The Mechanical Dragon
A group of dwarves in full battle dress crouched in the narrow shadow of a rocky outcropping, hiding from the sun. They were not in the best of moods. Around them stretched a vast and sandy plain. To their rear, some miles distant, were the mountains and the dwarven army.
“Tell me again why we’re here,” said Hemma.
“We’re here because the Emberlord sent us here,” said Cinder. Though she was feeling more than a little salty about that choice herself.
“The beastmen won’t attack here,” said Hemma, voice conversational and reasonable. The other three scouts listened to their discussion. Cinder knew she shouldn’t allow this sort of talk -- this was her command, small as it was, after all. Unfortunately, she agreed with Hemma entirely.
“We can’t know that for sure,” she said, defending their mission. “And besides --”
“We’d be more help at the pass. Where the beastmen will actually show up…” said Hemma.
“We might. Or we might be more help to the Emberlord doing as we’re asked and trusting him. Instead of second guessing every move he makes.” That shut her up. Hemma bowed her head and sighed. She leaned out of the shadows for a moment, peering up. Cinder looked too and they both caught a glint of steel in the sky -- a tiny sparkle, circling the dwarves -- marking where Cinder’s mechanical dragon flew, watching over them.
“At least we get a show,” said Hemma. Cinder smiled as a small burst of fire appeared in the sky. “It could definitely be worse,” she said.
The mechanical dragon flexed her wings, metal feathers shivering in the wind -- humming as they rubbed together. The dragon arched her neck, enjoying the scorching sun and open sky and the green of the shrubs below, which dotted the landscape like jewels in the armor of the dwarven soldiers. She saw two faces look up and her, and knew that one was her Cinder. The dragon loosed a breath of fire, saying hello. Then the dragon turned her attention back to the flat and scrubby desert, on the watch for beastmen. Cinder had told her to look very carefully. So the dragon would. When the dragon was first born, that was all she would do -- follow whatever instructions Cinder gave her. And she still did. She liked it. Cinder was nice and always told her that she’d done a good job. But now she didn’t only watch the desert. She could enjoy the sun too. And sometimes she had thoughts.
Right now, for instance, she was thinking that the dwarves were being very silly -- hiding under a rock when they could be basking in the sun. The dragon liked it when her outside was as warm as her inside -- where the fire lived. It felt like being back in the forge. The dragon liked the forge. Something caught the dragon’s eye, a flicker of movement below her -- something different from the lazy ripples of heat coming off the sand. She swooped into a short dive and then sped off, keeping the movement in her sight.
Cinder stood up by the rock, shading her eyes and looking after her dragon, trying to see what had caught her attention. The heat shimmer distorted the view across the desert.
“There’s nothing there,” said Hemma, still crouched in the shadows.
“Get me the spyglass,” said Cinder.
“Do it,” snapped Cinder. Hemma, marking her tone, started rummaging in one of their supply packs, looking for a spyglass. Cinder scanned the horizon again. There. She squinted.
“Where’s that damn spyglass?” she said, more urgently.
“Here,” said Hemma, handing her the instrument and coming out to squint next to Cinder. Cinder brought the glass up to her eye and saw, to her horror, that a line of beastmen were stepping out of the air. She watched ten and then twenty and then more rode onto the plain from somewhere else. They were garbed for war, each leading a string of extra horses. Their bodies were human, but their heads were grotesque imitations of animals -- goats and monstrous bulls. The last to appear wore the robes of a mage, and rode atop a huge black horse. He turned to the empty space they’d appeared from and waved his staff, finishing whatever spell had brought them here. Cinder handed the spyglass to Hemma and searched the sky for her dragon.
“Where are you, girl?” she muttered, and then caught sight of a metallic glint speeding back towards them. Hemma let the spyglass drop, her mouth a single grim line.
“I was wrong,” she said.
“I wish you’d been right,” said Cinder. It was a strike force, meant to come around behind the bulk of the dwarves waiting at the pass for the beastmen’s ordinary assault. They’d go right through the camp, destroying supplies and tearing through all the craftsmen and cooks and other workers there to help the army. Some of the older Lords and counselors might be there as well. There weren’t a lot of beastmen here -- but they would cause serious mayhem and no one expected them. Out of the sky came the dragon, summoned back through the telepathic link they’d shared since Cinder first used the eldurstar to bring the dragon to life.
The dragon landed next to Cinder, metal head tilted expectantly. Cinder patted the dragon and looked anxious. More anxious than the dragon had ever seen her. The dragon nuzzled her hand, trying to be comforting.
“We’ll wait until they pass. About fifteen minutes,” said Cinder, not talking to the dragon. “Go write a quick note. We’ll send word as soon as they won’t see our girl take off.” Another dwarf -- not Cinder -- nodded in agreement and also looked afraid. Why were they afraid? It must be the creatures the dragon had seen. The dragon felt somewhat disappointed. She’d done what she’d been asked to do -- report anyone moving on the desert -- but it had made her Cinder upset. That didn’t seem right. Cinder took the spyglass and crouched by the side of the rock, watching the approaching beastmen. They waited in tense silence, the dragon obediently calm despite the strangeness of the situation. Cinder suddenly backed up, cursing.
“What?” asked the not-Cinder dwarf.
“They know we’re here,” said Cinder. “They turned and are riding this way.”
“How?” asked not-Cinder.
“Their magic worker. Stared right at me.” Cinder put one calloused hand on either side of the dragon’s face and said -- silently, the way she liked to talk to the dragon: “Go find the Emberlord. Give him the message. Go find the Emberlord. Give him the message. Go find the Emberlord…” The dragon knew which was the Emberlord. The Emberlord was Cinder’s friend. Cinder did what the Emberlord asked. The dragon liked the Emberlord. She would do as she was asked. The not-Cinder dwarf returned with a scroll and Cinder carefully tucked it into a hidden compartment in the dragon.
“Go on, girl,” she said. “Hurry, okay?” The dragon did not like leaving Cinder -- especially when Cinder was so worried -- but she did what she was asked, launching herself into the sky and flying away towards the pass and the Emberlord. Hurrying.
“We could run,” said Hemma, without enthusiasm.
“They’d catch us,” said Cinder, “and cut us down from behind.” There was nowhere to hide in this place. Together, they stood in silence for a moment, taking in their situation.
“Do you think the dragon will make it in time?” asked Hemma. Cinder didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on the enemies coming over the horizon. Five against forty, and she’d sent the dragon away. Horrible odds.
“Come on Blazing Brews!” shouted Cinder. “We’ve got guests arriving soon. Let’s get a warm welcome ready for them!”
The Emberlord looked over the pass, waiting. The beastmen were there -- fangs flashing, spears decorated with furs and strips of red and orange cloth. But they weren’t attacking. They ought to be attacking -- if there was any group known for even less patience than the Blazing Brew Clan, it was the beastmen tribes. This whole campaign had been a little different. The beastmen usually raided the edges of dwarven territory -- venturing down into the caves or attacking trade caravans heading out to other parts of the world -- and then they left again after one good battle. This time though -- this time they’d been more stubborn and tactical. And now they were waiting, instead of charging the dwarves in the pass. The Emberlord didn’t like it one bit.
He was, however, distracted from his irritated musings, by Cinder’s enormous metal dragon crashing down right in front of him. His honor guard all jumped, raising axes and spears in alarm before recognizing the creature. The Emberlord repressed the urge to swear at the thing. He wasn’t entirely sure how much the dragon understood. As he watched, the dragon used one sharp and delicate claw to open a small compartment in its own chest and daintily withdraw a scrap of parchment. The Emberlord, trepidation filling him, took the note and read: “Forty beastmen with a mage from the desert. -- Hemma, in the name of Smith Cinder”
“That’s not possible,” he said aloud, looking at the dragon as though it could confirm the message. As if in answer, the dragon turned and leapt back into the sky, heading back towards Cinder. The Emberlord turned to his lieutenants and shouted: “Thumir! Cinder’s scouts are in trouble and the camp is in danger! Take two banners. One to guard the camp and the other to help her. Go!”
Hemma lay face down in the sand, blood soaking into the earth around her body. Cinder’s turrets were torn to pieces and scattered along with the rest of her small command. Cinder stood in the shadow of the rock, the mounted beastmen circling her with spears leveled. One, with a boar’s head, said something in their own language. The others laughed. The beastman who’d made the joke set his spear into a harness and withdrew a sling, twirling it around his head. The others did the same. The whistle of swinging stones filled the air.
The dragon was flying, as fast as she could, towards Cinder. She had a bad feeling. She’d never had a bad feeling before. She didn’t like it at all. She came within sight of the rock where she’d left Cinder and saw the mounted forms of the beastmen around it. Then the feeling got worse. Cinder disappeared. Ever since the dragon was born, Cinder was there -- right in front of her or in her mind, even when the dwarf was dreaming. Now she wasn’t. She was just gone. The dragon plummeted, falling sharply before she remembered how to fly. She righted herself, struggling to stay aloft and roaring -- spewing fire in purest outrage.
Where was Cinder?
There she was. The dragon recognized the unmoving form of her dwarven friend. The dragon dove, rushing towards the ground, wings slicing the air. She screamed fire at the beastmen around Cinder. Their horses danced and shrieked. The beastmen yelled, raising their spears towards the dragon. One loosed their weapon, throwing it powerfully up towards the dragon’s wing. Contemptuously, the dragon snatched the spear from the air with her jaws -- snapping it in two.
The furious metal dragon was in among the beastmen then -- silver teeth closing on arms and weapons alike -- chewing through armor without hesitation. Her wings sliced into the sides of the horses and the beastmen’s legs and her tail cut down more of them. In between mouthfuls of metal and torn flesh, she spat fire in their faces.
Thumir lead his dwarves towards Cinder’s watchpost, jogging and hoping that they would be fast enough to help. They were close. Maybe... Two riders approached them, one beastman yelling and whipping his horse in a terrified frenzy. The other held a staff and spoke a spell as he rode. Out of the sky like a bolt of steel lightning came the dragon, flashing down and snapping its jaws closed over the yelling beastman’s head. The mage finished his spell, and both he and his enormous black horse disappeared while the other, now headless, rider toppled from his mount beside the shocked dwarves.
The dragon spat out the beastman’s head and stalked towards the frozen dwarves. Thumir resisted the urge to raise his axe. He’d never seen anything like this in his long life. He reminded himself that the dragon was on their side. Thank all the gods, the dragon was on their side. And then, clearly in his head, Thumir heard the dragon say, “Cinder.”
Thumir knelt over Cinder, heart in his throat as he checked for a pulse. Before he could find one, she shifted in his arms.
“She’s alive!” he called, and abruptly found an enormous metal head right next to his own, peering down at the wounded smith.
“Dragon?” asked Cinder. “Is that you? When did you learn to talk?” The dragon bumped her head against Cinder’s forehead, gently.
“Sunshine? That’s what you want to be called?” murmured Cinder. And then she laughed. “Sunshine Nimblestrike. Like me. Okay. That’s a good name. A dwarf name.” Thumir looked from the dragon to Cinder, trying to follow a conversation he could only hear half of. Cinder smiled, weakly.
“I guess you are a dwarf, aren’t you?” said Cinder to the dragon. “You’re definitely a Blazing Brew.”