The Last Namsara – Kristen Ciccarelli

Asha lured the dragon with a story. It was an ancient story, older than the mountains at her back, and Asha had to dredge it up from where it lay deep and dormant inside her. She hated to do it. Telling such stories was forbidden, dangerous, even deadly. But after stalking this dragon through the rocky lowlands for ten days now, her hunting slaves were out of food. She had a choice: return to the city dragonless or break her father’s ban on the ancient tales. Asha never returned without a kill and she wasn’t about to now. She was the Iskari, after all, and there were quotas to fill. So she told the story. In secret. While her hunters thought she was sharpening her axe. The dragon came, slithering out of the red-gold silt like the treacherous thing it was. Sand cascaded down its body, shimmering like water and revealing dull gray scales the color of mountain rock. Three times the size of a horse, it loomed over Asha, thrashing a forked tail while its slitted gaze fixed on the girl who’d summoned it. The girl who’d tricked it here with a story.

Asha whistled for her hunting slaves to get behind their shields, then waved off her archers. This dragon had spent the night burrowed beneath the cold desert sand. With the sun only just rising, its body temperature wasn’t warm enough for it to fly. It was stranded. And a stranded dragon fought fierce. Asha’s left hand tightened on an oblong shield while her right hand reached for the throwing axe at her hip. The rough esparto grass rattled around her knees as the dragon circled, waiting for her to let down her guard. That was its first mistake. Asha never let down her guard. Its second was to blast her with flame.

Asha hadn’t been afraid of fire since the First Dragon himself left her with a vicious scar running down the right side of her body. A sheath of fireproof armor covered her now from head to toe, made from the hides of all the dragons she’d killed. The tanned leather buckled tight against her skin and her favorite helmet—one with black horns mimicking a dragon’s head—protected her from dragonfire. She kept her shield raised until the blaze ceased. The dragon’s breath was now spent. Asha threw down her shield. She had a hundred heartbeats before the acid in its lungs replenished, allowing it to breathe fire again. She needed to kill it before that happened. Asha drew her axe. Its curved iron edge caught the early morning sunlight.

Beneath her scarred fingers, the wooden handle was worn smooth. A comfortable fit against her palm. The dragon hissed. Asha narrowed her eyes. Time to end you. Before it could advance, she aimed and threw—straight at its beating heart. Her axe sank into flesh and the dragon screamed. It struggled and thrashed as its lifeblood spilled onto the sand. Gnashing its teeth, it fixed its raging eyes on her. Someone stepped up beside Asha, breaking her focus.

She looked to find her cousin, Safire, thrusting the butt of a pointed halberd into the sand. Safire stared at the thrashing, screaming dragon. Her dark hair was sheared to her chin, showing off the bold slant of her cheekbones and the shadow of a bruise on her jaw. “I told you to stay behind the shields,” Asha growled. “Where’s your helmet?” “I couldn’t see a thing in that helmet. I left it with the hunting slaves.” Safire wore tanned leather hunting gear, made hastily by Asha, and her hands were protected by Asha’s fireproof gloves. There hadn’t been time to make a second pair. The bloody dragon dragged itself across the sand, intent on Asha. Its scales scraped.

Its breath wheezed. Asha reached for the halberd. How much time had passed since its last breath of fire? She’d lost track. “Get back, Saf. Behind the shields.” Safire didn’t move. Only stared at the dying dragon, mesmerized, as its beating heart slowed. Thud-thud. Thud . thud.

The scraping sound stopped. Rearing back its head, the dragon screamed in hate at the Iskari. Just before its heart stopped beating, flames rushed out of its throat. Asha stepped in front of her cousin. “Get down!” Asha’s ungloved hand was still outstretched. Exposed. Fire engulfed her fingers and palm, searing the skin. She bit down on her scream as pain lanced through her. When the fire stopped and the dragon collapsed, dead, Asha turned to find Safire on her knees, safe and sound in the sand. Shielded from the flames.

Asha let out a shaky breath. Safire stared at her cousin’s hand. “Asha. You’re burned.” Asha pushed off her helmet and lifted her palm to her face. The charred skin bubbled. The pain blazed, bright and hot. Panic sliced through her. It had been eight years since she’d been burned by a dragon. Asha scanned her hunting slaves, all of whom were lowering their shields.

They wore no armor, only iron—iron in their arrows and halberds and spears, iron in the collars around their necks. Their eyes fixed on the dragon. They hadn’t seen the Iskari get burned. Good. The fewer witnesses, the better. “Dragonfire is toxic, Asha. You need to treat that.” Asha nodded. Except she hadn’t brought supplies for a burn treatment. She’d never needed them before.

To keep up appearances, she moved for her pack. From behind her, Safire said very softly, “I thought they didn’t breathe fire anymore.” Asha froze. They don’t breathe fire without stories, she thought. Safire got to her feet and dusted off her leather armor. Her eyes dutifully avoided Asha’s as she asked, “Why would they start breathing fire now?” Asha suddenly wished she’d left her cousin behind. But if she’d left Safire behind, there wouldn’t just be remnants of a bruise on her jaw. There would be far worse. Two days before Asha had set out on this hunt, she found Safire cornered by soldats in her own room. How they’d gotten in without a key, she could only guess.

As soon as Asha entered, they panicked, scattering in the presence of the Iskari. But what about next time? Asha would be hunting for days, and her brother, Dax, was still in the scrublands, negotiating peace with Jarek, the commandant. There was no one to keep a watchful eye out for their skral-blooded cousin while Asha hunted. So she’d brought Safire with her. Because if there was anything worse than coming home empty-handed, it was coming home to Safire in the sickroom again. Asha’s silence didn’t dissuade her cousin in the least. “Remember the days when you would set out at dawn and bring a dragon down before dinner? Whatever happened to those days?” The searing pain of her blistering skin made Asha dizzy. She fought to keep her mind clear. “Maybe things were too easy back then,” she said, whistling at her hunting slaves, signaling them to start the dismemberment. “Maybe I prefer a challenge.

” The truth was, dragon numbers had been dwindling for years and it was getting harder to bring their heads back to her father. It was why she’d turned to telling the old stories in secret—to lure them to her. The old stories drew dragons the way jewels drew men. No dragon could resist one told aloud. But the stories didn’t just lure dragons. They made them stronger. Hence, the fire. It went like this: where the old stories were spoken aloud, there were dragons; and where there were dragons, there was destruction and betrayal and burning. Especially burning. Asha knew this better than anyone.

The proof was right there on her face. Sighing, Safire gave up. “Go treat that burn,” she said, leaving her halberd upright in the sand as she started toward the hulking form. While the slaves advanced on the dragon, Safire walked a complete circle around the body, scanning it. The dragon’s dusty gray scales were perfect for blending into the mountain, and its horns and spines were flawless ivory, none of them broken or cracked. In Safire’s absence, Asha tried to flex her burned fingers. The sharp pain made her bite down hard. It made the lowlands around her blur into a smudged landscape of red sand, pale yellow grass, and a gray speckle of rock. They were on the seam here. Not quite in the flat desert to the immediate west, nor in the dark and craggy mountains to the immediate east.

“It’s a beauty!” Safire called back. Asha strained to focus on her cousin, who was starting to blur along with everything else. She tried to shake her vision clear. When that didn’t work, she reached for Safire’s halberd to steady herself. “Your father will be so pleased.” Her cousin’s voice sounded thick and muffled. If my father only knew the truth, thought Asha, bitterly. She willed the landscape to stop spinning around her. She clutched the halberd harder, concentrating on her cousin. Safire navigated through the slaves, their knives glinting.

Asha heard her grab the handle of the embedded axe. She heard Safire use the heel of her boot to brace herself against the dragon’s scaly hide. Asha even heard her pull the weapon out while blood glugged onto the sand, thick and sticky. But she couldn’t see her. Not any longer. The whole world had gone fuzzy and white. “Asha . ? Are you all right?” Asha pressed her forehead to the flat steel of the halberd. The fingers of her unburned hand curled like claws around the iron shaft as she fought the dizziness. I should have more time than this.

Hurried footsteps kissed the sand. “Asha, what’s wrong?” The ground dipped. Asha felt herself tilt. Without thinking, she reached for her skral-blooded cousin. The one who, under the law, wasn’t allowed to touch her. Safire sucked in a breath and stepped back, out of reach, widening the gap between them. Asha struggled to regain her balance. When she couldn’t, she sank onto the sand. Even when Safire’s gaze slid to the hunting slaves—even when Asha knew it was their judgment Safire feared and not her—it stung. It always stung.

But slaves talked. Her cousin knew this better than anyone. Gossiping slaves had betrayed Safire’s parents. And right now, they were surrounded by slaves. Slaves who knew Safire wasn’t allowed to touch Asha, wasn’t even allowed to look Asha in the eye. Not with skral blood running through her veins. “Asha . ” All at once, the world settled back into place. Asha blinked. There was the sand beneath her knees.

There was the horizon in the distance, a red-gold smear against a turquoise sky. And there was the slain dragon before her: clear and gray and dead. Safire crouched down before her. Too close. “Don’t,” Asha said more sharply than she meant to. “I’m fine.” Rising, she bit down on the scorching pain in her hand. It didn’t make sense for the toxins to set in so fast. She was dehydrated—that’s all. She just needed water.

“You shouldn’t even be out here,” Safire called from behind her, voice laced with worry. “Your binding is seven days away. You should be preparing yourself for it, not running from it.” Asha’s footsteps faltered. Despite her scorching hand and the steadily rising sun, a chill swept through her. “I’m not running from anything,” she shot back, staring straight ahead at the mantle of green in the distance. The Rift. It was Asha’s one freedom. Silence fell over them, interrupted only by the sounds of slaves sharpening their skinning knives. Slowly, Safire came to stand behind her.

“I hear dragon hearts are in fashion these days.” Asha could hear the careful smile in her voice. “For betrothal gifts especially.” Asha wrinkled her nose at the thought. She crouched down next to her hunting pack, made of the tough leather of dragon hide. Reaching inside, she drew out her water skin while Safire stood over her. “The red moon wanes in seven days, Asha. Have you even thought about your betrothal gift?” Asha rose to growl a warning at her cousin and the world spun again. She kept it in place by the sheer force of her will. Of course she’d thought about it.

Every time Asha looked up into the face of that horrible moon— always a little thinner than the day before—she thought about all of it: the gift and the wedding and the young man she would soon call husband. The word hardened like a stone inside her. It brought everything into sharp focus. “Come on,” said Safire, smiling a little, her eyes cast toward the hilltops. “The gory, bleeding heart of a dragon? It’s the perfect gift for a man without a heart of his own.” Asha shook her head. But Safire’s smile was contagious. “Why do you have to be so disgusting?” Just then, over Safire’s shoulder, a cloud of red-gold sand billowed in the distance, coming from the direction of the city. Asha’s first thought was dust storm and she was about to give a frantic order, but rocky lowlands surrounded them here, not the open desert. Asha squinted into the distance and saw two horses making their way toward her hunting party.

One was riderless; the other carried a man cloaked in a mantle, the rough wool dusted red with sand kicked up by his horse. A gold collar encircled his neck, winking in the sunlight and marking him as one of the palace slaves. As he galloped closer, Asha thrust her burned hand behind her back. When the sand settled, she found the elderly slave reining in his mare. Sweat soaked his graying hair. He squinted in the pulsing sunlight. “Iskari,” he said, out of breath from riding so hard. He fastened his gaze on the tossing mane of his horse, obediently avoiding Asha’s eyes. “Your father wishes to see you.” Behind her back, Asha gripped her wrist.

“He has perfect timing. I’ll deliver this dragon’s head to him tonight.” The slave shook his head, his gaze still boring into his horse. “You’re to return to the palace immediately.” Asha frowned. The dragon king never interrupted her hunts. She looked to the riderless mare. It was Oleander, her own horse. Her russet coat glistened with sweat, and a smudge of red sand covered the white star on her forehead. In the presence of her rider, Oleander bobbed her head nervously.

“I can help finish up here,” said Safire. Asha turned to her. Safire didn’t dare look up into her face. Not under a royal slave’s watchful gaze. “I’ll meet you back at home.” Safire undid the leather ties on her borrowed hunting gloves. “You never should have given me these.” She slid them off and handed them over. “Go.” Ignoring the scream of her raw and blistering skin, Asha pulled on the gloves so her father’s slave wouldn’t see her burned hand.

Turning from Safire, she took Oleander’s reins and swung herself up into the saddle. Oleander whinnied and fidgeted beneath her, then sped off at a gallop when Asha’s heels gave her the slightest prod. “I’ll save the heart for you!” Safire called as Asha raced back toward the city, kicking up swirls of red sand. “In case you change your mind!” In the Beginning . The Old One was lonely. So he made for himself two companions. He formed the first out of sky and spirit and named him Namsara. Namsara was a golden child. When he laughed, stars shone out of his eyes. When he danced, wars ceased.

When he sang, ailments were healed. His very presence was a needle sewing the world together. The Old One formed the second out of blood and moonlight. He named her Iskari. Iskari was a sorrowful child. Where Namsara brought laughter and love, Iskari brought destruction and death. When Iskari walked, people cowered in their homes. When she spoke, people wept. When she hunted, she never missed her mark. Pained by her nature, Iskari came before the Old One, asking him to remake her.

She hated her essence; she wished to be more like Namsara. When the Old One refused, she asked him why. Why did her brother get to create things while she destroyed them? “The world needs balance,” the Old One said. Furious, Iskari left the sovereign god and went hunting. She hunted for days. Days turned to weeks. As her fury grew, her bloodlust became insatiable. She killed mercilessly and without feeling and all the while, her hate swelled within her. She hated her brother for being happy and beloved. She hated the Old One for making it so.

So the next time she went hunting, Iskari set her traps for the Old One himself. This was a terrible mistake. The Old One struck Iskari down, leaving a scar as long and wide as the Rift mountain range. For attempting to take his life, he stripped her of her immortality, ripping it of her like a silk garment. So that she could atone for her crime, he cursed her name and sent her to wander the desert alone, haunted by stinging winds and howling sandstorms. To wither beneath the parching sun. To freeze beneath the icy cloak of night. But neither the heat nor the cold killed her. An unbearable loneliness did. Namsara searched the desert for Iskari.

The sky changed seven times before he found her body in the sand, her skin blistered by the sun, her eyes eaten by carrion crows. At the sight of his sister, dead, Namsara fell to his knees and he wept. Two Normally after a kill, Asha bathed. Scrubbing the blood, sand, and sweat from her body was a ritual that helped her transition from the wild, rugged world beyond the palace walls to a life that tied itself around her ribs and squeezed like a too-tight sash. Today, though, Asha skipped the bath. Despite her father’s summons, she slipped right past her guards and headed for the sickroom, where the medicines were kept. It was a whitewashed room smelling of lime. Sunlight spilled through the open terrace, alighting the flower pattern mosaicked into the floor, then painting the shelves of terra-cotta jars in yellows and golds. She’d woken in this room eight years ago, after Kozu, the First Dragon, burned her. Asha remembered it clearly: lying on a sickbed, her body wrapped in bandages, that awful feeling pressing down on her chest, heavy as a boulder, telling her she’d done something horribly wrong.

Shaking the memory loose, Asha stepped through the archway. She unbuckled her armor and gloves, shedding them piece by piece, then laid her axe on top of the pile. One of the dangers of dragonfire—besides melting your skin to the bone—was that it was toxic. The smallest burn would kill you from the inside out if treated poorly or too late. A severe burn, like the one Asha suffered eight years ago, needed to be treated immediately and, even then, the victim’s chances of survival were slim.

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