Special thanks to LEPShot and others for sticking by me and helping me move forward.
It was a different feeling. Plummeting toward earth in aggression rather than as an act of freedom. It awoke a strange burning sensation in Hiccup's chest. It made him want to shout and scream, adding his voice to the single melody that sang from every Shade that plummeted with him.
Most particularly however, he felt Toothless' voice. It resonated beneath him and through the air, engulfing his being on every side. It was the same cry that had haunted the shores of Berk for decades, signaling the destruction of countless war machines and buildings. But now Hiccup was no longer a human, deaf and blind. He could hear his mate's voice in its entirety. Tiny nuances of pitch that signaled not only Toothless' intention to kill, but his challenge to all who listened. Any dragon that opposed him would be cut down in the name of his Mate, without mercy and without concern. He could see the powerful outline of his head and ear plates glowing dimly beneath, highlighted by ethereal light.
Hiccup felt his heartbeat slow to synchronize with the steady pulse beneath him. He drew in a deep breath and with it, there was a pulling sensation in his neck above his shoulders, as he joined Toothless in his challenge.
Astrid's eye's combed the sky, searching for the source of the strange sound. A lower pitched cry that cut through the high pitched noise of the shrieking dragons. It was enough to snap Astrid out of her resigned state clinging to the Night Fury's back and let her cast her gaze across all the dragons around her.
When she picked out the source, her heart missed several beats.
Below them, past her own dragon she caught sight of an odd shape in the night. Its outline seemed to be that of a Night Fury, but there was a strange lump protruding from its back. Against a night sky with a sliver of a moon that had yet to rise, it was impossible to make out entirely, but there was very clearly something clinging to the back of that Night Fury. For twenty seconds, she counted her own breaths, her chest suddenly feeling tight.
"It couldn't be..." The words were snatched away by the wind and screaming as though they had never been spoken.
As she tried to dismiss the crazy notion from her mind, the shrieking of dragon's suddenly cut off and was replaced by a rush of wind the like of which Astrid had never heard.
Balls of indigo flame flashed past her vision as every Fury in the group released its charged shot. And the stars truly began falling from the sky. Hundreds of blue lights sped away towards earth, lighting the dragons as they passed, giving Astrid a terrifying look at the silhouettes of the devils that flew around her, each one intent on their goal.
The first explosion gave Astrid time to center her focus on the ground below, where the swarm of assorted dragons that had kept the Vikings of Berk contained in a single cave for weeks upon weeks was trying to rise from their places on the ground. About a third of the group was airborne, the others in the process of crouching and leaping to the sky.
The first explosion seemed to have hit a Gronckle. Astrid spotted it falling directly toward the ground, seemingly unconscious. She didn't have any more time for observations after that. The large group of fireballs began to strike in quick succession, one after the other, until the entirety of the land below her was obscured in an enormous glowing cloud of smoke and the flashes of further explosions. Before she even got a chance to figure out if the fire cloud was actually having any effect on the dragon swarm beneath, the Fury she was riding suddenly lifted out of his dive, flattening her against his back.
Without leveling off, the dragon banked, forcing Astrid to cling for her life. She realized then that they were a lot closer to the ground than she'd thought. A plume of choking smoke rose into the sky as the dragon let himself fall to the side, effectively protecting her from the scalding cloud.
After a few more seconds of desperate gripping, the Night Fury leveled out and began a much wider turn, away from the forest below to circle the column of choking smog now rising into the air behind them.
Astrid was now treated to an immense panoramic view of the destruction she'd come so close to plummeting directly into. The cloud of smoke was billowing upwards far faster than she'd ever seen smoke rise before. At the base of the black pillar, an inferno was building. The glow was dark and muted at first, but as more and more explosions rocked the air around them, the blaze began to burn brighter and brighter. Soon the entire area that the village used to occupy was glowing with light akin to hellfire. The sky was lit too, the images of Night Fury's darting in and out of the cloud flickering through the night.
Wind wrestled with her hair as her dragon coasted over the ocean, obscuring her vision briefly as the sounds of destruction became muted. The dull thud of a fireball could be felt moments after Astrid watched it tear chunks of dirt from the ground or rip the limb off some unfortunate reptile, and each impact sent a gentle wave of blue-white light outwards.
Watching from the back of her mount, the Viking simply stared on, feeling the cool pulses of air that accompanied each shockwave and locking on to each creature she saw for a moment. As the scene progressed and each blast took away more of her home, Astrid's grip loosened, her palms flattened on the hot scale beneath her, and her shoulders fell. She watched the destruction serenely, feeling nothing but the air against her face and the whistle of the wind.
She closed her eyes.
A slender boy stood atop the Chief's home exactly as he had been that night; the tranquil, almost innocent look on his face was implacable, as if the flames were beautiful to him. Behind him, a shadow became a dragon, and their eyes flashed green before they took to the sky.
Astrid could almost pretend that she heard the descending screech of the blast that destroyed the two-story house. If there had been a boy standing there, he didn't exist anymore.
Opening her eyes, Astrid gazed upon the destruction before her now. The fire that tore and rent hide and Earth was on an entirely different scale than the fire she'd worked to survive, that Hiccup had only observed. That image still burned brightly in her mind; Hiccup looking down from that roof, as though he'd risen above the chaos and now stood immune to harm.
As if from the bottom of a well, a male voice could be heard crying out. Astrid's brow creased as she scanned the ground for the human, but between the smog and glare, it was futile. A second cry rang out, louder than the first as the electric fire spread further and faster, hungry to devour the entirety of the island, and it seemed as though the less of the earth Astrid could see, the more cries of distress she heard.
For the second time that night, the Viking found herself floating in a white sea. The wind had left her, the stars had coalesced into one, and she could not remember when she had gotten here or what had come before. All she felt was the cold grip of fear in her gut.
A wordless scream of anger sounded out behind and above her, and instinctively she rolled to the side. A cleaver embedded itself in the wood she had been standing on moments before, but she had little time for any thought other than survival.
Regaining her stance, she pumped her legs as hard as she could ever remember doing, dodging and weaving between legs and carts. It seemed like half the creatures she passed were terrified of her, and other half wanted her dead. Knives, stones, seemingly everything was thrown at her, but if anything hit her, she didn't feel it.
Her aimless turns and detours lead her into a wooden shack, and before she could turn back through the door, it was slammed shut. Between her and it stood a bipedal creature brandishing its teeth and a blade at her.
Her wings and back flattened against a wall as the creature advanced, and without thought, Astrid ignited the gases in her throat. The walls and floor of the hut quickly submitted to the flames, as did the garments the creature wore. Watching the small building become an ember from the inside out, Astrid listened to the agonizing wails of the creature. It dropped to its knees, clutching its arms to its chest and screaming. The man's cries echoed in her ears until the wooden structure collapsed around them.
In a matter of seconds, her world went from fire to shadow. The smoldering wood was cool on her scales, and naught but a beam of sunlight gave her any clues as to which way was up.
Breaking through her prison walls, her claws opened enough of the sky to her to let her crawl atop the ruin. On a mound of black soot, she watched the entire village watch her, waiting for her to move before attacking or fleeing.
When her screech threatened to make the ears of all gathered bleed, and her flames began eating away at what they once called home, they fled.
"Stars above." Hiccup's words held an extremely strange tone. It sounded like his Mate could not decide between joy, worry, and raw excitement.
"What is it?"
Hiccup was staring back toward a Shade flying behind them. Immediately Toothless tried to reach out and ascertain the odd dragon's identity, he found a powerful defense pushing against him. And through his eyes, Toothless saw a strange deformity rising from the newcomers back.
"Something I never thought I would see in my life."
"Hiccup, Toothless? Is that another human on a Shade's back?"
By the time she tumbled onto the ground, the moon had begun to rise in the east. But here beneath the trees of the forest there was only pitch blackness. Astrid lay for a moment, breathing deeply and trying to collect her thoughts.
While they'd been in the air, Astrid had not known at all what to think. The Night Fury's shape was certainly strange, but who knew what sort of things happened to a Night Fury during the course of its life? Before tonight she'd only ever witnessed two, and aside from the past months, she'd only ever heard tell of one. Perhaps it was just a deformity? Or a natural stage of growth?
But these thoughts, hopes even, had been dashed when she saw where the strange shape was landing. That along with the entirely baffling circumstances of the night had her convinced of what, no, who she followed.
Tonight, madness ruled the sky. Dark shapes dipped and swirled, blotting out great swaths of the stars, visible to her one moment and gone the next, always flying in groups. For years she'd caught tiny glimpses of a single demon flying above Berk, and now the pitch sky had torn itself into hundreds.
Astrid picked a few stray twigs and leaves from her hair. She straightened her weapons in their sheathes, and sucked in a deep breath. Beside her, warmth alerted her to the presence of her ally. Almost automatically, her left hand rose to rest on the leathery wing that was almost near enough to touch her.
A tiny whistle in her ear reminded her quite suddenly that the Terror had been clinging to her ever since she'd leapt onto the dragon's back. Now that she was paying attention, she found that its fearful shaking was slightly rocking her shoulder. Without consideration, she lifted a hand and began to stroke along the reptile's eye ridge and down across its rough flank.
Slowly, the dragon calmed and began to thrum against her hand. When the dragon had relaxed entirely, it settled down with its head resting against Astrid's neck, still humming.
That dragon trusts you entirely, you know.
The voice was entirely unexpected and she nearly pulled a blade.
"What the hell do you want?" The voice had rattled Astrid a bit, given that she believed Hiccup to be close by. "You haven't been annoying me recently."
I didn't see any need to. I suspect you won't be hearing from me much longer.
"What? What's gotten into you?"
It's just this weird feeling I've got, like things are about to change. You'll probably ignore me as usual but just don't freak out if I disappear or anything. I'd hate to be the cause of you losing even more of your mind.
"You are making even less sense than normal you little twerp. I've been subtly insane for a month or two already. Why should I stop hearing you?"
As I said, I've no idea. It's just a feeling. Now are you going to get down there and find out what's been going on all this time or what?
Astrid sucked a deep breath past her teeth, letting it fill her to the very bottom of her lungs until she couldn't hold any more. As she blew it out, she relaxed each muscle from her legs, up into her torso and along her arms. When she was done, she stretched her arms toward the sky and felt several satisfying pops as her muscles and joints shifted and loosened. Flexing her fingers, she checked on each of her weapons. All were present.
"Alright big guy, feel like giving me a lift down there?"
Silence was the order of the hour within Berk's Mead Hall. Each and every Viking stood, crouched, or lay rigidly and without motion. Most were hardly daring to breath. Stoick's only move had been to wrestle his way to his feet. Now he propped up his weight on a spear that someone had graciously leaned against his bench. For the past hour, the light around the door had faded from a bright white brilliance, to a muted orange glow, and now there was no light to be seen.
Still nobody moved.
The terror that such a loud vocalization from a Night Fury had caused had seen to it that nobody would venture near to the door.
With a grunt of annoyance, Stoick started forward at an even, steady pace. He used the spear to keep his frame straight and erect and his stride did not falter for it. As he approached the door, titters and nervous cries rang out behind him.
Stoick felt a scowl distort his face, stretching the scar tissue that had formed over his burns. Berk seemed to have forgotten themselves, locked away in this stone box. They now were cowed at the thought of opening their cage. The dragons probably knew this. But whatever had happened outside was not explainable by any of their knowledge of dragons.
Investigation was necessary. Or they could sit and wait to die.
When he was still a little way from the door, Stoick planted his feet in a wide stance, still leaning on his makeshift crutch.
"Hallr. Spitelout." The light shuffle of moving feet and the clunk of a prosthetic told Stoick that at least some of his villagers were still gutsy enough to approach a door. "You two are going to open this door and I will look to see what there is to be seen. At the slightest off noise or speech from me, you will slam and bar it. Understood?" The two Vikings nodded. "Douse the lights!"
Slowly, the flickering of torchlight behind Stoick was extinguished, one flame at a time as nervous Vikings blew out candles and patted out torches. After a few moments, there was complete blackness.
Stoick breathed deeply, leaving time for his eyes to acclimatize. The silence had grown even heavier with the loss of light. Not a breath could be heard behind, as though every one of his fellow villagers were holding their breath. When Stoick could just make out the outlines of the two large Viking's on either side of the door, he parted his lips painfully to murmur.
The doors creaked as they opened, making far more noise than Stoick had hoped for. Before his eyes, a line of dull orange light cleaved through the darkness. Slowly it expanded until Stoick stood framed by a column of orange light.
Before him, visible through the doorway, a large crater had been carved from the mountain side, about a hundred yards from where he stood. Within this bowl of earth, harsh fiery light glowed and sputtered. Though no flames were visible, a column of choking smoke billowed into a night sky that was entirely invisible behind a screen of glowing haze, as the light from below lit both the column and smoke, filling the sky above. Not a single thing moved within his field of view.
"Gods above." Stoick felt as though all the blood were being drained from his body. His fingers went cold and numb, and had he not been supporting himself with the spear shaft, he surely would have dropped to one knee. "Spitelout, Hallr." With twin grunts, the two men yanked the doors back into a closed position. "Bar it, there's too much smoke out there to see clearly. We'll wait for it to dissipate."
"What did you see Stoick?"
"What was the light?"
"Did you see any Night Furies?!"
Stoick turned himself and faced the assembled Vikings. Candles were now being relit and many haggard, despairing faces looked back at him.
"I cannot say anything for certain, but something terrible happened out there."
The fall was abrupt, and with only the starlight to see by, Astrid had not been expecting it. When the dragon she sat perched on hit the ground, she felt her teeth rattle painfully in her skull as she just barely managed to hold on. From where they had landed, she could just make out the water of the lake some distance away, reflecting the night sky dimly. Above her, the silhouettes of trees rose to encircle them against the slightly lighter darkness.
Very carefully, she slid from the dragon's back hoping to make as little sound as possible. She scanned the ground in front of her trying desperately to catch an outline or shadow, something to tell her where the other dragon was.
The tension in her body was a response to the strange atmosphere. The air that she breathed was unnaturally still and the temperature seemed to have risen moderately. When she'd been in the sky, the coming winter had been entirely tangible, but now everything was temperate, more like a cool night in spring. A tremor rushed up her spine and she turned to peer into the darkness behind her. She felt eyes upon her, but the darkness hid them from her sight.
At her side, her drake grumbled softly. His head slowly panned the walls of the cove, rising to scan the trees above, and every few seconds he gave another rumble. She placed her palm flat against his wing, the warm scales giving her some small modicum of security, but the darkness of the night was all around her.
Still her gaze roved the land, but her eyes simply couldn't pierce the black veil. She was entirely at the mercy of the hidden dragon and her companion, and as that thought circled her head, her breathing accelerated. Her heart pounded against her ribs as her fingers drummed a beat against her dagger.
Leaning her back against the Night Fury, she kept her head facing straight ahead as she turned her attention to the sounds around her. Crickets chirped, the odd owl hooed, but not so much as a twig snapped to give her a clue as to where her unseen watcher lay. It seemed as though the night was slowly crawling towards her, filling her sight and mind with its encompassing blackness.
Behind her, the drake rumbled more forcefully than before. He craned his head to stare down at the shieldmaiden, the dim glow of his cobalt eyes seemingly the only source of light left in the world. She stared back at him, waiting for him to let her know he had the situation under control. He did not.
"What?" The Fury stared on, unblinking and unflinching as if she hadn't spoken at all. Her eyes darted between his, trying to find something in them to calm herself down, but the twin blue lamps may as well have been carved from stone. "What?! Why are you staring at me?"
Silence reigned over the cove. As Astrid's heartbeat began to reach a dangerous tempo, her hand instinctively drew a blade from its sheath. The steel had never let her down when she was vulnerable, but she had always fought corporeal enemies before.
As the look in her eyes began growing wild, the darkness spoke.
"Do you really think that's a good idea?"
Astrid's entire body locked in place. Each joint froze and her labored breathing ceased. The voice was familiar. She'd been listening to a pale imitation of it for weeks, but it was also entirely different from what she remembered and expected.
For years she'd listened to Hiccup in all of his quavering youthful awkwardness, unsure and hardly ever getting complete sentences out. She remembered the scrawny frame of the boy that Hiccup had once been, and the way that he'd followed her around with puppy-like worship in his eyes. Then later, the biting sarcasm that had been his defense against the greater physical power of his peers. Wit had always been Hiccup's greatest ally. It was the only way that he stood against the other teenagers.
The voice that spoke now was so different from what she knew, that the remembered face that she'd matched with it suddenly started to fade. This voice was all wrong for the weak little boy she remembered.
Hiccup's voice had smoothed out. The high pitched quavering was gone, replaced instead by a steady baritone sound that was even, calm, and above all other things assured. The Hiccup that spoke to her from the darkness had confidence; the one thing that the boy of her memories had never had. He sounded as though he spoke from a place of power.
"Before I left, Astrid, I said a lot of things that were unfair."
The voice had lowered in pitch, and now Astrid thought that she could just barely make out a shape some ways in front of her. She'd originally taken it to be one of the large boulders that she knew were scattered around the area, but now she thought that she could see ever so slight movement.
"I accused you and all the Vikings of meaningless slaughter, killing without reason, but I realize now how very stupid that is. It just took travelling a great distance to figure it out. But now I've come back to find that you've learned your own lessons while I was gone."
Aside from being almost entirely unfamiliar, Astrid found that Hiccup's voice was also incredibly expressive. In the darkness she watched the boy in her memories change expressions as he spoke. His brow which had been knit with regret, smoothed out and he broke into a smile. In combination with the absolute darkness before her, the images in her head were becoming unsettling.
Slowly, Astrid slid the blade she'd drawn back into its sheath.
"And what exactly do you mean by that? Can you see something I can't, because right now it's damned dark." Despite her extreme unease, Astrid was proud that she managed to work some flint into her own voice. As long as Hiccup couldn't see her knees vibrating ever so slightly, her voice would make a match against his new, bewildering tones.
"Well, I'm referring to the Terrible Terror clinging to your shoulder, snuggling into your neck. You have also just followed us, and leapt down here astride the terrifying Night Fury. If I didn't know better, I'd say that you were imitating me."
There was a light and bubbly tone in the voice now, as though it were about to break down into a fit of giggles. Astrid's fists balled and squeezed. She could feel heat as blood rushed into her face. So Hiccup could see her clearly through the night and from such a distance? Or was it a dragon impersonating Hiccup? That would explain the difference of voice, but she knew that she had followed a Night Fury. There were only a few dragons in the manual that were known to mimic sounds. Surely the black dragons wouldn't have this in their arsenal in addition to their other powers?
"You're biting your lip." The smooth voice now sounded concerned, confused even. "What's wrong? You're blushing too, why...? Oh!" There was a strange smacking sound. "You can't see, can you?"
Astrid gritted her teeth. "Not a damn thing."
Around her, gurgling began. The dragon beside her started with the odd noise, followed by the dragon that stood near Hiccup. And on top of all of that, loud sonorous human sounding laughter from what she could only assume was Hiccup. All these weeks and the voice in her head had been correct. The dragons really were laughing at her.
The blush remained firmly on her cheeks, but now Astrid drew herself up to full height and crossed her arms, glaring intently in the direction of the laughter.
"I... I'm so sorry Astrid! I didn't even think..." Hiccup seemed to be having difficulty suppressing his mirth. "Tutore! How discourteous of us. Come, let's give Astrid some light to see by." The gurgling at her side subsided and she heard the Night Fury take a few steps forward. "Astrid, you should close your eyes." She raised an eyebrow. "Come now, if we wanted to kill you we'd have done it by now. The light is going to be very hard on your eyes at first. I don't want you blinded."
For a moment Astrid considered, but Hiccup's logic seemed sound. If harm was their intent, they were certainly taking their time. Astrid pressed her face into the crook of her arm. There was a slight high pitched whine, very quiet but still identifiable as the sound that was normally made when a Night Fury charged its shot. Astrid almost looked, but before she could there was a quiet thud and a tremor passed through the ground beneath her feet.
A dull orange glow seeped past her eyelids, indicating a very bright light beyond her arm.
"Now take it slow, it's very bright. Also, don't start screaming or anything silly like that." The inflection in his voice worried her. He seemed to fully expect screaming.
Slowly, Astrid peeled her arm away from her eyes. The orange glow was now brilliant, pressing against her eyelids like the sun would. With her arm still very close to her face, she cracked her eyes open ever so slightly.
The light was indeed painful, but she acclimatized quickly enough. After a few seconds she could clearly see the texture of her arm. She opened her eyes wider, moving her arm farther away at the same time. Now she could make out the flickering shape of a fire on the ground before her, obviously set by the dragon beside her.
Tutore, Hiccup had said. Was that the dragon's name? Had Hiccup just given it a name on meeting it, like he had his own? Toothless, he'd called it. Why did her dragon get a name that actually sounded like a name?
She dropped her arm now. Her eyes could open halfway now, and she stared at the loamy earth beside the fire, allowing her vision to acclimatize further.
Despite the fact that his laughter had finally stopped, Astrid could still hear an undeniable grin on Hiccup's face. And that was absolutely infuriating.
Who the hell did he think he was? For the past month she had survived a gauntlet of living in the wild amongst hostile wild dragons. She'd been battered, bruised, knocked out, and now the three only other humans she'd had contact with in that time probably considered her a traitor just like the vile boy that stood grinning at her now.
Astrid's eyes opened wide to glare at Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third.
She did not find him.
For a number of very long minutes, Astrid did nothing other than stare. Across the freshly created fire, three shapes were evident. Two Night Furies sat glaring at her, with burning green eyes and slits for pupils. The reflected fire did nothing to warm the icy mistrust in those eyes. The one on the left, Astrid easily identified as 'Toothless' by the thin line of greyish scales that ran vertically on either side of his eye. He betrayed his name by displaying two full sets of sharply pointed teeth.
Beside Toothless was another Night Fury, slightly smaller in stature and smoother of angles. The lines that formed its body were soft and sloping. If Astrid had to make a guess she'd bet money on it being female. Perhaps Hiccup was breeding dragons now.
The horror of that thought was immediately erased as her eyes found the smaller figure standing on two legs in front of the two dragons.
The being that stood before Astrid looked human at first glance. It had two legs that it stood on and a pair of arms crossed across its chest. It even had a messy patch of hair that she knew to belong to Hiccup, slightly longer and unkempt, but most definitely that of Hiccup. That was where the similarities ended.
The... man? It was shaped like a man. The man that stood before her was lean but well-muscled. The arms in their relaxed position across the chest still looked powerful, despite not being nearly as large as most of the men on Berk. The chest was bare beneath the arms and a pair of leggings made from some sort of black leather descended down from just below the waistline to the ankles.
The entirety of the man's body was covered in smooth scales of varying sizes, the texture mimicking the three dragons that stood in the cove, reflecting the firelight with a dull, matte sheen. The fingers and tips of the toes ended in sharp, shimmering protrusions that replaced nails. They almost looked like claws.
Astrid's gaze now worked its way back up the man's body, passing over a pair of tightly fit, strangely smooth, black leather breeches, and taking in a defined abdomen that spoke of long days of exertion. When she reached the throat, she stopped, focusing on the very human-looking tendons beneath the rough scales, not wanting to venture above. The face had been so strange that she'd jumped past it on her first inspection. Now she lifted her eyes and stared intently, determined to learn the face that matched the voice that was so very not like Hiccup's, and yet she knew could only belong to him.
The eyes were the single most dominating feature. They had grown wider than those of a human, not by much, but enough to be noticeable, and noticeable enough to make her shudder. The irises were an iridescent green, slightly darker than the dragons that stood behind him, and so large that they were the only things visible within the eye socket, aside from two small pieces of black in the corners where a human would have whites. In the center of these enormous irises were two pupils that were slit vertically and very thin in the glare of the fire.
Between these two large eyes where a human's nose should stick outward, a long flat slope of scale ran from forehead to just above a black glossy lip. The only nose Astrid could remember looking similar belonged to a Viking she'd known as a young girl, whose nose had been bitten clean off in combat. He used to amuse himself by making faces at the children and watching them run in terror. A single errant thought wormed its way into her mind. It doesn't look quite so bad like that.
The final strange piece of this alien face were the ears. Two enormous, pointed shards of scale that rose from either side of Hiccup's head. It was very clear that they were almost exactly the same as those of the dragons behind him. They were oddly, hypnotically mobile. They seemed to twist and twitch a few times each second in different directions, intent on catching every sound.
Astrid came back to rest on the eyes that did not belong in a human head. When he met her gaze, the black lips split and widened into a grin, showing off twin rows of sharpened teeth.
"So. Not exactly what you're used to. Just remember what I said about screaming. I don't want anybody thinking I'm murdering you or something."
As a cool evening breeze blew down through the cove, Astrid became aware that her mouth was hanging slightly open. She could not close it. She could not move. She was frozen helpless, staring at what had once been a human boy of sixteen years, probably seventeen by now.
In fact, both dragons were also frozen and still, waiting for Astrid's reaction. Hiccup however, stood with his weight resting on one leg, arms crossed loosely, and while no longer openly grinning, a smile was clear in the corner of his lip and was evident in the lines around his eyes.
"What is this?"
Each dragon present flinched at the suddenly broken silence. Astrid's voice sounded hollow, as though she were extremely tired, but her glare was intense and centered only on Hiccup. A tide of memories swept over her. Hiccup as he'd once been, fawning and admiring, only ever speaking to her in nervous, broken pieces of speech. Hiccup triumphing in training and earning the admiration of the others. Hiccup sullen and annoyed that Astrid was following him, a complete mirror change from how he'd behaved before he had met a Night Fury.
"What could have possibly happened that resulted in... this?" The last word had a peculiar emphasis, as though Astrid had almost choked. "When I last saw you, you were angry. Frustrated. With me, with Berk! You hated me!" The strange knot that had formed in Astrid's throat prevented her from speaking any louder than a whisper. The thing standing before her did not change his stance. He stood there and radiated content, as though Astrid's words were wind sliding past him. Astrid squeezed her hands into fists, feeling the joints pop.
"So what? All of that's just fine now?! You think you can just take that all back now that you've change into some... dragon... hybrid freak?! You killed your own cousin!"
Despite all of the horrifying changes that she saw in Hiccup's body, she could still read his posture. Shoulders relaxed and weight shifted, in no way ready for action. His gaze was tranquil, and while his smile had disappeared when she began to speak, his only reaction to her words was a raised, scaly eyebrow.
"What happened to all the anger?! What happened to the pain?! What have they done to you?!" Astrid felt moisture welling in her eyes. Her fists clenched hard. Why was she on the brink of tears of all things?!
The tug at the corner of Hiccup's mouth resolved into a warm, friendly smile.
"I don't expect you to forgive me Astrid. Not right away at least. And I don't expect Berk to forgive me ever. What I thought and what I felt in the past was largely a result of ignorance and inexperience. My actions likewise." Hiccup raised his strange, scaled hand to eye level and turned it, seeming to study its shape. "The blood of Snotlout is certainly on my hands, and I will meet with his parents if I can, to apologize. But I do not regret my actions, as I'm sure you do not regret the many lives you've taken in battle to protect your own family."
Suddenly Hiccup's strange gaze snapped up, and Astrid found herself staring into a Night Fury's eyes.
"What happened to me Astrid, what was 'done to me', is very simple. I found my home. And my family."
He let his hand fall and held both up and out to either side, seeming to gesture widely at the entire clearing. There was a sudden rustling all around. Astrid just barely managed to keep her hand from wrenching her knife from its resting place again. When she turned to look, the floor of the cove had been transformed. Dark shapes moved and writhed through the shadows, just on the outside of the fire's light. Green flashes glinted at her from the darkness.
When she turned back toward Hiccup, three more black dragons had materialized, seemingly from nowhere to stand atop the boulder that stood behind the three on the ground. Toothless stepped forward and wrapped his tail around Hiccup's waist.
"As for why I look like this, that is a much longer, harder explanation that we should probably handle later. For now, I would like to ask you a question if you'll allow me." It took a few seconds before Astrid realized that Hiccup had stopped because he was actually waiting for an answer.
"What?" The short clipped word was all she could manage. She was suddenly aware of how dry her mouth was.
"Has Tutore ever harmed you?"
"Tutore?" The question was dull and quiet, as though Astrid were speaking from very far away. In response, Hiccup looked at the drake standing beside her, and her eyes followed his. Her Night Fury was looking down upon her again, but instead of the stony gaze from earlier, his eyes were bright with... recognition? The girl watched the dragon for several moments, and a silent understanding passed between them before she turned back to Hiccup. "No, he hasn't."
"And the Terror? Has he ever so much as growled at you?"
Hiccup now let his outstretched arms drop. He shifted his weight and stepped forward, gracefully moving across the earth and around the fire without so much as making the gravel shift. He crouched down before Astrid, staring up into her eyes that had slowly slipped down to the ground.
"I'm sorry for the way that we parted, and I'm sorry for how I acted. It's clear to me that you've been spending some time considering new points of view and I'm... I'm proud of you for it."
Astrid's lip twitched.
"I mean... that is... Oh hells, I'm just proud, okay?"
And with this awkward sentence, the reality of her position came crashing down.
This was Hiccup. Extremely different... horribly, disgustingly reptilian, but it was still him. Her eyes focused. She sucked in a deep breath and wiped away the tiny flecks of moisture that had grown in the corners of her eyes.
"I don't know what you've done, and I don't what you've done to yourself, but you are going to tell me every last detail of what happened, and what is happening."
Hiccup's smile returned and widened out, displaying his disturbingly pointed teeth. Then it abruptly disappeared again.
"I'd be happy to Astrid, but first, I have to go deal with the Vikings."
An icy shock ran through Astrid. It may be the same Hiccup, but he was still undeniably altered. The inhabitants of Berk were 'the Vikings' to him. He stood with his new 'family' now. What did he mean by 'deal with'? Was he going to slaughter them all? Surely he had more regard for life than that?
And who did she stand with now? She'd spent the last few weeks in the company of one of the same dragons. And the Terror had been with her even longer. Was she going to start changing as Hiccup had? She balked at the thought.
Hiccup stood and looked away from her, toward her Night Fury, and to Astrid's confusion, the dragon nodded at Hiccup. The 'boy' stepped back toward the fire, and her Fury followed him. On its own, her hand reached out to touch the dragon's wing as he stalked past. Was Hiccup stealing her ally?
No, when they reached the fire, they both stopped and Hiccup turned to face the dragon. Tutore raised a paw and set it against Hiccup's stomach. There was a brilliant flash of blue light. Then the dragon stepped away and returned to Astrid's side. On Hiccup's abdomen a symbol shimmered and flashed like blue fire. It was full of odd curls and angles, so many in fact that she found it hard to trace a line through the design.
"What are you...?"
Hiccup now turned and strode back around the fire to the five Night Furies standing on the other side. He leaned down beside one of the dragons and drew forth a large cloak of some white fur that looked rather warm and tossed it about his shoulders. Thus garbed, he turned his head to face back toward Astrid, while Toothless rested the large flat of his head against the strange design on Hiccup's stomach.
"Between you and me, I think it'd be a very bad idea to show up on Berk's front door looking like I do. They'd all try to kill me on the spot." And before her eyes, Hiccup was engulfed in blue fire. His outline was still just visible, but it flickered and wavered in the inferno that was far brighter than the normal flame on the ground.
Astrid would have cried out, but the strange things she'd seen tonight were enough to make her reserve any sort of reaction for when she saw the results of what occurred before her. Slowly, the fire began to die down. She could now see Hiccup's outline far more clearly, though now her eyes were trying to acclimatize after the onslaught of unexpected light.
What she was greeted with when her eyes did acclimatize was enough to make her jaw fall open again.
There stood Hiccup, still very clearly more developed in muscle and stature, clad in black leather and white fur as he had been, with no trace of fire damage to either. White skin as pale as a newborn child's lay beneath and a flat-toothed human smile radiantly shone from an entirely human-looking face complete with freckles and a scar over his left eye.
There was more activity in the hall at this moment than there had been in the past few weeks combined. In every corner, Vikings were digging weapons from their resting places, and tables and benches were being shifted to form defenses near the door. When they opened it a second time, they'd be ready to repulse whatever they found, or venture forth from their hiding if they were not challenged.
Stoick sat on a table in the center of the commotion, doling out orders where needed, offering encouragement where he could. His long days of being bedridden were behind him. No one would be able to say that Stoick the Vast lay and waited for death to find him!
"A few more tables on the first barricade, you've stacked them too heavy in the back. Spitelout! Hallr! Stand ready near the doors, we're almost set." With a grunt Stoick lifted himself from his seat to stand straight and proud with spear firmly planted. It was becoming easier to walk and move with his improvised crutch. Eventually, he hoped that all of his strength would return, but he knew that the stagnant air in the cavern was not helping at all.
Slowly, movements began to cease and grumbling voices quieted. The hall slowly became still. Spear in hand, Stoick walked, perhaps a little slowly, but at a far more natural pace than previously toward the enormous doors. Spitelout and Hallr stood ready on either side.
"Hallr, take a peek through the crack when your eyes adjust. Douse the lights!"
Rapidly, the hall fell into total darkness. This time however, the silence was not heavy with terror, but charged with excitement. After months of inactivity, Berk was ready to do. They were going to finally figure out what was happening on the outside.
"Lookin now!" Hallr's whisper was charged with the same excitement that suffused the room. "I can see a wee of somethin'. Looks like tha fire's calmed down a bit. Can't even see too many flames. Tha smoke's gone too. There's jus' tha fireglow across the ground and tha sea in tha distance."
"No sign of any dragons?"
"Not a scale, chief."
"Alright, everyone with a sword or mace with me here in front. If they've laid a trap, we'll have to beat them back so that Spitelout and Hallr can get the doors shut." There were grunts of general assent all around. "Spitelout, Hallr, split em wide."
The hinges had been lubricated with lamp oil, and now the doors swung outward with ghostly silence. Dull firelight fell across the interior of the hall, illuminating tense, gaunt faces on all sides. Fresh winter air rushed inwards, pushing against the foul, stagnant air within. There were a few gasps as Vikings discovered exactly how horrible the air they were breathing was.
Stoic began to march forward, planting his spear and releasing it as he went. His fellow villagers moved as quietly as possible with him. The few that were assigned to be the advanced lookouts darted forward to the doors, staring upwards and out to check for dragons clinging to the rock face around the door.
"All clear around the door!" The whisper was full of relief and the hope of finally leaving the hall entirely.
"Lookouts, eyes on the sky and mountain behind us. Everyone else keep 'em peeled for movement ahead and near the forest." For a few tense minutes, there was nothing but the slow, almost synchronous steps as the inhabitants slowly made their way out of cover.
Stoick let his eyes rove over what had once been home. The only remains of the village were large, disturbed piles of ashes and a few surviving pieces of timber where houses had once stood. What had once been a vibrant Vikings settlement was now less than ruins. Left as they were, the weather would wipe away these traces in weeks, and the island would be barren. Stoick felt a tear welling in the corner of his eye, but he didn't have time to dwell on the wreckage just yet; first they must figure out what had happened to drive the dragons away. What could have scoured such an awesome crater in the earth?
When they finally reached its rim, Stoick spoke again.
"Spread out a bit, not too much. Keep your eyes on the sky, the forest, and the mountain. If anything moves I want everyone here to know about it. First sign of movement brace up, and we'll give 'em hell." Orders delivered, Stoick stepped forward and slowly, painfully knelt.
A semi-circular section of land larger than the foundations of his own house had seemingly been scooped from the earth. The floor of the crater still glowed with the dull burning of embers. Steam rose from places around the mostly circular rim. The center was the brightest point, still glowing a bright yellow.
Stoick braced himself with one hand and extended the haft of his spear down toward the crater floor. He couldn't reach anywhere near the center, but he pressed downward into the dull red of the embers. His spear shaft promptly caught fire. When he tried to pull it back, he found some resistance as the floor of the crater bulged, sticking to the end of the spear.
Stoick cursed under this breath.
"This was not gouged into the earth, nor was it even blown apart with dragon fire. This stone was melted." Whispers spread like wildfire through the group. Speculation began and many were of the mind that they should run back toward the hall there and then.
"Stoick!" This whisper rose above the others and it held the slightly higher pitch of fear. "I see something moving! On the seaward side of the crater!"
Instantly the whispers ceased. On all sides Vikings closed in towards the center, all facing outwards, most toward the crater, others to the rear and sides to defend against ambush. Stoick grunted, planting the burning end of his spear in the earth, extinguishing the fire. Painfully he rose to his full height, supported by the spear. He could see the shape now too, much smaller than he'd been expecting, and writhing in the distortion of the heat coming from the crater.
"Something coming fast from the west!" This Viking had not bothered to whisper but spoke in a normal tone, calmed by years of communication in the heat of battle. A few of the Vikings that had been watching the figure on the seaward side turned to face this new threat.
"For the love of all that's holy, stay where you are! All of you!" The entire group flinched as the new voice shouted. Stoick recognized it.
The blond shieldmaiden came sprinting up to the group of Vikings breathing fast and light, sweating heavily. She skidded to a halt in front of the villagers and leaned over, gasping with her hands on her knees. Stoick repressed all of the questions he wanted to fire at Astrid but settled for asking about her statement.
"What's wrong Astrid?"
The girl finally managed to catch enough of her breath to look up.
As she did, the sounds began.
The high pitched scream of a Night Fury sounded from all directions at once. On instinct every Viking present excluding Astrid and Stoick threw themselves on the ground. Stoick looked up, and found a sight that froze his blood in place.
Above the crater, a large ring of identical black shapes circled. The blue glow of their fire served to reveal their silhouettes, identical to those that had carried his son away months before.
Abruptly, each and every dragon dove, falling to earth like stones. Two dragons broke from the ring to fly down toward the center of the crater before flaring their wings and gliding to drop at the crater's rim directly before him. At the same moment, the clouds that obscured the moon dissipated enough to allow its silvery light to outline the scene before him.
For the first time in his life, Stoick beheld clearly and completely, a Night Fury.
Two stood before him, one large and bulky, the other sleek and sinuous. Enormous black wings pulled in close rested above lithe, graceful frames. Powerful limbs held their bodies close to the ground and long tails lashed back and forth. Green eyes burned in the shadowed recess of spade shaped heads. When neither dragon moved, Stoick glanced around. The Vikings of Berk were entirely cut off from their sheltered cave by a semi circled line of black dragons, hemming them in and pressing them against the maliciously glowing crater.
Stoick closed his eyes. Preparing himself for the final struggle of his life. He would die defending his fellow villagers as best he could, and really, that was the most fitting end for a chief. He could hear the soft growl of the two dragons before him, and he gripped his spear tight, silently sending his last prayers winging to the gods.
"You don't look well, Stoick."
That voice. Had it happened that quickly? He hadn't even had a chance to open his eyes before the mortal blow was struck?
Stoick opened his eyes.
And nearly choked.
For a moment, Hiccup did not believe what he was seeing. There stood Stoick the Vast, and he was neither vast, nor stoic. The man before him stood in an attitude of prayer, head lowered and eyes closed, a trail of moisture running slowly from one eye down into what remained of his magnificent beard. This Hiccup found to be the most obscene and distracting thing of all; Stoick's beard once dwarfed the entire head of any Viking he happened to stand across from. It had been colossal, smooth and braided.
Now great sections were missing and swaths of scarred skin were visible at Stoick's chin. Stoick was clearly in pain, as subtle flinches in his face were evident every time his body shifted. His arms were blanketed in puckered red welts and scars where he'd clearly had a very close call with fire.
Hiccup had expected to find the village in terrible shape. According to Tutore they'd been living in a cave almost ever since he'd left. He'd even expected the lessened numbers.
Aside from this small group before him, a second collection remained in the cave with those too ill to stand and fight. Two of the Wings were stationed at the door, ensuring that they stayed within.
For all his mental preparation, Hiccup had not expected to find Stoick the Vast battered and abused to such a degree. For a moment, his resolve waivered and his cold, dead mask that he'd adopted slipped slightly. Regardless of what they were capable of in the past, these humans were well and truly thrashed almost to the point of dropping where they stood. Using force against them would be nothing short of a massacre.
Quickly he glanced at Astrid. She was busy staring out at the small section of the Wings that were assembled around her. She seemed to be greedily memorizing as many details as she could, ever the logical warrior. What she probably was not aware of was the other hundred circling above, ready to rain fire on the humans should the need arise.
"You don't look well, Stoick." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He was simply too shocked. Luckily, by the time Stoick got this eyes open, his composure had returned. These were still Vikings, and if he did not take control of the situation before they reacted, they might attack and die pointlessly.
As Stoick's head rose, so did those of all the other Vikings who were still lying on the ground, head's covered and waiting for an explosion. Just as each one caught sight of him, Hiccup opened his mouth and poured as much force as he could into his voice without yelling.
"Drop your weapons and stand." There was silence, and stillness.
"Now!" Hiccup did not shout, but he did increase the volume of his voice, and with it the dragons assembled around him snarled. After a brief moment, metal jangled as swords, daggers, maces and spears fell to the ground and each human slowly rose to their feet. Hiccup's gaze fell back on Stoick. Tears were now flowing freely from the chief's eyes, as he stared up at his son that he'd thought was dead. Hiccup's throat quite unexpectedly constricted.
"It's alright Hiccup. We're here. Just say what must be said and we'll take you far away from here." Ryshkaa's words were complemented by the soothing, warm touch of his Mate's mind. For a brief second, he closed his eyes and from their calm, he drew resolve and he reveled in the touch of so many minds around him. Sycle, Skuru, Kale circling above, Toothless and Ryshkaa with him here on the ground. At the back of his mind, the quiet presence of Alda, and beyond the mass of Shades all around him. With a slight brush of his fingers, he adjusted the meaning of the Rune hidden on his stomach, specifically the portion masking his eyes. He didn't drop it entirely, but instead weakened it ever so slightly, allowing some of the luminosity of his real eyes to show through the illusion.
Then he opened his eyes and watched as the collection of Vikings gasped and many took steps back. Astrid shuddered slightly, and averted her gaze while Stoick just stood and stared, unmoved.
"Vikings of Berk! My name is Hiccup, and this..." Hiccup gestured to the assembled dragons. "...is my family! We have destroyed the force of dragons that held you captive. There was a small outburst of muttered curses and prayers. "Despite the suffering you have obviously endured these past months, it's obvious that you do not grasp the full scope of the threat at your doorstep!" Hiccup drew breath.
"An enormous dragon, the likes of which none of you have ever seen, a Queen of her hive, resides on the island that houses the dragon's nest. There, every last piece of food they steal from you is fed to this giant. She grows in size by the month and she extends her control over the ocean. When I shot Toothless down," Here Hiccup crouched and reached around his mate's neck to caress his face. There was a quiet thrum against his hand. "... and freed him from her control, it set her anger on Berk. She stopped considering you a mild thorn and attacked you in force. If there is anyone to blame for your suffering of late, it is myself and this dragon."
The disbelieving mutters intensified, bouncing around the human group, almost reaching conversation volume. Quiet whisperings broke out at the edges of his mind as the Wings assessed the humans and waited for any false move.
"I have returned!" Hiccup's voice drowned all the murmurings. "I have returned here with my family to eliminate this threat to our safety. Our peoples face a common enemy. We will use this island as a base to launch our attack. If you choose to assist us, you can expect our full cooperation in the defense of the island, and perhaps even some small assistance to rebuild the village of Berk." Low level speech began in earnest now, but Hiccup still was able to speak over them.
"If you refuse this offer and attack any of my family, we will finish the Queen's work and destroy every last human on this island."
"We will retreat into the forest for now and allow you all to discuss and consider. You have until dawn to offer an answer, or be left to the mercy of wind and flame. Astrid knows how to contact me." With that last statement all human eyes turned toward Astrid, who glared balefully up at him.
"Oh, you did not make her happy with that."
"She's the only safe line of communication with them without a massive show of force. She'll get over it."
Stoick's lips were twitching with the promise of some sort of speech. He'd been frozen for the entire confrontation. Now with an obvious attempt to form words he stared beseechingly at Hiccup. His desire to speak was clear. That would have to wait.
"We are watching the entire island now. You may come out of that tomb and nurse your wounds as best you can in safety from dragon attack. If we need to talk, I will come with a smaller group. For now, goodbye."
With that, Hiccup dropped from his standing position on Toothless' back and made an adjustment to the tailfin as his mate and Ryshkaa leapt into the air, followed by the rest of the assembled Wings, and headed west into the forest, away from the smoldering wreckage of his old life.
The village of Berk was more still than it had been in months. There was no rustle of scale from restless shifting bodies, no chilled breath of winter passing over, and not a single word spoken.
The villagers behind Stoick had all seemed to deflate as the menace lifted away, leaving peaceful silence in their wakes. A few had actually sunk to their knees, breathing deeply, eyes closed. Most stared into space as they tried to figure out what they had just witnessed.
A Viking, or at the very least, a human, standing tall and calm in the company of dragons, looking down on all before him. And not only was this a human, but Hiccup. Hiccup! His very own son that he'd given up for dead, or at the very least gone.
As his eyes swept the group, they fell on Astrid.
Like Hiccup, upon waking from his long and restless sleep, she had seemed absent and out of mind for most of the villagers, with the exception of her parents and Gobber. She'd struck out into dragon infested forests on her own, and seemingly not only survived, but learned. She'd come barrelling into Berk just in time to warn them of the threat, and late enough to prevent any defensive action.
Now Astrid stood with her face lifted towards the sky, eyes roving after the departing menace, her brow furrowed in what Stoick was sure to be frustration. His eyes narrowed. What part did she play in this?
Quite suddenly Astrid turned and leveled her gaze with his. Her eyes glossed over and her frustration was replaced with a vague look, as though she'd pushed her thoughts to the back of her mind.
The break of silence was enough to startle many of the surrounding villagers and a few noticeably jumped. Stoick glanced around again.
"This won't do. We're sitting ducks in the open like this. Everyone back near the Hall, help get the sick out here where they can get some real air into their lungs. We've got a lot to talk about." There was an odd pause, the like of which Stoick had not experienced in years. The Vikings of Berk did not lie about with work to be done.
The strange lethargy cleared and those that had been kneeling leapt to their feet. A few glanced warily over their shoulders at the sky but all bolted back towards the hall. Astrid allowed the rush of villagers to break around her and continued to stare at Stoick.
"I'm glad you're alright." A small smile tugged at Stoick's lip painfully. He started forward, following the other villagers and planting his spear deep in the earth with each step.
"That, is putting it very generously."
"You probably want to hear what I've been up to this past month?"
"Certainly not." One of Astrid's eyebrows lifted slightly. The gesture somehow reminded him of his son. "But Berk as a whole certainly will."
As Stoick said this, he drew level with Astrid and moved past her. The girl made a very strange sound, with lips slightly parted, somewhere between a hiss and a sigh. When Stoick turned to look at her she'd fallen into step at his side, matching his slow, painful pace with a lock of hair obscuring the side of her face from his view.
It took them about five minutes at Stoick's pace to make it back up to the hall. All the way Stoick's eyes darted upward to search for movement or any other sign of dragon presence, but the sky above and the forest to the west seemed to be entirely devoid of the reptiles.
When they finally reached the hall, it was to find Spitelout organizing and assisting those strong enough to carry the bed-ridden Vikings from the hall. Fresh water was being passed around with strips of dried meat as everyone present took in the open atmosphere that had seemed to drop over the island in hours. All looked at the sky with suspicion but every look met exactly what Hiccup had promised: emptiness and apparent safety.
Many of the Villagers had found their voices as well. A few told the sick what had transpired right outside of the mead hall, mostly to slack jawed disbelief and incredulity. Others were beginning to clump together to discuss things in hushed whispers.
Stoick sucked in a deep breath, and took a moment to prepare himself for the pain that would accompany his words.
"Alright! Most of us saw what just happened, and I won't have any quiet mutterings! There are no dragons about, and if there are they don't seem interested in coming near us at the moment. We discuss this as a Village right now."
After a brief moment of stillness, the villagers all began to shuffle and reorganize, with some shoving and cursing as a rough circle was formed with the bedridden in the center, and Stoick at the far point away from the mountain.
The rough partial scuffles that ensued drew a small smile from the Chief. He hadn't seen Berk so lively in months.
When the circle was finally formed, Spitelout cleared his throat.
"I think we should start with what we know. I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind what those dragons were that had us pinned. Pitch black and silent as the grave. Night Furies."
There was a general grumbling of assent. Stoick picked out a few pieces from the mutters.
"So many... how did they... we supposed to figh... no chance... Hiccup..." This last word picked up and began spreading through the crowd. "Hiccup?... Hiccup!... The Hiccup?!..."
Stoick braced himself against the tugging in his chest.
"Yes! That was Hiccup Horrendous Haddock. My son."
"Let me be perfectly clear to all of you. The safety of Berk is my first priority. I will not make any decision with anything else in mind until I'm sure of what's going on."
And now more murmurings broke out, and to Stoick's relief, none of them seemed to be concerned about any possible bias.
"...said there's a queen... fight it? Surely... said he'd kill us all..."
Now another voice rose above the others.
"It seems that what we really need to decide upon is whether or not to trust Hiccup. As ludicrous as the notion sounds, he seemed to have the confidence and will to back up his threats. And he offered to help us, if we tolerate a swarm of dragons roosting here."
"There was a swarm of dragons roosting here before he showed up." The new voice was bitter and female and in response, Spitelout spoke again.
"We also haven't heard about what happened to you in the forest, Astrid. Did Gobber find you? Where have you been?"
The surrounding crowd lapsed into silence once more. Astrid stepped forward away from the rest of the group and launched immediately into the events that had transpired after she left the hall.
She'd had a few scrapes with the dragons that had taken over the island and had been constantly on the move. She told of being found by the Twins and together escaping from an entire group of the hunting beasts. She told of nights spent cold and nearly frozen beneath the trees with no ability to light a fire. Gobber had apparently found her soon after he himself had left the hall, and with the Twins and Fishlegs, the entire group had travelled back to the village to make some attempt at freeing the rest of them.
Throughout her story, Stoick began to take note of some pauses. Places where her flow was interrupted slightly, an odd silence here, a stutter there. At first Stoick took this to be a result of having spent weeks living rough in the forest, but when he looked at her eyes, he found them to be blank and emotionless, no sign of upset whatsoever.
Astrid was holding back. Clipping pieces of the story.
"When we'd finally made it around the mountain and into view of the ruins, the Night Furies began their attack." Each and every Viking present now leaned forward, intent on her words as though they were air.
"When the shrieking began, I looked up. It looked at first like the stars were falling from the sky. That made more sense than the actual truth in fact. A group of Night Furies, about four times as many as surrounded you here..." There were loud gasps and swearing. Only a quarter of the total number of dragons now occupying Berk had been present to threaten them. "...all dove from the sky and fired their shots together into the dragons that lay in Berk's ruins. I'm sure you all heard the explosions."
"And the gods-damned whistling too." This mutter was silenced with a soft thud and a grunt from somewhere in the group.
"It wasn't easy to know what happened after that. The dragons scattered in all directions and a large number of them flew near us. Gobber and the rest got separated from me as we all ran for cover, I'm not sure where they are now. While I was running through the forest back toward Berk, I spotted Hiccup standing with a large group of Night Furies in the clearing, all just silently staring at one another. It was absolutely... unsettling."
A waver in her voice and eyes, there was no deception of her true feelings here.
"After that I ran back here as fast as I could to warn you, but I was too late."
The brief quiet that followed Astrid's statement was miniscule compared to the raucous claps and shouts that rose from the surrounding villagers. Many crowded in to give Astrid slaps on the back, and those not close enough shouted to make their voices heard as they congratulated her on a month's worth of amazing feats. What glimpses Stoick caught of her through the tightly packed bodies, she seemed at first shocked, and then quickly triumphant amongst the outwelling of praise.
Stoick meanwhile stayed stationary, and a frown creased his brow. He was absolutely sure that Astrid's story was riddled with holes, places where the whole truth had been omitted and censored. Those gaps and pauses had increased in number as her tail neared its end, and her description of Hiccup in the clearing had been extremely sparse. Normally Astrid was a strategist. She took in and reported all details of a situation even under stress. Talking about the dragons had unsettled her greatly.
She knew more than she was telling.
"Alright, ALRIGHT!" Stoick had to struggle not to choke as he pushed his throat to its limit. "Astrid, your information is extremely valuable. At the very least we now know a little more of this... swarm." The Vikings began to quiet and shift back to comfortable spacing. "The fact that Hiccup stands among them, fearlessly and silently, suggests some higher level of organization than a mindless horde of dragons."
This statement was followed by dark murmurs and furrowed brows.
"We don't know if Hiccup is controlling this group of dragons. His visit here to speak with us suggests that he is. The other possibility would be that the reptiles have him under some spell to make him speak against his will." Eyes were shifting back to the forest and skies now, fearful of the unknowns that lay hidden in the darkness.
After a pause of nervous shifting and scratching of faces and scalps, a woman from the far side of the circle spoke.
"It's pretty obvious how we proceed then, isn't it?!" All eyes turned to her, all questioning. "We need to talk to the boy without any of the beasts present!"
For a brief moment the talk that followed was scattered and thoughtful, but slowly it built into a thunderous chorus of approval.
"It's the only... best for us... see if he can remember... get it straightened out when we know..."
Stoick sucked in a deep breath. The village was calling for exactly what the quiet voice at the back of his mind had been nagging him about since laying eyes on his son. They needed to talk, and nothing useful was going to be done until they did.
The strange warmth that Astrid had felt standing in Hiccup's cove was entirely gone. Now as she sat staring out, away from the torchlight of the villagers, she felt shudders run from the nape of her neck in rapid spasms down her spine. Someone had thrown a cloak around her as the crowd began to separate and take up individual tasks. Astrid found however that it was entirely impossible for her to silence her thoughts and fall into the habits of setting up temporary living spaces.
Instead she stared outwards across the sloping planes of the island of Berk, and westward toward the tree line. Above, the tiny sliver of the moon was just peeking out from behind a layer of cloud, casting a very dim illumination over the scene before her. To the west, the trees swayed and danced like flames flat, black, and without depth.
As Astrid looked, she thought she could make out shapes that moved against the sway of the wind, sometimes standing still, other times prowling low to the ground.
What the hell had Hiccup meant? She knew how to contact him? She'd seen and spoken with him for all of a few minutes. A few, dark, strange, and extremely disturbing minutes. In that time, he'd apologized for his actions and asked to make a fresh start. A fresh start not with the village, but between the two of them? Why was he so eager to speak with her when he seemed to regard the rest of the village as hardly even worth his time?
In the distance an owl soared across her view of the cloud covered stars, visible only for moments before it disappeared behind the writhing forest. As she lost sight of it, her eyes continued, sliding down across the black void of the forest.
Until her gaze was met.
Two pale glowing eyes gazed evenly at her from the forest. The pupils were dilated, giving the gaze a far softer feeling than the regard she was used to receiving from dragons. Her hand which had reached for her blade reflexively, relaxed and dropped back to the ground.
The voice came from so close behind her that she could not help but start violently, turning her torso to face the easily recognizable voice.
Stoick gazed steadily down at her, leaning on his spear. Without his beard obscuring his mouth, Astrid suddenly found it very difficult to read his face. She'd never actually seen his lips before. Now marred on one side by scars, they seemed to be pressed into a thin line with no obvious set towards a smile, or a frown.
"Sorry Astrid. I didn't mean to startle you." For a moment, Stoick turned and also gazed toward the forest. Astrid looked with him, but to her relief, the eyes that had held her still and silent had disappeared from the darkness. "Could I join you?"
She brought her gaze back to rest on the Chief. She was sure that the corner of his mouth was twitching upwards.
"S- Sure." Internally Astrid cursed her own tongue. She certainly was not used to hiding things from the village, much less her Chief. The untold portions of her story weighed heavily in her stomach as she watched Stoick half-fall backward to land with a grunt and seat himself, crossing his legs after the heavy landing.
"It's quite impressive what you managed to do these past weeks, surviving without shelter in dragon-infested lands. I'm relieved that you're alright."
The self-satisfied glow that she hadn't felt since before Hiccup's strange rise in the Ring once again suffused her chest. She hadn't been praised so heavily in more than a year, and the warmth that came with the trust and admiration of the village doubled her resolve to keep the stranger details of her survival hidden. The village could never trust her if they knew.
"Your parents have been talking my ear off for the past half hour about your capability and your mettle. They want the very best for you Astrid. They insist that you're ready for responsibilities above your fellow trainees."
Astrid felt a soft smile spread across her face. It had been wonderful to embrace her parents, especially after the showers of back-slaps and roars of approval she'd received. Their faces had been glowing both at her return and her success. The pride in their faces had been enough to force a smile for so long, her face began to ache.
"And I fully agree with them."
With a soft pop, Astrid's mouth fell open and hung loose. She stared up at the mountain of a man that sat beside her. Stoick smiled down at her in full now with a cheerful glint lighting his eye.
"Provided..." Astrid felt the chill in her chest intensify beyond natural cold. "...that you tell me why you left out so much of your account."
Astrid now felt her chest constrict. What air she'd been about to expel as speech now caught and she choked. The sound was quiet, but she knew that Stoick had heard it. Now she stared, jaw frozen and entirely unsure of what she should do. Stoick's smile had retreated slightly, leaving his mouth in a serious cast. His eyes however, were still somehow light and comforting.
"I'm no fool Astrid. I know that whatever it is, it could harm how we see you. I understand that perfectly. My son just appeared before me and threatened my life, and those that I lead." The warm light in Stoick's eyes hardened slightly. "I must have a discussion with Hiccup, but as he himself said, you are the only one that knows how to get in touch with him. Most of the village seems to have glossed over that part."
Stoick turned away and gazed back up the hill toward the other Vikings, busy with various tasks of setting up a temporary living space in the open while the cave air was still poison. After a moment he turned back.
"So let's make a pact you and I. You'll tell me the parts that you left out of your story, and I will judge what I hear calmly, and fairly."
For a moment, Astrid stayed entirely silent, staring out at the stars that outlined the forest.
"I spent the last few weeks in the company of a Night Fury." She immediately threw her gaze up to Stoick's face, trying to gage his reaction. His face was tranquil and smooth.
Astrid drew a deep breath and for the second time that night launched into a story. This time she told first of the Terrible Terror, setting its leg and allowing it to scamper off free. She then told how that same Terror had been with her through the entirety of her time away from the others, acting as comfort and companion.
She told him of being saved from a Monstrous Nightmare, a beast formidable to any Viking, but dispatched almost easily by the speed and ferocity of the Night Fury. From there she spoke of spending days in uneasy company with the beast, watching it guard the area where they camped, and also flying on its back to escape a Zippleback's firestorm.
By the time she was done, she had finished enumerating exactly how intelligent she believed the creatures to be, and of meeting and speaking with Hiccup in the clearing. While describing the conversation, she let the truth once again slide away, unsure herself of what she had witnessed. She did not know what Hiccup had become.
"He told me that the dragons were his family, just like he said to you. I'm not sure exactly what he meant, but he seems to understand them on a deep level. I have no idea what he's capable of."
"You did not get the sense that Hiccup was being controlled?"
She shook her head, completely confident in her response. "Not in the slightest." Stoick let out a sigh of obvious relief.
"Thank goodness." And now he turned and smiled wide, clapping Astrid on the shoulder. "Thank you Astrid. We'll not tell anyone of this time spent with the beasts until we know more of what's going on. The world has become an incredibly strange place since we hid ourselves away in that cave it seems. We normal humans should stick together." Stoick let out a laugh that was harsh and without humor. "Which leaves only contacting Hiccup."
Astrid felt her heart jump. "That's just the thing Chief, I don't know why Hiccup said that! I haven't the slightest idea how to get in touch."
Slowly Stoick levered himself from his seat and rose to his feet. "I'd say it's quite clear." Astrid stared blankly up at him. "You know where they've settled down, so you'll have to go there and speak to him."
THEY ARE HERE! YOU USELESS EXCUSE FOR A LIVING THING!
RETURN AT ONCE THERE IS AN ENTIRE ISLAND WORTH OF THEM!
I NEED YOUR SCALE!
RETURN AT ONCE!
It took some convincing, but eventually the Hofferson's gave up their arguments as their daughter was fully intent on her course. Now, Stoick limped beside her with ten well-armed Vikings trailing behind.
"So, repeat it back to me one more time."
"Berk is willing to consider a truce provided that you, Stoick, can meet with Hiccup in person without the company of dragons, and provided that he answers some questions."
"No need to get any more specific than that. If he's anything like the Hiccup, we remember he'll probably come back with some sort of counter with alternate conditions. We just need to make sure the meeting happens."
As they neared the forest, Stoick looked back over his shoulder. There were no ruins left of the village, no burnt out frames or scattered timber. Every physical sign of human presence had been methodically erased, first by angry dragons, and then by Hiccup's "family". However, they had dealt with things in the past, the Villagers of Berk would have to adapt if they didn't want to be wiped away, as their structures had.
Stoick's musings were interrupted by a strange gurgling hum. The ten Vikings behind him all cursed and raised weapons that were held at the ready long before they'd been needed. Just as Stoick was about to lift his hand for calm and stillness, Astrid beat him to it. She raised a closed fist and stopped in her tracks. Without question the group halted behind her.
For a moment, there was no sound aside from the pulse that seemed to emanate from directly ahead. Then, slowly, like tar being poured from a vat, two long and sinuous shapes detached themselves from the shadows of the forest. Green eyes burned with slit pupils at the fore of heads shaped like the tips of spears. They looked first at Astrid, and then turned to Stoick, each simultaneously making a strange chuffing sound at the back of the throat.
Astrid took a step forward, and then another. One of the group made to step past Stoick to follow her. The luminous eyes narrowed to slits and guttural snarls ripped through the night air.
"All of you stay put. If I don't come back by dawn, assume I'm dead." The Vikings all started yelling at once, denying Astrid outright.
"You can' expect us to let you go in there alone!"
"They'll roast you as soon as you're out'ta sight!
As Stoick listened to the growing yells behind him, he took note of the dragons' reactions. The yelling did not make them startle and attack as he'd seen other dragons do. These two simply planted their feet, lowered themselves, and bared their teeth, letting their snarls grow in volume to match the Viking's yells. These dragons would not fall easily to human traps or tricks.
"SHUT UP!" Stoick's roar drowned out every voice behind him, and the pain brought tears to the Chief's eyes. Through them he continued to watch the dragons. When the Vikings fell silent, their snarls did too, but their ready stance had not so much as budged. Formidable opponents, indeed.
"Alright. They obviously want Astrid to go alone. Astrid, are you alright with that?"
"Perfectly." Her voice was now dull and devoid of emotion, the image of an obedient Viking.
"I trust Astrid, and her abilities. She survived in the forest longer than I think a lot of you could with dragons all 'round!" He turned now to Astrid and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "You've got till dawn, and then I'm coming in after you."
The look that Astrid gave him questioned his ability to lead a fighting force. He let his eyes narrow. Impudent child.
"Yes Chief." Without any further speech or action, Astrid strode forward past the two dragons and into the forest.
As she disappeared from view, the two Night Furies slowly backed away from the Vikings, and without a sound, melted into the darkness behind her. When he was sure that she would no longer be able to hear, Stoick muttered under his breath:
This walk through the forest was distinctly different than any of the numerous others she could remember of the past weeks. For one, there was no weight of the Terror on her shoulder warming her cheek and clutching painfully into her flesh. There was also no constant overriding presence beside her, letting her know that she was safe from dragon assault. The only thing she had were her own senses.
In the dark of the night, with hardly any moonlight to offer guidance, she could barely see the trees looming up before her. After her third painful impactwith a tree, she quite suddenly heard the pulsing thrum again, but unlike at the edge of the forest where it very clearly had come from ahead of her, this thrumming was audible on all sides. She could also hear the leaves rustling as large animals moved through the woods on either side, and perhaps even above her.
Quite suddenly, the pulsing became much louder on her right side. With a start, she shied away from the sound and moved to her left. The pulsing quickly died away, and as it did, Astrid felt her hand brush over the bark of a tree that she had narrowly missed.
With very little idea of how much time was passing, she began a strange dance through the woods with invisible partners, moving sometimes to the left, and sometimes the right. A few times she even ducked when the pulsing neared her head, and she did not impact a single object in the dark. Her feet somehow found an impossibly flat path to follow through the normally bumpy terrain.
She'd been following the routine for so long that when the thrum suddenly cut off, she stopped dead in panic and crouched, fearing some sort of attack or a falling tree. Instead, a moist tongue brushed across her wrist. Without even trying to verify her suspicion, she stood and clicked her tongue. There was a tug on her sleeve, followed by her tunic, and the familiar weight of her Terror nestled into place with a happy chirp.
And now with Terror in tow, but no pulsing sounds to guide her, she glared intently into the dark forest ahead. And she glimpsed light.
A very dull yellow glow was illuminating the forest in the distance, giving her some idea of the trees around her. As her eyes adjusted, she was able to make out obvious trunks and boughs, which she now stepped carefully around, or pushed out of her way. How in the world had she managed to come this far entirely blind? She shuddered at the thought.
As she continued toward the light, more and more details of the forest became obvious, and she now knew exactly where she was; the eastern side of the enormous cove, where she'd hit Hiccup with an ax and later met whatever it was that he had become.
Progressing closer to what she assumed was a fire, she saw the distinct outline of a Night Fury, sitting some ways to her right. Drawing level with it, she took note of its shape as it stood and began to follow her, finally settling on its eyes. A distinctly bluer tinge than any of the other dragons she'd seen greeted her.
"Tutore?" She spoke the name in the form of a question, unsure if he would respond. As soon as she spoke, the dragon turned and gazed at her with a clearly amused set to his face. "If you don't want me to call you that then I won't." The sinuous tail lifted and swatted against her thigh, giving a muffled snap.
Astrid's heart was racing. It had responded very clearly and obviously to the sound of the name. Clearly she'd have to rearrange her thoughts. Each of these dragons was to be treated individually. Tutore seemed to like her. None of the others she'd seen shared his sentiment. When she was faced with the rest of them, she'd need to be cautious.
Unfortunately, she did not have much time to prepare. No sooner had this thought crossed her mind than she had to suddenly stop to avoid plunging over a cliff. At the same time, her eyes were assaulted with a large amount of light.
Below her, the cove was lit by at least a dozen merrily blazing fires, which were obviously no mere gouts of dragon flame. These had large piles of dry branches crackling at their hearts. They'd been built. Around the flames, groups of Night Furies lay sprawled, seated or standing in close groups of four to eight. Each and every dragon lay or stood in a subtly different stance, some relaxed, others agitated with tails lashing.
Astrid quickly knelt, unsure if any of the dragons might suddenly look up and spot her. She quickly made a count. Very few of the total number of Night Furies she'd seen attack were present here. There were only about sixty in the cove below her. During the dive there'd been hundreds. That left a large number of dragons unaccounted for out in the forest and sky.
When Tutore's tail nudged into her side, her jump almost sent her tumbling down into the cove. When she turned to glare at the dragon, she found that he was facing away from her, toward the forest around the edge of the cliff. As she watched, the enormous head swung back so the eyes could stare at her, before waving back to gesture toward the forest. And with a snort he started off, clearly expecting to be followed.
Astrid gave another glance back down toward the dragons. The bonfires and the lack of quick activity were unnerving, but still somewhat familiar. She'd spent quite a number of nights staring at Tutore over an open fire, but a single dragon was very different from sixty.
How was the village going to react to this when she told them? Dragons sitting around the fire, sharing warmth and light. Perhaps they were actually speaking to each other? Telling stories? The similarity of the image that now floated in her head, to that of the mead hall was unsettling. Hiccup had always seemed out of place in the Mead hall, always alone and wrapped up in some project, sketching or jotting notes with his charcoal.
This memory belonged to the voice that lived in her head. That voice had come from that mouth. Those sarcastic, human eyes. She still had no idea exactly how much Hiccup had changed. Would he be happy to burn the village to the ground as he'd claimed? Or was that a threat directly from the dragons he was with and nothing to do with him? After all it seemed that he was the only one that could understand the Night Furies. Hiccup was a mouthpiece. The question on Berk's mind of course was if he was doing so willingly.
Slowly as she followed Tutore, the light of the cove behind her began to fade. Where was he taking her now? Had the dragons purposefully taken her on this route to show her their strength of numbers before she actually met with them? That was a nasty thought. At this point there was not much comfort to take in the situation. Her finger absently stroked the length of one of her knives. Her worry was short lived.
Ahead of her the forest plunged back into inky darkness. As they moved away from the cove, Astrid took a few quick steps to catch up with Tutore, before placing a hand on his shoulder. The slow shift and flex of the rough dragon hide scratched across her hand in a strangely comforting way. A minute or two later, she was able to make out the silhouettes of the trees ahead in the dull light of another fire.
This fire was more ember glow than flickering flame. It had clearly been burning for a long time. All around her and to either side lay flat darkness of dense forest that allowed no starlight to penetrate. But directly ahead, red light illuminated a small clearing with the glow at its center.
As Astrid's eyes adjusted she began to map out the area. Across from her the trees stood very close together, in some places too close for a person to squeeze through. Pine needles and grass had been swept away from the forest floor in long sweeps that Astrid could only guess were made by a dragon's tail. In this patch of bare earth, the fire was set, hissing and crackling as it subsided further into an ember bed. The side from which she was entering had trees that were spaced a little wider apart, allowing for an easy escape route.
The dragons made no attempt to hide or conceal themselves. Three of them lay quite relaxed on the other side of the fire. Farthest away from her was the clear outline of Toothless, the first Night Fury Astrid had ever actually seen, his scar shimmering dully in the firelight. Closer to her on the left and right lay the strange female, and a much smaller, nearly miniscule dragon. Both Toothless and the female stared directly at her, enormous eyes almost glowing in the firelight. The smaller dragon had its head down and seemed to be chewing at its own paw.
A fourth dragon was far more difficult to see, draped across the low hanging boughs of an evergreen. The only reason Astrid caught it was the flash of firelight reflecting from its eyes. When Astrid finally made out its silhouette, she saw that it appeared to be sprawling lazily, in no way ready to take quick action like those below.
Astrid was not even aware that she had stopped walking until Tutore pushed past her to settle himself near the fire on the right. When the dust settled from the thud of a dragon lying on its side, Tutore glanced back at her and gave a huff.
Glimpsing movement out of the corner of her eye, Astrid's gaze snapped back to the other dragons across the ember pit. A figure rose from where it had been lying reclined against Toothless, completely camouflaged by the identical scales that covered both himself and the dragon.
Hiccup stood across from her, illuminated from below by the embers, red light playing across the dull glimmer of his scales and highlighting each point of definition with dark shadow. He'd only grown a few inches or so taller, but he appeared to loom from across the fire, a little smile playing at the corners of his strange, black lips. He'd clearly given his hair some attention since their first reunion. Instead of the ratty, matted strands she'd glimpsed before, his hair looked soft and smooth, sticking out in small tufts to either side of his head.
This time, rather than staring in utter shock, this time Astrid was able to look closely and study detail. Without his white fur cloak to cover his torso she caught sight of something very strange. At the inside of Hiccup's left arm was the clear outline of a blade, as black as the scale that it hung against. Astrid did not find the presence, or even the look of the weapon odd, rather, it was strange because it seemed to hang suspended against Hiccup's arm without any leather strap or casing to hold it in place. A brief overview revealed a second blade, longer than the first and hanging also without aid, from Hiccup's right hip.
With these weapons noted, she brought her view back to his face. What interested her most were his strange new eyes. Before he'd left, Astrid had seen the boy's human eyes shift and change, appearing for a brief span of time, dragon like. What Astrid saw before her now was entirely different.
Hiccup's eye sockets had elongated very slightly, opening farther back along his skull. They had also widened to accommodate the much larger ocular inside. The new eyes had no white. There was no place visible that was not a green sheet. The red glow of embers at her feet distorted the coloring, only allowing her to see that the green darkened near the edges and lightened gradually until it met the vertically slit pupil. The eyes shifted slowly back and forth as Hiccup presumably studied her own changes.
"Astrid. I'm glad you came." Unlike his speeches down in the cove, or in front of the Village, he made no attempt to raise his voice. It resonated, and combined with his smile to relax some of the tension that had built in her legs and spine in preparation for some kind of confrontation. "Please, sit, warm yourself. Winter is coming." With this, Hiccup sat down on the ground, very close to the fire. Behind him, Toothless rose to his feet. Out of reflex, Astrid took a step back and her hand dropped to her belt.
No snarling came. No angry dragon gazes, not even a sound. They all simply looked at her.
Slowly, her hand dropped back to her side. Toothless stepped closer to the fire and settled himself back down with a large burst of air that looked like a sigh. Hiccup leaned back and once again rested against the dragon's side. Slowly, Astrid also lowered herself, to sit cross legged on the opposite side of the embers. As she did so her eyes drifted up to catch a glimpse of the dragon resting in the tree. When all others had stayed still, this dragon had moved. It now sat alert with paws close to its chest, ready to leap from the tree and be the first into any fray.
"Don't mind Sycle. He's lived life too long." Hiccup's smile remained in place as he spoke and an annoyed sounding yowl answered his cryptic comment. Hiccup turned and stuck his tongue out. When he turned back to her, his smile faltered slightly, leaving half of his face upturned, and the other half downcast and unsure. "How did things go with the village? I don't suppose... Did you tell them about meeting me beforehand?"
Astrid had not expected a quiet conversation. Certainly she had not expected Hiccup to ask her about her activities before explaining his own.
"No. Well yes... I told them that I'd seen you at a distance and ran back to warn them about you."
"So I'm guessing that means they don't know anything about your friends either?" Hiccup gestured with his chin first to her, and then to the Night Fury lying beside her.
She may have kept them hidden from the village, but Stoick knew about them. Astrid was not sure what that meant for her, or the dragons. However, she was not going to allow Hiccup to fire away with his own questions without discussing what she came to.
"We should get to the matter at hand." Her voice was not nearly as forceful as she'd intended to make it. It had come out slightly quiet.
Astrid's eyes slid downward to study Hiccup's body more closely. The embers of the fire were a much softer source of light than the bright flames of earlier. The general shape of a human was still evident beneath the scales. His arms, though slightly more defined than they had been, had all the curves and angles of human arms. The same went for his legs and bare chest, though in that regard she noted that he now lacked nipples. This detail brought a slight rush of color to her cheeks.
"Very well then Astrid, what would you like to discuss?" He raised a hand to gesture around him. "Us, and what I've been up to?" He let his hand fall and centered his strange, slit gaze on her again. "Or Berk, and its survival?"
Astrid opened her mouth to respond, but stopped as Hiccup's second question registered. She found that words had caught in her throat, choking her and preventing from responding immediately. She'd been about to ask him how he had come to be... this. With the annihilation of what was left of her home at hand, she'd been about to ask about Hiccup. Astrid bit down on her tongue hard and inwardly cursed. Hiccup's smile morphed slowly into a bemused expression as she watched her glaring at a point just below his eyes.
"No." The single word came out almost as a snarl. Slowly Astrid sucked in air and let her chest expand out until it was painful, before letting all the air whistle out.
"We need to discuss Berk. In particular, I'd prefer you did not destroy it." This time Hiccup did not smile, but sat forward lacing his fingers together and laying them in his lap.
"I was very clear about our position. Does the village have an answer?" In all the time that Astrid had known Hiccup as a child, she'd never seen his face set so solemnly. She closed her eyes and straightened her back, preparing for the first formal negotiation of her life.
"Stoick is willing to ally Berk with your dragons to attack the nest. But the village has a condition." Astrid saw the vertical pupils narrow very slightly. The eyelids remained entirely still, causing a shiver to pass down Astrid's spine.
"And that would be?" Astrid took a second deep breath, not so large this time, but enough to brace her for what she needed to say.
"Stoick would like to meet with you, in person, face to face with no other dragons present." Hiccup's enormous and strangely mobile ears lifted from where they'd been resting beside his head up until now, turning at an odd angle to give him a comically surprised appearance. Astrid had been able to ignore them up until this point but she now found her gaze drawn to the ears as they twitched and rotated. Hiccup looked absolutely absurd.
"That's... unexpected. I'm afraid I won't be able to comply, but the fact that he's interested in meeting means that there is hope at least." The ears fell back into their previous position, tucked against his head.
"Why can't you meet with him?" Even though they were no longer moving, Astrid still found her gaze straying to the side to stare at the ear that had tucked itself in close to Hiccup's skull.
"Meeting with Stoick isn't the problem Astrid. The stipulation requiring no dragons be present is the issue." Toothless, who'd been listening quietly with his head resting on the ground until this point, now lifted it and stared with a set to his ears that was clearly serious, despite the fact that his eyes and body were still relaxed.
"What, you don't have the spine to speak with your own father by yourself? You need backup from Berk's mortal enemies to go near him?" Astrid felt her contempt rise up into her voice and her brow furrowed. Hiccup's frustratingly frequent smile now returned and he laughed out loud.
"Nothing of the sort! I have nothing to fear from Stoic the Vast, particularly in his current state. The problem lies on this side of the fire. My Mate would never allow me to enter such a precarious situation undefended." Hiccup lifted his hand to brush it gently, scale against scale, across Toothless' face. A very loud thrumming filled the entire clearing.
Astrid felt her gut twist itself several times as she watched. So quickly, they seemed to act without command, her eyes jumped to Hiccup's shoulder. Regularly spaced patches of matte grey scales traced the shape of a Night Fury's, no Toothless', jaw from Hiccup's collar bone down and around his pectoral, vanishing over his lower ribs. A new mating scar.
"Deep breaths, Astrid." Wrenching her eyes back up to Hiccup's face she found his eyes wide in an expression of concern, with the ears slowly pushing outward to either side. "It's alright, I can imagine how uncomfortable it must be to think about."
"Just shut up for a second!" Hiccup fell silent, continuing to stroke the dragon's face. The infuriating half smile returning to his lips. Despite the torrent of opinions about Hiccup that were tumbling about in her head, she followed his advice, taking deep, slow breaths. She allowed her stomach to settle and after a few moments she was able to look Hiccup in the eyes again.
"So all that gibbering you did before you left about love, was meant... literally?" Hiccup lowered his hand and to Astrid's horror, leaned over toward the dragon's face and opened his mouth to bite down on the lower jaw. A shudder ran through the dragon's body. When Hiccup sat back against the dragon's side he winked.
"About as literal as you can get."
The work Astrid had just done to allow her stomach to settle was put to waste. She curled in on herself as her gut heaved. She had not eaten in more than a day though, and nothing came up. For a moment she stayed hunched, unsure if her body would spasm again, but a few moments later she managed to lift her head.
Hiccup seemed to have partially started to stand. He was frozen in a ready position, one hand and knee on the ground with the other hand outstretched across the fire. After a few seconds, he relaxed and settled back into his sitting position, doing a remarkable job of looking sheepish.
"Sorry." Astrid did not respond. Through years of physically training her body to cope with the most extreme conditions that a Viking must face, she'd never come close to throwing up. At least not when she wasn't actually ill. What were you supposed to say when someone made you feel enough disgust to warrant vomiting?
As she contemplated this, she saw Hiccup's eyes flick suddenly off to his right. Reflexively, Astrid turned her head to follow his gaze.
The female dragon was rising slowly to her feet. As Astrid watched, she passed through a routine of stretching out first her wings, extending each to its fullest. Then she dropped her front legs and let her spine bow sinuously from rear hips all the way to the wing joints. Astrid was just preparing to voice her question about what was going on, when the dragon turned toward her.
Astrid found that she could not look away from the green, slit eyes. And once again before she had any time to react, the dragon turned and leapt, melting away into the surrounding shadows within seconds.
There was a rustling sound off to Astrid's right. When she turned to observe, she found that the miniscule dragon had disappeared as well. Astrid turned back to Hiccup now, who had not moved from his relaxed, position.
"I don't suppose you know where they're going?"
"Of course I do." Hiccup said with a grin, letting his pointed teeth glow in the ember light.
"And you're not going to tell me." Astrid said, a statement rather than a question, her expression falling sour.
"You'll find out very soon. They'll be right back. For now, why don't we talk more about this meeting?" Astrid jumped slightly. No matter how disturbing the prior display, she should not have allowed it to push Berk entirely from her mind.
"So you flat out refuse to come on your own?"
"I'll repeat myself." Hiccup's voice had dropped low and slowed slightly, as though he were explaining something to a child. "I'd be more than happy to meet with Stoic. He certainly offers me no threat in his current state. But my Mate, and the members of my Wing simply won't allow me to come alone. They don't trust you. Or rather, they don't trust the villagers." Hiccup made gestures to the empty spaces that had just recently held two dragons, before gesturing behind him to indicate Toothless and the dragon in the tree.
Astrid stayed silent and mulled over this new information. Hiccup was not concerned about Stoic, or in fact the other villagers at all. His blatant statements and tone of voice for some reason left her in no doubt whatsoever that he was being truthful with her. But the dragons did not want him present without a guard. That made sense. If they were as intelligent as Astrid suspected, they would not want to put their only being with the ability to converse with humans in undue harm's way.
As she thought, Astrid's eyes were drawn back to Hiccup's strange hybrid body. His lying position placed both of his feet in open view, and it was clear that here, Hiccup's humanity had degraded past his upper body. The foot still had the general shape of a human's, but this familiarity was supplemented by the presence of long onyx colored talons that stretched about a half inch away from each toe. Across the top of the foot, powerful looking tendons bulged beneath the scaled flesh and ran to the ankle, where they disappeared beneath the strangely smooth black leather that wrapped about powerful legs.
When she looked back at Hiccup's face, she found his brow crooked in a questioning set with his half smile glowing beneath it. With a slight jolt, she remembered that he no longer had eyebrows. At least there was no hair on his brow. Where the eyebrows had once sat, there were instead strips of darker scale that flexed and moved smoothly with his face.
The missing hair immediately brought Stoick to mind. With his beard partially gone it was now apparent that there was a slight resemblance between father and son in the shape of their jaws, though Hiccup's was far smaller and less pronounced. Thinking back to Stoick also brought his parting words to mind.
We just need to make sure the meeting happens.
With Hiccup flat out refusing to come with no dragons present, she'd have to start compromising.
"If they won't allow you to come alone, what would they agree to?" Making the acknowledgement that the dragons around Hiccup were active participants in the discussion felt strange. Astrid shifted uncomfortably; after all, she had no personal experience of communicating with them, at least not in any complex terms. She glanced momentarily at Tutore.
"So long as my Mate is present, we have no qualms. Though of course that upsets the balance of power during the discussion."
"Balance of power? What do you mean?"
"Well, if Stoick meets us by himself then that will be one Viking presence to match against two dragons." Hiccup's voice had slowed again, as though speaking to a child, and while that was infuriating, Astrid was distracted by his statement. So he considered himself to be a dragon. She supposed it shouldn't be too surprising given he was covered in scales, but it nagged at the back of her mind nevertheless.
"You're suggesting that Stoick should bring more Vikings?"
"It'd only be fair." The accommodations Hiccup was providing would have made her suspicious were it not for his constant air of nonchalance. He spoke of matters that involved people's lives like he was discussing the weather. While his willingness to allow others to be present, she knew that Stoick had only wanted himself present to speak to Hiccup.
"How about this then. You meet with Stoick and myself. You bring Toothless along, everyone's happy. Mostly." Hiccup's half smile waxed into a full on grin again.
"The leader of a village of dragon slaying Vikings can't even face down a single Night Fury? Even the most adorable Night Fury in the world?" His tone was slightly mocking as a mirrored her earlier question. Astrid felt a compulsion to speak about the latter statement, but she allowed it to slip past with only mild hesitation.
"The Vikings of Berk want this meeting to take place so that they can assess whether or not you're being controlled by these 'devils', and so that they can evaluate your threat to destroy us all."
For an instant, there was silence. Then the entire clearing was filled with the clear tones of Hiccup's laughter, rising together with the gurgling of chuckling dragons. Hiccup doubled over and began to shudder as he tried to control the spasms in his midriff. And to her utter shock, Astrid found that her lips also were breaking into a wide grin.
Hiccup was clearly different than he had been, but as the evening progressed, she was becoming further and further convinced that his personality had not been altered at all. Just as she was preparing to let out an audible chuckle of her own, a black shape landed beside her, sending vibrations through the earth. She found that instead of leaping to her feet, she only glanced to the side and stared. The miniscule Night Fury was standing beside her with what looked the haunch of some mammal dripping blood from its maw.
Just as suddenly as that dragon had appeared, the female came shuffling into the clearing from across the fire, nosing an oblong boulder in front of her. In seconds the female had positioned the rock beside the ember pit and the tiny Fury had stepped forward to lay the leg of whatever animal it had been carefully atop it, letting the ruby red meat of the haunch lie hanging over the lip above the flame. Astrid glanced questioningly up at Hiccup.
"When's the last time you ate?" He asked, clearly not expecting an answer by the way he continued almost immediately. "When you tried to express your opinion earlier about my relationship, you retched. Nothing came up, and I can hear your stomach gurgling even if you can't. Ryshkaa and Skuru were planning on hunting anyway, so I asked them to bring some for you." Hiccup's expression had shifted to careful worry.
Astrid did not respond, instead simply staring at the two dragons who had now taken up their old positions on either side of Hiccup. The female was letting her tail swish back and forth to swat gently at Toothless' neck. Toothless' eyes narrowed and he gave an aggravated chuffing sound.
As Astrid let out the breath that had frozen in her chest when the dragon had landed beside her, she formed a resolution. These creatures had to equal humans in intelligence. There was no other way to explain the things she'd experienced in their company. If the village was to survive, she'd need to find a way to get the others to believe it. Hiccup had joined a family of dragons. He was privy to their discussions, he was cherished by his Mate, and those that travelled with him. He was a Night Fury.
It's about godsdamned time you figured that out.
A sharp pain in Astrid's temple made her grunt. 'Hiccup's' voice was much softer than it had ever been, though the words still carried clear. Across the fire, she saw the real Hiccup's laughter cut off, and his strange eyes widened to a frightening degree, pupils shrinking to slits as he stared at her.
As the dragons continued to gurgle and chuckle around them, Hiccup's mouth opened slightly in a look of shock.
"What... what was...?" After only a brief hesitation he shook his head, sending his hair and ears flying. When his gaze returned to her his smile had returned, perhaps even a little wider than before. "Your suggestion sounds agreeable. I'll meet with Stoick, and you and Toothless will both be present with no others. We can sort out any concerns that Berk has that I'm being controlled. You can run back and report this decision, right after you finish your portion of the freshest venison on the island."
Astrid's gaze turned again to the leg that lay draped over the boulder. The meaty end was beginning to spit and hiss. A delicious aroma of baking meat was suffusing the clearing. The smell combined with the promise of eating soon was making it very difficult to concentrate on the strange look that Hiccup had just given her. And when her stomach rumbled, she quite suddenly realized that the empty space in her gut was burning with an intensity that could not be ignored.
And when she glanced back to the black scaled beings across the fire, she found that the air of solemn discussion had dissipated so completely, it was difficult to imagine this meeting was in any way serious. Toothless was now being treated to a scratch along the neck just behind his ear. Hiccup was simultaneously looking across at the female. His expression and ears shifting and changing ever so slightly, as though he were carrying on a conversation. The tension and readiness that had so long stayed with her now evaporated away and she was left relaxed in a setting that was about as close to domestic as she could imagine in the middle of a forest clearing.
Astrid leaned forward and lifted the large lump of flesh, trailing its leg bones behind. It was still slightly rare, just the way she enjoyed her meat. As she tore a strip from the haunch with her teeth, she saw Hiccup beaming at her from his place, nestled into the crook of his Mate's side.
She smiled back at him.
There was plenty of work to keep Stoick's mind occupied. He helped the villagers to raise canvases on wooden stakes with lines of rope to create a makeshift campthat hugged the side of the mountain within a few steps of the hall entrance. Now three different pavilions stood, one filled with furs to allow some to rest and sleep, another for the sick to breath fresh air and be tended to by the Elder. Beneath the third canopy, villagers were busily gathering and taking stock of all the weapons available and in working order.
He'd helped to carry wood, ensured that the sick and wounded were comfortable and mending, all the while his breaths became deeper and his legs and back stronger and more willing to support him. Through it all however, he could not stop his ceaseless wondering after Astrid and her mission. She'd been gone for three hours so far, and dawn would not be far off. A trio of Vikings was standing lookout down the hill, nearer to the crater where Astrid had disappeared into the forest accompanied by two dragons.
A slight shudder passed through Stoick as he remembered their cool, calculating stares. What were the beasts capable of? Would Astrid be able to arrange a peaceful meeting? Was parlay even possible with dragons?
His years of experience on the battlefield told him no, but some nagging small piece of his mind insisted quite loudly that Hiccup had clearly placed some sort of protection on Astrid. She'd been led peacefully into the woods, her escorts seeming to give her a comfortable space between themselves and her. As comfortable as one could possibly be in such close proximity to the beasts.
Astrid had been in close contact with one of the beasts for more than a month. She seemed to have developed a calm that held sturdy even with the possibility of a quick death treading silently beside her. She suspected that they were intelligent. What Stoick had witnessed down near the forest had served to reinforce that theory.
Similar thoughts had been tumbling around in Stoick's mind all night long and he was so busy mulling over the various possibilities, that he almost didn't hear the shout.
"Scout on the forest border!" Every head that was not resting on a pillow jerked westward to the sight of one of the lookouts sprinting up the hill.
Stoick lifted his spear, just in case his newfound strength was to ebb and trotted towards the lookout, a group of five surrounding him as he went. About halfway between the forest and Berk's new camp, they met.
"Report." Stoick barked tersely.
"One of the devils just slinked out of the forest, Chief! We didn't even see it at first, but it jumped around a bit, like it wanted to get our attention, then it just sat and stared. Its tail is all curled around its legs, almost looks like a cat, Chief!" The Viking was not even in his twenties, and had only joined Berk as a man in the past year. He'd yet to obtain the hardness that came with years of struggle on a battlefield, and he was clearly unnerved by this strange behavior. Stoick clapped him on the shoulder.
"Excellent. Thank you, Balwin. All of you head, back to the others and give them a hand. I'll meet the devil." Balwin gave Stoick a look of admiration and a quick salute before dashing back toward the canopies, accompanied by the disgruntled mutterings of the others.
When he reached the two other lookouts, the scene was exactly as Balwin had described. A single Night Fury sat with tail wrapped catlike around its legs. It stared up at the three Vikings before it with partially lidded eyes. It somehow managed to look distinctly bored.
Upon seeing Stoick, its eyes snapped wide and it rose to its feet, tail lazily sweeping through the air behind it. It turned and gave a thunderous screech into the forest. Stoick tightened his grip on his spear, intent on being prepared for whatever came. This screech was clearly a signal.
But to his relief, rather than a horde of dragons rushing from the darkness, Astrid walked calmly and purposefully into view. For a moment Stoick struggled to get a clear view as she strode from the shadows into the flickering light of the lookouts' torches. He saw with a jolt that there was blood splattered on the outer side of her cloak.
"Astrid! Are you oka..."
"Fine! Fine!" Astrid cut him off abruptly. "It's just from the food they gave me."
Stoick felt his eyebrows ascend into the recesses of his helmet.
"We don't have much time, they've given me twenty minutes to tell the village and bring back our response. Let's get up there, quickly!" And with that, Astrid took off jogging up the hill. For a moment Stoick glanced back to the dragon at the forest's edge. It had sunk once again onto its haunches, tail wrapped about its legs, waiting.
He turned away and grunted, "You two, keep an eye on it," before stomping back up the hill after Astrid accompanied by his five guards. Many of the Vikings above could see that Astrid and Stoick were heading towards them and everyone began to congregate rapidly. When Stoick had finally lumbered back to the canopies, he was out of breath.
Astrid stood on top of a stack of boxes, making sure that everyone could hear her. "Alright everyone. I was taken to the place where the dragons are roosting. It's the same cove that we found Hiccup and his Night Fury in before he left." Disturbed mutterings passed around the gathered Vikings. "Hiccup met me in person, in a smaller clearing with only a few dragons present. His Night Fury is named Toothless on account of the fact that they have retractable teeth." Astrid did not allow the resulting mutterings to build into conversation, launching ahead in a business, no-nonsense tone.
"Hiccup and I discussed a number of things, but focussed primarily on Berk and their demands. They've agreed to a meeting between Stoick and Hiccup, with a single condition. Hiccup's dragon is not willing to allow this meeting to take place unless he is present to protect Hiccup. Toothless, and for that matter the entire group of Night Furies do not trust us in the slightest." Astrid paused for a moment to draw a deep breath. "During our discussion I both witnessed and heard interactions between the dragons themselves, and Hiccup, that leave me in absolutely no doubt that their intelligence is equal to humans."
There was no repressing this reaction. Fearful speech blossomed among the assembled villagers like fire through dry grass. Many began to yell angrily at Astrid, asking if she'd entirely taken leave of her senses, but Stoick could see the solid determination in her face.
"During our discussion, Hiccup took note that I have not eaten in more than a day. He made a request of two of the other dragons present to bring me meat, and that's exactly what they did. As our discussion was coming to a close, they returned with a haunch of venison, which they promptly set over fire to cook for me. Hiccup did not speak verbally but was able to somehow communicate his desires to the dragons. He is their mouthpiece."
A heavy silence fell over the assembled Vikings. Stoick could practically see the cogs turning in their heads. If Hiccup can do something like that, surely they must have some sort of hold over him? He won't come without a dragon. There's no way to prove that he's not.
Astrid's voice rose again to pierce the thick silence.
"Hiccup will only meet with Stoick if Toothless is present, and to balance the numbers, they will allow me, to accompany Stoick." The talk that came now was subdued. Quiet wonderings and fearful questions. "They've given us fifteen minutes to deliberate." Astrid now sat down on her box as the questions from the villagers became louder and angrier.
"What do you mean they're as smart as...?!"
"...are we supposed to...?!"
"...dead! We can't just..."
Stoick rolled the facts over in his mind.
Hiccup was entirely unwilling to meet without a dragon present. Most here would take that as blatant evidence that he was under their control. But Astrid had been very precise in her choice of words. The dragons were on level of intelligence with humans, and they were strategically protecting their 'mouthpiece': The one among their ranks that could communicate with humans. Or at the very least, the dragon that seemed to never leave Hiccup's side was protecting him. And then there was the fact that they wanted Astrid to accompany him. Was this perhaps because of the time she'd already spent in the beast's company? Stoick thought it more than likely.
"I'd like to speak!" Stoick's voice was still strained and hoarse, but just as the fresh night air had invigorated his muscles, he now felt his voice carry over the chatter with far less pain. The others fell silent to listen.
"It's clear by this new deadline they've presented that this is the time to choose our path. There's no room for further negotiations here. Hiccup has presented the dragons' final terms for a discussion. His position is clear, either we take this opportunity to negotiate peace, or we place ourselves in opposition and hold out as long as we can before they blast us off the face of the island." No muttering followed these statements. Every eye was fixed on Stoick. When he looked up toward Astrid, he found her with brows knit in a concerned scowl.
Since our destruction is pretty much assured in the case of opposing these beasts, it's my opinion that we cannot afford to pass up an opportunity to make peace." Out of the corner of his eye, Stoick saw Astrid heaved a sigh. Was it a sigh of relief? "We all saw the destruction they're capable of."
Silence reigned over the villagers of Berk.
"I would like to take them up on this offer. I'll meet Hiccup, with Astrid."
"We can't trust them Stoick! Especially with Astrid's insights about their intelligence. Who's to say this isn't just a ruse to kill you, or worse, take you prisoner to enforce their wicked will over us!?" Many Vikings were now nodding in agreement.
"I have no idea whether that possibility holds any water at all. But I agree that such a meeting cannot be undertaken without some contingency plan." The mutterings quieted. "What I suggest is this. Everyone who's able to fight will arm and conceal themselves in the camp here. We'll set up the meeting to be as close as we can without being suspicious. If the dragons break the parlay, we can make our last stand here outside of the Great Hall and in the light of day!"
There was a hearty cheer from the villagers all around.
"Excellent. Spitelout! Start organizing, make sure that every Viking able to fight has a weapon that they can use with competence." The surly Viking clapped a fist over his heart. "Astrid, I'm guessing they're waiting for you to return alone to give our response?" The girl nodded slowly. "Then get down there and tell them that we accept their terms. You and I will meet Hiccup midway between the crater and the tents at next midday." Astrid stood and also clapped her fist to her chest.
"Right." She turned and leapt off the crates to sprint down the hill to the cheers of those around her.
As the Villagers began to scuttle back and forth around the camp, arranging boxes, erecting canvases between the supports of the canopies to create concealed spaces for the armed Vikings to wait within, Stoick stepped slowly to the edge of the hill where it began to slope away down toward the forest. As a cloud passed, the crescent moon illuminated the forest edge slightly.
Stoick saw Astrid kneeling in the grass speaking, not to Hiccup, but directly to the Night Fury that sat on the edge of the forest. After a few minutes, Astrid stood, and the dragon stood with her. As she rose, she turned away, exposing her back to the dragon and staring up at Stoick. It turned and vanished into shadow.
A strange feeling slithered its way down Stoick's spine.
"Admit it, she's not that bad."
Toothless kept his eyes closed, feigning sleep despite the fact that everyone present knew he was awake.
"Come on! She hardly even flinched when Skuru landed next to her! She's going to see the whole truth in no time!"
Toothless lifted his head, abandoning the pretense of sleep and brought it around to bear on the grinning boy beside him.
"Hiccup, at the moment I just can't muster the strength. It was exhausting holding in all of the swipes I wanted to take at her through that exchange."
"But it wasn't that bad!"
"I was a few claws short of leaping across that fire and giving her a good knock about the ears."
"You're being dramatic."
"I'm just glad she ate the deer. She looked about ready to waste away beneath that cloak." Skuru's voice was chirping and lighthearted as usual.
"I definitely saw the light of change in her eyes." Sycle's heavy tones resounded with a finality that silenced argument from Toothless. "She will come to us again on more equal footing in the future, and she is an asset to have amongst the other humans of this isle."
As silence fell in the wake of Sycle's statement, Toothless' mind came once again back to Tutore, the strange reclusive dragon that walked with the girl. When he'd first come into contact with the Wings, he'd simply started rattling off the story of how he came to have a human child riding on his back. No explanation of his reasoning, not even a hint of why he'd been on Berk in the first place. He'd simply spoken and fallen silent. At least until Hiccup had mentioned the Heart's Fire.
Even now he stood at the edge of the forest and waited for the girl's return, silent and unreachable. Who was he? Why was he here?
"She has a similar feeling about her to you Hiccup, back when I first met you and Toothless. An odd one. Different from her kind, perhaps not to the same degree as you were, but it's there. Did you see how the Stripling clung to her?" Ryshkaa was lying on her back, balancing with wings and tail outstretched, and blowing smoke rings upwards to form shapes that slowly dissipated in the weak light of the embers.
The "Terrible Terror" as the Vikings labeled them, had ridden Astrid's shoulder as she stepped into the clearing, and had happily nestled itself into her lap after she sat. She'd seemed entirely absent minded concerning its presence, as though she'd forgotten that it was there.
"It was certainly more comfortable than I would have expected. Doubtless she won't let the others see that she's so friendly with it. Do you think my father will accept the terms?"
"With a twenty-minute deadline they will have to decide between that and annihilation. The humans seem to have been laid low while you were away Hiccup. I think it more than likely." Again, Sycle's opinion dropped its weight over all present and a quiet fell. High above Berk, a hundred Shades circled and flitted, waiting for what the girl might say.
In the lull, Hiccup turned and leapt upward to land sprawled on Toothless' back.
"To be fair to you, bud, I had about as much trouble behaving myself as you did, though in different ways." He pulled himself forward to sink his teeth into the base of the dragon's ear. With a great jolt, Toothless launched himself off the ground, rearing onto his hind legs and spreading his wings for balance. For the thirty seconds Hiccup kept his teeth embedded, Toothless was frozen in a strange, human-like standing position with shudders passing constantly down his spine and out along his wings.
Skuru was laughing heartily but eventually Ryshkaa stood and brought her tail whipping around in a well-aimed strike, dislodging Hiccup and sending him tumbling into the dirt, laughing the whole way. For a moment, Toothless stayed in his upright pose, baring his teeth in Ryshkaa's direction, until she also began to laugh along with the rest of the Wing.
Toothless subsided back into a normal standing position before turning slowly and stalking over to Hiccup, eyes narrowed. The boy had risen to a sitting position, looking over his shoulder at his Mate. As the last few embers in the pit subsided into darkness, leaving the clearing in inky blackness, Toothless leaned down and let his teeth find their familiar place at Hiccup's shoulder.
"You don't get off so easily, runt."
Hiccup's eyes had rolled back into his head, which fell limp against his shoulder as his nerves fired aimlessly. The rest of the Wing was spared further undisguised intimacy when a screech echoed through the trees.
Nylish's voice broadcast itself across Sycle's Wing. "Sycle, Gallic, the girl is running back towards us! We're about to get an answer."
Toothless pulled Hiccup up by the shoulder, causing the boy to gasp, almost as though he were choking. He then swiftly curled around him and secured them beneath his wing, closing his eyes to watch through the eyes of the lone sentinel.
The hills that lead upwards toward the Great Hall and what remains of the humans is bathed in the palest silver from a tiny crescent moon that is just peeking out from behind the clouds. The young girl is dashing quickly toward us.
She skids to a halt, narrowly avoiding falling on her face. Quickly she gives an awkward bend in the center of her body, looking again as though she might fall on her face. She instead drops to one knee. We lower our head nearer to the ground, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible.
"The Chief of Berk, Stoick the Vast, would like to accept a meeting with his son, Hiccup, and his Mate, Toothless. I will also be present at this meeting. At midday we will discuss the terms of our alliance halfway between the crater and our makeshift camp."
The human kneels silently, breathing a little heavily after speaking her entire piece in one breath. We watch, and wait.
"Could... um... could you perhaps give me some kind of signal? Is this okay? Are we good?" The girl sounds unsure, but we do not know how to make her feel at ease.
Toothless waited for a moment to see if Hiccup would respond, but he still seemed to be a little addled from the system shock that the Shade's teeth had imposed.
Hmm... bad timing.
Toothless responded in his Mate's place.
"Bob your head up and down. It's an affirmative sign among humans."
Awkwardly, we move our head up, and down, keeping our shoulders in the same place and eyes fixed on the girl.
"I don't think that was quite it, but she seems to get the picture." The girl sits back on her ankles instead of kneeling. She draws in a long deep breath and lets it all out at once. Then she opens her eyes again and looks intently at us.
"Also, please warn Hiccup and all the others: Berk is concealing an armed force in the tents during this meeting. I doubt they'll be very calm about it either. Please, please ask Hiccup and the others to be lenient with us should any of my people act aggressively; they're just scared and I know they're not a match for you."
Having delivered this quiet and pleading message, the girl rises to her full height and turns back up the hill. We follow her gaze. High above, looking down at the both of them, face hard and marred by burns, is Stoick the Vast.
Hiccup gave a strange jerk in Toothless' embrace.
As Nylish turned away from the Vikings and melted back into the forest to observe unseen, Hiccup subsided away from the other members of their Wing and withdrew, his mind fading from the group. Wordlessly, Toothless dived after him.
Their shared mindspace seemed brighter than usual. A slight tinge of grey colored the otherwise black void outside the orbiting spheres, making the golden and violet sheens of each glow slightly, like the morning mist as it curled around burning torches.
Toothless sped towards the hole in his Mate's mind, slipping through as aureate light washed across his body. Below, where the boy's conscious and subconscious minds started to meet, Hiccup was hunched in on himself, lying on his side in a patch of mist that circled midway down in his mind.
As Toothless alighted on the same cloud, he watched the nearby wisps begin to bulge, deform and coalesce. After a brief rushing wind, the figure of Stoick the Vast towered over both of them. His image here was not burned or disfigured, but enormous and powerful, glaring down at the two of them with eyes as cold as ice.
Hiccup was trembling as he stared up into the fearsome face obscured by its cloak of red, braided beard.
"I don't want to have to face him." Toothless leaned down and pressed his snout into the crook between Hiccup's shoulder and neck.
"You did just fine when we were delivering the ultimatum."
"That was rehearsed. Practiced. All I had to do was talk, keep him from talking, then leave. I'm actually going to have to converse with him now. Form a deal. Represent the Shades as more than just a harbinger of doom."
"We will all be with you. Especially me. Astrid will be there too. You've started to like her, remem..." A low growl left Toothless' throat as he realized the implications of his own words.
"Hey! You know that she's no threat at all to you!" Hiccup shouted, his morose face at once cracking as his usual smile surfaced through his worry. "Don't you go making territorial displays in front of her, it'll just make her ill again!"
Toothless inclined his head, running his forked tongue lightly from the small of his Mate's back up to the base of his skull, all the while pushing down with a paw, effectively pinning the human hybrid. The air rushed from Hiccup's lungs as his mind relaxed, and above the fearsome visage of Stoick flickered and began to fade.
Hiccup laughed again and tilted his head to give the drake better access to his neck.
"I will be there as well."
Both sat bolt upright and stared at each other as a new, familiar voice echoed hollowly through Hiccup's mind.
Immediately, Hiccup lifted away from his repose and shot straight downward to where his mind was darker and the thoughts moved and shifted, forming and dissolving of their own accord. Toothless followed.
Down, down they dropped, past the most basic instincts and urges. Down to where another, darker light pulsed slowly, at the very base of the mind.
Toothless slowed to a stop and stared at what lay before him.
Just above the beat of Hiccup's heart, the most instinctual part of the mind, was an enormous structure. Fiery golden lines wound their way through each other, forming spirals, corkscrews, and weaving a pattern so complex that it was impossible to trace a line from one side to the other.
With each pulse of Hiccup's heart, the light passed through this latticework of fire from the bottom, all the way to the top, and Toothless could dimly see a faint, silver glow emanating from the structure's center, distinct from Hiccup's heartbeat. The voice spoke again, much louder now, thundering all around them.
"You may call upon me whenever you are in need, and I will do my best to assist. However, it's up to you to maintain control."
Hiccup reached out a hand and passed it slowly through the outermost threads of the fiery web, causing them to spark and flicker.
"Thank you, Elder."
AN: Posted on my bio because it's too long to put in here.