The Dragon Between

Becoming

Hunger.

It flows through every vein in his body, saws at his mind with every breath and pounds on the door of reason with every beat of his heart.

Hunger.

It continues to rise in him, filling his senses with blood—tinting his vision, overwhelming taste and smell, and at the same time warring with the cold ache spreading through his body, growing as this thirst rises within his being.

Hunger.

It has not slackened, no matter how tender and savory the roast and the rolls he has eaten, the cups of wine and ale he has poured down his throat. It has not faded with the attentive discipline paid to cleaning his armor (damn the bloodstains that stubbornly lodge in the detailed crevices of breastplate and helm) or caring for his blade (and damn the cracks and dings in the metal from the lost hours in the condemned temple). It has not dissipated with the hours spent in prayer and meditation.

Hunger is what drives Viktor out into the cloudy, cold evening in Greywall, wandering the alleys of the ‘human quarter’ of this city, what the rest of its inhabitants call ‘The Kennel’. From there, into the narrow winding paths between buildings, grown ever more baroque or savagely decorated by their newer inhabitants, pausing in the shadows to watch gargoyles or harpies pass high above, or stranger lithe forms leaping from eaves to awnings just overhead.

Another chill races through him, a cold skeletal claw tearing at his being, while the ache of hunger, now becoming a snarling thing with a mind of its own, pulls at his senses, and just for a moment the night brightens with the soft chorus of heartbeats all around, the tang of spilled blood or the hot rush through bodies, demihuman or other. The Karrnathi staggers against the wall, plate armor scraping on stone and mortar, before righting himself with a defiant snarl, even as fangs indent his lower lip and threaten to pierce his own flesh, reminding him yet again of the hunger and the cold writhing in him like a pair of barb-scaled serpents.

As he turns another corner in this dimly-lit way, a few figures spill out of a back door, followed by pungent smoke and dim torchlight, the smell of sour ale (and is that the metallic heat of fresh blood?), brawling voices and pounding hide drums. Sloped brows turn this way and that, guttural voices exchanging rough humour and oaths, until the largest one elbows his mates and points to the approaching Karrnathi.

“You,” the hulking figure says in harsh-accented Common. “Wrong neigh-bor-hood, pink-skin.”

Viktor’s eyes narrow, glittering faintly beneath the fangs of his helm, his own fangs similarly bared. “Leave me be,” he manages to spit out between clenched teeth. Yet the icy ache in his bones, the hunger reaching into the core of his being—both rise at this challenge, despite the lack of honor, the wrongness and pointlessness of it.

The orc simply grins back through a mouth of tusks and blackened teeth, reaching for a heavy cudgel hanging at his belt, while his fellows spread out to either side, blocking the alley. The door creaks shut on rusted hinges, dull light cutting down to a wedge, a beam, a line, then nothing, leaving them all in shadow and silence once more.

Viktor’s hand drops to the hilt of his blade, bracing himself. “I warn you—” he begins.

“Warn nothing, pink-skin. Take him!” bellows the orc, before lunging forward, heavy club raising into the backswing.

Viktor’s sword clears its sheath with a harsh ring, and he manages to catch the iron-shod weapon just right, deflecting it and giving him time to shrug his shield off his shoulder before the orc’s companions—an overlarge, hairy goblinoid and some sort of upright hyena—enter the fray, bracketing him to either side. His vision edges with crimson, and the cold fever within propels him with savage suddenness into the midst of the trio, slamming his shield into one, parrying the jagged-edged blade of another, ramming an iron-toed boot into the shin of a third.

Yet they continue to press, hemming him in against a wall, raining blows against shield and armor, sword and club clanging against his blade—and an unpleasant tone to each parry sounds distressing to his trained ears. Viktor ripostes a swing from the bugbear’s serrated weapon, and catches the gnoll full in the face with the edge of his shield, splitting its lip and knocking loose a tooth or two—the smell of fresh blood hot and metallic amid the creature’s foul panting breaths—before a crushing two-handed blow from the orc’s great club smashes the shield from his grip, leaving his hand and arm momentarily numb.

The massive orc looses a triumphant snort, and Viktor raises his weapon to guard, before the gnoll hurls itself at him. Snarling, cackling, spitting blood and froth, flailing with bare claws that scarcely deserve to be called hands, he barely holds the wild thing back with his free arm, putting a hard kick into its groin. The gnoll lets out a strangled whine, breath driven from it for a moment, before he rams the blade into its midsection.

Hot blood pours down to the hilt, and the hunger within him suddenly howls and roars, deafening his own thoughts. The world is suddenly nothing but blood, the hot metallic stench of it flooding the alleyway as the wounded gnoll slides off the blade and falls in a heap, and just for a moment, the Karrnathi stands stunned, gripping his blade in both hands. The urge to cast the steel aside and bury his fangs in bleeding flesh seizes and nearly overwhelms him, just as it did in the temple—

The two remaining assailants wade in, stepping over their downed fellow, and Viktor forces himself back to guard just in time, parrying one strike, blocking another and sliding away from a third, blade clanging like a worn bell—

—then a simple, metallic crack as he raises the blade for another parry, and the orc’s club, banded in thick iron straps, collides just wrong.

Viktor’s sword shatters, fragments of Karrnathi steel ringing like windchimes.

He gapes in mingled horror and outrage at the hilt of the weapon, a short jagged length of blade still showing, nicked at its edge and spotted with blood. The weapon that focused his faith, that carried him through battle after battle—destroyed. Shame, dismay, fury and grief—mingled and roiling—rush through him in the space of a heartbeat. Then the backswing of the orc’s club catches him in one shoulder, and the bugbear’s blade drags against one side, and he falls to one knee, still clutching the ruined weapon.

“Aww,” the orc says, mock-crooning in its rumbling voice. “Broke toy. Too bad, pink-skin. Now we break you, too.”

With Viktor weaponless and unshielded, the pair assail him with kicks and punches and casual, almost playful blows from their weapons, leaving his head ringing beneath, his limbs sore and bruised, then numb. His vision dims as they hammer him to the ground, prone amidst mud, blood and refuse, and Viktor’s world diminishes to the thudding of his heartbeat, constricted slowly between icy chill and burning hunger.

All grows cold and quiet—and the beating of his heart stills.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Silence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

From silence, the senses of the world rush in around him with razor-edged clarity, and his eyes flicker open, black on black shining with crimson, skin drawing pale and the reek of spilled blood the only thing he can taste or smell, the only heat in a world suddenly full of ice and edges. The two living assailants stand over him, bickering over his cut purse and pouches, the stripped remnants of his armor, the few coins he carried.

Suddenly he is on his feet, voicing a howl to match the shrieking hunger and icy fury, now welded into one being that yanks him upright like a puppet with garrote wire for strings. Orc and bugbear startle at his movement, raising weapons anew and dropping their spoils, before he collides with the goblinoid, hands moving in a blur, slamming into the demihuman with inhuman speed and force.

Battered against the opposing wall of the alley in an eyeblink, the bugbear is helpless, and he sweeps a hand tipped with thick talon-like nails through the air, opening its throat like a razor through silk. More blood sprays in a hot splash against the wall and the bugbear falls to its knees, gasping and choking, eyes already dimming.

Yet hunger and rage are not satisfied, and the thing that was Viktor turns with awful slowness, fixing a cold glare upon the orc, even as the tusked humanoid backs away, raising its weapon more to placate than defend.

“Not man, not man…” the orc says, almost in a whisper, before the Karrnathi falls upon him, slamming him onto his back next to the downed gnoll. Pinioned, his club is plucked from his grip and cast aside with terrifying speed, and the silhouette above him bares long fangs, eyes shining deepest red in the darkness.

“No,” the thing that was Viktor snarls down at him. “Not a man.”

Then it sinks fangs into the orc’s throat.

Yanks its head back, still biting down.

A wet tearing sound and the splash of hot blood, the drumming of hobnailed bootheels and the burbling final breath, before it begins to feed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Somewhere within, Viktor struggles, captive to the fiend that has stolen his body. This vestige of himself watches, helpless, as it rends flesh, stealing blood and life in an unholy parody of his faith—the temptation to just give in, let this last part of him slip, to just let it go— presses him sorely. Yet he holds fast; The blood is life, the blood is life, the blood is life …though his resolve is beginning to fade…

The words of that voice from somewhere else still echo, and he clutches to the promise they offer. Life is more than blood. Divinity is within. Seek it. Something uncoils slowly within his breast, and the monstrosity that wears his flesh pauses in its feeding, turning its attention inward.

The soundless voice is like shield and weapon to his soul, and he arms and armors himself against the cold hunger, clashing with it as heat begins to slowly wind through him, a sensation like wings shrouding his heart, his being, protecting him like the scales of a great dragon.

The formless, yammering hungering darkness rages and claws at him, and he holds it at bay, parrying its mindless howls with the words of his faith, then casting aside words and wielding the strength of his faith itself. No words can describe this conviction, only its shadow, its barest form, and at last he holds the icy, razor-sharp hunger at bay, his own cold reflection, apostasy and madness to his faith and surety of self.

This hunger cannot be banished, only controlled. Destroying it would end him with it, but the spreading heat within him, like wings of dark fire, hold it to his will instead.

The dragon’s soundless voice calls again.

In Blood is Life, but there is more. Seek Divinity Within…

~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Viktor crouches low over the torn body of the orc and its companions, spattered with gore, weapons cast aside or smashed, armor broken. Within himself he can feel the hunger, held back, circling at the edge of his awareness like wild beasts beyond the light of a campfire… and a curious, cool heat spreads through his chest, blossoming outward like spreading wings.

He reaches up, and pulls aside his tunic with blood-smeared hands, and on his flesh, something begins to take shape as he watches, eyes widening slowly in disbelief.

A collection of winding, curving, angling lines unfold themselves on his chest—the suggestion of a dragon with head raised and wings mantled.

A dragonmark.

Viktor rests a hand on his chest, feeling the slightly raised tracery of the new shape on his skin. His flesh cold, but warming slightly, as his heart begins to beat anew. Slow, ever so much slower than before, but each thrumming pulse is strong, steady, full of power and promise.

He looks about himself, at the ruins of his armor—the battered remnant of his helm like a steel wolf rising from gore and mud—the hilt of his shattered sword.

I have died. But I live yet.

Rising to his feet, he holds wolf-headed steel in one hand, sword hilt in the other, still gazing down at the mark over his heart.

“Then maybe… what is broken, can be reforged,” Viktor whispers. “If I have faith enough.”

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Zsander

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