Disclaimer: I am not VVV. If you thought otherwise, then you are obviously an unintelligent dunce.
AN: Um . . . My power went out today. I probably should have used the time to write one of the multiple essays that I've been procrastinating on, but instead, I did this (to be fair, I've been meaning to do this for ages). This, by the way, is the new and very, very improved version of the first chapter of Dragon's Blood. As some of you may remember, it was originally intended to be a one-shot and really had nothing to do with the plot of Dragon's Blood at all, so I decided to post it separately. Then I realized that it sucked. So I decided to remodel it a bunch and then post it separately. It ended up growing 1,000+ words longer, and (hopefully) much better. I hope you enjoy the last portion of Dragon's Bait from Selendrile's viewpoint.
P.S. For those of you waiting for the last installment in the Nothing Left quartet, I'm sorry! I don't know when I'll get it done. Unfortunately, it's not a priority right now. Thanks for your patience!
6/19/2011 Update: Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking: "Didn't she just post this a little while ago?" Well. Um. Yeah, I did. However, I was once again unsatisfied with what I had written, so I edited it. Again. And it grew by 1,000+ words. Again. Hopefully this will be the last edit . . . But you never know. C;
Oh! Also, Vincent-And-Yuffie-FOREVER reviewed this and suggested the possibility of rewriting the entire book from Selendrile's point of view . . . And the idea was surprisingly appealing. (I would've replied, but you have PMs disabled, did you know?) Anywho, I'm considering the idea. If you guys have an opinion one way or the other, I'd love to hear it!
So, this is the end.
It was stark and harsh—startling, to hear the truth stated so baldly, even in his own mind. But it wasn't a new realization: he could feel it, the corruption, the poison that spelled his death slowly taking him over; he'd been able to feel it ever since the iron shackle first touched his skin. So, no: the thought wasn't new. That didn't make it any less frightening, though.
Alys was as fierce and determined as he had ever seen her. And for someone who wasn't a dragon and had as much fire as she did, that was saying something. "I'm not going to abandon you. I'll be back, and I'll be back in time."
Her words and tone were firm and decisive, betraying no trace of doubt; if he'd glanced away for even an instant, he probably would have believed her. But he didn't: he looked right into her eyes, and they told a different story. She knew as well as he did that he didn't have much longer; she knew that the time that he had left wasn't enough for her to keep her promise. That flicker of doubt in Alys eyes told Selendrile that she knew: when dawn came, death would come with it—and he would be alone.
A strange, wild feeling pierced through him (Fear, he identified with a distant sort of surprise), a desperation verging on panic. His iron self control wanted to waver—wanted to allow him to forsake his pride and beg, plead—do anything to make her stay, to keep him from being alone in his last moments. But he was stronger than that: he was a dragon, and he would not appear weak, now of all times.
What cold comfort, he thought, almost amused. Abandoned, alone and dying—but still with my dignity.
He wasn't sure whether it was courage or cowardice which motivated him to cling to her hand as she turned to go. He wouldn't speak; he wouldn't ask. Not aloud, anyway. But as she turned back to him, surprised, he pleaded with his eyes, though his lips never moved: Don't go.
For just a moment, he thought that she would listen. Her eyes softened, and she reached out and pulled him close, giving him hope that she had changed her mind—that she had heard his plea, seen the breach in his walls and chosen not to abandon him when he needed her most. But it was a false hope: she merely pressed soft lips to his in a fleeting touch, then pulled away again, regret in her eyes.
"I'm sure I can be back," she repeated softly.
When she pulled her hand out of his weak grasp and fled, he did nothing to stop her, merely watching in resigned silence as she vanished into the thick foliage. His keen ears could still hear her long after she was out of sight, but soon even the faintest rustlings of her passage had faded into silence.
The dragon-youth closed his eyes. Now—all he could do was wait.
He lay there for a long while, the stirrings of the waking forest and the burning pain of the iron against his skin his only companions. His thoughts grew more and more indistinct, more and more bleak, as the iron and the inevitability of dawn's approach worked their influence on him. What could he do? Time was his enemy. Dawn was coming as inevitably as Alys was not . . . and he was going to die.
His eyes opened again suddenly, iron-blurred thoughts solidifying for a moment: What pride is there in surrender? There was none, came the automatic response. He growled slightly under his breath and pushed himself to his feet. He was a dragon; he would not give up.
Alys had suggested that he search for Atherton's discarded key, but one glance around was enough for Selendrile to know that such an undertaking would be nothing but a waste of time and energy at this point. He was practically seeing double; expecting that he would be able to spot something as small as the key in the predawn darkness would be optimistic to the point of foolishness. And if there was one thing that Selendrile was most definitely not, it was that.
In absence of a better target, his gaze was drawn to the place where Alys had disappeared. Alys. Alys . . . Come back. I don't want to die alone . . .
He'd been alive for a long time, by human standards. For a dragon, though, he was still young. He should have had many of hundreds of years before him—and now, with death imminent, he felt so very young—like he was still a child, dependent on his mother for care and comfort. He hadn't seen his family in years, now . . . He was closer to Alys than he had been to any living creature since he had left his clan, so long ago. She was all he had. And now, even she was gone.
Giving the wooden stake one last glance, he gritted his teeth and stumbled determinedly after Alys. It took far more effort than he had anticipated, and with each step his body seemed to become heavier, until it was all he could do to keep moving forward. All the same, he persisted, just taking one step at a time, moving one foot after the other until he was dizzy with the influence of iron and exhaustion. His feet faltered.
When he finally fell, he fell hard, his body a limp, dead weight. Every muscle in his body was sore and exhausted—more than that, his will was exhausted: he couldn't summon up the determination it would take to force himself to his feet again. His last effort had come to naught, and he closed weary eyes, hating the inescapable knowledge that Alys (his human who had been so amusing and clever, who he had thought was different) had abandoned him, left him to gasp his dying breath without a single soul in the world to comfort him.
In his delirium, he almost thought he heard a voice: Alys' voice, crying in the distance, "Selendrile! I'm coming!" She wasn't really there, he knew, but at this point he was even willing to accept the comfort of hallucinations. "Selendrile!"
Mustering his remaining strength, he lifted his head and called hoarsely, "Alys!" Then again, weaker this time, "Alys."
Selendrile closed his eyes, waiting for dawn and the end. He stiffened in shock when a crashing and snapping sounded in the brush, moving swiftly closer; then two slim arms were thrown around his torso, trying to pull him into a sitting position. His eyes flew open, and there she was: Alys. Not a hallucination at all; she had kept her promise. A moment later though, any hope he might have begun to feel was squashed: it was almost dawn. "There's no time," he tried to explain to her, but suddenly even dawn's impending arrival didn't seem so terrible. Alys was by his side.
"Everything's alright," his human murmured, her cool fingers moving soothingly over his fevered skin. "Gower's here to help."
It took a moment for the name to register, simply because of the sheer absurdity of it—but then Selendrile tensed, and his eyes snapped open wide and alert. The peace which had momentarily been in his grasp now slipped through his fingers like water, and for a wild moment he thought that she had betrayed him after all—
But she seemed to read his thoughts. "Selendrile, it's alright," she reassured. "Gower and I have come to an agreement. He's a partner now."
The dragon-youth looked incredulously at her—as best he could, anyway, with his vision in the state that it was. He considered briefly that perhaps his hearing was impaired as well, and he had misheard her—but his ears had never failed him before this. "Gower?" The snarling undertone to his voice made his opinion on the matter quite clear, but Alys merely shoved his shoulder reprovingly.
"Enough! I told him I wouldn't let you hurt him."
Selendrile stared unblinkingly at her, thinking about how exactly he was going to 'hurt' that revolting excuse for a human being if he managed to survive past dawn. But that was just it: he wasn't going to.
"There isn't enough time," he repeated. Perhaps, he thought (not very optimistically), she will listen if I say it enough times.
Gower's scowling figure approached, and he brusquely shoved the torch he held into Alys' unresisting hands, pulling something from his tool belt. "This is not as you led me to believe," he grumbled ill-temperedly. "He was supposed to be fastened to the stake."
Selendrile felt Alys grip his hand protectively, and when he tore his glowering stare from Gower to look at her she was glaring at the man as well. "Just hurry up!" she snapped. Gower shot her a resentful glance, but went mercifully silent, and Alys turned her attention back to Selendrile.
Gently, she lifted the dragon-youth's iron-bound right arm to examine it, her expression growing distressed as she saw the abused and bloody flesh there. He tried and failed to hide his wince as the movement exacerbated his contact with the toxic metal, and she tightened the arm around him slightly—for which of their comforts, he could only speculate.
Gower silently moved forward at Alys' signal and knelt, taking the file he held and using it to begin slowly grinding through the shackle. Despite his best efforts, Selendrile couldn't contain the sharp hiss that escaped from between his teeth when the new source of iron came into contact with his skin. He clenched his teeth tight, cutting off the sound abruptly, and resolved not to let any more noise escape. He would show no weakness, especially not in front of that man.
"Hold the torch steady," Gower ordered, scowling up at Alys. Selendrile wanted to bristle, wanted to defend his human—his amazing, strong human who Gower wasn't worthy of even looking at—but he couldn't gather the energy to do more than just glare. He was so weak . . . For once, Alys had to be the strong one. But despite the fact that she had far more strength and determination than he had thought humans capable of . . . he didn't think that her strength would be enough, this time. More than cleverness and sheer force of will would be required in order to free him before morning's light.
Dawn approached; faint traces of cool light filtered through the trees, and Selendrile despaired as his sharp vision detected this, comparing the advancement of time with the unsatisfying progress that Gower had made on the shackle. He pulled away from Alys' comforting arms abruptly, trying to gain distance. "There isn't time," he gasped. This close to him, a human would be injured when he changed to his true form at dawn. While he could care less about Gower, he couldn't let Alys be hurt. "Don't touch me. You're too close."
Gower didn't seem to like that statement. He sat back on his heels, pulling the file away from the shackle and giving Alys a suspicious stare. "What's going on?" he demanded, his gaze flickering back and forth from the sickly dragon-youth to his determined human companion.
"Just cut the shackle," Alys snapped, her patience obviously at its end. Once again, she stubbornly ignored Selendrile's warning, much to the dragon-youth's chagrin. Gower hesitated for a moment, his eyes narrowed, but seeing that she wasn't backing away either, continued his filing.
Selendrile would have been more insistent, but he was out of energy; he could only gaze at Alys through heavy-lidded amethyst eyes as she nervously watched the sky lighten. Eventually he let his eyes drift shut, saving all of his concentration for fighting against the fast-building agony, and he left them that way, unable to summon the strength of will it would take to reopen them.
Every so often Gower would stop his work and blow on his hands to cool them from the friction, cursing under his breath. When he was almost all the way through the band, he halted his work entirely, his face contorted into a fierce scowl.
"Damnation," he swore.
Selendrile groaned and doubled over as the most tortuous agony he had ever experienced ripped through his body, stealing what little strength he had remaining and leaving him gasping. "No time," he managed between pants. The light on the road increased by the second.
Gower abruptly stood up and backed away. Selendrile's warnings had finally become too much for him to overlook.
"That's it," he said firmly. "I'm not getting any closer."
A fire of rage lit in Alys' eyes. She stood up and snatched the file from Gower, bending down to the shackle and beginning to work herself. Selendrile was too weak to protest as his human closed her eyes and gritted her teeth in concentration, ignoring the imminent danger.
Suddenly Selendrile felt a blazing pain as the file dug into his skin instead of the shackle. His arm jerked back reflexively, coming out of contact with the iron just as the first ray of sun crested the hilltops. He shrieked in pain— fire licked at his skin, consuming him from the inside out— but then the human scream transformed, morphing into the fierce cry of a dragon.
The dragon-youth launched himself into the air, shrieking again as air rushed under his golden wings, carrying him high into the sky and leaving the shackles that had bound him far behind. He dove and swooped and spun through the air, reveling in the freedom that he had always taken for granted. He rode the winds with wild abandon, exhilarating in the pure, unadulterated life that was rushing through him.
He was free. And yet he wasn't.
Something tied him to the ground, pulling him down from his euphoria and making his wings feel heavier, reminding him that he could not fly forever: Alys might need him. It was thanks to her that he was alive now, and he had just abandoned her with Gower, who loathed her and had proven time and again that he had no moral compunctions. The man could hurt her. . . . Not that it mattered, really. She was just another human, after all. Selendrile owed her for saving his life. That was all. That was the only reason he cared: he felt obligated. There could be no other motive.
He was strangely reluctant to return to St. Toby's, perhaps because it was so near to the scene of his near undoing at the hands of Atherton, or perhaps for other, deeper reasons: whatever the cause, he traveled slowly, in the form of an unobtrusive red-tailed hawk, taking a great deal of time to complete what would normally have been a very short journey.
When he finally reached his destination, the streets of the small town were oddly silent and empty. Curious, he continued searching, flying in a grid pattern over the quaintly thatched roofs until his keen ears caught the sound of a large gathering of humans—no, more than that: a mob. There was shouting in there, and the restless movement of a riled crowd.
Feeling something suspiciously like worry coiling in his chest, the transformed dragon-youth turned sharply in the direction of the sound, speeding up so as to reach his destination more quickly. However, when he did find the center of the commotion, he was completely stunned.
Alys was standing with Gower before a large crowd of angry and condemning villagers, her head bowed in submission, her hands clasped behind her back; not at all like her usually fiery self. Selendrile watched, frozen with something like morbid fascination as his human admitted to committing atrocity after atrocity, not turning away even one accusation.
Not one person defended her. These people who had grown up with her or watched her grow up, these people who should have been like her family—each of them looked on with equal hate. Selendrile felt his temper rise, sharp and red-hot; he wanted to hurt these people who were hurting Alys. He wanted to watch them burn. Why wasn't she defending herself?
"I bewitched the dragon too," Alys said in a toneless voice, adding another crime to a list almost too long to keep track of. "Made it turn into human shape and help me." It was hardly a convincing performance, but the villagers ate it up, Gower smiling smugly in the background. Selendrile's heart twisted with something other than anger. He knew what it was like to be alone and friendless when you were in most need of help.
A woman in the crowd said suddenly, "That doesn't sound like you, Alys."
The dragon-youth made a note to let that one live.
Alys jerked her head up sharply; then tried hurriedly to disguise the movement as a shrug, but not before Selendrile saw the fear and bitterness in her eyes. She seemed about to speak, a spark of life coming back into her emotionless features, but grew quiet and docile again at a meaningful glance from Gower. She didn't even protest when he claimed to have killed Selendrile, or 'the dragon', as the townspeople knew him.
"I killed him. He won't be bothering us anymore," the disgusting human declared, smug and victorious.
Selendrile was revolted; suddenly he could no longer stand to watch his fiery Alys so meek and obedient, her inner flames extinguished. He took off from the window ledge he was perched on and fled in no particular direction, only wanting to get away: he needed to clear his mind and figure out how this had happened and why.
He flew on autopilot as he ran his mind through events as he had witnessed them: Alys had gone to find help; had come back, inexplicably, with Gower, someone who had, up till then, been unequivocally considered an enemy; that was where it had all begun. Gower and I have come to an agreement. He's a partner now, Alys had said.
An agreement? Selendrile's keen mind went on high alert, snatching at the clues provided in the vague sentence and trying to piece them together. What agreement? What could have led to the hostile Gower consenting to help Alys free Selendrile—and to Alys, stubborn, fiery, tenacious Alys, giving in and allowing Gower to pile his sins and mistakes (and those of all of St. Toby's) onto her shoulders?
The dragon-youth, still in hawk form, backwinged sharply as understanding dawned, coming to an abrupt stall in midair.
She wouldn't have. She couldn't have. Could she? But there was no other explanation. She must have made a deal with Gower: that if he helped her free Selendrile, she would plead guilty to all his accusations. But— then again, Selendrile was a would Alys, a human, care about what happened to him? Enough to virtually forfeit her life to save his, even?
The thought brought him up short: it didn't matter why she had done it; the result was that they were going to burn her. They thought she was a witch. Those idiot humans thought that they could get away with burning his Alys. He shifted into his dragon-form and hurtled back toward St. Toby's-by-the-Mountain at top speed.
He got there as night was falling: just in time. Alys, unresisting, allowed Gower to bind her to the stake set up in the center of the street. Her eyes were shut; her expression impassive.
It struck the dragon-youth forcefully at that moment that Alys had no idea that he was going to swoop in and save her; she was actually prepared to go through with this, to give up her life, for him. Only for his sake. He saw the humans of the village gathered around the stake, ready and eager for a spectacle, and his rage surged anew: how dare they look at her like that, like she was somehow less than them? Alys was precious; Alys was worth a thousand of their worthless carcasses. She was of more value, even, than any of the magnificent jewels in his extensive treasure hoard. And she was his; he wouldn't stand for these feeble, gormless creatures attempting to steal her. He narrowed amethyst eyes and dove.
His descent was noiseless and swift, but his bright golden form was hardly inconspicuous, and he was soon spotted. The screams began, the crowd scrambling to escape, shoving and stumbling over themselves in their desperation to get away from him. He saw Alys' eyes fly open in shock as he viciously snapped her stake in two, sending her crashing to her knees. As he continued forward he lifted her by her arms with his foreclaws: he wanted to let her witness the final fulfillment of her revenge. Atherton was taken care of: Gower, though, still had a lot to answer for.
Selendrile swooped down low, so low that Alys' feet almost brushed the ground, giving her full view of Gower's pathetic attempts at flight. The dragon-youth was tempted—very tempted— to just eat him right then and there, but instead he beat his wings to gain altitude, circling the village once to demonstrate to the townspeople that there was no way to run; no way to hide. Not from him. Then he breathed a deep lungful of air and shot flames down the center of the street, the inferno licking closer and closer at the heels of the panicked humans: he wanted to see them burn, burn like they had tried to burn Alys.
Then the unwelcome thought occurred to him that she might not want that. After all, she had tried to prevent him from killing Atherton, who, he knew, she had loathed far more than any of the sniveling creatures before him (besides, the one he had decided not to kill might be in there somewhere). At the last moment before the villagers would have been engulfed in flames, he rose up over their heads, sparing their lives. Instead, he vented his rage and frustration by setting fire to the broken stake and bundles of kindling that had been intended for his human.
He swung his head around, searching for another nonliving target, and was struck with a moment of inspiration. Banking sharply to the right, he aimed a lick of flame merely feet away from the fleeing Gower, forcing the man to turn and witness his last act of destruction. Selendrile shot flames one last time, sending the shop that Gower had worked so hard to possess up in a blistering inferno before his eyes, then turned away, satisfied that he had what he had come for.
He flew fiercely and swiftly, taking Alys far away from the den of traitors that she had once lived among. The anger still pulsed through his veins, spurring him to move faster (well, to destroy something, actually, but he couldn't act on that particular impulse while carrying Alys, so he turned his energy to other pursuits). Eventually, when he had calmed enough to remember that flying too long in this manner wasn't good for Alys (she claimed that it hurt her arms—he was skeptical. Surely she wasn't that delicate?), he began searching for a good landing spot—again, a feat more difficult with Alys than without. It wasn't too terribly long, though, before he spotted a convenient haystack, next to an old shed that was obviously abandoned. With impeccable aim he deposited Alys on top of the haystack as he flew by, smirking internally at her startled yell. Circling once, he descended himself, switching to his human form in a shower of hay.
Her breathing was quick and shallow; her pupils still slightly dilated from shock as she stared up at him. On impulse he seized her by the shoulders and held her still so that she couldn't turn away, looking into her eyes; memorizing her features. She certainly wasn't the most attractive human he had seen (and he had seen many), especially with her hair cut so ragged and boyish. She had no figure to speak of; her eyes were hazel, no extraordinary shade among her kind. But what did appearance matter to him? It wasn't the way that she looked that made him value her. She was special; she was Alys. She would be gone soon, and in the face of that undeniable fact, the small detail that he shouldn't care so much about a human ceased to matter.
"Thank you for rescuing me," Alys said softly once the silence had gone on long enough.
Selendrile stared into her eyes; searching for what, even he was unsure.
"You're welcome," he said finally, reluctantly releasing her. "So, does this mean no more revenge?" He almost hoped that she would say no, and give him an excuse to keep her around a little longer.
"No more revenge," his human agreed. "I didn't like it. I felt worse after than before. And I'm very, very sorry that Atherton died." She sent him a stern look at the last part, as though she thought that he should be sorry too.
He held back a snort. As if he would actually let Atherton live after the Inspector had had the nerve to bind him with iron.
"I assume it works better for you, when you get revenge on those that hurt you?" she asked, looking at him curiously. Silly Alys. He sighed (perhaps it was contagious) and shook his head fondly. He didn't answer her question verbally: she would learn for herself in time.
"Do you want to go back?" he asked. He highly doubted it. There was nothing left for her in that village, really, except for bad memories and hostile once-friends.
"No," Alys replied quietly, sounding almost regretful. "They'll never be able to forgive me."
Selendrile allowed his amusement at this comment to show briefly on his face. Forgive her for what? Why would she want them to? If anything, they should be the ones seeking her forgiveness.
"Then," he said, "is there some other place that you'd like me to bring you?"
She sighed—hardly unusual: it seemed to be her favorite mode of expression. "There were several kind people in Griswold who were willing to take me on. I might go back there." She sighed again. "Or I could find a new place entirely. I don't think that that's as impossible as I used to think it was."
"Ah," Selendrile replied noncommittally. Then a wild idea formed in his head. An impossible idea. He wanted to dismiss it out of hand but—he couldn't quite bring himself to. It would never work. He was fey, and she was human— but all the same, he couldn't help but want to try.
He looked anywhere but at her as he said, "Or you could stay with me."
He gathered the courage to glance up just in time to see Alys' eyes widen in astonishment, staring at him. "Do you mean it?" she asked slowly.
Selendrile considered. He was aware of a hundred different reasons why it wouldn't work; why it was a terrible, terrible idea. He should tell her 'no'. But he couldn't destroy this unreasonable desire to keep her, to hold on to her now that he knew how precious she was. It wasn't in a dragon's nature to willingly part from treasure.
He looked cautiously at her. "Perhaps."
There was a moment of silence.
"I see," Alys said.
Selendrile could see the disappointment in her eyes. He wouldn't leave her. He couldn't leave her.
He took a deep breath and made his decision.
"Yes," he said decisively. "Yes, I mean it."
His human smiled. "Well then," she said, "in that case, I will."
AN: I, personally, liked this much better than the original. But my opinion's probably biased. What did you guys think? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Did I do Selendrile justice this time? Please review! C: