What have you done with Kaviin? He stepped forward, sending a few small stalactites raining down from the high overhead ceiling.
She's fine, she...uh... This was the flaw I'd seen in her plan. If anyone saw me they'd recognize my form as being Kaviin's. Look, she's totally fine. I just... um... I touched her when she was sleeping. She had nothing to do with it. I suppose it was my strong sense for honesty and integrity that pushed me to pulling through with the lie me and Kaviin had set up. Or maybe I just didn't want yet another angry dragon coming after me. Believe whichever you wish. Anyway, the large, aged dragon was not happy in the least, and didn't seem to believe my story about an innocent sleeping Kaviin.
Nonsense, she wouldn't fall asleep during her mission.
Her...mission? I hesitated to ask, but sometimes curiosity is just too strong to resist.
She is the official Carrier of the Boughs.
You mean, she collects firewood?
To put it simply, yes. He suddenly seemed to remember that I was an enemy, and he probably thought I was getting information from him. He bared his teeth again. No more, changeling. You must be punished for intruding.
He inhaled, preparing to literally blow me away. I quickly picked up a large pebble between my claws and flew into the air just as he let loose an enormous red flame, scalding everything in its path, including the tip of my tail and the bottom of my feet and claws. Well, it worked before, I thought, and shifted into the pebble, aiming for the dragon. I hit him right in the temple with a thunk, and the large brute tottered. I bounced off of the ground a few times, then quickly shifted back into my true form and run as the large dragon fell right towards me. His large body thumped onto the ground and I stumbled. I seriously hoped nobody heard that, but it seemed that I wouldn't have anything to worry about. Except for the large red dragon and Kaviin, the whole area seemed to be empty.
I raced silently toward the end of the hall, but slowed down once I saw what was at the end. The largest round door I'd ever seen, and probably would ever see, stood at the end of the open room. On it, meticulously carved and accented with immaculate filigree, were rows and rows of runes. I assumed they must've been names or dates or something of the sort. I realized that the dragons must have carved them with only their claws, which made me appreciate it all the more. But the problem was getting past it. As far as I could see, it virtually sealed the tunnel, matching its edges to within an inch of accuracy. I wondered how they got it open at all, much less used it on a regular basis. There must be something really special behind that, I figure out, albeit a bit slowly. Then very faintly, I hear a roar, and feel a small thud from the ground. I put my hand on the door, and, surprisingly, it felt a little warm. I felt another thud, this time through both the ground and the door. I searched around for a way to get past it, looking everywhere, even back toward the large prone dragon. I was surprised he was still unconscious, with him having an especially thick scull and all.
I jogged back to the gate. A squeak came from the bottom of the round stone door and for a moment I thought it was the sound of it opening, but it turned out to be a rat wriggling out of the left of the door. It fell to the ground with a plop, and scurried past me. I'll admit I'm a little slow at thinking sometimes, but here's at least one instance where the idea came to me almost before I thought I thought of it. I grabbed the rat by its tail and quickly let go and it was about to turn and nip at me. Then I shifted into its exact copy and scurried towards the now-bigger-than-life monument. Getting through the tiny hole was a bit of work, but it was nothing compared to seeing what was on the other side.
I'd never seen such a huge room in my entire life. And that includes the ones above ground. I could hardly see the sides, and the ceiling was too dark to see. But there was something more amazing inside the room. More dragons lay on the ground than I had thought lived in the entire world. It was more colorful than any amount of rainbows, with deep blues, yellows, reds, gold, and even blacks and whites. They all seemed to be facing something, so I followed suit. There, on a dais, was what I assumed to be the Queen. Her scales shone a deep green, the only green I'd seen in the large room. Then I noticed one large (but not nearly as large as the one I'd met outside) and one small red dragon, with an even smaller purple one standing off to the side, moving with a decided limp, standing in a large white ring of white below the Queen. Then they slowly moved over to a dug-out hole, filled with... My eyes widen as I realize what the dragons were about to do. I've got to save Lilly. I try to yell, but it comes out in a squeak. I shift into my normal self and yell, "Stop!"
Time seemed to pause. Everyone was staring at me. The Queen was the first to recover. Instead of ordering guards to grab me, she herself flew over to me, taking her time because she was certain I couldn't escape. She landed in front of me, her armor clinking menacingly.
And you are... Her voice was deep and lulling, with a mix of authority to it. Though she asked a question, but it seemed more like a command. I could feel her slowly taking control of my mind as she spoke. At first I resisted, but she sent a pleasant feeling into my head, and I let her. She was kind enough not to shift through my memories. She was content to just ask me, and I was content to answer.
I'm Zenon, a shape-shifter. I came here to rescue my sister, Lilly. It seemed like it was safe to tell her; she seemed nice enough. And her voice was so soft, so lulling.
You mean the little one we were about to prepare as our meal? She thought for a moment. Is that the only reason you are here? And how did you know where she was?
I only came to rescue her, not discover your secret of fire. The Queen tilted her head at that. I talked to Kaviin outside, and she told me that Lilly was in here. But we agreed not to tell anyone, though I saw several mistakes in her plan.
Interesting. Did she happen to mention what we were doing in here?
No, she didn't say anything about this. I try to remember what I came here for in the first place. I was going to do something important.
I suppose I should let you have your sister back, then. I thought that was very kind of her. She was a good leader, letting a complete stranger take her food away.
Oh, I don't have to take away your snack if you don't want me to, I thought to her, if that would make you unhappy. Or hungry.
She seemed to be considering it. but then politely shook her head. No, you can take her back. It would be cruel of me to eat her when clearly you don't have any food to eat yourself.
Oh, I'm not hungry anyway, I thought to her. Thank you for offering, though. And for giving me my sister back.
You are very welcome. But I must ask for something in return.
She seemed to regret having to have me do something for her, so I quickly assured her. Oh, I'm willing to do anything.
I'm afraid I'll have to erase part of your memory, so you won't remember ever coming through the Entrance.
I hesitated. It seemed unnecessary to have her take away part of my memories. Well... Then I felt her tighten her grip on my mind. Okay, I won't mind, I tele her.
I felt her mind start tearing into mine, and I scream, falling to the ground. The pain quickly made me lose consciousness....
The large red dragon inhaled, preparing to literally blow me away. I quickly picked up a large pebble between my claws and flew into the air just as he let loose an enormous red flame, scalding everything in its path, including the tip of my tail and the bottom of my feet and claws. Well, it worked before, I thought, and shifted into the pebble, aiming for the dragon. I hit him right in the temple with a thunk, and the large brute tottered. I bounced off of the ground a few times, then quickly shifted back into my true form and ran as the large dragon fell right towards me. His large body thumped onto the ground and I stumbled. I seriously hoped nobody heard that, but it seemed that I wouldn't have anything to worry about. Except for the large red dragon and Kaviin, the whole area seemed to be empty.
I raced silently toward the end of the hall, but slowed down once I saw what was at the end. The largest round door I'd ever seen, and probably would ever see, stood at the end of the open room. On it, meticulously carved and accented with immaculate filigree, were rows and rows of runes. I assumed they must've been names or dates or something of the sort. I realized that the dragons must have carved them with only their claws, which made me appreciate it all the more. But the main object that caught my attention was the little form heaped against the bottom.
"L-Lilly?" I whispered, completely stunned. I ran over to her, checking to see that she was alright. Her eyes were closed, but they fluttered and opened when I touched her."
"You came!" she said, then grinned and hugged me. "How did you find me?" she asked once she sat up. "Did you beat up the dragons?"
I tried to think, but an explosion of pain rolled across the inside of my head, and I shook it. "I-I don't know." It was easier than I thought it would be, that was for sure. "But hey, let's not worry about it for now. Come on." I picked her up and started walking back the way I'd come, making sure her head was faced the other way when we passed the large dragon I'd knocked out. Just before heading into the narrow tunnel that would lead us out, I stopped and turned to look back. There was something curious about what had just happened, but I could feel the headache starting to come back, so I turned back to walk down the tunnel.
I watched Maw's confrontation with the changeling curiously. They seemed to chat for a few minutes, and I could tell she was slowly taking control of the shifter's mind. He started smiling pleasantly, and looked like he would do anything for the Maw. I was very glad that each Maw was given special powers used to help the rest of their clan. If not, even small threats like the shifter would give us more trouble than usual. When the Maw started the mind-rip, the shifter began to shake, and his face showed only the pure pain he felt. I winced involuntarily, imagining what it would feel like to have part of your mind ripped away. Once the boy was unconscious, the Maw placed a time-change enchantment on him, sending him back to the last place his mind remembered. She then looked over at the small girl, and two of the white dragons flew over and picked her up in their claws. The door opened a crack as the two handed 'Lilly' to the Maw. She set the little one down on the other side of the door and had it quickly closed. Then she flew back to her place on the throne.
It has been successfully taken care of, she teled all of us. In return, we growled and grunted in approving thankfulness, and she bowed respectively at the praise. What she had demonstrated was not only her power over our enemies, but the strength and wisdom to to so peacefully, without any life casualties on either side. That was how we chose Maws, by their judgment as well as combat skills.
Now where was I? the Maw said, more for show than anything else. Ah. I remember. The Meal. Would you three do the honor of preparing our small feast?
They nodded, and once again stepped forward. But while the new members slowly cooked the Meal, everyone was keeping only one eye on the ceremony, and the other on the Entrance. The shifter's appearance had unsettled all of us. Who was to say that, when he got transported back, there wasn't an army, waiting to see what would happen to him? I only hoped that, if that was the case, they would see how kind the Maw had been.
A moment later I berated myself. I was obviously overreacting. I supposed that stealing the changeling's sister wore a little on my conscience. But that was only expected, since I was one of the newest members of the clan. Still, I felt like I'd done something wrong. Then and there, I decided, to ease my conscience, I would go see that the two were safe. I looked back, and most everyone was now focused on the new members preparing the Meal. The Maw was smiling at them, proud that they were working together. Now was the perfect chance. I got up slowly, then sat back down as I decided to try something I hadn't dared try in public before. It was a secret I'd kept from everyone, even the Maw, because I was afraid of what it would mean. Because so far only one species was known to possess this particular gift. No, I told myself. There's no reason for me to think that it's more than a coincidence. I'm definitely not one, I just possess one of their gifts. That's all.
I vaporized into shadow, then floated over to the door and slipped between the cracks around the edge. I reform, facing the Entrance. I was on the other side. I checked to make sure no one had seen me, then turned around. And there was Zark, the largest, oldest dragon in our clan. He was staring at me, teeth bared and eyes narrowed to slits.
Now what would a dragon like Nightfall be doing floating around in shadow, a power only a darkling possesses?
I was frozen in place, scared out of my nerves. Zark was known for skipping ceremonies and celebrations to catch up on sleeping, since the rest of the time he went out to catch our colonies' entire stock of food. But he was very awake now. And very sharp in the mind for one of his age. Zark. I know what this looks like, but there's--
I see. Excuses, just like the shifter's. You know what happened when he showed up in Kaviin's body? He tried to lie to me. And anyone that lies to me regrets it for the rest of their life, usually in the form of a large scar. Understand?
Yes, of course. I could see that the only way for me to get out of this was to tell him the truth.
Please try to understand, Zark. I'm completely 100% dragon, okay? You even know my mother, Harla. And you know my father died in battle before I hatched, right? Zark grudgingly nodded. And everyone here has known me all my life. I don't know how I can shadow-shift. And there's the whole story.
Zark thought for a moment, then teled, Everything you've said is true, and yet there is still doubt. You might be a darkling posing as the Nightfall I know.
But darklings can't shift into forms other than their own. They can only change into shadow. And I'm so shadow, am I?
Zark shook his head. But then, how can you--
I said I don't know. I was kind of hoping you did. I mean, you're the oldes--um, wisest dragon in the entire colony. Surely there have been other dragons with my...gift? I was about to say curse, but didn't know which it was. Perhaps a bit of both.
Never, he said with a frustrated air. If you indeed are teleing the truth, then I have no explanation. This is a very unusual predicament. He paused, contemplating. He looked at me, and then looked at the Entrance, maybe remembering how I'd gotten through it. Then he looked at me again. I think it's best if you left the Cave for awhile, until the Maw and myself can figure out what to do.
I suddenly panicked. No, you can't tell anyone, especially the Maw! She won't believe me as you have. And I can't just...leave. You can't expect me to. Please, let's just keep this a secret for now. It'll be easier.
Zark shook his large red head. No. You have to leave, for safety's sake. I knew he meant, 'unless I really was an enemy', and I slumped. He looked at my expression and added, For your safety as much as ours, I'm sure. If word got out, you would be at the mercy of suspicion and doubt. So it would be better if you left until the Maw and I figure out what this all means. I know it'll be hard, but I believe you can take care of yourself very well, especially with your...gift, as you put it. I'm truly very sorry, but you understand--you do understand why you must leave, do you not?
No, I teled, I don't. You said you believed me, and I'm holding to it. We can both speak to the Maw, because I'm the one we will all be teleing about anyway. I'm staying.
Zark sighed. I see where you're coming from. All right, we may both speak to the Maw. She will decide what must me done.
Thank you, I teled, and bowed gratefully. We should probably wait until the Test is finished right? As soon as I teled the words, I growled. The Test! I forgot! The Clan members are supposed to individually congratulate the competitors! I've gotta go! I rushed to the door, then paused and slowly turned back to Zark. Um, I've got to... I gesture vaguely at the Entrance.
Zark nodded. I understand. But after this, it'd be best not to do it again, alright?
Yes, I won't. I shadow-shift and float through the cracks and into the Hollow. Everyone had eaten, and there was a line leading to the three young dragons, who were set in their own line, with Stree on the far left, followed by Linnig, the small purple dragon, and then Awaag. He was glowering, hunched over in a large mass of poorly hidden anger. Yet everyone politely bowed to him, once they had done the same to the other two. But he knew it was out of ceremony only, and didn't take any pleasure in it. He once let out a stream of smoke and a loud growl when his friend Grrag, the white-scaled and future Helper to the Maw, went up to him and teled as he was bowing, At least you tried, so that everyone could hear. Grrag just smile and walked away.
I blew over to the end of the line and solidified behind the Maw, who was last in line so she could personally welcome the three. Psst, I teled to her, and she stopped, then turned around.
Nightfall. What are you doing behind me?
Zark and I need to speak with you when the Welcoming is over. Immediately after.
Is something wrong? Even with the innumerable possibilities of danger, she remained absolutely calm and continued to walk forward slowly as if we weren't even teleing.
No, there...well, maybe, but I...well, I don't know. I don't think there is, but Zark said there might be. He said you should be the one to decide.
Is that all the information I'll receive until I speak to you and Zark?
Um, I guess so. I think it would be best. I mean, unless you really want to kno--
I will wait, she teled, and chuckled. I will, if you will. I can't speak with you two until I'm finished here. And by the way, you'd better get in front of me. We're almost to the Newcomers. She winked, which erased any notes of harshness that might have been detected. I looked ahead, and saw the Maw was right. Not including us, there were only five dragons that had yet to welcome the threesome. I skirted around the Maw and squeezed in between her and Skojun, the mother of Awaag and Stree. Besides the Maw, the family and close kin of the Newcomers were the last to welcome them, because they usually had the most to say and would hold up the line otherwise. Thankfully, though, the family congratulated the three without any lengthy speeches or such. Awaag and Stree's father, Ghar, walked by Stree without seeming to notice him and instead glared at Awaag. Even though what he teled was private, I could tell by Awaag's dejected look that he had said more or less something like, I'm extremely disappointed in you, Awaag. When we're finished here, you and I are going to have a long, harsh, and probably very rude telesation. Then he walked away without bowing to any of the three young dragons. That was considered very abrupt and unkind, and the Maw shook her head, no doubt planning to have her own harsh telesation with him.
After that display, the twins' mother showed contrary manners, and bowed deeply in front of Stree. Their father's favorite son had always been Awaag, so their mother tried to balance it out with showing preference for their more petite one. Seeing him win the Test was his mother's slight surprise and utter joy, and she intended to show it. After giving a short congratulations, probably filled with high praises and doting fondness, and bowed to Linnig, then nodded curtly to Awaag so as to complete her Welcoming. I bowed to Stree and teled, Congratulations, then did the same to Linnig. When I came to Awaag I almost said something condescending, but I figured he'd get enough of that from his father later, with or without the Maw's chiding him. So I just said, Whatever, and moved on.
I joined the rest of the clan and watched the Maw finish the whole thing by saying to everyone, I now welcome Stree, Linnig, and Awaag to our family. Do you think they are worthy and ready to accept the duties and responsibilities of joining our colony? As usual, there were no answers. If someone thought that one or more of the Newcomers wasn't ready, they would usually speak to the Maw privately afterwards. Only two or three times had there ever been someone who shouted against it at this time, and it had never gone well in the end. A few subconsciously looked at the twins' father, but he didn't tele against either son, though he looked like he was about to.
Welcome, was the Maw's last formal word. Then she nodded, and looked over at the Entrance. Awaag and Stree flew back over to it and slowly lowered the large round stone. The crowd flew over to and through the opening and back to their homes in one of the tunnels off the Hall. The Maw and I were the last ones through because we waited for everyone else to leave. Then we met Zark on the other side of the door. We'd better speak in my quarters. Follow me.
She flew to the first tunnel on our left, the largest and smoothest of all of them. It was also the most guarded. Though they weren't easily spotted, there were traps of all kinds to keep enemies out. And they weren't just any old traps, either. They ranged from spurts of flame to acid rain--literally. As weird as it seemed, though, the most prominent traps were those of ice. Darklings were afraid of only that one thing, and we used it to the fullest. It had taken our race centuries and hundreds of deaths for us to figure it out. All the other elements passed through darklings as if they were only shadows, which was mostly true. But ice sliced them as easily as claws to dirt. And if frozen, darklings were forced to solidify and freeze. Plus, they couldn't move, making them vulnerable to any attacks. Ice was their only fear (because everyone has to have one). But we, fire-dragons, have a hard time with ice, since it usually melts when we're anywhere near. It takes careful thinking to keep ice in a dragon cave.
Anyway, thankfully the Maw's special aura stayed the traps, and we walked past without any mishaps. I was deathly scared that one of the darkling traps would spring on me, so I stayed as close as I could to the Maw. I sighed when we finally reached her quarters, unharmed.
Her 'quarters' was the largest room in the Cave, save the Hollow. Food was preserved and stocked in the far corner, and there was enough room to fit the entire clan inside. And that was the point. If ever the Cave was attacked and breached, everyone would gather in this room, not the Hollow, to be kept safe. The Hollow was for ceremonies, but it looked like the most obvious place to hide the colony. And those with no respect for the names on the door of the Entrance would eventually break it down. But in here everyone would be safe. When the traps were set no one could get in or out. It was -proofed against any and every enemy known, and even against a few allies that tended to be untrustworthy.
The Maw motioned for us to follow her over to a large hole on the side of the wall. Step in here, she instructed us, and we obeyed. When all three of us were fitted, the wall surprised us by moving. Or, maybe we were moving. When the spinning stopped, we were in a much smaller room, with only a single hollow in the floor. I guessed this was where the Maw actually rested. It must have been hard to have all these secret rooms, and this was just to get to bed.