Flame of Wrath
"It's all gone," Mourne gasped. As far as he could see in the valley below, in the spot where Sandridge should have been, he saw only flames.
Iorneste came to his side immediately, peering down into the valley below. "No," he said. "Not at all. There are survivors! But only if we act right now." Before Mourne could stop him, Iorneste had already leapt over the ledge, already sliding down the steep hills to the valley below, on his way into the burning forest.
"Iorn--Yorn!!" Mourne shouted. "Wait, the fire!"
"Your concern..." came Iorneste's voice from down the hillside, his feet scrabbling on the rock as he laid back into a seated position and began to half-slide, half-stumble down the hill out of sight, "...is misplaced!"
Of course. Mourne scolded himself and began looking for a different way down the slope. There wasn't a fire that existed, save for the black flame of the Yeomi, that would give any pause to a Drac. Drac eggs were nestled near, or within pools of molten lava, and they were no less resistant to it as they aged. While Iorneste could travel a direct path through the heart of the flame, Mourne would be forced to go around.
Damn that hatchling for a fool. Mourne leaped down the hillside after Iorneste, shouting, "Wait! Carry me with you!" Iorneste's own protection would extend to him, so long as he was being carried, and Mourne was not about to leave the impetuous dragon in the presence of others for the first time without being close to provide leadership and oversight.
If he didn't break his ankle first on the way down.
Iorneste could be as patient as a stone, but not with the sight and smell of the towering inferno before him, as well as his first taste of adventure. He chafed at waiting for Mourne to catch up, but he could not disobey a direct order from the kiin that mentored him, and he had to admit it was not his place in their relationship to act without advice. However had seen something else from above with his keen eyes, something that gave him even more of a desire to hurry.
This was dragonfire, that much was clear to him at closer inspection, but he had also seen the dragon itself from the hilltop while gazing down at Sandridge. And something else that troubled him greatly, something he'd never thought possible.
He'd seen a figure riding upon the dragon's back.
It was this figure that was engaging the remaining survivors of the town, and it was this person's dragon that had burned it to cinders.
His mind was swirling with questions by the time Mourne arrived and without any sense of the irony asked Iorneste to carry him upon his back. Were I able to take my true form, Iorneste lamented, We might strike a different pose for the other dragonrider.
"We are still deep in the forest, but the flame is just ahead," advised Iorneste. "We don't have much time," he added, as Mourne placed one hand on his shoulder.
Mourne moved without hesitation, throwing his arms and legs around the straps of Iorneste's pack, hanging all of his weight from it, weaving into it like a spider, hugging it, locking his hands and ankles together, and preparing himself for what was coming. "Then we waste no time. Go!"
Much of the strength and stamina of Iorneste's dragon form remained, and Iorneste threw himself forward with a bull's rush, slamming hard, thundering steps upon the forest floor. He ran furiously, rushing through the forest and between the boles of the trees, feeling the heat begin to reach him. A wall of glowing red flame greeted him, the trees succumbing to its wrath, reaching to the sky with flaming fingers and turning night into daylight.
He passed into it without hesitation, feeling Mourne flinch upon his back.
For Mourne, it was like being in the eye of the storm. He felt the heat, but was not burned by it, he could not see through the flames, but the smoke did not trap in his lungs, and the air was warm with the definite fragrance of smoke, but breathable. He simply held on as tight as he could, and let the dragon do the best he could with two legs.
Iorneste did not run like a horse, limited as he was by two legs, but he still ran as if he was unencumbered, and moved like an athelete out of legend. The fire licked and washed over his skin, and the warmth comforted him. Though he was not yet old enough to produce much more than a lick of flame from his mouth, the fire burned always within, maturing along with him.
As they neared closer to the heart of the conflagration, there were fewer trees standing, and Iorneste began to leap up onto and across their mostly horizontal trunks upon the forest floor. He was heading straight for what remained of Sandridge.
"We must always maintain our ruse!" shouted Mourne into Iorneste's ear, over the roar of the flame. "We should approach from the sea! See if you can circle around!"
Iorneste did not change course immediately. "Mourne, wait, you should know--there's a dragon down there!"
Mourne felt the shock hit his limbs, and he almost fell off of Iorneste's back, scrambling back quickly to regain his hold, heart racing. "How is that possible? Why?" Once again, Mourne felt himself less in control of the situation, and cursing himself for twice ignoring the obvious. He of all people was aware of how fast the dracfaer could burn, and should have recognized its signature immediately, not to mention where they were. "Drac?" Mourne asked weakly, forgetting to shout, face pressing and bouncing against the back of the dragon's backpack as Iorneste continued to move.
Iorneste resisted the urge to tell him about the rider. Mourne's sense of shock mirrored his own. If Mourne fell now, he would be dead in a second. Better to save that news for later. "No!" he shouted in reply, so that his mentor could hear him. "It's just a drake." Through the flames he could see a gap ahead, a break in the smoke, a portion of Sandridge that was now nothing more than smoldering ash.
The dragon in human form kicked off of a burning trunk of a once grand tree, vaulting towards the epicenter of the destruction, where the fires no longer raged, but smoldered.
"We're almost there, friend Mourne."
Sandridge was so called because of its presence atop the sandy ridge leading to the sea, providing the only inlet to the Wyldlands: an ancient mountain range covered in vast forests. Large cliffs were the buttress to the sea from the Wyldlands, except in one very rare geographical spot, where the cliffs dropped low to meet the ocean and the pathway from the sea to the forest lands opened.
It was a large town that had developed at the top of the slope down to the sea, ending in a sandy beach, the only seaward entrance to the Wyldlands. This was Sandridge proper. Some of its business was done on the forest floor, some at the wharf, and some of it in the tops of great treehouses that dotted the valley of forest that looked up still higher into the ascent of forested mountains. It had become the frontier port on the very alien frontier of the Wyldlands. Once birthplace to the Elvarien, now their arboreal grave, its deeper reaches were said to be filled with ghosts and secrets.
The Wyldlands were thus a place for treasure hunters and explorers, and even those hermits who sought a solitary existence. There were often stories of warriors who had wearied of battle and retired to the forests of the Wyldlands, building out their own little domain away from the politics and difficulties of the Many Kingdoms, where they could rule themselves.
With its appointed guardians now so much dust, it was also a great place for timber. The vellarien wood of the Wyldlands would fetch a mighty price in Sura, where it provided much of the structure of their war machines. It was made into kingly dinner tables in Vanderhall, and was in the highest of fashion in Lessre Esturia as a building material, as it was considered to be both beautiful, and impervious to fire.
In the Elvarien tongue, they had once called it The Gates of Auriss. They had called their great forest Mother and had loved it as their home.
Now the Gates of Auriss were burning at the hands of a dragon, and it had started at the town of Sandridge. Now the great treehouses of Sandridge were also ash, along with any inhabitants who had been caught in the fires caught from the dragon's blaze.
Lessre Esturia prized the wood because it was said to be impervious to flame, and so it was. Normal flame would not burn the Elvarien wood, but dracfaer certainly could. It just had never been done before. It was just not done. It was a sacrilege great enough to make the very stones weep.
This sacrilege had made Iorneste very, very angry. It was not a human's swift and impassioned anger, but the dragon's ire: the slow-burning rumble of a stoked furnace, great destruction constrained only by a powerful will.
They passed through the fire in minutes, emerging into a portion of Sandridge that was now only powdery ash, smoke rising from the ground from whatever charred sub-basements might remain. They could see and hear the conflagration continuing on its rushing way through the woods behind them, and all that had been unburnt soon would be engulfed. The cliffside would break the fire eventually, it would not spread to the entire Wyldlands, but not much would be left of this valley but desolation.
Iorneste could not speak with the trees as the Elvarien had, but on some level he could feel their pain, their own ancient magic calling out to his own, like an itch of horror scrambling at his mind, desperate for purchase, and looking for escape.
Perhaps, he felt, they were seeking the one thing that could bear witness to their final moments, manifesting as it did for him as nothing but an unending, tortured, psychic scream.
The beach below was still dotted with Elvarien standing stones that no one had yet fathomed how to carry off and place in a lord's atrium somewhere. The wharf alone remained intact, and a few ships along with it, and it was there that the survivors had fled. In the distant, churning sea some other survivors were adrift in their own boats and ships, rowing and sailing as far away from Sandridge as possible.
"Rain," said Iorneste, snorting loudly through his nostrils, exhaling small tendrils of smoke. Though not particularly winded, he was still angry and felt his breath coming short from the involuntary response common to the Drac when enraged: to vomit forth flame. He could not quite manage that yet, but the crackle of fire was in his voice as he spoke. "I could bring forth the rain." He stared hard down at the beach, blue eyes unwavering.
"You know it will not stop it."
"An enchanted rain might."
"No," Mourne shook his head sadly. "This will not stop until the dracfaer has run out of fuel. It will run its course. Let us instead deal with what's ahead."
What was ahead was the drake and its rider, advancing slowly towards a handful of figures on the wharf below.
"Iorneste, listen to me, listen to me carefully."
"I hear you."
"Look at me."
Iorneste struggled to look away from the scene on the beach, but managed to face Mourne, his eyes and anguished expression revealing his struggle.
"No matter what happens, remember who you are. But also remember who you are supposed to be."
He growled. "A dragonslayer."
He snapped his attention back, shrugging out of his backpack, and dropping it into the rocky sand next to Mourne as he began walking down the hill towards the people on the beach below. Reaching over his shoulder, he drew his great sword, and advanced towards the inevitable confrontation, forcing tight reins over his more dragonish impulses.
Guile is also a Drac virtue, he reminded himself.
He remembered the lessons of the elder Rrachma. It was his library in which Iorneste had spent many years of his early life, taking books down from the shelves with his claws and opening them gingerly, turning pages with the gentlest edge of one of his talons, as the elder had instructed him.
"There is no fire in this room," Rrachma had warned him on his first visit. "Set any fire in this room, and I will tear out your spine and eat your heart, is that understood?"
Iorneste had been too terrified to argue, and much too intrigued by the content of the books to risk angering the librarian with the wrong words.
"A Drac is not a brute, we are not beasts," continued Rrachma. "We leave that to our cousins, to the relarche, and to the betrayers. There are some who say that when the fire is awoken, it must burn, that a dragon's ire will find its way, and flame will always result from anger.
"They are fools," scoffed Rrachma. "Because to be Drac is to be always in control. To lose control of yourself is to lose face, to be less than Drac. A dragon who cannot contain his anger, cannot restrain the fire, and who singes a single corner of one of my books because he has lost control of his emotions, this is not a Drac at all. A true Drac does exactly what he intends to do, and nothing more."
Iorneste inclined his serpentine head with deference, absorbing the words and incorporating them for later introspection. It appeared to appease the old wyrm.
"I recommend the History of Elvarien Wylds," Rrachma said, as he brushed past Iorneste on his way out of the library, "By Sanroth Eigre. Green leaf binding, third bookcase from the left, twelfth book from the right, there on that second shelf from the bottom. The Elvariens have a fascinating history. Pity for them that this is all that remains of them."
Enormous though he was, the elder dragon sinuously moved his vast bulk amongst the books and precious items of his hoard with grace. He flapped his wings twice, stretching them and extending his head up towards the sky, before adding:
"Control yourself, or there will be nothing left of you either when I am finished with you."
Valuable lesson administered, the eregaunte launched himself into the skies.
I must control myself. I am Drac.
As Iorneste approached at a steady walk, hand held upon his weapon, blue eyes blazing at the dragon and its rider, it was the dragon's attention he received first.
Drakes and Drac are often born from the same clutch, and initially there is little clue as to which is which. After just a few weeks, however, the pecking order begins to assert itself. The Drac are rulers, while the Drakes are followers. Drakes, once identified, were later removed from the clutch and raised by relarche, while Dracs were raised by one of the males chosen by the matriarch who had birthed them. But early on in life, the two were often raised together, and treated largely indistinguishably, until intelligence asserted itself in the Drac. Iorneste still remembered playing with two of the drakes from his own brood, of which he had been the only Drac.
Some things are simply a matter of blood. All true dragonkin know each other instinctively, and no shapechange can hide this. Iorneste's aura fell upon the Drake, just as he began to sense its own aura.
Once this happened, Iorneste established mental communication with the drake, but it immediately began to shudder, and lower itself in deference at his approach.
Stay right there, ordered Iorneste, approaching closer. Maintain your position.
The drake froze before prostrating itself, eyes watching Iorneste approach with a domesticated animal's compliance. Its mind communicated a familial warmth back to him.
The motion of the drake had alerted its rider, and the head of the rider turned to face him, eyes unreadable behind a stylized dragon helmet. The armor of the figure was ornate, of a green so dark it was almost black, consisting of hard plates across the chest, articulated gauntlets and armored boots equipped with oversized, jagged spurs. The rider had a longsword strapped to one side, and its left hand rested upon it. The other hand was knotted within the reins that attached to the bit lodged in the dragon's mouth.
Reins, thought Iorneste in disgust. Like it's a horse.
He took in the rider's accoutrements of battle, the saddle, bridle, and spurs. He took in the proud dragon turned into a beast of burden, used to destroy the ancient trees of the Elvariens at the command of this rider. He took in the cowering people on the wharf, all of them looking at him in shock, watching the town and city burning behind them.
The fire was in his voice as he spoke, hatred in his eyes as he glared at the rider. "Enough! Get down from the dragon. Now."
The rider laughed haughtily, voice muffled behind the helm. "You escaped the fire only to die again? Which is it: Brave or stupid?"
Iorneste showed the rider his teeth, but it wasn't a smile. He did not slow his advance. "I am Yorn of Summersgard. Dragonslayer. I have faced worse than you." He wasn't sure how convincing his threat was, but it was something similar to what the ancient hero Lluvias was said to have uttered in challenge to the Vander army. "Step down from the dragon, or I'll cut you down."
The rider shuffled on the back of the dragon, manner seeming uncertain, but remained where he was. "Burn him," he said, pulling back on the reins to open the drake's mouth. This is where it should have, and usually did, end.
But the drake would no more vomit flame on a Drac than it would violate its own nest, and so it did nothing. Iorneste could feel the pain of the drake through the bond between them, feel the bit digging into its mouth, gouging furrows in the connective tissue that met its jaws.
The rider screamed in frustration, slamming its spurs hard into the drake's flanks, drawing ichorous dragon blood, but still the drake would not obey. "Enough!" thundered Iorneste once more. "This is the sword Yrmbane, forged by dragons! Your pet will not attack me while I hold it. Now," he said, moving past the drake's head, and circling around to the side of the beast, looking directly up to the dragon rider and bringing the sword to bear, point nearing the rider's neck. "Get down. Now."
The rider snapped its foot forward out of the stirrup suddenly, slamming into Iorneste's nose, the cruel spurs reversing and slashing across his face. Momentarily blinded and dazed, Iorneste reached out one arm reflexively as his head rocked backward, managing to snag the end of the boot in his hand on its return. With a roar of rage and pain he yanked backward on the leg as hard as he could, hearing a ripping sound and a strangled yelp as the rider was thrown back over his head, hitting the sand far behind him several yards away, landing with an explosive oooomph.
Mourne began to run down the hill this time, even from his distance seeing the redness of blood on Iorneste's face and watching as he pitched the rider with a dragon's tremendous strength out of the saddle, snapping the girth strap when his other leg refused to give way of the stirrup, or rip free from the rider's body. Although no friend of the rider, when he landed in the wet sand on his head he winced at the impact.
Iorneste was still reeling from the stars of pain in his head, in his nose, one hand clutching the flap of skin that dangled from his cheek and trying to press the bleeding wound closed. He blinked several times, trying to clear the tears from his eyes so he could see. He could hear the figure struggling around in the sand nearby, also trying to get its bearings, groaning and fighting for breath. Iorneste managed to bring blurry vision somewhat back into focus, feeling a screaming headache descend with the promise of more to follow later.
So that answered the question as to whether humans could hurt him or not.
The advantage was now his, and he moved to close it. The figure on the beach was trying to struggle to its feet, sword was half out of the scabbard when Iorneste kicked the figure's arm, hard, causing a yowling cry of pain to echo from within the helmet. He then pressed his foot and full weight down hard upon it, crushing it into the sand. The yowls of pain increased in volume, and the figure began to struggle.
Iorneste tore off the rider's helmet, snarling down at the figure pressed into the beach, and stopping short in surprise. It was a woman, with short-cropped firey red hair and equally angry grey eyes, with an answering snarl on her own face.
Iorn slammed his sword into the sand near her head, positioning his other foot upon her other shoulder, pinning her firmly to the ground.
She gurgled deep in her throat, and spit a wad of bloody phlegm directly into his face.
Iorneste answered her hard with his fist, and then she slumped into the sand, unconscious.
"Your swordplay is terrible," Mourne's winded voice said from behind him. "We will need to deal with that immediately."
"You were lucky. If you hadn't caught her leg, she'd have skewered you with her sword. You aren't invincible, Iorn. It only feels that way."
"In this, the youth of all species are exactly the same."
Iorneste stepped away from the fallen dragon rider, breath coming hard through his mouth in painful gasps, but he said nothing. Mourne checked the rider, and found her still breathing. He glanced up, seeing the cowering survivors on the wharf staring in stunned silence at the three people on the beach, and the dragon which was now as docile as a kitten.
"Let us see what we can make of this, Iorn. There are many answers needed here."
Yorn and Mourne
by Tenacious Shapeshifter PuNK-A-CaT