A gasp escaped his lips when he saw them—leathern wings too numerous to count, beating rhythmically overhead. For a blessing, the dragons showed no interest in him, a lone shepherd boy tending a flock scarcely worthy of the name. No, their sights were set upon something more substantial, and they continued on their course towards… Oh no.Dread gripped him like a vice. He broke into a run, half bounding, half rolling down the hillside. Regaining the trail, he followed it east, where the dragons were headed—to the village.
After what seemed an eternity, the boy stumbled onto the muddy thoroughfare. All the way, he had told himself that the village might be spared, that the dragons had designs on some other place, but now the truth asserted itself. Devastation spread out before him. Piles of splintered wood and rubble lay where houses had stood, while haystacks, sodden from the recent rains, spewed forth plumes of white smoke. Though his chest was ripe to burst from his headlong dash, seeing the carnage imbued him with a desperate energy, and he broke into a run once more. Though the acrid fumes choked his lungs and stung his eyes, he did not slow his pace. Please, Halone! Please let them be safe!
The Fury did not hear him. Rounding a corner, his heart caught in his throat as the remains of his home swung into view. The roof had fallen in on itself, bringing one of the walls down with it. Passing the splintered fence, he found his parents. His father’s arm lay across his mother as if shielding her from the wind, but the scorched earth told a different story. Though a deathly numbness had begun to overtake him, his legs continued moving of their own accord, taking him inside the cottage. There, he discovered his younger brother sprawled upon the floor, his body obscured by fallen masonry. His face was untouched by the violence, his expression serene. At a glance, it appeared as though he was simply asleep and would open his eyes at any moment. He would have given anything for it to be so.
All hope extinguished, the boy’s strength finally deserted him, and he fell to his knees. With a trembling hand, he reached out to stroke his sibling’s snow-white hair, tears drawing pale lines upon his soot-blackened cheeks. But the sorrow soon gave way to rage. He cursed Nidhogg and his brood for taking from him all that he held dear. And he cursed fate for condemning him to live on.
“Wake up! You weren’t among the fallen as I recall!” A commanding voice tore Estinien from his nightmare. He found himself propped against a rocky outcrop. Through blurry eyes, he made out a male silhouette. His head swimming, he mumbled the first name that came to mind, that of his adoptive father and mentor.
“Nay, friend, alas,” the figure replied. “We would have fared better had he been with us. Here, drink this and clear your head.”
Estinien gratefully accepted the proffered skin and gulped greedily, the water soothing his parched throat and restoring his senses. Pausing after a long draft, he stole a glance at the dark-haired man crouching next to him. His armor identified him as a fellow Temple Knight. By his reckoning, they were of an age, no more than a few years past twenty. Estinien had seen him before, but he had no name to put to the face. Since joining the order, he had always been something of a lone wolf, spurning contact with his comrades in favor of honing his skill at arms.
“My thanks, Ser…” Estinien began.
“Aymeric, and you are quite welcome,” the dark-haired knight responded, a hint of amusement in his voice. Glancing over his shoulder, his tone became grim, “I fear we are the sole survivors.”
Regaining his wits, Estinien scanned his surroundings and stifled a gasp. The scorched field was strewn with the bodies of a dozen knights, their armor blackened and their flesh fairly cooked. In an instant, it all came back.
He and his unit had been dispatched to Ever Lakes in response to a dragon sighting. As they traversed hilly terrain, a massive red beast had descended upon them. Half perished in its searing breath before they could even draw their weapons. Leading the counterattack, Estinien had succeeded in wounding and repelling the dragon, only to succumb to the smoke. Though the air had now cleared, the stench of burning grass still lingered. Fuel for that accursed dream. The remembrance, together with the scene of carnage, stoked the fire in him that ever smoldered—vengeance. Such pain as I have suffered, I shall visit upon them a thousand times over.
Estinien turned his attention to Aymeric once more. “I have a knack for surviving.”Whether I will it or no.
He clambered to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and he nearly found himself back on the ground. Shaking it off, he picked up a lance to replace the one he had lost. Satisfied with its point, he turned to leave. After a moment of puzzled silence, Aymeric called after him, “The Holy See is the other way.”
“You are free to head back,” Estinien replied simply. “But I mean to finish what we’ve started.”
“You mean to go after the beast alone!? That’s tantamount to suicide! Besides, we have no way of tracking it!”
A knowing grin played upon Estinien’s face. “Ah, but we do. Behold,” he said, gesturing to a trail of blood. “From the blow I dealt to its underbelly.” With that, he spun upon his heels and strode away before Aymeric could utter another word of protest.
For hours on end Estinien walked. The sanguine trail led him across hill and vale, forest and plain. At length it descended into a ravine, where it suddenly veered off and disappeared into a cave. Estinien took a deep breath and entered, his eyes gradually adjusting to the gloom. About a hundred paces in, the cave opened into a chamber. And there, at the far end, he found his quarry, its scaly form curled up tight. I shall show you a nightmare such as you showed me.
Estinien drew his lance, checking his grip once, and again for good measure. Then he charged. The flurry of footfalls roused the dragon, which reared in fury and bellowed a deafening challenge. In the next instant, a stream of swirling flame burst forth from its maw. Anticipating this, Estinien dove clear of the withering heat, rolled, and regained his feet within striking distance. Unerringly, he thrust at the dragon’s wing, tearing through the leathery skin, and was rewarded with a pained howl.
“You’ll not escape me again!” Estinien roared. But his foe had no intention of fleeing. No, it craved his blood more than ever, and came after him with a vengeance. So began a game of cat and mouse.
The dragon lashed out with fire, fang, and claw. Using the lay of the cavern to his advantage, Estinien succeeded in evading the worst of its wrath, striking back when the opportunity presented itself. And so the dance continued for a time, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Eventually, however, the rigors of battle began to tell on Estinien, and his lance grew heavy in his hands. Must end this quickly…
As it turned out, the cavern itself would be the first to succumb. Shaken by countless wayward blows, a cluster of boulders came loose and rained down upon Estinien without warning. Though he managed to fling himself away in the nick of time, he found his footing scant yalms from his foe. Too close. The dragon’s tail caught him full in the chest, sending him flying into the cavern wall. He crumpled to the ground, the breath knocked out of him, and lay there limply as his foe closed in to administer the killing blow. Lucky bastard. His vision already darkening at the edges, he clung to consciousness, and willed his body to move. But it would not obey.
An instant later, the dragon loomed over him, its molten eyes steeped in hatred, and time seemed to slow. He watched helplessly as the beast filled its lungs, and stared into its maw as fiery death welled up within and began creeping towards him. But just when it seemed certain that he would be engulfed, the creature’s head lurched sideways, spilling fire everywhere and nowhere. Estinien did not pause to wonder why.
Summoning what remained of his strength, he leapt into the air. And at the height of his leap, he became as one with his lance and descended, tracing an arc worthy of the Azure Dragoon himself. With the full force of his weight, he came down upon his foe. The beast shuddered, collapsed to the ground, and was still.
Half in a daze, Estinien took in the sight of the first dragon he had ever slain. Only then did he notice the arrow protruding from one of its eyes. Moments later, a familiar figure emerged from the shadows to stand beside him, a longbow in hand. Estinien frowned.
“This is not the way to the Holy See.”
“I know. But I thought the journey home would pass more swiftly in good company.”
“You have my thanks, Ser…?”
A wry smile formed on his savior’s lips. “Aymeric. And it shall be thanks enough if you remember my name. …Though I shan’t object to a tankard of ale back in Ishgard.”
In spite of his exhaustion, Estinien could not help returning his grin.