The fires burned for two days after the Atranochs came. Clouds of thick, black smoke rose in billowing columns towards the heavens as the mountain village of Strathworth Down lay in ruins, the earth red with blood. A peaceful clan of herders and healers, the people of Chimaria were a gentle race, ignorant to the ways of war. The Atranochs swiftly and brutally murdered them as they slept unaware in their huts. Men, women, children, horses, and livestock; the Atranochs were merciless, leaving nothing left breathing. As the smoke ascended into the night sky, a sharp wind carried the stench of burning flesh high above the village and over the grassy hills of Kilacomb straight into the Crystal Caves sitting deep within the mountains.
Daelyn, the youngest member of Shadow dragons, lifted his great head as a gust of wind found its way inside the ancient caverns. Swirling down through a chain of long, narrow tunnels, past luminous towers of crystal and limestone walls, it reached the largest chamber where for thousands of years the dragons made their home. Daelyn’s sensitive nostrils picked up the briny scent of the Sargonian Sea to the east, and to the west, another smell he wasn’t familiar with. Acrid and unpleasant, it made him shake his head and sneeze mightily.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve smelled that scent,” Baylor said solemnly, coming to stand under the great lunar vent near his son.
“What is it, father?” Daelyn asked, his head shaking with the force of his sneeze.
“It’s the smell of death and destruction,” Baylor answered softly, “About twenty miles from here. Come, we must tell your mother we’ll be making a trip at nightfall.”
“I’m coming with you, father?” Daelyn asked, “Shall we tell the elders?”
“Yes, you’re coming,” Baylor told his only son, “and yes, the elders need to know, if they don’t already. Go to the Chamber of Crystals and summon them, quickly. Tell Astor the Atranochs are back.”
Daelyn ran to the Chamber of Crystals located in the deepest recesses of the caverns. A virtual labyrinth of unending passageways and mini chambers, only those born to the caverns could ever find their way. His long, dark tail straight out behind him, wings tucked tight against his body, he wound his way to the elder’s lair. Daelyn, a fourth-generation Shadow dragon, was next in line to rule the clan. With dark, effervescent scales, he was bigger than most of his clan. A full fifteen feet in length at only three years of age. He was just beginning to learn how to use his dragon’s breath, a dark mist that drained the energy from his enemies. His cousins, the Fire Dragons in the East, were far more fearsome, but less intelligent. Found deep in the underground caves of the earth, his fiery brothers chose to stay out of sight, keeping to themselves. Sometimes known for breaking the peace treaty and killing humans, it was a practice frowned upon by his kind. It was unfair to kill such piteous beings. Human’s fear made them dangerous, but without their weapons, they were as harmless as dragonlets. Truthfully, Daelyn wondered how they even survived this far. Born without fangs or claws, without even knowing how to walk or talk, humans were an enigma. Fascinated by them, Daelyn often crept away from the lair to spy on their villages in the dark, amazed at how they lived. But they weren’t very clever, Daelyn noticed. They built flimsy dwellings made of wood and mud easily destroyed by their enemies. The higher born humans were soft and spoiled, using slaves to do their work. Why, they didn’t even raise their own offspring, opting instead to have servants tend to their needs. They were a pathetic lot, the high born.
Deep within the bowels of the mountain, Daelyn could hear the snoring of the elders as they slept peacefully. Sometimes sleeping for decades at a time, the elders awake were a magnificent thing to behold. Scales as big as snapping turtle shells and fearsome horns and claws, the old ones were at least one hundred years of age. His grandfather, Astor, was the oldest at one hundred and twenty-five. Daelyn picked up a striker with his teeth, using it to strike the crystal rods jutting out from the wall of the Elder’s chamber. The sound emanating from the crystals was beautifully melodic, resonating throughout the chamber and penetrating deep within the recesses of sleep. The Elders stirred. Astor opened a sleepy, emerald green eye, blinking several times to shake off the fog. Next came Atechi, Daelyn’s uncle, waking with a mighty yawn, showing fangs long enough to make even Astor shudder with dread. Rumbling deep in his barrel-like chest, the massive dragon stretched his wings with a groan. Atechi’s mate, Xyadran, a smaller, beautiful female with scales much lighter in color, lifted her head sleepily. Her eyes were endless pools of amber which contrasted nicely with her grayish-green scales. Wings tipped with a deep magenta, stretched out as she, too, yawned mightily.
Astor eyed his grandson grumpily, pushing his humongous head next to Daelyn’s.
“What is the meaning of this, Daelyn? Why have you disturbed our slumber?” he asked, showing his teeth. “Is it time already?”
“Grandfather, I’m sorry to have awakened you,” he explained, somewhat fearful, “But there’s trouble. Father said to tell you the Atranochs are back. They’ve done something terrible not far from here.”
Alert at the news, Astor snapped his jaws, his teeth making a horrible gnashing sound. It had been a long time since he heard the name of his enemies. Banished years ago, he never thought he’d have to deal with those horrible creatures ever again. Atranochs lived to cause chaos and fear. Armed with razor-sharp teeth and claws, they were formidable foes. Incredibly fast and agile, several Atranochs could kill a young dragon in a heartbeat. Astor knew this because they killed his youngest son. Grinding his teeth, he swung his great head toward his grandson.
“You’re sure of this?” he asked, “What does your father say?”
“He said we’re to leave at nightfall, grandfather,” he answered, “he wants to see what damage they've done just west of here. We can smell burning flesh and fear on the wind.”
Astor was all too familiar with the Atranochs’s tactics. Powerful, tough-skinned bodies, long, razor claws, and rows of shark-like teeth, the beasts were built to kill. But they weren’t very clever. Though they hunted in wolf fashion, tag-teaming their prey, they were easy to ambush. His son needed to investigate their latest shenanigans before they did any more damage. He knew the Chimarian’s settled west of the mountains and wondered if it were they the Atranochs killed. He hoped not, they were good people and minded their own business. It would be a shame to see such a gentle race destroyed by those monstrosities.
“What’s happening, Astor?” Xyadran asked the older dragon sleepily, “Why have we been disturbed?”
“Young Daelyn has come to with disturbing news,” he answered, “I’ve just been told there’s trouble west of here. From what our son can determine from the smoke that’s drifted our way, those despicable Atranochs are at it again. He thinks they may have destroyed the Chimarian’s village.”
“That’s preposterous!” Xyandran snorted, a puff of ebony escaping from her nostrils, “They haven’t reared their ugly heads in ages since we banished them years ago! Why now?”
The small bony horns all along both sides of her along her jawline bristled with anger. Her eyes darkened to a deep umber, for she, along with every resident of Kilacomb, detested the Atranochs. Their unnatural love for blood sport, killing for the joy of killing was anomalous and perverted. Not even the heart-eating dragons in the far south were as hated as they.
“Precisely!” Astor agreed, “This is why it’s imperative we investigate! Daelyn, as soon as you both find out what is going on, report back to us and we’ll decide on a course of action. If this is as bad as I think it might be, we may need to gather from many other clans to get rid of them once and for all.”
“Yes, grandfather, I’ll come right here when we return. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” Daelyn apologized, bowing his head. “Respect to you.”
Astor nuzzled his grandson affectionately with his whiskered muzzle. This youngster was going to rule the clan one day and he was proud of the young dragon’s size. Even he wasn’t as big as Daelyn at that age. He wished his son and grandson a good journey and prayed to the Wise One for safe passage to the both of them.
Daelyn’s mother, Saphira, and his father were having a disagreement when he returned to the upper chamber of the caves. He was slightly taken aback as he’d never heard his parents argue before. He wasn’t sure if he should make his presence known or not, choosing to stay out of sight for a moment. His mother sounded upset.
“Baylor, I don’t want Daelyn to go,” She argued, “he’s too young to deal with those monsters!”
“Saphira, he’s three years old!” His father pointed out, “He is most certainly old enough to learn about that which could endanger our land!”
Saphira was only partially a shadow dragon. Her father was a soul eater, one of the last of his kind. Her scales were especially beautiful; opalescent, they shimmered in the moonlight like dark rainbows. Unlike Baylor and Daelon, she didn’t have small spikes along her jawline, instead, carried two rows of razor-sharp horns that ran down her back to the tip of her tail. Saphira was one of the rare dragons who had a mane of silky dark hair that started near her dog-like ears and part of the back of her neck. She also had feelers under her chin and along her cheeks. Beautiful and exotic, Saphira was coveted by the male dragons of Kilacomb. But only Baylor made her heart beat fast and fierce. His size and power alone made all other suitors look like children. Daelyn, the result of their union, would one day surpass his father in size. But as he was her only child, she was fiercely protective, adamantly against letting him go anywhere near the Atranochs. Her mother mourned for years after they killed her younger brother. While Saphira watched from her hiding place, they tore the young dragon to pieces right before her eyes. She never forgot that day and swore vengeance on those loathsome creatures. But not at the expense of her only son.
“No, Baylor! I forbid you to take him!” she yelled, “that is the end of it!”
Daelyn felt anger well up from within. He wasn’t a baby anymore! Stepping out from the tunnel that hid his presence, he spoke up.
“Mother!” he began, “I am going! Soon I will be the leader of the Kilacomb dragons, so you must stop treating me like a baby! If those creatures are as terrible as you all say, I need to protect my family! I’m going and you’re not going to stop me!”
“Daelyn! How dare you speak to me in that manner!” she gasped, “You most certainly are not going tonight!”
“Mother, I’m sorry about what happened to your brother,” he said gently, but look at me; your son. I’m strong! Nothing will happen to me!”
With that said, he stormed out of the caves into the cool night air. Breathing in deep, he caught the residual odor of burning from the west, further validating his speech to his mother. He felt bad for her fear, but she had to know he wasn’t a child anymore. Staring off to the west, he wondered why such creatures as the Atranochs were ever created. He was going to make sure that this time they were destroyed for good, not just banished.