Into Ashes

A short story written for the Flash Fiction Challenge: Rise of the Phoenix on Chuck Wendig’s blog: Terrible Minds.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU/UCSC;
The chain’s links scraped Tovar’s talons. Finishing his haul, the wyvern caught his breath against the well’s porous lip.

From the filled bucket at his side, fumes rose as the oil he’d pulled from the depths settled. The plumes wound around Nasrin’s chanting and brought the smell of char, the sweet stench of molten rock, and the cinders of creation through the flaring nostrils tipping Tovar’s snout.

At another boom from overhead, the oil shuddered. Ripples rebounded as scaled feet rushed down the stronghold’s spiral stairs and brought Grat barging through the cavern’s double doors.

“They’re through the outer wall.”

Steadying the bucket, Tovar met his reflection in the oil. “Survivors?”

“Not one.”

The slits in Tovar’s eyes dimmed as his golden features twisted into those now dead above his head. “Then we’re the last.”

Nasrin paused her incantation. “The spell only needs three.”

“Then the three of us it is.” Limping from the well, Tovar helped Grat bar the doors. They nestled the beam into place, the stone thrumming with the ceaseless bombardment from up above.

Braced on the closed slabs, Grat bowed his head, the scarlet fringe on his curved neck drooping. “I thought the walls would hold.”

“You were a fool.”

Grat sneered over his shoulder at Nasrin. “And are you so wise?”

Nasrin matched his glower, her blade and a trunk of pine gripped by blue-scaled fingers. “I thought of this.”

Turning from the doors, Grat thrust a talon at the pyre between them. “This is madness.”

Nasrin’s withered wings rustled. “This will end a war.”

“And us as well.”

“You still don’t believe?”

“In your legends?” Grat scoffed. “No.”

“What would you have us do instead?” Gathering his bucket, Tovar lumbered to Grat’s side.

Before them, shorn timbers replaced the basin’s sacred waters. Every rune etched in wood glistened beneath the oil Tovar poured on top, each one eager to react.

Grat’s reply came in a flap of veined wings, a lick of his forked tongue across jagged fangs, then a snarl. “We can still fight.”

“We fight and we die.” Nasrin resumed her etching and her whispered words.

“Will this end another way?”

“This way we’re sure to take them with us.” With a staggered stride, Tovar returned to the well and lowered the bucket. “All of them.”

He cringed as a blast echoed through the cavern, rattling the chain and disturbing the pyre.

Grat flicked his tail, making a soft smack on the floor. “The inner walls.”

“We best not delay.” Nasrin fed the pyre and fetched the remaining trunk. White bark flaked as she slashed runes, her hurried incantations diving beneath the pounding of hooves across the stronghold’s final lines of defense.

Grat slowly shook his head. “I don’t want to die a coward.”

“Were those on the walls…” Tovar tossed a last haul of oil onto the waiting wood as his tongue tripped on grief. “Were the others any braver?”

“They obliterated hundreds.”

“But the old ways were not enough.”

Grat raked talons through his fringe. “Nothing’s been enough.”

Nasrin knelt on the symbol she’d carved into the floor and added the etched birch to the pyre. “We have enough for this.”

Tovar skimmed the timber. “All three hundred?”

“Yes.” She sheathed the blade into a groove at her hip. “Marked and ready.”

Grat snorted. “Ready to kill us.”

“To kill them.” Setting his bucket aside, Tovar limped to the floor’s second symbol. The ruts felt cool beneath his soles, each brittle enough to shatter and swallow him down. “Take your place, Grat.”

“At least we’ll stop them from getting the well.” Puffing smoke from his nostrils, Grat stormed to the third mark.

Ignoring the younger wyvern’s grumbling, Tovar knelt, wrapped his tail around his battered legs, and stretched his wings wide. He pressed his fingers together, brought the steeple to his snout, and inhaled the smell of fresh bark, oil, and the sand showering down from the ceiling as the army overhead thrust into the stronghold’s heart.

“The nave.” Grat’s disgust crept through his clenched jaws.

“They won’t be there long.” Tovar eyed the nearest rune. “On my signal.”

Nasrin began another round of incantations, each word tangling with the wisps trickling from her mouth and the embers on her lips.

Across the way, Grat bared his teeth. Flames flashed behind his fangs, their glow gleaming on his scarlet scales.

Filling his belly with the faces of his mate, their young, and the countless other souls lost on the walls, on the plains, and in the skies, Tovar ignited his own breath. The inferno boiled within him, straining his scales and the tender skin underneath. Bringing the conflagration up his throat, he held the blaze until his eyes steamed and his fringe curled. When the flames scorched his insides, when his heart and lungs threatened to burst, when the cavern’s doors dented with the first ram, Tovar slammed his claws down.

The basin’s rim softened beneath his talons and he opened his jaws a heartbeat later.

Nasrin and Grat bellowed in the same instant. Fire stormed out of their cores, their red and blue twining with the Tovar’s gold.

Bark evaporated.

Wood turned to dust.

Only the runes remained. Each symbol soaked in the fire, the energy, the last gasps of the last of their kind.

As he sustained his fiery bolt, the runes bloomed with a blinding light taking Grat, Nasrin, and the first wave of cloven-hoofed beasts from Tovar’s sight. He heard their foes wailing, smelt the singe of their fur, the bubbling hiss of their burning flesh.

Adding the smells and sounds to his burst of flame, Tovar brought the features of his clan, of those Nasrin’s legend promised he might yet see again, to his mind’s eye. Doubts about their rebirth nagged but Tovar held fast to their memory. He shot out the last of his flames, the last of his life, the last of his being, certain those who had started this war, who had slain his kin, who had driven them to this last act of desperation, would never rise from the ashes they were all about to become.


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