Death comes through the female, Nicholas remembered. The sun burned his scales, the heat in the air causing the form of his rival, Hunter, to waver as if in the middle of a transformation. Nicholas knew Hunter would stay in dragon form. It was against the rules to shapeshift in Blood Valley, especially in the middle of a decision.
Hunter lunged forward, teeth bared causing Nicholas to scramble backward against the bare dirt floor of the Valley. A feint. Instead of taking the advantage and pinning him to the ground, Hunter stepped back, the corners of his reptilian lips turned upward in smug satisfaction as Nicholas, fatigue clouding his head, stumbled, off-balance by the change in tempo.
An image of Madelaine flitted through his mind. “It would be so much more romantic if you fight Hunter in Blood Valley,” she had said the day before, her large eyes promising everlasting admiration for what she considered a chivalrous gesture. Everything Nicholas had heard about the Valley up to this point had made him agree, albeit reluctantly. Conflict in general made him uneasy, even when it was cushioned by civilized formality. And at first Hunter had been as polite and reserved as he had expected from the stories the other males whispered along with general advice on strategy.
I was a fool for believing them, he thought. No one had told him his opponent might enjoy the fight. Or prolong it.
Hunter circled him, causing him to spin uneasily, his eyes never leaving Hunter’s smirk. “I’m surprised you haven’t given up by now. You certainly look tired enough. I’m curious. How did she talk you into this? I never expected a response to my challenge and yet here you are. Wait. I know. You don’t care if you win as long as you get to take a nap.”
Instinct told him to be quiet and focus. He didn’t listen, stunned at how completely he’d been wrong. “Is that what you want?”
Hunter’s smile faded. His eyes narrowed, filled with a cold, intense rage Nicholas had never seen focused in his direction, especially not from one of his own kind. “I’d much rather kill you.” Hunter’s voice had become so calm it terrified him. One claw dug into a nearby rock the size of Nicholas’s head, lifting it.
Unknown speaks, he means it, Nicholas thought just before the rock whistled through the air toward his face. He had meant to duck it, but stumbled yet again, all four of his limbs unable to stop himself from falling down onto the Valley’s hard surface onto his belly. Before he could recover, he felt the weight of Hunter’s body on his back, claws digging into his side, finding the soft flesh between his scales. He cried out from the pain. Hunter slammed his head into the ground, forcing his jaw closed, muffling his cry, Hunter’s weight keeping him from breathing in anything more than small snatches of air. Was this kind of attack allowed? The thought felt disconnected now from the panic he tried to keep hidden.
He’s got me pinned, Nicholas thought. It will be over soon. Just watch the sphere. It will be over soon.
Out of the corner of his eye Nicholas watched the small, translucent sphere that followed their battle pulse out the seconds in white light while Hunter kept him pinned to the ground. Hunter’s claws found space between his scales, sank deeper and began to tear the flesh. Wasn’t that against the rules? His grip on Nicholas’s neck tightened. Nicholas held onto the image of the pulsing sphere in a desperate attempt to stay conscious.
5…4…Hurry, he prayed. His head felt as if it were about to explode. 3…2…and then it was over.
Hunter didn’t let go.
Nicholas struggled to push him off, managing to lift him long enough to get in one small gasp for air. This only seemed to infuriate him. He shoved Nicholas’s head back into the valley’s dirt floor.
They’ll come soon, Nicholas told himself, struggling once again, trying not to panic. The way it works is this: you meet a nice girl, you decide to start a home together with little wyrmlings and if someone challenges you, the two of you go to Blood Valley where you both say things like “Sorry to do this to you, old wyrm, but I really think she’d be better with me” and “Well, we’ll let the fight decide and then we’ll get together after the ceremonies and have a drink” and the two of you never speak of the fight again.
Nicholas tried to ignore the pain in his throat and side. Hunter’s claws began to burn. Nicholas’s eyes went wide with panic.
This wasn’t dragonfire. Couldn’t be. He managed to lift his head up just enough to see the witnesses flying in from the valley’s rocky edge. Hunter had seen them as well it seemed: he let go of Nicholas and gave him some room to breathe.
He managed to do so after several hacking coughs. By the time he had recovered enough to speak, the witnesses had arrived. “You held him beyond the allotted time,” one, a sable colored dragon, said.
“I apologize,” Hunter said, looking composed and sane. “The rush of the fight went to my head.”
The witnesses nodded as if this were completely acceptable and announced Hunter the winner of the decision. Madelaine would be his and Nicholas…would pretend as if this had never happened.
This battle made no sense. None of it. And no matter how often he tried to make it work in his head, it failed to piece itself together into something resembling the world he’d once known, one with decorum and order. It was there. He knew it was waiting to be found if only he could get past the casual acceptance of the witnesses and the fact that Hunter was now flying toward the cave where Madelaine sat, wings folded in patient expectation.
Yes. This was very romantic.
There had to be something he could do or say. He spread his wings to approach the witnesses and flinched. Hunter’s claws had gone deeper than he’d thought; he couldn’t lift the right one.
He remembered the feel of fire and pushed that thought away. No dragon would dare.
“Let me take a look at that,” the sable colored dragon said and began to gently examine Nicholas’s side. “He did cut deep. The Ghost will have to take care of that before you leave,” he murmured with what almost sounded like concern, then louder, “Just so you know, things don’t usually get that rough, though there are others who have gone through worse.” He didn’t look away from the wound.
Then, this was normal after all. Nicholas blinked and set his jaw, still not quite able to to believe it.
“They said it was easy.” He didn’t know any other way to approach the subject and he had to say something. Once he left this Valley he would never be able to talk about what had occurred. He wanted to talk. Had to. He always talked when he was nervous and the way these witnesses behaved made him very nervous. Far too calm, both of them. Very wrong considering what had just happened. And the way they could barely keep their eyes from that wound made him wonder if the Ghost really could heal it.
Dragons don’t do this, he wanted to shout. They don’t come within teeth of killing a fellow dragon, no matter what the rules say and any dragon who does should be sealed up until the madness overtakes them!
But the calm, sable colored dragon smiled and Nicholas knew this is how things really were. “It usually is. Don’t take it too hard though, Master Observer. I’ve seen many potential unions here. Madelaine wasn’t a good match for you. You’re both idealists…in your own way. If you had won you’d have been caught up in the clouds for years before something knocked you down. And it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. Investigator Hunter, for all his faults, is more pragmatic. Besides, even after this, the prestige and respect you’ve built will remain.”
Does it matter? He tried to tell himself that the Valley was different, a legacy of a time when dragons were newly created, when they felt the need to interfere too often in worlds they had been told to merely Observe.
He went back to work, as everyone expected.
Days went by, then weeks. Most of the experience had begun to fade, drowned out by notes on human behavior and quarterly reports. And yet, Nicholas couldn’t shake a growing feeling of helplessness, especially when the village he Observed was raided.
He couldn’t just watch. Not when he saw on their faces what he’d felt in the Valley.
But that meant he had to interfere, no matter how just the action had seemed at the time. And interfering meant an Investigation, his first. It was a miserable experience that shook him more than he admitted to anyone, even friends, even after he’d been cleared of all charges through words that made him ashamed to speak. Nothing compared to the sin of helping, though only he knew the truth of that. Though he heard the familiar words of encouragement, of reassurance that his place in society remained secure, no one complained when he left to “clear his head,” as his friends put it, in the Nightscape.
And yet, even after centuries passed in his chosen cave, there were still nights he would wake up panting, convinced someone had been holding his jaw to the ground, the feel of fire burning in his side.