Melanth hated the mountain already.

The stones of the mountain became more angular and sharp the further up he carried them. Melanth tried to stick to the ridges of the peak, where the rock was solid and the going easier, but there were some ravines that were too deep to ford and too wide to glide across. Eventually the claws of his paws were torn and bloody, and he left sticky red puddles with each step, gritting his teeth and pushing the pain to the back of his mind. It was an old trick he had long since mastered, sealing the sensation away in some deep recess and focusing only on keeping his back to the space between two peaks that Katrina had pronounced to be due south. The human had fallen asleep across his neck of exhaustion, made worse by the thin air and strains of recent weeks. He envied her the ease of the journey, glancing darkly her way now and again although he could not bring himself to hate her for the trouble she had caused him no matter how hard he tried.
Even accustomed to journeying on foot as he was, the chill air sapped his strength, and slowly, like a seeping damp, the pain began to win through his mental barriers. To add insult to injury changes in air pressure told him that a storm was brewing, and even as he considered abandoning the path on foot and chancing the treacherous mountain air, a squall erupted seemingly from the thin sky. He cursed Drulkar loudly, drawing across his second set of eyelids as the wind drew dust into a swirling maelstrom of razor sharp grains and lashing viciously against them with the pain of a boson’s whip. Melanth had heard tales of sand storms in the deserts of Tazoon where a warrior could sharpen his sword by just holding it up in the air, and where the abrading winds could strip a camel of its skin in seconds.
Katrina awoke with a cry of agony, slamming the visor of her helmet down and crouching low as the stinging dust lashed across her thin skin, burying her head in his neck. She was shouting incoherently, her voice inaudible over the howling, daemonic wind. A stray gust snapped at his wing, tearing it open and lifting his right side from the ground precariously. He fought the elements, feeling bones and tendons pop as he strained to close his pinion and with a roar of frustration he set his head low to the ground, blinded by the fog of dust and tried to force a path through nature’s fury, bloody claws digging into the earth with each step. Another gust caught him head on, snapping both wings wide and lifting his forequarters from the ground so that he teetered for a dangerous moment upon his hind legs before throwing himself to the ground and hugging the dirt.
“For pity’s sake Melanth go to cover!? He heard his rider cry over the wind.
Slithering like a snake he wedged himself into a gap between two enormous boulders, scrabbling at the loose scree between, ignoring the sharp stinging and burning and the horrible dampness that ran between his fingers. Gritting his teeth, he dug into the cleft, forcefully shoving away the piles of detritus until he could squeeze his entire body into the shallow ravine.
“Try to climb off, get down between the rocks!? He shouted over the gale. He felt Katrina shift on his neck and drop heavily to the ground with an oath. In fear he turned hoping that she was unharmed and felt a tremendous blow catch the side of his head, knocking him from his feet. Dizzy sensations and nausea exploded behind his eyes, magnetic leylines catching sharp and thrashing like hawsers; a weak thrashing told him that Katrina was caught beneath his weight and he strained back to his feet, wavering and confused, coppery blood pumping into his mouth. Movement caught his eye and he ducked on pure instinct as a long curved scimitar of stone smashed down, skimming his neck frills. Adrenaline surged his sluggish brain and overrode panic; training, instinct and pure, unadulterated fury burning through his veins in an instant of enervating confusion. Melanth turned to face his foe.
The golem’s eyes glinted like polished coins as it recovered from its swing, the lumps of russet iron ore that made up its body shifting and moulding in some bitter mockery of human musculature. Driven by terror Melanth threw himself at it, knocking it out into the vicious wind, tumbling across the unyielding stone in a whirling fury of teeth, claws and fists. The golem shoved him off, lashing with its jagged stone knife at his thick belly scales as he tripped and fell once more, the disrupting iron like a constant, piercing howl in his ear, freezing mind and muscle. The golem’s mouth reshaped into a horribly malformed grin as it raised its knife over his chest for the killing blow. More in anger than intent he snapped his tail across its body with enough force to jar loose some of the stones that were its flesh, spraying white hot slime even as he felt something in his appendage snap and go numb. The golem’s grin turned into a scream of pain like an avalanche, and it lunged in a frenzy, stone clattering off scale as he rolled to avoid the increasingly desperate thrusts. The knife dug into his wing membrane, tearing a gash through the soft flesh and spattering hot blood across his side. He retaliated, rolling onto his back and kicking out with his hind legs, knocking it backwards as he scrambled away, regaining his footing, red foam pouring from his mouth and down his throat as his breathing grew laboured. The golem looked like some oversized man moulded by an unskilled child; all horribly disfigured proportions but its terrible strength made a lie of its wretched appearance. He leapt, pounding at it with clenched claws, smashing his head into its chest in bitter fury, an incoherent roar of rage escaping his jaws. His vision seemed to dim and turn red as he rained blow after blow down upon it in incandescent terror and berserk anger, smashing chunks of stone loose from its upraised arm. A terrible pain erupted in his side, and again. He ignored it, trying to get his jaws around its head, feeling tension in the wound tug and go dead. The golem kicked him hard in the stomach and knocked the air out of him, splintering ribs and sending him to the ground, his rage spent.
That would have ended it had it not also brought itself within range of his claws.
The muscles of his legs and back unwound like springs under tension and he grabbed it with every ounce of weight and strength, neck and tail wrapping around its body like a constricting snake. The golem thrashed in panic and Melanth grinned sadistically at his enemy’s knowledge of its own demise, slowly twisting with strength only a dragon would muster. The golem screamed like two stones being ground together as it came apart at the waist, faintly bluish goo spraying from the severed halves as the stones that made up its mass lost cohesion and tumbled into rubble.
Melanth paused for a moment, catching his breath before shaking the remains of the golem off his body. He was shaking as the adrenaline faded from his system, allowing pain to flow back into his body with all the welcome an overdue bar tab reminder. By dint of sheer willpower he moved nerveless limbs, dragging himself on his belly back to the cleft where Katrina lay. She was panting and flushed, streaked with blood and sweat but otherwise unharmed, clutching her mattock in a white knuckled grip. He slithered into the cleft, enervated, falling heavily upon his side. He knew he was injured, but it was impossible to say where. The blow to his head had addled his senses; his body seemed to be little more than a living blood streaked bruise.
“Oh gods...? She said, dropping her weapon as he spat out a tooth. He turned to where her stare was fixed, seeing the marks in his side where the golem’s knife had punctured, driven through scales and flesh by its inhuman strength. One mark was seemingly superficial, little more than a callous of crushed scales, but the blade of its weapon still protruded from the second where his thrashing had snapped it off.
“Get it out of me!? he hissed harshly, barely enough strength left in him to move his jaws. Katrina looked afraid for a second as she set her hands upon it, and began slowly pulling at the gore slick splinter, her teeth gritted with determination. He hissed weakly, swearing as the thing was removed; it felt as though she were pulling a red hot poker from his side, not a chunk of stone.
With a final yank she wrenched the last of it out and dropped it with a clatter. Melanth started breathing again, his side a bitter burning agony.
“Bastard creatures.? He said, examining the blade. It had punctured a good foot into his side, but only a few rivulets of blood seeped forth telling him that no major organs were pierced. That was a relief at least. If he died now it could be weeks before he would be able to meet up with Katrina again, and with little in the way of sustenance in these accursed mountains she would surely die herself in the interim; having to find her again in Parsinia would set them back months or more. He shifted uneasily, the storm still raging just overhead, examining his surroundings to drive the incessant pain and whining of the wind out of his thoughts. The golem had been lurking out of the storm in a grotto- not a grotto, he discovered as he regarded it, but a fully fledged cave cunningly blocked in with rocks-
The second golem moved like lighting but Katrina was quicker. With blinding speed she snatched up her mattock any leapt atop Melanth’s heaving flank, catching the golem’s stone dagger upon the head of her hammer in a shower of sparks as it descended for the killing blow. The golem raised its fist to strike her, hitting nothing but air as she ducked under its swing and came up behind its guard. Her hammer moved in a blur, connecting with the golem’s head with a clap like that of thunder; crushing its rocky skull. The man of stone fell backwards, disintegrating into nothing more than shale as Katrina held her hammer high, her breathing hard. After a few moments, stunned realisation dawned and she sank to her knees, choking back tears and quaking, hammer falling from her nerveless hands with a metallic thump.
Melanth regarded her curiously, snaking his head to her side, an act that she took to be a comforting gesture, for she threw her arms around his muzzle, sobbing into his cheek.
“I’ve never been so afraid in my life.? She said, shaking, her voice little more than a whisper, speaking to herself as much as him. “How did that happen? How did I know what to do??
“It is the curse of the Gifted.? Melanth rumbled. “With the Gift come instincts and abilities beyond those of? he struggled for the human word “Mortals. The Gifted were meant to fight; it is our calling, it is our fate.?
“I hate it.? She said venomously.
“You get used to it.? He murmured comfortingly. He picked up the largest stone of the in-animate golem, the one that had been its torso, and smashed it off the side of the ravine until it split. Slime spilled from the two separate halves with a stink like burning metal, and he carefully extracted the glistening iron geode of its heart, turning it over in his claws until it was cool enough to hold.
“Here. Take this.? He said. “These are rare things, hard to attain, and valuable to the right kind of person. You could make enough money to live for a month from this. Your first kill should be a thing to remember.?
“Keep it.? She said, pushing it away from him. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, not for remorse at the killing, he realised, but for fear. Fear for herself, fear for him. He rumbled to himself approvingly. Remorse for something that was trying to kill you was misplaced at best, misguided at worst.
He contented himself by thoroughly searching the cave behind where the golem had hidden in plain sight on the rock face, keeping away from the cave walls and dancing back at the least little noise or movement of a shadow. When he had finally contented himself that the cave was bare of yet more golems he carefully lifted Katrina up in his forepaws and deposited her within, laying his body before the entrance to ward off the whistling wind and any prowling beasts. They made a fire from the tattered remains of the armour padding and the cloaks that had come with the suit, fuelling it sparingly and bitterly lamenting the lack of anything to eat. Eventually day turned into night and then day again; it was impossible to keep an accurate track of time for the callous clouds emitted a sickly half-light even when it must have surely been night by the dragon’s reckoning. Melanth was content to sleep away the endless stormy hours, feeling his wounds slowly close at their accelerated pace as the time trickled by like blood from his side. Katrina however was not so easily amused, and practiced putting on and removing her armour for hours until Melanth begged her to stop as the rattling of the plates was keeping him awake. Eventually she lost herself in the wonderment of the golem’s heart; the thing was iron, by the hardness of it and the fact that it warped the magnetic fields that only Melanth could sense, but it held little else in common with the metal. It was three times as heavy as its size should have allowed, and always warm to the touch no matter how long it was left unhandled in the cold air. It looked like quicksilver, and when holding it one got the impression that it should simply diffuse and run between your fingers, yet it remained solid and without so much as a scratch when Katrina took her stout steel mattock to it in frustration at the wait. Though a rough guess, they conceded that two full days had passed before the storm showed even the slightest signs of dispersing.
Almost as though the powers that be were given to irony, when the storm finally blew itself out there were no clouds to be seen roiling like a sea of cotton below them. Katrina was surprised that storms could still occur above the clouds, but by patient explanation could Melanth make her understand that storms occurred by the interaction of warm and cool air and did not stem from the clouds themselves.
They drank heartily from pools of silt filled water that had collected in hollows of rock and took stock of their situation. Though water was aplenty for the moment, Katrina had not eaten in four days. No plants grew in such lofty places, and no organic creature roamed far beyond the cloud line. Melanth guessed that in the cloudy day before the storm he had managed to crest the summit, for the majority of the mountain lay to the south behind them, although his growing confusion as to their exact location made it impossible to keep track of the miles. Somewhat lacking her usual vigour, Katrina hauled herself and their gear up onto his neck, stuffing what she could into the mail hauberk and wearing the rest. He briefly considered trying to fly again, but rapidly revised his opinion. His broken ribs were an agony just to breathe, and the cut on his wing would place a difficult strain to keep his balance in any case. His tail was clearly broken; the edge trailed limply in the dirt, and more than once he considered simply biting it off to save him the pain of it jarring off every rock.
The days wore on long and arduous, Melanth’s injuries pained him and Katrina’s stomach pained her. After a further two days he conceded that should tomorrow draw to a close and still no food was to be found he would sacrifice a portion of his tail to her stomach, explaining that the limb would grow back full with time and he would do better to be rid of it anyways, although the idea repulsed her. Happily, he did not have to spare it for her, nor she suffer eating it along their slow descent as a condor, perhaps drawn by the scent of blood or by knowledge of lost travellers in the mountains, marked their location by flying endless patient circles around them in the skies above. Melanth feigned a fall and lay motionless until it descended to feed, knocking it from the sky with a puff of flame when its greed overcame its natural caution. Katrina said the carrion bird tasted foul.
The slopes were bare, and shelter sparse. Melanth tried to carry them alternately down the clearest faces of the slope when the weather was good, quickly alternating to rougher, more sheltered terrain when the dreadful mountain storms threatened to return. The lack of heat played on his nerves and his strength; the wound in his side was suppurating in his weakness and oozing foul smelling pus. Though the skies were clear even a slight breeze dispelled the sun’s warmth on his blood. Night closed on them like an iron vice, dropping the temperature even further, and it was only through supreme effort that he could keep his mind focused enough to remain alert although it cost him his last reserves of effort. He ground to a halt less than a mile above the cloud line, all but collapsing to the ground in exhaustion.
“What is wrong?? Katrina called down, climbing from his neck and rushing to his head. He Shifted and tried to stop panting, a horrible bloody taste in the back of his throat from the strain. He felt terribly weak and cold, so cold that his thoughts were wrenched back to the battlefield of what seemed like a century ago, when Jarlneria had sacrificed her life to hold the line. He had died then and felt just like this, and wondered if perhaps the wound on his side pained him more than he knew.
“The warmth leaves my veins.? He said, managing to calm his breathing. “I cannot make my own heat as you can; I need the sun’s warmth to live.?
“But it is warmer here than the summit and you bested that well enough.? She said, confusion and fear drawing her eyebrows together into a tight knot.
“That is beside the point.? He muttered, dreading having to explain more to her, but knowing that he had no other choice. “Back then I was well fed and without injury; I could cope better for its absence. Now I grow weaker and feel its loss more keenly.?
“Can you push onwards?? She said, genuinely concerned. He found that he did not mind her fussing so much as that of the Clerics back at the tower, and wondered at it. He shook his head.
“Not tonight, not without warmth.?
He spat a small glob of fire over his own flanks, feeling the heat radiate through his scales. Training taught him to use his fire sparingly; the chemicals that made up dragon fire would not be produced in conditions of stress, and he had been long without the bones or alcohol he needed to produce more. Katrina saw what he was trying to do, and went to the bundles, returning with the last knotted strips of tattered fabric from the tower. She ignited them in the fire of his flanks and laid them across his neck one at a time, throwing the last one across an hour before the sun rose. The thick and aged fabric burned only slowly, but he felt some of the lost strength return to him for even the meagre warmth. When the last was gone the torpor crept slowly back like a seeping leak in the hull of a ship.
“There is no more.? She said, having exhaustively searched the bundles.
“Curse the gods and their fickle fates!? he snarled. “Just a little more and I will risk a flight!?
“Are you strong enough?? She asked, moving over to his flank and brushing off some of the ash.
“I do not see that I have a choice.? He muttered resentfully. “The answer to your question is no, but another day on this accursed mountain will surely kill me, and with me, you. Unless you plan to sprout wings, that is.?
“But there is nothing to burn up here.? She said. “Not even grass, unless...?
“What is on your mind?? He asked. She stripped off her armour and then the recently tattered and stained chemise, standing naked to the four winds.
“The Clerics took your undergarments when they placed you in the house of healing? I see that their vows of chastity were not so binding as they claimed.? He remarked dryly, seeing that although muscular, her form was somewhat wasted with their travels.
“Shut up.? She suggested. “And stop staring at me; were you human I’d kick you somewhere it hurts for that. Spit on this.?
The cotton of the chemise burned better than the dusty old tapestry fabric, sending pulses of warmth through his body with every beat of his heart. Katrina replaced her armour to cover her modesty and keep out the chill as he surged to his feet, lightheaded and nauseated, but very much alive. Dawn was creeping over the horizon and he felt elated at the sun’s first touch; it was like going into battle, he thought. Let this **** mountain try to wear us down, with its lances of ice and arrows of thunder, and once more we will charge with the new dawn.
He leapt into the newborn sky as soon as Katrina was aboard, eliciting a shriek at the unexpected manoeuvre. Tendons and muscles strained after days of atrophy, and he feared for one deadly moment that he would be too weak to support them in the air. His wings locked up for the barest fraction of a second before coming back under his control, long enough to send a strange thrill of adrenaline coursing like liquid fire into his veins. Katrina jokingly made a crude remark about the motion of his flying and her lack of underwear, but he ignored her and went on slowly gliding through the misty clouds, afraid to overexert himself in his weakened state. Simply flying again was a balm.
He turned back to look at the mountains, seeing the play of light and shadow move across their craggy faces as clouds passed just beneath, and he felt for an odd moment that he were a world apart; that he was no longer on Istaria, but some other astral body that Gnomian philosophers predicted existed beyond the vale of the world. The clouds roiled below like an ocean, churning and swelling, wind gusting wisps of their insubstantial material like flecks of ocean spray in slow motion. The mountain rose from it like an island from the sea, and in the distance other peaks struggled towards the sun. Here was an elemental world; a world ruled by the fire of the sun, the water, the air and by stone. Here was a world that was untouched by the ground dwelling biped races who knew of flight only what the dragons spared them, who would never know the effortless caress of the thermals upon a wing or the sheer pleasure of falling through the sky. The mountains were full of barren and dangerous beauty, but beauty nonetheless. Timeless beauty. Here was a place where perhaps, just perhaps, a good thing would last forever.
“What is it?? Katrina asked, leaning forwards on his neck. “You look fit to cry.?
“I think I just realised that I can feel again.? He murmured, so quietly that his voice was lost in the wind. He tore his eyes from the mountains, vowing a silent pledge to return one day.
Melanth dipped his wings to the mountains as though saying farewell to an old and honoured enemy before gliding downwards through the misty embrace of the clouds to waiting Istaria below.

***

No sooner had they broken through the turbulent mists of the clouds and taken in the vast, all encompassing vista of the world below then they were marked. Melanth saw the dragon first as it sailed upon a thermal several hundred meters below them, stalking some species of goat that clattered across the slopes of the mountain with horns the size and shape of a strung bow. It turned towards them as though in horror before winging off wildly, its sea green hide barely distinguishable against the trees below.
“I wonder what that was all about.? Katrina said, trying and failing to follow it with her vision.
“I’m not sure.? He replied. “I’m not sure I want to wait to find out either. Let’s set down under that overhang.?
He fluttered down the slopes of the mountain, letting the thermals raising from the sun-warmed stone carry him and his charge towards the sizable porch in the steep rock face. He gripped the edge, mindful of possible golems before setting down entirely, testing the air with his tongue. Fifteen minutes later the green dragon returned at the head of a squadron of some twenty or more dragons flying in the distinctive aerial ‘V’ of a battle formation, all of them bearing Helian symbols upon their hides in ultramarine blue war-paint.
“Make many friends around here?? Katrina said drolly, watching the formation sweep overhead. Confused and afraid, Melanth said to her “stay here? before dragging himself up the lip of the overhang, his claws gripping the cracks and sills in the stone like crampons.
The formation turned as soon as they saw the glitter of his golden scales, the green falling back from the lead to be replaced by a large indigo beast that bore down on him with alarming speed. Melanth sat on his haunches and closed his wings to his back, making a show of non-threatening behaviour as the formation broke up and circled around him to cover all angles of escape. Why they didn’t simply attack was beyond him, but he decided to take his chances.
“Hail good dragon!? He shouted to the indigo creature in his best draconic, assuming it to be the leader. “Why do you accost a traveller in these lands? I have no ill intent to heart.?
There seemed to be a moment of confusion as instructions were given, although Melanth was too distant to make out the words. The rest of the dragons wheeled around and flapped off northwards with the green in tow whilst the indigo one drew in closer, apparently inspecting him.
“You will forgive our caution,? He said, a heavy Helian accent to his draconic. “We were told by that green that you came at him from above the clouds.?
“We came from above the clouds yes,? He said, sizing the other up. He was smaller than Melanth and if it came to it he would have no difficulty overpowering him, but the other was already flying and it would take longer for Melanth to get his bulk in the air. “But at him I deny; we could not see whence it was we alighted through the mists.?
“So you did come from above the clouds.? The other said, audibly impressed. “Few living dragons dare to attempt the feat; the winds are unpredictable and fierce. You are either very brave or very foolish to try such a deed.? He continued, placing a noticeable inflection on the second word that made Melanth’s lip curl. So that was it; undead dragons were known to risk flying above the clouds more often- they did not fear the winds not the lack of breathable air. That green moron must have taken them to be an attack by the Withered Aegis and fluttered off to bring a garrison down on their heads.
“I err towards the latter.? He replied, resettling his wings on his back. “But my hand was forced. We come here with great urgency.?
“Indeed, then I would know of this urgency. But you say we? Where are the others of your party??
“Nearby.? Melanth replied in a non committal sort of way. “Will you guide us to Chiconis? We are fatigued and we have injuries that need tending.?
“In good time, but I must see the rest of your party. We cannot simply let any brigand into our city.?
Melanth grumbled at being called a brigand but knew better than to respond to the barb. Lunus had a reputation amongst Helians as being hot-headed and inclined to violence, he knew, and he was damned if he was going to let one goad him into proving it right.
“Katrina, you can come out now, but be ready to rush back into cover.? He warned, dropping back to human language.
She did so with impressive style, he had to admit. Naturally graceful as she was, she mounted the ledge on the topside of the overhang in a series of effortless bounds, mattock held nonchalantly to her side and full armour strapped on. Clever girl. She knew trouble when she saw it.
The indigo beast looked between them in a puzzled way, and Melanth inclined his head ever so slightly, revealing the bundle that was still strapped to his back. He couldn’t help but grin at the sudden expression of horror that flitted across the other’s face.
“You let that... thing, ride you? Like a common horse??
“She,? He said with emphasis, in no mood to take moral lectures, “Carries information vital to both the Helian and Lunus factions. And yes, I carry her by my own consent; but she does not ride me any more than I own her as the dragons of old held human slaves. And unless you pompous Helians can think of a quicker and safer way I will continue to carry her. You object??
“N-no,? The other said, taken aback, “But I can think of no precedent for such demeaning-“
“Demeaning? You call helping a friend demeaning?? Melanth said, enjoying himself. Watching a Helian squirm between traditional draconic values and the Helian faction’s liberalist views regarding bipeds was more fun than pouncing wolves! Oh how ironic that the high and mighty Helians are flummoxed by a member of a purportedly fascist society. “Now, do you plan to gawk like a hatchling taking its first air all day or are you going to lead us to Chiconis??
“What are you saying?? Katrina whispered. “It sounds like a lot of hissing and growling.?
“I will have to teach you a little Draconic.? He murmured, watching pained indecision war within the indigo. “Even if humans can’t replicate the sounds you can still understand the words.?
“This way.? The blue said, reaching a decision. He flipped a wingtip and sailing off towards the north.
Katrina hurriedly scrambled aboard Melanth’s broad back, pushing her mattock into the straps that held the bundle in place. Melanth kicked off from the overhang and followed the blue, unable to match his pace after the strain of recent weeks. He eventually saw the smaller dragon disappear into a large cave at the head of a squat spire and alighted in the entrance to be greeted by the blue and a red, scarred dragon that had the look of a veteran about him; older than Melanth, yet with a cautious demure and keen eye for detail. The red threw no more than a courteous glance at the human on his back and nodded stiffly to Melanth, who returned the gesture.
“Welcome Lunus brother, you are far from your home in our peaks.? He said, giving the blue a sidelong look. The blue hurried off deeper into the spire; obviously the entire protrusion had been excavated.
“That I am, but I have my reasons. They will become apparent when I deliver my friend here to your city, safely, I might add.?
“You may turn her over to us, Lunus.? The red one said, looking over the wounds that adorned the bodies of the two with a critical eye. “We will allow you time to rest and recover at this outpost, but then you must be on your way.?
“With all due respect, Helian, I will deliver her personally. She is not some piece of baggage to be moved and traded around, and we have braved much together. I would not have her face interrogation, or end her days in a dragon’s belly for some perceived slight. She is not well learned of our ways.?
“You insult us by suggesting we cannot take care of her?? The old red one said in a querulous tone, but a glint in his eye told Melanth that he had passed a test of some sort.
“No, I ask only that she is under a familiar wing and not among strangers.? Melanth said, bowing. The red returned the gesture and tossed his head.
“If anything good of the Lunus is said in these lands, it is that you are loyal to your friends.? He said. “Forgive my scepticism; these are strange and troubling times.?
“Sleeping troubles?? Melanth said, taking a wild guess. The red one laughed; a harsh noise that nearly startled Katrina from her perch.
“Hail Gifted!? he said, all traces of crustiness dissolving and he bowed to Melanath as though he was a brother, and Melanth returned the gesture heartily. “Yes, I have felt the Dream too, as have others possessed of the Gift in our city. Ancient Semeneth ordered the borders of this land sealed against invasion; we are to query all, coming and going. Forgive the interruption; the Gifted are free to come and go as you please, of course. Ildranos!? He shouted down the tunnel, the noise painfully loud in the confined cavern. The blue, Ildranos, materialised at the end of the tunnel. “Take our guests below and see to it that they have our every facility at their disposal. I have no doubt that their reasons for being here are legitimate!?
“As you wish, Captain.? The blue said, gesturing with his head for them to follow. He led them through a twisting confusion of caves and caverns, all lined with crystals and carvings in a dragon’s decorative sense. Glowing orbs hung from their brackets on the walls; such was the cunningness of it that it looked as though the tunnel was carved not by tooth and claw, but by the slow drip of water over many centuries. Here and there replica stalactites had even been hung, adorned with carvings of dragons in flight. Ildranos led them through a barracks filled with sleeping and eating dragons who peered curiously at them with blood stained maws. Melanth thought he recognised some of them from the sweeping formation earlier.
“This place is a scouting post.? Ildranos explained, leading them through a room that was like a tiny underground lake, complete with sandy beaches upon one of which a dragon was half-immersed. A bridge crossed the centre of it with more of the glowing light-orbs hung from poles along the railings. “We have supplies enough here to outlast a siege, and caverns for study of tactics and training. Feel free to make use of them at your leisure.? He took them to another barracks room adjacent to the corridor leading into the bathing area, indicating a passage that led into an unoccupied personal lair.
“You have my thanks.? Melanth replied. “Where may we take food and warmth??
“You may take food in the Mess Cavern we passed through, although your friend will have no appetite for raw meat I suspect. We will prepare something for her; there are some here who have a little knowledge of the biped ways. Heat-rocks may be found in the bathing chamber, as is the custom.?
With that he left, leaving them in the darkness of the cave to see to themselves. With a sigh Melanth picked up one of an assortment of crystals upon a stone shelf and rammed it into a purpose-built cleft in the otherwise flawless wall, tapping it with a claw until it emitted a respectable illuminating blue glow.
“He seemed rather rude.? Katrina said, keeping her voice low, examining the cave that she now found herself in. It was barren save for the crystals, several shelves containing an array of draconic utilities and a large raised platform at the rear that was clearly meant for sleeping.
“To you perhaps,? Melanth said, slipping another light-crystal into its niche. “But to a dragon such things are to be expected. We are not very much like you. Humans are social creatures, but we dragons are solitary by nature, and expected to fend for ourselves.? He sniffed the air lightly, pushing her back down the corridor to the bathing pool with a couple of gentle nudges. The former occupant was now asleep on one of several flat rocks studding the edges of the caves. He slithered snakelike into the water, loosing a near exultant cry at the feeling of fresh water scouring the blood and dirt from his scales. It seemed like forever since he had enjoyed such a simple pleasure, and he rubbed his hide against the sandy bottom with relish, loose scales flaking away like golden coins thrown into a fountain as an offering. Katrina followed only slowly, stripping her armour and scouring it with wet sand before following him in, gasping at the chillness of the water on her soft, sensitive skin.
“You smell like a wet bull.? She sad, wrinkling her nose in mock revulsion. He retaliated by scooping a sizable amount of water up in his good wing and dumping it on her before clambering out onto one of the flat rocks, satisfied that he was as clean as he could be from wallowing in water.
“If you are smart,? He said, stretching out luxuriously. “You will not follow my up here. These rocks are heated by the fires below the world and would scald your skin to the bone.?
Katrina attended to her ablutions with considerable detail whilst he lounged on the heat-rock, feeling content once more. Eventually a dragon appeared bearing a tray rather unsteadily in his forepaws upon which was something that must have served as a skillet at some point, full to the brim with a greasy, gloppy grey mixture that could be called ‘stew’ only because the appropriate vocabulary was lacking. Horrible things lurked within it; occasionally coming to the surface like some hideous deep sea creature before descending back into the murky depths, or spewing forth bubbles that burst with a wet smack and a stink like marsh gas. Katrina watched the seething skillet with horror before cautiously approaching and poking it with a ladle, tapping it lightly as though fearing it would climb out of its pot and engulf her.
“What the hell is that?? She said. The dragon that had borne it in hovered nearby, watching expectantly and perhaps with a little nervousness; not unlike a chef serving a complicated dish to an important official and anxious to see if they enjoyed it. She jabbed her ladle at the dragon. “If he says that’s hearty stew I’m walking out. Right now.?
When Melanth extended his opinion that the stew was not only hearty, but also lungy, livery and perhaps even testicley too she almost retched but quickly regained her composure and dipped the ladle in out of politeness sake, aware that unlike a Naka restaurant if she returned the dish she would likely end up on the menu. The stuff clung to it like slug slime, refusing to relinquish its hold even if the ladle was flicked with some force.
“Just be glad that they killed it for you first.? Melanth said, trying and failing to disguise a snigger at her expense. “It will put hairs on your chest.? He added as an afterthought, recalling the human proverb but aware that for some reason it probably wasn’t an appropriate statement when confronting a naked and somewhat full figured young woman.
“Yes, I can see that is so good that some of those pieces of meat have fur on them already.? She said dryly, gingerly dipping her finger in and tasting it as though it were a rotten skunk garnished with arsenic. She screwed up her face and made a bubbling noise in the back of her throat, but by some feat of self control managed to give the nervously hovering chef-dragon a weak smile and thumbs up. He turned and went back to the barracks cavern with his wings drooping in visible relief.
“If I ever do that again, kill me. You will be doing me a favour.? She said between retches, scraping her tongue over her teeth in a futile effort to remove the horrible sludge. Melanth was quick to dump a generous portion of the concoction down a dung chute so that it appeared that she had eaten some, for the sake of sparing a perceived insult. Later, he went to the feeding cavern and ate his fill, discreetly bringing back a sizable haunch for her stomach that she roasted over dragonfire in their personal lair.
“To a dragon, the idea of cooking something is fairly alien.? Melanth explained. “Anything more than the lightest of searing to remove parasites ruins the flavour. The concept that there are different ways of preparing dishes doesn’t catch on much around here. The cook was probably trying to recreate something he had seen elsewhere.?
“That’s disgusting. How can you eat your food raw?? She said without paying much attention to her words, concentrating on turning the haunch on his greatsword that was making do as an improvised spit.
“You think that we are bad? Try sausage. Miscellaneous leftovers, gristle, and other things that rats wouldn’t even eat all stuffed into intestines. You can keep it.?
“I thought dragons liked intestines??
“Only when they’re still warm.?
It was not long before a polite scraping of claws on stone told of a visitor. Ildranos was waiting outside with what looked like every biped related article he could lay his claws on, and Melanth privately made a note the handle such matters himself in future. There were clothes of men, women and children alike, few of which would be any use to her; some jewellery that had been stripped of anything like precious metals or stones and even a selection of tools, knives and a cart axel; all of which must have been left or discarded by careless visitors to Chiconis. Katrina outfitted herself as best she could from the mess, although she looked like a cross between a harlequin and a circus clown by the time everything of any use was examined. Katrina quickly grew frustrated and chose from the mess a set of worn leather breeches despite reservations of her society to women wearing men’s clothes that was so much nonsense to Melanth. She also took a string shirt, bucking her armour on over the top of it all to hide the mismatched accoutrement. She busied herself with one of the knives, painfully digging pebbles from between the scales of Melanth’s paws where they had worked themselves in deeply during the long trek, opening the crusted over injuries. Ildranos tended to the puncture wound on his side, first applying a foul smelling paste to cleanse and then sealing it shut with a quick burst of his own fire.
“You will need to keep an eye on it; there is no guarantee that I cleaned out all the suppuration from such a deep injury.? He said, checking over the marks where the golem had lashed at his chest, but the injuries were superficial save for a few cracked scales and some bruising. “I will ask a healer to attend to you as soon as we arrive in Chiconis. Primal magic was always better than any battlefield bone-sawing for closing rents in flesh.? Katrina splinted his broken tail and managed to sew his gashed wing back together with threads from a useless item of clothing. He was grateful to have her close at hand; she worked diligently and with tender fingers where she could, following his and Ildranos’ instructions with quiet efficiency. There was little that could be done for his broken ribs or Katrina’s raw-rubbed legs save bandaging, and by the time their injuries were dealt with they looked quite like the mummies the ancient humans created to occupy their desert pyramids. Ildranos’ demure softened to them somewhat upon seeing the extent of the hurts they had suffered, although the cooperation of a Lunus dragon and a human female still confused him mightily. Melanth knew that rumour was likely already spreading.
“You should take the time to rest.? Ildranos said once he was done, clearing away the items that Katrina had decided would be of no use. “We will be rising early tomorrow and making for Chiconis with swift wings. You will deliver your report there and hopefully the Council will take the matter into debate.?
Melanth’s heart sank as he watched the blue’s retreating back. More debate, more discussion! They had come here specifically to avoid debate and discussion by politicians who had their heads stuck up their own tailvents. He felt liquid fire rush into the ducts of his mouth at the thought. They would be just as well to have stayed at the Tower!
“We tried...? Katrina said, in a tired resigned sort of way, flopping down against his side listlessly as though sensing his thoughts. And then there seemed like little else to do. Exhaustion and a full belly took her quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep, and as much as he longed to join her Melanth’s fears and frustration gnawed at him from the inside like a great parasite, keeping him awake long into the night.