By Zachary Holbrook
Hundreds of intermeshed triangles emanated from Veyja’s hands, then locked with those of her fellow shieldmages to form a glowing wall. The first wave of scalewolves crashed into the barrier. Blood and spittle sprayed into the air. Veyja winced at the impact, but the wall held firm.
Her hair writhed in response to the danger. It wanted to be used, but Veyja left it covered by her headscarf. Enough of her life had already been ruined by the fear and hatred evoked by her heritage.
Veyja pushed an extra surge of energy into the wall as the second wave hit. Arrows soared over her head and rained upon the advancing scalewolves, inducing bloodcurdling howls. Behind her, soldiers scrambled into formation. The hundreds of Third Army shieldmages maintaining the wall would surely be able to hold off the pack long enough for the combat units to deploy.
The scalewolves clawed the flesh of their own kind in their frenzy. Veyja fought off nausea at the rising stench of blood. She hated this part. Actually, she hated most parts of being in the middle of a battle. But military service allowed her to support herself and Callie, and the Dizadian custom regarding widows gave her a good excuse to cover her hair.
Fangs sunk into her ankle. Veyja cried out, then looked down to see a scalewolf snout penetrating the bottom of her shield. She jerked her leg away, ignoring the pain of ripping flesh. The beast snarled and shoved more of its body through the gap.
The angry snarls turned into pained whimpers as water splashed over the scalewolf’s face. A ten-year-old girl dumped the rest of her pail onto the breach, dissolving the monster’s flesh.
“Callie!” Veyja sent a few more triangles out to repair the gap, then turned to her daughter. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry.” Callie looked sheepishly at her pail. “That was supposed to be for drinking, but…”
Dizadian water supplies were too low to be wasted, but Veyja was more concerned about Callie’s presence on the front lines. “I told you to stay in the encampment!”
“Commander Tadel said we needed all the help we can—”
“Go back, Callie!” Veyja recoiled as another set of scalewolf fangs burst through the wall a few inches from her face.
A neighboring shieldmage repelled the scalewolf, then glared at Veyja. “What kind of idiot takes her brat into a war zone? You’re going to get us all killed!”
Veyja ignored the bard, concentrating her energy on adding a few inches of height to the wall. Several scalewolves climbed atop the dead bodies of their companions and almost reached high enough to leap over the barrier.
Veyja ignored Callie’s hand on her arm. “Get away from here. Now.”
“But, Mama, look!”
Veyja broke her attention from the wall to follow Callie’s pointing finger.
A black specter of death descended on the encampment, and none but her and Callie had yet seen it.
The dragon landed softly, a soldier crushed under its talons. Light from the dying sun gleamed off its scales. It ignored the shouting soldiers and eyed the line of unsuspecting shieldmages. Fire erupted from its maw.
Callie screamed. Veyja grabbed her and dove aside, casting up a shield to deflect the inferno.
Many of her fellow shieldmages weren’t as lucky. They fell to the ground and slapped at their burning clothes as the wall disintegrated. Their pain-filled shrieks shattered Veyja’s confidence.
The scalewolves let out a howl of victory and charged over the defunct barrier, showing no mercy to the injured shieldmages. A wave of soldiers met them while others tried to mob the dragon.
Veyja stumbled to her feet, her ankle throbbing. “Run!”
Callie obeyed. Veyja found a discarded spear and shoved it into the ground. Not an ideal anchor for a stronger shield, but it would do. She put up the shield and ran after Callie.
The dragon moved to block their path.
Callie skidded to a stop, a faint whimper escaping her. Veyja threw herself in front of her daughter and met the monster’s gaze. The broken bodies of soldiers who had tried to resist it littered the ground.
The dragon jabbed a claw downward. Veyja’s hasty attempt at a shield shattered under the impact. A deep rumble—was that laughter?—rose from the monster’s throat.
Callie whimpered. The dragon opened its mouth, revealing teeth flecked with blood. Veyja stared at its deep, malevolent eyes, and the screams surrounding her faded.
She untied her headscarf.
Her hair sprang to life, a writhing mass of snakes that hissed in unison. Power surged through Veyja’s eyes, blazing out of her and entering the dragon. Fire flashed in the dragon’s throat, only to vanish a moment later.
The dragon froze in fear, then froze forever.
Veyja held Callie close to her breast. Behind, the scalewolves whimpered at the sight of their petrified champion. Several soldiers let out a rallying cry and charged to finish them off.
Veyja wasn’t worried about those.
She was worried about the ones who stopped when they saw her, confused about the monster in their midst. Several soldiers formed a ring of bristling weapons around her. Veyja looked up, hoping to show them she was harmless. They recoiled and refused to meet her eyes.
Exhaustion overtook her. Veyja sank to the ground, ignoring the sounds of battle and the soldiers arguing about what to do with her. It was all she could do to hold Callie’s trembling form.
She ran her hands through Callie’s hair, stopping when she felt something unusual. Scales. The tiny snake wiggled around, disturbed, then coiled up and returned to sleep. Only one so far. The rest would come in time.
“I’m sorry, daughter,” Veyja whispered. “You have a long, hard life ahead of you.”