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«Dragonforge», James Maxey

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Behold, I have created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges the weapons of destruction.

I have created the waster to destroy.

Isaiah 54:16




1100 D.A. (Dragon Age), the 1st Year of the Reign of Shandrazel

GRAXEN SKIMMED ALONG the winding river, the tips of his wings teasing the water with each downbeat. The sunrise at his back cast a shadow dragon before him, a phantom companion that swooped and darted across the rippling current. The elms and maples along the riverbank had shed their leaves, papering the earth with rust and gold. In the crisp morning air, Graxen's breath billowed out in clouds that rushed back along his scaled body, forming a wispy trail.

As Graxen journeyed west, the river grew rockier, with patches of white water. He welcomed a rare mirror-smooth stretch of river. He opened his toothy jaws and scooped up a quick gulp to refresh himself. He glided upward as he savored the icy drink, gazing down at the pink-white sky reflected on the still water. Graxen was a gray blur against this pastel backdrop. Unlike other sky-dragons, he lacked even a single blue scale. Some trick of birth had robbed his hide of the azure hue that other members of his species wore with pride. Graxen's body and wings were painted by nature in a palette drawn from storm clouds.

Graxen knew the area below him only from his study of maps. The river he followed meandered in a serpentine path among low mountains. Soon he would arrive at the dam, an imposing structure dating from ancient times. Beyond this, a body of water known as Talon Lake filled long, twisting valleys. His destination was the Nest, an island fortress just beyond the dam. Sometimes, on the edge of sleep, Graxen could see himself as a fledgling perched on the Nest's rocky shores. His earliest memory was of watching small fish dart about in a shallow pool as he waited for the biologians to take him away.

As an adult male sky-dragon, he was forbidden to return to the Nest. Only a select handful of males were invited to those hallowed shores. Graxen was forever excluded from those ranks by the color of his scales. Under other circumstances, he would have no chance of admittance. However, the world had changed in recent days. Graxen had a satchel slung over his shoulders, the long strap allowing the bag to hang near his hips. The contents of this satchel gave Graxen the courage to journey to a place where only his imagination had been allowed to travel.

As he tilted his wings to follow the river north toward the dam, his sharp eyes spotted dark shapes flitting high above. Valkyries, three of them. The dam was hidden by one more turn of the river, but Graxen calculated that the valkyries were circling above the structure. He wondered if they'd spotted him. His drab color against the stony river might provide some camouflage.

He negotiated the final bend and closed in on the dam, barely a mile distant. The dark shapes suddenly wheeled toward him. The valkyries were the guardians of the island, female sky-dragons trained from birth in the warrior's art. Save for his first year of life, Graxen had never seen a living female of his own species. He knew them only from books and sculpture. Now, they seemed like creatures of myth as they hurtled toward him, their silver helmets gleaming in the sun. The polished steel points of the long spears in their hind-talons twinkled like stars in the morning sky.

Graxen spotted a dry rock rising in the midst of the river, barely large enough for him to land on. A few other rocks jutted nearby, natural landing spots for this trio of guards. He could see a strategic advantage to having this encounter take place on land. He tilted his hind-claws forward and lifted his wings to drift to a landing. He raised his face toward the valkyries and held his empty fore-talons open to show he carried no weapon.

The valkyries closed fast. It didn't look as if they intended to land. Graxen held his ground. He was breaking no law by standing on this rock. The land outside the lake was the property of the sun-dragon king. He was as free to stand upon this stone as he was to stand by the fountains at the College of Spires.

He studied the lead valkyrie as she raced toward him. At first glance, the differences between a male and a female sky-dragon were trivial. Some primal layer of Graxen's brain, however, was busily cataloguing the subtleties that identified the valkyries as a member of the opposite sex. Sky-dragons had heads that resembled goat skulls covered in scales, with a fringe of long feather-scales rising from the scalp and trailing down the neck. The leader's helmet concealed some of these scales, but those that showed were a deep sea-blue, with tips that trailed off into a pale white, a pattern unique to females. The leader was also slightly larger than a typical male. Male sky-dragons had wingspans averaging eighteen feet; the leader's wings easily stretched twenty. Her torso was chiseled from life in the sky, while most male sky-dragons possessed the softer bodies of scholars.

The valkyries unleashed powerful war cries, fierce primal shrieks that tightened Graxen's intestines. The leader aimed her spear to drive it into Graxen's chest. Graxen stood still as stone. He noticed that the leader had a large silver bell attached to her belt, the clapper covered with a leather hood. An alarm device to call reinforcements, no doubt. Five yards away, she lifted her neck and beat her wings. She zoomed over Graxen's head, the tip of her spear missing his face by no more than a foot. The wind of her wake washed across his cheek. He could smell a faint aura of blackberries.

The second valkyrie darted past, then the third, close enough that he could see his gray eyes reflected in the large silvered plates that studded her leather breast armor. A pair of iron manacles dangling from her thick belt threatened to clip his cheek. He tilted his head a fraction of an inch, allowing the chains to pass without touching. Graxen possessed a keen mind for spaces and vectors. In contests of speed and reflexes he had no peer. Yet was he known as Graxen the Swift? Graxen the Nimble?

"Graxen the Gray!" the lead valkyrie shouted as she circled, coming to rest on the stone that jutted from the river before him. "Your kind has no business here! Begone!"

"I am a representative of the king," said Graxen, half-surprised she recognized him, half-fatalistically accepting it. As the only gray-scaled sky-dragon ever to survive birth, he had little hope of anonymity. "I come as a courier of important news. I'm charged with delivering this message to the matriarch herself."

A second valkyrie landed to his right. "We care nothing of your mission," she growled. "The king's domain ends at the lake's edge." Graxen noted this valkyrie was younger than her companions, perhaps still a teen. Despite the normal female advantage of size, Graxen judged himself taller.

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