Chapter 9: Arrival
Dia Blanc stretched. Something had woken her from her deep slumber. She yawned once more then settled back on her haunches. This sensation was familiar yet unfamiliar, it made her soul hum. She bared her fangs in frustration then faced north. She felt her group stir around her, sensitive to her movements. Her body stiffened as Snow, her mate and rival rubbed up against her side and rubbed his cheek against hers. Angry she pulled away and snapped at him, he growled in response. Quickly she changed form and he joined in an instant.
“What the hell is your problem, did I not tell you not to touch me!” Dia hissed. Snow smirked.
“We are mated.”
“Not by choice, I would never choose a weakling like you!”
Snow frowned and crossed his arms. He had thought being given a mate would mean an easier life, but he had never thought he would have Dia Blanc. She was a ruthless General and constantly moody. He wondered if a softer side to her ever existed. He did not mind the scar that ran from the top of her forehead, down her left eye and mouth to her chin. The sightless eye scared others, but he saw it as a badge of a true survivor.
“What are you staring at?” Dia snarled as she snapped on her arm braces and adjusted the leather. She hated it when people stared at her. Life was hard enough being a female in the White Tiger Army of Heaven, but it was even tougher to bear the scars of it. She resisted the urge to touch the sword wound that had nearly taken her life, at least the one who had given it to her now suffered in the bowels of hell.
With a glare at her mate she took a swig of water from her skin then stretched. For a moment she wondered if life as a human would be better than life as a General. “Everyone wake up!” she yelled hoarsely. Her squad immediately rolled out of their bedrolls and stood at attention. As she suspected they had been feigning sleep. “I want every ready for battle in five minutes and camp packed in ten. Anyone who is slow will be gutted and left behind. Go!”
Dia was not impressed with her new troops. As with any new soldier she required them to remain in human form until they learned to be quick enough to change form in battle, but these troops had been with her for several months and had yet to master the change. “Useless,” she muttered under her breath as she singled out a private who was tangling up the ties of his bed role. A hand held her arm before she could move and she immediately struck out with her free hand, her claws tearing into flesh. The partial change left her feeling drained, but she hid it well.
“You are much too hard on them General,” Snow said touching his face gingerly. Dia snorted and snatched her arm away.
“I run this mission how I see fit. These soldiers are useless. They have yet to master the change.”
“They are far more advanced than any other soldier trained under a different officer. You should be proud, not beating them down.” Dia curled her lip at him and he sighed. For a brief moment he wondered if killing her would be a better option; another time.
The faintest sliver of dawn light fell across Bird’s eyes making her jump. Apple was still curled around her, his snores a gentle rumble that made her body vibrate. Why hasn’t Lore wakened me? she wondered as she yawned. She crawled out from under Apple’s wing and looked around the camp. Yena was sitting in front of a new fire with Elys while Lore cleaned the weapons with Fel. Adwin was nowhere to be seen.
“Morning Briar!” Bird crinkled her nose. She hated the truncation of her last name; it was the last thing of her father’s that she had. “I let you sleep in today. Once Apple wakes we’ll leave the forest and cross the sea.”
“Mmm already wake,” Apple murmured. Bird stopped her herself from turning around until the dragon was dressed.
“Is it possible for you to clothe yourself when you change to human form?” Fel asked as he set aside a throwing knife.
“Takes too much energy; only the strongest of us can do it. We currently have a team developing ways to simplify the ability,” Lore said. “My grandmother told me that before Heaven fell to ruin any dragon could use the ability without compromising their energy and strength.”
“By the time I was born there was only a handful of Drakir who could use the ability, now there is only one,” Elys said.
“Not true, my grandmother can still do it.”
“Child, I’m sick of hearing about your grandmother.”
“Elyseo!” Yena said sharply. The older dragon rolled his eyes and continued to tend the fire. For a brief moment the flames roared into a five foot pillar making everyone jump back. With a roar Elys lunged toward Lore. The younger dragon knocked him aside then followed him down to the earth. The two growled while they grappled with each other kicking up dirt and grass as each fought for purchase on the loose soil.
“Will you two stop trying to rip each other’s clothes off? We don’t have time for your little love quarrel,” Yena said. Faster than Bird or Fel could blink the two dragons separated, their faces red.
“I don’t have time for your games!” Elys growled while he pointed to Lore and Apple. He wiped his chin then stalked away.
“You know he’s not my type,” Lore said pouting. Bird rolled her eyes. Did these two dragons always have to fight?
After a light breakfast they broke camp. Within three hours they flew over a large delta where all the waters of the Hundred Forest of Tears converged into one roaring water fall that emptied into a blue green sea. The water churned foaming white at the top where the rapids tossed it against jagged stones.
Bird leaned forward to catch one last glimpse of the fall before the winds swept them far out to the vast sea. After an hour she realized the dragons were flying in a large circle. Slowly the circle tightened until a gate appeared seeming to be made out of the air. When looking at it directly the gate vanished, but when viewed by the corner of the eye it appeared molded out of the air itself. The edges distorted the horizon behind it, curving it into an impossible angle. The gate was wide enough to allow ten dragons to fly wingtip to wingtip between its opening.
As they neared the gate flames burst to life within the threshold. Undeterred the dragons flew directly into the flames. Bird screamed and heard Fel yell off to her left as Lore carried him through the inferno. The heat seared their skin but did not hurt as they flew beyond the flames. More water stretched out before them, but now on the horizon was a thin jagged green line.
Immediately five dragons appeared in the air before them. They surrounded them and guided them to a small sandbar formed against the coral reef that had broken the surface of the sea. Only one of the new dragons changed shape after landing in the sand. He stood tall and tan holding tight to a spear as he surveyed the group. “State your business,” he said in a husky voice. Judging by the gold scales he had as a dragon Bird guessed that he was over a 300 years old.
Apple set Bird down then shifted to his human form. “I’m Avalon host of the Old one, voice of the flame. I return to Uler having completed my quest given to me by the Oracle of Ethedral.”
“And the others?” Apple introduced each dragon leaving Bird and Fel for last.
“These two are our charges Lavender Blackbriar and Fel Cross.”
“Blackbriar? Did you just say Blackbriar?” the gold dragon asked. He stared at Bird in amazement making her feel uncomfortable. “Are you Wren Blackbriar’s daughter?”
“How do you know my father’s name?” Bird said sharply.
“My whole family knows of him. He lead tigers on such a chase across several countries and could disappear better than a phantom. Helped us many times on an ambush.” The dragon stared off into the distance for a moment with a smile on his lips.
“My father fought tigers?”
“Best Witch we had until he met your mother. He retired after that.” Bird let the information sink in. She remembered very little of her father and only knew him through the stories her mother had told. Not once had she mentioned that her father knew of the Drakir’s secret or fought Heavenly Tigers. “What happened to him after he retired?”
“What?” Bird asked. She had been so lost in her thoughts that she had not heard the dragon’s question. He repeated it.
“I don’t know. My mother said he died, his grave was behind the house.”
“My condolences; your father was a great man.” The dragon turned to Apple. “You may all pass.”
“Wait,” Bird cried out catching the gold dragon’s arm. “What is your name?” The dragon smiled at her kindly. Bird felt her heart skip then looked away feeling guilty.
“My name is Anthem.” He smiled kindly then shifted into dragon form causing her to stumble back and clutch Apple for support. Anthem nodded his head then leaped high into the air. His wings opened with a loud crack and scattered sand across the small sand bar. Soon his squad joined him in the air then angled toward the gate.
“Wow,” Fel murmured. “Wish I was a dragon.” Lore patted him on the back.
“I’d gladly trade with you in a heartbeat,” he said cheerfully. “Being hunted by tigers day and night. Watching your mortal brethren age and die. Spending odd hours of the night staking out tiger strongholds in order to rescue witches… yes, I would give all of that up.”
“On second thought, never mind.”
They quickly left the sand bar and flew toward the thin jagged line on the horizon. As they drew closer Bird realized that the line was made from enormous trees. The ancient giants stretched far above their heads each tree offering a canopy of shade big enough to house an entire village. The trunks were 30 stories high and half as wide. Birds and dragons alike circled the towering giants filling the air with the sound of greeting.
Below the forest floor was shrouded by thick vegetation. Occasionally the vegetation was broken by the flow of water and hills. Bird clutched Apple tightly as she looked ahead and saw a dip in the earth. As they flew closer she could see that it was a valley and at its center was a city so large that it disappeared into the horizon. Even more dragons circled above the city. Some looked as if they were fighting though no one intervened. The city streets were tightly packed in areas as dragons hurried along in human form. Bird wondered for a moment if they were all warriors or if they had more mundane rolls like a regular nation.
Lore pulled abreast of Apple then roared. Apple answered him in kind then angled toward the edge of the city were a large palace complex was built into the side of the valley. Soon they circled over a large square where a lonely dragon stood waving red and white flags in a complex pattern. One by one the dragons landed and changed form quickly to offer more room to the next incoming dragon. Bird moaned as she stretched out her stiff legs. The heat radiating off of the white stones relaxed her muscles slightly, but not enough to relieve all the pain.
Suddenly she felt magic hum within her. The sensation startled her and she turned around to find the dragons’ bodies glow for a moment before they were clothed in champagne colored robes.
“Ah, so the spell has been finished?” Lore said to the dragon with the flags.
“Yes, it took a spark of inspiration about a year ago. All of us have been relieved since its completion. It has been rather embarrassing for the humans for the past millennia. Now if you excuse me, I have more Drakir flying in.”
They quickly cleared the square before Bird could get a good look at the incoming dragons. Apple placed his hand firmly on her back and led them swiftly through the halls of the complex. Bird barely had time to marvel at the detailed stonework as they passed through many rooms and down a staircase that led to an open courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard a grey haired woman sat on top of a plush cushion. Before her sat others on cushions that were less plush. The woman spoke evenly and calmly to them and gestured minimally. She turned her attention to them as they entered the courtyard and a small smile spread across her lips. “Avalon, you’ve returned so soon. Were you successful in your mother’s quest?” Apple bent close and hugged the woman and kissed her cheek.
“Nana, we were. Where is my mother?”
“Meditating as usual in the Serenity wing, she has seen few visitors today.” Nana turned toward Lore and offered up her left hand. Lore immediately lifted her up and swung her around before kissing her cheek. “Lorcan, you little devil, put me down. I know I raised you better than that.” She patted him on the back with one hand. As the young dragon set her down Bird gaped; the woman only had one arm. “I see you have humans with you. How did they come to join you two?” Nana asked as she gave both Bird and Fel a quick once over. Bird shrank back at the fierceness of the gaze and Fel wrapped his arm around her.
“Nana, this is Briar and Fel, they are our charges,” Lore said as he gently put the woman down. “Briar, Fel, this is our grandmother Luriel.”
“Hush,” Nana said to Lore. “Everyone calls me Nana, no reason to introduce me as anything else. Well, let me get a look at you two. I want to see the kind of people that attracted my grandsons.” The look on Nana’s face was kind, but Bird still hesitated with going near the ancient dragon. Fel half dragged her forward before she locked her fear away.
“Hello dear,” Nana said addressing Fel first. “I see you are a brave man, but you still have a lot to learn about people. I’m guessing that Lore is your guardian?” Lore nodded and she patted his cheek affectionately. “I think you are a good match. Now as for you young woman, I sense that you’re a witch, and a powerful one. There is much grief around you and it hinders your abilities. You are very strong to make it this far and not lacking in spirit.”
“She has a terrible temper Nana,” Lore said smiling. Anger flashed inside of Bird banishing all of her fear. She leveled a glare at Lore and heard the seated dragons gasp. Even Nana looked surprised.
“Such power,” Nana mumbled so low Bird almost missed the comment. “I’m surprised that she’s lived this long.”
“Excuse me, but why are you surprised?” Bird asked.
“Briar, ones as powerful as you rarely make it to adulthood; the tigers find them first,” Nana said.
Bird felt a chill go down her spine. Was she really as powerful as she claimed? The thought seemed impossible. If she was powerful then her family would not be dead and Nettie would not be held prisoner by Oliver Redfield. She would have easily rescued them all and escaped. Powerful? No.
“Nana, we must go, shall I visit you later?” Apple asked quietly. The dragon woman nodded and patted his cheek.
“Yes, and bring her with you,” She said pointing at Bird.
They left the hall quickly, Fel dragging Bird along as she looked over her shoulder to catch a last glimpse of Nana. “Apple,” Bird said turning around. She shrugged Fel’s grip then moved to keep pace with the dragon. “How come you didn’t tell me you are cousins with Lore?”
“Well, I didn’t feel like it was important. Most know we’re cousins so we don’t bother introducing ourselves as such.”
“Well you should have.”
“I’m sorry.” Bird huffed and Apple took her hand. “If you want, I can tell you who my mother is.” Bird smiled quickly and squeezed his hand.
“Yes, tell me please. Is she like a dragon queen or something?”
Apple chuckled and shook his head. “No, nothing like that, she’s the Oracle.” Bird stopped walking and Fel ran into her. He grumbled then stepped around her. Apple stopped a few steps later then turned to look back at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Your mother, she’s the Oracle?”
“Yes.” Apple nodded then looked at the other dragons as he wondered what was going through Bird’s head.
“She sent you on a dangerous mission, one that you might never have come back from. If she’s your mother why would she do that?” She shook in anger as she thought of the fights with the tigers they had experienced over the last few months. Why would a mother send her child into such danger? Were dragon mothers that uncaring and harsh?
Apple took Bird’s face in his hands. She flinched then turned away. “My mother has a difficult position. While she loves me, she must think of what’s best for the world. I am not her only child, I’m her one hundredth and the youngest thus far.”
Bird met Apple’s eyes. “You’re her one hundredth, you have brothers and sisters and you never told me?”
“Why would I need to tell you?”
Bird felt her face warm in anger and brushed passed him. They had spent several months travelling together and he had not felt that something as simple as “I have a large family” did not rate as being important? Was she only a burden to him? A stray that he had picked up in a small village?
She wiped her eyes then ran down the hall.
“Avalon,” Lore said crossing his arms and shaking his head. “A friend would share more than you have with Bird. Are you trying to protect her?” Apple sighed and shook his head.
“She’s just a child, no matter that she sees herself as a woman. I don’t want her to grow attached to me especially when we’re at war. The odds of her dying before me are greatly stacked against her.”
“So you’re doing this for yourself,” Lore said cutting him off. The younger dragon turned and went after Bird.
He found her a few halls later sitting on a bench under a window. She had taken off her cloak and set it beside her in a folded bundle with her rucksack. She sat staring at the floor quietly, her cheeks dry and puffy. Lore reached out to touch her shoulder and his fingers banged against an invisible wall. “Bird.”
“That’s the first time you’ve called me that.”
“Well don’t start a parade in celebration, it’s only temporary. Tomorrow I’ll go back to calling you Briar.”
“Fun,” Bird said softly. After a moment she lowered her barrier and allowed Lore to sit next to her.
“Don’t mind Apple, he wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
“He dislikes me, doesn’t he? Was it because I chained him up in my shed?”
“You did what?” Bird felt her face heat. She and Apple had avoided the subject of their meeting by giving sparse details. For one, Elys would have distrusted her more, and secondly, an all-powerful dragon being taken down by a novice witch was not exactly the kind of story the Drakir wanted spreading.
“Don’t tell him I told you,” she pleaded. Lore smiled slyly and Bird hit him in the arm. “I mean it.”
“Ow, such a violent woman, no wonder the tigers haven’t captured you yet. I’m glad you’re on our side.” Bird smiled and leaned her head on Lore’s shoulder. “Listen, Apple has a lot on his plate right now. As the Oracle’s son and the host of the Old One, he has to impress many people. Yes, he is playful at times, but he knows when to be serious. Don’t let his behavior get to you. Know that I’ll always root for you.” Lore winked then helped Bird to her feet. “As his charge, though, you need to realize he will not share everything with you nor should you expect him to.”
“I…I like him, but I don’t want to tell him,” Bird mumbled.
Lore put his hand up to his ear. “What, I can’t hear you?” Bird smacked him in the head with her cloak then stomped away.
“I know you have dragon’s hearing.” Faster than she could blink Lore was in front of her looking serious. He placed his hands on her shoulder and met her eyes.
“Listen, there is much you don’t know about Apple. Do not let it get to you. You know you could get to know me instead?” Bird felt her heart skip then covered her mouth feeling embarrassed.
“No, I’m good, besides who would want such a womanly looking man?” Lore mimed a knife in his chest and staggered back.
“Dear lady you wound me,” he exclaimed before falling against the wall. Bird laughed then helped him up. “You know, you’ll be the death of me.”
“I know I will.”