Into The Woods
Well trees were better than rocks, he supposed. High, sharp tops of old pines reached into the sky just beneath his claws and the wind from his wings rustled through them as he approached. He brushed the first needles with his tail and claws as he descended, in uneven strides as air currents ripped through the fragile, wounded skin of his wings. He did his best to steady his flight with his tail, but in the end, his efforts were in vain.
Claws closed around a tree, the wood giving in under the heavy weight, leaning dangerously before it cracked and fell. He leapt to a second tree, and a third, each of them breaking like toothpicks. He left a trail of uprooted trees as he crashed through them and finally planted himself into the moist forest ground. Dirt and moss piled up around him in a crater, the roots of fallen trees reaching up around him ominously. And he simply lay there. Smoke rose from his nostrils, his head bedded on the soft ground, wings awkwardly flung over fallen trees and undergrowth.
What a way to go down. In two millennia, he had never messed up a single landing. Not a single one. Eraiyo Drakyrioth was a remarkable flier. He had led armies into battle, had outmanoeuvred the best of his people in competition, he had trained under even better ones. And now this. This... shame of a landing. He would never hear the end of it if...
But then again, there was no one left to tell, was there? No one left to mock him for it. He was the only one. He had failed them all in the end. He had run like a pathetic coward, and now he was the only one left.
He blinked, eyes scanning his surroundings. The forest had quieted down and the scent of sulphur and ashes mixed with that of cool, green moss, pine needles, moist earth and a recently passed rain. A smell they did not have in the North. They had no rain, and no earth that could have that particular smell after rain. All they had was ice, volcanos, and gold. Now, he best got used to this smell.
A small sound nearby startled him, made him raise his head alarmed. Golden eyes focused sharp into the darkness of the forest and caught the creature that had approached between tress. The stag stilled, head turned towards the dragon and there was a moment of perfect silence and stillness.
It was a marvellous creature. A shiny, dark brown hide with black and white spots along its back, magnificent, white antlers woven in a complex design like the twigs of a tree, with differently coloured leafs – light yellow, dry brown, sharp orange and warm red, small gemstones dripping on them like dewdrops, infused with their own, unique magic, a magic that was older and more beautiful than anything he would have expected to see here. A lord of the forest, a spirit of the olden days, one of the last ones left in this world that was slowly beginning to fall apart, to be broken down and corroded by the dark satanic mills of the growing industry the shortears had reintroduced.
Shortears. The result of generations of bastards born from elvar mating with what was then still their ‘servants’ – the dwarves. Frowned upon by both superior races, shortear children were left to survive on their own, not welcome in the magically protected forests of the elvar or in the magnificent cities of the dwarves. And by the flames, they had survived. Once the war had been over and the world began to heal, these strange little people with their short ears and the clever hands and minds of both their parent species had colonised the ruins of the old world. They had built their cities in the most hostile of places – wastelands and deserts and frozen plains – and they had thrives against all odds. They studied what they could finds on the Adarre civilisation and their advanced technology, and they used it to advance their own kind. They built weapons, fortifications, ships and trains, used steam to create electricity and – in time – their newly developed airships would conquer the sky. And as their influence grew, so did their fear of magic, until they wiped out as much of it as they could.
What a shame. And what a blessing, that he could witness another of the old magic before the great machines could crush this forest and its beauty as well.
Eraiyo bowed his head ever so slightly.
"Fear not, lord of the woodlands. I mean no harm to you or your kin. You have my word, the word of Eraiyo Drakyrioth. I only wish to rest, recover from my wounds. As soon as I have healed, I will leave your homestead, and until then know your kin under the protection of the blood of Drakyrioth."
There was a moment the stag simply watched him, its heart translating the ancient words spoken by the equally ancient creature. Eraiyo noticed movement behind it. A small herd of deer, the ordinary kind, but all of them looking to the woodland lord for guidance. And then, very slowly, the stag blinked its big, brown eyes and bowed its head. The jewel encrusted leafs chimed sweetly in the nightly silence, before the creature leapt away, vanishing like mist between the trees.
As it retreated, so did everything else. The herd of deer moved away into the darkness, the few birds that had curiously taken to the fallen tree roots watching the exchange, small rodents, even beetles - everything ushered away through the shadows until Eraiyo was engulfed in silence. He blew steam through his nostrils. It was good to see the old promises still carried weight. He would be able to stay here, as long as it would take to recover.
He pushed himself up on all fours, claws digging into moist, loose earth. But he could feel his body tremble. Carefully he glanced back, saw a gushing wound spilling thick blood down his hind leg. There was a sharp scratch of claws across his side, and the wing on the same side was ripped. He would not fly in a while. He would need much magic to recover from this. Perhaps more magic than he had left in him now? He lowered himself back into the dirt. He could not move from here, not right now. He would need to begin his recovery here, out in the open. Not ideal, not by a long shot, but it would have to do.
As for the magic...
Reluctantly, a claw wrapped under the fine silver chain around his neck and pulled it out from under his harness. The pendant dangling from it caught the moonlight in a soft shimmer, barely more than a cat's eye in the dark, and there was the faintest, softest chime coming from within it. The miniscule vial made from delicately crafted silver and crystal filled with a cloudy white liquid, run through with fibres of silver felt, heavier than it should, given its small size. Eraiyo's eyes narrowed to focus on the tiny construction. With the tips of two claws, he held on to the small prop of the vial, twisted it open. Instantly the light grew brighter, reacting with ever grain of atmospheric magic left in this drained world. There was no need to even consume the liquid. With closed eyes, he held the vial under one nostril and inhaled the fumes of magic within, before he quickly sealed the small pendant again and slipped it back under his armour.
The magic was coursing through his veins immediately. A long forgotten flame, rekindled within, magic that had survived the ages, born with the first of his kin and carried through the struggles of time until now. Words began forming in his mind, travelling through his bones and into his tongue. He drew in a deep breath, expanding his lungs and then unleashing the words from his tongue in a long whisper. As they hummed out, the words turned to molten gold, dripped off his tongue and onto the dirt beneath him. Where they touched, they began forming writing. Like small snakes they crawled through the earth, their whispers filling the clearing where he had crashed. They chained together in golden fire, until they shielded the entire area, far between the trees, almost invisible from where he lay. And once their journey was complete, the words bound together, burned themselves into the very fabric of the world. There was a moment of golden gleaming filling the forest, then the light ebbed away, leaving only darkness.
Eraiyo nodded in approval. It was a simple spell, but he was only trying to fool simple minds. This would be enough to keep him disguised, hidden from the prying eyes of curious shortears or dwarves, trying to discover the creature they had no doubt seen crash here. Before they would even get close, they would feel repelled, would experience a powerful urge to move as far away from this particular spot as they could. And even if they did dare to stumble closer, the spell would keep him concealed. Only if shown the path would they ever manage to reach him. And he would certainly not show them, neither would the creatures of this forest. He would be safe here. For now. In the distance he could see rock formations that would provide a better hideout in the future, he would go there as soon as he had recovered enough of his strength.
But first, healing.
Eraiyo curled in on himself, warming himself from within. The web of fire underneath his black scales began to shimmer and he unleashed the words of healing. It was a soft spell, gentle in its nature, soothing as it crawled over his scales, as it wrapped itself around his body and embedded itself in the wounds, beginning to knit the broken flesh back together. He rested his head on his front paws and slowly closed his eyes. Here, he could stay, at least until he was well enough to find a better hiding place. Smoke was rising around him where his warm scales came in touch with dry twigs, and he enjoyed the soft, crackling warmth of dying fires around. Yes, this was alright. This would be fine. For now.
And inevitably, his mind wandered back. Back to that battle over the settlement, to monstrous claws piercing his scales and armour. Yes, he had feared for his live, but he had also not felt so alive in damn near a thousand years. The rush of battle, the adrenalin filling his veins with fire and magic, the rush of flying faster and higher than he had long been able to. Deep down, he had loved it all. Perhaps more than he should, considering the circumstances that had brought him here to begin with.
His thoughts returned to the golden city in the north, to those last few hours of her beauty. He was back in the throne room, with the winter sun shining in through the roof onto the round table with the large map of their Empire. He saw the magical, small figures moving across it, like in an old game he used to play with his mother.
He could vividly imagine her across the table, sitting in a large, cosy chair. She had always been more comfortable in her humanoid form, silver hair spilling down her form, cat like golden eyes focused on the game between them, planning ahead for the next twelve moves, it seemed. And whatever move he made then, she seemed prepared for it, he could tell by the small smirk that pulled up one corner of her mouth and sparked in the gold of her eyes.
Now the memory of the game was replaced by that of the war map in the throne room, and the memory of his mother was replaced by the faces of his siblings gathered around that map again.
“If Sibyll falls, the Great North falls with it,” Erafren had said grimly.
“Sibyll is impenetrable, it will not fall,” Era, their eldest, the Raaiy, had insisted.
Needless to say, he had been wrong. Sibyll had fallen not two hours later, and the rest of the Great North had followed its example no ten hours after that. They had been overrun, and the last time he remembered looking back at the city he had called home for so long, it was no longer golden. It was blackened by ashes and blood.
And then he remembered the girl. It drove a shiver down his spine, the memory of that brief moment they had locked eyes.
He knew these eyes, had seen them before, a long time ago. He had fought the man who had these eyes in his skull once upon a time. An epic battle that would forever mark the history of this world – both for his people and theirs. Seeing these eyes again on a day like this could not be coincidence.
It was like Gaius himself had come back from the Beyond to mock him. Look at you, the great archdragon, alone and running for his life like a frightened hatchling. How the mighty have fallen. The time of dragons has passed.
He wondered if the girl even knew of those eyes she had. Green and sharp like a poisoned dagger, rimmed with gold, like sunlight falling through a cover of fresh leaves after a long and dreadful rain. A beautiful colour, if it were not so toxic, such an omen of death. A part of him had always known he would see these eyes again. It was the nature of this world, where everything came in circles. It had been inevitable that these eyes would find their way back into his life at such a time. He had first seen them when his people had wiped out the Adarre. Now he saw them again when the legacy of the Adarre had wiped out his people in a bittersweet vendetta.
Other than those cursed eyes, there had been nothing remarkable about the girl that he could recall now. A pale, wiry one in a simple dress and a red velvet robe. A librarian and commoner. An ordinary girl, barely even two decades old. How had a common girl like that ended up with the eyes of the bloody Mad King? And what were the odds – by all the powers in the universe, what were the odds! – of him stumbling upon this girl at such a time, in a backwater shortear village somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This was not coincidence. A greater hand had guided him here than just a blind flight from his enemy. Was he here for a reason? Was he supposed to snuff out the life of the child with the Mad King’s eyes? But she had seemed so… harmless. There had been no threat, just this brief moment that he had seen himself in these eyes.
What did all of this mean? For him? For her. For the future of Arcaria? One had to wonder…