A Night of Dragon Wings - By Daniel Arenson


The ropes chafed his wrists, and the blindfold squeezed his head like a vise, but Zar kept walking. He must have been walking for hours. A spearhead goaded his back, and he stumbled forward, breath rattling in his lungs. They had stabbed his back so many times, he imagined that it looked raw and red like minced meat. He could smell his own blood.

"Move it, scum!" said the guard behind him. Again the spearhead goaded him, a thrust too weak to puncture his flesh, but strong enough to shoot pain through him. "We haven't got all day!"

So it's still daytime, Zar thought. He would have thought night had fallen hours ago. The gravelly road stabbed his bare feet. His calves, his back, his head—they all throbbed. The wind blew hot and sandy against him. His throat was parched, his lips cracked; he wondered if thirst would kill him before the guards could.

Around him, he heard a hundred boots thumping, armor clanking, and scabbards clattering against greaves. A grunting sounded to his side, then a whip lashing flesh and a croak. Zar wanted to call out to his friends; even just speaking their names would comfort him.

They're taking us to die, he thought. They will whip and stab and march us until we perish, and our bones will lie in the wilderness for crows to pick on.

"Move, damn it!" cried the guard behind him, voice as gravelly as the road. "Faster!"

A whip cracked and pain exploded across Zar's back. He bit down on a scream. If he screamed, they would hurt him further. He had learned that lesson in the bowels of Solina's palace. Never scream. Never make a sound. If you show pain, they will laugh, and they will crave more.

He tried to remove his thoughts from this march, this thirst, this pain. He thought of his wife, a demure desert daughter, her hair so pale it was almost white, her skin deep gold, and her eyes blue like sky over dunes. He thought of his son, a suckling babe who would never know his father. He had done it for them. All my crimes—for you.

He had left his phalanx only for his family, only to be with them. He had abandoned his barracks to squeeze his wife's hand, to soothe her, to help the midwife guide his son into the desert. He had left for but a day, that was all—a dawn, an evening, a night of stars. That was all. The barracks guards had caught him holding his son, wrenched the babe from his arms, and dragged him back in chains.

But I saw my son. I saw him. I will die with a memory of his eyes.

He thought of those eyes as they walked the road, moving higher and higher, climbing a mountain that seemed to never end. As his feet bled and his back blazed, he thought of his son's eyes and his wife's smile, and Zar knew that no matter how much they hurt him, he had a pure memory. This memory they could not take away, not with all the blades and whips in the desert.

The wind lashed him. They marched. They marched endlessly.

Finally, after what seemed the ages of empires and the lifespan of mountains, he heard the guards inhale sharply.

"The tower," one man whispered.

Cold sweat washed Zar.

There was only one tower—the tower—which men spoke of with such reverence, such fear. The Ancients had called it Tarath Gehena—Tower of the Abyss—but few dared speak that tongue now. In his childhood, his grandmother would whisper that demons punished errant children in this tower. His friends would point at steeples in the city of Irys, trying to convince one another that here stood Tarath Gehena itself, the place of whispers and screams.

The tower. The place of the key. Sun God, the queen seeks to open the Iron Door.

Zar's knees shook and his breath rose to a pant. In the dungeon, he had prayed for death, comforted himself with the thought of thirst or injury sending him to eternal rest. In the shadow of Tarath Gehena, no such comfort could find him. No pure memory or hope could soothe him here.

Here there were only screams, terror, and undying agony.

They kept walking, quiet now. Zar could barely hear the clank of armor, the thud of boots, or the moans of his fellow prisoners. Until now every step had seemed an eternity; now Zar wished time would slow down. Too soon, far too soon, they stopped. Rough hands ripped the