Haldraxan drifted lazily on a passing current of magic that whipped off the nearby High Road. No creature as large as he was could fly by the strength of a pair of wings, or even several pairs of wings, no matter how large they were. Only power could hold a beast as mighty as Haldraxan aloft.
His existence was defined by power. The power he had over the lesser dragons of Paxmer, the power that was forged into him by the god who shaped him from the primal clay of the realm and the power that bound him as the realm’s servant.
In a sense those were all aspects of the same thing. His authority and might derived from the purpose he had been created to fulfill. From the day that he was first given life though, his mind was set to the question of whether those three essential aspects of his being were intrinsically linked.
Was it the yolk of Paxmer’s guardianship which granted him the force to dominate the creature’s beneath him? Or could he be free of that duty and still retain the privileges it granted him? It was a puzzle, and there was little that any dragon’s mind enjoys more than a puzzle.
If it had taken centuries for Haldraxan to work out an answer to the question, the delay could be attributed to the fact that the dragon king’s duty was only rarely onerous.
From Haldraxan’s point of view, Paxmer had been blessed with a long line of good and sensible monarchs. His definition of “good and sensible” began and ended with the litmus test of how much of his ‘advice’ they took. By and large, the little humans he shared a throne with had been wise enough to accede to his suggestions, preferring to rely on his centuries of knowledge in place of their own limited understanding.
That arrangement suited Haldraxan perfectly, but even so the limits engraved upon him by the divine will of Paxmer’s deity chaffed as the years rolled into centuries, and like a sore tooth, he couldn’t avoid returning his thoughts to it again and again.
“Sire, we have reached the next staging point,” Abroxis, one of Haldraxan’s newest lieutenants, said.
Far below them lay a spawling, walled town, one of hundreds along the northern border of Haldraxan’s realm. Like most such dwellings for Paxmer’s citizens, its primary purpose, in Haldraxan’s view, was to serve as a storage a refueling center for the forces under his command.
“The streets are oddly empty,” Haldraxan said. He was used to viewing the citizens of Paxmer as a constant flow of tiny specs on the ground. There were a few of the miserable ants moving about the city below them but their numbers were less than they should have been.
“Perhaps the enemy has already been here?” Abroxis asked.
Haldraxan flapped his secondary wings sending an impossibly strong gust of wind at the younger dragon like a slap of reprimand.
“No raiding force has ever set foot this far within my realm,” he said. “And none ever will.”
“Forgive me sire,” Abroxis said. “I know of no reason why the town should be so deserted.”
“Then we shall descend and learn the answer directly,” Haldraxan said, banking into a long, downwards spiral.
“You are gracing them with your presence Sire?” Abroxis asked.
“Yes,” Haldraxana said. “It is occasionally useful to remind the citizens of who it is they serve. And what the cost for failure to their duty is.”
“Do you wish an honor guard?” Abroxis asked.
“No,” Haldraxan said. “Land the entire flight. There is no need to push to the edge of our strength. We shall eat and rest so that we can come upon our enemies in the fullness of our strength.”
“The town appears to only have one butchers circle,” Abroxis said. “It wouldn’t be able to feed all of us.”
“No, it won’t be able to feed all of us twice,” Haldraxan said. “But there will be other towns, to meet our future needs.”
“What if the people resist?” Abroxis asked.
“The citizens of Paxmer are loyal,” Haldraxan said. “And if that proves to be incorrect, then we will have the satisfaction of teaching them the cost of disloyalty.”
The two dragons were following to the ground by a flight of close to a hundred more of the great lizards.
The town looked to have suffered from a relatively hard winter. Haldraxan looked over the walls as they landed and saw no more than a handful of people stumbling about their daily tasks, intentionally oblivious to the flight of dragons that was landing around their city.
“Lord Haldraxan, to what do we owe the honor of your visit to our unworthy dwelling?” Cauldrin, the mayor of the town, asked.
Cauldrin was a hefty, red faced man who was sweating despite the chill of the day’s air. Dragon fear held no sway over the citizens of Paxmer but there was a level of unquestioning deference which Haldraxan had grown accustomed to from his subjects. To be directly addressed by one, was an affront the scratched the dragon king’s scales in the wrong direction.
He picked a nearby house and swatted it with his tail. The building wasn’t empty, but it was devoid of people. That was the only reason that it became a pile of rubble rather than a giant tombstone.
“Where are the people,” Haldraxan asked, his voice calm and disinterested. It was a mystery but regardless of the answer, Haldraxan knew there would death and righteous vengeance rained down on the ones who were left. There was no need for that of course.
The dragon army could take a meager share of the supplies they needed and collect the rest of their requirements from the other holdings and towns that were within a day’s flight.
If the upcoming conflict was concluded quickly enough, the peoples of the northern provinces would feel no more than a few days hunger. Haldraxan could coordinate the logistics of the royal armies such that they did little long term damage to the natives of their provinces. He could, but he didn’t want to. The subtle glee of reducing an entire community to despair was too delightful to pass up. It was an expression of his power that was undeniable, and taking from others always helped satisfy, for a time, the eternal fire of greed that burned in the center of his heart.
Haldraxan always wondered what it would feel like to go further than that, but his power met its restraints beyond that point. He was compelled to ensure that Paxmer prospered, but working under the requirements of sustaining the realm gave the dragon some leeway.
Haldri had cast the gathering Gallagrin force as an invasion risk. That meant the future of the entire realm was at stake, and anything that Haldraxan could conjure up as being for the good of the realm was allowable with the strictures of his bindings. It was a tactic he had used before and one he was sure he would use again, even though he knew he was stepping well outside the spirit of his maker’s intent. There were limits even to that though, actions which Haldraxan couldn’t take even with the most clever of schemes.
Chief among those being that, no matter what the circumstance was, neither Haldraxan, nor any of his draconic forces could directly harm a citizen of Gallagrin. Indirect harm, or injuries brought on through ignorance weren’t restricted in the same manner, but the divine bindings did exert an influence that prevented Paxmer dragons for choosing to be willfully blind to the consequences of their actions.
That left Haldraxan able to enjoy his favorite pastime, destroying peoples’ mind and bodies, only when it was convenient for his co-monarch (such as when political opponents needed to disappear), and prevented him from eating the annoying mayor who stood in front of him.
“We have always been a small town Dragon King,” the mayor said. “This winter many of our families left us because our stores were low in the wake of the fall taxes.”
Haldraxan collapsed another building. Complaints about taxes were ones he had grown tired of hearing mere days after he had first been brought to life. For whatever reason the fools who had been placed under his care seemed to think that things could belong to them. Since that particular illusion seemed to inspire them to work harder, Haldraxan allowed them the comfort of clinging to it. In truth though, everything within Paxmer was his. He was the most powerful being there after all, and so, by right, all of the realms wealth and privilege was his.
And that was just. It was he who created the peace for the land. It was he who made Paxmer the greatest of all the Blessed Realms. And so he deserved its wealth, its adoration.
“These houses have not sat empty since the fall,” Haldraxan said and collapsed another one as he strode towards the center of the town, his footsteps shaking the bedrock it was built upon.
“Not all of them, sire,” Cauldrin said. “Other families are traveling in preparation for the coming of spring. Our stores are low and so they have gone to beg for what assistance they can get from our neighbors.”
“You are required to keep your reserves above a plentiful point,” Haldraxan said. “Your reason for existence is to serve as a supply depot for our forces.”
“But the extra harvest tax last fall…” Cauldrin started to say.
“Is of no concern at this moment,” Haldraxan said.
Cauldrin puffed up his chest, mustering an insane courage that was likely born from the belief that without Queen Haldri present to revoke his citizenship, Haldraxan was helpless against a citizen of the realm.
“You ask the impossible of us,” Cauldrin said. “You take our food stores, you pilfer our wealth, and then you complain that we’re poor? We have been nothing but loyal to you and the throne and all we get is heavier burdens to bear? We cannot support you. Not in this campaign and not in this manner of ruling.”
“How…interesting,” Haldraxan said, his eyes narrowing and a warm feeling of joy spreading from the inferno of his heart. “And what of your people? Do they share your views?”
“I speak for everyone in this town,” Cauldrin said. “We only want to be good, productive citizens of Paxmer, but you are starving us. We cannot live on the pittance that you leave for us.”
“If you cannot live on what we generously offer, then why do you not work harder?” Haldraxan asked. “Are there not others in your position who manage to survive?”
“There is a difference between scraping by day to day, always being on the edge of collapse, and truly living,” Cauldrin said.
“Yes,” Haldraxana said. “There is. To truly live one must have power, as you do not.”
“Maybe not,” Cauldrin said. “But we do have the power to refuse you. We will not share any more of our food with you. We will not pledge you any of our gold to pay for this foolish war. You will see no aid given from us.”
Haldraxan laughed. He couldn’t help himself. It was so delightful to be provoked in such a manner.
“You would stand your ground against me?” he asked.
“You give me no choice,” Cauldrin said.
“You are correct about that,” Haldraxan said. “And correct about a very many things.”
“So you will leave us then?” Cauldrin asked.
“No,” Haldraxan said. “But you are right that you will give us no aid. We shall take what we need, and our needs are more than you have, I promise that.”
“But you can’t just take things from us,” Cauldrin said.
“I am barred from taking your life,” Haldraxan said. “Everyone knows that. But nothing else is barred to me.”
With a gesture he called his dragons inward and they began to loot and pillage the town, burning it as they went to turn up what hidden treasures they could find.
“What are you doing?” Cauldrin asked. “You’re destroying us. We’ll never be able to give the crown anything again.”
“Not so,” Haldraxan said. “You are giving us a lesson which we will share with your neighbors. What is the loss of one rebellious town after all. Others will be glad to resettle and rebuild here.”
“And what of us? The people who live here now?” Cauldrin asked.
“You are part of the lesson,” Haldraxan said and signaled the dragon riders in his army.
Like hunting birds they descended on the people of the town, spears flashing in their hands. While the dragons could not harm the citizens of Paxmer, the riders they bore into battle were under no such compulsion, and so the dying began.