Warning. This chapter contains descriptions of the results of extreme violence and gore. M rating in effect.
The curtain was worn and tattered. In a few places Gobber, could see right through the limp material to the darkness beyond. In all his years of battle and hardship, the old Viking had never feared doing what needed to be done. At times, he'd disliked the task or found that he did not agree with an order, but he prided himself on always, always completing his task.
Now, standing here outside of the cornered cell that was formed by this old sheet, he was truly afraid. The prospect of what he might find on the other side of this slim and insignificant barrier sent icy fingers crawling down his spine.
He'd been helping to shift some of the mead barrels to make room for extra beds for those that were becoming weak with hunger and sickness, knowing so many people were not meant to live in such proximity, when Fishlegs tugged at his sleeve and told him in a slightly shaking voice that Stoick wanted to speak with him.
Gobber had kept Stoick up to date on the situation and the ways in which he was managing everyone's health, but the man had been getting steadily weaker each time Gobber spoke to him.
And now, he stood frozen with dread that he was being summoned to hear Stoick's final words.
Finally, with a deep, bracing breath, Gobber put his thoughts aside and told himself that what would come was going to come regardless of his willingness to face it. He smartly drew the cloth to one side and stepped forward.
The sight that met him stopped him mid-step and killed the greeting in his throat, leaving his mouth to hang bewildered.
Stoick the Vast stood on his own two feet, still wrapped in stained bandages, pulling his tunic over his head.
"What do you think you're doin', ya' great lump!?"
Stoick looked up after he'd settled his garment in place and gave a harsh cough. The breath he took in after which weezed and dragged. The very sound of it conveyed pain just as well as the twisted look that flashed beneath the scraggled remains of the Chief's ruined beard.
"Wha does it..." Stoick's words were cut off by a strangled croaking sound. After a moment, the Viking spat out a clot of blood into a nearby bucket. "... Wha' does it look like I'm doin'? I'm gettin' dressed, so everyone sees that I'm fine."
Gobber wasn't sure if he should laugh with relief or curse.
"You're not fine! As a matter of fact I'd say that you've gone right past bad. You look like you've been spit out of a Nightmare!" In truth, before he'd covered them with his tunic, the bandages had been a terrible sight to behold; most didn't look clean and the rest were covered in dried blood. Gobber had only seen them for a moment in the flickering light of the single candle in the small cubicle, but he knew the look of someone who should be abed.
"The bleedin' stopped days ago - cough - but I woud'n' let the Elder change the bandages. We need the cloth elsewhere." Stoick finished dressing by buckling his belt.
"Ya' goin' to get yourself killed, you stubborn old goat."
"Gobber, why is Astrid's name popping up in all the whispers outside? My hearin's still fine. What are ye not tellin' me?" The abrupt shift in discussion, and Stoick's newly focused gaze, threw Gobber off balance.
For just a brief moment, the half-limbed Viking considered trying to get Stoick back into his bed, but he dismissed the notion at once. Now that the man was up he probably wasn't going to go down again unless he accomplished some chiefly tasks.
"A few days back, Astrid n' the Twins slipped out through the door while everyone else was arguin' and talkin'. I've got no idea where they are or if they're alrigh'."
The massive Viking stared at the ground for a moment, then put an arm hand out to brace himself on Gobber's shoulder.
"If they ran off by themselves, it's not your fault." The two turned and made their way out into the stagnant and pungent air of the hall proper.
"I know Stoick, but I feel like I should go out after 'em. At least to find out if they're dead. I hate that I don' know." As they slowly walked into view, the residents who were still fit to walk about began to collect around the two leaders. Questions started to bounce around, all concerning Stoick's health and his plan for getting them out of the hall.
Food was running low as the tiny sheep heard dwindled, and the conditions were only getting worse as disposing of waste became more difficult. At first, it had been easy to crack the doors and toss out bucket loads, but as they'd continued, the dragons had begun to predict and take advantage of these weak points. A Gronkle had almost started a fire with a well aimed shot, and a Nightmare had barely been stopped from prying the doors open. They'd been tossing waste less and less until eventually they'd been forced to stop. Now, the air was worsening and it was obvious that they'd not be able to stay much longer.
"It's becoming a death trap rather quickly. We're gonna have to do something, Stoick."
"Did the watch have any luck countin' the swarm?"
"You can't see much from the door crack, but we're pretty sure that the beasts actually patrol. They move past the door at regular intervals and a couple caught glimpses of more in the village ruins the last time we tossed a bucket."
As the pair reached the head of the central hearth, one of the few remaining healthy villagers set a chair. Stoick promptly ignored the seat and leaned his weight against the stone. After a brief cough, he spoke with a voice that was strong and carrying despite its hoarseness.
"So, it is death to stay here, and suicide to leave. I don't suppose we could knock a wall down somewhere?"
"No' a chance. We only have a few hammers, none of them made for masonry, and the noise would probably draw the demons to the exit we create. Besides, there's also the wounded and ill to consider. About thirty are in no condition to run and fight for it."
The response came fromHrafn, a middle aged Viking with silver dusted beard and six feet of lean muscle. He seemed to have maintained his health surprisingly well, most likely due to his lack of close family.
"I don't suppose anyone else has any sort of idea?" The hall erupted into talk as what remained of Berk debated amongst itself, as Stoick had hoped they would. Gobber turned and muttered into his chief's ear.
"There's probably a good chance that only a tiny number could run for it. And even then they'd be dogged all the way into the forest until they found a place to hide."
Stoick's reply sounded like the grating of a saw against wood. "And those few would have an even greater chance of survival if they were small and scrawny. Perhaps Astrid and the Twins are alright." The heavy shadows above Stoick's partially decimated beard seemed to darken and deepen as he glanced up toward Gobber. "I don't suppose you're interested in riskin' your neck?"
"I'd rather keep my neck, but I'd dearly love to get outta here. And..." Gobber found his gaze drifting to where Fishlegs was rapidly conversing with some of the older healthy villagers. "...and I'd really like to find out what happened to Astrid and those two heels."
With a deep, rasping breath, Stoick took hold of one of the mugs sitting on the stone ledge. "You'd better come back alive, or I swear I'll kill you." He lifted the vessel and brought it down, smashing into the stone, producing a sharp, ringing "clap". The hall fell silent almost instantly.
Once again, Stoick forced volume into his voice and spoke.
"Obviously, a large party is out of the question, but a small group, perhaps one or two, has a much greater chance of making it past the dragons and fully assessing the situation from the outside. These individuals can also scout and assess the condition of the island, and help to determine the best course of action. I intend to send Gobber. Would any volunteer to accompany him?"
At once, every healthy hand in the room lifted, as well as a few of those that were laying on their beds of furs. Gobber was shocked to see Fishlegs standing straight backed with his hand, though shaking slightly, high in the air.
The snow rippled as the wind pulled dry powder away to dance across the hills. Astrid walked, taking mild interest in her surroundings without the slightest idea where she was or why she was there. Rolling drifts of snow vanished into the distance where they were met with a dark sky, covered in slate grey clouds. Behind her, a set of foot prints disappeared into an identically distant horizon.
A frigid chill permeated the air, but the breeze evident in the profile of the eddying snow gave no sensation as it passed across Astrid's bare skin. As she looked down, she realized that all of her skin was bare, with no leather or cloth for covering. The lack of weapons registered and twinged at the back of her mind, but the strange atmosphere and surrealism of her situation pushed it far from her concern.
While the wind gave no feeling to her skin, it made itself evident in her ears; a low and sorrowful moan sounded far in the distance, as if it traveled to her from thousands of miles away.
Once again she scanned her surroundings. The utter lack of vegetation or any other feature made this landscape completely new and alien to her. She took a tentative step forward. The snow seemed to part and pull back before her foot, creating a depression before her skin ever touched it.
Another step. Once again the snow shrank away from her touch. She shivered. Despite the lack of temperature, an icy feeling began to settle in her chest as she gazed at the blank landscape.
In an attempt to gain some control of the situation, Astrid's mind began to go through basic survival techniques, the first of which being to gain a better view and grasp of the situation. She turned and began to make her way toward the nearest hill.
While she walked, the snow continued to retreat from her feet, creating small depressions that were not the shape of her foot, but ovular. And as she stared down at her feet, she did not notice when she reached the crest. However, she did notice the large, black scaled paw that lay beside her foot.
Upon jerking her head up, she was greeted with a side profile of a Night Fury. It sat calmly with its tail curled about its paws and gazed away toward the horizon. It did not appear to notice her.
For a moment, she considered running until a strangely familiar, masculine voice resounded all around her.
"One so young should not wander alone."
Movement drew her eyes back down to the dragon's paws. A small form tumbled from between the Night Fury's claws. As it sprawled in the snow, Astrid could make out lanky wings that seemed too large for the tiny body and points of green where eyes stared upward at the larger dragon. A baby Night Fury gave a soft cry, joining the sorrowful drone of the Arctic.
As she turned her gaze back toward the larger dragon, it shifted its gaze away from the horizon and fixed her with a tranquil gaze.
"One so young should not shoulder so many burdens."
And she fell.
Inky blackness exploded from the center of Astrid's vision like a blossom of pitch. She felt her entire body jerk as it ceased to fall. The black before her consumed the slate grey of the sky and replaced it with close-pressing, musky darkness.
The girl threw her arm upwards and felt the heavy, segmented surface give way and pull upwards. Her eyes were assaulted with a wave of dark, pine green. The intense scent of the trees made her head spin as she sat up.
There were several clicks and cracks as her spine and joints moved for the first time in hours. After the initial pain, however, she found that her surroundings became fuzzy as she focussed on the delightful pained pleasure of stretching out each part of her frame. Beside her, the large dragon lifted its head and gave a small and short gurgle before also rising to its feet, extending its spine and wings upward in a sinuous, almost snake-like stretch.
When Astrid finally felt the last of her aches smooth into supple readiness in her muscles she turned a frown on the still curled reptile beside her.
"Why do you keep insist on touching me with those wings when I'm asleep?"
The Fury turned and gave a short grunt before jerking its spade-shaped head forward and giving her a solid shove in the chest.
You were soaked. I'm pretty sure you would have fallen ill without the cover. Look, your clothes are still damp!
Astrid gave a sigh. She realized that she had not even tried to draw a weapon when the dragon had come at her so suddenly. That was concerning.
"If I gather up some wood, will you light me a fire?" She took the resulting snort to be a yes, and turned to start searching in the undergrowth.
The large boy turned the screw as slowly as he could, digging steadily into the massive slab of pinewood before him. Behind in the hall, the sound of bated breath filled the muggy darkness, and he could feel each and every eye grating against his back. Sweat was just starting to bead on the back of his neck when a few large splinters fell to the floor and he carefully turned the screw back, leaning forward to put his eye against the new peephole.
Outside, midday sunlight lit the hillside and contrasted sharply with the blackened hulk of the village. Vague, angular forms draped themselves in the ruins and basked in the rays of the sun. Between the door and the village, many other shapes milled and wandered across the ground. Their eyes glinted and shone as they stared at the door.
A trembling shudder ran the length of Fishleg's spine as he was faced directly with the eyes of his enemies. As he watched, more and more of the dragons began to stand and turn away to wander back in the general direction of the village. While they did, the reptiles in the ruins began to rouse and stand, and make their way toward the hall. As the two groups began to pass each other, a Nadder bumped against the wing of a Nightmare. Hissing roars and angry snarling spread through all the dragons and in a blink, a scuffle had begun.
Fishlegs turned away and looked up to the Chief and Gobber standing over him.
"T-the two watch groups are fighting." He looked upward into Gobber's face, seeing the question that the Viking would not speak. "Now's a perfect chance." Gobber knelt beside the boy and shoved his face against the door. Fishlegs heard him mutter, "Desperate times..." After only a brief moment, the large Viking gave a stout, if somewhat quieted, bark.
"Hoark! With us! The rest of you, open this door just enough to let us out and close it and bolt it fast behind us! Go!"
Fishlegs barely had time to realize what was happening before Gobber had shoved a sword and dagger into his hands, and pushed him through the door. The sun lanced into his eyes, washing the world out with white pain. He was, however, able to catch enough of his surroundings to start running as fast as his waddling gait could manage toward the forest.
The knowledge of exactly how open and vulnerable he was at this moment sent adrenaline coursing through Fishlegs' veins, setting his limbs afire. He was suddenly extremely aware of the sound of Gobber's creaking prosthetic leg behind him as he dashed toward the protective darkness of the trees.
When the comforting, cool shadows finally passed over Fishleg's skin, he quickly knelt behind a bush and tried to compress himself into the ground. He could hardly believe his good fortune, and when he lifted his head slightly to see past the greenery the way he'd come, he found Gobber crouching at the forest edge and he heard the mutter.
And there, past Gobber in the deadly sunlight, he saw Hoark waving his ax as he gave a mighty bellow and went charging directly toward the swarm.
Quickly Gobber turned and went barreling past Fishlegs, snagging his sleeve as he went.
"What happened!? Why are we leaving Hoark?!"
"The lunk tripped and got spotted. When he saw that they were onto us he went straight for 'em to distract them from us! Now RUN, you blasted lump of blubber!"
Fishlegs found that new life surged into his lungs and legs as the sounds of Hoark's angry cries were mingled with the wet sound of tearing flesh and the grating snap of breaking bone.
"Why?" The Viking inquired as she hiked her spiked skirt over her hips. The garment felt a little cool even in the frosty evening, but it was better than it had been just outside the river from hours ago.
Oh come on. This is the second time in a week. And now there are two dragons to boot!
"I remember you being annoying and helpless. Not sadistically cruel."
Twice in a week!
Astrid sat fuming with her back against the Fury's stomach, her legs wrapped by her arms and tucked against her chest as she watched her clothing steam on its stave above the merrily crackling fire. The warmth behind her was welcome, but 'Hiccup's' little jabs were making it difficult to sit at ease. A squirrel was spitted just beneath her clothing, and the aromatic smell of roasting meat helped to distract from the awkward thoughts and feelings that her mind was conjuring from thin air. The Terror slept curled at her feet.
The quiet chuckles that played over and over again within her thoughts would not allow her to relax, however.
"Look you bastard, I don't give a damn what you say! I'm ensuring my continued health, and the fact that this dumb beast is sitting here behind me is no reason for me to feel uneasy!"
Surprisingly, 'Hiccup' did not respond, and the laughter was silenced abruptly. Suddenly, the wall of scale behind her shifted and lifted away, dumping her onto her back and almost making her head hit the ground.
With a quiet huff, the Fury turned and stalked off into the forest.
For a moment, Astrid stared after it, but her stomach snarled and insisted on her attention. She turned and took the spit from the fire, biting into the still sizzling meat. The Terror had lifted its head when the Fury had stood, but it swiftly returned it to its paws. However, the rending of flesh and the smell of blood prompted the small dragon to leap to its feet and stare up at Astrid.
The girl wanted to ignore the pathetic little beast, but something about its enormous eyes just wouldn't allow it. She tore a strip of meat from the squirrel and tossed it. The small dragon caught it in-flight and gave a single gulp.
"Looks like we're on our own for a little while at least. The big guy's gone and run off." She patted her skirt, feeling its coolness and wincing at the memory of the freezing water. Quickly she began to replace all of her clothing. With a sure boot-clad foot, she stomped and scattered the fire before turning and trying to assess the best way to travel to avoid contact with the hostile dragons.
Instead of waiting for her to set off however, the Terror leapt to its feet and trotted off through the trees in the same direction as the Night Fury.
"I should follow him, shouldn't I?"
Once again, 'Hiccup' remained uncharacteristically silent.
With a heavy sigh, Astrid strode off after the Terror.
As the shieldmaiden followed behind the small reptile, she found herself thinking of that first time she'd followed Hiccup. The woods had been lit by the sun barely starting to fall from the sky, and she'd kept him just within view, rather like the Terror before her now. She'd been so desperately curious to see what secret he was hiding in the woods. She'd of course never expected it to be anything so absurd as a Night Fury, but then it seemed as though she'd underestimated him. After all, when the runt was compelled with whatever reason had stolen into his head, he'd murdered his cousin without glancing at him.
As Astrid continued on through the forest, fog started to roll through the woods from the direction of the coast; thankfully not the sickly fog of the Zippleback, but a fine white natural mist of water vapor.
Hiccup was no longer here to drive her to such extremes, yet she found herself following the Terror regardless. Just the thought of that brought the last words he'd really said echoing through her memory.
You're better than this, than meaningless slaughter... find the person within you... my expectations are high...
At first she'd disregarded them as the ramblings of a lonely and possibly deranged teenager. Now, she found that his words continued to echo and chafe against her thoughts.
After an hour alone with the Terror and her musings, there came a slight rustle from the leaves above. When she looked up, she glimpsed a black tail fin pushing off ahead and out of sight. No gasp. No reaching for weapons. She'd immediately classified that fin as 'not dangerous' and continued to walk.
What was happening to her?
Her final step brought her through the undergrowth into a slight clearing. Beneath a particularly large pine off to her right, the Night Fury sprawled across a large stone overgrown by roots in one of many rays of light filtering down from the sun that was sinking lower into the sky. Beside it on the ground lay the blood soaked carcass of a small deer. As she came near, the enormous reptile lifted its head and gave her a very intent stare before jabbing its head towards the dead creature at its feet. For a moment, Astrid could not decide if she was going to skin the deer or kick dirt at it. Once her stomach reminded her how long it had been since her last proper meal, however, she briskly crossed the space and pulled out her knife.
You don't dare light another fire. The fog is soaking all the wood. A fire here would produce enormous amounts of smoke. It would draw any dragon on the island down on you.
The sudden return of 'Hiccup' did not even startle her.
"Thanks." When she gave that single, dejected thanks, the Night Fury sitting above her emitted a low and steady thrumming from its throat. When the Viking looked up, the black dragon was staring directly at her with its head slightly tilted.
"What? I said 'thanks', I didn't give you a freaking medal. They don't say 'thank you' where you come from?"
The Fury's eyes became slits as his head tilted even further to the right.
"Where do you come from, anyway? Definitely not from around here, judging by how many of you there are."
If she had been expecting a response, Astrid was left disappointed. The dragon opposite her simply stared, watching and listening to everything with the same reactions as a statue.
The viking's knife plunged violently into the ribcage of the dead animal beneath her, though the girl never broke eye contact. "What are you looking at?! What?! If you can hear me, say something! Don't just look at me like some stupid jumbo salamander!"
The growing noise of evening crickets and insects filled the space between the two as each waited for the other. Astrid's jaw clenched as she thought about taking all of the anger this gods-forsaken reptile was causing her out on its own face, but the knife found its way once more into the flesh of the deer's side, separating very large and messy chunks of muscle from the skin. Though her eyes bored holes through the carcass, most of her attention was a dozen feet in front of her, focussed on the Fury and its perch. Not once through her berserk mutilation of the cervidae did she detect any movement or response from the dragon.
With a sigh, Astrid fell back against the bark of a tree as she sat down carelessly, taking most of the animal's hind leg with her. The raw flesh bled down her chin and throat as she tore into it, and her involuntary disgust with the uncooked flesh forced her eyes up, straight into the gaze of the scaled dragon.
The taste of the meat faded to the back of her mind as she looked back at the Fury, her thoughts circling around the beast. With a sardonic half-smirk, she realized once again how quiet her idiotic hallucination was being.
"You're awfully silent. Any reason?"
With a soft growl and a snort, the Fury fluttered its wings and turned away.
"No, not..." A growl of her own bubbled out from between her teeth as her eyes found the crimson meat again. "Alright, look."
Astrid waited a moment until the hesitant shuffle of scale informed her that her companion was indeed looking. "I'm sorry, alright?" She breathed in deeply, trying to ignore the foul taste of raw meat at the back of her throat. "I know you're not just another animal that doesn't give two shits if it's yelled at." The shieldmaiden forced her head up again, meeting the cool green eyes focused on her. "I know you can hear me. You're... not human, but you're smart."
She threw the leg up in the air, watching the Fury follow it and snatch it out of the air as it came level with his maw. In less than a second, the deer's leg had vanished with two crunching snaps. When the dragon turned to face Astrid again, she found that its slit eyes seemed less wary than before. Something akin to childlike curiosity filled the cracks in the shell of coldness the dragon surrounded itself with, and it was this tiny spark of warmth that drew the Viking's hand from her side, haltingly reaching an open palm towards the black scale.
As Astrid leaned forward, and her hand came closer and closer to the Fury's scale, a dull hum started to fill her ears. Each small movement closer increased the humming's volume, as though a swarm of insects was trapped inside her head. Just as she was about to touch the shining black plates of the Fury's scales, a rushing of air and a flash in her vision sent her jumping to her feet.
The ax head that had passed so close to her head imbedded itself in a tree about ten feet off, but Astrid gave it no mind. She was drawing another blade from her hip and facing toward the weapon's source, placing herself between the black dragon trying to scramble to its feet and the source of the weapon. The sight that greeted her would have been terrifying for any self respecting dragon or Viking.
A massive Viking with no beard and a long braided mustache, arms that were more than half the width of his body and a large hammer sprouting from his left arm was barreling toward them on an uneven gait caused by a peg-leg. Rather than a ferocious countenance of battle however, Gobber wore a look of fear.
"Out 'a the way Astrid! I'll deal with the ugly brute!"
Astrid reacted faster than she would have ever thought possible. Taking a deep breath, she let the two blades fall from her hands. Flexing her knees and timing the speed at which Gobber was moving, she leapt forward off her left leg, bringing her right sweeping around while she was airborne. She met the burly Viking just as he was passing the last shrubs of the clearing and sent her leg snapping forward.
Gobber was never one to show pain. He gave a single grunting "oof" as his left leg buckled at the knee where Astrid had struck it. His momentum carried him forward, plowing face first into the ground. As soon as he was down, the Night Fury jumped from his perch to land on Gobber's back, pinning him and knocking out all of his air.
For a moment, Astrid stayed in a crouched position and simply gazed at the massive Viking behind her which now had an enormous reptile perched atop its back until the dragon distracted her. It stood with all of its legs together and wings spread slightly for balance, but its eyes were focussed on her, and the position combined with its wide eyed expression struck her at once as both shocked and adorable.
She quickly rose to her feet and hurried over to where Gobber's head was lying face down in the dirt. Just as she got there, the large Viking lifted his right hand and placed it against the ground, apparently intent on lifting himself up. As he shifted, the Fury on top of him whirled around and placed one of its forepaws against the Viking's head and pushed down, drawing another, slightly muffled "oof!" and causing Gobber to start thrashing from side to side, though he was unable to get his face out of the dirt.
"Gobber! Listen to me!" Astrid endeavoured to keep the laughter from her voice. "Listen! Stop struggling!" For a moment, the Viking continued his thrashing and writhing, then he lay still. "Alright! Now, can you promise me that you won't attack the dragon that's on your back?" A rather indignant sound came from the facedown man, but it was immediately drowned out by a snarl from the Fury.
"Gobber, if you promise me that you won't hurt him, he won't hurt you! You won't, will you?" The question was directed at the dragon, which looked up and made a whine that sounded distinctly disappointed. "Will you?" The Fury snorted. "He won't! Please, Gobber, don't make this hard."
Nearly five minutes passed, during which Gobber remained completely silent. Finally, when Astrid thought she could no longer bear the pressure, Gobber made another muffled sound.
"Let his head up I can't hear him." The Fury removed his paw from the Viking's head. After spitting out a generous portion of soil, the Viking coughed.
"Alright! Alright. I won't lay a finger on the beast unless he tries to lay claw to me first." Though the words were grudging, Astrid knew that Gobber was an honest man at heart. He wouldn't lie to her. She gave the Fury a pat on the nose and pointed back toward his rock.
With a small hum and a balanced leap, the dragon left Gobber's back and settled himself on the stone. Very slowly, Gobber began to slowly push himself to his knees. As he rose, the large Viking continued to spew spoil and moss from his mouth. Though he was spitting furiously, as soon as his eyes were up, they locked on the enormous dragon sitting across from him.
The Night Fury flicked its tail. Gobber's hand moved to the hilt in his belt where a dagger rested.
"Gobber! Just calm down and have a seat. We'll all sit, and nobody gets hurt. Sound good?"
A small sound, like a whiny grunt came from his throat, but after twenty seconds or so, Gobber finally sat, though his hand still had not moved away from his knife, and the muscles in his left arm continued to twitch as he stared at the Fury. For a moment, Astrid was frustrated by his refusal to relax before she remembered that Gobber was the fifth human to ever see a Night Fury clearly with his own two eyes; Hiccup, herself and the twins being the others.
As the looked on, the dragon stretched his wings luxuriously to their full extent, and arched its spine, drawing a few cracks and snaps as it did. All the while, the heavy mass of muscle fidgeted, his fingers drumming into the iron at his belt and his eyes riving the entirety of the Fury.
"Impressive, isn't he?"
Gobber jerked slightly at her words, and his eyes whipped back to her for a second before focussing on the black dragon once again. "How do ya know it's a male?"
The question was hushed, and the intensity of it took Astrid by surprise. As the shieldmaiden went to answer, a brief flash of memory played in her ears; a deep, resonant and altogether masculine voice shouting at her to run. She glanced toward the dragon again and the voice in her head seemed to click as a strange feeling filled her. She shook her head.
"Intuition. The way he acts and holds himself seems masculine."
Gobber watched as the dragon turned and stepped down from its perch on the boulder, and, keeping an eye on the crippled Viking, crossed the clearing and placed itself behind Astrid, where it sat again, curling its tail around to place against Astrid's thigh.
After repressing her shudder, Astrid spoke. "I suggest you stop glaring at him before you make him angry. I don't want to have to incapacitate an ally, Gobber."
The older Viking's eyes snapped down to Astrid's and for a moment, a flicker of wariness and caution passed through his expression. He gazed at her for a full minute before speaking.
"Somethin's different about you, Astrid. I'd like to know wha's happened since you came out here."
As Gobber spoke, Astrid felt her attention drawn to the sticky feeling of dried blood at her throat, where she knew the stains of her recent meal were still visible on her neck and all over the front of her clothing. She took a deep breath, forcing it out through tight lips and trying to let her body relax. With a click of her tongue, a large yellow mass fell from the tree limbs above, resolving itself into her Terror when it landed square in her lap.
Gobber leapt to his feet, but an odd, slightly strangled bark from the Fury behind her froze him in place.
"The entire story, I guess you could say, starts with this little ball of annoyance. But it's probably a bad idea for us to linger in one place for so long, especially when it's this wet. When the sun goes down this is going to freeze into frost. Let's find higher ground and some dry wood for a fire. I'll talk, you'll listen, and you won't hurt either of my friends." With that, Astrid stood and strode past Gobber, Terror riding firmly on her shoulder and Night Fury shadowing her footsteps closely.
After a very long pause, Gobber followed.
"Slow down man, you're talking way too fast." Abruptly, Fishlegs' voice cut off.
The three teens sat on a large rock outcrop of the mountainside. It was low enough and near the forest so that sparse vegetation pushed itself up past the rocks. At the back of the outcrop was the bush that the Twins had been hiding in. This spot got enough sunlight during the day that the Twins had not frozen and the bushes at the rear had provided them with cover from wind and hostile eyes during the night.
As late morning had come, they'd spotted Fishlegs making his panicked way through the trees below and had called his name. With a brief spurt of effort and strength that the Twins had not known Fishlegs possessed, the large teen had ascended the slope and joined them.
"Start again, slowly." Unlike her normal annoying sneer, Ruffnut was doing her best to sound comforting and compassionate.
"Gobber and I came out to look for you guys! Well, you and Astrid, but I don't see her anywhere. About a mile out from the Village we got attacked by a pair of Nadders and Gobber told me to run while he drew them off. I know for a fact that he killed one of them, but I don't know what happened after that I've been running ever since!"
Fishlegs looked as though he'd been running, too; his hair was wild and full of twigs, leaves and sap; his light leather armor was scratched and maltreated; his only weapon was a small mace that he held loosely in his right hand as it knocked against the rock at his feet. His breathing was still heavy.
Tuffnut placed a firm hand reassuringly on the large teenager's shoulder. Though comfort was not a way in which he normally spoke, he did his best to sooth the other boy.
"We found Astrid, don't worry about her. She's well off. Who knows, she might find Gobber. What we need to do is survive and not freeze - winter's just about here. First thing's first, let's go and find some more food and see if we can find a way to make our little bush camp any warmer."
A small smile tugged at Fishlegs' mouth. "You know Tuff, you can be pretty nice when you want to be."
Tuffnut snorted. "Oh shut up, I'm still...!"
"Guys! What the hell is that?!" Ruffnut's squeak made both boys look up and out over the forest.
From their place on the mountain, the trio could see out over the forest to the coast and a hazy view of the ocean beyond. The thing that Ruff was pointing too at first appeared to be a cloud; a large, dark mass of something moving and undulating above the water. However, as Fishlegs peered out, he suddenly gasped.
"What?! What is it?! Is it dangerous?!" The Twins both yelled in unison.
"Shhh!" Fishlegs put a finger to his lips. "Look," he pointed to indicate the edges of the swirling mass that floated above the ocean. At these edges, small forms became visible, breaking away from the mass and joining it again. "Dragons."
And, as the teens watched, a very peculiar thing happened - a tiny point of brilliant red light blossomed from the center of the mass and steadily grew in brightness and size, until a small red sun seemed to hover above the ocean, bathing Berk in bloody light and obscuring every single dragon. The Twins both scampered back to their cover, but Fishlegs remained, staring.
The light abruptly shrunk to a pinprick and flared once brightly, disappearing completely. The mass of dragons was nowhere to be seen. A few seconds later, a concussive pulse like a boulder striking the mountain side sounded from the direction that the mass of dragons had been seconds before, reverberating through the Teens' chests.
For a time, everything was perfect. Nothing mattered but the act and the moment.
Toothless floated in stillness, feeling his blood pulsate and burn beneath his newly forming scar. The mark was tiny, and many would mistake it for a wound, but Toothless could feel its significance, its power; he had been claimed. His affections and wishes and promises returned to him a thousandfold, sealing his life into eternal orbit with another. The joy in his heart was unparalleled by any feeling he could remember.
In his mind's eye, Hiccup held tight to his neck. They soared through water and sky, clouds and waves breaking as his wings beat steadily and carried them ever higher. They passed through the ring of fire at the end of the world, joining the stars and twinkling brighter than any, a deep green beacon paling the moon.
He felt the boy's hand on his thigh as they slowly spun without aim in the deep basin, gripping as tightly as his body around his groin. Against his stomach, his love's heat burned, adding contrast to the pool that soothed his aches and relaxed his scales. The dragon's lips pulled upwards out of reflex as his paws tightened around his mate's chest, clutching him close.
Because of his euphoria, Toothless did not take heed of the first notes. The music began low and quiet, barely a sound at all, more a pressure against his mind. As it built, Toothless felt the scales behind his ears begin to lift and bunch, rippling as his ears attempted to catch a sound that was not physical.
As he listened, the notes began to make themselves distinct, succinct and powerful, binding themselves into chords that stirred his blood and nagged at the back of his mind as though he'd heard them before. His mind broadened in search of the source where he learned he was not the only one listening; somewhere close by he sensed Ryshkaa, frozen in place.
The music was beautiful as it invaded his mind, straight through the immaterial webbing that surrounded and shielded them. Curious, Toothless focussed his inner eye.
The world resolved itself into the familiar void of white-speckled blackness, but this time he and Hiccup were not alone. Above and around him, four other spheres hung, suspended, dark and shining. From their flickering surfaces, the protective net wove its way through the darkness, encompassing the area within the orbs, protecting himself and Hiccup... but something was off; the strands of thought that formed the web were flashing. Even as he watched, the entire mesh pulsed in violet unison. With each pulse, another note of the strange song was born.
Was the Wing singing? They'd never done so before, and it seemed unlikely that they'd start now, especially with Sycle and Kale asleep as they were. As he listened to the music and watched the odd light, it grew faster, increasing in tempo and pitch.
Through the net flashed a great indigo.
Before his eyes, Ryshkaa's sphere flashed brilliantly with the Heart's Fire and vanished. The protective web exploded outward into a thousand distinct thoughts that were separate and confused, and the other spheres began to pulse and sparkle as their owners woke and reacted to the violent disjoining.
Hiccup also woke, but before Toothless could even say a word, panic filled his mate's mind. With a kick, the boy was physically separate and shooting toward the surface, his limbs wheeling wildly. Toothless gave a few kicks to right himself before flapping powerfully to catch up.
As he broke the surface, he saw Hiccup scrambling up the side of the pool, breathing heavily.
"Hiccup! Hiccup, what's wrong?! What's happening?!" As he touched Hiccup's mind, he was struck suddenly with a brief vision that lasted no more than a second.
Hiccup's mind was in pain - Hiccup's mind was burning. Fire licked at the outer edges of the sphere that represented the boy's mind and Runes were exploding outward in torrents of interconnected gold like a swarm of angry golden bees. Just before Toothless broke off the connection with a cry, he caught the physical sensation of unbearable pain in his chest, as though he'd been stabbed through the heart.
"Hiccup!" Either because he could not hear Toothless, or because he couldn't make a response, Hiccup ignored his mate and went charging up the tunnel with Toothless hard on his heels.
As they ran, the music was still present, though it seemed to have hit its topmost volume and tempo. A single, ringing chord emerged from the melodic cacophony and overrode every other sound both mental and physical. In that single resounding note, Hiccup heard a few syllables behind the solid noise.
With a shake of his head, Toothless snarled and tried to catch up to Hiccup. They were in the main tunnel network was not sure how they'd come to be here or where they were as they had not passed through the Atrium, but Hiccup seemed to know where he was going.
A strange thing happened at an intersection of four tunnels; the ceiling was relatively high, and as Toothless rounded a corner trying desperately to keep Hiccup in sight, a frigid burst of air rushed over his back, as though their were icy water flowing through the air. Anything that was cold enough to make him feel the change dramatically was far colder than anything in nature ought to be, but such was his distraction that he brushed it off as a mere cave breeze entering from the channels that had been dug to the surface for that purpose.
He did, however, stop in his tracks as Hiccup came solidly back into view. He was standing rigidly still in the center of the passage. A few tail lengths in front of him was a familiar opening - the entrance to the Hall of Knowledge. From the opening poured the unmistakable scent of blood.
The burning would not stop. Thousands upon thousands of images, thoughts and memories assaulted him and he found himself swept away by the torrent, unable to handle the onrush of information. His body had reacted instinctively, leaping up and seeking out his teacher. Alda would be able to quell this, whatever it was, but something halted his body not far from its goal.
As the scent of blood filled his nostrils, Hiccup's body froze and a strange voice spoke in his mind amidst the pain, chaos and fire; a voice that sounded like his own, and yet was also someone else's.
The source, Hiccup. The source is within your own mind. Pull away from it. Take away its energy.
Instinctively, Hiccup's mind reacted, turning and facing the flux of knowledge that he now could tell was emanating from within his own thoughts. As he moved toward their source, a very strange sight filled his minds eye: At the very base of his mind, where his subconscious kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, he glimpsed a single bright, golden point, to which all the other thoughts could be traced.
Hiccup pulled his mind and thoughts away from what he could now see was a Rune. Instantly, the unknown memories, thoughts, and emotions disappeared entirely, leaving his mind quiet, cold, and dark.
The void left by the Rune was not static, however; the moment Hiccup's mind was free of the overwhelming stream of data, the scent of blood sharply increased, accompanied by the slightest, softest rustling.
An aura seeped through the open arch to the Hall: an aura that greedily sucked the warmth and energy from the hybrid as he stood rooted in place, his ears flickering as much as the undeveloped muscles could move them to catch the ethereal, pulsing thrum that he couldn't be sure actually existed. The fatigue that had claimed him shortly after marking Toothless returned tenfold, draining the life from his bones and muscles and leaving him feeling like he would collapse to his knees under his own weight. The heavy, grey coat of lethargy pulled him downwards, but a burning sense of foreboding and dread pulled him forward without grace.
Just before he entered the Hall proper, Hiccup caught a fleeting glance of shimmering violet on the obsidian walls; blood was splattered across the seemingly endless black, letting the boy truly perceive the wall itself rather than just the color-augmented Runes alighted upon it for the first time. The sight of another creature's life essence added kindling to Hiccup's apprehension, the horrible internal blaze threatening to disintegrate his rational mind while his weariness was barely kept at bay.
The dam holding back his exhaustion shattered as he crossed the threshold, his eyes instinctively finding the central pillar. He knew his eyes were open, for he could see the fat drops of crimson that slowly pooled in front of the column and added to the messy sea of blood before it, but his mind desperately fought against the image that was already searing itself onto his inner eye, franticly avoiding acknowledging that such a thing could exist. It wasn't until his legs buckled and his knees found the ground that Hiccup saw Alda.
A deep, russet cavity was split open in the center of the dragon's chest, and jagged stumps of bone allowed something pitch black to hang freely. Hiccup found the missing ribs on either side of his mentor's head, driven by some unearthly force through the column and the thick membrane of extended wings, suspending the Shade above the floor. Embers pitifully impersonated eyes, the smoldering specks of light illuminating empty, gouged-out sockets. Uneven runs of blood made their way from the sockets in between the scales of the head and down across the neck, displaying a hellish visage of sorrow.
The deep vibrations haunting him slowly built in a crescendo as the half-breed sank forward, his vision blurring as his stomach allowed what little food it contained to spill before he could look any lower. Leaning on his clenched fists, wetness gathered in the corner of his eyes as he was sick a second time. The infrasonic, jarring sound that echoed from every direction clouded his mind and set his gut aflame as it drowned out any thought he tried to form, and he stumbled backwards on uncooperative legs, ripping his blades from his body and brandishing them wildly.
"Where are you?!" His roar almost made his throat bleed, his eyes darting to every shadow that didn't exist in the omnipresent light of the Runes and his head snapping towards every tiny sound his untrustworthy ears detected. The throbbing that drove him insane and muddled his thoughts became a laugh, black with unbridled and poisonous mirth. The minute tap of a claw sounded from behind, and Hiccup almost fell as he wheeled and stumbled, pointing both weapons at the throat of his mate while a single drop of blood rolled down the longer Weh blade.
Toothless pulled his head back slightly so that the point of the obsidian blade rested in the air a millimeter from his torn scale. The young dragon's eyes were wide, his nostrils flared and his ears rose to their full extent in his confusion.
"Hiccup!" The name came to the disturbed hybrid as though from extremely far away. It was faint and insubstantial underneath the maddening thrum. "Hiccup! Answer me!" Slowly, Toothless began to step backward, toward the entrance. "We have to get away from here!"
Too... Toothless... my mate. No danger. Having lost a visible threat, Hiccup's blade fell to the ground with a clatter that went unheard, though he could feel the vibrations through the floor.
Slowly, the boy's knees began to tremble, and he turned to face the pillar again.
"We have to save Alda!"
As Hiccup began to run toward the room's center, there was a rustling of scale on stone and before he could react, the hybrid found himself falling toward the floor as his ankle was seized by a powerful grip. Behind him, Toothless let loose a roar that reverberated around the cavern and resonated in Hiccup's ribs and which cut off the terrible thrumming.
"You have no power among the dead." The voice was female and familiar. Before Hiccup could move to strike out at his assailant, the dull, flat grey of Ryshkaa's mind closed about him, and he found himself standing on a plain that was featureless and smooth with no temperature, no visible horizon. As he whirled about to attempt to find any reference point at all in the featureless landscape, his eye fell on the white coat and piercing, golden eyes of a wolf.
After only a brief pause, he recognised Ryshkaa's true body. She turned away from him and gazed out at the expanse of nothingness that lay before them.
With a great rushing, a cover of misty grey rushed across the sky and defined a horizon as the land below deformed and shaped itself into sweeping snow drifts.
"I may reside within a Shade body, but this is still the center of my mind. This is all the mind of any wolf you'll ever meet; snow and ice and cold. When a pack comes together, they huddle as one in this place and none of them are alone. It's a lot like the Mindspace you share with Toothless."
Ryshkaa's voice seemed to have lost what emotion Hiccup had become used to hearing in it. She spoke without inflection or feeling, as though her words were merely syllables with no greater meaning. When Hiccup turned to face her, he saw that the white fur beneath her eyes was wet and beads of moisture fell from the tips of the fibers, leaving small holes in the snow at her paws.
"I too thought I could save a life that had fled from its body. I cried out to the spirits of my ancestors and to all the powers that may or may not exist, and I asked them to let my life replace the hatchling's that I had killed in my senseless blood wrath. With such a great expenditure, something was guaranteed to happen. What I did not expect was for them to make me wear my guilt as flesh for the remainder of my life." Ryshkaa took a deep, ragged breath that Hiccup knew pained her. "I shared this place with Alda. He existed here with me, and he kept the sorrow of loneliness from destroying me. He was an Alpha to me. A father."
For a brief moment, Hiccup could see the outlines of a large Shade and a small wolf pup frollicking across the banks, given shape by a billowing flurry.
"Fifteen seconds. When I woke, I had fifteen seconds with him. Do you know what he did?" Unable to speak, Hiccup only shook his head, despite the fact that Ryshkaa was not looking at him. "He placed a paw on my head and pressed his head against mine. He whispered to me, 'Take care of Hiccup and Toothless. Treat them as I've treated you and don't make the mistake that I did. I lo..'
Alda's voice, which had tickled at Hiccup's ear, abruptly disappeared. A deep, dull pain suddenly struck Hiccup's chest, and he dropped to his knee beside Ryshkaa.
"I felt the fatal blow. He literally died in my mind. When I reached the hall, I found him as he is, with no detectable trace of his murderer."
Hiccup found that this empty wasteland setting resonated within him deeply. He felt empty; a shell. There seemed to be a gaping hole of lost knowledge and potential in the place where Alda had been.
He hadn't realized while Alda had been alive that the old Shade had slowly begun to replace the empty hole created in his life when he'd left Stoic standing beneath the moon.
"I'll let you return to Toothless in a moment, but before you do, I have something for you." By the end of this sentence, Ryshkaa's voice had gained some small amount of inflection, though it was only the deep sorrow that Hiccup had already known was there. "When Alda touched me for the last time, he imparted to me two Runes. One was for me, the other is yours. It was meant only for your mind, and I have not tried to know its contents."
The wolf reached forward with one paw and brushed a furrow into the snow, leaving a small depression, from which faint blue light emanated. With a surge of hope, Hiccup stepped forward and without even looking at the Rune's shape, thrust his hand down.
The white snowscape disappeared, and Hiccup found himself in total darkness. And, from the darkness, a very quiet voice emanated.
"I'm sorry. I've burdened you without even telling you. I'll be with you for a good long time now. You need only look in the right place."
An enormous canine with sleek silver fur streaked with black stood at the topmost point of a great mound of snow. Below him, the northern forests stretched away southward, and the light of the setting sun turned the western snowfields into plains of liquid fire. The brisk odor of winter wind was heavily present and the snow encased trees rustled and creaked, moving for the first time in months.
But the wolf paid these lovely features of the landscape no mind. His snout was pointed toward the sky where a great many dark shapes were visible on the horizon.
As he watched, an explosion of snow rose from trees, and the grey canine dived downward, digging beneath the snow and driving most of his form into the snow. The black figure of a Shade rose into the sky and set its climbing course northward.
Before it had made it more than a few leaps into the air, there was a blur of movement from the North and a horrific screech. The wolf watched with fascinated horror as the Shade fell from the sky and landed on the ice plains with a dull crunch.
Whipping his head back to the sky, he caught the shrinking silhouette of something large and winged beating its way toward the oncoming shapes. After bursting free of his camouflage Talon Claw spared only a moment to inspect the Shade's body: A perfectly straight incision ran downwards from the jaw, between the legs and across the abdomen, even going so far as to slash the genitals in two. The cut ran all the way to the end of the tail, where it laid split bone bare. The grey wolf felt his stomach heave.
Something pricked the hairs of his neck that faced the great swarm. As he turned to face it, he had to plant his feet as a point of bluish light took shape within the mass of dragons, seeming to have a gravity of its own. The light encompassed and blotted the reptiles out as Talon Claw nearly fell onto his muzzle, and at once, the great booming of raw power pushed him onto his haunches as the swarm vanished. A lingering streak like that of a comet's tail drifted northward, the only sign that there had ever been a flock of living creatures.
Taking a moment to steady himself, he bolted northwards, taking in a deep breath as he did. He began to run faster as the crisp chill of snow and ice permeated his nostrils.
His home. His domain. Here, distance didn't matter.
Slowly, as cold flooded the pads of his paws, he felt the distance begin to shrink. The hundred miles he had to run were barely worth one.
With a short glow of white, the form of Talon Claw disappeared into the snow that had begun to billow and flurry in the wind.
It took a long while for Hiccup to wake, but when he did, moisture rushed from his eyes and he jerked violently in the grip of Toothless' wings. As his mate came back to consciousness, Toothless was startled by a shout that came from Hiccup's voice instead of his mind.
"WHY THE HELL ARE THOSE YOUR LAST WORDS! WHY?! YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME ANYTHING, BUT YOU SPOUT NONSENSE!"
The anger in Hiccup's voice was tempered by sorrow as his voice broke and he began to sob in earnest.
As he held his mate, Toothless could not help but flick his senses about, hunting for anything unfamiliar. He had not been as close to Alda as Hiccup had, and his primary concern was whatever creature had had the ability to overcome the old dragon's considerable power and the sadism to dispatch and display him in such a manner.
"What did you tell him? He's upset!" His words were kept private from Hiccup with a good deal of effort.
"That's slightly obvious isn't it? I gave him Alda's last words. I'm not sure what he said to Hiccup - they were inscribed in a Rune."
Runes. It seemed that Runes were as much trouble as they were helpful. Alda had been the most knowledgeable about the strange symbols. Now he was dead, and Ryshkaa had stopped Hiccup from harming himself in an attempt to use Runes to bring him back.
"What should we do now? Is there anything we can do for Alda? What were the traditions for a death in the Silver Age?" This time Toothless did not bother to hide his words from Hiccup.
"Well, there's nothing set in stone, but there was an old story that Alda found here in the hall about..." Ryshkaa was suddenly cut off by Hiccup's voice.
"The Hall of Memory."
"Yes. But we never figured out what that hall was or where."
"The Hall of Memory! Second hall! The second hall!"
Toothless gazed down at his mate worriedly. Had this blow come too hard? Was Hiccup's mind damaged? Before he could ask Ryshkaa if perhaps he should take Hiccup away, a whisper of scale on stone sounded from the doorway.
Had the drake not been burdened with his mate, his movements would have mirrored Ryshkaa's precisely. A small cluster of sparks trailed her claws as she sprinted for the entrance, and Toothless was almost literally on her tail the instant Hiccup was layed upon the blood soaked floor.
The female was the first to the archway and she skidded into the tunnel to the left, letting out a shrieking snarl as she did. Toothless' vision began to cloud with red as slow, heated anger began to flow across the space between his mind and Hiccup's. When he too came skidding around the corner, he was just in time to watch Ryshkaa leap onto the back of a Shade that was trying to flee down the passage.
Toothless swiftly leapt forward as the wings of the unknown Shade flared, and he sank his teeth into the membrane near the tip, where a tear would cause serious instability in flight. With a sharp whine, the stranger went completely still. Now that Ryshkaa was able to think clearly, she identified the dragon instantly by scent.
"Myza!" An angry, slightly choked sound emanated from Toothless' chest.
Myza? Ito's second. Was it she that did this? No. No none of Ito's wing were a match for Alda. No Shade was. What was she doing skulking outside of a place so obviously defaced by evil without making herself known or sounding an alarm?
These things Toothless thought with relative clarity, but unfortunately for Myza, Ryshkaa was not as coherent.
"What have you done?! Who helped you do this?! SPEAK!"
Before Toothless could speak, before Myza even had a chance to respond, Ryshkaa had launched a brunt mental assault towards the older Shade beneath her. And, to Toothless' amazement, Myza's defenses failed. An onrush of images overwhelmed him so quickly that he released his hold on the wing tissue between his teeth.
There were a few drawn out memories that Toothless was actually able to single out and interpret; Ito's wing training on the brink of the Ice Shelf; Zonni being pinned beneath Ito; Hiccup striking upward with his blade. That last one was particularly vivid, and the young male felt a pang of sorrow reverberate through his mind.
The images ceased, and a single scene became clear:
Myza sitting alone on the very edge of the Ice Shelf, throat open and crying a constantly changing tone to the stars. A sound that reminded all who might have heard it of Ito.
Ryshkaa had become quiet and she slowly slid back to the floor. Myza turned to face them and spoke in a voice that was devoid of the anger and defensiveness that Toothless would have expected.
"What happened in there? Why is the smell of blood so strong? And why are you so quick to blame me?"
Ryshkaa's response was quiet and once again nearly devoid of emotion.
"Come inside and see for yourself. Then you will tell us why you've come here." For a brief instant Toothless saw anger flash in the old female's eyes, but she gave a grunt of acquiescence and strode past them into the chamber only to snarl in fear and anger at the horrible sight that greeted her.
"Stars above. What creature could have possibly done this to the Ancient?"
Toothless came up beside her."You came to the hall at the wrong time. We'd only found him minutes before you arrived. And that's exactly the question we wanted answers to."
Hiccup's waves of sorrow were difficult to filter from his voice, but Toothless managed to keep the words calm and even.
Ryshkaa stepped passed the two and placed herself between them and Alda's body. As she turned about, cyan flame licked its way from beneath her paws to surround her in a quick, fluid movement. When she came to rest facing Myza, an enormous white wolf stood staring the older Shade down with glowing golden eyes.
"My fath..." Ryshkaa stopped and took a deep breath to calm her still violently rushing thoughts. "...Alda is dead. He was our best chance at actually striking the southern threat down and now the entire dragon species is vulnerable. I want to know why you came here, Myza." When she'd finished speaking, her words continued to resound in the silence of the room within the minds of those that had heard her. The echo carried a sense of certainty and authority.
Toothless was no longer able to continue observing Myza, however. His mind dragged his body swiftly back to where Hiccup lay on the floor in a fetal position. He dropped to his side and used his wing to pull Hiccup against the heat of his underside.
After a moment, Myza huffed and dropped to her stomach, making herself comfortable. The blood on the floor was starting to dry and already there were large patches where the now translucent fluid obscured the light of the Runes, rather than refracting it. Ryshkaa did not sit, but began to pace back and forth.
"In light of what's happened here, my timing is certainly terrible. But I had nothing to do with this... atrocity." Ryshkaa paused and stared at Myza's eyes, then continued pacing. "I know that being a member of Sycle's Wing has already set your opinion of Ito and there will be no changing it. But I was his friend." The wolf snarled low, but did not break its step. "Ito did not have a happy life. Come to think of it, I'm not sure Ito was able to achieve happiness in any way before Hiccup finally drove his life from his body."
Toothless felt his face attempting to accomplish an expression the muscles were not meant for. He realized he was trying to raise an eyebrow. Strange, the human tendencies that were creeping into his head. He settled instead for a questioning snort.
"When my generation was around your age, Ito's chosen mate was soul bonded to another. Ito had fought hard to claim her and he did very much love her. And then she turned away and bound Sycle and herself together, much as those two are." She jabbed her head toward where Toothless lay with Hiccup. "It destroyed what shred of happiness remained within Ito after the death of his friends in his youth."
Ryshkaa let out an agitated canine bark. "What does this have to do with this place? Why are you here?"
"I was the only member of Ito's Wing with the Heart's Fire. I thought that with such a tragic life, the least I could give Ito was a decent passing. A few days ago I created an Identity Rune for him, and I intended to set it within the Hall of Memory."
Toothless jerked slightly as he felt Hiccup sit up. The boy was staring wide eyed at Myza. Ryshkaa also stopped pacing and stood staring, frozen. A whisper cracked with emotion and hope made its way between the walls of the Hall.
"What is the Hall of Memory?" Myza was looking quizzically at the hybrid, trying to figure out what he and the wolf were thinking. She didn't dare reach out to them.
"The Hall of Memory was a story that my mother gave to me when I'd only just hatched. Along with a few others, she told me that it was the precious history of Shades and that it had been passed to them by their parents, who'd survived something called the Fall of the Silver Age."
Hiccup gasped and Ryshkaa yelped quietly. "Speak." Ryshkaa's voice was quiet, but still it echoed with authority.
"Well, they said that once, the Shades were a race that built and worked like the hominids of the south. They had imparted brief, flashing images of thousands of Shades under the same stars and a view of what I now know is the great main chamber of Home Cave. After I came here and saw that room for myself I assumed that these stories had to be true.
"The Hall of Memory was a story about what happened to Shades during this Silver Age when they died. A friend or loved one would carry the deceased Shade's Identity Rune to a Hall of Knowledge, where the records and knowledge of the Shades was kept. There, the Identity Rune itself would grant access to the 'second hall', the Hall of Memory, where Identity Runes of hundreds of thousands of deceased Shades are kept."
When Myza stopped speaking, the silence was profound. Both Hiccup and Ryshkaa had stopped breathing and now, Toothless left pondering while Hiccup's mind whirled with thoughts of things he knew and the implications of what Myza had just told him. But since Toothless himself did not command the Heart's Fire, he found it impossible not to ask.
"What's an Identity Rune?"
Ryshkaa answered in a voice that was hushed and breathless. "An Identity Rune is a single symbol that encompasses all the Runes that represent the thoughts and body of a being. It is a symbol that literally defines and notates exactly who and what you are. It is a record of every thought you've had, and every emotion you've felt. For all theoretical intents and purposes it is you without body."
Toothless thought for a moment. "But, if that's true, wouldn't an Identity Rune exist as its own being inside someone's head or written on a surface?"
Now it was Hiccup's turn to respond. His mental voice was just as breathless as Ryshkaa's but at least now he wasn't speaking aloud. "It does not. There's a missing component that makes a being truly alive. Humans call it the soul, but that is beside the point. Right now the point is, Myza, you're telling us that a chamber exists somewhere near here with the combined knowledge of every Shade that lived during the Silver Age?"
"If my parents stories are to be believed."
"Such a trove could contain powerful things that even Alda does not know about Runes. Things that could help us destroy the threat." Ryshkaa's voice was hushed, nearly inaudible.
Hiccup turned toward the central pillar, eyes unfocused and unseeing as his mind's Sphere twirled and flashed incessantly. Toothless thrummed softly and closed his wing around the boy, shielding his eyes from the sight nothing should ever have to see. It pained the drake not to feel any reaction from his mate, and his claw clutched tighter at the Shade scale of his love's arm.
Ryshkaa looked on at the two, her thoughts with Hiccup and Alda and the Inner Hall before a thread of thought weaved its way without consent into her mind.
The note was long and lilting, echoing a harmony of several voices as it grew to a pitch within easy hearing. Three of the Hall's inhabitants jerked from side to side, searching for the noise's source. Ryshkaa stood still and silent, staring upwards at the invisible ceiling, beyond where the caked blood could reach. She started a slow trot toward the door. The gazes of the other three whipped back to center on her.
"You two, move. Myza, stay and tell the crowd outside what you know since it's about as much as us." Now that Toothless listened, a quiet hum of voices were easily heard, and from the odd words he picked out, they could smell the four of them inside and were edgy about following them.
Quickly, Hiccup turned and started to follow Ryshkaa, letting Toothless glance for a moment at Myza and judge whether she would do as Ryshkaa said. The older Shade had a mixture of compliance and sorrow in her eyes and the set of her legs and wings.
Outside in the tunnels, Toothless' echoes were met with what was indeed a crowd. A large number of Shades crammed into the tunnel on both sides, shifting nervously and nostrils flared wide with the scent of blood.
One elder Shade on the right stood calm and tranquil in front of the sea of discomfort. He was not very large, but the presence of absolutely no scars beyond a single line across his shoulder attested to a great prowess in combat. As Ryshkaa strode toward him, claws clicking quietly against the stone floor, he visibly stiffened.
"What transpired inside that Hall, Skinwalker?" The mob's leader's voice was a quiet baritone, with the intensity of distant thunder. When he refused to step aside, Ryshkaa and her followers were forced to halt. Toothless stared at Ryshkaa's flank, wrought in silver and slowly expanding and contracting, breathing deeply; she was trying to keep calm.
"It is unclear what happened inside, Gallic. An act of shocking violence and brutality unheard of even in the human cultures from which Hiccup originates, certainly. Myself and these two, and Myza within, were the first ones to respond, being intimate with Alda's nature. But you heard the call just now. They seek a meeting and they won't speak unless I'm present."
"I'm sorry to doubt you so, but you cannot deny the suspicious nature of your presence here."
"She speaks truly." There was an audible rustle as all the heads in the tunnel turned to the Hall entrance, and in Toothless' ears, the form of Myza grew bright, vibrant as ten different sets of location echoes beat against her. "I was the first here. I was closest, and then these three arrived, panicked and horror stricken."
Ryshkaa heard Hiccup's breath catch as the lie tickled at his mind. Ears and eyes now returned to the imposing Shade opposite Ryshkaa.
"Step aside, Moonlighter." Ryshkaa had not used her people's word for Shades in a very long time.
For a tense instant, there was utter silence.
"Thelka, Nehru." Two Shades stepped out of the audience. "Accompany Ryshkaa..." There was an eruption of whispers that flew through the spaces of the mind like the sounds of wind dancing among leaves. When Gallic had identified the wolf, it became clear to Toothless that despite the fact that the Wing leader had known of her true nature, those beneath him and others, had not. "...and the other two. Do not interfere with them unless they attempt to leave the area around Home Cave." The two snorted in unison.
With that, Gallic stepped aside, and a passage opened up all the way down the tunnel. Ryshkaa passed into the channel with a single glance behind her, and as Toothless and his mate followed, Nehru and Thelka fell into step behind them.
Their journey went relatively unmolested in comparison to their encounter with the crowd outside the Hall. That had been the first time since he'd arrived that Hiccup had witnessed so many non-Wing members in a single space. They had all seemed... less predictable; less likely to allow him past without a challenge. They'd seemed wild.
But then, that's how Shades were outside this cave. At least, they were supposed to be. Hiccup took a moment to grin down at Toothless and was rewarded with a swat to the hind quarters with a finned tail. Before Hiccup could laugh, he was struck with a thought.
"Ryshkaa? Where are we going?"
If Ryshkaa was going to speak, she was interrupted by a loud set of voices that pressed against Hiccup's thoughts in an oppressive, slightly achy manner.
So quickly Hiccup almost missed it, Ryshkaa's voice uttered a quiet oath, and a flash of blue flame revealed the lithe female Shade that they'd met just setting out from Berk. But Hiccup could see that something was off; the flames did not disappear with the transformation complete - instead, they danced about the underside of Ryshkaa's stomach, paws, and tail. As the cerulean tongues licked upwards, flashes of white fur became visible briefly, before vanishing behind scale.
And suddenly they were out of the tunnels, and marching downward toward the atrium. Behind them, Hiccup heard the creak and dry whisper of the Three's ancient bodies shifting on their stone shelf.
"We commanded you to Halt!"
An even heavier pressure buffeted Hiccup's mind, and this time, Ryshkaa halted and turned, giving Hiccup, Toothless, and the Three a look at her oddly fluxing features. Fur and scale washed smoothing across her face, like ripples in water, flickering between the sights of a long muzzled wolf, and a broad, spade faced Shade, but always the same burning yellow eyes remained and they stared up at the old Shades with grim intensity.
"Esteemed old ones." The phrase held more insolence than respect. "I think we both know that Hyetal will leave if she's kept waiting. It's important we hear what she has to say."
The voices separated now, and the male spoke.
"We do not want nor need to have any contact with Ferals such as those that invaded our minds with their horrible noise."
"Your brother is dead!" Hiccup's eyes narrowed as Toothless picked out the tiny pause in which the old dragons remained still and silent, before their recoils and sharp intakes of breath.
"Alda? How could this be possible? What could muster such strength as would be necessary to contest with our brother?"
Ryshkaa wheeled and returned to her course toward Home Cave's underwater exit. Her four followers continued with her.
"We don't know. But for the Wolves to come here unexpected and with no warning, something serious must be going on."
There was a soft sound, as if the Three had intended to speak, but killed their first syllable before it even left their thoughts. Hiccup could barely spare them a thought now, though; Ryshkaa had answered his question.
They were going to see the Wolves! Hiccup smiled.
These two worry me. This human and Shade.
They are weaklings. Slightly misshapen prey.
They are different; something I've not yet encountered, and as such we must be cautious. We don't know what they're capable of.
I have a force. I could have slaughtered them all myself. Why did you send them?
Our race is dangerous. You will take caution as such.
I will do as I please.
You will obey.
Do not speak so to me again. Contact me only when you've found and subdued the two strange ones. And the Skinwalker. Do not kill them. They could be valuable.
The water was oppressive, and it made it even more difficult to hang on to her shape. Torrents of energy were exploding outward from the rage that bubbled and simmered in her center. Alda was dead.
Someone was going to pay.
As the two Shades rose, Hiccup clinging to Toothless' back, Ryshkaa tried to vent energy by beating her wings particularly hard. The sea foamed and depressedaround her, worming into her scales and spreading fur.
The female closed her eyes, retreating among the angry waves of her thoughts as her other senses guided her flight. Alda had not called out to her; Alda had not called out at all until it was already too late: He'd been taken by surprise. Somehow, he'd been surprised. Not a single being in Home Cave could have stalked the Elder in such a way.
They were rising now, up toward the edge of the great shelf. Ryshkaa felt her progress made difficult as the incendiary flickering made pieces of her wing disappear and reappear rapidly.
If the attack did not originate from within Home Cave, the only enemy that remains is the Queen.
She was just able to make it over the edge of the cliff before the flames consumed the Shade's body and left her in her true skin; heavily furred. The shift between Shade and Wolf was a jump between two different kinds of heat; one, strong and sustained and strange; the other natural, glowing, insulated by fur and fat.
With a wild shake, the white coat straightened and steamed as pricks of moisture flew every which way. Ryshkaa stood firm as the wind of the other Shades' wings buffeted the snow at her paws. When she turned back to the white plain behind her, three shapes were visible, outlined among the endless drifts. The white wolf started toward the distant silhouettes, hearing Toothless and Hiccup fall quietly into step behind.
"We will wait here at a distance and observe." Thelka's voice was silky and quiet, which was strange given the circumstances, but perhaps she relished the opportunity for a look at the Wolves as well as Hiccup did.
Toothless' words carried the pitch of his unease. "I don't suppose there's much you could do in this short time to prepare us for a meeting with your kind?"
"You'll be fine so long as you don't offend anyone."
The younger voice interjected as if it had been waiting for the opportunity."But that's my specialty! How can I avoid it in this case?"
The corner of Ryshkaa's jaw twitched slightly, betraying knowledge of features normally beyond it.
"Hiccup, just don't actively try to be disrespectful and don't look any of the subordinates in the eye."
"Why the subordinates? That seems backwards."
"Hyetal is far more understanding, more tolerant of ignorance to the meaning of an outsider's actions. She will look you in the eye and she won't immediately assume it's a challenge."
The shapes of wolves were clearly resolvable in a single instant; they seemed to jump from a distant point in the tundra to sitting on their haunches and towering over Hiccup at a few wingspans' distance, eye-to-eye with Ryshkaa.
"When we stop, position yourselves evenly behind me like the two males are."
Ryshkaa halted, throwing her gaze to the snow two feet in front of her and sitting on her haunches. It was a posture she did not often use when her tail was almost as long as her body. Hiccup skidded to a halt behind her, joined only a fraction of a second later by Toothless.
Patiently, Ryshkaa and the two mismatched mates maintained their positions, Toothless wrapping his tail about his legs while Hiccup stayed standing. As they sat and stood still, the heat of the Alpha's gaze was almost tangible.
"You look well, little one."
With those words, Ryshkaa allowed her gaze to rise. A massive set of paws covered in silvery-grey fur lead to legs as wide as Hiccup, where the sterling of the fur darkened and dirtied to resemble the sharpened metal blades of humans. The darker fur blossomed outwards across a slowly breathing chest, reaching with dusky fingers to the round of her shoulders and inner legs. Under her shaded chin, Ryshkaa's gaze halted.
"It's been a long while since I've been called by that name, Hyetal." In the silence that followed, Ryshkaa watched through Hiccup's darting eyes as he drank in the three opposing wolves.
Hyetal sat regally, staring down at Ryshkaa with eyes of almost erstaz ice, pale and blue and nearly transparent. Her face was the same dark, dirty grey as her chest, though bands of silvery fur traveled from along her jaw, past her eyes and up the edge of each pointed ear. Ryshkaa knew from memory that the silver continued down her back as well, reappearing at the base of the spine and continuing down the back of each leg to envelop the paws.
The two subordinates she'd brought with her were each a shade of grey so close to black that it would have been indiscernible to a less sensitive eye, but they were indeed grey, and the one on the right had a patch of odd brown fur just under his jaw. These two Ryshkaa had not known by name or even by sight; only their familiar smells, mingled with that of the pack, identified them in her mind.
"It does seem that your first skin has grown alongside that of your new. And this is the first you've come to me without waver or flicker of scale showing past fur. You've grown."
The final two words seemed to pass a judgement that had not been made before hand, and Ryshkaa sensed the body before her relax slightly. "It's good to see you again. And I'm glad to see you are discovering the new and uncovering the old, as you wished at our parting. Tell me of your companions at once. We did not know two-legs could survive so far north without more covering for their legs and shoulders. He smells of dragon and seems unafraid."
Inquisitive as always. It probably would not do any harm to give her a full story. But best to do it quickly, and learn of her reasons for coming here.
"These are friends I met in lands far to the south. Toothless, whom I freed from the control of the Dragon Queen, and his mate, Hiccup, a human altered drastically in Heart, mind and spirit by love and the Heart's Fire."
"Fire is a tool for the wise. In the hands of a fool it destroys homelands and reduces both love and peace to acrid dust. It has always been a concern of the Packs' that our dragon neighbors use such a power so... frivolously." The Alpha's scrutiny locked with Hiccup's gaze. Her icy blue eyes held a questioning air that the hybrid could not read. Instead, Hiccup stared intently, searching out every fleck of color and drinking in the iris' hue.
"Ryshkaa, may I address her, or is that not allowed?" Hiccup's whispery voice was soft and filled with an odd emotion that Ryshkaa had never experienced: a curiosity that was infused with primal, wild hunger.
"The Fire that made these two as they are was not used frivolously; not even purposefully, in truth. It healed a wound, and by mistake, made Hiccup suitable for a life with his mate. How painful would it be for one to love another if they could not even understand the meaning of each other's words?"
Hyetal's ears rose and pointed toward the human attentively now.
"You can speak, Hiccup?"
This time the boy did not even hesitate. "I can." The way the two words ended, as if Hiccup had bitten down on them, suggested he was holding back a deluge of things he wanted to say; mostly questions, Ryshkaa guessed.
The white she-wolf was about to interject before Hiccup could begin his barrage before she was interrupted by the sound of an odd whistling noise. A concussive force rippled the fur of her right side and forced Hiccup's scaled hand against the course pelt to steady his balance. All six present turned.
A very thin and lanky wolf with piebald fur was panting heavily, his head near the ground. It was as though he'd stepped from nowhere and collapsed to his haunches.
"Dust Tail, you will speak to everyone present, quickly, and then you will get your tail back to the others and rest." Hyetal's voice gave a sense of calm and control while the heavy breath and darting eyes of the newcomer seemed to speak of panic. Her words were clipped and formal, forcing order on a strange and uncertain situation.
"They jumped! The shape that Talon Claw saw joined the original group, and they jumped between places! They've somehow invoked the Ice Paw with their wings!" The wolf took a deep breath. While his voice still shook with fatigue, he seemed slightly more composed. "They'll be here within half a day."
For a few moments, nothing could be heard but the low whistle of wind over the untraversed snow plains.
"What exactly is it you came here to tell us, Hyetal?"
Toothless was still eyeing the newcomer with suspicion. He had not sensed him in any way until he was already within striking distance, and his protective instincts were humming loudly in the back of his mind, distracting Ryshkaa slightly as her tail twitched and touched the boy's heel.
Without any further prompting, Hyetal inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and began in the same brief, and formal tone she'd used to command the newcomer.
"Early this night, our southernmost roamers spotted an enormous cloud of dragons, perhaps a thousand strong and none of them Shades. When they were sure that the swarm was not raiding any human settlements and seemed to have no other objective beyond swift travel to the ice lands, they began to howl word back to us. One of our fastest runners, Talon Claw, was sent to observe them for himself. He witnessed a large flying creature of some kind strike a scout of Home Cave down midair, rent from tailtip to nose. The bones of their chest were cut cleanly in two. Now, the Packs surrounding have sent Dust Tail to inform us that the swarm has used your Heart's Fire to jump closer than expected. The days of warning I sought to bring you have shrunk to hours."
Almost without thinking, Ryshkaa leapt to her paws and began pacing back and forth between the wolves and Toothless and Hiccup. As she did, the two subordinates on either side of Hyetal snarled low and fierce, but a looks from the corner of Hyetal's eyes silenced them. Hiccup had become oddly still and silent, his thoughts a shrouded, foggy mass. Toothless, on the other hand, had snapped from his protective frame of mind and was thinking with an efficiency born of knowing the life of a drone.
"Didn't you just say there were no Shades among the group? How could they... 'jump', without a Shade to draw Runes? For that matter, what could possibly produce enough of the Heart's Fire to send thousands of dragons across such distance? Perhaps Alda could, but... What about that shape? The thing that killed the scout?"
Upon hearing that Ryshkaa froze in place. Her eyes rose to meet Hyetal's for the first time. Luckily, the Alpha's legendary calm was unfailing. She did not respond to the challenge.
"This shape that tore a Shade open with such ease... where did it come from?"
"We took note of it not only for its - excuse me - absolutely flawless strike, but it was travelling south, away from Home Cave, when it rejoined the swarm."
"Alda." The name was spoken aloud by Hiccup, and the sudden, unexpected noise made the wolves present jump to their feet.
"Ryshkaa, what are we going to tell the Three? They won't take kindly to this." Toothless had not leapt at the sound of Hiccup's voice, but remained planted and wide eyed, staring at the white wolf standing beside him.
"We'd be lucky if they even believe it at all. Even if they do they'll try to ignore it. But we must warn everyone. There's only five hundred Shades in Home Cave at the most, and I'd only trust about fifty of them to fight for the good of the rest, aside from the Wings, of course."
"Ryshkaa." Hyetal's voice was deadly serious and calm to a degree that was frightening, each syllable as smooth and tranquil as her namesake. "You know that I want our two peoples to cooperate, but I will not risk the safety of the Packs to stand and fight against dire odds. We will remain hidden. Please, let us know if we can help in any way beyond combat. For now, go. It will take every precious minute you have to convince those three fossils." She turned her eyes on Hiccup. "If you ever find it in your power, I would love to speak with you two further. Please seek out my pack, for they will know your scent and sight, and will not be wary without cause."
The three wolves turned as one, running against the snow. Dust Tail rose a few seconds later and padded off at a much slower pace.
"Whatever that thing was that killed the scout, it has to be the same being that attacked Alda. And it has an enormous degree of power, if it was able to jump a group of a thousand such a distance." Hiccup spoke aloud while keeping his eyes fixed on the white landscape where the wolves had just seemed to step through a curtain of white.
Ryshkaa turned about and launched herself back toward the cliff. As she did, she released her hold on her mammalian body and allowed the fire within to consume her fur, replacing it with the armor of a Shade.
"Regardless, we need to prepare Home Cave - either to flee, or to fight."
As the two Shades dropped through the hole into the Atrium, Hiccup's mind hummed with the encounter he'd just witnessed. The Astral Wolves had been amazing; so different, and yet so similar to Shades. One of the most striking things was their size - a wolf on Berk would be considered big if its head passed above the waist of Gobber. Ryshkaa's species was enormous, particularly the Alpha, Hyetal. Hiccup's gaze was only level with the lowermost part of her chest!
While they marched from the Atrium up through the enormous space of Home Cave, Hiccup considered the fact that an invasion was coming and knew there were not nearly enough to fight against an invasion of a thousand. Perhaps Alda could've...
They were about halfway to the Three's vaunted ledges when Ryshkaa began to speak. Her voice was even and never rose above conversational volume, but Hiccup felt power ripple through his mind, disturbing his thoughts and making her words impossible to ignore.
"Shades of Home Cave. Come. Gather in this place and hear the tidings brought to us in words from the ice. Shades of Home Cave..." She continued to repeat those words, and almost immediately shapes began to appear in the darkness around them, following their progress as quiet voices began to whisper on the edge of Hiccup's hearing.
It was truly incredible to see. When Ryshkaa stopped at the top of the slope, in view of the Three, the floor around and much of the ceiling space was no longer visible past the immense body of Shades, hundreds around on the ground, and hundreds above gripping stalactites. The whispers were so numerous that they drowned thought with their droning vagueness. The scent of so many dragons in one place burned in Hiccup's nose.
With a deafening creaking, the Three on their ledges rose to their paws. The sound silenced every single dragon in the room.
"Why do you agitate our family, Skinwalker? We will not tolerate your presence further if you do not show us-"
"Respect?" The Three were not accustomed to being talked over. When Ryshkaa interrupted them, it was such a surprise that they were silenced, and now the Hall rang with the unsounding rashness of her disrespect. "You presume respect from me? From everyone here? Why is it that we should respect you, Vipertongue?"
The silence that had reigned now deepened into a black void. It seemed as though every single living thing in the cavern had ceased breathing.
Only one of the Three responded. "How dare you speak so to we that protect all present, we that..."
"You that sit by and let murder befoul the stone that we call home!"
It seemed to Hiccup that the second interruption was no more expected than the first. The old dragon that had spoken had a peculiar set to its jaw. It looked as though he were about to regurgitate his breakfast in agitation.
"The combined mental power of you Elders is certainly formidable. You were slowly becoming close to a match for Alda. As such it seemed perfectly reasonable to trust you with the mental difference of this place. Who better except Alda himself, though he was far too busy to simply sit and stare, as you do from your dusty shelves." The soft anger of Ryshkaa's tone was building, and now Hiccup could hear it echo with potent, righteous venom.
"Alda was the most powerful Shade of our time. He was great beyond the extent of any possible praise I could speak to his name! How then could it be that he was overcome and slaughtered in a way so sadistic, it makes the mind balk to even consider?" Here she released the image of Alda and drove it outwards in a powerful mental shout. Many of those present had not witnessed the horror within the cave and when the sight invaded their minds, most of the Shades present shuddered, filling the cave with the rustle of scales.
" Any living creature of such a mind and intent must not only be incredibly evil, but also powerful even beyond Alda himself." Her voice dropped to a hiss so full of anger and contempt, Hiccup shivered slightly despite not being its recipient.
"How is it that such a creature passed beyond the knowing of you, the most 'respected'..." the word was laced with a mocking tone that was scathing beyond anything Hiccup had heard before. "... protectors of Home Cave?"
Hiccup's eyes were released from Ryshkaa as he and ever other eye in the room turned with an audible rustle toward the Three. The old dragons seemed to have deflated slightly, their sagging skins mere tarps to blanket white bones. They were faced with an angry female Shade in a stance that suggested a challenge and the questioning eyes of every Shade of Home Cave as well.
"Hiccup." Toothless' quiet, private voice almost startled Hiccup into motion, but he managed to remain still. "Be prepared. If the Three attack Ryshkaa will need assistance to resist them." And as these words sank in, suddenly Hiccup felt the touch of Skuru against his mind, followed at once by Sycle and Kale. Sycle's Wing were joining their thoughts, bracing against the possibility of a mental assault. And as Hiccup's thoughts became a small part of a greater whole, a tiny amount of knowledge came into his head. Ryshkaa was the source.
The Wings are not only fighting groups. They are more important than soldiers and certainly more powerful. Alda's siblings only have their great strength because they are three experienced minds working in tandem. When many minds work as one, they become greater than the sum of each individual. If the Wings are of like mind, the Three do not control Home Cave.
"How do you expect us to account for an absence of knowledge? The fact that we were unaware suggests that this adversary was so powerful that we could not have resisted it anyway had we detected it."
Despite the fact that their words were in tandem, the syllable's seemed to tremble slightly.
"I contest that." A soft and resonant baritone rang through the minds of all present.
Whispering exploded through the Shade's gathered as approval after approval was spoken quietly to neighbors. Gallic was level headed and deadly in combat. He was respected. His voice held authority. "If it is as you say, an inspection of your thoughts should reflect that. I propose such an inspection be carried out by a neutral group from among the Wings. It will settle the matter." The whisperings and murmurings shifted to tones of ascension and agreement.
"Our mind is not for you younglings to rummage around in!" The voice was angry. And singular. As though one of the Three had broken ranks in their rage.
"You are dwellers of Home Cave like the rest of us. Alda was very clear - there is no ruler here. We are cooperative. All of our minds work together to decide on a course of action. You are not sovereign, any more than Ryshkaa will be if she turns out to be correct. We are equals."
Gallic's calm voice drove all indecisiveness from the many Shades behind him. Those that had feared the Three's rebuke now spoke out along with their neighbors, calling for an inspection. Gallic spoke again, and surprisingly, his voice meshed with that of Ryshkaa.
"Will you allow us entry?"
It was then that the attack came; the Three lashed out with anger and indignation in a whirling of emotion and focused power. The mental blow was formidable - had Ryshkaa stood alone, her mind might have been lost beyond repair, but as it was, with six minds holding firmly together deflected the mighty stroke, Ryshkaa only experiencing a slight discomfort to her thoughts.
The ripple of the attack reverberated outward through the crowd as Sycle's Wing made every single Shade of Home Cave aware of the Three's violence.
A new voice spoke. Like the Three's, this voice consisted of multiple other voices, but unlike the Three, this was far more than a trio. In it, Hiccup heard Gallic and Sycle, as well as eight other voices at least that radiated authority.
"We of the Wings have determined that you are unfit to guard Home Cave from any threat."
"Wait." For the second time, Ryshkaa interrupted. "Before you bestow a verdict for their crimes, I must give my tidings to Home Cave. I believe it will affect your decision."
The Wing leaders seemed far less offended by the interruption than the Three.
"There is no easy way to say this. An invasion is coming. The Queen has sent her minions numbering nigh on a thousand. That is the news that my first people passed to me today."
The many voices of Home Cave now exploded, talking over each other and yelling, in an extremely unordered fashion. Honestly, what was there for them to do? They could either run and try to find a new home, separate from the one they'd known for so long, or they could stand and fight for it, which would almost certainly end in their deaths. Hyetal had specifically said that she could not offer to fight alongside them. They were alone in this battle.
Hiccup's eyes widened.
He tried to speak, but his thoughts were lost in the tempest of voices around him. "Toothless! I need to speak to them!" Without hesitation, Toothless rose onto his hind paws, turning toward the shuffling crowd behind him, he let out a mighty bellow that buffeted those standing directly before him, and silenced the room. Giving Hiccup a chance to be heard.
"There is a third option beyond fight and flight! We might travel to my home island of Berk. The Vikings there also fight the Queen, though they are unaware of the full scope of their struggle. There we could plan an attack and strike the Nest while a large portion of their forces are here in the North!"
"And how do you propose we get there, human?! The enemy is coming north, so how do you propose to move south without being attacked?" The voice belonged to a Shade that Hiccup had not met before.
Ryshkaa responded now. "The Alpha told us that the entire invading group was shifted faster than flight using the Heart's Fire. I believe with help, I could accomplish this feat! We can pass them by with them none the wiser!" A smile was becoming audible in her voice. This plan appealed to her.
"I will act as the interpreter. Three options lay before us: Flight deeper into the North; fight to defend Home Cave,\; and attacking the Nest, starting on Hiccup's home island. Speak to me and inform me of your answer."
After speaking, Gallic lay down and closed his eyes as all the minds of Home Cave began to communicate with his own.
"Is it really possible for him to handle so many thoughts?" Hiccup's question was greeted with amused eyes by Ryshkaa.
"In the past, Gallic has acted as the mouthpiece and interpreter in disputes involving everyone. If anyone can determine everyone's will, he can. Why don't you go forth and give him your opinion? He took mine and those of the other Wings first directly from their leaders."
A small smile tugged at the corner of Hiccup's lip. He sat down on the floor, Toothless falling to his stomach beside him. As the young hybrid relaxed and leaned into his friend, he closed his eyes.
Immediately, familiar white speckled blackness surrounded him. Before he could adjust to the feeling of weightlessness, he was overwhelmed by a shocking cacophony of noise.
All around him, in what was normally nothing but empty space, sparkling lights of infinite colors flashed and flared, crackling over the surfaces and in between the gaps of hundreds of dark spheres hovering around him. Above they stretched up to an apex and below, all the way down to meet again, forming an enormous ball that he realized with a start that he and Toothless were part of. Looking off to his right, outlined against the glowing shapes behind him, his mate floated in all of his masculine beauty, starring in amazed wonderment at the sight before him.
Looking behind, their two spheres orbited each other in such close proximity they almost touched. Out and around, Hiccup spotted two more pairs that orbited in the same way; life partners; soulbound.
As these sights registered, Hiccup also spotted the Shades, numerous as the spheres and infinitely more difficult to see. They zipped in between the minds of their fellows, visiting, talking, and here and there, fighting. It was like Home Cave had been distilled down into its most basic form - no mountain, no ice shelf, no cave, only a closely knit community of hundreds sharing life and interacting, though at the moment most of the inhabitants feared for their lives.
"Where do you suppose..." But the boy never finished his thought; he'd spotted Gallic. Below them, in the very center of the enormous ball, a disc of pure white floated upon ethereal winds, a thick cloud of Shades circling it. Through gaps, Hiccup caught sight of a Shade lying comfortably on his stomach, paws before him and tail undulating slowly back and forth.
"We'd better get in line." Toothless' voice managed to pick up a smile despite their dire situation. Even now, as the entire body of Home Cave decided on their fate, Hiccup could not help but joyously marvel at the wonders of his new species.
More out of habit than necessity, Hiccup pulled himself over Toothless' shoulder and hunkered down into a flying position. As they descended, many a Shade passing doubled around and threw nonplussed looks at the scaled human.
"Quite popular, you are."
"Shut up." Hiccup made a point to make eye contact with each Shade that stared at him. Most jerked and veered away, but a select few stayed and gazed into the eyes of a newly born species. To these few Hiccup offered a smile. All were confused by the transformation of his face, but his warm feelings that he sent their way bridged the knowledge gap.
"Please come forward, you two... if the rest don't mind?" The tranquil voice echoed off the spheres all around, seeming magnified by the space. Instantly, a large opening appeared in the tight cloud of Shades, allowing Toothless to easily pass through the crowd and land on the white dais.
Before them, Gallic lay, his tail passing evenly behind him. His eyes were closed even here within the Mindspace. Hiccup thought it hard to hold the thoughts and opinions so as to form a judgement from them.
"Your level of concentration must be amazing."
A gurgling laugh.
"I merely have a natural affinity for this place. I much prefer it to reality. And my talents have only been honed as I offer this service for every major decision of Home Cave."
Toothless responded curiously. "How often are major decisions made?"
"Once every two decades or so. And in the past they didn't have quite as much input as this one does. Now, I called upon you two specifically because I'd like to know, as would everyone else I think: Do you actually believe that we can cooperate with the Vikings of Berk? Rumors have been circulating since you arrived that your people are primitive and violent, killing dragons for pure enjoyment and ingesting their flesh."
"I'm not sure where such rumors would originate, but that image of humans is a little embellished. Vikings kill dragons because if they didn't, they'd steal all their food. I know that they've been feeding their Queen with our crops and cattle, but they've no idea about her. They've never even stepped foot on the island where the Nest lies. My plan depends on me being able to convince them of the benefits of allying themselves with the Shades... or at the very least, demonstrating the severity of their fate should they refuse."
"And by that you refer to their destruction at the claws of the Queen?!" Gallic's voice was as emotional as Hiccup had yet heard it, loud and sharp.
"Of... of course."
"Good." The voice was once again quiet and even. "Toothless, do you believe your mate can accomplish this?"
When Toothless responded, his voice radiated smiling warmth. "I know he can."
With another gurgling chuckle, Gallic opened one eye to look at them.
"You're opinions have been considered. Thank you."
A thought suddenly struck Hiccup. "Gallic, will the Three's opinion be considered?"
Gallic's tail ceased it's motion for a heartbeat before continuing. "No. The Wing's have decided to bar them from this Pool. The leaders are confining them; if you wish to see, they're that way," The older Shade's tail swung and stopped to indicate a direction to the left and behind him, "but please do not distract the Wings. The Three are powerful and deserve caution."
"Thank you for speaking with us!" Hiccup climbed back onto Toothless' back and they leapt from the dais. Looking behind him, Hiccup saw a multitude of other Shades land to confer with Gallic.
It was a very short flight away, but the sight that met their eyes now was the very antithesis of the gathering behind them.
A trio of spheres rotated around each other at a rapid speed, far faster than their own minds did. At certain angles, the three spheres were actually in contact. Light sparked in great bolts across the surface, jumping between the connected minds and occasionally firing outward. Those lightning bolts of thought that tried to escape away from the Three were met with a ring composed of thirty or so other spheres. These others also were connected and linked by erratic rays of light, but they never touched. As bolt after bolt flew outward from the Three, they were inevitably slowed, pulled down toward the ring and redirected, flying harmlessly into emptiness.
Faintly, cries of anger could be heard, as well as a multitude of voices speaking in soft, slow unison. Hiccup could not make out what they said, but he was sure it was originating from the ring.
"Even if they're horrible and mean and negligent, this makes me sad."
"Such a fate is cruel for any creature, though they are more than deserving I think."
Hiccup sighed. "Let's go, Toothless. I'd like to spend what little time we have resting, and my head is starting to hurt."
"Still a greenhorn." Toothless chuckled as he bolted for one of the many speckled exits that stood in place of stars.
Gallic's collection of thoughts took nearly an hour. After opening his eyes to the Shade-scented cavern, Hiccup nestled down against Toothless, letting the warmth of his mate seep deep into his center, bolstering the furnace that had replaced his heart.
"You know Toothless, I never actually thought we'd return." Hiccup spoke with eyes closed and relaxed.
"Neither did I."
At that moment, Gallic's eyes snapped open and he rose to his paws as the rustlings of scale once again fell silent.
It was truly a sight to see. As the snow became lit by the glow of the Ancestors in the sky and a full moon beat down on the ice, a great black mass rose from the mountain. Hundreds of Moonlighters flying under the same sky; it was not a sight he'd witnessed in his own lifetime. Now, as the great mass swirled, a pang of sorrow resonated in the speckled wolf's heart.
How must it be to be driven from one's home, one's place of belonging. And not to know if you'd ever return. Do our prey experience this feeling of pain when we drive them from their dens? Take their family?
Dust Tail remembered the teachings: Prey could not exist without predators; the inverse was true. All was in balance and it was the way of the world.
He watched half of the great mass of black split away and veer Northward.
The hybrid and his mate were here for such a short time. I hope they survive. I think I'd like to run with them. It would be nice having new blood running in the Ice.
Suddenly, the remaining dragons turned southward. As Dust Tail watched in amazement, violet lightning leapt from the center of the group to strike each and every other dragon around its origin. The wolf blinked.
The light, and the Shades, were gone.
AN: Bet you all thought I was dead! I'm so sorry for the months of waiting but I'm about to graduate next month so life got a little crazy unexpectedly. With any luck 35 won't be so long coming. To all those who sent PMs during my absence, my sincerest thanks. Those messages were some of the best motivation for anything that I've ever received. The usual thanks to LEPShot for his amazing patience and ability to sit with me online for hours at a time writing and discussing, he has a very prominent hand in many scenes of this chapter. Once again thank you for reading and showing your support! You guys are the best! Peace!