Drakan II: The Rekindling
By Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon

 


Book III


The Border of Reality

The first thing she felt was warmth. A pleasant warmth on her face. The second sensation was wind in her hair.

The thought "This isn't so bad," crossed her mind, and she took a deep breath through her nose.

"No...wait a second...if I was dead I wouldn't be breathing. Or I wouldn't need to. Does that mean I shouldn't be able to?"

In any case, something nearby didn't smell too good.

She opened her eyes and blinked up at an intensely blue sky and an incandescent sun. Squinting, she sat up.

Ebontyne was crouched before her with an impatient expression on her face. "So glad you've decided to join us."

"Are you dead too?" Rynn asked, not sure whether to be glad or upset.

Additionally, the War Mage wasn't someone she'd have chosen to spend her afterlife with.

"Unfortunately not," Ebontyne replied.

"You're not?"

"No."

"Oh."

There could only be one logical explanation, then.

"Am I a soul shadow?"

Ebontyne growled, then punched her in the stomach.

Rynn doubled over with a grunt but recovered quickly, her armour absorbing most of the blow. "What was that for?"

"It answered your stupid questions before you could ask them all."

"Go easy on her," Morghus said. The black dragon had padded up behind his Bonded and craned his neck over her shoulder. "She's been through a lot."

Ebontyne looked at him. "Arokh?"

"Just woke up."

"Wait," Rynn interrupted. "I'm alive? I..." she hesitated as Ebontyne scowled at her, but continued resolutely. "I could have sworn I died."

"You did," Ebontyne replied, "in there." She stood up and stalked away.

"Why's she angry?" Rynn asked.

Morghus looked uncomfortable. "Because... you made her afraid."

"Me? How?"

"She fears your death. She thinks you and Arokh are the only way to stop Navaros, and if you die... so will Drakan."

"And so will she," Rynn added softly.

"No." Morghus shook his great head. "She doesn't fear her own death. When we first met you and Arokh she was trying to find her Jewel to end her life, remember? She's not evil, Rynn, and neither am I. We didn't join the Dark Union to destroy the world, as Navaros plans to do. We joined it because we thought it would benefit Drakan."

Rynn glanced over to where the black-armoured woman was speaking with Arokh. "Did she save me?"

"She carried you out of Shiv'arass Ravine, yes. Had you stayed in there, you would have stayed dead. The reality of that place stops where the darkness ends, Rynn. You were breathing again as soon as light touched you."

"How did she get out?" Rynn asked, not knowing how to feel.

"Painfully." Morghus shivered. "She fears life, and she was alive every step of the way."

"I don't understand."

His scaled shoulders shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure I do, either, and I felt most of it myself. You could ask her, but she wouldn't tell me."

They were still in the Eastern Wilds, and close to the ravine, Rynn saw. Of course, Ebontyne and Morghus wouldn't have been able to carry herself and Arokh back west. The ground was a parched, dusty rock, and there was a stagnant pool nearby. Shadows were lengthening as the sun sank, and Rynn felt herself edge away from them.

"If you're ready," Ebontyne said, walking over with Arokh following behind her, "we'd best move right now. I don't want to stay in this place any longer than we have to. Besides, time is now against us." She held up the pouch Rynn had put the Jewels of Eternity in and nodded at the young warrior. "Nice work, by the way." She tossed it over and Rynn caught it, putting it in her own belt again.

"Can you handle the flight?" Morghus asked Arokh. The black dragon sounded worried.

Arokh stretched a foreclaw experimentally and nodded. "The stiffness is fading. I should be fine."

Rynn stared at him from where she sat in sudden realisation. "Are you all right?"

"Are you?" he rumbled.

"Y-" She stopped, her eyes widening as though someone had just punched her a hundred times harder than Ebontyne had. "Runeblade! I dropped it in-"

"It's on your back," Ebontyne said.

Rynn looked back over her shoulder. Sure enough, the hilt and the Rift Crystal were glittering there.

"It was lying next to you when I found you." Ebontyne's jaw tightened, then she reached back and put her helmet on, hiding her face. She turned to mount Morghus.

Rynn opened her mouth. She had so many questions. How they'd got out, how Ebontyne had found her... she settled for asking just one, for now. "What was the point?"

"Of going through all that, you mean?" Ebontyne asked, her voice hollow. The helmet turned in Rynn's direction. "For the shadows, we were just a meal. They feed off fear. The more afraid of something you are, the better it tastes. That's how I understand it, anyway." She settled on Morghus' back, her armour clinking against his scales. "When I said your fears eat you alive in there, I wasn't being metaphoric.

"If you mean what was the point for us, I guess it's whatever you make of it. Perhaps you learned something about yourself you'd rather not have known. I certainly did."

When Rynn didn't move, Ebontyne added, "We have to get to Mount Tibor."

Rynn closed her eyes as fresh fear washed through her. She drew a shaky breath. It was an insane plan. She had no chance of pulling this off, and yet it was too late to back away from it now. The alternative was killing her brother's body with Runeblade, and she couldn't do that.

"It won't happen that way," Ebontyne's voice said softly, quite near. Rynn looked at the woman's face through tears. She'd dismounted again and was crouched beside her, helmet off. There was sympathy in the ice-blue eyes. "I saw part of what you went through, Rynn. You won't fail."

"How can you know?" Rynn whispered, wiping her eyes. "I'm not ready."

"You will be."

Jewels of Eternity

Rynn still didn't move, so Ebontyne sighed and sat down beside her.

"I can't make you feel better, Rynn," she said, looking off at the setting sun. "Do you want to talk a bit? Just until you feel up to getting on with things?"

"Flying to our deaths, you mean?"

"If you want to think of it that way," was the infuriatingly patient reply. How could the woman do that? One moment as steady as a rock, and the next as sharp as steel.

Some part of Rynn wanted to make a biting reply, to goad Ebontyne into unsheathing that steel on her. It would give her anger a visible target.

"How do these work?" she asked instead, touching the pouch with the Jewels in them.

There. That would be a safe topic. She looked at Ebontyne and knew the woman wasn't fooled. The notion of 'talk' related to personal problems, not stuff like this.

"I know you have to hold them closed in your hand to activate them, but what happens then?" Rynn went on.

Ebontyne sighed again, and Rynn caught a glimpse of the old woman the War Mage should be. "One of two things. If you're not Bonded, you go mad. You can't survive without an anchor, and that's sort of what a soul is. You won't age or die without help, but you won't be in a position to appreciate it."

She paused to flick a red beetle off her knee. "If you are Bonded, the part of you that isn't tied to your dragon is absorbed into the Jewel."

"What do you mean?"

"Look." Ebontyne plucked two strands of long grass-like growth sprouting from the side of the rock she was sitting on, and tied the end of one to the end of the other. "This strand is Morghus, and this one is me." She broke the latter where it started to go into the knot and dropped it. "There's still a bit of me there, an anchor reinforced by Morghus' soul."

"What if Morghus' soul crystal was taken?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Fortunately, dragons are too smart to give their soul crystals to anyone but their Bonded. Of course, there are dangers there. Look at Kaeros."

"Navaros' dragon?"

Ebontyne nodded. "Getting back to the Jewels. You feel strangely empty, but get used to that after a while. It's odd, though nothing more than that."

"It felt horrible," Rynn said softly.

The War Mage stared at her, then the pouch. "You didn't use-"

"No. I...Navaros took my soul in Shiv'arass. I remember what it felt like."

She nodded and laced her fingers together, looking at Rynn with a surprisingly gentle expression. "It does feel like that initially."

"So. You don't age and won't die, but what about you? Your Jewel doesn't even exist any more, so how does that work? I thought you said you'd die when you destroyed your Jewel."

Ebontyne's jaw tightened a little, telling Rynn it'd be best to tread more softly with this topic. "There were experiments with the Jewels before they were put to common use. Destroying a Jewel will release the soul trapped within, and that soul will enter the nearest sentient being it can. It can't enter something like a tree or a rock. If there's nothing around to anchor to, it'll disipate unless it's very strong."

"Delon's soul isn't anchored to anything," Rynn said, feeling sick.

"It's different in the Rift, so don't worry about him. My Jewel was apparently destroyed by the fallen angel, and it absorbed my soul. Don't ask me how, but I can feel that my soul still exists." She shook her head angrily. "I should have asked the angel to tell me where my soul was, not merely my Jewel. In any case, it now contains my soul. I don't pretend to know that much about the Fallen, but perhaps, because they, like the Jewels, never change, neither do I."

"Never change?"

"They're constant. They stay in one place, their needs are always the same, they don't die. I have no idea if they're unkillable. If they're not, I might still have a chance." She shook her head again. "Our experiments showed that if someone's soul was released into a second mortal being, it would be different to that. The first would share the lifespan of the other, which would be shorter with the strain of two souls on him. The first would not age, but if either died they both would. However, the second would feel any pain the first felt, but not the other way around."

"Does this mean that the angel feels your pain? Or that if you die, it will? If it dies, you will? Isn't a soul released if a...vessel dies?"

Ebontyne waited impatiently for her to shut up. "'No' to the first three. The angel isn't mortal, remember? That means it doesn't age and die like... well, like you do. I don't know the answer to the last. If the soul is released from a mortal vessel, I've never heard of it re-anchoring."

"So we have to get Navaros to use a Jewel...that will free Delon's body? Make him insane until I get my brother's soul back where it belongs? How will I do that?"

"You never ask them one at a time, do you?" the War Mage growled. "Theoretically, Delon will be insane if this works, yes. But you have to remember that the soul we're dealing with isn't entirely human. There's a chance the Jewels won't be powerful enough to contain a partially draconic soul. I don't know what will happen if that turns out to be the case, and let's worry about Delon's soul when we get that far, yes?"

The talk had, in fact, calmed Rynn down somewhat. She nodded and got to her feet. "I guess we should get to Mount Tibor, then."

"About time." Ebontyne stood and went over to Morghus, who lowered one wing to help her mount. "Let's stop Navaros before he casts that spell."

"When we do," Rynn said, "and this is over, let's try for the Fallen Angel."

"Why? It'll be dangerous, if it's even possible."

"What have you got to lose?"

Ebontyne scratched her neck thoughtfully. "We'll see. Come on."

Rynn climbed astride Arokh, who was airborne before she'd even seated herself properly. She suddenly felt her stomach churn with renewed fear as the two dragons began their flight, and closed her eyes to the receeding wastelands. The warm wind seemed to burn against her face.

She was Drakan's only hope. Rimril had believed it. So did Ebontyne.

For some reason, she couldn't.

Mount Tibor

The night sky was aglow with stars, and Drakan's twin moons were mere slivers of light against the black. Below, a vast expanse of puffy whiteness shifted and eddied in the cold wind, ever changing between one shape and the next.

Up ahead, a break appeared in the clouds. Solid ground could be seen on the other side and a long way down. Grassy hills - the greens and golds leeched away by the night.

A sudden drop in altitude, straight through the gap. Wisps of cloud were tugged along in the wake of leathery wings, trailing thin lines through the air before falling away... above.

Then could be seen the land stretching in all directions, though barely visible beneath the cloud cover. Most of the hills were in shadow and silent... unmoving sculptures of night.

There was a larger darkness ahead. It jutted up from the land, all sheer edges and angles rising to an inwardly curved summit. The base of this mass was yet more gently sloping hills, but less than a tenth of the way up it turned to stone cliffs and rocky outcrops that would challenge the best of mountaineers. In the night, it was impossible to see if there was a path.

But when one is riding a dragon, paths become sort of unneccessary.

Arokh and Morghus skirted the outer edge of the crater once, their eyes scanning the dark interior.

"See them?" Morghus asked his brother, who nodded.

"Let's go down."

They circled the inner edge, rocks smoothed by time speeding past. One section of the crater's edge they went by had crumbled down low - a perfect place for a waterfall had there been any water. It looked like it hadn't rained here in some time.

The dragons landed, and from the crater's deeper shadows came the other Bonded.

"You succeeded?" Ebontyne asked Glaive.

He nodded. "We saw the new Succubus Queen send the message to Navaros."

"Then we killed her and smashed the message machine," Star added. "There weren't that many succubi left in the hive anyway."

"Did you succeed?" Glaive asked Ebontyne.

"Rynn has the Jewels of Eternity," she replied, glancing back over her shoulder.

Rynn had managed to slide off Arokh's back before exhaustion and despair had set in again, convincing her that sleep (or even unconsciousness) was better than this. Arokh was curled around her prone body like a huge, scaley cat, one wing folded over her protectively. His flaming eyes met Ebontyne's own, and in them was fear.

But Rynn's fear or Arokh's own, the War Mage couldn't know.

"What's wrong with them?" Star asked softly.

"Rynn and I went through Shiv'arass."

"Shiv-whatess?"

But Glaive winced. "Oh."

"What?"

"You don't need to know, Star," Ebontyne said. "Trust me - you don't want to know."

"That bad?"

"Worse." She looked at Glaive again. "She's afraid, old friend. She's doubting her abilities."

"That will prove fatal in the spell she means to cast," Glaive said, his brow creasing.

"Will she have to cast it?" Star asked. "If it's that dangerous-"

"She doesn't have to," Glaive interrupted, "but it's a safety precaution. Ebontyne, is Rynn still willing to go on with her plan?"

She and Rynn had spoken of it on the way there. When Navaros began his ritual, Rynn would cast the spell while the other Bonded stood guard around her. When the spell was ready to take form around Mount Tibor's summit, she and Arokh would fly within it to where Navaros was, at which point the prisms would be removed from the pattern by the Bonded, activating the shield. Rynn would try to force Navaros to use a Jewel while he was in his trance and before the ritual was complete. If she failed... well... at least Navaros would be trapped.

"Rynn will go on," Ebontyne said.

"That's something. When she wakes, I'll train her some more. Sounds like she needs some encouragement."

"Train? How much time do we have?"

"Navaros is bringing along his army," Star said. "We think they'll take a few more days."

"Be more specific."

"Three, minimum."

***

"Are they still talking about me?" Rynn whispered.

Arokh's reply was as soft as a dragon's could be. "They are worried."

"What about you?"

"I feel what you feel."

"But do you understand it?"

He sighed. "No."

Rynn curled herself into a tighter ball.

"Because..." Arokh lay his head on the ground beside her under his wing. "Because... somehow, I remember you saying that you're not afraid when I'm there."

She looked at him sadly.

"Has that changed?"

"No... but the spell... I'll be on my own when I cast it. Just me."

"We are Bonded, Rynn. By Fire and by Blood. It will never be 'just me'."

She caught her breath. "Will you be able to help?"

"Can a dragon breathe fire?"

Ether

"Navaros went beyond the magic system because of Kaeros..."

***

"Fire," Glaive commanded.

Rynn concentrated, feeling for her Bond with Arokh. The red dragon shifted behind her, raising his head.

A globe of crimson flame burst into existance above Rynn's left shoulder.

***

"...the might of draconic powers crammed into a human vessel..."

***

"Water."

She drew from the clouds and the earth. Arokh steadied the spell, his knowledge of breathing and controlling ice mingling with Rynn's knowledge of creating it.

A bubble of water coalasced over Rynn's right shoulder.

***

"...but it was a human vessel with half a human soul..."

***

"Earth."

Maintaining the Fire and Water with Arokh's help, Rynn set the other half of her attention on the ground at her feet.

A monolith of dirt and rock rose before her.

***

"...and an entire, unwilling, draconic soul..."

***

"Air."

Rynn cleared her thoughts, relying wholly on Arokh to keep the other three spells going. She felt him reach through their Bond... controlling the spells through her without her having to do anything.

A misty sphere swirled into being a foot from her face.

***

"...how much more powerful, then, human and dragon souls in their entirety..."

***

Glaive sucked in a breath, then said, "Rift."

Rynn's hands clenched around the hilt of Runeblade, which she held point down before her.

"Now you help too," she thought to the Rift Crystal.

The light of the elements flickered in the jewel's depths.

Arokh bent his will to the Bond, giving all of his considerable strength.

Rynn stared through the middle of the circle made by the four spells and shouted, "Open!"

A sucking sound... of air rushing through a small escape. A tiny blackness appeared in the middle of the circle.

***

"...working in harness... willingly...as one..."

***

"Open!" Rynn shouted again, a command punctuated by Arokh's deep roar.

***

"...together."

***

A circle of blackness opened between the elements, its edges a blurred silver-violet mist.

"Hold them!" Glaive shouted.

Rynn didn't notice his excitement; she was concentrating too hard.

"We did it, Rynn!" Arokh said, still focussing through the Bond.

"We did it," Rynn echoed, fierce pride in her voice.

"They did it!" Glaive shouted across the crater of Mount Tibor's summit.

***

Dayrett fell silent. His apprentice, Rimril, shifted uneasily behind him.

"So we do have a chance," Heron said. He looked at Runeblade, a thumb rubbing over the Rift Crystal. "I just don't know why I was picked."

"Because we believe in your courage," Dayrett replied. "Yours and Arokh's. Together, you two are the best the Order has."

Heron hesitated and glanced back at Arokh.

The red dragon said, "Forgive us, wise one, but you have made it clear we have a chance of winning. What of surviving?"

***

Rynn and Arokh carefully reduced the power of the spells, then terminated them.

"We did it!" the young warrior-mage replied exulted again, and turned to hug Arokh around the neck.

"Think we can do it again?" Arokh asked her with a grin.

"For the Great Spell of Protection?" Rynn pulled away for a second and thought back to Shiv'arass.

But it's hard to be afraid of failure when you've just seen how successful you can be.

Rynn looked up at Arokh and nodded. "Yes. Yes, I think we can."

"Think?" he repeated, raising an eyeridge.

Rynn smiled. "Fine. I know we can. Now our only problem is Navaros."

***

Dayrett said, "Your survival depends on your own instincts. You've both been trained well. Choose your actions wisely."

Heron smiled wryly. "Guardian Mage, can't you be a little more inspiring?"

The tattooed old man chuckled. "Very well. May Wind lift your wings and Earth guide your steps. May Water part before you and the Flame of courage burn forever in your Soul."

Heron laughed. "Too bad I'm not a mage. But thanks, Master Dayrett."

"Good luck, my son. And to you, hatchling."

Heron mounted Arokh and sheathed Runeblade. Then the two were up and away.

"But they'd have a better chance of survival if they were magi, right, Master?" Rimril asked softly.

Dayrett sighed heavily. "Even then, Rimril. Even then."

Call to Arms

There was a cave further down the side of Mount Tibor that faced away from the edge. It was fairly well hidden, so long as no one decided to walk by. There was a large area of rock and dirt just outside, which was where Star traced the outline of the Order's symbol with an arrowhead.

"Inside," Kang-shi hissed suddenly. "Blade dragons."

The Bonded crowded into the cave and waited as the shadows of Navaros' forerunners flicked across the rocks.

"How many has be brought?" Glaive muttered, for Nashiva was counting softly and still the shadows came.

"We won't be able to see Navaros at this rate," Star added. He looked at the symbol outside and fingered his bow nervously.

After a couple of hours of waiting while the enemy dragons continued to circle, Glaive said to Rynn, "This is how we bend Air."

His form blurred, then blended with the features of the cave behind him. "You practice. I'll scout."

The blurriness moved outside, keeping close to the walls and out of the light.

Time passed.

When the sun was high, Glaive returned. Rynn saw light refracting within his blurred form as he darted inside and became visible again.

"Wartoks, orcs and some giants," he reported between gasps of breath. He leant against his dragon's golden shoulder. "Scavengers. The trained kind."

"Trained?" Rynn asked.

"To track and hunt."

"And kill," said Kang-shi.

"War giants?" Ebontyne wanted to know.

"I'd like to see any wartok general keep a primitive giant from using orcs as frisbees," Glaive snorted.

"Point taken."

"Any sign of the Betrayer?" Nashiva asked.

"Not on the ground," Glaive told her.

"We'll know when he begins the ritual," Ebontyne said. "We can only wait. Keep an eye outside.

***

"Good thing we ate last night," Star muttered some hours later. They couldn't risk preparing food for fear of attracting scavengers. They knew the monsters were around. They'd heard a couple snuffling nearby but hadn't seen any. Glaive supposed their cave was inaccessable, save by flight. The others hoped he was correct.

***

The blade dragons stopped patrolling at sunset. Glaive reported seeing them descend to the foothills. The bad news was that the wartoks and orcs were starting up the mountain in small groups, chained scavengers with them.

They would have to keep quiet.

***

An hour after the moons had risen, the ritual began. Arokh, Nashiva, Morghus and Kang-shi raised their heads in unison and, automatically it seemed, looked up at the cave's roof in the direction of the mountain's summit. Glaive and Ebontyne looked at each other and nodded. Rynn could feel it, too. A strange tingling sensation in her mind and an inexplicable feeling of dreadful anticipation.

Star, not being gifted with magic, felt nothing. But the reactions of his companions was all he needed to tell something was going on.

"Let's do this," he said.

Ebontyne, Glaive, Nashiva, Morghus and Kang-shi followed him outside.

The Great Spell of Protection

"Ready?"

Rynn let out a deep breath and looked at her Bonded. "Yes." She drew Runeblade and followed Arokh outside. The others were waiting around the symbol of the Order Star had drawn in the dirt. The humans were prepared to fight. Glaive and Ebontyne had removed hood and helm, and stood with their hands free and magic-ready. Star had his bow out with the string half-drawn. The misty outline of an arrow could be seen between bow and string. The three dragons watched the sky. The Great Spell of Protection involved a lot of bright light effects, which were bound to attract unwelcome attention.

Rynn and Arokh would be unable to defend themselves during the casting.

Rynn looked up at Mount Tibor's summit where the clouds were beginning to roil. "Here we go."

She stood on the central circle and closed her eyes. Arokh crouched behind her, just outside the symbol. Human and dragon ackowledged the presence of the other, their entire souls joining as two hands clasp, fingers lacing tightly together.

They summoned all five elements at once.

"Steady them," Arokh's voice rumbled in Rynn's mind.

Fire was first. Hardest to control and dangerous to leave unattended, roaring a mental storm fuelled by tension and nerves, Rynn and Arokh forced away their anxiety. They would do this. The elemental fire, fed now only by steady determination, became a golden blaze in their minds' eyes.

Air, calmed already by the cessation of nerves, became a fresh strong wind.

Water and Earth, drawn from the surroundings, were patiently waiting for release.

Ether, kept under firm control by Rynn, Arokh and Runeblade, was a sense of absence in the minds of human and dragon. A doorway to nothing.

"Now," Arokh thought.

The five elements twined with each other in their thoughts, forming a beautiful, primal dance.

Rynn spoke the first part of the incantation: "This spell of my casting, I cast for the hope of the future."

The elements swirled in response. The topmost circle in the symbol of the Order of the Flame burst into a column of crimson light.

The second line: "This power I summon is in the face of true danger,"

Another mental clash of colour. The left circle blazed amber, shooting orange light into the sky.

The third: "A decision founded on my own integrity,"

Golden incandescence...

The fourth: "Until justice can be done and the spell broken..."

***

"Keep a good look-out," Ebontyne shouted over the noise. "We won't hear any unwelcome visitors over this."

"Speak for yourself, human," Kang-shi said, green eyes lighting. "I hear them."

"Go, then," Glaive said, and the golden dragon launched herself into the sky, Nashiva and Morghus at her sides.

"I vow that I have the courage to face death,"

Emerald light flared from the symbol.

"Doing well, Rynn," Ebontyne whispered. She glanced up at the summit where dark clouds spiralled and flickers of lightning lit the edges.

"And that I honour life."

Brilliant sapphire light...

...four blade dragons flapped above the rocky edge of the Bondeds' hide-out. One was taken out immediately by simultaneous bursts of fire from Nashiva and Kang-shi. It fell down the other side of the mountain, trailing smoke.

The other three croaked with their crow-like voices and separated, steel-feathered wings zinging at every beat. One breathed a ball of toxic gas at Rynn and Arokh.

Nashiva flew into its path, catching most of the fumes against her back...

***

"In me, my words and my str-"

She coughed.

The elemental structure trembled.

"In me, my wor-"

Dizziness made her falter. She suddenly felt like she couldn't stand upright.

Fine fracture lines appeared across the partially formed dome...

"Arokh, I c-can't..." Rynn gasped for air and started to choke, panic clawing her insides as she felt the fire in her mind flare up into a raging maelstrom.

"Breathe," Arokh's voice whispered in her mind. "I've got them. Breathe, Rynn."

Rynn felt the dragon attempt to steady the spell. His own breath was erratic and his mind slightly unsteady, but he kept control of himself. She took a shallow gulp of air and felt it, clean and pure, fill her lungs. She breathed again, gripping Runeblade tightly and feeling Arokh looming behind her. All she could see was colour, and her senses were drowned in warmth and cold, the taste of clean water and the feel of rushing wind, the smell of newly turned earth, the sound of crackling flames... a sense of being both nowhere and everywhere.

She heard Arokh say with her: "In me, my words and my strength, my companions trust."

The elements wove together a seventh time, generating a blaze like sunlight through amethysts, then the symbol of the Order of the Flame burned white... and the Great Spell of Protection waited to be moulded.

***

"That's it!" Glaive shouted. He threw a bolt of gold lightning at a blade dragon in pursuit of Morghus. "Kang-shi! Keep those creatures off our backs!"

"You heard him," the dragon roared to Nashiva and Morghus. "Guard the humans and our dragonkin!"

As the three dragons engaged the enemy then swooped aside to draw them away from the humans and Arokh, Glaive, Star and Ebontyne hurried to the blazing symbol. They stopped just short of the white light, and Ebontyne pointed up at Tibor's cratered peak. Barely visible, a transparent silver film enclosed the entire summit in a gigantic bubble.

"I thought that wasn't supposed to happen yet!" Star exclaimed. Then he frowned and took a step back, still looking but not through the spell's light. "Now I can't see it."

"It's not up yet," Ebontyne told him. "We have to-"

"By Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Ether, I put this place under my protection!" Rynn shouted. She appeared, striding from the light, and went straight to Arokh. "Take all the crystals but one," she said to her companions. "Take that last one out when you see Arokh breathe fire."

"After that," Ebontyne said as she pulled the newly-formed barrier crystal from a circle in the symbol, "don't let the enemy catch you."

Rynn mounted and Arokh said, "When it's over, I'll spread my wings and breathe fire again to signal you to replace the crystals and end the spell."

A few seconds passed silently before a blast of gases hit the ground nearby.

"Good luck," Ebontyne said, and the two men nodded.

"To you as well," Rynn said. She looked up at the sky, past the battling dragons to the mountain's storm-touched summit. "Let's fly!"

Ascent

Arokh broke through the blade dragons with a roar and a breath of scalding magma. They fluttered aside with pained croaks and melting wings, too panicked to retaliate. The red dragon clawed his way higher, Rynn sitting above his shoulders with one hand on his neck and the other outflung, ready to throw her own fire if necessary... but none of the enemy followed.

The way up was clear.

Arokh reached the edge of the crater and rose above, wings beating powerfully against a furious wind. He and Rynn instantly sought the middle of the peak, the lowest part of the curved summit. They both saw the boy standing there, alone, head bowed and hands clenched at his sides. The air around him shimmered green.

"How far is he into the ritual?" Rynn asked.

Arokh shook his head. "I don't know, never having seen it completed. Do we go in?"

Rynn stared at her brother. "Yes. Send the signal."

They passed the border of the Great Spell of Protection and Arokh sent a stream of fire back over his wing.

***

"There!" Star shouted. "Now, Ebontyne!"

The War Mage snatched up the last crystal then whistled, not waiting to watch the spell take form. "Morghus - to me!" She put the crystal into her belt pouch with two others and said to Star and Glaive, "Let's get to the skies."

"Ebontynnnnnnne!" Morghus roared, tearing towards the ground. His jaws parted and fire poured out.

Ebontyne and Glaive were forced to duck and both turned while crouched, hands clutching at weapons as they saw the first of many, many wartoks burn to death before them...

***

The dome flushed through with colour, a shifting blue, visible to all who looked. Rynn nodded, then directed Arokh to land near Navaros. The dragon glided down, now uninhibited by a wind that couldn't enter the barrier.

His talons scraped the rock as he landed, and Rynn dismounted more slowly than usual. Once on the ground she touched the pouch containing the Jewels of Eternity, reassured by their presence, and looked at her Bonded.

"I'll be right back. We'll be right back."

He nodded and grinned.

She looked at her brother again, took a deep breath, and walked towards him. She could hardly stop herself from running, and had to remind herself that the ground was not smooth. Tripping would be too easy.

But the suspense was killing her.

There wasn't even any noise. Sound couldn't enter the dome. She had only her footsteps and, as she neared Navaros, a faint howling of tortured voices.

When she finally stood before him, looking down from her superior height, it was hard to feel afraid. Hard to think that this was Navaros. Her only discomfort was from the green haze, which seemed to creep around her body like insubstantial tendrils.

Eventually, slowly, she crouched down and glanced at Delon's right fist. Then, unable to resist, up into her brother's lowered face.

Navaros grinned down at her. "I've been expecting you," he whispered.

Navaros

Rynn fell backwards, too startled to stand, and felt a gasp betray her. If Navaros hadn't looked frightening before, now, as he loomed over her with a cruel smile and glowing with power, he was terrifying.

"My Death Magi did a good job in simulating the beginning of my ritual, didn't they?" Navaros chuckled, then glanced at Arokh without lifting his head. The red dragon had advanced towards them a few steps, looking puzzled. "Call him, Rynn."

"What?" she managed. "Why?"

His answer was a kick under the chin.

Rynn's head snapped back and hit the rocks. Bright spots appeared before her eyes and she heard Arokh snarling behind her. Blinking, she looked for Navaros. Where..?

She sat up and glanced around wildly, noticing he now stood between her and her Bonded. The dragon himself crouched with his red wings half-spread and neck extended, baring his fangs. Navaros walked towards him.

Rynn stumbled to her feet, a dozen plans tumbling through her bruised mind. Shame burned her as Navaros deigned to look back.

"You've failed, girl."

He pointed at Arokh, and blue flames licked around his hand.

"Get out of there, Arokh!" Rynn shouted.

The dragon swept his wings out and shot into the air at exactly the same time five blade dragons beat their way aloft from concealment along the crater's rim. Rynn felt her Bonded's startlement as the creatures croaked triumphantly and flew at him with razor wings. He barely evaded the first barrage of poisonous fumes, and Rynn felt a slight, frightening dizziness when he inadvertantly breathed some in.

"Watch yourself, Rynn!" Arokh roared, and she spun in time to see a huge war giant lumber from a cave in the crater's sloping wall. It turned its brutish face in her direction and fingers thicker than her arms flexed around the haft of a gigantic battle axe.

"Did you think I'd be so foolish as to be alone?" Navaros whispered in her ear.

She jerked away from him and he laughed.

"Come, Rynn." He spread his arms, smiling. "Kill your brother."

The ground shook as the giant charged down the side of the crater and its bellow echoed through the dome.

Rynn, still looking at her brother, drew Runeblade. A sudden thought came to her... he thought this was what she'd come here to do! He didn't know about the Jewels, but how was she supposed to get him to use one?

Again Navaros laughed, this time at her supposed indecision. "Again you fail."

Rynn turned away and threw a stream of ice at the oncoming giant, hiding her grim smile. It seemed Navaros wasn't going to kill her either; he was after Arokh-

Something struck her in the back and threw her forward. She only just retained wits enough to roll, avoiding a nasty collision with the ground. When she came up in a crouch her shoulders felt afire and were itching painfully.

Above, Arokh roared in agony.

Rynn saw a blade dragon slam into the rocks some distance away, a half-roasted carcasse. She tore her gaze away and stood to face the giant.

This time her right leg was struck. It buckled beneath her and she dropped to one knee with a disbelieving cry.

"You are not here to fight, Rynn. You're here to watch Arokh die."

The giant siezed her, its fist trapping her from chest to knees, and lifted. Rynn struggled, gasping as she pictured herself splattered across the rocks after a casual overhand throw. But the toss never came. The giant was only restraining her.

Navaros smiled and returned his attention to the embattled dragons.

Rynn tensed her hands and let her anger overflow, feeling the fire burn through her veins and shoot from her fingers. The giant howled and dropped her. She fell about ten feet to land badly on the rocks, her already injured leg twisting. With a shout of pain and rage, the young warrior-mage threw a ball of flames at Navaros' back.

The Lord of the Rift turned almost casually and caught the fire in one hand. Flickers of crimson-gold spurted between his fingers for a second, then he tossed the spell back at its caster.

Rynn threw herself forward to the rocks and the fireball struck the giant, which howled a second time, then, snarling horribly, lifted its huge axe. Rynn rolled over and was frozen, hypnotised, as the double-bladed weapon rose higher, the tendons in the giant's hand standing taut... its eyes glaring down at her.

Arokh interceded just as the axe chopped down with a ghastly swooping sound... followed by a crunch.

Rynn heard a scream tear from her throat, and for a second, couldn't tell if it was she or Arokh who'd been struck. There was a hot wetness on her face and when she wiped it off with her hands they came away red and sticky.

The ground shuddered, and roars came from both the giant and the dragon.

About to sit up, Rynn was suddenly kicked in the side of the head by Navaros as he walked past her. She groaned and bit back a cry of pure agony as Arokh shrieked.

Don't give up, Arokh! Don't give up!

Rynn, hurry...

She got to her hands and knees, blinking blood from her eyes. Several feet in front of her, his back turned, was Navaros. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw he was holding Runeblade in one hand.

He definitely wasn't taking any chances with her.

Beyond, the war giant was on its back on the rocks as it grappled with a clawing, biting dragon half its size. As she watched, Arokh breathed fire into his adversary's face and it howled in response, then struck the dragon's limp right wing with a fist.

Rynn gasped, almost blacking out from the shock. But the horrible pain gave her the strength to stand.

Whatever she was going to do, it had to be done now. She fumbled at the strings of her belt pouch.

"Navaros!" she screamed, and, in her haste, instead of throwing a Jewel at him, hurled the pouch itself at his head.

He spun and snatched it out of the air the same way he'd caught her fireball. "I'll use this one to kill your Bonded," he sneered, fingers curling around the tanned leather.

Rynn could almost feel her heart stop.

Navaros grinned at her, never looking away from her horrified expression, and his hand burst into angry blue flames. He half-turned, raising his fist to throw his power - and what he thought was hers - at Arokh.

He stopped... stared at his hand.

Rynn found herself holding her breath, eyes widening. From his burning fingers fell a fine trail of ash.

Navaros opened his fist to find a handful of Jewels.

"NO!" he shrieked, making to hurl them away, but by then it was too late. Green light shot up his arm in a flash and enveloped his entire body. He stumbled towards Rynn with a snarl, then fell face down on the rocks and lay still, the green light gone.

Several glowing Jewels dropped from his hand with a musical chiming.

Caged Souls

Rynn allowed her legs to collapse and dropped to her knees, breathing hard. She looked up from the rocks when she realised she could no longer hear the sounds of struggling, and saw Arokh pinning the war giant to the ground. The monster was obviously dead; Arokh's jaws clamped around its neck in a deathly, bloody grip.

Wincing, she sat back and examined her leg. Some spell or other of Navaros' had eaten through her armour below the back of the knee, and her skin there was raw and blistered. She touched the sore with a bare hand and hissed, eyes watering at the painful coolness.

"Navaros?" Arokh's subdued voice asked.

Rynn glanced up again, then at the body sprawled in front of her.

"Did it work?"

She crawled over to the body, hesitated a few seconds, then rolled it onto its back with a groan as her shoulders burned.

It moved flaccidly, and Delon's face stared without expression at the sky. Rynn watched, hardly daring to hope, as a thin vein pulsed in her brother's neck and his chest rose and fell. He even blinked.

"He's alive," she whispered. "I think..." her eyes flicked to the Jewels, still throbbing with green light. "I think he's gone."

Arokh limped down from his kill, one wing held awkwardly and bleeding at the shoulder. His eyes burned. "We can't chance this on a thought, Rynn. Is he gone? Did the Jewels work?"

Rynn prised away the fingers gripping Runeblade and rook the sword back. She held it and glanced briefly at Delon's body, then the Jewels. Ether flowed in her mind...

She knew.

"It worked."

Arokh sighed in relief and Rynn herself let out a deep breath, lowering her head again.

There was a faint, crystalline cracking sound.

"What was that?" Arokh asked sharply.

Rynn didn't move and listened hard.

It came again. Stress lines forming on glass? She glanced breathlessly up at the dome. Was it breaking?

No...

She jerked her eyes disbelievingly down to the Jewels.

One of them trembled and a fine crack split one of its facets. Something like orange smoke puffed up from it.

"They're too strong!" Arokh exclaimed. "Kaeros and Navaros must be too powerful to be contained!"

Rynn scooped the Jewels into her hands as quickly as she could. "Signal the others to end the Spell!" she shouted, and stumbled away, heading for the broken wall of the crater that stood as a dry waterfall, the Jewels held awkwardly in her cupped hands. Her only thought was to get the things as far away from her brother as possible.

If she could throw them off...

Another one cracked.

She abandonned caution and ran.

***

Arokh struggled up the rocky slope, hindclaws scrabbling for purchase as he pulled himself higher. He'd never seen any use for a dragon learning how to climb, all things considered. Biting off a savage curse as his injured wing flailed uselessly and his swinging tail almost jerked him off-balance, he clawed his way up the steep edge. He only hoped that, if he did falter, his wing would be strong enough to support a glide to safety.

For now, speed was the key. If those Jewels weren't gone before they broke then Navaros and Kaeros' mixed soul essences would surely find a way to get back into Delon. Then he and Rynn would be back where they'd started.

Albeit, in much worse straits.

He reached the jagged ledge, barely able to fit himself onto it without being up against the wall of the dome. Peering through the shifting blue field he knew he'd guessed the right side of the crater to climb. Far below he could see the dragons fighting, the black dots of wartoks swarming up the mountain.

"Let them see me," Arokh whispered, and reared back on his hind legs, spreading his wings and ignoring the near-crippling pain. Then he raised his head and breathed fire.

***

Star jumped back with the heavy stone axe he'd filched from a dead wartok and cursed, wiping blood from his chin. In all his years of longevity he'd never seen fit to practice a little hand-to-hand combat, let alone get himself a weapon other than his bow or dagger?

Idiot!

Glaive had leaped to take Star's place, his bladed staff shearing through studded leather armour and wartok hide. Ebontyne was a dark blue beside him with her shadowshiv. The wartoks had been pushed back to this narrow pass in the rocks, wide enough for two to fight abreast, after Morghus' initial attack, but since the dragon had returned to aid Nashiva and Kang-shi in the air the Dark Union's foot-soldiers had been steadily gaining ground.

Soon there would be room enough for three to fight. Then they'd be in the 'clearing' where the symbol was, dark since the activation of the Spell.

Still catching his breath, Star looked up.

"They did it!" he blurted, seeing Arokh's steady line of flame. "Ebontyne, Glaive - they did it! We can lower the dome!"

"Good," Ebontyne shouted over her shoulder. "Unfortunately, we're a bit busy right now."

"If Navaros has been defeated, they're fine," Glaive added. He lunged, his weapon driving up into a wartok's throat with a crunch. "They can wait."

Star nevertheless dashed back to the symbol and replaced his prisms, then returned to the fight. "We could use their help," he pointed out.

***

Rynn braced herself against the dry wall of the falls with one elbow and peered over the edge. It was a long way down... but not that far when the dome was considered. The field curved under and cut into the cliffs about ten feet below her.

More orange smoke drifted up from the splitting Jewels and she started to feel a definite sense of vertigo.

Why isn't the Spell down yet?

She looked for Arokh, who paused for breath where he stood high ont he other side of the crater, then let out another stream of fire.

Rynn stared down at the Jewels, each one sewn with orange cracks. The Jewels themselves pulsed rapidly with a bright green light.

After a second, she realised they were keeping perfect time with her heartbeat.

The dizziness increased, but not before Rynn made her choice.

She flung both hands outwards and the Jewels formed a glittering arc as they dropped down the side of Mount Tibor. As Rynn watched, holding tight to the rocks, there was a sharp crackling noise and a puff of orange smoke... then a ripple or incandescence as the Jewels of Eternity shattered.

The Strength of Two

Rynn limped slowly across the crater, trying not to grimace with every step. She wished she'd asked Ebontyne to teach her some healing magic. Thinking of Ebontyne made her ponder the dome again. What if the other Bonded were dead? She and Arokh would be trapped here forever.

And Delon.

That made her forget the Great Spell of Protection. She staggered painfully to her brother's body and sat beside it, looking at the face she'd missed for so long.

She had an idea of how to get Delon's body and soul reunited, but it would have to wait until the dome was down.

Even so...

She held Runeblade and gave it an experimental wave in the air, willing a riftgate to open.

Nothing happened, as she'd guessed. Nothing could get past the Spell.

She looked up at where Arokh perched, still breathing fire.

"Can you hear me?" she thought.

His flame cut off and he blinked down at her. "I think," he replied slowly, not speaking aloud, "that casting the Spell together did more than we expected."

"Has this sort of thing happened before?"

"I don't know. With a very deep Bond, it sounds possible."

"Can you get back down?"

"I don't know," he thought again. "I think so." He jumped off the ledge and stretched his wings out. They held, but the injured wing trembled as its muscles burned with pain. Arokh landed a short distance from Rynn and Delon, and walked the rest of the way. Then he sank to his belly on the rocks.

"I've been waiting to see my brother again since the day the Dark Union took him from me," Rynn murmured. She brushed some hair back from Delon's brow, then absently tried to rub her sore (and non-existant) wing. "And here I am. Still waiting."

"We'll get him back," Arokh assured her. "When the others end the Spell."

She nodded. "I know. I just want it to be over."

"Just think of what we've accomplished," he went on. "We stopped Navaros. We saved Drakan."

Rynn rocked back on her heels. "We've done both of those things before. I'm more interested in Delon; he's the only victory that matters to me."

"I hope you'll forgive me if I consider Navaros and Drakan worthy of celebration as well," Arokh said with a wry grin.

Rynn smiled tiredly. "Arokh... thank you. For going through all this with me. You didn't sign up for my little rescue mission willingly, but it's over now and-" she broke off when she noticed the dragon was looking over her shoulder.

"It's not over yet," he growled.

Rynn slowly turned her head to follow his gaze.

Something glowing and orange had just topped the edge of the waterfall. It paused there for a second, then glided in their direction with alarming speed. Rynn's eyes widened when the soul shadow got close enough for her to see clearly. It was twice her height, had four arms, a draconic head, a sinuous tail and was covered in scales. She had seen a picture of this creature the night Delon had been taken, the night she'd first met Arokh, in a book about the history of the Order of the Flame.

"Navaros... and Kaeros?" Rynn whispered in horror.

"That's them," Arokh snarled. He'd risen to his feet.

The twisted spirit had slowed, but by now was only about fifteen feet away. It seemed to be having trouble advancing, as it jerked backwards every now and again, like something was trying to pull it away.

Rynn gripped both hands around Runeblade's hilt. "Arokh, get Delon away from here." She stood and faced the soul shadow. "You're not taking him!"

There was a hollow laugh from the orange shade. It glided nearer, towering above her.

"I'm not afraid of you," she whispered, and raised her sword.

The soul shadow twitched back and its face formed a snarl of annoyance. It came closer with agonising slowness, reptilian eyes fixed not on Delon... but on Rynn.

Then, without warning, it leaped at her with a ghostly shriek and all four sets of talons outstretched. Rynn lashed out with Runeblade, but her target suddenly vanished.

Where to soon became abundantly clear.

Rynn often remembered with chilling clarity what it had felt like in Shiv'arass Ravine, with that cold hand creeping through her mind. What she felt now was fiery talons tearing at the inside of her head, ripping thought and sanity to pieces.

She screamed, Runeblade dropping to the ground with a clatter as she grabbed the sides of her head. She couldn't see, couldn't feel beyond the blinding pain, couldn't rally enough of her shattered mind to even fight back. The whirlpool of agony went on and on until she felt a hideous wrench, then a dislocation.

Through an amber haze, she suddenly realised she was looking into her own laughing face.

"No!" she wailed, her voice sounding oddly distant to her own ears. "Arokh!" She grabbed for their Bond, relieved to find it as strongly linked to herself as ever. "Arokh! Help me!"

"I'm here," the dragon's thought-voice replied.

Together, they plunged back into her body.

Blackness.

Delon

It was so very cold...

There was pain, but it was a dull throb, throb, throb... no longer the crippling sensations she'd felt before.

Then there was a slight warmth on one side of her face.

"Rynn?"

She finally opened her eyes. Arokh looked down at her, his head framed by a clear, star-strewn nightscape.

"Arokh," she whispered, then groaned as her head pounded. "What happened to them?"

"I know as much - or as little - as you." He sighed.

Rynn forced herself to sit up. "Delon?"

"He's still here," the dragon cocked his head to where the boy lay on the ground. "Unpossessed, I might add."

"Navaros and Kaeros-"

"-tried to take you over. Ebontyne said something like that could happen if a Jewel of Eternity was destroyed, I believe. You were the nearest being they could reach." His jaws curved into a slight smile. "Looks like we won."

She forced down the sense of forboding. The term "out of sight, out of mind" held no meaning for her. Navaros and Kaeros had better be gone...

Rynn leaned forward and gave Arokh an impulsive kiss on the nose. "We won." She got to her feet and looked at the sky again. "When did the Spell go down?"

"When we were unconscious, I'd guess," he said dryly. "In any case, what will we do now? Restore Delon?"

"You got it." She picked up Runeblade and led the dragon over to the silent body on the rocks. "At least he's not insane."

"How are you going to do this?"

"My first idea..." she held the sword over Delon, one of her hands touching the Rift Crystal, "...is to let him find his own way home."

She opened a small riftgate right above him and stood back. "And now we wait." She sighed, feeling her muscles relax. She lifted her eyes to the lip of the crater...

...and a blade dragon flapped its ponderous way over the edge, screaming at the sight of her.

"Stand aside," Arokh told Rynn, and drew a breath.

Three more blade dragons cleared the edge.

"Arokh, don't," Rynn whispered quickly. "Look. They're not attacking." The two Bonded watched as the blade dragons landed on the high ledge, necks craned down and voices croaking threateningly.

"Maybe they fear hitting...Navaros," Arokh said.

The blade dragons didn't move for a minute, then one hissed and extended its wings.

"They're stupid, but we won't fool them forever," Arokh warned. "And I can't get them all from the ground."

All four blade dragons suddenly jumped in apparent fright. Two leaped back into the air and fled.

"Go away!" a small voice shouted. Rynn felt herself pushed aside as someone shoved past her. "Leave us alone!" Delon yelled.

The remaining blade dragons made their escape.

Rynn tried to balance herself on her good leg and said nothing, as though to speak would wake her from this wonderful dream.

Delon, his back still to the Bonded pair, waited until the enemy dragons could no longer be seen before he hesitantly held both of his hands up before himself for inspection. He looked at the palms and the backs, touched skin to skin, ran fingers through his hair.

Then he turned around.

"Rynn?"

She didni't move, sure she'd fall over if she tried. Delon saved her the trouble by running to her and hugging her around the middle. Rynn felt her arms go around him in response and she held him fiercely, startled to see her own tears darken his hair.

"Delon... I knew we'd get you back."

"I knew you would, too. Did you save the others?"

"Others?"

Delon pulled back a little to look up at her. "Atimar and Carth and Syl... everyone."

Rynn lowered her head. "You... were the only one I could save. Some others might have escaped, but..."

"Home?" he whispered, stricken.

"Burnt." She felt her the familiar sadness again as her brother stared at her, felt the familiar tightening in her chest. We'll have to find another one. Or make a new one." For some reason, she now found herself thinking of the Castle of Seasons. That made her remember Arokh. "Delon, I want you to meet my friend."

Delon looked at the great red dragon shyly.

"This is Arokh of the Order of the Flame."

The boy's face suddenly lie up. "Like from Atimar's stories?"

Rynn nodded, grinning. "Arokh, my brother Delon."

"You're all your sister talked about when we first met, Delon," Arokh said by way of greeting, and smiled toothily.

"You're big," Delon noted. "What's wrong with your wing?"

"Flew into an axe," Arokh shrugged, obviously trying to be casual about the whole situation, but the movement made him wince. "Once it's fixed we'll go for a fly, hm?"

"Yeah!" Delon looked at Rynn eagerly. "Can I?"

Rynn laughed, dizzy with happiness that Delon was exactly as she remembered him. "Of course." She looked up as three dragons flew above the crater, but relaxed when she saw they were mounted. "But first, let me introduce you to some other friends of mine."

The Saving of Souls

The Fallen Angel looked disinterestedly at Rynn. "You again."

Rynn glanced at the other Bonded. Ebontyne and Morghus, Star and Nashiva, Glaive and Kang-shi. The riders sat astride the dragons, who stood on either side of Arokh, Delon and herself.

"We've come to claim some souls."

"Indeed," it whispered. The firey feathers of its wings shifted as the angel turned its head to fully face her. "All have been given to me willingly, fairly, save those tho challenged me and lost."

"These three did not-"

"They parted with their souls, and do you claim they did not entrust them to one Navaros?"

"They did not belong to him, and they don't belong to you. Give them back."

"You make demands of me, mortal?" The angel's voice was no longer one of dry disinterest. There was a threatening tone, and it now looked more like a coiled spring than someone crouched with no intention of moving.

"Distract it," Rynn said over her shoulder.

"What will you do?" Morghus asked.

"Hit it with Runeblade a few times, if I can get close enough." She reached back over her shoulder and slid the sword free. "If it took Navaros and Kaeros from Delon the first time we fought, I'm hoping-"

"-it'll release souls from the Fallen," Ebontyne finished. "Count me in."

"Well, I'm with you," Morghus said dryly, but he grinned at his Bonded.

"Delon, I need you to ride with one of the others," Rynn said. "I have to be able to fight without you holding on to me, and I don't want you falling off."

"We'll take him, Rynn," Star said. "C'mon, Delon."

Delon slid off Arokh's back and ran to Nashiva.

"Glaive?" Ebontyne said. "Are you in?"

The dark-skinned Bonded nodded, but didn't speak.

As if sensing the approaching conflict, the Fallen Angel rose to its feet, wings stretching. The black shoulders shrugged and it crossed its arms in contempt.

"Try for around its head," Ebontyne whispered. "Then Rynn can get a clear attack on its legs. I hope," she added, "you don't have to get Runeblade in its chest."

"So do I." Rynn sent a silent signal to Arokh and the dragon lifted into the air. "Ready?

The other three Bonded flew to the attack, loosing firey breath at the angel's head... but the Fallen made no reaction. It wasn't until Morghus flew straight at its face that it made a move. One hand flicked up as one would shoo away a fly; Morghus and Ebontyne went hurtling off into Nowhere like a rock hit by a heavy stick.

"Morghus!" Arokh shouted, then flew at the angel's legs ass Rynn said, "Now!" The red dragon darted in with a few swift wingbeats and circled a thigh, gliding perpendicular to the ground so Rynn need only hold Runeblade up over her head to hit something...which she did.

Orange light sparked where she struck, and the angel reeled back.

"What have you done?" it screamed, and bent to clamp a dark hand over the wound. But the amber light curled around its fingers and wafted away like smoke. "No!" It grabbed for the escaping souls, allowing Arokh to make a second pass. Runeblade cut through the angel's left ankle and more sparks flew.

"Shall we continue?" Arokh roared at the Fallen.

"I must submit," the angel replied, its whispery voice a growl and its eyes flashing. "I have already lost more than what you wanted to take."

Arokh backwinged out of reach and Rynn pointed at Star and Glaive with Runeblade. "Return what is theirs."

Nashiva and Kang-shi hovered carefully before the angel, who brushed a huge finger over Star and Glaive's heads. There was more orange light, then the two humans glowed green for a second.

"It's done, Rynn," Star called. "Now what about Ebontyne?"

"Lead the way," Rynn yelled back. "We'll fly after the angel. And when Ebontyne's done," Rynn told the Fallen, "let's have a talk about Gholek's dragonstone."

***

The morning dawned brightly over the canyon, new light touching the early clouds with pink and gold, a startling contrast to the blue sky. Rynn sat with Delon on the edge of the cliffs above Gholek's former cave, watching Arokh, Morghus and the dragons' restored sister turn circles high in the air.

"They look happy," Delon said.

"How can you tell?"

He shrugged. "It just looks like they're playing. Like birds do." He wrapped his arms around his drawn-up knees. "What will we do now?"

It was a question Rynn hadn't had the time to ponder until now. "I don't know," she confessed. "What do you want to do?"

"I've always loved Atimar's stories of the Order of the Flame. Since it's real, and you've joined, maybe I should."

"We'd be the only ones in it," Rynn pointed out.

"No you wouldn't," Nashiva said, approaching from behind them. "You can include Star and myself."

"Is Star alright with that?" Rynn asked.

Nashiva stretched her wings, then yawned. "If he wasn't, I wouldn't have suggested it." She nodded up at where Gholek flew. "I'm sure she'll join as well, even if she never Bonds again."

"I like her," Delon said, " but she seems sad."

Rynn said, " She's been through a lot."

"Even so..." Nashiva sat down and folded her brown wings, "...she is a good dragon. Both of the old Order, and as a friend. You would be wise to invite her when you decide to rekindle the Flame."

"When I..?" Rynn began, but Delon interrupted.

"Are there any other dragons? Can I Bond?"

"There are bound to be some of us who still sleep," Nashiva said. "We could behing by waking them, once we find them."

"That's what I want to do, Rynn," Delon said. "Can we?"

And just like that, they were moving into tomorrow, not dwelling on yesterday. It felt good, Rynn thought, to get her mind out of the past. Her home was gone, but Delon was with her now. She had done what she's set out to do the night of the wartok raid.

It was time to plan their future.

***

Later that day, Ebontyne, Morghys, Glaive and Kang-shi disappeared. Rynn turned away from the empty campsite and sighed.

"You knew it might happen," Arokh rumbled. "They may have helped you stop Navaros, but restoring the Order is another matter."

"I expected Glaive to go, because of Kang-shi." Rynn stared off into the noon sky. "But Ebontyne and Morghus..." she trailed away, then continued bitterly, "They might have said something."

"People - and dragons - do what they want," Arokh said. He craned his neck back so he could see Delon, whom Star was teaching to draw a bow. Nashiva and Gholek were hunting further down the canyon. "You can save their souls, but it doesn't mean they'll set them to any worthy cause."

"What if they start another Dark Union?" Rynn fretted.

"If they do, the Order of the Flame will stop them."

Rynn sighed again, then nodded. "I guess we will. And on that note, I guess we should get moving."

But when she mounted Arokh a short while later and flew off with Star, Nashiva, Gholek and Delon, she couldn't help searching every horizon for a sign of the mising Bonded.

She saw nothing.



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