There was something about the crackling of a fire that Lyndria always found comforting. Something about the sharp popping of the flames, the scent of burning wood, and the warmth washing over her scales put her at ease. She closed her eyes and relished in the serene sounds. A pleased trill escaped her as she shifted her weight, causing her to sink further into the large cushion she lay on. How she wished that moment could last, that she could remain in this position, curled in front of the fireplace, forgetting her fears and annoyances. With a soft sigh, she opened her eyes and returned to reality.
The home had been originally designed for humans, but she had a few alterations made to accommodate her physiology. She wasn’t the largest of dragons—she barely stood as high as a man’s chest at the shoulder—so there was no need to accommodate her size. Unfortunately, she didn’t have hands or fingers, and while the claws on her wings could be used for more delicate tasks, they were poor substitutes for the nimble limbs humans possessed. The windows and doors all had to be remodeled so she could use them without sacrificing security. Most of the chairs had been replaced with large cushions since sitting in even the most comfortable of armchairs was difficult with a long tail. Instead of small tables, there was only one large one near the center of the room next to the large human chair they called a sofa. Dragon tails tended to wander, so anything delicate had to be placed high up on shelves. The walls were void of any paintings or decorations. Walls were meant to hold up the room and keep out the elements. Wasting time staring at paintings was a ridiculous human trait she had no desire to replicate.
She looked over her scar-covered body. She always did like the way the firelight shone on her sea-green scales. Pulling her tail close to her body, she turned her gaze to the book in front of her. The shining title, Magnificent Marvels of the World: Dragons, sucked all her feelings of pleasure and contentment right out of her. She raked her claws down the book’s cover, leaving deep scratches on the leather surface.
As if some human could possibly understand my kind, she thought. She rolled her eyes and shoved the book away. It was her fault the book existed in the first place, so she couldn’t get too upset. But it didn’t make the fact any less infuriating.
The humans needed to feel as if they were in control. It was quite sad how easy it was. Leave something half-buried in the sand and whoever digs it up will believe they found it first. Such a simple trick and yet it never ceased to work wonders. It worked on dragons as well.
Lyndria turned her thoughts away from the foolish humans and dragons she manipulated and watched as the shadows of the furniture danced on the walls and ceiling. As much as she despised the many obnoxious traits humans possessed, she couldn’t deny they knew how to make good homes and furniture. The house she sat in was a prime example of that. It had been built almost forty years ago, yet here it was, still standing. It was a far cry from the stone-cold cavern walls she grew up surrounded by. Dragons didn’t pay much attention to architecture. So long as it kept the rain and wind out, they were happy.
There came a single knock on the door. Lyndria lifted her head, grateful for the distraction. “Yes?”
The door opened and Derand, one of the few humans she could stand, appeared in the doorway. Derand came from a wealthy noble family but gave up his title and fortune to become a mercenary. That alone was enough for her to like him. But it was when Derand sought her help in exposing his family’s shady business deals that started their illustrious relationship. His large frame gave him the strength and intimidating appearance for the often bloody wet work she needed doing, but he also had the brains to improvise on the fly and work around complications no matter how severe.
Derand straightened up to his full height, the wavering glow of the fire casting a shadow over half of his scarred face giving him a statuesque appearance. “She has arrived,” he said in a gruff, monotonic tone. Another thing she liked about him; he always got to the point.
Lyndria stood and stretched, her joints popping. “Send her in.”
The large human nodded and motioned to someone to enter before stepping aside. Lyndria watched as the Matriarch walked in. Nightstalkers were supposedly the most feared of the dragon species. Faster than their large bodies appeared, their jet-black scales made it impossible to see them at night. Coupled with the trademark dragon ferocity and fire breath, they were fierce enemies, particularly when the sun went down.
The Nightstalker walking into Lyndria’s home, however, didn’t look the least bit frightening. She held her wings too close to her body, her long tail was wrapped protectively around her, and she kept her head down like a beaten dog. She looked around as if fearing another fierce blow from either of the two humans beside her.
Although Lyndria knew the Nightstalker feared her and not the human escort, it still pissed her off to see one of her kind in such a pitiful state. But she watched silently as the Matriarch was led to the table and told to sit down which she did without complaint.
“Hello,” Lyndria said in a cheerful tone. “Was your journey pleasant? Is there anything you like to eat or drink? The humans created something called liquor that I think you would enjoy.”
The Nightstalker shook her head. Trepidation continued to mask her face. Lyndria fought back the growl she felt building. The Matriarch before her ruled over what she heard was the most ferocious dragon clan in Geolga. That didn’t bode well for the other clans.
Lyndria sighed and said, “Would you mind getting some wine from the cellar?”
The two humans standing by the door bowed and left, leaving Lyndria, Derand, and the Nightstalker alone.
“While we wait, how about we start with the introductions?”
The Nightstalker looked everywhere but in Lyndria’s direction indicating saying her name was the last thing she wanted. But she must have realized she had no say in the matter because she replied in a meek voice, “Call me Feylin.”
“Well, Feylin, I’m Lyndria.”
Lyndria smiled when Feylin flinched at the sound of her name. That reaction never got old.
“Is there something wrong?” Lyndria asked sweetly. She knew exactly what was wrong. Her name had become taboo among dragon clans. Just saying it got dragons exiled and no human who understood its weight dared say it in polite company. If anyone found about this meeting, Feylin was as good as dead.
“You know what’s wrong,” Feylin replied. There was a small edginess in her voice. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“And yet here you are. How curious. I guess you’re more desperate than you let on.”
There was a brief flash of anger in Feylin’s eyes, but she quickly bowed her head. “I am. The other clans are forming an alliance. With their numbers, they can take control of the valley, and if they do—”
“Your clan will starve,” Lyndria finished. “We had this conversation already, so let’s discuss something else, hmm?” She leaned on the table. “Have you done what I asked?”
The Matriarch continued to stare at the table and said, “I went to that place. The one your servant told me about.”
“You don’t look pleased.”
“How can I?!” The Matriarch snatched her head up and stared at Lyndria with angry fear-filled eyes. “I was told I would find a city, but it's nothing more than a massive boneyard! Piles upon piles of corpses stacked upon each other. There were even dragon bones! And the stench was beyond anything I ever smelled before. As old as it is, it still reeks of death. What happened there?”
There came another knock on the door before it opened and the humans from before walked in with a decanter and two large wine glasses designed for dragons. The humans quickly poured Lyndria a glass, but Feylin refused. After serving the drink, the humans bowed and left the room.
Lyndria took a large gulp of her wine then turned to Feylin, tilted her head, and blinked twice. “The answer to that is simple: everyone there slaughtered each other.”
Feylin’s black scales turned a dark grey. “S-Slaughtered…each other? Why? Why would the humans turn on each other like that?”
“What would you say if I told you that was the work of a single dragon?”
The Matriarch’s eyes widened. “You’re joking. That’s a lie. Half those corpses weren’t even burned, and there were dragon bones among them as well. Most of the city was still intact. There’s no way a single dragon could cause that much death unchallenged.”
Lyndria hadn’t drank enough wine to put up with her brethren’s ignorance. She drained the entire glass before responding. “You’d be amazed at the things our kind is capable of. But that’s not important. You found the dead city, now make use of it.”
“Use it? What good is a city full of bones?”
A heavy sigh escaped Lyndria before she could stop it. For once she cursed being a dragon; it took longer for alcohol to take effect. “Do I really have to spell it out? The city is in unclaimed territory belonging to neither human nor dragon. When your clan is forced out of the valley, that’s where you’ll go.”
“What?! That’s not what we agreed! You said you would help me!”
“I am helping you,” Lyndria replied calmly. “You can’t stop the alliance, and if you try to fight them, they have the numbers. Even should you win, another clan will come along and finish what they started. The only hope you have is to abandon it now and rebuild.”
Feylin snarled and stood, slamming her forepaws on the table. It was another thing Lyndria had specially designed for dragons. It wouldn’t last against their flames, but it was sturdy enough to survive an inevitable beating. Even if the table didn’t survive, she was just glad to see Feylin finally show some backbone. She had begun to wonder if helping the Matriarch was a mistake before now.
“You would have me abandon my land like a coward!” Feylin said, her lips pulling back into a snarl. Derand stepped forward, his hand going to the pistol holstered to his belt, but Lyndria shook her head. The human stopped his advance but didn’t lower his hand.
Lyndria would’ve laughed at how adorable she found it the human wanting to help her, but that would likely send Feylin over the edge. Lyndria wanted to avoid killing her if she could help it. It would be too much of a hassle to cover up.
“It’s not cowardice, it’s strategy,” Lyndria explained in the same tone she would explain to a hatchling why something was wrong. “You can’t be so stupid you’d fight a battle you know there’s no chance of winning.”
“That may be, but I’ll lose the respect of half my clan if I run.”
“You’ll lose more than that if you try to fight back. You’ll gain so much more if you go to Diamos.” She leaned on the table, a sly smile spreading across her muzzle as she knew her next words would sweeten the deal. “Like full control over the mountain passes. Anyone who wants to pass through that area will have to go through your territory.”
Feylin stopped snarling and she sat back down though the skepticism didn’t leave her face. It was good enough for Lyndria. The first step toward getting things back on track. She just had the floors cleaned of the blood of the last fool who thought they could kill her. “How do I know they’ll even acknowledge it?” Feylin asked. “The humans will certainly try to challenge my claim.”
“They’ll try, but it won’t get anywhere. That area was under neutral control following the Great Rebellion. And it’s nicely sandwiched between the human and dragon lands. If the humans want it, they’ll have to convince the dragons it doesn’t belong to them.” Such a thing would be enough to give most humans pause; talking politics with a dragon was unpleasant. The more foolish ones she had no doubt she could keep them in line. A few well-placed threats plus a scandal or two would suffice. The humans would be too busy cleaning up the mess to be able to make any more.
Feylin’s anger slowly drained from her features. It was clear in her face she was seriously considering Lyndria’s offer. “But…what about the bones? That place is filled with death.”
“Do whatever you want. The city will be yours, so use it however you see fit.”
“Very well. I will do as you say. I’ll take my clan there the moment I return home.”
“Splendid!” Lyndria walked Feylin to the door. “Just be sure to remember not to mention how you found about that place.”
Feylin shot an annoyed glance Lyndria’s way. “If I even mentioned I knew your name, they would kill me.”
“Then I guess you have a very big stake in this. The humans outside will ensure you get out of the city unseen. Have a safe trip back.” She stood and watched as Feylin walked down the hall. Stress and turmoil weighed down the Nightstalker’s body it was so obvious in her steps and posture.
She knows the weight of leadership, but the decision is going to haunt her, Lyndria thought. One day, she may try to “redeem” herself. I’ll need to be careful should that day come.
After Feylin disappeared from view, Lyndria went back to her large cushion in front of the fireplace, letting out a tired sigh as she sank into the pillow. She was just glad the stubborn Matriarch saw things her way. It took weeks to set up that alliance in a way that no one would know her involvement, and she did not want to have to start over.
She lowered her head and stared at the crackling flames, hoping to regain some of her serenity again. “Is there anything else?” she asked Derand who she knew was still in the room.
The human nodded. “The Scale Guild is on the move again. According to our spies, they’re digging all over the place, looking for something, and have been hiring historians and dracologists.”
Lyndria lifted her head. The Scale Guild was a secret organization dedicated to advocating peace between humans and dragons. But Lyndria, like many others, knew it was more to keep an eye on the dragons. “Oh? But there’s nothing in those old ruins, and they’ve never taken an interest in history before. Why now?”
“Unfortunately, we don’t know,” Derand replied. “The man in charge of the expeditions, William Delcatt, is a cautious one. We haven’t been able to get any spies inside.”
Lyndria smiled. It seemed her night was getting fun. “If they’re playing things that close to the vest, they really have something planned. I need a minute to think on it. Is there anything else that requires my attention?”
“The man you requested be brought to you. We have him.”
Lyndria snorted and sat up in her seat. “You couldn’t have told me that first? Send him in.”
“I figured you’d want the bad news first,” Derand replied as he headed for the door.
A few moments later, the doors opened and two human mercenaries dragged a third human into the room. His scent told Lyndria he was an older man and that he came from wealth. The wealthy always smelled of fine linens and colognes that made her nose itch. The brown suit the human wore further supported her theory although it was no longer clean as if the man put up a fight. It seemed unlikely given his thin frame. More likely the men who “requested” his attendance didn’t ask nicely. She made mental note to reprimand them for that later. Such reckless actions drew unwanted attention. The man’s head was down, hiding his face from view but exposing the top of his balding head, so she couldn’t see the damage done to his face. If they left him unable to speak, she would be very upset. The mercenaries dragged the human to the middle of the room and dropped him like a sack.
“Come now, this man is a guest,” Lyndria chided. “We do not drop our guests onto the floor.”
The two mercenaries quickly said their apologies and moved the human to the armchair across from Lyndria’s cushion.
“Thank you.” In a cold, harsh tone she added, “Now get out. I’ll deal with you later for the condition you brought him to me.”
Derand moved to the human’s side while the two mercs bowed and exited the room without hesitation, their faces pale with fear.
The human continued to stare at the floor although his body shook in the glow of the fire. He rubbed his narrow wrists as he made subtle glances around the room as if contemplating his escape.
“Do you know who I am?” Lyndria asked softly.
The human flinched as she spoke despite her gentle tone. He shook his head and remained silent. Lyndria nodded as well. She didn’t need to ask the human his identity because she already knew who he was.
He was Jeffrey Jackman, the world’s most famous self-proclaimed dragon expert, thirty-two years old, and a husband and father of three. He received a Ph.D. in dracology before the age of twenty and supposedly spent 10 years studying dragons in the wild. He had written several books on dragons, their physiology, and their behavior.
Just looking at him made Lyndria’s temper rise. After reading one of his works, she knew his knowledge of dragons was pitiful at best. She took a deep breath and felt her rage begin to deflate. She didn’t call this human to her home to take her anger out on him. Besides, for all his lies and exaggeratory statements, there was some truth to the things he had written. It was the only reason he was alive right now.
Derand frowned when Jeffrey didn’t respond, and grabbed the human by the front of his shirt, hauling him out of the chair. “Look at her when she’s talking to you!”
Jeffrey cried out as his feet dangled inches from the carpet, but he didn’t struggle and only brought up his hands to shield his face.
“Derand, did you not hear me say that is not how I treat my guests?” Lyndria asked calmly.
Derand gently sat Jeffrey back in the chair then turned to Lyndria and bowed. “Forgive me, m’lady.”
Lyndria turned back to Jeffrey. “I apologize on behalf of my associate. He is very protective of me, but he’s not wrong. Dragons don’t like to feel disrespected—something you failed to mention in your books. So the next time I ask you a question, I suggest you do more than shake your head, and look at me when I speak to you.”
Jeffrey snatched his head up revealing his bleeding nose and a large purplish lump over his right eye. He stared at her with fearful green eyes but still refused to speak, whether from the bleeding nose, or fear, or plain stubbornness, Lyndria didn’t know—or cared. He would talk; they always talked.
Lyndria smiled. “Contrary to the way I had you brought here, I’m a big fan of your work. I love how you eased in your obsession of my kind into your writing by complimenting us at every turn. It’s just there are a few things that are a bit…inaccurate.” Using the thumbclaw of her wing, she flipped the book open to a page she had bookmarked. It took years to learn how to work with something as delicate as paper, but seeing Jeffery eye her movement with astonishment brought a smile to her face and made her efforts worthwhile. “Such as this passage here: ‘Despite their mental acuity, dragons remain at a level of intelligence just barely above that of dogs. One would think that creatures capable of human speech and even a form of government, would perform greater intellectual feats.’ That’s a little pompous of you and judgmental. Not very becoming of a tome meant to inform others. ”
Jeffrey’s look of astonishment slowly turned to horror as she read the passage. In seconds, dark circles appeared under both of his arms and the top of his balding head shone in the glow of the fire. His eyes were wide as he looked back and forth between Lyndria and the scarred book she had in front of her.
Lyndria chuckled at the human. “Is something wrong? Are you surprised to see a creature with the intelligence of a dog reading?”
At that moment, Jeffrey fell out of his seat onto his knees. He slammed his forehead onto the floor and began sobbing uncontrollably, “P-please, d-don’t kill m-m-me!”
“I honestly can’t tell if you’re insulting me on purpose or simply too frightened to think straight,” Lyndria said. “If I wanted to kill you, I’d have done it. Now get off the floor. I just had it cleaned.”
Derand seized Jeffrey under the arm and hauled him to his feet. He then gently steered the frightened human back into the seat. He continued to sob, a mix of mucus and blood dripping onto his shirt.
“I’m going to tell you the truth about dragons and our cultures,” Lyndria said. “Well, some of it. My kind must keep a few of their secrets.”
Jeffrey stopped sobbing and looked up with a hopeful, yet fearful look in his eyes. “I-I don’t understand. Why?”
“That’s not important,” Lyndria replied. “I was raised in a dragon clan, so I know plenty about my kind and our customs. I’m sure you already understand the importance of having access to such information. Now do you want my help or don’t you?”
Jeffrey turned to Derand, who maintained a neutral expression, then back to Lyndria. “I…yes, I am honored to receive your help.”
“Just so you understand,” Lyndria said, her voice and expression cold. “I am not helping you out of the goodness of my heart. In exchange for helping to make you the foremost human authority on dragons, you will need to do something for me.”
“I’ll do anything, name it.”
Lyndria approached Jeffrey and nudged him with her snout, urging him to stand. He stood, but he was on guard as if expecting some kind of physical reprimand. Not that she blamed him. Although she wasn’t of one of the larger dragon species, she could easily tear apart a grown man, and it didn’t make her fire breath any less deadly. A thin, unarmed man like Jeffrey Jackman would put up no more of a fight than a fish out of water.
But Lyndria had no intention of harming the man. She smiled and steered Jeffrey to the door. “Patience, Mr. Jackman. For now, just focus on your career. When the time comes for you to make good on your debt, I’ll come collect.”
Derand closed the door behind Jeffrey as he left wearing a large grin on his face. “Do you really think he’ll do it? He could just as easily have said what you wanted to hear to ensure he walked out of here alive.”
“If he tries anything, I’ll just kill him later,” Lyndria said calmly. “Besides, I just offered a draconologist a personal interview with a dragon. He won’t turn it down. My kind is very tight-lipped when it comes to talking to humans.”
“I don’t understand. Why is that so important? Why do you care what humans put in their books?”
“Because humans rely on such things to inform them of our kind. Too much misinformation could be just as harmful as giving them the whole truth. And I’m going to need someone like him to do what I need to do next.” She laid back down on her cushion and closed her eyes. “You said the Scale Guild was hiring dracologists, right? That means they’re going to recruit him if they haven’t already. So now we have a way of slipping a spy in their ranks.”
“You honestly think that man can be trusted?”
“Of course not. But the key to infiltration is redirection. If they’re focused on keeping an eye on him, they won’t be looking for our real spy.”
The smallest hint of a smile pulled at the corners of Derand’s mouth. “You really are devious aren’t you? No wonder the dragon clans fear you.”
“There’s that…among other things. Now I want a dragon sent to keep an eye on him, and make sure the Scale Guild catches wind of it.”
Derand’s footsteps signaled his departure from the room. Lyndria shifted her weight, causing her body to sink further into the cushion. Seemed she was going to have some fun after all.