"Um." I said, staring at the playing board between my brother and me. "You can't do that."
Zane looked up in surprise, tiny carved wooden spike still in his hand, expression exaggeratedly innocent. "What do you mean, I can't do that?"
I pointed to the playing piece he held. "That. That only moves on a diagonal, not in the two-over, three-up pattern."
"Ooooh. I see." He said, fiery eyes wide. "So, instead of moving this way, it would move like this." He knocked over my Diente piece. "Nh'aga." he said smugly.
I groaned, going limp in my seat. "Zane, you evil genius, stop beating me!" I kicked him lightly in the ankle under the low table. He chuckled, jumping up and moving back behind the upholstered chair, grinning wildly.
"That's it." Shifting into serpent form, I slithered after him. After avoiding me for for a little while by hopping from chair to chair, he finally shifted as well, equalizing us in speed. Hissing and writhing, we chased each other all across the snake-skin patterned tiles, finally ending when Zane tied himself in a knot around me. Shifting into Demi-form, I pulled him off me, dropping him roughly into the floor. "Some older brother you make." I said sarcastically.
He shifted into human form, laughing up at me from the ground.
"You… I don't have a word strong enough to describe you right now." I told him.
In the blink of an eye, he was on his feet, with me in a headlock. "You love me. You know you do."
"Depends on the day." I grunted, fighting to get free.
Still laughing, he released me and offered his hand. "Re-match?"
I was about to agree to it, when the door burst open and Adelina strood in, blonde hair glinting brightly. "Zane, Gregory, the second guard is enacting the raid on the avians' east border. They're requesting that one of you go with them. They're leaving now." Her gaze, normally cool and collected, were now fiery and worried. The guard was acting without express orders from a Cobriana.
Blood-red eyes suddenly somber and serious, Zane stood. "I'll go with them."
"No!" I said, bolting upright. "I'll go."
Zane turned a rare glare on me. "Gregory-"
"Zane, your side still isn't completely healed from last week." I hissed to him.
He raised a hand to cut me off, but I kept on plowing through.
"Zane, you're the heir to the serpiente people love you. If something happens to you, they will be in uproar, and they will only fight harder against the avians. If you want this peace you speak of so dearly, you will let me go, brother."
From the back corner where she had been sketching quietly, Irene stood up. "I don't want either of you to leave." She said, muted garnet eyes meeting ours with a touch of fear.
I smiled confidently, but a cold knot of dread coiled in my stomach. "I must. You know I must. The serpiente people know the royal house can and will fight with them. We cannot let them down."
Biting her lip worriedly, Irene threw her arms around my neck. "Come home." She whispered. It was part a demand, part a plea.
"I'll do my best. I'm not... I will come back." I said into her ear, swallowing hard. I prayed I could keep that promise.
She stepped back, red eyes still afraid.
Zane stepped forward, expression somber. He put his hands on my shoulders. I could see how much he hated letting me go, but he knew I was right. He was in no condition to fight again, and the people needed a Cobriana to fight beside them.
"Be safe, little brother."
When we stood like this, face to face, I knew the resemblance was strong enough to be each other's twin. We had the same onyx hair, pale, translucent skin, and the brilliant fire of Cobriana eyes.
I smiled, hoping he couldn't feel the slight tremors shivering up and down my spine. "I will."
He pulled me into a quick, hard embrace. When he finally pulled away, I smiled wanly. "After all," I said. "I still have to beat you at Nh'akka."
I adjusted the metal bracers I had strapped to my forearm, where it clung to my sweat-dampened skin. Avians had a highly potent poison that caused almost instant death to a serpent, so to have room for a knife to slip through armor anywhere would mean death. I flexed my hands in their thin leather gloves, checking to ensure that they would not limit my mobility. It was chilly this late in the evening, but we had to wait for the avian patrol to come around. Through the thick forest and swirling fog, they shouldn't be able to see us until it was too late. The python next to me shifted restlessly. I raised my hand, mouthing "Wait." We sat in silence for almost an hour, and then, through the trees, we heard faint wing beats. As they grew louder, I signaled the archer. As dark, streamlined shapes swept through the trunks, I put my hand down. The low, humming thrum of a serpiente bow vibrated through the darkness, and a silhouette let out a strangled shriek and dropped to the ground. The other shapes instantly swooped lower, landing on the ground, some shifting into Demi-form, other straight into human. Doesn't matter what form they're in. I thought. They're on the ground now.
Scanning the now grounded enemy, one head in particular stood out: Strands of brilliant, beaten gold. That's Xavier Shardae. I recognized with a start of surprise. The only surviving avian prince.
A smile working its way across my face, I gave the signal to attack.
They won't know what hit them.
So this is our legacy. Blood and destruction. I thought bitterly, watching the sun rise behind the trees. The blood-splattered ground glistened wetly in the golden light. I knew, the way a rabbit knew, when snared in a trap, that this sunrise would be my last. I had been injured in the fight, a low slice across the belly, and it was an undoubtedly mortal wound, albeit a slow one. Gritting my teeth, I attempted to shift onto my side, but even that simple movement made me cry out, echoing hollowly in the empty morning.
I held still, knowing that I only had one chance to make it up. Lips twisting into a snarl, I wrapped my hand around the small, young tree by my side, and attempted to drag myself into an upright position. This time I screamed aloud as a hot fire ripped through my stomach, where I had been cut. Gasping for breath, I let go, falling back down on the damp earth, feeling tears roll down my cheeks. So this is how it ends. How I end.
Despite myself, memories of the fight flashed behind my eyelids: Images of deep earthen-tones in the eyes of avian warriors as they fell, but, as many of their soldiers were killed, our numbers lessened equally. Sapphire, emerald, the other various jeweled tones in the eyes of dead serpiente. Enraged, I had fought harder as more and more brave men and women around me stopped moving, stopped breathing, stopped living. I had torn through the enemy ranks as long and as hard as I could, until I, too, fell. By the hand of Shardae, I fell, but not before I returned the fatal blow, the avian prince's lifeblood coating my hands and forearms.
Through the trees, I heard footsteps. I heard them stop, then felt a person kneel down beside me.
As he or she did so, my eyelids fluttered open, and I caught a glimpse of gold. Xavier? I thought, wildly and irrationally fearful. No, I had seen the prince fall. He had to be dead by now. As the fog that had coated my vision a few moments ago faded away, I looked into her eyes of pure gold and recognized her. Danica Shardae, heir to the avian throne.
As she looked at me, face expressionless, I remembered, a cold knot closing off my throat, the serpiente myths that avians have no soul. No soul, no emotions, no compassion, even on a dying man. A dying boy. That was what I was, for I would never reach adulthood now. Then, all at once, something in the avian's eyes hardened, and she spun to hiss something at the man standing a respectful distance behind her. After a moment, she turned back to me.
"I'm here, don't fret." She said, her voice soft and musical. Her thin, hot fingers brushed ebony hair out of my eyes.
I swallowed. "Thank you." I said in a thick, pained murmur. Then, my resolve clearing, I said, more strongly, "End it. Please." I heard the note of begging in my own voice, but could not find any shame in it.
She didn't respond. I felt a thrill of fear run through me. Don't let me die here. Not on my own.
Then, her eyes closed, and something hot and wet fell onto my hand.
She was crying, I realized. An avian, crying over a dying serpiente, a prince, no less.
Maybe… just maybe, Zane's crazy hope of peace could be possible, after all.
The avian heir's warm hand slipped into mine. I hesitated for a moment, vaguely startled at the contact, and then, almost without realizing what had happened, I was gripping her hand like it was the only thing keeping me tethered to this life.
I saw Danica's hand go to the knife at her belt, but a word from her guard stopped her. A flare of anger shot through the hurt in her eyes, and she spun, arguing with her guard for several moments. Soon, though, she turned back to me, still holding onto my hand. Golden eyes looking into my garnet ones after only a momentary hesitation, something in them changed. I might have been imagining it, a dead man's delusions, but… she looked sad. So, so sad. She took a deep breath and began to sing. Songs of peace and hope filled the air. Songs of peace, and hope, and I realized, the avian heir wouldn't leave me here alone. The realization, in combination with the lilt of the song made the sunrise seem less dreary, somehow, less final.
As her beautiful voice continued to fill the clearing, I closed my eyes, feeling another tear drip down my face. Save them, Zane. They aren't monsters, they feel, they hurt, just like us. Stop this war before it wipes us both out. Please. Save us. Save them. Especially her.
Zane Cobriana, please, please save Danica Shardae.