Drakan II: The
By Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
The Journey Begins Anew
Rynn sat alone, living a nightmare she couldn't seem to wake from. Arokh, Morghus and Ebontyne conferred together a short distance away, discussing what should be done. Rynn didn't listen to what they were saying. What was the point? This couldn't be happening. It wasn't real, and any minute now she'd open her eyes and everything would be as it had been before... she'd be home... Delon would be in the room next to hers... Atimar would still be alive... her village would be peaceful and thriving... everything would be as it had been before...
But the two dragons and the war mage were still there when she looked. Her brother, Atimar and home were nowhere in sight. The sun shone brightly over the grasses and puffs of white cloud drifted across the brilliant blue sky. How could anyone think something terrible would happen when Drakan looked so beautiful?
She looked over her shoulder at the great red dragon. Arokh looked concerned, but determined.
"We must get moving," he said in his rumbling voice. When Rynn didn't answer, he added, "Morghus and Ebontyne think we should try and locate the other two Bonded and ask them to help us-"
"Do what?" Rynn interrupted in a dull tone. "Help us do what, Arokh? I read the histories. Last time it ended when Heron thrust Runeblade through Navaros' heart. Navaros was thrown into the Rift, Heron was killed and so were the armies of both the Dark Union and the Order of the Flame." Her green eyes narrowed at the dragon, her voice becoming more intense. "I'm not going out that way. I have to save my brother."
"You have to save Drakan," Arokh replied pointedly. "Navaros is almost certain to continue where he left off before Heron dealt with him; he'll try casting that spell again, and it will most likely kill every living thing in the whole world."
"Why?" Rynn demanded. "How will that serve Navaros?"
"Not even we know," Ebontyne said as she approached with Morghus. "His intentions as he explained them to us and the other Bonded who joined him turned out to be lies, as we later discovered. I think he only wanted us to delay the Order's armies so he could complete his spell."
"Do you think he's gone back to Mount Tibor?" Morghus suggested. "That's where he was going to cast his magic last time. He seemed adamant about the exact positioning-"
"I want to be able to stop him without killing myself and everyone around me!" Rynn shouted. The others were silent as she calmed down and took a few deep breaths. "How will the other two Bonded be able to help?"
"One of them knows four Cycles of the Elements," Ebontyne said intently. "Fire, water, air and earth. Rynn, listen. Heron was only a warrior. If he had magical potential, he didn't know how to use it." Arokh nodded at this. "But if you can master each of those Cycles then figure out how to use the powers of the Rift, you might be able to stand a good chance against Navaros in this world as you did in the edges of the Void where the Death Magi last summoned him."
"But time," Rynn said. "Do we have time to find those Bonded and for me to learn from them? Navaros could be casting his spell right now."
"He wouldn't dare - not without arranging some protection for himself," Arokh said, shaking his head. "He had to go into a trance to cast his spell last time. That made him vulnerable, and explains why he didn't fight back when Heron and I attacked him."
"He knows he still has enemies," Morghus said. "I doubt he'll make the same mistake as last time."
Ebontyne agreed. "I think he'll make sure we're out of the way before casting his spell again."
"You think or you're sure?" Rynn asked.
Ebontyne gave her a grim smile. "I'm sure. We'll know when he's started his casting, and it took him hours to prepare last time. No matter where he is, we'd be able to reach him before he completed it. Morghus is right. He won't make himself that vulnerable again. Not until he's sure he's in no danger."
"He's not stupid," Morghus growled. "Just power-hungry."
Rynn drew in a deep breath and nodded, pushing herself to her feet and trying to find her old determination. It wasn't over yet. "Any idea where to find these dragon riders?"
Morghus and Ebontyne looked at each other wryly, then sighed.
"They can find us," Arokh said. When the other three looked at him, he continued: "As I recall, there used to be a great horn that was winded to summon the Bonded to the Dragon Hall, the old meeting place for the Order. So powerful an instrument was it, and tuned so finely, that a dragon could hear its notes from almost anywhere."
"That's an idea," Morghus said, looking hopeful.
"What makes you think the two we're looking for will answer?" Rynn asked sceptically.
Arokh glanced at Morghus who scratched his head in thought before saying, "Well, for one thing, the horn hasn't been winded since Navaros returned to the Order from the Eastern Wilds and killed all those who'd gathered in the Dragon Hall to welcome him back."
The Castle of Seasons
The flight was not a long one, but had been strangely uneventful. In her journeys with Arokh, Rynn had gotten used to being attacked by wartok siege engines and dragons of almost every description every step of the way. It was possible their enemies had noticed that there was another Bonded with them and had thus wisely forgone attacking them, but Rynn doubted it. She hadn't seen any creature sight them and flee. The skies were empty, and the grounds devoid of the Dark Union's minions.
She got the nasty feeling that they were all setting up some kind of ambush together, and they'd end up flying into hordes of orcs and wartoks mounted upon skeletal dragons at any minute.
"It makes sense for the orcs and wartoks to be absent," Arokh was saying as he glided with Morghus over a snowy mountain range. "Navaros would probably want his forces close to hand for whatever he's planning next. But the dragons... an area like this should be thick with ebon dragons."
"Thank the elements for small favours," Morghus remarked with a toothy smile.
"That reminds me," Ebontyne said, and asked Morghus to fly closer to Arokh. "Rynn, do you want to learn some earth magic now?"
Rynn accepted, and Ebontyne began the lessons. Earth magic was difficult for many people, the war mage explained. It involved the manipulation of many different substances, and unless one could recognise in one's mind the intricate cellular structure of iron as opposed to something like copper, one would have a hard time. It would be no good if you conjured a weapon to defend yourself with only to find you'd fashioned it from sand instead of steel. Ebontyne didn't show Rynn how to make anything yet, saying that it would be easier when they were actually on the ground and in contact with the element they wanted to summon. She lectured Rynn on the different materials earth had to offer instead, explaining the benefits of one metal against another.
"Can you only use earth to make things?" Rynn asked at one point.
"No," Ebontyne had replied. "But that's what it was mostly used for, and thus a power highly prized for craftmasters. The destructive uses of earth magic involve things like earthquakes, landslides and stuff. Some people also used it to generate life and growth in the plant realm - making flora flourish." The war mage shrugged at that last example.
There was a gigantic, circular valley smack in the middle of the mountains. Rynn thought it looked like a deep cup because its shape looked so precise and the inside slopes so smooth. The snow-covered ruins of a once-mighty fortress could be seen at the very bottom and exact middle of the valley, and it was toward this that the two dragons flew.
"This was the Castle of Seasons, Rynn," Arokh said. He hovered low above a section of ruin - a snowed-in room surrounded by broken walls supporting no roof. "And this was the Dragon Hall." Rynn felt the dragon draw in a breath then release. Fire melted the snow on the floor and it rose in a hissing cloud of steam. When it cleared, a large pattern had been uncovered on the floor. A square, divided into four separate blocks of varying colour and design, with a black circle in the middle covering the intersection of the tiles. "Earth, fire, air, water," Arokh said, landing beside it in the half-melted snow. "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter."
"What's the circle for?" Rynn asked, leaning forward to get a better look at it. "Is there something traced on it?"
"The circle represents the rift." Arokh shifted slightly as Rynn dismounted. "Though some used to say it could be a new moon. The symbol of the Order of the Flame is etched into it."
Rynn knelt on the still-wet tiles and ran her hand across the almost obliterated engraving, feeling the roughness of weathered stone through the warm water, remembering the image from the cover of the book she had found in Atimar's house and from the amulet she'd taken from the goblins for Rimril. "Does the symbol have a specific meaning, Arokh?" she asked curiously. She traced the seven circles in the Order's symbol, which had been jewels in the amulet.
Morghus flew over them and called down, "There are a few goblins camping in the ruins. We'll chase them off."
"Looks like the mountains aren't deserted after all," Rynn said. For some reason, that made her feel better.
Softly, Arokh said, "The Order had seven ideals, each of which was personified by the seven Bonded of the High Council." He indicated each jewel from top to bottom, left to right. "Hope, truth, trust, integrity, courage, honour, justice."
"Sounded like fun," Rynn said dryly.
"It was the golden age of Drakan," Arokh replied sadly, "before Navaros." He settled deeper into the snow, which proceeded to melt around him. "Humans and dragons had stopped warring, had joined together as more than just Bonded. Two races on the edge of a new age."
"How am I supposed to continue that?" Rynn whispered, shivering in the cold. "Rimril... when he died... he said I was the only one left to keep the flame alive."
The red dragon let out a deep breath. "We will worry about that when Navaros is dealt with. I'm inclined to agree with my brother and Ebontyne that this time, he should be destroyed."
Heart of Vengeance
Morghus and Ebontyne had easily dispatched the goblins lurking around the ruin, though the latter looked a little sour about the whole business when they returned to where Arokh and Rynn were waiting.
"I'm just wondering when, if ever, I'll see you do a share of the fighting," she told Rynn curtly. "I didn't join you to teach you magic and watch your back. We're meant to be in this together."
Rynn couldn't see why it was so important so long as the bad guys were killed and they themselves were not, but shrugged and promised to help next time. Ebontyne snorted and jumped down from Morghus, brushing snow from her black cloak.
"Go sweep the ruins with fire," the war mage told her dragon. "See if you can uncover that horn."
"Won't the fire damage it?" Rynn interjected quickly.
"It's made from dragon bone," Morghus shrugged. "It should survive. Coming Arokh?"
Rynn nodded to him, so Arokh took to the skies with his brother and the two swept out around the crumbling castle to start melting through snow drifts. Ebontyne removed her helmet and watched their first circuit critically, then looked at Rynn as thick sheets of steam prevented further spectating. Rynn blinked at the expression on the older woman's face. She thought they'd gone through enough and had developed a certain amount of camaraderie that warranted anything other than the cold gaze she was receiving now. It was like when they'd first met. Those glacial blue eyes...
"What?" Rynn demanded, suddenly irritated.
Ebontyne's dark brows lowered a fraction. "I didn't say anything."
"You didn't have to. Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Wondering if you honestly have what it takes when push comes to shove."
"You don't think I can fight?" Rynn asked, astounded. "How do you think I got to Navaros and defeated him last time?"
"Perhaps it was just one long spell of luck," said Ebontyne with a slight baring of her teeth. "But that's not what I mean. What I'm talking about is if we don't get in contact with the other two Bonded and you don't - or can't - become an Archmage, chances are you won't be able to save your brother's body. Will you be able to kill him?"
Rynn froze for a second, then replied with, "What would be the point of trying if Runeblade can't kill Navaros, but only exile him back to the void?"
But Ebontyne knew that to be an evasion to her question. "It would be an excellent point it he were attempting to cast that spell of destruction over all of Drakan. Could you do it then?"
There was no compassion, no sympathy in her voice. Rynn's jaw hardened and she glared. "I could, but I would not. Never." She made to turn away but Ebontyne grabbed her shoulder.
"You can't possibly think that one boy, no matter how dear to you, is worth sparing for an entire world," the woman snarled. "Especially since he's no longer your brother!"
"As if you care!" Rynn shouted. She tried to pull away but Ebontyne's grip was too strong. Furious, Rynn spat, "All you're concerned about is your own vengeance against Navaros." The gauntleted hand on her shoulder tightened and it was Ebontyne's turn to glare. Rynn drew a calming breath and said, "I will not give up on Delon."
"He must be quite a brother," Ebontyne said after a while. She released Rynn and looked off into the steam. "You went through the past days and trials all for him."
Relieved to see her companion pacified somewhat, Rynn said, "He is. And I'm sorry for what Navaros did to you. Really, I am. Just because I want to save Delon doesn't mean I will back away from facing Navaros. You have my word on that."
Ebontyne's face remained impassive for a moment, then she said, "I will try to trust you on that, Rynn, but please bear with me. The last person I believed and trusted in, Morghus aside, took my soul and sold it to one of the Fallen." Her dark head lowered and she sighed. "Vengeance is all I have left."
"You have Morghus." Rynn paused, wondering if the two would ever consider rejoining the Order of the Flame and if she should ask. Before she decided either way, Morghus' voice rang out above them.
"We've found the horn."
The Horn of Drakaur
Rynn and Ebontyne ran through curtains of hissing steam and large puddles of half-melted snow, following the sound of the dragon's wingbeats to the scorched rubble of what had once been a lofty tower. Large blocks of stone were strewn about in the slush and among them, barely visible, peeked a gleaming length of bone. No one needed to say anything. Humans and dragons set to moving the heavy debris as cautiously as possible, so as not to damage the horn. It had, however, already suffered quite a battering from the original destruction of its tower. Rynn would have expected something crafted from bone to break, not bend, but this was not the case with the dragon bone horn.
Dented, bent in a couple of places, but whole, the horn was twice the length of Arokh's forearm, curved slightly, had a mouthpiece small enough for a human to use and a large mouth that fanned out.
"This came from a dragon?" Rynn asked dubiously. "Which part?"
"The dragon was called Drakaur," Arokh explained. "He was quite large in life, I was told. I think it was one of the leg bones." He shrugged his large wings and flexed talons sore from the unaccustomed labour. "Let's stand it up and wind it, hm?"
So they did. Rynn was doubtful that she could make any instrument that size produce a noise, and quickly discovered she was correct. Red-faced from all the blowing, she eventually stood aside for Ebontyne to have a try. The war mage's luck was better (or lungs stronger), and a deep, handsome tone trumpeted from the horn and shimmered in the air for a long time. Ebontyne, looking satisfied, stepped down from the horn.
"Now we just have to wait for someone to answer."
Two days passed without a sign of the other two Bonded: Nashiva and Star, Kang-shi and Glaive. Rynn passed the time experimenting with her magic, sparring with Ebontyne (who rather reluctantly admitted the young woman was quite skilled), hunting for food and spending quality time with her own dragon. She tried not to let the uneventful passing hours disturb her. After all, if Navaros had her brother, he was sure to be safe. Who would dare attack him?
"Tell me how a bond works, exactly," Rynn asked Arokh on the second night. "I remember you saying when we first bonded that you didn't have a choice..." she trailed off.
Arokh curled beside the large fire he'd lit and looked up at the two moons, thinking. At last, he replied, "Every dragon has a dragonstone - a soul crystal. The human a dragon joins with on his or first Bonding is a choice given solely to the dragon. Only the dragon can create what you would call the altar required for the ritual." His fiery eyes turned down to the snow. "It was up to the dragon to know what the human he or she wanted was like in here," he tapped his chest meaningfully, "because the dragon would be responsible to that human until one of them died."
"A dragon has to do what its rider tells it to do?" Rynn asked.
"Yes. We can argue, but we can not disobey. We can do nothing our rider would not want us to do. That's why it was so important that we chose the right humans, if any at all." Arokh smiled. "For those who were wise in their choices - which was most of us - it was nothing like the servitude you're probably imagining." He chuckled at Rynn's 'you-read-my-mind' expression, then looked sombre. "Heron was my friend. That's why I Bonded with him. I knew and trusted him. I would have done anything for him because I knew he'd never ask of me anything I would fight against."
Rynn was silent for a moment. "When I Bonded with you..?"
Arokh bowed his head slightly. "Any Bonding after the first time is different, as the altar is already in existence. What's more, sleeping as stone, the dragon has no say on who claims his or her dragonstone. All the human has to do-"
"Is put the soul crystal in the altar," Rynn finished softly. She hesitated, then asked in a small voice, "Arokh... am I your friend?"
The red dragon lowered his head to put his eyes on level with her own. "Yes, Rynn. Had I got to know you the way I got to know Heron, I would have asked you to Bond with me."
"That's so sweet," Morghus said, his tone half-mocking as he landed on the other side of the fire and Ebontyne dismounted. "In fact, I think I'm going to be sick."
Arokh winked at Rynn and she turned to face the black dragon and his rider. "How did you two get to be Bonded?"
Morghus' eyes lit up with a kind of wicked humour but Ebontyne rounded on him and ordered, "Not one word." Then, with a warning glance at Rynn went to warm her hands at the fire.
Morghus gave Rynn and Arokh a sidelong glance and murmured through a grin, "Ask me sometime when she's not around." Then, ignoring Ebontyne's glare, stretched out on the ground and yawned. "By the way," he said in an offhand tone, "we saw a pair of dragons heading this way from the west. They'll be here any time."
A laugh escaped Rynn's lips and she jumped up. "Shouldn't we fly out to meet them?"
"Not unless you're planning to fight them," Morghus said with a snort.
"It's courtesy between dragons, Rynn," Arokh explained. "You let the visitors land to talk to you."
She nodded impatiently and spent the next hour watching the sky in silence.
Gathering at the Dragon Hall
A pair of winged shadows passed over the western rim of the valley. Rynn stood up again, straining her eyes to get a good look at them in the moonlight. One appeared to be a coppery-brown colour with paler patterns of scales dappling its flanks. This dragon had long horns streaking back from both brow and jawline. The second dragon was obviously gold. Its scales glittered brightly in the frosty night and its underwings shimmered like rich silks. The two dragons descended towards the large campfire and landed in the snow, their riders staying mounted. The brown dragon's rider, a fair-skinned man with blond hair, was wearing silvery chain mail, leather trousers and boots. He had no cloak, but a magnificent bow made of some unknown material was slung across his shoulders. The gold dragon's rider was also a man, and his skin was very dark beneath the drawn up hood of his blood-red cloak. Rynn couldn't see what else he was wearing, but he carried his weapon in full view - a wooden staff with a wickedly shaped blade on one end. A glaive.
Before anyone could offer greetings, the man with the bow said, "What have you done, Ebontyne, to earn Navaros' hatred so soon after his return?"
"You've seen him already, then?" Ebontyne replied, apparently unsurprised by the question.
"He summoned us as soon as he returned to his fortress in Azaran. He wants both Morghus and Arokh-" here he shot an appraising look at the red dragon, "-killed."
The casual way he said this sent a chill down Rynn's spine.
"That sounds like him," Ebontyne said, her voice still calm. "He's probably upset because I've joined up with Rynn and Arokh here. They're going to help me kill him."
"Interesting," the other rider, the one with the glaive, said in a very deep voice. "I got the impression that you returned him to Drakan in the first place."
"Accidentally. The body he has now belongs to Rynn's brother. We were trying to save him from the void and it seems Navaros possessed him just before we brought him back."
"Ah. And you called us because..?"
"We need your help to destroy him and save the boy."
"Well, here's the thing," the first rider explained. "Navaros has promised us our Jewels of Eternity for serving him your dragons' heads on dinner plates. How do we gain by helping you?"
Ebontyne nodded and responded with, "You get revenge on him for his centuries of deception and the selling of your souls. The jewels no longer exist, Star. Navaros gave them all to the Fallen Angel in exchange for the Words of Power."
"How can you claim to know this?"
"We found the Fallen Angel in the Eastern Wilds," Ebontyne said, her face going hard at the memory. "He told us."
The male riders were silent for a few seconds, looking at each other questioningly. Then the blond one spoke again. "Then I will believe you, Ebontyne. Your word has more value to me than Navaros'." The other murmured his agreement and both dismounted.
Rynn breathed a sigh of relief and exchanged a smile with Arokh. She was obviously going to have to revise her opinions of Dark Unionists. As Ebontyne had said, they weren't all as evil as Navaros.
Ebontyne introduced her and Arokh to the two men, then identified the blond man as Star and the dark man as Glaive. The brown dragon was Nashiva and the gold was Kang-shi. Arokh remembered each of them, and they him, but the humans seemed more interested in Rynn.
"So this is the youngling that defeated Navaros this second time," Star said, smiling down at her, and instead of feeling flattered at the attention (as he was, she admitted privately, quite devastatingly handsome), Rynn felt that chill again. The smile didn't reach his eyes, which were as blue and cold as Ebontyne's. "And Bonded to Arokh?"
"She is," Arokh affirmed before turning to talk with the dragons.
"She looks a bit small to have a chance against anything bigger than an orc," Star went on bluntly, but still smiling.
"Who are you calling small, Star?" Glaive grunted. The dark-skinned rider was a full two feet taller than Star, who didn't actually stand much higher than Rynn. He threw back his hood to reveal deep brown eyes and a bald head, then turned to greet Ebontyne. "Akailu. It's good to see you again, my friend."
Ebontyne's smile was actually warm as she gripped the arm he extended at the wrist. "And you, Darben. What's occupied you since we parted?"
Star distracted Rynn's attention from their conversation by asking her to tell him about herself. This gave her pause, and she looked at him with undisguised scepticism.
"Do you usually come straight out and say what you mean?" she queried.
"Saves time," he answered, shrugging. "I'm impatient and impulsive. Dancing around the issue is tiresome and I'm not the most subtle of people, anyway, so why bother?"
"I see," Rynn murmured, unsure of what else to say.
Smiling again, he said, "Well, I'll tell you about myself, then. If we're all going to be working together, it might be easier for you to understand where we're coming from. No doubt Ebontyne has spoken about herself?"
Star chuckled. "A bit. Sounds like her. Glaive's the same; silent-type. Usually have to wrench his arm to get him to have a conversation with you." He shrugged and folded his arms, glancing up at the sky. "Where to begin..." Another shrug and he looked at Rynn directly, no longer smiling. "I was born in a city that no longer exists and hasn't for longer than I care to remember. I had only three interests in my childhood: archery, hunting, and watching the dragons fly over the mountains. At sixteen, I came here-" he gestured around, "-to the Castle of Seasons. I became an apprentice, hoping to join the Order of the Flame and become a dragon rider.
"During my first years here, I got to know Nashiva." Here he nodded in the direction of the copper-brown dragon. "When I reached twenty years of age, she asked me if I would be willing to Bond with her." He smiled. "It was all I could do to say 'Yes,' without shouting my assent as loudly as I could. So it was done, and we became one of the Bonded and members of the Order.
"There were political debates within the Order at that time, and I hadn't paid them much heed as an apprentice. With my new status came the demand that I took a side, though. I was young, and didn't realise that one should strive to learn all the facts before making a decision. As I said before, I'm impulsive. Some things never change. I didn't like the idea of the Order of the Flame being not protectors of Drakan, but enforcers. I was told that the peace between the cities and villages was not happily accepted by the people because of the overhanging threat of the Bonded destroying those who resisted. I was encouraged to believe that the Order of the Flame took away the freedom of the people to choose.
"Before long, I was attending meetings of the steadily growing Dark Union. Navaros was already in control at this time, so as a symbol of my loyalty I had to use an artefact called a Jewel of Eternity. As Ebontyne probably told you, they grant the user virtual immortality and agelessness so long as the jewel remains intact.
"Nashiva wasn't happy with my decision to join the Dark Union, but I..." Star shook his head, "...I was too sure of myself to listen to her, and she had to abide by my wishes..."
"You joined the Dark Union?" Nashiva whispered, her pale gold eyes widening in disbelief. "It is an organisation founded on over-blown suspicions and the ambitions to seize power!"
Star's smile faded. He'd been certain the dragon would have praised him for his decision, for choosing the right side to fight for. "Why do you say that?"
"That's how it seems to me, from what you've told me of it. I thought you'd have figured it out for yourself by now, but-"
"Be silent!" Star ordered, startling both himself and Nashiva, who stared at him in shock. It was the first time he'd commanded anything of her, least of all in that tone of voice - one that brooked no argument. He took a deep breath then said, "I've always listened to your advice, because I know it's good, but how can you argue against this? The Order of the Flame are enforcers of this supposed peace-"
"Stop it!" Nashiva snarled, her eyes flashing with real anger. "I cannot believe I'm hearing you preach that load of tripe!"
"I happen to believe that 'load of tripe'," Star said, trying to smile for her benefit. She was his friend, after all. He wanted her to side with him on this. To trust in him, as he'd so often trusted in her. "Navaros is-"
"Navaros?" Her expression went blank. "The Bonded of Kaeros? What has he to do with this?"
Star lowered his voice, even though no one was anywhere nearby. "He's the leader of the Dark Union."
"But he used to be the Champion in the High Council! He represented the Honour of the Order for two seasons running!"
"That's why I believe him," Star said eagerly. "Why would anyone who had been on the High Council, why would a former Champion, do this if he didn't believe in it? A lot of other high-ranking Bonded have sided with him, as well. Don't you see? They're going to use the Dark Union to liberate Drakan!"
"Why is it called the Dark Union, Star?" Nashiva asked suddenly. Her draconic voice had lowered, and her eyes almost seemed to burn with intensity. "Can you tell me?"
"That? Navaros said it's only a temporary name while we meet in secret, in the shadows. I've made my vows of loyalty with this thing called a Jewel of Eternity. This is great - let me tell you what it does-"
"What about your vow of loyalty to me and the Order?" Nashiva whispered, a look of hopeless betrayal in her eyes and voice now. "Do the words mean nothing to you, my friend? 'By Fire and by Blood I join with thee in the Order of the Flame!'"
"The... Dark Union will become a new Order of the Flame," Star said, with some difficulty. Nashiva gazed at him like he was a stranger to her. "They will make changes to the Order's code... nothing more. Nashiva, I have to attend a training session. Don't tell anyone what we've spoken of... please?" She didn't answer... didn't even look at him when he eventually turned and walked off in the direction of the archery range.
But before he was quite out of range, he thought he heard her murmur, "I have no choice."
"When Navaros and Kaeros returned after their ten year absence," Star said, "the Horn of Drakaur was sounded, summoning all Bonded to the Castle of Seasons. He contacted someone in the Dark Union first, though, and we were ordered away from the castle with our dragons. Not all of the Bonded, humans and dragons alike, could fit into the Hall... but all that did died."
"I know the story," Rynn said softly. "What did you do?"
"When we heard of the slaughter, I wanted out. Nashiva urged me to act on that thought, but I couldn't. I think I was afraid that Navaros would kill me. He could have, since he had my life tied to a jewel." He sighed. "Or so I thought at the time. I told Nashiva about the Jewels and she stopped begging me to return to the Order. She didn't want to become frozen stone... but looking back, we both wish we'd faced death rather than fight for an evil cause.
"We fought for him. And when he was defeated by Heron and Arokh, we spent the next century hiding from the last members of the Order of the Flame. Traitors, in a world we'd helped bring to the brink of obliteration."
But now you know you're free," Rynn said. "Navaros doesn't have your jewel." He nodded, and she continued with, "Forgive me, but I thought... I was under the impression that all Dark Unionists believed completely in what they were doing."
Star shook his head and replied in an adamant voice, "Had I known the whole agenda, as few did, I would never have joined. Had I known Navaros' true plans, I would have tried to kill him myself." He sighed, smiling a little. "So, Rynn. What's your life story?"
Dragons Before Dawn
They spent the rest of the night at the ruins of the castle, but Glaive cautioned Rynn and Ebontyne that Navaros knew the Horn of Drakaur had been sounded, and thus he'd know where they currently were. It would be wise to relocate as quickly as possible.
It turned out they should have moved earlier than that, as they were attacked just before dawn. Through the morning fall of snow came no less than ten ebon dragons, their high-pitched screams ripping over the ruins and icy breath blasting large chunks of ice into the already frozen ground.
"Fly!" Rynn shouted to Arokh as she grabbed magic arrows from her quiver and nocked one to her bowstring. "We'll attack them from the ground!"
Arokh nodded and leaped into the sky, roaring his defiance at the attackers. Morghus, Nashiva and Kang-shi followed his lead and split up, drawing the fire of the ebon dragons in different directions.
"Spread out," Star shouted, drawing his own bow. "If we stand together, one lucky breath of ice will take us all out at the same time!" He ran through the snow for a broken section of wall and climbed atop it, already looking for a likely target through the swirling sleet.
The other humans divided and Rynn, now by the scanty cover of half a portcullis, aimed up at one of the black dragons, made sure it had the pointed, upturned ears of its breed and wasn't Morghus, then fired, instantly drawing another arrow and pulling back her bowstring for another shot then loosing again. The two glittering shafts sliced upwards through the snow leaving a trail of blue and gold light it their wake and a faint shing sound. The ebon dragon, too concerned with trying to freeze Nashiva, barely saw them coming. It swerved, plunging away, but the magic arrows followed its evasion and streaked after it. It was faster, and the two arrows' magic wore off before they could strike. They flew on in a slight downward curve toward the ground.
The ebon dragon, however, and another whom Ebontyne had shot at and also missed, headed for the humans on the ground with screams of rage.
Rynn scrambled away to look for a safer place to shoot and almost got squashed by the half-roasted carcass of an ebon dragon that had been falling from the sky. She crouched near it and fired at the dragon tearing towards her. It ducked its head and the arrow flew over it. It opened its jaws, spread its foreclaws wide to rip her head off, breathed ice. Rynn fled, jumping to one side and vaulting over a segment of wall half her height. She crouched behind it and felt it wobble as ice struck it and sent the topmost bricks flying.
"Take this!" Rynn shouted, casting her bow aside and sending a magical stream of flames into the winged reptile's face.
It shrieked in pain and retaliated with another breath of ice, which struck Rynn in the chest and threw her to the ground, a thick mass of frozen water covering her middle and pinioning her. Dazed and winded, Rynn choked to catch her breath and could only watch as the ebon dragon shook its burnt head wildly, hovering almost directly above her and so close that the wind from its wings brushed her cheeks.
"Arokh," Rynn croaked, and a second later the red dragon dropped from above and thrust the ebon aside, his fore- and hindclaws digging into its back and shoulders, his sharp teeth closing around its neck just below the head. The ebon was slammed to the ground under Arokh's weight and both dragons thrashed in the snow as they fought to the ebon's inevitable death.
Rynn tried to summon Fire, failed, angrily tried again and called up a blaze strong enough to melt through the ice trapping her. She got up, shivering uncontrollably, and retrieved her bow as Arokh tore himself free from the ebon dragon's limp left wing. "Thanks," she said.
He glanced up at the sound of her voice then replied, "Rynn, get out of the way!"
Rynn threw herself into the snow again as her Bonded breathed fire over her head. She rolled over to see another ebon descending on her, one wing trailing streamers of Arokh's flame. With hardly a thought, she added her own fireballs to the red dragon's barrage and directed them at the ebon's chest. It shrieked at the onslaught and faltered, then flew head-first into the ground and lay still.
"More are coming!" Kang-shi trumpeted from above. She wheeled over the ruins, looking for Glaive and again shouted, "More dragons come from the west!"
"Let's get out of here," Arokh roared, and Rynn hastened to climb astride his back. "Are you unwounded, Rynn?"
"I'm fine," she replied. "A few bruises is all. Yourself?"
"The same." He sounded almost fiercely proud, as though happy to be in the air and fighting again. Beating his wings, he lifted off and waited for the other Bonded to rise.
Then several winged shapes swept in from the north.
"The north!" Arokh shouted urgently. "They come from the north as well!"
Morghus, Nashiva and Kang-shi rose with their riders and Arokh flew over to them at Rynn's directions.
"By the time we kill them the ones from the west will be here," Ebontyne shouted over the noise of the dragons' wings.
"Split up and draw them different ways?" Star suggested.
"I think that's the best," Rynn agreed, eyeing the approaching foes carefully. "Meet at the Belltower in the Islands. Can everyone get there?"
They nodded and immediately veered off.
"We're going west," Arokh said to Rynn. "Hang on!" And he flew straight for the cloud of dragons coming their way from that direction...
"How are you planning to go about this?" Rynn asked in a slightly hoarse voice, for Arokh was speeding directly for the flight of dragons coming in from the west with no sign that he would slow or veer off. They were getting close enough for the young warrior to count.
"Trust me," her Bonded roared, a hint of anticipation in his voice. "Just hold on. Tight."
Rynn didn't need to be told twice. She flattened herself to Arokh's broad neck and gripped it tight, feeling his muscles tense as he flew even faster. Snow flashed past them in a silver blur, stinging Rynn's face and vanishing in puffs of steam where it hit Arokh's scales.
The flight of dragons got closer...
Arokh thrust his head forward and let loose a massive ball of flickering lightning, which streaked ahead into the middle of the flight and exploded with a deafening peal of thunder. Forks of white electricity flashed in every direction and the dragons shrieked in surprise, pain and fury, scattering.
Arokh tucked his wings close to his body and flew straight through the confusion.
He was several wingbeats away before the ebon dragons recovered and, as one, started to give chase.
"Now what?" Rynn shouted, looking over her shoulder at the angry beasts and wincing as an icy blast exhaled by one of them barely missed Arokh's left flank.
"Our aim was to lead them away, remember?" Arokh replied through gritted fangs, still flying hard. "Now we keep going until we lose them in the mountains."
"Do you think you can outfly them?"
"We'll find out, won't we?"
Swiftly, Rynn sat up and spun herself around so she was looking back over Arokh's tail. Unshouldering her bow and gripping her Bonded firmly with her legs to keep her balance, she started firing arrows. It was difficult to aim while flying and with the wind interfering, but she managed to fell one dragon and injure two more badly enough that they dropped behind... still, there were too many left over. Arms aching, she pulled the bowsting back again and again. Her accuracy increased, but the hope that sparked in her quickly went out when she realised it was because the ebon dragons were closer.
They were gaining.
Arokh didn't need to be told. "Hang on!" he roared, and, when Rynn had turned to face forward again, flew straight for the ground.
The crags reeled below them, their stoney formations standing out sharply against the white snow. Arokh swooped around a bulky spire and dropped into a ravine almost too narrow for his great wingspan. Blasts of ice smashed into the rocks on either side of them and he descended even further, veering to his right when the ravine curved around then shooting under a stalactited arch...
...slamming right into an ebon dragon hovering on the other side.
Arokh lashed out with tooth and talon, snarling as the other dragon's claws scored his chest. His own hindclaws tore at the ebon's stomach and flames flew from his jaws into its face.
"Another one's coming!" Rynn yelled, looking up as a shadow fell over them.
Not one... five.
With a battle-shriek, Arokh wrenched himself away and sped further into the icy crags, sent a blast of searing magma over his shoulder as a passing shot. He kept low to the ground, taking many turns in the maze-like ravines and even doubling back a couple of times, but there were too many to hide from. If a group was evaded, a lone scout would see them and sound the alarm to alert the others.
"Damn them," Arokh snarled. "I can't keep this speed up much longer, Rynn." He swerved to avoid more ice blasts and ducked down another ravine... then gasped. "Look!"
At the end of this chasm was one of the circular portals the orcs and wartoks used to seal off passages through the mountains... and it was open.
"If there's a mechanism on the other side we'll be able to close it," Rynn said almost breathlessly. "As soon as we're through drop me off then try to fire back through it to keep the ebons away."
Arokh nodded and dropped lower, calculating his angle carefully. The last thing they needed was to crash. Ice struck the cliff the portal was set into. Rynn felt a chill as one flew over her head. Arokh was taking a great risk flying straight... he presented a much easier target.
The wide circle of the portal drew nearer and Arokh glided smoothly through, quickly looking around to make sure no enemies were on this side and then to find a landing place. Rynn slipped from his back almost before the red dragon touched the ground and was immediately running to the large lever she'd spied near an apparently abandonned outpost. Arokh lifted up again and spun to face the portal, magma shooting from his maw.
Rynn reached the lever and pulled.
"It's stuck!" she yelled, and, hearing the hysteria in her voice, quickly calmed herself to think. It was a very big metal lever, probably meant to be used by a wartok, and could be stiff because of the snow. Fire flowed from her hands and melted the ice around the gears, charring the wood casing. With all her strength, she wrapped arms and legs around the now-hot metal and let her weight drag the lever down.
"AAAAAHHHHH!" Arokh roared, throwing himself aside as two ebons tried to fly through the portal at the same time.
The lever clicked.
With a loud humming sound, a green field sprang up to seal off the circular portal. Two heads and necks, suddenly separated from winged bodies, landed heavily in the blood-spotted snow.
Arokh landed near Rynn and gasped for breath. "Good work."
Rynn struggled to calm her own racing heart and could only say, "You too."
Then they passed out.
Rynn returned to consciousness with a loud buzzing sound in her ears. She groaned, not even bothering to try and roll over. She felt so warm... all her limbs numb and drowsey... just wanted to rest a little longer...
There was the loud sound of Arokh breathing fire, some hissing and more of that irritating buzzing.
Rynn tried to ignore it and fall back into that pleasant dark unconsciousness.
"No you don't," Arokh rumbled, and a foreclaw wrapped around her midsection to lift her up. She almost gasped with the heat of it, even through her armour, and dimly realised it felt so because she'd been lying in the chill snow. She might not have woken up again had Arokh not moved her.
"Thanks," she managed, lips numb and sore. She settled on his back and shivered convulsively. Removing her gloves, she touched her face and flinched at the coldness of it.
"Lie close to my scales. They should warm you up," Arokh instructed, and she was only too happy to comply. The red dragon looked at the portal. "Looks like the ebon dragons gave up. I hope they don't find another way through."
"Navaros sent them?" Rynn suggested, pressing her forehead to his muscled shoulder.
"One would assume. Either they were making sure Star, Nashiva, Glaive and Kang-shi killed us, or they were making sure all of us were killed. I tend to think the latter more probable." He started walking down the snow-filled ravine, looking around. "I think I recognise where we are. The Islands aren't too far."
Rynn made the effort to wrap her arms around his neck, and stayed lying down. "Let's go," she mumbled.
Arokh's wings swept down and they were aloft. After a minute or so of flying, Rynn felt warm and awake enough to sit up and take notice of their passage. They flew through the large valley where Arokh had battled and defeated the ice-dragon Werokh, then through an open portal to the sun-touched Islands.
"No snow," Rynn sighed. "Thank goodness."
Tilting his flight slightly, Arokh glided over the glittering sea and small islets, aiming for the northern coast and the bay that would lead to the Belltower. Rynn found herself looking more to the west. Something was itching at her mind.
"Arokh," she said after a little while. "Remember Alwarren?"
She frowned slightly, then nodded to herself. "I think I have an idea of how to stop Navaros from casting that spell. Or at least, of trapping him."
She felt his startlement rip through his body. "The Great Spell of Protection?" he exclaimed. "You can't be serious!"
"For one thing, you don't know how."
"Do you?" she asked.
"Secondly," he went on, ignoring her query, "casting it while you're so inexperienced with magic will put you at deadly risk!"
"Arokh," she said firmly, "do you know how to cast the Great Spell of Protection?"
"Yes," he admitted reluctantly. "I can't cast it, though. No dragon can."
"Would it stop Navaros?"
"If it works, that spell will trap anything. Nothing, physical or otherwise, can pass through the field it generates."
Rynn allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction and fell silent. Arokh said nothing more until they reached the Belltower, where the other three Bonded were waiting.
"What kept you?" Morghus asked.
"Some fifty or so ebon dragons," Arokh replied with a shrug. "Took a while to shake them off."
"So what's the plan?" Star asked.
"Ebontyne said that one of you knew the magicks of Fire, Water, Earth and Air," Rynn said.
"That would be me," Glaive said, coming to stand by Kang-shi's shoulder.
"Rimril said that I have the potential to be an Archmage. If you teach me the four cycles of elemental magic, then I can explore the powers of the Rift. I can hopefully use that magic to save my brother."
"When Delon is safe, then we find a way to destroy Navaros for good."
Glaive raised a dark brow at Star, then looked at Rynn again. "And how do we plan to evade his forces until then? Unless you've forgotten, there's a hive of succubi in these islands and not a few dragons."
"Then I guess you teach me quickly."
"This won't work," Kang-shi growled.
"Do you have a better idea?" Ebontyne asked coolly.
"Yes," Kang-shi replied, her tone equally cold. "The six of us make a frontal assault on Navaros' fortress and grind him to the dirt. Archmage and stolen dragon-soul he may be, but he is far from being immortal or invincible."
"You can't kill him without Runeblade, and you won't get my help unless I get yours," Rynn stated.
Kang-shi swivelled her golden head to face Rynn and bared her fangs. "We just need Runeblade. We don't need you. Why are we wasting all this time to save one human male?"
Glaive laid a mailed hand on her shoulder and the dragon subsided. "The boy is kin to her, Kang-shi." He paused, as though considering, then inclined his head to Rynn. "You have my help."
"Ours as well," Star said, and Nashiva nodded.
Rynn smiled in relief and looked at Glaive. "Let's get started, then."
The Fourth Cycle
Air, Rynn discovered, was the most difficult to manipulate of the four elemental magicks. It required unwavering concentration, clear thought and steady breathing. Glaive said that this made it a magic rarely used during battles, as very, very few people could remain calm and collected in such a situation. When Rynn asked how Air could be used offensively, Glaive answered that a skilled mage could suck the air from an enemy's lungs, suffocating them, or cause stones to rise and hurl themselves at targets, or manipulate air currents so that a loosed arrow would fly with perfect accuracy. Air could also be fashioned into invisible armour no weapon could pierce if the mage could but stand unflinching and confident under any onslaught.
"All right, Ebontyne taught you the other three Cycles," Glaive said, "so let's see how good you are with them. Conjur me some Fire."
Eager to display her skill, Rynn summoned a large ball of golden flames (about the size of her head) between her hands.
"Good. Let's see if you can make it smaller. Say, the size of a candle's flame."
Rynn tried to reduce the size of her fireball, remembering that emotions controlled this aspect. She forced herself to think of a mildly funny joke she'd heard once and the flame immediately dwindled to a spark. She thought of a funnier joke, and the spark became a dancing flame. Glaive nodded his approval and Rynn quickly doused her Fire before her pride could make it flare up.
Once Rynn had made grass grow, rocks split, whirlpools form, water freeze, then levitated herself on a pillow of Air, Glaive moved her on to combining the elements. He taught her how to create a bubble of air underwater which she could use to breathe while swimming. He showed her how to melt rocks to lava, and how she could walk across it unharmed. He taught her the basics of healing, then reversed the method and displayed how easily she could kill.
At the end of the day, although not yet adept in the four Cycles of magic, Rynn was competent.
"We can keep training as long as you wish," Glaive said, "but you don't need to know everything about these four elements to get on to the fifth. You just need to know how they work, which you now do."
"Can you teach me anything about Rift magic?" Rynn asked.
"I never learned it," Glaive admitted. "I never thought I'd need it, and didn't see myself as an Archmage. In short, Rynn, I have no idea how to manipulate ether. You're going to have to figure that one out on your own."
"But that could take forever!"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. The first Archmagi had no one to teach them."
The sun had sunk behind the high mountains to the west and the ever-lengthening shadows threw the Belltower and its surrounding grounds into cool darkness. Rynn walked up the grassy slope from the bay to the tower, glancing up once as a flock of twittering birds flew across the sapphire blue sky, and sat down with her back to one of the stone walls.
"You've had more than enough mental exercise for one day," Ebontyne said from the huge gateway of the tower. The black-armoured woman stepped outside, eyes intent on the cloth she was running up the blade of her midnight blade. "Do much more thinking and your head might explode. Figuratively speaking."
"Oh... good." Rynn closed her eyes with a sigh and rubbed her temples. "For a moment I thought you were serious. There's a lot about all this magic stuff I don't understand."
"If exploding heads was a factor, Navaros would have detonated his ages ago." Ebontyne leaned back against the wall. "What about a spot of sword-fighting?"
Rynn squinted at her, then at the sword. "What does that thing do, anyway?"
"A shadowshiv? Another weapon from the Eastern Wilds. There's a canyon over there were darkness is like flesh. Real, touchable, as capable of killing things as you or I are. I cut a piece of the shadows from that place and had it shaped into this form."
"But what does it do?"
"Among other things, this. Hold still." Ebontyne called forth a small gout of Fire and lifted her sword in front of it so that its shadow fell across Rynn's face.
And in that shadow of darkness itself, Rynn suddenly felt a deep fear. She felt herself backing away, as though she was seeking to bury herself in the side of the tower to escape, but she couldn't look away. It would be idiocy to take her eyes away from what she feared most in all the world...
"Rynnnnnnn!" Delon shrieked as he plummetted into the depths of the Void...
"It's good to be back..."
"NO!" Rynn shouted, and blindly threw herself forward. Abruptly, she found herself sprawled face-down on the grassy ground, heart pounding. Ebontyne stood nearby, watching Rynn a little too avidly.
"Everyone's afraid of the dark," the woman warrior said softly.
Rynn was too shaken to sleep. When the moons had risen and the starlight shone on the rippling water, she left her blankets in the Belltower and went outside. The cold night wind hit her immediately and she shivered as she belted Runeblade over her shoulder.
"The succubi are abroad tonight," a dragon's voice rumbled beside the gate, and Rynn jumped. It was Kang-shi. The female dragon's golden scales glittered silver in the moons' light and her emerald eyes regarded Rynn gravely. "I heard them flying."
"Arokh and I can handle a few succubi."
"So I've heard. Where are you going?"
"Alwarren." Rynn looked around for Arokh.
"He's up there," Kang-shi said, lifting her great head to look up at a mountain, "sleeping. I could take you, if you want."
"No offence but, after you threatened me the other day, I don't entirely trust you."
Kang-shi smiled, baring a good number of pointed teeth. "Entirely understandable. If I were you, I wouldn't trust me either." When Rynn stared at her, she continued, "You have an odd assortment of companions, Rynn. Arokh, last dragon of the Order of the Flame. Morghus and Ebontyne, who believed Navaros would free Drakan from the Order's 'enforced peace'. Star, who believed the same and now doesn't. Nashiva, who would have remained in the Order had Star not joined the Dark Union. Then you have Glaive and me."
Rynn let the silence draw out before asking, "And what of you two?"
Again the dragon smiled, and Rynn recognised a dangerous predator when she saw one. One without morals or fear. "We believed in ruling Drakan."
"'Believed'? So you don't any more?" Rynn was glad her voice was holding steady.
"My dear humanling," Kang-shi said, rising to her feet and craning her neck forward so that her eyes were level with Rynn's, "that would be telling." Then she backed up a few paces and leaped into the air. Rynn saw her shadow merge with the greater darkness of a mountain, and a moment later another shadow was descending towards her.
"Good evening," Arokh murmured, landing in front of her and stretching his wings. "Or is it morning? Kang-shi said you were looking for me."
"I don't trust her," Rynn muttered.
"Yes, she said that too," Arokh said and lowered one wing for Rynn to mount. When she was seated, he took to the skies and headed for Alwarren. "What do you want to know about her?"
"Do you trust her?"
"Trust is earned, Rynn, rarely given. No, I don't trust her yet. I don't fully trust the others either, though."
Remembering the look Ebontyne had given her after showing what the shadowshiv could do, Rynn had to agree. "I don't like it. I feel like I always have to be watching my back."
"I wouldn't worry about them at the moment. To me at least, they seem intent on defeating Navaros. We're allies for the time being, and they need our help." He fell silent as the sound of distant laughter reached their ears. "Succubi," he whispered. "Let's keep quiet until we reach Alwarren."
The dead city was as they had left it. The underground river burbled quietly as Arokh coasted over it, and the subterranean plants bathed the caves in a phosphorescent glow. The dragon landed near the entrance to the city and walked in, keeping a sharp lookout for any flame knights or goblins they might have missed on their last visit. A short time later, they reached a crest set into the floor in imitation of the symbol of the Order of the Flame. A Bonded named Tuirii had used or created this crest to cast the Great Spell of Protection.
"How does the spell work, Arokh?" Rynn asked. She dismounted and walked over to the crest, its magic dead since she'd broken the spell to reach the bellhammer.
Arokh let out a deep sigh and sank to his haunches. "Rynn, you must be an Archmage of no small power-"
"I'm working on that. How do you cast the spell?"
Seeing she wouldn't be swayed, he bowed his head slightly. "First you must draw the symbol of the Order where you intend to do the casting. The closer it is to where you want the barrier, the less difficult it will be to complete the spell.
"Second, you must stand in the middle of the crest and summon the powers of all four elemental magicks, all four Cycles at the same time, and hold that force within you while speaking the spell's incantation."
Arokh closed his eyes and spoke slowly, as though reciting words long ago
bound to memory. "'This spell of my casting, I cast for the hope of the
"'This power I summon is in the face of true danger,
"'A decision founded on my own integrity,
"'Until justice can be done and the spell broken.
"'I vow that I have the courage to face death,
"'And that I honour life.
"'In me, my words and my strength, my companions trust.'"
The cavern echoed with his words and Rynn repeated them in her mind, trying to memorise them.
"If you speak that incantation truthfully and do not doubt, the prisms
will form in the crest and you must then summon the powers of the Rift to create
the barrier," Arokh said. "As far as I know, you need only reach out
with your mind and place the barrier, shaping and sizing it as you would a lump
of clay. When you are done, say:
"'By Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Ether, I put this place under my protection.'
"As soon as the prisms are removed from the crest, the barrier will form and nothing will be able to pass through it."
"That's it?" Rynn asked. "I thought it was more dangerous than that."
"Ah," said Arokh, eyes opening and glinting at her. "Now we go into consequences. If your concentration wavers and you lose control of the elemental magicks you've summoned, they will sweep out around you, uncontrollable, and destroy anything they touch. Just look at Alwarren."
"Tuirii levelled the entire city?" Rynn asked, aghast. "I thought she completed the spell!"
"Oh, she did. She just had some trouble doing it. In trying to protect this place, she virtually razed it to the ground, buried it beneath the earth..." He shook his head. "You get the picture?"
Rynn found herself swallowing hard. "What else can go wrong?"
"That's it, but it's enough. Everything else that happens to you is meant to happen. When the Great Spell of Protection is complete and the barrier in place, you will feel what hits that field as though it has hit you. And so will I."
"Would Tuirii have felt pain... as a soul shadow?"
"I don't know." Arokh stopped talking and looked at his Bonded, evidently waiting to see if she still wanted to cast the spell.
Rynn, not entirely sure herself, decided not to enlighten him either way. "Let's get back to the Belltower." She mounted, and Arokh flew her up to the cave entrance that led back out into the fresh air of the islands. "Thanks... for telling me about the spell."
Arokh spread his wings and soared into the open skies once more, the light of the moons casting the dragon's fleet shadow over the waters.
Of Fishes and Fragrances
"There is a certain art to it," Morghus was telling Arokh the following morning. The black dragon returned his attention to the bay and squinted his flaming eyes. "You have to calculate the depth just so."
"Indeed," Arokh said with a yawn.
Morghus sniffed. "You can go spend an hour finding and chasing breakfast. I was just offering an alternative." So saying, he launched himself high into the air, did a sharp twist and dove down, plunging headfirst and jaws agape into the water with a great splash. Arokh watched with a kind of polite interest as his brother emerged, waddled to the shore and shook head and wings dry. Morghus then bowed his neck and bared his teeth, between which a good deal of sea-water drained out. Then he levelled his head again and breathed a short but extremely hot burst of fire that went no further than his own nose. Finally, with a grin at Arokh, he tipped back his head and swallowed.
"You've done this before, I take it," Arokh said, sounding amused.
Morghus licked his fangs and grinned again. "Great for a meal on the fly, especially over an ocean. Just glide over the water and lower your head, open your jaws so the water flows through them, and scoop up anything you catch. Don't drink the water, though."
"You've done that before, too?" Arokh was grinning now.
Morghus made a face. "It wasn't my fault. A sea serpent decided to pop its head up, I got startled... and swallowed."
"That must have been exciting."
"I had a hurt stomach the rest of the day."
"What are you two talking about?" Rynn asked, emerging from the tower with a yawn.
"Fishing," Arokh replied.
Morghus brightened. "Would you like some deep-fried fish for breakfast, Rynn? I can go catch some more."
"Would I be eating these fish after they'd been in your mouth?" Rynn asked.
"Uh, well, yes." The black dragon shook his head. "Humans. Dragons share kills all the time. I once saw two human children fighting over this piece of food. One of them licks the food, then the other one gives up!" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Giving up after one lick? What's the harm with a bit of spittle?"
Rynn stretched and felt her joints creak. She took a deep breath, and suddenly noticed she didn't smell too good. "I think I need a bath. There isn't any fresh water around here, is there?"
"You can use magic to make water fresh, Rynn," Arokh reminded her.
"Oh. Right. What about soap?"
"What's soap made out of?" Arokh asked Morghus.
The black dragon shrugged. "Something earthy? Or is it oily? Can't you just use a sea-sponge, or something?"
"Pumice is good for exfoliation," Arokh suggested.
"Pumice?" Rynn exclaimed. "I'm not going to find any pumice around here! I just want soap."
"Don't ask us, then," Morghus said. "Soap doesn't really do much for dragon-hide, except give it a nice herbal aroma." He let out a sound as if he'd just had a revelation. "Herbs! Don't forget to give your magic soap a nice smell, Rynn."
Rynn stared at him, then sighed. "Arokh, you're the one who has to carry me. What should-"
"Lavender," Arokh said promptly.
"Lavender," Rynn repeated flatly. "Right. Was there anything else?"
"Lavender?" Morghus said, raising an eye-ridge at his brother.
"What's wrong with lavender?" Arokh asked defensively.
"Nothing at all."
Arokh gave him a suspicious look. "I think I'll find myself some breakfast, now."
"Preferably something bigger."
"You must be joking."
"Now, Arokh, whale meat is very good for you. As an added bonus, whales can actually put up a fight when you try to catch them."
Arokh gazed at him steadily for a while, then rolled his eyes. "Oh very well..."
"Have fun," Rynn said and the two dragons took flight immediately. As she walked down to the bay, she shook her head and muttered, "That must have been one of the most pointless conversations I've even heard."
Rynn returned to the belltower feeling refreshed. As she walked over to the cooking fire, she squeezed water out of her hair and wondered if there would be a brush or comb handy.
Nashiva and Kang-shi lounged on the sun-warmed grass while Ebontyne, Star and Glaive sat eating breakfast.
"...wondering what our next course of action should be," Glaive was saying between mouthfuls. He nodded at Rynn as she sat down. "I have little doubt that had Kang-shi, Star, Nashiva and I killed you two and your Bonded, then Navaros would have had us done away with."
Ebontyne said, "That's what I would have assumed."
"But listen," the dark-skinned warrior said, leaning forward and crossing his arms over his knees. "If he thought we were dead, then he'd go ahead with that spell of his."
"I thought we didn't want him to cast that," Star pointed out.
Glaive shook his head. "We don't, but we'll have plenty of time before he finishes it. And during the casting, he'll be vulnerable."
Ebontyne looked at Rynn, who had sat down and taken a bowl of porridge. "Vulnerable to what?" she asked carefully.
"I have an idea," Rynn said, pausing with the spoon halfway to her mouth. She put it down, taking a deep breath as the others looked at her. "When he's casting his spell, I can cast the Great Spell of Protection. That would trap him and-"
"-protect everyone from his spell," Glaive said, eyes widening. Then he frowned. "But the risks... and you're not even a properly trained magi."
"I'll be ready. If I pulled it off, it'd work, right?"
"Until how long?" Ebontyne asked. "We can't keep Navaros trapped forever. You do want your brother back, don't you?"
"I'm thinking that through," Rynn said.
"What if the Protection spell were cast, but not activated until you and Arokh were within its boundaries?" Star suggested. "Don't the crystals have to be removed from the symbol before the field can go up?"
Glaive raised a brow at him and nodded. "That's true. But it would mean Rynn and Arokh - or anyone else who went inside the boundary - would be at the mercy of Navaros."
"We don't want to kill him," Star said, and Rynn nodded. "But... what if we could exorcise his soul from Delon's body?"
"Not with Runeblade," Rynn objected.
"No," Star said softly. "What about a Jewel of Eternity?"
"No," Glaive said, shaking his head. "It wouldn't work. Navaros' essence is part dragon because of Kaeros. We don't know that a Jewel would have the capacity to hold a draconic soul."
"We don't know," Star repeated, smiling. "So there's a chance it'll work."
"One problem," Ebontyne said. "Do we know where to find a Jewel?"
Glaive said, "The Wasteland in the Eastern Wilds. The Fang Crags hold a stash of them in their caves."
"How do they work?" Rynn asked. "I mean, if we got one, how would we get Navaros to use it?"
"Easy," Ebontyne told her. "All he has to do is hold it fully enclosed in one hand. He doesn't have to say anything - just hold it like that for a few seconds."
The four humans sat quiet for a moment, eating and thinking about this barely formed plan.
"It could work," Star said.
"Could," Glaive grunted. "But there's another problem. How will we make Navaros believe we're all dead?"
"We need a someone to tell a convincing lie," Ebontyne murmured, eyes narrowing in thought.
"Succubi?" Rynn suggested. "You think we could take on the Queen and get her to give Navaros a bogus report?"
"I think we could," Star agreed.
"Two of us should go there, then," Glaive said, "and the other two get a Jewel. If Navaros falls for it, he'll probably want to get that spell started as soon as possible. We'll have to be ready." He looked at the two women. "Rynn would be known as a threat in the hive, but Star and I are known to still serve Navaros. I think we two should go. We might be able to walk straight in without a fight."
Ebontyne nodded. "Agreed."
"Looks like we have a plan," Star said.
Rynn put down her bowl and tied her hair back, trying to hide her shaking hands. She had about four days to become a good enough archmage to be able to cast the Great Spell of Protection without frying everyone.
The Fang Crags
Rynn backed away, teeth bared in a snarl as she was forced closer to the stone wall of the cave. The darkness pressed in around her and there was barely any light, save from the several glowing red eyes of the quicklings.
A small, shadowy form darted in, jaws snapping and razor claws whipping out. Rynn threw herself evey further back, slashing with Runeblade. She felt it nick something and there was a squeal of fury.
Three more quicklings leaped in, their movements so fast that they were dark blurs in the greater blackness of the cave.
Rynn thrust her hand out and flames blossomed from her fingertips in a golden blaze.
Shrill squeaks of pain accompanied the roar of the fire. Rynn let the spell fade and jumped forward with Runeblade tearing glittering blue paths through the dark air, aiming at shapes only half-seen. The weapon connected with something and made a satisfying crunch. She whirled it back again, hitting another foe.
A scraping, skittering noise heralded the flight of the rest.
Rynn spent a minute gasping for breath, then called up another gout of fire. The flames danced over the earthen floor and grey-brown stone of the cave walls. The ceiling was plunged into shadows high above. She thought she could see eyes up there, reflecting the firelight as they watched her.
Keeping Runeblade in her right hand and the fire hovering above her left, she hurried down the passage the quicklings had been clustered around.
There was a chest.
She glanced around quickly for sight of any more enemies, but saw nothing. This passage was the only way into the cavern, too, and its ceiling was low enough to see clearly. She walked forward and prodded the lid of the chest with Runeblade. Putting the sword down, she tried opening the chest, and found it unlocked. The brass hinges creaked slightly in protest. The inside of the chest was layered with a soft black material, and nestled at the very bottom was a small cluster of luminous jewels.
Rynn swivelled the chest around so she could examine the chest's contents but be facing the passage. Then she carefully reached in and pulled out one of the gems, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. It was about the size of her little fingernail, a pale green colour and as transparent as glass. She sniffed it, half expecting that it was grimstone, but there was no odour.
She allowed herself a grim smile.
Pulling a leather pouch from her belt, she dropped the jewel into it and scooped up a few more, just in case. Standing, she frowned slightly with concentration and used Air to close the chest. It didn't hurt to keep in practise.
Tying the pouch to her belt as securely as she could, she drew Runeblade and left the small cave. A thought caused the magical fire to flare higher and brighter. She could hear the quicklings skittering around at the edge of the light.
So they were fearful of the light, were they? Good.
Ignoring them she walked back through the caverns, retracing her steps to the entrance of this underground warren. Arokh and Morghus would be waiting. When Ebontyne returned, unless she was already waiting, they'd fly straight to Mount Tibor and rejoin with the other Bonded.
And prepare for the beginning of the end.
Perfect... simply perfect.
Rynn glanced down the left hand tunnel, then the right. She didn't remember a fork. But this had to be the right way... she couldn't be lost.
She turned suddenly and sent a blast of fire down the passage she'd just come through. She caught a glimpse of black shapes leaping swiftly aside, and heard shrill, derisive laughter. The creatures knew, she realised with a sinking feeling. They knew she'd lost her way. All they had to do was dog her trail until she left her guard down or gave up and...
Rynn suppressed a gasp of relief and blinked at the glitter of light approaching around a bend in the right-hand branch. It was Ebontyne, her fire magic bobbing beside her helmeted head.
Surprisingly, the War Mage looked relieved.
"I thought I'd gotten lost," Ebontyne admitted reluctantly, and her expression turned to one of self-disgust. "I could have sworn I'd come in this way."
Since she could afford to be honest, Rynn decided she could as well. "You're not the only one."
"That's something, I guess. It was tough going for me before I decided to use magic to defend myself. The creatures down here seem to be resistance to my sword's power."
"Like that black unicorn?"
"Exactly." Ebontyne looked back over her shoulder, down Rynn's tunnel, then at the third branch, which had a distinct downward slope. "I guess we go that way. I'll watch our backs."
They started walking, Rynn feeling much better with some human company. The darkness was so absolute outside the circle of firelight, save for the glittering of eyes, and the ceaseless sounds of the quicklings' chattering and the scratchy sounds when they darted across the ground had started to get her nervous. This place reminded her a little of a spider cave she'd cleared a while back... only worse.
Here you couldn't see the webs.
"What the..!" Rynn stopped abruptly, wiping something from her face. It was hair-thin and clingy, sticking to her hand as she tried to shake it off.
Ebontyne drew in a sharp breath. "Rynn... does it look like the walls are... moving?"
Rynn looked quickly at the tunnel wall on her left. It wasn't going anywhere. But... it did look like it was shifting... like its colours were warping within the boundaries of the stone. No... she peered closer. Colours? The wall was black, with only varying shades of dark grey and even deep violet. What was that hazy stuff drifting cloud-like out of the stone?
"Shiv'arass Ravine," Ebontyne whispered, and when Rynn looked at her there was an expression of open horror on her face. "We have to go back. Now."
Rynn didn't have to be told twice. They spun to dash back up the passage... which wasn't there any more. Only a wall of that shifting darkness.
"Ebontyne," Rynn said slowly, "this isn't the place where you got the material for your shadowshiv sword, is it?"
Ebontyne nodded, her face even paler than usual.
"What's going to happen?" Rynn demanded. "What's down here and how do we fight it?"
"Darkness is down here," Ebontyne replied softly. "And you have no more hope in fighting it than you have of fighting water as you drown."
"But you've been down here before?"
"Only the edges." She shivered. "I had no idea we were this close. Or that the darkness had spread this far."
"Ebontyne, focus," Rynn said, her commanding tone deliberate. The other woman's eyes hardened at the words, and some of the steel returned to her voice as she said, "What do you want to do?"
"Get through," Rynn answered firmly. "Any ideas how we can do that?"
"Only one. Walk straight in with your head high, and no fear."
"That's what this place is. That's what this is," Ebontyne said, drawing the shadowshiv. "The stuff of nightmares. Your fears. It gets into your mind... and you lose control."
Remembering her encounter with Ebontyne's sword, Rynn didn't doubt it.
"It's worse than that," Ebontyne rasped, once again seeming to read her mind. "My sword is a mere shadow compared to this blackness. What you saw that day by the shadowshiv's blade is nothing, literally. A vision. Down here where we're surrounded by it's very substance, what you feel is real, Rynn. You will live out your fears. And if you're not strong enough, your fears will eat you alive."
"There must be more to it," Rynn objected, chilled to the bone and already feeling very much afraid. "I mean, that unicorn was afraid of me, but he wasn't affected by your sword!"
"Vakailan is a creature of this place. He's a spawn of darkness, fear and chaos. Fighting him with a shadowshiv would be like fighting fire with fire. You can't. It must be the same for the other creatures down here." She fell silent.
Rynn stared into the vast darkness before her, the black walls of the passage growing more indistinct and less solid by the minute. The two magical fires were dwindling, too, as though they were being choked. Rynn felt a panicky need to laugh at the notion of darkness overpowering light, and opened her mouth, taking in a ragged gulp of air.
"I don't even know if there is a way out," Ebontyne said, almost too softly to be heard.
Rynn offered her hand and Ebontyne gripped it tightly. As a passing thought, she was glad she was wearing gauntlets. Her sweaty palms would have given away her terror in a second.
The darkness pressed around them, a hollow, whispering sound filling the air.
"Don't make that one of your fears, whatever you do," Rynn replied faintly, "or, as you said, it'll be real."
With a soft hiss, the lights went out.
...and in the sudden silence, Rynn thought she heard her brother's cry of her name...
The Deeper Darkness
"What do you fear?"
The words were there and gone so quickly Rynn couldn't decide if she'd actually heard them. Her attention was suddenly snared by the chill, groping feeling inside her own skull. A sweat broke out across her skin and she started to shake violently. Her knees felt too weak to hold her upright.
"But of course... you fear what will be found."
Rynn forced her dry throat to swallow and stubbornly locked her legs. Although her heart was hammering, she followed Ebontyne's advice of holding her head up and stared grimly into the darkness. She tightened her grip reassuringly on the hand grasping hers.
It's funny that when someone tells you not to think of something, you almost always do. The simplest way to ignore something is not to draw attention to it in the first place. In not trying to think of her fears, Rynn felt each and every one bubble up in her thoughts, happily offering themselves to be viewed and made flesh.
The cold feeling crept around inside her mind like a freakish hand.
Rynn almost jumped. She had felt breath brush against her face.
Or maybe it was just the darkness... solid darkness.
Then her own voice whispered... "You fear yourself..."
The darkness shifted...
Delon's form staggered back on the rocky platform, his hands clutching his head as Runeblade's magic exorcised Navaros from his mind.
Rynn, breathing heavily and clutching Runeblade in both hands, abruptly noticed the hole in the platform... and ran forward... screaming... "DELON!"
Her brother stepped off the brink and fell, his fingers almost brushing his sister's gauntleted hand as she made a last desperate grab.
"I'm sorry," Rynn choked, crouching on the edge of oblivion. "I'm so sorry..."
"...you fear you're not enough..."
The darkness shifted...
"We're ready," Star said. He finished tracing the last line of the Order's symbol on the ground with his dagger. Sheathing it, he backed away and drew his bow. "It's up to you now, Rynn."
"Good luck," Glaive and Ebontyne said.
The four dragons said nothing, each standing in a circle around the pattern and facing outwards, watching for any enemies that might sight what they were doing and come running. Only Arokh glanced back to give his Bonded an encouraging wink.
Looming above them with dark clouds roiling about its heights was Mount Tibor.
Rynn stepped forward to stand in the center of the pattern, but sudden fear grasped her. What if she did this wrong? She'd kill all her friends. "You shouldn't be so close," she cautioned.
"We trust in you," Ebontyne said. "It's a part of the spell, remember? You need our trust."
"You need to believe in my intentions, not in my abilities," Rynn pointed out. "What if-"
"Rynn, I believe you can do it. Don't fear." Ebontyne drew her black sword with a smile and turned to stand guard with the others.
A gush of wind swept across them all, as cold as the depths of winter. Distant thunder rumbled from the storm above the mountain, and the clouds there suddenly parted in a wide, black circle, lightning dancing around the circumference.
"Hurry," Glaive said softly.
Rynn felt a moment of panic. She wasn't ready! On top of that, some part of her mind was screaming that this wasn't even happening! She was totally confused and frozen... knowing that what she was about to do would end it all.
But not for Navaros.
"Now!" Glaive snapped, and Rynn drew a sharp breath, calling upon all of the elemental magics at the same time... Fire flashed in her mind, fuelled by her high-running emotions... Earth rumbled, as firm as the ground she stood on... Air sang, its voice shrill with her unsteady breathing... Water glistened, drawn from the newly falling rain...
Rynn held all four forces within herself and felt them grow, boiling up inside like a potion going beserk.
"This spell of my casting, I cast for the hope of the future," she gasped out, the first phrase of the ritual.
She got no further.
The spell detonated with a ghastly roar and the pent-up force of the four elements exploded outwards in a tidal-wave of death. Rynn caught a glimpse of faces turned to her in horrified disbelief before they were torn away and the screams began...
...her own among them...
"...you fear failure..."
The darkness shifted...
"You are all that remains to keep the Flame alive..!"
Rimril's last words flashed through her agonised mind as Delon's face smiled. His foot lashed out and caught her under the chin where she knelt, throwing her back to land face-up on the rocky summit of Mount Tibor.
Chaotic energies filled the void that had torn a hole in the sky above her... Navaros' spell coming at last.
"Watch your world die, girl," Navaros said, and lifted his hands to embrace the emerald-green fire pouring down from the void. It struck him full on, a pillar of green flames from the sky, then flared outwards in every direction like light scattered from a crystal.
One of the beams shot through Rynn and she felt something deep within herself being ripped away...
...somewhere, Arokh was roaring in pain...
"Sssssscream for ussssss, Rynnnnnnn..."
The Last Shadow
Invisible talons tore into her body, already maimed by fears that had come to life. Through the pain of burns, bruises and a horrible empty feeling within that she didn't understand, the cold grip continued to creep through her mind. It was the least painful sensation... but the most noticeable.
Something rock-hard struck her jaw and she was thrown to the ground, gasping, hands clenching into fists. She was dimly aware that she'd dropped Runeblade... that she was weaponless.
Right on cue, the bodiless voice whispered, "You fear death."
"Nooo," Rynn moaned in despair. She'd never feared it before. But here, where it seemed a very real possibility...
...and where fear was reality...
Rynn tried to stand and failed, knocked down by the darkness. "I'm not afraid!" she shouted, her voice cracking.
The shadows laughed.
"You are a liar."
The darkness shifted...
"This isn't happening, this isn't real," Rynn whispered desperately, eyes shut.
"If only it were so," Arokh's voice rumbled from nearby.
"No, you don't understand, it's not real!" Rynn moaned. She folded in on herself, hands clenching around grass that crumbled at her touch. "I'm not afraid!"
There was a moment of quiet.
"I am," Arokh said softly.
Rynn looked to the red dragon quickly, eyes opening. He was lying stretched out on the ground before her, on the wind-swept summit of Mount Tibor. His fiery eyes were dull and half-closed, watching her sadly, his wings splayed out as though he lacked the strength to fold them.
"No, Arokh, don't give up!" Rynn pushed her aching body over to him, her vision swimming with the pain. "Don't die!"
The massive jaws curved into a small smile. "Don't think there's much choice in the matter, my friend."
"Where are you hurt? I'll heal you!"
"Not even the mightiest Archmage could heal a stolen soul." He managed a slight nod at her shock. "He took mine too, Rynn..."
"...are we still alive?" Another half-smile. "I'd explain my theory if I wasn't so sore. No point... now..."
"Stay with me!" Rynn shouted. "I forbid you to die!"
"Not fair..." he muttered. "Can't help it..."
She stood up, bracing herself against his strong neck The wind and rain lashed her body, stinging like acid against her burns and lacerations. Wild energies flashed across the sky above her like a mad whirlpool of cloud and lightning. "Where is Navaros?"
"...gone..." Arokh said softly. "...took Drakan's soul... took Runeblade... left..."
And now she was feeling the dragon's deathly lethargy seep into her bones. The determination drained from her like water. All she wanted to do was lie down and close her eyes. There was nothing left to fight for, and no chance of winning.
She sat down in the curve of his neck and drew her knees up to her chest. There was nothing left... but to wait. From the feel of things, it wouldn't be long.
"You're truly not afraid?" Arokh asked.
Rynn turned her head slightly to look into one of his eyes. "Not when you're here."
He watched her silently for a second, then smiled. "Then we will face it together."
"Together." She leaned back against his neck and watched the storm rage. "As always, Arokh." More softly... "Head high..."
"...without fear..." she whispered, letting out a long breath.
She didn't draw another one.
The darkness swirled away from her like vultures abandon a skeleton that's been picked clean. A black shape detached itself from the shadows and bore the body away...