I felt the cold touch of Lucia’s frail hand as it brushed my stubble. I sat on the bed, dropping my armor and wiping the dirt from my arms. She hated when I got the bed dirty, but she let me today. She knew what I was dealing with.
“Yet another day on the battlefield?” She asked. “Is it not unbecoming of a leader to hold a grudge so strong he refuses to let his knights fight?”
She was right. I picked up the armor that I had shed from my torso and examined it, running my finger along a large gash at the center.
“Why are you looking so intently?” Lucia asked. “You’ll simply get replacement armor before your next departure.”
“I want to see where the cracks are,” I said. “I need to find the flaws to my form.”
“You have warriors who will fight beside you,” she said. “You alone cannot stop the beasts.”
“It’s not about stopping them,” I said. “It’s about proving how far I’m willing to go for my people.”
“Your people already know how far you’re willing to go, Nathanial. Shadola knew what he was doing when he picked you,” she said. “He trusted you more than anyone else. My brother died believing you could protect our people. I choose to believe the same.”
I felt tears welling up again. It was so scary, seeing her this way. I brushed my hand along her pale face and leaned forward, kissing her, letting the tears fall.
“I don’t want to do this without you,” I said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” She said, now crying with me. “I am going to survive, Nathanial. I am going to live, and we are going to raise Maxine into a strong young woman, together.”
As I slept that night I tossed and turned, feeling the pain of Lucia’s sickness in my gut. I stepped out of bed and walked into the throne room. I equipped myself with a new suit of armor and departed for the courtyard. The large open space with its blue grass, moving with the gentle breeze was home to the last three dragon attacks. I could feel the energy of the beast approaching. I extended my hand, allowing the energy to flow through my arm until I felt warmth gathering in my palm. My large two-handed axe materialized out of my own dark energy. The blade looked like it was forged by Hell’s own blacksmith. A large glossy black blade attached to a long rod with encryptions throughout.
The dragon landed in front of me, with its long black claws, stabbing into the ground. A long scaly tail and glowing red eyes. But this time it wasn’t alone. Standing on its back, was a young girl. As she jumped down from its back, her white hair parted from in front of her eyes. She had to be about fifteen years old, far older than my daughter. But still very young. Why was she out here fighting?
“Are you the one who keeps sending these dragons?” I asked.
“It’s one dragon, fool,” she said. “Yeah. I was the one who sent him. Have to take out your stupid palace somehow, right?”
“What do you mean one dragon?” I asked. “I’ve fought and killed several. Who or what are you?”
“I’m not gonna tell you Cragnore’s secret,” She said petting the dragon on the snout. It appeared to enjoy it. Creepy.
“So Cragnore is the dragon,” I said. “What does that make you?”
“You’re persistent. My name is Rayne,” she said. “I’ve been sending Cragnore to get a decent read on the type of fighter you are. My poor baby was sliced into pieces by you on numerous occasions. But this works for me. I can finally make you experience the sorrow you put us through. Lord Nathanial Avengard, in the name of the inquisitors, I shall finish you off!”
“Inquisitors?” I asked. But there was no time. She ignored me and materialized her thin sword of darkness, targeting me with full force and speed. Children aren’t this precise. That’s all I could think as I struggled to guard each of her attacks. She was so nimble, and decisive. Several attacks were aiming for vital points. Finally I was able to overwhelm her with a fierce axe swing that shattered her guard. She stumbled back and fell to the ground and I pointed my axe at her.
“Are you calm enough to talk now?” I asked. “I have no intentions of murdering a child. I just want to ask you some questions.”
“Murdering children is what you do,” Rayne said. “You don’t care if you’re killing women, children, animals. None of that matters to a scumbag ruler like you!”
“You’re in no position to be barking at me, pup,” I said. “I demand to know why you pursue my land.”
“Your land?” Rayne asked with a look of fury in her eye. “The inquisitors were your people too. My mother and father were your people. Yet your army wiped them all out.”
What? What she said was true, the inquisitors were supposed to be destroyed. They were a menacing group of elite assassins and they were after my head. So I bit back. I protected the throne with everything I had.
“You should know that the inquisitors were in no way innocent,” I said. “They targeted me and my family. I had no choice but to wipe them out.”
“You always have a choice. We all do,” Rayne said. “For example, I’ve made the choice to sever your head.”
Cragnore swung its long tail, violently slapping me away from Rayne. She climbed to the back of the dragon immediately.
“I’ve learned a lot from you today,” she said. “I know exactly how I’m going to kill you. I’ll be back.”
Limping home, a defeated man, I removed my armor once again. As I ran my fingers along the gashes, I felt rage curdling inside of me. I had to kill the inquisitors. But how could that girl be so proficient at such a young age? I mean, they were the enemy, right? I was doing my job. The gashes in the armor were located around the chest, meaning somewhere during this battle she must have broken or passed my guard. Would I want Maxine to grow up without parents? If I took a strike to the heart, she’d have to endure that pain. Pain that nobody should ever have to go through.
The next day I returned to the same spot at the same time, and sure enough, Rayne was waiting for me. Sword, Cragnore, and all. I materialized my axe and took my stance, and she readied herself as well. Each of her strikes maintained the same level of passion. But every single time she fell, she would jump to Cragnore and retreat. Days went on with me fending her off, and fighting harder to let go of the guilt that surrounded me. She didn’t deserve this. She wasn’t fighting with technique or sword skills. She was fighting with all of her heart’s passion. She was unleashing her heart. She was being vulnerable. That was it. After days of fighting Rayne, I finally realized what I had to do. I returned to the courtyard the following day, and she was waiting for me as normal.
“What is with you?” I asked. “Why do you refuse to reason with me?”
“You killed my parents,” she said. “You killed all of the dragons. You wiped out my people, and yet you look at me as a criminal? You are the bad guy Nathanial Avengard. I, Rayne the Shadow Tamer, shall claim your life in the name of the inquisitors.”
That’s it. I dropped my chest plates to the ground and wore simply my long shirt and pants, while still wielding my axe.
“You removed your armor?” She asked.
“Correct,” I said. “I understand now. The flaw to my form. I was going to save this for later.”
I pulled a piece of red fruit from my pants pocket and tossed it in Rayne’s direction. She simply slashed it in half with her sword and watched it drop to the ground.
“You bring me food?” Rayne asked. “You can’t wash away your transgressions with such a pitiful bounty.”
“I have no intentions of making you forgive me. I just wouldn’t want you to fight on an empty stomach.”
“Probably poison,” she said spitting on the ground.
“I have been checking every single day after fighting Cragnore,” I said. “I look closely at
my armor to see where the damage is. I look to improve my form so I can avoid taking damage. But sometimes, damage is necessary. Sometimes we have to take damage to grow. I understand the flaws now. If I remove the armor, I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable. You deserve that Rayne. After everything I’ve done to you and your family, I want to fight you in a way that allows us to understand each other.”
“That’s honorable,” she said. “Unfortunately, I’ve moved beyond wanting to reconcile.”
Her words hushed our surroundings. The two of us simply stared at each other with our energies rising. Cragnore stepped forward appearing as though he was going to defend her. But then, he bent down extending his neck, and started eating the fruit off the ground. I saw Rayne’s eyes widening at her pet’s gesture. Tears filled her eyes, and she shook her head in denial for a second, stepping back and staring down at her hands. Then she let out a chuckle and looked directly at me with a somber smirk on her face.
“Do you want to know Cragnore’s secret?” Rayne asked. “I can summon and rebuild him as many times as I wish no matter what happens to him. The only way to kill Cragnore is to kill me. He is an extension of myself. As such, he expresses what I feel. I think he trusts you, but I can’t imagine why. I don’t know what would make him feel so safe near you, who killed our family.”
I looked her in the eyes, and walked forward crouching down to her level. Maintaining eye contact, tears started to fall down my face.
“My wife is dying,” I said. “She’s been sick for a long time, and I don’t believe she’ll ever recover. Watching her deteriorate right in front of me, I can only imagine what I put you through. I thought I was doing what was best for my people, but you are one of my people. Rayne, you can have a future in the palace. Live among me and my family. I will adopt you, and teach you how to fight properly. I will build a whole new wing just for Cragnore to explore and play. I can help you become a truly great warrior.”
I knew what I was feeling. I knew what I owed this girl. Tears started to form in her eyes, but that didn’t change her angry expression. She refused to accept my offer. She knew there was some pain she was supposed to be feeling. She just couldn’t bring herself to fight me anymore. She dropped her sword and it shattered into pieces, dissolving into black smoke. I could hear her tears, but all I could feel was Cragnore, licking my face.