Death filled the night. Its stench burned the Cardinals' nostrils and stung at the corners of their eyes. Corpses littered the swampy landscape, some half-eaten and discarded, others reduced to nothing but bones and black dust. The murky water–tinged reddish brown by filth and blood–bubbled and steamed near the countless fires dotting the bog. No longer was this the territory of man, but a land ruled by dragons.
"Cardinal Elyza, I'm beginning to worry we've lost him. I doubt the fugitive would have made it very far into the bog. Why do you insist we continue to go deeper into this wasteland? We should turn back, otherwise we will perish along with the fool we chase," Cardinal Reginald said. A middle-aged man clad in the Majestry's silver armor, Reginald was likely more skilled with a blade than all of their party combined. However, this did not elevate his status within the Majestry's order, only time-in-service and faithful conduct could do that. Cardinal Elyza scowled at him, her green eyes were spear points in the dark. Reginald immediately recognized his folly. "Apologies. I only wish for us to survive the night."
"And you will, if you do as I command, Reginald," Elyza said. "Focus on keeping the men prepared. I don't want them breaking ranks at the slightest hint of confrontation. I trust you know how to do that being retired from the service and all."
Reginald nodded without a word, dropping back to wait for the wide-eyed young men trudging behind. Elyza, of course, had other plans for the soldiers if and when the time came. In fact, she hoped a dragon would appear. It would make her job a whole lot easier.
As the party navigated the smoldering inlets of the bog, Elyza's Cardinal companion, Roshek, stepped up to keep pace beside her. He was a tall, thin man with long brown hair and icy eyes like freshly-mined crystals. His daggers' sheaths clanked against his shiny, black armor with each step.
"Not to pester, but I'm getting hungry," Roshek quipped, lingering on the last word to emphasize his true meaning. Elyza shot him a glare much like the one she'd offered Reginald, however, this time it melted away, one side of her mouth curling up in a grin. She couldn't help herself when dealing with the man. He heated the ice that perpetually strangled her heart.
"What are the soldiers saying amongst themselves?" Elyza asked.
"Oh, just that you're a scary witch, and that following you will undoubtedly be their downfall."
Elyza was the only woman in the party of more than a dozen. This wasn't uncommon within the scope of the Empyrean military. However, amongst the individuals able to harness Energy, the ratio evened out as it was indiscriminate of human-defined characteristics. Although a Cardinal's life could be vicious and bloody work, Elyza was no stranger to death—having witnessed her mother's murder at the hands of her father. This was what she was good at, this was her domain.
"Ignorant fools. My power is most definitely not derived from witchcraft."
Roshek looked back at the party to make sure no one was near enough to overhear. Shadows danced about his features erratically, the burning patches of scorched earth unreliable light sources. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "How are we to separate Reginald from the rest? The man is insufferably skeptical of our mission. I don't think we can continue on much longer before he suspects something of us."
"You worry too much, my dear," Elyza said. She eyed a mound up ahead, a good spot to rest and regroup. "If you're as hungry as you claim, I'll help you take them. They look weak enough. Won't that be satisfying?"
"All of them?" he asked, his voice nothing but a fierce rasp. "But they're so young. I don't know if it's a good idea, morally speaking."
When Elyza saw his faint smile, she understood that he was being sarcastic. She explained it anyway, desperate to justify it to herself most of all. "The capital saw them old enough to die for Empyrea. They will be considered casualties of the hunt, nothing more. They will not hinder us in our ultimate goal."
Roshek respected the woman, almost to the point of being perpetually terrified of her. But he knew she would never betray him, they were too good together. They fed off each other's Energy. They shared a perfect, undeniable symbiosis that even the Majestry would approve of, if they were bold enough to report his true nature that is.
"So where is this fugitive exactly? I know we paid him to go north into the bog, but what other information are we going on? We do intend to recapture him, do we not?"
Cardinal Elyza didn't respond right away. She had forgotten that Roshek had not been in the council's briefing chamber. She spoke with indifference, saying, "If we find him, then good for us. However, the objective was never to bring the fugitive back in. We kill him–if the dragons don't kill him first–and then we kill our true target. Upon our return, we will announce that a dragon attacked our hunting party and we lost them. No one will ask questions, and we will be hailed for surviving an encounter with a dragon. Win, win."
"Will we actually fight a dragon? I don't particularly desire to do such a thing," Roshek said, a tinge of fear in his voice.
"If we can avoid it," Elyza said. "However, I can promise nothing."
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Betrayal at Dragon's Bog - A Short StoryShort Story
Awarded 5th place in the Short Story category of The Ace Awards Supreme 2020 Contest! For fans of the Witcher and Elder Scrolls. A pair of Cardinals hunt down a fugitive in the remote region of Dragon's Bog, a charred and desolate wasteland ruled b...