Hunger and Blood
By: Eric A. Clayton

The dragon in her dreams was a big scaly thing, all teeth and claws, flame and anger. The color of red death. It thrashed about like a rabid beast, a cloud of smog and smoke hiding its full form. Kyra could hear its tail whistling through the air, feel the wind it kicked up in its wake, even if she couldn't see it.

It blotted out the sun, casting her into perpetual cold, formless night.

But the eyes—orange, glistening, hungry—Kyra could still see those. Always. They followed her, hunted her, haunted her. Hungered for her.

They were demon eyes. Evil eyes. The Enemy.

That's what she'd been told. What the saints insisted. What she believed.

That's why dragons were slayed. That's how future wars were kept at bay.

That's why she had a sword in hand now.

The hunger must be stopped—or satiated.

Blood begets blood, her mother had murmured, that oft-quoted mantra on so many tongues in those peaceful years following the Warlock Wars. A peace to be celebrated and not questioned. For Kyra's mother, the mantra tasted of sadness and eagerness and apathetic acceptance. It was a bitter peace, now given to her daughter to uphold.

Or so Kyra presumed—her mother said so little these days, lost in an era that predated her, predated the Wars, when her husband—Kyra's father—was still alive and not bleeding out on the wrong end of Warlock's blade.

Kyra would slay the dragon for him.

And so, Kyra's year of purification had begun, the accepted ritual to ensure no Warlocks ever rose to power again. Her own blood would mingle with that of the dragon.

Blood begetting blood—if she wasn't fast enough. Faithful enough.

"The dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child,i" the priest intoned: words from a forgotten religion, nothing but ritual and magic now. A tall, thin, slick man hooded and stiff. His voice like wet sandpaper dragged across the ear. He licked his lips with every word, savoring the anticipation.

The kind of man who had fought Warlocks from the safety of his monastic cell.

He was hungry for this moment.

And so, she gripped the sword, brushing a lock of auburn from her forehead. She felt the sweat. Tasted it. Hefted the blade, drawing comfort from its weight.

Wondering if her father had felt the same way, waging his own battle. Wondering if her mother could still feel anything at all.

She would be ready when the dragon burst forth, ready to prove that she, too, could resist, could fight, could defeat wrong with the blade of right.

A low rumble from the wooden crate, only footsteps away. The scratching of something angry, hungry.

Hungry for all that is good. Hungry for innocent souls. Hungry for me.

She would prove which side she was on with a single, certain swing of her blade. She would do her part to stop the future slaughter.

The priest released the lock.

Blood begets blood. Scratch, scratch, scratch.

She saw her father raise his blade, saw the Warlock plunge his own into the man's heart. She heard the scream, like crystal shattering into a million tiny pieces, a million tiny lost dreams.

Kyra would be different, stronger. Strong enough.

Her sweat was salty, her tongue dry. The sword, growing heavier.

And the dragon emerged, scaly and angry, a thin line of smoke tumbling out of its open mouth.

But the eyes were sad, pale, like two somber stars. It was a small creature, malnourished and weak. Its belly dragged along the dirt, its legs too weak to support it.

And Kyra's certainty fumbled, her faith flickering in time with the dimming light in that dragon's eyes.

"The Enemy," the priest whispered. Awed, as though this was his first time. Fear in his voice—or something like it. The fear of those with crates of dragons, safely locked away and waiting.

The fear of those who are certain dragons must be slayed.

"That can't be right," Kyra murmured. She thought of the evil that had defeated her father, the darkness she'd felt that night.

"Do it," the priest urged.

The sword became heavier. She stared into the dragon's eyes but saw only her own pain reflected back. Confusion and sorrow and wonder. The scaly beast let out a whimper.

Blood begets blood. But don't we want the bloodletting to stop?

She thought of her dreams: The dark creature prowling about, the smoke and shadow and those orange eyes and the color of red death. The saints that battled dragons from one generation to the next, in whatever form they took. Who had stood on the side of right—where she stood now. Or, wanted to stand.

The ritual must be completed, she thought. I won't fail. The Warlocks can't be allowed to return.

But how did the sword in her hand and the dragon in her face and the oily old priest add up to Warlock resistance?

Had her father known the answer? Her mother certainly didn't.

"I can't."

The priest spit, scoffed, grabbed the blade and lopped off the dragon's head. It landed with a soft thud at her feet. Its eyes held no more wonder.

"Blood begets blood."

END

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