Spirit of Fire - 17. Strength Of Faith
Chapter 17 was so big I had to split it in two. The second half will be following a few days after the first, so stay tuned.
It took all the effort he had to rise enough to sit, his hand touching the perforated skin, trembling on the slickened surface. What magic he could summon flowed through his fingertips into the wound, the agitated energies of his draconic spirit fitfully attempting to draw the riven tissue and torn membranes together.
He could feel it, not just as he was, but in the dormancy of his true form. The ruin of Kaia's blade was worse than anything a human could do to him, and the small innocuous length of enchanted steel had been a lance driven through the thickest layer of scale and muscle deep into his innards.
Sebby let go, collapsing again, fresh spasms of pain shooting through this stomach and chest as his back met the ground.
He had neither the skill with healing, nor the strength to overcome such an injury.
It was not enough.
He had known this could happen, from the first moment he had set eyes on Torsten and glimpsed the marvel of insight and possible futures, but never, not for a single second since then, had the prospect made him reconsider.
His task was a gift of divine inspiration, a pathway lit by wisdom that came from above, carried upon the shifting currents and born in an awareness drawn from the sight of a million observations.
What was his understanding compared to that?
He would not, could not, question his purpose.
Yet, there he lay, soaked in his own blood, his life ebbing even as his faith remained strong.
"I call to you." He spoke aloud in his native tongue, his attention fixed above, voice wavering from the hurt, but determined, the draconic language bouncing off the buildings near him. The words were forced out, the psychic distress imbued into them with as much amplifying vigour as he could give. "I beseech you, heart of the sky." He shuddered, energy sapping, but continued nonetheless. "Hear me, Celestial Mother. Hear me, I pray. Hear me, I beg."
The speech echoed between the structures, seeming to hang in the afternoon air; an entreaty to the wind, an attempt to offer restitution in a final appeal to the greatest authority he knew.
It was all he had.
Still, nothing moved.
Was this really the end?
He lay where he was, wondering for a brief moment, his eyelids fluttering in weariness, if this was the last he would know before he became one with nature once more.
Then, beside him, the air shifted.
An eddy appeared, the swirling motion of it growing until it was a contained vortex. Within, a ghostly figure formed, hardly visible; a translucent featureless shape that was no more than an apparition tinged with a barely discernible sheen of pale light.
"Child." A soft barely-audible whisper emitted from it, the churning wind worn around the phantom like a cloak. It was echoing and strange; an errant strand of thought transmitted from an immense distance, remote and half-attentive. "Your plea is heard."
"My- ... my lady." He coughed, weakening further, but still staring at the holy manifestation. "Forgive me. Forgive my weakness. I am dying."
With that, the air slowed, calming.
The query came, and with it a focused sharpness. Before he could manage another word, the wind picked up again, but this time it was completely different.
He felt it, all the way to his bones.
To that one faint thread of extended connection that was her presence, a multitude of others joined, score upon score uncounted. From hundreds and thousands of miles in every direction, the sky and reality itself were distorting. Everything pulled inward, the span of a continent's worth of elemental soul compressing into a human shell scarcely an arm's length away. Closer, magnified, the vastness of divine essence was concentrated before him, the influx a monumentally perception-warped implosion of arcane power. The potency of it was beyond what he imagined, and when it stopped, the vortex had finally coalesced into a solid form, and the disjointing of existence terminated.
In that moment, like elastic, the world snapped back into place.
The explosion of hurricane winds and blinding light tore leaves and branches from trees, blasted away organic litter, pulverised the wall of the adjacent office, the remainder of it collapsing from unfortunate proximity.
The goddess had arrived.
Overawed, he could not speak.
She was tall, svelte, but undeniably feminine; unshod, a cascade of snow-pure hair falling upon bare alabaster shoulders. Clothed in ribbons of living white silk that flowed around her limbs and torso in an ever-changing tableau, the only part of her he could not distinguish was her face. It was bright, a dazzling illumination, the star of her nucleus undisguised.
The sight felt like home.
Lowering, she knelt next to him.
"My faithful child," she murmured, "what have they done to you?"
"I have failed you." His breathing was shallow, his time nearly done. "The Conclave's servants ambushed us. I- ... I was not fast enough, strong enough." He lifted his right hand, shaking nearly uncontrollably, and reached out. "I ask for your grace ... one last time."
Her head shifted, beholding the wound, but she did not take his hand.
"No." It was as simple as that. "I do not accept this apology."
"My ... lady?" In a whisper, defeated, denied, his hand fell away, his eyes beginning to close, hope leaving together with his vitality as the very limit of it drained away. "I ... am ... so ... sor- ... -ry ... "
"No, child." She told him. "There is nothing to forgive."
She placed her own hand on his chest.
"The failure is mine."
Her power exploded into him, the eternal spark of the Celestial Mother filling his every cell in a glowing tide.
"What goddess abandons her chosen to die?"
The wound in his side closed instantly, the flesh knitting perfectly, returned to how it was.
"What goddess forsakes the most loyal of her own?"
She let go and stood, as the stained and ripped material of his vest was purified, woven together. He sat, abruptly, gasping, his body restored, reinvigorated.
"I will not stay idle when my brother's chaos seeks to reign again."
Swiftly, he rolled over from semi-prone, then came to a genuflected kneel, his head bowed.
"Rise, Sebakâli. Stand before me and know my gift."
She had given him back his life.
There was nothing he could say that would convey his reverence and adoration of her.
"Yes, my lady." He rose, standing to greet the Spirit of Air. Unexpectedly, the brilliance of her features was somehow observable, even if just barely, and he could see the curve of her chin, the line of the nose and lips, the subtle concave of her eyes. It was beatific and humbling and exciting and terrifying in the best possible way, and his belief was renewed as his body had been; vindicated and fortified by the ordeal of his near-death.
"Your trial is done, and no more are you simply an agent unanointed. I name you as I named Tiranî, the slayer of Antiris."
Tiranî, the legendary figure and sainted firstborn ancestor.
"You alone of my children have earned the title. You are the Sword of the Heavens, and I have empowered you with my blessings."
"Goddess," he dipped his head in recognition of the singular honour given to him, "what is your command?"
"Continue on your journey. Aid the Order. Protect the boy. Love without prejudice the clear-hearted. Strike without mercy the fallen and corrupt." A pulse of light beat through her countenance, a second's worth of royal anger showing like sun between clouds. "Your skill is greatly expanded by my boon. Any spawn of fire that challenges you, show them my wrath."
"As you will it." He nodded again, hesitating a moment to ask, though she preempted him.
"Speak, my child."
"It is ... your sister, my lady. Water sees fate as we others cannot, and her seers have long foretold his return. Through these many years, their knowledge has never foundered, each prediction becoming real as presaged. Is their first and most significant forewarning truly as inevitable as all that has gone? Do we fight the inescapable?"
There was a silence, and the unreadable visage of his goddess gave no clue why, causing him brief worry that he might have spoken beyond his purview, but she did reply.
"Prophecy is a mighty burden, drawn from the flowing river of time into the seer's consciousness. It touches the fabric of everything, and the certainty of its prevalence is absolute. It is implacable, unyielding and monumental, encompassing and beyond scope." She moved closer so they were nearly touching and spoke softer, and he felt like he should wither from her radiance so near, but it did not hurt. It also seemed as if she was smiling, though he could not tell for sure. "Yet, there are some in this world, a rare few, who can find the smallest fractures in the flawless facade. Through such cracks, the starlight of hidden paths is glimpsed and the possibility of an alternative becomes more than a fevered dream."
"Then," he breathed, "there is still hope that we may prevail."
"Dear child," she murmured, the dulcet of her answer a melodious lullabye on the winds, her hand extending to indicate the sky and the distant hidden perils of their adversaries, "there is always hope, but you must go forth ... and fight for it."
The location Minato Yoshida had chosen for his observation was a good one. Remote, heavily forested, the Corridor ran between two satellite outposts. Surrounded by broken terrain and trees, there was a cleared flat strip directly beneath the passage, dividing the pair; a makeshift airfield for small light planes to use. Each station had a single story utility support building, with the dishes sitting on top, focused skyward.
His team was four Order agents, and he had positioned everyone inside, but within easy viewing of the Corridor's thoroughfare, and placed at the ideal spots for springing the trap on the right target. Station A, as it was designated in his briefing, was on the western side of the air strip, and he and Agent Fenton were watching from there. Station B was on the eastern side, with two more, and lastly his deputy, Braun, hidden in a utility shed next to the southern stretch of the runway.
Minato had sighted four adult dragons passing by in the days since he'd begun this operation at Crawley and Celeste's urging. Either the branch of the Corridor they were watching wasn't a popular one, or the dragons of the Seventh House were all hiding, because he'd been certain that the individuals witnessed were all Fifth House, and made no effort to trap them.
It was the fifth incident where everything changed.
In the middle of the afternoon, Minato and Fenton were sitting in their spots by the window lining the airfield, lounging as they bantered away the time. The agent was telling a particularly boisterous dirty joke, when Minato heard the telltale sound of wings. Quicker and closer than normal, a dragon burst out of the Corridor's fog to the south, visible for a brief stretch only. The wings were huge, the body and tail grey, snaking past as it cruised by like an oversized passenger jet, low and unusually close to the ground. Minato lunged for his companion, clapping a hand over a surprised Fenton's mouth, cutting off the sound. Eyes wide, they watched the elder skim the length of the airfield before disappearing again from view, continuing on northward into the Corridor, the moment finished.
"Jesus." Fenton murmured when Minato let go, the agent pale. "That was a big bastard."
"Don't really wanna tangle with that. Very low, damn close." Minato breathed out, tense, and touched his earpiece. "B, any sign it saw or heard us?"
"Negative, sir. No indication it slowed or turned before we lost it."
"Okay, good. Keep your eyes peeled for the next ten, just in case. That was too tight for-"
He did not get to finish the sentence.
Dropping directly down from the magical haze above, the dragon landed on the weathered tarmac with a bituminous crunch. His head flicked left, to Station B, and fire streamed through the windows, the glass exploding and the interior flooding with it, the agents vapourised. Minato was up, and running for the door just twenty feet away, Fenton only steps behind him. He dived through the open exit as the dragon fire was turned on Station A, the whoomph of it loud and near.
Minato rolled over, patting out his pants hem that had caught from the heat, flattening himself against the building wall. Fenton hadn't emerged, and he knew the agent was dead.
"Minato?! You make it?" The frantic query from Braun sputtered into his ear. "Fuck! That was from nowhere."
"I- ... I'm out," he whispered, bringing his breathing under control, "but the others're ... gone."
Little ape, I know you are there. The elder's voice bounced between the burning satellite stations, and across the surrounds. The rest are burned, but one of you, at least, remains. I can smell it.
"I can see him. I got a good line. I- ... Minato ... I think he's from the Seventh."
"Braun," Minato hissed, creeping to the building's corner to make his own assessment, "he's too big. We're equipped for sharks, not whales."
"He's right in the middle of the runway. Just needs to be closer."
I was here when your kind colonised this land. He continued conversationally, as if addressing an audience, his centuries of experience and fearlessness typical for such an aged creature. It was beautiful and clean, but you arrived and spread across it like a plague. A swarm of half-evolved monkeys, killing and polluting and claiming all the wonders as their own.
"We can't do this on our own!"
"We can," insisted Braun, voice crackling through the connection, "we just need to trick him."
There is nothing so disgusting, so infectious, as man. Your pride is unwarranted, your strength exaggerated, and your religions fiction. Our gods live among us. Where are yours?
"Boss, you still got the trigger ready, right? You can spring it. We need this blood. I'm gonna get his attention."
It was too late. His deputy had already made up his mind.
Pushing the utility shed door open, Agent Braun strode onto the tarmac, a stocky figure dressed in the uniform of an Order operative. He marched into the middle of the runway, and began to walk northward, in direct plain sight of the dragon
Ah, there you are. Do not worry, Smoke-touched will see that your death is quick.
"Will you?" Braun shouted. "Then come closer and let's find out!"
To Minato's shock, the dragon gave what sounded like a chuckle and began to walk on all fours down the runway, and he fumbled for his belt clip, flicking open the sealed cap to expose the trigger. It took only three seconds for the massive creature to reach the mark, before Minato squeezed it, and the trap deployed.
From four anchor points, two on either side of the runway, glowing magical ropes were launched. The first two wrapped around both forelegs, immediately going taut, the limbs pulling forward so the dragon crashed onto his front, prone. The third and fourth went around the skull from both sides, pulling the jaw closed, the same method for neutralising a crocodile.
Fuming smog began to swell out from the dragon's body, but it wasn't produced by fire; it was emanating from the dragon himself. In seconds, it was a thick cloud that covered the width of the runway, but Minato wasn’t about to delay for more magical tricks. Aiming the collector at what he thought was the softest point on the dragon's neck, he pulled the second trigger and it fired.
A harpoon flew out from a concealed railing on the ground, embedding a couple of feet into flesh. Smoke-touched gave a grunt of displeasure at the pin-prick, the arm-sized syringe attached to the harpoon drawing out blood as the plunger automatically retracted. The barrel filled with it, and as soon as it was half done, Minato hit the disengage, and the harpoon was yanked out, the length of metal pulled rapidly in a reverse course back to the launcher.
"Braun, get OUT of there! This won't hold, and it's done!" He spat it in a furious whisper.
Clever ruse little ape, but your traps are too small. They will not keep me. The straining bonds around the jaw snapped, and the head rose, the body pulling up and breaking the tethers on the legs as he did so. Braun was running, his distraction done with, but the grey dragon was upright, and with a short leap forward, he lunged, his head angling, and in a single snap of the jaws, swallowed the agent whole.
Minato threw himself to the ground, hidden by the longer grass in the shadow of Station A, as the grey dragon turned on the spot, casting an eye over the area with his predator's attention to detail. Satisfied the job was done, Smoke-touched crouched, then launched up, wings beating, and was gone, re-entering the obscurity of the Corridor, the human nuisance dealt with.
Feelings numbed, Minato retrieved the sat-phone from the equipment stash, and slumping against the wall of the burning outpost, he dialed Crawley's number. Memories of the past, of dead friends, mind control, and monsters made of fire danced through his head the second he closed his eyes, waiting for the agent to pick up.
"Yoshida. What's the news?"
"H-hey," he breathed, his hands trembling, his nerves shot, "We- ... I- ... I've got the blood you need."
The room that was revealed when the blinders were removed was more hospitable than expected. The walls were stone and curved, the chamber circular, a modest height and comfortably furnished. Bookshelves, chairs and a table, a low couch for sleeping on, and a window that saw only the sky, indicating they were at some height above the ground.
Then, Kaia, sitting in the chair right in front, facing him.
"So, here we are." She leaned forward, no more than a foot away, watching him keenly. Her long grey hair was wrapped around itself into a tight bun behind her head, and her attention and focus on him was harsh; eyes emotionless, senses raptorial. "Are you prepared to confess your sins before your punishment is meted out?"
Araziah glared at the female dragon, the collar on his neck and manacles on his wrists and ankles weighing heavy, but not so much as the pure hatred he had for her and her entire family.
"No?" It may have been mockery, but Kaia was not smiling, and there was no levity in her attitude. "Nothing to say?" She inhaled deeply through the nose, exhaling slower by mouth. "Thyndorag was one thing, but ... Faye, my dearest Farigul? I am direct, disciplined, but she was the creative sister, the innovator, always finding new ways to capture and kill our sire's foes. We hatched together, she was my twin, and a true daughter of the Seventh House. I should have paid more heed to Darren's approach, should have allowed more credence for his caution against one so precocious as you. We would have been best served to simply execute you at that first encounter and be done with your miserable insurrection."
He did not speak, his eyes fixed on her.
"Still nothing?" She cocked her head, examining his expression. "It wasn't a lie when we complimented your shape and pedigree. Your breeding is impeccable -- Kitrax was from a storied branch of our lineage that had earned every portion of its accolades -- and you could have ascended with the rest of us. You have the best blood -- our blood -- and yet you chose the usurper's mantle and bondage to a slave race. A worthless, weak species."
"When your torture fails on me," he snapped, a sudden reply, "you will die, and I will see this place destroyed."
"There. There it is. Every time." Her lips curled into a snarl, her right hand raising in a fist like she wished to strike him. "You threaten, as if you were the judge of death itself. You call ruin and mayhem upon us, and it NEVER arrives. Your heretical righteousness and the wasted potential of your life is sickening, but ... I will fix that."
The left hand went between the layers of her jacket, the top few snaps detached, the material loose. She pulled free a small circlet made of gold, woven like a triumphal wreath of laurel, and held it directly in front of Araziah.
"This is your punishment: the mind clasp. It is the companion artifact to the one the seeress wears. Normally, these devices are tuned for efficiency; the application of pressure at maximum speed without damaging the prize. It takes days or weeks to break into a dragon's mind. Too much, too fast, and the consciousness will be mangled by the process into a mess that can offer no useful information whatsoever." She bit her lip and her bitterness, her sadistic desire, was easily seen in the gleam of the eye, the tiny expectant exhalation of breath. "But ... I need nothing from you. I do not care about what you know. Oh, no. Not at all. For you, it is different. I have modified this clasp to be many times more potent than the other. It will crack your paltry resistance in minutes, seconds perhaps, rip through your defences, and then ... then ... you will be lost forever. Do you know what you will become? A mindless, gibbering beast; a shell full of madness and destroying flame that possesses no wit, nor guile. You will be a blunt weapon, your ambitions gone, your intellect removed. Chained and hooded in a vault until the god returns, then to be released onto the human cities, a rabid berserker who knows naught but propagating our father's reckoning of fire."
She placed the circlet on his head.
"Farewell, Araziah. Your end is here, and you cannot escape it."
The magic took hold instantly.
Around him, the room seemed to fade, the perception of the physical world dimming to a half-recognised murk. In the distance, the principle mechanism of the clasp had activated, and he could detect it.
A barrier, beyond which lay nothing.
It was some way from him, but centred on him; spherical, impenetrable, intangible in any real sense, but entirely too tangible in this mental state.
A pure void, that extended into infinity.
Immediately, it began to shrink.
At first, by inches, then the contraction was faster, at least a foot a second. With disquieting speed, at half a minute gone the bubble had constricted to where the edges of it slid soundlessly through the inconsequential walls of the room in which he sat. The orb of collapsing sane reality was pulling at him like a set of claws gouging through his feelings and thoughts in a horror of abandonment, and he could but watch as it dwindled that final stretch.
From all sides, it came.
A dozen feet, then half a dozen.
Close enough to touch.
Then, it was upon him.
Then ... Araziah understood the true nature of this cage.
Everything was gone.
There was nothing but ... nothing.
It went every direction. It inhabited all space, all time. There was no life, no colour, no reprieve. Nothing at all; forever and ever, and he was marooned here, isolated for eternity from everything and everyone that mattered.
An endless sea of night.
The crushing of the clasp's effect was a weight like nothing else, and the psychic signature that was his mind, his very existence in this place, was mere moments from fracture. It drove into him from everywhere, the crippling distortion of any ability to rationalise the experience acting as a hammer slamming into dozens of invading spikes.
Fragmentation meant the death of who he was.
He could not succumb to it, but ...
... it was too late.
The mind clasp completed its task.
Each skewer thrust through, shearing, crumbling, shredding, and his psychic presence was turned into a loose agglomerated ball of energy.
His mind was broken.
Yet ... not.
The globe did not disperse as an entity disintegrated, but it clung together, splinters floating but still connected, still kept close even when the tearing force should have ended it utterly.
He held on, the continuation of his very existence contingent on his ability to not let the smashed flotsam of his mind be dissipated.
Somehow, he was still there.
From outside, from somewhere else beyond, the only thing that could infringe whispered into his barely-cognisant shattered remnants
The voice, the one provocation that would follow him anywhere, no matter how distant nor strange.
A single message, in a deafening whisper that vibrated through every part of him.
Light! Light banishes the dark!
That was all.
The latent magic of the clasp pulled at him, seeking to separate, scatter what was left; a thousand needling fingers murdering his soul with a gentle inexorable brutality ... but he held it all together.
Yet, something new was growing in the miasma, was overtaking the clouding despair and the suffocating decline into madness. It was a kernel of emotion.
It was anger.
It was focus.
With the straining effort of raising a mountain upon his back, the pieces came together, the bloodied shards of his psyche pulling into union. With every fibre of his being, he commanded it, rejecting the notion of failure, the ball condensing and then fusing into a sole entity again. It sealed shut, becoming whole, and the intruding venom of the torture device was pushed out. Araziah's truth solidified it, made it impervious, indivisible.
With a thought, his spirit ignited, and the unyielding blackness that had never been defeated in its purpose was, for the first time, forced to retreat.
Light, from fire.
There was a heat -- a real heat -- and the void evaporated as if it never was. Reality was restored, the room about him flicking into clear view, just as it had been. Melted, contorted beyond recognition, the clasp slipped off his head, falling to the floor with a dull metallic thwink, no more than a broken trinket.
She was staring at him.
"YaaaaaaAAAAH!" He cried out in rage, voice rising, his fury climbing with every passing second, the bonds at his wrists starting to weaken, buckle. "DARKNESS CANNOT DESTROY ME! I AM FIRE!"
"Impossible! It's- ... it's IMPOSSIBLE!" Kaia stood, not understanding how, knocking her chair over in haste, a hand flying to her hip to unsheath her blade. "NO MORE CHANCES! You die HERE, NOW!"
Kaia lifted the weapon, swift, her aim fixed on his chest, prepared to impale the sacrilegious abomination in front of her with a strike to the heart, and-
-a gleaming diamond dagger stabbed directly through the side of her skull, into her brain.
She spasmed once, her own knife tumbling away, body following it, and the dagger pulled free. A spray of blood spattered the furniture, the corpse thudding on the carpet, to reveal the air dragon Sebakâli behind where she had been standing, now glaring scornfully down at the second, and last, of the Ash Sisters, his voice coming out in husky growl that was laden with contempt.
"The sky goddess bids you farewell."
Araziah pulled forward, free of the chair, the manacles at his wrists and ankles snapping, and he rose, coming upright. Straightening to his full height, standing free, his eyes met those of the other, and they regarded each other in that inconceivable moment.
Two dragons that should have been dead.
Between them, Kaia's body caught fire and began to burn.
Ignoring it, Sebby leaned forward, reaching over, a stolen key device in hand, and deftly fitted it into an indentation on Araziah's collar seam. Twisting clockwise, the lock clicked, the collar coming open, and with a gentle shake it fell to the floor, landing beside the wreckage of the mind clasp.
"You live." The dragon before him was unhurt, and Araziah could feel a difference, an increase in capability that was notable, and inexplicable. He glanced down at the immolation of her death, then back to Sebby. "She claimed the kill, yet you returned."
"Faith." A simple reply, and no more explanation than that. "I live through strength of faith." In turn, he gestured to the defunct torture device, where it lay. "How did you survive? Nobody has endured such torture without insanity and death."
"Strength of will." Araziah took a step forward, his soles crunching into the brittle ashen mess of her body, heedless of the carrion flames that licked at his ankles. His voice was calm, but the ferocity and the violent passion were an evident undercurrent, barely kept in check. "I am unbreakable, but you ... you, also, are more than expected." He was having fresh insight, and it told him of Sebby's necessity. It was crucial for the action that was to come. "I see it. For today, you are an equal, and I can rely on no other."
Araziah held out his hand.
"I offer a compact. Join me in this battle, and we will deliver them a terrible vengeance."
Sebby took it, their fingers clinching in a tight grip.
A bargain was struck.
"They will know defeat, I swear it." The air dragon let go, turning, the smaller leading the way to the room's window, the larger following. He wiped the blood off his dagger, still held in the offhand, and indicated the sight outside. "I sense your fury, but you can see this place is a fortress. You must channel that wrath, to direct it when and where they are weakest. Use it with a controlled mind, and their defences will crack."
Araziah stood next to him and took in the view.
They were high up, in a tower, and below were walls, connecting to other towers, replete with sentinels, patrolling Scourge, and magical countermeasures, forest and hills beyond that.
To call it a fortress was accurate.
"This is their sanctuary. The seeress is undoubtedly here," Sebby continued, "but so are Torsten and Lucy. Their safety is paramount."
"There is a greater problem." Araziah was watching the other towers as he spoke, noting in particular that each had a sentinel human-form dragon atop it, keeping watch. "Lucy found a piece of the Fear inside Overmountain."
"She ... found it?"
"Yes, and now they have it." The fire dragon turned to the other. "You locate Torsten and the girl. Your stealth is best suited for this, and he must see you are alive. I will hunt for the Fear and kill the defenders. Nero's trespasses against us need answer. His authority must be cast down. He is his brother's pawn and the resident lord of this castle. It shall be decorated with Conclave dead, so I may properly earn my title of kinslayer."
"It is not Nero that concerns me. I wish for revenge on him too, but Kaia said something before she delivered her supposed fatality; a taunt, meaning for the knowledge to die as I did. It was about Mordred." Sebby paused a second, the words coming back to him. One day, he will be king. The suggestion and potential implications were both ambiguous and disturbing. "I do not understand yet what she meant, but it matters. Whatever else happens, the Grey Prince cannot leave here alive."
"I have not forgotten him." Araziah nodded, then looking out over the vista of what they were about to contend with. "His sisters are gone, but his attempt on my life is a debt owed. I intend to collect it."
I didn't see anything of where they took us. We were kept literally in the dark, both during transport and after we arrived at the destination. It was only after we were delivered into a cell that the hoods were removed.
Stone walls, floor, ceiling; not more than ten by twenty feet, a low bed, a thick steel door, and a tiny high window.
I slumped onto the bed, back to the wall, drawing my knees up to my chest, my head in my hands.
Despite the hopelessness of the situation we were in, all I could think about was what had happened at Overmountain.
Lucy's weight was right next to me, and then her body leaning on my right side, her head on my shoulder.
I didn't want to cry, but I couldn't get it out of my mind.
I'm never going to see him again.
The thought physically hurt, like a vice clamping on my ribs.
"Hey ... Torsten?" She whispered, hesitant. "Do you- ... do you recall, um, two years ago, when Jonathan broke up with Eva? We were only fourteen, but he started involving us with all those pranks, and, uh, playing soccer with us waaay more. D'you ... remember that?"
"I ... uh, yeah," I managed. "I- ... I guess."
"You know, he never really liked her. He didn't like soccer that much either." She sighed. "He liked you though. He was just trying really hard to impress his crush."
"He made me promise not to tell you, but it didn't matter. You never noticed him that way. You never noticed anyone. I always thought that you'd eventually show some kind of interest in somebody, like everyone at school, but you ... didn't. Nothing seemed to fit you. Nothing got your attention. I mean, you did the work and hung out with us and participated in the things you had to, but ... it was like your whole life you were just getting ready for something else. Maybe you were? Maybe you were waiting for this without knowing all of it was coming. Maybe you were waiting for ... dragons."
They were both angels and demons, graceful and fearsome, beautiful and sinister.
The literal descendants of nature.
Are they truly monsters, or just victims in some divine feud?
I wasn't sure I knew the answer.
"Lucy, they have the Fear, and S- ... Sebby is ... dead." I shuddered, my arms tensing. "If Araziah dies too, then- ... it's too much- ... I- ... I can't-"
"No." She squeezed me, her voice still soft. "Don't think like that. He's better than them, tougher, and you- ... you're going to be the seer." A second squeeze, but harder, mildly painful. "Listen to me. I want to fucking kill all of them for what they did to Sebby, but do you really believe Triskeleth went to that trouble to tell you that important stuff so the Conclave can murder you while you're locked in some shitty cell at the ass end of fuckin' Ohio, or wherever the hell we are? D'you think she sent you on that quest expecting you to fail it? She's the seeress, so I'm gonna go ahead and say that she knows you're getting out of here in one piece."
Lucy's ... right.
I still had a job to do.
"Besides, before they confiscated your backpack and our phones, they weren't paying much attention to me. Turned on the GPS and activated this emergency background app my dad made me install ages ago when I got the phone. I linked it to Celeste's number before we left. If someone doesn't know where we are yet, they will reeeeal soon." She huffed, sounding frustrated as she hugged my side. "Just wish they hadn't taken everything off us. You still need those dragon scales."
I had completely forgotten.
In the chaos of our exit from Overmountain, while Ygzardîl was attempting to stop us, I had been worried that something might happen to the backpack. So, I had removed the little bundle containing the pieces of scale out of it, and stuffed it into the bottom pocket of my cargo pants.
Mordred and Nero had checked my pockets, but, not all of them.
Sitting up, Lucy dislodging from my side, I reached down and grasped at the tiny zip hidden just back from my left ankle. Drawing it open, I extracted what was inside.
"They didn't find everything and my pants have a lot of pockets." I emptied the little cloth bag onto my right palm, and out fell three pieces; Triskeleth's sapphire, Araziah's ruby, and Ygzardîl's stone, a dark brown cut with veins of green.
Only one missing.
I blew a breath of air onto my hand, and the ring shimmered into visibility again, on my index finger.
The sight of it caused my throat to tighten, and my breath to catch.
"Yes! They're gonna fuckin' wish they had." She pulled on my arm, her mood lifting, and I looked at her. "What are you waiting for -- it's time sensitive, right? You've got what you need here, and you can talk to her now. You have to do it."
"I, uh- ... yeah." I stared at my hand, with the four elements in it. "Yeah. Of course." Can't sit here feeling depressed. "I need to do it. Um, I don't know how this will work, but ... I might be out of it for a few minutes. If anyone comes along-"
"Torsten." She interrupted, cocking her head quizzically to the right, with a reassuring smile. "Nothing's gonna happen. We'll get out of this. I'm your best friend. I've got your back."
You definitely do.
I clenched my fist, and closed my eyes.
The grove of the seeress was different the third time I visited. While Triskeleth's position was the same, seated upon the stone bench above the brook, everything beyond about eight feet away from us, was simply gone.
An orb of light and colour, in a sea of dark.
"There isn't much room left." The butterflies were idling on her arm in a small congregation, and when I sat beside her, they took off again, to orbit her head. "As you can tell, the clasp has drawn close. I am glad you are here."
"They- ... they ambushed us-"
"I know." Her expression was sombre, but not upset. "Darren has known Araziah's position for some time. It was inevitable they attempt something during a vulnerable point, but what is happening in the outside world is not important in this moment. You are here to become me, and there is little time remaining, so you must heed my final lesson. It is to gain an affinity for the elements that you will harbour. Are you prepared?"
"Yes," I told her, "I'm ready."
"Then listen well, Torsten Wilde." She held out her left hand, palm up, and a ghostly silhouette appeared over it; a chunk of rock floating in the air. In the middle was a green spark, a source of elemental magic.
"Earth. Typically, his dragons are largest, but slowest in flight. Their proficiency is defence, entrapment, and erosion. Their vitality and armour is immense, and their breath is acidic corrosive venom. Their realm is opposed by the sky, indifferent to the ocean, and in normal times, allied with the flame. Be bound, and remember it."
The rock apparition floated away from her hand and I watched with surprise as it came directly to me, sliding into my chest. There was a beat of green light through my skin as it bonded with the structure in my body.
"Water." This time it was a little blob of liquid, translucent again, with a blue spark at the centre. "Typically, her dragons are close beneath the median; quick, but not lacking in strength. Their proficiency is knowledge, healing, and disablement. Their wisdom and foresight is unmatched, and their breath is glacial ice. Their realm is opposed by the flame, indifferent to the earth, and allied with the sky. Be bound, and remember it."
A repeat happened; the representation coming to me and entering my chest, followed by a pulse of blue light.
"Air." There was nothing visible around the third element, as the medium was ever-present, though the light was white. "Typically, her dragons are lightest, but quickest in flight. Their proficiency is stealth, misdirection, and observation. Their dexterity and speed is famed, and their breath is a storm's lightning. Their realm is opposed by the earth, indifferent to the flame, and allied with the ocean. Be bound, and remember it."
Again, the spark of air floated across to me and embedded itself, a burst of white light after.
"Fire." The fourth element was a ball of it, flickering, a point of red within. "Typically, his dragons are close above the median; strong, but not lacking in quickness. Their proficiency is raw power, destruction, and domination. Their might and ferocity is legendary, and their breath is a pure inferno. Their realm is opposed by the ocean, indifferent to the sky, and in normal times, allied with the earth. Be bound, and remember it."
As with the first three, the fire's magic came to me, and entered. There was the expected surge of red, then following it another, a cycling glow that rippled with all four colours, before it faded out.
"It is done." Triskeleth nodded, seeming to relax slightly, a weight lifted from her, the sense of ceremony easing. "You are secured as my successor. Knowing what must come is one thing, but seeing it occur is still a relief."
"I'm not sure what I was expecting." I looked down at myself. "I don't feel any different."
"You won't. Not yet." Triskeleth patted my shoulder with her left hand. "There are a couple more things I need to tell you. Three important ideas, actually."
"Okay. Tell me." I bit my lip. "I want all the advice I can get."
"The first is a concept called true magic. It is the core component of a dragon's soul. It is the factor that governs so much of a dragon's existence. It is the essence of our gods' power inside us, what fuels us, what decides our ability, our strength, our size -- everything. It is our animating energy, and you will hear it called 'true ice' or 'true fire' and so forth, depending on the speaker's origin. It is the source that the true name unlocks, and it is what is found in a dragon's blood, his scales, his breath -- and his breath is especially important. The more magical truth exists within him, the more irresistible is his exhalation; dragon flame is more dangerous than anything a human could make. This principle is one you must come to appreciate, as it explains much of our motivations and reactions."
"Okay. I think I understand." I nodded. "What's next?"
"The second thing is-" She stopped abruptly, blinking as if pained, her eyes focusing momentarily ahead, on the perimeter of blackness.
"Triskeleth! Are you ... okay?"
"I- ... yes." The seeress shook her head, then turned back to me. "I am, but my traction is weakening, and ... resistance is harder. It will not be long now. They are close. Very close." She began to speak faster, the pace picking up. "So, listen."
"The second is precognition. This is the primary means of the seer, and for a dragon it is imagery, visions, of what is to come. The greater context may not always be quite so clear, nor will the vision be easily understood. For you-" She paused, flinching, and half of the orbiting butterflies became wisps of blue light, that instantly fizzled, vanishing.
"No. Just LISTEN." She snapped. "For you, it will be different. You are human. You may have visions, but you may experience something else entirely. I do not know, but it is important you cultivate it, practice it, pay attention to what it tells you."
"I will," I told her.
"Good. The third is unique. There is the basic randomness of insight, that all dragons have. Above that is our inspired understanding, the foresight of the seer. Both of these you already know about, but, there is something further past that. Beyond lies a ... special thing, the rarest thing. It is the apex of the seer's magic, and it exists in a state of beautiful stasis for your life, only to be touched and used in the utmost need."
"What is it?"
"It is an ability that gives a temporary perfect understanding of a single situation you are witnessing in the present time ... OR ... one you have foreseen in sufficient future detail. It will not last for long, but the understanding it imparts is very much perfect. Flawless knowledge of all who are present in the visualised situation; their intentions, their desires, their spirit, the actions they are about to commit in the following seconds. It is pure sight. Your power as seer will only permit you to to use this twice in your life. Just two times. Choose very carefully. The right moment could change everything."
"What were yours?"
"I used the first, many years ago," she said, her eyes lighting up, "and the other? I regret that I waited too long, too cautiously, to employ it. So, here is the second, right now, to complete the fleeting vision I had, of you ... and what must happen to end the war."
"How extraordinary," she murmured. "It's not what I imagined. We missed so much."
The remaining butterflies about the seeress froze in mid-air, each drawing rapidly inward to become wisps before dissipating. I opened my mouth, wanting to ask what she had seen, wanting to know the answers of cosmic importance that she was witnessing, but her hand shot out and she grabbed the front of my shirt, pulling me closer to her.
"It's happening. My last barrier is gone. You can't be connected to me any longer." Triskeleth's voice dropped to a whisper. "Goodbye, Torsten Wilde. The future is in your hands. All I can say is ... when you take the shot: trust your instincts, and do not hesitate."
She pushed me, and I was falling, but not downwards, just away, out of the psychic connection. The seeress and her grove faded, a last glimpse of her surrounded by a devouring insanity, her eyes calm but sad as she watched me go. Then, the link was severed completely, the connection to her vanishing, and Triskeleth was gone, purged from my senses forever.
"This is it?" The Grey Prince gestured to the sealed case on the table in front of them, an heirloom jewelry box no more than four by eight inches in size. "You are sure beyond doubt?"
"Beyond doubt, cousin." Nero nodded, his arms folded, an air of smug vindication about him. "The detection enchantments Darren provided were impeccable, as was his intelligence on their whereabouts. If they had anything of value exiting that old Order outpost, we would find it and capture them -- and we did. This outcome is compensation for my innocent fool of a brother, and for your sister's unfortunate loss. So go ahead. The honour is yours."
"Cousin." The affection in Mordred's voice was clear, and he grasped Nero's shoulder, a respectful display of gratitude. "You are gracious indeed. You and your brothers deduced this eventuality, engineered it and set it in place with your skill and cunning. The result is destiny, and now we stand on the brink." Letting go, Mordred reached for the box, and clicked the latch on top of it.
He lifted the lid with a finger, and pushed it open.
Next to him, Nero and a third dragon, Xander of the Fifth House, drew closer to get a good look.
"It is real." Xander whispered, wonder-struck. "I see a holy relic of our father."
"You see victory." Carefully, Mordred closed the box again, and the trio turned to one another. "What next? We have prisoners to deal with before we can safeguard this."
"Your sister is about to redeem the heretic permanently, so that is one problem solved." Nero shrugged. "The humans? I do not know if we need to keep them. The question is if they have any value."
"They are children." Xander was thoughtful, measured, and a patient mind. He was the eldest son of Tomas and heir to the Fifth House, a capable dragon built in the echoing likeness of his ancestor, Ushgorim the Ashbringer. Present at the sanctuary with a handful of his kin, Xander's arrival had been recent and was intended to reinforce the defences while the Seventh House had most of its members occupied elsewhere. "Did you say they are associated with the Order's subterfuge? Family, was it?"
"The boy, yes." The Grey Prince agreed. "The girl is a nobody, just his friend. If they have any interesting information for us, they could be dominated and made to speak it. There may also be limited use as bargaining chips."
"True." Xander acknowledged. He directed his next query to Nero. "Humans do have that tendency; the wish to preserve life and trade for hostages. Still, wariness may be prudent. Is there not a chance that retaining them could be a risk?"
"Yes. The possibility remains, however unlikely, that the Order has some means to track them. I am tempted to learn more, but even a small probability of intervention seems like an unnecessary hazard. I doubt there is anything they could teach us that we do not already know."
"My lord." From across the chamber, a Scourge was calling for Nero's attention. The three dragons glanced across to where they were; a cluster of Scourge attending to Triskeleth with arcane devices in hand, the magical bindings still in place on the seeress, the mind clasp resting on her brow. "Forgive the interruption, but ... she is about to break. The time has come."
He gave a curt nod, then gestured to the man and another that stood beside him, indicating for them to approach. They did so, crossing the chamber to join the dragons.
"I have my decision. You," he addressed the first Scourge, "take a few men, go to the Orient Tower, execute the prisoners and dispose of their bodies. We have no further need of them. Do this now."
"Yes, my lord." The man bowed, turned swiftly and departed.
"You." To the second Scourge. "You will form an honour guard to accompany the prince. He will shortly be leaving from the Occident Tower, and you will see him there safely."
"As you command, my lord."
Finally, to Mordred: "Cousin. The seeress is finished. You need only stay long enough to record her translation. Take it, and the Fear, and go to Mirrorvale. It must be you to deliver the prize. When you reach Michael, tell him," he paused a second, considering the message, before breaking into a wide smile, "tell him Nero sends a mighty gift, and that our war is won."
Chapter 17 was a leviathan (by which I mean more than double the length of most other chapters) so I had to split it in half. The second part will follow in a few days time, I promise.
Secondly: I am in need of a new beta and will welcome just about anyone who has an inkling of how to write a story -- see here and here if you are curious.
Thirdly: do you like lore? Do you like lore about dragons?!? If so, maybe you should check out my forum post where I give you a little bit of background info on their life cycle.
Lastly: nobody puts Araziah in a timeout but ARAZIAH, Sebby has the approval of his goddess, and Torsten? Well, are you ready for what's next?
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