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Dragon Tails

Chapter 1

Firnen and Verina were two dragons that lived out in the Eadilin forest. They had lived out here, for at least five years now since they had moved. Instead of marshes, or mountains, or swamps like some dragons lived or even in cities, they lived out here in the countryside, making a cave their home. While living out here they were away from humans and other races that might have hunted them and the nearest city was hundreds of miles away just the way they liked it. They had known many dragons that had been hunted and killed for their treasures--both physical such as gemstones and rings but also because they were magical they hunted for their magical properties.

Firnen was a copper dragon but only twenty-seven years old and his scales showed very little aging; they still gleamed like honey. While Verina she was a black but slightly smaller dragon and four years younger. They spent some of the time as humans and other times they would go out hunting as mates. Even though they had encountered some humans and even befriended or trusted humans, they were very weary of other people encroaching on their home, as they had to deal with the dangers of hunters and other mercenaries seeking the blood of dragons.

Firnen awoke slowly. His eyes flickering open. He tilted his head, looking around at Verina who lay next to him, still asleep. Her slender, beautiful body. She was still fast asleep. She would probably sleep for a while longer. He leaned over kissing her. His lips meeting her skin. Her scents, a sweet smell that reminded him of a yellowseed flower that was found in the forest around them. However there was of course the faint metallic scent that came with dragons, though Verina had done her best to erase that smell.

He rose quietly, shuffling through the cave to the entrance in his human form. He was naked except for the wrap of loincloth around his waist. He checked his right hand. Around his index finger was a ring. A dragon made ring. He wasn't sure what it did, if it did anything at all. He just liked it. It was made with a bright-encrusted blue jewel.

Firnen took a longing glance back at into the cave. Hidden in darkness. He ditched getting his armour on today. As much as he liked armour, it wasn’t as good as his own scales. Though it muffled out his own metallic scent when he was in human form.

There was a pale grey streak in the sky above him. It looked as though it could rain. His belly rumbled. Time to do some hunting. He went back and pulled on his cloak covering himself up a bit more before heading out. Around him were pleasant green trees, bulging with fruits. It was still summer. He made his way, moving swiftly, before finding a clearing where he took to his dragon form.

Verina, woke eventually. She sniffed the air. She noticed his scent seemed faint. He was already gone? Usually she was the one who woke before he did. She licked her lips, and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
She didn’t want to move out of bed. It was so warm and comfortable. Nestled. Away from the world. She loved it.

Eventually she found herself, unable to go back to sleep. Her eyes flickered open to the familiar recess of the cave. Their home and it had been for a good number of years. She was lucky to have found him. Firnen.
There were a number of dragons left in the world of Brethanis since the days of old where there were hundreds upon different types of dragons. So they said. Where humans and the other races scarcely got on with dragons, hunting them for their scales or their supposed blessings of magic. They even tried to get their scales for rituals to grant them the gift of magic many years ago, but it never worked. At least not for people who couldn’t use magic at all. They couldn’t grant someone the ability to use magic when they haven’t got the gift. It might do something for people that could use magic. She wasn’t so sure. She could recall her parents, telling her the stories when she was younger. The memories brought her some joy but tinged with sadness. She missed her sister, Jirai most of all. Her younger sister. She hadn’t seen her in over five years now. She missed her even more than she missed her parents. Since they were always away. Despite them being dragons, they had tried to assimilate with the normal humans and dwarves in some far away city called Goldaere on another continent. It was originally built by dwarves and still inhabited by Dwarves but they allowed humans to live there. They decided it would be better in a Dwarven home that stretched into the Thorn Mountains rather than a human city under the Empire. But she remembered anytime that there was a storm, her sister would come into her room to be comforted.

‘Firnen?’ She said huskily, dragging herself from her memories and back to the present. Her voice still raspy from her sleep. It was a sharp reminder that she had yet eaten or drank anything yet. She climbed slowly to stand. Her bare feet standing on the bundle of old furs they had. It wasn’t much. But it was still better being with him, than being in a kingly castle surrounded by those that fear you, and a few that love you and the rest plotting against you.
There was no response.
Yet, she thought she heard a voice. A deep voice. She leaned down and picked up her cloak. She glanced at her sword belt. Her gut feeling said, bring it. But she brushed those fears down. Firnen wouldn’t be hurt. She would feel it. Surely? They shared a bond. An attachment.
Verina hesitated, glancing at the sword. But did she really need it? She decided to leave it. Leaving everything behind, she made her way up the cave towards the entrance.

Outside, soft rays of sun light brushed her skin. It felt warm. Lovely. Despite being young she had become adapt at the shapeshifting ability. It seemingly was the gift she had been given rather than elemental control. She could turn into a human and her preferred form, an elegant fox. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t use other types of magic at all. She had acute senses—smell, hearing like you would expect from a dragon.

It was said, when dragons aged, which they did, out living most of the world’s races by some distance. Even Elves. And with age they were granted by their gods, or whatever it was, more powers as well as size. It was a legend that some dragons never stopped growing. Magic grew with age too. Some dragons could hold their forms indefinite. Or so it was said. Her father could hold it for hours on end. The longest Verina could go was three hours flat. Then she’d have to revert back. It could be that or something that interferes with it. But with age perhaps she might be able to use some other power. She imagined being able to use water or perhaps earth…

Verina moved to one of the nearest rocks and dropped to a crouch. She scanned the forest. She heard the birds singing faintly. Nothing much else. No sign of anything. Yet she could have sworn there were voices. She fidgeted. Taking her dragon form, speckled leathery black skin. Her wings uncurled naturally. She took flight. It was a risk. But being surrounded by forest, if there were people around here, they were hiding well. But perhaps seeing a dragon might scare them out of their hiding places.
Only a few seconds went by and she was in the air, rising high. She released a low growl. She soared over a few trees before swooping low into a clearing to land and change.
Or at least that’s what she thought was going to happen. Before she even realised it though she felt her whole world, spin around her. She felt something cut her wings. Steel. She screamed loudly calling for Firnen, her lover with all her might. She tried to bite through the net. But it was steel and tightened her movement, restricting her. She could barely move her limbs or mouth but she wouldn’t give up. Then there was a flash of light. A tall, pale grey figure appeared in her vision. She caught a glimpse of white hair and narrow red eyes. Then the world went black and red.

Firnen had spent most of the morning hunting, finding a good deer. He never over hunted. And he rarely picked off the healthiest deer, usually Even though he could easily pick several strong ones and bring one or two back. But he rarely indulged himself that much.

He was half way back to his home, when he heard a loud scream that shook the forest. Firnen felt his heart beat quicken. He swallowed some of the meat and dropped the rest for now. He could come back for it. Maybe. He reacted by accelerating. He knew she was near. It wasn’t that far from their home. They shared a bond between themselves. He couldn’t say how or why but he put it down to the fact that they had been living together for a while. But he didn’t know what was happening just a touch of emotion.

Firnen swooped down low for, his wings beating against the air causing the nearest trees to vibrate like wind. His piercing green eyes stared down at the trees, scanning the area. Shadows slinking into darkness behind him. Such a vast forest. It had been of their safest areas to live in with so much space.

Not half an hour later, he saw them. Several men in a clearing. He tucked his wings in and dived towards the clearing. Some of the heads turned towards him, or but he didn’t really care. He knew he was close to Verina. He spotted some of them. Some started to scatter but some couldn’t move fast enough. As he came crashing down, he hit a body or two that he crushed underneath him.

Firnen snapped his jaws, as he swivelled his head round. There was a slender tall pale white figure standing a few feet away. He had two ears that swept outward, pointed. But what was even more unique was his pinkish red coloured eyes hidden behind a black mask. His eyes looked demonic. An elf? He had never seen an elf that looked like him. Firnen jerked his head in the direction of Verina. Two men gripping her. Both were dressed in boiled leather, tunics with blades hanging from their hips. One pulled on Verina’s hair causing her to whimper. She was now in her human form but she looked worse for wear. She had burn marks lashed across her delicate skin. She was sweating too. The other ripped at her hair. She was chained, tried to struggle weakly. Firnen growled loudly, edging closer. But there was a rustle of movement. More figures appeared from the trees. More than he had originally counted. Could he handle them all? Two nocked their bows with arrows, lining them up on him.

‘Well, look at that,’ One of the men said, a grin forming on his lips. He flashed a rather crooked, yellow set of teeth—no doubt tobacco stained. Even from here, Firnen could see the gaps in his mouth. ‘Is this your lover?’ He spat on the floor.
Firnen edged closer, but he swung his head around opening his mouth wide before releasing a cone of acid straight at two of the archers. It splattered all around them even as they tried to move out of the way. It caught their legs, burnt through their flesh and armour alike. They screamed. Two more of the men came rushing in toward Firnen. But then he released a thunderous roar, making some of them tremble and shiver in fright. The rage growing inside of Firnen which each passing second.

It didn’t stop them though. Drawing their blades they tried to hack at him. Firnen twisted his tail around whacking one man, snapping his neck sending him flying off his feet. The other ducked under the tail. Firnen growled just as loud snapping his jaws once more. The mercenary, a thin stick of a man, whirled away as Firnen lunged with a heavy clawed hand, missing him by inches. He moved a step back or two. He hesitated unsure to try another strike just yet.

‘I’ll fuck your lover! Rape her while you watch!’ The mercenary spat. A wicked, evil smile that formed on his face so quick that if Firnen had blinked; he would have missed it. Was he thinking he was going to get him to react and make a mistake? But his words drew a few laughs from the other men. Except the elf, who was still standing like a statue behind him. Firnen cast a glance behind at him before turning back towards the runt.
Firnen moved side on and flicked his tail around, cracking the air. The man ducked and then jerked his blade up landing a mark on his tail. Firnen hissed but it fortunately didn’t go to deep. It would never have cut his tail off completely. Firnen roared defiantly, and started to launch himself off the ground spinning in mid-flight just as some arrows flashed past him. He sprayed acid everywhere. Leaves, bushes burnt away. Anything the acid touched. But the hunters moved, and dodged trying their best to get out of his reach. One caught his wing and another his back. Firnen twisted, crashing down on the ground. He felt twigs, bushes, and more importantly people. He felt another cut at his side, from a blade as he landed. Firnen swivelled around, in a flash, and grabbed him with his tail curling around him like a snake crushing his legs and then curling around his back. Firnen could smell his fear.

‘Where’s that strength?’ Firnen hissed.
The man moaned beneath his group. All the others seemed to freeze.
Firnen squeezed even as the man released his bowls. His armour couldn’t save him as his legs snapped, his rib cage burst. His whole body snapping. Firnen then tossed him with all his rage like a rag doll into the forest. The few men that were left, didn’t seem too incline to attack just yet. He turned his head to the nearest one. He fell back onto the ground losing his footing in the process. Firnen stamped a foot and was about to end his life.

In an instant, there was a flash of light and a scream followed. Firnen turned his head in the direction of Verina. Before he could react, the elf, grabbed a hold of Verina placing a hand on her leg then he did something. Magic. Firnen started to move towards them, which became a charge. The elf never even flinched, until he was finished. He pulled his hand away. As bright as a star on a clear night, he saw what he had done to Verina. Burning brightly was a mark, glowing a red and blue. Verina seemed to slip into unconsciousness. Firnen growled. And he could see the satisfaction in the elf’s eyes.

‘Yes. Even dragons should fear the gods. She’s now branded. She can never hide from Adramelech now.’ He said with an icy cold voice. Firnen snarled at the name being said. The other god, the one that opposed the others for greed. ‘It will hurt her and there’s nothing you can do about it. She’s our treasure. We’ve been looking for her. Either you can surrender or you both come with us. And we’ll remove it when we get our money’s worth. Or continue fighting.’

The elf twisted his body, never looking at the two men still standing near Verina.
There’s always a choice. The words rang inside Firnen. But he didn’t like being cornered. Firnen started to move forwards. But the elf did something else that was unexpected he seemed to almost disappear from sight all together. Firnen stopped short, coming toward Verina. He sprayed acid toward one of the men sending him cowering to the ground. The other using his hands and a knife ripped at Verina’s clothes, shredding then. He started to touch Verina, trying to touch her breasts. She tried to weakly bat him away but he was far too strong. It incited Firnen. He came racing forwards once more. The man turned his head for a second before drawing his blade in flash trying to cut her.
Or kill her.
That made him mad. Firnen closed in and lunged his head but he already cut her arm, drawing blood. He locked his jaws around him, lifted him off the ground shaking him violently. He struggled and stabbed downwards cutting at Firnen’s snout and mouth. Drawing an inkling of blood. Firnen bit into him, crushing him in between his powerful jaws then dropped him to the floor. His teeth all bloodied. He was growing tired too.

‘Love?’ Firnen lowered his head nuzzling against Verina. She reached out with her hands feeling his scales. Despite everything a small smile formed on her lips. Firnen leaned down licking her hair then he opened his enormous mouth and lifted her up. To a stranger it might look as though he was going to swallow her, but that was far from the truth. His tongue wrapping around her body coaxing her wounds. They should heal soon. He turned his head, the mercenaries were already gone. Running off into the trees. Perhaps regroup and bring more men for them. Then there was a slash of steel, Firnen growled in pain. He caught sight of the elf reappearing on his left side. Had he cloaked? Or just moved that fast?
Verina screamed too, though it came out as a loud groan.

Firnen bundled forwards a few steps then cracked behind him with his tail as the elf tried to follow. He snarled between his teeth. Firnen roared before taking flight. The elf still didn’t give up throwing his blade catching his side before bouncing of a scale and falling to the ground somewhere. Firnen forced himself to fly despite his injuries. The elf was still there watching them coldly but even he faded with the rolling forests and the sound a bird’s cry echoing through the forest.

Chapter 2

For a while she seemed to pass in and out of consciousness. Strange dreams and images crossed her mind, bright colours mixing with old memories. She saw strange things she didn’t remember and a few even scared her. When she woke they faded like shredded paper being blown like the wind and no longer wanted to sleep much.

The painful cuts seemed to fade after a while soothed by Firnen’s saliva. Magical or not, she didn’t know. She didn’t understand things even about her own race, never mind others since. Who knows? That pain was nothing compared to the pain she felt from the brand mark by her hip. She grimaced as she rubbed at her hip. She tried to distract herself, idly stroking the inside of Firnen’s mouth. He seemed to react to it, his tongue twitched. But he flew on. The distraction didn’t last long. She found herself in a cocoon of emotions. Even that didn’t seem too much compared to the guilt she felt. She felt guilty in the way that she was partially responsible for what happened. She wiped at her grimy, sore eyes. She was grateful that he couldn’t see her clench her fists in frustration.

At some point, later in the day Firnen finally came to a stop, touching down on the soft ground. He helped Verina climb out, she staggered out slowly and sat down on her back. She glanced towards him as he curled up on the ground, he shifted into his human form. He took his cloak off and handed it to her, which she gracefully accepted. She had been in so much pain and fearful for both their lives she had almost forgotten they had ripped of her clothing. Someone once told her, years ago that it was better to feel pain, than feel nothing at all. She couldn’t remember who it was, but she found herself disagreeing with that thought. She shuddered with the wind.

A silence drew between them. He seemed to be tending to his wounds firstly. Staring westward toward the distant mountains. The wind rustled the grass, and further away but still in sight the low lying bushes. The air at least was fresh, and crisp. She caught sight of a large bright blue bird soaring up in the sky above them. It was so colourful. It was heading north towards the other forest. Her eyes fell on the surrounding terrain, observing for a while. Verina decided it looked different to her than the one they had just been. Why hadn’t she noticed that before? The trees looked ancient, huge thick trunks but smaller trees, red and green trees. It looked lusher than their last home. It was called the Ravenwind forest. She had been this far north before. It was populated by several different animals that she had seen before. What kept them here, she couldn’t say.

Almost, as if it was on cue like some play, she spotted three of the large beasts wandering from one of the forest trails, appearing in view. They were fairly large. They were one of the creatures that they avoided trying to eat. It was armoured, covered in knots and plates of bone that were as strong as dragon scales. Well, almost. They also had scales too at the top of their heads and they were as black as ink, the plates were a stony brown colour. The animals were slow but made up for it in defence. If the armour wasn’t enough, on the end of their tails were rather large clubs. She had once seen one of them smash it against a predator and kill it. Fortunately they were herbivores. They were nicknamed ‘Bone tails’ by some merchants. But their real name, was Ankylodon and they were seemingly related to other creatures that lived around here. Two of them with an infant appeared and started to graze on the grass. Verina watched them for a while. Before turning back to the trees.

It wasn't a boring journey as they made their way through the Ravenwind forest by any means, Verina had been lucky to have caught glimpses of other species that lived there. Fairies. But they unlike humans kept mostly too themselves. They looked like humans but smaller. She had once spotted one while hunting but before she could get a closer look it had disappeared using the forest as cover. And she never found it again. She shrugged getting bored. They had stopped near a small river creek in the forest, they were sat on the bank. There wasn't else around. It was so peaceful. So quiet.

She turned to Firnen again. He had finished tending to his wounds. He had used one of his vials that he had kept in a small pouch. It was a small travelling pouch that was made to look like a part of Firnen’s body but it was hidden on him. When he was a dragon he was so big it was unlikely an attacker would notice it.

‘We might have lost those mercenaries, after all.’ Firnen said, sounding hopeful. He was fiddling with the ring on his finger. One of the few trinkets that he had collected that he actually carried around with him. She had asked him if it was for good luck, and he had responded with a slight nod. She had left it that, all she knew it must have been important to him. They had never really talked about it.
Verina nodded in agreement, but she didn’t share that much confidence. ‘You didn’t get too hurt did you?’ Verina said.
‘Nothing that won’t heal.’ Firnen said with a shrug.
‘You have to be realistic about these things. You could have been injured and it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have wandered off like that.’ She said, her eyes staring at his. His bright green eyes.
‘It’s not your fault. I should have scouted first to make sure it was safe to leave you.’ He said with a profound sigh. He leaned towards her wrapping an arm around her pulling her close gently.
‘I love you.’ He whispered. He placed a kiss on her cheek causing her cheeks to redden like wine. It brought him a smile.
‘I love you too,’ She said weakly. She bit her lip. She felt guilty. Before she could dwell on it, Firnen moved towards her.
Firnen's eyes were fixed on her. His green eyes shining bright like a gem, and far more beautiful. She felt that same warmth feeling rising up inside her. He tilted his head, leaning in to kiss her. His hot breath made her skin tingle. She kissed him back passionately and then his hands unbuttoned her shirt. She felt a shiver slide down her spine in anticipation as well as the cool air caressing her naked flesh but she wasn't cold. He took all her clothes off. Her heartbeat was beginning to race as he moved towards her neck, kissing, sending a ripple of pleasure down her body. Then she started to quickly remove his clothes as well. She eyed his bare chest, soft but muscular. He then moved onto her breasts, kissing each, slowly, letting his tongue linger. It made her shriek, gasping for more. The pleasure it brought, made her almost forget everything that had happened so far.

It was morning by the time they woke up again. Firnen woke with the sound of the forest. There was birdsong coming from high up in the trees. Firnen yawned, staring up at the sky. The sunlight poking beneath the gaps in the trees. He climbed to his feet. He went down by the water, drinking thirstily. He could hear the sound of birds somewhere in the trees, that remained unseen. Once he was finished, he moved up the creek and began to wash himself.

After Firnen had finished, he returned to some time Verina woke up again, still tired. He went over to her, embracing her, kissing her, before nuzzling her, their noses touching. They lay there for a while just enjoying each other's company.

Firnen eventually rose again, moving to fetch his clothes.
‘We’re going to need to find a new home. We can’t go back there now. Not for a while at least.' He said, buttoning his shirt back up again. He eyed her, she looked uncomfortable. Something was wrong.
Firnen glanced at her mark. ‘It’s bothering you, isn’t it?’
Verina nodded, biting her lip.
‘There might be someone that can help us.’ Firnen said determinedly. There had to be something.
‘Who?’ Verina said, her face creasing into a frown.
Firnen paused, pursing his lips. ‘Venden Chandra,’

Verina bit her lip. She knew the name. He was coincidentally a shaman but lived out somewhere in the Ravenwind Forest, or perhaps further out. He was constantly moving. He was a nomad so it was hard to know where exactly he was going to pop up. He was actually a member of the Tanuki clan, they were known for their solitude. So it wasn’t that surprising he lived the way he did. He was once married. But he had known them for a while and perhaps—Firnen even longer.
‘Is that the only one we can see for help?’ Even as the words came out, she kind of already knew the answer. They had lived like hermits for years, occasionally stumbling on camps, on things that had been left behind by hunting parties in the different forests. They had of course even met a few travellers, but they were so far from any major cities, knowing very few people. And even less that would help them.
‘Do you know where he would be?’ Verina asked.
Firnen shook his head in response. ‘Not seen him in about three months.’
Verina felt her shoulder slump.
Firnen leaned in closer. ‘It will work out. We will find something.’ His face cracked into one of those smirks he had. He leaned in close kissing her, his hand reaching for her hair.
She nodded, taking warmth in his confidence. They would get through it somehow.
‘We can’t both sleep at once. You can sleep first.’
‘Hold on, we need a bit more cover….’ He said. ‘And food.’

Firnen had gone hunting, leaving her most of the afternoon. She was used to it. It sometimes gave her time to rest, reflect or fix things that needed repairing. She was one that fixed their clothes. Or she would be the one that would go out wandering, interacting with travellers she sometimes met. If they seemed particularly dangerous, she would do her best to keep away from them. More often than not they were travelling caravans and troupes, as well as travellers. At the moment though she was glad no one else was around, she felt very vulnerable. She hated the feeling of being exposed. How long will he take?

It turns out, he wouldn't return until almost nightfall. She had been angry that he'd taken so long. When he came back, the anger faded, replaced with relief. He came back with food for them both. As soon as he came back, she embraced him, hugging and kissing him.
'You took so long,' Verina said.
'Sorry.' Firnen replied. 'I brought food though. It should last us.'
It was meat, from some dead animal. The carcass smelt bad, just the way she liked it. He must have already burnt it in flight.
They ate quietly but once they'd eaten they moved on through the night. Verina had enough of sleeping.

Eventually they came to a rest in a clearing. There were ancient stone statues and stones that had been left behind. They had worn away in many parts, so much that it was difficult telling what they had been. It was away from the main roads used by travellers. It must have been some long forgotten place. They decided they would rest here for the night.

Another hour or so passed, and Verina stirred first from his light sleep though in actuality they had took turns in sleeping. They had The few precious moments she had drifted to the realms of sleep, she had seen more memories of the fresh attacks on her from those vile mercenaries and something else that felt alien. The dreams had showed her events that had happened but also something else. She had watched the events unfold but in such a way that it was almost like she was watching it from afar. Glowing eyes. Was that another being watching them all? The situation and that especially made her shudder with fear. Had Firnen taken any longer, what would have happened? Was there really another person out there waiting or was it just her mind? It was her turn to keep watch at the crack of dawn, which was a slight relief.

Verina lay there for a while, staring up at the sky with her head on Firnen’s chest. Her sharp ears listening to his breathing, and his heartbeat. That mixed to the sounds of faint insects and birds chirping. There was a low honking sound somewhere in the darkness.
Verina glanced across the wilderness, still deep with shadows, twisting as the sun peeked between the gaps of the trees. She sniffed the air as the wind blew. It smelt fresh. But no other unusual scents. No men. Maybe they had left. But deep down she knew they wouldn’t give up their prize dragon. But now they could get two dragons. She had yet to discuss it with anybody but she did feel guilty. Anyone in her position would. The memories tugged at her again. Why were they bothering her? What was it that was bothering her?
It wasn’t the first time she had encountered hunters before. After they had left the city of Goldaere, the family had travelled eastward trying to move to the next city. They could never stay for too long. But it was made all the worse that her father was that he was dying of disease. They had been travelling along a road. Even to this day she could still remember the aroma of pine trees that dotted the landscape. They had come up to a hill and on the other side. There was a man by the side of the road, dressed in tattered clothing like a beggar. He called for help. He had said his wife was in danger. Verina didn’t trust him, so she had told her parents to stay back, her mother tending to his sickness. They were in their wagons carrying all their belongings. Which wasn’t much. Her sister, Jirai stayed with them. She thought she was strong enough, despite being her younger sister to handle herself. She had already shown she was growing in her powers. And besides who would have attacked three dragons?

That’s the mistake they had made, thinking because they were dragons they were superior to humans. Despite being in human form they were supposed to be stronger but not when you’re outnumbered. Verina recalled following the hapless man through the woods by a river creek. The path was muddy and wet from last night’s rain. She had counted the steps she had made before reaching there, to try and judge how long it would take to return to her family. The surprise was that there was indeed an injured woman lying there, rather than an ambush. At least it looked like that to start with. Verina had bent down to look at the woman. She appeared to be in discomfort, a piece of cloth wrapped around her ankle, barefoot. Her boot lying a few feet away. She had started to help the woman up to her feet but then she heard the sound of screaming voices. But before she could even react she felt someone hit her on the back of the head. She went down hitting the ground, unconscious. Verina had awoken sometime later with a throbbing headache. She was all alone. In her panic, she had started shouting and running back toward the road. When she arrived, she found both her parents were both lying on the floor in a pool of blood. But there had been no sign of Jirai. Everything had been stolen from them. Engraved on the side of the wagon was a mark.
The realisation hit her then. It was the same mark. It had to be. Even though the mark had meant nothing back then. The mark of Adramelech. She felt tears starting to form, she tried to blink them away. Beside her Firnen started to stir. She cocked her head around, wiping the tears away. She did her best to steady herself. Firnen shifted a bit moving his arms and legs slowly. Another moment passed and his eyes flickered open slowly and he sat up.

Firnen cleared his throat. ‘Morning love…’ His voice still sounded raspy. He wiped his eyes. His hair was wild from his sleep as bad as hers.
Nothing they could do about that now, most of their stuff was still back at the cave.
‘Morning love.’ Verina’s voice sounded quiet but she smiled lightly as he leaned forwards to kiss her forehead, while placing a hand on her hair stroking. The soft caresses tickled her skin making her giggle that made him crack a grin. His smile was infectious.
For a while, they stared at each other their eyes locking into one another. His eyes seemed to soak up the soft light, and reflect it.
‘Are you hungry?’ Firnen said after a few moments.
Verina’s stomach rumbled. She hadn’t even realised before he had asked. She nodded her head, knowing what he was going to say next. She leaned up to his left ear.
‘I don’t want you to leave me,’ Verina whispered.
He gently pulled her into his arms. His lip curled for a second, he chewed it briefly. ‘Then come with me.’
She nodded, feeling his breath on her. The warmth growing inside her.
Firnen nodded. ‘Did you sleep well?’
Verina glanced away and then back at him. ‘Not really.’ She admitted. She felt a knot forming as she tried to find the words to explain properly.
‘Your injuries? Or that mark on your hip?’
She didn’t want to worry him but there was not much good in hiding it. ‘The mark,’ She muttered.
‘We will do something about—’ He abruptly stopped.
‘What is it?’ Verina prompted.
‘Did you hear that trumpeting sound?’
Verina felt her stomach sink. Horns? Here? Where were they? Had they just been waiting to ambush them all this time?
‘Stay quiet.’ Firnen’s voice remained calm and fairly confident.
It went silent again.
There it came again. This time there was no mistaking the sound. A loud trumpeting sound.
Firnen climbed to his feet, brushing himself off.
Verina stood up a few seconds later. She scanned the area around them. The sun had risen a bit more now. Sun light touching her skin, radiating warmth.
They waited, expecting an attack.
And they waited.
But it never came.
The grassy plains around them were empty.
‘There’s nothing here Firnen,’ Verina said out frustration.
‘Shhh.’ Firnen hushed her.
They waited for a while longer. But then there was a third, trumpeting sound, and another one, coming closer. Firnen shared an uneasy glance with Verina. They scrambled together their meagre possessions before coming down the hill. Firnen kept on looking over his shoulder as they moved to entering the forest. And when they did, they never looked back, missing a scouting bird in the sky above.

They had continued to make their way through the forest, following one of the trails. It was badly maintained with the wilderness slowly reclaiming the roads that had once been built here. Firnen hardly noticed as he trudged down one. The Ravenwind forest was large, one of the largest forest’s he had seen, though still not larger than their home, Eadilin forest. The further they walked in, the more entrancing it became. It was awash with sunlight that peeked through the trees. Ancient old beauty. If it wasn’t for the roads, you wouldn’t know they were ever used by humans. Or anyone for that matter.

He glanced around at Verina, silent as ever. It unnerved him somewhat. She was quiet, when they were meeting other people for the first time, or sometimes when she was really angry. He stopped, looking at the ground and the grass around for a while. Searching for any fresh prints or pick up any scents of humans. The grass was dry and it crackled under his feet.

After spending a good half an hour, with little results, he finally broke the silence.
‘Maybe it would be better to shapeshift’ Firnen suggested.
‘Possibly. Yeah. Maybe their gone.’ Verina said.
While it was true they hadn’t heard a trumpet call since they had made their way into the forest, if it even came from here, he wanted to be certain and safe. Firnen’s body twisted and changed as he became his normal coppery dragon. He growled lowly as he trotted down the curving route. A couple of rabbits and other small animals came bursting out of the undergrowth. A few birds flittered into the air from their own hiding places. Firnen lunged, cracking his jaws. They were quick and skittish, but he too was fast. Underneath his body, twigs snapped and leaves blew. He caught one of the creatures, a small mammal that wriggled in his grasp. It was a rabbit. He crunched down on it, and swallowed it whole, hungrily.
Craning his neck around, he caught a glimpse of bristling red and black fur. A fox, skirted alongside him. Verina, of course. She ran a few feet ahead, before turning off to the right, almost hidden from view because of the plants. Firnen followed closely. Foliage slapped at his legs and body as he moved away from the trail. The grass and plants seemed to be even higher along here.

Ahead of him, Verina seemed to dart off to the right somewhere. His ears picked up a new sound. The sound of flowing water. Verina seemed to have led him straight to a water source. He caught sight of her before she jumped straight in. She started to gulp down water. Firnen eventually caught up with her entering the river gingerly. It was fortunately shallow.
‘Feels nice, tastes even better,’ Verina called out to him.
Firnen smiled coming over to her. He bent his head down and drank some water. The cool, refreshing taste to his lips. He shut his eyes for a moment enjoying the moment. He dunked his head into the water letting it wash over him. He raised his head, looking toward Verina. But she had seemingly disappeared.
‘Verina?’ Firnen said.
Almost as if on cue, there was a surge of water, a breaking. Firnen turned his head toward the sound of the noise, over to his left side. Verina broke the surface of the water with a wriggling between the jaws. She went over to the other side of the river bank, and up onto the grass. She shook all the excess water from herself. Then she crunched down on the fish, ripping it into two pieces, with the other half dropping to the ground. She pawed at it holding it in place and then bent down eating the other half.
‘Feeling better?’ Firnen fretted as he crossed over to her. He ducked his head down, nuzzling against her. She smiled, tilting her head upward meeting his lips in a sweet kiss. He tasted her breath, fish.
‘I am.’ Verina said, a moment later. Her eyes glittered with warmth or at least it looked like that to him. She is so beautiful. What would he have done without her?
‘Good.’ Firnen said. He said ducking his head down again to lick her cheeks. She made a soft noise showing her approval, to his touch.
But then abruptly her eyes narrowed in thought, her tail stood on end as did her hairs. He recognised what that meant. She always did that when she got anxious, nervous or even fearful about something.
‘What is it?’ Firnen said, concern in his voice.
‘Don’t you hear it?’
‘Hear—’ Before he had the chance to finish, there was a loud crashing sound. He coiled his neck around and spotted a medium sized animal that he didn’t recognise. It was large, as big as a cow. Perhaps bigger. There was an odd shaped crest that curved out from its head. It was four legged with a swooping tail behind. They had a mottled brown and striped bodies, and a lighter underbelly. It opened its mouth and gave out a low trumpeting call. Another one answered, but it was deeper.
Seconds later a larger animal, almost twice the size. Verina squeaked beside him, and sheepishly ran around Firnen, hiding behind him. Firnen smiled, it was cute. Both animals looked towards them then the sounds of voices drifted to them. But Firnen realised they weren’t dangerous—he saw that they had ropes and modified saddles around them. Somebody had actually tamed them. He had heard of riders from around the world taming all sorts of different creatures. Gryphons were also known in different sizes. But some had a stronger connection with animals than other races. Especially dragons, and the fae. They seemed to have an even stronger bond with nature and animals than humans.
‘Good boys, eh what have you found?’ A loud, voice came over to them. A man appeared, with a smaller boy alongside him. Their clothes battered from age. He came around the side of the animals and looked towards Firnen and Verina. ‘Well I never, is that you Firnen?’ The voice said.
Firnen blinked. It was Venden Chandra.
‘Yeah it’s us.’ Firnen called out. ‘It’s okay. Don’t show fear.’ Firnen whispered down too Verina. She nodded even though it might be a bit late for that. Regardless she came out from beside him sheepishly. He ducked his head nuzzling his snout against Verina for reassurance, and that eased her into relaxation. She felt slightly better. Just a bit. Firnen led the way over to them. The animals, whatever they were, stared at him with brown eyes. He found them fascinating. In the way that they didn’t seem to get skittish or afraid as they neared. Firnen found that odd. Some animals got scared around him, even when he was in human form. Such as cats. Were they being subdued or relaxed by some hidden magic? He was a shaman after all, known for his healing. But taming creatures? Last he knew him he had a dog, and a wagon. His eyes glanced from the two animals to the small boy he didn’t know. He smelt his fear. They both stopped short and then shifted into their slender human appearances. This brought a snort and trumpet from both animals, with the smaller one lolling its head at them at an angle, with curiosity and perhaps confusion. But they then went quickly to indifference.
‘Didn’t know you had a boy.’ Firnen remarked.
‘Aha, he’s not my son but he’s like it. He’s called Kafi. He’s an orphan that was working on a trading ship from the Emerald Isles. He had been enslaved and taken, forced to work on the ship. The ship had arrived and I happened to be down on the coast in the city of Dosayl. So I traded some of my wears for him.’
Dosayl was a small port city south–east. He knew this because this isn’t the first time Venden had mentioned Dosayl. He had seen the city himself while flying but never knew it’s name. There were only a handful of human cities located on this smaller continent of Gorion. There were numerous villages and towns as far as he could remember from what he has seen and been told. It was half the size of the other two larger continents in Arendor and Kaidon. The Emerald Isles were located off the South East coast of Arendor, as that was the home of Shallan. Shallan was a female Adamantine dragon, who was rather dangerous even for dragons. She was making use of the lax laws they had over there courting high-ranking men, for her own gain. What that was, Firnen couldn’t say. She used her magic to seduce and manipulate people to her will. He had no interest in ever visiting that place again but he was curious about if the place had change. Inwardly he believed it wouldn’t.

‘Very nice, what’s the emerald isles like now then?’ Firnen prompted. His eyes flickering from Kafi back to Venden.
‘Well same as it ever has been, brothels on every corner and still no church. Of course, gambling and slavery still prevalent. It’s under the rule of Rath Hagys from what I last heard.’ Venden said thoughtfully. ‘He is the leader of the Fire Knives Company, which gives them an upper hand in their militaristic power, I suppose.’
The name of the isles never did suit that cesspool, Firnen thought with a nod. He knew it wouldn’t have changed. But then he thought it could be worse, like the Badlands….
A sudden animal honking sound brought him back to the present. Firnen looked at one of the creatures.
‘What about these unusual creatures?’ Firnen asked.
‘Parasaurs for short, or their full name as scholars call ‘em Parasaurolophus. You can pat them, their friendly. You can feed them too or ride them.’
‘Where did you get them?’
‘Well. I traded for ‘em. Actually I had three, another adult but it was killed on the road. Only just managed to escape. I got these before I met Kafi. Cost me quite a lot.’ Venden said with bitterness in his voice. He spat on the ground.
A few moments passed as Venden hand fed the larger of the Parasaurs, and gave it an affectionate stroke on the side. The animal stared at him, licking his hand, as a pet dog might. But far nicer, stronger and perhaps cleverer than a dog.
‘So how have you both been?’ Venden said after a while, his face beaming. His eyes reflected that. Genuine. He came over and gave a pat on the shoulder too Firnen. Then he moved over to Verina and gave a kiss on the hand to Verina, which made her fluster. She didn’t like people touching her. Except him of course. With a closer look at Venden he was wearing dark breeches, and a sleeveless woollen shirt which gave him a glimpse of his markings on the skin, one was yellow and another blue that signified something, probably signifying his family.
Firnen and Verina shared a glance with each other, communicating by their eyes, deciding which of them too answer. Firnen spoke first, ‘Good enough. We’ve decided to move now.’ He spoke but he was glancing at the small boy who was timid. His left arm looked withered and the right didn’t fare much better. He had short hair, and grey coloured eyes. A small nose.
‘Move on? To where?’ He asked casually.
‘No idea.’ Firnen replied with a shrug.
Venden’s face creased into a frown, a look of confusion in his eyes.
‘We got attacked by mercenaries,’ Verina said quietly but it was loud enough for them to hear.
‘There was this strange being with them, that looked like an elf…but different. He looked undead.’ Firnen said.
‘Stranger still, he put some sort of mark on Verina.’ Firnen said, gesturing towards her.
‘Let’s see.’ Venden crossed over to her.
Verina glanced at Firnen who came and helped her as she showed him the mark. Firnen felt his whole body go tense in anticipation. Would there be a cure?
Watching Venden as he peered down at it, his eyes went wide-eyed as the realisation hit him. ‘It’s the mark of the…other..’ His voice barely an audible whisper. He pulled his hand away.
‘Does it hurt?’ Venden asked. His eyes scanned her body especially her mark.
Firnen felt his throat tighten. Does he know anything about these?
Verina jerked her head up and down, a yes.
‘Is there a way to heal it?’ Firnen asked.
‘Heal….as in make it go all together? Possibly. If you spoke to a priest maybe he could do something.’
Firnen felt his stomach drop. They were hundreds of miles from a church. In fact he didn’t even know where the nearest church was. He was never strongly religious. He was aware of the Gods—even Dragons knew of them. Surprisingly nearly everyone, no matter what race were taught about the twelve Gods. Of course some had different names for them, so his father had told him years ago. He couldn’t remember all the names, not even the ones he was supposed to remember. As it was said that there was the other God. The God that was blamed for much of the evil in the world. It was said he was the God that mated with humans. And because of this he was the cause of many evil in the world, as he was the only God to mate with other humans. He inadvertently gave them his own touch. To counter that, though according to the same story the Gods, sent down their own creations called the Vespira. Different beasts to ward against their own. It was said that it was how Dragons and other creatures came into being many hundreds of years ago. Ancient times.

A low sigh brought him out of his thoughts. He could feel Verina’s disappointment even before he made eye contact with her. He wrapped his arms around her waist as he leaned into her, giving her comfort. She whimpered. She turned around staring up at him. Tears burned in her eyes. He couldn’t tell if they were tears of anger or sadness. Maybe both. He wanted to tell her that it would be okay, but it was nothing but false hope. Firnen just wanted to scream. But he knew it wouldn’t help them.
‘But there might be something we can do,’ Venden suggested, noting her discomfort.
‘What?’ Firnen and Verina exclaimed as one.
‘Well…I can help ease the pain at least. But it will never make it go away. You need to bathe it daily in Ryl oil or a chew on Ether leaf. That could help.’ Venden considered, stroking his chin. Ether leaf was a type of leaf used by some people for its magical properties but it was rare.
‘Anything else?’ Firnen insisted. His voice showing desperation.
‘Ryl Oil along with some other stuff. I have Ryl oil back at my camp.’ Venden replied.
‘We should leave now then,’ Firnen prompted, trying to get across the need to leave quickly.
A parasaur honked near him. The wind shifted around him.
‘All right then.’ Venden replied. ‘It’s not too far away. It’s near Lake Nevan.’
Firnen knew the spot. It was a beautiful tranquil lake. He had once taken Verina to the lake a summer ago. It was nestled between the forest and hills.
‘Let’s go then.’ Firnen said.
Vended saddled up onto his parasaur as did the boy, Kafi.
‘You alright following?’ Venden asked.
‘Yeah.’ Firnen answered. He sniffed the air, taking in their scents to follow them.
The parasaur honked again. This was a deeper, more alarmed sound. Firnen froze, suddenly alert. His pulses throbbing, his feet itching. He breathed in deeply trying to force down the urge to change and strike them before they made the move. He started to turn but a tug on his arm kept him still.
‘Firnen we need to go now,’ Verina said, leaning to his ear as Venden urged his parasaur, to turn around. The larger one nudged the younger parasaur to move. Which it did after a few seconds. They both hurried scrambling into the forest. Once they were clear, they started to move hurriedly. Whoever was coming was drawing closer. There was no time to waste. Firnen linked his hand with Verina’s left hand and they burst into a sprint, cutting through vegetation, and low lying branches.

Chapter 3

Seconds later the first arrow sliced through the air, followed shortly by a second arrow. Landing where Verina had been stood moments ago. Firnen glanced over his shoulder seeing silhouettes emerge from the trees. Even a few that were still crouched. More mercenaries. He could hear the whisper of their armour and even notching another arrow to rain down on them.

Firnen forced them to move quicker, the ground here was muddier than the other trail, it sucked at his boots. He hated mud. It reminded him of the vicious violet dragons that chose to live in bogs and marsh like terrain, which he found bizarre. He shook that memory from him as they jumped over low roots on the ground that seem determined to trip them up. Mud splattered their legs as they landed on the other side. They ran along the muddy path and veered off the right.

They had quickly lost sight off Venden, but it didn’t matter too much he knew where he was going. But perhaps they shouldn’t go straight there, that would lead the mercenaries’ right to the camp. Firnen glanced over his shoulder again. They didn’t seem to be following.

Regardless, they kept moving. Bushes scraping against them. And so they moved on, quickening their pace, darting in between large trees. They ran and ran. Before Verina came to a short stop, leaning against a tree. She was panting. Even dragons could grow tired after a while especially when they weren’t in their natural forms. He slouched down onto the floor.
Silence greeted them. Which actually made it all the worse. Firnen growled softly, fidgeting. Verina slumped beside him, one hand clutching her hip. The brand mark. Firnen cursed under his breath.

Firnen took a deep breath before he tried to listen. He turned around, the side of the tree peeking through the gaps. Wind rattled the branches above, whispering through the gaps. He heard the faint sounds of birds and other animals hidden in the forest, returning to normal. He couldn’t see anything though. Until they heard something else. A faint roar somewhere in the forest. He peeked around again, and in the corner of his eye to the right spotted movement but it was so fast. A blur. Already gone before he had even registered it. He felt his heartbeat quicken with anticipation.
Any moment now, Firnen thought.
He sat back down after a while and scooted over to Verina, wrapping an arm around her, but she turned and faced him. She managed a weak smile before hugging him close as she wept. ‘You think we’ve waited long enough?’ Firnen said, his voice low.
Verina nodded, biting her lip. She had barely said a word. He looked into her eyes. He could see the pain in her eyes no matter how hard she tried to hide it. He felt a surge of sadness and rage flow through him. He had to force himself to calm down. As much as he wanted to go and find them all and force them to heal her. But what good would that do right now getting angry? Verina reached out clasping his hand, tugging him by his sleeve. They stood shoulder to shoulder, she leaned against him. He just hoped that they wouldn’t find Venden tied and hostage or worse, dead. They moved as quickly as they could, through the dense forest. The only surprise was that there weren’t any more arrows rushing at them. At least, for now.

It was a tiring run through the forest. Verina felt her shoulders and legs aching. She wasn’t used to running this much in her human form. Even though she could change forms, they all came with the different strengths and weaknesses, she had found. She had found she could actually hear better as her fox form than her dragon form as well as more agile. Being in human form she could go in disguise from others that might have been hunting her as it had done down the years. But the hearing and senses were nowhere near as good as they were in her other forms.

They came to a small creek to rest for a moment. She sat by the water’s edge, her feet dangling in the water. She could hear the sounds of insects buzzing nearby, no doubt finding an old carcass. She could smell it faintly but she was too tired to care. One insect buzzed landing on her shoulder, inspecting her or whatever it was they did, Verina wasn’t sure. She reached into the water and splashed herself. At least it gave her some sense of feeling.

There was a loud Firnen was further up the water drinking.
Despite the situation, Verina found herself smiling as she watched him.
She sniffed the air as the wind picked up once more. She climbed to her feet.
There was a cracking sound of some sort. Her hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
A premonition.
Verina spun round she caught sight of a burly figure, dressed in a leather jerkin carrying a dirk in his left hand. Verina felt a surge of adrenaline. The survival instinct. She bit her lip and forced herself to duck and swirl to the right, his blade almost catching her right shoulder. She yelped out, as she bounced back onto one leg. She could hear Firnen moving towards them. But she needed not to be distracted by that right now. Leaning into him, she had to be quick. She struck out with her palm sending a strike to his gut just as he brought his dirk up to strike again. He stumbled back, grunting trying to gather his balance. Now there was a bit of distance between them and the distraction. She flexed her leg, kicking out flat sending him flying back onto the floor. He lost grip and his blade clattered beside him. She rushed him, leaping up and landing on him.

‘Fucking bitch!’ He shouted as she landed on his stomach. She raked her nails across his face, drawing blood. He spat in her face and used one of his hands to try and keep her at bay. She felt his knee come up and try to hit her stomach. Yelping she stumbled for a second, springing backwards. She growled. The man started to reach for something around his waist.

Panic flared inside of her as she decided what to do. But then she saw Firnen coming around the side of him, picking up his dirk and coming to her right side and his left. His eyes widened and tried to draw a smaller blade from its sheath. Firnen was too quick for him, almost too quick for her –a blur as he drove the blade down into his head, gouging his eye. He screamed out loudly. She saw a rush of blood. Firnen pulled the blade away. A slick of blood on it.
They drew breath.
‘Let’s see what else he has on him.’ Firnen said.
‘Be quick, they all must have heard him die.’
Firnen rummaged through his belongings and his pack, finding a few bits of food, a waterskin, a bedroll, and the dagger itself. He handed it to Verina. ‘This will have to do for now.’

As soon as they started to move, they could hear the approaching footsteps of other people. And a low growl that accompanied them. Hunting dogs? Verina thought. She didn’t like that. They ran up through the trees. Edging step by step closer to the lake. Though they were still a fair distance away from that yet. There was another growl. Verina couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder. Where they had been standing moments ago she saw quick black shapes appearing. She only caught a glimpse but her heart told her they were dogs or maybe beasts. They soon disappeared from view, blocked by trees and other vegetation. They howled that echoed through the trees sending a chill up her spine.

‘Maybe it would be better to go into your dragon form and I can ride you,’ Verina suggested.
Firnen slid to a stop. He nodded. ‘Might be best.’
Verina scooted out the way as he started to change. When his coppery scaled body took shape, the howling intensified. He unfolded his wings. She ran up to his side climbing on just as three large creatures came bursting out of the foliage. They were black with dark streaks and ridges going along its back. It was feline with four clawed feet, and tails. They were known as Blackstalkers. She had never seen one, but she had heard of them. A memory tugged at her but she shook it away for now returning to the present.

As soon as they spotted Firnen, they charged. He wanted to take off, but being him, instead he spun around. He snapped his jaws and sprayed acid towards them. It took one of them by surprise, catching their face and burning through flesh and eyes alike. The other two sprang back a few feet uncertain now whether or not to attack.
Verina flinched watching. She wondered if that was necessary. She pushed that silly thought away from her. Of course it was. She spotted other shadows around them moving towards them, closing in on them quickly.
An arrow whooshed by.
Firnen didn’t seem to notice it as he roared at the two Blackstalkers. One surprisingly still lunged. Firnen batted it away with a snap of one of his forelimbs. She saw it spiralling towards a tree, yelping helplessly before a loud, audible, whack. She heard the bones break and she knew it was dead as it slumped to the floor. The final creature, obviously fear now took its hold as it howled and then turned to flee just as two more arrows rained down on them. Several figures came out of the trees. One was the familiar elf. He leapt towards Firnen, holding one curved blade.

Firnen spun around, a dangerous tactic, Verina thought, but he wasn’t stupid. He started to lift off but she turned seeing the elf grip Firnen’s tail. He snarled, staring straight up at Verina. She gasped.
‘Fly up! Firnen!’ Verina shouted. ‘Quicker!’
Firnen flapped his wings, surging upwards. He crushed and batted away branches and leaves that got in his way, almost threatening to topple over or get caught. She supposed if he had, he would have burnt it all away with acid. Not that he would want too. Amazingly, he managed to do it with such little room. She casted a nervous glance back over her shoulder seeing the ash grey, elf come further up Firnen’s body. His eyes were hollow, filled with an icy wrath. She tightened her grip on Firnen. She considered throwing her only weapon, but if she mistimed her throw, she would be unarmed. Firnen was sharply rising. She could see nearly all of the forest around them. Ahead of them, she could see the lake. On the other side sat rolling hills. It was practically encased by hills and trees.

Firnen then started to fold his wings, in mid-flight.
Abruptly he started to dive, releasing a loud snarling roar. More like a roar of pain.
Verina glanced seeing the elf slash and slice at Firnen’s back. But it didn’t seem to have much effect. She couldn’t tell whether he was just roaring because he was angry or in pain. They were drawing very quickly to the lake. Firnen twisted and spun in mid-air. Verina shut her eyes tight, and held on for her life. He was obviously hoping that the elf would fall off or at least distract him for a few seconds.

A moment later, Firnen levelled out but unfortunately the elf was still holding his ground, too Verina’s disappointment. Even worse was that he was gaining ground on her with quick, ominous strides towards her. He reached into his cloak and pulled out a pouch of something. It was the colour of dried blood. He opened it up in a flash and blew something straight into Verina’s face. A red powder of some sort. She blinked her eyes. Very rapidly, they started to go blurry. Firnen was dropping lower and lower at this point. The lake was in reaching distance now.

‘..H-help…me Firnen…’ Verina felt a sudden, seeping fatigue overtake her body. Her hands started to lose their place. She felt herself sliding, not just into a deep sleep but off Firnen.
Firnen hissed and he started to dive straight down to catch Verina. Firnen twisted and spun dropping height, he felt a powerful surge of energy slam against back. He started to plummet like an arrow straight towards the water, taking the elf with him as they crashed in the water. Showering the lake and surrounding area in water to the sound of alarmed honking animal noises.

Time ebbed away, minutes slowly passing into hours. Birds chatted away in the trees even as it started to rain. Verina stirred, her body aching. Her head was throbbing with a headache. She shifted but beneath her weight, something snapped but she barely registered it, still dazed.
Verina moaned, not yet opening her eyes.
A faint trumpeting animal sound, made her open her eyes. Everything seemed blurry. To her it looked as though she was staring at a great dark shadow. Verina felt disorientated. She closed her eyes shut again, hoping all the pain would pass. She rubbed her head, brushing a leaf off her face. Her right arm and shoulder were burning. She wriggled her feet, they didn’t hurt. But they felt cool some reason. And yet they should be warm at least. Her boots had cushioned wool insoles for the winter. She moved her feet, and one seemed to slip like it smacked against open air.

Then it knocked her off balance and she felt like she had been hit in the face with a club. She was on a tree. Her eyes fluttered open. The shadow and thorns came into focus. It was a tree branch. She turned her head, slowly, looking over the side of the branch. Foliage, branches below blocked her view off the ground. The branch creaked underneath her before she could do much about it, she found herself falling. Verina smashed a few more branches on the way down. One caught her other shoulder. She slammed into one, landing on her chest winding her. She cried out in pain. She didn’t dare move. It was a thinner branch.

Verina cried out once more, as she found herself falling. Would it ever end?
Eventually she did crashing down on the ground. Verina’s face swelled with more tears, she couldn’t bare to move. She just wanted to go and lay down somewhere. Despite her own pain, something else to her felt different to her. She thought it was just the pain but it was something else. Emptiness. It had been a long time since she felt like this. She cried out. Again. Every pain, and bruise had been amplified. Blood welled from some of her wounds but she barely noticed. She cried out again louder, whimpering like a lost child.

No one seemed to answer.
The wind blew around her, brushing through her hair. She thought she heard a low bird cry from somewhere in the forest. She didn’t care. She felt something else that was wrong.
Wait…the realisation swamped her. The emptiness she felt.
Where was Firnen?
She couldn’t feel his presence.
Verina felt her emotions were threatening to take control of her. What was she going to do? She felt tears run down her cheek. She screamed out loudly, not caring how much physical pain she was in. In her blurry, tear stained eyes, she saw shapes moving towards her. Her body was threatening to pass out again.
More enemies?
She prepared to lash out but something came right on top of her, pushing her down back on the floor. She gave up. Without Firnen, it was pointless. She had already lost her sister. Firnen was all she had left.
‘Kill me then.’ She said, but it came out like a garble, a croaky garble of some animal. She saw the blurry head lean in toward her as if it to bite her.
But it surprisingly it never came.
Verina felt a warm sensation on her cheek. A tongue.
More shapes came toward her just as the world went black again.

Chapter 4 - The Final Chapter

Voices, familiar voices came around Verina. As well as a low trumpeting sound. That somehow gave her some sense of relief. She didn’t know why that was, especially considering she had nightmares again. Firnen dying all over again. It messed with her. She didn’t want to sleep any more she forced her eyes open and realised she was lying on some bed. She breathed in deeply, taking in her surroundings.

Verina saw that she was in a tent and a small boy was sat by her side. It took her a moment to register who it was. It was Kafi, the boy with Venden. The relief washed over her. She was safe then. Onwards and upward, as her da used to say….

‘How long have I been out?’ Verina’s voice came out very hoarse.
‘Urm, about a day.’ Kafi said. ‘Venden treated you.’
Verina nodded slowly. ‘Did he look at the brand mark?’
‘I think so,’ Kafi replied.
‘Where’s my stuff? I had a dagger with me…’ She thought.
‘No dagger….’ He shook his head.
Great the one weapon she had…gone.
She chastised herself, reminding her she shouldn’t need a blade when she gets back to full strength. But how long would that take?

The tent flew open suddenly, breaking her thoughts, Venden appeared with the sunlight behind him. ‘Is she awake?’ Venden’s gaze fell on Verina. ‘How are you feeling?’

Verina wasn’t sure how to answer that. She felt somewhat relieved she that she hadn’t died. But she still felt empty. Devoid of any emotions. She had found safety but at the cost of losing Firnen? She’d rather have the danger. Being safe alone was worse, than being with someone you loved and in danger….
In the end she chose to stay silent.
‘I saw Firnen crash in the water.’ Venden said as he took a seat next to her. He glanced at Kafi. ‘The parasaurs need feeding go check on them.’
Kafi didn’t say a word, just got to his feet and with a nod, he walked outside.
‘Did the elf get out?’ Verina managed, seconds after he had left.
‘No. Must have drowned. But if he has more men, they might have seen us.’
‘Then we should be moving,’ Verina said, sitting up.
‘We can’t just yet…’ Venden replied, his voice firm but soft.
‘Why not?’ Verina said.
‘You’re not yet ready to move…’ Venden said, shaking his head, watching her closely. ‘You need to rest more.’
‘What about going up to the hills….’
‘We will soon. Just rest.’ Venden said, his voice a bit more assertive.
‘I’m still a dragon…’ She protested.
‘Dragons still need rest and time to heal.’
Verina frowned. ‘You don’t know more about dragons than I do…’
Venden chuckled, giving her a knowing smile. Then his face went serious again. ‘Are you hungry?’ Changing the subject abruptly.
As if on cue, Verina’s stomach rumbled. She nodded her head.
‘We have stew, bread, cheese. No meat I’m afraid.’ Venden replied.
‘That’s fine.’ Verina answered, sucking in her lip.
Venden climbed to his feet, gave her a small smile, before leaving.

Verina lay back down for a while. It felt a bit better to talk to a familiar face. But nothing would replace the emptiness. She clawed a hand across her hair in frustration. How did water kill Firnen? Did the Elf do something? Why did I survive? Her head throbbed trying to remember every detail. It was all a blur to her. She closed her eyes. Even that small conversation, she felt her lungs wheezing, and chest hurting again. It sapped her will.
Verina blinked her eyes open again as Venden returned. She could hear his voice talking to presumably Kafi outside before he stepped into the tent. He was holding a wooden tray with a bowl and small mug. He laid it down on her small bed. She sat up again.
‘Thanks for healing me,’ Verina said.
‘It’s what I do for old friends,’ Venden replied, with a warm smile. ‘Eat up. I’ll be outside tending to things.’ He climbed back to his feet. ‘We’re still safe, no sign yet of those men.’

Sat in silence, Verina glanced at the food, outstretching a hand toward as if she was going to eat that first. Instead she veered toward the clay mug, drinking it down very quickly. The cool taste freshened her lips. Once she had almost finished that, she started on the stew wolfing it down but as carefully as she could. It was all quiet mostly, apart from a gentle draft that whooshed inside every now and then. The occasional voice or parasaur trumpet, breaking the silence. She went back to sleeping for rest.

The next two days were more of the same, resting in between Venden or Kafi bringing her meals or Venden tending to the brand-mark. Nothing he could do would get rid of it, but it was a blessing that he could take away the pain. She was growing closer to them, even Kafi had started to get used to her. Talking about his old life, and how he was so much better off. He seemed to complain about things. Verina was still going through batches of pain, so she only grunted now and then. Venden had passed on many of his skills to him, gathering different herbs as well as preparing different potions for treatments. He had also been taught other things, obviously being able to ride animals and treat different animals, he didn’t go into much more detail than that. At the end of the second day, she noticed that both of them were starting to get a bit anxious about something. They had also given her new clothing that were not only bigger but coarser than any clothing she had ever worn before.

By the third day, Verina could finally get out of the bed and start walking. Her leg still hurt but not as much as it had. Venden and Kafi both helped her outside. It felt good to be outside again. She still felt naked without Firnen but the comfort of friends somehow eased it. Her nose wriggled at all the scents that engulfed her—the smoke of cooking and firewood, the aromas from the forest and the animals. Crisp air. She hobbled over to where the parasaurs are tethered to posts. But there was a third post that had been set up but no third animal.

Venden must have noticed, Verina staring at it, as he said, ‘We’re trying to find another animal in case you’re not fit enough to shapeshift yet.’
Verina nodded. She wasn’t sure whether she was ready to try shapeshifting just yet, in truth.
‘Anything in particular?’ Verina asked.
‘Well we know that there are Ankylosaurs around here, their slower but make up for it with armoured tails and bodies.’
Verina creased her brow. She knew what he was meaning. ‘I thought they were called Ankylodon.’
‘Oh that’s not the right name, some locals mistakenly call them that. Scholars call them Ankylosaurs. But that is beside the point.’ Venden said, watching as Kafi went over to feed both the parasaurs.
‘We have to be careful obviously. But fortune is on our side for the moment, no one has yet to cause us any problems.’ Venden said, thoughtfully.
‘Doesn’t that make you suspicious?’ Verina asked bluntly. It concerned her that they had quite a few men that had spotted them in the forest as well as their hunting dogs. And yet so far, so
Venden became silent for a few seconds, carefully considering his words. Obviously. ‘Well. They probably haven’t guessed the correct location yet. Either they aren’t sure what to do since they lost their apparent leader. Maybe they retreated.’
‘Maybe….’ Verina didn’t seem convinced. Why would they give up their prize now? They had one less dragon to deal with. She wasn’t in the best condition herself and all they had to get around was a boy and a shaman.
‘Well I’m going to go look for one of those Anky’s now.’
‘W-what?’ Verina said.
‘I won’t be gone long. If there’s trouble, Kafi will help you. He knows where we’re supposed to be heading next in a couple of days.’ Venden said but then as the fear on her face, made him say, ‘Have no fear. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t think it was safe. The first sign of trouble and I will return.’
Venden said no more as he hurried over. He picked up extra rope, and took his pack with him. Venden untethered the animal from its post then climbed up the larger parasaur’s saddle. Verina exchanged a glance with Kafi as Venden rode off into the forest.
‘Does he do this often?’ Verina asked.
‘Yeah. I don’t like it, but he does it sometimes….’ Kafi replied with a shrug.

An hour went by. Verina stayed outside for a while watching Kafi and then when he went to eat, she went too, the sky sluggishly filled with clouds. Streaks of white. She hobbled her way down to the lake. The perfect serene lake lay still before her. The sun still glowing off the water reflecting. There was a gentle breeze and the fresh crisp air. The scent of the forest was magnificent, cedar, lemon and other sweet and bitter aromas. From here she could even see some of the Domrai Red berries growing on the trees that edged the lake. She could almost taste them. It made her mouth water. Across the lake, she could just about see where it drained out into the lake She held the scene dear. Close to her heart. It was one of the places that Firnen had taken her. She had never seen such beauty before and still hadn’t since then. That was a good year or two ago.
And now…it was the graveyard of her lover. Firnen. She fought back a vast onset of emotions, all swirling around her again. She fought back tears. Seeing it again, was like a spear being thrown straight through her soul. She peeled her eyes away. Verina stumbled to her feet, pushing herself up. She staggered under a sudden burst of pain. She stood there for a few seconds waiting for it too fade.

Abruptly there was a loud animal cry.
Verina swung around turning back toward the camp. Even from here she spotted a large animal. An Ankylosaurus came out of the forest, with Venden riding it. The Parasaur trotted alongside it. Verina tottered over to greet them.
‘You want to give him a ride?’ Venden said. ‘Going to have to tweak the saddle though. This is quite uncomfortable.’
‘That was bloody quick,’ Verina remarked.
Venden chuckled. ‘It wasn’t that far away in truth. It was lolling about.’ His face turned serious for a moment, giving a quick sidelong glance towards the camp. Or perhaps it was the lake. Who knows? ‘Did anything happen?’ His focus turning quickly back to Verina.
‘No.’ Verina said, feeling slightly confused but didn’t let it show.
He nodded as he climbed down off the Anky. ‘So you want to ride him?’
‘Sure.’ Verina stared at the animal. This is perhaps the closest she had ever been to one of these animals. It was entirely covered in oval plates that seemed matted with its own leathery skin. It had two rows of spikes and of course the bony club tail. But as she stared into its eyes she saw that it even had bony plates as protection for its eyes.
‘Feed him first. Take it easy.’
‘All right.’
Venden hurried over and got some plants to feed it. They already had a load they had gathered to feed the two parasaurs. He came over and handed her the plants. ‘Here you ago.’
Verina approached the animal. Its eyes blinked slowly, looking towards her. It made a low grunting sound. It seemed to get a little excited at the sight of the food. She out reached her right hand, edging closer. The animal grasped it in his teeth and started to chew happily. She reached her hand out and stroked it above the eyes. It was warm and leathery as she had imagined.
‘Okay steady now.’
She started to move around its side. She climbed up carefully. The animal responding to her touch, but didn’t seem to dislike it all that much. She felt the small spikes prick her as she sat in the centre. The Anky grunted then started to move. It took a large step or two forward. Its tail swinging behind it. Verina chuckled a bit, trying to hold on. It certainly did feel uncomfortable. Or perhaps just different. She stroked the animal gently, making sure her legs didn’t grind into it too much. It had an air of calm about it.
‘We can tweak one of our saddles for it.’ Venden said. ‘Would you like that?’
‘Love it.’ She said. The first time in a fair few days she found herself smiling. She was already wondering on a name to call him. It came to her in a flash. Prickleplump.

The evening had consisted of eating around a fire, Venden telling stories, to the sound of fire crackling, insects buzzing and owls hooting in the night. Venden told them stories of some of the places he had visited in his younger days, which she didn’t actually know before now but it was the city Ixarii, home of the ancient Ixii peoples. Most of them had died out and had been taken by human settlers and raiders. It was situated on an island chain east of another continent. She had nearly gone down there after her parents had died but was worried about a conflict that was happening there. It had put her off and she had gone elsewhere.

Venden had even told stories of the Ixii, as they were similar to humans and nymphs but they had ivory horn like protrusions curving from the back of their heads. They still had a few Ixii that lived there, like hermits. Venden had apparently spent time with them learning some of their medicinal techniques serving under Marack Ekuurt, the Silent Priest. Not much different to than what Verina had been living like in the last few years, the more she thought about it.

Once they had finished eating, Venden had decided it was time to rest so Kafi hurried off first, eager to obey before both Venden also returned to their tent. Verina went around the side to see Prickleplump. He was still awake. She went up to him stroking his neck gently. She felt his tongue lick her fingers leaving a warm sensation. She giggled softly. She didn’t feel like going back to sleep to dream anymore. She had spent three days or more resting. She wanted to do things. Anything that would take the memory off her loss. A distraction. They still hadn’t discussed moving yet. Why?
‘Such a cute, animal.’ Verina mused feeling slightly happier. Verina made her way back to her tent, fetching her blanket and then she came back crumpling a few beside Prickleplump as he snorted. She felt a bit safer. Still, it took a while to finally enter the realms of sleep. She was glad to find slowly that her body wasn’t aching so much now.

Verina awoke at dawn, the soft pink light starting to drive the shadows back. But that is when she saw them. Several silhouettes moving in the trees. The parasaurs started honking madly waking Venden and Kafi up. It was just as well, Verina was frozen to the spot. She bit her lip wishing she had pushed Venden into moving quicker.

Three tall figures emerged first, one of them drew two blades. They came striding forwards, spreading out. More figures appeared behind them.
Another three. Six in total at least.
One of them, started to charge towards Verina as soon as he spotted her.
Verina tried to calm herself with a deep breath, her body racing. She certainly felt stronger. But strong enough to shapeshift? Or even fight?
The man charged at her, drawing his blade, a sword from his waist. But she saw he was wearing no helmet just a leather jerkin that covered his body.
Her mind raced thinking what to do. Then she went with instinct. She started to move toward him, as if she was going to fight him head on. Which is probably what he wanted. At almost the last minute she fell to the left, as he raised his weapon falling where she had been seconds ago cracking the air. She struck out with her right hand, nails digging into his eyes. She thought it should have made her recoil in horror or make her shrink. Instead it felt right. She dragged her nails tearing at his flesh and eyes, for the damage they had caused her. He screamed out, loud, cursing and eyes shutting. He dropped to his knees. She grimaced. Even that small movement sent a shudder of pain through her body. She fought it back. It was a moment of life or death. She pivoted and knocked the blade from his hands with a timed kick. She landed awkwardly though. She gritted her teeth, bending down to pick the blade. The warrior started to come at her wildly—he still couldn’t see but he was stronger. Or at least he thought so but she felt the blade in her hands and she poked it upwards straight through his neck. He reeled backwards, spluttering falling on his backside leaving a blood and gore on the edge of the blade. The other warriors were cursing and shouting starting to move just as Venden appeared, his cloak flapping behind him.
Was he even armed? Either way she was thankful, she might not have had it in her too fight more.

He then reached into his pockets with both hands just as the first attacker came charging in on the left. They dutifully turned their attention to him, as Kafi hurried over to the parasaurs. Verina saw this has her chance and walked to Prickleplump’s side stroking him gently as she untethered him. He grunted softly. There was still no saddle but they had another set of reins that Venden had adjusted for use. It was one of the ones they used for their cart slightly longer than a normal set of reins.
‘Shhh.’ Verina whispered, hearing a screaming sound. She heard something.
She could see the flames licking up into the air, and the smell of flesh.
Verina climbed up onto the back of Prickleplump, sliding down to his front. She scratched him on the head a gentle touch as she took a hold of the reins. She didn’t want to overdo it. She wasn’t entirely sure. ‘Let’s go.’ Prickleplump moved forwards, or lumbered rather.
Venden was still alive, either he had used some sort of powder mixture or magic that had set one of the warriors ablaze screaming. The others had kept their distance ever so much buying her time. Verina guided Prickleplump towards the warriors. One of them threw a blade towards them. She dipped her head, and it harmlessly sailed over. They swerved around the flames.

The nearest warrior came at them swinging his sword toward Prickleplump’s head. She tried to guide him, but Prickleplump’s instincts were quick. He turned side on and swung his club-tail smashing into him sending flying backwards hitting the ground. He coughed and spluttered before going limp. Verina guided Prickleplump into another charge, sending the attackers scattering. One of the warriors lunged carrying a club, Verina ducked her head missing her but he swung and hit her in the chest. Pain coursed through her, winded, she stumbled falling back and off the Anky as it continued to move. Prickleplump smashed its tail in the side of the man, snapping his neck, his club falling to the floor. Verina saw a brief moment where his eyes went wild with fear and then nothing as his bones break on impact, blood splattering everywhere including her. His body, what was left of it crumpled to the floor. Verina lay there on the floor watching Prickleplump ram and trample another man, crushing his head in the process but they were starting to surround the Anky. Verina felt desperation creeping. She pushed herself off the floor as Venden moved back. Verina felt the only thing she could do was draw them away. She started to move picking up the club and started to move. Her anger only increased when she saw one of them drove a blade towards it trying to get it in the eyes, but the animal managed to twist its head and jerk its body to move out the way so it only hit the plated skull. It grunted loudly.

Verina still raged, even if it hadn’t hurt it. She forced herself into a jog, cannoning herself into the nearest attacker taking him by surprise. It worked. He stumbled falling over onto his side. He grunted, trying to roll onto his side he tried to reach his blade, but she was quicker, hitting him over the head with the club. And then she hit him again, she heard bones cracking under the impact. Verina climbed off him, leaving him to die. She started to turn to the left—just in time to see one of the men come at her madly. He swung at her with his blade, a low strike aiming for the legs. Verina instinctively leapt over the blade and she kicked out, trying to catch him in the chest. Her foot bounced off his leather jerkin, he wobbled back but it didn’t have the desired effect of falling off his feet. He regained his balance quickly and tried to cut her leg. But something stopped him. There was a whoosh of air as Prickleplump’s tail slammed into his waist line. Verina jerked her foot free spinning, as he crumpled to his knees. She gathered herself and she cut him across the neck, searing it from the body. She wasn’t quite done yet. But she was still pushing herself too much. She was starting to feel the creep of pain again but she bit down.

Five men still remained. She hadn’t even seen the others appear. And yet they were here.
One coming in toward Prickleplump and two were creeping towards the tent, hoping to flank her maybe.The nearest threw a knife at her, she tried to move away but she wasn’t quick enough of that time, the blade narrowly caught her on the shoulder nicking her sleeve, drawing a spot of blood. She grimaced and fed of the rage again just as the mercenary took a swipe at Prickleplump catching his right leg causing him emit a pained animal noise. Prickleplump took a pace back turning, readying a swing but the mercenary jabbed again.

Verina, without really thinking—acting of instinct, burst into movement. She found herself starting to sprint and then changing her body. Shapeshifting into her black dragon. Leathery wings, snout, body all taking shape.
It hurt, damn it. Verina lunged at the nearest one too Prickleplump. She crashed into him, toppling him over under her weight. She snapped her jaws and ripped at his flesh.Pain suddenly coursed through her left wing. A knife caught her, before falling to the ground. She roared loudly as she ripped into his flesh in rage. She then punctured his heart with her claws, stabbing through the jerkin with tremendous accuracy.

The mercenaries—or at least one of them called orders. She scarcely heard them though. She turned and started to charge once more. As she ran she felt something else, something she had never felt before build inside. A sort of energy. She stopped short. It was building. She felt as though she was going to implode. What’s going on? She didn’t understand why until she opened her mouth.

Fire coiled out of her mouth, incinerating the nearest warrior. It was much a surprise to him as it was her. She saw the man’s eyes turn from venomous to panic, as the fire burnt him. His screams rang in her hears as the fire engulfed him. Smoke billowed from his charred remains. She didn’t stop there though moving towards the next releasing another thick jet of flame. The man this time expecting it, leapt back, it only caught the sleeves and hands off his shirt. He started to tear off his clothing but she took a step forwards, setting his hair on fire. The air went thick and hot all around her. She felt her energy draining quickly though. She was tiring extremely quick. Verina pulled away, pacing backwards. She glanced over her head, Prickleplump that was still there but looked a little startled. Verina caught her breath, surveying the rest of her enemies. She felt drained. All the emotions that had weighed her down had been unleashed.

They were about to advance on her hoping to overwhelm her. Something else happened. There was a large tremor. The ground shook underneath her.

I can use Earth and Fire? She wondered. But as she saw the men, their eyes weren’t on her. They were staring all past her.
Verina turned and looked towards the lake. It was bathed in a mist. The ground trembled and shook violently. The men started to retreat already. Something was wrong.
'What the—’
The mist started to fade and a familiar presence started to take shape. She felt all the emotions reaching an explosion inside her. Her wings arms and everything rose. Her heart had started pumping. She caught a glimpse of bronze jaded green scales. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Somewhere Venden and Kafi shared a knowing glance between them but she never saw it. She was too focused on the lake.

The voice came as sharp as cold ice, Verina, I love you.

© 2017 Ganner Storm

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