“You’re headed to the front.”
Dragomir paused, a spoonful of sloppy oats less than an inch away from his lips. Drips of water plopped, unnoticed, onto his arm. “Say wha?”
“The front,” Barrel snarled again, though his white eyes told Dragomir who was actually talking. “We require extra support. You are to bring your vessel into the fight. Immediately.”
Dragomir set his bowl of oats down. He was eating on one of the Sky Bitch’s two lower observation balconies, casually leaning against the railing as he watched the zombies pack up their collection of tents and prepare to move off to Pubton. Pagan stood off to one side; Barrel, full-sized and looming over Dragomir, lounged on the grass beside the airship.
His hair looks singed, Dragomir thought, momentarily distracted by the frayed, blackened edges of Barrel’s cascading mullet. He’s seen some shit lately. Fucking rats.
“Kierkegaard is making a move against the front lines of the Imperium. His forces have penetrated an area of low resistance in the north, and are proceeding towards Fillingburg. The Imperium’s forces are spread too thin to properly battle him. We require your assistance in holding him back until we can rally our troops and redirect them from other engagements.”
Dragomir’s mouth fell slack. He began to conjure half-hearted arguments, but steely Pagan beat him to the punch. The old man stepped forward, laid a hand on Dragomir’s shoulder, shook his head, and addressed the dragon without a hint of reservation. Dragomir had to admire Pagan’s testicular fortitude, if nothing else.
“What kind of support will we have?” Pagan asked, eyebrows narrowed. “Aside from what we have on the ship already?”
“A flock of dragons, ten strong,” Barrel replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “And two thousand soldiers in and around Fillingburg. The city is guarded by cannons.”
“And what can we expect to face?” Pagan pressed.
Barrel paused a little longer this time, the light obscuring his pupils fading to a dull white. Then it flashed back to full brilliance, and the dragon’s stumbling voice rang through. “Five thousand Non warriors, three thousand Non fliers, seven thousand sky dwarves, and four orbs. The enemy calls them Nothings, as you do.”
Dragomir’s throat constricted, and he struggled to swallow. The number of normal Non alone was terrifying. Throw four Nothings into the mix… four… “Wh… what the… what…?”
“Will we have time to gather our own forces?” Pagan said, his mailed fingers tightening on the bannister. “The goblins? Even the zombies?”
“Unlikely,” Barrel admitted, then amended his response. “No. There is no time. You must go now. They will reach Fillingburg within two days.”
“This is an error,” Pagan said, his tone almost threatening. “We are not ready for even small engagements, let alone a full-scale battle. This ship is largely untested in combat. Sending Dragomir’s force against such extreme odds is a waste of resources.”
Barrel’s scaled brow arched. “Are you disobeying us, human?”
Pagan sneered. It was difficult to see under his long beard, but Dragomir noticed it all too easily. “I’m not, because I’m not in command here. If I was, though, I would at least question such a request. From what little I know, Dragomir is key to your war effort; sending him into a battle like this is reckless.”
“Then it is fortunate that you are not in command.” Barrel’s tongue snaked out of his mouth, flicking at Pagan dismissively. He turned to Dragomir. “You have sufficient resources aboard to counter the Non. You have recently stolen their general away from them, have you not? She can defeat an army on her own.”
Dragomir gulped. Somewhere in the Sky Bitch, isolated from everyone else in her tiny cabin, Eve was brooding the days away in silence. He’d had little time to spend with his daughter, a fact that filled him with no small amount of sadness. “A normal army, yeah. I dunno if she can take an army of fucking Non. And I don’t - “
“You also have your son,” Barrel pointed out. “And a witch. And several other capable fighters. You will be fine. Make haste for Fillingburg at once. The regulators aboard your ship will provide you with a map.”
Barrel’s wings stretched abruptly, and the dragon rose onto his feet, clearly ready to zip into the skies and leave. Panicked, Dragomir called for attention, sparks of anger stoking his urgency. His urgent flailing sent his bowl of oats overboard, a smear of brown on dying grass.
“Wait! What the fuck!” Dragomir pounded his fists against the railing. “This is shit, man! Fynn isn’t ready for fightin’, and… Eve… well, fuck me, I just don’t know about her, but I do know - “
Barrel’s boxy head swivelled back towards Dragomir, nostrils flaring. The heat of his breath warmed Dragomir’s face with an uncomfortable, almost rotten odour. “We have an arrangement, Dragomir. You… you must obey us. We have given you… you, a command: you must obey.”
Dragomir pulled away from the balcony, almost tripping over Pagan’s cane. He stared up at Barrel, eyes wide, though his fear was not of the dragon itself. Instead, he feared the little twitch in Barrel’s right eye, the tics in his speech, the tiny shudder occasionally running up and down Barrel’s enormous neck. He looked like he was fighting regulator control, and not enjoying his failure one bit.
“We have… the platypus…” Barrel continued, lips rising and falling spasmodically. “And the traitor… we will… execute them… sooner… if you do not… obey…”
“This is idiocy,” Pagan muttered, close enough to Barrel’s jaw that Dragomir could see green dragon skin reflected on Pagan’s steel visor.
Barrel moved so quickly that Dragomir didn’t realize he’d pissed his pants until it was too late. The dragon’s head flicked sideways a few feet so he was staring Pagan full in the face. Then, with a roar that shook the Sky Bitch, he opened his jaws and howled “OBEY” so loudly that Pagan was knocked off his feet and against the hull. Strings of dragon spit decorated his armour, and he groaned as he tried to stand.
Dragomir assumed he groaned, anyway. It took ten minutes for his hearing to come back completely. In the meantime he joined Pagan in staggering to the captain’s room for a recuperative sit-down.
Barrel flitted away with a mighty push of his wings, the force nearly tipping the Sky Bitch on its side. Dragomir cringed at the dragon’s departure, wondering why the dragon had lost his cool so completely… and, more importantly, wondering if the regulators were in more trouble than they let on.