In the days following my second meeting with Triskeleth, I wasted no time in doing as she recommended. Though life resumed mostly back to normal after the Scourge's attack, several things had changed. One of those was that Celeste was still not back to her role as our neighbouring 'watchdog'. According to Agent Crawley, this was because she had immediately been called away again as soon as she had returned to Mirrorvale, for involvement in some foreign affairs that the Order required oversight with. While Crawley believed that his and Celeste's temporary absences were what caused Darren to take advantage and launch the attack when he did, the agent went to lengths to assure us that the Order had more stringent countermeasures on hand. Whilst that security wasn't intrusive, it would bring swift attention if the Conclave tried anything again.
In short, we had friendly faces keeping an eye on us.
Additionally, he reminded me, the frequent presence of two very capable dragons at our property was a major deterrent on its own.
Another thing was that even though I was back to school and the regular things I did, Mom was more actively interested in the 'weird stuff' happening in my life. She was the only one that I mentioned my contact with Triskeleth to, and while I was convinced that Araziah and Sebby probably knew something about the whole me-becoming-the-seer thing, I had decided that discretion was smartest. My mother was my sole confidant until I needed to tell everyone more, and in her familiar practical style, she had taken all the crazy stuff in her stride and was simply being supportive.
Apart from that, Lucy was her everyday irritating-and-bouncy self, whilst Araziah went back to being largely standoffish, the same as before the incident with Theo. Not completely though, because there was an inexplicable sense of distance that seemed out of place after his openness on the evening of the Scourge's attack. It was confusing, because, in retrospect, the conversation we had where he offered his loyalty had felt like more than just a political alignment.
It was like he had become closer somehow, that the way he was trying to change himself had another meaning than the obvious. It seemed like a breakthrough, and for Araziah to be stepping back from that was unsettling, but in a very minor blurred-parameters way. I tried not to think too much of it, but it did bug me that there was space between us without explanation.
Triskeleth's advice to guide him hadn't been forgotten, and I knew I had to engage with him better than I was.
Before I could do any of that though, I had to decipher the importance of my grandfather's research and figure out the next steps in my trial.
There were two primary parts to it. Half was papers, or copies of papers, that he had written during his tenure with the Order and some from earlier than that. They used scientific jargon related to his field, that I could read and understand a little, but it was mostly a whole bunch of words about the properties of rocks.
The other half was journals.
Years and years of journals.
So, I began to read them, starting from the earliest date: July, 1997; when my grandfather began working for the Order.
The entries were erratic. Sometimes there would be four or five in the space of two weeks, sometimes nothing for months. They could be short, no more than two paragraphs, or long, up to half a dozen pages. Mom's stories about him traveling a lot weren't exaggerated; a lot of it was taken up with where he was going, what site was next on the list, and what he was doing there. Plenty of it was generalised information about those trips and the sort of material he examined, but very little about why the Order had him going there, and for what reason. The purpose of his work was hard to decode, but there was a common thread running through it and that was a focus on precious metals.
All of the research he was doing seemed to be centred around the Order accumulating knowledge on gemstones. Given the Order existed because of the ancient war between the dragon gods, and the fact that dragons of all varieties had scales made out of materials like sapphire, ruby, and platinum, there was definitely a point to investigation.
But exactly why?
What were they trying to learn?
His journals had plenty of incidental stuff about life and family, including mention of Mom's pregnancy in 2000, and how happy he was having a grandchild, but also his concern over her relationship with my father. It was surreal and emotional reading his point of view, because it wasn't something Mom talked about. My grandfather was a descriptive writer, but he gave next to nothing away when it came to his work with the Order, and that lack of detail was infuriating.
The only real clue I picked up was the very infrequent mention of 'Prometheus'. It wasn't alluding to the figure from Greek legend, but something else. The way it was used, it sounded like a code name, and whenever it was brought up, it was always in the context of discovery or advancing goals. It seemed like the title for a project the Order was working on. I was at the point where asking someone from the Order about it was sounding like a good idea, but I wanted to finish all his journals and get the full picture before I resorted to bringing in anyone else.
It was the Friday following that I arrived home from my after-school soccer just on 5pm, to find the house filled with a mouth-watering smell. Mom was back super early, home alone, and making some kind of Italian meat-and-cheese dish. I didn't know exactly what it was, but the aroma made me hungry the moment I entered the kitchen, but she directed me out, waving a wooden spoon and telling me to go clean myself up before dinner.
Minutes later, I had arrived back in my room, scrubbed spotless, hair dry, fresh shirt on, towel around my waist, when there was a knock on my door. Thinking it was my mother wanting to tell me an early dinner was ready, I gave the okay to enter, and the door opened.
Instead, it was Sebby.
Over the last few days, he had kept his promise to return and visit. Every single day, he had stopped by. Where Araziah had been more aloof, Sebby's behaviour was the opposite. My waking hours were at school and his doing work for the Order, but in our evenings, he spent all of his spare time with me and Mom. She was fascinated by his stories of life in Europe through the 20th century, mostly because the Wilde family was descended from both French and German immigrants to the United States. It interested me too, the way he had seen nearly a century of history in western Europe as one separated from human struggles; the rise of fascism and Hitler, the Second World War, the Cold War, and all the changes through that time. More though, I wanted to know about what family meant to him, about his origins, what he wanted out of life, and what was important to him.
I wanted to know him.
As with all dragons, family mattered, but for his type, it was an easy on-and-off relationship, not requiring any sort of common bonding. On reaching adolescence, he had not seen his father again, and his mother only infrequently, though he spoke of them fondly. Socially, he encountered other air dragons rarely, with the freedom of their movement making for a happily solitary lifestyle. Unlike the other types, the Spirit of Air had no priesthood to speak of, with personal worship being possible literally anywhere under the sky, and there was almost no governing authority for their decentralised community.
It was this liberated attitude towards everything, and the lightness of his approach that seemed to define his kind and him in particular. Compared with the more absolute and serious interactions I had with water and fire types, the air dragons were like the fairy folk of legend; whimsical tricksters who secretly watched humans from afar.
Although, there was more to Sebby than that.
He was every bit his type, with a quick wit, an easy tease, and a magician's flair, but also, past the charm that could be turned on and off at a whim, he was truly thoughtful. The sweetness and allure was no act, and the more we talked, the more he queried about my archery, probed about my opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of my favourite authors, asked my mother all kinds of detail about her job -- it was undeniable. For all the coyness and flirtation and enticement that seemed like a facade, the real Sebby was exactly what he showed to me, with no dishonesty at all.
It had only been five days, but each one I found myself looking forward to when I would see him again, despite the fact that we had done nothing more than speak and spend time together.
Now, here he was, soft features, shining silver eyes, the meticulous navy-white doublet hugging his slim frame in all the right ways, standing inside the entrance of my room.
"I invited myself in. Your mother went to get something from the store." His gaze swept the semi-clothed me from head to toe, and there was a very appreciative gleam. "You look ... good."
"I, uh," my throat was dry just seeing him, my heartbeat speeding out of nowhere, "I've been thinking about you all afternoon."
There was a pregnant pause, both of us staring for a moment, then in a flash, he launched himself across the room. He was on me, legs around my waist, before I fell on my butt, onto the bed behind me. His ass slid down onto my lap, my arms around his back, his around my neck, and we kissed.
Again, and again, and again.
Short kisses, head tilted one way, then the other, together and apart, like a joyful dance repeated two dozen times. Finally, he pulled back, kissing the tip of my nose, then laid his forehead against mine.
"So have I." His fingers were playing with the hairs on the back of my neck, tickling. "I apologise for not asking permission. I ... could not hold back."
"It's okay," I whispered, finding my breath, "I wanted you to do it."
"I know." An impish smile, having read my mood perfectly. He leaned back slightly, letting go and bringing his arms in front, and I did the same. His legs released too, and he folded them on either side so he was comfortably straddling my lap. "I brought two gifts for you. I hope you will like them."
"Gifts? You didn't have to bring me gifts."
"I wanted to," Sebby insisted. He held out his right hand, and there was an object on it. "I made it myself. Please don't think anything of the symbolism. Dragons love trinkets and jewelry, and it's just something for you to wear, and remember me."
It was a ring. Translucent, for a second it looked like glass, but when the light glanced through it, it broke into colour, refracting in a spray of iridescent rainbow over his hand. It was a band of clear crystal, the curve and shape of it so even and polished that it appeared manufactured by machine. Taking my right hand, he slid it onto my index finger.
"It's ... beautiful." The quality was flawless, and I had no illusion that this gift was, by human standards, a masterpiece, and probably worth an insane amount of money. "You made this?"
"Yes." He held my hand while he talked, fingers massaging the palm in gentle circles. "I crafted it, and it came from my own coat. I wear platinum, but there is also a substrate of diamond."
He made this out of one of his own scales ... for me.
"Look," he said, and he blew a puff of air onto the ring. It shimmered, then vanished, the rainbow halo fading away, though I could still feel it on my finger. "If you want to hide it, just send a breath onto it, and it will become invisible until you do that again, or remove it."
I was speechless.
This is completely priceless.
"The other gift is different." He squeezed my hand. "It's something we've both dreamed about. Do you trust me?"
"I- ... y-yes." I managed. "Of course I do."
"Then tell me," he murmured, "if you should want me to stop."
With that, he slid deliberately backwards off my lap, dropping deftly so he was kneeling on the floor in front of me. Then he pulled the hem of the towel away from my body, leaving me exposed and naked from the waist down.
It wasn't what I was expecting, and I was terrified at the turn of events. I had never felt so vulnerable in my life. My pulse was lightning, I was hot with a combination of excitement and fear, and my hands had begun to quiver at my sides.
"Torsten, I know you are a virgin," he was looking up, making eye contact as he whispered, "but that doesn't matter."
Sebby leaned in, and began to kiss his way up my right thigh, until he reached the junction with my groin.
"Your body is as wonderful to me as your mind, and you deserve all the gifts I can give you."
He did the same thing on the left, the skin tingling in pleasure as he worked his way higher.
"So don't be shy, enjoy this one, and focus on how good it feels."
He was back to centre, grasping my hardness, his mouth slipping over the head.
"S-Sebbyyyy ... " I moaned.
"Mmmm," he mumbled, all thought of talk gone. He pushed forward, slowly, so slowly, his lips descending exactly as I'd fantasised. It was smooth as silk, hot and wet, and the rubbing tongue on the sensitive underside was so good I had to bite my lip to stop another indecent sound.
Just watching, short of breath and slackjawed, as bit by bit, he went all the way to the base.
Rising again, the gradual withdrawal was making me shiver. Nothing in the world could tear my attention from inch after inch sliding out between those 'lips of an angel', nor the gliding slickness that was better than anything my fantasies had provided.
I was fixated, my thoughts getting sexier and dirtier the longer I stared. Fixated on the delicate way his lips curled, his tongue swished, as he sucked me. Fixated on the graceful curve of his shoulders and neck, the slimness of his torso. Fixated on the subtle shape of his hips and lower half, hidden beneath clothing. Fixated on stripping those layers away so I could see it all.
Obsessed, with the image of my arms wrapped around his slender naked body; with the idea of us, his ass soft and tight beneath me as I fucked him long and slow, and he gasped my name.
Over and over.
My trance broke at the same time as the dam did, and the blissful pulsing sensation of Sebby's blowjob became a tide. I whimpered, in surprise and sheer embarrassment, my face flushing, calves and toes just about cramping, as my body did its best to suffocate him.
"I- .. uhhh .. I'm s-sorry, I- ... haah ... didn't mean t-to," I apologised, in between pants, my whole body buzzing with the relaxed warmth of the afterglow.
Sebby finished swallowing, then pulled away, slipping me out of his mouth. Without a word, he reached across to my dresser, plucked a clean pair of boxers from the laundry pile next to it, and turned back. Placing my shakey feet through the holes, he began to pull them up my legs, his eyes flitting playfully back to mine.
"That was a lot," he teased, wiping his face with a hand in mock satisfaction. "Are you empty now?"
"It was ... amazing," I blurted, lifting my butt so he could finish dressing me. "While you were- ... I- ... I was thinking about, um, sex. I mean, real sex. With you. It's what made me ... y'know."
He stopped on those words, the humour gone, the boxers now in place anyhow, and gazed at me; the first time I had seen something resembling shock in his expression. "That is what you were imagining?" He blinked, wide-eyed. "Us? Together?"
A nod to him, nervous.
No invitation was needed, he climbed back up, settling onto my lap, and pulled me into a close hug.
"Torsten, I was never sure about your deeper feelings," his voice was a breathy whisper into my ear, and there was a note of uncertainty to it, "but I know admitting something like that matters to you."
He was right.
It did matter that I told him.
It mattered that I had those thoughts to begin with.
He does know me.
"I .... I didn't think I'd want a relationship yet. Not so soon after- ... after him. I feel ... guilty, sometimes, because I haven't been upset enough. Like, it should have hurt more than it did, but," I paused, just enjoying how good his embrace felt, how right it was to be this way, "now, I think some part of me was just waiting. I don't want to disrespect that memory, but ... it wasn't decided before. What I really wanted, it didn't feel settled. Now? Now, I think it might be."
"Are you sure?" He squeezed me, murmuring, his touch more revealing than I was used to. "Our bodies can be compatible, and so can our hearts, but ... I am a dragon. You are a human. A special one, for many reasons, but still a human. This choice, this life; it is strange when shared between our kinds. In history, very rare, and always troubled. Not by they that choose it, but those around them. The world will not make it easy."
"My life isn't going to be easy anyway," I let go of him. We parted a little, and I took his hands in mine, as he sat on my lap. "I want to try, Sebakâli."
"Torsten." Surprised, astonished, but thankful.
"Yes," he said, "I want that, too."
We had an early dinner, with Sebby joining us for the meal, and Araziah still absent. It wasn't unusual for him to not show up for meals, and although he sometimes would vanish for the entire night, I didn't feel that worried. He knew how to take care of himself, and I didn't see any point in fretting over it.
If anyone, it was the Conclave that needed to be concerned.
Though I kinda wanted Sebby to stay with me for the night, his 'gifts' having made a big impact on me, he politely backed off. After we ate, we talked and watched some television -- a human activity that the air dragon found amusing and trite, the content of modern American broadcasting seeming particularly vapid -- and then he decided to leave before it got too late. I saw him out, and we shared a discreet kiss on the porch, before I watched him transform on the street into a magnificent platinum dragon and go soaring off into Mirrorvale's dusk.
My heart was racing as I closed the door, the sight of him in true form alone being a thrill. There was a streak of pride that I had managed to 'hook' him so fully, plus a good dose of elation at the adventure I was beginning with him. Mom didn't fail to notice, giving me a knowing look as I passed through the kitchen, that told me she had a good idea of why I was so chipper, but she didn't say a word.
I didn't have to guess.
Like Sebby, I was simply happy.
It had been a good day.
The following was Saturday, and though Lucy wanted to come over and keep me company after she me up with Louis, Jessica and her sister, I told her, to much complaint, that I needed to finish reading my grandfather's journals. Mom was out of the house, having gone away herself to meet up with some highschool girlfriends for shopping and a catchup.
I had some peace and quiet, and time to myself, so I got stuck into it.
However, the earlier frustrations were repeated. There was so little concrete information about anything that I could use, and as the pages dwindled and I got close to the end, I began to wonder if the hints about his work had all been overblown hype. That was, until I reached the last three entries.
That's when it began to get interesting, and my grandfather's writing seemed to become less secretive, more confessional.
July 7th, 2009
Never thought I'd be doing mineralogic analysis on fragments of a dead god for more than a decade. Magic isn't something a scientist can measure, at least yet, but mechanical cohesion and correlative properties are reliable and might be the key to this. If their 'sonar' principle works as intended and isn't producing false positives, assuming the basis for my observations holds true, then Prometheus might be successful.
A brief history and précis was sent through with the newest analytics. The whereabouts of the nine shards, post-1483 splitting in the Czech margraviate, was as follows:
1) to Graz, Styria, held privately by Order associates. 1504; lower Habsburgs assumed possession at Schlossberg castle, held in royal storage. 1797; looted by an unnamed officer d'infanterie legere during Napoleon's occupation, then to Orléans. 1814; War of the Sixth Coalition, recovered by Order associates during invasion of France, to England. 1934; moved to Northwood, United States.
2) with 1) since split; the pair never separated.
3) to Pisa, Repubblica di Firenze, by cultists. 1530; War of the League of Cognac, evacuated to Valencia, Spain. 1557; traced by Order to Iberia, but moved location many times within peninsula -- Navarra, Zaragoza (x2), Cartagena, Tarragona. 1602; captured by Order and transported to England. 1934; moved to Northwood, United States.
4) to Varna, Bulgaria, by cultists. 1485; by sea to Azov, then by land to Astrakhan, where cultist handlers were murdered and shard rumoured to be in possession of an Astrakhani Tatar tribal chieftain. 1523; capture of Astrakhan by Crimean Khanate, and no historical mention is recorded beyond this point. NO FURTHER INFORMATION.
5) to Baden-Baden, Swabia, by cultists. 1490; acquired by Zähringen margrave, Cristoph I. 1619-1621; lost during this period of the Thirty Years War. 1623; reappeared in Antwerp, Dutch Republic. 1625; moved by colonial merchant interests to New Amsterdam, Manhattan Island. 1664; captured by English officers in seizure of colony, transported back to England. 1898; transported again across Atlantic to Boston, United States. 1911; finally located by Order agents only to be burgled during transfer through New York City. Believed to possibly still be in the United States. NO FURTHER INFORMATION.
6) to Dubrovnik, Ragusa, by cultists. 1484; captured by Venetian merchantmen en route to Chios and returned to Venice. 1486; purchased at considerable expense by Order associates. 1488; transferred by land to Calais, then to England. 1934; moved to Northwood, United States.
7) to Bremen, Free Hanseatic City, by Order associates. 1484; by sea to England. 1934; moved to Northwood, United States.
8] to Bordeaux, France, by Order associates. Same year, associates murdered and shard taken. 1730s-1750s; reappeared in colonial French Louisiana. 1804, 1806, 1809, 1814-1816; resurfaced and changed hands between Order and cultists several times. 1963; sighted again in South Carolina. 2004; tracked and recovered in Greensboro, North Carolina, after extensive detective work, and moved to Northwood.
9) to Alexandria, Mamluk Sultanate, via Thessaly, by cultists. 1489; supposedly transferred to the Red Sea and through eastern trade routes to India. 1571, 1595, 1640, 1655, 1727, 1779; rumoured to be seen in Indian ports of Thatta, Goa, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Bengal, and at the Chittagong Delta. 1817; last known location was being followed near Malacca by English Order agents, just prior to the foundation of Singapore. Believed to still be in Southeast Asia. MIGHT BE TRACKABLE.
So, summarised: Northwood has six in hand, so that will leave a big ping over USA. One more possibly in North America, so a secondary ping there, and *maybe* one in central Asia? No idea if we'll pick it up. That's a question mark because it's been lost for a long time and the area is massive.
Then there's number nine.
The big unknown.
The central office thinks Prometheus will place it in Laos. I'm not convinced, because crystallographic imaging provides a more flexible statistical boundary for calculating range than the standardised Dwyer model. Broadening the capture ability extends the potential geographic area used in the projection phase. That's why I think it could be further west to include receptive nodes in Sukhothai territory, north Thailand. Somewhere in Phitsanulok is my bet.
That's why I'm here doing my own investigation, in the middle of nowhere, and getting rained on.
I stared at the entry. Finally, something useful. It was all about the Fear and the movement of the pieces across the last five hundred years after it was split into nine shards. Also, some more detail on Prometheus. It sounded like it was some kind of scientific tracking system that my grandfather was helping them create so they could find the lost pieces.
July 20th, 2009
Got several candidates that have some potential. I have a funny feeling about one of them. It's nothing more than a hunch, so there's no empirical basis other than my own anecdotal subjectivity. I'm no expert on the supernatural, but I *swear* I can hear things if I spend too long in the same room as it. Nothing audible, but a hiss or static or something like that. Like white noise, but in the back of the mind.
It would sound crazy if I wasn't dealing with dragons. Wonder what Trisk would make of this?
Maybe I'll ask her when I get back to America.
Then, the last entry:
July 24th, 2009
Latest study findings are packaged. I'll send them when I arrive on Monday. Asia was inconclusive, which is disappointing given the high hopes for this expedition based on the project advances that I've helped engineer.
But! There is a silver lining to this cloud.
The office sent me the global data to review and are waiting on procedural advice and my interpretation. The sweep in the USA lit up Northwood like a bonfire as expected, but it also produced a cluster of unusually strong secondary responses in several locations on the Gulf coast and southeast. One in Texas, two in Mississippi, one in Georgia, two in South Carolina, one in Florida, and one in Tennessee. The latter is the most interesting because it lands smack dab on top of the Overmountain laboratory.
If Prometheus is telling me to go to the exact same spot where a secret government dragon-research facility is located, then it probably isn't a coincidence.
This could be big news. I'll need to include these journals and a formal write-up when I submit this all to the Order. It's thrilling to think this could be the tip-off they need.
Though ... most of all, I'm just looking forward to seeing Nat and Torsten.
It was the day before my grandfather had died from a heart attack, in Bangkok. He had never boarded the plane that would have taken him home to the United States.
He never got to tell anyone what he discovered.
But ... I could.
Picking up my cell, I dialed Celeste's number.
She answered immediately.
"Torsten. Hello! I'm sorry, it's been a while since I've been in touch. Busy days for me. I hear you've had some issues. Is everything okay?"
"Hi Celeste." I greeted her. "Yeah, it got scary but ... we're okay. I'm fine. I just wanted to ask you about something, if you don't mind."
"Of course. Ask away."
"Well," I said, "what is Prometheus?"
"Prometheus?" She said, hesitating for a moment as if she didn't know what I was talking about, but then recognition kicked in. "OH. Prometheus! Where did you hear about that? Well, I don't suppose it really matters how you found out, because you're involved, and you aren't a layman now by any stretch of the imagination. So, Prometheus was a hybrid magical-electronic detection grid developed by the Order and our allies. I don't quite know the full functionality of it, but what I understand is that it was able to scan a targeted region of the Earth's surface, and using specific data -- something to with chemical and physical properties -- highlight the location of a specific type of magically-charged substance."
"Like the Fear?"
"Yes. Exactly like the Fear. In fact, that was the whole point of Prometheus: to find what was left of the Fear, for the Order. Just like the Greek titan, we wanted to steal divine fire." She chuckled. "Also like the legend, it didn't quite work properly. The problem was the marriage of technology and occult forces wasn't seamless, and the machine was imprecise. It gave a generalised area rather than an exact placement. Another problem was that the magical signature within the Fear would leach into certain types of similar substances that it had come into close contact with. It would be inert and harmless in those precious stones, but this meant that Prometheus would also show places the Fear had been in addition to where it might currently be."
"What happened to it? You talk like they stopped it."
"They did." Her voice was the verbal equivalent of a shrug. "Terry was the biggest proponent of Prometheus, and it never really produced anything strongly indicative of the Fear's location. The results were vague at best, and when your grandfather passed away, there was nobody willing to advocate for continued development of the project, nor anyone with the passion and knowledge that he had. They discontinued it, and shelved it indefinitely."
Just when my grandfather was about to make a breakthrough.
He had been so close to delivering what he had discovered to the Order, but ... they never found out.
"Celeste," I said, gritting my teeth and trying not to get angry at her over the phone, because none of this was her fault, "I have one more question for you."
"There was a secret research facility at a place called Overmountain. Do you know what they were doing there?"
"My, you are full of forbidden knowledge today." She hummed thoughtfully. "Overmountain was a joint collaboration between the United States government, the Order, and a willing participant of the magical variety. A dragon agreed to undergo all kinds of tests to help expand our knowledge of their physiology and our understanding of magic and how it interacts with the natural world. I don't know much about it, just that there was some kind of accident and the laboratory had to be abandoned."
"What happened? What sort of dragon?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure what went down. All I know is that it was an earth dragon."
An earth dragon ...
I was about to reply, when right in front of me, there was a short sharp sound.
The day was warm, the sky peppered with fat cumulus and a smattering of higher streaky cirriform. It was a river valley, and remote, miles from anywhere of specific importance. Part of a state wilderness preserve, the waterway was a minor tributary exiting through branching hills that connected to the Appalachians.
It was here that Araziah watched, and waited.
He had chosen a series of alluvial outcrops to observe from, at the valley's foot; embankments of weathered stone that channeled the flowing water. The valley itself, northward, was open to the air; a mix of grass and reeds, boggy and wet, a drainage basin flanked by a V of diverging hills. South and on either side of the stream, the land was dry enough for actual foliage, and in short order the river was swallowed by forested flatter land. At first, bushes and wild crabapples, then aspens and cottonwoods, blending with a host of others on into the distance.
His location, however, was both exposed and inconspicuous. Though bare from aerial view, it was also easy for a human-form to sit among the lichen-covered uneven chop of the river's rocky fluting without being noticed. This place was one of three major deltas, but not of the watery kind; it was an exit point for the Corridor, the magical conduit through which the Conclave's members traversed the eastern United States.
It was on Sebby's behest that he had agreed to observe it, while the air dragon was busy elsewhere, doing similar. The intention was to catch individuals leaving the perception-clouding effect of the Corridor's enchanted foci, and with the witnessed knowledge, enable those foci to be pinpointed and nullified by magical counteraction. In turn, this would lead to the next focus along the route becoming vulnerable to be dealt with in the same way, and then the next, and so forth, until the network was dismantled and the effective usefulness of the Corridor destroyed.
It was an important task.
Yet, it bored him.
Araziah was willing to do it, because he had committed himself to this cause, but it was not his preference to be performing an auxiliary role. His capability was greater than that of a mercenary agent, though the Order's shortage of actual dragons to manage the arcane aspects of the conflict made his participation all the more crucial. Still, being here took him some distance from where he wished to be, which was Mirrorvale, and what he wished to be doing, which was attending to Torsten's welfare. This concept had taken an increasing significance in his thoughts, and it was an unwanted fact that he regarded Sebby as the best custodian of the Wilde household apart from himself. With both of them absent, he was restless.
He did not like that he was forced to accept the Order's protection alone. Humans were an unreliable factor, at best. He knew how cunning his own kind could be, and the Conclave's organisational guile could not be overlooked.
It was discomforting.
Araziah's eyes were on the sky northward between the hills, but his mind was wandering, afforded the chance to think and remember. It had been the morning after the Scourge's attack, several days ago now, when he was returning from his nocturnal vigil, that he ran into Torsten's closest friend. Literally, he was about to enter the house when Lucy had opened the door to exit it, moving with her typical headlong speed. They had nearly collided, though she halted quickly, her reflexes admirable.
"Oh." She closed it behind her, standing on the porch and blocking the entry. "It's you. He wasn't sure when you were returning. We just got back from town."
Araziah didn't say anything, and simply frowned, wordless. This girl was Torsten's dearest companion, that much he knew, and by default she was included under his edict of guardianship. Their direct interactions had been practically non-existent as their paths had crossed only momentarily. They had not spoken long enough to exchange more than the simplest greeting, but he had seen enough of her to form a dislike and know she was obnoxious. Her presence and attitude irritated him in an entirely different way than Sebby's did, and if it wasn't for her importance in Torsten's life, he would have found an innocuous way to be rid of her.
"Say, I've got a question for you." She continued her train of expression, either oblivious to his lack of interest in conversation or not caring. It was most probably the latter, though her voice changed, gaining a devious slant to it. "Just between us."
"Go home," he growled, focusing his compulsion on her, "and keep your questions to yourself."
"Uff." Lucy grimaced, wincing slightly, then shook her head. "That was uncomfortable, worse than Darren. Seriously, what is it with you guys and giving orders?" She did another head-shake, dislodging some mental cobwebs, and took a deep breath. "That's better. Listen, I know you think you can wave your hand like a Jedi to get results, but, newsflash! Mind powers don't work on me! So, unless you want to piss off someone who can influence Torsten's opinion of you in a very negative way -- and I really think you don't want that -- then you should answer what I'm about to ask."
"Are you threatening me?"
"No," she smiled, in an entirely too-satisfied way, "not if you cooperate."
"Then," he snarled, low and provoked, "what is your question?"
"This." Lucy's expression grew even more calculating, if that were possible. "What do you think of him? Like, as a person."
Think of him?
"Torsten?" His mood mellowed, both from the topic of conversation and the fact that this query was more harmless and inconsequential than expected. Araziah gestured casually, his repressed anger becoming relaxed indifference. "He is intelligent. Loyal to his friends and family. Stubborn but honourable."
"Ooo-kay." She dragged the word out, considering what he said for a couple of moments, then her countenance changed again. Somehow it was improper. "What about physically? What do you think of his ... appearance?"
"His appearance." The phrase was repeated, the emphasis not understood. What did his image matter? "How he looks?"
"Yes." She was watching him, intently. "How he looks."
Araziah answered it literally, analytically, categorically. "He is a good height, a good weight. Not too heavy, not too much bulk of muscle or fat, not too thin. He is fit. He carries himself well. His reflexes are good and his aim with the bow is adept. For a human, he is ... ideal."
"Ideal. Huh." She blinked, then a momentary impish grin came and went, and she sighed in dramatic exasperation. "Jesus, what a mess. He's in denial and distracted, and you're on the wrong level completely. You're both clueless, I swear to fuck."
"What?" He scowled. "Speak sense or not at all."
"Okay. Alright, fine." Lucy stepped closer, away from the door, displaying a typically size-inverse level of boldness, and poked him in the chest. She was close to a full foot shorter than him, and the effect would have been comical if her demeanour wasn't so disconcerting. "Until you understand how you're looking at him, and what it means beyond all that destiny-and-gods bullshit you have going on, you need to NOT give him any wrong ideas. What happened with Theo was bad enough, but you don't even realise you're still not the only other part of the equation. So, until you know what you're seeing, just keep out of his head."
"You talk in code."
"Whatever." The finger withdrew, the over-pronounced intimidation with it, and Lucy brushed by him, her strange poorly-explained 'warning' done with. "You'll figure it out."
That had been six days ago.
Today, he was still thinking about that encounter, and it made no more sense now than when it happened. There was a message there, but it was couched in the girl's ambiguous emotion-tinged confabulation. There didn't seem to be a point beyond dissuading him from interacting further with Torsten. But ... there was something else that he couldn't quite grasp, and the seeming importance of it would not leave his thoughts alone. It ate at him, the meaning elusively close.
Humans were odd creatures, their moods and rhetoric pointlessly entangled.
What did she mean 'not the only other part'?
He closed his eyes, still thinking.
Breeze on his skin, warmth of the sunlight, rustling of the trees, chattering of running water.
From nowhere, the ethereal whisper swept through him, calling his name.
Low, soft; it was a not just a voice, but a strange music sung with the most perfect harmony. Within it, there was a dream of perfection, the tones of it vibrating through him, a primal affirmation of his essence and everything he could -- and should -- become.
He opened his eyes, his back straightening, hands balling into fists.
Before him, the world was transformed.
The hills were blasted rock, the river dried up. The forest was nothing but blackened stumps and smouldering ashen wasteland, stretching into eternity. Plumes of smoke dotted the horizon, feeding a backdrop filled with darkened clouds. Hazy and only half-visible, the sun lurked in a sky that was dyed a supernatural red where it could be seen at all.
"No." A murmur, through gritted teeth. "I will not."
The vision was gone, everything restored as it should have been; green and blue, flora and running water and clean air.
"Am I interrupting?"
Araziah spun in surprise, standing to face the sound. At the forest's edge, forty feet away, there was a man. He was only slightly shorter, dressed in a modern variant doublet and trousers, with a subtle burgundy quilting and slate trim. His hair was a medium length, drawn back in an unruly mane almost to the shoulders, and like his eyes, it was dull nickel.
"Waiting for something?" The newcomer's tone was friendly, rich and sophisticated, and he stepped casually from the soil onto the uneven surface of the river's rocky wadding. He was young, but Araziah knew within the first seconds that there was an aura of concentrated strength about him, and the suggestion of implicit danger hid behind the inoffensive behaviour. It was written in the gleam of the eyes. "Or, perhaps, for somebody?"
"Nothing," he replied, "and nobody of importance."
"Well, you have found someone." He spread his hands in a lazy self-indication. "I am Mordred, and they call me the Grey Prince." His left dropped back to his side, and the right pointed an index finger in easy recognition, head angling so Mordred was regarding him sidelong. "You, I know. You are the one making a name for himself. The kinslayer, Araziah."
"A prince." Unimpressed. "Do you expect me to bow?"
"No." A soft response, and a genial smile. "Your irreverence and defiance of the truth is well established. What I do not understand is why one of such alleged potential chooses debasement." His manner was conversational, charming and oddly suggestive. "For a dragon of your calibre to willingly devalue himself is bizarre. Allying the weak, turning upon your own, murdering kin. I understand your ambition." He paused, nodding appreciatively. "Oh, indeed, I understand it as few can. It is audacious, and remarkable. In fact, I admire it, but ... you must know how this will end for you. How it was always going to end, how it is soon about to." Mordred laughed in a placid mockery, the diatribe benign in tone, but extremely pointed in message. "You cannot challenge a god and expect to win. You are not like Antiris, you are not close to the mighty Ashbringer, and you are certainly not of Xajarkith's quality. You are no legend, Araziah."
"Not yet." He watched the Grey Prince, weighing the moral arbitration and the inherent power of the individual. Dangerous and intelligent, certainly, but how so? "In time, however."
"There it is!" Mordred chuckled, grinning. "The pride and apostasy and arrogance all rolled into one! Fascinating."
"You talk too much." He leaned back, his stance even, prepared for whatever was about occur. "Were you intending to bore me to death, or did the Conclave instruct you give a speech before your failed assassination attempt?"
Mordred laughed yet again. "Your insolence is delightful but you are mistaken. The Conclave didn't send me. This is a family matter, and I am not alone."
From out of the fog of the Corridor's shroud, behind, two dragons burst into his awareness, a gale arriving with them as they landed at speed on either side, the earth shaking. Instantly transforming, they were already moving, a few dozen feet away each, but he could not so much as move a muscle before Mordred spoke again.
"Now, you will pay."
The Grey Prince's eyes lit up with a solid red glow, and a low grinding rumble began, the sound of immense power being drawn on and employed. The assault was instantaneous and it struck him like a hammer to the mind. Araziah's control was broken, dispersed, and he was caught in a psychic stun so potent that he was paralysed. All active function of his body was stopped, and he could but stand there, immobilised. The resistance he mustered was insufficient, and even with the recent blossoming growth of his own psychic facility, the grip upon him was iron, allowing no space.
Mordred was too strong.
He could hear the newcomers approaching from either side, though he could not turn his head to see them. Then, the crunch of feet on rock, and they were in front, visible, a foot away each to his left and right, the Grey Prince still in sight in the middle distance between them, the stun held in place by his gaze alone.
"My siblings." Mordred's voice vibrated, overlaid with the native magic of his ability. "The Ash Sisters."
Like their brother, they wore greys and darker reds, their eyes and hair a similar shade to his. In addition, they were adorned with jewelry; rings and necklaces, amethyst and garnet set in complex gold filigrees and arabesques.
"What do you think, Faye?" The left sister spoke first, her eyes skipping over his face, absorbing his features. "He's quite the looker."
"Oh, he is, Kaia." The right replied, her left hand rising, a thin blade in it. She used it to brush back his hair, the point trailing over his cheek to the cusp of his jaw and neck. "What pure colouring. Kitrax had a reputation for the perfection of his form. You do not disappoint."
"Imagine the hatchlings we might have made." Kaia mirrored her sister, a small sharp knife appearing in her right, and she slid it across the skin of his jugular, slowly, and up toward his ear. "Such a waste. Now, you're just another sacrifice. What's the count at, sister?"
"Hmm. Let me think." With her free hand, Faye brushed her fingers through Araziah's blond shock, distractedly. "It was five- ... no, wait! We must include Demetrius, so six. Six disciples of the Tempest. They are the most fun."
"They are," Kaia agreed, "and by contrast, just two ground-shakers. Those confrontations are always difficult."
"Awkward, and uncomfortable," Mordred interjected, his voice floating on the air from where he stood, but still very much a part of the conversation.
"Yes, dear brother, very true." Faye nodded absently, the whole experience conducted with a cruel nonchalance. "Lastly, one of our own. He wasn't of our house, though. So, you are still a first anyhow."
"Humans?" The other added it as an afterthought. "Are they included for the tally?"
"Barely, but I was keeping track. I believe we were at ... 249."
"Isn't it funny how hysterical they get," Kaia scraped the knife point to the same approximate place as her sister's was, "when they realise normal weapons don't do much. You need enchanted steel to truly pierce a dragon."
With that, she dug the tip of the blade in, and sliced it carefully downward in a shallow cut, along his neck.
"They scream a lot more when they die, too." Faye did the same, imitating the motion. "Not at all dignified."
"Nnnrgh." Araziah grumbled, the blood dripping onto his collarbone from the dual incisions. The pain was jarring but he ignored it, his anger taking precedence. He had enough fortitude to allow speech, but only barely, the words forced out haltingly. "You are ... fools ... to play ... games."
"Oh, you hear that, Faye? He can talk! That's will power. Impressive!"
"Get on with it." The prince's complaint was delivered with a bored impatience over their back-and-forth. "I don't want to do this all day."
"If you insist." Faye flicked her weapon away from his neck, and jabbed in through his shirt in a deliberate glancing slice, another shallow cut that followed the ribs' contour. Araziah grunted, shuddering from the sensation of being stabbed, his cheek twitching, his eyes glued to her. "First, I do have a question. How did you do it? Darren could not understand how one as young as you could succeed. Our cousin was weak, but hardly defenceless."
"Fire." He said it, an undertone. "It was ... fire."
"Fire." Kaia repeated it, incredulous. "Your breath alone? That's ridiculous." She scoffed, her disbelief clear. "Absurd!"
"You lie." Mordred dismissed the notion in a contemptuous accusation of falsehood. "What natural law allows this? Ice does not shatter ice, the earth does not war itself, and the sky is a union. Least of all fire; the flame cannot undo its own essence."
"And yet," Araziah spat, "Thyndorag burned."
"Then through magic," the Grey Prince murmured, his voice thrumming in stereo, "so shall you. Sisters, finish it."
"Gladly," said Faye. In unison, the twins retracted their blade hands and with the other, in a weird symmetry, they laid the palms flat on his neck on their respective sides. Blood oozed and dripped out and over their skin from the wounds beneath, but, beyond that, he could feel it, the real effect of their touch.
Pouring into his body, like molten metal tipped from a cast, was a torrent of boiling magical energy. It flowed through skin and veins and flesh, an elemental sluice into his extremities, and his physical temperature began to rise. A direct exhaled flame was not required when they could use their unique power, and it was meant to melt him from the inside.
"All too easy," muttered Kaia, leaning so close to his ear her lips were almost touching it. "Feel no sorrow, sweetling. Soon you'll be one with the creator once more, and your impurity will be cured."
The swelter was growing, his skin, his torso, arms and legs; it was increasing, from an unpleasant warmth, to a sharp torridity, then to a scald that was the definition of escalating pain. It was only seconds, but he could feel the burgeoning precursors of what it would do to him, the signs of the fate he would suffer.
"You gave me an idea, sister." Faye whispered. "When we're done, let's pay his pet humans a visit, shall we? I want to know if they'll scream."
The anger inside him multiplied exponentially, the impotent furor becoming an extreme violent rage unlike anything he had known before; matching and then surpassing the ferocity of the heat unleashed upon his body.
It was at that exact moment, with a magical liquid fire running through him, that the voice spoke again.
This time, it was different.
It was more.
Not a whisper, not a distant seducing thrill, but loud, deep. As if unveiled, a curtain lifted from his perceptions, it rang true and heavy. It was a clarion call so clear and real that the note of it in his mind was as palpable as a dragon's roar ringing through the valley.
He shivered, from the reverberant volume of the words, and the broiling crescendo of the heat in his blood.
Rise, and become my champion.
Thunder, the demand of a god.
Fall, and die in agony.
He could not give in, surrender himself to that rage, but he also wasn't willing to die.
Yet, it wasn't over.
In the midst of his torment, a glance to the Ash Sisters had revealed something.
The identical necklaces they wore, gilt chain with red stones set in an exquisite layered pattern; each was each crowned by a single large garnet, hanging over the breast.
They were glowing.
It was the weakness he required.
This was not the time for cold contemplation.
His wrath was power, and he needed to use it.
As wisps of smoke puffed from the fringes of his clothing, his skin feverish, his fibre filling with the aching pain of magical combustion, he pulled together every part of his concentration, buoyed now by a strange fell augmentation. His psychic strength grew closer, tighter and magnified under the duress of the Grey Prince's hold, and in one dreadful furious push, he struck back with everything.
There was a crackle, and the rumbling ambience dimmed, the sound disrupted. Mordred blinked, the two staring at one another, the light in his eyes flickering. The stun was reversed, the spear of Araziah's thrust reaching all the way to his foe, but the effect was brief, and the pressure quickly renewed.
The counter-push came, and it was a cudgel. A massive fist returned the force, the surprise attack absorbed, and it slammed into Araziah's offensive with greater strength.
For just five seconds, their wills strove, the air between them hazing, sparking, and in those moments he saw surprise and fear in the Grey Prince's eyes, that this was possible, that someone was challenging him, but then it was gone, the overconfidence back, and Mordred was upon him with full might.
Araziah wasn't going to win the contest, but ... he didn't have to.
All at once, he acted, in the time while the stun was temporarily removed.
With his left arm, he shoved the unsuspecting Kaia, sending her sprawling. The burning pain on that side of his body vanished, the source of it gone.
With his right, he pulled Faye in front of him, in the same instant abandoning his psychic assault. Mordred's power jumped forth, accelerating at speed with the resistance removed, only to strike what he was looking at, instead of the original target.
His own sister.
She jolted, frozen into a daze by the barrage, her eyes wide, rendered motionless.
Araziah grabbed her neck in the same way she was holding his.
Within, he drew the uncontrolled roiling essence of internal fire into his arm, channeling the magic through his own tissue. Unimpeded, a stream of it poured out of his hand and into her.
At the same time, with his free left arm, he tore her necklace away.
The light faded from it, the gem dimming, the focusing and regulating effect of Faye's amulet eliminated.
The stream became a deluge, a searing flood that was beyond any hurt he could imagine. It all went directly where he aimed it.
Araziah could handle the torture of coursing animated fire, but this pretender could not.
There was the solid thippt of her skull and brain rupturing, and Faye jerked, becoming lax, her hand letting go, her eyeballs bursting, smoke erupting from the sockets. As she dropped, he ripped the blade from her hand and teleported to Mordred.
Kaia's scream of horror was in his ears, but Araziah had just one target. His blow was a backhanded left, and hard enough to nearly knock the Grey Prince over. With the right, he stabbed Faye's little blade into the abdomen.
"Hhh-ahh!" Mordred gasped, twisting in wounded shock, and in a flurry he struck back, his own blade materialising in an extraordinarily quick flourish. Before he could stop it, the knife was stabbing in a tight arc, into Araziah's left shoulder, the best the Grey Prince could manage.
There was a blast of air, and Kaia's howling became the booming clamour of a dragon enraged. She was leaping up, a full adult, as limber and strong as any of the Seventh House, and Araziah pulled the knife out, pushing Mordred away and dislodging the enemy's own as he did so.
I WILL DESTROY YOU!
There was no time, no energy left to fight two at once, no chance to beat dangerous opponents in the state he was in. With the remaining Ash Sister bearing on him, Araziah vanished, teleporting away, to leave only air when the full fury of her weight crashed down.
Beyond, watching behind the walls of reality, unheard outside the mortal world, the laughter of the mad god echoed across the void.
Araziah materialised in the middle of the living room. His hair was mussed, there were two cuts along either side of his neck, blood liberally spattered over his collarbone and shirt. Lower down, it was torn, a gash along his ribs, and another direct puncture, a stab wound in his right side. He blinked, his eyes focusing on me, then he swayed, about to fall over.
I was up in a flash and steadying him, and he grabbed onto me, bracing himself; dropping what he was holding, a knife and necklace chain, on the floor.
"Oh my god." I gasped, easing him across to the couch, where he dropped onto the material and sat back with a pained grunt. "What happened?!"
"The Conclave's fools." He forced the words out, his voice drawn and strained. He glared down at the perforation in his side, then his eyes rose tiredly back to me. "Three of them, because they are afraid."
Looking at the state of him, I was afraid too.
"Celeste," I was turning, scrabbling for my phone, jamming it next to my ear, "it's- ... it's Araziah. He just showed up. I don't know what to do. The Conclave, they- ... he's been stabbed."
"Stabbed?" There was a momentary shock in her tone, but it switched quickly to business mode. "Okay. Alright. Torsten, take a deep breath. Do you hear me? Stay calm."
"Uh. Yes." I managed, squashing the urge to hyperventilate. "Deep breath. Calm. Got it."
"Okay, now listen to me. They're like us in a lot of ways, but they recover differently. Fire dragons especially. Their healing factor is boosted when their body isn't engaged in pain suppression. You can kickstart that by doing it for him."
"Alcohol?" Confusion. "For sterilising?"
"No, not for-" I heard her stop, then swear to herself, muttering while her phone beeped. "Oh, shit. Incoming call. Now? He's calling me now? Gotta be something very important for Fineas to do a Saturday." Then to me again: "Listen, I have to take this. It's one I've been waiting for. Just find some alcohol -- whatever your mother has that's high proof, the stronger the better, preferably spirits -- and make him drink it. The sooner you can force his body to begin its regeneration cycle by tricking it to ignore the physical symptoms of pain, the better chance he has. If you run into problems, Crawley will do what he can to advise you further. Torsten, I'm sorry, I have to go. Good luck."
There was the click of her hanging up, the call ending.
Jumping up, I ran to Mom's liquor cabinet, the top cupboard on the far side of the kitchen. I stared at the array of labels until I found the one with highest percentage on it. It was a Kentucky bourbon, and I grabbed it, bustling back to the couch. His head was lolling, his eyes half closed, and my breath caught.
I was terrified.
"Araziah." I shook him gently, unscrewing the bottle cap with a thumb. "Don't sleep." He stirred, grimacing, and I handed him the bottle. "Drink this. It'll taste ... weird, and feel hot going down, but enough of it will make the pain go away. That's what you need right now."
He looked at me.
Then at the bottle.
No second thoughts, he lifted it and began to drink.
Like it was no more than water, he had drained nearly half of it before he stopped and looked at the bottle again.
"I didn' feel 'ny heat." He was running his words together just a little, but not that badly for someone who had just consumed enough booze to knock a grown man out. I took the bottle out of his hand, and he didn't resist, just loosely letting go, his attention slipping fully back to me. "Pain is gone. Is it s'posed to make me dizzy too?"
"It will. I should get something to clean that, just in case." I began to rise, intending to fetch some antiseptic, but he pulled me with an impressive firmness back to sitting position, right next to him on our couch.
"Torsten," he mumbled, "stay here."
"Oh." I relaxed, my voice calming, slowing, despite the situation. "Don't worry. I will."
"Good." He was watching me, his shoulder leaning against mine, and I mirrored him, returning his attention, fully aware that he was probably drunk, even if he was heavily resistant to the effect. I need to make sure he's okay, that he stays awake. Keep him talking, if I have to. "I heard his voice, you know. Before they attack'd me. After, too. He was calling to me. Calling my name."
The Spirit of Fire.
"You don't have to listen." I shifted on the couch, pressing in a little, giving that reassurance of personal closeness that he seemed like he needed, to go along with my verbal encouragement. "You can choose to be different. You already have."
His head tilted toward me, as if he wanted to tell a secret, eyes glassy scarlet, oddly serene. "They promis'd me your death. I wanted to slaughter them for it," he whispered conspiratorially, "but ... not to be the monster you think I am."
"Araziah," I whispered back, dismayed that he believed I thought that of him. Maybe once, maybe for what happened to Theo, but not now. "I don't think you're like them. I truly don't."
"Good." He repeated, his left hand rose up, lazily and not well coordinated, and he brushed his thumb against my cheek, the same motion he had done several times before; gentle, intimate, protective. "She guessed rightly, and I was ... slow to understand. I know, now, what I want. I wish that you see me the same as you see him."
"Maybe you will," his tone went quieter, hushed, near to inaudible, "but, I cannot wait on it. Forgive me. I have to find out."
What's going on?
His eyes flicked dreamily over my face, and then, with the greatest care and a growing curiosity, a realisation of action needed, he drew us together, our lips meshing tenderly as his slid over mine.