Adarthan was correct in thinking the dragons would want an early start. It was before mid morning when they summoned all the volunteers to the council hall. Like the night before, the inside had been enchanted to grow large enough to hold the dragons. The building took up half a block already, but inside it was now almost gargantuan. Its pillars were fashioned the same way as the incanters’ wands, parchment wound tightly together and bound with magic. Spells covered every inch of every page until the multitude of papers finally formed into a pillar, each emanating a glow because of the seemingly infinite amount of magic infused within it. It had taken the most skilled incanters years to complete, but it allowed them to increase its size to house many people, as well as turn it into the smallest of rooms to hold the most private of counsels. Yet even such powerful magic had its limits, and only two dragons were able to fit in the hall with the incanters. The rest waited at their camp outside the city.
Adarthan wedged his way to the front of the hall to get a better look at the dragons. They sat on opposing sides of the dais where the council was. Both their tails snaked around their feet and twitched involuntarily. Davel was tall, even for a dragon. His cat-like ears nearly touched the ceiling. Leathery and wrinkled blue-grey skin covered his old bones.
The other dragon was Lakshen, Davel’s second in command. Her skin was deep azure and instead of knobs and wrinkles, it was taut and young, but many centuries were still reflected in her harsh silver eyes. Adarthan could hardly imagine how gloriously terrifying they both must be with wings outstretched in the midst of battle.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden jab into his ribcage. “Watch it there!" He turned around to find Pirisel standing behind him.
“You told me to find you. It’s not my fault you have no meat on you,” said Pirisel with a grin. He was slightly taller than Adarthan, more broadly shouldered, and stronger, but he often slumped his shoulders and seldom made a show of his strength. His black skin made Adarthan look even paler when they were together, which was often.
Adarthan rubbed his side. He was strong and fit, but had always been rather lean. His ribs made easy targets. "So you are coming then?"
"Yes, I suppose someone has to make sure you do not get too badly injured," said Pirisel.
Adarthan snorted. “I’m not the one who always falls going up the stairs.” He jumped aside as another jab from Pirisel went towards his side. The two promptly stopped their sporting at the sound of a staff pounding the floor.
“Incanters,” Mathul called out loudly. The murmuring trickling through the crowd dissipated. “We thank you for your courage in coming here today. The dragons have come to us for aid in the war for their homes and for their very lives. We have promised them nothing less than the best of our incanters. Each one of you will be approved according to whichever teacher you currently apprentice under. For those of you no longer in the academy, you will be approved based on your current abilities. Performances will be required from everyone, but more extensively for those more than a hundred years out of the school. While everyone's offer is sincerely appreciated, do not be offended if you are not allowed to go.
“This is a dangerous war. You will be asked to do things that no amount of schooling can prepare you for. You will be flying on dragons, ported by fae, and held in midair by galana, all while performing intricate and difficult spells. You will be expected to kill and to die if need be. If you are not prepared for this then turn back now. Otherwise, you will be putting all your fellow soldiers at risk. You must be brave, but more importantly you must be selfless. No war was won by a single hand."
Mathul stared hard into the silent mass of people, his eyes so piercing and stern that it was as though he was peering into each person’s soul, deciding then and there whether or not they were fit to serve in the dragon’s army. Finally, he broke the uneasy silence before sitting down. “For those of you who are unfamiliar with their troubles, I introduce Davel, the leader of the Rentig dragons.”
Davel’s wingtips scraped the walls as he straightened himself up. His voice sounded like rock being ground into mortar. “For ten years the Serav tribe has lived in our lands, feigning friendship, preying on our kindness and generosity. They came to us destitute, claiming their own lands had been taken from them. As old kin, we felt it our duty to help them in any way we could. So they rebuilt their lives among us, but before long they started to encroach on our property, stealing our food, desecrating our sacred places, until finally the attacks came. Sporadic at first, swift raids at night on the vulnerable. Then more organized and audacious, moving past the outliers.
“Many of us still desired to have peace with our brethren, believing it was only a faction attacking us. Thus it went on. For years, we endured the murder of our people as we tried to settle our differences. No more. As you know, we have been locked in a brutal war for over three years now. Many good dragons have lost their lives. Though it is against our ways, our enemies use such dishonorable and devastating tactics that we have no other choice but to seek aid from others. We hope that your forces, together with the fae and galana, will help us turn the tide of this unending conflict." Cheers came from several in the crowd as he finished.
Mathul returned to the front of the dais. "Preparations will begin immediately. If you need to be tested, please assemble in the northern courtyard. If you are currently in the academy, please see your advising instructor. Once approved, you may go to the dragon camp outside the city. You will be under fae authority and, as such, will be subject to their rules and discipline. You are dismissed.” Mathul picked up his staff and aimed it at the ceiling. Slowly parts of the roof began to vanish while in other places pieces changed color until it matched that of the sky, while others began to fall, only to dissipate before reaching the floor. In only a few minutes, the entire building had no covering at all.
Lakshen pulled her wings in tight against her body and effortlessly pushed off into the air. Davel reached a gnarled paw upward, his talons extending into the edge of the wall, and pushed himself upward into the sky. With a few more words from Mathul, the ceiling returned to its previous state as if it had really been there all along.
Adarthan stared at the ceiling open-mouthed. He had witnessed strong magic only a handful of times before and felt like he would always be in awe of it, but another jolt to his side broke him out of his stupor.
“Coming?” Pirisel asked. “It will take forever for everyone to get through these tests, I’m sure.”
“No doubt, but Mathul has already approved me, so I’ll see you at the dragon camp.” Adarthan smirked at Pirisel as he hurried off, eager for the head start. He ran to his room to gather a few belongings. It was small, allowing only enough room for a dresser, closet, desk, and bed. Most students thought it cramped and too small, usually spending their time in the common areas or library or unused classrooms. But it was the biggest room Adarthan had ever had, giving him plenty of space for his few clothes and possessions.
His work for Mathul paid some, but he tried to send as much as he could to his mother and sister, spending little on himself outside necessities. Ever since his father’s passing, his mother had moved from place to place for years, never feeling safe from the sinnach. She finally settled deep inside the mainland. It was a secluded place, but still close to a town. He had stayed there for some years, until he got old enough and his sister, Tere, had pushed him enough to leave. He loved them, but could never shake the drawing, the pulling, towards the academy.
He pulled a few small mementos out of a box and debated taking them with him. A ring of his father’s. A small wood carving of a swan from Tere. His mother had given him a fine silver chain to keep the ring on. He clasped the chain and ring around his neck. Reluctantly, he put the swan back in the box. Everyone was permitted only one bag of personal effects, and he did not want to lose or damage the delicate figurine.
He moved quickly through the rest of the room, stuffing his bag with a few changes of clothes and a blanket. His wardrobe was simple: few pairs of brown or black trousers, frayed at the hems, and tunics or shirts, always too long or short at the sleeves. Adarthan pulled out a worn grey wool coat from his dresser. It only went to his knees, the sleeves were too short, and it wasn’t particularly thick, but it was the best he had. The dragon lands were far in the north, and while autumn lingered over Hazalkhad and the rest of Eldan, he had been told Calun was preparing for an early winter. He slipped a small notebook full of spells into his coat pocket, closed the door on his room, and locked it.
The streets were busier than normal with dvergar and the sundry other races who lived in Hazalkhad bustling all about, either preparing to go with the dragons or gossiping about who was or was not going. Eventually he made his way through the crowds and to the edge of the city. The gates loomed before him. Typically, when they were open it was as a massive chunk of wall pulled directly outward with enough room for anyone to pass through with cargo. But today, with so many passing in and out, they were swung open like normal doors, if normal doors were twelve feet thick and made out of swirled indigo stone from an enchanted mountain. Closed they looked like nothing more than stone matching the rest of the walls, lying beside them perfectly flush, making it appear as if all the perimeter was merely an smooth extension of the mountain behind the city.
He passed through the gates and ran all the way out to the dragon camp in an attempt to quell all the nervousness and energy bouncing about inside of him. He now saw the two other dragons besides Davel and Lakshen. One was considerably smaller than the rest, with fearsomely long fangs and shining talons. Another meandering in the sky was nearly as long as Davel, but slender to the point of almost appearing frail except for its outstretched wings, thick with muscles and sinew. Several fae were already there waiting to help port the incanters back to the dragons’ lands. They were all busy talking amongst themselves, so Adarthan amused himself by taking water droplets from the air and forming them into a hand-sized orb of water, then into ice, and then into steam before turning it back again into a watery sphere. Only a quarter of an hour passed before others started trickling out of the city. The amount of people coming out was steady but stayed at a trickle, and it was another two hours before Adarthan spotted Pirisel.
“Finally! I was starting to wonder if they were letting you come.”
Pirisel tossed down his pack and sat down next to Adarthan. “The tests themselves did not take long. There are just so many who are trying to come that are making it take ages. I do not think even a quarter made it.”
“Really?” said Adarthan.
Pirisel pulled out some of the things from his lopsided pack and tried to sort them better. “Most were younger incanters, so they did not have the skill, or the instructors did not think they could handle the intensity of what we will be doing. From what I heard from some of those who have actually worked with dragons or galana before, this will not be an easy task. Riding a dragon is nothing like riding a horse. The alternative is being held up in the air by someone who could get killed or injured themselves at any moment and lose control of both of you. It can make it rather difficult to cast spells without getting too nervous.”
Adarthan shifted uncomfortably. “Do you know how exactly the galana powers work?” They had studied the different types of elves and their respective powers - fae, galana, shen, and laquae - but Adarthan had seldom looked at their powers very deeply, nor had he studied them in some time. Most of his days were spent in the library with a stack of dictionaries and commentaries on words and their precise meanings.
“Do not tell me you are reconsidering.” Pirisel gave his friend a slight glare.
“No, just curious as to how it all works. So I can be better prepared,” he answered half-truthfully.
Pirisel sighed with fake exasperation. “It is just like the other elves and their elements. They control the air and use it to lift themselves or other people or things up in it. Simple really. Of course, they can use it to do all sorts of other things, and it is not all easy. During the battles, we will be at a very high altitude, far above our usual area of breathing easily. The galana will have to keep extra pockets of air around us and themselves to help us breathe. It is also harder for them to maneuver higher up because there is so much less air to work with.”
Adarthan raised his eyes a bit. “How do you know all this?”
“Tarel explained it to me once when she was telling me how exactly it is that the fae can port," said Pirisel.
“And how exactly do the fae port?”
“By manipulating all the elements - earth, air, and water - to surround them simultaneously. And then something about how all the elements are connected, so if they are in one spot they are also in another spot, and really in all other spots at once because the elements are constantly everywhere. Something about sailing a ship into port too, hence ‘porting’,” continued Pirisel with much less certainty.
“Why do I have the feeling that was the point in the conversation when you were paying more attention to her lips than what was coming out of them?” teased Adarthan.
Pirisel gave him another glare, this time considerably stronger. However, Pirisel had no more time to educate Adarthan in elf elemental manipulation, nor did Adarthan have any more chances to throw jibes at his friend’s attempted romances, as a loud horn began to blare. The group went quiet, and all eyes turned to a fae standing near Davel. “Attention! All incanters ready for porting are to assemble at the standards according to the color previously given them.”
“I didn’t get a color,” whispered Adarthan.
Pirisel handed him a small piece of stone painted blue. “This is from Mathul. We are both ‘blues’.”
The two men walked towards the blue standard, joining about fifteen other incanters. Most looked young, but well older than Adarthan or even Pirisel, though it’s always hard to tell any immortals’ age by their appearance. They all locked arms as instructed by the fae and formed a line. A fae connected arms with them at each end.
Adarthan had only been ported a few times before. He knew it was a sensation he would never get used to: feeling as though you were on the verge of ceasing to exist but at the same time existing everywhere. Only a few seconds passed before they reappeared in a place entirely different. The landscape had changed from grey mountains climbing up out of the plains to verdant grass enveloping low hills.
Each group ported to the middle of an avenue of two long rows of stones. They quickly stepped out so the following group could port in. Fae and galana stood waiting at the four corners around the avenue. A fair distance away they could spot the elf camp, little rows of tents dotting the field. As instructed, everyone formed a line to await further instruction. In less than three minutes, nearly all the incanters were through.
Adarthan looked up to see a dozen or more dragons in the distance flying towards them. “I thought the rest of the dragons weren't here.”
Pirisel held his hands over his eyes to block out the noon sun. “Welcoming party, perhaps?”
The closer the dragons got the faster they flew.
“I think that would require the dragons to actually be friendly,” said Adarthan.
The dragons split into two groups, one of smaller dragons and the other of larger dragons. The smaller ones flew towards the elf camp, quickly reaching their target. They circled above momentarily, then dive-bombed the camp. Scorching flames propelled out of the dragons’ lungs turning what had been a calm, chilly afternoon into a chaotic charred massacre. So drawn was everyone's eyes to the horror unfolding before them that they forgot the other group of much larger dragons heading straight towards them.
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