Part III of the On Dragons Wings saga.
|The air in the chamber was hot and still, heavy with the smell of ozone, burning the back of Kieran Nightshade's throat as she tried not to breathe too deeply. Despite the heat, she had trouble warding off a chill. Behind her, a low voice rumbled close to her ear.
"You have nothing to fear, you know. You have been invited. You are under the council's protection...and mine."
She looked back over her shoulder. All she could see of her friend in the darkness were his lamplight eyes and the craggy outline of his scaled head. She placed a hand on the dragon's snout. "I know, Mohng. It's just that I've never been around this many of your . . .people before."
"Not many have. Humans are rarely allowed amongst the council, but this is a special circumstance."
"You could have just brought the orb yourself. I didn't need to come."
"You retrieved the orb from Queen Londara. She spoke to you of her intentions to use the orb. You must be the one to tell the council."
"And you are the one who turned the Queen into a shrieking ball of flame. Did you tell them that when you requested this meeting?"
She felt the dragon recoil at the memory. "I still get heartburn at the memory."
"Heartburn? You didn't even eat her."
Mohng's reply was cut short as torchlight appeared around the bend of a corner from a tunnel across the chamber. A lone figure emerged and began lighting torches as it rounded the chamber. As it passed where she and Mohng waited, Kieran could see it was male, and by the angular features of his face, and point of his ears that it was not human.
An elf! I never thought I'd see one in this part of the country.
Mohng replied as though he had read her thoughts. "There has always been a strong bond between the elf-folk and my people, going back centuries, since the men cast us both out of their society."
There was sadness in the dragons voice that Kieran had never heard before. She knew that most of the races of Druimoor kept to themselves nowadays, the backlash of some long-ago war, the reason for which most beings now could not even remember. But judging by Mohng's reaction, it bothers the dragons.
The elf finished lighting the sconces, then moved to a pit in the center of the chamber and tossed in his torch. The pit erupted in flame, and in the firelight Kieran could see just how immense the chamber was. Several more tunnels were leading away into the darkness, only these were large enough to fit a Diverian battle wagon through. Or a really big dragon. Or dragons.
With the stealth characteristic of his people, the elf faded back into the darkness of the tunnel he had emerged from. All was quiet once again, save for the heavy sound of Mohng's breathing.
After a moment, another sound from one of the larger tunnels caught Kieran's attention, something akin to the sound of leather dragging across stone. The slithering multiplied as it sounded from a second tunnel, and a third, fourth, and fifth.
From each of the darkened tunnels, tiny, dual lamplights appeared, growing larger until Kieran realized that they were eyes like Mohng's. Like specters, dragons emerged from the tunnels, moving to take positions encircling the fire pit. Each of the five council dragons was as different from one another as men were from elves, and elves were from dwarves.
The council had arrived.
An impressive-looking dragon with deep red scales and golden horns spoke up, addressing the others in his rumbling dragon-speak. He spoke for several minutes, pausing only for short interjections from the others. Kieran, her knowledge of their language limited to a few key phrases Mohng had taught her, had no idea what was being said. She was more than a little surprised when she understood the next phrase clearly. "Kieran Nightshade, come forth. Approach the council."
At that moment Kieran thought she might choke on her own heart, which had suddenly seemed to lodge in her throat. Old doubts about the honor of dragons began to creep in. She had an unshakeable trust in Mohng, but she was unsure about others of his kind. And every one of them is bigger than Mohng by half.
Mohng gave her a gentle push with his snout. "Remember, they have vowed your protection. This is a safe place, and I am with you."
Reassured, though not relieved, she took a deep breath and stepped forward into the firelight, taking solace at the sound of Mohng's footsteps behind her. Despite the assurances, she was still afraid her nervousness would cause her to throw up. And wouldn't that make a great first impression?
She looked around at every council member, summoning enough courage to meet each dragon's gaze. For the most part, the looks they returned were curious, even congenial, though she was in no way an expert on dragon facial expressions. It was the look of the large grey dragon to Mohng's left that gave her pause. There was no mistaking the look of disdain directed at her. Despite her proximity to the firepit, Kieran forced back a shiver.
"We of the council welcome you, Kieran Nightshade," the red-gold dragon said. "It has been a long time since one of your people has stood among us."
"Not long enough for some of us," the grey grumbled just loud enough to be heard.
The red glanced briefly in the grey's direction but made no reprimand. He refocused on Kieran. "You have earned a dragon's loyalty and friendship. No easy feat for a human. Therefore we shall deem you worthy of being heard by us. I am Sabic." He inclined his head in her direction.
Kieran was unsure how to respond. She and Mohng had never discussed dragon protocols. Does one curtsey in front of a dragon? She settled on returning the bowed head. "I am honored. Thank you for seeing me."
As a show of respect that she and Mohng did discuss, she pulled a flintlock pistol–the only weapon she carried–from the sash around her waist and, kneeling, placed it on the ground and stepped away.
The dragons of the council all murmured their approval at the gesture. All, except the grey, who scoffed, "She lays her weapon at our feet, as though she could do us harm with it anyway."
"Enough, Nimodo," Sabic countered. "She is our guest and has shown us the proper respect. You will accord her the same."
Nimodo said nothing more, but the look he shot Kieran spoke volumes. One of these days, I think he and I are going to have a serious disagreement.
Sabic looked around the chamber, waiting for any of the others to make a challenge. Satisfied that all was at peace once more, he fixed his feline gaze back on Kieran. "Now, Miss Nightshade, please reveal to us what you have brought."
Kieran felt more than a bit hesitant. How could she be sure that their intentions were honorable, and that this was not some great act of deceit?
She looked back at Mohng. He remained quiet and met her gaze for the barest moment. Kieran saw nothing but serene confidence in his face. She trusted him with every fiber of her being. Nimodo aside, if Mohng trusted the council, she would as well.
Stepping forward once more, she reached into the pouch at her hip, feeling the warmth of the object before she touched it. Its soft, blue light blazed forth from her pack, casting eerie shadows in the depths of the chamber. The orb was near weightless and as she cupped it in her hand, Kieran could just hear the faint, otherworldly music that emanated from within. Several of the dragons gasped audibly at the sight.
"The Orb of Sephedris," a blue-green female to Kieran's right said, a mixture of awe and fear in her voice. "The rumors are rumors no more."
Sabic craned his neck, squinting to get a better look. "It indeed looks to be. It has been such a long time since it was last seen that we took it to be lost forever." He looked more directly at Kieran. "You say it was found in a village?"
"We were approached by the villagers of Weetamoo, who told us it had been stolen from them," she answered. "They were the ones who hired us to retrieve it."
"Kept in a village," Sabic said, more to himself than Kieran. The concern in his voice was palpable. "But the village is not where you came upon it?"
Kieran shook her head. "In the castle of Queen Londara of the Northlands. Needless to say, she won't come looking for it."
"We know of Londara," said the female beside Kieran. "If she is gone, this can only be a good thing."
"I would not rejoice too quickly, Minic," Sabic said. "If she knew of the orb, then others must as well. Others more powerful than she."
"She spoke of having a master," Kieran interjected. "That's the reason we brought this here to you instead of returning it to the village. I've seen its power up close. I didn't want it falling into the wrong hands again."
"And you were right to do so," Sabic said, "You honor us with your trust. You will be welcome before us again." He gestured to the dragon beside him, the smallest of the group with a more serpentine body and golden scales. "Shen Tzin and the Eastern clans will be able to keep it safe, I think."
"You honor my clan with this task," Shen Tzin said to Sabic, then inclined his head in Kieran's direction. "Rest assured, Kieran Nightshade. Should any come to claim the orb without the blessing of the council, they shall find it a most difficult undertaking."
Kieran took heart at the words. She knew her people to be generally distrustful of dragons, but in the past months since she had met Mohng, she was learning they were more trustworthy than many of her own race.
The exception being Nimodo. The grey was still eyeing her with venom in his gaze. She knew if she should encounter him on her own, the outcome would not be pleasant.
"We of the council now have other business to discuss with Mohng, alone," Sabic said. "Dharien here will show you where you may wait."
Kieran was startled by the elf's sudden, silent reappearance at her side. He favored her with the same warm smile he had before, gesturing back toward the tunnel through which she and Mohng had entered.
She looked to Mohng, who nodded. "It will be alright, Kieran. I will be along shortly."
Still hesitant, Kieran picked up her flintlock and followed Dharien out of the chamber. Almost immediately, the dragons began speaking again in their own tongue. Should have paid more attention when Mohng tried to teach me his language, she thought, straining to make out what was being said.
They walked several minutes, following a climbing, twisting corridor before reaching another chamber. A small wooden bench along one wall was the sole piece of furniture. A hole in one wall provided a natural window looking down on the council chamber, but from this height, even Sabic looked tiny, and their conversation was barely a whisper.
Kieran turned, thinking to strike up a conversation with her guide, but he had disappeared again, but not before leaving a pot of broth and some biscuits seated on the bench. I have got to learn how they sneak around like that.
She waited, sipping some of the broth and nibbling at a biscuit while listening to the muted, unintelligible conversation from below. After a few more moments had passed, she thought she heard an odd, shuffling sound coming from the corridor outside the chamber, growing louder with each passing moment. She knew it could not be her elf guide returning, or she would not have heard it at all.
The sound stopped just outside the chamber, far enough in the shadows to yet be invisible. Suddenly glad she had remembered to grab her flintlock, she pulled it from her belt, laying it casually beside her on the bench, but not before cocking the hammer back.
The next sound was a breath, or rather an inhalation, so strong it seemed to suck all the air from the chamber. Kieran's hair fluttered in front of her face from its pull. A voice followed, so deep that it sounded like it was coming from further down the corridor than it was.
"Nightshade!" The voice had such force behind it that Kieran thought it could have lifted her off of the bench. Her heart hammered in her chest. "MacKenzie Nightshade! Is that your blood I smell, old friend?"
A face appeared in the entrance, a dragon face, grey of scale, and for a moment Kieran feared that Nimodo had come after her until it spoke again. "MacKenzie Nightshade, is that you?"
She examined the face closer. It was most definitely not Nimodo. This dragon was older, much older. Several horns on his snout were broken off. His right eye had a milky sheen to it and his left was missing, along with several scales above and below forming a jagged scar.
Kieran cleared her throat. "Nightshade, yes, but my name is Kieran. MacKenzie was my grandmother."
The dragon moved further into the chamber, and Kieran was shocked by the roadmap of scars that crisscrossed its body. His left wing was a shredded remnant of its former glory while its right was no more than a stump.
"Grandmother? Humph. Cannot be that long." The dragon cocked its head to favor her with its milky eye, then inhaled again. its nose mere inches from her body, grunting in satisfaction. "You are definitely a Nightshade though, by the scent of ya."
"You knew my grandmother? I never even knew her." Kieran informed him. "She disappeared before I was even born."
"A shame. One of the finest warriors I ever knew."
Kieran's head swam. Warrior? This is getting too weird. "Not to be rude, but who are you?"
The dragon's head reared back in surprise, as though the idea of having to introduce himself seemed ludicrous. "I am Scalebiter."
Kieran did know that name. "You're head of the council, aren't you? Why aren't you down there with the rest of them?"
Scalebiter gave a sound from deep down, a cross between a cough and a sigh. "I may head the council, but my words are no longer heard." He shuffled forward, dragging one rear leg behind him—the slithering sound Kieran had heard—and looked down upon the council far below. "I am a figurehead now. No more. The council does not wish to acknowledge that which I know all too well.
"War is coming to our land once more. Soon."
Kieran felt a sudden chill, knowing full well that it was not because of any draft in the chamber. "How can you be sure?"
"I have lived long enough to recognize the signs. The reappearance of the Orb of Sephedris when it was supposed to have been destroyed long ago is but one. The fact that the council allows one like that dark-hearted Nimodo to sit among them is another."
That made Kieran feel a little better. "Not a fan, huh?"
"We dragons are a generally peaceful race, as I'm sure you've learned, but that Nimodo would see us ally ourselves with those dark races that would bring despair and ruin to the land. Do you know of the wars that lead to the separation of the peoples of Druimoor, child?"
She shook her head. "Some stories. Legends, mostly. Nothing you'd call a definitive history."
"They are not legends. That much is certain. I know. I was there."
"Seven hundred years ago, when I was barely out of my egg, a dark force came to our land. They came from across the seas, bent on conquest. They called themselves the Vawwn, a mix of men, trolls and other vile creatures."
Inwardly, Kieran hoped that Scalebiter was not counting men amongst those vile creatures.
"The peoples of Druimoor united to turn back the invaders," Scalebiter continued. "But the cost was terrible. Tens of thousands perished. The dwarves of the southern plains are all but extinct now. Entire cities were crushed into dust, but in the end, the Vawwn were turned back, back across the sea to the dark place from which they had come."
"The humans wanted to pursue the Vawwn, to lay waste to their lands as they had to ours, but the elves, weary of years of fighting, refused, and my people joined them."
As the dragon paused, he seemed to shrink in Kieran's eyes; the burden of seven centuries coming to rest upon his shoulders. He looked older now than when he first entered the chamber.
"The humans cursed us for cowards and traitors. The rift has not healed since. Elves and humans, once the strongest of allies, became bitter rivals, at best. My people retired to the mountains and forests, and became reviled amongst your people."
Kieran looked away from him, ashamed by that fact. She had seen firsthand how humans reacted to dragons. It was, in fact, that misunderstanding that had brought her and Mohng together. The lies told by her people about dragons were nothing short of blasphemy.
"Years back, long before you were born, the Vawwn made another incursion. It was a far smaller number of invaders this time, but formidable nonetheless. And for the first time in centuries, the races of Druimoor came together to repel the incursion. MacKenzie Nightshade was among them. We fought at each others' sides. She was a cunning warrior. It was her valor at Quil'damoor that saved the day. She slew the Vawwn chieftain and turned the tide of the battle. It was not long before the wretched creatures slunk back once more to their dark lands."
Kieran's head was swimming. My grandmother, a warrior, and a hero at that! Why hasn't anyone ever told me these things? There was too much information to process. She sat on the ground in front of Scalebiter, shaking her head to clear it.
"They will come again, soon," the dragon intoned. "Not today, not tomorrow, but within your lifetime, and mine. And there is not much life left in me."
"How can you be sure?"
Scalebiter gave her what she had learned to be the dragon approximation of a smile, but there was no humor in it. "The cycle is always the same. I have seen it too often to not be sure."
Scalebiter either did not hear her last inquiry or chose to ignore it. "Prepare yourself, Kieran Nightshade. The darkness is coming. The time will come when our land will require the skills of your family once more."
"What skills? I'm no warrior. I can't even fish!"
Again, either unhearing or indifferent, Scalebiter failed to answer. He turned, shuffling back the way he had come. He paused before entering the corridor, looking back over his shoulder. "When I see your grandmother again, I will give her your regards," he said, melting back into the darkness.
Still somewhat stunned by all she had learned, it took her several moments to react to his sudden departure. By the time she reached the tunnel, Scalebiter had disappeared.
Another sound from the opposite end of the corridor, and Mohng came lumbering into view, humming softly to himself the way he always did when lost in thought. He stopped as he drew nearer, cocking his head and sniffing the air. "I see you have met my third-father."
"Scalebiter is your grandfather?"
"I believe that to be the term your people use. Yes, he is my father's father. He is the reason we were granted permission to meet with the council."
So, maybe the old devil's influence isn't as stale as he wanted me to believe. Maybe he's wrong about the coming war too, she thought.
Something, deep inside her soul, told Kieran that he was not.
"Shen Tzin has already departed with the Orb. You can relax now. All is well."
Kieran wanted desperately to believe her friend, but Scalebiter's words kept coming back to her. Prepare yourself, Kieran Nightshade. The darkness is coming.
She looked up at Mohng. The look in his eyes told her what was coming next. "Now to Delva Shien and some fishing?"
Despite her dark mood, Kieran laughed at her friend. Always the optimist. "Sure. It's probably about time we did. Then maybe to Val Goull for some cakes."
"Ooh, cakes!" Mohng turned and began prancing down the corridor like a puppy.
Kieran watched him a moment before following in his wake, wishing she could share in his lightened mood. Sadly, she could not.
The darkness was coming, and Kieran knew it would be soon.
Thanks for reading!
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