlo River.
“Who invades a place and builds?” Kss-kaak asked. “Where are the flames, the carnage, the destruction…?”
“Perhaps they’re trying something new,” the elder dragon said. “There are signs of conflict, showing that what little presence Zadiasam had in this area was forced to withdraw back across the Larlo into their own country.”
“So they’ll probably be waiting on military reinforcements from…what’s that city due east?”
“Devenara. It’s got a half-million population, industry and surrounding military bases. Our information says they trade with these people, though, for about half their imported food.”
“Which means this should get very interesting for our report,” Kss-kaak said. “Nobody likes having their food supply cut. If they’re smart, they’ll want to respond quickly, before the Albani can finish getting fortified here.”
“Probably,” Aan-kresk said, “though military resistance, will likely cause a much greater escalation in hostilities between the larger nations than this occupation and what little shooting there’s been. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since the human factions of Alban and Zadiasam have resorted to using lethal force?”
“Does that matter? They die a lot. I thought they killed each other off all the time,” Kss-kaak said, puzzled by the proposition that that might be incorrect.
“In their own lands, perhaps,” the elder dragon said. “Internationally, though, they’ve maintained strict practices of not killing for…more than three hundred years. I forget exactly how long, but I remember when the Treaty of Orray was created. The magi had started campaigns to shatter all the deadliest human military forces and ultimately pressured them into acting civilized. They hated it, but all the humans had begun calling them ‘warlords’, so face-to-face they were scared enough that they agreed to anything they were told to do.”
“Well, it looks like the Albani have decided to show that they’d rather stay in the dark than be forced to enlightenment.”
“Enlightenment is an inherently destructive process,” Aan-kresk said. “Not everyone can weather it. These villagers may be unhappy now with whatever the Albani are doing, but maybe they’ll be thankful later.”
They looked over the edge of the roof at the occupied streets below as Kss-kaak casually commented, “I have to admit, they do seem to be running a peaceful occupation.”
“I still want to find out what they’re here for,” the elder dragon said, watching armored skiffs hover above Albani soldiers marching Alistin’s citizens through the town. “Things may seem calm now, but there’s evidence enough that Alban wasn’t invited. Maybe they just want to see what the magi will do. They must have some sort of plan smoldering. This sudden activity so far from Alban and so near to Zadiasam can’t be random.”
“Well, is there a better way to find out more than watching them rebuild the town?” Kss-kaak told him. “Maybe we could start a few creative interrogations about all the military bits and pieces they’re moving around.”
“They’re using more than just tranquilizer guns and shock rods. Look around this anthill. They’re using weaponry Alban didn’t even have a few years ago: battle robots, hover tanks, energy cannons…”
“You’re saying they had some kind of a research breakthrough?” the younger dragon asked.
“If my experience is worth anything, I’d say it’s more likely that someone’s been sharing secrets they should’ve kept,” the elder said. “We’ll quietly pick out a few of these pale pieces of meat, without inciting running or screaming, and see what other information we can gather. We’re here to study, not to fight their army, after all. Remember, we are smoke.”
“What about a snack?” Kss-kaak proposed. “They’re so small I could eat a platoon.”
“We’ll see what opportunities arise. After we do what we do, discreetly, I want to head down river to the neighboring community, Samaris, so we can see what they’re working on near the water and find out how large this occupation is.”
“I don’t know why we’re bothering, really,” Kss-kaak said. “It’s not like the humans on either side of this fight would show any love for us if they knew we were here. History says they’d just as soon cut us up for food and armor. You did want me to pay attention to history, right? That’s why you’re giving me a history lesson?”
“We’re not here to win friends,” Aan-kresk said. “Smoke agents go where the Dragon Council directs.”
“Watching the savage insects strut about, swarming over the landscape,” Kss-kaak said with a snort, “and tear each other apart. Well, at least they bring variety into the day.”