Alright, what is wrong? the Maw asked, concerned. From the look you two were giving, I deemed it necessary to come here.
You may be right, Zark teled.
May? I could tell she was getting more curious as we have her vague hint after vague hint. Please, come out and say it. She tried to hide her impatience, but she snorted a little smoke, and then said, It has something to do with darklings, doesn't it?
How did you know? I gasped.
With you two being so secretive, it was either that or one of you snuck into the supply room and ate all the minks. I assumed it was the former.
Oh, I teled. Well, really, it's not about darklings, but it has to do--
I think it would be best to let me tell her, Nightfall, Zark reasoned.
But I'm the one we will be discussing, I tried to tele him.
I know, but it will be best if it is mainly her and I that speak about it. If you will remember, I wasn't going to let you even be here, but you--
Enough. The Maw sighed. I don't care which one of you tells me, but if there is some sort of danger that you know of, speed would be essential.
Sorry, we both teled. Then Zark came out directly and said it. Nightfall possesses the power of a darkling; she can shadow-shift. The Maw gasped and was about to say something, and Zark continued quickly, staying her surprised exclamations. She says she doesn't know how or why she can, and she seems to be completely dragon. I myself don't know what to come of it, but I think she's telling the truth. Nightfall, show her.
I was surprised by the order, and was very hesitant to comply. But Zark, I don't--
Please, Nightfall, the Maw teled. I need to see it for myself.
I looked at her, then nodded and melted into shadow. The Maw stepped back nervously as I seemed to disappear into dark air. I reformed behind Zark and teled while looking warily over at the Maw, I really am all dragon. Please believe me.
I don't know what to say. Each Maw has certain abilities as you know. I can sense certain things. Darklings always exude a certain chill that I can pick up whenever they transform. Although it was faint, I felt it coming from you when you shifted. And yet you also are most definitely a dragon. That I can also sense. I'm not sure how that is possible. Nightfall, what all do you know? She was great that way, not acting irrationally.
Just what I teled to Zark. You both have known me all my life, and you knew both my parents. I don't even think I've been alone in my life until after my Welcoming. I think the only time was when I brought the shifter here. And I'm sure nothing happened then. I was hoping you would know something.
The Maw seemed to be thinking over something. Then she teled, I think I know what happened. your-- she stopped and gasped. Darklings! She flew to the hole and teled, Come! There are darklings nearby! Zark and I stood stunned for a moment. As Zark I joined the Maw I realized that the darklings had picked a terrible time to arrive. It wasn't going to help anyone believing my innocence.
When we raced down the tunnel leading to the Hall we could hear roaring and growling coming from the Hollow on the other side of the Entrance. The Maw flew over to open the door, but nothing happened when she pressed the stone. She tried once again, then recoiled when she touched the stone. It's charged with dark energy. She stared accusingly at me, and I knew that whatever part of her that had believed my story had changed. There's no way to get in or out. And judging by the state of the Entrance it wasn't forced open at all. There is only one way they could have entered, by invitation. She growled, and jumped and slammed into me, knocking me against the rough wall. I yelped as my wings were torn. She hissed and growled deeply, letting bright green flame lick across and singe my scales. You traitor.
Wait, Zark said. She couldn't have let them in, She was with us the entire time.
I suppose so. How, then, did they get in?
I know, Zark said. Just like Nightfall got out. She slipped through the cracks around the stone. That must be how they did it.
But how did they get past everyone without being noticed? We heard more growling and groaning coming from inside, but the Maw kept her vice-like hold on me and snarled again. Maybe you can tell me, Nightshade.
No, please! I started to panic. Please please, I didn't do it! I hoped you'd understand my condition, and... after you seemed to open, I thought... and then the darkling attack, and... please please, I'm innocent! I gulped and tried to stay still against the rock wall. I know it looks bad, but believe me when I say that I'm as on your side as Zark, or my mother, or even Linnig! I... I had run out of things to say to her and remained there, eyes wide open and looking almost as scared as I felt.
When it comes to darklings, Nightfall, there is no mercy found within five leagues of me, the Maw hissed. When a dragon chooses to ally herself to them, I will do everything I can to annihilate them and her. Oh, I know what to do, she paused, and slowly released her grip on me. I fell to the ground, and struggled to scramble up as the Maw pressed her maw against the side of my head. I will give you to the darklings. If you are in league with them then they won't harm you. If they do seem violent towards you then I will probably put a stop to it. It was the word probably that scared me the most. It meant that, even when I was proven to be innocent, I might still die.
The darklings? They'll kill me! Please, I don't want to die.
I started shaking as the Maw dragged me up by the horns on my head and pulled me over to the door. Shadow-shift yourself through this door and unlock it, or do whatever needs to be done to get us in there. If you fail to let us in it will only prove that you are on their side, and I will do everything in my power to kill you personally. Believe me, it will be a slow one. I'll make sure it takes place in an echoey cave so that you can hear your own yelps for help reverberating, with no one there that will answer them.
She really didn't like darklings, I guessed. Or anyone associated with them in any way.
Get through the door, she grunted, and threw me towards the Entrance. I slammed against it hard, and it shook against its hold. I didn't feel any 'dark energy', so I dissolved and wafted through the cracks and into the Hollow.
I would have gasped at what I'd seen, if I'd had a mouth and voice at that moment.
I'd never actually seen a darkling before, but of course, from the stories I'd heard as a hatchling, I'd seen them several times in my mind. In my mind's eye, they had been huge creatures with long, ever-sharp fangs, and talons to match. What I didn't expect was an entire army of....
From the time I'd first heard of them until a few moments ago, I'd thought they looked like enormous black tigers or panthers, but there wasn't a single one that was larger than a groundhog. Yet they made up for it with their ferocious and savage violence. I won't go into the extreme details, but it involved the removing of scales and teeth and... well, they were massacring my kin.
I quickly turned and surrounded the large stone door, spreading my shadow thinly. I focused on rocking it back and forth between both sides. It barely moved, and I got a little impatient. I forced what strength I had into ramming against one side, and the door made a large cracking sound as it ripped away from its hold and smashed to the ground inside the Hollow.
The Maw charged through before it even hit the ground. The darklings stopped, temporarily stunned, and stared at her and Zark, who followed closely behind her. Then the hissed in unison and stepped away from their victims. A single darkling separated from the others and walked toward the Maw with casual calmness. It stopped about five yards away from the Maw and sat. Then it motioned for our leader to do the same. She did not oblige, but it didn't seem to expect her to anyway.
The air is here.
It sounded disturbingly like our own way of communicating, yet it was definitely the darkling that said it. I assumed he was the leader of their group. When my mind registered what he said I thought to myself, Duh. Of course 'the air is here'. I would have rolled my eyes. The Maw was the only one that seemed disturbed by the phrase.
I wasn't aware that it had wandered so far from your domain. What they were saying was making less and less sense. All I could think of was that some magic gust of wind had escaped from their homeland.
The darkling shook his head. He teled to the Maw again- You know it was never there. Cursed-one brought it here before it hatched. I was about to go completely stupid and solidify just to ask what on earth they were talking about.
What do you mean? the Maw asked. Apparently she was on the same page. At least, mostly. It never came here. It was lost.
The darkling growled. Enough of your lies. We sense it is here. He looked above the Maw, where I was floating. Though before he hadn't seemed to, he appeared to be able to see me. He stared so long, I was tempted to move out from the grasp of his sharp gaze. But I kept still. Finally he looked back at the Maw. I figured that he hadn't seen me after all. Maybe I wasn't darkling enough for him to sense.
Where is it, then? the Maw asked. Then something seemed to dawn on her, and her head bent. Oh. How is it the air took the form of one of us? Yup, they were talking complete and utter nonsense. Next they would probably state that the air was really a dragon that wanted to return home to its kind and loving evil master. Or something.
You should know that. Our King has only one to take his place, and it was because of the Cursed-one that it was of a dragon species. All of the sudden I knew.
Duh. So it was me that was the ignorant one all along. Now all of it made sense. The more I thought, the more I understood. Their evil kitten lord had only a single heir to his throne, and a dragon, this 'Cursed-one', must have stolen it. That worked, but something still didn't seem right. The darkling's last sentence was wrong. Then, from out of nowhere, my brain came up with the answer. Maybe, the heir was a dragon. That made tons of crazy sense. It must have been one of our own kind that had given their leader his only heir. But if that were so, then that heir would be abnormal, different. It might even have the characteristics of a darkling....
Oh. It all came together. I was the one they came for. They wanted me to return with them to be their next leader. I was their... princess? That was the most mortifying thought of all the rest, and it pushed out all my reasoning. I reformed in between the two, facing the darkling, and screamed into their minds, No! Stop! The darkling and the Maw both jumped back. Everyone's eyes were glued to us three. I didn't know if they could hear the conversation, but I was so riled I didn't care. I'm staying here with my family, my only family. Go away!
No, Nightfall, you shouldn't have revealed yourself! the Maw teled me, and groaned. It took the lead darkling a few seconds to recover, and then he smiled. It was the creepiest thing I had ever seen. Sure, he was no bigger than my foot, but his thin, sharp fangs looked ready to tear apart anything, no matter the size, and were just waiting for orders.
You...what? He seemed to think that I had briefly gone out of my mind, as if common sense was a tool only he possessed at the moment. My Lady, you have no choice. That was so weird, being called 'My Lady'. And by a darkling, no less.
As long as I have a mind that works properly, I have a choice. He tilted his head at my answer and contemplated what to say next. Before he could throw some more of his common sense into the discussion, I added, Though I might be this 'heir' of yours, there is no way I will come with you. I know you think that I couldn't possibly disagree with your immaculate plan, but I happen to be able to think that you are dead wrong. And I can even help with the dead part. Wow. I could really be nasty sometimes.
You are quite mistaken, he said confidently. Pretty speech, but you don't have a choice, or a chance. His soft and cunning tele-voice scared me more than I wanted to acknowledge.
Indeed. Or rather, only we will see it. You'll be out cold, so to speak. He flashed his Cheshire cat grin and meowed to a few of his followers. First, we must take care of these vermin. I realized he was talking about the clan.
Hey, you're not exactly winning me over to your side, I tele him.
We'll fix that soon enough. But first... The lights flickered a few times, and then the room fell into utter darkness as all the torches in the Hollow were extinguished. They lit up again a few moments later, and every dragon except for me in the room was conked out. You know, we think it will be better if you willingly come. You will feel much better.
Really? I say. I pretend to think. Then I evaporate into shadow. The darkling smiled directly at me, and I realized that he could see me after all. He motioned for five of his minions, and they stepped forward. I floated above them, but they followed suit and surrounded me. I saw minuscule zaps of energy fly between them, and they closed in. But instead of lightninging me to death, they...escorted me. I was flown through the hole of the Entrance and into the Hall. They carried me a little ways, and I stopped struggling. I waited, hoping that my fast-formed idea would work. They seemed to be relived that I had stopped trying to get free, yet they were wary of me. They slowed for a moment, which was perfect, and I squeezed into as small, thin and sharp a form as I could and sliced out through the middle of one of them. I sped ahead, fleeing as far as I could away, yet oddly they didn't even try to follow.
I didn't realize why until the ice crystals started growing on me. I fell to the ground, frozen, in my dragon form. The ice burned terribly, and it spread across me like water spilling onto the ground. They had let me fly straight into the Maw's tunnel. The burning sensation grew until I was silently screaming, and then I blacked out.
The feeling of fire was so relieving. I sighed and welcomed its cooling touch. It wore away at the burns I had acquired and healed them with little effort. It was, to say the least, amazing. When I opened my eyes all I could see was a black background with stunning blue flame brushing the air and swirling around me. It crackled and sighed a hello to me, then gathered around and seemed to sink into my body, filling it with unbelievable strength. Then it slowly faded, leaving me its still warm memory.
When I really opened my eyes, it wasn't nearly as peaceful. There was still blue flame, but it was layered with orange and yellow and red flames, and it was coming from a campfire. That I was laying on. And it wasn't cool at all. I jumped up and scrambled away, kicking dirt into the fire and causing it to crackle, this time angrily. I let loose my own flame, and it overwhelmed the meager supply of firewood, turning it to ash. I snorted and the ash blew upwards and floated away. My eyes followed for awhile, but then I blinked and looked around me for the first time, wondering why I had slept on a fire.
I was in a forest populated mainly by bare tree trunks. There were no branches or leaves or even grass to be seen The only bright color, illuminated from a pale sun hidden by thick dark clouds, was the flowers that grew amid the stark stumps, flowers that ranged from blue to red to white--if you count white as colorful. Other than that, it was brown, brown, dull, redundant, monotonous brown. Just flowers.
And the yellow eyes of the two shifters staring at me.
I growled and backed away, even though they weren't advancing toward me. They were sitting down a few feet from me. I recognized them, and hissed. Where, when, why, who, what and how? I asked the older one, not caring to elaborate.
"Um..." he said, looking confused. I hissed. Clearly, their minds resembled the state of the forest. Do you understand, shifter? I asked you six important questions, and I expect thorough answers for all of them.
"I was--" he stopped and corrected himself. I think my sister and I deserve to ask a few questions ourselves.
I laughed incredulously, and both children winced as if I were about to repeat my actions with the campfire. I'm in a better position, I think, to do the asking. I was captured b-- Darklings! my mind screamed. Where are the darklings? I looked around, but found no evidence of any darkling camp, or even one of the little beats on their own.
Oh, you mean the cats? the boy asked.
Nice cats, they were black! the young one added.
No, I meant the small bundles of evil energy that take the form of felines, I snarled.
Oh, you mean the cats? the older one repeated dumbly. Well, they kinda got scared when me and Lilly found them carrying you--did you know you were a large chunk of ice?--so they started saying things like, 'Shifters! They can harm us with mice--
Ice, I corrected.
--and kill us!' So they...well, they just disappeared. He gave Lilly a certain look, like that wasn't really all that had happened. And then me and Lilly carried you-- more like dragged me, I thought --here, and made a fire. I thought that, since dragons breathe fire, you would be fine sleeping in fire, so I built the fire, and you melted. You seemed okay, and you started melting, or the ice did, so we fell asleep. We woke up when you started humming.
Yeah. It was weird. You were humming for about an hour. You woke up just as the sun as starting to lower, so it's a little past midday. So, your answers are, Here in the Forest Tragic; Just after noon; Because I'm a kind person; Me and Lilly; I'm not sure what the full question was; and Not as easily as it sounds.
I had to think to remember what the questions were in the first place. I was satisfied with the curt answers and relaxed, oddly believing everything the shifter told me. I settled down and yawned. The shifters scooted back to avoid being hit with any accidental flames. So, I asked the little one, Lilly, did you miss me?
She looked to her brother for an answer, and he said, No.
Then how is it that you were at the Cave when the darklings carried me out?
Oh. Uh, we weren't at the cave.
What? I looked at him. Wait, where did you say were are? The...
Forest Tragic, he teled.
But, that's in... it's in the southeast, over in Rement, near the Glade Ever. We can't be that far away. It's on the other side of the map! I started breathing faster. That's thousands of leagues away! I pumped my wings and flew into the air, trying to start for my home, though no one had wanted me there in the first place. I just had to get back.
Um, I think you should wait, the older shifter teled carefully, trying to keep me from speeding away, though I had no idea why.
What? I asked. It vaguely occurred to me that that was the one question of mine that he hadn't answered.
Well, he teled slowly, as if he was speaking to a hatchling or something, when we found you, they were carrying you across River Zip, where you had-- he looked at Lilly --taken Lilly, my eight-year-old, innocent sister. He gave me an evil look. But then they... scattered, leaving you on the ground frozen stiff, we thought that the river might melt you, or rather might melt the ice off you. I listened, barely believing it. I wondered why the darklings hadn't brought me with them when the fled. Their king must be furious. So, we dragged you to the river and dumped you in.
How kind. I rolled my eyes.
But you didn't melt, you just started to float away. We caught up to you, but then a couple naiads got a hold of you and started pushing you further downstream. So we then ran up to you and shifted into leeches-- I burst out chuckling, and he glared at me --and we latched ourselves to you so we wouldn't get left behind. The naiads were fast, though, so and one time Lilly fell off and I had to grab her, which was hard to do without arms. The naiads pushed you for hours, I suppose they thought it was fun, but they stopped when we reached the lake.
Does the lake have a ridiculous name, too? I asked.
Yes. So, the naiads left, then, leaving us in the middle of the large lake. We shifted back and swam to the shore while pushing you along. We built a campfire near the edge, but when the sun set, all sorts of crazy lake creatures were attracted to the light. We pushed you some more, and when we entered this forest we built another fire. I set you on top, and that did the trick. You know the rest.
So, I teled, you're suggesting that two naiads pushed us down the river for 'a few hours', and we managed to cover over three thousand leagues across the land?
How else do you think we got this far? he retorted.
Touché. Okay, I have two things to say. one- Why did you follow me when I was being escorted down the river?
The changeling looked at his sister, as if they really hadn't thought about it. We were...um, being kind, he said finally. I didn't believe him.
Alright, Second, I need to get back to the Cave. Can you guys maybe shift into something to help? Besides leeches? Because you're so kind and all?
The older shifter shook his head. Before, we were going downstream. It would take weeks to go back, even if we walked or flew.
Can't you shift into something really fast, like a cheegon or something?
Look, we really want to get home, too, the boy teled. I'd forgotten that they lived near my own home. Unless there are a few cheegons waiting around for us to touch, I don't see how we can do it.
But we have to, I teled. We should at least try. Even if we crawl, we'll get there eventually.
Maybe, he teled, thinking. He looked around the forest hopelessly, and I realized that he was as helpless as I was. What do you think we should do? he asked me, and for the first time I felt like the one that needed to take control of the situation. I was the one that needed to think rationally.
I think we should prepare to make our way back home. There's no reason for us to stay here.
"Yeah, there is," Lilly teled. "Zenon, tell her."
I looked at her, surprised, then looked at 'Zenon'. Yes, Zenon, tele her.
The older shifter gave his sister a withering look and teled, She means we need food and water first. Then we can leave. But I could tell he was lying.
"But Zenon, your teacher said you--"
"I'm not going, okay, Lilly? There's nothing wrong with me. We're going home." I looked at each shifter in turn. Here was yet another conversation I didn't understand. Zenon seemed to realize that they were speaking out loud and I could hear everything they'd said. We're going home, he teled, obviously ending the matter.
Then how do you propose we do? I ask. It seemed we had switched roles.
"We'll need food and water first," he spoke aloud to Lilly could hear. "The dragon can pack it all."
'The dragon' doesn't like being used as a pack animal, I teled. Why don't one of you shift into a mule or something?
Zenon mostly ignored me, simply giving me the most menacing look he could assemble. "Of course, we'll be following the river, so that takes care of the water. So, um, what do dragons eat?" he asked me.
Anything that annoys them, I say and growl. Lilly hid behind her brother, but Zenon wasn't phased. So I teled, Meat, usually.
"Okay. We'll eat meat too, then. I suppose the dragon can catch something for us every time we eat. So that takes care of the food. Do we need anything else before we leave?" He looked at Lilly as he asked that last question, making sure she didn't say anything else that was supposed to be kept secret.
I'll be fine, as long as I don't have to carry anything. I am small for a dragon, after all. So, will you two be shifting into something that can fly? Because, like I said, I'm not carrying anything, even you two.
"Then I guess we'll shift into dragons," he decided. "After all, we won't have to go looking around for one."
True enough, I teled. So, we should get going, before it grows dark. I stood up and looked at the position of the sun. It had sunk fast, and wasn't far above the horizon. I assume we'll be traveling by daylight, unless we have something to hide from. Again, Zenon stared at Lilly, silently clamping her mouth shut with a look. "Well, we will be crossing a small desert soon, and in the day it's really hot..." he tried to come up with another reason for us to travel in the night. "Plus, you never know what we'll be coming up against."
Especially in the dark, I pointed out.
"But in the daytime they'll be able to see us," he countered.
And at night we won't be able to see them.
"But at night they won't be able to see us as well, either," he retorted, and quickly added before I could say anything, "and plus, it's always just... better to travel by night. And me and Lilly will be traveling that way. You can do what you wish." He
And leave you starving, I thought to myself. Fine, by night it is, I teled. We'll just have to wait a little while, for Nightfall. I'd meant it as a pun, but it was lost on them because they didn't know my name.
I sighed and walked away from the twosome, leaving them to their whispered secrets. I was starving, and was going to catch something large to eat. Maybe a moose, or a water buffalo, or whatever they grew around here. I spread out my wings in a tree-free clearing and flew above the dull forest. Right away I could see that it would be very difficult to find anything worth eating, or anything really at all.
I searched around the forest for at least an hour, yet there wasn't even a kangaroo mouse to be seen. So I flew back to the clearing and headed back to the shifters' camp. Before arriving, I had a weird idea. Maybe, if I shadow-shifted, I wouldn't be hungry because I wouldn't have a stomach. I was bored, so I decided to test it out, disappearing into thick black shadow.
I was closer to the camp than I thought, and I heard suppressed tones coming from a ways to my left. I floated a little closer, curious, and stopped when I heard a very wrong sounding voice. It was a woman's, and she was losing her temper. I heard Zenon say something to her in an angry tone of voice, and this time I could hear the woman's reply:
"Idiocy! We received the letter nearly three days ago from your teacher explaining what happened when you and Galway had your little spat, and Holkys has wanted to meet you ever since. After all, it's not every month we receive news relaying evidence of a Special."
"I'm not one!" Zeno shouted. "Get it straight, okay? I was just trying to think of an excuse for fighting with Galway, and my teacher took it the wrong way. He was incorrect, alright?"
Zenon was adamant, but the female voice was as well. I moved in closer, and finally saw the two voices' owners. Lilly was asleep beside Zenon, who was disputing with a... rabbit? Yes, there was a fluffy brown rabbit standing in front of Zenon. And it definitely belonged to the unfamiliar voice I'd heard. My guess was that it was another shifter. Maybe not all of them were on the same side. I was about to solidify and pounce on the only food I'd seen so far in the forest, but it spoke just then. "Guess what, Zenon," the rabbit said, and hopped closer, trying to look menacing. "You don't have a choice. You're coming to meet Holkys before the sun sets. Which means now." Part of the sun had already gone behind the mountain.
"I'm not going. Hop back to your Holkys and whoever else is working for him and tell them, I'm just another normal, everyday shifter. That got away." Immediately, as if it was rehearsed, he shifted into a beautiful black dragon, head held high, with a perfect row of ivory spikes trailing down the length of a slim body, and scales that shimmered a deep, mesmerizing blue when caught by the sunlight. Powerful black wings raised him into the air, and ivory talons lifted his sister delicately, executing perfect balance and poise with flawless certainty.
All that to say, he shifted into my double.
Zenon flew high into the air and headed north. I followed, still floating as a shadow, following the two siblings. Lilly had woken up, and Zenon tried as best as he could to help her climb onto his back. She ended up climbing the row of horns up his tail like she would a ladder. She couldn't find anywhere to sit that wouldn't impale her and had to lay on his left side, looping her right arm and leg around two spikes. You hanging on all right? Zenon teled her.
I think so, she replied. Just then a strong eddy threw Zenon off course, and Lilly slipped off. I quickly reformed and dove after her. Using one of the techniques I'd learned in combat class, I angled myself below her and flipped upside down, using my wings to slow my descent. Lilly caught up to me and landed on my belly but slipped on my smooth scales and slid off. I grabbed her with my tail and wrapped it around her several times, tightening my grip to keep her from falling again. Zenon was diving down to us, and I had to roll to the side so he wouldn't slam into me. He tried to slow to a stop, but didn't have the experience or knowledge of how to do so, and spiraled towards the ground. I dove down to him and grabbed his flailing tail, albeit with some difficulty. Stop struggling! I teled him. It isn't helping either of us!
AHHH!!! his mind replied. It had shut off with terror. He continued to try and catch the wind with his wings, but kept getting blown around sideways.
STOP! I raked him with the spikes from my tail, careful not to ram Lilly into him, and he obediently went limp. I hadn't noticed how close we had come to the ground, but thankfully we had slowed quite a bit by the time we collided. I let go of Zenon and Lilly so as not to land on them as we skidded and rolled and bumped to a gradual stop. Or, most of us did. As was ground into habit through many painful training sessions, I rolled and landed lightly on my feet. Zenon grunted and shifted back to himself. He groaned and rubbed his head. "What happened?" he asked.
We were flying due northwest, away from the bad rabbit, when you dropped your sister, and I heroically saved her. Then I stopped you from splatting on the ground by executing perfect aerial moves.
"For some reason, I don't think it happened quite like that," Zenon muttered and winced when his hand ran over his forehead, where he found a jagged cut close to his right eye. "For instance, you weren't anywhere around until Lilly slipped off. In fact, you weren't even there when we were speaking with Lola. Explain."