|I still like the idea a bit, but the execution is pretty.. ouch. Prologue and two chapters, not likely to see more. Oh hell, there's a spelling error in there. .. Whatever.|
And the day had been going so well. The merchant train was only a league out of the city, passing through a grassy ravine, when an arrow had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the the chest of the lead driver. Things had gone steadily downhill from there.
We must have offended one of the gods, the young man reflected bitterly, crouched behind a rocky outcropping where he and several of his companions had fled for shelter. The battle was actually going fairly well. They had managed to defend most of the wagons, and they had only lost two other members of the caravan.
"They should have broken and fled by now," growled one of his companions, a thick-built and heavily bearded man of nearly twice his years. "This isn't natural -- bandits like easy prey."
"Define easy," replied the younger man, knocking an arrow and rising long enough to fire at a bandit who was getting too close to one of the wagons. He ducked back down hurriedly when another arrow whizzed his way in return.
"Most bandits prefer small, undefended caravans," the bearded man grumbled.
Apparently, this misconduct struck at his very core, offending him more deeply than the fact that they had been attacked in the first place.
His younger, pale-haired friend risked a look beyond the outcropping, as the sounds of battle appeared to die down. "They're retreating!" he announced hopefully to his companion, who raised his bushy beard above the line of safety in order to have a look for himself.
His forehead creased. "They're up to something."
The bandits had fallen back to the farther edge of the valley, surrounding their leader, who was appeared to be instructing them in a new tactic. After he finished, the bandits seemed to relax, lounging around the hillside. The leader, however, remained standing, chanting and waving his hands in the distinctive gestures of a spellcasting. The older man drew in a hissing breath. "Get down, boy!" he roared at his young friend, who looked at him, baffled. "That's a summoning spell!"
"Summoning?!" the young man yelped, "Summoning what --" He never received an answer to his question, as the older yanked him down behind the outcropping. Moments later, a shuddering bellow echoed in the air, and a hazy mist drew in around them, coagulating in front of the bandit group to form a massive, inhuman figure. Two twisted horns jutted from either side of its head, and its teeth were bared in a perpetual snarl of hatred and hunger. Its four arms were three-fingered, and each held a massive weapon, and instead of an ordinary midsection and legs, its torso rested upon a long, snake-like midsection and tail.
A low moan swept through the survivors of the merchant train, as with another thundering roar, the mist demon sprang toward them, intent on destruction. Then, almost unnoticed in the chaos, a rich, female voice began to chant softly, then with growing strength.
"Herald of Almighty, you who sweep through the grass of the fields, and pass unnoticed in the township of human habitation, bring your message to those who would oppose me!" There was a pause, then a gathering of power that made the mens' hair stand on end. The demon turned, the snarl on its lips curling deeper with anger and pain. The voice came again, almost regretful. "Then you leave me no choice." Something akin to a silent thunderclap rent the air as the spell was released. "God's Breath on Wings of Angels!"
The demon screamed, and the air surrounding him glowed with a momentary light. A breeze stirred the air, growing in power as it lashed around the demon's writhing form, which appeared to be tattering at the edges as the wind lashed it. Another minute of impotent struggle passed, and with a final shriek, the demon vanished, leaving behind only scraps of mist to indicate that it had ever been there. With its disappearance, the vortex of glowing wind also faded.
Across the ravine, the bandit leader lay, stunned into insensibility, as his companions bolted, leaving him behind. The source of their terror was a tall, well-muscled man with flowing, golden hair, who had taken the moment of distraction provided by the demon to deal with the other threat.
The two men immediately gazed toward the source of the voice, who stood on the other edge of the ravine, next to a gray, dappled mare. Her raven-dark hair was swept into a loose, elegant ponytail, and her violet eyes surveyed the battle field with a sort of pensive silence. The golden-haired man glanced up at her, and she nodded, mounting her horse and riding down into the ravine.
"We can't thank you enough," the older man called out, striding toward the man who held the bandits' leader.
The man swept a disconcerting, green gaze toward him, then shrugged, striding purposefully over to his companion, who was slipping down from her horse.
"We would have done the same for your attackers, had they been the ones in danger," the man said softly, helping her to the ground. His voice, though he spoke quietly, was deep, and it had an almost bell-like tone to it.
The merchants were unsure how to respond to that, but the younger spoke up before the silence could continue long. "How.. how can we repay you?"
"There's no need," the woman said, her voice a silvery echo. "It wasn't an inconvenience."
"Can we at least offer you the hospitality of our camp?" the older asked. "I don't think we'll be going any farther today."
The man smiled briefly, and the woman shook her head. "We have to be on our way."
They would respond to no further entreaties, and the woman mounted again. A hush fell over the merchants as they walked away, but the young man, not to be outdone, called after them. "What can we call you?"
The man half-turned, eyes unblinking. "They call me the Golden Dragon," he said, mouth twitching almost ironically.
"I'm known as the Witch with a Thousand Faces," the girl said, a sorrowful amusement on her face.
Then they turned and continued away, leaving the merchants gazing after in puzzlement.
"Uncomplimentary, Dunn," the man observed, after they had left the merchant train behind.
"True, though." The girl seemed to relax slightly, but her face was still a mask of pain.
"You didn't have to chant the entire spell, you know," he added, glancing at her.
"I wanted to give it the chance to return," she replied absently, nudging the horse into a slightly faster walk. Her companion matched it easily, watching her face warily. "But it was summoned. It couldn't go back unless the summoner allowed it."
The man nodded.
"I didn't want to kill that demon, Aero," she murmured, running one hand through the horse's rough, black mane. "They're dying out, too."
Chapter 1: History
A thousand thousand years ago, all races were one, and they lived in harmony upon the earth, and no conflict ever rent them from each other. Then came the advent of the Gods, and each God did take a group of the people of the earth and make them each after his own image, and thus the races were divided.
For a time, they continued to live in harmony, each praying unto its own God, and each living separate from the others. But it is ever the nature of man -- and God -- to look beyond the borders of his own land, and soon the races were scattered in and among each other, trading, fighting, and intermarrying.
It was a time of great conflict for the Gods, who each considered their race to be the superior and strongly disapproved of such intermingling. The Gods wrangled for near a millennium before one among them, the human's own God, spoke up to end the conflict. He proposed a treaty between the races, and the very slightest modification of the races of the earth in order to prevent the casual intermingling which so disturbed the Gods.
And the Gods were agreed, and so the races of the earth were changed, and all was at peace once more. The human God saw this and was pleased, for in harmony, his race was easily at an advantage. The humans did spread far and wide across the earth in great numbers. The other Gods saw this and were concerned, but he allayed their fears, saying, "My brothers, look upon your races, who are all immortal and will never die. My gentle people have only the blink of an eye to exist upon this plane, and so they much accomplish much in that brief time."
The Gods did relax, but they continued to watch the humans with wariness, for they began to far outnumber each of the other races of the earth.
Their fears, indeed, were not in vain, for there came a time when a young king was bargaining in earnest with a water sprite for possession of a tract of land. The king made many generous offers, and the sprite refused each of them, for his home was in that land, and he had no desire to have humans living so nearby. The king was most insistent, and the sprite was forced to resort to trickery in order to keep his home safe.
He misled the king with false promises, then in the night, he cast a spell concealing his land from the king, so that he might never return to it. When the king returned to conclude the bargain and found his land gone, he was filled with a great anger, and he vowed thereafter that no monster would ever set foot in his land again.
Upon returning to his kingdom, he issued a proclamation, saying that all monsters must begone from his land by the winter months, or they would be executed. The Gods, upon hearing of this, were outraged, and they turned to their brother, who assured them that he would attend to the matter immediately. In truth, he did nothing, and the monster living in that kingdom were forced out or killed.
As the years passed, the king grew restless, and a fever came on his mind. He feared that he had angered the Gods, and that their children would come upon him in a rage and tear him to pieces. Gripped with terror and completely unreasoning, he again issued a proclamation declaring war against the races of the earth, all but his own. For he knew as well as any that if their children were all to die, the Gods would soon follow them to the grave, and thus he could avoid their anger. Thus began what the humans in history refer to as 'The War of Monsters'. The remaining of the races of the earth refer to it only as the 'Great Killing'.
The Gods, horrified at the slaughter of their own children, again appealed to their brother, who again promised that the matter would be taken care of. As before, he did nothing, for his spirit was consumed with ambition, and the other Gods grew weak as their children died. Especially persecuted were the children of the sprites, who had first committed offense against the king. That race was pursued so diligently that none are left to tell of it, and the first of the Gods sickened and died.
Unable to bear the suffering of their children any longer, the remaining Gods turned upon their brother and destroyed him, for he had twice broken his promise, and his people went unchecked. Soon after, the king was killed by a mighty, golden dragon, and the war was ended.
The persecution of the humans, however, did not stop. They hunted and drove the dragons and demons and other beasts to the ends of the earth, and they burned shapeshifters as witches. The spirits were least affected by the slaughter, being intangible, but enough of their number were destroyed that they isolated their appearances to the deep night.
So stands the world today. The humans have no God, and the races of the earth are few and faltering, and the Gods are ill and sickly and can only wait for death.
The fire crackled, a glowing beacon by the side of the forest path, and the slim, young woman gave the logs another soft shove before returning to her seat. The remains of a deer were half-hidden in the shadows near where her companion sat, polishing off the remainder of his meal.
"Eat something, Dunn," he ordered the girl, who shrugged.
"I ate already, Aero," she answered him. "I made a stew. I don't understand how you can eat those things raw."
"It's my nature," he replied, grin displaying bloodied teeth. "You were human-born, so I suppose it might be hard to understand."
"Just a difference in preference," she murmured, amused.
He shrugged, golden hair glinting in the firelight, then tossed the last bone away. "Who was the demon today? Did you know him?"
"No," she answered, brushing at the folds of her cloak. "I don't often consort with demons."
Aero regarded her for a moment, then shrugged again. "Did we really have to stop and help them?" he asked, gazing into the flame. He wiped his messy hands on his cloak, then settled back.
"I didn't do it to help them," Dunn murmured, and she pulled her arms close around herself, shivering. "I didn't want to watch them use the demon that way. It was wrong."
"I agree." He looked across the fire at her, concern on his face. She had tugged her cloak close around herself, and her head was bowed, so he couldn't see the pain he knew was on her face. "You let it affect you too much, Mairie," he told her, and she looked up at him.
"I'm afraid to die, Aero," she said, voice betraying a vulnerability she rarely displayed. "I don't want what happened to him to happen to me."
"They can't summon shapeshifters," Aero grunted. He saw immediately that his words had given her no comfort, and he sighed. "Come over here, Dunn," he said. "You won't die if I'm here, you know that."
A wistful smile flickered across her face, and she stood up. Without any sign that she noticed, her form blurred, taking on a soft glow. Aero watched patiently until the glow faded, and where the young woman had stood, a black-haired child was in her place, violet eyes regarding him sorrowfully. She crossed the space to her companion, then curled up against him, head tucked comfortably against his chest.
He put his arm around her, uttering a soft noise. "Where are we going next?" he asked her mildly, and she lifted her head.
"Remember the stories about the shrine?" she asked. Her voice had changed to match her body, and her vocabulary and tone were oddly unmatched with the voice of a child. "The one with a blue dragon living under it?"
He grunted an affirmative, and she continued.
"I thought we could go there. If he really exists, then.." She left it hanging.
"Well.. it's not like we have anything else to do," Aero agreed, and she smiled. "Let's get some sleep," he suggested.
She nodded, then buried her face against him and immediately drifted off. It took him a bit more time to fall asleep, watching the flame dance until it died to smoldering embers.
Chapter 2: Another
The clouds had rolled in perhaps an hour before dawn, and rain had started falling almost immediately after that. The horse was plodding stolidly through the torrential downpour, its rider cloaked and hooded to keep off the weather. Next to them, the imposing figure with gold hair wore nothing but a short cape over his sleeveless jerkin. The rain didn't seem to bother him in the least.
"You're getting soaked, Aero," Dunn noted irritably, turning her head to look at him.
"I know," he replied amiably, flashing his companion a grin. "I won't melt."
She snorted. "You're going to look really stupid when we get to the shrine."
"I've looked stupid before, Dunn."
"I'm biting back a response to that, you know," Dunn commented, turning her gaze back to the road ahead. Through the rain, the shrine was barely visible, its marble columns muted by the gray of the sky. The pair was silent as they stepped into the courtyard, the only sound that of the horse's hooves splashing and clopping against the firmer surface of a stone walkway.
Dunn dismounted just inside the gateway, not bothering to tie the horse as she started for the temple. The horse itself seemed unconcerned that its mistress was leaving it out in the pouring rain, and it ambled over to a nearby puddle to nibble at the grass that protruded from under the water.
"You're muddy, too," Dunn observed to her companion, glancing down at his splattered boots and trousers.
"What did you want me to do," he asked her mildly, "mount up behind you on the horse?"
She laughed, lowering her hood as they stepped under the shelter of the shrine temple's overhanging roof. Her hair was short that day, though it was still the same gleaming black, and her frame was smaller and lighter than usual. None of Dunn's forms were precisely alike as she shifted back and forth among them, but they all shared similar characteristics, such as hair and eye color. It had taken Aero several hundred years to get used to her lack of consistency.
"Are you going to knock?" she asked him pointedly, and he shrugged, lifting one hand to the door.
As he was about to rap a greeting, however, the door opened softly, and a woman of middle years looked out at them questioningly. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and she wore a pale blue robe with an ornamented hem. "Do you seek shelter in the House of God?" she asked simply, and at Aero's nod, she opened the door wider to allow them entrance.
"Are you the High Priestess of this temple?" Dunn asked her, once they were inside and her cloak had been removed to dry.
"I am one of only two," the woman replied, "and I am the elder."
The shape-shifter nodded brusquely, smoothing her skirts. "Then you know of the legend that a great water dragon sleeps under the catacombs of the shrine?"
The woman's face stiffened slightly, and when she answered, her words were guarded. "I have heard that fool's legend," she said coolly. "It has no basis in truth."
"May we examine the temple, though," Aero asked, the bell-like tone of his voice barely a shimmer in the still air, "to see if we can at least find the origin of the legend?"
The priestess gave an unkind snort, folding her arms. "I can show you that right now, traveller," she informed him. "I thought we had ended this foolishness years ago."
Aero and Dunn exchanged a glance, and Dunn nodded for the woman to proceed. She led them past the rows of marble pillars and statues to the very back of the shrine and stopped before what appeared to be a large mural depicting the final battle of the War of Monsters. Aero grunted slightly, and Dunn gave the priestess a questioning glance.
"Read the script underneath the painting," she suggested, and Dunn did so, mouth twitching with amusement.
"'Beyond this door is the last refuge of the one who sought the downfall of God, and never will it open, save to those who hold the key.'" She drew back slightly. "Foolish," she pronounced. "But straightforward."
"We had hunters and treasure-seekers tramping over this shrine from top to bottom for two decades when some damn fool translated it into script," the priestess agreed irritably. "Took us months to convince some of them that there was no door."
Dunn smiled at her faintly, lifting one finger. "But there is a door," she said.
The woman's face broke into a scowl. "Now, just you --"
Aero, who had moved off to recline against one of the pillars, opened one eye. "The dragon is here, as well."
Dunn pointed at the painting, eyes twinkling slightly. "The painting itself is the door, priestess," she said. "And the lock is a simple spell that conceals it."
"If the spell is so simple," Aero said, pulling himself upright and stretching, "why has no one unlocked it before?"
His companion turned the the priestess, who was glaring at them, face wooden with anger. "It is forbidden to practice witchcraft in a holy place," she told them stiffly.
"Naturally.." Dunn murmured, pressing her hand lightly against the painting. As she did so, her eyes grew distant, and her forehead creased in concentration. A moment later, there was an audible click, and the mural shimmered.
"What have you done?!" the priestess demanded sharply, but Dunn didn't answer, watching as a craggy cave mouth formed in the center of the painting.
"Let's go," she said to Aero, and the two walked inside, ignoring the priestess's shrill objections.
The passageway was sloped steeply downward, and it took a turn sharply to the left, leaving them in complete darkness until Dunn lit a light spell to help them on their way. At the very bottom of the passage, another opening gaped wide to receive them, and with no sign of trepidation, the pair walked in.
The cavern they stepped into was vast, echoing from wall to wall with quiet drops of water that fell into crystalline pools on either side of a long walkway that led further back. Dunn softened the glow of the light and took a step forward, but before either of them could make another movement, a low growling voice echoed across to them.
"So," it said, "someone finally figured it out."
"It wasn't a terribly difficult puzzle," Dunn replied, making a solid effort to appear unruffled.
"Certainly took you humans long enough to solve it," the other retorted, voice taking on a rasping intensity.
"We aren't humans," Aero answered.
The voice paused. "Then that explains it."
"May we step forward, Orynn?" Dunn asked politely.
"If you must," the dragon said irritably.
The pair stepped forward, their footsteps ringing softly in the echoing cave. Crouched in a basin surrounded by a number of rock formations was a long-necked water dragon. He was old, that much was clear. The iridescent (sp?) gleam of his scales had dulled to a pale blue, and his skin sagged heavily over his bones, but his golden eyes were still brightly intelligent. "So I can assume you aren't here to take my head as a trophy?" he asked, slapping his finned tail ponderously against the wet floor.
"No, sir," Dunn smiled faintly, and Aero glanced at his elder cousin in bemusement.
"Pity," the blue rumbled, sinking back and digging his yellowed claws across his chest to scratch an itch. "What are you here for, then? And you, young pup --" His alert gaze darted to Aero. "-- why in the name of the gods have you taken that form?"
Aero started, then his shoulders rippled in a noncommittal shrug. "It makes it easier to interact with humans."
"Interact with them." The dragon's expression grew sour. "I'd rather eat them, myself." He glanced at Dunn. "And what are you, girl? Your scent's all muddled."
"A human-born shapeshifter," she replied without hesitation, biting back the temptation to interrupt him. They had no time to make small talk with this dragon, crotchety and tempermental as he might be.
The dragon grunted. "I'm terribly sorry for you. Now how did you know my name?"
"It was a guess, Lord Orynn," she admitted. "The mural you're hidden behind depicted a battle in which you featured prominently."
"You're up on your history, aren't you?" One of his claws dug a thin furrow across a nearby stalagmite. "Then what do you want from me?" he asked again.
The pair exchanged a glance, and Dunn spoke. "Your story."
There was a long pause, and the Orynn looked over them both, tail swishing slowly through a patch of mud. His already lined face creased, and for a moment, Dunn faltered, half worried that she'd angered him. "No, children. I can't give you that."
Aero looked at him sharply, expression puzzled.
"No," the dragon said again. "My story is no different from any of the others. I just haven't died yet." He drew himself up, bones creaking, and a number of silvery scales shivered down from his body. "Our races are dead. And so our stories are dead as well."
"But sir.." Dunn began, and was silenced by Aero's hand on her arm.
"We understand, Lord Orynn," the golden dragon murmured, the bell of his voice deep and thrumming. "We would ask one more thing, though."
Dunno looked at him doubtfully and started to shake her head, but he continued as if he hadn't seen her.
"Will you journey with us? We seek.." his voice trailed off, in part because the dragon's expression had grown even stiffer, and in part because he really had no idea what they sought.
When Orynn spoke, it was with an undercurrent of intense pain. "I will not leave this place again, young pup. My bones will rest here for what the humans call eternity." There was no anger in his tone as he finished, leaning down slightly. "I am waiting to die."