At the Hot Gates


The Dragon of Two Hearts - Prologue

A haze hovered over the ruined land and the stench of burnt earth filled the air. The rolling hills were ringed by cold shadows, and the stubble of scorched trees cast eerie shapes in the stark light of the moon. A small figure crept furtively from shadow to shadow. A fox from the nearby forest had stolen into this forbidding landscape, hoping to find unsuspecting prey. Suddenly, his hackles stood on end. A nearby hillside had shifted. Was that a trick of the odd light on the desolate landscape? Out here even the shadows seemed alive. The night-hunter raised his nose to pick up some scent, but all he could smell was the burn of the land. He eyed the distant line of trees where there were bushes he could hide in. The fox was spooked and every instinct called him to abandon his hunt. He turned his nose back towards the forest, towards his den, towards the safety of thick undergrowth. Crouching low to the ground, he started trotting along the line of the shadow. Then, without the slightest warning to his keen senses, his small life was abruptly and violently snuffed out.

The great beast sniffed at his quarry and was satisfied. He picked up the limp body of the fox in his immense mouth and carried it back to his lair. He cast it onto the stinking pile where its bones over time would mix with the remains of all of his other victims. He gazed up at the moon, spread his cavernous jaws and bellowed loudly. Let it be known that he was the master of this ruination. He returned to patrolling his land.

He approached the line of trees where the fox had sought refuge, the barrier between his devastation and the lands beyond. He stopped in the open, away from all shadows, allowing the harsh light of the moon to shine ghostlike upon the massive length of his body. He lifted his long snout to the air and sniffed. The burn did not dull his sharp sense of smell. He detected that there was someone watching him from the cover of the trees. He recognized her scent. She had come before, and something in him was confident this would not be the last time. He raised himself up to his full height, as if to show off his glory in the moonlight. He flexed his horns and spikes and thrashed his long tail. It would be a simple matter to pounce on her and add her bones to the pile in his lair, yet he did not. He would let her come as often as she needed until she had seen her fill. He raised his head to the moon and bellowed. He could smell her fear. He smelled her agitation and anger. But most of all, he sensed her irrational attraction to him. He bellowed again.

A day’s ride away, a knight awoke from a disturbing dream. He shook his head as if he could shake off the images that still lingered before his eyes. Then he looked up at the sky, well-lit by the waxing moon. He groggily acknowledged that morning was still far away. He glanced about and was satisfied that there was nothing in the night to match the terror he had seen in his dreams. He pulled the covers over his head, turned on his side, and forced himself back to sleep.

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