The Karthian, part I by David Staiger

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SUMMARY: I am the Dragon. I am the Blood of the Earth. I am the pride of Kuras, the vengence of her people. I am the living and the dead. I am Dolan Kartha, tremble, for I am come. --from The Cantar of Dolan

She knew at once this was the place.

From the doorway it looked like any other tavern house in any other little known town along the trade route. The outer doors remained open to the daylight, their heavy wooden bulk secured to the walls of the building by large iron pots that still reeked with the spattering of old, dried vomit. The inner saloon doors hung wearily on their hinges, with flakes of desiccated paint peeling from the slats like dead scales. Through this aperture a long finger of sunshine burned inward like a reproach, while the rest of the chamber lay in dimness as if the darkness itself retreated there for sanctuary. Within that unseemly nest of shadows, the grim collection of patrons hunched over their flagons like roaches.

Taking a final breath of cleaner air, she gripped the top of the tavern doors until the pulse in her fingertips commanded her forward. Swinging the slats aside, her shadow besmirched the lone sliver of light like a black pool of blood.

Almost at once she felt the tension of her presence pour out over the room. Conversations faltered briefly, the low chatter of the place falling to a hushed murmur punctuated by sharp inhalations and the slow hiss of breath through clenched teeth. As if discomfited by the blatancy of such a reaction, the talk resumed a moment later; but the tone had changed, and discussions stumbled forward out of joint as if the speakers had already lost the topic. A haze of smoke filled the room like the stink of carrion. Vulture eyes tracked her steady progression from the doorway toward the bar, trailed the flow of her movements with ravenous attention. Anxiety dripped like sweat off the small cluster of men gathered around a central table. Others near the corners grew tight with apprehension, withdrawing at least as much as the obscure shadows permitted. Sensing the thickening atmosphere with unease, two figures delicately gathered their things and sidled toward the door, waiting only for her to clear the way by several paces before scurrying out.

The occurrence was so familiar that she had already come to perceive it as a ritual of sorts, a ceremonial readying for the sacrament to come.

She was Karthian, but she doubted any of these lowlife could recognize that fact from her appearance. This rabble had not the collective wisdom to see in the lines of her armor—a supple leather hauberk interwoven with thin scales of darkened steel—the tracery of her people's lost history. Nor did she expect them to note within the crimson weave of her cloak the intricate pattern which declared a fiery tribute to her native pride. She could not conceive that any of these ruffians held the knowledge to identify the fine embroidery within her black bracers and greaves as the insignia of a deceased nation. Perhaps the only item which might possibly stir some inkling of recognition among these ignorant scoundrels would be the dragon-helm she wore like a herald of devastation, concealing her features behind a mask of dark violence, the steel head of the beast shielding the bridge of her nose with its own imperious beak, its metal wings folded downward to serve as cheek-guards.

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