: Council chambers of the alliance of the Dragon tribes of Cove
"Varashn'klor, please, if thou'd listen to reason-"
"Reason be damned! -Thine- actions are not reasonable, even if thou art the Council leader, and neither is the proposed solution, and yet thou profess it's worth to be enforced on I and my mate, and all others on our side!"
"But the council members agree, as does the general population, that -your- actions and ideas cannot be tolerated in a civil society. This is why they must stop."
"Look around thou! This is practically war! Thou hast heard the rumors from the Keh'shansharasha, the rumors of separation, of a war of conquest on the other tribes. These 'isolated incidents', as thou call them, are anything but isolated. They do nothing but prove mine righteousness."
"Surely they are nothing but rumors. The seers say that the newborn offspring of Jekk'ennen and Aishel will be a great Dragon, one to lead us into a new age of enlightenment. Rikk'het is his name; his skin is of gold, like the sun..."
"Damn the seers as well! They are doddering old fools, doing nothing but snorting incence and spouting the nonsense that pleases them at that moment. -Thou- art a fool as well, if thou canst not see the danger we are in, and the need for a plan of action such as mine."
"But the subjugation of the young? The slaughter of the seers and mages? Surely, thou canst not expect the entire Dragon culture to yeild before the extreme measures enacted by thine small sect of-"
"Now thou dost insult me -and- mine sect! Felakke'quas, thine words hath convinced me. I have hereby decided that the Dragon denomination under mine rule is dissolved of all ties with the corrupt and inept government of the Alliance, and that I will take mine sect away, to found a new society, with I and my mate Aenoljux as it's leaders."
"Secede?!? Thou canst not be serious, Varashn'klor. Division will only increase our present tensions, and... no Dragon has ever left the Home..."
"Dost thou think mine heart lies with your petty concerns? Mine sect
is now alone. We shall have nothing to do with thine trivialites. We are
now purified from this infectious place. We will shrug off this cushioned
upper world and return to the cold stone from whence we all come. I damn
this faltering culture, I damn this tainted council, and I damn you, Felakke'quas.
May the ancients burn thine decripit soul for eternity."
:Brittanian year 136
A droplet of water silently detatches itself from the cavern ceiling above. It plummets hundreds of yards, spattering in a tiny sound, barely audible to the three young dragons on the floor of the monstrous underworld.
Pale greens cover the floor, stalagmites are spaced randomly abount, some inches tall, some extending half a mile into the gloom above.
Strange sounds echo through the caverns sometimes; scrapes, weak rushes of wind, a crack of stone, a scream. These sounds are random and far between, and the silence of the cavern was a sound of itself, as if the vacuum of sound created vibrations between the great stone walls.
Two of the small dragons wait patiently in the shadows, one is a shiny black whose glossy skin was the only proof of it's existence in the shadows; the other, a deep, violent red, it's eyes burning like embers. Both watch the third intently.
The third, a sleek, dark green male with glowing emerald eyes, creeps silently over the field of cavern weeds, moving like a liquid towards the prey.
The prey, a cave rabbit several yards away, munches carefully on the pale weeds, his eyes wide and black, his ears nearly hairless and almost as large as his body. It is, as all animals are in the underworld, constantly tuned to danger, always prepared to blindly run from anything alive. It stops suddenly, the sensitive hairs feeling air shifting somewhere behind it. It's head spins almost instantly.
The green dragon sees the muscle movement beneath the skin, before the actual movement occurs, and presses itself to the cold ground, stopping all motion, even breath, and shuts it's eyes to eliminate glare. The rabbit stares directly at the green dragon, but it's eyes, attuned to movement, do not see anything strange.
It returns to eating, chewing its meager food in near silence.
The dragon begins to move again.
Closer and closer the dragon moves, like liquid...
Two yards away...
One yard away...
The dragon crans it's neck out, reaching for the meat.
Another pressure difference is felt by the rabbit, stronger this time. It's hind legs, always prepared for flight, snap into action, propelling it forward.
The dragon does the same, but his legs are much more powerful, and in a split second, hungry jaws are enclosing the animal. The dragon was good; his jaws close about the rabbit in a way that leaves it alive to feel the burning pain, working it's leg muscles to no avail.
The dragon stays like this for a few moments, enjoying the sensation of torturing the rabbit, feeling the blood streaming down his fangs and lip, dripping off to stain the half-eaten weeds. The ones crunch like wooden twigs. The rabbit's movements become weaker and weaker.
A snap of the dragon's neck sends the rabbit straight up into the air, to fall into the dragon's maw a moment later. It was swallowed whole.
The pair of cheers and clapping of paws echo strangely through the cavern, making them into the raucous applause of a spectral audience. The other two dragons emerge into the dim light from the barely luminescent weeds. The satisfied dragon turns to the pair and bows, blood still dripping from his grinning lips. A tongue snakes out to remove it.
"Well done," hisses the shiny male black, and the oldest, "I thought thou had lost him when he darted."
"Yes," the firey red female adds, "a good kill, Shodan."
The green smiles. "Thank you, friends. But 'twas still merely a rabbit."
The black laughs, low and gutteral, perhaps mocking. "'Twas better than Juxar's rat."
A growl escapes the red's throat; her eyes flaring angrily in a sudden rush of blood. "Thou hast not killed at all today, friend Denvol. Thou had best keep thy snout closed before I doth seal it shut with flame."
Denvol laughs again and opens his palms in a mock defense. "All in good time, Juxar. I have a surprise for you both."
Shodan's thin, sharp earflaps rise in interest. "What is it, Denvol?"
Denvol smiled. "Come."
A rush of wind swirled the dry area as Denvol's wings spread and pressed downward, against the air, lifting the beast above the ground. The other two follow suit, their membraned wings pulsing against the dead air. Soon the three are cruising two hundred feet in the air toward the southwest, muscles pounding to support the tons of flesh and bone.
"Where art thou taking us, Denvol? The Sept is having a Trial soon. All dragons must attend," Juxar said to the leading black.
Denvol cranned his head back to grin at Juxar. "Thou shalt see."
The trio flew on, through the underworld cavern, leaving only swirling stale air in their wake. Soon Denvol slowed, and dipped down a few yards to examine the dimly lit ground intensely. "Ahh..." he muttered. "There they are." He banked his wings to circle, and the two following him did the same.
"What *is* it, Denvol?" growls Juxar, not bothering to search as intently as had her kin. "Thou should not waste our time with..."
Shodan grins at Denvol. "I see them too, Denvol." Turning his head towards Juxar, he points a foreclaw at a particualr curve in the rocks below, a kind of natural shelter for ground-dwellers. In it were four trolls, huddled around a tiny campfire, fueled by some of the larger weeds. Their eyes dart out at the darkness, searching for danger like all ground-dwellers. But not upwards.
"I saw them come out of Covetous* this morning. They are fools for not leaving." Denvol explained with a grin.
Juxar looks at Shodan with a toothy grin. "Prey?"
Shodan looks at Denvol. "Prey?"
Denvol looks at them both in turn.
"Har, har! Gordo lose meat in fire! Har, har!"
The troll stupidly reaches into the tiny campfire to retrieve his rabbit meat, scorching his stumpy hand in the process. He leaps back, holding his injured hand between his thighs and jumping continuously. His companions hoot loudly at him.
"Shut mouth, Orkle," the injured troll growls, "unless you want meet club."
As the four settle down, and the burned one again sits, they continue to silently cook their few pieces of meat. The laughter was not much to alieviate the tension in the dead air.
Their eyes continue to peer around for danger.
The smallest of the four pokes another.
"Ranko," the trolls whispers hesitantly, "you feel wind?"
The column of flame from Delvol slammed into the campfire and spread outwards due to Denvol's descending position directly above it. The trolls are knocked backwards, their skin and furs slightly burned. To them, their campfire had just exploded.
The trolls scatter, two heading along the cavern wall that they had hoped would offer protection, the other pair dashing out into the open.
"Stupid move, prey..." Juxar thinks. From her position on the right and behind Denvol, she curved away and streaked after the latter two, her smoothly shaped crimson head moving in between them. As she flew, one troll paused in his flight to look at her face. He could have sworn the Dragon was grinning...
Juxar sped faster than them easily, and as her wings came up behind them, she gave them a single flap; the glide she was in made flapping useless and even dangerous at so low an altitude.
The flap brought her wings back, then swept forward toward the trolls. The joint in each respective wing caught both in the back with enough speed to knock them down; the sweep caused the left one's spine to shatter like glass, killing him instantly. Seven of the other's ribs broke, and were forced inwards, piercing his mesentary and organs, but leaving him alive.
The two other trolls fled along the granite wall; Shodan sped behind them. A blur of flame escaped his mouth, landing inches behind the galloping trolls. Two more escaped Shodan's maw, landing behind the creatures; burning them but not heavily injuring them.
"Enough teasing," hissed Shodan. A deep intake of breath created a powerful magic in Shodan's lungs; the dragon's muscles twisted in movements that came naturally, moulding and twisting the fireball to Shodan's wishes. It was let loose and a small, tight sphere burst forth, detonating between the two trolls. The singed troll closer to the wall smacked against it with enough force to knock it unconscious. The second is thrown into the clear, it's fur clothing blackened and fused to it's body. It was apparently still conscious and well enough to get back up and continue running.
Denvol, who had been following Shodan, curved away from the rock face after the second troll. A sweep of wings brought Denvol over the troll, and Denvol landed heavily in front of the monster. The troll stopped running, but was too frightened to think of another course of action.
"Dear troll," hissed Denvol with an evil grin, "I fear thou art in an unfortunate situation. What dost thou plan to do?"
The troll was dumbfounded by the ultimatum. He shakily reached over his shoulder, pulling an axe from it's strap on his back. The troll held it forward. "Take weapon...is all I have...has killed many giant rats..."
Denvol gently reached foward and plucked the axe from the trolls shaking grasp. It seemed not much more than a toy in the dragon's paw.
"Ahh...a troll axe. How interesting." The dragon moved his gaze from the axe back to the troll. Denvol then squeezed his hand shut, crushing the weapon into dust. The troll knew his fate and began to step back.
The reptile sighed. "I suppose I should let thee go, prey...go ahead, run."
The troll turned and sped away.
Denvol's forearm swung forward, claws slashing across the troll's back. The pain forced the troll into unconciousness even before it struck the ground. A powerful laugh escaped the black Dragon's mouth.
The troll that had been thown against the stone wall slowly regained awareness. He could feel his body was still whole, and was both surprised and releived. The reptile-birds had left him alone. But he paused, feeling an odd sensation. He noticed was the humidity. He felt like he was in a southern swamp, with the low, hot wind and moisture all around. He opened his eyes and realized the cause of the sensations.
The green Dragon had landed and moved against the wall, stretching an open mouth over top of the troll, slumped against the wall. The rows of teeth, the glistening flesh, were all around the troll. All it could think to do was scream. Shodan slowly closed his maw, digging his teeth into charred, screaming prey. The screams became a gurgle, the gurgle became a whimper, the whimper became one with the silence that ruled the underworld.
Shodan pulled his head back, allowing the mutilated dead body to slump to the cavern floor. Juxar had partially eaten the one that had been half alive (now very dead), and came over to admire Shodan's work. She clapped in admiration.
"Thou art truly a master of our art, Shodan." Shodan gave a sweeping bow to the female. "Thank thee, sweet Juxar. Thy attack, 'on the wing', shall I say, was most skillful."
Juxar bowed back in response. "Thank thee, good Shodan."
Denvol turned to the two and chuckled. "One would think thou two were about to mate. But we should return to the Sept now. As 'sweet' Juxar reminded us, the Trial begins soon, and any Dragon that does now attend is lashed. Come, let us go home."
The three took wing, sweeping into the air. As Shodan lifted himself
up, his glance turned to Juxar; he thought he caught the hint of a grin
on her face...
From the ground, even to a creature with eyes attuned to the underworld's darknes, the three dragons above appeared only as small blurs of their respective color. They moved slowly across the gloom above, wings pumping up and down, up and down...
Shodan trailed, being the youngest. In front of him was Juxar, with Denvol in front, being the eldest of the three. They flew on from the northern caverns near Covetous, heading south into the largest chamber in the underworld, called the Drokkhen'mochla [Ed. 'Dragon's Belly']. Curving in a lazy right arc, Denvol led the flight over the huge, still lake. Shodan felt the faint vibrating ring of the chamber, unlike most Dragons in the Sept. Moisture evaporating from the lake tended to form on the ceiling of the lake cavern, since wind was rare and the moisture simply went straight up to condense on the cold cavern roof. After it had collected enough in one spot, it formed a droplet which fell back into the lake. Dozens of drops fell each second, but spread over the huge lake, a ground dweller only saw a few at a time. The tiny 'plop' each drop made echoed very slightly on the chamber walls, and with hundreds of drops falling at a time, a vibrating ringing could be very faintly heard, but only to a few animals. It was said those who could hear it could foretell the future, but Shodan secretly thought it garbage. Even though the mystical traditions of the Sept were held the same as unbreakable laws, Shodan could not help but laugh silently at the 'prophecies'.
"If anyone knew these beliefs..." Shodan muttered into the wind. "Perhaps it would be better not to think about it..."
Denvol wheeled around the huge column that rose from the center island, formed long ago by the lava rising from within the bowels of the earth, curving out a supposedly hollow (no Dragon had examined it closely) tube from ceiling to floor. Circling up to the cavern wall directly to the west of the large central island of the lake, Denvol flapped harder, rising as he approached the wall. The others followed suit.
If that ground-dweller looked at the western wall of the central chamber of the underworld, it would seem just like any other. Tall, granite, unscalable. Soaring into the false sky until it joined the ceiling. From the three dragon's point of view, however, the curve of the upper wall did not slope to meet the top of the chamber. It jutted out in one particular spot, forming a platform visible only to those above it. Behind the platform and flush with the true cavern wall, was a huge hole, a tube leading deeper into the underworld. Denvol leveled out and soared into the narrow tube, narrow, that is, to a Dragon. Wingtip to wingtip, only two Dragons could fit within the cylindrical tube. It formed the perfect entrance chamber.
The three Dragons soared through the long stone tube, itself nearly a mile long. It was the perfect protection; only another Dragon could fly fast enough and would be agile enough to get through alive if other Dragons were chasing him. It had truly earned it's nickname, Drokkhen'grech [Ed. 'Dragon's Throat']. Being a tube between two areas of the underworld, the Drokkhen'grech was one of the few areas where the air moved by itself, being forced from one area to the next by heat or great movement. And there was most certainly great movement in the next chamber.
Perhaps the best word to describe the scene splayed before you as you enter the chamber is 'city'. But there are no buildings. The cavern widens immediately at the exit to the Drokkhen'grech, expanding to be approximately two miles wide at the center, forming a kind of eggshell. There are solid stone bridges and arches stretching between each side. Carved into these granite faces are many caves, some large and extending miles into the surrounding stone, some mere indentations. Pathways scratch the walls, forming catwalks leading between the side caves. The floor of the cavern is broken into several areas, some of which are fields of edible greens, some of which look like pens for grazing animals, which are scrawny and decrepit, barely fit for eating. The far end is more complicated, and obscured by the archways which seem to defy gravity, stretching across the cavern like a splash of water frozen in time. Stalagtites and stalagmites angle perfectly with the archways, some even connecting to form vertical shafts.
And all around are Dragons.
Some are crossing the bridges, some walk the side pathways between caves, some work the fields below, some curve in unhurried arcs around the cave.
Perhaps the place was only named so to fit the first two caverns. Perhaps it is named to relate to the activity that befits a Dragon enjoying the kill. Perhaps it was named to instill ground-dwellers with a true sense of fear...
But the name Drokkhen'trych, Dragon's Maw, fits the room well, in any case.
"We should proceed directly to the Pit," shouts Denvol to those behind him, "To be late would be unwise indeed."
The three Dragons continue on into the chamber, gracefully avoiding the bridges and natural pillars, staying low, as per the rule that those going further into the Maw stay low, those exiting stay high.
Coming upon the far end of the cave, the three are struck with the awe of the scene, as are all beings who view it.
The cavern end is partly flattened, but pockmarked with alcoves and protrusions jut out in seemingly random, but symmetrical, positions. From the center of the main bridge of the cavern, one can just make out the shape of a skull of a dragon. From any other position, it is virtually shapeless.
The alcoves hide old items of ritual, trinkets used for thousands of years in the rites of the Underworld Dragons. The protrusions support lumpy mounds of candles, crude lamps, and tapers, which have burned until their fuel, liquid or solid, is expired and a drake or acolyte dragon replaces it, with the proper ritual. The sight, up close, seems to suggest a burning alien face, scarred and torn, with dozens of embedded items in its skin, each implying thousands of years of experience and stories.
Below this wall is a wide, but shallow, arena. The outside edge is graduated, like seating for an audience. It extends two-thirds of the way around, the ends of the unfinished circle are flush up against the scarred wall. From side to side, the seating ring is almost an eighth of a mile wide. The pit itself is mostly flat, with a huge altar near the wall, and granite benches surrounding it, front, back, and sides. The altar is constructed out of obsidian, ornately carved, some depictions smaller than the eye could see, said some. Dragons skulls, claws, wings, dominate the carvings, other ones include representations of prey, and of their crude weapons. The corners of the altar extend up with immensely complicated candle holders, with fresh, tall, unlit candles in each. It's dimensions are approximately 10 feet by 25 feet on top, and about 6 feet high. The top of the altar is blank but far from clean; it is coated with the ancient residue of thousands, perhaps millions, of dragon rituals. Wax from candles, carbon smears from burnt paper or flesh, encrusted afterbirth from hundreds, if not thousands, of dragon inceptions.
The three young dragons alight near the middle of the graduated outside ring. Several dragons are already present, talking in low, reverent tones. The three sit quietly alone, gazing up at the wall of rituals.
Juxar muttered, "What is the Trial about? Doth anyone know?"
Denvol chuckled. "Thou dost know the Presbyterate is ever secretive. The only specific I know is that it is a Trial of Ideas, and one rarely knows what a Trial of Ideas concerns unless it involves that one. Thou art so impatient, Juxar."
The glance from Juxar was enough to silence the older male.
Minutes pass, and Dragons begin to arrive, soon numbering the dozens, then the hundreds. Shodan silently wonders if every Dragon is present yet. The ocean of scaled flesh reminds him of a boiling pit of lava; liquid, flowing together, flowing apart, and never stopping. Even if all Dragons are in attendence, counting them would be a futile task.
A hush raced through the assembly as a form overshadowed them, swooping in a bulky arc over the gallery toward the great alter. Sedinn'kreftarjalmokq'nvornen, the great council leader and ruler of the UnderDragons, landed with a heavy thump, his great rust-colored body matching his great age and power. He silently took his place, ignoring his quieted brethern before him, and settled in the only seat behind the altar, facing the assembly. He sat and stared up at the bridge-arches, and sighed deeply, the sound of thousands of pounds of stone moving ever so slightly. Staring up at the angled sea of Dragondom before him with his good eye, his immediate thought was, "Children..." The sequential thought was, "...need to be led." He sighed again.
Another large Dragon swept over the assembled crowd, this one taking her place to the left of the the council leader. Although several centuries younger than him, Blujard'nnikarestessor was still the second oldest Dragon of the Sept, and therefore second of the Presbyterate. She was much thinner than Sedinn'kreftarkalmokq'nvornwen, with the wrinkles of age covering nearly her entire midnight blue body. She had lost none of the Dragongrace and cunning in her old age, (seldom ever do) but most Dragons said she moved more like a snake than a Dragon. She cast a glance over the crowd with a narrow eye, considering it with some distaste, as if she would rather not be a part of it.
The third blur of shadow that raced over the assembly towards the alter belonged to Faryesht'nikloralgar, third oldest of the Sept. He took his seat quickly, his narrow gaze jerking over the other two Presbyterate members as if he expected them to leap for his throat. His dull black skin shifted strangely in the dim light as he twisted nervously on his stone bench to the right of Sedinn'kreftarkalmokq'nvornwen.
Several more minutes passed, as the last of the Dragons found a bare spot along the graded ring. Finally, the great Dragon at the center bench stood and silently faced the crowd. Within seconds, the other Dragons were silent.
Sedin raised his immense tail and let it fall back to the flat stone of the floor of the Arena. A cracking, echoing boom sounded through the Maw, vibrating the arches and natural columns very slightly. He raised his tail again, letting another crash reverberate through the Dragonhome.
"This Trial will come to order."
Sedin's voice reminded Shodan of two planes of rock slowly sliding across each other; low, tired, and gutteral. The Presbyterate leader sounded like he had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders for years, with never a reprive. Shodan silently reminded himself that the great Dragon did.
"The business before the Presbyterate at this moment concerns the thoughts presented to me by the Dragon Volteshn'k. Come forward, Volteshn'k, and present your idea before the council to peruse it's merit." Sedin slowly sat back down in his seat, sighing heavily.
There was a commotion on Shodan's right as a Dragon forcefully made his way through the crowd down to the floor of the arena, more forcefully than was needed. Shodan remembered Volteshn'k...a brash, irritating blue without many ideas other than impressing females and trying to get the younger males to follow him on hunts.
Volteshn'k strode up before the alter, and tried to gaze proudly at the members of the council. The council Dragons simply stared at him with a combination of expectancy and boredom.
"My fellow Dragons," Volteshn'k began after a moment of hesitation, "Among my many travels throughout the World..." Shodan knew this to be a lie; he, Juxar and Denvol had gone farther into the Underworld than Volteshn'k ever had. "...made the discovery that, perhaps, there is more to the world than the caverns that surround us. A world above."
A hushed murmur raced through the crowd...all of them had heard stories about a place where there wasn't a ceiling, where a ball of fire hung there and flew across it periodically. The stories themselves were dismissed as what they were; mere stories. But to hear a Dragon present it formally, especially to the council, was unheard of.
Blujard'nnikarestessor's head snapped to glare at Sedin, then snapping back to Volteshn'k. "The words thou speakest are from a drake's tale, Dragon. Unless thou bear proof, I suggest you return to your crib."
Volteshn'k turned a bright crimson, mixing strangely with his natural blue to make a wound-coloured purple. "Yes, I have thy proof. An orc whom I interrogated near the entrance to Shame kept insisting that better food would be available 'up above'. We know that the various entrances to the series of dungeons lead somewhere, but we know not where. I questioned him further on the subject, and I suggest..."
Faryesht'neniklor interrupted. "Volteshn'k, waste not our time. We know where the tunnels lead; I myself have entered the dungeon Shame, and found it led nowhere except to another dungeon entrance, Destard, I believe it was."
Volteshn'k nodded, as if this was a help to his argument. "True, very true, but this merely means the narrow passages of the dungeons lead to many places, some of which may be the open land we dream of!" He suddenly spun to face the congregation of stunned Dragons behind him.
"Fellow Dragons! Hear me! The Maw is our home, but what of everything else? Could there not be a world beyond the stone? Surely our stories are founded on -some- truth!" He swung a clawed paw to point at the three Presbyterate members. "When I suggested the idea of expansion to our leader, he scoffed! The only reason he offered to present mine idea to thou all was to formally dismiss it! Dost thou wish to stagnate here, while another world waits for us to conquer it?"
Several of the Dragons chattered their assent, and Shodan noticed Juxar tensing, suppressing her desire to cry alliance. It would be deadly to, and she knew it. Denvol watched with a kind of mild amusement, not unlike the expression Sedin wore on his crevised face. Shodan found some innate desire to learn more about Volteshn'k's words, although it would have mattered not whether they came from Volteshn'k or not. Shodan suddenly realized the main object of the black Dragon's rant.
"If we do decide to burst free of the confinements of the Maw, we shall need a leader! One strong and powerful, who can champion our cause to all the lands!" Volteshn'k rushed on, ignoring the scowl that was growing on Sedin's sad face. "I say it shall be me! Art thou with me?!?!" Several more Dragons cheered Volteshn'k, but Shodan and his two friends kept silent.
Volteshn'k continued, ignorant to the growing storm behind him.
"Together, with me as thine leader, we can grow beyond this place! Stretch our wings out and ensare undreampt-of places within our claw tips! We ca-"
It was a frightening sight to see Sedin stand so quickly, like half-cooled lava suddenly leaping into the air to and twisting to form a Dragon. The council leader gripped the edge of the Altar angrily, the tendons of his front paws becoming blindingly defined as they tensed, the stone their only barrier to his apparent rage.
"I will not have more of thy moronic prattlings of glory, Volteshn'k." The grinding of stone became an earthquake, still low and rasping, but with the trembling force of millions of tons of stone. Sedin spoke carefully and evenly, almost formally. "The ideas thou hast put forth before this council and this assembly are treason. Thy suggestions and accusations are unfounded, audacious, and undoubtedly genocidal. I therefore declare this Trial of Ideas to become a Trial of Blood. Other council members, dost thou disagree?" Sedin did not take his thick, angry eyes off Volteshn'k as he asked this question.
"Nay, I do not." Blujar chuckled immediately, obviously enjoying the proceedings. She did not take her eyes off the young Dragon either.
"Neither doth I," Faryesh snorted a moment later, his nervous gaze jerking back and forth between Sedin and Volteshn'k.
"So be it."
With a single muscle contraction, Sedin was over the immense altar and slammed to the Pit floor in front of Volteshn'k. Volteshn'k stumbled a step back, his self-composure shattering as easily as Sedin had broken his oratory. His maw hung open in a stupified manner, and his wings began to fold and unfold involuntarily, as if his mind was debating whether fleeing would be a worse fate than staying and facing Sedin's wrath.
"Thou dost know the Trial code...no flame, only fangs and claws. Flying only in a single flap. Prepare thyself, heathen."
Volteshn'k apparently still did not understand the situation he was in. He continued to step back, flexing his wings for no viable reason, and jerking his eyes to the Presbyterate members and the crowd.
Sedin stepped carefully forward, none of his Dragongrace lost to time, staying low with claws extended, head slightly drawn back to strike when the opportunity arose.
"Master, please, I-"
There was a blur of a rusty red as the council leader sprang forward, leaning to his left, and swinging out with his extended right claws, aimed at the partially open wing of Volteshn'k. A thin tearing noise was heard, and the younger Dragon stumbled away from his leader, looking in shock at the thick middle membrane of his right wing, three long parallel gashes exposing the silent crowd behind it.
The pain racing through Volteshn'k's wing seemed enough to make him understand his life was immediate danger and reaction was necessary to survival. He stepped back, always facing Sedin, tail and claws raised for use. Sedin allowed no quarter, and closed the distance between them quickly.
Volteshn'k raised both arms in a cross to try and block the rushing slash from Sedin, but they were knocked away, and Sedin's primary claw incised a neat line down the left side of the young Dragon's face. Blood poured freely, forming that same ugly purple as had blushing. With Sedin's forearm carrying through with it's swing, Volteshn'k tried to ignore his new wound and seized the chance to attack. He struck forcefully towards the base of Sedin's neck, but Sedin twisted easily, as if expecting it, and the claws merely raked the skin of his shoulder, breaking scales and drawing blood. Sedin seemed to not notice.
Both Dragons broke apart, and stepped back, circling warily, Volteshn'k blinking rapidly, trying to remove the oozing blood form his eye.
Volteshn'k stopped. He settled back on his hind legs, and tensed himself. He sprang forward, and stretched his wings wide, and leapt into the air. It was a classic attack, gaining the extra speed from the single flap, then using the legs to attack the foe. Sedin was prepared for it, seeing his enemy settle back and tense his legs. He flattened himself, knowing better than to strike at the clawed legs.
As Volteshn'k arched overhead, however, Sedin seemed to perform some tight, intricate movement: pivot on one leg, then stretch that leg, then lash out and up with the tail. It was performed with such ease, such incredible Dragongrace, the crowd seemed to synchronously gasp inwardly. They held their voice, knowing that words spoken during a Trial of Blood meant participation in it.
The tail swung upwards, destroying Volteshn'k's smooth instinctively-calculated trajectory. The young Dragon halted in midair, tipped forward, and with a cry of pain and anguish, landed head-first to the cold stone beneath him. In a blind maneauver, he forced his pained body to twist around and try and prepare for the coming attack.
Volteshn'k quickly spun to look at members of the audience whom he remembered, through pain and pride, had cheered for him. Their silent stares were now blank masks of apathy, seeing only a bloodied traitor defiling their shrine.
Sedin seemed to be waiting for this. He also turns to the audience, gazing sullenly at them after Volteshn'k. He directed his silent statement of Volteshn'k's desire for power to be futile not only to the young male himself, but to any and all whom had cheered for the upstart, those who had been hoping to grasp a share in this quest for expansion. The repression of rebellion Sedin instigated through this method was more effective than murdering off twenty impetuous Dragons like Volteshn'k. It was as if saying, "This could have just as easily been you."
Volteshn'k stared at his enemy and former master with bloody, hateful, hubristic eyes.
Sedin slowly leaned back on his haunches, the muscles growing taut. His claws extended their full length toward the young Dragon. His lips curl back, exposing the rows of teeth to the dim glinting of ritual candlelight. He sprang.
The echo reverberating through Drokkhen'trych was cut to a harsh, wet gurgle as the larnyx was crushed.
The force of Sedin's jaw is enough to crush every bone in Volteshn'k neck to a coarse powder. He slowly lifts his head from the red-streaked remains of the youth and stares back at the silent rows of Dragons solemnly, almost tiredly.
The voice is one of a million tons of stone settling back after a horrific tremor.
"I hereby declare this Trial ajourned."
Sedin raises his tail once and lets it fall to the bloodied floor.
Months pass, but there is no such unit of time in the Sept.
The weak tides of the lake of Drokkhen'mochla repeat every 7 hours; this is the only cyclic occurance the Dragons need. A special event in the future is said to occur, for example, in '1 cycle' or '10 cycles'. Slave drakes capable of flight or young Dragons given this duty record the times of everything relevent, and also light the next in a set of 4 special braziers near the center of the the Drokkhen'trych when the tides pass certain markers. To create another system of time measurement would be useless - nothing ever changes in the Sept. The only other unit of time relevent to them is Grand Cycle, equalling 100,000 cycles, kept track of only as part of the Naming Ceremony, or Kechne'koch.
Presumptuousness like Volteshn'k's occur every few fifty-thousand cycles, and are immediately quelled, in one degree or another.
The hunts continue, as they always have.
Rituals are performed, and the ancient dead are worshipped.
Needless to say, the coming tempest of events are of immense interest to the UnderDragons.
'The Presbyterate must know...' he thinks to himself in firm resolution, 'this news is too vital to be cursed with mine slowness.'
Whirling in a smooth arc around Drokkhen'mochla, he dives into the tube leading to the Dragonhome, his speed blasting the cool stale air into his face and making it feel like ice. The rough surface of the cylindrical tube flashes by, a smear of rough grey granite.
The entire display of the Drokkhen'trych leapt into being before him. He immediately swept upwards, planning to alight on the entrance to Sedin's cavernhome, and inform him of the news.
A blur of green appeared too suddenly in his upper veiw as he curved up; the blur squawking loudly. It's scent burns in Cress's nostrils from the proximity.
Their trajectories confused, the two beasts fall the short distance on the sloped floor of the Drokkhen'trych below the huge portal. The green twists around and looks at Cress with a mocking smirk.
"Cress, thine flying skills are much improved, but I still believe they need some work. What 'tis thine rush?"
The young pale-blue Dragon looks up at the green with wide, embarrassed eyes. "Shodan! Mine apologies! I did not mean to collide, I was meaning to find and report something to Sedinn'kreftarjalmokq'nvornen...something very interesting."
Shodan's smirk dissapeared as he realized the magnitude of a messge that is deemed important enough to be delivered to the Presbyterate leader directly.
"What is it? Nay, do not tell me. Mine ears doth not come before our leaders'. Let us proceed to Sedin's cavernhome."
The pair of Dragon took flight, pulling themselves up and left, towards Sedin's private caves. The care that was usually necessary for flying against the rule for flight in the Dragonhome was unneeded. Few Dragons were leaving; most were just waking from the several hours sleep usually taken at the beginning of every other cycle. Sedin would surely be awake, his age seemed to take away from his need for sleep.
The pair land upon the narrow stone catwalks along the walls of the Drokkhen'trych, near the very top. A wide cavern entrance is gouged out of the rock face near the middle, a thick, cured animal hide spread across it. A tired, bored drake sits quietly on a rock beside the doorway, his ineffectual wings like anorexic webbed sticks grown from his back. The hunted look on the drake's face jerks toward Cress and Shodan, chirping his half-frightened query for their prescence.
Cress stepped forward. "I bear news from the northern lakes. For our great leader Sedin's ears only."
The drake slides off the rock and slithers behind the curtain. Seconds pass as the pair outside wait for an answer from the Presbyterate leader.
They hear a deep, tired mutter, muffled behind the drapery. A moment later, the drake slips quietly out from behind it, squeezing past as if moving it would constitute a violation of a sacred duty. He nods quickly and gestures hesitantingly at the doorway, motioning the pair in.
Carefully pushing the curtain to the side, Cress steps into the cavernhome of Sedin, followed by Shodan.
The inner rooms of the leader of the Sept appear to be the storage room for the hundreds of Dragon ceremonies. The objects of ritual line the walls like a thick covering, obscuring the ever-present rock. The clutter on the floor seems to be just that, until the whole room is seen at once; the items seem to be placed in a time-honored fashion, the dust on each related to the frequency of it's respectiveritual.
Sedin sits heavily upon a thin mat of hides near the back, his eyes ever tired.
Cress immediately falls to the rock floor, touching his forehead to it. his words are unhesitating, reverent. "Mine master."
Shodan bows down to the floor as well, muttering the same words for the council leader. Sedin does not speak for several moments, and Shodan raises his head a fraction of an inch to see if he was perhaps, asleep. His eyes are blank, milky, and he seems to be in more of a trance than slumber, communicating with something in his own mind. His eyes focus suddenly, and stare at the pair as if they had appeared there just in that second.
"Rise, Cress. Rise, Shodan."
The sliding stone, thinks Shodan, seems different. As if it had stopped forcing itself to move yet still moving as always, as if...as if it was being pushed.
"The drake tells me thou hast news from the northwestern lakes near Despise, Cress. Please, speak of this."
Shodan frowns. Cress said the northern lakes, he thinks to himself, not the northwestern lakes...how could Sedin know a more exact position?
Cress, in his haste, seems not to notice this. He shifts to his feet, trying to restrain his urgency in front of his master. "Sedin...mine news is astounding... While flying alone near Despise on a hunt, I noticed a strange sight. A clutter of wood, perhaps several tons worth, lying on the shore of a small island on the long lake. Never have I seen that much wood in one place within allthe land, so I decided to examine it closer."
The younger dragon shifted from one hind foot to the other, attempting to remain calm within Sedin's prescence.
"As I flew down to the pile, I could tell it was constructed, not random - a stretched bowl with one pointed end, it seemed, with a long pole pointed up form the middle. Some kind of skin or cloth in tattered rags hung pole, with some kind of gold stitched into it. I could not tell more from it, it seemed broken or smashed from it's original pupose and form."
"But this is not the most interesting news, master. Near the wood structure, I saw a strange animal...two legs, two arms, like an orc or troll, but smoother skinned, less hair, less foul-smelling. I beleive it noticed me, but did not seem to care. Mine first thoughts were that a new prey graced our rock home, but... Sedin...I think it was a Losnikosh."
Shodan's eyes widened at the word and he spun to stare at Cress.
Sedin's creased brow furled, his eyes narrowing at the young Dragon.
"An Outsider? Thine words are not to be spoken loosely in mine prescence, Cress. Dost thou speak the truth, or bother mine ears with a fool's tale?
Cress swallowed, remembering the last Dragon to formally speak words from old legends. "I know it sounds foolish, great one, but mine eyes doth not lie...I did not speak to the being, but decided thou should be the first to know of this development. I pray to the ancients that I am correct in mine observation, and that I am not wasting thine precious time. Please, may I go to examine it further, with thine blessing? Or am I in error?"
Cress stared hopefully at his leader, eyes pleading.
Sedin sighs and stares at the floor for several moments, as if contemplating the gravity of his decision.
His head rises and faces the fledgling Dragon.
"Proceed on thine flight, Cress. But if any of the tales of the Losnikosh are true, it will not be easily interrogated. Their supposed trickery and guile, if even half true, may present a danger to you alone. Thou needest the help of other Dragons, ones more experienced."
Sedin slowly turns towards Shodan. "Thee and thine friends, Denvoln'k and Juxar, have done well in thy hunts am I told, Shodan," he says heavily, "Thee three accompany Cress to examine the Losnikosh further. Beware it's cunning. Return with thine report within the cycle."
Shodan hesitated, his mouth open before Sedin. He finally found words to respond with. "Mine thanks, great leader. We shalt not fail thee."
Sedin nods, and leans his head back against the wall, paying them no more mind, as if they had already left.
Cress and Shodan quickly and quietly left Sedin's cavernhome, and took flight outside on the catwalk.
"I canst not believe mine ears, Shodan," Cress cries as they flew on to find and wake Devoln'k and Juxar. "Sent on a mission by the leader of the Dragons. Imagine the repurcussions of our find if it truly is a Losnikosh...perhaps there really is a world above..."
"Speak carefully thine words, Cress," Shodan chuckles to the Dragon behind him, "Thine fate doth not lie with the traitor Volteshn'k. We doth not even know what the creature truly is yet. Patience."
The Sept still sleeps silently, the only sounds the work of the drakes in the dark fields below, the crackle of the cycle flames, and the occasional leathery flap of wings from another lone Dragon. Cress and Shodan flew over and between the arches that stretch across the Drokkhen'trych, carefully weaving between the limestone columns that scattered about.
They alight on a wider ledge on the opposite side, this one farther down than the walkway Sedin's was on. More cave entrances line the walkway, some with curtains of hide stretched across them. Shodan steps up to one with a blood-stained swirl of color on it, and brushes it aside, stepping into the room.
The cavern is smaller than most, cluttered with old pelts and items from battle... smooth skulls, broken weapons. A few personal objects of ritual are scattered in careless places, the opposite of Sedin's positioning. A mound of pelts in the far corner rises and falls very slightly, a light rasping emerging from it.
"Juxar! Wake thineself! The Sept calls us to duty!"
The pile of skins rustles slightly. Shodan steps over to it and kicks the pelts aside, revealing the young female under them, squinting from the dim light filtering in from the doorway. She growls irately.
"Mine night was not the best," she manages to Shodan, "I chased a pair of mongbats over half of the world, only to lose them near Hythloth. I returned less than half a cycle ago, thus, I am still tired. Please go away." Juxar grabs several of the pelts and pulls them back over her head. "Whatever menial task our great leader has graciously assigned us, I'm sure thou canst handle it," came the muffled voice.
"Well, then, Juxar, I suppose we can examine the possible Losnikosh alone. Enjoy thine safe slumber."
Juxar flings the remaining pelts aside and instantly sits up, peering at Shodan with intense, interested eyes. She was now very awake. "Didst I hear thee right? A Losnikosh?"
Shodan smiles and nods. "Cress here thinks he saw one while on a recent hunt. Near a large pile of wood, all alone. We, er, Sedin, rather, thinks the possiblility too intriuging to pass up, so, we are going to examine it. And that 'we' includes thee and Devoln'k."
Juxar looks critially at Cress. She grunts slightly. "Fledging," she says, turning back to Shodan.
Looking at Cress blush, Shodan also notices the young Dragon was trying to keep from coughing. 'Juxar's scent,' thinks Shodan. 'He's probably never been in a female's cavernhome. But Juxar's scent -is- one of the strongest I've ever smelled...like violence for the nostrils.' He grins inwardly.
"I hath known him quite a while," Shodan replies, "I taught him the Flam D'tesh." [Ed.- Belly Fire, or 'to breathe fire', in this case the technique of forming and breathing fire]
Juxar gives a short nod to the young Dragon and says to Shodan, "Let us drag the noble Denvoln'k from his sleep and be off. 'Tis not every cycle one verifies million-cycle-old legends."
The three Dragons leave Juxar's cavernhome, taking flight up several levels of catwalks to one that curves with the huge cavern, leaning out over the rest of Drokkhen'trych, one which was always avoided by drakes who could not fly. The blanket in front of Denvol's cavernhome is impregnated with soot, leaving it black as the farthest corner of the world. At certain times it seems like Denvoln'k's home sucked up light, making the cavern appear to be a huge open mouth.
Pushing the hide out of the way, Shodan and Juxar step into the cave, Cress following silently behind them.
Denvoln'k's cavernhome, at first glace, seems to be a lesser version of Sedin's. Ceremonial items are spread about, carefully arranged with the precision of an obsessive, exposing the owner's obvious pride in the Sept. Shodan remembers Denvoln'k old explanations and teachings of the many rituals as the two were growing up. Shodan had decided then that the older black was going to grow up into a great member of the Presbyterate.
Denvoln'k slowly leans up from his mat of furs, and squinted at his friends. "Thine purpose for interupting mine sleep, Shodan? Juxar? The cycle canst not be past the second quarter."
"Our apologies, Denvoln'k, but we have been called by Sedin to assist Cress here to exam-" Shodan's words were cut short as Juxar rushes forward and grabs Denvoln'k's shoulders.
"A Losnikosh! The fledgling thinks he hath found a Losnikosh! Now get thine lazy arse from the bed and come with us."
Denvoln'k's mouth hangs open, swinging between Shodan, Juxar, and Cress. Finally it shuts and he looks at them carefully. "Thou dost jest. A Losnikosh? From the olden tales?"
All three of the visitors nod vigorously.
The black male quickly pulls himself up and gives an enthusiastic grin.
"What are we waiting for, then?"
"How doth thou like thine new name, Denvoln'k?" Juxar shouts to the leading Dragon, as they curve north, then northwest.
"'Tis fine. I am glad I chose to honor the many Dragons who remember the great Varashn'klor's third Kechne." [Ed.- Name, or a syllable of a name, depending on the context].
"The ceremony was impressive, Denvoln'k," Shodan yells, "Sedin seemed to be especially proud of thine choice. Truly a Kechne'koch to remember."
The entrance to the northwestern area of the underworld is roughly a vertical rectangle, the smooth sides forming something that, at first glance, appeared to be a huge doorway for some extinct species of giant that had had lived out it's society's subsistence long ago. The Dragons pass through it easily, and fly into the cavern.
The large cavern on the other side is dominated by the central river, its waters heavy and silent. Islands, some large, some mere rocks, are scattered about it. Denvoln'k leads the formation lower, each of them scanning the water's surface for the pile of wood that was supposed to mark the prescence of the Losinikosh. Cress leans away form the diamond arrangement, moving along the western shoreline. Minutes pass, as the Dragons watching the dim ground carefully.
"I don't see it, fledgling Cress. Art thou sure of what thou saw?" Juxar shouts impatiently.
"I saw it no more than half a cycle ago... 'Tis nearby, Lady Juxar, I swear."
Shodan chuckles quietly at Cress's wording.
"There it is!" the young Dragon shouts suddenly. "There it is! 'Twas no illusion!"
Following Cress's outstretched clawtip, Shodan sees the wooden form right near the edge of a rockly isle. From it's shape, Shodan thought, it looks as if it was supposed to be floating in water.
The four circle down, wary eyes looking for the sign of the Losnikosh.
Denvoln'k points silently. There it was, sitting, unmoving, on a large boulder near the wooden form, facing the length of the river stretching off to the northwest. It seemed to be toying with some small object, held lightly between it's fingers. Using gestures, the black signals they should surround him and land simultaneously.
Shodan curves off to his left, planning to land on a higher rock outcropping, giving him the higher ground. Juxar was across from him; Cress, who seems pale from anticipation, is behind the Losnikosh, near the wooden shape; with Denvoln'k obviously planning to land directly in front of the creature and frighten him into submission. Shodan could feel his heart pounding.
With a sweep of Denvoln'k's forearm, the four cease flapping and drop suddenly, violently slamming onto the stone ground. Denvoln'k takes an unhesitating step forward on tensed legs, spreading his claws at the Losnikosh, pulling his lips back across his glistening white razors, and lets loose an intense hiss, degenerating into a low, gutteral growl. Any other creature would be scared senseless, fainting from terror before the hiss ended.
But the Losnikosh simply raises his head to look quietly at Denvoln'k.
Shodan leans closer to look at the creature. He certainly did not look dangerous. In fact, he appeared to have given up everything important to him, or perhaps... perhaps everything had been taken from him. He looks scarred, but not physically. As if some entity had reached into his very soul, twisted it, forced him to betray himself, betray his loved ones... Shodan shakes his head, trying to ignore the pity, or perhaps the sense of outrage, the appearence on the Losinosh made on him.
The Losnikosh, still staring in silence at Denvoln'k, blinks once and speaks. His voice is quiet, untrembling, but broken.
Denvoln'k is obviously taken aback by the response. Blind rage, fright, terror, these he knew.
The black Dragon spreads his arms to indicate the other Dragons around him. The creature turns slowly to glance at all four, with an air of apathy.
"Thou art surrounded, Losnikosh. Will thou answer mine questions, or die a painful death?"
The creature suddenly looks at Denvoln'k with a vague sense of hope, but then shakes his head. "If thou couldst kill me, I would beg thee to. But the wraiths would never permit it. Or perhaps thou art sent by them. In which case I ask of you to leave. You no longer amuse me. Leave me to mine daydreams. Or daymares. Or whatever it is I am left with."
Denvoln'k sneaks a glance at Shodan, both bear a look of confusion. This was cetainly not what they were expecting.
"Losnikosh...we are the Dragons of the Sept. We have questions for thee."
"So thou art not from the three? Ask away, then. 'Tis not often I speak to another creature, other than the wraiths."
Denvoln'k blinks, expecting some resistance from the creature, but asks his questions anyway. "First...does there exist a world above?"
The Losnikosh looks quizzically at the black Dragon. "Hast thou lived thine whole life in this dank place? Do you mean Brittania? Or the void?"
"I mean a world above this one. One with a ball of fire in the sky? And I certainly have lived mine life here. Where else would I live it?"
The Losnikosh snorts sarcastically. "I have prayed to the virtues that I might leave this place, and then I am told you live your life without ever seeing the sun...or real rain...or even true grass."
Juxar stomps forward and shouts in blind anger, "Watch thine mouth, Outsider, or art thou -trying- to get burned alive on this rock?"
"Sometimes I wish it. Sometimes not. Does it matter?"
Juxar's jaw clenched, as she fought the sudden anger she felt. Shodan knew what it was - she was so used to having prey respond in certain ways, and when one doesn't, all she'd feel would be anger. She may lash out, destroying the only link they had to another world.
Denvoln'k saw this too and spat a quick order at the female, preventing her from jumping on and devouring the Losnikosh.
"I will take thine answer as a 'yes', Losnikosh. Second - what of Dragons? Do they exist there?"
The Outsider nods. "Some. Not many, as far as I can tell. Mine friend's uncle was killed in one of their attacks on Cove. Their eyes doth not glow like thine, though. And thy wings are much bigger."
Shodan could hear Cress sharply take in his breath at the possibility of distant race of Dragon kin.
"And thirdly - is it possible to get there from here? Obviously, thou came from there, but is there a way back for you?"
The Losnikosh pauses, as if examining a course of action he had abandoned long ago. "Sutek said he had found a way... through one of the dungeons. I know not if he made it." He turns away. "I no longer care, I'm afraid." He continues to twist the small object in his hands. It looked shiny, but it was impossible to tell exactly what it was.
"Dungeons? Dost thou mean the systems of tiny caverns scattered about the world?" Denvoln'k asks.
The Losnikosh nods without looking up.
Shodan could tell that something inside Denvoln'k was growing, a sense of growth, or perhaps of power. The kind Volteshn'k had, but Denvoln'k's was tempered with patience and cunning. At that moment, Shodan had no doubt that Denvoln'k would sit in Sedin's place on the Presbyterate. Or perhaps more.
"I have a question for thee, Dragon," the Outsider says, the slightest amount of curiosity in his tone, "What is this name 'Losnikosh' thou callest me? I have never heard it before."
Shodan could hear Juxar snort and turn away in petty disgust. Evidently she did not think the creature was worthy or capable of learning their stories.
Denvoln'k paused before the creature, apparently debating telling him the tales of his kind. "Long ago, where our past blurs, some say even before Varashn'klor lead us to our harsh paradise, there were only Dragons, no others. Then, as time ran it's constant flow, other races of creatures began to grow. Mature, I suppose. Some began to use peices of wood, peices of stone to make their lives easier, as Dragons did. It was a pity we didst not crush them then. They began to organize, and even fight back when one of our kind went for food. Their numbers were greater; that was perhaps the strength that allowed them to conquer the few of us that fell into their traps. Most still had the Fear in their hearts, and ran screaming from us when we came into view. But one race...one race broke the Fear.
"They organized even more, protecting their mud huts and stealing rituals from Daemonmagic, disgusting as it sounds. Soon they could easily kill a Dragon given strategic position and sufficient numbers. Their trickery became legendary, the tales say, and we had to limit our solitary ranges to keep away from their villages lest we perish without kin to die beside. They never posed a threat to the Dragon race as a whole, but one legend says that Varashn'klor saw their danger, and became another reason for him to leave with his mate Aenoljux and carve our new home.
"That race was the Losnikosh, and given the descriptions still present in our legends, thou matchest it. The world above was the home of the Losnikosh, and is described in the tales as well, but then, they are still just tales. Yet now that the Sept has proof that the Losnikosh exist...perhaps the world above exists as well..."
The creature sits silently, looking at Denvoln'k with the same vaguely curious eyes as had when the black had started, but Shodan saw the Outsider had, somewhere, the intense curiousity that Shodan himself felt sometimes, but the creature looked broken, as if he had given up his own nature and forsaken it, including his own thirst for knowledge. The sense of outrage returned in Shodan. 'Outrage at what?' he thought.
Juxar, at this word, seems to explode in anger.
"What doth thou care?!? Thine life means nothin, infidel. Thine purpose is only to satisfy mine hunger. Now, DIE!"
Shodan felt himself leap off the rock towards the Losnikosh, but his purpose was not to devour him. He managed to reach the creature first, and reached around him to stop Juxar's pounce in mid-air, her teeth ready for blood.
Their muscles tensed, the two Dragons are locked around the Outsider. Out of the corner of his eye, Shodan could see his expression, one of mild astonishment.
Juxar's was completely different. Her eyes burned with a fury born in some dank hell, the anger total and unstoppable, but unpredictable. Lashing out at random.
Shodan could practically taste her scent.
She suddenly shrugs away from his grasp, turns, and lifts into the air without a word, the air swirling angrily.
Denvoln'k is lost in thought, only half-noticing their battle of wills. He glances after the rising Juxar, back at Shodan, then spreads his wings, and launches into flight. The young Cress, silent in all this, hesitantly watches the black fly southeast, then follow suit.
Shodan and the Losnikosh stare quietly at each other. Shodan can not help but betray some gratefulness at the fact that he had prevented Juxar from attacking the Outsider. The Outsider looks at Shodan, a strange mixture of gratitude, curiosity, and apathy on his small face.
Shodan glances down at the object in the Outsider's hand. It is a small circle of some lustrous yellow metal, too small to fit the Losikosh's fingers, and obviously not meant for him, but beautiful nonetheless. The Losnikosh evidently notices the green dragon's interest in it.
Turning back to the creature's face, Shodan notices a faint, sad, ironic smile, the first smile he had seen on the Outsider since they had first seen him on his lonely rock.
"'Twas for the love of mine life. Before I betrayed and murdered her."
The creature turns away, his eyes becoming wet with tears, the first in many weeks.
Shodan turns and spreads his wings, ascending without saying a word.
The word slams off the walls of the Drokkhen'trych, low and gutteral, as all words do that emerge from Sedinn'kreftarjalmokq'nvornen.
Shodan had not seen Juxar since returning, but he has not been back long. Only long enough to notice that a small crowd has gathered near Sedin's cavernhome, which included Cress and Denvoln'k. He had immediately headed for it, but as Sedin's order reverberated through the Home, he switches course for the Pit, as all of the Dragons were. An immediate call to Trial was not to be disobeyed.
The wall of ritual loomed before him, forcing him into reverence. Scanning the rows of Dragons, he notices Denvoln'k and Cress sitting on the right side. He carefully weaves his way through the swarm to sit beside them. Denvoln'k, somewhat distracted, nods to him.
"Hast thou seen Juxar?" he asks with some trepidation. Her anger was not something he wished to face.
Denvoln'k raises an eyebrow, somewhat in surprise. "Nay, I proceeded directly to our master's cavernhome to inform him of the Losinosh's interrogation. She did enter the 'Grech, though; I had seen her disappear into it just as it came into view. I do not think she thinks much of thee, after denying her her meal."
Shodan sadly shakes his head. "I didst not mean to anger her, but... like thee and Sedin both stated, the Losnikosh is a valuable find. Losing him would not benefit us."
Denvoln'k nods absently and turns away, deep in thought. Shodan furrowed his brow, wondering what was bothering his older friend. Cress turned and gained Shodan's attention.
"What dost thou think will happen, Shodan? We told Sedin about the Losnikosh's responses, but he only nodded and called this Trial. Dost thou think he'll call for someone to seek out this place? Or perhaps to dismiss it?"
"I don't know, Cress. But the will of the Presbyterate is ever wise, and their decisions are final."
Looking behind him, Shodan saw a blur of red he recognizes. Twisting around, he stared at Juxar, but did not say a word. She alighted upon the very top edge of the pit, away from most Dragons. She stared silently back at him, and then turned her gaze back to the obsidian altar, where the Trial was about to be initiated.
Sedin's tail thumps once on the stone floor. Then again.
"I hereby call this Trial to order," Sedin's heavy voice silenced the assembly quickly. Blujar, to his left, looked extremely angry, trying to conceal her apparent rage by gripping the altar beside her and staring at the floor. Faryesh looked as nervous as ever, shifting his gaze from one possible threat to the next. He had a new fear now, it seemed, as if the ground or air itself might leap to attack him.
"This Trial is defined as a Trial of Decision. They are not called often, as the system constructed by the Great Varashn'klor keeps the need for decisions from interfering with our activites. However, this case requires the knowledge of all Dragons, and therefore requires a Trial of Decision." Sedin took a breath. "The event under examination involves the discovery, and subsequent interrogation by several Dragons, led by Denvoln'k," Sedin gestures slowly at Denvoln'k, who gazes back and nods solemnly, reverently. "of the creature which the tales call a... Losnikosh."
A hushed murmur races through the crowd among those who had not heard the news. An older blue beside Shodan gives a low growl, and mutters something about foolish myths. Blujar tenses at Sedin's word, and grinds her teeth hard enough that Shodan can almost hear it.
"I assure thee all, that this Losnikosh, given my faithful servants doth not coat my ears with invented truths, exists and has provided us with remarkable account of a world which none of us place any truth in. The world 'above' as they say, may truly exist. Since our lives would change drastically given whatever course we choose, mine decision about this matter is final. A group of Dragons will proceed to this world, and investigate it, then return to inform all of us about it, and also to report of the various factions that exist there, in order to prepare for possible conflicts and alliances."
Shodan can not believe his ears - alliance? To examine the 'surface', as the Losnikosh called it, would be a reasonable deduction, but to form an alliance with a otherworldly group? It seemed far from anything that the Founder, Varashn'klor, would have, or did, intend. But, the will of Sedin is law...
Blujar seems to take on a remarkable change from her previous withheld anger. She stares at Sedin with a mixture of utter confusion and unrestrained contempt. Her words are like spears of ice. "Thine words, I am sure, Sedin, are extremely unfounded. To actively seek out this supposed 'world' is impudent, and thou knowest that. This world of stone is our home, as Varashn'klor intended. He did not want us to go flouncing off on some fool's mission to search out a myth, as though knowest."
"I would tend to agree with the lady, Sedin. The issue concerning Volteshn'k has not changed, and never will. Art thou sure of thine reasoning?" Faryesh adds, somewhat falteringly.
"Mine reasoning is not at fault. And mine decision is final. A group of Dragons will try to visit this place. It is my will, and it shall be done."
Blujar's anger becomes more and more obvious. "No, Sedin. Thou hast not explained thyself at all. I demand that thou justify this course of action and explain to me and this audience why thou wishest to waste time and energy on such a moronic idea, based on the prattlings of a lesser, and mythical insect."
Sedin now directs all his attention to the old blue, narrowing his eyes and speaking to her directly. His voice seems more tired, if that was possible, and he immediately seemed to forget there was a large assebly before him.
"Mine will determines the good of this society, Blujar. Claiming another source of authority here is not far from treason, and I doubt that thy intentions lie with traitors. Is this where thou dost wish to tread?" Sedin totally ignored Faryesh, who was staring at the other two Presbyterate members the same way the assembly was. Shodan senses this was the reason why Sedin ignored him.
"Dammit, Sedin, do not twist mine words. I do not wish to bring the title of traitor down on myself, nor am I insulting thine authority. But what thou suggest is not what our Founder wanted!" Blujar shouts, also ignoring the assembly.
Sedin leans back into his bench and sits silently, turning something over in his mind.
"I see that our differences run deep, and both are founded well in Sept tradition. Traditional authority versus authority of tradition. I doubt we can resolve this matter quickly. We will return to mine cavernhome, to discuss it and reach a conclusion. This trial is in recess, and will reconvene-" Sedin crans his neck to peer over the audience and check the flames used for timekeeping. "-in 2 quarters, at the lighting of the second flame. This trial is of utmost importance, and any Dragon who does not return then will answer answer to me, regardless of the outcome."
Sedin stood from the bench and slammed his tail once. He lifted off towards his cave, without glancing back to check if Blujar was following him, or even agreed with the proposition. She hesitated, growled slightly, and rose to join him.
The rest of the Dragons began to disperse, somewhat confusedly. None of them, even the oldest, had not seem such a display of tension in the Presbyterate. They could feel deep within their souls that the changes that occured here and in two quarters would shape the rest of their lives.
Shodan turns to watch Juxar fly toward her home.
* * *
The great sheet of still water spreads before him, tiny ripples from ceiling drops were the only disturbance, and Shodan finds himself wondering if there were no drops, no wind, no disturbances at all - what would the water be like? Would it look solid? Would it -be- solid? Could it be perfect in the first place at all?
A sigh escapes his maw and he sits on his rock, which jutted out over the Drokkhen'mochla a few yards. The meeting with the Losnikosh had disturbed him. There was something the Losnikosh had, but had given up, and Shodan felt himself searching for what it was. Perhaps it was his last words... 'for the love of mine life'.
Shodan suddenly leaps up, and gives a hard flap to his wings, forcing him over the plane of water. His wings pump wildly, goading him to move faster and faster. The shapes in the water, only vague changes in the blue-black surface, blur past him at high velocity. He moves into a glide, letting the tips of his wings touch the water. Two trails of spray shoot up, cracking the stillness like a blow from a weapon. His tail touches too, causing another trail. If he slows too much, or is too low, he gives a couple flaps to press his velocity to stay at the maximum. He rounds the island at the center, the sharp rocks achieving the same kind of smeared greyness high speeds generated in the stone world. Shodan continues around, the traces in the water making ripples that swept in lazy arcs thoughout the lake, interacted, decayed, died...
His sitting rock comes into view, and he sweeps up, slamming his tail to make a gigantic splash. He twists, and lands on the edge of the rock with a sudden inward sweeping of the wings. Dragongrace begins to cool from his blood. The speed stays in his mind, the way burning metal etched it's mark in a surface even after the metal had been cooled and removed. A flap of wings overhead alerts him.
Denvoln'k comes into view, and lands near the base of the rock. He nods solemnly to Shodan.
"Greetings, my friend."
"Greetings, Denvoln'k," Shodan murmurs in response. He knew from Denvoln'k's questioning look that the older black could tell something was amiss.
"Is your withdrawn behavior because of Juxar? Do not worry about her, Shodan. She'll forget about in two cycles, no doubt."
Shodan smiles, knowing he could never keep much from the black. "Yes, I know. But what I did was not like me, I think. Or it 'twas me, yet a changed me. I do not know what posessed me to save the Losnikosh. He was not much worth to us after interrogation. That's why I am out here, to think."
"Thou didst the right thing. Juxar will have to satisfy her hunger on another unfortunate."
There is an awkward silence between the two, both knowing the thing lurking back in the Drokkhen'trych.
"Denvoln'k..." Shodan starts. He did not understand why such an important topic came so hard. "What dost thou think will happen to the Sept? With Sedin's decision, we could all be on another world within a few cycles. And Blujar, although I think she is in the right, will just push back the day when we must breach our walls. What dost thou think?"
Denvoln'k frowns, mostly to himself, as if Shodan had spoken what he had been pondering ever since the Losnikosh meeting. But Shodan could never be sure. "I think... I think that the decision is not ours to make. Whatever Sedin and Blujar decide, we must stand beside them. But..." Denvoln'k turns his head to look at Shodan. "If it were for me to decide, I would seek out this new world. And take it."
Shodan nods. Denvoln'k, the true leader. But was Sedin not like that, at least not recently. The Presbyterate originally seemed more interested in preserving the lifestyle in this stone world. Different types of leaders, he thought, different goals.
The green replies, "I know what thou dost mean. I just hope the decision is wise... Most Dragons do not seem to care what happens, and the rest want to leap into a facet of existence no one can conjecture about. Either we sit and wait, or we leap into darkness."
"Thine words are wise. I doubt anyone here can truly understand the consequences of Sedin's plans, save for Sedin himself. And Blujar knows the words of the Losnikosh cannot be totally ignored. These changes wrought here and now alter our very way of life, regardless of the outcome."
Shodan smiles at his friend, wondering about the black's future. He would take Sedin's place someday, when his age was right, of that there was no doubt. But that power... how would it be wielded? To preserve a lifestyle? Or take on a new one? His trail of thought is interrupted as Denvoln'k spoke again.
"The second flame is soon to be lit, and we should return. Our questions will be answered then. Do not worry, Shodan. The Presbyterate is always wise in their rulings."
An apologetic chuckle escapes the green's throat. "True, very true. I must remember that."
The pair lift off, rising towards the entrance to their home.
* * *
The crowd is just as packed at this hour, perhaps more, if Dragons had returned from hunts in those two quarters and heard the important news. There is a tenseness in the air, connecting every Dragon to every other Dragon, as they all knew the coming decision would profoundly affect their lives. It was, after all, a Trial of Decision. Most Dragons live a full lifetime and never experience one. Sedin or Blujar have not returned, but Faryesh sits on his bench, peering around and wringing his hands. Shodan heard from Cress that the third Presbyterate member had tried to enter Sedin's cavernhome and had been screamed out by the other two. It was apparent the discussion between Blujar and Sedin was intense, but not violent, at least as far as the common Dragons knew. Even the drake had been ordered away from Sedin's doorway, so they cannot really tell.
Minutes pass, as the two oldest members of the Presbyterate continue their debate.
The crowd is remarkably silent. One would expect them to be bristling with activity over the importance of the occasion. But they all sit quietly, reverently, waiting for their masters. Moments later, a young red in the back of the crowd chirped a message that he could see Sedin emerge from his home. All of the Dragons twist around to look back... Sedin does not look right, for some reason. His form seems bulky, oversized, and disprortionate. Perhaps it was the lighting, perhaps it was the tension in the air.
As Sedin approaches the Pit, Shodan realizes why his shape looks strange.
Sedin gently lands on the floor of the Pit, between the Altar and the rows of seats. He drops his load.
Blujar's fresh blood begins to spread out from her wounds, just touching Sedin's hind claws.
He stares back at the assembly, almost daring them to challenge his authority. Blujar's body lies limply, her face an expression of shock and anger. There seem to be few wounds, one particular one was horribly scarred and seemed almost corroded. It was right over her heart, as if something had... punctured her there. Shodan turns away from the blue corpse and looks at Sedin, wondering what had happened in his cave... He hardly had a cut on him.
Shodan suddenly recalls, with blinding clarity, the sight of Volteshn'k's broken body lying on the floor of the Pit, his traitorous blood spilling on the cold stone. Did Sedin not just murder someone who supported his hatred of the idea of expansion back then? Did he not just profess the merits of such an idea? What had occured to him between these two Trials of Blood? Whatever it was, it doth not matter. 'He is Sedin, his will is law'. The words are cold stone in Shodan's mind.
Faryesh stands from his bench and hesitantly steps over to Sedin. He reaches toward Blujar's body, then glances up at Sedin. He shrinks back. Sedin either ignores him, or considers his actions not worth noticing.
"First, the discussion between Blujar and I progressed to an accusational level. We invoked a Trial of Blood. She didst not triumph. I declare that her body be denied the Ritual of Interrment. This is all I will discuss about her and the discussion we had."
"Second, Faryesht'nikloralgar will take the second seat on the Presbyterate. The third is to be taken by Kalithd'noshahnaktym, now third oldest in our home. Kalith, step forward and take thy place. The same to thee, Faryesh."
Faryesh shakily steps over to the other side of the Altar and sits on the bench. He might shake himself apart, thought Shodan. Kalith, a pale-white female with large watery eyes and already wrinkled skin, steps down from the far side of the stands, and approaches Faryesh's old bench. She sits, gazing in reverence at the other two members, the Altar, and the Wall of Ritual. She could never really be a Presbyterate member, thought Shodan. She idolizes them, instead of becoming one herself. Shodan chastizes himself for thinking this way about a Presbyterate member. He notices the crowd is absolutely silent, rivited on Sedin's every word.
Sedin steps away from the corpse and around the Altar, taking his seat behind it. "The Ritual of Inclusion for formally accepting thee into the Presbyterate will wait, Kalith. Right now, I will explain who will journey to the Losnikosh's world." He sighs quietly and lets his gaze flow over the arc of seated Dragons.
"Because of their handling of the actual dealing of the Losnikosh, Denvoln'k, Juxar, and Shodan will make this journey."
Shodan felt his heart tense, and practically stop. Could it be? Would -he- be the one? He was going to explore another world... He and his friends would perhaps be the first Dragons in hundreds of, perhaps a thousand, Grand Cycles to step beyond these stone walls...
"Cress will remain here, because of his inexperience. However, thy worth to this event, Cress, is certainly not unforgotten," Sedin admits. "Although some may consider thee three too young as well, I believe that thy worth shall be proven in this endeavor. Thee three will begin thy journey as soon as thou art ready. Dost thou need time to prepare?" Sedin directed his comment to Denvoln'k, who, being the oldest, would lead the group. Denvoln'k stand and swallows harshly. He could not believe his ears either, thought Shodan. His older friend shook as he replied. The black's muscles tense as he replies, trying not to show his excitement.
"Mine friends and I are, perhaps, too excited to require even sleep or eat beforehand. Dost thou two agree?"
Shodan smiles broadly and declares towards the Presbyterate, "Sleep is the farthest thing form mine mind, my Master. I am prepared at this moment."
Denvoln'k glances toward another part of the crowd, Shodan following his gaze. Juxar, unseen when he had arrived, is sitting even farther away, her gaze locked on Blujar's corpse. Her head snaps up, peering at Sedin with a strange expression, then turns to Denvoln'k. After a brief moment, she nods. "So be it!" Sedin shouts. "Thy journey starts immediately. Remember the Losnikosh's words... one of dungeons must lead to the other world... try thine damndest, if thou canst not succeed, return with thine new wisdom and we can prepare a more formidable exploration force."
Shodan could see Denvoln'k wince at Sedin's words. "Do not worry, Master. I, ah, -we- will not fail thee. I thank thee for this opportunity to prove our worth to the Sept."
Denvoln'k stands, and moves toward the back of the crowd, which is beginning to stand and cry their admiration for the young group. Shodan follows, glancing swiftly over at Juxar, who is doing the same. The three Presbyterate members stand and watch the three young Dragons. Cries of support, of envy, some of anger, reach Shodan's ears. He can feel his face burn at the attention. Never had he had such an honor. Soon, all the Dragons stood to attention, their cheers almost deafening. Reaching the back of the stands, he and Denvoln'k take flight, moving towards through the empty cavern with ease. Juxar, on their right, adjusts her trajectory towards them. The cheers behind them continue until they reach the Drokkhen'grech, at which point the yells begin to echo strangely, sounding hollow and ghostly. None of them say a word.
* * *
The three glide out of the mouth of the stone tube but Denvoln'k lands near the edge of the high plateau that covered their home's entrance. He glances down towards the lake in thought.
"My friends... canst thou believe it? It is such an honor..."
Juxar snorts. "Indeed. So where doth we begin, O Great One?"
Denvoln'k glances at Juxar in confusion, not understanding her hostility. He was still revelling at their situation, thought Shodan.
"I would say that our first try should be the 'dungeon' closest to the Losnikosh. If one of his allies did, in fact, return to thier homeland, it 'twould be a logical place, being the closest. Let us try it."
The male turns and leaps over the edge, his body dropping quickly out of sight. Shodan is about to follow when Juxar speaks.
"I do not know thy reasons for saving that stinking worm, Shodan, but... I apologize. Peace between us?" Her voice seems strange, forced. It is apparently hard for her to make such a statement.
Shodan blinks. This was not what he was expecting. The continued hostility, perhaps until she struck out again, that he would understand. But to apologize for her action, when Shodan himself knew not why he saved the Outsider... Whatever it was, Shodan took it gratefully. He did not want Juxar's anger directed at him, and not simply because of her temper.
"Apology accepted. Friend."
Juxar smiles, a bit lopsidedly, perhaps trying to ease the tension she felt. She leans back, over the edge of the plateau, and falls off. Shodan moves to the edge, glancing worriedly after her.
She falls like a stone, then suddenly her Dragongrace bursts to life, her torso twisting wildly and her wings expanding at just the right moment to catch the wind. She executes a perfect glide out of the chaos she initially chose. Shodan feels himself marvelling at her form, the tensed red muscles like liquid stone, strong yet utterly responsive...
He leaps off as well, feeling his wings grow taut against the still air. The quest for the new world began.
* * *
The flight to the system of caves near the Losnikosh takes less time than they thought. Soon they stand in front of a wide mouth, a vertical hole in the cavern wall, and a gentle sand slope to the floor of the cave. The mouth is, perhaps, room enough for one and half Dragons. Shodan glances behind himself, looking for the Losnikosh's little island. He could not find it.
Denvoln'k peers into the cave. "Safe enough, it seems." He steps in, soon covered by the cave's blackness. No moss grows there, allowing no light. Their night eyes would be all they could use. The other two follow. Shodan gives a final look at the cold grey of his home. Perhaps, he thinks morosely, it would be his last.
The smooth walls of the cave seem almost constructed, the rectangular design denying the theory lava that carved the passages. Smaller branches lead off at certain points. They have to be ignored, being too small for the three. Denvoln'k scans them all carefully, trying to visualize the layout of the dungeon.
Soon they find a hole leading upwards, with rock handholds apparently a result of prey digging with their simple tools. They sqeeze through, onto another level of passages.
Juxar growls. "If this is typical of the rest of the dungeon, I for one, will become very bored very quickly."
Denvoln'k laughs, the air carrying the echo far into the narrow caverns. "Our apologies, Juxar. Perhaps we could find a nice soft bed for thy behind while we find some delicate meats to satisfy thy hunger."
They laugh, Juxar included. The walls of the cavern are stifling, the tension in their bodies being eased by their laughter. But the walls are always there, a constant reminder of the preciousness of their space.
They continue, through the twisting stone passages. Up another set of roughly hewn 'stairs', to another level. Then another. Shodan begins to worry that the caverns would just lead them to another system, and spit them back into the Underworld. They reach a dead end, then double back to a passage that barely allows them passage. It, too, ends in a smooth wall of stone.
Juxar growls again, more seriously. Her tension is shared by the others, Denvoln'k choosing not to show weakness as a leader. Shodan simply scans the mental image of the level, trying to find another way out.
The last unexamined passage through the present level twists and turns many times, leading them on for almost an hour. Suddenly, after a sharp turn, they come upon a rock face, a compression of sandstone and cooled lava. It's twisted features seem to almost mock their failure.
Denvoln'k sighs, turning away in anger. They will have to either search the dungeon again or find another one to explore. Juxar growls again, more powerfully. She spins away too, but lashes her tail out toward the rock. Shodan, about to walk away as well, watches the red tail slam into the rock. The wall compresses itself very, very, slightly.
"Juxar! Denvoln'k! Wait! I think this wall... is hollow." He runs his hands over the impression of Juxar's impact, seeing that the cooled lava rocks had broken away from the sandstone glue. He claws at it angrily, scratching away bits of sandstone.
The other two press against the wall, searching for more signs of weakness. They decide to simply continue the assault with their tails, concentrating on what Shodan thought seemed the weakest spot. Soon the rock begins to fall away, leaving an ever-increasing hole into darkness. They pulls rocks away from the now-weakened hole, making a circle that would allow them passage. Barely.
They squeeze through, into the chamber beyond.
The chamber is low, circular and humid, with scrawls of charcoal on the floor in forms of stars and pentagrams. A wooden slab on the far side of the room bars the entry into the next room. Denvoln'k examines the patterns on the floor.
"Daemons," he spits angrily.
Juxar steps up to the wooden door and leans against it. She glances back to the others and nods. She could evidently hear the evil creatures in the next room, chanting their evil magic. Probably why the monsters did not hear the crashing in the very next room. The black gestures at the door with a smile, as if saying, "Be my guest."
Juxar grins toothily and takes a step back. Dashing forward, she slams into the wood, which breaks and splinters on impact. She races in, followed by the other two.
The flurry of activity takes place within seconds. Shodan enters last, taking the scene into account quickly. The room is rectangular, longer than it is wide, apparently with a pool of water at the far end. Two daemons are on either side, each in front of a bloody polygon, candles flickering angrily in the darkness. The daemons are of typical appearance - thick, muscular asexual bodies, thick hair covering their legs and arms. The heads are the dichotomies, horned skulls with the skin pulled tight like a wing membrane. Their eyes ere hollow sockets, a small ball of flame in each. They are in the midst of turning as Shodan enters, their spell, whatever it had been, was broken. Juxar heads to the right, Denvoln'k to the left.
Denvoln'k lashes out at the one on his side, four parallel lines drawn across the evil red flesh. Underneath was a foul black ooze, which flows freely. It staggers back, allowing Shodan his chance to let loose the flame he had been building up. The creature screams, the flames enveloping him. He twists and turns, stepping into the black and red pentagram on the floor. The disturbed magic unleashes itself on him, planes of light flashing upwards from the pentagram lines, slicing though his evil bones like water. He collapses in a disgusting heap of burnt, sliced flesh, a victim of his own evil magic. The magic dies and the candles go out, as if knowing the spell complete.
Juxar is arm-locked with the other daemon, their strengths matching fairly well. The daemon pulls back, and screaming an unholy curse, lifts a hand, palm outward. A purple sphere shoots out, slamming into Juxar. The energy knocks her onto her back. Her two friends begin to cross over to help, but the daemon is quicker and leaps onto the fallen Dragon with lightning speed.
Suddenly, Juxar's wings flatten out against the ground, pushing her upwards. The spell had not much injured her, and only succeeded in knocking her back. She catches the Daemon in mid-flight by the throat on the way up, and slams him to the ground with her on top. In a shriek of rage, she slams her other fist into his stunned face, destroying his head utterly. A mess of black ooze and grey matter spread like a dropped waterskin.
She stands, breathing quickly and heavily, and stares at the ruined corpse with fury. She screams again at it, her muscles twitching spastically. Shodan watches her in a careful awe. The Sept hate of magic burned so pure in her mind she despised the creature just as much in death as in life.
The three stare at one another, feeling the Dragongrace drain from their blood, pulses and attentiveness dropping. And the satisfaction in destroying the evil creatures. Daemons were the only ceatures to ever willingly attack the Dragonhome, and the confrontations were dreaded. Many Dragons had lost their lives defending that home. It was lucky the three had the advantage of surprise here, or else one of them would most likely be dead. Perhaps more.
Juxar peers around the dark room. "Now where? There is no way out. 'Tis another dead end."
Shodan shakes his head. "There must be. How couldst the daemons enter and leave here?"
The older male steps up to the pool of water at the far end of the room and peers into it. The far quarter of the room is flush with with pool, it's pallid waves lapping the stone floor tiredly.
"Probably their cesspool," growls Juxar.
"No, I do not think so. Look. The water isn't stagnant. It's fresh."
Gazing into the water, Shodan could see Denvoln'k was right. The water was a bit muddy, but did not have the typical crust of algae or scum. The depths swirled randomly. It was evidently connected to some free-flowing body of water, perhaps a river from... another world?
"Art thou thinking..." Shodan looks at Denvoln'k with a faint frown.
"I think I am, friend." Denvoln'k nods.
They hear a loud shuffling from the outer cave - echoes from the passage into the pair of daemon rooms. The shouts sound corrupt, spitting syllables of magic and evil. More daemons, come to avenge their brothers. Shodan suddenly remembers they way they talked to each other, just by thought. No telling how many there were - but it sounded like several.
Juxar stares wildly at the entrance. "By the ancients...we are undone."
Shodan begins to speak rapidly. "The pool... if we are now higher than the floor of our world, and since there seem to be currents -in- this pool, that means-"
Denvoln'k interrupted. "That means that since this water level is not rising, it is draining somewhere below us, but it's -source- must be the Overworld."
"Do not go any further, Dragons. I refuse to enter that pit of magic, to end up decaying in some crook of a water-filled passage," Juxar says angrily, still glancing back at the entrance for sign of the avenging daemons. Their cries grew louder by the minute.
"Juxar, we have no other course of action! More daemons we cannot handle, they -will- kill us. Entering the pool will not only give us a chance to escape sure death, but to find the Overworld!" Denvoln'k barks the words, making them more an order than a suggestion.
Shodan looks imploringly at Juxar. He found himself praying her irrationality did not force her to stay here and die senselessly.
Juxar stares at the pool for a second, then back at her friends. "Fine. I suppose there is no better company I would rather die with, but I had hoped it would be in battle." She steps toward the pool.
"If we are right, all we need to do is to head directly upwards," explains Shodan quickly. "Unforunately, this is against the current, but it will also give us a direction to follow, should we become disoriented. Be careful of thy wings, I imagine the current will catch them and drag thee down into...into wherever it leads."
Each of them began to take deep breaths, and stretching their muscles, since they had no idea how far they would have to swim.
A burst of activity in the outer room alerted the Dragons to the prescence of the daemons. The creatures, emerging from the outer passage, pointed into the next room and screamed in anger. There looked to be about fifteen of them.
"No time left, friends! May thy strength last to the end!" Denvoln'k leaps into the pool, swimming under the surface quickly.
Juxar looks at Shodan in a sudden thought, her mouth half open to say something. She spins and dives into the pool as well.
Shodan glances back at the rushing Daemons, their talons gleaming and their spells ready to be unleashed.
He dives into the pool, the water enveloping him like the darkness of the Underworld. The screams of contempt he had heard a second ago were gone, the only sound the rushing of water in his ears. He forced himself to keep his mouth closed and hold his precious air.
The blackness was total, and he felt the weak current pressing him as he forced himself on through the tube, level with the floor of the cavern he had left.
Seconds later, the current became stronger, pushing down like the weight of stone. Shodan thought of Sedin's voice. He changes direction, heading straight up.
His control was lost for a second, arms and legs flapping wildly in anger and confusion. His wings opened just a bit.
He is jerked down, the current pressing against the membrane just as air does.
Control is regained. He swims as he had seen fish do it, his body slithering through the murky darkness, but using his arms to pull water down and legs to push on it.
Seconds pass, turning into minutes. Muscles moving rythmically.
The air in his lungs begins to press harder, the urge to breathe in was tremendous. He fought it. The bad air began to get into his bloodstream, poisoning it, although he has no knowledge of how such a back-reaction works.
There is a light... somewhere...
His blood is like slow liquid fire, molten lead within his veins. His vision begins to darken at the edges and he finds himself wondering why.
The light outlines blurs above him, he wonders if they are his imagination or his friends.
The light above is intense, even through closed eyes.
The world is a shimmering expanse of blurred imaged, all exuding the intensity of staring into a bonfire an inch away.
Muscles ache like lumps of stone, yet somehow they continue to move and pull him upwards.
Somehow, a boundry to the water is created.
He breaks free of the liquid's grasp, his lungs expanding for the first time in what seemed like Grand Cycles. The air was incredibly sweet...
It shocks his system like a blow from a rock, a tremendous headache coming on instantly. His muscles burn like fire.
The light is unbearable, digging into his sockets like sticks. He screams, the sound strange in his ears.
As he stops, he realizes another scream is beside him. The brilliancy of the light allows the black outline of a Dragon, doubled over and helplessly pounding at the surface of the water. It twists and turns, trying to shake itself of the unavoidable light, and trying to stay upright at the same time.
Another outline is beside him, thrashing and howling like some hell-spawn. The outline, right at the edges, seems to be red with some skin-tight fire. Great sheets of cool water rise up from the form as the limbs wildly scrape the surface. The water droplets burn with a concentrated fire, each one blinding him more.
Combined with the light, the new air is too much, and his body, unable to accept the sudden influx of such an amount of oxygen, silences itself. The water returns, and he senses no more.
He dreams of an open place, without walls. The light merely there, not
painful. His body can stand any amount of exertion; he traces out graceful
circles, smooth arcs of flight. He has not a care in the world...
The dream is total, not existing, yet it exists forever. At some point, perhaps as soon as it starts, the light begins to fade, and replaced by another, almost identical light - it presses at Shodan's eyes like stone. Trajectories, their mathematical souls breaking down in his subconscious, become half true. He spirals down, towards some unnoticed lower plane that was there all along.
He feels the weight of some slightly supple surface, and wonders if perhaps he is the one pressing against it. The light that was present before the dream returns, it's intensity and mercilessness overwhelming. He can make out shapes, a vaguely familiar moving dark one, and an unmoving one, who is partially red. He rolls over and groans. The surface he is on is moist, and smells sweet.
"Shodan? Thou art awake?" The voice is of his friend, Denvoln'k.
"Where is the light that burns mine eyes? I can not stand it..."
"As far as I can tell, it is the ball of fire of the legends. In the, well... more like a direction. Up. There's nothing there, Shodan."
Shodan lifts his arms, which seem like dead weights, and cups his eyes, staring at a small section at the ground. It is dirt, and some light-colored sand, as well as small ribbons of some green plant. Dozens of them. The wonders of the new world were already astounding to him. He cautiously lifts up a little, allowing more of the scene to spread before his shaded eyes. It is painful, but allows sight.
Everything is bathed in a white aura, making him squint constantly. The roar in his ears he suddenly notices is of a large body of water behind him. He turns, but it is too bright to make out. He turns away and tries to make more sense of another direction. Trees? Were those all trees? Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were splayed before him, putting to shame any and all amounts of wood the Sept managed to scrounge to use as records and for structures. Incredible, he thinks.
To his right, the shape of Denvoln'k is now more apparent. He shades his eyes as well. Shodan thinks he can make out a grin on the black's face.
"I remember breaking free of the water, but nothing after that. How did...?" Shodan begins, hoping Denvoln'k can fill in the gaps in Shodan's memory.
"Ah. Well, when I emerged, the light struck me as a gout of flame, as I'm sure it to thee. I tried mine damndest to block it out. I finally had to cover mine eyes with one arm and feel with the other. I bumped into thee, and knew thou wert unconscious. And sinking. I grabbed hold of thee and managed to swim over to the shore, which, at the time, I wasn't sure existed. Once I felt the sand beneath my feet, I struggled the rest of the way, and set thee; a bit roughly, mine apologies; on the ground and immediately headed back for Juxar.
"The hellstorm she emitted made it easy to track her. Unfortunately, she stopped and apparently fainted as I made mine way to her. I had to open mine eyes to find her, and I hope it didst not damage mine vision permanently. But I did manage to bring her to the same shore. After that I collapsed. I am not sure how long ago that was. Perhaps a quarter or half cycle."
Shodan is silent for a moment. "I owe thee more than thanks, Denvoln'k. You saved mine life."
Denvoln'k snorts. "I do not intend to start losing Dragons as soon as I arrive in this world. Consider it completed duty."
Shodan kneels beside Juxar, touching her neck. The pulse was there, hot and quick under his claws. She suddenly rolls over, starts to growl, and jerks her head away to cover her eyes. Her moan of pain accompanies her twisting, trying to escape from the light.
"Who is there? Answer, daemon. And extinguish thy light."
"Juxar, it is Shodan. And Denvoln'k. We are here, safe, but the light we cannot shut off."
Juxar squints and peers around carefully. Her squint seems to be not only to ward off light, but to regard the surroundings with her typical suspicion and anger.
She is correct in this regard.
Beyond the sandy, rocky beach is a wall not of stone, but of wood. Tall, proud, brown trunks rise up to the edge of their field of veiw, before the light simply prevents them from looking any farther. The trees, so scarce in the Dragon's underworld, seem to flaunt their unlit siblings, waving their multicolored limbs back and forth like dancers. A swirl of fallen leaves whips up, spitting dust and sand up at the three Dragons.
They can also hear noises coming from the forest, bright chirps and caws from creatures living there. Nothing like the old world; it's silence a tribute to the scarcity of life there. Perhaps the trees and creatures are related somehow, thinks Shodan, living symbiotically - one grows, the other grows along with it. These thoughts are interrupted as Denvoln'k speaks.
"First, my friends, I think we should find some recluse from this light. The fireball will disappear under the edge of the world, leaving us with our familiar darkness. If our myths hold, that is. Which, until recently, have been quite underrated. And I have noticed the light has gotten darker as time progressed."
Shodan agrees, as does Juxar, who apparently is still partially hypnotized by the forest above the sandy bank. They carefully follow the water's edge towards the background noise which they recognize as a waterfall, keeping their eyes shaded and half-closed. A mass of rocks form a rough, slippery series of cliffs, over which the waterfall crashes in it's haste to obey gravity. A natural cave is formed from the wet stone planes, allowing the three friends to find a dark, but misty, haven from the light.
They sit anxiously, waiting for the dimming light to reach a bearable point.
Hours pass as the sphere lowers past the horizon, casting an ever growing shadow over the lake. A chill descends on the three, but no more than a dank area of their home. It is somehow refreshing, not the stagnant thickness inherent to the stillness of the underworld. The smells brought by the wind burn their nostrils, the fragrances of the new world invading their greatest sense like an army of shadows. Each other's scents are a kind of haven in themselves, reminding each other of the fact that none of them are alone.
After what Denvoln'k guess is about a quarter of a cycle, they venture out.
The light has indeed subsided, leaving the three in the weak glow of other light sources in the sky, these ones much more bearable. It is only now that Shodan gets a good look at the ceiling, or apparent lack thereof. It appears to be a huge, smooth dome of a deep, blue-black, with two strange objects hung there. One is a crescent of white, almost too bright to look at directly. The other is a light blue near-circle, as if the first object had split away from the second, but the two did not seem to fit correctly. Shodan deduces the two are separate, because of the color differences and the outline of a full circle fitted smoothly with the crescent. He reminds himself to study them further.
Other pinpricks of light are visible, studded on the dome like tapers secure within the Wall of Ritual. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them, glittering in the darkness like tiny sparks of flame. It is an entrancing sight, and makes Shodan reach out a clawed hand, as if running his scaled fingers over shining jewels. He quickly shakes his head and glances at his friends. They, too, are still staring in amazement at the wonders of the new world.
"What next, Denvoln'k?" Juxar mutters, still staring at the trees and the mat of leaves below them. Apparently the leaves were falling from the branches. Perhaps the plants were dying, although the bark and limbs seemed sturdy and full of life.
Denvoln'k takes a moment to respond, sniffing at the air and glancing around in intense interest. "I think..." Denvoln'k spins his head towards a new smell, cocks his head, and continues. "I think we should fly up and gain an aerial view. 'Twould help our initial veiw greatly, and also give us combat superiority, in case of... JUXAR!"
The shout is directed toward a creeping Juxar, about to pounce on a small, grey, bushy-tailed rodent apparently interested in the three reptiles. The cry surprises the creature, and it darts away further into the forest. Juxar snaps after it, crashing through the wooden branches after her prey. A second later, her jaw enclose about the rodent and the red female tilts her head back to swallow it.
Her two friends jump after her, a scolding coming from the black. "Juxar, these animals could be poisonous. We should take care in leaping after any animals that graces our eyes. That animal could have been sentient, for all thou knowest."
"What would thou have me satisfy mine hunger with, Denvoln'k? The sand that I slept on? I will not forsake mine needs for botanty's sake." She snorts and glowers at her leader.
Denvoln'k is taken aback a bit. "Please, Juxar, I am leader of this expedition and I wouldst appreciate mine orders followed. Please ask before thou go leaping after supposed prey."
Juxar shrugs and nods. "If you wish, Denvoln'k. But I still consider hunger worse than the possibility of getting indigestion."
Seeking to end the friction between the two, Shodan quickly decides to change the subject at hand. "Shall we ascend, then? And see what this world truly holds, from the vantage point of a Dragon on wing?"
"Agreed, Shodan," Denvoln'k says. Stepping back into the open, he spreads his wings and lifts up, moving higher with each beat. Shodan follows, soon followed by Juxar, who pauses only to remove blood from her lips.
Shodan finds that his wings are so large, the wind cause him to be buffeted like a feather. He feels updrafts from certain spots, which make him wonder if the Dragons in this world use them to their advantage, keeping in the air by utilizing the stronger wind. It would be hard getting fully used to the currents with such large wings. He smiles grimly and carefully forces himself higher.
The land below is a menagerie of greens from the grasses, browns, yellows, and oranges from the dying leaves, and swirling blue and white from the water. It was strangely beautiful, such a drastic change from the greys of his home. Circling higher, the rocky hills nearby (on the opposite side of the lake from the waterfall) are stained brown along with the familiar grey. Looking beside him, he notices Juxar is enjoying the air currents, swirling and looping as the Dragongrace warmed her blood. Shodan found himself marveling at her agility when Denvoln'k spoke.
"My friends... look."
Turning his head to follow Denvoln'k oustretched finger, Shodan saw a sight that brought old legends up like bile, making him catch his breath in surprise and in an emotion that was not unlike fear.
Not far from their position, stone walls surrounded a grouping of brown blocks, reminding him of the tents trolls and orcs somtimes made. From the dim appearance, correlating with descriptions burned into his mind from a million myths, Shodan realized what it was. A city. Of Losnikosh.
"The Outsiders lived... the Losnikosh down below told the truth," Juxar mutters. "They flourished as the Dragons were forced to change their habits, just as our legends say. Vermin."
Shodan is a bit repulsed by the comment, and cannot yet understand why. His Sept blood agrees with Juxar's comment, but another part of him rejects the judgement as base and stupid. Rubbing his strained eyes in remembered pain, he hopes Denvoln'k can resolve the silent conflict. As he usually does.
Denvoln'k's look of distraction and cunning reappears on his face. "Here is the faction Sedin spoke of. We should therefore find their leader and find out as much as we can about them."
"Talk with them?!?" Juxar guffaws, "Sedin didst not mean for us to discuss alliances with prey. I say we raze this city to the ground."
Denvoln'k turns with a look of surprise and incredulousness on his face. "I am not about to go burn the possible leaders of this world. I refuse to permit it."
" 'Leaders'. Bah. They are prey, no more. Sedin meant Dragons. I say we either destroy this city, or else ignore it's insignificance." Juxar snorts the last word.
"No, I will not ignore the presence of a city of sentient beings, whatever their use to us is. Their possible enslavement or subjugation would be a help to us, thou cannot deny that. We are going to approach this city, Juxar. That is my command."
Juxar snorts and turns her head away to look in other directions.
"We will approach and land upon their walls, declaring our intentions as emissaries of Sedin and our Sept. Our fear will strike home, and we can return home and bring our full glory on this world."
Shodan turns to look at the black with the same kind of surprise. "Denvoln'k," he murmurs thoughtfully, "the Losnikosh here are at home. This is a whole new world, we are not even sure we are welcome here. Should we be brash enough to alight on walls of a city of strangers? We would do well to approach more cautiously."
Denvoln'k turns to Shodan with a look of confusion. "Shodan, we are Dragon. We know no equals. We will not coward our way through life, bellying up to a race of fleshy, hairy, small mammals who cannot even fly." His face became almost humorous. "We will land on their stone walls, and state our mission. As I said before. Mine word is final."
The tone, the form of phrasing, was all Sedin's. Only the voice behind it was different.
They speak no more words, as Denvoln'k turns toward the city and moves toward it. The other two follow, not daring to glance at each other.
Shodan feels a kind of excitement, as he can feel Dragongrace begin to burn his veins and nerves. But why? he asks himself. We do not go into battle. We go diplomatically. We go for words, not for blood.
The outlines of the parts of the city grow larger, the intricacy of the workmanship growing before their sharp eyes. The Losnikosh had progressed greatly since the time of their mut huts and straw roofs. Shodan only feels more anxious at this. The Losnikosh themselves begin to become obvious, walking along the walls, looking around. Guards, thinks Shodan. Like many of the intelligent kinds of prey, they watch for danger ahead of time. What will they do when they see us?
That question is answered as they get within about a hundred yards of the edge of the wall, the darkness protecting the Dragons from being seen any farther away. A scream rises from the wall.
Losnikosh begin to race along the stone walls, more and more appearing. Carrying sharp steel of blades and what looked like bent wooden sticks.
Shodan thinks Denvoln'k, up ahead, is prepared for this, as a wary leader should be. He is not, and falters back in mid-flight, but continutes on. Shodan feels himself follow, more out of duty than anything. The Dragongrace burns like lava; he can feel muscles begin to tighten and his eyesight sharpen to a near sensory overload. He tries to push it away, remind himself that they want to speak, not to fight.
These thoughts are dashed away as he feels a sharp pain in his leg. Glancing down, an arrow protrudes from it. The Losnikosh are attacking. Juxar, as well, cries out as an arrow slices through her wing membrane. She and Shodan veer away, wary of more shafts coming from the walls. Denvoln'k moves closer, and begins to speak.
"Creatures! We are from the Sept, a powerful race of Dragons living in another world. We desire to speak with thy lead-" The speech becomes a cry because of the arrow embedded in Denvoln'k's underbelly.
A shriek erupts from Juxar, as she suddenly plunges toward the walls. A great gout of flame erupts, flooding over those Outsiders nearest. Shodan follows suit, and swings angrily at a group of Losnikosh on the corner of the walls. Inside the city, he can see women and children rushing away from the wall of the attack, and the screams of those dying from Juxar's flame grips his mind like a fist of ice. He pauses, close to the corner of the wall.
A pair of Losnikosh pull a strange looking device toward the same corner. It is a hollow metal tube, closed at the far end, with wheels of wood supporting it and allowing it to move. They touch a torch to a point on it's far end and quickly step away.
Shodan, hesitating to examine it, raises a clawed hand to strike. There is a horribly loud boom, and the world reels around him. He feels an incredible pain in his stomach, as something large and heavy slams into him. His breath is gone, and the Dragongrace stumbles. He crashes to the ground, crying out in pain.
He writhes, the pain spreading throughout his body. Never had he felt so helpless, exposed like some defenseless prey in a field of greens. He tries to push the pain away and check his friends.
Juxar still wheels above the city, a dozen arrows protruding from her. Still she attacks, her eyes burning with blood and anger. She continues her attacks.
Denvoln'k is at the far corner of the wall from Shodan, screaming out his words of diplomacy on deaf ears. The fact that these beasts of prey care nothing for his background or his supposed power to not reach his mind, either. He is still convinced of the absoluteness of his Sept.
Turning pained eyes toward the wall near him, Shodan can see a figure stagger forward, as if he had just awoken. He carries no sword, no bow, only a stick that glows very slightly at the tip. He gesters toward Denvoln'k, moving his hands in strange passes. Shodan can see his mouth forming strange, spidery words.
He twists wildly, trying to alert Denvoln'k to the presence of someone with daemonmagic. His voice is gone, crushed by the booming device. His mind burns with helplessness. It hurts too much to move far, the caster is too far to be flamed, Juxar's mind is concentrated on her razing of the city...
In a final pass, the man on the corner wall spreads his fingers in a flat plane towards the black Dragon.
The world suddenly slows for Shodan. He sees a second's worth of motion take cycles to occur.
Flames erupt like wind, gushing out like a wave of water toward's Denvoln'k's unprotected body. The fire spreads around the black in slow motion for Shodan. A look of absolute horror and pain forms on Denvoln'k face, the pretenses of the Sept falling like shattered glass. His body contorts in a wild spasm of suffering. The wing membrane burns quickly and easily, consuming the thin flesh like paper. The scales, even through the orange of the flame, can be seen to split, to break, and to shrivel away. The scream echoes in Shodan's mind, partially drowned out by his own shriek of his best friend's name.
The crumpled form falls toward the ground, slamming onto grass like a sack of useless broken rock. It writhes still. 'Burned alive' are the only words in Shodan's mind. He screams again in defiance, the hot taste of vengence clear and total in his mind. He spins wildly toward the wall, his own pain forgotten, preparing to die with his friend. Someone's strong claws hold him back.
"We must leave." It is Juxar, a line of blood down her face, the look of control uncharacteristic on her face.
"I will not! Denvoln'k will not die in such a stupid way! I can save him!" He struggles, trying to move toward the wall and the pyre.
"Shodan. We cannot win. We can live only if we flee."
His cry is angry, defiant. "He is KIN!"
"He is dead."
The words strike him like a blow, the hot blood of vengence coagulating and turning sour. The burning of black flesh, in his mind, was replaced by one of burning green. And red. This second foresight took hold of his mind perhaps more than green one; something strange blossoming from the flames of death.
He somehow rises to his feet, with help from Juxar. He spreads his wings, lifting into the air with wet eyes squeezed shut, remembering his dead friend. He flies on, trying to ignore the cheers of victory rising from the walls that burn his heart with guilt and sadness.
* * *
Flying becomes a dull constant. The wings move, pressing air down and keeping flesh in the air. Shodan feels the pain in his side with each movement, but it no longer affects him. The repeating memory of his dying friend permeates his mind like a soaked sponge. Juxar is a few yards in front of him, neither has said a word since the walled city had faded out of sight, and the Losnikosh's cheers of victory had dwindled to nothing. The darkened land is still revealed to their eyes, the edge of a huge sea coming into view.
It spreads for as far as their night eyes can see, with no view of another mass of land. Towards the direction Shodan and Juxar travel, however, the land begins to break into many small islands. Most of them are rocky cliffs of split stone, waves thrice the size of any in their world smashing against the eroded faces. Shodan feels the wild, salty wind whip around him.
Hours pass, and the sky starts to lighten, the blackness easing away, the points of light in the sky meshing with the light. Shodan's eyes begin to hurt, and squinting becomes less effective. The shapes of the world blur, leaving Shodan with faint outlines of a world he had dreampt of. The pain in the eyes becomes almost more than he can stand, when he notices Juxar, too, is faltering in her flight, shading her eyes at the same time. The ball of fire in the sky appears on the horizon, peircing their corneas like sticks.
Juxar beings to dip down to the rocky isles, intent on finding some shelter. Most of the rocks appear to be solid blocks, allowing for no hollowed areas of darkness. Near one of the large ones, Juxar falters, either from injuries or form the constant light. She crashes to the stone island, wrapping her wings around her for some protection. Shodan knows many Dragons do this before dying.
Shodan lands beside her, trying to keep his balance in the dizzying brightness. Stepping on all fours to the far side of the upshoot of rock, he can see a dark shadow inset in the sharp, but not vertical, face. It appears to be near the bottom, with the waves crashing nearby. The possibility of darkness is something sweet, beckoning him. His hands shake at the promise of the easing of pain.
He hears a slight moan behind him.
The sweetness becomes sour. The thought of the loss of another friend sickens him, and the pain becomes irrelevent. He moves over to Juxar, who is twisted in some rictus of pain. He wraps his arms around the female, surprised at the fact that the red of her skin is mostly blood, not her natural bright crimson. She shakes violently. She must be more injured than I thought, he thinks. He tries to gently pick her up, lifting her body from the stone. She is partially conscious, and holds onto him, digging her claws into his skin. He forces himself to ignore it.
Moving to the edge of the sheer wall, he peers down. He wonders about flying, but the proximity of the wall and the narrow area for landing, surrounded by smashing waves, make it a near impossibility. Jumping is his only choice, but if he slips on the the wet stones, he may break a vital bone in himself or Juxar. Perhaps to let the red slip into the ocean, to drown without realizing. But he knows he has to risk it.
He pushes off, launching over the edge, clutching his load as well as he can. Her weight suddenly strikes him as being too heavy, as the sweet air rushes by... they would die on the rocks; he curses himself for being a stupid fool.
The ground approaches sickeningly quickly.
He feels his feet slam onto the rock, leg muscles tightening like springs for the shock. His right leg buckles, but somehow he keeps upright. He feels some wave move through him, the cold realization that a miracle had occured. He staggers back into the cave, only to find the floor covered in water. He moves forward, sloshing through the mud and sand, fatigue draining him faster and faster with his load.
The moist darkness descends, but light still pours through the cave's entrance.
There is a sharp turn to the walls, and the ground rises a few feet, allowing the sand to stay only partially wet. There is barely enough room for the two, and he drops Juxar as carefully as he can to the ground. The curve in the wall is away from the entrance, obscuring it and the light filtering through it. The darkness is much like that of home... stone walls surrounding him, the chill and moist air stagnant. He breathes a bit easier, his hands shaking. With no distraction, the pain returns. He suddenly feels incredibly tired. He forces himself over to the female.
Examining her, he finds she has more than a dozen arrow wounds, the blood around them still slightly oozing. Near her chest, he notices, there is a deep one - the arrow tip still embedded. It had most likely caused most of the pain through her flight. Bending over her, his clawtips gently press into the wound and carefully remove it. She moans again in some half-conscious reaction, twisting in pain. He tosses the peice of metal aside. He searches her skin, looking for more. Only wounds, no arrowheads. She must have yanked most of them out and had only missed the one.
The wounds still bled, and need to be stopped. Hesitating only a moment, he moves his head close and licks them. His face cannnot help but burn red. A Dragon usually did this for themselves, or during a mating, but this was an emergency. If Juxar lost enough blood, she would quietly pass away in her sleep. The saliva helps clean and close the cuts. Juxar's blood is salty and hot on his tongue. He thinks back to the flight from the city, wondering about what had blossomed between he and Juxar from Denvoln'k pyre.
He finishes quickly, half expecting her to jump up and slash at him. He adjusts her, trying to make her comfortable while she sleeps. She makes a quiet whimper, shifting slightly. He moves back against the wall, the cold stone reminding him of his home. He examines himself, finding several arrow wounds. He licks them as well, immediately feeling better. His side still makes him grimace in pain. A large, blue-black blotch is forming on it, but the pain is slowly subsiding. He eyes feel immensely better, the customary darkness brushing away most of the pain of the light. They still ache, but nowhere near the pain of the outside.
Finally relaxing, he leans his head back. Tears begin to flow, remembering his dead friend. I should have saved him, he thinks. Now he's gone. My own stupidity made me lose a true friend and leader...
He sleeps fitfully, dreaming of a green and black Dragon racing through a huge underground cavern. The cavern collapses in on itself, the green losing sight of the black. The darkness becomes opressive, oscuring the deadly falling rocks.
He jerks awake, a sharp cry flying from his maw. The small, wet cavern comes into sharp focus.
Juxar stirrs at the shout, pawing at the sand and stretching her wings, only to bump them against the walls. She lifts her head in confusion, staring about. Seeing Shodan, she relaxes, knowing she is not alone. She winces suddenly, turning to her wounds, remembering the recent past. She moves to lick a cut on her arm, only to notice it had partially healed from the same method. Her head turns slowly towards Shodan, a questioning look on her face.
He turns away, staring at the ground, partly in shame, partly in embarrassment. She places a hand on his leg, presumably to dismiss the act. But pauses, leaning closer. He turns back, staring at her in sharp surprise. She smiles her wild smile, now tempered in some way. Shodan feels a shudder race through him. He leans closer as well, touching her arm. Her scent is suddenly pervading his nostrils, racing through his mind like fire. Her breath is hot and heavy, her face remarkably close.
Juxar raises a hand, palm outwards, facing him.
He stares at her, wondering about the seriousness of her proposition. She does not respond, the grin replaced by a look to total seriousness and anticipation. We may pay for this with our lives, thinks Shodan. Trials of Blood had been called for less. He swallows sharply and raises his own shaking hand. He places it against Juxars, the soft skin hot against his. Their fingers curl between each other and around in a locking motion. He can feel her clawtips against the back of his paw, the tensed tendons on the back of hers.
They move together, locking their other hands in the same way. They quiver silently, breaths coming quickly. Her eyes are pools of liquid fire, intensity and desire fueling it. Her violent scent burns his nostrils so close, like some rare spice taking over his mind. It is, perhaps, more intense than a touch could ever be. A low rumbling escpaes Juxar's throat. Shodan cannot tell whether it is a growl or a purr.
In defiance to all Sept tradition, without knowledge or permission of the Presbyterate, Juxar and Shodan mate within the cold confines of the cave.
Neither has spoken a word since turning away from the Losnikosh town.
Near the edge of the walled city, a mound of ashes cools. A chill wind carries it over the land, it's phoenix complete.
* * *
Many hours pass before Shodan opens his eyes. Dreams were strange conglomerations of light and dark, love and hate, connected by blurs of green, red, and black. The small cavern is still the same, but there is no other Dragon in it. He twists up, and notices a impressions of Dragon feet in the tide-revealed mud leading toward the exit.
He stands, feeling the pains of cramped spaces and overexertion make his muscles knots of wood. The tenseness of worry overcomes it, as he steps out around the natural wall to follow the footprints. The ocean water has receeced, leaving a larger area for the floor of the cavern. Outside, a cool blanket of darkness has again descended, leaving the new world explorable to the Sept emmisaries. Or what was left of them.
The footprints stop abruptly near the entrance, leaving Shodan to deduce the Juxar has taken flight. His heart seemed to wince at the thought of her disappearance. Surely she did not go far, he ponders. Not after all we went through...
He spreads his cramped wings and rises vertically, hoping to find her from the top of the rock island. The top face coming in view, he gives another flap to put himself overtop of it. He carefully folds his wings behind him, sore as they are. Looking over the stone, he can see the red form of Juxar on his right, facing the great spread of dark water. He moves to stand beside her and stares at the water as well. It is nothing like the great lake in our home, Shodan suddenly thinks. Shifting, moving, crashing against it's banks. Almost alive.
Juxar does not acknowledge his arrival for several moments. She turns and stares at his face silently. He turns as well, watching her eyes, which strike him as being much like the sea he had been gazing at just before. Only firey red, not a calm blue-green. He wonders what his own eyes look like. He suddenly feels obliged to say something.
"How art thine wounds?"
She turns away, staring again at the ocean. "I am much better. I think would have died without thine courage and resourcefulness. Thank thee, Shodan." Her voice is a bit strained. It is apparent to Shodan that it was not easy for the red to admit that. Even after all they had endured.
He sighs. "I wish I had been that thoughtful during the battle. Den..." His voice falters, but he forces himself to continue. "Denvoln'k might still be alive."
Juxar smiles very slightly and turns back to him. "There was nothing you could have done. He is gone from us, and we should accept that. Besides..." Her voice becomes quieter, and her eyes lower. "With him still present, we could have never done what we did in thy haven."
Shodan snorts, still trying to deny his friends death. "I do not think it is right to trade a dear friends life for a few moments of passion," he says angrily, then realizes it was very untrue. Horribly untrue.
Juxar turns away, her eyes closed, her jaw tensed shut. Shodan greatly wishes he hadn't said it. He opens his mouth to say more, but nothing in his mind is ordered enough to emerge. His feelings are the angry clashes of Sept duty and the sensation produced by the Losnikosh. That feeling of some new world, not physical, but...
"I hope the Presbyterate will forgive our breach of mating ritual," Shodan murmurs, trying to sort his mind. "I think that si-"
"Oh, damn the Sept!" Juxar shouts, stepping back and glaring fiercely at him. "What I feel for thou is..." She turns her gaze toward the ground and stops, her own turmoil obvious. She shakes her head, as if it would dislodge a few contradictions and leave her with peace. She looks up, her firey eyes slightly dimmed, tensed with confusion, and very slightly moist. Shodan feels an angry longing to somehow return her eyes to their wild state; to speak a few simple words and allow Juxar her deserved happiness; to return to the passionate, violent joy that had gripped them within the cave. But no words come, and the red turns away and stares at the sea once more. Shodan raises a hand to comfort her, but he lowers it, the claws clenching in a fist, the sad, grey quiet of helplessness overcoming him.
He looks up at the hemisphere of pinpricks of light, feeling the fragrant wind cascading around him. Turning toward the chain of islands pointing away from the tail end of the mainland they had left, Shodan looks over it. It would be a better area to explore, he thinks, trying to return to their duty. Glancing above the isles, he frowns. There seemed to be a bank of fog high above the land, slowly rolling toward the couple. The fog obscures the pinpricks there, but the light provided by the larger celestial bodies and reflections on the water are still strong, allowing the Dragons to see the approaching clouds fairly clearly. He squints, trying to make sense of them.
Juxar is beside him, gazing curiously at the same sight. Apparently the same reminder of exploration, had allowed her to concentrate on their duty.
"That high?" he replies. "I do not think so. But it appears to be the same thing, and yet... not so. More compact and much more defined. T'would be a wise choice for exploration, dost thou not think? Thou art the oldest now, remember."
Juxar smiles crookedly, with a trace of irony, and nods. "I suppose so. But remember, 'tis only by default. Once we determine it's nature, I believe that we should continue in this direction. Hopefully we can find another of our kind... and which doesn't attack on sight."
With that, she leaps off the edge of the cliff and unfolds her wings at the apex of her jump, soaring upwards towards the strange fog. Shodan follows, happy to return to performing a duty he knows.
The cool, aromatic air whips around him. The darkness seems to lull this world into a calm sleep, Shodan thinks. I suppose they are more used to the light than we are. It's all so alien... He feels a cold shiver run through him and glances up at Juxar, her wings pumping to raise the tons of flesh higher. The things he had done with her, however brought about, were something he had been turning over in his subconcious mind, now brought out into this violently bright light. He realizes he regrets none of it. What he feels is more than the desire to mate, something that ran deeper than the most basic Sept order. But the feelings have no name, at least, none he knows. But, he suddenly thinks, the Losnikosh knew...
Soon the bank of fog is closer, and it is obvious that they are more than simply fog. Condensed clouds that swirl in blossoming mountains, the cold, thin air leading and following simultaneously. Almost like some living rock formation, Shodan thinks. He finds it beautiful...
Juxar, nearing the edge of them, hesitates, and hovers for a moment. Moving into it, the white tendrils envolop her and she is soon out of sight. A vague fear grips Shodan for a moment, and he follows. The whiteness surrounds him and he can see nothing, only the sense of gravity reminding him of directions. In seconds he bursts through onto a white plane of clouds, creating the effect that there is another new world above the green and blue one underneath the clouds. Juxar is nearby, staring at the scene in wonder.
The clouds are patchy, and allow sight onto the miniturized world below at certain points. Just like a maze, thinks Shodan. A whoop comes from Juxar, as she dives through a hole and races out of sight. Grinning, and realizing she had the same thought, Shodan dives after her.
The game races on through the maze, as the two Dragons twist and loop through the complex array of clouds, their Dragongrace allowing them to make almost supernatural movements through turns that tested their best skills. Absently noticing that they are continuing to follow the chain of islands below, Shodan hopes they aren't missing any possible points of interest below.
Shodan realizes he has been smiling in joy the entire time. Why? he asks himself. 'Tis only a game of tag with a fellow Dragon... Why should this be so special to me? What is different from down in mine home? What is missing? He stops, and almost forgets to flap. That was it. Sedin. The Sept. That stale air of authority silently hanging over mine head. And hers... This is what I want, to be free, to exist -without- the thought of death at the hands of masters I had no control over. An enforced duty to someone I was born into. 'For the love of mine life...' said the Losnikosh. That's what he had that I could not recognize. The freedom and ability to chose how to live. And who to love. Free to live, free to love...
Up ahead, Juxar twists in mid-air to stare back at him, wondering why he paused. The scene suddenly flashes into Shodan's mind, etching itself for eternity. That tensed form, wild, free, grinning in true joy, twisting in mid-motion to him, and him only. The words 'the love of mine life...' pass Shodan's lips as it stops time for him, the words dying only a few feet from him, victim to the harsh wind. He knows what he wants to say, to promise, to give. A life, love, a new world, not only physical, but spiritual... it would be hard, to break free of thousands of cycles of indoctrination, but he also instantly knows it would be worth it. -She- would be worth whatever obstacles placed before him. And he knows she would return it, he has only to say it; to put to words all he felt. He opens his mouth and moves closer.
Time freezes again.
He notices the clouds have grown darker, thicker, more angry at some point in their playing. Low rumblings can suddenly be heard that he had ignored before. Juxar is still up ahead, blissfully unaware of his revelation.
Then the world is filled with white light.
Directions are forgotten, and the world is black, an absense of sight. Somewhere, on the edge of his hearing, he can hear a scream. His own, or Juxar's. The cracking boom accompanying the light deadens his hearing, but not as badly as his sight. He can see nothing, only a sick blackness all around. The wind whistles by, he realizes he is falling. There are two screams now, his own and Juxar's, as his hearing starts to return to normal. His sight is now a sick panorama of grey and black blurs, not revealing anything relevent.
He falls for what seems an eternity, then a strange sensation overcomes him.
A tingling, almost solid feel of air around him. His nostrils suddenly burn with the recognition of daemonmagic. The fall stops, and he tries to grope for the caster blindly. But there is nothing there, only the gripping air. He moves again, this time more horizontally, towards what his blurred vision guesses is something similiar to the Losnikosh city he attacked previously. But... darker somehow, sitting, or rather squatting, on a rocky island. He can make out no specifics. He spins wildly, trying to spot Juxar somewhere. There, behind him, a red blur of violence, tearing impotently at the magicked air.
As he moves closer to the structure, a wild fear begins to overtake him. Fear for himself, for Juxar, for what was almost theirs. He begins to spin more randomly, lashing out where he knows it makes no difference. A cold hand grips his heart, and the air suddenly releases him and he crashes to a stone surface. He leaps up, swaying violently, then crashes back down, vertigo overtaking him. He retches on the cold stone. Spinning around violently, he looks for Juxar. She is on the stone surface about fifty yards from him, gripping her eyes and shrieking. Apparently she had been looking at the source, which must have been behind Shodan. He wonders if she is hurt permanently. He starts to race to her side over the stone roof.
At the edge of his vision, strange forms, which had appeared as statues along the edge of the wall, suddenly come to life, the cold stone moving with a strange fluidity. A cold, silent, automatic motion. Fear grips him again, like nothing ever before. Pure survival. The things move closer. They appear as daemons, but Shodan knows they are not.
Near Juxar, several of the statues surround her and grasp her flailing arms, easily forcing her to the stone surface like some trapped prey. But Shodan does not notice. His only thought is of escape from these horrors. They surround him, grasping with frozen hands. He screams, striking wildly. He can inflict no wounds on the creatures. He remembers his wings. They open, only to be gripped by the statues.
He shakes, trying to free himself. Somehow he succeeds, almost as if they had been commanded to release him. He lifts into the sky, fear his only thought, and down below there are two sounds. One comes from a dark form, a Losnikosh. His dark cloak surrounds his muscular frame, a dark malevolence behind his eyes. On the top of his bearded head lies a gold and silver serpentine crown, which reminds him of spoiled purity just by it's sight. His laugh is some monstrous mocking, only strengthening his fear and at the same time, in some impotent part of his conciousness, reminding him of what he was leaving behind. The other sound is a wail of pain from Juxar, gripping Shodan's mind. But the fear is total, infecting his entire being. His soul turns away.
The fear turns in on itself, and only miles away from the island, over the open expanse of dark sea with no sign of land, does he realize what he did. The tears flow, staining his view of the sharp horizon. The coldness grips his heart again, and he damns himself. The very freedom he enjoyed only minutes ago is a stale taste to him without the end to strive for. Without her, he thinks, nothing is worth anything. I find love... only to lose it. Because of myself. My weak, stupid, self. Tears flow steadily, adding their weight to the expanse of ocean below. Hours pass, as he flies away from the citadel and the dark Losnikosh upon it. Wings flap automatically now, pulling him towards whatever lay before him. One part wishes for only ocean, to exhaust strength and quietly sink beneath the water. Another wants to find the Losnikosh city again, to die fighting, flaming blood replacing tears. But he flies on. What he thinks is an entire cycle passes.
The edge of the horizon begins to define itself, a light beginning to appear along it's edge about 45 degrees to his right. His eyes start to squint. Shelter is not on his mind. Only fear and death and helplessness. He flies on.
The land begins to form beneath him, and he starts to tire. He dips lower.
A spread of trees is the major feature on this flat island, with a winding road between them. There are moving forms on it.
Shodan reacts to the first thought in his mind. He moves closer to attack them, a choked, ironic sob murmuring, "Prey."
He moves into a dive, heading directly for them.
There are three of them, one is armed and armored, and one carries a complicated bow. These two, he can tell from their facial hair, are males; Losnikosh. The last, the leader, carries a simple sword, a strange symbol on the front of the armor. A golden cross with the top stick replaced by a circle. Shodan cannot tell whether the form is male or female, but he does not care.
The wind whistles by, screaming in his ears like lost love. He does not care.
The fireball above him presses at his eyes, the familiar pain returning. He does not care.
The figures move to arm themselves, readying themselves for the attack. They are obviously skilled and he suddenly realizes he allowed himself to go into a stupid, undefendable attack. But he does not care.
He realizes he is about to die by their hand. And he does not care.
There is something about the dive that comes as something of a revelation to Shodan. His own thought, that he is about to die, swivels in a strange angle and he can see it from another facet. He does not care if he dies, but he knows death is not what he seeks, and neither is life. Neither holds any value, death because of it's nature, life because of it's sudden emptiness. In an apparent paradox, Shodan's mind pauses to ponder it. It also forgets about the present situation.
The fact that the leader is a spellcaster becomes apparent as his hands weave strange ethereal motions and spell components are flung. A swirling sphere rockets up toward Shodan, wavering and jumping, but staying on course, and slams into him. The world reels, his mental chaos matching the physical cacophony of light before him. Flight is broken as the ground meets him none too gently.
He grunts as he impacts, but does not cry out.
His body lies twisted on the ground, the joints bent in ways they should not be. Physical pain no longer bothers him, he has only the knowledge of injury. And the thought I probably should not be lying like this. But trying to correct it does not really occur to him. After his long flight over the sea, rest is some small release, and he gets no satisfaction from it. He wonders what the Losnikosh are doing, and absently twists his head around. There they are.
The well armored one is rushing toward him, his sword ready to slice into Dragon flesh. The thought does not really strike Shodan as immediate, only a thought of I suppose that will hurt. The leader races after the armored one and grabs his shoulder. The leader pulls him back, shaking its head, implying 'no'. The armored one is apparently vehement about his action, gesturing wildly with his weapon towards Shodan. Shodan regards it all calmly, wondering detatchedly what will happen.
The leader turns to look at Shodan. The eyes, silent and deep, carry a weight, but are oddly enriched by that weight. There is some bond between Losnikosh and Dragon, as the leader breaks a slight smile. Shodan does not change, and only watches, feeling little. Turning back to his companion, the leader explains something again, and begins to walk back to the third, the bow carrier. The armored one grips his sword angrily, turning from his leader to Shodan. He snorts, and follows his leader.
Not moving his head, Shodan watches them carefully move around him to continue travelling down the island. Their sound soon passes out of his range.
Lying silent as well, Shodan listens to his surroundings as the light continues to brighten. His eyes squeeze shut involuntarily, and he pulls himself off the road toward the forest alongside it. Sliding down the bank, he oozes into a large pool of mud at the bottom. Not really caring, he pulls himself farther into the wood. The flat forest floor is a mass of the dead leaves, crunching and cracking as he drags his body over them. He finally decides it is far enough and squirms down into the leaves, finally disappearing under their mass. Suddenly tired beyond belief, he immediately falls asleep. He does not dream.
* * *
When he opens his eyes, darkness is all around. Familiar darkness. He surprises himself by noticing the leaves no longer cover his face, the darkness is there anyway. There is no light coming from above, something besides the trees seem to coat the new world's non-ceiling. He pauses for a moment there, and wonders why he still knows no word for it. Ah well, he thinks, Who would I say it to?
He almost chuckles until he notices something moving in in front of him. Sore eyes turn toward it, not moving the head. Perhaps that was instinct.
It is some four legged animal, a soft coat of fur around it. It steps closer, gently sniffing at Shodan's scent. A hooved paw stamps on the leaves, bowing it's head toward Shodan's own. Absently turning away, the creature snuffs through the leaves, apparently for something to eat. The scent to Shodan is a simple, woodland smell, of it's herd and family.
Shodan remembers he has not eaten in almost five cycles. Hunger strikes him, but blankly, with no Dragongrace slipping into his blood for the hunt. He just knows he is supposed to eat.
He quickly rises from the leaves, the encrusted mud cracking and flaking. He creature darts, but a quick tensing of Shodan's hind legs bring him within easy reach of it, and he slams a clawed fist down on it's neck, and it falls forward, it's soft face crunching into the leaves. It lies twisted and broken at Shodan's feet, and the scene reminds him of himself and the Losnikosh on the road. But you lived, he tells himself. So? is his own reply. He bends forward and tears into the flesh, ripping the leg muscles off in one sweep. A single thought crosses his mind. One must eat.
He takes his time, knowing he has nowhere to go. After finishing, he leans back from it, wondering what he should do now. His friends are dead, his duty meaningless. Both facts no longer strike him as violently as they did before. More like an automatic acceptance. The new world no longer holds any beauty for him, it is now only a cold land of dangerous unknowns. Staying here, he thinks, is somewhat useless. Use? What is the use of anything? he thinks. But it would also be useless to stay, would it not? True. I suppose... I suppose there must be Dragons here somewhere. If I am to die, it should be by their hand.
He does not admit it to himself, but some unbroken part of his soul grasps that thought and concentrates solely on it, though not for hope of a proper death, but instead for the unseeable bond between Kind. No matter how small the chance of their existence.
Turning away from the bloody carcass, he gazes down at himself. Mud covers half his body, blood from his none-too-careful meal is strewn down his front, the black-blue briuse from the initial attack is still there, and half-healed scars are all over him. The thought of cleaning himself occurs to him, but he thinks, Who is there to see me?
He lifts off, leaves crunching behind him.
* * *
The night is quiet and empty. There are no sparks in the sky this cycle, only a vague sense of the fog, but he is too tired to fly up to investigate. Nor does he wish any memories of cloudplay.
He flies toward the edge of the island he intersected during his flight, and begins to follow the coastline.
After a while the coastline breaks up, forming several small islands, and also one large one, dominated by a conical mountain. The shoreline then turns abruptly to Shodan's left. If he continued forward, he would be flying through a great land of barren sand and heat. He decides to follow the coastline still, deciding Dragons would never live in such a dry and lifeless area.
The tears he shed have left him hollow now. He wonders if events like what had happened to him slice open a soul, and the tears pour out... leaving nothing. Flying holds no joy to him, his physical freedom means nearly nothing without an object to be free to go after. The strange and wondrous land beneath him holds no interest... only a reminder of pains of the past.
He flies on.
On his right, the hot dry area rises into a series of brown and yellow mountains, their dirty rocky slopes easing into the sand behind him. The coastline also starts to curve to his left, and Shodan follows it. As the altitude rises, he can see white caps on the array of mountains. At another, more joyous time, he would have been interested or perhaps even excited about them. Now they hold nothing.
The fragrant air swirling around him is without it's sweetness, and only reminds him of a firey scent of a passion beheld what seemed so long ago.
Farther on, the mountains slope down again, this time into a fertile valley, a winding river passing through it, and swampy land hugging its banks. The other side of the valley slopes up, although not as steeply as the first had. As he moves closer to them, he notes they are larger, more spread out, their white caps more numerous and complicated. Thin streams weave through sharp cliffs, rushing in headlong glory towards the endless body of water on his left.
Once again, his night is interrupted by the coming of the light. Fortunately it starts behind him, the black giving away to grey. The edges of his eyes begin to burn in familiar pain. But he notices, with some irony, that his eyes are beginning to stand it. Oh, sweet life, he thinks. To finally grant me such a useful resistance.
The thought combined with the light begins to deaden what little is left of his spirit. His wings ache horribly, muscles moving with whatever strength he still grasps. His eyes move over the mountains, hoping there must Dragons there somewhere. Please, let there be Dragons here...
He dips closer, the grey slopes and cliffs becoming more definite as their fog is burned off. His eyes search frantically, the thin thread of hope pulled tighter.
It snaps, as he realizes how hopeless his final quest is.
No Dragons... no hope...
His own weight is too much, and he tries to stay in the air, for no reason other than momentum. He clears the edge of a ridge, hind legs smacking against stone, and his tired, pained eyes touch upon a sight he thought did not exist.
It is mostly no different from the others around it. Quite conical, its steep slopes rising to a sharp peak. The mountain's appearance, however, is not what strikes Shodan. Something about it... like... a force that is always present, no matter what the mind thinks or the heart believes...
His wings give way, and the rocky slope sharp on his skin. He is on a ridge connected to the base of the strange mountain. He trips down the slope he is on, the blunt pain meaning nothing. He begins to climb the mountain's slope, dragging an unwilling body over course rock. The summit seems so far away... but something pushes him onward.
The light gets stronger, pushing at his eyeballs. He forces himself on, without knowing why: Perhaps to throw himself off at the top.
His muscles burn, not with strength, but consumed, the energy leaving and turning his sinew to dead flesh. Even then, his body moves, pulling himself with sheer willpower. Or perhaps willpower given by the mountain.
The limbs finally stop, the mind screaming for action but the body now deaf. Failed again, he thinks. Even faced with death I have no success. But now it ends... His head rests against the sweet stone, the exhaustion strong enough that his death is inevitable. He waits, gazing up at the peak, somehow complete. Knowing that what he discovered for himself was not a single occurance... that the word 'Dragon' carries more than the tearing of weaker flesh or the flapping of membraned wings. He begins to close his pained eyes, satisfied in death. But his ears, still as strong as ever, hear something.
A strange sound...
Like careful vibrations, like ones he had heard elsewhere...
But strung into a harmonious continuity, like nothing he has ever heard...
The sound is too beautiful to ignore. Shodan lifts his head to peer around. There, movement, above him and to his left, almost obscured by an outcropping. He wonders if he can still move.
The sounds strengthen him, and he pulls himself upwards. His dry throat tries to repeat the sounds, coming out as broken hums and gasps. As he gets closer to the rock, he feels the shale slip beneath him and he crashes forward, beyond and below the rock, but now able to see the source.
The wings are smaller... he is perhaps stouter than most Sept Dragons... and he carries a strange device with taut strings across it... but it most definitely is a Dragon.
The sounds aburptly stop, as the strange thing in the Dragon's hands is dropped. The Dragon leaps up, moving toward Shodan with a quickness either born of instinct or fear. Shodan raises his claws in defense, snarling in some last vestige of self. His present condition makes the fall much worse. Blackness overtakes him, the form looming, the sounds forgotten.
* * *
"... we are glad thou hast brought him here, Minstrel, but who... or what is he? His eyes appear to glow, and his wings are huge... ...wounds look like they were sustained in a attack on a castle or keep, what with the arrow wounds and... Look, here, I couldst swear it was from a cannon."
"I know not. I was preparing for a day of meditation at the Shrine, and was sitting upon the slope of the Tyleh'arrkh, playing Stones on my dulcimer when he fell from behind a boulder. I jumped up to help and he almost struck me. He fainted right there. His wounds looked severe, so I brought him back to the Weyrmount. Doth the sages know him?"
"No... even Sharok cannot place his countenace."
"Joshka'centeeli... dost thou think he is... Ken'sha?"
"That far south? On holy ground? I do not think so. But he is a solid color, like most Ken'sha. Yet no patterns typical of Ken'shansharasha... but no stripes typical of Pesstro'shal, either. As if he is of no clan."
"I know... I will help heal him, and try to find someone who perhaps knows his origins. We should..."
The total black returns.
* * *
Blackness dwindles, perhaps it was never there. Just a lack of light. But wasn't that a contradiction?
"The Ash'lhera awakes! Canst thou hear me, Ash'lhera?"
Fight it. Whatever it is.
"Mine arm! By the Spirits, calm! I will not harm thou! Please, listen!"
Weakness. Of body. Of spirit. Oh, why is she gone... bring her back...
"Oh, damn. Thou'rt not going to make this simple, art thou?" The voice turns away. "Droni! Fetch the Kefkini! Our visitor is finally waking, and he is not reacting well! Not you, Fejik, help me hold him!"
He struggles blindly, forgetting his eyes. What he may see he refuses to believe. More paws grasp at him. Even with muscles still half-asleep, he continues his flailing.
Soon another voice is heard. This one stronger, wiser, more in command.
"Droni, Fejek, take his arms and wings. Joshcent, press down his legs, at the joint. Yes, that's it. Now..."
The hands, their claws plainly felt, hold him fast, whatever healed spirit now held in check. The stronger voice is close to him now. It speaks again.
"Ash'lhera... canst thou hear me? Thou art in the Weyrmount. Mine name is Thevanin. I am presently the Kefkini for the Weyrmount council. What is thine name?"
"Bring her back... please... I trade mine life..."
Tears he thought were gone flow again.
"Her? Who is she, Ash'lheri? Speak to us, we cannot help thee otherwise."
The voice is truthful, soothing. Shodan forces his eyelids to open and reveal the new world again.
The face of a Dragon, different, yet he knows. A light source beyond his vision gives the face a glow, like some ghost. The light brings familiar pain.
"Light..." he manages, twisting his head.
"Droni, move the taper away. How is that, Ash'lheri?"
The face is more visible now. An almost aquamarine skin, light patterns covering it. Twitching nostrils. Wise eyes. Like the Losnikosh in his old world, like the one who spared him on the road. He can feel a kinship with it, an immediate aquaintance, or parhaps friendship. His muscles calm, the hands that had bound them loosen.
The face speaks, matching the stronger voice with it.
"Thine name? Canst thou tell me thy name?"
The excitement of communication renews in him, his curiosity beginning to burn brighter.
His voice cracks, but he speaks after a moment.
"Mine name... is... Shodan."
"Shodan. Shodan. I know of none by that name. Is that thine Birthname or chosen name?"
"Birthname?" the word comes strangely to him. "I was given the first Kechne by Sedinn'kreftarjalmokq'nvornen, as all Dragons are, when they are born. Is that what thou mean?"
"I do not know this Sedin, either..." the face turns briefly to look in another direction, towards Shodan's hind feet. "What is thy chosen name, then?"
"I... have none. Besides mine second Kechne."
The face frowned. "Shodan is thine only name, then. Interesting. I do not think any sept disallows the selection of a chosen name. Of what sept are thou?"
"I am... of the Sept. Is there any other?"
A grin. It somehow gives Shodan pleasure. "Art thou Pesstro'shal? Or Poraishen'shal? If thou art of the Ken'shansharasha, admit it now, for thou will not be killed, merely expelled."
"Ken... what? I know not these names. If they Dragon societies, I am not of any."
"Well, that is thine name. Ash'lhera. Without family. But... if thou art not of no clan... where art thou from? A rogue?"
Shodan pauses. He is not sure how to descibe the world he knew.
"The Sept, rather, mine Sept is living in the world underneath this one. We found someone from... well, what the legends called the old world. Where we lived before our beginnings. We did not know at the time if this world existed, whether it was merely the result of thousands of years of legends, built on the subtle phrases of what we keep from our past." He takes a deep breath. His stomach feels cataclysmic, as the urge to blurt out all he knows, past and present, to the new world. He forces his mind to focus. "Once we saw proof of our perhaps no longer legends, we debated on whether to journey here and examine it. Myself and two friends were selected, we searched out a passage upwards, and emerged on a lake during the fireball's travel across the sky. We waited 'till it disappeared and tried to contact a nearby town of creatues like the one discovered in our homeworld, but they attacked us. And killed our leader. The other and I fled. Another cycle passed and while we were circling through the clouds, the sky blinded us. We fell, and were somehow caught. They..." he pauses, a sick wave moving through his body. "They killed her. I escaped." His voice breaks, and he finds he cannot go on.
The visible Dragon speaks again. "'Tis all right. Thy journey now has a place of rest. We can offer safety and a chance to learn, but thou must agree to tell us all about thy world, thy people. Many centuries have passed since the severing of the clans, and now to find another one... 'tis perhaps an omen of things to come. Especially in these dark times. Dost thou agree to this?"
Shodan pauses again. A promise of new life? After all he gone through? Friendship followed by death, love followed by loss. Now, to live again? Purely for himself? To restart, to be born again? To find hope where no hope existed anymore?
* * *
Days pass, and he finally learns the meaning of days.
He tells his story, and the legends within him, ingrained since birth. He tells of his masters, and his place within their hierarchy, and is surprised by their indignation of it. He tells his story as best he can, relating the painful parts more easily, now among newfound friends. At first, he had thought they would reject him, as an outcast, perhaps outright banish his different self. But they did not. They welcomed the change, the new ideas, without reservation. Shodan's soul rejoices at this, to finally find acceptance in the above world.
In return, he learns of the world, of it's history, and of it's Dragons. He learns the different societies, their philosophies, their motives. The Weyrmount, home to the clan of the Pesstro'shal, he learns to love. Thier love for history and magic, not the spilling of blood and the aquisition of power. He surprises himself often, being able to see inside his own soul with new eyes and almost frightened of what is there. But he learns that change is possible, contrary to what he has been taught all his life. Perhaps he learns through doing.
He learns the power and beauty of magic, through the teachings of an older member of the Council. He remembers leaping back and hissing violently when it was demonstrated, they had all been surprised at this, explaining how useful an ability it can be. Shodan somehow overcomes his own prejudice and studies magic and its lessons. He learns magic is but a tool, a tool that can be misused. For good, like the healer who nursed him back to health, and some for evil, like Blackthorn, or the daemons. He learns it surprisingly quickly, and the more powerful spellcasters tell him they sense potential within him. Part of him is repulsed, another, strangely proud.
He can feel himself shedding the world he knew, and taking on the new ways like a sponge. Sometimes he wonders about the righteousness of forgetting his old world, but the more he takes on, the more he realizes how wrong the Sept's construction was. An enforced subjugation of the young, regardless of their abilities. The enshrinement of the old, regardless of the Dragon's mind. The enforcement of rituals, regardless of personal belief. There -was- no personal belief. There was belief of the Sept, and for the Sept. No other. And it all seemed to come back to one Dragon... Sedinn'kreftarjalmokq'nvornen...
And perhaps most important of all, his eyes finally begin to adjust to the light of the sun.
* * *
The days grow short, for the season of autumn holds sway. When the natural world begins hibernation. The air grows cold, and the leaves of the trees turns a stunning myriad of colors, like a dry, burnt, rainbow. He loves this new knowledge, knowledge of the world and how it works. He finally has answers to the questions asked back within his home. Finally.
The sun burns low in the sky, like a dying fire. He sits on a rock on the lip of the caldera, the rim of the cooled sealed crater of the Weyrmount. The cool air breezes through him, he tastes the scents upon it. His life is finally right, the darkness of the past finally weaned away, and the unknown glory of the future lay ahead. He smiles, feeling truly happy.
There is a swirl of air as Thevanin appears over caldera rim, risen from the entrance tube down the mountain slope. He sits upon the lip beside Shodan. Most of Shodan's days were spent with Thevanin in learning the new ways, since his knowledge of the 'Mount was vast. Their friendship was perhaps built upon their intense mutual curiousity. Thevanin was partly a magic-user and partly a sage and historian, and was often selected to be the Kefkini, or a person of authority within the Weyrmount to act as a guide in case of emergencies or new discoveries. Just as Shodan was at the time.
"I have not missed him, have I?"
Shodan frowns. "Missed whom? I have not seem anyone, and I have been here several hours."
"Hmmm... I would have thought he would hath been here by now. No matter. His schedule is what he makes it." He smiles.
"Who is this Dragon you speak of, Thevanin? And why dost thou wait for him?"
"Oh, 'tis Monomolecular. He lives in the Weyrs north of Moonglow. I recieved word he is coming here the last day of the tenth month, today, before the sun sets. We are to discuss some historical documents, as well as discuss what the eastern weyrs wish to do about the matter concerning Blackthorn."
Shodan stiffens at the name. He now knows it was Blackthorn who had ensnared he and Juxar from the sky that fateful night so long ago. And it had been the Avatar, recently-returned champion of the land, who had spared him along the road. Sedin's wish that he retrieve knowledge on the factions in the new world was perhaps being fulfilled, but Shodan has no intention of returning it.
"Ah... there he is. Rise and greet him, for he is a good friend of mine, and a wise sage besides."
A dark shape on the dimming eastern horizon, speeding toward the rocky cliffs in the dimming light. The Dragon glides along the rim of the caldera in a smooth arc and rushes up to alight upon the rim, turning to the pair already there. He is a steely black color, with a pair of strange, intelligent silver-grey eyes.
"Onto'melkkhlyr! Thy presence gladdens me. How was thy flight?"
"Thevanin! 'Tis good to see thee, as well. My flight was fine, a storm from the south theatened us near the Blood Plains, but no harm was done. I am glad to have reached these cliffs. The 'Mount is always a welcome sight."
"Onto'melkkhlyr, I want to introduce Shodan. Shodan, this is Onto'melkkhlyr, otherwise known as Akaierth. Hast thou heard of his history, Ono'melkkhlyr?"
"Of course I've heard of him, news of a new sept doth not travel slowly, especially to a historian's ears." The black steps up to Shodan, looking him directly in the eyes and cocking his head, then speaking. "I expect as much information as possible. History, morals, political hierarchies, gender social variations, everything."
Shodan blinks and arches his neck back a bit. "I... of course. All I can provide." He can see Thevanin grinning in the corner of his eye.
Onto'melkkhlyr nods absently, turning back to Thevenin. "I hear there hath been new lineage records unearthed from before the Sundering. I'd like to see these right away, if that is possible."
"Art thou not tired? Thou didst come from the eastern weyrs, surely thou art drained."
"I've spent the day in motion, why try to violate the natural law of momentum?" The black grins toothily, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth.
Thevanin laughs, "Thy logic, as always, is of a strange and beautiful kind, Akaierth. Come, let us examine the records. Shodan, too, should join us. Perhaps we can find more evidence of the Underworld Sept's founder."
He turns away and drops down the slope, towards the entrance shaft below. The black follows. Shodan takes a final look at the fading sun, and drops down to follow them. Although he does not know why, he feels a tingling in his blood, the Grace shifting after many weeks. Why now?
He banks his wings and he curls into the tube in a practiced arc, the earthen browns swirling by. In a sudden blur of color, the Weyrshaft is before him.
Formed from the receeding magma after the top portion cooled, forming the caldera, the Weyrshaft is little more than the hollow cylinder, but great things fill it. Curling catwalks trace the walls, dozens of Dragons carefully circle up and down, ducking into the many caverns that branch away from it. Always a scene of activity and wonder, Shodan can simply sit and watch for hours, often drawing the attention of guards and paserby.
The three Dragons circle down, close to the bottom, nearing the passage to the main library. Thevanin alights on a platform bearing the proper symbol, glances back, and steps inside. The other two follow suit.
The silence of the Weyrmount's main library was legendary. The rustle of parchment is the only sound, and even then not often. The roughly hewn shelves of oak taking on strangely bizarre tricks of the eye, of parallel lines converging into a quiet infinity. Protected tapers line the walls, and ventilation shafts are more common, to keep the room dry.
The three Dragons move silently through the stacks, Thevanin taking sharp turns every once and a while towards his supposed goal. Finally they reach a cleared section of the library, with a long table extending a dozen shelves or more. Chalk lines section out squares on the table; Shodan knows this to be the section for new documents, the sections partly a way of organizing the new parchments, as well as prepare them for safekeeping among the shelves or more secure locales. Thevanin rushes from pile to pile, looking over one, discarding it, looking over a new one. Finally he lifts a sheaf of fresh parchments with a cry of delight. A dozen unseen Dragons suddenly hiss their desire for silence. Thevanin winces, looking sheepish. He becons the other two to follow him to a private study room.
Moving inside, Thevanin lights a sconce and pins a large fur sheet over the entrance. He spreads the papers over the table in the middle of the smaller room, and Akaierth bends over the eagerly, with Thevanin pointing out which paper shows what. Shodan moves to the other side of the table, out of their way but still allowing him to see the parchments.
Hours pass as the two Overworld Dragons thoroughly examine the papers with intrest, while Shodan becomes slightly bored. Apparently, the papers are Ken'shansharashan military records from just before the great war that tore the original clans apart. Shodan had hope at first that this period was the correct time that Varashn'klor broke from the clans, but the records thus far do not indicate any such separation. Shodan begins to wonder if he should leave.
"Shodan... listen to this..." Thevanin suddenly says.
" 'Today we have heard news from the Council. A fringe group of Dragons became enraged after the Council leaders tried to imprison one of these Dragons for beating her child to death. The leader of this sect stormed into the council chambers, and had words with His Grandness, Felakke'quas, leader of the Council. It was said the drakes cowered in fear away from the door. The leader stormed out, tearing the doorcover in rage... in a few hours, the more than two dozen members of this group took flight, heading towards the great mountains to the southwest... Their leader turned once to look back at the stunned clan members in the gardens, and shouted for all to hear, "Mine righteousness needeth no light... we shall return to the earth from whence all comes... may the sun destroy thou all, and thy petty ways..." Some of our leaders want to use this event as a prime example of the disunity between sects and strike against the council now, other want to hunt the sect down for treason... But by either choice, we may never see Varashn'klor and his Sept again...' "
Thevanin drops the paper and looks up at Shodan, not speaking. Shodan himself sits quietly, staring at the paper like a part of himself. He sees in the corner of his eye that Akaieth had been watching Shodan while Thevanin read. Shodan opens his mouth to speak, no words come out. He tries again.
"Why... why were they a fringe group? Why did they split away?"
Akaierth speaks. "Apparently, there is no word. But if it is any example, the female's mortal beating of her child and their leader's resulting outrage would seem to imply that they saw no wrong in the beating of their young, perhaps even supported it... almost like a birthright of subjugation..."
Shodan nods, remembering the blows he had recieved long ago for asking too many questions of his teachers. For letting a prey escape without killing it. For expressing his doubt about a certain painful or humiliating ritual... so many things, coming back to haunt him. He stares around at the grey and brown walls, and feels at peace, to have finally found a home. He sighs slightly.
"This is a copy of the original, Shodan," Thevanin says after a silent moment. "Thou mayest keep it, for thyself. We can always make another." He carefully folds the parchment and hands it to Shodan.
"Thank you, Thevanin... 'tis strange to hold your past in your hand... I only wish I could share it with my dearest friends, those who came with me. I hope someday I can."
"I thought both of thy companions had perished in thy journey here, Ash'lheri. At least, that is the rumor that reached the eastern Weyrs. How could they still be alive?" the black asks.
Thevanin leans toward Shodan. "Didst thou not tell me that Denvoln'k had perished on the attack on the walled city of Trinsic? And that Juxar was killed by Blackthorn's minions on his castle?"
Shodan stares down at the random array of papers on the table. "I... was not truly honest with thee, Thevanin. 'Tis painful to admit... Juxar was not dead when I turned away from her, only held in those stone creatures grip, screaming in pain... I didst not want to believe she was still alive, I do not know why... but if she is, I want to help her, to show her the joys of the world, and the truths of our past... I know the chances are miniscule that she is still alive, but I want to hope, now...."
He sighs and smiles, looking up. "I am sorry if I babble, friends. The past few weeks have been very strange."
He notices Onto'melkkhlyr is frowning, staring the table, lost in thought. "You say that this Juxar may be still alive? But in Blackthorn's hands?"
"Yes... She may wish she is dead, for I have heard of Blackthron's evil ways... is it wrong to hope?"
"No, 'tis not that... but there are recent rumors about. Of Blackthorn gaining a powerful group of creatures for enforcement of his rule... there is also a rumor that these creatures... are Dragon."
"What?!?" gasps Thevanin incredulously. "The Pessrto'shal would never ally with such a monster. And the Ken'sha do not ally with humans, least of all one who can sieze rule of the world under his name. How can it be possible?"
"Thou art correct, Thevanin," Akaierth says. "The Dragons could not be Pesstro'shal. Or Ken'shansharasha. But you are forgetting someone."
Akaierth points at Shodan. "Him. His Sept."
Shodan feels a tingling in his spine again, stronger. "Me? Thou dost think I am a spy for Blackthorn?"
"No, from what Thevanin tells me, thou art truly honest, and I cannot doubt your word. But if Juxar is in Blackthron's grip, there is no way she could have held information from him, for he has ways of making the rock itself reveal secrets. Therefore, he must know of your home. A huge group of Dragons, on the verge of breaking upon a huge new world... easy prey for one such as the ursurper. Blackthorn wants them for his army. Think of it... his rule would be perfected with a mass of Dragons for enforcers. And the dark magic he controls... there is no telling how far he could go... complete domination of the towns, of the shrines, perhaps even of the Weyr in which you now live."
Shodan is silent, wondering what he has done by leaving Juxar in the dark Loshnikosh's grip, of even coming to the surface world at all. Perhaps brought destruction on all he had so recently learned to love. The tingling of his spine tightens like an icy grip, familiar in feel, but not in cause. He speaks, quietly and carefully.
"What can we do? Is there any indication of the presence of my Kind here?"
"No, none. Which is why..." Akaierth pauses.
"Which is why you need to go back."
Shodan's eyes fly open. "No. Never. I cannot."
"Shodan, I know I have only known you a short while, and that I am asking you to perhaps sacrifice your life... but we need you to go back. I am sure the council would agree. We need to stop this before it begins, to keep Blackthorn from gaining such power. As you yourself know, the Avatar has returned to combat Blackthorn's rule. We need to give him time. A contingent of Dragons would immediately destroy his chances of returning Lord British to the throne, or at least stopping the ursuper. We need you to return to the underworld, see if your leaders know of Blackthorne and have aligned with him. I will table this before the council, but they will agree, we need you to go back. As soon as possible."
The weight of the weyrmountain seems to settle on Shodan. To return, to face the horrors he did not recognize so long ago... to strike against the possibility of evil... to face Sedin himself...
Thevanin and Akaierth are silent. Shodan closes his eyes, seeing a rusty red countenance there, challenging him.
He forces himself to nod.
* * *
The plan is presented before the Weyrmount Grand Council, but kept in secret. The members recognize the danger as Akaierth presents it. After their deliberation, each of them stare at Shodan, as their decision is made. A unanimous agreement to send Shodan back the underworld with as much help as they can offer. There is not much they can offer... he must go alone. But they agree to teach him as many spells as they can to assist him in case of conflict. But Shodan knows that if the Sept discovers his motives they will destroy him. I must face it, he reminds himself. For all I hold dear, I must do it...
A few days later, after intense training and preparation, Shodan again sits alone upon the rim of the caldera, staring up at a fading sun in the western sky. The streaks of bloody red shift in slow patterns, moving around the dying crescent of fire. He can almost see black eyes staring at him, the face of a powerful master, a deadly foe... he lowers his head, forcing his tears away.
He can feel his fists tighten, clawtips digging into his flesh.
His wings expand to catch the last rays, glowing like sheets of molten emerald.
He lifts his head toward the burning red sky.
"I am coming home."