Last Dragon Standing – Rachel Aaron

On a night in late summer, on a beach somewhere along the Pacific coast of South America, Brohomir and Amelia sat together in the sweltering heat with their feet dug into the cool, wet sand, watching the waves crest in the moonlight. As usual, Amelia was drinking from a bone flask full of something that smelled slightly of coconut and strongly of alcohol. Brohomir, however, had nothing. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in days in preparation for tonight. Now that they were finally on the threshold, though, he found he was having trouble asking his sister to begin. “You don’t have to do this now,” Amelia said quietly, her amber eyes shining in the dark. “You said it was centuries in the future. A lot can happen between now and then. There’s no shame in waiting.” “No help, either,” Brohomir replied, digging his hands into the sand. “But I see the vision every night now, Amelia. There’s no escaping it. I have to do something.” His sister took another sip from her flask. “What do you see?” She’d asked him before.

He’d told her before, but while Brohomir desperately didn’t want to talk about it, he could never deny Amelia anything. “I’m in a ruined city,” he said quietly, tilting his head back to look up at the endless stars above them. “At least, I think it’s a city. It’s so big, I can’t be sure. The buildings look as tall as mountains.” “The future is full of marvels,” Amelia replied with a chuckle. “Too bad it gets wrecked.” She frowned. “Was it one of us?” “I don’t know,” Brohomir said. “The death vision isn’t like my others.

There’s no path of decisions, no trails to follow. It’s just a moment sliced in time. I don’t even know how I got there, but he’s already waiting for me.” He could see it perfectly even now. The Black Reach stood over him, a long black shadow silhouetted by the strange orange light shining from something unseen behind him. “He kills me after that.” “If that’s all it is, we’ll just have to make sure I’m there too,” Amelia said proudly. “The Black Reach is the Death of Seers, not the Death of Amelias. I won’t let him touch you.” “But you are there,” Brohomir said.

“I can’t see you in the vision, but I can smell you close by. There’s another Heartstriker as well. One of our brothers.” “Which one?” He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. His back is to me, so I can’t see his face. I don’t actually think he’s been born yet.” Brohomir smiled. “He strikes me as very young.” Amelia snorted.

“So, useless.” “Not useless,” the seer said. “The vision is only for a moment, but in that moment, I know he’s important. Maybe the most important.” “He can’t be that important,” Amelia said bitterly. “The Black Reach still kills you.” “He does,” Brohomir said, voice shaking. “He kills me, Amelia. I see it happen over and over, but what’s truly terrifying is that my death isn’t actually the worst part.” “What’s worse than dying?” He took a shuddering breath.

“The thing in the sky.” His sister scowled, but Brohomir didn’t know how else to explain it. There were no words, no names for what he’d witnessed floating above the scene of his death, but every time Brohomir saw it, fear cut straight to his bones. It was even worse than when the Black Reach cut him down. That was merely the end of him. The thing in the sky was the end of everything. “I have to stop it,” he whispered, reaching out to clutch her hand. “It’s over for all of us if I don’t.” “Fair enough,” Amelia said. “But are you sure this is how you want to do it?” She nodded down the beach at the multiple feet of portal calculations she’d drawn in the hard-packed sand.

“I was there when the Black Reach found you. I heard him say that he only kills seers who break his rules, but that’s exactly what we’re planning to do. If this actually works, you could be sealing your own fate.” “If I don’t do this, we’re all dead,” Brohomir said firmly, pushing to his feet. “But it’s all right, Amelia. I’ve seen the future, and I have a plan. I’m not going to die, and I swear on my fire I won’t let you die, either.” Amelia grinned at him. “If you say so, I believe you,” she said, standing up as well. “Shall we get this over with?” When Brohomir nodded, Amelia tossed back the last of her fermented coconut.

Properly braced, she dropped the empty flask in the sand at her feet and lifted her hands in front of her, curling her fingers in the empty air like she was preparing to rip open a curtain. When every knuckle was hooked at the correct angle, the air in front of her lit up as a searing lash of Amelia’s magic struck the empty space above the surf, sundering the dark as she ripped the world apart, opening a hole into emptiness itself. “I can only hold it for five minutes!” she yelled over the wind that began howling past them out into the blackness on the other side of the portal. Brohomir nodded and pulled his alpaca wool jacket tight, filling his lungs with air as he stepped off the nighttime beach and into the true dark of the space between worlds. The moment he crossed the portal threshold, all sound vanished. He could still see Amelia behind him, her black hair whipping wildly around her strained face as she fought to hold the doorway open, but there was no more wind or sound. Just the empty dark, stretching out to infinity around him. “Right,” Brohomir said, speaking the word out loud even though the only voice he could actually hear was in his own head. “Let’s try this.” He closed his eyes and looked down the shining river of all the possible futures.

It only took a second to find the one he’d marked: a particularly bloody future where Bethesda decided to kill her way into one of the European clans instead of laying eggs to create her own. That was definitely not a twist of fate Brohomir wanted to suffer through, so he happily ripped it out, plucking the silvery line from the weave of possibilities with a deft mental hand. When it was free, he held it out, waving the future through the dark like a lure in front of him. It wasn’t a sure thing, but Brohomir had chosen this night very carefully. He’d scoured his futures to find the time, the place, even the exact right spot on the beach that had the highest chance of success. He’d stacked his odds as high as they would go, but it still felt as if he’d been waving forever before something finally turned to look. He didn’t know how he knew. The emptiness here was different from any he’d ever experienced. He couldn’t see, couldn’t feel, couldn’t sense in any of the usual ways, but he didn’t need to. It was impossible to miss something that huge coming toward him, its tendrils reaching out greedily to pluck the dangling thread of possibility from his fingers.

The moment the future left Brohomir’s control, it vanished. Not just that one thread, but all the choices and coincidences that had led up to it. An entire line of possibilities simply ceased to be as the thing in the dark nudged him, forcing a question into his consciousness, though not in words. This was merely an impression of exchange, a request to know what Brohomir wished in return for the future he’d given. “I want you to listen to me.” Just like before, there was no sound. The words were only in his head, but the thing in the dark turned, its presence growing larger still, as if it were moving closer. There was still nothing to see, but the bigger it got, the more distinctly Brohomir could feel it looming around him, a creature the size of eternity with a body made of cold, dead chains. “I know you,” he said as the chains settled around him. “You are the Nameless End that devoured our old world, the one the ancient dragons called the Final Future.

” The darkness surrounding him roiled in fury. How dare he name her? She was what remained when all possible futures were gone. She had no name, no constraints! Only endless hunger, and Brohomir was a tasty beast of many futures. She remembered the dragons he spoke of. Those fools had traded her their entire plane in return for temporary victories, feeding their own end. The memory soothed the Nameless End’s anger, and she eased closer to Brohomir. Maybe this one would be foolish too? “I’m often foolish,” Brohomir replied with a smile. “But I’m not here to offer myself as sacrifice. I’m here to make you a deal.” The Nameless End’s chains rattled eagerly.

A future? “Everyone gives you futures,” Brohomir said dismissively. “I’ve brought you something infinitely better.” Impossible. What could be better than a future? Brohomir placed a hand against his chest. “Me.” The Nameless End’s confusion flooded through him. What would she want with something like him? He was tiny and finite, insignificant. If he hadn’t been her only source of food for millennia, she wouldn’t have bothered focusing her attention finely enough to speak with him. The chains crept closer, prodding Brohomir’s mind with their terrifyingly final-feeling tips. Maybe he was delusional? “I prefer imaginative,” Brohomir replied, flashing her his most charming smile.

“It’s true that I am nothing compared to a power like you, but gifts are not valued by size alone. You’ve eaten the futures of countless planes, including my old homeland. But in all those timelines, all those lives you’ve vicariously experienced, there’s one thing you’ve never had.” The thing in the dark was growing annoyed with the cocky dragon. She was the end, the one path that remained when every other possibility was spent. All of time would eventually belong to her. What could he possibly have that she did not? “A life of my own.” The Nameless End turned away, but the dragon wasn’t finished. “It’s true you’ll eventually own all futures,” he said quickly. “But only after they’re done.

The only timelines you get are ones where there are no surprises left, no uncertainty, no tension or wonder. Just the wrapped-up life stories of beings who mean nothing to you where every crisis is already resolved and every end is already known.” He shook his head. “That has to be amazingly boring.” The Nameless End did not get bored. She was what she was. “Ah,” Brohomir said. “But have you ever tried being something else?” What a stupid question. What else could she be? The dragon grinned. “Mine.

” The Nameless End paused. “This place is a nothing,” Brohomir went on, looking around blindly in the dark. “Everything here is already dead and done, assuming it ever was, but my world is still in motion. There are still surprises there, things yet unknown. I can share them with you.” The chains curled in interest. How? “Come with me,” the dragon said, putting out his hand. “Come back to my plane as my consort and ally, and I will give you a front row seat to the most marvelous show you’ve ever seen. Something more spectacular than all the other eternities you’ve eaten, because unlike those stale, dead histories, my story is alive. The future I’m offering you is still being written.

It might end in tragedy, but we won’t know until we get there, because until the present becomes the past, anything is still possible. That’s what I have that you do not, and it’s what I want to share with you.” Brohomir stretched his hand out further. “Be surprised with me,” he beckoned. “Everyone else trades you futures they don’t want in exchange for sure bets, but I’m offering to share my present, which is still infinitely possible, and thus infinitely better. So leave this dull emptiness and run away with me. Come and live all the things you’ve only seen in other people’s finished stories, and when it’s over, you’ll have had something that no one else has ever cared enough to give you: a life of your own.” He was panting by the time he finished, his lungs gasping for the air he knew had to be still rushing through the portal behind him even if he couldn’t feel it. He wasn’t sure how much time he had left, but he didn’t dare look back at Amelia. Even if he couldn’t see it, his eyes stayed locked on the place in front of him where he could feel the Nameless End watching in wonder.

No one had ever offered her anything like this before. “I’m an out-of-the-box thinker,” Brohomir said proudly. “Anyone can give up a future, but there’s only one present, and I’m offering to share mine with you. I can’t promise it will always be pleasant, but it’ll never be boring, and so long as I live, you will never be alone.” He felt the Nameless End’s temptation like a shiver around him. She was very lonely. All ends were, but it couldn’t be that simple. The little creature would not offer something so precious unless it wanted a very great boon in return. What did it want? “There’s an End coming to my plane,” he explained. “I don’t know when or how yet, but I know it arrives during my lifetime.

If I’m to beat it, I need an ace of my own. I came here thinking that was you, but now that you’re in front of me, I realize I was thinking too small. I don’t just need you to come back with me to beat another Nameless End. I want you to come with me, because I’m lonely too.” That was far more personal than Brohomir usually liked to go, but he only had one shot at this, and the truth was always more compelling than a lie. “I’m a seer,” he said. “Every time I meet someone, I can’t help but see their death. I see all the ways they could betray me, even if they never do. That’s why seers go mad. When you’re always evaluating every possibility of every individual you meet, it’s impossible to interact with others like normal dragons do.

But you’re different. You have no future as I know it, so when I look at you, all I see is this.” He waved his hands at the darkness. “Emptiness. Nothingness.” He sighed. “Do you know what a relief that is? How beautiful you are?” The Nameless End flipped her tendrils. That was foolish. Endings could not be beautiful or ugly. They simply were.

“I disagree,” Brohomir said with a smile. “I think you’re marvelous, and impending apocalypse aside, I’d very much like to have you with me. I think we’d be good for each other. I think you’d be good for me.” Already, he could feel her calm in his mind, helping him focus, which was an enormous relief. He’d seen what life as a seer would do to Estella, and it had terrified him to the point where getting dumped by the most beautiful dragoness he knew he’d ever meet was almost a relief. The shadow of that same madness and paranoia was always lurking when he looked at his own future, but in the new timelines where the Nameless End was with him, the stain was lessened, or missing entirely. That gave him enormous hope, which was why, even though he knew his time here had to be almost up, he didn’t step back toward the portal. He moved closer to her instead, walking into her tentacles with his mind open in the hope she could see what he saw. “Come away with me,” he whispered.

“Share my present until it becomes past, and so long as I live, I swear, we will never be alone.” The words shook. This was his final gamble, but it seemed to work. He could actually feel the Nameless End in his head now, her vast presence sliding over his thoughts like silk over a topographical map, followed by a question. What should I be? “Anything your heart desires,” Brohomir said, his heart leaping even as the portal behind him started to cave. “It’s your life. So long you spend it with me, I will be happy.” The Nameless End’s touch brushed over his mind one last time, then one of its continent-sized tendrils reached out to touch the palm of Brohomir’s outstretched hand, leaving him holding something heavy and fragile. The moment he had it, Brohomir clutched the precious object to his chest and whirled around, diving through the portal seconds before it collapsed. He landed hard in the sand on the other side, skidding to a stop beside Amelia, who was heaving on her back under the stars.

“What part of five minutes did you not understand?” she gasped. “I almost died!” She gulped down several more lungfuls of air before turning her head to look at him. “At least tell me it worked.” Instead of answering, Brohomir opened his hands to show her the small egg-shaped object. “What’s that?” “I have no idea,” he said giddily. “But the Nameless End agreed to come with me, so I assume it’s—” He stopped as the object began to shake. It cracked wide open a second later, the mottled shell splitting apart as a wet, ugly, spindly hatchling forced its head through. “What the—” Amelia recoiled in horror. “That’s a Nameless End?” Brohomir nodded, his green eyes wide with wonder. “What’s it supposed to be? A chicken?” He breathed in deeply.

“Smells more like pigeon to me.” His sister looked scandalized. “I risked death and worse to help you bring the Final Future— the death of our home plane—into this world, and it’s a pigeon?” “Don’t call her that,” he snapped, cupping the newborn chick in his hands. “She can be whatever she likes.” He smiled. “I think she’s beautiful.” And she was. The scope was much smaller, but when he looked at the bird in his hands, he saw the same stunning emptiness he’d witnessed in the void. She had the same calm as well, staring up at him with black eyes deeper than any mortal animal could possess. As Brohomir stared back, he felt the tiny tendrils of her chains spreading like roots through his mind, tying them together.

When she was anchored deep, she spoke again in his mind, only this time, the words came out in an actual voice. I’m here, she said, her new tone excited as the baby pigeon looked around. When do we begin? “Right now,” Brohomir said, scrambling to his feet. “Come on, Amelia!” Amelia rolled her eyes, grumbling under her breath about the dangers of physical exertion after performing miracles as she pushed off her knees, brushed the sand from her trousers, and starting jogging down the moonlit beach after her brother. Chapter 1 Julius woke to the alien feeling of absolute contentment. He was still in his old room in the DFZ, squeezed into his narrow twin bed with Marci cuddled up against his side. He had no idea what time it was, and he didn’t care. If his arm hadn’t been falling asleep, he would never have moved again. He was trying to ease the offending limb into a different position when Marci’s brown eyes fluttered open. “Sorry,” he whispered.

Marci just smiled and rolled over, flattening herself against his chest with a contented sigh. Julius sighed too, running his now freed hand up her naked back with a shiver of wonder. He’d been here for all of it, but it still didn’t seem real that Marci was here with him, whole and alive again. She didn’t even have a scar, a fact that he knew firsthand after the rampant nakedness of the previous hours. That thought made him blush beet red. But while he’d been able to ignore the obvious questions during the rush of getting the person he loved most back from the dead, this wasn’t something he could put off much longer. Now that the initial out-of-his-mind joy at getting Marci back had faded to a more manageable level of extreme happiness, Julius’s number-one concern was keeping her. It felt like bad form to question a miracle, but he’d sworn he was never letting her go again, and if he was going to make good on that, then he needed to know exactly how this miracle had occurred. “Marci?” “Hmm?” Julius tightened his arms around her. “How did this happen?” Her lips curved in a mischievous smile.

“I’m pretty sure you started it.” “Not that,” he said, turning even redder. “I meant this.” He brushed his fingers over the place on her unmarked back where General Jackson’s shot had passed through. He could still see the horrible wound in his mind: the smoking edges, the way scarlet blood had spread like spilled ink across her shirt. The memory of her death was one he’d never shake no matter how long he lived, so now that it was suddenly undone, he couldn’t relax until he knew. “Is this real?” he whispered, clutching her. “Are you really back?” She laughed. “Do I need to prove it to you again?” “I’m serious.” He must have sounded it, because Marci stopped laughing.

“That’s a complicated question,” she said, pushing up on her elbow so she could look him in the face. “The short answer is yes, I’m back, and I’m human. A mortal, just like I was before, only minus the holes.” She smiled down at her healed chest like that was a joke, but Julius was shaking. “How?” he asked again. “Last I checked, humans didn’t come back from the dead.” “Not normally,” Marci agreed. “But it’s amazing how flexible the rules get when multiple immortals need your help. Amelia always intended to bring me back with her, but Raven was the one who did the actual hauling. He flew me back from the other side so I could reclaim my body and do my job as Merlin.

” Then Julius owed Raven a debt he could never repay. “Could he do it again?” Because if people could be brought back from the dead, then the greatest problem of falling head over heels in love with a human had just been solved. “If you mean ‘Are you immortal now?’ I’m afraid the answer is no,” Marci said, shaking her head. “Happy as I am that it worked this time, the whole ‘rise from your grave’ thing was the product of highly unique circumstances that probably shouldn’t be repeated. But don’t worry. I’m not planning on dying again any time soon.” He kissed her in thanks for that. Then he kissed her again, just because he could. He was about to kiss her a third time when Marci started in with questions of her own. “What about you? How did you end up in the DFZ with the Dragon Emperor of China? And why does Chelsie have a baby now? I wasn’t gone that long.

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