Athea collapsed to her knees along the rocky shores of River Grey exhausted from putting miles between her and the burning village. Her hands clutched two loose stones.
She muttered breathless, “Vine to vane. Ash to spine,” desperate for answers. Her fingertips glowed a faint blue and green. A dim show compared to the usual vibrant colors her magic carried. She wasn’t as strong without the others. The possibility this was a permanent change poked at the corners of her mind. The night was in full effect. Each time a new part of Hudtira was taken by the darkness the deepness of the night’s sky grew in intensity. The fiery grave site stewed in her nose. A storm built inside of her.
How could it all be gone? The thought of being the only Dagee alive caused a hysteria in her heart. The sensation of being covered by of a thousand lytch creepers toyed with Athea’s sense of where she was. She imagined tiny skeletal legs scurrying across her skin. The imaginary sounds of tiny pincers snapping buzzed in her ears. Flashes of dark holes flipped through her mind like one would do with a letterbox. Athea slammed her eyes shut, blocking off the looming night surrounding her.
Mayhem nudged her side with his nose. A troubled whine escaped from his black lips. Athea turned to look at him. The sensation of insects gone. The night fell quiet. His long gray face drawn in concern brought guilt with it. Athea couldn’t let him down. She dropped the rocks and used her hands to push herself up. Athea tucked her tired legs into her body; her braids hung around her muscular, tattooed arms like fallen vines on great oaks. Mayhem sat beside her, perched and alert beside her. His soft fur grazed against Athea’s tribal marked arm. His warmth brought comfort, a piece of home, with it. She’d do anything to protect him.
Athea rested her chin on her knees. The dark blue water rushed over the large rocks jutting from the river floor. She had been a small child when her father led the tribe into hiding, but she figured following the river was the best way out of the mountains.
My entire settlement, my family, my chosen mate, rubbed away like a smudge on my face.
"Stop!" She yelled, desperate to slow her mind. Rage built in her feet, chewing to travel up her legs. Mayhem’s coat bristled with the awareness of his partner’s shift in mood. As her destined companion, he felt everything she did. His purpose was to live as she would. Revenge and dedication to loyalty were scents he knew as well as the grooves in his thin belly hairs.
“The darkness found us,” her dry voice cracked more with each broken word.
Mayhem nodded his large head.
“Is there any hope?” She asked Mayhem, but the question was meant for herself. She was uncertain what she believed.
Was there a way to save the little that’s left?
“We have no idea what’s out there,” her voice wavered. “What if there are others? There must be more, right?”
Mayhem snorted. His wide sapphire eyes held her gaze.
“We can’t be it.”
Mayhem threw his head back, then shifted in his spot. His eyes guided Athea’s sight past the thick of Genrya toward Eldercrest—a place her father warned the tribe to avoid.
“Are you suggesting I talk to the Boshi?”
Mayhem continued to stare past the harsh ridges and across the scattered rocks of Grey Lake.
“They forsook us. Left us for dead.” Tears filled Athea’s eyes. She refused to give them permission to fall. She doubted her ability as a leader, never as a warrior.
Mayhem settled down beside her, laying his large head on his extended paws. He yawned before looking away
“You’re right. What else is there left to lose?” Athea’s voice a whisper. She tugged on the ends of her braids. “You’ll have to help me fight our way through Genrya.”
Mayhem widened his stare at Athea, willing her to lay into him. The mountain ridges framed their thin river-guided path—nature’s dungeon tunnel. Athea sensed his invitation and laid her head down on his side. The thick hairs of his coat framed her face. The exhaustion took the moment to overcome her. Glimpses of the blackened sky fluttered behind Athea’s closing lids. Contrived images of her father burned alive took over. Her subconscious damn split in two. Fabricated screams ripped at the back of the scene. The fixation of her own absence sunk heavy into her soul. Shadow’s scurried around her false memories until she fell into a deep sleep. Her mind eventually quieted, entering the state of understanding she knew nothing of. Her father would tell her stories about small creatures, called Lockets, climbing into Hudtirains’ minds to sort out the broken parts, compiling them into something usable.
Athea woke some time later to Mayhem growling. The vibrations traveled through her body. A putrid smell filled the air. Athea rolled to a stand as she drew her scimitars from the sheaths pressed against each hip. She crouched beside her standing wolf. Her hair hung around her face.
Black cracks webbed along the ground slowly gaining on them. They backed up with their eyes fixed on the threat. Earth’s new veins bulged, growing in width as they crawled closer to them. New black trails broke off from existing ones. The disease spread onto the shore. The shadows lingered behind, barely visible. The stench of absence edged alongside the corrupt ground. A harsh whispered rushed between the narrow mountain way.
Athea and Mayhem broke out in a run without needing to communicate it. His side touched her as they darted along the river’s edge. The wet rocks slick under their feet. Jutting branches and fallen trees littered the path around the bend. They wouldn’t slow. They couldn’t. Looking at the danger only brews fear. That wasn’t a time to feel frightened. To survive, some level of emotion needs to be set aside. The trouble with setting aside parts of yourself is they are often left behind. Once the mountain walls broke away into hilly forest the pair turned into the thick and away from the poisoned river.
Tag’s heart pounded in his ears which muffled the surrounding sounds. Never had he been so close to death by choice. He took in a deep breath hoping it would soothe his blitzed nerves. The palm of his hand singed with pain where he clenched his spear ready to defend himself against the monster that stood before him. Puffing out his chest, the dragon highlighted his turquoise teardrop-shaped scales. Each one overlapped but lay flush in a mesmerizing pattern that captivated Tag’s interest.
“Don’t waver in my doorway. Enter,” Draco roared.
Tag pushed his hair back with his free hand revealing himself. He moved toward the opening his head held high.
“Why have you come?” Draco’s voice shook the Depths. The vibrations lodged in Tag’s head momentarily knocking him off balance. He winced pulling at his ears. “Answer me, Nari.” With a throaty growl Draco stepped closer.
Tag loosened the spear fastened on his leg, freeing it from the tether. Blood trickled through his impenetrable grip.
With a wrenching scream Morea dove toward the two. He positioned himself in the middle of Tag and Draco acting as a shield for Tag. His grimy body quivered with rage as he swung his gaze between the two.
“Enough,” Morea bewailed. “This is not the time. Just in case you didn’t observe we are the only three here. Which brings me to the reason we came. Draco tell him.”
Tag gasped at Morea’s revelation. His eyes, dark gray were fearful. “Tell me what?”
An uncomfortable silence descended into the dark water building a wall of tension between the three of them.
No one moved.
“Now,” Morea seethed lighting up the Depths with his charged tail. Morea’s electric silver fins shimmered like bits of broken glass reflecting rays of sunlight. Tag caught a glimpse at Draco recoiling back towards his cave.
“I’m here to see you, Draco. I need your help.” Tag could see the outline of Draco’s body halt. He watched as Draco inhaled and exhaled slowly. Draco’s scales were puffed out when they first encountered each other making him appear twice his actual size. Tag observed Draco’s stature shrink as he relaxed.
“The eel told you that you needed me. Is that true?” Draco snapped.
Tag bit his lower lip drawing blood. “ He told me that you may have some answers that I seek. Do you know why we are the only ones in the river? Why I’m the only Nari left here?”
“I believe I have an idea,” Draco expelled.
“Please then, tell me. I beg of you to help me make sense of this. I’ve lost everything that’s ever mattered. I need answers.” Tag hurdled his spear into a mound of dead vegetation and slumped over.
“Come into my cave,” Draco sullenly requested.
Slowly, Tag and Morea entered Draco’s private world in the river. The cavernous hole was adorned with bones strewn from the walls. This is where he hung his victims to die. If you were quiet enough, the victim’s screams could still be heard echoing in the underground cavern. A pile of rocks and dead plant life were piled on the side where Draco slumbered. He had the best vantage point if anyone ever stumbled in uninvited while he slept.
As they made their way around the space both Tag and Morea were immediately drawn to the center of the creature’s domain. A small orb, glowing yellow, in the center of the room reflected the only sense of warmth in the Depths. The only light since the Darkness fell.
Tag approached the orb transfixed by its changing hue. “What is this?” he stammered. Confusion mounted on his face while he watched the swirls of yellow shift into fluorescent green. The green deepened with each step Tag took. “This is a connection to another realm. My ancestor bestowed this gift upon me over a hundred years ago. He told me this will overcome the Darkness that will reign in the future. I was young and stupid then. I never asked anything more about it. I simply took the common looking stone and added it to my lair.” Draco swallowed loudly, “Until the Darkness appeared. Since that day, this orb has come to life. Each day it glows this radiant yellow and then by nightfall it dims. When you Nari,” Draco nods his head toward Tag and then swings his gaze back to the lit entertainment, “are around the light morphs into a brilliant green.”
The orb appeared agitated as Tag neared. The churning colors swirled more rapidly and darkened. The cave dimmed.
“What does this mean?” Tag asked breathlessly unable to pull his gaze away from the sphere.
“I’m not quite sure. The only thing I know for sure is that this somehow connects us to a realm beyond Huditra. I’m sure that my kind have alliances and bonds that go far beyond this world. When I was younger, I thought those tales to be folklore. I’m beginning to think it was all true.”
Morea slithered around the cave staring at the light. “We must do something with it.” Draco matched his intense glare while nodding his head agreeing.
“We must.” Tag reached to touch the orb. His fingers grazed the top off the lit globe.
Tag catapulted across the cave into the wall. His body a lifeless heap. The orb’s color changed from green to orange and a vision of the mountains displayed upon the cave wall. Draco and Morea sat motionless watching the scene unfold.
Moments later the images grew dark and the orb returned to a yellow glow. Morea was able to finally pry his gaze away from the spectacle. He rushed to Tag nudging him with his tail. Tag’s ashen face hung low hidden by his dark hair scattered across his face. Blood pooled in the corners of his mouth.
“Tag, wake up!”
“He’ll be out for a while, Morea, come over here and sit with me. We need to discuss this Nari. I need you tell me everything you can about him and his tribe. I don’t travel with anyone I don’t trust.” Morea’s eyes widened and his mouth hung open. “That Nari and I are headed to the mountains. Tell me all you know.”
Morea snaked his way toward Draco. “I was afraid you were going to say that, dragon.”