I do not own Dragon Orb. Mark Robson does.
Prologue – Pell and Shadow vs. Segun and Widewing
"There they go," Pell observed, peering from his hiding place under the thick pine trees. "Just as Barnabas predicted. Let's wait until the majority has passed before we launch. Can you make out Widewing amongst all those dragons?"
"No, not yet," Shadow observed. "But I imagine he will be towards the back of the main force. Segun likes to direct from a point of safety rather than lead from the front."
"Barnabas read Segun perfectly," Pell added. "I thought the old day dragonrider might attempt a parley, but he was sure Segun wouldn't want to talk. He predicted Segun would launch into a full-scale attack. He was right. There's no way they'll avoid a fight with so many dragons in the air. Do you think Jack's other world tactics will work?"
"They are novel enough to give the day dragons the advantage of surprise early on," she said. "But the superior numbers, size and sheer momentum of the night dragons will break them. The day dragons have ever been brave, but their attempted show of strength is about as clever as a human taunting a lion with a bloody haunch of meat. The end result will be ugly."
Pell was not so sure. Having seen the result of Firestorm's unorthodox tactics against the night dragon in the mountains ten day earlier, he could see how Jack's tactics would prove devastating if executed well. If the day dragons could inflict enough damage in the first few moments, the momentum could change very quickly.
He continued to watch as black dragons continued to darken the sky above. Finally, he judged the time to be right.
"Ready?" he asked.
"It is time," Shadow confirmed.
Pell ran to her side, leaped into the saddle and hooked his arms and legs through his newly-fitted fighting straps. No sooner was he settled than Shadow started to move towards the open ground. Even before she had fully emerged from the cover of the green canopy, she began to accelerate into a run. They burst from the trees at speed and within a few more paces, Shadow had extended her wings and they were in the air and climbing.
As Pell had expected, none of the night dragons, or their riders, noticed them climbing up to join the throng from beneath. Everyone was focused on the incoming lines of day dragons. They powered up amongst the other night dragons without attracting any attention to themselves, but Pell knew all too well that this was the easy part of what they were trying to do. Somehow they needed to single out Widewing quickly, preferably before the two sides clashed, although that seemed unlikely. At current closure, Pell could see that, at best, they had a couple of minutes before the fighting began. When that happened, he and Shadow would be in danger from both sides.
Once amongst the huge flight of night dragons the noise was incredible. The whooshing sound of a dragon's wings had been special to Pell from the first time he had experienced it. Flying in formation with Fang, Aurora and Firestorm had added a different dimension to the sound, but this was like a raging ocean in a hurricane, though even the comparison did not do the sound justice. It was awe-inspiring to think that he was flying in the midst of what was possibly the most dangerous force in Areth.
Aside from the sound, the air was choppy with downdrafts from the wings of dragons above them, and turbulence from the passage of dragons ahead. They bumped and jostled through layer after layer of dragon wings, weaving and dodging to work their way even higher.
"I see them," Shadow announced suddenly. "Widewing is ahead and slightly to the right."
"Great," Pell replied. "Let's get in a position to strike."
"They're still climbing!" Segun muttered, his thoughts spilling from his lips. "What's Barnabas up to? He must know the day dragon's can't outclimb us."
The night dragonrider leader looked at the mass of night dragons ahead, below, and all around him. His superior force was moments away from combat and he could feel his heart rate accelerating.
"Are you ready?" he asked his dragon.
"I am," she replied confidently.
Suddenly, a brief flash of light from above and behind the approaching day dragons drew her attention. Segun was looking to his right and felt, rather than saw, it. What had caused it? He narrowed his eyes against the wind and tried to force his focus out beyond the approaching formations to see if he could pick out the source. Without warning, he found his eyes dazzled by the most intense, burning light he had ever known.
To the night dragons and their riders it was as if twin suns had suddenly exploded into being in the sky ahead. The glare was incredible and the timing, crippling. Just before the combat began, two flares in the sky blinded almost every night dragon and rider. Segun and Widewing were no exception. The flare burned fierce and bright for several heartbeats. Even through his eyelids, Segun could not totally block out the light. Then one, followed shortly by the other, died away to nothing.
Hands over his eyes and trying to rub away the flash spots that were dominating his vision, he began to swear and curse. Even as he did so, a dragon crashed into them and Segun suddenly found it was all he could do to stay in the saddle as Widewing was dragged into a steep spiral dive. The world spun and the wind roared in Segun's ears as they accelerated. A sharp pain erupted in his lower back and he felt further brushing collisions as they fell together through the layers of dragons beneath.
It took several moments to realise that the pain in his lower back was actually Widewing's. His back was uninjured, but he was experiencing her pain through his bond. They were being attacked! For a brief moment he thought it must have been a dusk dragon that has used its camouflage to get in close, but then he caught sight of the dragon grappling with them in his peripheral vision. It was most certainly another night dragon.
"It is Shadow and Pell," she replied, her voice strained and thick with anger. "Hold tight. I'm going to dislodge them." Had Widewing not warned him, Segun would have almost certainly been flying from the saddle. He instinctively grabbed for the straps and a couple of quick twists secured him in place just in time for Widewing's desperate manoeuvre. With stomach-wrenching abruptness, she lurched into a spiral dive.
Shadow had sunk her talons deep into Widewing's tail and was biting at her flank and lower back. Folding her great wings tight to her body, Segun's dragon made herself a dead weight. At the same time, she twisted to strike at Shadow's exposed neck. The twisting motion when they were already spinning threw Segun to the left so hard that for a moment he felt as if his arms were being pulled from their sockets.
Widewing's tactics succeeding in dislodging Shadow, but the pain remained. Pell's dragon had penetrated Widewing's armour with her talons and teeth in several places. Segun had never known his dragon to feel such anger. They continued to freefall for two or three heartbeats before Widewing extended her wings again and swooped up to meet her opponent.
Shadow was ready for the move and the two dragons met with talons raised and mouths open, poised to strike. For a moment they both hung there, wings beating hard to maintain the hover, talons raking and great teeth biting, each trying to get a hold that would give an advantage. The moment passed. Neither dragon could hover for more than a handful of wingbeats.
Pell's dragon was first to break away, diving suddenly underneath Widewing and racing off in the direction of the mountains.
"The Oracle's cave!" Segun called out aloud. "After him! He must not be allowed to reach it!"
Shadow broke from her hover and dived underneath Widewing. Pell ducked and felt the talons of Segun's dragon whistle through the air just above him. They were clear. He looked over his shoulder. Segun had already wheeled Widewing around and they were in pursuit, just as he had hoped.
Overhead the night dragons were having a terrible time. many were spiralling out of control towards the ground with great smoking holes in their wings. Jack's tactics appeared to be working exactly as he said they would. There were a few night dragons grappling with day dragons, but in the main the day dragons were using their fire to make effective hit-and-run tactics. By aiming their attacks at the one weak point of the night dragons – their wings – the day dragons were causing havoc, sending them spiralling to the ground in large numbers.
It had been Elian's idea to use Aurora and Shimmer to blind the night dragons and their riders. Jack had talked about keeping the sun at their back to make it difficult for the night dragons to see, but Elian had pointed out that this would not be possible when approaching from the west, as they were. The surprise factor of having two incredibly bright lights in the form of the dawn dragons was even better.
In a matter of two or three heartbeats, the two dawn dragons had rendered almost the entire host of night dragons and their riders temporarily blind and totally helpless. They could not see where the attacks were coming from. Many collided with each other in the chaotic scramble to avoid the day dragon fire that was suddenly raining down on them.
The pairs of dusk dragons attacked the flanks, causing more mayhem. The other edges of the host were forced I on one another by their random strikes. As the night dragons bunched ever closer together, so they became easier targets for the fire of the day dragons, and more accidental collisions occurred.
Pell's mission was to keep Segun and Widewing out of the fight. He was determined to keep them too angry to notice what was going on. Without their leader to rally them, the night dragon attack was less likely to regain cohesion.
"We've got their attention, Shadow!" Pell noted as the gigantic black dragon pounded after them with fearsome power. "Now would be a good time to fly like the wind. And don't look back!"
"They're gaining on us, Shadow!" Pell yelled urgently. "They're right on your tail!"
"Hang on!" she replied. "I can't go any faster. We're going to have to turn and fight!"
The first line of mountains loomed not far ahead. They had run a long way from the major battle in a remarkably short space of time. A turn would become inevitable shortly anyway, as there were no convenient passes ahead. Great rock-strewn slopes with sparse patches of green towered in front and the textured blend of forest greens spread incredibly below them.
Shadow had avoided turns to prevent Widewing from cutting corners to catch them. Now she was left with no choice. The mountainside was rearing up in front of them. They would not be able to outclimb Segun's dragon, and Widewing was so close she was likely to catch them the moment they entered the turn. As a result Shadow was hesitant, not wanting to commit one way or the other.
Dipping her wing in a quick feint to the left, she tried to trick Widewing into committing to the turn, but before her direction had begun to change, she reversed rapidly to the right. To Pell's horror, Segun's dragon was not fooled. The enormous night dragon struck at Shadow's rear right quarter, her teeth scoring a painful tearing wound through her scales. Before Shadow could recover, Widewing grabbed her tail, slewing her round so abruptly that even with his strong grip on the straps, Pell had to fight to stay in the saddle.
He was terrified. An explosion of fury and pain suddenly blocked his link to Shadow's mind. Shadow rolled under him, twisting to strike back at Widewing and the two dragons began to tumble in a grappling, spinning spiral once again. Occasional flapping by either dragon slowed their fall in lurches, but the decelerations were never more than momentary, and their momentum was still carrying them towards the mountainside.
The rocky mountain slope was so close that, as they fell, it felt to Pell as though the entire mountain was sliding sideways towards him. He began to yell warnings, but Shadow was so focused on her grappling fight with Widewing that she did not appear to hear him.
In the instant before they crashed into the slope, two words blasted through the bond.
Pell barely had a moment to prepare. Unwinding his wrists from the straps and kicking his feet clear of the stirrups, he freed himself of everything that could prevent him leaving her back. There was the briefest moment of anticipation before… crunch! The impact was terrible. Both Shadow and Widewing hit the steep slope together and immediately began to roll, still biting and clawing in the midst of an avalanche of loose shingle and rock.
In the last few heartbeats before they struck the ground, Pell flattened himself against his dragon to spread the expected impact across as much of his body as he could. At the instant they hit the mountainside, Shadow gave a sudden arch of her back that catapulted him into the air. Already winded by the first bone-crushing collision, Pell's second landing felt even harder. He smacked down onto the scree slope and immediately began to slide. For a brief moment he thought he was slipping across the surface of the steep field of small stones and rubble, but to his horror her realised that something much worse was happening.
The rolling fight of the two dragons had not stopped on impact. Already away down the mountainside in a cloud of dust and falling stones, the two dragons remained locked in contact. But their passage had triggered a secondary effect. The entire upper portion of the slope had been set in motion. Although most of the stones that were moving were barely bigger than gravel, the sheer mass meant bigger stones and rocks were being swept with the fall as well. Pell was riding the wave of an avalanche.
Initially, he slid sideways, but managed to turn so that he was riding feet first down the slope. He dug his heels in with the intention of slowing his progress, but it made no difference. The entire surface layer was in motion. All he could do was ride it out and shield his head as best he could from anything travelling faster than he was.
A rush of adrenaline masked any pain he might have felt from cuts and abrasions to his back, bottom and legs. His heart thumped and his breath came in ragged gasps as he tumbled down the mountainside in a storm of stone. Several larger boulders bounded past on either side of him and one bounced directly over his body, only to continue gambolling down the slope, shedding smaller stones with every impact.
Miraculously, as the avalanche slowed, he remained relatively unharmed. He was scratched and bruised all over, but nothing worse. Once he had come to a stop, it appeared that he might be buried under a sea of the smaller stones. They continued to trickle down around him for some time, along with occasional bigger ones. Wriggling and squirming to stay on top of them, he finally found enough purchase to stand.
Shadow and Widewing were no longer in sight, but he could hear their roars and see the treetops thrashing around where they were still fighting. The two dragons had smashed into the treeline and been swallowed by the forest some distance below. The whereabouts of Segun had not crossed his mind until a sudden rattling crunch to his right caught his attention.
The leader of the night dragons looked terrible and terrifying. He was bleeding from numerous cuts across his face and hands. One of his eyes was already blackening and swelling, and he was limping. His shoulders were hunched with murderous intent and his eyes burned with a fury unlike anything Pell had ever seen before. If the look in Segun's eyes and the set of his shoulders were not enough, the blade clenched in his right hand made his intentions more than clear.
Pell backed away slowly, feeling for his belt knife. His hand found an empty sheath. His blade was gone, no doubt buried somewhere under the rubble. He was unarmed. Quick as a striking viper, he stooped and picked up a stone that fitted comfortably into his palm. Segun did not so much as pause. He kept coming forwards, his lips curling into a half smile, half snarl. His knife hand came up into the classic ready stance as he closed the gap between them.
It was hard enough to walk across the steep field of loose stones, but to do it backwards proved impossible. Despite his attempted care, Pell lost his balance and toppled back. Segun immediately surged forward. Pell's instinct was to throw the stone. Segun twisted his upper body left allowing the stone to whistle past. by doing so his right arm was thrust forward leaving him momentarily in a weaker stance. Even as he was falling, Pell saw the opening and swept his right foot round in a crescent kick that caught Segun's knife hand. The blade flew from his grasp, spinning away down the mountainside until it skittered to a clinking halt amongst the stone some distance away.
Segun hesitated, automatically turning to follow the flight of the blade. The brief distraction gave Pell just enough time to leap back to his feet and adopt a fighting stance. Segun did not look impressed. The older man was taller and heavier, with a longer reach. He adapted his own fighting stance and Pell could see from the easy way he set his balance that the man was no stranger to unarmed combat.
"What's the matter, boy?" Segun taunted. "Afraid of an old man?"
"Not afraid, Segun," Pell replied, keeping his focus on the centre of his opponent's chest. "Not of you."
"Well you should be!"
Segun's attack was fast and powerful. His hands were incredibly quick, but Pell had already identified the man's weak spot. He was clearly favouring his right leg. Segun was doing a good job of hiding the limp, but it was an obvious target for Pell to focus on and his was quick to exploit it. The older man was attacking purely with his hands. He was quick, but so was Pell. With a rapid sequence of blocks and deflections Pell prevented Segun from landing any heavy blows before, dropping underneath an inward knife-hand strike, he swept a low turning kick to Segun's right knee.
The kick did not connect hard, but it must have hit the right spot because the other dragonrider folded over the injured knee and lost his balance. Toppling down the slope, he slid some way before he came to a stop. Taking care not to trigger a further slide, Pell descended step by cautious step towards the leader of the night dragon enclave. Segun remained facedown and still as Pell approached, but his ruse was transparent. Pell stopped well short, determined not to play into the other man's trap.
Seeing that Pell was not going to be fooled, Segun struggled to his feet, making a deliberate play of the weakness in his right leg. Again, Pell could see what was happening so he held back, keeping his distance and the advantage of higher ground. When Segun did settle his balance, Pell realised that his judgement had been better than he had realised. There, in Segun's right hand, was the deadly knife again. If he had moved in close, Pell had no doubt that he would have felt the sting of that nasty-looking blade.
"Come on then, boy," Segun said, his voice still taunting. "Come and try that move again."
A movement in the sky behind the leader of the night dragons made Pell glance up. There was a dull thud and he looked back down and paled as he saw a hilt protruding from his chest, the blade deeply embedded. Segun smirked and dashed forwards, grasping the hilt and pulling the bloodied blade back out. It appeared that Segun, exasperated, had taken a risk and thrown it in the heartbeat the Pell was distracted. The movement neared, and Pell shouted when he realised what was about to happen.
"NO! No, Jack! Don't!"
Wiseheart had broken away from the main fight and was heading towards them. As Segun raised his hand to stab Pell and end his life, there was a whistling sound and he dropped the blade, narrowly missing Pell, and clutched at his wrist as a red fountain exploded. Seeing his chance, Pell snatched up the knife and, ignoring the pain and blood pouring down his chest, thrust upwards, impaling Segun's throat. The night dragon leader choked, coughed up blood and slumped to his knees before collapsing sideways, eyes staring blindly and rapidly misting over.
From the forest below came two roars, one of loss and one of victory. Through their bond, Pell knew that the latter belonged to Shadow – she had defeated Widewing. It was over. He saw her take flight and approach him.
Exhaustion and relief catching up with him, everything swam and went black. The last thing he heard was Shadow.
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