Chapter One - The North Reach
It was not unlike Jesop to sneak out to do a scout run. Normally that even brought him a bit of peace, but there was nothing typical about this time. Kneeling he touched the smear of dragon blood on the deep soft turf of the forest floor. He was getting closer. They had to be only a day ahead of him now. It bother him that had not found Kerik and Dart yet. The fact that they were still moving was a good sign though. If Dart had been hurt too badly he would have sank into a state of hibernation by now. If it had just been Jesop who was after the two he might have felt a bit better about it all, but he wasn't. The two were being hunted by something other than Jesop; something big.
He had to get to them and get them off this mountain before they were taken down by whatever creature it was that was leaving tracks on top of the Scout’s and his Wing’s. If only the council had let him leave as soon as Dart had gone down, there was a good chance he would have them already safely back at the Nest by now. He should have just left. He might even have gotten back before anyone realized he had been absent. He pushed his irritation at the council aside and looked up hoping to glimpse Cursk, but the canopy was just too high and dense to see so much as a sliver of sky let alone a dragon.
Shifting his lean pack on his back he set off at a jog again. The ground was relatively level here and travel was fairly easy for a man to move over. That was not going to be the same for a wounded dragon. In the last three days Jesop had gained a week on the two who were lost and grounded in this old growth forest. Jesop tried not to blame himself. He should have pulled Kerik and Dart home months ago… no, years ago. The two had been out on patrol for far too long. The worry had been the onset of Neglect, but now it was just trying to get them home alive.
Maybe it was best that Jesop was the one to find the missing Scout. If Kerik had Neglect few would tolerate it. They would certainly react poorly and most would lash out with instant violence. There were just some thing that were not tolerated by the average Wing. Jesop knew the value of every scout, of every Arm, and every Wing; Kerik simply could not be replaced, not by every cadet in the entire Nest right now. If the man turned out to be suffering any mental instability Jesop would find a way to help him. He just had to know before they got into the company of anyone else.
Jesop’s dark worries cut off when he caught a hint of a smell that was of something not forest and not dragon. Slowing he focused on the stink and moved toward it. Maybe he could learn what was tracking Kerik and Dart. Whatever it was, it was not orc and it was not goblin. Jesop knew those smells well enough to be very aware this was different. Hopefully it was just some magic warped creature and nothing smarter than a dog. There were creatures hidden in these mountains that not even the Vayden knew what they were or where they came from.
Using the trees as cover he kept alert. He opened his bond with Slang as much as he could. Unlike all others he and Slang could not actually speak to each other, all they had were emotions and vague images. It was a flaw they had learned to hide very well, and likely no one knew. Cursk might suspect but he made no mention of it. Hopefully Slang could pick up Jesop’s state of mind and emotions well enough to relay to the dragon who had brought Jesop out here, that something was close.
Jesop hoped Slang would tell Cursk how glad Jesop was to have a dragon close at hand, even if they were separated by the ancient towering trees. Slang knew to send no response back to Jesop right now, it might end up being a distraction at the wrong moment. If he could pick up things from so far away it would be impressive but that was a stretch even for them.
Mixing with the smell of the creature he neared was the faint smell of fire. That was not good. Either they had caught up to Kerik or the creature was smart enough to build fires. Jesop hoped that was not the case. Keeping low and he crept closer. Through the trees he began to see what was there. Well before he could see clearly he knew there was more than one. He was very glad he had chosen to leave his Whites at home and wear Scout Browns. At least he had some sort of camouflage out here. In white and gold he would have stood out dangerously. He had argued with Teven about it a number of times that in some situations it really was best to drop rank.
Daring to get a little closer he moved to another tree to try and see what he was dealing with. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. Even then he needed to get closer to confirm it. He wanted to have no doubt in his mind at all. Kneeling by the closest tree he could risk, he let it really sink in what he was seeing.
This was bad, very bad, not only did he have to worry about Dart and Kerik, now he had to worry about getting himself off the mountain. If things could not be any worse, there just had to be creatures not seen in the mountains for thousands of years. Red Men. There were at least ten of the shaggy brutes crouched around a small fire.
The Red Men had once been an enemy and a feared one, nearly as hated as the Worms. After the last great war with them they had been driven far to the north and into little more than folklore. No one was likely to believe him when he told them what he was seeing. How in the hells was he supposed to get two men and a wounded dragon off the forest floor with Red Men on his heels.
Backing away carefully he set to the task of circling them. He had get between them and Kerik. Doing his best he focused on relaying the emotions of urgency and escape, as well as the threat level to Slang. Once he was sure his message was sent to the best of his ability, he simply focused on staying hidden and gaining ground. He had just gotten back on the trail of his lost scouts when he had the impression that there was a mountain peak ahead of them. There would be an exposed stretch where Cursk could pick up Dart. Jesop felt sure that Slang had sent a couple of scouts in at top speed to pick up the men. He and Kerik just had to get in the open. Jesop focused on the idea of the mountain to try and see the best path.
Since he and Slang had lost the ability to speak telepathically they had learned to absolutely trust the impression each other sent and had made it through a war together without a single spoken word. Jesop had no doubt he was accessing Slang’s ability to see his maps in his office, to look at the mountain. With any luck he might just be ale to pull this off.
Jesop swore under his breathe when he heard the Red Men begin to move behind him. They were remarkably quiet for their size but whatever they had been up to was over and they were back in motion. The sun was setting, and if memory served him right, the Red Men preferred the dark. It was time to pick up the speed and hope he didn’t lose Kerik and Dart’s trail. Slang sent him the impression that Cursk had caught the scent of Dart and was circling over him a few miles to the northwest. Jesop took advantage and sprinted all out.
At close to twenty feet tall a Red Man could easily overtake a man, and was known to be able to leap up and if they could get a hold they could take all but the largest of dragons from the air. To be as silent and fast as possible was all Jesop worried about. Running had been a skill he had learned young and still held to this day. There were times he was almost grateful he had spent most of his early childhood running and hiding. It was certainly a skill most men in his position never had to master.
Just about the time Jesop began to worry he had passed them in the night he caught the scent of wounded dragon. If he could smell it the Red Men could as well. The monsters were just toying with their prey, knowing there was no escape. Jesop couldn’t hear them at the moment so they had to be coming in slowly, likely to not alert the dragon to their numbers or race.
Jesop raced up on the camp. Kerik was asleep against Dart’s side. The dragon’s wings were limp and clearly broken. His breathe was short with pain. That would have to be dealt with as soon as they were clear.
“Kerik,” Jesop breathed the scout’s name as he knelt and pulled off his pack. Kerik jerked awake. “Time to go. How is Dart?” Jesop asked as he dug in his pack for the three flash orbs that were tucked in near the bottom.
“He has a head injury; he can only speak to me with a great deal of pain.”
“Run,” Jesop told the dragon. “As fast as you can, there is a clearing,” he pointed northwest, “you will be picked up. Go. Now!”
It was likely Dart would be able to smell the sort of rank Jesop held. There was an off chance he might even know exactly who had come to the rescue, but if not, Dart would certainly be able to smell the age of Cursk on Jesop and that would give him authority to get Dart to trust him and to move. Dart tilted his head at him, almost as if he was trying to figure out who exactly Jesop was.
“Go!” Jesop assured him. “Run as fast as you can. They are almost here!”
“Go,” Kerik pleaded softly pushing at Dart’s arm. Dart turned and ran, an awkward and gangly thing for a dragon. It had to be terrible to do with broken wings.
“Stay as close to me as you can,” Jesop told Kerik. “Ready?” he tossed the pack off to the side, it might distract one of them a moment. That one moment might matter in the end.
“After you,” Kerik said.
Jesop followed Dart a few yards then cut due west. If nothing else the Red Men would have to divide up. Jesop had to trust to Cursk to get Dart away. Jesop only immediate concern had to be to get Kerik off the mountain. The ground began to climb steeply. They had finally left the forested high plateau for the upper slopes. Scrambling up the steep escarpment they left the trees for the boulder heights above the tree-line. Veering northward they were able to sprint again. The massive boulders here were too large and too close for the Wings to pick them up but Jesop was trusting to the impression of the mountain he had gotten from Slang and aimed for the higher exposed mountain face.
Below and behind them they heard the roar of the Red Men who had realized their prey was making a run for it. Stalking was exchanged for a charge. Their heavy breathing and thudding feet were heard almost at once as they began to close in.
“I hope you have a plan!” Kerik yelled just behind Jesop.
“I do,” Jesop called back. The boulders suddenly opened up to the tundra slopes. “That way!” He pointed for Kerik to go up hill. “Get high and fold in!” He gave the last order but stayed on his path, he had a plan for his pursuit.
Behind him he heard the wind through a dragon’s wings as it swept in and snatched Kerik off the ground. Hopefully the man heard him tell him to fold in his arms. If not he might well add broken arms to his injuries for this trip. His mind off of Kerik he was able to focus on himself for the moment. Whichever scout Slang had sent to retrieve him, he was certain it had not arrived yet. He had to buy more time for his own rescue.
Rounding the north face of the mountain the vast expanse of the surrounding mountain range and the arch of the twilight sky came into view. To the east the stars were just fading out with a sunrise beginning the shoot up glorious lavenders and blues with pink touched clouds.
Not far ahead, he knew from Slang, that there was a massive shale rock-slide that dropped off over a high cliff. He aimed for it. The Red Men were so close begin him he could all but feel their breath on the back of his neck and the thud of their heavy feet against the ground. Further down the slope he heard Dart roar in pain and anger. For one moment Jesop’s heart nearly stopped in fear for Dart, but the Scout roared again, but this time in defiance. Dart was off the ground! He might have taken a bit of a swipe but Cursk had once again proven himself. Jesop loved that old Wing!
His feet hit the first of the shale. For three strides nothing happened but that didn’t last. The rocks began to slip under his weight. He had to slow. With his left hand reached out to help balance and steady himself he worked to stay on top of the rocks and not set off an avalanche. Looking back Jesop could see the hulking monsters staggering to a stop at the edge of the shifting shale. They clearly knew the danger of it, but he was so close, barely out of reach. He couldn’t help but laugh at them.
One roared in frustration and lunged towards him. Jesop scrambled forward trying to cut horizontally across the rocks. The massive weight of the Red Men was going to set the entire mountain into motion and that was Jesop’s hope, just not until he got off it. As luck had it once the first went after him the rest followed. Jesop fought his way out onto the slide as far as he dared but the little slide he started was rapidly consumed but the slide the Red Men set off. Jesop swore and changed his tactic as the entire expanse of loose stone let go and began to move. Using what magic would apply he raced straight down the river of stones. If he could manage to keep his feet on top of the rocks and not get drug down too much, he might escape this.
The roar of the stone crashing like a waterfall over the cliff was deafening and dangerous. Jesop felt his bad ankle twist but he never missed a step. Everything counted on that last step before an Arm launched into the air. If you were too close, or were in the air wrong it made it very dangerous and difficult for a Wing to catch you. While Jesop’s leap wasn't going to be perfect he did his best and threw himself as hard and far as he could, tucking his arms against his chest. There was that one moment of breathless exhilaration. The dust of the falling rock nearly choking him, then great hands closed around him. The Wing had come in at a steep angle, diving to grab him. The angel was dangerous and proved the Wing had only just arrived.
They rushed at the trees below but the dragon’s great wings opened, pulling them up with enough force any but an Arm would have blacked. They skimmed the canopy then shot upward.
“Roll back,” Jesop told the scout. The dragon obeyed, pivoting in a gentle sideways roll to sweep back at the rock slide where the Red Men struggled against it, roaring in rage at his escape. They were fighting to hold each other against the rock slide and some might even have been able to escape but Jesop had other plans. He hurled the Flash Orbs at them.
The Wing who held him circled back again so they could both see as the orbs hit the rocks. The concussion was impressive. The first one was well aimed and not only blew up a number of the Red Men but sent rock shards in all directions with deadly force. With the explosion of the other two the entire mountain face was obliterated down to the solid bed rock. Whatever was left of the Red Men would be buried under thousands of tons of rubble.
The dragon who held him roared in victory, palms flushing with warmth at the pride felt.
“Release,” Jesop said. The dragon let go. Jesop reached out his arm and caught the Wing’s front shoulder. With the ability that had put him in White he swung up onto the dragon neck. “Didn’t even have time for a saddle, hmm,” he smiled and lay against the Wings neck, hidden from the wind by her skull ridge and ear flares. “Thank you,” he smoothed his hands down the dragon’s neck.
Few Arms were ever allowed to ride or even touch a Wing that was not their bonded. Jesop however, as Lord Marshall, was welcomed by most dragons. He was tolerated more than any other, Marshall or otherwise, he had ever heard of. Maybe it was his level of empathy. They could feel how he loved them all, how beautiful they were to him, how overwhelming proud he was of them. It surely had to feed their ego’s a bit. He smiled and rested his cheek on Banner’s neck. All it had taken was to see a bit more of her and he knew exactly who she was and how hard she had to of flown to reach him. He knew who her Arm was and their patrol route. She had to have forced herself to a speed-level difficult for her young age. She and Donna would be rewarded. Maybe a new lair, higher up the Nest wall, or maybe a month off routes. Jesop would have to think about it later. He would talk to Slang about it when he got him. For now he needed to see to Dart’s broken wings and to Kerik’s mental stability.
“Take us to North Tower 97,” he said and closed his eyes to trust her and savor her smell, her strength, and her warmth.
All the warning Kerik received before he was dropped was a grunt and slight squeeze. The dragon that had carried him swept open great wings and slowed. Veering left the dragon let go of Kerik with a slight toss. He landed hard, his body stiff and cold from the height and the length of the flight. Staggering, he nearly fell but caught himself on the face of the cliff before him. His broken ribs, jarred by the landing, made him hold his side and gasp. Looking back he watched the Wing who grabbed him off them mountain face. He was a purple and green dragon, a young male, likely too young for Kerik to have ever met, but every bit as large as Dart.
Lowering his gaze he tried to place where he was but the mountains here were unrecognizable. He had to be well outside his normal range, maybe into the territory of the scout who had come to his aid. To further his sense of disorientation he realized the place he had been dropped off at was not an eerie but a tower. Unlike eeries that were carved from natural caves, towers were constructed, at least in part, of cut and quarried stone.
The front wall of this one was built of massive grey blocks. The monolithic stones that were used here were larger than any that men might have move. Each one was surely carried up and set in place by dragon hands. The doorway to the lair was a great arch, bound in place by a single massive stone with a carved seal. The design was one Kerik had never seen before. For a moment he felt a hint of panic at being on his own up here, there was no way down for a man alone. What if they felt it was his own fault Dart and he had crashed, what if he was to be punished, what if they were about to exile him up here for some reason?
Drawing a deep breathe he swallowed the fear and reassured himself that if he was in trouble they would have just left him on the forest floor. His entire body ached from the dragon’s grip and the long ride, but the ribs had to hurt the worse. Holding his side he entered the door. He felt for the light plate just inside the door and found it exactly where it should be.
The cool smooth copper plaque was slow to respond, showing its age, but the light slowly came on as his hand warmed the metal. His own body heat and energy was absorbed into the etched metal. Strips in the ceiling began to glow. First just the spell lines were visible but slowly the light spread until the entire ceiling became a single light source.
Towers tended to be small, crude, and reachable only by flight. They had been built out of need, often in times of war, to provide safe haven for those on dangerous routes. They were positioned over important passes, rivers, or trails. Over time many had been converted into dwellings for the old, places to retire to when the Nest had become over crowded. Now, in the days with so few dragons that everyone not only had a lair in the Nest most of it was empty and closed off, the towers had become all but deserted, sealed up, and forgotten. Even the nicer ones were a far fry from the communal eeries Kerik normally stayed in. This one was no different.
The space was larger than Kerik expected but still smaller than he might of anticipated to be chosen for two dragons to use. If two or more Wings were to nest here they would have to be very friendly and lay very close together. Despite the small size the place seemed to be well built and carefully thought out.
The deep sandy bed for the Wings was immediately to the left with three great curled steps down into it. The higher smooth stone floor for the Arms circled around the behind the dragon bed. To the right was a kitchen area complete with cooking stove, sink and a number of cabinets. A table that would fit up to six, with benches down each side, dominated the open space between the Wings and the back wall. It seemed a large table for so small a den.
Bunk beds stood in the far back corner. A number of trunks lined the wall, one of them was sure to have bedding as well as other supplies for both short visits as well as long tern stops. Most important to Kerik however, was directly across from the entry. There was a doorway that Kerik had no doubt led to a bathing room. Nothing promised rest and recovery like a hot pool inside safe stone walls. Kerik limped for it at once.
Every ancient place in these mountains that was made for a Wing and an Arm would have a hot bath. The Masters of old had made these place drew the waters to bubble up from far below into pools for scouts to soak in. Every den, every eerie, every tower would have such a pool. The magic remained despite a nearly non existent wizard presence. The art was slowly being lost but for now the water was hot and very welcomed. It would heal in ways nothing else might.
Opening the door Kerik was hit with the rich smell of the minerals of the pool. It had clearly been sealed up a very long time. The bathing pool itself was about ten feet across made with four rounded seats carved in its sides. It had been unused long enough mineral deposits had build up in ripples out from the edge of the pool into the walkways around it. There was no evidence anyone had been here in a thousand years. It made him very uneasy but the thought of a hot soak pushed the concern aside.
He peeled off his Belts and Leathers.
The uniform of an Arm fit to form out of necessity. Any friction in flight would mean burns on the skin. The two sets of Belts with their 52 buckles were even more important. They fit to hold joints from being pulled out or muscles from ripping. The strain from flight would tear a normal man apart, make him black out or even kill him by the sheer speed and height. Being bonded altered the body, made it stronger, but even Full Savonts had to wear belts at top flight speeds. After years of wearing leathers an Arm could forget what it felt like to not wear them always. A good set was so comfortable you would choose them for daily wear. Most Arms rarely wore anything else, even at home. However, a new pair was all about soaking in hot water, blisters, chaffing, and a great deal of soreness.
Kerik’s leathers were so ‘broken in’ the leather had actually worn through in places and was about to in others. He had not had time get new ones or if he had, to break them in, let alone get them comfortable. Several of the main buckles had been fixed with ones traded off of the Civilian population. They didn’t even match right, but his leathers stayed on.
Such condition would be shameful to be seen in the Nest. His Leathers should have long ago been discarded for glove making but at this point might not even be worth that. He hoped that maybe in one of the trunks along the wall there might be a spare set of browns but he doubted it. There should be a kilt and blouse though. That would be enough for tonight.
Carefully he sank into the hot water and welcomed the heat into his deeply bruised, broken, and strained body. The crash had left him far more injured than he had let on to Dart, but now he was free to wince and study the damage. He had not realized just how extensively he had been injured. The broken ribs he had known about but he was bruised, had gashes on his left side, and a wicked looking lump on his left arm. Being clutched to a dragon’s chest with no way to shelter from the cold had left him chilled and stiff. Even at the best of times such a ride was unpleasant. He had to wonder how much of the pain he was in was from the flight verses the crash.
Even with the injuries Kerik had taken, Dart was sure to be worse. Dart had taken serious damage to his wings in order to save Kerik from being ripped from his saddle or worse, crushed by Dart himself. Once Dart was here Kerik promised he would do whatever it took to ease his Wing’s pain.
Kerik sank in deeper and closed his eyes. He tried to relax and let the water work its magic. With the heat soaking in Kerik was just drifting to sleep when Dart was let to half-fall half-drop to the tower “top”. The dragon groaned in pain as he landed. He gave a reassuring rumble to Kerik. Dart limped inside and moaned with relief as he sank into the sand of the bed. He let out a great shudder huff of breath.
Kerik pulled himself out of the pool. If Dart was here the other scout was sure to be along shortly. He wanted to at least see if there was something to wear before he had to deal with another person. He was afraid to see Dart’s condition as well. They had been on the ground for almost two weeks and for broken wings that might have been too long. The bones of the wing was difficult to heal and the skin even more so. Once damaged they rarely mended without debilitating scars.
Kerik pulled open the door of the lone side-cabinet that stood along the wall. The expected towels were there as well as an un-dyed linen blouse and soft woolen kilt of scout brown. Grateful to whomever had left the spares, he dressed.
The Wing who had carried Dart was just crawling inside as Kerik left the bathing room. The old dragon looked utterly exhausted. He was a deep burnt rusty red color with ear flares that looked to be hinted with gold and black. Long healed scars marred the old Wings face, flares, and the one shoulder that Kerik could see. Whoever he was he had clearly been in the war with the Worms. Pushing inside he edged past Dart to the back and curled up to rest.
The scout who had ran the mountain with Kerik strode in tossing his pack aside. He was a tall man who walked with a sense of mission. Kerik noticed at once that he had streaks of blue and green dye in his hair. The natural red was darker than most and the dye would have had to be very high quality to take at all. It was nearly faded but he clearly had someone who cared about him a great deal. To get those colors for his hair had to have been for something special. Kerik touched his own hair, it had been so long since he had been able to put dye in any evidence ever had was long gone. Such vanities tended to be limited to those of rank who stayed at the Nest.
The scout didn’t even seem to notice Kerik but moved to take Dart’s wing immediately. Pulling it out gently he began to inspect it. Dart gasped, but allowed the stranger to touch the mangled flesh of his wing. In the light of the lair Kerik realized how filthy and torn Dart was. He winced and felt a little ill. The idea he had neglected Dart that badly was horrific and likely would make the other scout dislike him for it.
“There’s a medical trunk, get the splints.” The scout pointed to a trunk at the end of the beds, without looking back at Kerik. Kerik was quick to fetch the healing supplies. The luck to have gotten someone with healing abilities was something he could not have hoped for. Everything might just be ok. Someone must have called for this scout just for that reason. Maybe that was why it had taken so long for them to be found. Maybe this stranger had come from the far south. Maybe he had flown for a week to get this far north. Maybe he had been in the middle of a long far route and had been called back and sent to save Dart’s wings.
Kerik handed over the splint bundle. The splints, like much of what the scouts used, was magic. Once there had been enough wizards in the Nest to supply all the Vayden with all sorts of magical items but now, with only a handful for the entire population, only scouts or those in battle had access.
The splint had to be breathed on then smoothed and warmed in the hands just right. When it became pliable it was pressed onto the skin over the breaks. The magic activated once it was in place. It would meld to the skin almost instantly and lock itself to the bone with such strength it could re-snap them and pull them straight. In this case it did. Dart whistled in pain as his ear flares went grey.
Kerik put up his hand to Dart to offer support and what reassurance he could. Dart bowed his head and rested his brow against Kerik’s chest, breathing heavily. Kerik wrapped his arms around his Wing’s face, gently smoothing the soft skin just under his eyes. The healer didn’t seem to notice. He kept his focus on Dart. Setting one bond after another, he used every splint before his hands took to the hide of the wings themselves.
In one place he took a knife and with a sure swift move sliced away a tangle of hide and scab away. In another motion he had a bandage in place and melded in so the wound would heal without leaving a tight scar that would hinder flight in the years to come. Kerik couldn’t watch after that. Dart had hidden how very badly he had been injured. Kerik had to choke down tears for the misery his soul-mate had to have been enduring. There was no greater fear for a dragon than to lose his wings. The fear had to have been making Dart sick to his stomach.
It was beyond imagination that he and Dart were worthy of a healer who had clearly been sent knowing Dart was injured. The man’s hands were obviously skilled with wing injuries and the tools used to mend them. Kerik had to wonder if the scout had been active in the war. Surely only a veteran would move so swift and skilled. He was not an outright healer but he was close no doubt. Certainly he held enough power to activate the magics of the splits more strongly than the average man could.
“That’s all I can do for you,” the scout told Dart, “but at least you’ll be sure to fly again.” Kerik felt a sudden rush thinking he recognized the voice; that he knew the scout who had come. The name seemed just out of his grasp, like a friend you had not seen since childhood.
Dart bobbed his head in thanks. The scout folded his hands in modest appreciation of the thanks given and stepped back with a bow. Kerik tried not to stare. He was certain he knew the scouts voice, yet he had no idea how. There was simply no way he could know someone so impressive and not recognize him for who he was at once.
“You should sleep,” the scout told the two Wings. He touched the nose of the old one who wafted warm hot air at the scout in a show of affection. Kerik had been under the impression that the old dragon was not the Scout’s Wing but one sent to lift Dart off the forest floor however, the clear affection between the two implied they were indeed bonded. The scout did not look old enough to be bonded to the battle scarred Wing but if they were then it would explain the skill with injured wings.
Dart sighed heavily and nestled into the sand. He let out a shuddering breathe of relief. Having been seen to, his wings mended by skilled hands, he let go of a fear he had been holding in. Kerik wanted to talk to Dart but dared not. If Dart’s head felt well enough to talk he would. Kerik just leaned on him instead.
“Sleep,” Kerik whispered. “It will be alright now.”