Things We Lost in the Fire
Summary: [a "Nightfall" story] "She is the Last of the Faithful, and her world has come to an end…"
Continuity: Set immediately after the epilogue of "Nightfall". You have to have read at least "Nightfall" to read this story.
Relevant AO3 Tag: "The Angst No One Asked For"
I was the match, and you were the roar – maybe we started this fire.
We sat apart and watched all we had burn on the pyre.
You said, we were born with nothing, and we sure as hell have nothing now.
You said, we were born with nothing, and we sure as hell have nothing now.
She is the Last of the Faithful, and her world has come to an end.
The caves are silent and empty, the scents of her flock faint even when she brushes her jaw against the stone, plodding from tunnel to ledge to stone-tooth to hollow. The stones are smooth from the scraping scales of many dragons, but she rubs against the faded scent-marks until her scales tear.
Blood is a stronger scent than run-dry musk, and she touches the sullen pain of it against the places that she guards, awaiting the day that everything will be as it should again. Dull marks trail away behind her as she limps upward, skirting the burning chasm that falls away in the heart of the nest, where she must not go ever but cannot leave.
It is important, to mark the places. It must be done.
Last ducks her shoulder and rolls, coating her scales with dust and the stones with scent. She no longer smells the hot reek of her home, only the scents that mean that dragons should be here, and the staleness that means that dragons are not.
Fearing for them, she throws herself against the walls, thrashing. She tracks her scent all over, hiding the stale traces of their betrayal. She does not want to see them punished. Her flock-mates who live here are her friends, they –
She snuffles at the ground of the cave, and trembles with panic, searching. The scents are vanished and gone!
And she can no longer remember who belongs to those scents, what their shapes or their colors or their voices were like – she does not know!
Whimpering, she paws at the stone. She digs for the scents that have drawn away and hidden in the cracks. Her pawing becomes striking, and the rock shatters beneath frantic blows. Her torn paws that will not heal flinch back even when she tries very hard to make them dig.
Last wavers there, the bite at her heart so much greater than the pain in her paws. She lurches forward and recoils with a breathless keen of dread that disappears and dies in the labyrinth of her lost world, not even an echo returning to comfort her.
Shudders run through her body, unstoppable. She stares fixedly at the corners and crevasses of the cave, sightless despite the faint light from the fires in the heart of the mountain, that will blaze up and devour all her disobedient cousins. She has no wish for that to happen, but it will happen, it will, when the proper way of things resumes, and she must protect as many of them as she can against that day!
Eventually she retreats, turning her tail to the broken and blood-spattered cave and fleeing in anguished, agonized small steps, wings hunched and head low.
But there is no one to slink to and cry beside. Last has no flock-mates left to comfort her, to curl up among all together with no vulnerable belly left open, to lick at her paws and scold her, or to fly beside her and hunt with her.
No twinned heads come up to peek around jagged stones as she limps past, and no stop-that! whistle or sympathy-sorry croon follows her.
No flock-mate hurries to lead her away from the edge of the burning pit, glancing over their shoulder in quick sideways looks and hustling her towards darker, deeper caverns.
Her scales are smudged with ash and ragged with exhaustion, dulled by despair and stone-dust, and she does not care.
There are no eyes to see her. Her flock-mates have abandoned her and their home, and there is a void in the world deeper than the one that yawns empty beside her.
At the peak of the path, she lowers her nose to sniff at the dead thing left there waiting. She carried it home triumphant, her claws sunk deep in thick fat and damp fur. It is the first one she has seen since the howling snows sighed and went away, and she caught it! She snatched it from a beach, diving on it from above unseen as it roared and tried to swing its small head around to bite her with its long teeth.
The Last faithful one is a good hunter. She does not need to fly screaming at humans to steal the easy prey they guard. She hunts elsewhere, creeping up on her prey in ambush and leaping with quick fangs, and she hunts well.
Flying home all alone, she had turned her nose away from the scent of the kill. It was not hers to eat. She knows how to be good.
But when she hovered and waited, the prey was still not demanded. So she backwinged and set it in the wreckage of other kills that had been offered and not accepted and eventually eaten, although Last had flinched with every bite, knowing herself in the wrong.
Last crouches beside it again, eyes lowered, believing.
The winter is over now, the winter Last had endured stubbornly, the emptiness all around her worse and worse and worse than the emptiness inside of other winters. She would have rather been hungry always, cowering but with the world right again, than alone and well-fed on guiltily eaten kills.
Her winters have never been cold. There are great fires far below to match the great one who should be among them, and so the nest is always warm. But she had been cold regardless, shivering with the absence of all those who should have been around her.
She has learned that it is hard to be warm, alone.
In the face of the darkness outside she had faded to darkness too, rising only to hunt and wait and scent-mark as much of the nest as she could. Only her determination to preserve her world for her flock-mates had kept her in it, and the fear that the greatest of all would return after so long and be so very disappointed in her. If she failed them, she would be good only for dying and becoming prey.
Last had cringed in terrified anticipation, thinking of it. Even when she was darkest and coldest of all, to be so despised would be worse. So she had clung to life as she had clung to the conviction that the emptiness around and within her was a mistake that would be set right.
Her flock-mates will return from their disobedience and their recklessness and their defiance to explain why they have been away so long. And they will purr over her because she has lied for them and borne their world on her own narrow wings bravely, floundering but trying.
It is very heavy, to carry the whole world when it will not stop trying to crumble away like sand.
So she waits by her rotting kill, hoping that before she sleeps again, all will be as it should be, as it has always been.
Last has always been scared. But at least she understood the way of things.
She understood that the caves within the fog-bound mountain island were home, and that to fly too far unbidden was a wrongness. She knew that to return was right. She knew that when hunger tore through her like claws, then she must fly out and hunt fiercely. She knew that she must return with food enough to quiet that desperate hunger that deserved to be fed. She knew that if she did not, if she failed because she was careless or weak or lazy or cowardly, then she would be eaten, or one of her flock-cousins in her place, and it would be her fault for failing.
So she was very, very good, and a very good hunter, and she crouched small in awe and fear beneath the burning endless hunger that ruled her world. Fear became as constant a presence as fire and her wings, so that she woke and slept and murmured to her flock-mates beneath it, and noticed it as rarely as the patterns of her scales. And she never once wondered about the world beyond, or imagined that things could be otherwise.
Now she is scared and she does not even understand why.
Her Queen is silent.
Her friends are gone.
And she has been abandoned.
Even her new mate who happened upon her as she hunted, and who chased after her so eagerly when she flipped her tail at him trembling fiercely to be with someone again and lofted into the air in short teasing flights, and who flew and fell with her, would not return. They had played and danced and chirped and courted until Last had woken and known she had been away too long.
She had stepped away from him urging follow, excited to bring another back home – the others will return – but when he had flown in her wake out of the tall sea stones and seen the mountain nest, he had turned on his tail and fled wailing.
Last had cried back to him baffled, and then desperate, and then grieving, and then despairing to no one at all.
There was a day the mountain trembled, and rocks tumbled all over, and dragons cowered and screamed at the wrongness of it, and the shape and the paths of the nest changed. And now again the foundations of her world have shifted and left her stumbling, scrabbling to find her paws and clinging to the only things she knows for sure.
So she waits until she cannot bear the silence, and then plods away to perch on the high stones beneath the sky and watch for her flock-mates returning.
She forgets to return to the safe-warm cave where the Last one left, for now – there will be others – can breathe over her aching paws and her last comfort.
Instead she emerges into the air, surrounded by smoke from the mountain's heart that breathes up into the sky to be clouds. On a high perch, she settles and waits, watching the falling-away horizon.
She does not like to look at the terrible gash ripped into the dark caves, or the sunlight glancing from stones that were hidden. Those tunnels have bled out like insides torn from a prey-beast, wet and glistening and reeking, but her only home is not dead while she remains.
Last remembers a running beast she had chased when she was one of many. She had swooped down and struck it with her claws, feeling the spine snap and veering away as it fell to the earth. But when she returned – the others had escaped while she herded the one away – she was puzzled to find it struggling still to live, dragging itself away from her with its hind legs trailing dead but its head tossing.
She had wondered at it, then, and had prowled around it watching curiously as it fought. But it had been helpless against her final swift bite.
Her world is torn and broken, but she will fight, and she is stronger than any prey-beast!
Pieces of her home lie shattered all over, huge lumps of rock and strange-ice marring the smooth sandy sweep of the island's shore. The ice endures even against the fires below and the new spring, and bright sharp fangs of it jut out from crevices in the stone, intrusive and alien and unwelcome. Last will not approach them. She crouches and hides when she encounters pieces of strange-ice in her pacing.
The wound in the side of the mountain gapes like a hungry jaw, and Last flinches away whenever her eyes turn to it, lowering her head and whimpering reflexive submission, responding to great teeth the only way she knows.
She is blind to the cold dead still thing, like a mountain of rotting stone, that lies in the sand. Part of it has been worn away by the lapping water like a rasping tongue, but more remains preserved by ice and the cold of winter, untouched by the beaks and teeth of predators.
The faint scent of decay does not disturb her; it is no greater than the scent of death that has filled her nose since she cracked her eggshell and tumbled free. To her, the Alpha is a thought in her skull, roaring through her like a storm, invincible power tearing awe and fear from her small body. So she cannot bring together the presence of the dead giant on her shore and the absence of her Queen from her mind.
There is no place for it; it is not a shape that fits into her mouth to be chewed and tasted, and so it has no meaning.
Last does not understand where her Alpha has gone.
When the world ended, a blow unseen had struck her reeling from the sky as she hunted. She had hidden, cowering beneath her wings, all her thoughts empty, numb and blind and deafened. When she dared to return, the god of her world was gone, her flock-mates vanished, the hatchlings and eggs of the nursery taken. None of them have come back.
But she believes that they will, and she stares out over the ocean, through the maze of tall sea stones, off towards the glimmering horizon, and longs for the familiar fear to pin her down and steady her again.
So determinedly does she look for bright colors that the patch of shadow darting from stone to stone, hiding itself in bigger shadows and staying still, flying in lunges and quick-snapping wings, goes unnoticed. Only when it alights on the shore does she startle alert, all her signals singing with shock and delight.
A dragon, there is a dragon here; her friends are coming home!
As she watches from high above, concealed among stones as ash-smudged and weathered as her ungroomed scales, it ruffles its wings and steps backwards uncertainly. The soft sound of a growl echoes up to her, and Last sees fear run through its body, and reluctance.
But determination scatters from its steps as it digs its paws into the sand, clawing at the ground beneath it, and it hisses defiance at the destruction all around.
Trembling with joy, Last swallows a coo of delight, leaving her perch to sidle carefully down towards the shore. She places her paws so that no small rocks will scamper away from her and warn it of her presence; she will pounce near it and surprise it and then they will play together! She will purr to her flock-mate that it has been very good to come back even if she will scold it for being away so long.
She will not be the Last of the Faithful anymore, she will have another by her side now, before even one day soon!
They will be Faithful together, and they will not be punished when the Alpha returns!
But as she creeps up on the dragon, fluttering across the ragged ground like a shadow too, her steps slow. The joy howling through her shrinks away into uncertainty, and fades into new fear.
She does not know this dragon at all.
Sometimes there are new-strange dragons in the nest, smelling wrong and different until they have slept often in the heat and close air of the fire-dark caves. Once they have been licked and groomed and huddled with by their new flock-mates, they no longer twist and growl and thrash in that sleep and instead lie subdued.
After a time, they are no longer remarkable, no different.
This dragon is different, not of the flock, dangerous – strangers steal food, they break eggs!
The wind changes, and Last understands of its scent only that it is a he; she recognizes nothing else of distant skies and far places and twinned selves. He stares very fiercely, head lowered, body braced. He bares his teeth against the enormous ice-pierced shape, snarling and shifting away. There is no submission in his movements, no apology, no guilt.
His shoulders move, and for a moment Last believes that he is spreading more wings to fly away. But instead a second dark-scaled dragon rises from its perch on his shoulders, raising its head and baring its own teeth in imitation of the Brave one.
She watches baffled and torn as the littler dragon springs to the ground. She twists with longing when Brave whines no no no careful don't-like here fear me fear need-you love-you come-back danger! and the smaller turns back to him, crooning love-you reassurance here me here yes good comfort even as it shudders and nestles close against a dark shoulder.
They are frightened and they do not really want to be here, but they are snarling at their fears. And they are together.
Every gesture and movement and expression says so. The smaller dragon twines among his partner's paws as they slink across the sand, sheltering beneath his chest and touching here here here in a constant reminder of nudging head and pressing shoulders and tapping paws. They watch all around like a two-heads flock-mate/s, signaling to each other in touch watchful and wary. And they watch most closely of all the great broken shape like a piece of the mountain that has not moved ever, staring as if it is a most terrifying thing.
Last digs her paws into the earth to keep from running to them. She is afraid of new-strangers, invading her broken world. But she needs to hear dragon voices chirping to each other again, and she longs to call out to them and be recognized, to have someone else acknowledge that she lives still.
They are so full of contradictions, as they yip and whine to each other, arguing with no real fangs in the fight above the endless current of love love love love love that pulses between them. They do not want to be here, and yet they are. Their bodies strain away, and Brave's wings stay half-unfolded ready to fly. His companion crouches cornered to the ground and then rears to his hind legs to search for the horizon, eyes wide and inquisitive.
Look look there certain-sure yes sure defiant! Bright Eyes whistles, slashing at the icy shape and flicking that same paw as if brushing it away. And he grunts satisfaction and shudders relief.
Brave looks toward the same thing and snorts refusal that becomes hatred in a rumbling snarl.
Yes yes yes yes, his small one agrees, dropping one shoulder to the ground to roll. But he does not show his underbelly to the debris-strewn beach, only to his friend and more-than-friend, need and easy, comfortable familiarity in every glance like one head to another on shared shoulders. His sounds say confident and reassurance but his body says afraid.
Disbelief wary-still suspicion hate-fear unhappy here want-to-leave, the bigger dragon growls, and the small one tumbles to his paws and huddles close against the black-scaled throat, both of them falling still.
They hide in each other, and Last remembers sleeping entwined with her flock-mates, hidden away behind rebuffing shoulders, leaving no one of them alone to be judged, to be snatched and to disappear while they slept.
She thinks they are humming to each other, but so very softly that even Last, who is a good sneaking hunter and has edged close to them unseen, cannot hear it.
Finally, the small one raises his head. He sets his paws on his beloved-companion's shoulders, balancing to stay reared on his back legs, and glares defiance at the ice-shrouded shape that means nothing to Last and too much to the strangers.
Dead! he cries, the shriek of a dragon gloating over a kill, and gestures no no no down stay you dead you! His paws snap with conviction and kick at the sand disgust as if scraping dirt over mess, and beside him the black dragon snarls an echo.
With less fear in their movements, they turn away and nose about, pawing at Last's home. Baffled by them, but unable to tear herself away, Last follows them slinking and low, dragging her belly through damp sand and salt-thick water and the stink of dead things gone uneaten. She does not notice; she does not need to be clean. She needs to feast on the sight of dragons and roll around in their voices, even if she does not dare approach them.
Like less than a shadow, she peers out at them from behind rocks, and slides into small gullies carved out by snow that melts quickly, trembling between fear and need and swaying on her paws.
So caught up is she in staying hidden that she does not see their sideways glances towards her hiding spaces. She does not notice that one or the other is always just turning away from where she lurks.
And so terror stabs through her like a fang when she peeks out from behind a stone to find two pairs of bright green eyes fixed unwavering on hers.
Last freezes as solidly as strange-ice, heart racing as if death had condemned her and opened its jaws.
The smaller dragon whistles a greeting, soft and gentle, the peculiar fur across his head ruffling in the sea breeze as he tilts it inquisitively. He stretches out a paw and bats at the air as if scraping something fragile but much-wanted closer to him, as if pulling an egg back to his side to be warmed and curled around.
C'mon, he invites her. No-threat, he signals, his body relaxed, and Last struggles to identify the expression in his unusual eyes as kindness.
It is not that she does not understand his expressions; they are not so much different than her flock-mates.
But Last has lived in fear all her life, and it is the air she breathes – it is kindness she had forgotten.
The habits of a lifetime scream at her run run run!
But she has nowhere to run to, no flock-mates to hide behind and wail to for protection, no great Queen to devour trespasser-enemies. Last does not think she could bear it, to be alone so long and then to be hunted.
And she cannot lead them back to her nest; it goes against instincts stronger than terror.
Reluctantly, she creeps out into the open, eyes flickering from small dragon chirring comfort in low tones to bigger one looking her over curiously. When she flinches beneath his gaze, he closes his eyes at her in an affectionate blink.
She draws herself into a tight cluster of wings and scabbed-over paws, her tail pressing against her belly as she cringes, still expecting to be struck.
No-threat, Bright Eyes croons to her, safe safe safe easy gentle you safe come here you gentle c'mon safe true sure calm calm…
He edges closer to her, pausing to let her decide whether to strike or run or stay, and turns away only to purr to Brave, who watches alertly. There is no open threat in Brave's movements, but Last understands immediately that if she does strike at his small one, she will not be forgiven.
But he makes no objection as Bright Eyes sits back on his haunches and reaches out a paw to her, letting her choose to trust or not.
She is so so so so scared, but she needs the dragon-scent of him more than, for a moment, she needs to live for the future she hoards.
Last flinches back even as she nudges her nose against his paw, but in a single shuddering jump she finds her footing again and crowds close, nuzzling and licking at him, rubbing her head against his small form until one of the wounds on her jaw breaks open.
At once she leaps away again, scattering sand in her retreat.
Trembling, Last licks compulsively at her nose and her paws as Brave coils around Bright Eyes, murmuring concern you safe? reckless-warning careful you yes scolding!
Bright Eyes chirrups laughter no no no teasing not-worried fine fine fine even as he crouches worry, eyes tightening with concern.
Last barely sees the eyes turned to her, does not recognize the bright mind whirring into action behind them as the little dragon puzzles over her. She hears his low cry of sorrow and hurt, and flinches.
There are strangers here and they are kind!
You? the small one looks to her curiously. You here why confused here bad, he says.
She cringes. No, Last whines. Stay.
This is her world even if it does not make sense anymore, even if so many of the certainties like stones beneath her paws have fallen away and vanished into the trackless ocean. Where else would she be?
If she leaves she will be as bad as all the others; she will be punished and they will be punished because she did not stay and keep the nest as it should be, as much as she can.
You? she wonders back to them in her turn. You here yes yes good stay please you stay c'mon here stay – until her yelps and gestures become me me me me me need lonely lonely need in a desperate wail.
But there is revulsion in both of them, crackling from one to the other like lightning. They bristle at her home and shudder as they recoil.
Their rejection is instant, absolute, and Last cries her despair like a breaking heart.
Sorrow, Brave signals, with hurt and sympathy in his body. He takes a careful step towards her, stretching his nose out as if to touch.
No! she who is still the Last yowls at him hopelessly; she does not want his comfort! She wants her family back and to protect the little that is hers!
She digs herself deeper into the grimy sand and turns away from both of them. Their claws in her back could not hurt more than the hurting inside.
For a while there is almost silence, and Last tries not to want to hear the small sounds whispering and whistling from the stranger-pair. She tries to close her thoughts to them and forget that they are there.
She cannot. She is small and weak and nothing, only a servant of a great one, and she is lonely still.
Movement on the side of her eyes is Bright Eyes, hovering tentatively. He cringes sorry and please? as he reaches out to her again.
But she is the Last of the Faithful.
And she turns her head away.
And yet, they stay.
They return to their prowling, poking their noses and their paws into small pools and casting wary glares at shapeless icebound things that loom motionless. But they never go far from Last as she huddles to the ground and hurts.
Bright Eyes leaps and scuttles to the protection of his companion when rocks shift and crumble far away, raising his claws to match his partner's shrieking fire. Brave though he is, the bigger dragon is frightened of the falling stones too. His eyes go very wide and his small spikes twitch, ear-flaps flattening to his head as he snarls, flames sparking among his fangs.
When no danger threatens, Bright Eyes huffs disdain and quorks scolding at himself, but only laughter and no-threat good good good relief happy you safe to Brave.
Last watches them out of the side of her eyes as they rest curled up together, watching over each other's shoulders and grooming each other with tongue and paws, and she aches with loneliness.
She watches them flit around and leap from stone to stone, playing at follow-me like hatchlings – she will teach that game to hatchlings one day. A sudden high wave startles them into hiding, but they emerge shaking away the fear and assuring each other safe yes no-threat together us here bad us brave yes brave us yes together!
She does not understand why Brave shrieks dead! once more, all his signals proclaiming triumph; here there is nothing to hunt.
She watches them scent and stare and gesture at the horizon, chirping and crooning and croaking to each other, and although she does not understand all of their signals, she knows that they are talking to each other about going away. Their fear and wariness is not like the fear she knows like her own heartbeat; it is bright and sharp and swipes at them like unexpected claws.
You? Brave invites her, seeing her listening. C'mon you go us go yes go?
Last twists away and cringes. She cannot go, she cannot. They do not understand. She can hunt; she must. But Last just wants everything to be normal again.
She cannot leave.
And yet, they stay.
The sun fades and still her Queen has not returned, still her flock has not come home. But the strangers stay by her side in a place they do not like. They are afraid of the shadows that draw in, cast by the debris of the disaster that remains a mystery to Last still. She has found only pawprints, without ever catching a scent of the predator racing on ahead, and she has been unable to guess at the shape of it.
But they do not flee. She sees them looking for her with worry in their signals, hears them croon sympathy.
She does not know them and she does not understand them. She cannot imagine why they are here in her home, if they are so afraid of it. She does not understand their defiance; to her, defiance has always meant death. When they yowl and strut victory and not-afraid and brave as if showing off for a mate or a friend, singing to each other reassurance confident maybe determined brave us brave yes good us! Last flinches at every sound, expecting the punishment of great jaws, closing blindly.
No jaws loom out of the darkness to snap them up and devour them, and fear bleeds gradually from their bodies as they leap from stone to sand, or brush affectionately against the strange-ice. Their fear drips away and vanishes into the earth, and they forget.
The tension in Brave's shoulders becomes interest at the warmth beneath his paws; he digs them into the sand and purrs, eyes slitting closed. Bright Eyes trails the bone of a prey-beast long eaten across the ground, scratching marks into it and chirping and gesturing to Brave as if the marks were prey-tracks.
Last whines very softly, unnerved. Her instincts are to drive him away from his marks, snarling, and blot them out with her own. She belongs here, and he does not.
But part of her still fears them, although she realizes they have not threatened her. They have only walked softly and left her to her waiting. And the waiting is easier tonight, with them here.
They are not her flock, but they are company, and Last has been so very lonely.
– go us far yes excited-happy determined us go safe good searching-looking happy-happy-happy, Bright Eyes chirrs. She cannot help but listen, but she startles when he scampers closer and paws at the air, asking of her look-at-me?
C'mon, he pleads, beckoning. Us – he glances around to Brave, and back at Last, including her – go c'mon c'mon urgent-important please please you happy there-elsewhere please? worried worried sorry you-hurting don't-want no no!
Last shudders, but her resolve is hard in her chest, a stone among her fires. Stay, she repeats sullenly, crouching into the damp sand.
Cringing, Bright Eyes wails why? Hurting you hurting no no no bad!
Brave pads to his side and bats at him with a single paw, herding him close in to the black dragon's side. Mine, Brave postures, eyes sliding to her. But he tips his head wondering, and looks around.
You where hello here-I-am come-find-me where you where? he demands of the empty beach, and the broken caves, and the dark ocean. His beloved one is beside him; where are those she loves, who love her?
The silence that answers him stabs into Last like a thorn trodden on, inescapable, and the knowing in Brave's eyes hurts even more so.
No, she insists. Here, she gestures, whining need and waiting, staring out to sea beyond the destruction that litters the shore.
If she left – it frightens her to think of it, but the strangers will not let her turn her thoughts from it as they cry and whimper and plead with her to leave, tempting her despite her faith – there would be nothing sure left, the part of her that has gone missing with her Alpha lost forever. Everything would be different and wrong.
And she would never see her flock-mates again, and she could not leave behind –
Last cries out, glancing over her shoulder at the gaping caves and finally remembering.
She tears herself free of the clinging sand, and does not stop to shake it from her scales as she spreads her wings and leaps clumsily into the air, staggering in panic. The stone of the mountain veers beneath her as she flies too close to a cliff in her haste, and she sets down only for a moment before taking off again, flapping and flailing at the air.
Part of her is aware of Brave following behind her, his small one perched on his shoulders, but she does not care; they are not important. When they hesitate at the deeper darkness of the tunnel into the mountain, she is already far within. She does not see Brave struggle to venture into the caves, or Bright Eyes shudder and lick at his jaws, pawing at his eyes before shaking himself all over and crouching to touch his head to the back of his companion's skull. She is blind to the effort it takes them to follow her, and does not realize that they are worried more for her despite their sharply-remembered fear of the caverns.
When the strangers find her again she is slinking across the smooth stone of the cave, belly pressed to the warmth of it, moaning shame and sorrow and regret at her neglect.
But they are safe, they are safe!
She noses her eggs and tastes them each in turn, a flicker of tongue over the shells of each; she knows them all. They are hers and only hers, and she forgot, she forgot again; it is very hard to be good and obedient when she is the only one left, and still guard her eggs as she should.
Instinct and the lessons of a lifetime, trodden into her heart with heavy claws, war within her, tearing her apart. What remains turns a half-mad eye to the strangers peering from the tunnel and snarls at them, placing herself between them and her treasures. She spreads her filth-encrusted wings mine and stay-away!
But no growl answers her, only a doubled soaring cry of delight as Brave and Bright Eyes slink into her cave, staying back submissively but staring with great interest at the many eggs, and she keeps them in the corner of her eyes as she licks at the eggs. She grooms ash away from their shells as determinedly as she neglects her own scales, and they shine in the faint light from the distant pit.
The taste of them and the occasional faint movement from within soothes her, and although she barely notices the soft thrumming purrs humming through the cavern from throats not her own, she sighs. For once, the cave sounds as it should, with others here to guard beside her.
See that-there yes happy good good! Brave chirrs to her when she looks at him; his small one is crouched at his side, tongue flashing in a dragon's smile.
Some tangled ache within her uncoils itself and stretches, basking in their approval. Last relaxes more than she has since her mate, that she found and lost again so quickly, was beside her, and for the first time sees the strangers clearly.
Not monsters, come to steal and destroy and kill. Not wicked tempters, luring her away to pounce on her and tear at her throat. Not thieves, following to snatch her treasured eggs.
Just dragons, dragons like her, who understand that eggs are to be protected. They are not of her flock, but they are cousins; all dragons are cousins. They are not quite like her – she has never seen dragons that look like them – but that is not important.
Shuddering with the joy of not being alone, Last lowers her jaw over her eggs and signals mine at the dragon-pair.
Surely now they will understand that she cannot leave. This is her nest, her home.
Stay, she says firmly, settling to the stone to guard the eggs in their small alcove. There is no sky to watch, deep in the caves, but still her head comes up as if to look out over it, long habit turning her eyes away. Determined, she says, and patient.
Flock mine yes sure-confident waiting me waiting yes they here yes patient, she signals. And she tips her head hopeful, and crouches Alpha!
Last does not understand why Brave and Bright Eyes startle as if she had flamed at them. Brave cringes frightened and he bares his fangs furious-hateful, and Bright Eyes presses his small body against Brave's shoulder and howls no! He glances back towards the fire-filled pit as if he knows where it is, as if he understands that her Queen should be there, and shudders, coughing revulsion.
Surprised, Last whines confusion. Alpha where where where longing lonely need Alpha sad lonely don't-know resigned confused lost waiting Alpha, she says in yelps and gestures, looking from one of them to the other as they flinch and tremble.
No, Bright Eyes repeats, clinging to Brave, who nuzzles against him. Last stares, crouched and uncomprehending, as they comfort each other.
A huff bursts from Brave as if a great paw had tapped his belly. He shakes his head with a small cry of realization! and whines baffled unsure wondering disbelief-doubt yes? yes?
Understanding, Bright Eyes cries, low and sorrowful and pitying, and Last looks from one to the other, uncertain. What can they understand, when she does not?
When they decide yes-determined after a very soft argument, sounds scuffling at cross-purposes, Bright Eyes turns back to her. She sees sorrow in his signals, but they are strange and mixed together. There is sorrow there, but also resolve and nothing of shame. There is sympathy in his voice as he croons comfort to her, but no regret.
Alpha, Brave cringes, making himself small in demonstration, and Last brightens with a desperate need.
But then he raises his head, and his eyes flash defiance, and he shrieks dead!
At once the Last of the Faithful leaps to her paws, only the shock-horror of such a terrible treacherous dangerous sound keeping her from throwing herself at him screaming denial and fear and anger. Instead she holds herself still and trembles, baring her teeth.
No, she refuses with all her being. Those are not sounds that make sense together. She cannot even imagine them together. He will be devoured for saying such a terrible thing, when the Queen returns, and he must not say it again!
Brave glares back at her, holding his ground, stubborn and sure crackling through his body.
In the silence, Bright Eyes croons baffled and wondering. He waves a paw at the world beyond: the broken caves, the shattered mountain, the silent tunnels, all the things that Last refuses to see.
Yes, he insists, softly. He wrinkles his small nose and recoils as if from the scent of death, and sets his shoulders real-true-sure.
No no no no no, Last can only repeat, because it cannot be. She has tried so hard to keep her world together, protecting it for her flock and her hoarded eggs, struggling even with her spine broken.
But the belief in their voices is a heavy paw brought down on her shoulders, and Last wails as the backbone of her world snaps in two beneath the weight of understanding, prey much-searched for turning to poison in her jaws.
She could not think it for herself. But in the confidence of Brave and Bright Eyes, taking strength from each other, and in the kindness offered to her as they stayed beside her, she knows it to be true.
Her Alpha is dead.
Last understands death. Death coats the walls of her nest; it nips at her throat and roosts in her skull. Death is great jaws snapping closed, an ending.
Her world is over.
Last crouches to the ground, signaling Alpha Alpha confused submission no Alpha no where no Alpha disbelief refusal no no no… She puts her nose to the stone and cries as dragons do, howling and shrieking, a keening wail that shivers stone, and her refuge screams with her.
Lost me me me lost scared hurting scared lonely scared don't-understand no no no no scared despairing hurting no no lost – mine mine mine these mine mine need mine these – she wails, raising her head only to shuffle over to her eggs. But nosing at them brings her no comfort, and she retreats.
They are not enough. They are still and quiet, too new and still sleeping, and she is alone beneath the rubble of everything she has ever understood.
Lonely, she cries. Her throat is not big enough to scream the hurting inside her; it chokes her like bad not-food, as if she has swallowed the ocean and it has frozen inside. No no no no no… and she buries her head under an outspread wing and moans despair.
She has lived her life in fear, but it was all she knew.
At first she does not notice the touch on her scales. She is trembling too much to notice when the little dragon she thinks of as Bright Eyes creeps towards her, keeping low and unthreatening and pausing often, ready to jump away if she turns on him in rage. But the Last of the Faithful is drowning in her grief, and even when he rests a gentle paw against her shoulder, she does not snap or flame, only wails hurting.
Ashes come away beneath his paw, and the little dragon rumbles pity, brushing at them to find the scales beneath, as he brings his dragon-partner to him with a glance and a gesture to settle at her side.
Keening deep in her throat and casting about for anything familiar, Last watches dully as the strangers set themselves to grooming her, tearing away the mud and smudges and grime that coats her scales. Ashes and soot turn black scales grey, and when Bright Eyes scrubs a paw across his paler face, batting at the fur that falls into his eyes, the gesture leaves a dark slash across his skin, with one eye looking out from within it like a shadow.
Brave ducks under her half-raised jaw to touch his nose against the mark, tongue coming out a little way, and Bright Eyes pulls back almost playfully. He dabs an ash-coated paw against that searching nose to make a splotch, and Brave makes a very small sneeze.
Here, Bright Eyes gestures to Last's ribs as they swell with a fresh moan, and the black dragon rolls an eye at him and huffs a warm breath against the thick-encrusted mud to melt it away.
Last roils with confusion, crying no no no no no lost grieving lonely hurting no no, helpless beneath their paws. They have struck her down, and now they tend to her as if they were her own longed-for flock-mates, and Last cannot think far enough to wonder if they will turn and strike her again.
She can only whimper, and tremble, and try to fit this new unthinkable thought into her mouth.
The invincible, transcendent, pitiless god of her world – dead.
She cannot imagine it, but it fits into the destruction of her world like a paw into a pawprint, and so she cannot deny it.
Beneath her cries, she hears a soft pleased sound as Brave laps his tongue across Bright Eyes' small soft paws and the littler dragon washes clean her true green-golden colors, buried deep beneath neglect. He scratches harmless claws against her rough skin, tearing off dead scales that could not fall away, carefully working across her sides and – he hesitates, tapping tentatively, but she does not snarl – the hollow of her long throat.
When she cries out and flinches at the half-pain of the new soft scales beneath, Brave rears to rest his chest and paws across her spine, holding her steady with his weight. He nuzzles and licks at the soft spikes that run from ruff to tail-tip, and brushes his side against hers as he paces, scraping away the filth of her long isolation.
Last whimpers desperation, knowing deep inside that the world will never be as it was again, and when Bright Eyes looks up, she meets his gaze unexpectedly.
Hurt, his eyes say, without flinching away from her agony. And his signals say understanding. As if he might know what it is, to have the world end.
And with a final lost! howl – her home is destroyed, her bloodthirsty god is dead, everyone she has ever known is gone, and she is lost without them – she coils her long neck down and hides against his body, closing her eyes in agony.
Bright Eyes who is dragon-cousin and kin unlooked-for holds her tightly, wrapping around her muzzle and whimpering sorrow with her. Brave who is strong even when he is frightened, the way she wishes she could be, rests his weight across her shoulders and purrs here us affection here here together here here reassurance comfort affection together yes here.
And at her side, her unhatched children dream in their low grotto, their world unbroken by strange-ice and death.
Her throat is raw and torn-apart inside when Last has no more screams. She is hollow and cold and floating, adrift in a dark ocean with no land in sight, her wings waterlogged, the wind howling fierce and tearing, waiting to strike her down into the water if she should try to flee. She can only lie helpless and wait to drown.
But she clings to the warmth surrounding her, the weight of paws and chest across her back and the beat of a fast-flickering heart against her skull, as if they were driftwood tumbling through the waves and bearing her back to shore.
Her faith broken, the Last One finally knows that she cannot stay here any longer. Not alone.
No one is coming back – the dead do not return, the dead are gone – and there is nothing keeping her here. Only her eggs, and eggs can be lifted in carefully cradling paws and flown with, held close against chests and bellies and the heart-fires within to keep them warm.
She could not have moved them by herself, could not have carried them one by one to a strange place and left them there unguarded while she raced back for another and predators closed in. It is a frightening thing, to take a clutch from one place to a new one, and alone she could not have mustered the will or the courage to do so.
But Brave and Bright Eyes, purring against her and clicking affection to each other, came and found her in her darkness, and she is no longer alone. She does not have to be, if she is strong enough to try.
Perhaps – somewhere out in the wide-open and frightening world – some of her scattered flock will be willing to let the Last One and her children join them.
Perhaps they have been waiting for her.
Do you understand that we will never be the same again?
thanks for reading – Le'letha
Afterword: Title and lyrics are from Bastille's "Things We Lost in the Fire". It's on the "Nightfall" soundtrack as "Stoick and Cloudjumper", but sprang to mind immediately as I was planning this story. You should listen to it. If you're wondering, Last/the Last of the Faithful is a Thornridge (voltaic-soda dot deviantart dot com slash art slash Grace-637500599 - I use VoltaicSoda's fantastic species reference art all the time). I know that's not one of the four main dragon species we see in the first movie, but the design matched the body language I had in mind so perfectly, and if the Queen of the Nest was capturing passersby, as we see in "Nightfall", there might be a few wildcards, like Toothless, mixed in there.
And: Did you see 10Blue10's "Nightfall" poem "A Dragon Am I"? Find it here: fanfiction dot net /s/12220167/1/A-Dragon-Am-I