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abqaha altnyn | dragon's keep

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It had been her sister’s war band.

That thought kept circling her mind over and over, even as she watched the bodies burning on spires of jagged rock, even as the mumakil trumpeted pitifully, cinders dancing in the burnt out husks of their bodies. Even still, as the demon circled overhead, roaring his triumph into the skies, she watched him, eyes wide with the knowledge that this had been her sister’s war band.

They could not be defeated.

They had swept up through Harad like a sickness, utterly crushing any who’d dare standing their way. Askasil was a warrior trained by the king of their people, their uncle, and more powerful than those who’d dare oppose her. She was to take the throne of the land when she came of age. She had passed every test, hurtled over every obstacle, and only one was left: she had to quest and bring back a treasure. While her commanders had searched through Harad, Askasil had set her eyes to the north, to the land of pale men and strange halflings, and to the fallen kingdom of the dwarves, to Erebor, the impenetrable castle of mountain rock. Her general had told her it could not be done, that a great demon slumbered within its walls, but she’d not heeded her. She’d ignored the warnings of her superiors and carried three hundred of her best men  around the coast of Eriador in ships, and then over vast, rolling grasslands to the Misty Mountains.  She’d set up her flag, bloodred with the emblem of a roaring lion crouched in attack emblazoned across it. She’d mocked the demon, calling it cowardly for hiding away, questioning its strength and power, asking if it was a true dragon after all.

Its claws had torn her head from her body shortly after.

The demon had carried her sister’s head into the air, face still contorted in a mask of rage and thrown it down. Its body had blotted out the sun, turning midmorning into the blackest night. It had spread its wings, more powerful than a hurricane, looked down at them with eyes of fire and slain them all. All except her.

Yusraa had hidden, and she was not ashamed. She’d cowered behind a blackened stone wall while all around her, her comrades and kinsmen were slain. She could hear their screams, hear the cries of  their animals, but she could do nothing to help them, not when she felt dragon’s flame licking at the stones, turning them red hot. From her post she could see the demon, its wings flapping powerfully as it ascended like a burning angel of judgement. It gave a final powerful thrust and let out a roar so loud that it shattered the glass ornaments her comrades wore around their necks. The shieldmaiden clapped hands over her ears and dropped her head between her knees, trying to keep her head from coming apart from the sheer force of the noise. Her ears pounded with the remnants of it, and it wasn’t for another minute that the last rumbles receded from the ground.

It had been her sister’s warband, and now it lay decimated on the sharp slopes of Erebor, the snow red with its blood, ash falling from the sky like black rain. This was the end for her. They could no longer protect her. Before her sister’s lust for gold, before this fool’s errand, Yusraa had trained with her sister, practicing with the spear and the longbow while her sister preferred the scimitars and broadswords of her uncle’s sons. She’d never been the best at them, despite being a recognized warrior, but Askasil had swept through any opponent with the undiscriminating fury of a sandstorm. Man or beast, she would suffer nothing to stand in her way and live.

And this red demon had ripped her head off as if she were naught but a novice, playing at being a warrior. Yusraa felt dread pool in her belly, cold and thick against the familiar heat of her armor. She was terrified and the dragon was circling, checking for any survivors. She knew her moments had been counted, and she’d be returned to her ancestors in the stars soon, but that didn’t stop tears from rolling down her face, or from her hands shaking as she clutched the spear tighter. If Askasil had been torn and thrown aside like a broken doll, then surely she didn’t stand a chance.  Her elder sister had always been the strongest of the two of them, rushing headlong into battles, chopping all of their hair off to make it easier for them to fight, silencing all the smaller bands who dared oppose her. Yusraa had been the thinker. A hkim-almharb- a sage warrior. She’d not been meant for the heat of battle, and had only been brought along with Askasil because their uncle had ordered it. The future Shahd would’ve preferred her sister safe and at home.

There was nowhere safe now. The demon had been awakened. It landed with a heavy thud on the snowy mountainside and let loose another roar, quieter this time. It was a roar of victory, not one of battle. It grunted to itself, seemingly satisfied and began slowly tramping forward, its tail dragging behind it in the snow. It was moving closer ever so slowly. Yusraa couldn’t bring herself to look. Cold-stiffened fingers circled tighter around her spear, so tight she thought the metal pole might snap in half. Tears streamed down chapped cheeks and she let out a whimper as she heard the beast toss aside a wagon as if it were nothing. It clattered down the hill, the bodies in it tumbling boneless after. It was only a few lengths away now, ripping the gold ornaments from a mumakil’s ears. She’d heard the thing adored precious metals.

It was a length away, staring it itself in a mirror, brow furrowed as it tossed its head this way and that. It bared its teeth at its reflection, smirking in satisfaction at what it saw shone back. Its teeth were wicked sharp and white as bone, inch and a half long knives that could tear her flesh easily. She whimpered and the beast’s head snapped up. His eyes narrowed and he rose, stretching out to his full, intimidation height. Yusraa bit into her lip so hard she tasted blood and waited. Maybe he’d decided he’d been imagining things, go back inside his mountain and leave her to pick her across middle earth and try to find a way home. The dragon took a step in her direction. She was not so lucky. With a second, he was upon her. He tossed aside the wagon she’d taken shelter behind and hauled her into the air with minimal effort.

 

Yusraa clutched at her spear and pressed the tip against the monster’s chest, eyes wide and hands shaking. It dangled her in the air with one arm, the claws on the other sliding from behind their sheaths to gut her.  She clenched her teeth together and rammed the spear into his skin as hard as she could, the tip shattering and leaving not a mark on him.

He growled with a voice like an earthquake, amber eyes like sunfire narrowed as he hissed up at her. She’d known she was dead the moment the beast had shown itself, but the inevitability of her demise weighed more heavily on her now. This creature was death incarnate; what chance had she of besting him? He snatched the spear shaft from her hand and threw it aside. Though she knew it wouldn’t save her, she longed for it back if for no other reason than to give her the feeling of dying on her feet.

Here, in the silence of the mountain, the snow glimmering in cold sunlight, the bodies of her sister’s warband around her and a demon holding her in to the sky, she knew it wouldn’t matter how she died. If someone ever found their bodies, they’d all just be nameless, faceless Haradrim. She murmured a prayer to her ancestors and closed her eyes. The demon was lifting his claws. It’d all be over soon. She didn’t want to be forgotten. She didn’t want to die alone.

 

SLASH!

 

A brief flash of light blossomed behind her eyelids and she knew nothing but darkness.

 


 

Her head ached.

That was the only thing she could think of. Not that she’d reached the afterlife, not that she’d be seeing her sister again very soon, but that her head ached like an entire calvary’s worth of mumakil had been tramping over it. Yusraa groaned and curled into a ball. Wasn’t this place supposed to be void of any pain and suffering? That was what she’d been told by the priests in her homeland. Then again, the priests of her homeland had told them their quest would be a success. They’d probably wanted only to fill their coffers and build grander palaces of worship. She’d definitely make sure she haunted them, if the gods allowed it. Maybe she could show up still burning with the fire of the dragon, holding Askasil’s head under one arm, the broken body of her sister treading beside her. She let out a laugh at the grim picture and stretched. For being the afterlife of those who’d died in battle, Mjalat-Alslam was quite cold. And hard. This level of the afterlife was supposed to be nothing but open, rolling fields, warm sun and food for miles. She’d be surrounded by all the spirits of her people’s best warriors and they’d take their leave of the war ravaged world together. It was supposed to be warm. Yusraa opened her eyes.

 

Not full of gold. Not totally devoid of life.
This place was not the open field she’d been promised, but a wasteland of pretty baubles and towering stone walls.
She’d been sent to Altkfyr, the place of penance.

The young woman rose slowly, gold coins tumbling away from her, down to the base of the massive pile she’d woken on. Gold and treasure stretched on as far the eye could see without break. There were tapestries woven in gold, statues of silver half exposed in the sides of piles, there were gold coins, billions upon billions of them, all glittering like fallen stars under the light of one massive, tiered chandelier that hung from the ceiling, lit on every level. This had to be the hell of the greedy. Those who spent their entire lives searching after material wealth instead of helping others with it were banished here, to Altkfyr, and given all the possessions they could possibly have imagined. Wealth beyond measure- and no one to stare upon its glory or share it with. A personal hell complete with deafening silence.

But she’d not been greedy. Her meager possessions could all be fit into the single pack she’d carried on her back from the south all the way up to the land of the pale-skins. A pack that was, even now, strapped to her back. The only thing she’d ever carried that could not fit into it were her spear and her armor, and those belonged to the kingdom. Had she died in the land of her people, the armor would’ve been boiled and issued to a new recruit to save both money and the time of the blacksmiths. What was this then? Had there been some vast oversight in her character that she’d ignored? Had she misstepped in assuming she’d be sent to the land of the battle weary and torn? Perhaps she’d not been greedy in possessions, but in time. She should’ve worked harder, should’ve devoted more time to her studies and helped the beggars more often. This was her own fault. This was her burden to bear for the rest of eternity.

Yusraa moved to sit back down on the heap of gold, but a grouping of coins gave way underneath her feet and she slipped. There was a sound like a thousand bells tinkling at once as she fell, treasure after treasure following after her. She let out a shout and tried to right herself to no avail. She tumbled over an unsheathed golden dagger, and while the blade was dull, it still cut into her. Apparently in this place pain could still be felt. She’d no idea how to stop the fall; the land of her ancestors was relatively flat. She’d never climbed hills or tumbled down mountains, golden or otherwise. Just as she was reaching the bottom and about to hit her head on an exposed slab of concrete, something caught her round the middle and tossed her roughly onto a pile of tapestries. She landed hard, on her backside, but better that than on her head and unforgiving stone.

 

There was a woosh of air and a snapping of what sounded like leather and a thud, and there he was. The demon that had decimated her sister’s warband and any hope Yusraa had for a normal life afterwards. But why was he here? In her hell?

Every jail needs a jailer, a voice whispered in the back of her mind. And every devil has a hell.


Fear dripped icy down the back of her throat and her hands shook. Surely the gods couldn’t have been so cruel as to curse her to an eternity with this beast. For that’s what he was in truth: a beast. He stood three heads taller than her, every piece of skin tanned and diamond-hard. Red scales dusted his abdomen and lower back  twisting around powerful thighs and thinning out on his shins. They curved up over the backs of his arms and shoulder blades, wrapping his shoulders in a cape of red. His spine was ridged, black scales sharp as knives lying flat for now. From the base of his back extended a tail, long and thick and done in the same red as his scales. She’d seen him sweep ten men off their feet with a single sweep and watched him squeeze the life out of another with it while he ripped into some poor soul with his claws. His claws --her eyes flickered to his hands--  they were sheathed for now, but when extended were two and a half inches long and wickedly sharp. The light armor of her comrades hadn’t stood a chance. The warrior’s eyes wandered up to the demons face. If not for the horns curling a top a mass of black curls, one would’ve almost thought him to be elven. His features were angular, with a jaw that looked like it was made for crushing. She knew he hid teeth like knives behind his lips. Another inch upward and she met his eyes. He had eyes like a wildfire leveled on her. The only time she’d seen a gaze this intense was on the face of one of the lions her uncle kept as guards- and eventual pets, once they became too old to do their duty.

Before she’d left with her sister on this fruitless mission, her uncle had been training a young male, Kato, she believed his name was. Every morning for two hours, her uncle would stand and hold a beef flank above the lion’s nose. If Kato sat patiently, he was rewarded. If not...well, she’d never seen an animal disobey a direct order from the Shahd. Kato never jumped before he was supposed to, but the look in his eyes as he sat there watching that meat was deeper than the look of any starving man or fervent warrior. It was the look of a predator, staring down prey and being told he couldn’t devour it, not just yet. Yusraa gnawed at the inside of her lip, waiting for the beast to fall upon her. Instead he took a step forward.

She hissed and bore her teeth at him. If she were to be trapped here for an eternity, he would have plenty of time to torment her. She reached back in the pile she sat on, hands searching for the knife that had drawn blood from her arm. Lithe fingers closed round it and she brought it to her front, all pretenses of fear seemingly banished for now. This demon had already taken her life and damned her to a hell. What more could he take from her?

The demon growled and narrowed his eyes. He opened his mouth, and the warrior braced herself for the wave of fire that was no doubt about the lick at her flesh, but the demon did something that surprised her. He spoke.

His voice rippled, calm and clear and deeper than any well. She couldn’t understand a word he was saying. His speech sounded harsh and thin, like the pale men from the north, and she’d never bothered learning any of their tongues. A foolish omission on her part. His tone was clipped and he sounded...disgusted with her, as if her mere existence was an abomination. His attitude was returned in kind by her sister. Askasil had believed that demons, dragons like this especially, were created when humans were burned at the exact moment of their greatest sin. They were the unholy offspring of evil and death, and needed to be executed without discretion. Yusraa wasn’t sure what she believed. At the moment, she just wanted to escape this ordeal without being harmed. He’d have her for the rest of eternity, surely he could put off his punishment until the morrow.

“I...” Her voice sounded small and weak in comparison to his, shaking pitifully as she tried to address him. She cleared her throat and forced her words to ring clear. “I don’t understand you, I’m sorry.” He narrowed his eyes at her and , and she saw the white flash of his teeth, temporarily exposed. The beast appeared annoyed with her, and he showed his irritation blatantly. He said something else and she shook her head. She’d only been instructed in the languages of the south, and a few from their eastern cousins, but all the tongues she spoke lay within Harad and she’d not ventured any further.

He turned and began striding away from her without so much as a backward glance. The girl scrambled to her feet and tried to follow, but the demon shot her a look of pure venom. He hissed something cruel to her, something short and brutal. The end of his words twisted into a growl, and he spread massive wings, his size dwarfing her. He blocked out the wavering lights of the chandelier and stared down at her with slitted eyes. For a terrible, silent moment, Yusraa thought he was going to lash out at her again, and seriously injure her this time. Her death had been quick -nearly painless, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t feel anymore. The gash in her arm was testament enough to that.  She took a step back, into a defensive position, but when the monster closed the difference, she took another, and then another, gilded knife clutched firm between dark fingers. The monster loomed, his wings fanning out. If she had to guess, she’d say that this was a sign of dominance. Like the lions of her homeland who puffed themselves up when asserting their leadership, this demon was doing the same.

He growled deep in his throat, glittering teeth bared at her as his voice ripped free from his mouth, forming one compelling word.

Stay.”

It seemed to reverberate deep in his chest, and before Yusraa had time to weigh the consequences of disobeying, the demon had pushed away from the ground in a whirlwind, the power of his wings knocking her on to her back. He ascended quickly, toward the vaulted ceilings of his keep, and by the time the warrior managed to lift her eyes to track him, he’d disappeared from view, leaving her to spend the night among the glittering jewels and the silence.

Chapter Text

Yusraa woke to the cold, and it was not a pleasant waking. It seeped deep into her bones, the effort of stirring making her more lethargic than sleep would have.

Her body ached.

From what she couldn’t recall, though she did suppose sleeping on the rocking deck of a boat for several months could-

A trickle of gold coins slipped over her hand as she sat up and she remembered. She remembered the battle, falling off of her mumakil and her sister’s beheading. She remembered hiding from the demon as it slaughtered her comrades. She remembered the heat of his breath. She remembered him taking her life. And she remembered waking in this glittering hell with naught but a demon to keep her company.

Before she could stop it, a sob wrenched itself from her throat and echoed round the vast chamber, mocking her a thousand times with its weakness. She buried her face in her hands, the gravity of her situation finally descending on her. She was trapped in a hell. She was trapped in a hell, and there was no escape. In all of her studies, she and her fellow students were warned against ending up in one of the seven hells, but never had they been told what to do upon finding themselves in one. She was in hell, and her friends were all dead. Another cry wracked her body and she surrendered to her grief. She almost didn’t notice the sound of wings flapping over her tears.

Almost.

Yusraa’s blood ran cold and she wiped her eyes, looking up toward the darkness to try to catch sight of her jailer. She could not, which meant he was likely still far above her. She had time before he came closer. The warrior turned on to her knees and began searching in vain for the knife she’d fallen asleep with the night before. She combed through the pile of gold, flipped over the tapestry she’d slept on and emptied out coffers, but couldn’t find it. The beast must’ve returned some time in the night and taken it from her.

There was a dull thud and a brief tinkling as dislodged gold coins tumbled to the bare stone floor. The Haradrim clenched her jaw and turned, dread slowing her movements. There, crouching a few lengths above her was the demon, tawny golden eyes leveled on her. He loomed, hunched shoulders and bent limbs doing little to shrink his form. The dragon uttered a small growl in the back of his throat, another one of his strange words, she suspected. She narrowed her eyes. The beast rose and bound his wings against his back, only the clawed tips showing over his powerful shoulders. His body was bare as it had been yesterday on the mountain, not an inch of vicious muscle hidden. He walked upright, despite the weight of his wings on his back, and held his head aloft,  eyes like flame staring down the bridge of his nose at her.


Yusraa stared back.

The dragon strode down the pile of gold and toward her, as if the riches at his feet were of as little consequence as ants under a sandal. She shrank from him, fists closed and teeth bared as he reached for her. If this demon insisted on torturing her, she wouldn’t make it easy. The dragon’s eyes narrowed and he huffed, two tendrils of smoke floating from his nostrils. He reached out for her again and she did the only thing she could do.

She ran.

Growing up in the vast grasslands of Umbar had made her swift. She could outpace most of the northern men who travelled down to the edge of the Dune Sea in footraces, and had even bested a horse lord of Rohan once, but all of her speed was nothing to the dragon who knew these hills and stone floors. His stride was much wider and his steps swallowed her’s up. The dragon leapt on her, his weight sending her crashing to the ground with little resistance.  Yusraa gave a screech like something out of the deepest hell and writhed, trying to free herself from his grasp. It was useless; he had one arm locked over her hips and another barred across her chest. He rolled to the side and flipped her on to her back, roaring into her face.

His breath was pure heat and reeked of ashes. Teeth made for tearing jutted out only an inch from her face, wickedly sharp and serrated, gleaming like small knives. The noise was enough to shatter glass. Yusraa squeezed her eyes shut and tried to lift her hands to her ears to siphon off some of the sound. The demon snatched her both her wrists and slammed them into the stone above her head, nearly yanking her arms out of their sockets. It was only when she cried out that the roar softened to a low growl, rippling deep in the demon’s throat. The pressure lightened slightly on her wrists, but her relief quickly soured. His claws had pressed through the braces on her wrists and broken her skin. She supposed she should be grateful he hadn’t injured her further, but the small punctures would still ache, and she had nothing to wrap them with. She supposed it didn’t matter. She surely deserved whatever pain she experienced; this was the lot of those who found themselves in a hell.

Her thoughts were cut short by the feeling of a rough hand twisting her arm. Yusraa could hear her heartbeat thudding in her ears, breaths shaky. Was he going to break it? Was he going to tear it off? She clenched her jaw and prepared for the worst, dread turning her blood to ice water.

 

She waited for pain to come for what seemed like an eternity, the sound of her captor's deep breathing the only thing marking time. Finally, finally she felt him shift and move his head closer to her, breath like steam charging the air. He made a sound like a huff of annoyance and she let one eye crack open.

 

The demon was staring intently at the gash on her arm with what looked like frustration furrowing his brow. He muttered something under his breath at her in that strange, flat language. He lifted himself slightly and started uncliling himself from around her, his head moving lower as he shifted. He was taking his time, whatever he was doing, and seemed to be striving to make her uncomfortable. His head reached her stomach and in a moment of panic, her leg jerked up, her knee hitting him square in the chest. It was a blow that would've left any human opponent gasping for breath and quite frequently had, but the demon didn't even flinch.

 

Golden eyes flicked up toward her and a growl rolled through his throat, a clear warning for her to stay put. She clenched her jaw and did as he'd implied. It wasn't as if she had much of a choice; the beast was using his weight to keep her pinned. If she was totally honesty with herself, she was terrified. There had been times in her youth, during the training of the great cats her uncle kept, where one of the lions had gotten a bit too rough or played too hard, and she'd end up pinned, but never like this. There had been an uncurrent of sillyness in their pinning, and the cats had often licked her face or searched her for treats. There was no such tone in this. The demon was using all of his weight, pressing so that she could barely breathe, leaving no room for the questioning of who was the leader of this dynamic.

 

Yusraa watched him. If she hadn't known better, she could've almost let herself believe the beast was checking her for injuries. The way he was examining her was meticulous. He ran lithe fingers over her thighs, down her knees and around the backs of her calves. He traced them up over the swell of her hips and over her stomach, palming her ribcage, the tips of his claws leaving pinpricks of pain every few inches to remind her just how vulnerable she truly was. With every inch of skin he traced, she felt what little boldness she had shrink untilt here was nothing left in her but a black fear, darker and more base than any she'd ever felt. She was at the mercy of this monster.

 

He spoke to her again, his voice rippling deeper than anything she'd heard before. He seemed to be berating her in chatter she couldn't make out and she covered her ears. The demon growled in frustration and something darkened in his eyes.

 

The dragon let his claws slide out once more, and without hesitation, he sank them into her breast plate and pulled. The metal hissed and screeched as it was ripped apart and tossed aside. The demon hadn't just wanted to removed her armor; no, that could've been accomplished simply by tearing off the straps. He'd wanted to ensure that she was entirely without protection. Yusraa shrieked as cold air hit her, the warmth of the dragon doing little to shield her from the frigid air that permeated the cavern.

 

She bit back the tears she could feel welling in her eyes. This beast wanted her weak and showing him that simply taking something of her's away could break her, he wouldn't even have to hurt her. She couldn't be weak now. What had Askasil said? 'Nothing worth fighting for was ever won with tears and pretty words.' Wasn't her existence worth fighting for? Wasn't it? If she was cursed to spend the entirety of it in this hell, then at least she could accept it with the dignity and grace of an Umbarian warrior. She showed him her teeth in as much aggression as she could muster with her heart pounding against her ribs.

 

He snorted and rolled off of her suddenly, rising and shaking out his wings. Yusraa satrted sliding back away from him, trying to scrabble to her feet, but he uttured a low growl and one of the few words he seemed to know in her tongue. "Stay."  The Haradrim hissed under her breath and rose slowly anyway.

 

Golden, slitted eyes watched her as she moved, narrowing when she took another step backward. She was testing him, and he didn't appreciate it. The demon growled and with lightning speed, closed the small distance between them, bumping her back a foot. He slapped his tail against the ground, the whip-like crack echoing around the cavern. "Stay!"

 

"I will not!" The venom in Yusraa's voice suprised even her. Her jailer narrowed his eyes and moved forward slowly, but she held out her hands as if they alone would keep him at bay. "I will not." She repeated, calmer this time. The dragon was looming in front of her, teeth half bared in a snarl as he stared down at her. There was nearly a foot and a half difference between them, and the Haradrim was by no means short. She stood level with most of the northern men, but this creature born of fire and fury made her appear naught but a child. She swallowed hard.

 

"I am trapped with you in this place, but you cannot restrict my ability to move around it." Technically, he could. He could snap both her legs with little thought, and where would that leave her? "I will walk where I wish." She added a small snarl to the end of her words, something that seemed to irritate the dragon. He tightened his jaw and frowned down at her.


"Stay." He rumbled again. Yusraa resisted the urge to scream in frustration. This dragon understood nothing of what she'd just spoken. Just as she was about to do as he said out of defeat, her jailer spoke again. "Stay...wait." The round, thick tongue of her people did not fit his mouth, made for speaking the language of the northerners. The dragon dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder and made her sit down on the stone floor. "Wait." The Haradrim pushed his rough hand away from her and rose.

“I will not.” She insisted once more. “I will not wait.”  She met his eyes and for a brief moment, she thought they’d reached some sort of understanding.

And then he snatched her into his arms and the ground plummeted away from her.

Chapter Text

For a moment it seemed that the whole hall had been torn out from under her and sucked into the darkness that no doubt lurked just outside the thick stone walls. It was dizzying how quickly they ascended; within seconds the entirety of the ground had been reduced to little more than a shimmering golden heap. She hardly had time to think about it before she was being shifted and dumped onto one of the thick wooden beams than ran across the higher space in the ceiling.

She grunted as the wind was knocked out of her and rolled over onto her back, clutching her stomach. Yusraa had only a moment’s reprieve before a heavy thud heralded the dragon’s landing. She forced herself upright and glared at him. For his large size, the demon had impeccable balance, and he stood with his head erect and spine taut. He carried himself with an air of pride and deep dignity, almost like a royal. He possessed something like beauty, but the ferocity of his nature and the steady burning of his gaze made him hard to meet eyes with. The Haradrim did not look away. She would not be afraid of him.

A growl made the demon’s lips curl and she returned his expression, fists clenching into claws. The beast jerked his head back, and for a sickening moment, she thought he was going to launch himself at her and topple them both over the edge. His wings would save him, but she had no safety net. If she fell, she would die- no. She was already dead. It would hurt, very, very badly then. She waited for the dragon to retaliate in some quick violent action, but instead he laughed. He laughed , and it wasn’t some quiet hissing, or harsh like one would expect from so overgrown a lizard. It was deep, and full, and for a moment almost sounded human.  He hurled some phrase at her she didn’t understand, but the lilt of his voice made it clear he was mocking her. Yusraa gathered saliva and spat at his feet, disgusted.

The dragon’s smile dropped slowly, his expression becoming unreadable. She shifted back a few inches, immediate regret coursing through her. She’d reacted too quickly, hadn’t thought before acting. She was turning into her sister. The warrior scrambled back further, but found her back pressed against stone, hard and unforgiving. There was no minimum safe distance from this beast, she knew that and the wall at her back made that painfully clear. He slunk toward her, tail dragging against the wood of the beam, wings open slightly to help him keep his balance and his head low. This far away from the chandelier that lit the cavern, they were steeped in shadows and his eyes glowed like embers in the half-light.

He stooped, down to where she was, his face mere inches from hers, his breath hot on her face. His eyes were like molten gold and she couldn't quite meet them, try as she might to put on a brave face. She should’ve done as he said, stayed and waited, like he asked. He might’ve left her be, let her spend more time on her own. Thus far, the demon had been aggressive, yes, but he had doe her no great harm since her death. That was surely about to change. The demon was crowding her vision and she felt her chest constrict with fear. Yusraa turned her head away, but he yanked her back, a massive hand cradling her jaw. His claws were pressing into her cheeks, just short from breaking the skin.

She tugged her head back, trying to get out of his grip, but he held her fast. He pressed his forehead against hers, his eyes seeming to stare into the depths of her soul. Yusraa closed her eyes, but she couldn't do anything about the force of nature that was his voice. His words rolled through her, making her tense: “Stay. Wait.”

“You took my family and my people away from me. You trapped me here and you have my life. Isn’t that enough?” Who was she, to reason with a demon? He shoved her backward with a low growl in his throat. He slammed his hands down on either side of her head, his claws splintering wood. So surprised was she that she let out a yelp and nearly fell off the beam, would have, had the dragon’s body not stopped her descent. He couldn’t understand her, that much she knew, but the tone of questioning in her voice was enough to set him off apparently.

“Stay.” He ordered, his breath hot on her face. Yusraa ground her teeth together and kept her eyes squeezed tightly shut. “ STAY .”  He roared and Yusraa fought back the urge to cry. Dead or not, Warrior or not, this beast was terrifying and fully capable of causing her great pain. She opened her eyes slowly and lifted her hands in an effort to appease him. Seemingly placated for the moment, he let his claws retract.  He rose, and turned, wings stretching as he prepared. To leave the beam.  “Wait.” He ordered once more and the Umbarian hung her head.

“I will wait.” And the beast was gone.

Chapter Text

In Umbar, they kept time by the sun. When she was little more than a youngling, she'd learned to tell what part of the day it was by the position of that great ball of fire in the sky. It had become second nature and if she could view the sun, she could tell the hour.

There was no sun in Altkyfr, nothing for light but dim candles on massive chandeliers that never ran low, not even a crack in the craggy walls. She doubted she'd have look had there been some sort of window to the outside. No one could glimpse that heavy darkness and escape with their mind intact, she was sure. This place was born of the dark and the lights that were present were an intrusion. There was no sun and no sky for it to sit in, and thus no way for her to tell how many hours she'd spent cursing the demon, how many days in silent protest.

She knew she could go three days without sleep, had tested herself with Askasil when they'd still been young, and knew that afterward she slept for a full day. It had been terrifying at first, to find herself dozing off on the wooden beam, nearly tipping off from throwing her weight off balance, but she'd learned to disregard it. When she was tired she slept, when was angry she cursed the demon and when she was hungry, she carved stories of her homeland into the beam with her nails. To keep herself sane, she screamed at the dragon.

The demon ignored her and all her curses.

She didn't know how long it took her to break. On the beam, minutes seemed to last eternities and whole days flew by in the space it took her to take a breath. She might have been there for an hour, or an eternity might have passed her by.

"Demon?" Her voice echoed out over the vast cavern, repeating itself endlessly, mocking her with it’s trembling. She didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was rough and weak, lips cracked and dry from going without water for some. "Demon!" There was no reply. Was he sleeping? Surely not, demons had no need for sleep. The hall was silent, her ragged breath the only sound breaking the stillness. "I know you hear me, Demon! I know..." Even if the beast could hear her, he wasn’t going to answer, not until she surrendered. In a fit of fury, she flew to her feet, wobbling precariously on the beam. Footing barely gained, she let out a screech:  “I know  you can hear me!” There was no response.

Yusraa stared down into the depths of the cavern, eyes wide and unfocused, and for the first time considered dishonor. She couldn’t die here, no, she knew that, but maybe if she dishonored herself enough, she could get placed in a lower hell. Maybe she could- her body was carrying her forward before she could even finish the thought. Two paces and her third landed her in open air. She didn’t scream as she fell, doubted she even had the strength to. She’d need whatever fortitude she had left to scrape herself off the floor once she hit.

Her body twisted, buffeted by the wind as she tumbled down through the open air. There was so much space in this place, so much room between the beams and the gold covered floor. She couldn’t breath. She realized that after a few moments. The wind pushing at her was so strong, she couldn’t force her lungs to expand and contract.  She gaped like one of the long silver fish she’d seen in her youth, brought back in stacks on the spears of her people's sea-farers. She remembered how their dead eyes had looked upon the world and seen nothing. She wondered if her own did the same now. Had she died with her eyes open on the mountain? Did her body still lie there, cold and blue and held together by the frost? Her eyes slid shut slowly and she let herself surrender to the vicious pull of gravity. For ten blissful seconds she fell in silence, the comforting press of unconsciousness wrapping around her. The ground was near, she was sure of it and she readied herself for the hit.

Instead of the slam of cold stone, she felt a pair of thick, corded arms wrap around her and yank her sharply to the side. The jolt of being snatched from the air forced her lungs to expand and the black at the edges of her vision to clear. The ground was close and she felt a sudden rush of fear, but a pair of wings soon shielded her from it. He flipped her at the last second so her head was against his chest and twisted so he'd land first. She felt the jolt of them slamming into one of the piles of gold and the tinkle of coins as they tumbled down it, head over heel.

When they finally came to rest at the bottom, his wings fell slowly, sliding off of her and  splaying open beneath him. She could hear her heart thudding, still hear the wind screaming in her ears. Fear had constricted her throat at the last minute, made her weak, made her realize what she'd done. She'd brought dishonor down upon herself and her house. Even in death, this was unforgivable. A lump rose in her throat and she felt a misting in her eyes she hadn't known since she was a child. She pushed at the demon's chest, trying to rise, but her held her fast, arms constricting around her waist. She cursed in frustration and slammed her fists against his chest. "Release me!" He sighed in what sounded like irritation and let her beat out her anger on him. She had to make herself angry. To cry in front of  one's enemy was weakness, she'd learned this from Askasil when she was young. She would swallow her pain and turn it into power.

Without warning, the demon flipped them over, arms braced on either side of her head. "Stop." He ordered, Yusraa snarled and he growled back at her, deep in his throat. He snatched both her wrists in his hands and stretched them out above her head. She felt the familiar tug of her arms being stretched to their limit, but she refused to cry out. She gritted her teeth and met his golden eyes in defiance. Yusraa brought her knees up and jammed her feet into his stomach. He dropped the full weight of himself onto her, forcing her legs apart and she hooked them around his hips, trying to roll them over to no avail. The demon was heavy and his skin was hot to the touch. He seemed to be smoldering from the inside out and as he dropped his head closer to hers, she swore she could see flames flickering behind his eyes. His mouth was only centimeters from her own now, his black locks brushing against her forehead.

"Still."  Something about the tone of his voice sent chills down her spine and she saw, for the first time up close, the danger she was in. She stopped struggling against his hold and tensed beneath it, chest still heaving in fear that had arrived too late to keep her from jumping. She was scared, and the dragon knew it, and he was using it against her. His massive hand slipped from her wrists slowly, but when she made a move to sit up, her pressed it against the middle of her chest and pushed her back down. "Be. Still."  And so, the former warrior was made to lie on the ground while the demon checked her meticulously for injuries.  When he'd reached her ribcage and determined that she hadn't hurt herself or broken any bones in her free fall, he paused for a moment, palms framing her lungs.

"No wait.”  When she didn't answer, his grip on her tightened and she felt the pinpricks of his claws pressing against her skin. She just wanted to be left alone. Couldn't he just leave her be? "Why?" He’d been practicing, or remembered more words of the language of the northern Haradrim. It was only a matter of time, she supposed. Those to the North dealt frequently with the dark forces and he and his kind had been created by The Adversary. He’d have dealt with them before. He sounded disgusted with her, as if a demon had a right to be disgusted about anything. He rolled off of her and rose, spine straightening  as he shook his wings out. There were bruises on the scale-less areas of his skin in the shapes of the gold coins they'd fallen on.

"Must there be a reason?" She saw a spark in the dragon's eyes and his lip curled, warning her to tread lightly. Yusraa pushed ahead anyway, well aware of the danger she was walking in to. "I have no cause to answer to you." The dragon moved so fast, she hardly had time to register what was happening. He snatched her from the ground, one massive hand wrapped round her throat. She tried to cry out, but the noise was cut short, lack of air making it quiet. The demon hefted her up above him and her legs dangled. She supposed she might find the image comical had she not been gasping for breath. The dragon sneered at her. His grip tightened and she clawed at his hands as he lifted her. The Haradrim struggled, her feet searching desperately for the floor. It was a clear warning for her to stop, but she would not. Whether he harmed her or not, whether he burned her again or tore into her, she would be heard.  "You murdered my sister." Her voice was quiet and hoarse , but he heard her.   The demon bared his teeth in a strange display of savage beauty that almost resembled a smile.

Obey .”She didn't know where it came from, what foul demon gave her the strength, but a wave of hatred welled up in her, so strong that it darkened the corners of her vision. Yusraa snarled and raked her nails down his face, clawing and ripping at him like her life depended on it. It had, once. She knew she couldn't have fought the demon on the slopes of Erebor and won, no one could, but now here in this hell, there was a chance for her. Pain be damned, she couldn't die again and she'd fight like it. The dragon bellowed and dropped her. Her nails had glanced off of his cheeks and forehead, but the skin beneath his eyes was sensitive and welling with blood. He clutched at his face and the woman took the opportunity to launch herself at him. She slammed into him, shoulder first, and he spread his wings to keep his balance but it was too late. She toppled him backward and straddled his chest, raising her fists to slam them down on his face.  He hooked his hands around her thighs and pulled viciously, trying to get her under him again, but she slammed her fists down as one onto the bridge of his nose. It would've shattered any human man's face but the dragon merely grunted in pain. Yusraa screamed in frustration and fastened her hands round his throat.

"Her name..." The warrior's chest was heaving, her heart hammering in her ears, but she drove her hands still tighter around his neck. "..was Askasil  and now she walks in glory because she died bringing honor to our people. You are not fit to lick the dust from her feet."

She saw the dragon's hand swinging toward her, but it seemed by the time she acknowledged it, her world had already gone dark.


Chapter Text

“-like this.”

Her sister’s arms, longer and stronger than her own, caged her shoulders, helped her pull back on the taut string of the bow. Yusraa closed one eye, tilted her head to the side and bit her tongue between her teeth, but Askasil nudged her back up into proper form, helped guide her shoulders down until they were straight and balanced.

“Now, release.” Their fingers let go of the string at the same time, and the arrow flew forward, nailed the grain sack with the solid thwap of a shot well strung. It was nowhere near the center, not by miles, but it was better than Yusraa’d shot since she started training with the bow a season ago. She looked over her shoulder at her sister, who had thirteen harvests to her eight, who’s hair hung in thick braids to her chest, who’s face was, even then, obscured by the sun.

“Kasi, when will I be strong like you?” Her sister stooped and Yusraa clambered onto her back eagerly, wrapping her arms tight around the taller girl’s neck as she turned and began striding back toward the sea of red tents and high poles strung with gold banners that marked her people’s resting place.

“Never.” Her older sister answered. “You can only be strong like you.”

 


Yusraa woke still clutching for her sister’s shoulder, something to hold on to, but found her hands empty and cold. Gone was the warmth of the desert, the heat of her sister’s skin against her’s, the low rumble of the lions training in the distance, the voices of her people. In their place was the cold, the dark and the quiet. She felt them hollow her chest once more. The warrior opened her eyes and immediately pain hit her. She gasped and clutched at her skull, white stars dancing in her vision. What had happened? She remembered being on the beam, cursing at the demon and then- another wave of pain hit her and she groaned, launching upright just in time to dry heave. Her body convulsed and she balled her hands into fists on her lap, cursing her weakness as another bout of nausea gripped her. Nothing made it’s way up her throat, not bile not even the acrid green liquid she’d seen pour out of her sister’s soldier’s mouths after they’d had too much honeyed wine and had expelled all else. She’d not eaten nor drank for what felt like and age and it was begining to show. Dry lips cracked as she widened them around her teeth, empty stomach clenched around nothing.

 

Something dropped onto the ground before her and she flinched. In the disorientation of her waking, she hadn’t noticed the demon huddled in the corner watching her, eyes glowing like embers in the obscured light the hanging lanterns provided. She scrabbled backward, hands clawing for purchase against the craggy floor. Away from the demon she went- for less than three lengths. Her back hit cold stone all too quickly and she was left once more facing down the creature that tormented her waking moments. He didn’t move at first, left her with her eyes wide and chest heaving, but slowly, so slowly, he rose, tucked his wings back behind his back and descended from his perch on an elevated outcropping of stone. She wanted to defend herself, but there was nothing she could do. She pressed harder against the stone, willed it to move all while the dragon slunk closer. Less than one of her strides width away from her, he stopped, stooped and push whatever it was closer to her before sitting back in a crouch, his wings folded about him like some strange demonic bird. He was watching her expectantly, gold eyes leveled on her face. He was waiting for something. Yusraa drew her knees up to her chest, shuddering still.

 

“Take.” She flinched and ventured a glance down at the heap in front of her. It was a rabbit or once had been. So charred and mauled was it that it was hardly recognizable anymore. The Nafarati let her eyes flick from the corpse to her captor and back down once more, only to be met with an irritated growl and the burnt thing being shoved closer to her with the back of a clawed hand. “Take.” He would not ask her a third time. She reached out with all the practiced grace of a wild animal and brought the thing into her lap, not eager to linger too long in close proximity to the demon. It was still warm, though considerably cooler than it had been when the demon had slain the thing. How much fire lurked within that armored throat and belly she was not eager to find out. Yusraa ventured a glance up at him and found him staring at her expectantly, face placid and golden eyes round. Was this a gift? An apology for his earlier attack? She doubted it, the demon didn’t seem so kind. What, then? She licked her lips and spoke slowly.

“...thank… you?” The dragon’s face hardened once more and had she not known better, she would’ve sworn he rolled his eyes. It was an expression far too human, out of place on the angular planes of the monster’s face. He reached toward her and she tensed, ready to fight him, but only pulled the rabbit from her lap and ripped into it with his claws. Had the thing not already been cooked and drained it would have been a gory sight. As it was, she felt fear twist her stomach once more with what he was capable of. That she had ever tried to fight him seemed a distant memory, the actions of a younger, more foolish self she no longer knew. She gave a dry swallow and awaited what was to come.Finally satisfied with his work in reducing the rabbit to pieces, the dragon turned his attention back to her. There were scraps of meat clutched in his claws as he slunk closer, shoulders hunched and legs bent. Yusraa whimpered low in her throat and made a move to roll away from him, but he growled low in his throat and blocked her escape with his free arm. Fear, cold and thick, ran down her spine, closing her throat and putting a shake back into her hands. The demon was a foot away, then half, then mere inches from her. She could feel him hovering above her, feel the heat rolling off of him in waves, smell the acrid sweetness of skin and scale and flame closing in on her- and then he was still and there was something warm pressed insistently to her lips. She ventured a peek out from under her lashes and found the demon crouched above her, pressing rabbit meat to her mouth, his face twisted into a particular brand of weariness mixed with irritation mixed with something unfamiliar she couldn’t quite place. The dragon opened his mouth and spoke softly.

“Take it.”

‘Oh.’ she thought. ‘Oh.’ Slowly, slowly she parted full lips and allowed the claws filled with blackened meat to slip past. The demon released the meat into her mouth and placed his hand under her jaw, claws applying a slight amount of pressure as he forced her to chew. She did so without protest. She had not know what to do about the hunger hollowing her belly, had not thought it possible to feel hunger after her death, but alas, this was a hell and what would a hell be without discomfort? Still, she resented the self-satisfaction on the demon’s face, hated the manipulation of her mouth in his hands. She couldn’t fight him head on, he’d proven that much in their previous scrapes, but defiance was only natural. He picked up another portion of rabbit, but this time when he brought his fingers into her mouth, she bit down on them. Not as hard as she could manage, not by a long shot, but she was testing him. Prodding the demon was unwise, she knew, but she was not an infant that he would feed her by hand, nor a pet. He would know this. Her teeth stilled his hand and that unreadable expression flickered across his face for a moment, the knifelike spines on his back flaring upward for a moment, eyes flashing, before he snatched his hand backward in a growl and stood, turning away from her his tail lashing.

“No games.” He hissed, eyeing her with thinly veiled irritation over his shoulder. It was the closest to a coherent sentence as he’d spoken to her thus far. He strode back toward his perch, shaking out his wings as he went and making the spines lie flat once more. Had she...surprised him It seemed a strange thing that a predator like the one before her would have such obvious physical tells, but before she could ruminate on it any longer, the dragon had receded back into shadow on his ledge, only the golden yellow pinpricks of his eyes and his face, half obscured by darkness still visible. Yusraa stared up at him for one beat, two, a third. Only once it became clear that he had no intention of moving again did she leave her position against the wall and fall onto the rabbit like a wild thing.

Her hunger spurred her onward, fingers rending the thing apart and shoving it scrap by scrap into her mouth, chin and cheeks becoming slick with fat. She slowed only to swallow and pant, pure animal instinct reducing her into a creature she did not quite recognize. There was a deep throated chuff and her head snapped upward. The demon was watching her, eyes half-lidded, mouth twisted into a cruel smirk. He looked almost pleased with her behavior, as if her abandoning of decorum could be considered a matter worthy of celebration. Yusraa narrowed her own eyes and bared her teeth at him, growling. That put a stop to the dragon’s smirk and he issued her back a growl of his own, smoke curling out the edges of his mouth, but still he did not move. The Nafarati went back to her meal, finishing the last scraps of the rabbit off as the demon sat above, seemingly content to watch her as she ate. She hated it, hated the way she could feel his eyes locked on to the top of her head, hated the way the hairs on the back of her neck were at constant attention, hated how every time he shifted, her heart jumped into her throat, hated most of all how it was he who’d dragged her here while she’d been still unconscious after a fight they’d had and was now acting as if the entire ordeal had never happened. Her forehead still ached and there would be a rather nasty knot forming within the next few hours, she was sure.

 

Her stomach full and the bones picked clean, Yusraa rose and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, stretching her arms above her head. Her stomach muscles pulled taut and she exhaled, feeling for the first time since entering Altkfyr satisfied. It was a feeling she was sure would not last so she revelled in it, revelled in the fullness of her belly and the warmth of the cave. And where was the cave? She had no memory of him moving her from the place their...tussle had occured. Where were they? She picked her way across the stone floor trying not to draw the attention of her captor and stared out the mouth of the cave.


It was a sheer drop so far down that she could not even see the floor, just distant piles of gold gleaming in the flickering light of the chandeliers. Had he hauled her all the way up here? And for what purpose? She watched the dragon out of the corner of her eyes, head turned ever so slightly over her shoulder. The dragon stared back, yellow eyes half-lidded.

“Why did you bring me up here?” The beast regarded her with disinterest and for a moment she thought he was simply going to roll over and go to sleep, but then he answered her back.

“Staying safe.” He yawned, wicked canines gleaming wet and bright. He shuffled his wings on his back and stretched, arms above his head. “No more falling.” Yusraa narrowed her eyes.

“I can still jump, you know. I can wait until you’re asleep.” To prove a point or perhaps to test him, she took a step closer to the edge. The demon was on her in a second. One moment he’d been lounging on his perch on the verge of sleep and the next he was standing behind her, an arm barred around her midsection as he hauled her backwards. Yusraa yelped and clawed at his forearm, but was met only with the grating of her nails against rough-edged scales. This was how it always went; she should’ve learned by now. The demon gave her an order, she refused, he punished her. She tested him, he moved her where he wanted. That was the way things worked in this place, the only way they would ever work. She was growing weary of denying him. The demon gave one strong flap of his wings and landed back on top of his ledge.

Instead of a rocky outcropping littered with bones and gold, they were standing in piles of soft blankets and plush velvet pillows. There was feather down in mounds and a collection of cushions from what must’ve once been very expensive furniture. Yusraa gazed down in confusion. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve almost said the pile looked like a nest. The demon tossed her down on to her stomach and before she could protest, he’d dropped beside her, slinging a heavy arm over her back and pulling her into his chest. She grunted at the sudden weight and tried to wriggle away, but he pressed his claws into the space between her shoulder blades, forcing her to lie still. “You will not jump.” He said it softly, but there was a thinly veiled threat in those words. He would not simply catch her another time, wouldn’t allow her the opportunity to even try to airwalk. The demon huffed and closed his eyes, pulling the Nafarati even closer to him, her forehead pressed to the joint where his neck and shoulder met. “You will sleep now.” He ordered and then his breathing deepened and he was unconscious. She wanted to argue, wanted to fight and scream and shout that she wasn’t a child and he couldn’t force her to do anything, but her words would’ve fallen on deaf ears. So, with no room to escape and nothing else to do, Yusraa followed the demon into sleep.