Gara stood before the high house and looked up into the sky. Three of the mighty bore down on her clan when a single dragon was more than any settlement of the daan had ever faced before and survived.
The kings beside her wore dark expressions. They each drew weapons. Karst had his broadsword, Akazewi readied a javelin for a throw, Teranor pulled a pair of long knives from under his coat, and Marcel grabbed his spear from where it leaned beside the door.
As they ran out from the high house, the lead dragon breathed fire down on the palisade gates. The structure disintegrated and collapsed to ashes in the span of a few seconds. Gara could already hear the chanting of Aleesh arcanists as they placed fire wards over themselves and ranks of soldiers, all preparing to charge through the burning gates and kill whatever they found on the other side.
Gara followed the dragons' flight with her eyes. They circled the village, letting everyone see them. This was more a show of force than an attack. The Amethyst Knights wanted to let everyone know just how powerful Shan Alee was. Only then would the slaughter truly begin.
"We can take your people outside their perimeter, imé." Akazewi dropped his free hand on Gara's shoulder. "If Karst's men harry them from behind, we can save your young ones, at least."
Are your ambitions so small? God whispered in her mind.
Gara stepped forward and pulled away from Akazewi. "I am not running," she said. "No more running."
"Do not be a fool," Marcel protested. "We are not ready to face bound knights. Listen to Akazewi. Save what you can!"
"I can save them all," Gara said, and she ran down the hill from the high house.
She didn't have to look to know that Karst followed her. Blustering oaf was protective to a fault. Fortunately, he didn't seem intent on stopping her.
"Not going to head back south and forget we ever tried this?" Gara asked over her shoulder.
Karst bellowed a laugh. "And let little girl have this fun to herself? Do not be of the stupid, gadyuka."
Gara thought up a perfect response, something flirty and overtly sexual, when her attention was forced towards what lay in front of her. The ground shook as a dragon slammed down in her path, and Gara pulled up short.
The behemoth had to be one of the elder dragons, at least eight centuries old. Gara didn't recognize the violet by her markings, but she could determine her identity easily enough by the man who rode her.
Altycon Celestion Second Summit, Grandmaster of the Amethyst Knights, and his bound dragon, Keelu the Scourge.
Gara hadn't seen the dragon before, but she'd seen the grandmaster. It'd been from a distance, many years ago, but Gara would never forget his face. She'd been a girl, on patrol with her mother, when Aeslyn pushed Gara down into the brush and pointed ahead through the forest. They watched as an impossibly beautiful Aleesh male led a caravan of twenty wagons filled with slaves from a burning Thandi village. Gara would never forget the stark cruelty inflicted on the captives.
"That, Daughter, is Altycon," Aeslyn had said. "No mortal in living memory has drawn more blood in Thandor than him. His palace in Marwin is filled with slaves and the half-Thandi bastards he sires off his courtesans. His name begins with the holy 'Al', a privilege reserved for the most powerful warlords in Shan Alee."
Gara had tried to rise, to kill this beautiful demon wearing a human body.
"You can't fight bound knights," Aelsyn hissed, pulling Gara back down to her belly. "You can only hope to endure them."
The memory was seared into Gara's mind. It was her earliest recollection of why she fought as savagely as she could. Always, she recalled the casual way Altycon had pulled elderly from the wagons and slit their throats on the roadside. Gara saw him incinerate fleeing children with spellfire every time she closed her eyes. Aeslyn wasn't there anymore to hold Gara down.
She would endure no more.
Altycon stood on top of his dragon's nape. He removed his helm, a shining gilt masterwork that gleamed like the sun in reflected dragon fire. His golden hair went past his shoulders, and there was a short, pointed beard on his chin. He looked around him, and his green eyes took in the Thandi village as if it were a steaming pile of excrement.
"Is this the best you savages have?" Altycon shouted. "I hoped to find Aeslyn's fortress, not the sty where she kept her pigs!"
Gara and Karst hadn't drawn Altycon's eye, but the Scourge saw them. Keelu held them in her gaze and bared her fangs. Karst shifted his feet, ready to dash off to the side to avoid dragon fire. Gara held her ground and pulled an axe from her belt.
"Is this her, love?" the Scourge asked. The dragon's voice rumbled like thunder and carried over the shouts and screams around them.
Altycon sneered down at his dragon before following her gaze. When he saw Gara, his mouth widened into a vile grin. "Aeslyn's whelp," he laughed. "I'll have her carrying my bastard by the time I present her to Shoen."
"Filthy old man," Karst grunted. "He must get through me before he does this thing."
"I appreciate the concern, Karst," Gara said, "but I can defend my own nethers." She took a step towards knight and dragon. "You want me? Come take me."
"Oh, I will," Altycon said. He replaced his helm and dismounted, dropping from Keelu's back to land heavily on his feet. With arrogant strides, he closed the gap between him and Gara. The beast didn't deign to draw his weapon. "I'll make you mine, savage. From this day on, your only worth comes from the bastards you give me."
He outstretched his hand towards Gara, and nothing happened.
Gara could see his brow furrow in consternation beneath his helmet. She could feel a slight pull on the Weave of magic surrounding her. In the past, this would've been enough for an arcanist to hold a daan in place and at the arcanist's mercy. It should have been more than enough to completely overpower anything lacking magic of its own.
Altycon pulled back his hand and thrust it towards Gara again, to the same negligible result.
"What in the blazes…" Altycon muttered.
Gara smiled and threw a bolt of lightning at him. It struck Altycon square in the chest and threw him ten full paces away. The grandmaster rolled across the muddy ground, and smoke rose from the blackened marks Gara's spell left on both his chest and his back.
The chaos all around felt as if it froze in place. The Scourge drew back, her eyes wide with uncomprehending shock. The other two dragons overhead stopped circling the village and hovered in place. Aleesh arcanists and soldiers marching in through the broken gates stopped short and stared.
Gara called upon the magic given to her by God. It had taken years to bring under her control, but now she was its master. The flesh on her arms split as spines of bone erupted from her body. Some spread and formed segmented armor up to her shoulders, others twisted and grew into blades over the backs of her hands. More bone armor came from her midriff and thighs until Gara was completely encased within her magically enhanced skeleton. Staring out through a helmet formed from her own skull, Gara extended an accusing finger towards the Aleesh soldiers who dared trespass in her land.
"Warriors of Gara, kill them all!"
Altycon pulled himself out of the mud. He stared in confusion and horror as Thandi came barreling down the hillside towards him and his soldiers. As they ran, they cast spells that rained down on the Aleesh and consumed them by the dozen.
"Kill them!" Gara roared. "Avenge our fallen, and take retribution. We are the instruments of divine justice. We will not stop until Shan Alee lies in ruins, until the Dragon Emperor weeps tears of blood. Arcanists of Thandor, charge!"
Altycon got to his feet and finally drew his sword. "Impossible," he said. "This is impossible!"
Gara put her hands on her hips and tilted her head back as she crowed down at Altycon. "You're not looking too bad for someone that's just been hit by lightning. That dragon bond of yours heals you faster than I can kill you."
"Wretched daan!" Altycon screamed. "Whatever this trickery is, I'll end it all by tearing out your throat!"
"You can try to kill me," Gara said, "but you'll never stop this. Your time on the pinnacle is over. This is our world now."
Altycon roared and charged towards her. Gara caught his sword in a bone gauntlet and swiped at his midsection with the other. Before she could kill Altycon, she needed to deal with his bond to the Scourge.
The other two Amethysts came flying down amidst a storm of dragon fire. Their flames passed uselessly over the wards Gara's warriors held in place. They were quickly thrown to the ground as fire, lightning, and stones rose up from the village to greet them.
The Aleesh had only placed protections against small flames and perhaps against arrows. They'd never faced an opposing force with magic before, while the Thandi had never faced one without it. That difference in experience became swiftly evident as the Thandi fell upon the Aleesh in wholesale slaughter.
"This is savagery," Gara shouted, and she renewed her assault on Altycon. Her bone armor, her osteoform, thirsted for his blood.
Altycon readied his stance, but it wasn't enough. Gara slammed into him and shoved him back a dozen paces. He was barely able to keep on his feet, and Gara was relentless as she pressed the assault.
Behind her, Karst fell in with a group of Thandi arcanists and clashed with a line of Aleesh soldiers. His broadsword cut them down as he formed gestures with his hands to shake the earth and open fissures beneath the enemy.
Akazewi chanted incantations as he threw his javelins. With each throw, the javelins burst into lightning and struck with the fury of his goddess. Each one killed many Aleesh.
Marcel threw off his coat to reveal the steel breastplate he wore underneath. The sigils engraved across his chest began to glow with white etherlight, making him as strong as twenty other men. He charged into the fray, and with a single blow, the Gaulatian king drove his spear through the chest of an arcanist and into the man behind him.
Teranor walked calmly behind the other kings. His hands went to his belt pouches and came out with clay shells and glass vials held between his fingers. He tossed his spells in a casual fashion towards the clashes he sauntered near. Thandi felt their arms grow stronger and their feet grow quicker. Aleesh were ripped apart by alchemical detonations.
"My Scourge!" Altycon shouted as he won a few feet of distance between himself and his assailant. Gara was pleased to hear the desperate pitch his voice reached. "Kill this whore!"
Gara scoffed. As the Scourge pounced and snapped her teeth, Gara planted her feet and caught the dragon's jaws in her hands. She was pushed back, but her newfound sorcery gave her the strength to stop Keelu's advance. Her feet carved deep gouges in the mud until finding purchase. Keelu continued to push against her, but Gara wouldn't budge another inch.
"I give you one chance," Gara whispered to the Scourge. She strained to hold the dragon's mouth open, and Keelu fought just as hard to snap her fangs down over Gara's body. "One chance. Join us and fight the Aleesh, or die here."
Keelu breathed dragon fire from her open maw. It blasted across Gara, but when it subsided, she was unharmed. Gara had gotten pretty good with wards.
"So be it," Gara hissed. "The mighty will suffer the same fate as Shan Alee."
Gara shouted as she forced Keelu's mouth open wider. She kept pushing until the Scourge loosed an agonized shriek. Tendons snapped and bones cracked until Gara broke the dragon's jaw in half with her bare hands. Gara turned on her hip, twisting the dragon's head to the side and forcing her massive body to the ground. Then, Gara stomped on the dragon's skull and drove a bladed fist down with a triumphant roar.
Dragon blood coated Gara's fist, and she used it for the final and most devastating power God gave her.
Altycon dropped to his knees and clutched his chest as a series of deafening snaps echoed through the air. Gara only needed a single drop of blood through which to channel her magic, and every bone Keelu the Scourge had was shattered by Gara's power.
God called this power osteomancy. Bone magic. It was a power designed with a single purpose in mind, to kill dragons and the monsters who rode them.
But Gara wasn't the only mortal with this power. She raised her voice to carry over the fighting. "Xio! Unleash my assassins!"
Like a screaming lynx, Xio came hurtling in from the side and slammed against a different dragon's flank. Bone blades formed over her hands and she punched them deep into the dragon's scales. With its blood at her disposal, Xio crushed the dragon easily as if it were a rat in her fist.
Gara's brothers, three males now garbed in the same manner as Thandi warriors, worked together to surround and crush the third and final dragon. The boys didn't have near the same training as Xio, but the last two years had been spent turning them into warriors capable of standing alongside the women of the clan.
At the dawn of this new era, all Thandi would need to fight.
Gara stalked towards Altycon. The warlord stared dumbfounded at his subordinate knight getting his throat slit by Gara's youngest brother. Dashar was taking to the warrior's life better than the others, and Gara was beginning to think the Thandi should've been training boys to fight from the start.
"Impossible," Altycon whispered. He kept repeating it, over and over. "Impossible. Impossible."
Gara kicked him in the back of the knee. Altycon dropped to the dirt, panting and repeating himself even as Gara pressed a bone blade to his neck.
The Aleesh looked up and met her eyes, absolute terror painted on his face. "How can this be? Why now?"
"Not soon enough," Gara said, and she sliced her blade through his jugular.
Altycon fell face first onto the ground, and his blood soaked into the mud. Gara raised her face skyward and closed her eyes. She took in a deep breath and found no satisfaction.
You have won your first victory, God said. This is the truth you have learned, of why mortals are capable of hate.
Gara understood. Mortals could hate, and there was a reason they were able to. It was because evil existed. Gara grit her teeth and felt tears form in her eyes. To survive, to endure, it became necessary to recognize that evil and hate it with everything she had. Hate it and destroy it. Purge it. Burn it with the fire of her hatred. Gara looked down at the corpse beneath her and realized something else. She fought them, but she didn't hate the Aleesh. She never had.
Gara turned towards the shrine of bones honoring Death. "I hate you," she whispered.
God was silent.
"How long?" she asked, and she wasn't ashamed of her tears. "How long have you let us suffer? We prayed for so long while you hid your face from us. We begged for salvation, and you held it out of our reach. Now you've given us magic, after two thousand years of silence. How long did you have the power to save us and did nothing?"
If God had an answer, he didn't give it.
"I hate you," Gara said. "I am the saint who hates her god more than she hates her enemy. How dare you choose me?"
It was… a mistake to choose you. You are too dangerous, Gara of Thandor.
"You have no idea how dangerous I am," Gara snarled. "If it was in your power to take magic away, you would've taken it from Shoen. You can't take back what you've given me, and I'll use it against you if you ever show your face to me again. Whatever you're plotting, it has nothing to do with saving humanity from the Aleesh. The emperor's done something to scare you, and that's why you're turning on him."
She felt an absence where God— the spirit claiming to be God— once dwelled. She was no longer a blessed saint, and Gara at last felt a measure of satisfaction.
"We don't need you anymore, Lord of Bones," Gara said derisively. She left Altycon's corpse behind and climbed up onto the crushed remains of his dragon. From the higher vantage, she thought to get a look on how the battle was going. Once she was higher up, her eyes fell on the Lord of Bones' shrine. "To Hell with you," she whispered.
Gara turned and saw Karst running towards her. "How's the battle going?" she asked curtly.
"Battle?" Karst laughed. "Is over, gadyuka. They not be of the getting away." He gestured towards lines of Nashalite and Melcian warriors outside the palisade. "Akazewi brought many strong fighters. His and mine cut off the escape. No Aleesh is left alive. Theirs is the only dead we must burn this day."
Gara blinked, and she let her osteoform recede back beneath her flesh. "What did you say?"
A small detachment of northern warriors was coming to make a report to their king. They were strange-looking males. Their skin was a good deal more fair than other northerners, though still far darker than Thandi complexions. That in and of itself wouldn't have been odd, but their ears were bizarrely long and pointed. Even weirder were their eyes, blue with slit pupils.
Akazewi cleared his throat as Gara's staring at the strange warriors dragged on. "Imé?"
Gara stroked her chin. Her eyes had landed on one of the inhuman warriors in particular and followed him. Winds, but he was a tall one, maybe close to seven feet, and that long hair of his was putting a few lascivious thoughts into Gara's head.
Akazewi sighed. "I realize this is your first time seeing an elf, but might I ask you restrain your carnal nature a few minutes longer?"
Gara cocked her head to the side. "The blustering Hell is an elf?"
"Third of mine races of fey," Akazewi said proudly.
"The blustering Hell is a fey?"
Akazewi sighed again. "Regardless, imé, we cannae allow our earlier discussion to be derailed." He stood straighter and looked her in the eye. "We have been granted an opportunity, and you have given it to us. Command me, Gara, and I will go as you lead."
"Command?" Gara asked. "Akazewi, you're the first of the Five. I've been following you."
"I have nay slain dragons." He looked at the Scourge's corpse before coming back to Gara. The look in Akazewi's eye changed. He almost seemed as if he couldn't bear gazing at her, she was too bright. Akazewi dropped to one knee. "Melcia will follow Thandor, as I will follow you, my queen."
Gara looked to the other kings. First Karst, then Marcel, then finally Teranor went to their knees before her. Teranor didn't even look sour about it.
"My paladins are yours, gadyuka," Karst said. "We will be your fist as you strike at Shan Alee."
"My people will bring you as much supply from the colonies as they can carry," Marcel promised. "Enough to feed our army a thousand days if needed."
"You will have the Courtesans," Teranor said. "They wait and listen at the side of every Aleesh of importance."
Gara frowned. "Courtesans?"
Teranor scowled. "Well, what did you think I was doing with all the Thandi slaves I liberate. Stones, girl, I made them into a spy network better than anything Shoen could dream of."
Huh. I might've misjudged Teranor a bit. He's still a prat, though.
She looked around her and found others, Xio and their brothers, even old Vaan the Irdish mystic. Everywhere she looked, Gara saw faces she recognized standing over the bodies of their enemies. So many dead Aleesh, and not one— not one— dead Thandi.
Gara turned her head so no one would see how she lost her composure. She needed a moment to smooth her expression and get her breathing back under control.
Victory felt beautiful.
"Chieftess," Vaan said in a loud whisper.
She looked his way. Vaan was mouthing something to her and making sweeping gestures from his mouth.
Gara raised an eyebrow.
"Say something," Vaan hissed.
Gara wrinkled her nose.
"Eloquence, Chieftess. Eloquence."
What was there to say? Gara hadn't changed her mind about how she felt the need to fight Aleesh. It was for more reason than simply hating them, of wanting to be free. It had to be done. Gara didn't think she could say what she wanted to say if she had a thousand words with which to say it.
Gara looked out over her people, the Thandi and all others who swore themselves to her. Warriors and kings knelt at her feet, but she didn't want them to kneel. Not to her or to anyone, whether an emperor or an uncaring god, ever again.
A thousand words would never be enough. Just one would have to do. Gara raised her axe above her head and cried out her first command as loud as she possibly could.
They stood as Gara jumped down from the dead dragon she stood upon. She walked up the hill towards the high house, the throngs of warriors chanting her name as they followed her with their eyes. Gara's steps were determined, resolute, and they would not falter in the path she'd chosen.
She came to the high house and paused, looking to her name burned into the new wood above the threshold. In a moment of inspiration, she reached her hand out and manifested tendrils of fire essence on the Weave of magic.
"Give them a name they'll know to fear," she said, and she burned the character for the holy "Al" before her name.
Akazewi nodded. "So it is. Algara, highest of the Five."
She entered into her high house as the chant changed to her new name. Smiling to herself, she decided she liked the sound of that.
Algara, the Highest Queen.