Author's Note: Again, another longer chapter (couldn't help myself) Plus, there is some serious psychological craziness going on here; seeds of doubt, fear…all in a day's work, I suppose. And hey, I managed to update twice this month! (Never mind that this is the last day of November) Read on, enjoy, and tell me what you think—especially of how all the different Dragoneyes' personalities are shaping up. Do you guys like them like this? Are their personalities too different, too similar, too just-plain-weird…?

Half the Power, Twice the Spirit

Part Nine: Passing Shadow of a Dragon's Silhouette

Bano studied them all, idly running his hands along the pale feathers on his forearms. "So—we're all off to save the Empire and hopefully not get killed while we're doing it."

"That would be the best possible outcome, yes," Chion nodded faintly. "But, as you all well know, plans often go awry… Fate won't let anyone escape its grasp, and I think we may all have a turn at playing the pawn before all is said and done."

The Rooster halfling raised his eyebrows. "Cheery bunch, aren't you?"

"Oh, we're cheerful all right," Ido drawled. "I'll be cheerful once this quest is over and done, and we'll have either changed the world or—more likely—we'll all be dead and everything will die." The unspoken end of the sentence was clear to all of them: Even the dragons. Because what were the dragons without the land they had long ago tethered themselves to? Without the Empire—could there even be dragons?

Bano laughed; an oddly jarring sound to those who had not heard such a sound in the time they had spent on this earth—and it was a genuine laugh, not one provoked by falseness or nervousness. "Oh ye of little faith—the dragons have guided us thus far, haven't they? We say it's of our own minds and our own choices; but be sure of it: we're being herded together—for better or worse, we are little more than cattle to the slaughter—and if we can change the world…?" The Rooster halfling spread his arms. "Let those old historians huddle and gawk; our names will be written in stone! We will be remembered forever as the ones who brought the end of the blight!"

"Forever," Tyron said solemnly, "until the stone is worn away by time and the cycles of the land."

Bano dropped his arms, moment of glory gone. "No faith," he repeated, shaking his head. "I'm sure more than half of us have become thieves in this time; nobody would trade with a halfling, not even if they were one breath away from dying and us their only hope of salvation. When times get rough, you're barely getting enough food to live off of—sometimes faith is all you have. Hope that the dragons have seen the mistreatment of their children and will someday make it right."

"But—" the Dog halfling paused, ears twitching ever so slightly in fear at being the center of attention once again. Still, he carried on with his sentence. "—sometimes you wonder…if you're not the ones they're holding out for; the dragons—they have to be—waiting for a certain…certain kind of halfling to appear, or else they'd never have let the people of the Empire scorn us so. They would have intervened—and sometimes…you have to think, 'Maybe I'm not the one they want. Maybe…maybe it's the next Dog halfling. Or the one after him. Or—or even hundreds of years past now. Or—or maybe he's already dead and we've lost our chance.' "

"Maybe we are, though," Bano insisted.

"And maybe we aren't," Chion said, raising his eyebrows. "We can stand here and argue all day about whether or not we're meant to save this world—"

"Like cattle to the slaughter," Garon interrupted, eyes shining with a horrified realization. "What if—what if this—this Spirit Dance—" He glanced towards Kygo to see if the wording was correct; the Prince Heir nodded once as the Dog halfling carried on, buoyed by the terrible idea that had come to him. "—what if this Spirit Dance is how we save the world—by all of us dying in sacrifice to the land? Killed by the hunters for their insane, twisted ideals—but maybe they're right! Maybe—maybe we all have to die for everything to be set right!"

"That can't be right," Kygo frowned thickly, eyes narrowing. "My father wouldn't tell me to gather you all in preparation to see you sacrificed! That's not what the Spirit Dance is!" His thoughts are wild, like the winds of the mountains racing about the peaks: The Spirit Dance can't be to kill all the halflings at once! It just—can't be!

"But you don't even know what the Spirit Dance is," Ido pointed out, his ears standing up, wide and perked. He did not want to die; but he would be lying if he thought that Garon's words didn't have the slightest grain of possible truth to them. "Nobody knows—not you, not us, not even your father the Emperor knows what—exactly—the Spirit Dance is! We're assuming that the dragons know, but—what if they don't, either? What if the Spirit Dance is some made-up fantasy from a dusty old book that has nothing to do with what's going on now?"

Chion turned his snake's eyes towards Kygo. "How exactly did your esteemed father discover the existence of the Spirit Dance? Is it truly from a 'dusty old book'? Or does it come from another source entirely?"

Kygo hesitated, casting his thoughts back to when his father had first made mention of the Spirit Dance: admitting that the halflings were uncared for by much of the populace, and that he had a difficult task to ask of Kygo. The Prince Heir dug deeper through the memory, and his father's words came to him: "I know you have felt this land slowly fading away. Perhaps—perhaps if you gathered the halflings together, and guided them in the Spirit Dance—perhaps the dragons would see fit to return the lifeblood to the earth." And he could too remember what his father had said after Kygo has asked if he believed that such an idea would save their land—that it was all he could think of to convince the dragons.

Convince the dragons.

His eyes came open with a start. "The dragons!"

"The dragons…what?"

"They told my father! They told him of the Spirit Dance! I am sure of it!" Kygo could not believe that the Emperor had come by it from any other source—he was the highest of the high, below only the dragons, and the dragons must have realized the only way a mustering of the halflings could occur was if they managed to persuade the Emperor that it was worthwhile!

"The dragons—" the Rat halfling muttered, kicking at a stone, "—why am I not surprised at their meddling in—" His voice cut off as some unseen force turned his gaze to the sky; the depthless eyes of the Rat Dragon and in turn all the others of the circle high in the sky were focused on him. He thought he could read some message in the blue dragon's eyes—Be ready—before a great pillar of energy descended from the Rat Dragon and poured into Ido, as surely as if the dragon had placed his pearl upon the halfling's head.

It felt like he had only blinked; but then he was staring up at the sky, the faces of the other halflings drifting in and out of view, Kygo standing farther back. "What just happened?" Bano questioned, hauling Ido to his feet again. "You looked at the sky and—boom! You hit the ground."

Ido glanced around; there was no evidence of the Rat Dragon's power. He forced himself to glance back up, to reach for the mind-sight—a headache already forming—and was relieved that he could still see the dragons in their compass.

The relief vanished as quickly as it had come when he turned his gaze back to the ground and its sea of silver Hua lights.

No blue, brown, copper, white, or purple lights greeted him—no other distant halflings' colors across the land. Just silver, humans' silver, and yet he knew that the other halflings stood before him.

He couldn't see their Hua colors anymore.

The Rat Dragon had taken away his sense of dragon's Hua.

"That's it?" Eona peered down at the cluster of huts. Funny, she'd always imagined the Eastern tribes as…bigger. Maybe because they were the Eastern tribes—as in more than one. So how could this admittedly meager group of houses beside this one lonely river make up the nomads of the East?

"That's it," Ryko confirmed, starting down the ridge. "Remember, they've got the Rabbit halfling. I'm sure they won't mind the fact that you're the Dragon halfling."

Eona nodded once, but she still tried to tuck in her wings as much as she could, carefully making sure to keep her tail close to her legs at all times. She followed the islander down, surprised to note the still-almost-luscious grass blanketing the ground beside the river; and if the river wasn't clear, it was—mostly so, and that was something of a blessing in this day and age.

Movement between the huts caught both halfling and human's attention; silently a man approached them. Eona thought he must be something like a sentry; her thoughts were confirmed when the man spoke, asking, "What business have you travelers with the Eastern tribes?"

Ryko inclined his head, a courtesy. "We wish to speak with Chief Dela. We have traveled far, and there is much to tell."

Eona thought of the words of prophecy: Only when the circle of stones has been washed of the blood of the innocent will life return to power. And of the gathering of the halflings. Yes, there was much to tell, and yet it seemed like they had far too little time to properly speak of it.

The sentry's eyes found her, standing just slightly behind Ryko; his eyes widened and he offered a hasty bow. "I did not realize that the Dragon halfling had chosen to grace our village with her presence! Of course, you must see Chief Dela." He turned and quickly walked back, clearly indicating they were to follow.

Eona and Ryko exchanged glances. "I'm…important?" she asked, unable to hide her surprise; she received a shrug in response. She had never been entirely accepted as a halfling, and then to come here and find that the people here—they wanted to meet her? Because she was the Mirror Dragon's descendant? Because she was a dragon in her own right?

These people honored halflings…

She was not sure what to think of that.

They trailed the sentry in silence; Eona could see flashes of faces in the doorways of the different huts—wide eyes, open mouths; she was certain she heard one child begin to cry—but not the kind of crying of fear, she thought, but of awe. What kind of place have we come to, she wondered—and is it really a part of the Empire of the Celestial Dragons?

They came to a hut that appeared no different than the rest; but the sentry stooped at the entryway and announced, "Chief Dela, there are travelers to see you. The Dragon halfling has come!"

A voice called out, "Send them in." A regal voice; Eona had half the thought that this woman was indeed something like the Emperor—a leader of her people. Ryko and the Dragon halfling were ushered in; by the light of the carefully blazing fire, Eona found who was waiting for them. A woman with dark eyes and dark hair who had a face that was more majestic than beautiful; but it still gave her the look of regality. And sitting off in the shadows, pale eyes glowing with the firelight, long ears rendered to near-insubstantial shadows—Eona knew he was the Rabbit halfling.

Chief Dela studied them both, a shrewdness to her eyes. "Welcome to the eastern lands," she said, gaze flicking to Eona. "Welcome to the land of your ancestor dragon's domain."

She had almost forgotten that the Mirror Dragon's cardinal compass point was East; Eona nodded dumbly, unsure of what to say in the face of such unassuming acceptance.

Fortunately, Ryko spoke, reminding her that he had indeed come with a purpose to the Eastern tribes—he had just never enlightened Eona to what that purpose might be. "Chief Dela, I am Ryko of the far islands; my people and yours were once one tribe, long ago, and we ask that you honor that distant ancestry with aid—the fish in the seas have gone to better spawning grounds, the trees lose their fruit. No others would accept our plea, but perhaps—"

Dela's eyes seemed to become almost sharp as she stared at the islander; Eona had to stop herself from taking a step backwards. "Silvo," the leader of the Eastern tribes beckoned to the Rabbit halfling. He stepped into the light, eyes squinting from the adjusting brightness, rabbit's ears perched almost haphazardly on his head, one halfway curled and the other upright, giving him a lopsided appearance. He had few obvious traits that Eona could see besides his ears and a small, quivering nose, till he turned slightly to take a seat closer to the fire and Eona glimpsed a fluffy tail.

Ryko did not move, did not show he was anything other than focused completely on Dela; the chief rose to her feet. "We believe strongly in the lives of our ancestors," she said slowly, cautiously. "And you may have seen that the grass here is—better-looking—than elsewhere, that our water is still somewhat clean. And this is true, to an extent. But the grass is rotting from the inside out; the water is only moving fast enough to wash away the quantities of silt from upriver trapped in its current. The fish, like those of your islands, disappeared years ago. Few game roams now; it is all skin-and-bones. I am sorry…but we can no more help you than we can help ourselves."

"Ah." Ryko's shoulders hunched, the only sign of his unhappiness. Eona wanted to pat him on the shoulder, say they could survive this—but that would be a lie, because she had no idea how to stop the death of the land.

No. Wait.

She did know.

"Maybe—" She began hesitantly, and Dela's eyes, and Ryko's and Silvo's too, fell on her. She felt for a moment more alone than ever, even in the company of another halfling. But she managed to find her voice again: "—maybe…I might be able to help with the land."

"You, Dragon halfling?" Dela's eyes were kind yet skeptical.

"Eona," she said firmly. "My name is Eona. I know the dragons are gathering the other halflings—" Her eyes skated to Silvo, who looked mildly interested now. "—I think they want us to save the land. And—I think I know how they want us to do it." She knew the words by heart. "Only when the circle of stones has been washed of the blood of the innocent will life return to power."

The words had the ring of prophecy; and she could tell that Dela felt it as the chief settled back down, crossing her arms slowly.

"Well," Dela said finally, studying all of them in turn, "…you think the halflings can bring the Empire of the Celestial Dragons through rebirth?"

Eona met her eyes and she felt as if the Mirror Dragon was floating above her, great eyes in tune with her heart, telling her what to say. "Yes," she swallowed thickly. "Yes—I believe that we are the key."

Dela's eyes glittered with the faint glow of the dying-down fire, flames licking at the coals. "I am not one to disbelieve someone like the Dragon halfling." A tiny smile crossed her face.

"If you know you can do it—Eona—then Silvo and I shall accompany you and Ryko to this gathering of halflings. And perhaps…perhaps we may see the world as we know it changed forever."