Drakan II: The
By Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
Arokh swerved as an orc flew at him, followed shortly by a wartok. Disoriented from the passage through the rift, he almost ran into the side of a mountain.
"Look out!" Rynn yelled, barely keeping her grip on him with her legs. Runeblade slid back into its scabbard and she grabbed a more secure hold with her hands as Arokh rolled aside to dodge another orc.
It exploded on the rocky cliff behind them with a spectacular splat. Below, a primitive giant bellowed its unintelligible war cry and cast about for more things to throw. Discovering that the companions of his previous ammunition had wisely fled for their lives, it raised its brutish head and roared.
Arokh roared back, his voice distinctly louder.
"Stop showing off!" Rynn shouted, then gasped as something zipped past her ear. She flattened herself against the dragon's neck as Arokh roared in pain, looked up and engulfed the cliff in a cloud of fire.
More arrows zipped their way and Rynn felt two pass through Arokh's left wing. "Get out of here -" she started to say, then felt a powerful jolt as the giant hit Arokh square in the chest with half a tree trunk. She flew backwards, her grip lost, and couldn't help thinking, "So this is what it's like," as the ground rushed towards her.
Arokh snatched her out of the air with a foreclaw and swept his wings down with a fire-tinged snarl.
Sudden agony gripped Rynn's chest and her vision started to blur. She could barely see as Arokh rose above the edges of the mountains and glided down to safety on the other side. He landed on a grassy slope out of sight from the goblins and giant.
Rynn scrambled from his grasp, never feeling more happy to be standing on the ground. Even that feeling wasn't long lasting, as a second flash of pain went across her chest and forced her to sit down or fall over.
"I think I've got a broken rib," Arokh gasped.
Rynn reached for her pack only to discover it was gone. "Oh great," she managed, and fell silent. Talking hurt. She looked at Arokh, who returned her gaze with a kind of helplessness. To walk or fly would put both of them at risk without healing potions. A broken rib could saw through a lung in a matter of minutes.
"Are you -" Rynn winced, but pressed on, "- hurt anywhere else?"
Arokh spread his left wing to show where the two arrows had gone through the red membrane. "That's it," he said, then grunted in pain. "Rynn," he went on with obvious difficulty, "we can't stay here. I think I can walk without too much trouble."
"Are you sure?"
He nodded. "But I won't be able to breathe fire, or anything else. You won't be able to fight, either - not with Runeblade." He lowered his wing to help her climb up. "Which way?"
It would be a difficult walk, even downhill, Rynn realised with dismay. The downward slope of the mountain was grassy, but extremely rugged and steep in places. It was impossible to see far down because of the clouds; everything disappeared in a grey haze. "Just go down," Rynn said, and put one hand to her bruised chest.
Arokh started forward and Rynn thought, "Not the triumphant return I'd imagined."
Morghus & Ebontyne
The descent was brutal. Every step caused a dull ache, but when Arokh was obliged to spread his wings and glide down too-steep inclines Rynn could feel sharp stabbing pains in the right side of her chest. What made it worse in her mind was that she couldn't even take off her dragon armour to see how bad it looked.
After an hour they were below the clouds. If Rynn looked back she could see the grey barrier concealing the higher peaks. Forward, the way down still seemed harsh. There was a forest creeping up at the base, which worried her. Arokh wouldn't be able to fly over it or walk through it. And looking along its border, she couldn't see where it ended (or even if it did).
She brooded on this as Arokh concentrated on walking as painlessly as possible, and was thinking it fortunate that at least they hadn't been attacked... when a shadow passed over them.
"A dragon," Rynn said tersely.
"Not just any dragon," Arokh added, when he stopped to look. "Morghus."
"You know this dragon?"
"He was... one of the dragons of the Order, as I was." His voice was shadowed with doubt as the winged shape high above began to circle them like a hawk sighting prey. "As Werokh was. Rynn, if he attacks there's no other choice. I'll use my magma breath."
They waited and the dragon flew lower, obviously taking his time. Rynn had to squint against the brightness of the clouded sky, but it looked like Morghus was a black dragon with silver breastplates from neck to tail. As she watched, something else became apparent. "Arokh," she said softly. "That dragon has a rider."
"What?" Startled, Arokh looked up again. "By the Flame... it can't be..."
Morghus' wings beat gently as he landed on all fours several feet in front of them. His eyes were the same fiery red as Arokh's, Rynn realised. In fact, with the exception of colouring, Morghus could almost have been Arokh's...
"Brother," the black dragon said, his voice a soft rumble. "It has been a while. I did not know you had awoken."
"This is my Bonded, Rynn," Arokh replied in an oddly neutral tone. "It was she who woke me."
"Bonded?" said Morghus, tilting his head slightly and raising an eyeridge. "She passed the Test of the Tower?"
"She has. We are all that remains of the Order of the Flame." Arokh fell silent, and Rynn first thought it was because of the pain of speaking. Then she realised he was waiting - hoping - for Morghus to dispute his statement.
He did not. A small smile curved his jaws, and he said, "My Bonded is, as she was when last we spoke, Ebontyne."
The black-armoured figure on his back removed her helmet to reveal a face as young as Rynn's. Hair as black as a raven's wing framed pale skin, high cheekbones and vivid blue eyes. Those eyes regarded Rynn steadily for a while, then Ebontyne inclined her head. She didn't smile.
"That cannot be the same person, Morghus," Arokh said. "It has been too many years and she looks not a day older."
"The Dark Union has its secrets, Arokh," Ebontyne said. Her voice was deep. "Shall we dispense with the pleasantries, Morghus?"
"As you wish," the black dragon replied, his smile widening. "Arokh, Rynn, we're here to join you for a while."
"What?" Arokh started.
"But Ebontyne just said -" Rynn began.
"We have broken our ties," Ebontyne interrupted, "as did the other old riders when Navaros was defeated this second time."
"So you just want to join us because we're the winning team?" Rynn said in an accusing voice.
"No offence," Ebontyne responded coolly, "but I don't think you'd be the 'winning team' had we chosen to attack you." She raked Rynn and Arokh with her blue-eyed gaze, lingering over the red dragon's damaged chest. Her lips curved slightly and Rynn found herself flushing with anger.
"Then why?" Arokh demanded. "You did not come looking for us. You could not have known where to find us."
Morghus bowed his head in acknowledgment. "That is so. We were heading east on... other business. Had we not seen you crawling along the ground like a large and wingless insect we would still be going that way."
Rynn felt Arokh's muscles tense with the same anger she felt.
"We're joining you to indulge our need for vengeance against the Betrayer," Ebontyne said. "You know where he is, you have the means to reach him -" her eyes flicked to Runeblade's hilt, "- and you, Arokh, have defeated him twice before. This time, with our help, you can kill him."
It had been a full two days since all this had begun, Rynn realised with a yawn. Two days since Delon had been kidnapped and her home burned by the Dark Union. She hadn't slept since then, having been intensely focussed on rescuing her brother, but now fatigue had finally caught up with her. Fully healed (Ebontyne was a War Mage possessing healing powers), she sat between Arokh's foreclaws with her head against his armoured chest and tried to stay awake as Morghus and Ebontyne spoke over the crackling of the campfire.
"We believed in their power," Ebontyne said, her eyes staring into the fire. "Navaros and Kaeros. The Order of the Flame preached of equality for all, but it was not like that. The 'Golden Age', as they called it, was enforced by the Bonded and you know it, Arokh."
"There was peace," Arokh replied wearily. "The Order unified the land and ended the wars."
"Under the control of the dragon-riders?" she asked, quirking a brow and smiling slightly. "Navaros saw the truth, as did Morghus and I. As did others who joined the Dark Union. If Drakan was going to be ruled by someone, it would be by someone who didn't fool himself into thinking everyone was 'equal'."
"Who else?" Arokh asked suddenly. "Of those who chose to follow Navaros, who remains?"
"Nashiva and Star, Kang-shi and Glaive." Morghus paused, thinking. "And our older sister, Gholek. Her Bonded, the one once known as Dartelan, was killed, and Navaros' servants awoke her without a new Bonding taking place."
"Like Werokh?" Rynn ventured.
"We encountered Werokh on the way through to the Islands," Arokh explained in answer to Morghus and Ebontyne's questioning looks. "He's dead."
Morghus shook his head. "Killing old friends already?"
Ebontyne resumed her narrative. "The Inner Council of the Dark Union made forays into the eastern frontier," she said, an odd light in her eyes. "You wouldn't believe the nature and power of the magics that were found there. One such power keeps me alive when I would have passed on ages ago."
"You said you were heading east before," Rynn said.
Ebontyne nodded. "I was going to end the magic."
"You mean... die?"
The War Mage shrugged. "Being alive has gotten boring. You wait centuries for your leader to come back into power, and he gets sent into the Rift again. I don't think I have the patience to wait for next time."
"But what about Morghus?"
"I wouldn't mind going to sleep for a while," Morghus said with a toothy grin.
Rynn stared at them both.
"Navaros went further east than any of us," Ebontyne said. "This was just after he became the leader of the Dark Union. He took the Jewels of Eternity with him. Those jewels is what the human Bonded used to swear our lives to him. We live without aging because of them. He took them and wasn't seen again until ten years later."
"The Dragon Temple," Arokh said softly, but his eyes had kindled with anger. Rynn knew what had happened when Navaros had returned. A great gathering of Bonded had been called in a place called the Dragon Temple to welcome Navaros back, for none in the Order had known he was a member of the Dark Union. Navaros had used a Word of Power learnt in his ten year absence... and killed everyone there.
"The Order of the Flame was not the only thing that suffered betrayal," Morghus rumbled darkly. "Navaros had learned much in the east. Uncovered powers and discovered rituals that should have remained lost. The second betrayal was of his own Bonded, Kaeros." Morghus' eyes flashed with rage. "He ate Kaeros' soul, Arokh. For this act alone, we and the other Bonded would have left him, but he had our lives in his hands too."
"All he had to do was destroy the Jewels of Eternity and the humans would die, then the dragons would be stone," Ebontyne said. "So we continued to fight for him in the Dark War, hoping that when we won he'd be able to reverse the effects of his spell and free Kaeros."
"Then Heron sent him to the Rift with Runeblade," Arokh said softly.
Rynn felt the dragon's body shake slightly against her. Heron had died in that encounter and Arokh fated to sleep for centuries.
"Few of the Order remained, and most of them tried to hunt us and the other Dark Union Bonded down," Ebontyne said. "Some we killed. The rest... we outlived."
"And we never found the jewels," Morghus said. "When we gave up looking for them we worked for bringing Navaros back to Drakan, hoping he'd tell us where they were when he returned." He sighed. "It is normal for a dragon to live centuries and more, but for a human... even one strengthened by a Bond, it is not natural."
"So instead of searching for the jewels again, you want to kill Navaros?" Arokh asked.
"We spend two hundred years searching, Arokh," Ebontyne told him. "Revenge is the more entertaining prospect."
"If you want to die so badly, why not kill yourself?" Rynn asked.
She shrugged. "Thought about it. Could never bring myself to fall on my own sword, though. Or get myself killed in a fight. Perhaps I love life too much, even though I'm sick to death of it."
Arokh started to tell them what had happened after Rynn had woken him and, at last, she let herself sleep.
When Rynn awoke the sun had risen behind a filmy curtain of cloud. Ebontyne was crouched nearby, examining something in one mailed hand. Rynn blinked to clear the fuzziness from her eyes, squinted, then jumped to her feet and shouted, "Give that back!"
Ebontyne calmly held up the Rift Crystal, which Rynn snatched back and returned to the pommel of Runeblade. "Another interesting jewel," the black-armoured woman observed.
"One I had to go through a lot to get," Rynn replied, stretching.
"I can imagine." Ebontyne stood, still watching Rynn's face closely. "We knew Rimril had it in his Belltower, and that he'd altered the elemental tests within. Before, there was never a chance of dying. A few of us discovered that had changed the hard way." She shook her head and looked away. "Then the amulet needed to start the test was stolen by goblins."
"Why were you trying to get the Rift Crystal?" Rynn asked. "In the end, Navaros didn't need it to get out."
"He didn't get out, though, did he?" Ebontyne gave her another half-smile. "He had physical form only, thanks to his Death Magi. He was still in the Rift. We concentrated our efforts on giving him flesh. Once that was done we could take care of getting him out."
"That flesh you gave him was my brother," Rynn said softly, eyes narrowing.
"We gave him young boys from across the land. It was your brother's... misfortune to be selected." She brushed back a drifting strand of black hair. "Arokh says your brother, Delon, fell into the void after Navaros' spirit fled him, and you want to find him."
Rynn seized on the change of topic. "If we can find someone or something to tell us where in the void he is, we might be able to find him."
"You realise that Navaros is back in the void too, don't you?" Ebontyne raised a brow.
Rynn felt her heart freeze. "I thought after killing that four-headed dragon..."
"Think again." She turned with a swirl of her black cloak and pulled a large pot off the glowing embers of the campfire.
"Where did you get -" Rynn began, then stopped as Ebontyne willed two serving bowls and spoons into existence. "I suppose a War Mage conjures that kind of thing often," she said as she was handed a bowl of porridge. Her mouth watered at the delicious smell of honey.
"Pots, sometimes," was Ebontyne's reply. "Useful for boiling oil."
"We could go east," Morghus said suddenly. The black dragon was stretched out across the ground, flexing his foreclaws in front of him like a large cat. Settling back on his haunches, he added, "Navaros mentioned mirrors that reflected blackness. Windows into the void."
"That might help," Ebontyne agreed.
"Where's Arokh?" Rynn asked, just realising her Bonded wasn't in sight.
"Getting breakfast, I imagine," Morghus said, picking his teeth with a talon. "He probably hasn't eaten in a few hundred years." He looked at Ebontyne again. "You think they can face the dangers out there? Even we couldn't go too deep into the wildlands."
"I wouldn't worry about your brother, except for that unfortunate incident with the giant yesterday," Ebontyne said, stirring her food with a spoon. "From what he told us last night, he can handle himself." She looked at Rynn. "And so can she, evidently."
"What kind of dangers are we talking about?" Rynn asked. "Wartoks? War giants? Succubi? Scavengers?"
"More like gorgons, molochs, daemons and leviathans," Morghus said with a snort of draconic laughter. "Perhaps you should see how good she really is, Ebon. I'm starting to think Arokh was exaggerating if that's all she's faced."
"I can hold my own," Rynn said.
Ebontyne shrugged and kept eating. "We'll see. There'll be enough tests of your mettle if we end up going east. The question is, are we companions? We help you rescue your brother, and you help us destroy Navaros."
"Why do we need your help?" Rynn asked. "All we have to do is search in the east."
"It will be faster, if not easier, if you have our help," Morghus rumbled. "The monsters that infest the wildlands are not easily killed. More than one dragon and his or her rider have been killed over there. The odds are better if there are four of us. Secondly, we've searched the east for two centuries and found nothing." He put heavy emphasis on that word to make his point. "How soon did you want to save Delon? Before he starves?"
"I think we could use their help," Arokh's voice said. Rynn looked up to see the red dragon circle the camp once then land nearby. He'd obviously found game, as he looked alert and energetic.
"You trust them after they betrayed the Order of the Flame?" Rynn asked.
"No," Arokh replied, looking steadily at the other two. "But it sounds like the best chance you'll get if you want to find Delon."
"What if they're lying about these mirrors and the rest? This could just be a trick to get us to go east!"
"If they wanted us dead, they would have attacked us before."
Ebontyne waved a hand and the remnants of breakfast vanished. Morghus shot a breath of ice at the campfire and put it out. The rider then put her helmet on, mounted the dragon and waited silently.
"Is that why you left me alone with them?" Rynn whispered angrily. "They could have stolen Runeblade and -"
"I wasn't far." He lowered a wing. "Coming?"
Rynn climbed up and the two dragons leaped into the air, gained height then flew for the misted sunrise.
Border of the Eastern Wilds
For the first time since being Bonded, Rynn and Arokh enjoyed a long flight without being attacked. Even though Rynn suspected that it was largely a result of Morghus and Ebontyne's presence, she couldn't help feeling grateful. She actually got to look at the scenery for a change.
The viridian green of a huge forest covering the hills was spread below them, the tops of the trees rustling slightly in the wind. Now and again a bright fleck of colour would flick between the branches. Rynn guessed they were birds.
Gradually, the further east they went, Rynn realised the trees started to look sickly. The leaves took on a yellow cast, then brown. At last, they were flying above a forest of skeletons. Bare and decaying branches clawed at the sky in mute appeal, their brittle stick-fingers rasping against each other. Instead of brightly feathered birds, Rynn saw vultures and crows.
"Be on your guard!" Morghus shouted back to them. "We're about to cross the border."
"I guess that means we'll be attacked," Rynn remarked. "What by, I wonder?"
Then Morghus was swooping down lower. Still flying east at a good speed, he halted his descent several feet above the treetops, craned his neck down and breathed a steady stream of fire into the skeletal forest. As he climbed back up again, a terrible sound filled the air.
The trees were screaming.
From several points in the forest, bolts of lightning shot at the two dragons and their riders. Morghus evaded with the ease of one who's been through this before, then swept down again to burn a section of trees he'd seen an attack come from. Arokh had dodged as well, but hadn't known what to look for. Rynn and he scanned the dead trees through the rising smoke, waiting for another lightning bolt attack to tell them where an enemy was.
It came soon enough.
"Hold on!" Arokh shouted. He rolled aside to avoid a bolt then folded his wings and dropped like a stone, headfirst towards the ground. Jaws parting, crimson-gold flames blasted into the forest and caught the dry wood immediately. Ghastly screams rose in response to the inferno. Arokh's wings extended again and they soared up and off to another sentient tree.
"Arokh!" Morghus shouted after about five minutes of this. The black dragon flew closer to the red, their wingtips almost touching as they glided over the canopy. "We're past it." He broke away abruptly as lightning shot between them from behind. "We're over the border."
"That wasn't so hard," Arokh said.
"They're no real danger - not unless you're on the ground. They try to stun you, then if you crash into the ground close enough to any of them they'll try to eat you, whether or not you survived the fall." He pointed east with his head where the forest had ended and a blasted plain of cracked and blackened rock began. "This is the first part of the Wilds. We've already searched it from north to south. If we keep flying east we should eventually reach a swamp. That's where we'll begin."
"Do we have any idea what to look for?" Rynn shouted. "Navaros didn't hide all his stuff in a building or something?"
"He's certainly sheltered the things," Ebontyne called back, her voice sounding strange behind the helmet. "But whether that's underground or what... we don't know. Morghus and I acted on the policy that we search every corner."
"Like a needle in a haystack," Rynn said, but only loud enough for Arokh to hear. "We might have as little chance of finding a mirror or those jewels out here than we did of finding Delon in the Rift."
A horrible stench assailed their nostrils. It was ten more minutes of flight before they actually saw the beginnings of the swamplands. A thick greenish-grey mist hid the ground from view, and stands of dark green trees rose above it to droop long, ropy leaves back to the ground. A few hillocks stood out like islands in a sea of eerie clouds, and it was one of these that the two dragons descended towards. After checking that it was relatively solid with a prod of a hindclaw, Arokh landed and Morghus followed.
Rynn dismounted, wrinkling her nose in disgust as her boots made a squishing noise on the ground. Fetid water made small puddles around the imprints her feet had made. She quickly moved away, seeking drier ground, and there was a horrible sucking sound as she lifted her boots free of the gloop.
"It must have rained recently," Ebontyne said clinically. "High ground is usually drier than this."
"That's nice to know," Rynn said. "Really nice."
"We'll start searching the ground," the War Mage said, ignoring the sarcasm. "Morghus, you and Arokh check the surroundings?"
"We won't be able to see much on the ground," Morghus rumbled warningly. "Want us to look out for airborne foes?"
"Probably the best idea. If there are any mountains or anything, feel free to check for caves as well. We'll call if we need you."
The black dragon nodded and was aloft with a beat of his wings.
"Good luck, Rynn," Arokh said, his eyes telling her to be careful. Then he, too, was up and away.
Ebontyne took off her helm and let it hang at her back. Then she drew her sword. Rynn felt an irrational sense of foreboding at the sight of it. It was black. Solid black, without any textural patterns to tell if it was steel, stone, wood or crystal. It reflected no light - it was just black. As long and straight as a greatsword, the hilt seemed to describe the shape of a dragon's outstretched wings.
Rynn suddenly felt none too safe. Even though Arokh seemed to trust them... she lost her train of thought as Ebontyne glanced at her with those intensely blue eyes of hers.
"Are you coming?"
Drawing Runeblade, Rynn followed her down the hill and concentrated on trying to keep her footing on the mud-slick slope. "Can't you tell when we're near the jewels or something?" she asked.
"Yes, actually, but not from very far away."
Rynn silently reached level ground, her thoughts despondent. This place was huge. There had to be an easier - quicker - way to find what they were looking for. There had to be. Then her mind reasoned that if there was, Ebontyne wouldn't have spent two hundred years searching so far.
"What I'm hoping," Ebontyne went on, her eyes scanning the dense swamp plants around them, "is that your sword might be able to help." She parted a few bushes to check what was beyond them.
"Runeblade?" Rynn glanced at the coldly glittering weapon in surprise. "But Arokh said that all it did was open and close rifts."
"He might be right." She gestured for Rynn to follow and walked through a bush onto a trail running through the middle of a scummy mire. Somewhere nearby, a frog croaked. "But I think it can also sense rifts."
"Why do you think that?"
"When I looked at it." She threw Rynn a thin-lipped smile. "I was one of the more powerful War Mages in the Order of the Flame, and the third powerful in the Dark Union. I can sense some things... innate powers, you could call them."
"But we're not looking for a rift," Rynn pointed out as they walked down the trail. "Or do you think Navaros left all those magic things with something that is connected with rifts? The mirror?"
"That's what I'm hoping," Ebontyne said. "So tell me if it starts doing something weird."
"Sure thing." She hesitated. "But why... why didn't you just steal Runeblade?"
Her answer was a mirthless laugh. "There's no guarantee that the jewels are with one of those mirrors. If they aren't, Runeblade is no use to me. I'm not going to use it to open a gate to find Navaros, because Morghus and I have no chance against him. I no longer believe he would simply tell us where to find the jewels, either. But with allies..." she threw Rynn another penetrating look, as it trying to decide whether Rynn had indeed fought Navaros and won.
Feeling uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Rynn gave her attention to a tentacle-like appendage that was rising from the swamp water to their left. A large eyeball with a blue iris was on the end, and it swivelled to watch the two humans walk. "What's that thing?"
"No idea. I've never been here before, remember?" Ebontyne watched the creature warily from the corner of her eye, her hand flexing on the hilt of her sword.
The eyeball-tentacle didn't attack, and they reached the other side of the bog to pass through a curtain of tall reeds.
Mire of Corruption
"We're going to get some action soon," Ebontyne said in a grim voice. She straightened from examining some tracks in the mud and followed them east, sword ready.
"Looks like a horse's hooves, only cleft," Rynn observed.
"Right. And it's not a horse. Unless I'm mistaken..." the War Mage's voice trailed off as the tracks led to a thicket of bushes and vanished. She carefully parted a few branches and tried to look through. With a smile of satisfaction, she gestured for Rynn to look.
Beyond the swamp plants was a small bog with cloudy blue water. Standing in the muck, its magnificent head bowed to drink the water, was a creature Rynn had never thought existed. "A unicorn," she whispered in wonder.
The black creature's head lifted suddenly, ears twitching as if it had heard something. It stood perfectly still for a minute, then tossed its single horn and returned to its drink.
Rynn forced herself to breathe again. "I think it heard me," she said as softly as she could.
Ebontyne nodded. "Good ears, unicorns. Good fighters, too. Ready?"
Rynn looked at her quickly. "What? Why are we going to fight it?"
"It's a black unicorn, Rynn," Ebontyne said, as if that explained everything. When Rynn continued to stare at her, Ebontyne looked irritated. "White unicorns are good and pure, black unicorns are evil and corrupt. Does that answer your question?" She shook her head and muttered, "It's like you're asking why you should fight a scavenger."
"Oh." Rynn looked into the swamp again. "But it's so beautiful."
"Many evil things are beautiful."
"Why should you care about killing evil things?" Rynn asked suddenly. She quickly lowered her voice again as she saw the unicorn's ears twitch. "One would think-"
"Because I'm evil?" Ebontyne's eyes narrowed. "I'm not evil. I simply had different views to the Order of the Flame." Seeing Rynn wasn't convinced, she shrugged. "We can discuss it later."
"Why not now?" Rynn suggested suspiciously.
"Because there's a bloody black unicorn right next to us," Ebontyne hissed. "Would you stop for a chit-chat next to a sleeping blade dragon?"
A snort came from the black unicorn. Raising its head again, it looked directly at their bushes and swished its tail. "Blade dragons hardly compare to us," it said in a thickly accented voice.
Ebontyne shot Rynn a dangerous look before pushing through the bushes to face the unicorn. Rynn stayed behind to watch, still slightly stunned that the creature could talk. She'd gotten used to most of her enemies being unintelligible.
"Oh, it's you, Ebontyne," the unicorn said with a dismissive toss of its mane. "Like my new abode? Better than the Blasted Lands. A unicorn needs water to fuel his powers."
"Vakailan. It's been too long." Glaring, she started forward with her sword, but the unicorn gave a neigh of laughter.
"Haven't you learned from the last times? You can't hurt a black unicorn with a shadowshiv." Rynn saw the malice whirling in the dark thing's eyes this time, and suddenly understood what Ebontyne had said about black unicorns. "Evil cannot destroy evil," Vakailan said. Its horse-like face drew into an unmistakable grin. "But I can still destroy you. Morghus isn't here to save you this time." It lowered its head, the pointed horn gleaming silver, and scraped the mud with a front hoof like a bull preparing to charge.
Ebontyne waited, falling into a half-crouch with her weapon extended before her in both hands. "I have someone else this time."
"No doubt." Vakailan bared his teeth at Rynn's hiding place. "Humans usually travel in herds. It makes it easier to skewer one when they stand clumped together."
Rynn set her jaw and pushed through the bushes, Runeblade gleaming in her hands.
Vakailan laughed and stamped his hooves in the mud. "Just the one, Ebontyne? And with a pretty sword, too." He gave Rynn an appraising look, lingering over Runeblade. A tendril of fear curled in his eyes. "Hm. It appears I'll be at a disadvantage here. What must a black unicorn do to escape a confrontation with Heron's heiress?"
"Why do you call me that?" Rynn demanded.
Oozing with eagerness to please, Vakailan said, "You're bonded to Arokh, and you carry Runeblade. Who else could you be?"
"We're looking for some things," Ebontyne said, apparently unsurprised at Vakailan's sudden chance of attitude. "Same as last time, and a mirror that views the rift."
"Ah well, as for the Jewels of Eternity, I have no idea." Vakailan cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I know I told you that I knew where they were, but..."
"I suspected as much," Ebontyne said. "You better be able to tell us something useful, or my friend here will-"
"All right, all right." Vakailan's nostrils flared nervously. "The mirror you describe isn't that uncommon an item in the Eastern Wilds. What's more, a few magical races can evil conjure such mirror-images in water or other liquids."
"What races?" Rynn asked, and the unicorn jumped when she spoke.
"Er, uh... Ogre magi, kobold shamans..."
"Try a race that will actually speak with humans, Vakailan," Ebontyne suggested.
"Um, I don't think there is... no, wait, wait!" he squealed as Rynn took a menacing step forwards. "East past these swamps is Nowhere. A creature lives in the middle of Nowhere (heh, see that coming?) who has the power to see into the Rift. I don't know if it'll help you, though..."
"What is it?" Rynn asked.
"It calls itself an angel. A fallen angel."
Ebontyne let out a growl.
"Can I... er... go?" Vakailan said, though he was already edging backwards.
Rynn looked to Ebontyne, who nodded curtly. The black unicorn didn't need a second gesture. He turned tail and galloped from the swampy clearing to vanish in the mists.
Ebontyne stood still, frowning, so Rynn waited, pondering her strange new title. Heron's heiress? Didn't sound too bad. Not exactly fearsome, though Vakailan had seemed frightened enough.
"It's worth a try," Ebontyne said at last. She took off a black gauntlet, put her fingers to her lips and whistled shrilly. "You better call Arokh, Rynn. We're going further east."
"What makes you think the unicorn was trustworthy?"
"Because he thinks you'll come back and cut his head off if he plays you false," she said with a faint smile.
Rynn whistled for Arokh. "What's this fallen angel?"
"Navaros mentioned it. It's what - or who - he learned that Word of Power from." The War Mage frowned again. "I'm sure Vakailan spoke the truth - the fallen angel will have the power to tell us what we want to know. Morghus and I would have sought it long ago, but we had no idea where to look. What concerns me now is the price it will ask for what we seek."
Despite the humidity, Rynn felt a chill course through her. "What did it ask of Navaros?" Ebontyne shook her head and didn't answer, instead watching the skies for the two dragons. Her brow furrowing slightly, Rynn could only guess that she either didn't know, or didn't want to speak of it.
From what little she knew of Navaros, she was willing to bet it was the second. And what value had anything to an angel, save perhaps a soul?
Several minutes passed and the dragons didn't show up. The hitherto constant buzzing of insects and croaking of frogs had all but fallen into dead silence.
Neither woman had to say it. Something was coming. They stood back to back and scanned the surrounding bushes, watching, waiting and listening.
Suddenly, a head appeared above the bushes to the north. It was large, brutish and green. Two pointed fangs - more like tusks - jutted up from its lower lip. Small yellow eyes watched the humans with dull interest, and two more heads appeared beside the first.
Sniffing, one of the creatures pushed through the bushes and into the swampy clearing. It had a very man-like body, if one ignored the green colour, thick-looking skin, long limbs (like an ape, Rynn thought) and bulging muscles. Staring at the humans, it sniffed again. Then it started to drool.
"Watch it," Ebontyne said, turning to fully face the monster. "They look like some breed of troll."
It attacked. Jumping forward rather clumsily, it threw a punch at Ebontyne's face. Ebontyne merely leaned back and hacked at the arm with her shadowy sword, severing it just below the elbow. Bellowing in pain, it stumbled back with its arm leaking a blackish-green ichor. The other two monsters garbled angrily and smashed through the bushes into the clearing. One shambled towards Ebontyne and the other to Rynn.
Rynn circled left a little, quickly realising that she'd have to get in close to make a killing stroke. The monster had too much reach on her, even though she had Runeblade. But the monster was evidently unconcerned about its advantage. It charged right at her, both arms clawing out as if to grab her into a crushing embrace. She ducked under them, using her lesser height instead, and darted to one side. Runeblade lashed out to cut its side then bite into a thigh before she leaped back out of reach. It howled and swung a hand over her head, almost spinning itself around. Darting in, Rynn thrust Runeblade into its side and up into its chest.
Two powerful hands suddenly grabbed her around the throat from behind and lifted her up, choking and weaponless. As suddenly as the strangulation had begun, it ended. Ebontyne's sword cut through both wrists in one stroke and Rynn dropped to the mud, tearing the dead fingers from her neck.
"What's going on?" Ebontyne shouted hoarsely.
"What?" Rynn coughed. "What d'you..?" She stopped and looked around. The closest troll was stumbling away in pain with two stumps in place of its hands. Another troll, fully capable, was standing on the edge of the swamp and snarling brainlessly. The third had just thrown Rynn's sword into the mud. The bleeding wound in its side was regenerating by itself.
Ebontyne singled out the handless monster and pointed at it with her sword. She said something, and a burst of searing red flames leaped from the point and engulfed it in a roaring cloud.
"Maybe decapitation will work," Rynn said, eyeing her own recovering monster.
"It doesn't." Ebontyne pointed at the monster watching them, then at a head half-buried in the mud. "I already tried." More fire blasted from her sword and took down the troll. "Looks like they're flammable. Toast yours, Rynn."
"I... don't know how!" Rynn ducked as her creature attacked her again then threw herself at Runeblade. Her hands wrapped around the hilt and she rolled over in the mud. Ebontyne was now fighting the last monster, but was being forced back. She was perspiring heavily and didn't look too steady on her feet. At the last, Ebontyne ducked and thrust her sword up into the monster's stomach. She jumped away just as the weapon burst into flames, and its victim with it.
Gasping for breath, the War Mage glanced at Rynn. "Little help?" she said with heavy sarcasm.
Rynn got up, feeling useless. "I'm sorry. I just..." she wiped mud from her armour. "I don't know any magic."
Ebontyne scoffed. "You serious?"
"Before I was living off magic crystals and potions."
"Hm, perhaps I should teach you something then." Rubbing at her sweaty brow, she said, "Fire is usually easiest - it's fuelled by strong emotions, like anger and hate. Usually you channel these emotions to form words, or curses." She smiled a little, grimly. "Instead of doing that, or keeping it bottled inside you, try and force it through your hands."
Rynn raised a brow. "My hands? I'll... keep that in mind." She fished Ebontyne's sword out of the grimy ashes. Handing it over, she asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'll live." It was a bit hard to tell if she was happy about that or not.
A little later the two dragons appeared. Ebontyne sent up a signal above the mists to show where they were, and Arokh and Morghus landed in the swamp.
"It's about time you showed up," Rynn said, mounting. "What kept you?"
"We were being attacked. They looked like harpies," Morghus said, "only significantly harder to kill. We didn't find anything useful, by the way."
"We did," Ebontyne told him. "Remember Vakailan? He told us where to find the fallen angel. That's where we're going now."
The Middle of Nowhere
Night fell and the swamps gave way to a jet-black landscape completely devoid of hill or gully. Flat as a swordblade, it went off in all directions under the star-filled sky. Far off, though, they could see something like a large fire burning. They flew towards it, and it felt like hours passed before it got any closer. There was absolutely nothing out there except for that fire.
On closer inspection, it wasn't exactly a fire. It was a pair of wings; each burning feather a tongue of flame. The wings sprouted from the shoulders of a humanoid figure who was sitting on the black ground, its forehead pressed to its drawn-up knees and its arms wrapped around itself.
"That must be it," Rynn heard Ebontyne say. "Think we should go down?"
It felt strange having the woman ask her opinion on a course of action, but Rynn didn't hesitate to reply. "Yes."
The dragons descended through the windless air and landed before the winged being. Even sitting and hunched over, it was equal to either dragon's height.
"What do you want?" a soft and melodious voice demanded.
Rynn remained seated on Arokh, and called, "I want to find someone within the Rift. Two people," she amended with a glance at Ebontyne. "We were hoping you could open a window or something so we could see where they are."
"This is a paltry task," the voice whispered contemptuously.
"Nevertheless, it's why we're here," Ebontyne told the being. "Is there a price?"
"Always." It was silent for a moment. "I will do as you ask for the soul crystal of a living elder dragon - one that lives, breathes and flies, one that is neither dead nor sleeping in stone." It raised its dark head. Pinpoints of silver light blazed where its eyes should be, and they regarded Arokh and Morghus with an intense, expectant hunger. "Do you accept?" it whispered.
Rynn suppressed a shudder, but Ebontyne didn't. The price was a dragon's soul crystal. A dragon's soul. "That's... still a high price," she ventured.
"Even the fallen must eat," the angel said in its soft voice.
There was bound to be a dragon out there they could take a soul crystal from. An evil dragon, like Werokh. Rynn considered. "I accept the terms."
"I will await delivery." The angel lowered its head to its knees again and folded its fiery wings around itself like a huge bat.
"I hope you don't intend to use my dragonstone," Morghus snarled at Rynn. "How could you agree to something like that?"
"We'll find a bad dragon," Rynn reasoned. "One that's-" she caught herself before suggesting a dragon in the Dark Union, figuring that wouldn't go down too well, "-one that's just... evil."
"Pah!" The black dragon turned its head away in disgust. "The price is too high. Bartering away a dragon's soul for the life of a humanling and the death of the Betrayer."
Ebontyne said, "Apart from Morghus and Arokh, there are only three living elder dragons that I know of. We already told you about them before, Rynn. Nashiva, Kang-shi and Gholek."
"You're going along with this?" Morghus growled at her.
"I am. And so will you."
Morghus fumed, then glared at Rynn. "As Ebontyne said. Of those three, only Gholek is unbound. Nashiva, Kang-shi and their riders broke from the Dark Union like we did when you defeated Navaros. I don't know about Gholek. She might be 'evil', but..." he looked at Arokh uncomfortably.
"But she's our sister," the red dragon supplied quietly. "What do you want us to do, Rynn?"
Rynn hesitated. She was this close to finding her brother. This close. "Let's pay Gholek a visit. Then we'll decide."
The flight back to friendly airs was not easy. Night seemed to be the worst time to be caught in the Eastern Wilds; all sorts of creatures were awake... and hungry. The small group was attacked often by monsters both common and bizarre, weak and powerful. A couple of times they were even driven north or south by foes too strong to best.
It took almost all night to reach the border. They were fleeing from a winged, three-headed monstrosity at the time, and didn't realise they were crossing over before bolts of lightning flashed from ground to sky from the sentient trees.
Morghus screeched, the tip of one wing scored. Rynn saw his whole left wing go limp all of a sudden, and the dragon dropped as he vainly tried to stay aloft.
"Hold on, Rynn," Arokh shouted. "I'll try and draw the trees' fire." He streaked towards the ground, darting between the bolts that headed his way. "Hopefully Morghus will recover soon eno-"
Three simultaneous screams cut the air and a gigantic form, wings and multiple heads outlined by the stars, started down after the falling black dragon and his rider.
"Uh oh," Rynn whispered.
Another bolt of stunning light struck Morghus and his limbs ceased their struggling. He fell, lacking even the strength to shout for help.
"Burn the trees under him!" Rynn shouted desperately. "He'll be all right so long as none of the trees get him. Burn them!"
"No," Arokh said. "Ice! When they crash the trees will shatter." He beat his wings powerfully and flew low. A torrent of freezing water hissed from his jaws, completely covering all it touched. Everything beneath Morghus was frozen solid, glittering ice in the starlight. Arokh got out of the way just as the black dragon smashed into the ground. Shards went flying everywhere, but it didn't look like any trees were trying to eat dragon or rider.
Arokh craned his head upward and breathed out an immense barrage of boiling magma at the malignant shadow that had been chasing them then flew aside, gaining height to draw the creature away.
It worked. The monster darted after them with all three heads snarling, but it didn't look like it had a breath weapon of its own. Its speed and three pairs of razor claws more than made up for that. It was faster than Arokh, who had to swerve and evade as often as he could to keep out of range. His smaller size meant manoeuvrability, and he'd use that to its full extent.
The creature wasn't the only thing to evade, however.
Lightning struck Arokh in the head. Rynn's vision was abruptly gone, lost in a swirl of brightness. Then it was back again. With an odd feeling of disconnection, she watched the ocean of leaves rush up to embrace them. Unconscious the second Arokh hit the ground, she never felt herself thrown from his back and against a broad trunk of a tree...
* * *
Why do I feel like I'm hanging upside-down..?
Rynn shook the vague thought from her mind and tried to move. She couldn't. Something was wrapped around her like a snake, pinning her arms to her sides and trapping her legs. She opened her eyes, but something was covering them, too. Taking a deep breath, she struggled a bit harder and felt herself swing with the motion.
She was upside-down, and hanging from her legs.
"Arokh?" she tried to say, but something was in her mouth. Tentatively, she pushed at it with her tongue. Rough, cool and thick. Like... a vine?
She struggled harder, trying to break the living cords twined around her, but only swung like a piece of fruit. In frustration, she clamped her jaw down hard on the vine in her mouth and only succeeded in hurting her teeth. It was too tough; she had barely made a mark on it.
"Arokh!" She tried shouting, then froze.
Was it her imagination, or had she felt herself rise fractionally?
The feeling came again.
She didn't hear a reply. Panic started to set in, and she twisted even more, tried to bend her body, free a hand... anything but this feeling of deep helplessness.
Helplessness and fear.
The bit around her eyes slipped a little. Breathing as much as the tight binding around her chest would allow, she peered through the tiny crack. It was light, and there were only tree branches to be seen. She tried to cant her head back, to see the ground. There... far below her. And a massive, vine-wrapped shape was only just beginning to be dragged into the air by thick green cords.
He wouldn't even be able to open his mouth to breathe fire, she thought in despair. Was he strong enough to break free? Was he even awake?
The green shape jerked suddenly. Rynn watched, hardly daring to hope as Arokh's talons sliced their way free. The tree screamed and the vines wrapping Arokh tightened. Rynn felt the dragon's pain, the terrible pressure on his trapped wings. If not for the vine in her mouth, she'd have cried out in agony.
It stopped after a few seconds and she was left breathless, strengthless. She felt herself rise a few more inches closer to... to what? Did trees have mouths? Bracing herself, she looked up into a writhing nest of snakelike vines surrounding a circular hollow in the trunk. Row upon row of pointed teeth lined the inside of that hole, and a translucent slime oozed down from it like sap. Rynn saw that her feet were almost within reach of that mouth before she couldn't hold herself up like that any longer, and let her upper body swing down again with a choked gasp.
The blood rushing to her head was starting to make her feel dizzy. "Don't stop struggling, Arokh," she pleaded silently. "Keep fighting..." She jerked with pain as Arokh began fighting again, his talons tearing through more vines. A foreleg was free... it clawed at the bonds around his neck and head, his movements weak with the agony it was costing him, but his talons efficient anyway. More vines fell to the ground in great coils, then he stopped.
Rynn's silent prayer of thanks at the surcease of pain was cut short as she felt something iron-hard grasp her ankles and drag her up further. She bowed her body and looked up again.
Her feet were in its mouth and it was chewing at the dragon armour protecting her legs.
Panicking, she tried to kick but the fangs held her as securely as the vines had. Below, Arokh renewed the struggle to free himself. He breathed fire across his bonds and they started to wither away, the tree shrieking in pain and fury.
"Rynn! Where are you?"
Struggling weakly, Rynn attacked the vine in her mouth to no avail. Tears sprang to her eyes and she cursed herself. They blinded her almost as well as the vines. She tried to swing, but by now her back was against the trunk. She was too high for him to notice... another bundle of green in the canopy. The pressure on her ankles increased to the point of pain
Desperate, she writhed her hands instead of trying to call out... and a funny thing happened. At first, her hands just started to get warm. Then they got hot, almost as if they were burning.
Magic... Ebontyne's fire magic!
Fresh determination swept through her and she focussed every thought on her hands. Fire blazed from her fingertips with a roar. The vines wrapping her from waist to head crisped and fell away, the pressure on her ankles vanishing as the tree's mouth widened in a unearthly scream. Quickly, Rynn wrenched open the scabbard tab holding her sword in its sheath and drew Runeblade with a rasp of glittering steel. She swung once, aware that her spell had alerted Arokh to where she was, and cut the remaining vines holding her up in the air.
Arokh caught her in his foreclaws as she fell, then landed back on the forest floor to let her down. "I feared for you," the dragon said in concern. "That was too close."
Rynn sheathed her blade and stretched, relishing the freedom of movement. "Way too close," she agreed. "Did you see my magic?" she added, pride chasing away the terror of the past moments.
A relieved smile curved his jaws. "Of course. I was wondering when you'd figure out how to use your powers. Couldn't have come at a better time."
Stunned, the young woman gaped at him. "You knew I had them?"
He laughed, absently clawing at an ambitious vine. "When you were taking your test in the Belltower, it was all Rimril talked to me about. If you hadn't passed, he was going to offer to train you as an Archmage."
When they felt ready, Arokh flew up to the top of the canopy and looked around for the three-headed monster, but there was no sign of it. With Rynn on his back, he shot past the treeline and up into the sky, twisting aside as lightning once again shot at him. He flew a couple of ragged circles as Rynn scanned the forest for Morghus and Ebontyne.
"I can see the place where you froze the trees," Rynn shouted to him, holding tight as he tilted to one side. "But there's no one there."
"Maybe we should take a closer look?"
They did, but Rynn was right. No one was there. The trees bordering the frozen clearing weren't holding any vine-wrapped bundles either, so it could only be assumed that Morghus and Ebontyne had escaped.
Rynn and Arokh ascended again and resumed the journey west. They'd crossed the border and were flying above the skeleton forest when a black shape took off from the ground a short distance north.
"It's them," Arokh said, stopping to fly in one place. "What happened?" he roared to the approaching pair.
"When we regained consciousness," Morghus replied, still gaining height, "there was no sign of either of you. We didn't burn the forest for fear of frying either of you, so we crossed the border and waited here." He hovered next to his brother. "I take it you got away unharmed."
"Barely," Arokh told him. "Lead on to Gholek's and we'll tell you what happened."
* * *
The flight took them to a mountainous area with scanty vegetation. It was all very bare and rocky, but Rynn wasn't observing the scenery. After Ebontyne had learned of her successful fire spell, the War Mage had offered to teach her some more magic. "After all," she said, "the more you know, the more chance we'll have of destroying Navaros."
So from dragonback, the tutelage had begun. They had focussed on fire at first. Rynn learned that this was the easiest element to summon so long as emotions were running high. For this reason, though, the resultant flames could often be hard to control and unpredictable in their intensity. Ebontyne thought the magical fire might have some relation to the emotions fuelling it. Pretty soon, Rynn was excitedly throwing small fireballs into the sky. Arokh wryly asked Ebontyne if he'd become obsolete when she was finished with her.
The second element they tried was water, which was usually just as easy as fire for the reason that human bodies contained so much of it. Ebontyne demonstrated by creating a large globe of water between her outspread hands, then tossing it aside. Rynn watched it fall like an oversized drop of water to make a tremendous splash across a cliff.
"Just remember to draw the water out of the air, not yourself or Arokh, or me or Morghus," Ebontyne warned her. "You don't want to dry any of us up, nor kill yourself. Don't think that water magic isn't without its dangers just because it can't incinerate you."
"Do you ever use water magic to fight things?" Rynn asked, frowning as she tried to duplicate Ebontyne's spell.
"Sometimes. Ice spells are most useful against monsters born of fire, like hellhounds or efreetis. But knowledge of water is crucial for healing spells."
"Like making potions?"
"No, that's entirely different. To heal someone, all you need is your own strength. If you have power over water you have power over blood. If you can control air, you can make someone breathe. If you know how earth works, you can mend bones. A combination of all three of these magics can make one a potent healer."
"But not fire?" Rynn beamed as a water globe blossomed between her hands, then threw it overboard.
Ebontyne nodded her appreciation of the spell, and said, "No, fire has never been used in actual healing. It can be useful to cauterise wounds, but skilled healers have no need of that. Their magic can close the wound and heal it just as fast."
"Are there only the four elements? When I was in Rimril's Belltower, I got the impression there was one more."
"One more, reserved for those who have mastered the other four. They were still trying to figure out a name for it when I was in the Order," she added with a faint smile. "Rift, void, ether, spirit..." she shrugged. "You get what I mean."
"So which elements are you able to control?" Rynn asked curiously.
"And which can I teach you?" Ebontyne raised a brow, but her smile was a little more genuine. "Fire, water and earth comprise a War Mage."
"Navaros is a War Mage, isn't he?"
"As categorised by the Order of the Flame. I think he's gone somewhat beyond that, however. There's no name for what he is now."
A canyon opened beneath them and the dragons paused above it.
"See them?" Morghus asked.
"I do," Arokh said. "You take the left and we'll handle the right?"
They flew down and veered off to either side of the canyon, fire pouring from their jaws. Rynn saw a wartok ballista explode and debris went everywhere. Arokh evaded a flying spar and a volley of ballast before attacking another war engine. Its wartok crew went running and the red dragon flew in, tore the ballista from its foundations and threw it after them.
"Ooh, wait, there's a cave," Rynn shouted, hitting Arokh's massive shoulder. "Drop me off. I want to look around."
"I'll come back when the other ballistae are destroyed," Arokh said, and dropped down level with a projecting ledge. "Watch out for those wartoks."
Rynn stood carefully and jumped to the ledge. "I will." She drew Runeblade and made her way past the wreckage of the last ballista as Arokh flew off again. The cave was an unnatural opening, she noticed. Wooden beams supported it, and she could see a lantern burning inside. She snuck inside, glancing around. A wartok was limping down the single passage, its back to her. She stole after it, quickly and quietly, then dispatched it from behind. Taking a red potion of healing from its belt, she crept further down the passage and reached a medium-sized cave.
Three orcs and lots of crates and barrels. A storage cave, she decided. Most of the ballistae would have one of these, probably. She hoped she'd find something useful in here besides ballast and wartok rations.
Rynn jumped into the room and spun, Runeblade cutting a silver circle in the air. Two of the orcs fell instantly with loud cries, the third scrabbled backwards and seized a spear. The creature thrust it at her and she swung her sword down onto the shaft. The spear broke in half, and its owner, grunting angrily, charged at Rynn with its fists.
Rynn killed it, absently wondering how stupid an orc could actually be. Then she had a search through the barrels. There was a great deal of stuff that was useless to her, but one crate yielded some longbows and yet another several quivers of varying types of arrows. Smiling triumphantly, Rynn shouldered two of the bows and stripped the rest of their strings, which she put in a pouch and attached to her belt. She went through the quivers and put as many arrows as she could into two of them, which she picked up and carried out of the cave.
The others were waiting outside. "All done?" Rynn asked.
"Gholek's cave is at the end of the canyon and the way is clear," Morghus said.
"What did you find?" Ebontyne asked.
"Supplies." Rynn grinned and handed her one of the bows and quivers before jumping astride Arokh. "They might come in useful. Now I can actually do something when we're fighting a flying enemy."
"That was the idea of learning magic," Ebontyne reminded her.
"Well, I might be too tired to use magic."
"Let's go," Rynn said, and they flew deeper into the canyon. Down the bottom and at the furthest end was a yawning cave with stalactites lining its top lip. A good deal of green smoke was hissing from the opening, and it sent both humans and dragons into a fit of coughing.
"Gas," Arokh muttered. "Maybe we should just try calling her and see if she'll come out." When the others nodded he took a deep breath of fresh air then roared into the cave, "Gholek!"
"It's so hard to get good guards these days," a draconic, yet definitely feminine voice grumbled from inside the cave. "Wartoks aren't that bright to begin with, but it isn't that hard to hit something as big as a dragon with a ballista." A pair of fiery eyes with a strange green cast to them appeared in the gas-choked darkness. "Who are my visitors?" The eyes came closer, blinking a couple of times at the light outside, and the outline of a head appeared. It tilted to one side in a gesture of curiosity. "Arokh? Morghus? Why are you here?"
"Nice to see you too, sister," Morghus said dryly.
"I see you're both still Bonded." Gholek's head and part of her neck came forward into the light, which glinted off her dark green scales. Arching an eyeridge at Arokh, she drew back into the shadows again. "Well? Why are you here?"
Morghus kept his expression carefully blank as Arokh said, "What has occupied you of late, Gholek?"
She laughed and more gases leaked from the cave in an emerald cloud. "For the sake of idle chatter, I guard a portal to a section of the Betrayer's holdings in my lair. I hunt. I sleep."
"So you serve Navaros?" Rynn dared to ask.
Gholek's eyes narrowed at her. "Interesting choice, Arokh. From Heron to a peasant."
Just like Werokh, Rynn thought, keeping her temper. Let Arokh do the talking.
"She passed the test of the Tower," Arokh said. "Rynn is more than worthy to be my rider."
The green dragon sniffed. "Mm hm. Listen, brother, if you're looking to come this way you're going to have to come in and kill me. As your human guessed, I serve Navaros. I'm pretty sure that you don't." She disappeared.
"There we have it," Rynn said.
"You call that evil?" Morghus snapped. "She's not doing anything unless we try to-"
"Morghus," Ebontyne said sharply, and her dragon fell silent. "She serves the Betrayer, and that's bad enough for me. We are trying to kill him." She looked at Rynn. "How do you propose to get in there and-" she lowered her voice, "-get Gholek's dragonstone?"
Rynn dismounted and took a few steps closer to the cave. Her eyes started to water and her throat feel strange, so she crouched and kept going a bit before coming back. "The gas is acting like smoke. If I keep close to the ground it won't affect me so badly."
"Great," Morghus growled. "And if Gholek does attack you, you think you can crawl faster than she can walk?"
"I'll be careful, and I'll handle this one on my own."
"We'll wait for you here," Arokh said, and Rynn crawled into the huge cave entrance.
It was slow going, and she had to be careful not to drag her knees across the stone or her armour rasped loudly in the silence. What's more, she started to wish she'd left her bow and arrows outside, as they had the habit of tangling her legs. She kept going, keeping close to the wall, and heading toward what seemed to be a source of light.
It was a large crystal of grimstone punching through the ground. The lambent green stuff let of a foul smell and Rynn went around it as swiftly as she could while holding her breath, but there was more behind it. The cave was full of it, which was an unexpected danger. Too much exposure to grimstone could drain a human's will and turn you into a mindless drone.
Time suddenly became an even more important factor. She crawled down the first branching passage she found, large enough for a dragon, and followed it to the end. In the far wall of the cave was a large, circular portal - big enough for a dragon to fly through.
"And an insect crawls into the web," a draconic voice rumbled. Gholek had been waiting beside the entrance to the cave, and her neck stretched around the corner for her flaming green-tinged eyes to stare intimidatingly at Rynn. "Perhaps I'll have some wartoks revive Arokh to keep me company once I've made you a meal."
Rynn hurriedly backed up and the dragon chuckled softly.
"Foolish human-thing." A hissing cloud of poisonous gas filled the tunnel and Rynn, holding her breath, jumped to her feet with her eyes shut and fled blindly back the way she'd come. When she hit a wall, she dropped to the ground and opened her eyes before sucking in a breath.
"I hear you, insect."
Rynn rolled behind an outcrop of grimstone and made herself as small as she could. The green dragon's head and neck came through the tunnel then lowered, like a hound picking up a scent. The sensitive nostrils twitched and Gholek smiled unpleasantly. She looked right at Rynn's hiding place.
"You think you can escape me?"
Taking another gasp of breath, Rynn fled further down the main passage as Gholek breathed out more gas. She was like a large cat playing with a mouse, Rynn thought as she ducked down another corridor and threw herself onto hands and knees. She was taking her time trying to kill her prey, enjoying the chase and the taunting too much. A fatal error for any villain, but this one didn't know it. Gholek thought Rynn was trying to get through the portal she was guarding, not trying to steal her soul crystal, otherwise she might have tried killing Rynn when she had the chance.
As fate had it, Rynn next found herself in the heart of Gholek's lair - where her dragonstone stood glittering in a green crystalline altar. It would have been like that since she'd been wakened from her sleep of stone. Hearing the heavy footfalls of the dragon behind her, Rynn stood and ran to the pedestal. Grabbing the soul crystal with both hands, she pulled.
It didn't budge.
"What are..?" Gholek entered the cave. But instead of the scream of rage and cloud of death Rynn had expected, the dragon's face seemed to crumple with confusion. "Are you... trying to free me?"
Rynn stared at her. "I..." Then she noticed that the altar was made of grimstone. "What happened here?"
Gholek bowed her head and sighed. "I don't know how Navaros' lackeys engineered it, but they changed my pedestal to as you see it now then put my soul crystal in it. It woke me, but... but I am a prisoner. A slave to the grimstone and to Navaros. I could never leave, and it wasn't just because of the wartoks outside." She came closer and indicated the altar with her head. "I tried breaking it with every power I possess, but nothing worked."
Rynn felt her heart returning to its normal rate. Carefully, she asked, "How are you a slave to Navaros? Do you have to guard these caves?"
"I can't leave them because my altar is made of grimstone and my soul crystal is bound to it. But as time wears away, so does the grimstone that 'grows' in these caves. I become weakened, even insane, as the grimstone crystals fade. Navaros keeps me guarding his damn portal by his control over the grimstone. His creatures can bring more, or keep it away." She shuddered from head to tail. "Perhaps it is weak and pathetic of me to admit it, but I need grimstone. The insanity... is horrible." Her green-tinged eyes lit up. "But you could change that. You could free me."
"I can try," Rynn said sympathetically. "Do you have any idea how?"
"You can try breaking the altar," Gholek suggested dubiously, "but I don't know how, since I couldn't."
"Don't you need the altar?"
"No, not unless I plan to re-Bond." The green dragon smiled ruefully. "I don't think I care to make myself vulnerable to this kind of torture again."
"Let me try my sword." Rynn drew Runeblade and smashed it into the altar. It produced a long scratch, but nothing more. Gathering herself again, she brought the weapon down with all her strength. The grimstone screeched and a deeper fissure marred the surface. "I think this will work."
"That's Runeblade," Gholek whispered, her eyes widening. "Heron's sword."
Rynn grunted and chopped at the altar again, swung the sword back and struck a fourth time. Bits of the altar broke off in large chunks. She kept at it like a lumberjack to a log, careful not to hit the soul crystal. Suddenly, green lightning seemed to shoot through the altar. The whole structure glowed brightly for a minute, then went dark and grey. In the abrupt darkness, Rynn heard Gholek catch her breath sharply.
Rynn fumbled at the broken altar and found the soul crystal. It pulled free from the shattered remnants easily. "I got it," she said softly.
"Oh, Rynn," Gholek whispered, wonder in her voice. Her eyes glowed like true fire; the emerald glow that had poisoned it gone. "I'm free. Thank you. Thank you..."
A Bargain Fulfilled
"It's a relief to see you well again," Morghus said, smiling. "I had no idea."
Gholek gave her younger brothers a tired grin and stretched in the sunlight. "Shaking off the effects of the grimstone itself might take a bit longer, but I feel much better." She touched the soul crystal she'd attached to a cord and hung around her own neck and added, "Rynn told me what she'd been planning to do. I'm almost sorry I wasn't evil. You'd all be on your way to give Navaros what he deserves." Rynn tried to smile, but the ancient green wasn't fooled. "You can still take my dragonstone if you wish, Rynn. Almost anything will be worth knowing he's gone forever."
"No, Gholek, I can't." Rynn shook her head. "Maybe selling a dragon's soul is the wrong idea."
"But it's the only way you know of," Gholek reminded her gently. She held out the soul crystal again. "And you'll be able to save your brother." She gave Rynn a sad smile. "I haven't been in possession of my soul for a long time, anyway. Just promise me that once it's gone for good, you'll come back and end my life."
Rynn took the crystal and swallowed hard. "I promise."
"It will take us about half a day to get to the fallen angel," Arokh told his sister.
"Six hours," Gholek murmured. Rynn saw the momentary fear in her eyes, heard the tremor in her voice. The dragon drew herself up slowly. "Well, I better make the most of it. May fortune favour you all." She jumped into the air with a single powerful downstroke of her wings, and was gone.
* * *
"We have returned with your price."
The fallen angel rose to its feet, wings unfurling. It was very tall and thin, featureless but for the glowing silver eyes, man-shaped body and feathers of fire. It extended one shadowy hand and Rynn, after one slight hesitation, threw the soul crystal up to it.
The angel gripped the dragonstone in its hand and a green light ran up its arm. It surrounded its whole body, and the humans and dragons shivered, imagining they heard Gholek scream as her soul was devoured. The glow faded and the angel let out a satisfied sound. Its fist opened and a fine dust fell from its fingers - all that remained of Gholek's soul crystal.
Without pausing, it flung its dark arms wide and a large ring appeared in the air between it and the small party. "Name who you wish me to find," the being commanded.
"My brother Delon," Rynn said at once. "He fell into the Rift. Where is he now?"
The ring was suddenly filled with blackness, and in that black a falling figure appeared.
"That's him!" Rynn exclaimed. She touched the Rift Crystal in the pommel of Runeblade. "You better be able to find him now," she whispered to it, staring at her brother. The vision continued for a few more seconds, then vanished. The circle was empty again.
"And the other being?" the fallen angel asked softly.
"Navaros the Betrayer," Ebontyne said.
The creature chuckled darkly. "That one I may not detect. I sense the location of beings through their souls, and he no longer has one."
"You must have some idea," Ebontyne demanded angrily. "We paid you to-"
Eyes flashing, the creature folded its arms. "You could have told me who you wanted to find beforehand. It is short-sightedness on your part, not mine." It leaned over them. "Or do you wish to dispute that?"
Ebontyne wouldn't be cowed. "If you can't find Navaros, then will you tell me where something else is?"
The angel straightened again. "Ask."
"You detect people by finding where their souls are." She took a deep breath, sitting rigid on Morghus' back. "Mine is bound to a Jewel of Eternity. I want to know where that jewel is. My name is Ebontyne, Bonded of Morghus."
Even though they couldn't see it, Rynn felt sure the fallen angel was smiling. "That particular soul-jewel has not existed for centuries, human."
What colour was in Ebontyne's face drained away. "What do you mean?"
In a deliberately cruel voice, the angel said, "Didn't your precious Navaros tell you? For what I gave him, he not only traded me his own soul but the soul of every dragon-rider that had used a Jewel of Eternity. You are sustained only by the soul of your dragon, Bonded of Morghus. You will pass on when he does." The creature sat down again and drew its knees to its chest. "Our business is done."
"We can still get Navaros," Arokh told Ebontyne firmly, but she was staring at the angel with a look of defeat. "Morghus, talk to her."
"Ebontyne," Morghus said. "Do you still want to go after Navaros?"
"Yes." She shook herself. "Yes, of course I do. Let's get Rynn's brother first."
"Let's get some height," Rynn said, and the dragons took off. When they were up a bit, Rynn raised Runeblade and concentrated as hard as she could on the scene the fallen angel had shown them. "Take us to my brother!" she shouted, and swung the shining sword down.
A blast of ethereal winds buffeted them as the Rift opened - a swirling vortex of dark colours. Morghus folded his wings and dropped through the dancing energies, then Arokh followed.
"It's good to be back..."
Cold winds blew. Arokh and Morghus dropped through the blackness, their riders relying on their eyes to find Delon. He couldn't have fallen far, and he could only have gone down... Runeblade had to have taken them to the right place.
Rynn held on to Arokh and her desperate hope, eyes straining to see even though she knew her efforts were futile. She tried calling her brother's name once, but there had been no response.
Down they flew, deeper into the endless night and the increasing cold...
"I see him!" Arokh shouted. "Rynn, I see him!"
"Delon!" Rynn shouted eagerly. "Can you hear me?"
Still her brother didn't reply.
"I think he's unconscious," Morghus roared. "I'll grab him. Rynn, open a gate to get us out of here. We can decide what to do next when he recovers."
Rynn heard the sweep of his wings as Morghus sped after Delon.
"He has him," Arokh said after a few seconds. "Open the Rift, Rynn. Let's get out of here."
Rynn complied, and the swirling portal appeared above her. She waited stubbornly for Morghus and Ebontyne to leave with Delon first, then Arokh went after them. The gate snapped shut as they left.
* * *
They had returned to Drakan in a field of short grass. Once landed, Rynn almost flew from Arokh's back to see her brother. His eyes were shut tight and his breathing shallow, his skin cold to the touch, but that didn't stop her from hugging him fiercely. Wiping away tears, Rynn gratefully accepted Ebontyne's cloak to wrap around him and cushion his head.
Then the two women and dragons crept a short distance away to leave him in peace.
"What do you plan to do now?" Ebontyne asked softly. "Your brother is safe. Will you help us find and put an end to Navaros?"
"I want to get him somewhere secure first," Rynn said after a moment's thought, "but I'm willing to help. Arokh?"
"Where you go I go," the red dragon said simply. "Any idea where we look first?"
"We might try getting our hands on one of his death magi," Ebontyne suggested grimly. "It'll be hard, but if anyone knows where he is..."
The others nodded in agreement, then glanced around at the sound of grass rustling.
Delon stood up, one hand rubbing his head. He looked around, blinking at the two dragons. Then his eyes fell on Rynn.
Rynn grinned like an idiot, a feeling of amazing joy bubbling up inside her. "Delon!" she said, starting towards him.
Her brother's mouth curved into an answering smile, but a voice that wasn't Delon's answered her. "It's good to be back." His hands moved fractionally and a white light spun around him. A second later, he had vanished.
Stunned to silence, Rynn stared at the place he had just vacated. A sudden, terrible combination of emotions churned the pit of her stomach. Disbelief, betrayal, emptiness...
They had just brought Navaros back into the world.