Hello, everyone! I hope you've all had wonderful holidays. Mine have certainly been busy.
As per usual, I'd like to thank , ketren, markoatonc, the legendary night fury, denis.d2505, snowflake the glaceon, Breyannia, Wolfie-V, Eisnap33, Mellow Orange, Diamondia, WingedRock, OMAC001, BEST FANFIC EVER, DaMonkMan, Lord Jace, PianoGirl24389, DarkKingM, lilo202, Endevorer, Teen Nightfury, AliceCullen3, SirDuranix, ArtyomTheNormal, thorborn, TiGGs96, Saphruikan, Servanash, johnnyfireballs, SuperSaiyanTeemo, Wilson, The Gray Dragon, Darlene10104, Horizonsatdawn, Whitefang333, Shadow Erk, RamenKnight, hiccupandtoothless294, Bluebird42, AuditoresGirl, Mjolnir, GoldenGriffiness, Thespurgin, PiGirl, srig, and all anonymous guests for your wonderful reviews!
This chapter update is the same as the last, meaning that there are actually two chapters going up! So make sure you check out Unheard Whispers! The order you read it can go either way for this time.
Also, apologies if the pagebreaks are weird. Occasionally they don't show up, even if the story preview shows that they are there.
I hope you all enjoy this next chapter!
Two wingbeats above it and a Flame-Skin's length away, I snapped my wings in and swung through the air, my claws extended and teeth sheathed. The human had but a moment to see its death in my grip and made a futile attempt to raise its double-bladed axe to my throat. It was too late. I smacked into its thick breast plate with the force of an avalanche, the crushing of bones sending vibrations up through my paws. The demon collapsed, and I raised my head with a deep breath, sending a rainfall of flames upon her.
Taking a casual step off of the dented, burnt body, I gave an aggressive snort and looked to each of the remaining humans. They were wise enough to stop everything and run for their lives. Just to show them who was boss, though, I sent small fireballs at their heels. That'll teach them to try and attack a Shadow-Blender!
The field they had been defending was absent but for myself and a few cowering sheep. I picked out the biggest one and was on it in two bounds, opening my wings and carrying it away as it pawed at the air. The dead Viking below hovered at the edge of my sight, and with a stern frown I forced the gruesome image out of my focus—dragons do not feel guilty about killing humans.
Besides, it's not like it was my fault. I had just been defending myself, after all…
The higher in altitude I went, the further out I could see. The whole village was in disarray, its homes sent up in flames and the sky choked with smoke. I spotted another pasture that was largely untouched, hidden partly in a small forest and dotted with animals. Going into a hover, I pressed my lips together and squinted in thought. The livestock currently in my claws was pretty heavy, but maybe if I could find a net, I could carry multiple? I would probably need another dragon's help, actually, but—
Amidst the grey and blood-red light, a flash of near-heavenly white burst like lightning nearby, morphing to purple while the Shadow-Blender's silhouette sped past it. The watch-tower that had guarded the fields—and had given my position away in the first place—became nothing but a pile of rubble, and I was just barely able to see the Shadow-Blender moving into the fields. He was employing our species' signature magic, perfecting it so much that I lost sight of him while I was looking directly at him.
A sheep seemed to take flight, and out of the darkness the Shadow-Blender's form appeared, melting into the air in the same way that mist rises from frigid lakes. He took quick notice of my creepy, awkward staring, and nodded once.
"Good job. The Queen will be pleased with that offering." He came up to my level and swung his eyes over what remained of the human village after our devastating blow. "I believe we've completed our mission here."
I nodded in agreement. The task had been a little bit more than a raid today: take as much food as possible and devastate the humans' island. They had become fierce warriors over the months, enough to be considered a threat by the Queen. Which meant we had to eradicate them.
"Uh, yeah," I finally said, realizing that I had gone quiet. The Shadow-Blender glanced over at me, and for a moment I thought he was going to make a joke. But then he swooped away, rising above the fire-cloud and giving the retreat call. The rest of the flare sprung up like wayward embers to meet him.
Well, most of the flare. I glided over the ruined buildings, my eyes darting back and forth and stinging in the ash. A flash of speckled green managed to stand out against the cacophony right below me. I pulled straight up, spun several times, and then dove back where I had been. The Little-Biter jumped onto my back with practiced ease, and not a second later the storehouse he'd set fire to collapsed to the ground.
"Big sheep!" He said, leaning over my shoulder to look at the shell-shocked bovine. "I got myself some fish in my gullet, too! That's a whole bunch from the two of us!" I could practically hear him puffing up his chest in pride as he spoke.
Allowing a grin to slide onto my face, I said, "I'm sure she'll be proud of you, too!"
We reached the cloud, momentarily engulfed in a heavy black. Then we breached into the cool, aurora-lined sky, the smoke below us turned turquoise. The rest of the flare was waiting for us, and the Shadow-Blender looked a teensy bit annoyed. He shot a glare at the Little-Biter and led us away with a chirp and flick of his head.
I let myself glance back towards the village one more time. The smoke had a hole in it, allowing me a glimpse of the ruin, the dead, the flames. Then it was swallowed by the blackness, and we flocked back to the nest under the moonless sky.
"Try it again."
My head pounded, by limbs shook, and my wings felt like nothing but frail, soaked paper ready to rip open at a moment's notice. Still I took wing, flinging myself straight up and executing a backwards roll. The ocean came up to greet me, my wings sending waves up to match them in height on either side of me, and the island passed by as nothing but a little pebble. My magic reserves, opened throughout the entire duration, fought back tooth and nail; they were reluctant to aid me.
I plopped onto the island once more, panting with my tongue hanging out. "Dragon of the Sun, I'm tired," I gasped.
The Shadow-Blender padded over and sat in front of me, perplexed. "I don't understand," he began. "You're fine with this kind of magic until you try to break the limits that you established last winter. Why can't you surpass them?"
"I don't know!" I groaned, rolling onto my back to let the cool air reach my belly. "It's like every time I try to do anything past that, I'm trying to grab a mountain and move it somewhere!"
We'd been at this the entire morning. At first I'd been able to enhance myself with magic, make myself faster, more durable, stronger. The second I pushed my magic, though, the headaches started. The sun had rolled up to its highest point and begun to sunk, and I had made literally no progress.
Shadow-Blenders were naturally the strongest magic-users in the dragon kingdom. Yet I could barely do the basics, and I couldn't even pass the tests that mere fledgelings could! How was I supposed to be a leader to my people when I was so weak and scrawny? How was I going to learn to use magic when I had gone through so many mentors, when the only magic-user at my level couldn't even pass his knowledge onto me?
The Shadow-Blender lay down next to me, looking down with scrunched eyebrows. "May I look at your magic?" He asked. His voice shook just a little bit. I nodded.
"…well…roll back over."
"Oh!" With a somewhat sheepish grin, I squirmed around and pulled my head up to be on the same plane as him. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against mine.
I could feel his presence, something flickering and uncertain that spread through my mind like a fog. It had a hint of something familiar and malevolent, but whatever it was dissipated when I put any sort of focus into it. After some searching, the Shadow-Blender's magic reached out to the heart of my magic, where it was positioned directly in the center of my forehead.
Something sparked, an impossibility forced to exist that created its own repulsion. My eyes burned and a headache spun my head in on itself, forcing me to jump away just to avoid being knocked out! Blinking against a blinding curtain of stars, I stumbled away on stiff legs, narrowly avoiding tripping right off the cliff we were on in the process. Unable to do anything but squint and grind my teeth, I sunk to the ground and twisted my neck in the direction my mentor had been.
The Shadow-Blender was crouched low enough that his stomach brushed the rocks, spines bristling and teeth and claws unsheathed. His eyes looked like they were swallowing his entire face up in a vast lake of aurora-green, his pupils imperceptible. Had he not been breathing so laboriously, he'd have looked like he was carved out of the soil.
I'd never seen him look so horrified.
His glazed eyes remained locked on me for a long, dreary expanse of time. Then, rubbing his head, he said, "…I think you should go to the Queen."
The first thing I did when we got back to the nest was take a nosedive towards the pit. The dragons hovering in my way were easy to dodge, but they still voiced loud complaints about "flying too fast".
The ocean of lava was tranquil, as still as a puddle after rainfall. I drew up short with a raised eyebrow. Where was the Queen? It's not like she just decided to take an afternoon stroll.
I was seriously considering the idea of an underground tunnel big enough for her when she finally burst into the open, scaring my scales off! I yelped and hustled out of her way before she smacked into me, my heart hammering out of my chest.
Oh, dear! Apologies, Shadow-Blender. I did not realize your close proximity to me.
"It's good," I panted, forcing myself to keep from hunching over to catch my breath.
And what brings you here at this time? Were you not practicing your magic with the other Shadow-Blender?
I nodded, shook my head, and, confused, nodded again. "I was, but, uh…" Chasing off the uncertainty building in my chest, I said, "Something went wrong. I was hoping you could help me…?"
Of course, little one. The Queen drew close, tilting her head so that she could peer at me. What was so catastrophic that it hindered your progress? You were doing well with magic, yes?
I hung my head. "…no. I can only do the basic stuff. Like making my fire stronger, or my flight faster. I mean, for a while, I was getting better at it. But now when I try to go past that, I just—I can't." Peeking up at the Queen's patient eye, I admitted, "The Shadow-Blender tried to look at my magic to see what was wrong, because a while ago he said it was different because I'm not from here. But when he did, it was like…like…it was like nothing I'd ever felt. I mean, I get some pretty bad headaches, but I can usually shake them off," I tried to explain.
The Queen's loving smile wavered and was replaced with a neutral line. A little deterred, I finished, "This was nothing like them, though. It was like a forest fire inside my head, and it hurt the Shadow-Blender, too."
She paused for thought. It seems your magic is wild and dangerous, the Queen worried. I do not wish for you to stress it any more than your current limits that remain safe to use.
The gentle, motherly grin rose from her lips again. Shadow-Blender, you have attempted to strengthen your magic ever since you were discovered and guided here. You have gone from mentor to mentor, myself included, like an agitated sparrow. If the effort of the entire nest cannot aid you, and the abilities that you seek result in the pain of yourself and other dragons, do you honestly believe it to be worth the pursuit?
Ducking my head, I said, "…I…guess not."
The Queen nodded. You are correct, young Shadow-Blender. I will suggest you take your focus off of your unpredictable magic and pull all of your efforts into abilities that you can sharpen. Your agility, stamina, and aim can be expanded beyond barriers you cannot even imagine. Focus on dividing your shot limit, making your fire less powerful but more numerous as your superior does. It is for the better that these are what you aim to perfect—not a species of magic that cannot be controlled by its user. She tipped her head to the side, inquiring, Do you agree?
That…that made a lot of sense. Why couldn't I see that earlier? Suddenly it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off of my wings, allowing me to fly to my heart's content. I returned her soft smile. "I do. Thank you, my Queen."
Think nothing of it, my child.
"I will now be leading a hunting party to the southern islands, departing immediately!"
The call echoed through the nest, gaining attention as fast as it traveled. Dragons dropped everything and leaped from their activities to go to the Shadow-Blender, swarming in an attempt to be a part of his team.
An older Flame-Skin took position at his direct right and raised his head high. I looked away.
"Are we not going?" The Little-Biter asked, jumping off my back to sit in front of my nose. He tilted his head to the side, his brows drawn in.
"I was planning on doing a raid tonight," I told him, glancing over at the newly-formed flare surrounding the Shadow-Blender. He finished counting the members of his team and nodded in approval, opening his wings and darting out of the nest with the speed of an arrow. The rest followed in a river of colors and wings.
"It's too late, anyways," I said. My voice was drowned out by the flurry, a single sound amongst thousands, and it was only until I had spoken that I realized that there was still a hollowness that I could not explain.
I brushed it off.
Okay, Shadow-Blender. Time to go.
The stones beneath me shook loose underneath my claws, tumbling down the outcropping. My rear left leg was slow to climb, and it took me longer than I would have liked to reach the top. I stood at the peak, glancing over the large pod of dragons that had nearest to me. Earlier, the Queen had requested that I take a hunting party out. I had been waiting all day for a group like this to form; most of the nest had gone out at some point to hunt either for themselves or the Queen, which meant that more than enough had been gone at any given time to delay me. Now that the sun was setting, though…
"I'm going to take a raid to the eastern islands in a few hours!" I declared. All eyes swung to me. My ears flattened, and I was forced to remind myself that this was not necessarily a bad thing. In a meeker tone, I added, "So…uh…who's coming?"
"Me!" The Little-Biter shouted as loud as he could. While sitting on my back. Now I had a different thing to cringe about, so I guess I had that to distract me from the swarm of dragons around me great Dragon of the Sun where did they come from?!
I was so surprised by the speed it took the others to come to me that I sat down, openmouthed. A group of Flame-Skins were bickering over who would be on my right, several Two-Heads and Two-Walkers were hanging out next to me, and Hum-Wings and Little-Biters were filling in all the gaps. The only dragon (besides the Little-Biter) that sat down with confidence beside me was the Hum-Wing from the spring ceremony.
He grinned and nudged me with a pudgy foot. "Not used to the popularity, eh?"
"How am I going to choose from all of these people?" I whined. "The Shadow-Blender never has this problem!"
The Hum-Wing shrugged. "He laid down his rules long ago. He prefers small, capable teams, so once there is a group around him, other dragons stay away. Because you have not done that and usually allow any dragon to come with you, you get big groups like this." Eyeing the thunderous crowd, he said, "You are too nice. I suggest you do as the Shadow-Blender does and whittle them down."
I had to exclude other dragons? That...wasn't what I wanted. If I had to, though…
Ears drooping, I stood up and gave a loud roar, bringing the cacophony down to a slightly quieter level.
"Alright…I'm going to have to ask a few of you to stay behind…"
"That was terrible."
"It wasn't that bad."
"I broke that Two-Head's heart!" I hissed to the Little-Biter, glancing over at the dragon in question. He was so upset he was just sprawled out on the ground, covering his heads with his wings!
The Little-Biter didn't seem so concerned. "He was too young. His magic would be mediocre, and even he admitted to you he had never been in a raid." Shrinking up into a little ball, he added, "And he was looking at me all mean."
The Hum-Wing from before caught my eye from another group and buzzed over. "See? That wasn't too bad!"
I groaned and flopped over.
I will admit that my flare was, in a word, elite. I had whittled down the dozens who wanted to join to a group of fifteen, myself and the Little-Biter not included. It was small for a raid—but that meant we could concentrate our efforts, work in an organized group, and strike swiftly and deftly. Minimal damage would be applied to the dragons, and maximum to the humans' village. If all went according to plan, we would leave with plenty of food and a threat more or less disbanded for a month or two.
With the sun at our backs, we flew into the Dragoness of the Moon's sky, the twilight above bleeding away with each passing moment. I went over my plan with the others, answering their numerous questions and putting their minds at ease. My style of attacking human villages was apparently unlike any other dragon's; it took them awhile to fully grasp what they were supposed to do.
We were shrouded in the cool navies and emeralds of the night sky by the time I was sure that my team could follow through. I stopped giving instructions, and all of the chatter died away just as fast. Even the Little-Biter seemed to have nothing to say. We spent the rest of the trip with nothing but the chilled springtime air, the stars, and the ocean below. The moon seemed dim.
The island that I had targeted was a trading village, but did not seem to be one that was very well-known. The Queen had not sent too many teams there, which meant that they would be both unprepared and well-stocked. As we drew in and its flat girth became visible, highlighted in silver, it became clear that they were not alone.
There was a multitude of ships docked, but a few of them were not made with the same style. Once we were close enough, it was easy to see that the insignia on the sails were completely different; they showed a red, serpentine dragon with a golden underbelly and blue accent scales on its chest breathing fire. The native ships had a much more endearing symbol of a spring-green Flame-Skin with two arrows piercing its heart and coals at its feet.
The travelers' ships were…almost familiar…
My head began to compress, and with a scowl I shook my head. No! I wasn't going to deal with this again! Especially not during a raid.
"Okay, guys!" I called out to my team. Just in case, I reiterated one last time, "Time to spread out. Go in teams of one Flame-Skin, one Two-Head, and one Hum-Wing. There should be five altogether. When I give the signal, we strike. Okay?"
The dragons gave various roars and shrieks of confirmation. I smirked, looking over my shoulder at them. With a single, powerful throttle of my wings, I raced ahead, climbing as high as the few clouds that dotted the sky. My flare separated and swept over the village, looking like nothing but shadows from above.
The Little-Biter clutched one of my spines with all his might. I took a second to take in the village, find a weak point to exploit.
Then I pulled my wings in, dropping as if crippled to the earth. The whistle of my kind blasted through the air, and a few faint human voices began to shout. I was almost completely perpendicular to the ground, my nose pointed directly down and my tail completely straight. The seconds that I knew I could branch on darted away, and over the rushing wind and my fire building up, the Little-Biter shouted to me to pull up.
The blue-white ball struck the tower not at its peak, but its midsection. It burst out in an explosion of neon purple and blue, hurling the entire top half off of its foundations. Instead of opening my wings and pulling out, I tucked them against my side and darted through the hole I had just created, corkscrewing to get above the falling tower half and spinning to level myself out. Then I flung another fireball into the top just before it smacked into the ground, setting it up in flames. Now basically a flaming wheel of death, it rolled through the village and set fire to quite a few houses before turning on its side.
There were five simultaneous explosions. I banked out of sight, and as I rose I saw that a patch of fire was placed on each edge of the village that I had decided on. The Flame-Skins were leaping from building to building with magic-blessed flames clinging to their scales and leaping onto the wood. The Hum-Wings were followed close behind, smashing anything they could and saving their fire only for most dire circumstances. The Two-Heads hovered low over the streets, filling them with gas and then lighting them once a big enough area had been covered.
Excellent. Part one of my plan had been executed perfectly. The humans were already rushing to the outskirts of their village, weapons at the ready. They were spread out thin due to the placement of my flare, but one group in particular was much bigger than the rest: the one heading towards all of the houses.
While I knew they could handle themselves, that was a bit too much for just three dragons to handle. I trailed above the Vikings, biding my time. The houses drew in, forcing them to clump together. The howl of the Shadow-Blender burst through the air, and as I plummeted towards them, I couldn't help but grin when they all ducked and held their puny wooden shields over their heads.
My fire smacked right into their midst, sending plenty flying back and injuring many more with the shrapnel alone. I swooped in a perfect arc back up, angling myself so that I could circle the village. All of the other groups were engaged in battle, but they were smart enough to stay as high as they could and stick to the smokescreen caused by the Flame-Skins' fire. Still, I narrowed my eyes. There wasn't much at all; they were going to be pinned soon and forced to retreat above, which would send the warriors closer to the center of the village.
Well, we couldn't have that.
Four times I built my fire, and four times I shot into a crowd of unsuspecting Vikings. Blood was splattered, fires set, weapons and shields breaking apart! Which each shot the next group of humans was more prepared, and I flipped and spun around thrown weapons and arrows, aiding my speed with magic to become nothing but a darting flicker of color. It was dangerous and a tad reckless, especially when I had used up all but one of my shots, but I was giddy! With a laugh I broke apart the last group and let loose a roar, signaling part two of the plan.
All at once everyone retreated to the now-empty center of the village. I directed each group to a different place to search for food, reserving one to go out to the pastures. I stayed behind with the other four, eager to find a storehouse to bring back a massive stock to the Queen.
In the end, the Little-Biter and I entered a smallish building that reeked of burnt meat and fish. It could really only be some sort of shop, but that would mean it also had some stores in it. I knocked the door down and we sprung in, the Little-Biter leaping off my back and scrambling to the backroom. I sniffed around for a second to locate the freshest scents and padded in after him.
The Little-Biter had already found several strings of salted meat and was still searching around, pawing at a container that I promptly knocked over. And lo, a bunch of fish came tumbling out! I scarfed it all down, shoving as much as I could in my gullet for the Queen. This was fantastic! A little disgusting and old and slimy, but still pretty great!
A quick scan revealed that apparently this shop had been a struggling one, as it had no other food left. The Little-Biter jumped onto my back, the strings dangling and catching around my spines, and I sprinted out of the shop as fast as my slightly-limping gait could take me. We'd been in there for less than three minutes—but that was all the time a human needed to kill a dragon.
We were met with an empty street. My plan had gone exceptionally well, more so than I ever thought! I held my ears straight up and rose on my hind legs, but no cries for help pierced through the song of battle. There was only screams of pain and confusion, none of them dragon. I let out a gleeful whoop. "This is going great!"
The Little-Biter pranced atop my forehead. "We sure—Shadow-Blender!" His squeal cut off with a high-pitched squeak of terror, and with a thump he jumped onto my back.
I unsheathed my teeth and claws, spinning to find the threat. A few bounds down the street, closer than any human had ever been to me, a Viking had stepped out of an alley and was facing us. Their features were hard to make out behind the shield they held in front of them, but the shape of a long sword was unmistakable. I crouched low, stomped on the ground, and gave a heavy snarl.
The Viking, for whatever reason, lowered its shield. I locked my pine eyes with those of the exact same color, those that showed an expression I had never seen on a human before—sorrow.
The world fell away in a clashing of agony and numbness. My eyes lost their abilities and my legs their strength, and although I knew I fell I didn't feel myself hit the ground. My entire head—the center of my forehead, specifically—felt as though it was being shredded apart bit by bit, like a venom was coursing through it and dissolving everything in its path and burning away what little remained. My ears popped and rang, a high-pitched screeching of outrage becoming the only existence I knew of. I blinked my unfeeling eyelids rapidly, just barely making out two spots on the edge of my sightlessness. They flickered like weak candlelit flames, barely distinguishable from the darkness.
No…not again…not now…
A wave of nothingness spread through what was left of my mind, transforming everything in its path into itself. I could do nothing but observe it, wondering what it was, what it was doing, and why the two lights had flared. It coated more and more, stealing away everything and…
…my eyes snapped open, bringing me face-to-face with the Little-Biter, whose paws were placed on my cheeks while he begged me to get up. I blinked in confusion; where were we? How did we get here? Everything hurt—especially my head. All I wanted to do was curl up and sleep it off.
The Little-Biter would have none of it. He clamped his jaw down on my ear. Hard. Yelping, I twisted around to snap at him to leave me alone. The command died in my throat.
There was a human right across from us!
Thank the Dragon of the Sun he seemed rooted to the spot. He was staring at us like he'd never seen dragons before. The spell on him broke only when I got to my feet, and with a terrifyingly fierce battle cry, he barreled right towards us!
Leaping back, I spun midair and swept my tail around, snapping it right into him like a whip. It didn't knock him down as planned, instead pushing him aside, and he recovered far faster than I could have thought! And worse still, I landed on my bad leg just the wrong way, sending waves of pain up through it and giving him time to charge again! Unable to take flight without risking my gut being strewn open, I waited for him to draw closer and rose onto my hind legs, smacking him away just as he was about to plunge his sword into my scales! He fell back and I gathered up my fire, readying to finish him off. The flames rushed from my throat and I relaxed, knowing that the battle was over.
The Viking raised his shield and thrust it against the bolt, dispersing it evenly over his shield—his sturdy, metallic shield. It had been reinforced! While I was still standing vulnerable and shocked, he threw his sword right for me!
I flung myself to the ground a second too late, and the weapon that was aimed for the center of my throat sliced clean through the side of my neck. I gasped at the pain that was very, very real—too real. The wound was deep, and blood was draining out in a torrent! I wouldn't be able to fight him and still have the strength to fly back!
"Little-Biter!" I cried, bringing him from cowering against a building back to me. He leaped onto my back and I squared my feet, bundling all of my muscles together.
The Viking's eyes widened. "No!" He said, his voice rough and shaking. He grabbed a hammer on his belt and came at me, his eyes still holding that strange, pained glint.
He was too slow; I launched myself straight off the ground, flaring my wings out and catching the wind right as he swung the weapon. The retreat cry ripped from my throat—the first time I'd ever used it to stop a raid. Panting and lightheaded, I went into a hover to look down at the Viking.
Despite the injury he had given me, I was drawn to him. A need to learn and understand rose from somewhere deep within me. Why was he so surprised to see me? Why did he act as though my mere existence caused him torment?
Most importantly, why was he so familiar?
The ocean's gentle waves were the first thing I heard. With those came the soothing caress of the wind and the ruffling of wings gliding on air currents. I tried to open my eyes, but they were so heavy.
Something was gripping me hard, wrapping around my entire side and connecting at my stomach. My wings were folded up awkwardly, one hanging limp between a break in my bindings and the other scrunched up so tight, it sent pain running through it. My tail and legs were dangling in the air, motionless like those of a dead animal.
I tried to open my eyes again, managing to squint and see the death-dark waves below. I could see a hint of orange-red where my stomach was.
It was not rope that held me immobile, I realized—it was a Flame-Skin. From the scent coming off the claws, it was the one who had flown on my direct right. The noises coming from other dragons flying was even on both sides, which meant that he was the point of the formation, leading the flare.
I wanted to break free out of the Flame-Skin's gentle grip and take my position again, tell everyone that I was okay. My head still thundered, though, and everything felt so heavy. I blinked rapidly to try and keep myself awake, but could not keep the darkness at bay for any longer amount of time that I already had.
My eyes slid shut, and I drifted away.
According to the Little-Biter, the nest was sent into a panic when I was carried back, limp and still as a corpse. The Queen had been horrified and administered healing magic herself, ordering that I had the next half-day for rest alone. I came to with the Little-Biter knocked out on my head and my entire flare keeping watch over me. They were all ecstatic to see that I had woken up, wishing me well and refusing to leave my side even when I told them all that they were silly and I was fine. They even said that I was the only one to get that close to a human that night, praising me for my admirable bravery.
On top of that, in front of me were a few fish, which I was grateful for despite the fact that I had filled my stomach earlier from the raid. One piece in particular—the biggest one—caught my attention, but not in the way I expected. It had the Shadow-Blender's scent on it.
I was smiling for the rest of the night.
For the next week or so, I was to abstain from participating in raids. It was not entirely my decision.
The Queen had given me a speech that was basically her just saying "stay away from humans and don't hurt yourself" wrapped up in a bunch of nice words and implications. Downtrodden, I accepted her advice, even though every part of me wanted to tell her that my wound was just a scratch.
The odd Viking continued to wrestle his way into the forefront of my mind. Every single time I gave myself a headache trying to figure out why he was so different. I could never truly decide on why, just that he was…him.
Two days after my failed raid, I was lying on some heated stones mulling it over again when the Shadow-Blender announced that the Queen would like him to take a flare out to scout for more food. I jumped right up, eager to get out of the nest's perimeter!
The Little-Biter, snoozing atop my neck, gave a tiny squeak as I got up and trotted over, my limp a little more pronounced due to the rocky, uneven ground. "Shadow-Blender, what are you doing—" he cut himself off with a dramatic gasp. "No! You're supposed to stay here!"
"No, I'm supposed to stay away from humans," I reminded him with a smirk. "The Queen never said anything about these kind of missions." Besides, it wasn't like she was going to come back up just to tell me to stay here.
"That is correct, but you are not joining this flare today."
Eyes widening, I spun to my left, where the Shadow-Blender had been the entire time. He held a stern and uncompromising look, his brows drawn and jaw set. Still, I exclaimed, "What?! Why not?"
"We will be going to islands occupied by humans," the Shadow-Blender said. "I can't allow you to come in good conscience. You have to stay here."
"I can just stay above those islands, then! I don't I have to go down to those!" I tried to bargain.
"No!" The Little-Biter piped in, jumped off of me and sitting down next to the Shadow-Blender. "Do you know what happens when you do something you're told not to?" When I said nothing, he pressed, "Well, do you?"
"I get a bravery award?" I said flatly.
At once, both the Little-Biter and Shadow-Blender snapped, "No!" They turned to each other, surprised, and then seemed to decide that they had better things to do. Like reprimanding me.
"The Queen said to stay away from humans!" The Little-Biter snipped.
"You also have a knack for not paying attention," the Shadow-Blender added.
"And you can get hurt by another human!" The Little-Biter realized, his eyes growing wide.
"There is also the chance that you will decide not to listen and then get yourself in a mess that I have to fix," the Shadow-Blender continued a breath after the Little-Biter had spoken.
"Your limp could get in the way, too!" The Little-Biter exclaimed despite such an incident never occurring.
Finally having enough of it, I opened my wings and shouted, "Okay! Fine! I won't go!"
"Good!" The odd duo stated, once again sharing a bewildered glance. The Shadow-Blender snorted, keeping his head high, and the Little-Biter pawed at the ground and tried to cover his face with his wing. I gave them my best grumpy scowl.
The flare the Shadow-Blender had accumulated shifted and glanced around. Eventually, a Two-Walker was pushed out of a group and almost tripped over herself coming over. She nudged the Shadow-Blender's side and said, "Shall we be off now?"
He nodded. "Yes. Sorry about the delay." Jumping up into a hover, he waited for the rest of them to do the same. The Shadow-Blender looked down at me, locking his sickly-green eyes with mine. They were masked with practiced ease, but if I were naïve enough, I could see just a hint of something there. He turned away, and the scouting party rushed out of the nest, leaving me to sit around and do nothing productive.
My thoughts returned to the Viking whose eyes were the same as mine.
Don't get me wrong—spring is pretty great. It gets warmer so we don't freeze our tails off, the animals reproduce and give us a new food source, and the snow and ice goes away. It's a pretty celebratory time of the year as well, with the Dragon of the Sun's blessing on the earth causing the springtime change and all.
There's just one thing that sucks about spring.
Idiotic humans enter the stone forest in search of our nest, packing enough weapons and supplies to rage a war. We have no choice but to fight them—to sit around and hope that the forest becomes too narrow for their deft ships would lead to them discovering and killing all of us.
Really, we were lucky the Vikings hesitated so long. They apparently would go right to it once the ice withdrew, but this spring, they waited a few weeks. Most dragons were convinced that they were gone for good, but I was put on edge. Vikings were stubborn, hateful creatures that saw no reason. They weren't staying away because they feared us—no, they were delaying because they were building enough resources to try and take us all out at once.
So when a Two-Walker burst into the nest with the speed of a Shadow-Blender and shrieked that they had seen a fleet of Viking ships entering the stone forest, my first reaction was to choke on the fish I was eating.
The nest succumbed to disarray, dragons flying in every direction and filling the nest with a booming drone. I squeezed my eyes shut and clutched my ears in an attempt to fight off the nausea and disorientation that came with the loud noise. It was no use; I could already tell that I would not be able to stand up in this loud mess, and by the sounds of several dragons smacking into things, it seemed that I was not the only one.
Children! Calm yourselves!
I forced my eyes open at the Queen's voice. Most dragons had fled the center of the pit, but a Two-Head remained, young enough to still have the size of an adolescent. They were shouting something about how the humans were going to find the nest and kill everyone.
There was a sharp whistling of air. The fog bulged, the light below growing brighter and brighter.
The Queen burst from the pit and crunched her jaw on the Two-Head's tail, dragging them screaming into crevice. The nest stopped altogether; every dragon in flight dropped to the nearest ledge, and those that could hid under outcroppings and inside caves.
My spines bristled and my claws dug holes into the stones. All I could do was stand in a squared fighting stance, my spine arching and wings held straight out, my unmoving eyes trapped on the pit.
That dragon had just been killed.
No, they had been murdered.
The Queen…the Queen loves us. Why would she kill one of us, especially such a young dragon who probably didn't know better? Hell, I'd done worse than that and gotten off with nothing but a slap on the paw! I'd been told that sacrifices were only made when there was a low food supply for the Queen, but it was spring! How could she do that?!
My head pounding in unison with my heart, I slunk away with my belly and tail dragging and slid into a cave that was already full enough as it was.
"Shadow-Blender, are you alright?" A Flame-Skin said, wrapping his neck around my body to face me. I said nothing, and his eyelids lowered. "You must realize the Queen has her reasons."
I looked at my feet. "Yeah."
Nobody spoke. The nest looked and felt abandoned.
Then, My children, you are perfectly safe. You may rise.
I wasn't as convinced as the others, who poked their heads out of their hiding places and peeked down into the unmoving abyss. They began to pick their way out into the main platforms of the nest, murmuring to each other in worry. I remained right where I was, pressing my stomach against the floor of the cave and my side into the wall.
The clattering of small claws on stone echoed through the cave. A dragon poked his head around the mouth and then ran on over.
"There you are," the Little-Biter breathed. "I was so scared I would be next! I followed your scent right away!" He climbed onto my back, burying himself into my scales. I hummed, never taking my eyes off of the others. They looked so vulnerable. A twinge of pain sparked through my head.
We have wasted much time in responding to the threat to our nest, the Queen announced. Their aim is to desolate our home, our family. They believe us as nothing but lowly vermin and will treat us as such, with no honor or integrity. They must be driven away at all costs. Dragons began jumping in the air, teeth bared. You must keep them away from our island, lest we all succumb to their wrath.
"We will!" A dragon promised, and several more shouted their agreements. What seemed like half the nest took flight, swirling at the main exit at the top of the nest. I stood up on shaky legs and stepped out of my hiding spot. Allowing my eyes to draw down to where the Queen was one more time, I paused for just a second. Then, pushing my conflicting thoughts and emotions aside, I followed the rest out.
The Viking fleet was massive. It stretched on and on, the sails near the back forming what appeared to be a strange, single-toned cloud. In seconds I was thankful for the large amount of dragons that had left to defend the nest; what had felt like overkill then was now our only chance against the humans.
The first thing my gaze swung to was the insignia drawn on the sails. For some strange reason, I was both disappointed and relieved to see that it was neither of the symbols that had been etched onto the ships on that island.
All of the dragons spread out, gripping onto pillars and allowing the fog to settle back around them. I landed on the tip of one, glancing back and forth. My search ended when I finally picked the Shadow-Blender out of the crowd. He was at its forefront, crouched low on the top of a pillar with his lower body hanging down it. His tail swished back and forth. I blinked once, and he was gone.
A blurred mirage, a high-pitched screech, and the first ship was hit with an explosion that sent it sinking into the unforgiving water.
Every dragon took off at once, bearing down on the intruders with all their might. I flung myself into the sky and charged my fire with magic, swinging around the side of the army and sending it into the lower port. The entire side of it exploded and the gaping maw sucked water in, forcing the Vikings to abandon ship unless they felt like sinking down below the waves with it.
Using the resulting confusion to my advantage, I built gas up in my throat and angled myself right over the next ship, aiming the next attack exactly where the previous one had been. I spat the fireball out, and in the same moment, the Little-Biter did the same. His fire was magically-charged to the point of being a pure-white spew of flame, which caught onto the mast and immediately sent it breaking away. The flaming piece of ship fell down onto one nearby, lighting it up as well.
"Nice!" I sent over my shoulder, ducking underneath a fire-coated Flame-Skin and around a group of Two-Walkers and Hum-Wings. The Vikings below were scrambling to get their weapons together, throwing basically anything they could get their hands on up into our masses. A few meters in front of me, a bola wrapped around a Hum-Wing and sent him plummeting into the ocean.
My heart dropped. There was no time to save him!
"Look out!" The Little-Biter warned. I rolled into a backwards loop with dizzying speed, and as I looked down at the ships and ocean below midway, a pod of arrows zipped through the exact spot that I had just been in. Had the Little-Biter not said anything or even noticed, I would have suffered the same fate as the Hum-Wing.
At the crest of the loop I flipped upright and pumped my wings once, sending myself right towards the ship that the arrows had originated from. The Vikings must have noticed me coming right for them; they all set their bows back and raised them, aiming them right at me!
The Little-Biter jumped onto my forehead, inhaled as deep as he could, and threw out a second pure-white flame. It was so bright it stung my eyes, so hot it began to burn at my scales! More importantly, it cut right through the arrows, turning them to charred sticks that bounced harmlessly off my scales, and continued right into the humans! I threw my third shot into the side of the ship, bringing it to wilt and sink below the waves.
Rising high above the Vikings' range, I took a moment to consider my options. I had five shots left. The Little-Biter had two.
A huge, flaming ball took flight from the mass of Viking ships and slammed through the dragon flock. I threw my head back and groaned. "Catapults? Catapults? They brought their catapults?!" I moaned to anyone willing to listen.
"…I guess?" The Little-Biter said, a tad confused. "What are we going to do now?"
Pursing my lips, I set my wings and tailfins into a glide and caught an updraft to take me towards the ships. They were well-armed, yes—but I only counted seven ships armed with the deadly weapons. That was about half of them, not including the ships that had already been so heavily damaged that they had sunk.
Two more catapults flew into my people, taking out at least six dragons who were unfortunate enough to clump together in the wrong place at the wrong time. I bared my teeth, a low growl rising from my chest.
Those catapults needed to be taken out immediately.
"Can you take those ships down?" I asked, pointing down at the two that were adjacent to each other.
The Little-Biter hesitated. "Y-yeah!" He said. "You'll come back for me, right?"
"Of course," I said, trying to keep my voice warm and reassuring. "Alright, let's go!"
Wrapping my wings around my body, I plummeted directly to the first ship. The Little-Biter began hissing, building up his magic-charged flame in preparation. Once we were above the deck I corkscrewed, allowing my friend to launch himself onto the ship without hesitation. I heard several screams, felt a burst of heat from behind, and then there were more screams. Hopefully that was a good thing.
Now to take out the rest of the catapults.
The Vikings aboard the first ship were occupied with fighting off a group that was already there. They didn't see me coming, likely having expected me to attack from above the ship and not at its level. By the time one of them turned and saw me, I had already thrown a plasma blast right into the ship's side! Banking hard to avoid slapping right into the rocking ship, I rose straight up, pulled my wings and legs in, and curled back down towards the second.
They responded by throwing bolas and daggers at me, howling fierce battle cries and murder in their eyes. I gave them an unimpressed look and just spun out of the way of the thrown weapons. Their comical, terrified expressions lasted for just a second. I sent a magically-powered fireball into the lower bow, and, ta-dah! Down goes the Vikings!
"Have fun swimming!" I shouted at them, even offering them a toothy grin. One of them seemed to interpret what I was saying and sent up a 'Damn you, abomination!'. Well, that's a nice name to give a dragon you barely see, I guess. It could be worse; they could name Shadow-Blenders after the time of day or something.
The third catapult-bearing ship was trickier; they had a dragon captured! A Flame-Skin was trapped underneath a net, and so many Vikings were swarming her, she couldn't concentrate on her fire!
Pulling straight into a dive, I yelled, "Hold on! I'm coming!"
"No!" The Flame-Skin cried, "They've got—!"
My third shot hit the center of the deck, sending an explosion that knocked every Viking away (and some overboard) and coursed through its framework. To my horror, it didn't go through the bottom! That was not as important as saving the Flame-Skin, though!
I thumped onto what remained of the deck, making sure to keep my weight off of my hindleg, and got to work clawing and tearing away at the tight netting on the Flame-Skin's upper body. "Don't worry, I'm gonna get you out of here!" I told her, my vision blurring as I swung my head to and fro, ripping at the rope like a dog wringing its kill.
"Fly away!" The Flame-Skin commanded, shooting a glare at me. "They cannot have you! They know how to take away a dragon's soul!"
The answer to my unspoken question that I seriously did not want came to me in the form of a Viking with a bucket sprinting around the hole I'd made and…splashing my face with water.
I actually stopped to give him an annoyed look. I mean…really? He was one of the few that managed to stay on the flaming, hole-ridden ship, and the first thing he does is throw a bucket of water at my face. Snorting, I prepared to send a little spark at his chest—one that would take up about a third of my shot, but still knock him away; a handy trick I'd learned from the Shadow-Blender to conserve shots.
Except it didn't work. Eyebrows drawing in, I tried to light my fire again. And again.
Realization dawned on me, and the Viking knew it. He chuckled and gloated, "Can't light yer fire, eh?"
I just stood there with plate-sized eyes. They really could take a dragon's soul away!
Roaring, I jumped over the struggling Flame-Skin and headbutted the monster right in the chest. He was flung back and hit the side of the deck, missing toppling over by a margin. Leaping on him again, I sunk my teeth into his nasty chainmail, reared up on my hindlegs, and threw him over with all of my might! He swung his arms in a blur for a few seconds and hit the water with a loud slap. Satisfied, I spun and shredded at the Flame-Skin's jail for a couple more seconds until she broke free.
"Thank you, Shadow-Blender!" She said, bumping foreheads with me. Glancing over at the flaming remains of the ship's deck and the few Vikings who were either knocked out or staying the hell away from us, she said, "This one should be able to go down by itself. We need to move!"
We took off before any of the humans could get any bright ideas. Looking back down at the ship, I gasped, "Have they cursed us?"
The Flame-Skin shook her head, shooing away all the dread and fear that had settled in my heart. "No. But it does last some time. Be careful, Shadow-Blender!" She bade me farewell, and then banked away from all the ships.
I was calm for about two seconds before I realized just what exactly had happened.
I didn't have my fire.
How was I going to take out the other two ships?!
Looking over at the two ships the Little-Biter had been tasked with, which were both almost completely engulfed in fire, I knew I had to act fast. Without thinking any further I tucked my wings in and went straight for my next target. It shot off another fire-stone from its catapult, and directly after I slammed onto the deck! Giving the surprised Vikings no reaction time, I grabbed one and threw him into a group, smacked a second overboard with my tail, and then batted one with an axe away with a powerful, heavy slap.
Turning to the catapult, I allowed a brief moment to figure out how to disarm it. Rising on my hind legs, I poured magic into my upper body and threw myself down on the arm. The wood splintered and cracked. Grunting, I pushed at it one more time, breaking the entire thing in half! Thanking the Dragoness of the Moon that the catapult had not been loaded when I'd tried to break it, I wasted no time in getting the hell off the ship. The humans retaliated, some managing to nick me with several weapons and leaving my lower abdomen covered in scrapes. A small price to pay.
One ship was left. I tried to light a small bit of fire, but it would not come to me.
The catapult I was heading towards was loaded, bending under the weight of the ammo it carried. My eyes widened for just a second. Pumping my wings as fast as I could and opening my magic reserves, I rocketed towards it, the world blurring around me.
I landed directly on the top of the stone. The wood moaned, the ropes shuddered, and the arm bent closer and closer to the deck. Unable to bear the combined weight of the stone, myself, and the ballistic speed I had crashed into it with, the arm split and cracked, shattering like glass!
There was no time for me to look around. I just flung myself right off the edge of the ship, opening my wings to catch the wind like sails. Now to get the Little-Biter.
I wove through what remained of the ships, only to pull up in shock at the sight of where I had dropped him off. One vessel was nowhere to be found, and all that remained of the other was a flaming post of wood sticking out of the water. The Little-Biter was bouncing on the top of it, staring down at the rising waves and flapping his wing wildly.
"Little-Biter!" I called, and was greeted with the most relieved look on a dragon I'd ever seen. Banking below him, I slowed down enough for him to jump on my back and then climbed in altitude, parallel with the smoke pillars.
I hovered once we were safely out of range. With the catapults dismantled, the Vikings had no real threat on us. They seemed to realize this; it was only a minute or two later when the ships turned around and sailed away at full speed!
The entire nest let loose victory roars. Half of the fleet had been destroyed, and one ship had even been lifted up and thrown between some pillars! They had come to us armed with their very best, and we had risen victorious!
The flock returned to the nest, and after a headcount it was discovered that only fifteen or so dragons had lost their lives. It turned out that while I was busy taking down ships, the other Shadow-Blender had been working nonstop to protect and free any dragon he'd seen, and he had saved countless lives. The Queen congratulated him on his excellent work and, to my great surprise, she offered the same commendations to the Little-Biter and me.
Afterwards, the Queen drew me aside and told me that she had seen and felt my grief over the Two-Head. She explained to me that the nest needed something to motivate us, to get us to clear our minds, or else we would have never been able to organize ourselves in time to fight the humans and win. Had she not done as she did, we would have left the nest with heavy hearts, and could have easily lost to them.
While I did not necessarily agree with her methods of inspiration, it made sense. The idea that I had feared her, been angry with her, even, was brushed off as a silly mistake.
We spent the night celebrating, reveling in the strength that our Queen gave us. We were safe. That was all that mattered.
For some reason, I had thought that it would get better if I tried to ignore it. If I worked hard enough, strained myself past my limits every day, if I occupied my mind at all times, then it would go away. Then everything could return to normal again.
I couldn't stop thinking about the Viking that had attacked me. Every time, I gave myself an excruciating migraine trying to figure out why he was so important. The answer evaded me each time, leaving me more and more frustrated. I knew the answer. That was a fact. There had to be something that I had decided was unimportant and pushed off during the incident, and now it was pining for attention that I could not give it.
It didn't help that I only remembered half of our battle. A clear image of the Little-Biter warning me of his presence was welded into my mind. Afterwards, though? Nothing. There was agony, most likely from whatever the Viking did to knock me out, and then waking up and getting my butt out of there. This only led to more confusion and headaches; that Viking had me. They're evil things; why would he have spared me, only to attack again once I regained consciousness? Was it shock getting in the way, or a warrior's respect that keeps him from fighting an opponent that cannot defend himself?
That had not been the first time I had been forced to flee from an attacking human, even after the Queen allowed me to fight them. It was the first time that I had been forced to pull back an entire flare because of a single Viking. Was that why I couldn't forget about it?
Yes, was my initial thought. Except that I didn't quite agree with it.
That Viking had done something to me. He had almost killed me with his damned sword, infecting me with something that had forced me to pass out midair as if struck by a heavy blow. That disease of his had persisted ever since, wrestling my thoughts to focus on him at every given chance. He had planted a molding illness in my heart, rotting it out from the inside.
I needed to find out why.
So, on a warm, late-spring morning with the moon still shimmering beside the sunrise, I turned my attention to the southern isles.
The Little-Biter was fast asleep in his usual spot, a little cranny close to the edge of the pit. It was apparently warm and comfortable, but every time he sat down there I envisioned the edge crumbling away with him still on top of it. I'd decided to keep that to myself.
"Little-Biter," I hissed, nudging him in the side.
He jolted awake right away, arching his back and bristling. "Huh?! What?" He squawked, trying to look in every direction possible. When he saw me he stopped, a sheepish grin forming on his muzzle. "Oh. Shadow-Blender?"
"I'm going to be gone for the rest of the day. I just thought I'd let you know," I informed him, leaning down to his eye level.
The Little-Biter glanced up at the sky and then tilted his head. "But the sun's barely up. You're going to be gone all day?" When I nodded, he clawed at the ground and said, "What if there's a storm?"
Oh, gods, was this awkward. "I already went outside to check," I said, shifting uncomfortably. The Little-Biter drooped, bringing the guilt trip to maximum strength. "I'll try to bring something back for you to give to the Queen," I rushed. "Here." Struggling a bit, I forced myself to regurgitate up a disgusting, half-digested piece of fish from the night before. The Little-Biter looked ecstatic, but I couldn't help but wrinkle my nose at it.
"Oh, thank you, Shadow-Blender!" The Little-Biter said. He butted his head against mine. "You are so kind to me. No other dragon would do what you do."
My smile fell, but I forced it back up again. "Of course. But, uh, I have to get going. I'll see you later," I said with a small wave. The Little-Biter crept back into his hole with one last thank-you, leaving me the only dragon that was out and about.
I leaned over the ledge to look down into the bloodied, glowing fog below. Was the Queen staring back up at me, I wondered?
I'm sorry, I thought, but I have to do this.
The center of my forehead pulsed as I opened my wings and dropped off the ledge, catching the thermal and drifting in circles higher and higher. It was only when I'd reached the mouth of the cave that I began flapping, casting anxious glances down into the nest to make sure that I was not heard.
Everything was quiet. Sighing, I put the sun on my left and inhaled deeply, drawing in the crisp morning air.
"Where are you going?"
"Oh goooood morning, Shadow-Blender!" I all but squealed, desperately trying to recover from the unpleasant surprise. The Shadow-Blender was sitting with his tail wrapped around his paws, ears pricked and gazing up at me with a raised brow. Chuckling nervously, I tried to recover, "So, uh, what're you…doing here?"
"I believe I asked that question first," the Shadow-Blender said. He looked over at the sun and moon held parallel in the sky and hummed, "It's early. What business do you have at this time of day?"
Why does he even care? I thought to myself. Instead, I dropped from my hover in front of him, wracking my head for a good enough excuse. "I'm, ah, I'm going hunting!" I settled on. "'Cause…you know…best way to start the day…"
"But the animals are still in their nests," he said, his eyes squinting and one ear dropping a bit. "The fish won't be swimming in any pods at this time, either. You won't find anything, unless you…" He trailed off, and his ears stood straight up.
I slouched, trying to play it cool. "Well, not all of them are asleep right now, and I could always just track their scent—"
"Why are you hunting on the humans' islands?" The Shadow-Blender interrupted, getting to his feet. "During the day? Have you gone mad?"
"Little bit!" I joked, earning a slap to the face via tailfin.
The Shadow-Blender was not as amused. "You'll only succeed in getting yourself killed, or worse, captured. You think that after all of those attempted invasions, the humans are going to run away from us?" He hissed the word 'human' as a vile curse. "They used to fear Shadow-Blenders and run away, but those times are behind us. If a human spots you, they will waste no time in splitting your throat open."
I lowered my eyelids, my ears flattening ever-so-slightly. "That's motivating."
"Will you please take this seriously" The Shadow-Blender reprimanded. "What you are planning right now? It's exceptionally stupid. One of the worst ideas you've come up with. And you've done some pretty idiotic things." He rolled his eyes and then pushed me towards the nest's entrance with his wing. "Let's stop this silliness and go back in."
I drew away. "No! I want to go. The places I'm planning to go to, uh, have a lot of cover for me. I blend right in with the trees." He opened his mouth to scold me again, and I raised my voice, "And also, they might have good food stores, and they won't be expecting me at this time."
That seemed to get the attention of my superior. He twisted his neck to look south. "There are many islands that have been largely untouched," he considered. "But they are dangerous. I'll assemble a flare." Aaaand down into the nest he went.
"But I—! Ugh." I ran a paw over my face, holding back a loud groan. So much for my secret mission. Falling onto my rump, I glared at nothing in particular, tail twitching and ears slanted.
The Shadow-Blender emerged with a four sleepy dragons in tow and a confident grin. "Alright! Let's be off then!"
"This better be important," a drowsy Flame-Skin slurred. The Shadow-Blender pretended not to hear, pulling himself into the air with a few flaps of his wing. Then we were off, the Shadow-Blender taking the lead.
It was hard not to be annoyed or snarky. I mean, it had been my idea that I was planning on doing alone. What was done was done, though. If I had told the Shadow-Blender the truth, he'd probably had dragged me down to the Queen by my ear to talk some sense into me. Besides, if I was lucky enough, we might even come across one of the ships that had been at that island.
With that in mind, I faced our trip with high spirits, eager to finally put the mystery of the human at rest.
We visited two islands before the sun raised too high, making the Shadow-Blender nervous enough to retreat back to the nest.
The first island was simple. All of the Vikings were asleep, and their village was placed west of a mountain. That left the ground level pitch-black, even with the sun already rising. The Shadow-Blender had stayed above while the remaining five of us began scouting.
I knew right away that it was not my destination, but made no complaints. The pasture was relatively easy to find, and I picked off the smallest sheep I could, making sure to snap its neck before it could make any noise. Then I sort of…wandered around. Even though I was skittering around in a mad rush to find a shadow to hide in, it still felt almost natural to be walking through the streets. Plus, I needed the practice to make sure I never did get caught. It began to lose its charm after awhile, though, and I took a moment to rest.
Standing in a pine tree, I realized just how difficult my quest was going to be. It's not like I could knock on a door and say, "Hey, I'm trying to find a Viking who almost killed me! Mind pointing me in the right direction?"
To actually find him, I'd need to narrow down which island he was native to. I knew the location of one island, and if the Dragon of the Sun and Dragoness of the Moon were with me, then that would be the place I was searching for. So at least I wasn't grasping at straws.
Still, it certainly wasn't going to be easy.
Eventually the Shadow-Blender called us back. The others had spent their time actually collecting food and so were carrying much heavier loads when we all met up, which earned me quite a few dirty looks. The Shadow-Blender gave me his famous grumpy frown and led us away.
The second island was boring. As punishment for not bringing back as much as the others, I was put on sentry duty while the Shadow-Blender went down to hunt for something. That meant that I had the joy of circling around and around and around with absolutely nothing to do.
Those were the worst two hours ever. I'm pretty sure I spaced out and started daydreaming halfway through it.
The others came back up, heavily loaded with livestock (and a deer, in a Flame-Skin's case), and the Shadow-Blender decided that that was enough.
The flight back couldn't have been slower. I spent the entirety of it planning, running every possible outcome over in my head. When I had ready to take off earlier, I had been unprepared and probably would have gotten myself hurt. With all the time to think given to me, though, I was ready.
When we returned to the nest, I dropped my sheep into the pit, spun, and flew right back out of the nest, pushing my speed fast enough to dissuade any dragons from following. The salt air was stinging against my eyes and the sun uncomfortably hot.
It was going to be well worth it.
I approached the island low, the ocean spray reaching far over me and my shadow blurring against the waves. The bright sunlight was giving me a headache, forcing me to squint to see where I was flying.
The docks only held the ships with the green insignias, which I was more than thankful for. The last thing I needed was more Vikings. As expected, the shipyard was packed with Vikings bustling in the early summer heat. I began to bank around the side of the island, keeping my eyes to them the entire time. It would be unlikely that I would be spotted flying so low, but better safe than sorry.
The backside of the island was hilly and held a forest with a waterfall right in the middle of it. The part of the foliage closest to where the humans lived was bare except for sliced-open tree trunks and the occasional bush. The outer edges of the village still told of our attack so long ago; a black ring could be seen stretching around its perimeter, and most of the buildings around it looked uninhabited.
I pulled my wings in and dropped down at the edge of the forest, staring across the slight incline at the village. I'd chosen the more rural area to explore first; hopefully, everyone would be too busy starting their day to notice me. With my belly against the ground, I held still as a mountain.
Then sprinted across the field of dead trees, focusing solely on keeping up the pace without tripping over something. I skidded to a halt at the side of a house and crept to its corner, peeking around it. The ground underfoot was charred, as was the house and most of the others in the immediate vicinity. The ash drifted away in a soft breeze, drawing approximately six sneezes out of me. With a moan, I went to rub my nose, only to stop when my paw came up completely blackened.
I blinked at it. With a grin on my face, I dropped to the ground and rolled for all I was worth, coating every inch of my body with ash! By the time I'd finished, I looked like a younger relative of the Shadow-Blender. If I was careful, I could blend right in with the ring and not be noticed by a single person.
Much more confident with my cover, I began my search. The area where my flare had started our attack was abandoned save for myself. I kept to the shadows of the buildings, only crossing the street when it was absolutely necessary. I now regretted knocking down the tower that had been in the center of the village; if I could have managed to get on top of it without being noticed, it would have been the perfect spot to observe the village and look for the Viking.
Nearly dragging myself through the ash, I inched my way closer and closer to the more crowded part of the village. The sounds of a market strengthened with each minute, and by the time I had reached the border of my cover, I could just make out what seemed to be a crowded market downhill. The humans were walking in and out of shops, chatting with each other, and doing other…human…stuff. I guess. None of them noticed the blackened bulge staring down at them.
Deciding that this was as good of a high spying position as I could get, I sat perfectly still and drilled my eyes down the street. Individual features such as eye color or nose shape was impossible to determine, but I knew that I would recognize the Viking in an instant.
So I waited.
And waited until my muscles were cramping from holding so still and my head pulsing from straining my vision so much. The sun had reached its highest point and was just starting to round its way back down. The crowd had begun to thin out, which seemed safe enough to get closer.
Picking an out-of-the-way alley, I crept down into it, ears sticking straight up and steps measured. It was barely big enough to fit me—I wouldn't be surprised if some Vikings couldn't get through. It led straight to the marketplace, which was good because there was no street across from mine that someone could spot me from, but bad because people. I stopped just at the edge of the alley and began to poke my head out.
A Viking walked right past, almost kicking me in the snout!
My instincts screamed for me to scramble away, but I froze like a deer. Two humans sauntered right past me, talking about a recent fishing trip. They didn't realize for a second that they'd almost tripped over the dreaded Shadow-Blender.
Taking in deep, even breaths, I came to the conclusion that this was a nice spot very quickly. The Vikings had no reason to look down a tiny space between two buildings, and my ash camouflage masked me as a shadow. Keeping those two comforts in mind, I began to watch again.
I was more than disappointed when I came up fruitless. I did hear quite a bit of gossip—apparently someone had been caught trying to steal a boat—and not much else. There was quite a lot of talk about dragons, and the words 'night fury' came up too often to be a coincidence. I had no idea what they meant, though, even though I knew they were important!
I was slumping, disheartened, and ready to just leave when the gods finally stopped hating me and threw me a bone.
Two men stopped in front of my hiding spot across the street, leaning close to each other to talk in whispers. I froze and leaned against the wall of the alley, training my eyes and ears on them.
"Sir, we're runnin' low on food resources," the first man said, glancing over his shoulder at the market. "That dragon raid really did a number on our stores. An entire half of our supply, gone in one night."
"You think I don't know that?" The second growled. "It's been hard tradin' when almost every island has been havin' these troubles. The only ones left out are the Hooligans."
My ears perked at the name. The ever-present migraine sparked and I drew in a sharp breath, squeezing my eyes shut.
"What happened with the trading agreement, anyways?" The one who'd spoken first went on. I opened my eyes to see him giving the other a perplexed look. "Did somethin' happen?"
The other human didn't respond right away. "It's…related to the rumors we've been hearing. About the boy."
"You don't really think that actually happened, do ya?"
Shrugging, he said, "It does explain why there was one night fury and then two. Apparently their Chief saw one during the attack and tried to kill it, but it managed to get away. He was distraught afterwards."
"I would be too if I lost my chance to kill a night fury."
"Enough to leave the island you were supposed to trade with?" The second challenged. "They barely said a word. They just up and left after they helped put the fires out."
The other man didn't seem to have an explanation. After a moment, he said, "Well, I'll believe it when I see it." He grabbed his friend's arm and began walking back down the road. "Now, anyways, there's something that…"
My head was going on overload trying to figure out what all of that meant.
Okay, seriously, what the hell is a night fury? Some kind of deadly storm? You can't kill a storm! Why would it be a big deal if there were two? What do they have to do with dragons? Why do humans talk about them so much?!
Think, Shadow-Blender, think! You're smart!
"Their Chief tried to kill it, but it got away," I repeated to myself. My mind flew to that night, to the discussions I'd had with other dragons. As far as I knew, mine was the only serious battle that had taken place, and also the only one-on-one. The others had stuck to their groups of three and barely had any time to forage before I'd called the retreat; most of them didn't encounter a human at all during the raid.
I had been the only one that had faced off with a human. Said human had been upset upon seeing me, so much so that I'd noticed it once I'd given any amount of time to actually look at him. Their Chief—their King—had tried to kill a "night fury" and was "distraught" at his failure.
There also used to only be one "night fury".
I actually did groan out loud this time, letting my face smack into the dirt as a loose, hesitant puzzle clicked in my pounding head.
Damnit, I was on the wrong island!
Summer drifted in on steady wings, bringing with it bountiful food supplies and ever-increasing battles. The Vikings continued to pick around for the nest in armies, always leaving with a large portion of their ships sunken or damaged. In turn, raids became an almost daily activity somewhere. I participated in as many as I could, always in search of the 'where' and never finding it.
There were times where I would wake up, go to a raid, go back to the nest, sleep, and then repeat the cycle. There were other times where I was so tired I could barely move, lying still in the same spot and wasting an entire day away. At one point the Little-Biter had enough and forced me to go to a dragon well-learned in the healing arts, convinced that I had been cursed by a strange workaholic spell.
He…wasn't wrong, I guess. Although the cursing part was a smidge overdramatic.
Now that I knew that the Viking could be on any island, I was much less confident that I'd actually be able to find him. The dragon-marked sails were a fantastic lead, but they were the only lead. It didn't help that each and every time I set out alone in search of an island with those ships, I ended up working my thoughts so hard that I had to return to the nest because I couldn't fly straight anymore. The few times I had come close to Viking fleets, they had never been the ones I was looking for. Maybe I was cursed.
Cursed with bad luck!
Even the Shadow-Blender showed concern, pulling me over and telling me that he cared in his own special way. And by "telling me he cared", I mean that he gave me a lecture on the limits of a dragon's body and self-control and "stop trying to be in five places at once" and other unnecessary stuff like that.
It seemed like everyone wanted me to stop. I couldn't, though! With each raid I went on I narrowed the list of possibilities down. With each successful scouting mission, I expanded my knowledge on humans and their ways, found out what could get a dragon noticed and what could conceal them, and further pinpointed the possibilities of where that human was.
I was so close. I couldn't stop now. If I did, when the solution was dangling right in front of my nose, then I would never be able to sleep a restful night again.
"So, the entire field is on fire, the yaks are stampeding over into the humans' nests, I've got two human fledglings hanging off of my wing and the Two-Head is still stuck underneath a tree with the mountain lion…"
I was nudged in the rump. Hard. Waving whoever wanted to speak to me off with my wing, I leaned closer to the Two-Walker that was speaking. She was painting the single most interesting story I'd heard in my life. A huge crowd had formed around her, which only fuelled her passion in reiterating the most eventful raid that had happened ever in the history of dragonkind. It was something that clearly had been organized by the Dragon of the Sun for a good laugh.
The obnoxious dragon didn't seem to notice I was busy and swatted at me again. I sent a vengeful glare over my shoulder at the Two-Head that was behind me. In response he gave me a confused, hurt look at my sudden nastiness and then sulked off somewhere else in the crowd. I was poked again in the backside, and the greyed Little-Biter trying to get my attention gave me an extremely irritated look.
"The Queen wishes to speak with you," he informed me.
Ugh, now? But the story was getting to the best part! I had to know what happened to the deer that teamed up with a bunch of Little-Biters to chase off the mountain lions from its fawns! They made it fly!
The Little-Biter bit into my tail and yanked it back. "Are you going to keep Her Majesty waiting?"
I slumped over, giving a deep, long, loud sigh. Dragging my feet and tail on the ground, I made my way away from the crowd with one hell of a sour expression, the Little-Biter leading the way. We reached the edge of the cliff and I gave the elderly dragon a respectful bow; it wasn't his fault the Queen wanted to see me, after all. Don't kill the messenger and all that. He returned it with a little bow of his own and padded away.
I let myself lean over the edge and be overtaken by gravity, keeping my wings close as I dropped like dead weight through the clouds. To my surprise, the Queen was already above the magma bath and waiting. Her elderly eyes flicked over to me once I'd breached into her throne, an easy smile settling across her jaw.
My child, she greeted, raising herself further out of the cavern below.
"My Queen!" I returned, hovering at her nose and dipping my head. I was still unable to lean into a full bow without flipping over. Again.
I see you've mastered the art of bowing midair, the Queen teased, her lips stretching apart further. Tell me, have you been well?
The odd question drew me out of my embarrassment. "Uh, yeah?" I more asked than answered, cocking my head.
That brings me much joy to hear, my child. And you are sleeping and eating well, I presume?
"Yeah," I repeated with a nod. "I've been able to hunt a lot."
I have noticed, she agreed. If you do not mind my asking, where have you been traveling to these past weeks? Her grin became mischievous, and she raised her brows and asked, Have you found yourself a mate?
Huh?! Cheeks burning hotter than the lava below, I stammered, "W-what?! No! I-I—"
The Queen chuckled. Rest assured, Shadow-Blender, it was only a joke.
"Y-yeah," I said, rubbing the side of my face with a paw. "No, uh, I didn't…find a mate. I've just been going out a lot."
Almost daily, I will add to your statement, my leader said. There was a hint of worry creeping into her voice. Shadow-Blender, are you certain that you are not bringing yourself misfortune with this unnecessarily amaranthine work?
Oh. That's why I was down here. "Of course not!" I proclaimed. "Like I said, I'm not starving myself. And I still bring back food for you, too!"
And my gratitude for such crosses no bounds, the Queen said. But I am most concerned about your mental welfare. A dragon cannot overexert themselves as fiercely as you have and expect positive outcomes. They become ill in both body and mind.
"But I'm not sick," I stated slowly, struggling to understand why she would suggest such a thing.
And I send my regards to the Dragoness of the Moon for that, the Queen said. But I do not wish to watch your life spiral into one of suffering and obsession. Those who reach that loathsome state of being hardly free themselves from it, and it burdens my heart so to see them in such pain. Such a fate is an unspeakable one. She leaned forward and carefully pushed her forehead to mine. And it is a fate that you are flying with all your strength to.
"B-but…" I wanted to speak, to disagree with her. I wanted to tell her of the human who had only been accompanied with pain, of my reasons to try and find him to put my mind at rest.
And I realized that saying such would only confirm her suspicions, and not because that was what it looked like. It was because she was right.
The epiphany was so unpleasant, so unexpected, I lost my stability midair. My wings beat out of sync for a second and I dropped—only to have the Queen swing her muzzle underneath me and catch me on the bridge of her nose. There I sat, two halves of me battling a blood-washed war. I needed to find that human. It was as simple as that. How could I, though, when the Queen told me what exactly would happen if I continued my fruitless search for him?
Shadow-Blender, the Queen said, and her voice flooded with sorrow. I fear that even now, I have intervened too late. I expand my apologies to you—your kin addressed me of your predicament long ago, but I believed that you would succeed in snapping yourself out of it. It was a foolish, idealistic decree, and you have been dealt the blow for it.
Eyes widening, I gasped, "It's not your fault!"
I am responsible for my children, the Queen said. I slackened that responsibility for you. I have come to terms with my failure, and I must make amends to you.
I shook my head as one side of the battle gained an advantage. "But you didn't fail. It was my fault that I got…so bad."
The Queen observed me for a moment. I am aware of your determination and stubbornness, little one. You are a dragon that does not except any outcome but victory. It is because of these admirable qualities that you and I did not see the signs until they became overbearing and dangerous. There is a simple remedy. I will not confine you to the nest's radius—however, you shall only go on missions and raids that I allow you to.
The other half that had been losing ground found a new hope to fight back, drawing the battle to a standstill. I jumped to my feet, a protest on my lips.
Do not worry, the Queen amended, her eyes softening. This will only be temporary. You must understand that to free yourself of your impediments, you must develop habits that counteract them. My guidance will gift you the knowledge of how to lead a healthy lifestyle in comparison to your current, self-harming actions. Once you learn the difference between the two and are no longer vulnerable to slipping into your previous ways, I will no longer have a say in your activities. Do you understand my reasoning and motivations?
The warring groups disagreed, but I still nodded. "Yes," I whispered, hanging my head. How could it come to this? How could I betray not only myself, but the Queen and the nest as well?
Do not let this weigh on your heart, my Shadow-Blender. You do so without abandon. Remember that you are not the first dragon to face this—in fact, the other Shadow-Blender dealt with the same problem when he was younger. But that is a story for later.
I blinked at her in surprise, ears standing straight up. What, she was going to tell me something like that and then go, "Oh, nevermind"?
The Queen had a knowing look settled on her face, and she said, Are you able to fly on your own?
Only then noticing that I had been sitting on the Queen for the better portion of our conversation, I all but bolted into the air. My wingbeats were a bit unsteady, but I was able to keep to the air. "Uh, yeah! Heh. Sorry," I said, cringing.
She shook her head with a loving smile. Do not apologize, my child. You must know that there is nothing wrong with allowing another dragon to help you. Tomorrow you may participate in either a hunting party or a raid, but only one. Reserve the rest of today for gaining any strength that you have lost over the past weeks.
"Alright," I said, holding back a sigh. I began to leave and then stopped. "Oh! My Queen?" She raised her head to me, and I said, "Thanks…for caring."
As always, my Shadow-Blender.
The nest was just the same as it had been when I'd gone down. I settled onto a vacant section and did nothing but watch the others, wondering how many dragons I had caused concern. Two had spoken up. How many had held their tongues?
Yet, despite it all, that there was still that primitive, rooted impulse to find the human settled deep within me. I couldn't just give up. The Queen had not explicitly stated I couldn't search for him—but then again, she didn't know about him.
My solution left me ridden with guilt, but also with a sense of righteousness. Even if the Queen discouraged it, if the Shadow-Blender forbade it, and the Little-Biter begged me to stop…this was a matter of the heart, something that could not be dropped with a simple "you're sick". I could follow the rules, become healthy, and still keep looking. I may now be limited in my freedom, but I would still continue the search.
I had to.
The next day was horrible; I'd not been accustomed to feeling as useless as I had been when I'd first come to the nest. The day after was even worse, as my self-pity shifted into anger—anger at myself, anger at the Queen, and anger at the Shadow-Blender for basically tattle-taling on me because he decided to stick his nose where it didn't belong. The prospect that we used to be friends, closer than the Little-Biter and I, seemed alien to me. I was nothing but an object he had to control, something he only spent his attention on when he decided to. I wanted to confront him, but every time I worked up the courage to do so I lost my nerve at the last second.
A week dragged by on crippled legs (surprisingly, crippled-er legs than mine). The summer storms tore through the nest, taking away entire days under an angry, blackened sky. An illness crept up from the wet, moldy interiors of the nest that were spared from the uninhabitable weather outside, and if it were not for the Queen's interference, we all would have succumbed to it. Two of our nestmates died.
One week turned to two, and two to three. I graduated from one flare per day to two, my silent pursuit for those sails never leaving my mind. On the few days the Queen allowed me to go out by myself, I headed straight to the humans' islands. I learned more than enough information on local affairs than any dragon needed to know, but not much else. On the times I was lucky enough to overhear something about trade or inter-island politics, a headache would pulse beneath my forehead as I tried to collect all of the scrambled pieces into one set unit. There were some days where I was so deterred by the pain that I actually did what I said what I was going to do: leave to hunt and come right back.
I began to gain back weight I had apparently lost during my over-exceeding adventures. Each day I practiced my flight and fire skills, I felt what strength I had grow. My magic-enhancements lagged behind, but even with my struggles, I was able to sharpen them to lethal capabilities. As such, by the time that summer had begun to creep away, I had given up on expanding the different types of my magic abilities altogether.
My children, it will be on the eve of the next day that the Dragoness of the Moon and Dragon of the Sun will merge summer into fall.
There was a little uptake as all the dragons of the nest discussed this amongst themselves. The Little-Biter leaned against my leg and said nothing while the small group around me chattered away.
I sighed, bowing my head and bracing myself. This was the beginning of a downtrodden climate that would spread throughout the nest and clutch tight until the cold seasons passed. After all, fall meant the loss of food and cold, right? While it did mean that mating season was near, which seemed to make many dragons excited, it also meant that death would be right around the corner at any given moment. I mean, last winter was when a sea dragon attacked the Shadow-Blender and me!
My heart ached with nostalgia just at the thought of the previous seasons. So much had happened in such a small amount of time, leaving me wondering where everything had gone. Hadn't it been yesterday when a flare had spotted my prone, near-lifeless body on a deserted island and saved my life? Then, hours ago, I'd made my first kill, offering my true potential to the nest? Even the Queen's revocation of my freedom felt like I'd just gone through it.
The Queen must have noticed the generally-unhappy mood that had latched onto everyone. Do not taint these times, little ones, she reprimanded in the tone of a gentle mother, for they have brought us as numerous wealth as we have earned in the warm seasons. I raised my gaze to her, tipping my head at the proud smile that had been painted across her jaw. It was a full turn of the seasons ago that the Shadow-Blenders rejoined our nest, and they have blessed our prosperity ever since.
My bottom hit the ground with a thud, one paw lifted against my chest and ears standing straight up.
I mean—that's flattering, but I'm not that great, and I know it's rude to say that the Shadow-Blender isn't either, but, well…
It was also a full turn of the seasons ago that many of our family perished under the cruel hands of the human Vikings. To honor both those who fought so bravely for our kin, and the Shadow-Blenders who insured the survival of all of my children, I propose a day of celebration instead of the traditional day of mourning. The Queen's eyes flicked back and forth before settling on me, and she said, Unless that is not what you desire?
"A celebration is a wonderful way to welcome fall!" The blind, elderly Little-Biter who had helped me on my first raid answered, drawing the Queen's attention over to her. She was sitting atop what was a pebble to most dragons but a mountain to her, a claw's length from the edge of the pit. "But do not underestimate your impact on our survival, my Queen—it is you who has guarded and sheltered us since long before I hatched, and you did not falter in the slightest this past round."
A strong trait of modesty is key to good leadership, the Queen brushed off. I thank you for your kind words, little one.
"The pleasure is mine, big one!" The Little-Biter chirped, drawing gasps from basically every single dragon in the nest, myself included. Even as a joke, such disrespect towards the Queen was unheard of, no matter the age of the speaker!
I received my second slap to the face from the universe making a joke of me when the Queen threw her head back and laughed, drawing nervous chuckles from the rest of us. Oh, that was quite humorous, she stated, shaking her head with a broad grin. I believe that is a splendid way to end my address. We shall have our celebration starting tomorrow night. I request you refrain from offering to me any prey that is caught—instead, store it in the nest, and we shall feast on the birth of autumn.
The Queen paused to give us a last glance—one that was largely missed, as the entire nest erupted into an excited flurry—and withdrew down into her endless hole thing.
I sat right where I was, the Little-Biter's squeals and his small weight settling onto my back distant afterthoughts. A group had surrounded me to offer congratulations, and all I could really do was give a stupid grin and nod as my heart swelled with a completely new and welcome emotion, and the world shook off the gloomy coating I'd wrapped around it and made itself right again.
At sunrise of the next day, I flew below to ask of the Queen complete freedom to hunt. If the nest were to have a feast, then everyone needed to be working above and beyond, right?
The Queen seemed hesitant at first—but then, miraculously, gave me permission!
It came at a price, though—while I had improved bounds with my new routine, the Queen was still worried I would slip into my old habits. She granted me full control for the next few days, donning them as a test to see if I could do as was required of me. I was so ecstatic, I rushed to tell her how much she wouldn't have to worry and bolted out of pit, only realizing that I had not been dismissed until I heard the Queen give a little laugh and sink back into the lava.
Awkwardness aside, I was determined to show the Queen just how well this Shadow-Blender could follow the rules! And I wasn't even going to try and bend them this time!
The Little-Biter was fast asleep in his spot when I tracked his scent down. I slammed to the ground and shook him so hard he became a green and red blur, shouting, "Wake up! Wake up!"
"Don't eat me!" He begged, squeezing himself into a little ball. When he realized that the Dragoness of the Moon wasn't coming for him, he peeked out from under his remaining wing and frowned. "You're going out already? But you can only go with two groups, right?"
I leaned down to his eye level. "Not anymore. I asked the Queen for full control, and she agreed. I can hunt all day now!" The Little-Biter narrowed his eyes and arched his neck, and with a roll of my eyes I amended, "I'm not actually going to."
"Good," he said, taking advantage of my bent position and climbing aboard my head. Snuggling up between the two spines right behind my neck, he mumbled, "But…can you please not flip around when you fly again?"
I rolled my shoulders, drawing a yelp from the Little-Biter as he held one of my spines with all his might. "I'll try not to."
I went through the nest, drawing a few extra dragons from their sleep to ask them to come along with me. The majority of them were fine with it, but a few grumps just rolled over and told me to ask them when the Dragon of the Sun came up.
I led us out into the brisk, damp morning, the sky above dark and hints of orange streaking the eastern horizon. Taking us south—the direction I had flown the least in the past weeks—I angled us on a path that I knew held several chains of islands that were currently uninhabited by humans. There was one specific island I had in mind—one that could become very important to the nest, and yet had never been used for its full potential.
The sun was resting on the ocean by the time we reached it. The members of my flare, assuming that they were allowed to do a random sweep of the island, began to pull into dives towards our destination.
"Wait!" I commanded, bringing them to hovers. I swooped down and to the front of them again, spinning on a winglength to address them, "I've got a few jobs for you guys to do."
"Jobs?" A Two-Walker repeated. "But we're just hunting."
"Yes!" I said. Smiling, I turned and pointed down at the island. It was heavily forested save for one feature—my target. "See that river that flows through it into that lake?" The others gave a variety of grunts. "See how it flows into the ocean?" Nods. "And how there are rapids near there?" More nodding.
Too excited to explain myself any longer, I shouted, "Then follow my lead!"
The river came up in a grayed blur, its choppy flow sleeker and more dangerous with each wingbeat that pulled me in. I stared deep into it, scanning its length for the flighty treasures it held. Lower than a pine's height above it, I flung a high-powered fireball into the rushing waters.
Dozens of fish sprouted from the gray abyss, pulled out of the water from my fire and flung towards me by the current. All I had to do was stretch my jaw wide and catch as many into my gullet as I could, claiming at least a small meal for a dragon my size. The Little-Biter caught any fish that I couldn't. My flare caught on and darted above the river, spreading out and mimicking my every action, never questioning. It seemed odd, now that I thought about it, that they just took my word for it. I tried to reason with myself why, but only succeeded in giving myself a headache.
To keep an eye on the rest of my nestmates, I pulled myself to the back of our line at the rapids of the river, shooting into the water every so often but wary of my shot limit. With the sun rising and fall setting in, it was inevitable for Vikings to try one more last-ditch attack. I had to keep at least three.
Any wildlife nearby—including two odd canines that stared and left within an eyeblink—fled from our perceived attack on their river. My fifth shot burst the surface in a flurry of pellets of water, each individual reflecting the sunrise and the light of my fire. A bountiful catch awaited me, and I was so surprised by the air suddenly filling with food that I nearly forgot to catch them. I grappled with the struggle creatures and banked over to the riverside, hoping that the Little-Biter had gotten what I hadn't and shaking my head to rid it of any wetness that was left. The Viking that had stolen my soul came to mind—I couldn't help but shudder at the memory. But it only seemed that such a horrible impairment could come from being completely soaked in water, not just spray from shooting fire into water.
The rest of my flare had not been so cautious as I had, using up all of their fire and resorting to fishing the old-fashioned way: scaring the fish with one dragon and having the rest come in and grab them in their disarray. The Little-Biter, eager to participate in something that he could do without flight, leaped off my head and sprinted away. I sat where I was and watched them, an odd nostalgia creeping up on me. An image of green eyes took place of reality.
As I set my far-off, lethargic gaze on my nestmates, scales painted the rustic red of dried blood in the light, it occurred to me just how…monotonous it was. We wake up, hunt or raid, go back to the nest, repeat. That was what kept us safe, though. What would we do without our organization, our routines that were dangerous enough as they already were? How would we survive without them?
It is not like our life is useless, I thought. We have yet to abandon traditions, rituals, things that are dear to us.
The sunrise was warm on my back. I almost turned around to look at it, but I decided not to.
I almost missed them.
I had taken my flare away from the island, aiming to return to the nest in a little under an hour if we pushed ourselves. The sun had raised enough to chase the Dragoness of the Moon away, the sky shaded the color of a robin's egg and the ocean below shimmering pastels as the light shooed away the darkness. We were flying high, and maybe that was why it took me so long to notice them. Maybe it was because I was so spaced out, lost in my own thoughts as the year-anniversary of my incorporation into the nest clamped down. Maybe it was just because I should have kept a better eye on our surroundings.
The Viking ships had returned to the seas. They were moving away from us and looked like toys sitting on a blue expanse, just barely close enough to make out the small details. I couldn't see the insignia on their sails very well. But even reflected and blurred by distance and dim light, I knew.
They were the Viking ships that I had searched so long for. There they were, the ships with the sword-pierced dragon, the source of my mental illness, the reason that I had lost most of my freedom. The people who were led by the King that had tried to kill me. Without even thinking I rolled midair, my wings perpendicular to the ocean, and set us towards them.
A sharp clang went through my forehead, stinging with a boiling heat that clawed its way into my thoughts. Hissing, I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, but the pain persisted.
No! I growled at it, I have to see where they're going!
Each wingbeat felt like I was trying to fly through tree sap, my legs barely able to press against my body and dragged down by a great burden. My tailfins shuddered, threatening to collapse. Squinting against the pain and heaviness, I bared my teeth and strained with all my might.
The Little-Biter was concerned—but then again, he was always was.
He tapped my forehead, his voice rattling. "Shadow-Blender? Why are you taking us towards them?"
"They are not moving towards the nest," a dragon on my right piped up. "I suggest we leave them be."
"Yes—we still have much to do before the celebration tonight," another insisted. "It's a waste of time, and it would be tragic of one of us were to be injured. Please, Shadow-Blender?"
I thought of how the other Shadow-Blender would have never tolerated such a challenge to his authority. "No," I snapped, the pain fuelling my determination and anger with my nestmates, "I'm going to see them."
"And then what?"
The question gave me pause, and the speaker went on, "Surely you wouldn't want to lead our small flare into an outmatched battle? We do not have our fire. They outnumber us."
The ships were drifting further away. They had shrunken to little, strange clouds on the edge of the ocean, the mark on their sails impossible to determine. They were so far away now.
I pulled up into a hover, my chest heavy with a sinking heart. They were gone, but they had been so close. I had let them slip right through my grasp. Now all I had was a direction that they were heading to—one that may or may not even show where their whereabouts were. Closing my eyes, I hung my head and cursed my inattentiveness. How could I have not noticed them before?!
Pulling away from them released the handicaps on my limbs, the stress headache fading. I should have felt comfort and safety, knowing they had not spotted us, that they would not hurt my nestmates. Instead my chest split under the weight of the frustration of my failure.
There was so much food.
Really, where we managed to find this much so close to winter, I'll have no idea. Of the Viking raids I went to, a significantly smaller load was brought back each time. Although that may have been because I was still angry with myself.
Anyways, the last thing I was expecting when I flew into the nest after an extremely late raid, with the moon sunken halfway to its bed below the blackened sea, was for food stocks to be everywhere. It turns out that my nestmates had no food storing experience whatsoever—so they just threw it in big piles and stared at it to make sure nobody snuck a piece…or maybe because they were hungry.
There were piles of meat everywhere, some even simmering under the heat, some so big that a few elders had taken it upon themselves to stand guard over them. One caught my eye as I pulled up into an uncertain hover upon entering and nodded once towards the pile he was guarding.
Twisting around other dragons just hanging around midair, I swooped over, emptied my gullet, and swung around to go find a place that I could actually sit on. Which might be a problem, considering that my raid was one of the last to go out and most of the nest was accumulated here…
"Watch out! There's one of the—"
I twisted midair to face the source of the sound, giving myself just enough time to see a group of adolescents, likely only a few weeks older than fledglings, come barreling…towards…me?
"Aah!" I yelled, ears straight up and arms held out, as the entire lot of them trampled right into me! The Hum-Wing leading their little flare smacked directly into my chest and just stopped flapping, leaving me with the burden of grabbing onto him to keep him falling into the lava. The others wanted in on the action as well, clipping against my sides and wings with shouts of dismay and surprise.
I managed to stay aloft throughout the entire stampede, clinging to the Hum-Wing that had seemed to come to terms with his imminent death. Frowning down at him, I set him down a little ways from the edge and then sat in front of him, where he continued lying right where he was with downcast eyes. His friends retired to similar positions, all of them straining as close to the earth as possible around him.
"Please, Shadow-Blender," one of them said to the floor, "we were so excited for the celebration. Please forgive us."
I was reminded of the encounter that I had had with the Shadow-Blender, where I had been in the same position.
"Don't worry about it," I sighed. "Just make sure it doesn't happen again. Someone could get hurt."
Disbelief came from all directions—onlookers included. Shifting under the relentless staring, I cleared my throat and tried to sound more commanding, "So, uh, run along now!"
The mischievous posse scrambled away so fast they left behind nothing but little dust clouds kicked up by their claws. I fanned it away with a wing and, left with nothing else to do but feel uncomfortable under the reluctant gazes of my peers, padded off.
I managed to find a cave to curl up in, but not before hearing someone ask, "Why didn't he punish them?"
"And to think I thought the spring celebration was festive," the Shadow-Blender whispered, eyes so wide it looked like they would pop out any minute.
I could only sit next to him and stare out into the nest with an equally bewildered expression. "Yeah."
There were so many dragons flocking, it appeared the population had doubled. There was so much food, the smell was overpowering. At any given time there were at least four songs being sung, with each group singing fighting to be heard over the other and those attempting to dance through the air having a tough time keeping up with the alternating rhythms. More than one eventually gave up and found another gathering to eat with.
Oh, and the Queen was just hanging out with all of us like it was no big deal.
She had her neck extended from below, her massive head effectively taking up a good portion of the center of the nest. She spoke with anyone who wished to and refused to eat, stating that she wanted to wait for her children to fill up before she indulged on anything.
The Shadow-Blender and I were placed directly underneath her, surrounded on all sides by dragons. As the guests of honor, apparently it was our duty to basically be like the Queen and sit on our temporary thrones, cast in her all-encompassing shadow. We had been given offerings of food basically every ten minutes or so, but strove to be like the Queen and gratuitously refused them.
My eye caught a burst of refracted emerald; the Little-Biter was surrounded not only by his fellow kin but many other dragons, having gained semi-celebrity status due to his close bond with me. He stood up on his hind legs, his single wing held out for balance and pawing wildly at the air as he retold some crazy story. For just a brief moment our eyes met, and I returned the beaming smile he sent to me.
This was…nice. I looked over at the Shadow-Blender and said, "You know, this is actually kinda fun."
He paused for a moment, and then allowed a soft grin to melt onto his lips. "Yes," he said, giving my shoulder an affectionate nudge. "Yes, it is."
Leaning into his side, I waited for him to continue. For the first time in ages, I felt something akin to…loss.
Even though we were not directly involved in the celebration, the hours flew by on swift wings. The Queen stooped to take from the remains of one of the food stores, granting us permission to join the others.
The Shadow-Blender went right. I went left, stopping to watch him go.
Do not linger on the past, Shadow-Blender, I scolded myself. With one final glance over my shoulder, I shook my head and lost myself in the crowd, my worries soon forgotten.
"I will be leading a flare south to search for food!"
Despite having made improvements in bounds when making such announcements, I still shrunk away at the whiplash turning of heads in my direction. By now, most dragons had realized that I preferred small groups, just like the Shadow-Blender.
But that also meant that fights would break out over who got to be in my party.
The Little-Biter reclined on my forehead, his tail hanging down my cheekbone, and twisted his neck to observe a Two-Walker and Hum-Wing go snout-to-snout over who would fill a spot in the reserved ranks. "Well, at least you're not doing the heartbreaking this time?"
An elderly Two-Head that I had allowed to sit at my direct right chuckled. "Ah, I remember that first time. That poor Two-Head."
I ducked my head and groaned. "Well, that sure brightens my spirit." The Two-Head merely laughed and wrapped a wing around my side in a brief hug before returning to his solider-esque stance.
"Oh, there goes another two," the Little-Biter warned, drawing my attention to two young Flame-Skins locked in battle as they rolled past in a ball of fire and scales. "They seem too small to join, though."
He was right, but I didn't say anything. There was a kind of desperation in both of their eyes; I recognized the inherent need, the soul-crushing necessity of wanting to prove oneself all too well. I would allow the winner to join. "They don't look too bad."
"If you say so," the Little-Biter murmured.
We waited a couple minutes for the not-so-metaphorical dust clouds to disperse, leaving behind only a few victors. The young Flame-Skin that had won was too out of breath to do anything, but all but fainted in ecstasy when I smiled and nodded at him. Opening my wings wide and standing to my full height, the attention of every member of my flare centered on me.
I cracked into the air, dove into the pit and opened my wings wide, rocketing towards the exit with my faithful flare on my tail. The sun was hanging bright in the sky despite it being already halfway down the horizon, and the moon was equally visible on the opposite end. I put myself between them, both of them parallel to each other on my sides.
"Where are we headed, Shadow-Blender?" Someone on my right called over the wind.
"We're going to multiple islands, most of them deep in the south," I stated. "A few even I haven't gone to, but I know they're there."
The question struck me, bringing forth a headache. "I've…heard of them," I settled with, trying to take attention away from the subject. The last thing I needed was a migraine while going into unfamiliar territory. The answer was satisfactory enough to the flare, and we settled down into silence. I focused on scanning every detail of the environment, that horrible moment about a week ago with the Viking ships still fresh on my mind.
Even with my rapt attention, it was sheer luck that I saw them about an hour or so later. Especially since they were not supposed to be here.
"Is that…the Shadow-Blender's flare?" I asked, squinting at the group. All but their leader flew with frantic wingbeats, some even uneven. Their formation was irregular and skewed, and from what I could see, the ones in the back actually seemed to be the more elderly dragons. Ears dropping, I gasped, "Something's wrong."
Pushing myself to my top speed with magic (and basically ditching my flare), I sped towards the Shadow-Blender and his disassembled flare. He, too, left his group to his second-in-command, meeting me halfway.
"Rogue dragons," he explained, slightly out of breath. From up close, I could see cracked scales, bleeding claw marks, and darkened patches where someone had attempted to set him aflame. Thank the Dragoness of the Moon, his wings and tail seemed alright. "We tried to bring them back to the nest, we tried to explain that there were no other safe islands for rest!" His face twisted into a snarl, and he seethed, "But they wouldn't listen! They called us puppets, they cursed our Queen!"
I gaped. "What?! But…"
"And on that," the Shadow-Blender interrupted, spinning and pointing at his flare, "they attacked us when we refused to join them, claiming that they were our saviors! They…" his brows went low over his eyes, and he hung his head. "They extinguished the flames of some of the younger ones."
My heart crumbled and dropped. "Dragon of the Sun," I swore, looking out to the direction they had flown in—and his flare. The elders had taken position in the back to watch over the younger dragons, all of whom were bearing heavy wounds. "Did you have to run away from them?"
"It was a mandatory retreat," the Shadow-Blender whispered. "It was what was right. I had to leave them behind, or they would've taken the rest of the young. I…" he looked up to me, agony rooted on his every feature. "I had to abandon them," he breathed.
I glanced back over at his flare, which had now met up with us. They all looked like they'd just fought a war. "You did the right thing," I said, even though I wanted to ask him how he could have possibly just left them. "You guys should get back to the nest."
The Shadow-Blender steeled himself. "No. I want to track those Prebirth-tainted monsters down." Turning to the one at the front of his flare, he commanded, "Return to the nest. I'll be back soon. And all of you," he faced my flare, "follow me. We're going to make them pay."
The Shadow-Blender twisted and sped off in the direction he'd came, my flare following close behind. I hovered, at a loss. On one hand, I was really annoyed that he'd just taken my flare from me without even asking. On the other, he did have good reason to.
But there was one thing I had to do first.
"Little-Biter," I said, gaining the attention of my quiet companion, "you have to go back with them."
"What?!" He all but shrieked. "But I thought we were going together!"
His hurt tone almost broke my resolve, but I surged on, "All of these dragons are disorientated. The Queen will need someone in their right mind to explain what happened to her." And you could easily be killed by a rogue dragon.
He deflated, accepting defeat with a quiet sigh. "If you say so, Shadow-Blender." The pressure on my forehead evaporated as he jumped quite a length away onto the hovering leader of the flare—who was visibly aggravated but did not dare scold the Shadow-Blender's friend when said Shadow-Blender was still present.
Nodding to all of them, I said, "I hope you all take the day to rest. You really deserve it."
This was taken as a command to leave, and with a rush of colors I was left alone in my spot. I turned back towards where the Shadow-Blender had left, taking note of his speed and how far away he was.
I flung after him, opening my reserves into my wings to shift everything into a blur. Managing to catch up with the flare in less than a minute, I fanned my wings out and took my position on the Shadow-Blender's right. My head began to pound, probably from the sudden exertion, but I knew that it was the right thing to do to leave the Little-Biter behind and follow the Shadow-Blender alone. If only to avenge our lost and protect the rest of the nest.
We were angled a little closer to the sun on our journey, a direction I had never gone to. This is further south than any flare has ever gone, I recalled, the thought bringing with it what felt like a slap to the face. We were so far out, the island itself was probably only another hour away. Should I stop the Shadow-Blender?
The words brought themselves to my lips. You must tell him that a stronger flare is necessary, that there are more young in this flare than his. To give chase for mere revenge will do nothing but hurt our nest more. Make it clear to him that a counterattack will have been anticipated, and that this bloodhunt is in vain.
I almost spoke the reasoning that sprung from nowhere in my mind, the ones that made so much sense that it was almost impossible to think otherwise.
The further out we went, though, with the ocean a blur underneath at our high speeds, I began to doubt myself. The Shadow-Blender would not listen to me; he was too bent on revenge. He wasn't thinking clearly, and his strong will would keep him from listening to reason. I could see it the permanent snarl curling his lips, the way he pumped his wings as if fleeing from a sea dragon, the unsheathed claws and bristling spines. I glanced over at the others, who looked significantly more uneasy and uncertain but stuck to it anyways.
I said nothing. And so our little flare, twelve dragons excluding the Shadow-Blender and I, held fast into the unknown. The clouds split apart like a crowd giving way to nobility and the wind filled our wings. Guided by the moon and sun, we raced further south, the headaches and hunger and worry brushed aside. The rest of the flare kept pace with the Shadow-Blender and I with remarkable aptitude; even the young Flame-Skin, placed last on the left, showed no outward signs of exhaustion. The thoughts to turn around became less persistent, easily brushed aside.
That was where our luck ended.
It took long enough for the heavenly bodies to shift out of sync for the Shadow-Blender to falter. They were noticeably far apart, they sky darkening, when he finally hung his head in defeat.
"I lost them," he growled under his breath. "Those eels got away."
We drifted in silence. The world had darkened, leaving us with a landscape swathed in blues and deep greens. The only breaks were the blue-white flame of the moon and what appeared to be, in no fashion that seemed possible, little balls of flame poking out from the shadow of an island.
My headache, which had dulled the further out we went, found some strength. I squinted through it, just barely seeing past the bright flames into their holders. They were carved to look like angry human gods, the fires held in their mouths. The statues hung on the edges of a small docking area, guarding the ships within.
"We should leave," the Shadow-Blender grunted. I continued to strain my vision. I'd never seen this island before, but it felt so…important.
Pulling the pounding of my skull out of my thoughts, I stretched my neck to look for any clue, any reason why this place felt so much more significant than any other. I strained and strained, and was coming to the conclusion that I was just being stupid when I finally saw it.
The red dragon on the sails.
I had found my island.
I had found my island!
With a solid thrust of my wings I had broken formation, much to the shock and dismay of my nestmates. I dove towards the land, laughing at the sheer glee that my long journey had finally met its end! Even my migraine, which was doing its best to distract me, was nothing when I focused on ignoring it. I pulled my wings in and let myself fall, careless of the village below and its occupants.
The closer I went, the more danger I was putting myself in. The more I could see, the clearer my mind became.
Close enough to cast a shadow on the streets, I opened my wings and banked, launching myself into the pine forest bordering the village and sending a thick gust of wind down the narrow alleys. Opening all of my tailfins and sending my wings into a blur, I managed to not squash myself against a tree trunk and slow down enough to grab onto one, where I knew that no human would be able to distinguish me from the plant.
Peering out into the village, I saw torches alit, pedestrians milling about, last-minute jobs being taken care of and groups of friends walking to and from what appeared to be the Town Hall, the latter significantly more drunk. It looked like a normal Viking settlement. But it was so different.
I dropped from the tree and began trotting at an angle away from the village, ears pricked. There was something there, I knew it…how I did I was not sure, but…ah!
The border of the forest gave way to a lonely little road, sliding up and down an impressive array of hills. I stuck my head out a little further than was probably safe and glanced up at the sky. The moon was directly overhead, shining brighter than I remembered from earlier. A shadow darted across it, reminding me that I had not exactly been given permission to go on a solo spying mission.
Go back to them…
The thought was faint, weak. I frowned, wings unfurling—and then relaxed them back to my sides. I would go back. But not this close to the village, where a Viking might see me take off. I would have to find a secluded area to do so, and since I was already walking around, I might as well take a looksee at what the Vikings had, right?
Taking a left would lead me into the village—a bad idea, since they probably wouldn't believe me if I told them I was there for a friendly tea party. So to the right I went, keeping myself a few meters inside the forest and walking parallel to the road.
With each hill I crested, a pinprick of anxiety deep in my chest grew in strength, writhing and fighting for control. It demanded to be noticed, to force me to turn and run away from the lonely, secluded street. It dampened my spirits, the excitement of finally finding the place I had spent seasons looking for, but with a willpower I did not know I even possessed, I pushed it down. I would only allow it to take form in a small frown that crept onto my face the further down the road I went.
I reached the apex of one of the largest rises and glanced down it, a strange sense of foreboding overcoming me.
The angry Viking hoard I was half-expected did not appear. Instead, a shed as equally dismal and alone as the road itself was nestled in the shadow cast by the small mountain. The anxiety burst into a supernova of fear and horror and guilt, strengthening my migraine and forcing me to drop down, clutching my head and hissing to myself.
The pain intensified, and again I thought, Go back to them.
With a whimper of defeat I brought my shaky legs in front of me, opening my wings and giving a couple of good flaps to help lift myself to my feet. Everything felt heavy—especially my head. I felt like I was drowning. My ears were roaring like thunder, my nose overflowing with the brisk scent of pines, my vision as dark as the wet soil shifting under my claws.
And all it took to snap me out of it was the sound of footsteps.
Fueled by fear of being caught and attacked in my weakened state, I forced it all away—the headache, the whispering voices, the heaviness of my limbs. Sinking as slow and deliberate as I could, I perked my ears and took a few wary sniffs of the air.
The scent of sweat, metal, and to my bafflement, dragons, settled as a heavy musk in the air. The footsteps—bipedal, I noticed, from the silence between crunches—drew closer, and through the bushes I could just barely make out the form of a person. Whoever it was took no notice of me and walked right past, unaware of the scary-scary dragon watching them. When they were about halfway down the hill, I poked my head out to catch a glimpse of a stocky body, shaggy black hair, and a helmet with two curved horns.
I leaned too far and failed to notice. All it took was for my paw to slip on some wet leaves—and it was all over. I couldn't hold back a startled yelp as my right paw slid, my entire upper body fell forward, and then the force of my hind legs and tail suddenly flinging into the air literally sent me rolling down! The Viking had about the same reaction as I did, and when I managed to stop myself out on the road having somehow burned out onto it, he was standing where I'd last seen him with the most baffled expression I had ever seen on a human.
I scrambled to my feet, grinning in embarrassment despite the danger. I knew that all Vikings were dangerous, but this one was unarmed and all by himself. I really had the upper hand. Judging by his clammy, pale skin and pinprick eyes, he knew it, too.
For the longest time we stared into each others' eyes. He seemed frozen in fear and shock, and I…
…why wasn't I flying away?
My mission had failed—he would just return to the village and alert everyone that a dragon was nearby. If I was on the ground when that happened, it was game over.
You could kill him, the far-away thoughts returned. Kill him and nobody will know.
No, I returned, I have to…I have to…
The Viking finally snapped to his senses, his fingers brushing first against an empty sheath, and then clumsily gripping at another one attached to his belt. He drew a dagger that was barely the length of my claws and held out towards me, his arm unshaking even though the rest of his body seemed to be wracked by an earthquake. I regarded the weapon with a wary but unimpressed look, wondering if the stupid thing knew that I could breathe fire.
"So you finally came back," the Viking hissed, his voice barely above a whisper. I tipped my head to the side, and he snapped, "Don't play stupid with me! Where's the other night fury?! I bet you came back to screw everything up again!"
What? But we'd never been here before! What did he mean by 'again'?
I scanned my brain for any memory of what he was saying as the horrible, splitting migraine returned full-force. Narrowing my eyes and leaning forward, I again took in the scent of the human. Something at the very edge of my mind howled and fought for attention, but when I turned my sights on it, it was shrouded in a mist.
I recognized his smell. Not only was it familiar, but it bore a strong similarity to the Viking that I had met earlier, the one who had almost killed me and who had haunted my dreams. Taking a slow step to the human, I murmured, "Who are you?"
A great pressure crushed everything inside my skull, popping my ears and buckling my legs! I caught myself and backed away, shaking my head to try and dislodge the pain. The human lowered his weapon, mouth slightly open in something akin to horror.
Then he spoke again. "…Hiccup?"
"Hiccup! What have I told you about going out in dragon raids?!"
"Hiccup is gone."
"Hiccup! You're alive!
"Hiccup, what is this thing?"
"Hiccup? What's wrong?"
"Hiccup! This is none of your fault!"
"Run, Hiccup! Don't worry about me!"
"There is no need to lie to me any further, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third."
The world crumbled to pieces.
I threw myself backwards, smacking into the shed and splintering the wood. The headache pulsed and faded in irregular rhythms, and that word, that name, fought off the shadow that was bringing it forth.
And it hurt.
I gouged at my forehead with my claws and shrieked, the echo drowned out by the agony and confusion and fear and sudden, blunt understanding!
The dagger fell to the ground with a thunk, drawing my eyes to Snotlout's. Snotlout—oh, Snotlout! I had considered killing you! I had—I had—
"No," I whispered, not wanting to believe it. No, I wasn't—I couldn't be human! I was one of the nest! I was loved! I was part of an Us! No!
Oh, Dragon of the Sun! I couldn't do this! I had to get away from that human!
I shrunk away from him and began clawing at the ground, leaving behind a message that was barely decipherable.
I'm so sorry.
He barely had time to glance down at it, and I was gone. Pouring all of my magic into my legs, I became nothing but the wind, racing further and further away from Snotlout, the Vikings, the village. My throat was raw from the shock and each breath was raked in with a gasp, as though I were inhaling poison, and my head was exploding and my limbs were heavy and great Dragon of the Sun and Dragoness of the Moon, this couldn't be happening!
It couldn't be real! It couldn't be!
The moon shone directly above through a break in the trees, and the shadow that had been attempting to coat the rest of my mind was thrown back and tumbled away. I remembered a hole in a wall that I slept in, I remembered meeting someone—I remembered the Shadow-Blender, attacking me at some time and then speaking of legends at another. I remembered the last time I had run through this forest at such a speed, arrows following my every movement and an army giving chase and the Shadow-Blender screaming to run, to just keep going a little farther!
The ground below disappeared, and through my tears bursting forth from the horrible realization I finally saw that there was a cliff—one that I had just tumbled over. I tried to open my wings and stop the fall, but when I caught the wind it flung me down, crashing into a body of water!
I sunk in the depths of the lake, staring up at the moon above. In my mind's eye, the Shadow-Blender was clawing his way down to me, desperation clear in his eyes, his crippled tail swinging behind him in the murky water. I saw him lying motionless on the ground, looking for all the world that he was dead no matter how much I begged him to wake up. He had always been there—always. I was alone this time.
The water gave as much resistance as tree sap in response to my moving through it, and my vision began to darken. I had spent too much time underwater. I had gone too low. I was going to drown like this, like this miserable confused wretch—
My head tore through the surface of the water and I scrambled onto the land, turning back to look into the cove's lake. It was roiling and blackened, and yet there was an image in it as clear as though it were still. A human, a small one, with shaggy brown hair and pine-green eyes, stared up at me with the same terrified, disbelieving expression that I was wearing.
It was me.
The shadow of my mind found its strength again, banishing the reflection away. I whimpered as it poured all of its overwhelming strength into me, desperately trying to suppress…
The shadow struggled to overcome my doubts. Do not be mistaken, it hissed, do not let a mere human fool you. Come back, where you will be safe and loved. Come back, child…
On impulse, I opened my wings. My body swayed, teetering like a dead leaf clinging to a tree in a storm. I didn't want to—I wanted to, but I knew I couldn't, and that what I truly wanted was not what it offered!
It finally occurred to me that I could fight back.
"No!" I screamed as I threw my head up and locking my eyes on the moon. "You! Are!Wrong!" The echo of the past gave me strength, and drawing not from the magic that I had been trained so long in, that I had never been able to master above the basic skills, I found the ball of energy at my forehead—the one the Queen had told me was dangerous. The one that I had been told to avoid using altogether "for my own good".
My own magic—my mental magic—flung itself at the evil power, crashing against it and forcing it back. It became less and less hidden as I weeded it away, tearing it from the deepest of my thoughts and leaving nothing behind.
The "shadow" found itself just at the edge of my mind, its mask unveiled. It was…it was a magic just like mine. Corrupted, twisted, and broken—but magic just like mine.
With a merciless snarl I lunged upon it, ripping it apart, tearing it from the inside out! It cried out in dismay and sorrow one last time in a final plea for me to return to it—
—and it was gone.
I sunk to the ground, gasping for air and wiping away tears. A whole year…a whole year I had been…
No, I thought, for the first time it being solely my own. No. I can't meddle on that now.
I returned my eyes to the sky, where the Shadow-Blender—no, where Toothless was. My screaming had caught the attention of the flare, as there were small forms of dragons hovering above. I could just barely make out Toothless, caught in a rapid dive towards me.
Swallowing, I brought myself to my feet, fully aware of the struggle that was to come.
"Don't worry, Toothless," I whispered to my friend as he descended, his face contorted in rage. "I'm going to save you."
That's all for now! Props go to my beta toothless-the-nightfury for getting through this and the Unheard Whispers chapter so quickly.
I honestly have no clue when the next chapter will be up. On one hand, the next updates will return to normal instead of double updates. Life happens, though, and my free time is dwindling away. Worst case scenario, the update takes slightly longer than usual.
Hope you all enjoyed this! Feel free to leave comments/criticisms in the reviews! If you haven't checked out Unheard Whispers, make sure you do that!
Have a fantastic day,