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Metal and Stone: The Awakening

First edition

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© 2018 Kevin Potter





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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

METAL
AND
STONE:

THE AWAKENING

Contents

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

EPILOGUE



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PROLOGUE

SUMMER, 666 BCE, PRYDEIN

“Gurgastius is but one of many, good wyrms,” Baalhalllu said, his platinum scales shining in the midday sun.

“’Tis true,” Graayyyavalllia said. “I hear tales from the mainland of the chieftains in Gaul and Rome, the kings in Greece and Persia, and the lords, earls, masters, chiefs, kings, and emperors of the hundreds of nations in-between. They all think to command us, to rule us. To force us, often by threat of violence, to do as they wish.” She thumped her glittering, garnet tail as she finished.

“Dragon slayers are becoming a larger and larger problem with each passing season,” said Jorrduliannsa, a pale, celestine wyrm from the far north.

“The problems are mounting, no question,” Kwallindauria said, her gaze roving around the massive circle of dragons to lock eyes with each and every one of them. “What we need, however, is not a recounting of the problems we face, but solutions.”

Baalhalllu smiled. For one so young, she shows surprising wisdom.

“Here, here,” called dozens of metallic wyrms together. Baalhalllu’s glow of pride shattered and he barely stopped from rolling his eyes at them. Did they truly think their rehearsed praise for his daughter’s words would help? They needed wisdom here, not some foolish attempt at feigned acclamation.

He waited, meeting several gazes around the circle in silence. Not yet, he thought. Others need to make their suggestions first. If my plan is the first they hear, they will dismiss it out of hand.

“It is time to strike!” said Vordillainsura, a powerful agate wyrm from central Gaul, his black scales sparkling. “Not the foolish one-dragon-against-an-army battles that have been occurring in haphazard fashion throughout the world, but a concerted attack against the Humans! We are not the only ones being threatened! The Sidhe, the Gnimshei, the Famorians, the Firbolg, the Tuatha, and scores of others are being threatened by the Humans as well! They will all join with us in a war against mankind! It is time! Who is with me?”

A few stone dragons cheered, but the sound was muted and gained little support.

Thank for you being the idiot to speak first, Baalhalllu thought.

“Are you insane?” Graayyyavalllia asked in earnest.

And thank you, Graayyya. Another stone dragon speaking out against him will go far.

“Coward,” Vordillainsura shot back.

“Not in the least,” Graayyya said. “But I prefer not to destroy the Earth. I suppose you don’t much care?”

“What would you know? You were practically raised by the cowardly platinum.”

“Cowardly?” Kwallindauria asked. “In what way, exactly? Where there is injustice, I fight it. Where there is unnecessary conflict, I eliminate it. Where there is warmongering, I address it. Where the weak are oppressed, I defend them. Where the truth has been obliterated, I restore it. When battle is needed, I will never hesitate to fight. But much more often, there is a better way. Do not let your violent nature get the better of you, Sura.”

The agate scoffed and turned away from her. Addressing the mass of stone wyrms behind him, Vordillainsura roared, “RALLY BEHIND ME, WYRMS! BATTLE COMES, AND WE WILL NOT RUN FROM IT! WE MUST FIGHT AND WE MUST DESTROY THE HUMANS ONCE AND FOR ALL!”

“Do not be an idiot,” Jorrduliannsa said. “You know the destruction we have wrought in the past when we have warred openly. If we do this, if we go to war, one and all, there will be no Earth left by the time we are done. Nothing will survive.”

“If that is what is needed.”

“Can you hear yourself?” Graayyyavalllia asked, her voice stern.

“All I hear is the bleating of a coward,” Vordillainsura said.

Graayyya shook her head. “How many times have you come to me to arbitrate, Vordillainsura? Korathroonllea? Dreerovadia? Thrunndiaun? Briteillaun? Viritriain? Cukhorilai? How often have you all come to me for my wisdom, to settle disputes, or to facilitate talks with the other races? How often have each and every one of you come to me and listened to my counsel?”

That’s cowed them, thank the gods.

Even Vordillainsura looked abashed, head bowed. For a moment, at least. Raising his head, he glared up into her eyes. “What do you suggest we do, then?” he asked, sounding bitter.

“Can I at least convince you to accept that war is not the answer?” she asked.

“If you can show me a better solution,” he said stubbornly.

Graayyyavalllia nodded, as though that settled everything.

Which, of course, it did. He would listen. He would follow the plan.

And now, Baalhalllu thought, to settle the others.

Kwallindauria looked around the standing stones to all the dragons massed there. Again, she took the time to meet the gaze of each wyrm in turn. The process seemed to take ages.

“If you will all listen, the Council of Elders has a plan which will ensure both our own continued survival as well as that of the Humans and Mother Earth herself.”

Baalhalllu’s gaze swept the circle to meet the eyes of the dozens of wyrms which had come together for this meeting. Though some were pleased, in all but a few he found at least acceptance.

Good enough.

With a nod to the group as a whole, he began to speak of his plan for their future. It wasn’t an ideal solution, he knew. The Watchers would have their work cut out for them, especially for the first few centuries while the dragon slayers would still come searching for them. But it was the only course of action open to them which would not result in unacceptable loss of life as well as the potential destruction of the Earth itself.

If we destroy the Earth, we destroy ourselves anyway.

Are you certain this is the way? Dauria’s voice spoke within his mind.

It is a good plan, he said. Not the best, but we don’t have the luxury of a plan which will please everyone. We don’t have the luxury of a method which will allow us to live in peace with the Humans. Not anymore. The moment they stopped revering us, this became inevitable. They are stubborn, avaricious, and narcissistic creatures.

Yes, Sire, she said.

She was displeased with the answer, that much was obvious.

By the tails of his ancestors, he was displeased with it. But what choice did they have? When left with the choice between going to sleep, possibly forever, and destroying the Earth, sleep had to be his choice. Anything less and they were no better than the Humans.

That’s a sobering thought.

What happens if they find one of us while we sleep? Dauria asked.

They will not.

How can you be so sure?

That is part of the reason for The Watchers, my dear. For the first few centuries, while they still remember us, they will search. They will hunt us with reckless abandon, I am certain. The Watchers will keep them from finding us, or, barring that, keep them from returning to their people.

So we are going to end up killing humans anyway? Dauria asked, incredulous.

By the ones or twos, it is unavoidable. It will be no worse than what we’ve been doing for decades. When one of them threatens us and will not listen to reason, we have been forced to kill. This will be no different.

Except that they will be killed out of hand, with no chance for talking them out of it.

Better that than letting the stones have their way and entering into a full-scale war with the humans. You know as well as I how destructive that would be. I don’t like it any more than you, but we must do what we must do.

But to kill them without provocation, Dauria protested. How is it any better?

As I said, we will do what we must. This is a necessity, Kwallindauria. It cannot be avoided. It is better to kill the few of them who wander too close to our sleeping forms than to make all-out war with them.

I suppose you’re right, she said glumly.

It is the lesser of the evils, he said. Do not sulk. This is what must be.

I know, Sire. She paused, then added, we will wake someday. I pray it is to better circumstances than we now face. I eagerly await the day we can go back to living in peace with the Humans. Watching over them. Caring for them. That is what I was made for.

I know, my dear. I know. You will have it back. Someday.

Although he couldn’t see her, Baalhalllu felt her glowing smile in his mind and he smiled back.

He wasn’t sure he believed what he’d told her about the future, but he hoped it was so.

The Humans can’t possibly be foolish enough to continue on their destructive path throughout all the ages, can they?

Such a thing seemed preposterous.

CHAPTER ONE

Deep within the bowels of the Earth, in a vast cave system sunlight never touched, the now-ancient platinum dragon’s eyelids twitched several times before fluttering open. Ropes of greenish ichor stretched between the lids, trying to pull them closed again.

The dragon darted her eyes left and right, up and down, but the world appeared to consist of nothing more than a blurry haze of dark colors.

With a thought, she directed a tiny trickle of arcane power from her Apex to banish the eons of ichor blurring her vision. The obstruction cleared instantly and before her, at the wide entrance to her lair, stood a young granite dragon. His eyes darted nervously around the cavern.

Certainly, he couldn’t have been worried about the cavern itself. Once, millennia ago, the walls, ceiling, and floor had been raw earth and stone. They had been almost crumbling, the ceiling and floor covered in stalactites and stalagmites, the walls covered with moss and lichen.

But no longer.

Before she had begun the Long Sleep, Kwallindauria had sculpted the interior of the cavern with careful precision. At the time, she’d been tiny compared to the cavern, less than the hundredth part of its size. She’d shored up the walls and carved out the stone formations. When she’d been done, the walls were down to bare, smooth stone and the ceiling and floor were even, solid, smooth, and free of dirt and debris.

After all that, she’d drawn out tremendous arcane power to reinforce the stone, making it stronger. She’d needed to ensure that in the event of a terrible quake or volcanic eruption, her lair would remain intact and undiscovered.

It seemed she had been successful in that.

Yet, the small dragon was nervous. Anxious. Perhaps even fearful.

He fears I am displeased, she realized with a silent chuckle.

“Why have you wakened me?” she asked, testing her voice. Though thick and raspy from disuse, it boomed powerfully from her throat.

I have grown much in my slumber, she thought. How long has it been?

How many centuries? Or is it millennia?

“Apologies, Mistress,” the younger dragon’s scales clicked together softly. “You set out orders long ago that you were to be wakened if anything of import were to occur.” He paused, as though to allow her time to respond, then continued, “Well, we… that is, the other Watchers and I­­–”

“Yes, yes. I know you and the other Watchers made the decision to wake me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. What I want to know is what happened and why.”

The young granite dragon gulped loudly.

“We… believe.” He hesitated. “That the time may have arrived for us… all of us, to… act.”

Kwallindauria’s scales quivered in irritation. She offered a forced widening of her eyes and waited.

“The Humans,” he finally said. “The Watchers all agree. We’ve given them enough time to learn from their mistakes, but the problems are accelerating.”

“How so?” she breathed.

“Mistress, human warfare is not what it once was. They manipulate chemical interactions and biological agents. Their… what was the word… bombeis? Explosives. They produce conflagrations more destructive than the breath of even your great species.”

Kwallindauria scoffed, I find that highly unlikely.

“Mistress, I know it doesn’t seem possible. But I have seen the destruction with mine own draconic eyes. An entire city of your humans, I believe they call themselves Japanese these days, were bombeid. One of these devices was detonated in their midst and the loss of life was devastating, measured in the tens of thousands. And nearly as many died in the following days from the chemical poisoning created by the explosion.

“How is that possible?” she breathed.

“The total destruction of the explosion itself was an area of approximately one-hundred standard wingspans.”

“A hundred?” she said, incredulous.

“Yes, Mistress.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

“Five-hundred-forty-seven moons, I believe.”

Kwallindauria nodded, but kept silent.

“In the intervening time, their technology has advanced further. Become more deadly. More destructive. And there are now tens of thousands of those bombeis in the world.”

“And what concern is it of ours if the humans choose to destroy themselves?”

By the tails of my ancestors, she thought. If just one of these devices can cause so much devastation, imagine the cataclysm hundreds of them could cause? Let alone thousands.

“Ordinarily, we would agree with you, Mistress. But it is not only themselves they are destroying. The bombeis that dropped on Japan… the physical destruction was only the beginning. The chemical poison still affects that part of the Earth today. It rained destructive acid for several moons, it has been proven that these chemicals mutated numerous living species— and destroyed others —and even now crops struggle to take root in the soil for thousands of wingspans around the area of the explosion.”

“And what do you and the other Watchers think to do about all this?”

“I…” he faltered. He lowered his head for an instant before looking up again. He glared in obvious defiance.

“That is not for The Watchers to decide. We were appointed not for our wisdom, but rather our discretion and obedience. We watch, we report, and we obey. Whatever the Elders decide, we shall obey.”

Kwallindauria smiled. “And if they decide you should do nothing?”

“If that is the Elders’ decision,” he sighed. “After strongly voicing our objections, we shall obey.”

She nodded in approval. “Then wake the Elders. They will discuss and decide the matter.” With a bit of advice from me, of course, she added silently.

“Yes, Mistress.”

She waved a claw in dismissal and the Watcher left her cavern.

After all these centuries, why now? For eons, the most destructive thing we could do was rejoin the world. It seems that may have changed. What if the humans have become more destructive than a war between us would be?

Or, what if it’s something else? What if something more dangerous is happening?

What if our Watchers have been corrupted?

Stop! she commanded herself.

She needed to speak with the Elders. They would investigate the claims of The Watchers before any decision was made. She simply had to ensure they came to the correct decision.

But what was the correct decision? She couldn’t deny that the Watcher made a compelling argument for the need to intervene. The situation was not the same as it had been all those years ago.

Never mind that it felt to her as though only a few days had passed.

I need to speak with Graayyyavalllia. And Baalhalllu.

CHAPTER TWO

Dauria lumbered up from her position on the cave floor. The scent of fear, bordering on terror, followed the granite Watcher in his wake.

What is he so afraid of? she wondered. That can’t all be from his fear of displeasing me.

She clicked her sharp claws against the smooth stone surface as she considered the situation.

Clearly, something in the human world had The Watchers in a near-frenzy of worry. But did they truly believe— and near enough to unanimously as made no matter —the Humans had carried things far enough to warrant direct draconic intervention?

Was it beyond repair?

Unlikely. With the proper manipulation, almost any human problem can be fixed within the span of a human generation.

So why were The Watchers jumping to the idea of direct draconic intervention being necessary? She couldn’t force it to make sense. She wanted— truly, in her heart, needed —to believe there existed a rational explanation for their behavior. Something to combat her growing fear.

It grows increasingly difficult to deny the likelihood that The Watchers may have been compromised somehow.

Shaking her head to banish the dark thought, Dauria took her first trembling steps toward the exit to her lair. Her legs came near to giving out, unaccustomed as they were to bearing her now-immense bulk. Her scales clacked together with the trembling of her flesh, echoing through the otherwise empty lair.

Oddly, her body strengthened as she walked. Her vitality renewed, the famished feeling in her stomach dissipated, and the haze in her mind diminished with each step.

Perhaps this is some unforeseen side effect of the Long Sleep?

She was almost back to her pre-Sleep self again by the time she rounded the final bend before reaching the entrance to the cave, near the summit of the mountain.

Almost.

Well, she thought, as she glanced down the corridor, this is a problem.

The cave opening was much smaller than Dauria remembered. Even accounting for her growth since The Sleep began, it was not nearly as tall as it should have been. Nor as wide.

Rock fall? she wondered.

But no, that couldn’t be right. The stone at the cave mouth was not compacted rubble, there were no pieces crunched together. It was solid stone, as though it had always been there.

What is this?

Kwallindauria stopped herself in the act of gouging the stone with her claws and forcibly separated her clenched jaws.

Who, or what, could have done this? Has it been inside my lair?

Turning back toward her lair proper, Dauria opened herself to the arcane strength within and drew forth a tendril of power, directing it to her sight.

Her vision shifted to infinitesimal hues of blue and red. Stark streams of glaring white enveloped the entire tunnel from floor to ceiling. That was the imprint of her own essence, the power she’d used to carve out the tunnel. She knew it well.

No other arcane imprint touched the walls, floor, or ceiling of the cave tunnel. She turned back to the cave mouth and her jaw slipped open in amazement.

A rainbow of intertwining streams crisscrossed and zigzagged all around and across the mouth of the cave and spread along almost a full wingspan of the wall, ceiling, and floor of the tunnel.

What in the name of my first ancestor could do that?

She tried to pick out the individual threads braided into the streams of power, but they were too tightly interwoven. She couldn’t separate any of them from any other, leaving her bereft of any way of identifying even the creator’s species, much less who it could have been or what the intended purpose was.

Damn it all to Infernalis.

The sheen of rainbow light crisscrossing the cave entrance only faintly obscured her view of the world beyond, however. The slope of the mountain was covered in snow and ice and it opened on a rocky plain. There were villages and cities in the distance, but none were close enough for an inhabitant to see her when she exited. Not even at her currently massive size.

“It could be nothing,” she mused aloud. “Or it could be something disastrous. The larger issue though, as I see it, is where did this come from and who— or what —is responsible?”

Dimly, in the back of her mind, she wondered at why. Whatever it was meant to do, why target her? Assuming it was something malicious, the likelihood of which could not be ignored, why not focus such effort on wyrms of import. She wasn’t even on the Council.

True, she had been known to have great influence on the Council from time to time, but that was not the same thing. She was not an important wyrm.

Could The Watchers be involved, somehow? she thought, her incredulity somewhat forced. Or perhaps just one of them? Would they— or he — or she —have the temerity to go so far? If it is them, a word of this breathed to the council would ruin them. Forever.

“No,” she whispered to the darkness. “There has to be another explanation. Whoever is behind this, whatever their goal, they intentionally waited for the Watcher to leave my lair so they could spring this on me alone. That must be the way of it.”

What will happen if I cross through those streams of power on my way out? she wondered, but couldn’t begin to guess at the answer. Or rather, she had entirely too many guesses. Maybe nothing. Maybe I’ll be vaporized. Maybe I’ll be turned into a chicken or maybe I’ll be struck deaf, dumb, and blind? Who can say with any certainty?

Without being able to identify the magic used to create them, the answer could be any one of ten thousand different magicks.

With no other way in or out of the lair, though, her choices were to either take her chances with the unknown magic or go back to sleep and forget about The Watchers, the Humans, and the rest of the world.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. I suppose I could make my way up as close as possible to the tip of the mountain and use sustained fire-breath to blow the top of the mountain off.

If that would even work, which I doubt.

By the gods, am I truly considering trying it?

If any act had the potential to unequivocally announce to the Humans that dragons were real, still existed, and had returned to wreak havoc on the Earth, that one would have been at, or at least near, the top of the list.

She discarded the idea.

The day may yet come that such an announcement will be right and proper, but that day is not today.

Not yet, she added after a moment.

In frustration— and not a little trepidation —she admitted that she had only one available course of action: to shift into a smaller form and pass through the arcane weaves.

No. It isn’t worth the risk, she thought. But I have to do something! The Elders need me. Even if I am wrong about The Watchers— and gods willing, I am —this is too important for me to sit by the wayside while a decision is made.

With a thought, Dauria released the tendril of power affecting her sight and drew forth a stronger stream of arcane energy. This particular magic was easier for her than most others. Many dragons, particularly those of the stone and gem families, never mastered it. But for most metallic dragons, it was almost second nature by the time they reached adulthood. For the platinum dragons, though, it was still easier. Most mastered their first form before adolescence.

She wrapped the streams of power around herself and directed her body to change.

Change it did.

Her long neck and tail seemed to pull themselves into her shrinking torso. Her wings melded into the scales they touched, which in turn were pulled into the flesh beneath them. Her claws retracted and her paws shrunk, toes elongating. Bones cracked painfully, some vanishing altogether. Her hind legs twisted as they shrunk, altering to a shape far less mobile as her torso turned in on itself, compacting and writhing in stomach-turning fashion. Although she had never seen it, she imagined the change in the shape of her head and nausea overtook her.

If there’d been anything in her stomach she would certainly have lost it before the transformation was complete.

Regardless of how many times she underwent the transformation into human form, the process continued to disgust her. Within a dozen seconds she had gone from an awesomely powerful platinum dragon, more than ten standard wingspans in length, to a puny, frail human less than the tenth part of a wingspan in height.

Where does the mass go? she wondered. She had asked the question hundreds of times, but no wyrm she had ever met could give a satisfactory answer.

With jerky, one-sided movements— this was going to be a painfully ungracious experience, as it always was when she had gone too long without walking in the skin of a human —she made her way across the threshold of the cave mouth and out into the cold, mountain air.

Her new body shivered, goose prickles popping up everywhere. She clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering.

I’d forgotten how cold human flesh can be!

She shook herself and wrapped her arms around her thin body in an effort to warm it, but she only shivered harder.

Clenching her jaw tighter, she trudged through the snow as fast as she could. Between the impediment of the snow and the awkward, shuffling gait of her new form, it was painfully slow going.

She counted out steps as she went. Although the help was minimal, it did help to divert her mind from obsessing over the cold.

She estimated ten minutes had passed when she stopped and turned around to judge the distance she had traveled from the cave mouth. Five wingspans, perhaps ten at the most. It was difficult to gauge distance with these human eyes. Well, human-ish. Her senses were far more acute than any ordinary human’s, though still far short of a true dragon’s senses.

So far, nothing untoward seemed to have happened from passing through the weaves of power.

Alright, that’s enough of this, she thought and reached for the arcane energies to resume her natural shape–

There was nothing there!

Her eyes widened and her mouth went dry. Panic seized her by the throat, trapping the breath in her lungs.

”Not. Possible,” she managed to gasp as she tried, in vain, to pull new oxygen into her body.

Her vision darkened around the edges and Dauria thrust her consciousness down within her being, hunting the cause.

A dragon’s magic did not simply vanish! It was always there, regardless of what form she took! What was going on?

As hard as she tried, she found she could not focus her mind enough to delve into herself. Each time she tried, something seemed to thrust her right back out again.

Dauria clawed at her burning throat in frustration with thin, blunt fingernails.

This can’t be happening! she screamed inside her head.

The darkness around her vision spread and she tried to cry out, but no sound came.

The darkness finally consumed her vision and her legs gave out, but she didn’t feel her body hit the sharp rocks at her feet.

CHAPTER THREE

The ocean of blackness surrounding Dauria slowly receded, opening her to the haze of sensations around her.

Cold. The bitterest cold she had ever experienced lapped at her face and paws— no, that wasn’t right.

Hands! she thought. These are hands! I’m still in human form!

Her breath caught in her throat and her blood turned to ice. The frigid air around her suddenly seemed a tropical heat wave.

How is this possible?

“Just as well open your eyes,” said a coarse voice from perhaps ten human paces away. “I can see you’re awake.”

What’s this? she wondered, then noticed the soft, stiff weight of something covering most of her naked human flesh. It smelled of old death, old blood, and long days in the sun.

What was the wretched thing covering her? Why was it covering her? Perhaps it was actually binding her in place?

Moving slowly, with as much subtlety as she could manage, she moved a hand out from under the covering. Her movements were not hindered, though the cold in that hand grew exponentially. She immediately drew it back beneath the covering.

Oh! she thought as realization dawned. It was a fur blanket, of course. How ridiculous of her to have forgotten such a basic fact as humans needing coverings to keep warm.

I truly have been out of the world for far too long.

She cracked a single eye to peer at her surroundings. A single, curving wall of animal hide surrounded her, though it had no discernible frame. In the center of the small room, a tiny fire started to crackle, the tiny flames licking their way around several thin sticks.

A tiny, sallow-skinned man with a long, thin beard of snow-white sat cross-legged before the fire, watching her intently.

Her eye narrowed. “Who are you?”

The man chuckled. “I was going to ask you that very thing.”

Without meaning to, her mind snapped out to touch his and pulled a name from his surface thoughts, a woman from his past for which he cared deeply.

“Amaya,” she said.

He nodded without expression and she waited, watching the man.

Interesting that the telepathy still functions, she thought.

The small man stared back at her, unblinking. Tiny wrinkles in the shape of crow’s feet surrounded dark eyes which seemed to swallow her, freezing her solid within their embrace.

She tried to turn away, to focus her attention elsewhere, but her body refused to respond to her commands.

Opening her mouth to speak, she found her throat too dry to produce sound.

Although ordinarily a patient creature, even among dragons— or, rather, she had been. Who knew how one might change during centuries of deep slumber? —Dauria clenched her teeth and fists. The inability to act grated on her.

After a moment, she forced her jaw to relax and her fists to uncurl in an effort to fight down the impatient frustration gnawing at her nerves.

The old man smiled at her then, the lines around his slanted, angular eyes vanishing in the process.

“Kaito is my name,” he said, smoothing the cloth of his trousers. He paused then, looking thoughtful for a moment. “It is so strange to hear it said aloud again,” he added in a whisper.

Dauria offered a small nod and closed her eyes again, this time to delve into her own soul. She’d lacked the focus to do it before her blackout, in the cold. She prayed she could manage it now. It would be something productive to do while the strange little man sat in silence.

She raced through the corridors of her Internal Universe, seeking for any sign of her arcane energy. It was normally an easy thing to find.

The Apex Of The Soul was a spot just behind the heart, a nexus point where all the energies of a dragon’s body converged and reached out into the Ether. It was there, in the unreachable Nothing of the Ether, that a dragon’s magical power was kept hidden.

Or locked away, she thought bitterly.

The Apex was supposed to shine with a light proportionate to the dragon’s magical strength. Dauria had glimpsed her sire’s Apex once. She recalled the experience fondly, as the most humbling event of her life. Baalhalllu’s Apex outshone her own as the Sun outshone a single star in the night sky.

Where is it? she thought. She was there, in the spot behind her heart where it should have been, but there was no sign of her Apex. No light. No flame. No window into the Ether.

What was going on? A dragon’s Apex couldn’t just vanish, could it?

It seemed an eternity passed while she looked over the area where it should have been over and over and over again.

At last, after passing the spot at least three times, she noticed a tiny pinprick of unlight. A spot where, when she shone a light on it, it did not reflect, but instead swallowed the light, giving nothing back in return. She wanted to roar in frustration.

This must be my Apex, she thought. But by the tails of my ancestors, what could it mean?

She reached out a trembling— human, even here in the heart of her soul —hand to touch the Apex, but found she could not. Her fingers stopped little more than a hair’s width from the Apex itself.

Dauria ground her teeth together in frustration and pushed at the barrier with all her strength.

After several minutes of intense effort, her metaphysical muscles slackened and she fell to the floor before her Apex, panting.

“How. Can. This. Be,” she gasped between breaths.

“…be here, Amaya?” a gruff voice intruded on her private battle.

Damn, she thought, realizing the old man had been speaking to her for some time.

She abandoned the corridors of her soul and opened her eyes again. “I’m sorry, Kaito. I think I may have drifted off for a minute there. I didn’t hear your question.”

“Quite all right,” he said. “I was asking how it is that you came to be here, all alone and in such a… delicate situation.” His eyes remained fixed on hers.

Good question! she thought.

Dauria plastered a confused expression on her face as she looked down at her blanketed form. She forced her eyes to widen slightly, as though only just then realizing she was naked beneath the blanket.

“I…” she didn’t have to fake her faltering voice. Bereft of any idea of what to tell the man, she floundered. Her mouth worked, but no sound came.

After several tries at speaking, she stopped and swallowed hard. The beginnings of an idea drifted into her mind and she seized on it. “Truthfully, I could not begin to guess. The last thing I remember before waking up here is picking berries in a field about an hour outside of my village.”

“Speaking of which,” she added, inserting a note of helplessness to her voice. “Where am I?”

Kaito’s eyes widened slightly for an instant before his features returned to his careful, expressionless mask. “I don’t know where your village is, Amaya, but it must be a considerable distance from here. I found you a short way up the mountain.” He pointed to his left. “Not sure what you might know it as, but the maps all call it Mount Fuji. We’re in a small valley near the mountain’s base.”

Mount Fuji? she wondered. Where is that? The mountain of my lair, I hope. Elsewise, I can’t imagine what I’m going to do.

“Did you hit your head?”

Dauria made a show of reaching up to feel around her head with her hands, taking no pains whatsoever to keep her blanket up to cover her.

Kaito didn’t respond in any recognizable way to the display of feminine flesh.

Curious, she thought. In her admittedly ancient experience with men, they never failed to note such a display.

After feeling every inch of her head thrice over— as well as fully exposing her form’s pink flesh down to her waist —she dropped her hands and pulled the blanket back up. “It doesn’t seem so.”

Unperturbed, Kaito nodded. “What is the name of your village, Amaya?”

With an inward cringe, Dauria tossed out the first name that came to mind. “Kauljiinra.”

Kaito’s blank expression didn’t change, but Dauria caught the roil of thoughts and emotions bubbling just beneath the surface of his mind.

Does he recognize the name?

She didn’t know what had happened to the place. At the time of the Long Sleep, it had been a thriving town. Not large, even by local standards, but it had certainly had the potential to grow into a bustling city.

“If that place even still exists,” Kaito said slowly. “It is far from here. Much too far for me to take you there.”

Dauria narrowed her eyes.

“Is there someplace else I can take you?” Kaito asked.

Dauria relaxed her expression and offered a faint, coy smile. “There might be.” She paused, then added, “Which side of the mountain are we on?”

“South.”

“Can you get me to the north-east spur?”

“Should be easy enough, if somewhat time-consuming.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

Kaito brushed his hand down his beard, smoothing it. “Yes, Amaya. I’ll do it. I could never abandon a lost soul to this place. I don’t know what you expect to find there, it is a desolate place, but I will see you arrive there safely.”

“Thank you, Kaito.”

Inanely, a warm flush of pleasure crept up Dauria’s neck and into her cheeks.

CHAPTER FOUR

For two days, the pair hiked in a generally north-easterly direction around the low, rocky hills at the bottom of the mountain. The air was clean and crisp, if bitter cold.

“You seem quite at home out here, Kaito,” Dauria said. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Doing what?” Kaito grunted.

“This!” Dauria said, spreading her arms wide. She immediately pulled them back in, curling in the heavy fur blanket draped about her shoulders to envelop the thick, fur-lined blouse and trousers. Where had he gotten them? Even more curious, why had he had them with him? They were obviously made for a slender female, so what use could he have expected to have for them?

She hadn’t thought to ask at the time, and now the subject seemed unlikely to come up again.

“Living out here, in the wild, away from other people.”

Kaito chuckled. “My dear Amaya. City-dwellers and I don’t get along so well. It’s really much better that we are kept separate.”

“Why?” She couldn’t stop the curiosity from bubbling to the surface of her mind.

Why do I care? she wondered. This man is nothing more than a means to an end.

Kaito chuckled again, this time more darkly. “I suppose you would call me a naturalist. I can’t abide all the cars and computers and pollution. I grew up in a simpler time, when men had honor and toiled with their own two hands. Japan has grown lazy. And complacent. And corrupt.”

Although the images she gleaned from his surface thoughts were confusing, they were enough to get a general idea of the things he spoke of.

And the clear disdain in his voice made it plain what he thought of those technological marvels.

She nodded as though she understood everything and flashed a knowing smile. “No family?”

“Long buried and mostly forgotten.”

“I see,” she said in genuine sadness. “I’m sorry. Friends?”

“Not for many, many years.”

“Sounds lonely.”

Kaito smiled. “Not at all.”

Dauria raised a single brow.

“I have the moon and the stars and the animals to keep me company.”

“Animals?” she asked, bewildered.

“After a fashion,” he said through a laugh.

It was such a strange sensation. For some reason, his laughter made her want to laugh as well. And that twinkle in his eye didn’t help. Not one little bit.

“And you?” he asked. “No family or friends?”

“Some,” she said hesitantly.

Kaito watched her in silence. She couldn’t tell if he was waiting for her to say more or if he simply watched her while waiting for the next conversational turn.

“My…” she paused to consciously force herself to use the human words, rather than the draconic ones. “Father and my siblings are here in Japan, somewhere. My truest friend, though, the only one I’m certain I can still trust, is a long way from here. But I will find her when I’m done here.”

“When you’re done here?” he asked.

“Yes. My father left me something that I need. Once I have it, I can be on my way.”

“I see,” he said, his expression falling just a touch.

Dauria turned away.

Is this even going to work? she wondered.

Kaito cleared his throat and turned back to face forward, his expression back to the blank mask. “What is it your father left you?”

“Um…”

Damn, she thought. How do I handle this?

Kaito turned back to her with a raised brow.

“It’s more of a place than a thing.”

Kaito’s lips curled into a small smile. “Now I’m intrigued.” His eyes twinkled in the fading light before he turned back to face the path.

Dauria sighed. I just keep digging my hole deeper.

“Is it such a secret?”

“Not as much anymore, I suppose,” she said. “I wasn’t born in the village. In my earliest memories, we were very near here. My s–father and I, we made our lives with only what nature provides in a cave delved into the side of this mountain.”

“And that is our destination?”

“It is.”

“And there’s something you need there?” he asked, glancing at her.

Dauria opened her mouth to answer and Kaito stumbled, a foot landing only half on the sharp rock beneath it. His foot twisted with a wet crunch, his arms pin-wheeling and his eyes wide with fear, then he fell backward.

With superhuman speed, Dauria zipped across the rocks to catch the human in his backward fall, arms locked around his chest.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! she thought. Why did I do that?

His weight was more than she’d anticipated and his fall bore her to the ground along with him. Her tailbone struck sharp rock and sent a jolt of agony— unlike anything she’d ever experienced as a dragon —up her spine. She gave a soft grunt, her sole concession to the pain.

With her arms still wrapped around Kaito, her hands clasped together on his chest, the heat of his body as it pressed against hers soaked through the blanket and her clothing into her own flesh. Her body warmed more than she felt was natural.

A tingling flush crept up her neck and she glanced down at the small man’s face. She blinked in surprise.

What? Did I really just… But she cut the thought off.

For a moment, she thought she must be losing her mind. Perhaps the days spent as a human were getting to her. She couldn’t have seen what she thought she’d seen, could she?

For a moment she’d been certain, but that certainty dwindled with each passing second as he looked up at her with confusion in his dark eyes.

“How did you…?” he asked, voice a husky rasp.

“Hush,” she whispered. She disentangled herself from Kaito, slipped from beneath him and stood.

“What are you doing?”

“Setting up the tent,” she said softly. “That slip is proof that we’ve come far enough today. We both need rest.”

“Let me help you,” he said as he climbed to his feet.

And fell right back to the rocks with a wince.

“You’re in no condition for that. I’ll do it while you get some rest.”

He nodded glumly.

Besides, she thought. I need time to think.

For that bare instant when she’d first looked down at his face, she’d been certain his eyes had flashed metallic gold with vertically slit pupils.

CHAPTER FIVE

Dauria watched the human through the darkness from across the hide tent. His face was relaxed, if pale. His chest rose and fell with his breath in the slow, even rhythm of deep sleep.

Am I going mad? Or did I see what I think I saw? What could it even mean?

Closing her eyes, Dauria tried to force herself into the realm of sleep, but it would not come. She tossed and turned, her mind filling its internal view with a hundred-thousand images of what the man could be, what he could be hiding.

If any one of those imaginings were true, she couldn’t fathom what he could be doing here. Did she still believe he had found her by happenstance? Or was there something larger, something darker at work here?

There’s an easy way to find out, she thought, eyes flashing open wide.

“No,” she whispered to the darkness. “I cannot do that. Reading surface thoughts is one thing, but the Delving of minds? No matter what he is, human or otherwise, true it may not be forbidden, nor even frowned upon, but it certainly is immoral.”

The Delving of minds, of any species, should never have been discovered. It has led to nothing good in all the history of Dragonkind.

And yet, said a small, though loud, voice in the back of her mind. What about the fact that the general principle of Delving is exactly the basis for telepathic communication between dragons?

“I won’t do it,” she hissed.

But what if holding to her ideals ended up getting her killed? Or worse.

Dauria sighed.

Is it worth the danger? Delving him might condemn my soul, but if I don’t, and he intends harm, it could be disastrous. Certainly in this body I can be wounded or killed as easily as any human woman. What will happen at the council meeting if I’m not there? Isn’t my soul an acceptable price?

“Arrogant wretch,” she whispered. “As though you, and you alone, have the power to move the council to the correct decision! As though you even know what the correct decision is!”

She sighed again.

You know you’re going to do it, came the small voice again. So just get on with it.

Dauria only just stopped herself from growling in the back of her throat.

She couldn’t argue the point, however. She knew it was true. She had already made her decision, much as she despised herself for it.

With a long, deep breath, Dauria plunged her consciousness into Kaito’s mind.

How very odd, she thought. He was, at that very moment, thinking about the Amaya from his past, a woman he had known almost thirty years earlier. What were the chances of that?

She couldn’t quite tell the nature of their relationship, but whatever it had been, his feelings for her had been strong.

Are strong, she corrected. He still cares for her as much as he ever did. The fact that she is dead and gone doesn’t change that for him.

While consciously thinking of Amaya, however, he was also immersed in a deep dream in which he watched from the high slopes of the mountain as, from the translation provided by his mind, a bomber jet flew by and dropped the atomic bomb— so that was the correct word! —that hit Tokyo back in the days of the World War.

Interesting, she thought, then proceeded to Delve deeper into Kaito’s mind.

Passing beyond his surface thoughts and the imagery of the dream was similar to how she imagined an ant would feel diving into a droplet of rain. The boundary pushed back with as much force as she put into penetrating it. The barrier was firm, yet soft.

She tried again, putting more mental force behind her attempt to enter his mind, but came back with the same result.

After several more attempts, she forced her way through the jelly-like barrier and proceeded into the man’s mind.

That was strange.

Then Dauria slammed into a solid barrier unlike anything she had ever imagined could exist. His mind glowed with a bright, golden light which reflected back every attempt she made to bypass it.

She thrust her consciousness against the mental barrier again and again and again, but it did not give, did not crack. There was no weakness in it, no point in the whole which might be easier to bypass or penetrate or break.

She was stuck.

Now what, by the tails of all my ancestors, is that?

She had no way to answer the question, however. She’d never even heard of such a barrier before. Not in any mind, not in any species to ever walk the Earth— or fly above it.

With no other recourse, she pushed and prodded and thrust at the barrier in Kaito’s mind until exhaustion descended and sleep claimed her.

CHAPTER SIX

The soft swish of cured hide against human flesh woke Dauria from a deep, dreamless sleep. The tent was still dark, much too dark for ordinary human eyes to see with any clarity.

She picked out Kaito across the tent, he was stuffing his bedding and other effects into his large, hide bag. Every few seconds, he glanced out the doorway to the horizon which was just beginning to glow pale orange.

Dauria sat up and began folding her own blankets. She didn’t need to be told it was time to pack up and get moving.

Kaito stopped, hand halfway to a shapeless lump on the floor, and stared at her. Even with her enhanced sight, Dauria couldn’t see the expression on his face. The stiffness of his posture, however, spoke volumes.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

He grunted. There were no words in the sound, yet it sounded suspiciously like a “No.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to go,” he said.

“Of course. It’s time to get moving.”

“No, Amaya. I have to leave you.”

“What?!” she almost shouted.

Kaito shook his head and went back to packing his bag in silence.

“What in the name of m–“ she froze. That wasn’t right.

She breathed in, long and deep, then spoke with as much calm as she could muster. “What in the hell is going on, Kaito?” Damnit, she added silently. What a wonderful time to slip!

“I can’t stay with you any longer,” he said. “I have somewhere to be.”

Dauria’s control vanished. She couldn’t stop herself from yelling this time. “YOU DIDN’T HAVE ANYWHERE TO BE THREE DAYS AGO!”

Kaito stilled. Staring down into his half-full bag, he took a long breath and released it slowly. “Being with you has become dangerous. That slip on the rocks yesterday… ordinarily, that would never have happened. Somehow, you distract me. I need to go back to being on my own out here.”

“So that’s it,” Dauria snapped. “You’re just going to abandon me because I’m distracting? What about your promise to get me where I need to go? What about your promise to keep me safe?”

Kaito turned to her, looking into her eyes for the first time since his stumble. “You know as well as I do that you don’t need me to keep you safe.”

Dauria blinked. What did he know?

Behind her, the Sun crested the horizon and a beam of orange light stabbed through the tent to illuminate Kaito’s bright, metallic gold eyes.

He stared at her, and this time his eyes did not change. His vertically slit pupils shone lustrous gold and were surrounded by scleras of deep, matte bronze. There were no irises.

Like a dragon’s eyes, she thought in wonder.

“Damn,” Kaito mouthed, but no sound came.

“What are you?” Dauria breathed, fighting through her shock. There was, of course, an obvious answer. But throughout her life, the obvious answers rarely proved correct.

And besides, if he were one of The Watchers in disguise, why would he be wasting his time with me? Surely he would know who I am and this charade would not have been necessary.

So what was the answer?

“I…” Kaito began, then faltered. After a pause, he said, “I don’t know how to answer that.”

“How about with the truth?” Dauria said with a gentleness which surprised even herself.

He inclined his head ever-so-slightly. “That would be the obvious answer, wouldn’t it? But then, nothing about my life has ever been obvious. Or easy. And I’m not sure I’m ready to admit the truth to you.”

Dauria crawled across the floor, closer to him. He did not move away, nor did he give any sign of wanting her to stay away.

She stopped less than a human span from him and stood on her knees, looking down into his golden eyes. “Do you know what I am?”

Kaito nodded. “I’ve known since I first saw you. We’ve been dancing around this for days.”

Dancing? she wondered. What a curious expression.

Dauria swallowed, forcing down the solid lump in her throat. “Do you know who I am?”

He shook his head. “I could offer a guess, mistress, but no, I do not know who you are.”

Dauria nodded and offered a small smile. “You are one of us, then.” It was not a question. “Not one of The Watchers, I should think. You would have come out and said so as soon as you were sure of what I am. If you had been wakened by The Watchers, you wouldn’t be hiding your wings here, you’d be doing something or heading somewhere important. Which leaves, as far as I can tell, only one possibility: at some point, you chose to ignore the mandate to Sleep and have been living here in the human world. Quite possibly for a very long time, and without proper authorization from the Council of Elders.”

Kaito’s jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed.

“Fear not, whatever your real name is. I’ll not do anything about it. Quite frankly, I have my own problems just now.”

He seemed to relax, the tightness of his features fading. “Is it really your sire’s lair we’re going to?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I have a… problem.”

“Come now,” Kaito said. “You know my dark secret, what harm will it do to tell me yours?”

Perhaps much, Dauria thought, then breathed a deep sigh. “Alright. I will trust you on this. The story goes back only a few days to when I was awakened by one of The Watchers…”

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Sun was well above the horizon when Dauria finished speaking.

“That’s quite a story,” Kaito said. “So you’re stuck like this?”

“If you so much as smile, I’ll rip your throat out,” she said sweetly.

He shrugged and turned away to take down the tent. He mumbled something she couldn’t quite catch, but it sounded suspiciously like, “Lucky you.”

If he transforms, he could kill me in the beat of a heart, she thought with not a little concern. And there’d be nothing I could do about it.

After a long moment, she shrugged as well. Since there would be nothing she could do to stop it, she decided, there was no sense in worrying over it.

She started gathering up her things, placing them in her own hide bag.

“What are you hoping to find?” Kaito asked.

“The lair is filled with Baalhalllu’s essence. My hope is that there will be enough residual power there to break whatever has me locked in this form so I can get to Graayyyavalllia and speak to her about all this before the meeting of the Elders. Or, barring that, I might get lucky and find some trinket or ritual in his old things to accomplish it. The Earth could be facing unprecedented disaster if this goes poorly.”

“Well, best be on our way then.”

Dauria nodded, scooped up the last of her things, and deposited them into her bag while Kaito dropped the last of the tent into its leather case. How long has he been in this form? He seems, in nearly every way, so… human.

She let him lead her back to the rocky path and they turned what she assumed was northward.

Warmth blossomed in her cheeks and she imagined her skin was likely as red as Graayyyavalllia’s scales. She couldn’t help feeling embarrassed at how poor her sense of direction was in this body. She silently thanked both Lord Ryujin and her ancestors that Kaito walked in front of her and not to her side.

“How much farther, do you think?” she asked.

“If it’s as close to the bottom as you say–“

“Which is difficult to be certain of, since I always came and went in dragon form. And even at that, it has been a very long time.”

“If it’s as close to the bottom as you say,” he repeated with emphasis. “We should be there within half a day or so.”

Dauria couldn’t help smiling.

“I don’t understand!” Dauria wailed in frustration. “It should be right here!”

“What are we looking for?”

Dauria sighed. “There should be a star-shaped keyhole about a tenth of a wingspan in diameter above the sigil of Ryujin.”

Kaito’s eyes turned golden again and he scanned the rock wall around and above them.

Within seconds, he grinned. “Got it.”

“What?!” Her blood boiled in her veins. How could this rogue dragon find the thing in five seconds when she’d been searching for it for the better part of an hour?

He pointed to it and her jaw fell open.

Somehow, when he pointed it out she saw it easily, in spite of having looked past that exact point at least a dozen times since she started looking for the entrance.

“Alright,” she said grudgingly. It must be some sort of enchantment to make human eyes overlook it. I didn’t expect that, though I probably should have.

She uttered a soft growl as a memory came to her. “You have to be in true form to unlock it.”

Why am I just now remembering that? What did I think I was going to do if I found it on my own?

“Using both forepaws, you’ll place a claw at each of the points of the star and turn it in the direction of the rising Sun.”

Kaito nodded, though he looked none-too-pleased about it.

What does he have against being in dragon form? she wondered. Has he tried to abandon his nature altogether?

Kaito transformed slowly, with many false starts and sudden, jerky spurts. His limbs lengthened slowly, suddenly elongated in a rush, then slowed again. His fingernails grew, his skin hardened into scales, and his teeth grew long and pointed, all in similar fashion.

It’s as though he hasn’t done this in a very long time.

His head elongated and his torso expanded in all directions.

After several moments of inconsistent change and growth, the transformation stabilized into a steady pace.

Before long, the change quickened and his body grew at a phenomenal rate, ending with the sudden sprouting of his tail from the bottom of his spine.

At last, when his length was a little more than a standard wingspan, his scales turned dull yellow, then brightened, then darkened again to a lusterless gold before they brightened again. And kept brightening, until they shone bright, lustrous gold in the waning Sunlight.

Where only minutes ago had been a tired, aging man with dark, wrinkled skin, there now stood a long, thin, sinuous dragon of metallic gold with horns of ivory and a long, angular fin running the length of his spine. Blinding red-gold light reflected from his metallic mane shone in her eyes, obliterating her sight.


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