A dragon was akin to a force of nature; though it might not have directly attacked people to reach an Ishafal, dragonflame burned fiercely and would destroy anyone who didn’t flee the spreading inferno fast enough.
By contrast, an Ishafal was cold and calculating, and the stabbed priest reminded him they were in some ways more dangerous than a dragon. The empty sheath seemed heavy on his hip, a reminder of his vulnerability. He passed the badly burned corpse of a second priest, but saw no one alive among the spreading flames.
Varik’s fingers ran over fluted stone as he felt his way along a shadowed colonnade and down a wide stairway. The raging dragonfire cast his shadow into a hellish parody before him.
A thin line of fire ran down the balustrade. Deceptively beautiful, the flames devoured everything they touched. Dragonfire would creep into each nook and cranny in the monastery until the last stone burned to nothing.
Varik snatched his hand away. Even the slightest contact, the smallest spark, spelled death. The spreading waterfall of flames spilled fresh light into the garden. Within moments, a sheet of red fire engulfed the wall, dancing in eerie silence. The stone melted in its shroud. The monastery’s inhabitants wailed in the distance. The dragon remained quiet. Choking ash smothered the usual heady scent of blooms.
A shadow stirred in the red light below, hunched over as it darted across the garden. Varik froze. A tall, lithe woman emerged from the trees, sweeping through the darkness. The shape of her back appeared distorted and deformed. Night blurred the details, but Varik recognized the figure. He held his breath; let it out slow.
Only one wall remained free of flame, and he hugged the stone surface as he eased back up the stairs, his foot feeling out each riser. He dared not take his eyes from the spectre below. Rage boiled his blood, even as fear froze his marrow. He dropped one hand to the dagger; to the empty sheath. His mouth dried, and he ran his tongue around, moistening it. For a moment, he experienced the satisfaction of envisioning the knife slicing across the woman’s neck.
But dragonfire had consumed the knife. The vision faded, leaving only the memory of the still bodies of two little girls, limbs covered in open, running sores, and hollow guilt in the pit of his stomach. Throat choked with old grief, he found the top step. If he’d been there, instead of off who knew where chasing thrills, maybe it wouldn’t be that way.
A shadow fell across him, and Varik glanced up. The huge bulk of the dragon swept overhead, wings beating down, and a gust of wind buffeted Varik away from the flames and into a wall. He clung to it hard, willing himself to become just another shadow in the night.
It didn’t see me; it didn’t see me.
The last gust cooled the sweat on his face. No reason the dragon should see him; he wasn’t its prey. But if he slipped once, allowed his protections to fall, then the dragon would sense him. Like last night, when he slept, and curiosity must have brought the dragon searching. Instead of the source of the siren song in its head, instead of Varik, the dragon found the Ishafal on his trail.
The dragon trumpeted. Varik started, banging his head against the wall. He ignored the flash of pain in his skull. The woman bolted from cover. A fresh sea of fire spilled hot and boiling across the greenery, and trees exploded into pillars of flame. The Ishafal veered towards the stairs.