I am born into bondage, a slave before ever I draw breath.
Pressure and Heat are my first sensations. I feel compressed, growing rapidly too large for the confines of my containment. I flex against it, attempting to stretch on sheer instinct alone, and in so doing I am introduced to the concept of Movement, and of Self; the pressure increases and I push against its weight, and thus I learn the idea of Opposition.
My barriers crack, and I breathe my first gulp of Air, nose poking through the hole I have created in my personal mews. The space on the other side (and now I have an inkling of the meaning of Spaces large and small) is warm, but not as warm as the depths of my prison, and reeks of sand and molten rock and sweat, and I come upon the notions of Temperature and Scent. I rest a moment, breathing, becoming familiar with all of these strange Images and Feelings, and when I feel ready I press the weaknesses in the walls of my environs. They crack further, then shatter, and I am unceremoniously dumped onto hot sand, wet and gritty and confused, flailing weakly under the weight of my clumsy limbs. Thus is my induction to Touch, Texture, Taste, and most of all, Discomfort.
I do not yet realize, at moments old, that I have escaped one prison for another. For the moment, I merely attempt to absorb and catalogue the exponentially multiplying sensations assaulting me.
Gradually I become aware that there is a steady, low roar, a strange Noise nearby - sound now enters the world of my perceptions. My head feels heavy, heavier than I could have ever imagined, but I lift it on my wobbly neck, pry open bleary eyes against the dimness. The Light seems very bright to pupils that have never seen it before, and I adjust, blinking.
The rookery is a humble cavern, with a low ceiling and a wide sandy bed, but to me it is the length and breadth of the universe. I am surrounded by leathery, scaly ovals half buried in the sand, but do not yet recognize either the copies of my mews or their inhabitants as my brothers and sisters. I am the eldest of my brood, and thus must discover all things in due time, without older siblings for aid.
I cannot yet see the source of the Noise, and unthinking I attempt to move to do so. I lose what little bearing I have, faceplanting in the sand, and in consternation I fight against my own awkwardness with a savage will, flopping and fumbling my way to movement. I become aware of two Paws, then four, then a Tail; the burden at my back resolves itself into wet, heavy Wings, yet thick with goop from my birth, and there is some sort of Promise in the knowledge of Wings, a vaguely-shaped innate sense that one day I will delight in their proper purpose. Before I can puzzle out this purpose, however, I am struck with sudden exhaustion, and careful of the new appendages I lay down in the sand to spread them out to dry.
Rest comes to me unbidden, and I dream my first brief fledgling dreams, all vague colours and light.
When I wake, a green shape comes into focus before me: two flattened red circles for eyes, a thick brow, a slash for a mouth, tufts of grey fur or hair seemingly sticking out every which way. It is Keeper's face looming over me, and the first time I see it, I stumble over the idea of Others, to contrast to my newfound sense of Self. Then he scowls and reaches towards me, a circle holding glittering Keys dangling from one hand, and I am swiftly introduced to Fear.
I hiccup. Heat escapes my throat, and a gasp of Flame leaks past my lips, a reaction to the sensation of Fear that startles me as much as it startles Keeper. He makes a noise and drops his keys with a loud, Metallic clatter, and they land softly in the sand, red hot.
I smell something acrid, the stench of Burned Flesh. There is a black mark on Keeper's hand, and his expression darkens, his lips drawing back from yellow Teeth to show Tusks and Fangs. Fear becomes Terror. I shrink back against the sand, Cowering, and although I can sense that I have done wrong, I am not yet aware of how I have trespassed or what, if anything, may be done to rectify it.
Keeper spits Words that I do not yet know how to understand. He Growls them, Snarls them, and from him I catch glimpses of scarlet Rage in the back of my mind, a sensation utterly foreign to me. I am still struggling to realize that this Anger I sense is something Keeper is feeling, something that is separate from Me, when he takes hold of my muzzle in one thick-Fingered Hand. I try to Bite it, again moved by fear. It does not help my cause.
In his other, blackened hand he grasps the keys by their ends, and grimacing with a certain, Malicious delight, he presses the searing-hot circle holding them to my cheek. Pain enters my world. It is Brutal. Cruel. Merciless.
I try to tear away, but Keeper's strength is overwhelming; I attempt to Scream, but no Noise will energe from my throat. My scales are minutes or hours old at best, pliable, half-hardened. The mark from the circle of Iron engraves itself upon my Face, excruciating and indelible.
Keeper leaves the metal against my scales until I cease to fight him, and when I yield, the pain is left to fade away. He trudges away across the sand, the low roar covering his shuffling footsteps, and I am left to recover by myself.
It is my first lesson, the hardest lesson, and I needs must learn it harder than those who come after me. Submission is rewarded with the cessation of unpleasantness.
I would Weep for the pain, but I cannot Speak. No Sound will pass my teeth, no matter how hard I try, how much I wish to Whine and Cry to alleviate the hurt. Trapped in my silence, powerless and alone, I curl in the sand to wait, but my temperance does not last forever.
I find my feet and learn to Walk, folding my wings neatly at my back, and discover a pool of banked Fire that warms the cave and provided the roaring Noise that was my downfall. After a time, I learn to Pace, bored, impatient; eventually, one of the leathery ovals cracks, and a scarlet nose pokes through, a nose identical to mine. The first of my siblings is beginning to hatch, and from the sidelines I silently cheer him on. He is only the first - others soon follow, and the rookery in quickly awash in noise and clumsy hatchlings learning their balance, and their limitations. I settle in the sand to watch.
As they emerge, one by one, peeping and chirping through the shells of their prisons and testing their boundaries just as I did, I become aware of two things. Firstly, that I alone of the brood lack a Voice, and secondly that there is another world behind my eyes, a place made up of the loosely-connected minds of my siblings, and beyond them, other beings - beings just within reach of my senses. I skitter among the minds of my brothers and sisters as they begin to learn to play, and realize that I am an unnoticed guest in their mind-spaces, considered an errant thought at best. I gather my meager courage and send my Thoughts out along this web of mindscapes, and skipping from mind to mind, I discover fantastic new Words and concepts. I learn Orc, and Dragon, and Grim Batol. I learn War, and Fighting, and with Fighting comes Blood and Death - Death is a frightening Place in the minds of others, and I shy away from it, filled enough with fear for one hatching-day.
I find the mind of an old, old Dragon, an ancient and venerable Male, and from him I learn Father, and Consort, and a Name like a holy benediction: Alexstrasza.
I leave his mind before he can turn his attentions to me, understanding dimly that what I am doing may perhaps be Wrong, and hiding from the consequences. From him I leap to the heart of another behemoth Dragon, and unlike my Father, She notices me and knows me immediately, and I am inundated with the feeling of her Love. It fills up the empty spaces within my Soul that I did not know I had, and tumbling over one another the Words and emotions come: Mother, Daughter, Hatchling, Dragonflight, Family, and Life. And with Life comes Hope, and though I do not understand Hope, I treasure it all the same, a Gift from my Mother, who Loves me and my siblings.
I catch a fleeting sense of Freedom, the Word without the understanding of the meaning behind it, and at this thought the walls of Mother's prison come slamming down between us, severing for a time our tentative connection. It seems deathly cold to be bereft of her once I am aware of her presence, but her unseen gaolers are harsh and unbending, and I Hope that I will sense her again soon. Perhaps, I think, she is trapped in mews not unlike mine, and one day she will grow too big for them to contain, and shatter free as I did.
My brothers and sisters, six of us all told, Sing with simple pleasure as they discover the first steps of life in the rookery sand. In my heart I Sing with them, even when in my throat no Song will stir.
When Keeper returns with many other Orcs to shepherd us from the cavern, the Singing ceases, and as one the rookery goes tense, silent, even the roar of the Fire dimmed and the almost imperceptible movement of the unhatched ceasing. They look to me, my broodmates, and if I had Words I would say to them, Don't fight. But I have no voice to speak to them, and I do not know the words to put in their minds. I can only lead by example, going tamely as Keeper and his kind usher me out of my birthplace.
Some of them fight the orcish hands seeking to chase them away, and they Suffer for it. I learn Guilt then, because I could not adequately Warn them. The smart ones watch me, however, and when they see me come docilely to Keeper's hand, they follow, and do not yet meet with Pain or Fear. I tell myself that perhaps this small Mercy, the opposite of Keeper's Mercilessness, is Good, but even then, I believe it is a Lie.
I am a month old when they execute Coin.
Whelps too young to properly train live communally, penned together in a great cavern that serves as quarters, taming circle and feeding grounds alike. From hatching till old enough to bear the weight of an orc as a ground mount, the bars at the entrance and ventilation slits demarcate of the edges of our world. Visible through the gate is a larger cave, one where sunlight crosses the sandy floor, and we ache as one to explore beyond it, but those who leave by that entrance do not return to us. The mind can only explore so far before the body wishes to join it.
We live with several other older broods, our larger brothers and sisters, and as we grow and differentiate ourselves, our captors name us - not True Names, but simpler labels, names which one might give pets. A pair of my brothers who hatched from the same egg, alike in every way, are Sulfr and Stone. A third, strapping brother born with tiny, misshapen wings is termed Warp, destined never to Fly. My tiny sister earns the name Cup for a queerly-shaped armor scale at the back of her neck. A second sister breaks a bone in her tail playing with an older brother, and even the Dragonmender cannot set the fracture perfectly. They call her Skew.
And I, of course, become Ring. It is a name I would have come by in a different way.
We live together, but we are forbidden speech by our captors; thus my brothers and sisters slowly come to the web of hearts that I found so naturally, and through that hive-mind we learn and teach each other words and emotions, and communicate as best we can.
Mother is still unreachable, but I can sense her bound fury, distant and dim, a speck of light amidst a vast dark void.
Long before they force Coin to the sandy arena before the gate, we hear his anger and fear through the network of minds, hear his roars echo through the caverns as they drag him into the dying sunlight. The knowledge reverberates through the flight like the struggles of an insect cause a spider's web to sway and billow: Coin has bitten off the arm of his rider. His control has snapped. He will not serve Keeper or the Dragonmaw ever again.
We, too young to know better, crowd to the bars as they bully him into the cavern, curious and unaware of what is to follow. The minds of our elders are silent and grim, and that alone should have warned us.
The older we children of Alexstrasza become, the higher our chances of even the smallest act of defiance to Keeper and his kind being viewed as a mortal sin. Fighting dragons are a valuable commodity, but no orc will tolerate a willful mount. When we show such willfulness, it is simply easier to wipe the slate clean and start over again.
Coin is two years old, just shy of maturity, and dripping with chain when I see him through the cavern's bars. The orcs swarm around him like ants at a carcass, and through his mizzle he roars and makes attempts to eat his captors; his wings are painfully bound, limbs heavy with exhaustion and his shackles, war-wounds oozing scarlet into the sand. Briefly he shakes free of their grasp, and sheaves of orcs are lifted into the air like leaves, flying in many directions, but as soon as Coin has ridden himself of them, more rush to take their place. Slowly, overwhelming him with sheer numbers and dense mass, they force his head to ground level, limbs pinned, his powerful tail crushed under the weight of thirty strapping orcs.
When Keeper appears, my blood runs chill, and I alone of my excited, peeping siblings feel a terrible premonition of what is to come.
Keeper wears a blade at his hips, a dark iron sword with nicks in the cutting edge. This he takes in hand, the black blade dull even in the brilliant setting sunlight, and as I watch in horror, he strides forward, places a palm almost gently upon Coin's cheek - he struggles even now, golden eyes huge amidst the battle-scarred scales -
The sword plunges towards the gold of his irises, and we spectators scream as one, both seeing and feeling Coin's death close at hand. Most of my siblings flee the grate to cower in a distant corner of the cavern, and I do not grudge it of them. This is our first brush with Blood and Death, those awful words I discovered long ago but could not properly attach meaning upon.
Distantly, I hear my Mother weeping. Even through the walls of her prison, she feels Coin's death more keenly than we ever could.
Sulfr and Stone flee, as do Cup and Skew. Only Warp, trembling, remains with me at the bars, limbs locked in place, his tiny wings beating erratically in time with his heart. My heart carries the same beat, and my muscles quaver as badly as his. But while I stay for reasons I cannot articulate, Warp stays only for my sake - he will not abandon his sister to face events alone.
Go, I impress upon him, and he gives me one guiltily grateful look before he flees into the shadows. I remain behind, to bear witness to my brother Coin's fate.
Keeper leaves the sword in Coin's twitching body, and the blood seeps everywhere, the sand sopping only most of it. Some of the orcs lap at his life-fluids, disgustingly eager, and I feel myself becoming more and more ill and heartsick as they casually discuss the disposal of the corpse.
"We feast tonight on dragonmeat," says Keeper eventually, and a cheer rises from the assembly. They begin the process of crudely butchering Coin for processing, hacking limbs from trunk, fighting over choice bits of scale, claws, horns. Two orcs brawl viciously over the right to the thick club at the end of Coin's tail. This is my second lesson, I realize slowly, the lesson of what becomes of those who do not submit - especially those who dare to show their will after their usefulness has begun to wane.
I am sickened more with each passing moment, and as I am about to turn away, I see Keeper is watching me watch the tragic scene. He looks contemplative, and I do not want to know what awful plans churn behind those scarlet eyes.
I stare back at him until another orc calls to him, and he looks away. When he does, I slip from the bars into the depths of the cave, and as I join my siblings in a huddled ball of scale and fear, I resolutely do not listen to his thoughts, or anyone else's.
I am three months old when they take us to the pit.
We are to be fighting dragons, and thus we must be taught to fight long before we can be taught to Fly; the orcs are also great devotees of bloodsport, and gambling, and the pits are as much a place of betting, bellowing and pain as they are a place of learning. We are brought from the hatchling cave when we are the size of young riding wolves, fitted for leather Harness that is as much a method of identification as it is a way to pry hatchlings apart from one another, and left in a wheeled cage to watch the matches scheduled before us.
Cup huddles amongst us, frightened and delicate, the runt of our litter. Warp and Skew stand guard over her, only the slight fluttering of misshapen wing and the thumping of kinked tail to betray their own anxiety. Sulfr and Stone lay on their bellies, heads down and eyes shut, as if by pretending they do not hear the orcish roars or the pained cries of our brothers and sisters, they can stop the matches from existing.
I pace the cage like an angry tiger, a moving barrier between the pit and my siblings, wary, watchful and listening. Through the minds and voices of my elders I realize early what is to come, even if my clutch-siblings do not wish to know.
I hear Keeper before I see him ("Where is Ring? Bring me Ring!") and at his insistence the cage is opened and I am hauled out. My siblings shy back from the open door, and Warp warbles a thin growl in the pit of his throat, but I go with what dignity and bravery I can muster. The warriors haul on my Harness as though they expect me to fight against them, but I merely quicken my stride to match theirs.
When Keeper sees that I walk to him of my own accord, head high and without coersion from my captors, his smile curves upwards at the tusked corners, and my leashes-turned-escort exchange worried glances over my head.
The pit is a ragged, sandy circle with the boundaries of its territory marked by bloodstained spears, the bleached skulls of both orcs and young dragons adorning their tips. I see one such reminder of my brethren and, while I know that he was much too large when he was murdered for his bones to be edificed in such a way, for the briefest moment I wonder if the eyeless sockets staring back at me once belonged to Coin. Boxes and crates serve as impromptu stadium seating, and off-duty orcish warriors crowd the makeshift seats, making bets and bellowing encouragement to their chosen drakes.
There is a match occurring in the pit when I arrive, and I catch glimpses of it through gaps in the spears. From the rise and fall of the orcish racket and the delicate probing of the fighters' minds, I see this match is less a training fight than a punishment. Some hidden cue is reached or revealed as I stand there watching, and Keeper yells for his underlings to separate the battling dragonets. The loser is carried from the pit, his wings limp and head low; the winner strides to Keeper without being told. As I watch, Keeper's hand descends upon his battle-scarred head, and incredibly the orc's touch is approving, rewarding. He is led away to feast and rest and be tended by the Dragonmender, and I reach the third lesson as I watch his swaggering hips and swishing tail. The Dragonmaw value ferocity as well as obedience in their dragons, as long as that ferocity is never directed toward an orc - and those who display both attributes are rewarded handsomely.
I am still processing this realization, deciding what I shall do with the information, when Keeper leans down and grasps my jaw in his thick fingers. I let him; the black Mark on his hand has not faded, nor has the one on my cheek. He stares me in the eye as though measuring me against my predecessor, scarlet irises meeting gold, and his gaze narrows as if he has either found what he seeks, or the disconcerting lack of it. I do not wish so desperately enough to know that I would attempt to pry in that section of his mind, for Keeper's mindscape is a dark place indeed.
He lets me go, and a section of spears is parted for me. I am not so much pushed through the gap as dumped across the border, the spears reintegrated seamlessly into the barrier once I have gone and before I can so much as find my feet. When I have my bearings, paws steady in the sand, I meet my opponent, a brother fully four months older and twice my size, striped with scars and ragged scales. His tail whips, his teeth bare and he growls fair warning, but he does not yet leap for my throat.
"Pike challenges Ring! Place your bets," yells Keeper from his safe vantage, assured and grim, and I know in my heart that he has done this apurpose. I am the eldest of my clutch; I am to be tempered like steel, or to be made example of. Both outcomes are equally appealing to Keeper.
I don't want to fight you, I say to Pike as I tense the muscles of my legs, and he snorts both in surprise and derision.
You're not getting a choice, he snarls back, and that is all the preamble I receive before he leaps forward on powerful hindquarters, meaning to pin me to the sands or the spears at my back, whichever becomes more convenient. I move before he reaches me and Pike gives chase, roaring throatily as he swipes at my tail and hindpaws. I evade him and we go round and round the sandy circle, and as I flee him my mind works ferociously to come to some conclusion before I am pounded into the floor of the pit.
I am coming to a shrewd suspicion that if my siblings know of our Mother at all, they have not had such contact as I have had with her heart and her love, and although they may perhaps be dimly aware of her confinement, they have given themselves over wholly to Keeper and his like. They have surrendered, to be free of the pain and fear. Orcs are not intellectual creatures, save for a few canny examples such as Keeper and the Dragonmender, and they beat coherent thought from their slaves-slash-mounts as early and as thoroughly as possible.
Keeper, unfortunately, did not find me before I found the heart of my Mother. But merely because I am young and powerless now does not mean things will always be so. My heart will always belong to Mother, but until the right time comes I will be not merely obedient, but irreplaceable. I will hide away my true Self and become wholly Ring, a pet red drake to the Dragonmaw, submissive but fierce, powerful yet unsuspected of treachery.
And then one day, I will do as Coin did and rebel.... but I will learn from his mistakes.
The decision is easily made then, the retreat from Pike's sweeping claws clarifying and crystallizing all my thoughts and intentions. I stop my retreat from Pike and whirl, and with a roar that echoes only among the thoughts of our nearby siblings, I charge toward and then through his guard, meeting him head-on as no other dragonet would dare. Surprised, Pike attempts to bellow, but my jaws lock on his throat and the cry is cut short. In the stands I hear the boos and jeering of the orcs revert back into vicious, bloodthirsty roars, their blood ignited by my sudden enthusiasm for the brawl.
Pike rakes his foreclaws across the back of my neck, where they skid across the heavy battle-scale there and make deep grooves, but draw no blood. I bite down harder and claw ferociously at his chest, and only leap away when his talons find purchase on the sensitive vanes of my wings.
We circle each other, Pike now more wary and I now ready to ruthlessly explot the intentions I read in his mind. We meet and separate a half dozen more times, both of us bleeding, and though his brawn and size outclass my untried muscles, he cannot read me as I read him. Pike has a temper. He will lose patience first.
And does. With the loss of his patience comes the crucial mistake, as when he charges again, a limb maimed by my jaws folds up like linens, unable to continue supporting Pike's weight. With a dismayed cry he goes down in a spray of bloody sand, and I leap forward to further upset his balance, savaging his neck and wings and limbs. The orcs are on their feet now and they are baying for the kill, and I draw my head back and open my jaws, making a production of it, flaring my bleeding wings and slashing my tail at the air -
"RING!" barks Keeper just as I start for the final blow, and I stop and turn my head, Pike mewling feebly beneath my claws. The orcs go silent at his shouting.
He stands amidst a gap in the spears, a slyly appraising look on his face and his palm outstretched, and without needing to be told I leave the ragged form of my beaten brother and pad to Keeper. I would not have killed Pike - he is still my brother - and Keeper would not have allowed me to, for dragon whelps are too precious to let them to destroy one another. But Keeper does not know that I never intended Pike's death, and so when I reach him I butt my head against his thigh, like a cat seeks its master, and Keeper's hand descends.
The orcs go ballistic with cheers and crowing victory. I find out later from the minds of my escort, while I am being led away to eat and rest and be Mended, that the odds laid against me were sky-high, and any orc who put coin on a rookie scarlet hatchling with a scarred circle on her cheek had turned a more than tidy profit. Keeper too had placed his bets cunningly, and won a small fortune on guile alone. The chiefest of the Dragonriders attended the fights that day as well, hidden somewhere in the blood-riled crowd, but had, strangely, not gambled on any hatchling.
As they bed me down in a hay-floored stall, a graduation from the whelp cave, this fact troubles me more than I care to admit to myself. My first night away from Sulfr and Stone, Cup and Skew, and especially my dear brother Warp is a long and lonely one, and I lay awake in the straw and meditate long on Keeper and his scheming, listening to my siblings' anguish as they meet with less successful fates in the pit.
I am six months old when I meet Jagg for the first time.
Though months of practice in the pit have given my broodmates and I the hard, use-worn muscle of athletes and warriors, if we are to be fighting dragons, we must also come to learn how to carry an orc upon our backs. To that end, when we become of a size and strength to begin bearing weight, we are pulled from our individual stalls, fitted with new, customized harness made for the task, and herded to a vast practice cavern. I can smell the stink of blood and orc-sweat and dragon-fear that has permeated the sand, perhaps even the very stone that forms the cave, and I know that we are merely the latest in a long line of hatchlings to come into this place.
Warp has grown in the intervening months since his first match, now easily a third again the size of the rest of us. Skew and the twin brothers have also grown, and Skew in particular has earned a multitude of stripes and a cult following in the arena; the orcs call her Palescar now, and most days from across the cavern network, I hear them chanting her name as she enters the pit. Cup has shown surprising adroitness in the pit, and though still the smallest of us she is also the quickest, the most nimble. Some of our collective fear has deserted us, but not all of it. I merely hide mine the best.
We are not the only brood brought to the cave, but we are perhaps the eldest. Waiting for us is Keeper and his crew of underlings, and the highest-ranked of the Dragonriders, Torgus, with his own retinue of warriors, both veterans and greenhorn recruits.
Resting behind the triple line of orcs, his wings bound to his back with yellowing linen bandages, is Jaggedmaw.
Jagg is enormous, and when we see him it is the first time since Coin that I or any of my siblings have seen a full-grown drake, but before Jagg the memory of Coin's sleek bulk pales like a pebble before the mountain. His scales are diamond-hard and a bright, bloody scarlet, his muscles as if hewn from solid stone, his limbs powerful even at rest, his form somehow graceful even bound to earth with a wounded wing. He catches us staring and sweeps his golden gaze across us, and when his eyes rest upon me, I very nearly choke on my own tongue. Here is a dragon hardened by the war, tempered in battle, raised under the dubious auspices of Keeper and his people, to become strong and great and cunning.
As my mind brushes briefly with his, I realize also that I am not the only child of Alexstrasza that hides their true self, waiting for the day to dawn that rebellion will become freedom.
Jagg glances away from us, disinterested, and he pointedly yawns to display the teeth from which he gained his name. Several juvenile teeth in his upper jaw have never completely fallen out, the adult fangs instead growing over and around them; the effect is of a jagged, double-fanged maw, more intimidating to look at than particularly potent in battle. His voice in our minds is quiet, calm and dryly humorous: Stop your gaping, children. One day, all this may be yours, if you live long enough to inherit.
Several jaws snap shut with audible clicks of meeting teeth. Mine are included.
So fascinated am I by Jagg's presence - and my discovery that I am not alone in biding my captive time - that I needs must scramble for mental footing when Keeper begins to speak, and the reason for the attendance of Torgus and his favoured mount becomes apparent. Between the brood and his green Dragonriders, he and Jagg are the only ones present with any expertise whatsoever on the act of Dragonriding itself; with Jagg playing massive paper doll, they demonstrate the most basic commands, those that can be performed and practised when grounded. Knee-down, leg-up, wing flare, tail sweep - orc and hatchling both, we stare in utter fascination as they demonstrate each with effortless grace and power. Jagg and Torgus make it look so easy.
Our work outlined, Torgus and Keeper begin to match Dragonrider to dragon. I am called forth first, and my designated partner is Serk. Strapping and huge, with wild black hair, shoulders like knotted tree trunks and a broken-tusked visage only a Mother could love, he sneers arrogantly down at me ("Such a puny thing! This is your infamous Ring, Dragonkeeper?") and I find I must suppress a sudden spike of rebellion, the powerful desire to take the orc down a notch. But no; I hear beneath his outward swagger and pomp that he is even more nervous than I, and I conduct myself with all decorum as the orc steps on my upraised leg, clambers clumsily over my shoulders and attempts to locate the seat on my harness.
The first try, he misses, and my wings are clamped to my back painfully by the dense pressure of his weight. I would yelp have I the words, but I cannot. Instead I lash my tail and shake myself from shoulders to hind, and Torgus sees my attempts to jostle the orc into proper position and bellows correction. Serk obliges, grumbling, but properly seated I can begin to move; his weight is an unbelievable burden, but instead of being crushed beneath his mass I find that I am stronger than I realize, and while I cannot plunge ahead as easily as Jagg - or even Warp, as I soon hear his pleased surprise through the dragonmind - that I can move at all comes somewhat as a shock. Once adragonback, all of the arrogance seeps out of him, and he acts with smooth, calm efficiency, no longer putting on a play for those watching.
At this age, I have no reins like a common mount, but Serk makes his intentions known by tugging on the harness or on scales of my neck. Directed wordlessly by him, we make a circuit around the training cave, and while I am walking and becoming accustomed to how a Dragonrider moves atop my shoulders, I watch and listen for my broodmates and other siblings. Warp will never see the Sky, but a formidable mount aground he will one day become, and he strides about the chamber with the largest orc present perched atop his back as if out for an afternoon stroll. For Cup they find an orc-scout (a rare orcish runt grown to manhood, slightly smaller than his warrior brothers) and I see her lunging about the cavern with her comparatively light burden, the orc putting her through her paces and finding her raw swiftness quite acceptable. The twins' riders are two orcs that could not have appeared more different, one bald veteran, bearded and scarred, the other younger and untried, brown war-braids containing an oily mane. However opposed their Dragonriders, however, the twins as always move as one, pacing in time across the sandy cave. When the matter of Skew-Palescar's assignment arises, there is a brief scuffle among the trainees, brawling over the right to one of the pit's favored champions. It is sorted out quickly enough, and she soon joins us as we test our limitations, explore the new parameters set upon our movements.
One by one, my other siblings are parcelled out to the attendant Dragonriders, till there are more orcs on dragonback than on foot in the cave. When the last dragon is paired off, some hidden checkpoint is reached, some unspoken signal heard; those unchosen by Torgus and Keeper take up wooden practice axes, and they begin chasing after the hatchlings across the training cavern.
There is puzzlement in the dragonmind at first, then the notion that this is perhaps some sort of odd game; that illusion remains unbroken while all the hatchlings have the strength and dexerity to dance out of harm's way, but a smaller brother named Splitscale, the runt of a younger litter, stumbles in the treacherous sand. The wooden axe lands hard enough upon his flank to make him squeal, his orc is knocked from the saddle by a mighty two-handed blow, and the usurping warrior harshly assumes his predecessor's place atop the harness. Splitscale is not given time to adjust or react beyond confusion and hurt, and when he does not immediately begin to move again, the orc savagely kicks his sides with his heels, as if he were a fractious horse. Splitscale screams and starts forward, painfully, awkardly. The orc keeps kicking until the dragonling's pace reaches speeds of appeasement.
Most are caught gawking and are subject to similar treatment, Stone and Sulfr included. Their pain exudes in waves through the dragonmind, and Cup and Palescar and I wheel and dance and evade the attackers, Serk and two others like him directing us with slaps, tugs, touches, the pressure of knees or heels. I understand then, as I listen to my siblings' minds, to the orcs' minds, the latter with more care and precision than I am used to implementing even in the pit. This is, in fact, a game, but one with a savage bent, and stakes high enough to grind the lessoning into the bones of dragon and rider alike. The mount that is caught, suffers. The rider that is dismounted, suffers.
From the mind of the veteran not long ago atop Sulfr's back, I catch glimpses of riders falling to their deaths, dragons torn from the skies by feathered shapes with evil beaks and claws. I shy away from them, and my concentration wavers enough that I skid and stumble in the sand. An unmounted orc sees the opportunity, charges for me with axe held overhead and blood in his eyes, and I regain my footing in time to begin the dash away, but not complete it. The axe thuds against my forequarters where Serk's leg presses tight, and I shudder from the bone-jarring blow, but I do not go to a knee, and Serk does not lose his seat, his stubby fingers dug in under the front edge of the harness. The orc on foot roars and brings the axe up for a second blow.
"Wing!" Serk bellows, and for a moment I think he mispronounces my name, but I am listening for his thoughts and in another blink I parse the command for what it is. I flare a wing as Jagg demonstrated before and catch the attacker in the gut with the lead edge of the sails, and the air exits his lungs with the same vaguely surprised "oof!" as if he had been hit with a sack of grain.
"Tail!" Serk calls, and this time I do not hesitate, sweeping my tail, and especially the thick club at the end of it, at ankle height like the crack of a whip. My tail hits the orc's lower calves, he goes from vertical to flat in the span of a heartbeat, and before the axe has hit the sand Serk guides me with knees and hands away from the threat it represents. My shoulder aches and pulses, promising bruises beneath the scale, and I am certain Serk's leg fares little better, but I am now painfully aware of the sand's traitorous properties. I will not be caught again.
Palescar's Dragonrider, finding himself increasingly pressed on all sides, is quick to adopt Serk's tactics and lead, steering my sister to fall in at my right as if we are on the wing. Cup's scout has far few issues; the orcs aground cannot hope to catch my swiftest sister, and she darts in and out and through their ranks like a leaf on the breeze. Sulfr and Stone change riders many times, but the more canny of Torgus's warriors recognize the merit in Serk's stratagem, and the knowledge spreads like fire or plague amongst both orc and dragonet. Eventually, no grounded orc can unseat the riders and claim their places as their own.
Only Warp cannot employ our tactics, his wings tiny and misshapen, but where the orcs are bastions of strength, he is a true juggernaut. His rider does not lose his place on Warp's back, but through no cunning or skill of his own - my brood-brother, I see with pride, is built most hale and mighty, enduring a rain of wooden axe blows with hardly the notice that Jagg might give a sand gnat. I hear the red leviathan laughing quietly in the background of the dragonmind, and when Torgus calls the orcs to ceasement, it is he who intervenes among the hatchlings. The first practice is short; young dragons have little stamina to speak of, and there will be more games as we grow. The orcs return to their line, Serk and Palescar's rider somewhat reluctantly, and we dragonets return to our brood-groups, and from there we are led single-file, destined for our stalls and trenchers of meat.
Only I look back as we are led away, and I see Keeper watching me - which by now I expect - and Jagg watching as well - which I do not. His enormous head tilts fractionally, as if he has spotted some shiny bauble, and his tail thumps once against the sand before he stands and allows himself to be led away. His thoughts are closed to me, and that worries me almost as much as Keeper's calculating gaze. Not for the first time, nor the last, I lie long awake in my straw-lined stall, anxiety gnawing like hunger in the pit of my stomach. It takes the soothing hum of the dragonmind to lull me to sleep, and I gratefully lose my worries in my siblings' dreams.
I am a year old when they come for me.
I know they are coming for me by the thoughts that leak through the loose filters about my drowsy mind; I feign true sleep even as Keeper strides to the door of my cavelet, my head resting between my paws. I and my broodmates have grown, fed on game and the Horde's own dead, tutored on cunning games overseen by Keeper and the Dragonriders; Torgus has long abandoned us as a teacher, returned to the lines when Jagg's wing healed, but in his absence we have been far from idle. Even Cup - renamed Wind by her favoured scout Danik, for her swiftness - is more than strong enough to bear an orc, or several, on her back for hours at a stretch. Warp grows seemingly exponentially compared to the rest of us, at a year very nearly the size of Coin before his death. With Flight forever barred to him, they already train him to guard our masters' earthly assets, and he does not disappoint them.
We have been moved out of our starter stalls and into larger quarters, warrens of straw-filled cavelets in lieu of hatchling stalls, and there are only low wooden gates across their mouths, symbolic barriers demarcating where the corridor ceases to bleed off, and nothing more. My dreams of freedom aside, we are old enough, and well enough trained, that we can be thought to no longer entertain notions of escape.
"Ring," says Keeper; I have worked at my reputation for being tractable yet quick, and my name is all my captors need say before I heed their call. I make a show of lifting my head, stretching my limbs, shaking my wings free of sleep-accrued ennui before folding them neatly along my spine. It is hardly Keeper's first visit that does not coincide with the schedule of Grim Batol, but this time he is not alone - two of his cronies accompany him as an honor guard, as does a monolithic figure whose presence and thoughts I genuinely welcome into my cavelet.
The Dragonmender is that rare and formidable orc, a thing somewhere between a warrior and a holy-woman, respected in the Horde's army but untouchable, unapproachable. She stands only barely shy of Keeper's height, feminine in a sharp, warlike way, corded with muscle and decked with piercings, marks of honor. Her manner is brisk, her tongue tolerates no foolishness, her preference is for the company of dragons rather than of their foolish riders, and her hands are hard where warranted and gentle where earned. She and her cadre of apprentices tend to every dragon in Grim Batol, heal their injuries, gauge their temperaments, track their growth and progress. Her mind is ordered chaos, a hundred different tracks of thought working in cohesive harmony, and she smells of herbs and earth.
She extends a hand for me to scent as always, an absent, habitual gesture meant to soothe a potentially nervous beast. I lower my head and nudge her palm with my nose, and at my invitation she rubs the scales at the base of the horn there. Of all the orcs in the cage of my birth, only the Dragonmender has earned my affection. "The eldest of the lot, is she?" she asks Keeper. He grunts in reply, and she does not wait for him to elaborate before both of her her hands are on me, skilled and callussed, probing for spots of problematic softscale around my nostrils. "Down," she commands, and I lay down; her hands travel up my muzzle to my eye and the faded scar below it, then down again to the nearer of my paws, examining each claw one finger at a time, palpating the joints through the tiny flexible scales there, feeling for bone spurs and testing for tenderness. My taloned paw is easily the breadth of her chest, the claws themselves nearly the thickness of her fist, but she hardly seems to notice.
From paw to wrist, and careful pressure against the long muscles on the way to my elbow; when she reaches my shoulder and the iron slab of sinew there, she speaks again. "Who flies her?"
"Her favourite is Serk, and they work well together at drill." Keeper folds his arms over his chest, watching with a critical eye. She does not turn to look at him, her eyes only for her work. "Even if she is..... flawed, Torgus approves." As does Keeper. He reeks smug accomplishment, as though a step of his plans has proceeded as expected.
The Dragonmender snorts, her fingers sounding the joint where wing meets trunk, testing for weakness, for the slightest excuse to pronounce the wing unfit. "He would." Up the arm of the wing she goes, and as she presses a certain place at the crux of the wingbones, I feel a somewhat unpleasant tingle and cannot help but flex the muscles in the area in an effort to dispel it. Unable to whine or rumble, I thump my tail to communicate discomfort, and she pats her palm against my scales. "I know, Ring. Bear with me a bit longer." From the wing she travels to my hip, and repeats the examination on that rear limb, in reverse order of the probing of the fore. "And who does Torgus plan to partner her with? Someone with experience, I hope."
"Ergy's feverish, and he has poison in the blood," says Keeper, a seemingly unrelated statement, but the Dragonmender's hands still, and she turns to look at him. "Whiteeye will probably recover, and he can be flown again by a different rider. You know that better than I do. But Ergy's arm will have to come off."
"Making him a Dragonrider no longer." She presses her lips together, a thin, pale green line. Her thoughts are muddied, clouded over with the ritual of the inspection, but rising like a star through the center of them are the words that she speaks almost before I can decipher them inside her mind. "Torgus cannot possibly be seriously considering partnering her and Serk opposite himself and Jagg."
My heart surges to a racing staccato in my chest. Jagg, flying opposite me? The great Jaggedmaw, most feared drake on our fighting lines, my mentor for my first flight? Panic and elation both course through my veins, and I must fight to prevent from leaping to my feet, the need to pace about my cavelet suddenly intense as it has never been.
"Why not?" counters Keeper, and I attempt to absorb the concept and pretend idiocy once more before he notices that I am raptly listening. No doubt the Dragonmender feels the tension in my limbs, and can guess, but her opinions on draconic intelligence have always ranged higher than Keeper's. "There's no better Dragonrider or stronger dragon in Grim Batol."
"Tame dragon," corrects the Dragonmender, and Keeper glares briefly at her for the interruption before smoothing his features.
"It will bring them honor to learn from the best of us."
"It'll be a death sentence, is what it will be!" says the Dragonmender sharply. Her mind is a roiling puddle of anger, and I must temper the force of her fury with more careful mental filtering, lest her mood affect mine. "You can't send a new recruit and an even newer drake out to the front lines!"
"Who said they would be on the front lines?" Keeper grins, yellowed jagged teeth like a shark's maw in his green face. "Continue the inspection, if you would, Dragonmender. Ring is quite ready to take to the air."
I hear her hatred of Keeper spike to the fore, surging like the froth atop the tide, and her words surge forth as well with no regard for the two cronies of Keeper's that are listening. "And if I pronounce her unfit to fly? I've grounded hatchlings for less that merely being unready."
"Then I will go to Nekros Skullcrusher and see what he has to say about a perfectly fit drake being unable to join the war effort," says Keeper smoothly, and the Dragonmender's loathing of my gaoler increases tenfold. But she does not argue, because she knows he is right. Unless there is something genuinely wrong with me, Keeper will stop at nothing to get me into the air.
And truthfully, I am bursting at the soul to go; I will not be like Warp, forever wedded to the earth, and I desire the skies like I have desired nothing else in my short existence. After a few moments of frustrated inner rage, the Dragonmender continues her journey down my form, feeling each set of thews for soreness or tears, probing every joint and every knob of bone. When she has finished with my tail and come up my other side to meet the starting point at forequarters, she bids me lay my head and neck to the ground, and her fingers delve under every armored scale and around every bump and horn. She pronounces my eyes clear and my skull well-formed before she bids me yawn and hold the pose; her hands, not nearly as rough as Serk's or Keeper's, tickle slightly as she inspects for wobbly or loose teeth, fearlessly handling fangs as long as her hand. She knows with absolute certainty that no drake of this place would dare so much as scratch her skin, and I cannot bring myself to dissuade her of the notion.
As she finishes the inspection, her face set with a frown, I hear the minds of Torgus and Serk approaching down the corridor, their thoughts skittering faintly across the meeting, like grasshoppers. Keeper notices them shortly after I do. "Dragonriders! Come to see my Ring?"
"Your Ring?" says Serk quietly, but Torgus's cheer overwhelms his annoyed growl.
"Dragonmender, Dragonkeeper! Is the drake fit to fly? She looks like she's in rare form today!" He strides forward and into my cavelet, and I allow him to pat my nose, although I take no joy in it as I did with the Dragonmender.
The Dragonmender's frown deepens, and Keeper's smile expands. A less tense than awkward silence is formed, and eventually, reluctantly, she announces, "Ring is fit to fly a half-patrol and no more. You will not push her until her flight muscles become as developed as the rest of her." It was not a question, but a statement of fact, her scarlet eyes pinning Serk in place as if daring him to disobey her will. Serk sets his jaw as if preparing to growl at her, thinks better of it, but neither is he cowed by the face of her anger, standing his ground. Keeper watches intently; Torgus, well familiar with the Dragonmender's temper, hardly notices the show.
"Serk! Get Ring fitted for a proper flight harness, not this trainee rig," grins Torgus, tusks prominent in the corners of his mouth. "We leave for a home-patrol circuit in an hour."
"We?" echoes Serk, midly surprised. Torgus chuckles, pacing away from me and back out of my cavelet.
"Of course! With Ergy sick and Whiteeye grounded, you think I'm going to miss out on the first flight of the Dragonkeeper's star hatchling?" He pauses, grinning, before bellowing, "Well? Get to work, Dragonrider!"
Serk leaps forward to assume Torgus's hastily abandoned place patting my nose, looking up at me with eyes half-narrowed; outwardly he looks as calm and collected as could be, but I hear the mixture of worry and desire in his thoughts, and I realize that he is both as frightened of flight alongside Torgus and Jagg as I, and also lusting as much as I for the skies. I cannot bring myself to like him as I do the Dragonmender, but I hate him somewhat less for it.
Keeper, grinning and laughing to himself, vacates the premesis with his minions, as does the Dragonmender, in another direction, with a faint scowl on her sharp face. Left alone with him, I lift my head and look Serk in the eye, crimson meeting sun-gold, and tilt my head somewhat as if to say, Well?
Unexpectedly and as if he heard the word in his own mind, Serk smiles. It is the first time I have seen the expression on the orc's broken-tusked visage. He reaches up and touches the lower curve of the scar on my cheek, then pats my scales and says, "Let's get you kitted up."
The low barrier marking the entrance to my cavelet is left open after we pass; I follow at Serk's back without direction or restraint, trailing in his shadow like the well-taught dragonet I claim to be, and as we pass the cavelets of my brood-sisters, they raise their heads, shake their neck-scales and rumble, sending up a draconic cheer.
Is that Serk with you? asks Palescar, and she leans her long neck out across her cavelet barrier to bump heads with me as I pass. Wind would do the same from across the aisle, but she cannot quite reach, and I make up the distance she lacks by diverting briefly from my path behind Serk to touch her nose to mine.
It is, I answer her, and listening Wind.
Off to your first flight? says Wind, exuberant, and I mentally affirm it. Good luck, they chime together.
My thanks. And I hurry a stride or three to catch up to Serk, watching over his shoulder as us three sisters exchange brief greetings, but he does not comment, nor does he pause to encourage longer felicitations. Through the dragonmind the news spreads, and distantly I hear Sulfr and Stone send encouragement from amidst their practice, and even Warp, good-natured gentle giant he is. Out through the winding corridors of the dragon-quarters we go, and as we pass we accrue stares and whispers; though the network of the dragonmind is quicker, orcish gossip passes swiftly as well, and when we reach the armory we are expected long before our arrival. I feel the heat of the forges well before they come into view.
The armorers are massive even for orcs, made so by the necessity of their occupation, and they are waiting with an unfitted flight harness as Serk and I approach. Each dragon moves a little differently, each rider sits a little differently in the saddle; Serk's backside will mold the leather through use, and the straps that hold him to me can be altered later, but the harness has to be fitted to me exactly. Too loose and a rider may be thrown free of his dragon - too tight and the dragon will be unable to properly fly or fight. The armorers are like the Dragonmender, all brisk efficiency when it comes to their business, and when they lead us to a wide flat area amongst the anvils and lava-heated forges, I lay down without needing to be told, hearing the intentions in their minds. This causes one or two of them to mutter, and one looks at patient Serk to ask, "Does she do that often?"
Serk only smiles, his wild hair backlit by the banked fires of the forges, and without further questioning they set to work.
The fitting requires a half-dozen of them clambering on and over me, first to remove my trainee rig and then to install the new harness, and I tolerate their weight without complaint. The first straps to go in place are the neck-yoke and breastband, and these are fitted to a wide strap of leather that curves across my torso, behind my forelimbs and just before the muscles of my wings, the saddle seated at the crux of my shoulders. Silly little reins are also added, attached to bands between the triple set of horns atop my neck behind my skull, but these are as much for aiding Serk in staying mounted as they are to help him guide me. The girth-straps on my trunk are covered with buckles of all sizes, and while getting the harness on is simplicity itself, fitting it precisely to my musculature and movements is a much more involved process. I sit, stand, lay down, turn round, rear up and box the air, flare or fold my wings as instructed, and after each gesture some minute adjustment is made, the buckled straps tied down yet left long, to allow for room to grow. Much of the allotted hour has passed before they seem satisfied, and solicit Serk to test the fit.
He comes forward, his slight apprehension only detectable in traces in his thoughts, and solemnly I extend a foreleg like a dancer on point, inviting him through the gesture of the knee-up to leg his way into the saddle. From this moment onward, he is not a recruit, but a Dragonrider; from this moment on, I am not a hatchling, but a drake. He pauses briefly to savor the sensation before mounting up, the motions less stiff than they were months before, now habitual and smooth. I shake my shoulder somewhat to settle his weight, testing for myself the feel of the new harness. It is lighter and more supple than my trainee rig, and I feel as if I am already in the air, weightless and flush with anticipation.
Serk senses my excitement, and our mutual anxiety is practically nothing in this moment. Today, we taste the skies.
The armorers block us from leaving long enough to note the idiosyncrasies of my particular harness-fit - a second will be produced for me in case this first one becomes damaged - and to carve my name into the breastband with a leather-cutting tool, as though I need identification when I wear my name carven upon my cheek. Once we are released of the armorers' custody, Serk rides rather than walks me to the main flight chamber, and though the eyes of the other orcs are for Serk and I, my gaze is only for the contents of the massive cave.
The main flight chamber is the primary accessway in and out of Grim Batol; an enormous hole carved halfway up the side of the mountain, sand-floored over stone like the rest of the complex and smooth-walled, I see now how a dragon the size of Jagg could leave and enter via this place. Two dragons the size of Jagg, set wingtip to wingtip, would barely scrape the cavern walls. The flight chamber is a flurry of frenetic activity, one side for those departing, the other for those arriving, a constant stream of scarlet-scaled dragons and their riders touching down or taking off in dramatic whirls of dust and sand. In the center is a thick knot of undragoned orcs, officers poring over maps of the front, clusters of scouts networking their information into the maps to complete the picture.
Jagg and Torgus are waiting for us aground, Jagg dwarfing every other drake that dares to pass close enough to be compared to his bulk, and when he trains his amber gaze upon me I suddenly feel every inch the green, untried hatchling that I am. Torgus hails Serk from dragonback; Jagg hails me instead, and I miss the orcs' brief conversation. So you're the youngling Ring.
I am, I reply, rather dumbly, but I manage to keep my feet moving toward him.
No. Too quickly. Jagg chuckles, an old hand at this game.
Follow my lead, youngling. Flight comes naturally to us - you'll work it out easily enough, if not prettily. Jagg may not be keyed into Torgus's thoughts, but clearly the dragon and rider have worked together enough that each knows the other's routine by heart. As Jagg turns to pace for the departure area, Torgus finishes speaking similar instructions to Serk as Jagg had given to me. Which is to say, very little at all.
Learn by doing, heckles my old nemesis Pike in passing, grinning wearily on his way back down the corridor, ragged from a long patrol. At four months older than I, he has been a fighting dragon and a graduate of the pit for almost as long as I have been training with Serk for this day.
As he passes I see the puckered scars on his leg where once I ripped him open, now faded and flexing with his movements, and resolve myself not to be shaken by his comments, or the knowledge that comes with it. Every dragon in the chamber and elsewhere in Grim Batol is watching, or listening through the dragonmind, for my progress here. It's an initiation, a rite of passage, as much for me as it is for Serk.
When Jagg reaches the beaten circle marking where a hundred thousand dragon wings have disturbed the sand, all activity in the flight chamber ceases. Dragons and their riders, in line behind us for takeoff, seem in no hurry to reach the front of the queue; even scouts returning from patrols either swiftly land to secure a good view, or remain aloft to ensure a better one. Orcs afoot pause in their busywork, officers look up from their tactical reviews, and the scouts are raptly attentive as Jagg approaches the slight lip at the edge of the precipice, a warning barrier to an orc, less than a stick in the path for a dragon. Jagg's foreclaws mount the lip, and he spreads his wings in glorious display, the sails unfurling broad, translucent in the light. He tastes the wind, judges the air currents, and then with a powerful surge of his hindquarters launches himself from the cliff, away and down, and for a moment he drops like a stone and out of sight of those in the cavern, his bulk working to betray him -
But then he rises, up and up and up, wings out to catch spadefuls of sky, and in the air he is a thing ten times as graceful as on the ground, tail behind him both as rudder and banner, legs tucked under like a hunting falcon, the horns at the end of his nose splitting the currents around him. He wheels in the air, effortless, proudly defiant of the laws of gravity, and his jaws open to allow a roar that reverberates through the stone of the flight chamber. The drakes assembled answer him, and though I lift my head and open my jaws as if to join their communal voice, nothing comes out. Shame spikes through me, for the first time truly regretful of my lack of voice, and my head lowered, I approach the departure circle.
But then I hear them through the dragonmind, my brood-mates and siblings both older and younger, both aground in the cavelets or circling overhead, encouraging me, cheering me on, and distantly, I hear also the soothing beat of my Mother's ancient heart. No matter my shortcomings, a thousand drakes are willing me to leap from the precipice and find the sky to claim it as my own. Heartened once more, Serk has only the flaring of my wings and the setting of the muscles in my neck to warn him as I dash for the edge, seeking a running start for my first excursion into the air.
"Ring!" he yells in startlement, wide-eyed, but I can tell from his thoughts that he hardly wishes to stop me, and the reins are wrapped tourniquet-tight around his fists.
I am not so large or strong as Jagg, to throw myself from the cliff on muscle alone, but momentum can suffice in a pinch for sheer brawn. My foreclaws reach the lip and I mount it briefly before springboarding off, somewhat up and much farther forward, and the wind hits my wings like a solid wall. It takes all my strength to row that first beat of wings through its density, but even so I begin to fall, and instinct takes over where my mind fails - I correct position, put my nose into the dive, angle my wings and tail just so even as we plummet hundreds of feet and Serk is consumed by sheer terror atop my back. I have no time for fear, intensely focused, striving for the right combination of angle and strength and wind, and when I do the knowledge of it clicks into place as if it has always been there. We rise on the massive beats of my wings scooping air from the blue expanse, up and up like Jagg before us, to the level of the chamber and past it, past the peak of the mountains housing Grim Batol, higher and higher, completely perpendicular to the ground, and the glory burns in my blood like fire as I fly propelled by the riotous cheers of my siblings, swimming through the air like I'd go straight into the sun -
Level out, comes Jagg's patient but amused voice, and I do so, embarassed, caught in the moment. But even Jagg cannot dilute my exhilaration, the sheer unadulterated joy of Flight, and I see now why my elders weep in their hearts when they look at Warp; they know he will never know this, and it pains me guiltily to think of him, so sweetly wishing me into the air where he knows he will never follow.
For the first time in my life, I am outside of Grim Batol proper, and I see the outer walls of my prison and home for all of my short life. Much of it is a massive structure that disappears seamlessly into the mountains, battlements and constructions of stone sized for inhabitants much smaller in scale than dragons, and I do not wonder why I have never seen them before. There is a coastline to the distant east, and I see the ocean for the first time, a darker, saltier blue than the purity of the cloudless sky. Curving north and then west, the sole road approaching Grim Batol is divided by a series of gates, massive stone structures each as tall as Jagg is long, and the gates alone would have made Grim Batol diffucult to conquer; add to such the cluster of mountains that house the extensive cave system, and a sheer rock face ending in troubled pools of water that block western approach, and the Dragonmaw Clan have a nigh-impentrable fortress.
So high up, details are blurry even to my keen eyes, but I can pick out the scarlet shapes of other dragons, both in the air and perched at the flight chamber. Activity is beginning to resume there, and my interests lie no longer with what I knew, but with the expanse of green that I do not. It is the first time I see grass, or green living things that are not orcs, and even from the heights they fascinate me.
These are the Wetlands, says Jagg, and with a few strokes of his wings he is flying alongside me, off to my left, somewhat behind and below, that I am not thrown out of balance by the immense backwash of his wings. He is gliding on air currents to preserve his strength, and I cease my flapping like a bird and mimic him, marvelling the ease with which the motions come. Truly, Jagg was right. Flight comes naturally to the children of our Mother.
They're much... bigger than Grim Batol, I say, gawking and aware of it but unable to cease, and Jagg chuckles. He banks somewhat and I follow his lead, learning the circuit of the patrol, or attempting to as I soak in all the strange and new things outside my very contained world.
The world is a big place, Ring. You just don't know it yet.
I will, one day, I vow, determined. Keeper will not hold me forever.
Jagg turns his great head to look at me briefly for this comment, and for a span of heartbeats he has nothing to say; our riders cannot speak for the rushing of the wind to steal their voices, and so they communicate in gestures or not at all, Torgus trusting Jagg to know the route and Serk praying that I am intelligent enough to follow the older dragon's lead. Serk has calmed the terror from his bones and is warming to flight, and he gawks as much as I, hands slack in the reins, but I am careful to maintain my balance as well as his. I have been waiting many years for a chance at freedom. I have seen many dragons die seeking it.
In his mind, the memory of Coin rises, blooms briefly, then dies. I affirm without words, only emotion and images. Coin, defiant unto his last breath, Keeper's black sword plunging through his pupil.
Only death lies that path, Ring. The Red Dragonflight, if it wishes liberty, must seek in another direction.
What direction? I fix a golden eye on him and drift somewhat closer in the air.
Mother must be freed. As long as Nekros Skullcrusher holds her captive - however he is holding her captive - no dragon flies free. His eyes are for the horizon, but mine are wide and for Jaggedmaw. He knows of Mother? How many drakes in Grim Batol can make that claim, cut off from her Love and influence, raised to be beasts of burden and mounts of war? His chuckle this time seems old and weary. Yes, I know of our Queen, Alexstrasza. Not every dragon was born of Grim Batol, you know.
No, I didn't know, I reply faintly, but as he says it, it makes so much sense that I am shamed that I did not deduce it earlier.
I am the oldest living dragon hatched at Grim Batol, but I was not bred there, and my Father is not Tyranastrasz. My True Name is not Jaggedmaw, either.
I blink openly in surprise at the revelations, so simply said, so impactful on my limited view of our world. There are other Fathers?
We would be terribly inbred were there not, wouldn't we? says Jagg in his clever, amusing way, but swiftly fading into sobriety. I am born of the last clutch sired by Mother's youngest consort, and the last living drake of that brood. All of my broodmates are dead, either in war or by the hands of their own keepers. I survive only because I am... tractable, and the favorite mount of Torgus. He spits the name with such terrible vengeful loathing that I am surprised at its intensity.
What is a True Name? I ask, to distract him from his hatred of the orc atop his back.
A name bestowed by Mother. Not a slave-name, like Jaggedmaw or Coin or Ring. A name given in love, not as a marker of property. It is growled across our mental connection, harsh as a rake over shale. In the early days, when there were few of us and Mother's bonds less entrenched, she had enough presence in the dragonmind to name her youngest children. Not so, now. I am coming to realize, through this conversation with Jagg, that there is more depth to the laughing dragon than I have given him credit for - and hidden reservoirs of bitter contempt for our captors that run unbelievably deep, yet held carefully in check, invisible to the naked eye. Jagg is a survivor, if nothing else. I hope he will live to see Mother freed, if ever a thing comes about.
What is your True Name? I ask, a heartbeat too late, but Jagg does not notice, great golden eyes scanning the horizon.
Enkistrasz, says he, sighing, as though he expects never to wear the name again. My Father is Korialstrasz.
Korialstrasz. It echoes through the dragonmind, but I am too engrossed in our discussion to notice how it travels across and through the minds of our siblings to reverberate at our Mother's mental doorstep. Before I can ask another question, however, he banks and dives sharply, and I see a handful of small feathery shapes, brown and white, coming up from our flank in perfect formation. The first time I see the Gryphons and their riders, I am struck by how small they are, how strange their shapes, how odd their riders; then I see the borrowed memories of the veteran orc, that day long ago on the training room sand, and that combined with Jagg's sudden tension is enough to warn me that these strangers are not to be trifled with.
Gryphonriders! bellows Jagg through the dragonmind even as he roars mightily in the physical world, and this close to home reinforcements are close enough to hear him and begin to alert their orcish riders; Serk and Torgus are keyed for war in an instant, alerted by the movement on our flank. The orcs' thoughts are what occupy my attentions now, listening for my rider's orders even as I ready myself for my first skirmish.
Jagg descends headfirst and wings tight, like a hawk at the stoop, and he meets the gryphons at the head of their aerial charge; his bulk and size sends him through the middle of the half-dozen of them, and one unlucky gryphon gets a firsthand view of how much momentum a dragon Jagg's size can gain, the others scattered away by the flaring of Jagg's broad wingspan. The rider - Dwarf, the word comes now from Torgus - is knocked from the saddle by the impact, left to thrash and flail as he falls toward the distant wetlands below. The gryphon is caught in Jagg's talons, a wing broken and pierced through with his black claws, but Jagg gains a scratch across his nose for his troubles before he simply drops the crippled gryphon, and it follows its master on his way to the earth below, spinning uncontrollably and squawking in terror and pain.
The other five are not idle during this show, and while three remain to harry Jagg's wings and flanks, two break away to attack the smaller target - me. They approach in time, then split off, and I lunge to the left to intercept one, Serk leaning close over my neck and yelling into the wind, but I do not hear the words, only the intent behind them. The gryphon stops short of my lunging teeth with a sharp backwing and my jaws meet on open air, but even as he is changing course I am breathing deeply, tracking his trajectory, aiming for where he will be and not where he is. The first flame is a damp ball that morely sets the gryphon's tailfeathers afire, and as I am turning for a second shot the other gryphon sets into my hind, lashing at my hips and attempting to bite holes in my wing with its vicious beak. I curve in on myself like a snake and breathe fire in its face, tail whipping to counterbalance the movement. The fire strafes wide of the target, whiffing over the head of both gryphon and rider, but the club at the end of my tail catches the first attacker's gryphon squarely in the chest, and the thudding of the tough scale and bone there presage a gurgly bird-scream as its breastbone shatters. Injured, but not down, I feel the backwash of its wings as it strives for distance between us, realizing the folly of the smaller gryphon being in close proximity to a red dragon.
The other attacker is not so cautious, and the rider urges the gryphon past the flame and through my guard, a crackling lightning-covered hammer in hand as it passes too swiftly for me to intercept. The hammer is thrown as I turn, and it clips my wing with painful blue sparks, and would have soundly smacked Serk in the skull had the orc not had the presence of mind to flatten himself to the back of my neck. It zooms over his head and across the other side, missing the wing there by a blink, then circling overhead in a return trajectory, and the dwarf catches it neatly in hand before urging his mount to a different tack for a second throw.
My eyes narrow in time with Serk's, and we both come to the same idea at the same time. I drop altitude and execute a wingover, changing direction in a complete turnaround, and the second dwarf's hammer strikes through the heart of where I was but moments before, but he is yet far enough away on his limping gryphon that I do not focus my attention on him. The other dwarf pursues me, however, and throws his hammer when his gryphon closes with me, the weapon searing through the air on its path for Serk -
I row powerfully through the air, sending us suddenly six feet backward from where the hammer expects to impact, and as it slices through the air just in front of my chest, so close I feel the lightning's heat, and circles around, this time I am watching for where it goes. The dwarf knees his mount forward and the hammer's path changes, and this time before hammer and gryphon meet, I unleash the full blast of a lung full of dragonfire at the point where they cross. The gryphon takes the stream of flame full in the chest and screams, bathed in fire and seared to the bone, and inside my heart I say a quick apology to the hapless dying mount, who has done nothing but serve its master - but then I am concerned with the second gryphon and its rider, and I wheel about to find it in the skies.
All I see are smoking tailfeathers and a retreating gryphon, and I spare a glance for Jagg and his opponents and see that all but one are either steaming ruins or multiple pieces, all on their way to the ground far below. The two survivors of our battle flee, routed, their wing decimated, and Jagg and I give chase all the way to a stone-constructed port on the coast Jagg identifies as Menethil, and when we draw too close to that harbor Torgus and Serk direct us to turn back. We are met halfway on the journey home to Grim Batol by a trio of Dragonriders and our scarlet brethren, and hovering in the air over Dun Algaz, Torgus directs them join him to finish the patrol route. Serk and I, he declaims sternly, are to return home.
I do not wish to go, loath to return to ground even if the brief battle has made me realize how tired and sore my wing muscles are, but the deciding factor is Jagg. The Dragonmender will have your head if you don't return on time, he laughs inside my mind, and petulant and pouting as a small child, I do as I am instructed.
When I land at the arrival circle in the flight chamber, I am greeted with a hero's welcome in the dragonmind, my successful flight and small battle officially graduating me from the ranks of youngling to fighting dragon. Wind and Palescar will be next to test their wings, and Sulfr and Stone after that; my proof of ability has opened the doors to their shares of the glory of the sky, and though Warp cannot join us, his good will is genuine and untainted by jealousy. Serk is treated as a Dragonrider, full-fledged, and though he stares longingly after me after he dismounts, wishing inwardly that that first flight need never end, he is dragged off by new comrades to wallow in vices and games in celebration. I am escorted back to my straw-filled cavelet, suddenly exhausted all over, and only faintly notice Serk's absence.
As one of the Dragonmender's assistants rubs oil into my sore wings and I am fed and warm in my cavelet, I try not to feel guilty for his fate, or for indulging just once in the care provided me by my captors. One day, I tell myself quietly, still absorbed in the euphoria surrounding my first flight, I will break free of this golden cage and fly as far and fast as I desire. My last thoughts before I allow myself to be lost in the hum and swell of the dragonmind are of that flight, and the feeling of the open air beneath my talons. I dream through the night of flying. It is by far the happiest night of my miserable life.
I am a two years old when the ones I love begin to die.
Since we have been old enough to fly, my broodmates and I have been separated by schedule if not by spatial proximity; Warp is quartered at the gates of Grim Batol, a scarlet behemoth standing stoic guard, where Sulfr and Stone fly the long patrols, partnered still even these long months later, working with such uncanny synergy that the orcs cannot help but take advantage of their synchronicity. Palescar is a short notice front line fighter, brilliant and brutal, and she loses more Dragonriders than battles - an assignment to fly on her back, or even matched on her partner Pike, is both dangerous and prestigous. I am Serk's chosen mount, culled from the ranks for a future officer, and my quarters are moved to the wingleaders' cave system, to larger cavelets and wider corridors.
Wind is a scout, thick and through, and the scouts fly alone. Her death removes any lingering doubts I have about our captivity under the Dragonmaw.
The night she dies, I am grounded with a torn wingsail, and from my cavelet swaddled in bandages and straw I send myself out among the skein of the dragonmind, each dragon's heart like a star burning in the night. All of us can hear each other, and some can travel a hop, perhaps two, scenting echoes of each other as all roads and rivers of thought join to become one vast floodwater. I skip and skid through minds like a pebble over the current, and my essense rides pillion with Wind in the back of her mind as she flies in a storm-torn sky as black as pitch.
Ring, is that you? she laughs in my mind, winging so easily through the chaotic currents that it seems as though the storm does not touch her at all. You love the sky so much that you must fly with others even when you're grounded!
Just so, I agree, my eyes shut back in my physical body, seeing like a dim dream-vision what she sees, hearing what she hears, the howling of the wind and the pelting of rain on her scales. I'd go mad, trapped here on earth for any longer than it took to heal my wing. I have no idea how Warp exists so and remains so cheerful.
He's never known the sky, there is nothing for him to mourn the loss of, says she, banking on a hard air current, strafing to the left over a lightning-rimed thunderhead. Danik, a bit older and wiser but never unseated as her mount, curses quietly as a half-formed bit of hail strikes him in the shoulder. I think if he had had strong wings, he would have been the best of us all.
I agree without words, just a touch of emotion, and for a moment revel vicariously in the reeling, vertigo-inducing view of the center of a thunderstorm, high above the marshes below. Then, a thought occurs to me, and carefully I pose it to my sister: Why have you never left?
Left? she echoes, confused.
Scouts fly alone, and far, farther than our longest patrols. You could drop Danik like a shed scale and go free without the Dragonriders ever the wiser. But even as I say it, I feel her puzzlement and the truth defeats me - she has never so much as entertained a life outside of Grim Batol. She knows nothing of Mother, or of Freedom, and the limited liberty allowed her by flight is strictly governed by Danik's presence. Wind is completely unenlightened as to the nature of her service.
Why would I want to do that? says she, quizzical, but as I gear up to urge her to free herself while she has the chance, Danik curses again, and the tone of his invective is much different than that for the mere annoyance of hail. Wind's head sweeps round and through her eyes I see the trio of gryphon-shaped shadows below, their wings pumping and their riders' hammers sparking as they streak closer, clearly having spotted the dragon above, even hiding in the thunderhead. Swearing mightily against the wind, Danik prods Wind to wheel about, and he takes her up and up, through the rain, through the ice and snow forming in the uppermost reaches of the storm. Up they go until they burst over the cloudline into an eternity of star-speckled black punctuated by a huge white moon, the tops of the clouds a fluffy grey carpet, or perhaps the surface of an angry sea. Danik does not pause here, however, and urges Wind onward, pressing my sister to fly for all she is worth back towards distant Grim Batol.
The gryphons explode from the cloudsea below still in perfect formation, if a bit damp and rimed with ice, and the moonlight gleams on their feathers and picks out silver and blue details along their armor and their riders. Wind spares only one backwards glance before she puts her heart and soul into outrunning them, her great wings eating up massive tracts of space, her swiftness, so famed among the Dragonmaw orcs, put to its truest test. In Grim Batol my heart pounds in time with her own, a rapid staccato beat, and I would raise my voice to help her if I could, but I do not dare risk breaking her concentration. The chase goes on for what seems an eternity before Danik directs her downward, and Wind stoops blindly straight down through the clouds, into the tail of the thundercloud, down and down like a stone dropped from the height, her wings and legs tucked and falling as fast as she can before she breaks free of the clouds -
- and emerges over an army.
Wind flares all her limbs and brings her progress to a shuddering halt, a feat that would have torn the wings off of a lesser creature and jarred a lesser orc from the saddle, but it is a feat Danik is used to seeing her execute, and he remains seated long enough to stare in horror. They waste a precious heartbeat gawking at the mass of tents spread out amongst a low valley, each miniature encampment within the greater beast flying the lions-head flag of the Lordaeron Alliance, and in one visual sweep both Wind and Danik have estimated their numbers and path of arrival. It is all the time they need - and all the time they get before the gryphons arrive at Wind's tail, all three blazing straight past her as they too burst blindly from cloudcover, their shorter, stubbier wings unable to slow their mass so quickly as Wind's. It is an opening she snatches, and with an acrobatic wingover she rows away through the air, briefly upside-down with Danik clinging to the saddle, before twisting around upright and renewing her quest for as much lateral speed as possible.
Lanterns and signals light in the army below, and the gryphons are close enough to harry the end of her tail as she flees, close enough that when a rider throws his hammer, it clips Danik's back and rebounds into one of Wind's wings with a shriek and a flare of electricity, disturbing the rhythm of her flight. She loses a few more precious feet, and that first blow is enough to damn her even through her determination to recover, the loss irretrievable, and the gryphons fall upon her. She destroys one attacker with a snap of her jaws, severs a wing from trunk and swallows the rider whole in one gulp, but the other two work in tandem to bind her wings with their bulk, crowding her, giving her no room with which to fly. She snatches one gryphon's leg in a foretalon and beats at the other with her tail, and none of them able to fly, they all fall together, even as Danik crosses his axe with dwarven hammers.
When they reach the ground in the heart of the army, it is Wind who hits first, and the impact shatters bones and ruins earth, destroying the unfortunate handful of tents with the bad luck to be beneath her, their occupants crushed and their campfires snuffed by her bulk. Wind thrashes and flails, and her beating wings and whipping tail level more tents and soldiers, and finally she gets hold of another gryphon in her jaws and crunches harshly through its torso, as if in vengeance for all the damage done by the fall. Danik is killed from a blow to the head by a massive stone warhammer, and the last gryphon claws at Wind's back and bites at her neck, attempting to sever her spine but unable to bite through the battle-scale there.
Wind, crippled, pinned and unable to rise, takes out a score of soldiers before they have enough presence of mind to bring nets and rope. And once they do, it's all over but the killing blow. Lashed to the earth and held by a battallion of Alliance soldiers, a man in white armor draws his sword and walks towards her, his face grim and pale, the situation an uncomfortable and horrific parallel of Keeper slaying Coin.
The man lifts the sword, and Wind struggles to the last breath.
I'm sorry, sister. I'll miss you.
She throws me forcibly from her soul, severing her connection to the dragonmind, and I can only sense helplessly as the star of her life-force winks out, smothered by the firmament.
Her death reverberates through me and out into the dragonmind, up to the river's source, to the heart of the Flight, to our Mother Alexstrasza, and as I scream silently in grief and horror, she screams aloud for me, another of her children dead, another Hope of Life extinguished. The keen is taken up by my brothers Sulfr and Stone, out on patrol, lifting their heads and wailing in sorrow; it is taken up by my brother Warp, coming awake from a sound sleep in his warren, his howl a basso-profundo lament. It is taken up by my sister Palescar in her cavelet, baying and sobbing, her Dragonrider useless and perplexed as to why his mount has suddenly begun to exhibit this behavior.
I cannot cry out, but when I come to myself in my cavelet, I find that I have beaten my wings bloody against the walls of my cavelet, and Serk is at the entrance to my abode, shocked and confused and afraid. Seeing him there, I lay down again and curl in on myself, hearing the mourning call travel out to the rest of my siblings, the flight as a whole brokenhearted over the loss of another sibling. Wind is not the first dragon to die in my lifetime, nor the first dragon I have communally mourned, but she is the first that has truly held a place in my heart.
Serk comes forward silently to rebandage my wings with his own hands, staunching the blood temporarily, and I let him. He is not a bad orc, as orcs go; his false arrogance has long since left him, replaced with quiet, confident pride, and although he cannot ease or even understand my grief, he knows before the news of Danik and Wind's fall arrive that something I value has died. He does not leave me when the Dragonmender is summoned from her bed to my side, and he does not leave me as she repairs the damage I have inflicted upon myself, irritably forcing magic to knit together my flesh rather that allowing it to naturally heal, as she did my previous injury. It is excruciatingly painful, months of healing suffered all at once, but I bear it in silence, as I must always do. ("You are dear to me, Ring," the Dragonmender growls, looking me in the eye even though my pupil is the size of her head, "but you've made quite the mess of yourself, and I will not have you crippled for life over some bad dream!") Even after she has left, giving both he and I strict orders that I am to sleep for as long as possible, he finds the hollow where my neck and collarbone meet and sits there to watch over me until dawn.
I weep without sound and throw myself almost angrily into the dragonmind, but I find no solace there, only the echo of Wind's presence. I cannot reach my Mother and the shelter of her soul, and so I wrap myself in a mental cocoon so thick that I cannot hear the thoughts of others, entrusting my wounded heart to silence.
I sleep dreamlessly if not peacefully, and in sleep I find the strength to carry on, but what awaits me in the morning is worse than what I faced the previous night.
It is mid-afternoon when I wake, and Serk is gone, but a trough of meat has been left in his wake, in its accustomed place near the entrance of my cavelet. I nibble at it half-heartedly, more out of routine than any real hunger or desire for food, and absently reconnect to the dragonmind. Sorrow effuses the communal soul, and I gather that here have been more deaths while I have slept; half-panicked I spool out my mind among my siblings, seeking my broodmates, seeking Jagg. Sulfr and Stone, Palescar and Warp, I find them easily enough, their routines undisturbed by our sister's passing. Jagg is more difficult to locate, for with Serk and I grounded, Torgus and Jagg are partnered to different dragons, some matches more successful than others. I pluck the thoughts from minds both draconic and orcish, and find that they have borrowed Pike and his rider for this latest excursion. I search for them among the network of minds, and when I do not locate them, it takes some time for the realization of why to sink in.
Once I have opened up myself to listen instead of merely hearing, the words and images come tumbling one over the other. Fighting, always more fighting. Gryphons, a Wizard, and a great black monster with plates of metal seared into his flanks.
Deathwing. That name and all its images and connotations float like a morass of malice in the dragonmind, a dark gift birthed from the minds of my Father and Mother, the knowledge of the wickedness we face. Deathwing, the being responsible, however indirectly, for Mother's imprisonment and the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of my siblings.
Deathwing, whose name comes as a vanguard to Jagg's presence in the dragonmind at last.
Ring? he calls, faintly, and I snatch up the thread of his consciousness with a ferocity fueled by terror.
I'm here, I say, and I tap his senses as I did my sister's, but as soon as I do I regret the action. Deathwing has broken him. He flies raggedly, unable to stay stable in the air, head low, tail limp. Missing plains of flesh have been gouged from his form by teeth far larger than his, by claws far sharper than his. Insidious fire has destroyed or melted vast patches of scale, ripped holes in his wings, severed muscle from bone. He is a wreck of a living thing, a dead dragon flying, and I must contain my preemptive grief lest his iron will waver even now. Even Torgus is half-conscious in the saddle, slumped over and seated by virtue only of the straps that keep him there. I'm here, Jagg.
He laughs, or tries to, and his flight path yaws dangerously. Guide me.... I can't see the chamber.... I'll hit the mountain. I can't.... bear to die in such a manner. So undignified.
You're not going to die, I tell him, lying as I have never lied in my entire life, quelling my rising panic. I show him with gentle mental touches the way, guide him toward the chamber as he wishes. I'll call the Dragonmender. She'll save you, I know she will!
I'm beyond saving, my Ring.... Deathwing has.... ended me. Through his ears I hear an orc bellowing, Nekros Skullcrusher, yelling for everyone to clear away to give Jagg room to land. He'll need all of it, I hear Skullcrusher mentally realize, and I know the truth of it. I mentally steady Jagg as much as I can while he approaches, ignoring his comment, unable any longer to stifle my own panic.
Just get safely to ground, and I will call her! You can't die a slave, Jagg!
In death.... I will at last.... be free, he says, the words faint even in my mind, and he flounders as he reaches the lip of the flight chamber, lurches upward to clear the cliff face with one last burst of strength, and then crashes bodily into the sand, eyes shut against the pain. There is a line of dragons backed up in the corridor, horrified witnesses to Jagg's demise, and at the head of the line is Sulfr, and with Jagg unable to see I withdraw from him somewhat, tap Sulfr's senses without his permission or notice, and witness the consequences of Jagg's landing. Orcs shout in surprise and consternation as the momentum slides Jagg forward, and a wing clips one warrior too slow to move out of the way, sending him flying. Jagg slides forward like a scarlet avalanche until he reaches a cavern wall, and he slams into it bodily, his tail thudding the stone with a shocking amount of impact. His bulk rocks the cavern, and bits of the ceiling smash into the sand below, narrowly missing him and the assembled orcs. A massive dust cloud rises, clings to everything, and coughing fits break out over the cavern.
Goodbye, Ring, he says faintly through the dragonmind, and though I cling to his essence as though by my will alone could I bind him to his earthly form, the effort is in vain. Knowing that, however, does not prevent me from trying, even as he bleeds his life away.
Goodbye... Enkistrasz, I manage, giving him his True Name in death, so that he does not die a slave but a free dragon, if only in words and not deeds.
Enkistrasz laughs one last time, a true laugh, even weary and full of pain and sorrow, and with that laugh echoing through the dragonmind, his heart ceases its rambling beat.
Silence descends upon the Dragonmaw, and though it is not done in respect for passing for the best of their dragons, we Children of Alexstrasza choose to interpret it in such a way. There is no howling this time, no keening, the deaths of Wind and Jagg too closely juxtaposed for anything but deep, incredible sorrow. There is something on the air, and we all feel it, some wind of fate headed directly for Grim Batol. Something has changed, or died, with Jagg and the news of Deathwing that he fell retrieving.
We find out shortly what it is, when Torgus rises from the dust like a phoenix from the ashes, sliding down Jagg's still form and nearly falling to his knees when he reaches the floor. His scarlet eyes, as seen through Sulfr's senses, are wild with fear, and he searches the assembled orcs until he finds Nekros Skullcrusher, pressed against a rock wall, come himself to hear the message that Torgus nearly died to carry.
"We're lost!" bellows the massive orc, the strongest and bravest of the Dragonriders resigned to his fate, defeated at last. "We're lost, Nekros!"
Nekros quickly silences him, but the damage is done. The words are forced from Torgus, a battlefield report of what occurred, and no orc or dragon in the flight chamber dares so much as a loud whisper as the tale is told. I hear Nekros's mind working, full of paranoia, a dark place like Keeper's that I do not delve into, formulating and then commanding a crazed plan to move my Mother and abandon Grim Batol to Deathwing. I hear the knowledge flow backward into the approach tunnel and from there into Grim Batol proper, propelled both by the minds of dragons and the words of orcs.
I hear when it strikes Keeper, the cunning orc's plans disrupted by this unforseeable development, as he directs orcish warriors on how to butcher the massive corpse of Jagg for processing, more meat for the fire. I hear when the Dragonmender is told the fate of the whelps, and though no tears are shed, she calmly packs her tools and begins issuing orders on how the eggs are to be handled, determined to save the unborn if at all possible. I hear the confused cries of my newest brethren, whelps too young to know any better and too wild to be tamed, fall by the dozen to the black blades of Keeper's minions. Their deaths are quick and painless, and that is a tiny speck of mercy amidst a sea of dead dragonets.
I hear Torgus's fear as he is patched up and then given over to sleep, and I hear Serk's mind awhirl in the corridor long before I catch sight or scent of him.
He stands for a time at the entrance to my cavelet, simply watching me, his red eyes trained upon my golden ones. Behind him the corridors are coming awake with activity, the news a forerunner for a flurry of frenetic motion, every dragon able to fly being kitted up and found a rider. Warp and his kindred, the other permanently grounded dragons who act as guard dogs, are also being kitted, but for a different mission - the defense of Grim Batol's flanks, and as an honor guard when our Mother will be moved. By all rights Serk should be as hurried as everyone else, preparing for the departure of scores of grown dragons to Dun Algaz, his own mount included. Instead he stares at me for a long, long time, his thoughts a maelstrom with one track merging into the next, until I lift my head and reach out with the length of my neck, nudging him in the chest. The motion nearly knocks him from his feet, and he is forced to cling to the horn at the tip of my nose to prevent from bowling over. When he regains his footing, his palms stay on my nose, rough callusses against my scales.
"You can hear them, can't you?" he says softly, and I blink at him impassively, not daring to answer in the negative or the positive. His brain is working, forming cohesive thoughts at last, and when an orc bothers to think at all, I am loath to interrupt. Serk is sharper than most, both a blessing and a burden amongst the Dragonmaw. "You're pretty quick for a 'dumb beast', as your Keeper calls you."
I tilt my head and hood my eyes, as if to comment blandly, Oh does he now? It makes Serk snort briefly, desperate even for the barest grain of humour. "Torgus is broken, and I don't know if he can lead. Jagg is dead, and the humans are coming." He looks up at me, one warrior to another, and I know the second he treats me as an equal and not as his property that I cannot kill him. His people have abused me and held me captive since my egg was laid in Grim Batol's sands, he has ridden me hard and driven me to kill again and again, but I cannot kill him. Serk has never been cruel as Keeper is cruel.
I am going soft. Enkistrasz would laugh endlessly in the After-Life.
"Something is changing. War comes. Are you ready, Ring?" Serk asks quietly, and I hesitate, but very fractionally, I nod under his palms. He smiles, and with his own hands he begins to kit me up, securing my harness in place. When it is done, he scrambles up my side like a monkey, straps himself into the saddle, and pats the side of my neck. "I knew you were no stupid beast. Come, then. The sky awaits."
The name echoes back and forth through the dragonmind, faint as a breath, and it worries at me like a thorn wedged between the scales of my toes. It is puzzling and more painful when thought about, small enough that I cannot devote my full attentions to it, but present enough to destroy any hope I have of comfortable numbness in the aftermath of the losses of Wind and Enkistrasz-Jagg.
The Dragonriders are on the move. Every drake capable of flight has taken wing and been forced into some organization on sheer willpower alone; many drakes somewhat too young to fly have also taken wing, and no few of them meet a grim and premature end on the rocks, or if luckier, take an icy plunge in the lake at the bottom of Grim Batol's cliff. The survivors try again, and most rejoin the scarlet flock travelling toward Dun Algaz. Those too young to fly follow afoot, carrying orcs and supplies like scaled packhorses. Torgus has not commandeered another drake - many thought that Serk would be forced to give me unto his captain for his use - but instead directs the foot traffic from atop the back of a dragon no older than eight months, a young sister who finds all of the commotion terribly exciting. Those older than she are too weary at heart to correct her, and those younger scarcely know better. With Torgus grounded, however, command of the flock has passed by default to Serk, and we zigzag across the chaotic mess of airborne bodies, relaying orders, directing movement. It is tiring and surprisingly dangerous work, and even small slips of my concentration result in near-misses or grazes or narrow aversions of disaster.
Only those too young to tame or cursed never to fly do not leave Grim Batol, and in between chaotic flights back and forth across the mass of flying shapes, I attempt to be mindful of my brother Warp, given a duty of spurious honor in playing guard dog for Keeper's allies. It is through thoughts of him, gasped out as Serk and I crisscross the flock in attempts to simultaneously herd, command and organize the lines, that I accidentally trace the lineage of the incongruous name circulating the dragonmind.
Korialstrasz, whispers Warp into the dragonmind, distant and quiet, and I hear him and latch on to his mind, seizing my opportunity.
How do you know that name? I ask somewhat desperately, my heart in my throat. In my physical body, Serk yells and I correct my wavering course, tucking a wing and diving somewhat to avoid plowing through Stone, who flies perpendicular to my left. My brother makes an ungainly squawking sound, but it is lost to the gales as Serk directs me away.
There is surprise in Warp's mental voice, faint shock at hearing me at such a distance, but perhaps not so much as there should have been. Because he gave it to me, of course.
He gave it to you? I could fall out of the air here and now, and without Serk's panicked bellow to chain my senses to the physical world, I might.
We spoke through a strange medallion, and he comes, says Warp, almost gleefully, as if sharing a secret that no other may speak of. The mental impression that accompanies the idea of Korialstrasz is old, so very old, yet not so old as Mother or my own Father; wise, but not inflexible; powerful, but not close-minded, with a sort of humour about him that reminds me painfully of Jagg. I feel it through my brother, and I know that he has not the imagination nor the motive to fabricate such an occurence. He lives, and he comes for Mother and for us. Spread the knowledge!
I will, I swear it. My heart leaps in my chest, and I realize that, all unwittingly, Warp and the spectre of Korialstrasz, real or not, will birth the fighting spirit in our brothers and sisters that Jagg waited so long to nurture. Much as Mother and Father made the concept of Deathwing into a roiling mass of thoughts and emotions and energies, I take the name of Korialstrasz and do the same, taking Warp's impressions and strengthening them, adding my own, the concepts of Hope and Life and rebellion against our unjust masters, our Mother's Love, our Dragonflight's Freedom. I build it to fever pitch, and then as I fly through the flock directing aerial traffic, I set it free, infecting every dragon born of Grim Batol with its essence and message.
Korialstrasz. Soon it echoes, redoubles and lingers, an invocation of will, a benediction of hope that we might reach the promised land. As it passes from dragon to dragon, the ball of emotions and impressions grows; each drake adds to it a bit of their own self, some small goal, some little dream, some tiny mote of faith, until it has ballooned to a thing incredible in proportion to how it began, a thing much more than a simple collection of syllables, no longer representation of even a being as great as our Mother's Consort.
Korialstrasz. The very name now brings strength to face the future, come what may. Even the most complacent of drakes now raises their heads high, singing with tension, ancitipating the moment when everything will change. All of us can sense it, from the eldest of us to the youngest dragonet still aground, and through us the more observant of the orcs can sense it as well. The Dragonkeeper, easily the most attuned to us, is agitated and irritable, but she cannot put a finger on why. Keeper watches her, and us, with narrowed red eyes, and I feel the uncertainty gnawing at his inner being, his carefully-laid plans tossed aside by this sudden move, the openness of the Wetlands preying upon his sense of security.
Our captors only slightly outnumber us now, separated from the main force guarding our Mother and Father in Grim Batol. With Jagg gone, the others look to me to give the word, but I do not feel that it is yet time, and must tell my siblings, Wait.
Night falls, and we camp in the shadow of a mountain. Serk dozes in the saddle, but I do not sleep, perched on a bluff and watching instead as Keeper paces the camp below. I wonder, as he, neurotic, counts heads and tails to inventory 'his' dragons, if he is contemplating all of the cruelties he has inflicted on the massive forms sleeping peacefully around him.
Dawn breaks, and something ripples through the flock, some distant reflection flowing through us like waves on the surface of still water, and though I send myself down along the network of the dragonmind to my brother in Grim Batol, I can find nothing out of the ordinary, can sense nothing strange. Then I see it: our Mother is on the move, our ailing Father close behind, forced from the cover of Grim Batol by the will of Nekros Skullcrusher and his trap-talisman. I suffer a queer mixture of awe and bright anger as I see her for the first time, through the eyes of the orcs playing honor-guard; she is massive, truly gargantuan, and absolutely beautiful even though it is apparent that her upkeep is in a shocking state of decline. Her scales are dull, but her eyes are burning, and she knows as I do that something is coming, but she has less of an idea of what.
Warp cannot reach her, and though I try, her prison is stronger than ever, a precaution against her escape while she is moved. I rage silently against the barrier, furious that I cannot reach her to give her the Hope of the name of her consort, but soon I find I must redirect that energy into organizing the flock. We take to the air, and return to the move as the sun slowly climbs in the sky. I focus on Serk's direction, responsive under his hands as I have always been, and force myself not to obsessively monitor the caravan at Grim Batol.
When the compulsion shatters, it is so soon, so swift and unexpected that it feels like an enormous bucket of ice-cold water thrown over me, and shivering I nearly fall from the sky. I recover quickly and look around, and see that my siblings have suffered the same, a shock of release, the snapping of a tensioned band around our throats that none of us were even aware was present. Many shake themselves to clear their heads, some doing so midair, much to their riders' consternation, but not a one of them recognize the feeling for what it truly is. They sense that some burden has been lifted, some bloody pact unwritten, but have not yet found the wit to place its parameters, much less test them.
I am trembling midair, my wingbeats uncertain and unbalanced, and Serk's pang of concern brings me to mental clarity as the knowledge crystallizes within me. I know now, in this moment, precisely what I must do. I also know that if I wish for a terrible atrocity not to occur that I must act quickly and decisively, and thus I ignore all of Serk's accustomed cues, instead rowing hard through the air, shooting upward through the flock, up towards the cloudline, until I am outlined by the sun against the morning sky.
Brothers! Sisters! Hovering, I extend my neck and open my jaws as if I would roar, but the call is only heard in the dragonmind, and as one my brethren crane their heads to seek me, their riders confused, but not yet having the wit to come to alarm. Serk senses that something is amiss, and he is pounding on the thick battle-scales of my neck for my attention, but I do not heed him. Alexstrasza, our Mother, is Free! We serve the Dragonmaw no longer!
I fold my wings and stoop like a hawk, straight down through the middle of the flock, and easily they part for me, enraptured, entranced much like the orcs on the ground. They watch dumbly as I dive for them, Serk holding on for dear life, and only when I flare my wings in a sudden, gut-wrenching stop do they scatter and flee. In their center is the Dragonmender, precisely where I want her, and before she can dive away I snatch her up in one set of talons, grip tight, but not crushing. She screams, and I must ignore this also. Everything depends on my timing being absolutely perfect.
Justice be done! I cry through the dragonmind, and my sisters and brothers, waiting eagerly for this call to arms, fall upon the Dragonmaw like great scarlet vultures.
The Wetlands erupt into chaos. Drakes throw their riders, both aground and in the air; the ones too far from the ground are not killed by the fall, but rather by the hard stop at the end of it, while those aground must recover their wits and their weaponry to stand a chance against the angry dragonets. Adults help each other pluck their riders from their backs, and there are many satisfying crunches as particularly harsh gaolers experience in retribution all the pain they themselves had meted out.
I lose track of Torgus and Keeper in the melee, but from Palescar's triumphant bugling through the dragonmind, she has located one or the other and dealt them the fate they deserved. I myself have slipped away, flying low as I dare and swift along the marshes, the tips of my wings brushing the tops of reeds and disurbing the surface of pools of water. After what seems an eternity I find a stand of fen-growing trees and secrete my ruby bulk in their shade, as camouflaged as I am likely to get in a landscape of brown and green; that done, I at last set down the terrified Dragonkeeper in the muck. She is pale, bloodlessly so, and close to unconsciousness, but unharmed, a few bruises aside. Serk is reluctant to join her aground, but with my talons I slit the girths on my harness, and he chooses to free himself of the straps and scramble down my side to the reeds, instead of being drawn there by gravity. He kneels first at the Dragonmender's side.
"Dragonmender, do you live?" That his voice does not shake is a testament to his fortitude, but I see his hand shiver when he lifts it to test for a pulse. She mumbles something, her eyes rolled up in the back of her head, and for Serk, this is as good an indication as any. He breathes out, somewhat unsteadily, and then he turns his scarlet eyes on me, his lips pressed together in a grim line like green clay, before he says at last, "You could have killed us both. Why did you not?"
I am caught mid-backstep, and for some reason I cannot leave him yet, even hearing in stereo the carnage my siblings are inflicting upon my captors. I will never have my vengeance upon Keeper, but answering Serk is well within my power. For the first time, I brush Serk's mind with a less than subtle touch, and the connection clicks into place as if I have been communicating with his people all my young life, instead of merely eavesdropping on his thoughts. He jumps slightly, and I know he hears my words, foreign things in his orcish mind. You could have been cruel. Why were you not?
"You..." He blinks, staring slack-jawed at me, and the part of me that is most influenced by Jagg laughs delightedly at his open stupefecation. "You could speak? All this time?"
I nod, but I do not have the time I would like to remain to converse. Time is short, Serk. Why were you not cruel?
He swallows, and his mind works, but it is not from the mind that he speaks when the words come a span of heartbeats later. "Because it would have been wrong. It would have been dishonorable."
Just so. I lean forward, arching my neck, and gently nose both the prone Dragonmender and Serk, my former rider. He places a callussed palm on the scales of my nose, practically out of habit. Go now, and take her with you. I cannot guarantee you will survive, but I can spare you from the wrath of my siblings. It is not much. I say it apologetically.
"That is enough," grunts Serk, and he lingers a moment, palm flat and warm on my nose, scarlet eyes meeting gold one final time. "Lok'tar, Ring." Then he pats my nose, scoops up the Dragonmender in his arms, and darts into the marshes, the green of his skin a far better obfuscation than anything I could have manufactured.
Lok'tar, Serk, I think quietly in his direction, and I wait several moments to give him time to escape before I rise from the trees, and wing slowly back towards my brethren. Soon, I will head south and meet my Mother in person; soon I will participate in exterminating the last of the Dragonmaw from Grim Batol, if not the Wetlands entire. Soon, I will review the destruction wrought by my siblings, see the wrecked bodies of orcs and the few dragonets overwhelmed by their might, yet avenged in a brutal manner. Soon I will leave my life as a slave behind, perhaps take a True Name, perhaps even rid myself of the faded circle on my cheek from which I derived my name.
But soon will, of course, come soon enough.
For the moment, I simply stretch my wings and exist, my pace unhurried, my path impulsive. When my Mother roars her victory to the world, her Voice and Life and Love coursing down the dragonmind like a flood through long-dry riverbeds, I change my course and begin to fly in truth, winging towards the center of the Red Dragonflight, to meet a Mother I have only known through gasps of mental contact in my short years. Life will never be easy, but perhaps it can, at last, be good.
It is not much. But as Serk said, it is enough.