Today is my coronation. My thirteenth birthday.
Tomorrow is the day I die.
I grip the howdah’s railing as the elephant lurches down the Way of Heroes. I wave to the people lining the broad, cobbled street. I’m thankful for the parasol, shielding me from the searing sun.
“They love you,” says the man beside me, gripping my shoulder. Yesterday, he was King Henloc. Today, he abdicated. Tomorrow, he will be king again.
Thousands watch us pass, cheering, waving, and celebrating the Sacred Coronation. Behind them the sandstone buildings and granite spires of the city sprawl. Snaking between them are the brass tubes that carry the steam which powers everything. Red-robed priests of the Cult of the Sacred Flame tend to them, keeping the boilers hot.
“You are truly our hero,” says the other man on the howdah. Madaron, Archon of the Sacred Flame. The wizened Cult leader, pillar of the community, and my lifelong mentor. The only father I’ve ever known.
I serve the Flame as all do, but today his words give me little strength. I feel a chill inside.
In the throne room, I hold court. For one day.
“The lands will be split along the Leswyn River,” I say, resolving a decades-long dispute between brothers. Both Duke Arfach and Duke Ardavin bow to me.
“Yes, Majesty,” they say. “You are wise.”
Our lines are rehearsed. This dispute was resolved six hundred years ago, and the dukes are long dead. Today, they are played by Count Isander and Sir Carr.
I play King Adric, the Champion of the Sacred Flame, the Revenant Saint. I am him.
Thirteen petitioners sought Adric at his coronation, forging the Thirteen Laws. The dukes were the last of them, and we’ve played our parts as ritual demands.
“You’ve done well,” says Madaron. He sits to the left of my throne, the wise regal counsel. Henloc sits to my right, today merely an advisor.
Madaron rises and stands before my throne. All grow quiet. I know what comes next, but he too must play his role. He bows, then slams his brass-tipped staff thrice against the marble.
“Ill tidings, Majesty.”
“Speak,” I say.
“The earth shakes, and the Wyrm Grah-Nun stirs! It means to end us!”
I rise. I’ve rehearsed this countless times in the Cult temples, where I grew up.
“Then I shall face it in battle!” I cry. “My people, I swear to you – as long as I draw breath, Grah-Nun will not harm you!”
The court cheers. Two more cultists come forward. They carry a large pillow between them. Upon it lays Singing Heart – the titan-bone sword Adric wielded. They present it to me, and I feel the chill again.
This sword is mine. I am Adric. The thirty-fifth Incarnation of him.
But this… it’s the original Singing Heart. Older than any kingdom, sharper than regret. It’s among the holiest relics, and touching it is a death sentence for all. All except me, Adric.
It’s a pallid sickle carved from a single bone, etched with ancient runes. Surprisingly light when I lift it.
The court cheers, then disperses. Today’s ritual is complete.
“I am proud of you,” Madaron says.
I nod, but my throat is tight.
“You are entitled to a favour,” says Henloc. “As is tradition.”
“Yes,” says Madaron. “Today you are king, and kings have privilege.”
I have been schooled endlessly on this ritual, and I know perfectly what my privileges are. Today, I am indeed king, and I could order any kingly thing. But I am King Adric, and I have a duty to my people. My request will be small, as it always has been. As it always will be.
“I’d like…” I begin, struggling to find the words. What could I possibly ask for? Tomorrow, I will fulfill my sainthood. Is there a nobler thing than to die with purpose, for those you serve and love?
“I’d like to know…” But the prospect of death frightens me more than I ever thought possible, and there are so many things I don’t know – won’t ever know. “Who was I? Who were my birth parents?”
Madaron begins at once, “You are the thirty-fifth Incarnation–”
“–Madaron,” says Henloc. “It’s such a small favour for the boy that bears all our burdens.”
Madaron ponders, sighs deeply. “The Will of the Flame is mysterious. So be it. Know, and be at peace.”
Henloc turns to me. “Your parents were fishers from Inden. Elgar and Tara. They named you Derin and they loved you very much.”
I feel a pain in my heart, an unbearable pinch I don’t want to end.
“Keep them in your heart,” Henloc says. “Know that your sacrifice is as much for them as it is for us all.”
I’m granted the royal chambers for my last night, a night meant for communing with the Sacred Flame and sleeping restfully. I’m unable to do either. The chambers are lavish but I’m drawn to the balcony.
Above, I see stars. In the distance, the Mountain of the Wyrm. Where I go tomorrow. Where Grah-Nun waits for me. Where I face him, as I’ve done thirty-four times before. And where I die.
My sacrifice will save the kingdom. I will buy them time. Until another seventeen years pass.
In four years, they’ll start looking for the next Incarnation. Then he’ll – I’ll – train in the temple for the rest of my life, until my coronation.
I wonder if it was hard for Elgar and Tara. They had a duty just like everyone. Were they proud? Will they celebrate tomorrow?
I hear a noise. The scuff of soldiers’ boots, muffled shouting. On this night, nobody is allowed to disturb me. Doing so carries a heavy sentence.
The chamber doors open, and Isabel storms through. The guards follow her, then hesitate – for they are also not allowed within – and they look miserable.
“Your Majesty, please!” says one.
“Back to your post!” Isabel says. They obey, closing the doors. Because disobeying Henloc’s daughter, too, carries a heavy sentence.
“Isa!” I say. I smile despite what looms before me. I didn’t realize how parched I was for friendship.
She stomps to me, red-cheeked, her fists balled. She grabs me in a crushing hug and I feel her stifling her crying.
She’s about a year older than me, and we’ve known each other almost all our lives. There were never many children in the palace, and there were none, save me, in the temples. As a royal and an Incarnation, we were always separate from the others. We made natural friends.
“Isa, it’s all right.”
“It’s not!” she says, pulling back. She knuckles tears. “None of this is right. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to die!”
I swallow hard. “Isa… we must all serve–”
“Shh! Listen. Adric went to fight the Wyrm, not to die. That’s the story.” She grabs my tunic and pulls us close. “Promise me that. Promise me you’ll fight.”
True, Adric meant to win, to slay the Wyrm and save us forever. But he fell. Could I possibly finish what he – I – started? I don’t want to die, but I doubt the other thirty-four Incarnations wanted to either.
“I promise,” I say. I mean it.
There’s another commotion. No doubt the guards informed Isabel’s father. She looks at me one more time, and kisses me. And then she’s gone, hurrying to the door and out of it. When it slams shut I am alone.
I still feel her lips on mine. A quick peck, chapped and hurried and raw. Yet it burns hotter than the Sacred Flame ever did.
I see her again next morning, on the Steps of Sacrifice. It’s the winding mountain path that leads to the Cave of Grah-Nun. Today, she plays the role of Lady Emelesse, who gave Adric her favour.
The throng of townsfolk at the base of the Steps cheer, witnessing the ritual. Isa ties Emelesse’s silk scarf around my arm. Neither of us are permitted words, but her tears speak louder than thunder.
I head up the path, Madaron ever my shadow. I am to meet my seven generals, the brave men who fought and fell alongside me. Traditionally they are played by criminals. By partaking in the ritual, they are permitted an honourable death.
The first six generals speak their lines, and I mine. Each is chaperoned by two guards and a cultist. The cultist’s role is Grah-Nun’s wrath. He slits the general’s throat. The people cheer as each general falls, blood spurting onto the parched mountain.
The seventh general is different. A free volunteer – I can tell because he has no guards. It is an honourable, sacred death, and sometimes honourable men seek it out. I don’t recognize him.
“Majesty,” he says. His voice trembles.
“Caspian,” I say, greeting an old friend I’ve never met.
“The East is lost,” he says. “Allow me to reinforce them. To…” – he swallows – “to buy you time.”
“Godspeed, Caspian,” I say. We shake hands as old warriors do. His grip is strong, desperate, and I feel something bite into my palm. I resist flinching – I’ve practice this role my whole life – but something’s gone off script. He’s not letting go and his eyes are wild.
“Your father and mother love you!” he blurts.
I’m stunned. Madaron is not. I feel him signal, and Caspian’s cultist strikes. A flick of the wrist, and a line of red blooms along Caspian’s neck.
Blood splatters my arm, and Caspian falls to his knees. Even as the townsfolk cheer, even as the last of his strength fades and he collapses, he keeps his eyes locked on mine. And then, he is still.
“Keep moving,” Madaron says, for my ears only. His voice is controlled fury, and when I move on he stays behind, berating the cultist chaperone. The Coronation is our most important ritual, and Madaron takes it seriously. As I do. I should be outraged at this stranger’s deviation from the cycle.
But all I feel is dread. Was he…? I can’t even think the thought through. I have work to do.
I still feel something in my hand. He gave me a little black leaf, steel-hard, on a leather cord. A necklace, maybe? A final gift, from family I never knew? I put it on.
The tunnels are dark. Madaron and the cultists follow me, lighting the way with flickering fires hovering over their palms. They will witness the ritual. Every seventeen years, the Wyrm stirs. Every seventeen years, Adric faces him, and falls. My death sates the beast for another cycle.
We come to a monolithic chamber, too big for our light to illumine. I see a ring of stones marking a circle on the ground, and when I look behind me, Madaron nods.
“We cannot follow you past the threshold,” he says. I am the third Incarnation he’s brought here. His burden is unenviable.
I step past the stones, alone. The ground here is ash… and bone. Charred bone. The bones of hundreds, perhaps thousands. But I don’t see any sign of the Wyrm. And then I do.
My eyes adjust to the darkness, and at the edge of the light, I see him. A colossal, elongated skull, with teeth the size of horses. A ribcage big enough to fit a barn. Arms and legs and skeletal wings bigger than imagination. He could crush the entire royal palace with his mere presence.
But… it’s all bone. Dead bone and silence.
I look back and I see the cultists forming a line.
“What is this?” I ask. Am I meant to fight… a corpse?
“When Grah-Nun attacked, Adric met him in battle,” Madaron says. “He fell, where you stand. But Adric was not alone. There were others with him. The forebears of the Cult. And… we won.”
I don’t know what he’s saying, and I can barely hear him over the sudden drumming of my own heart. I was raised in the temples. I know all of our stories. This? This isn’t one of them.
“Behold,” Madaron says, motioning to one of the skeletal arms. I see it’s manacled, bound with enormous chains. “We shackled the monster, and turned his dread might to something productive.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Adric,” he says, “you’re a son to me. You always were, each time. You deserve the truth. What you see here, this beast: this is the Sacred Flame. It’s Wyrmfire.”
I look from Madaron to the cavernous skeleton. None of this makes sense. The Sacred Flame is from the gods, it’s divine. It’s not some Wyrmish devilry.
“You understand,” Madaron says, “why we keep this a secret, yes? It’s a powerful gift for humanity, but there are few who could accept the truth. The necessity.”
I swallow hard. “But… then why the ritual? If we’ve slain Grah-Nun… why am I here?”
Madaron chews his words. “We’ve shackled him, yes, but he’s not slain. We need him to keep fueling the Cult.” Madaron sighs. “His flame is like any other. It burns bright and then fades to an ember. Every seventeen years, we must rekindle it.”
The cultists all shift, each raising a palm in my direction.
“I’m sorry, Adric,” Madaron says. “Immolate him.”
The cavern erupts in firelight as twenty-one jets of white flame all converge on me. My scream is lost over the roar, and all I pray for is a quick death. I feel a shock of heat, and then–
–and then, a comfortable cool. I open my eyes, and I see fire swirl around me, dancing over my skin and clothes. It spirals towards that black-leaf amulet around my neck. I feel fine, but the amulet is warm. It glows, too bright to look at.
The jets of fire die out.
“What is this!?” Madaron shouts.
I pull the amulet out, and all around me I see bits of ash rising from the ground, burning bright. Floating to the skeleton and sticking to it. A monster un-burning, its flesh reforged.
“A Wyrm scale!” Madaron shouts. “Kill him! Get it away from the bones!”
Cultists rush into the ash circle, curved knives held high. I don’t know what to do, but I’ve been spared once and I’m not about to waste it. I still have Singing Heart, my sword. I no longer know what’s true and what isn’t, but I gamble on freedom. I decide to fight – not just my fate, but the story itself. I run towards Grah-Nun’s arm, and I slash at its manacle. The ancient iron splits.
And Grah-Nun moves. The free arm rises. The cultists stop. Even Madaron is frozen with his jaw hanging.
I don’t waste time and run to the next arm, cutting it free.
By now the ash is a fiery rain falling upwards, into the beast. Great tracts of its flesh have regenerated. With reformed lungs, he roars. It’s loud enough to level a city, and we fall to the ground.
The cultists scramble to their feet and flee. Madaron too. Grah-Nun exhales a blast of fire that eclipses the sun. The very rocks ignite. I run from him, and he breaks the last of his chains.
The cave burns and I can’t see the exit. I face the Wyrm, his body covered with shimmering scales, and I know I am lost. Where did Adric the First get his courage? This was an impossible battle.
“Foolish mortal,” Grah-Nun says, his voice deep as the roots of the mountain. “What did you hope to accomplish? Dared you dream that I would spare you?”
I cough. “I…” I don’t know why I did it. Fear of dying? “I… No.”
“An eon of bondage,” he rumbles, lumbering towards me. “It must be punished.”
I backpedal. I see the face of a father I didn’t know. I see Isa, crying.
“S-spare them,” I say, between coughs.
Grah-Nun draws himself up. He is a mountain.
“My life for theirs,” I say. “That’s… the story. Adric’s blood sates the beast.”
A horrid chuckle boils in his throat. “Last time I made a deal with Adric, I was enslaved.” He snarls. “No, mortal. Never again.”
“Then make a deal with Derin! P-please! I freed you!”
He snorts. “I applaud your willingness to sacrifice for others, yes. Even if it is youthful foolishness. Very well. Your life is mine. Adric I shall slay, but Derin I shall spare. It will be a hard life, now that the leeches no longer draw my blood, but a rewarding one if you meet its challenges.”
He inhales, the deafening roar of a waterfall, and the flames in the cavern die down. I see the passage again. Then he extends one hand to me, one wagon-sized claw hovering over my head. “I hereby crown thee King Derin the First, the Wyrmfire King. You and your kin are mine forevermore. Go forth and rule in my name, and with my blessing.”
I’m alive… but am I free? I leave the cave while I can, and hope battles dread each step I take. Have I traded one cycle for another? The mountain sky opens before me, stretching forever. I choose hope.
Today I fought. I freed us.
Tomorrow I’ll meet any challenge with my head held high.