But at the heart of all this terror-inducing magnificence was a fragile human made of nothing more than blood and bone. They could break so easily, these humans, especially when they poured so much of themselves into their creatures they forgot to keep any for themselves. They gave their own hearts in the service of a power far greater than they could ever realize.
And when they fell, crumpling like a broken toy, all that power disappeared as if it had never been.
The girl collapsed to the ground, the sudden absence of her dragon's golden glow leaving the world so much darker than it had been. She tried desperately to draw a full breath, to get anything past the blood in her mouth, but the knives of pain in her chest made it impossible. She ordered herself to get up, to do something, matter how fiercely she tried her body refused to do anything more than leave her fingers scrabbling uselessly in the dirt.
And the magic.... Tears leaked uselessly out of her eyes, mingling with the blood trickling its way down into the soil. They'd drilled the magic into her for months, told her to cling to it in the midst of even the greatest pain and suffering. She'd done just as they told her to, held onto the warm glow until it started to seem like it was almost alive. That glow had kept her going through the worst of her training, and the fact that she couldn't even feel a flicker of it now was almost worse than the knowledge that she was dying.
The sky somehow became even darker, the blackness her gran had always told her would come at the end of things. But then she heard the sound of footsteps, someone running, and she realized that the Dread Sorceress's creature had vanished as well. She was coming closer, wanting to be up close and personal to see her enemy's death.
But when the swirl of dark robes stopped in front of her, there was no mocking comment. The Dread Sorceress instead dropped to her knees, and the girl felt a hand smooth back her matted, bloody hair. "A child," the Sorceress whispered, her voice full of a trembling rage that would have made her afraid if there'd been anything left in her. "They sent a child to battle me?"
She tried lifting her hand again, tried to reach for even the smallest flicker of light inside her, but there was nothing. The Dread Sorceress made a noise that sounded like the girl felt, her hand still stroking the girl's hair. "Shhhh," the Sorceress whispered, softer even than her gran's had ever been. "You fought hard and well against an opponent you never could have hoped to beat. There are wizards twice your age who could not have done what you did, but the battle is done. It's time for you to rest now."
Even if the words were a lie, there was nothing else to cling to. Carried along by their softness, the girl finally let the dark embrace of death take her.
Her next memory was of silk against her cheek. Her first thought was surprise -- the village priest had never mentioned fine fabrics in the afterlife -- but then the smell of dust filled her nose as she realized this couldn't be the afterlife at all. Then the fine spider's web of ache all over her body demanded her attention, and a far more startling realization slowly settled in. She wasn't dead.
It took more effort than it should have to open her eyes. She was in a richly appointed bedroom, dusty enough that it clearly hadn't been used in some time. Sunlight filtered in through the closed curtains, not nearly enough to give her a clue as to where she might be.
She tried lifting her head, wanting to get a better look, but managed only a scant inch of space between herself and the pillow before her body informed her firmly that it was working with limited resources at the moment and crazy things like lifting her head was not on the approved activities list. She rolled instead, finding only more of the dimly lit bedroom.
The impossibility of it all did not lessen in the slightest. The closest castles to the Dread Sorceress's territory had all been abandoned, all carefully locked so the villagers couldn't make use of the resources inside. Even if someone had broken in, how could they have healed her? She was weaker than a baby, yes, but out on the battlefield she'd been a breath away from death. No herbs in the world could provide that kind of cure.
The memory of the Dread Sorceress's soft voice came back to her, but she dismissed it as a hallucination. People imagined all kinds of strange things when they were dying. There was no--
The thought cut off when a twisted, misshapen creature appeared in the doorway, one of the Dread Sorceress's army of monsters. The girl screamed, or at least meant to -- all she had the energy for was a pitiful-sounding meep -- but the creature jumped back as if she'd been much louder. It inched back inside after a moment, shaking, and the girl realized that the creature was just as frightened of her as she was of it.
She stayed silent this time, waiting, as the creature wrung its hands. "Does the girl need anything?" it asked, voice like a hand moving through gravel. When she nodded, mute, the creature nodded with what looked like relief. "I will tell the Mistress you are awake."
Then it fled, leaving the girl staring after him in shock.