Aliedori moved her hand before her face as if she was brushing away something only she could see. Maldar waited for her to speak. He clasped and unclasped the large knife. Surely she should be saying something by now, his sister’s calm, pretty face gave nothing away. One of Keidrop’s pointed golden ears flickered as if she too was becoming impatient; she was taking far too long. Maldar dropped his eyes to the campfire and waited some more.
“You know,” he said, more than a little anxious now, “it shouldn’t take that long, I need you on my side against the Olds.”
“Our parents are not that old.” Aliedori brushed her black hair from her face, pushing it roughly behind her ears, and surveyed her surroundings. Her green eyes often held a dreamy remote look when they scanned the surroundings, but this time it was with purpose. Maldar allowed his mind to drift while trying to ignore the mirth clearly visible in those emerald green eyes ever since he had told her what he had done.
“Well…!” Sometimes there was no telling what she was thinking but this time… this time he knew what was coming. Finally she lost her struggle and the laughter she had been trying to keep suppressed bubbled up spilling out of her mouth and rippled across the quiet landscape.
“I love you very much, dear brother, but really, was it not just last cycle you were the toast of the dragon towers. You never struck me as the handfast type. Aren’t you both too young?” Sobering slightly, she watched him carefully. He was nervous she could tell by the way he was playing with the knife but something had caught her attention.
“Okay,” Maldar replied, a little disappointed. “Laugh as much as you want just as long as you are on my side when it comes to the Olds.” A small smile played around his mouth as he drifted off into his own private Realm.
Aliedori had her palm pressed flat on the ground, and then she lifted her hand, curling her fingers slowly drawing in the elements before making a fist.
“What’s wrong?” Maldar’s smile vanished, replaced with a frown. He had a growing sense of unease; his mind had been elsewhere, but now it was fully focused on her. He gripped his boyhood sword, using it as a long knife. Aliedori didn’t respond. Instead, she waved an invisible annoyance away with her left hand while her right fist held the elements. She glanced first to her right and then to her left; Maldar knew that even with such a quick glance she had taken in everything.
“What is it?” Maldar asked again.
He could sense nothing, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something wrong.
“Something is not right.’ She stood.
Maldar shivered as a feeling of dread crawled through his stomach. Keidrop, who had been resting peacefully, her golden wings drawn close to her body as she slept, now unfurled her wings and looked up the moment Aliedori got to her feet.
“At the risk of repeating myself, what is it?” Maldar said also standing up.
There was a sliver of steel in his voice as he replaced his knife in its sheath, but it was when he brought his arm up and across his body to draw his sword that he sensed it. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled as he felt all the air being sucked out of the forest; he could neither move nor speak. Aliedori remained still for a moment or two then opened her fist and the light-filled sphere exploded, sending a brilliant illumination around the forest. The light found a shadow and chased it.
“Maldar, you go that side I will take this side. Keidrop, see if you can catch whoever that is, but be aware they are extremely fast.”
Aliedori spun on her heels; the illumination followed her, and together they gave chase as the shape disappeared into the distance. It dodged through trees, always slightly ahead just out of the light. Slowing her pace to enable her to draw her seax, she suddenly realised that she could no longer hear Maldar or Keidrop. She risked a glance over her shoulder as she picked up the pace again. An arc of lightning hit her taking the ground from beneath her feet. Magic, she thought, as she landed on her back, winded and dazed. She pulled herself quickly to her feet, ready to give chase again, but the shape was gone. She could feel the residue spell and taste it on her tongue; the bitter sick taste of dark magic. It caught in the back of her throat, making her gag. She leaned forward losing her supper; then wiped away the beads of sweat that had gathered on her forehead.
Her stomach settled and the pain in her chest where the lightning had made contact ceased instantly as she placed her palm against the nearest tree. From a bush close by she pulled off three leaves, brought them to her lips and whispered. Then, opening her palm, she commanded, “Seek.” Two leaves fell at her feet while the third fluttered in a zigzag motion through the trees; she followed it at high speed before it fell to the ground ahead of her.
Here the bitter taste on her tongue increased and so did her unease that something or someone had been watching her; watching them. She searched the area where the third leaf had landed but found nothing; the shape had disappeared into the darkness. She sent the light sphere high into the treetops illuminating a larger area, but all she saw were shadows and dark areas where the light could not reach.
“Where did you go or are you still here?” She scanned the shadows, but despondent that her search revealed nothing she retraced her steps running farther than she realised.
She emerged from the trees, her light orb floating above her head “Did you see anything?” she asked as she came to a stop beside the dragon. “There was a lot of powerful magic,” she continued as she caught the dragon’s reins. Her action caused the dragon to move.
Maldar still wasn’t moving; he was caught motionless in mid-action, reaching for his sword, his right arm across his body. His face was frozen in a look of fury and his blue eyes were like ice. Aliedori knew that the binding spell was only partly responsible, her action had played its part in that look, but this was not the time; they would come back to it sooner rather than later.
Aliedori said in a stern voice hiding her fear, “Mal move yourself, we need to get to Skellglade.”
In an instant Maldar completed the action of drawing his sword and looked around him wildly.
“You won’t see anything, we – you and Keidrop – were caught in a binding spell, I think it came from the centre of Skellglade. A charm powerful enough to stop a dragon.”
Still Maldar did not move, “What did you chase?”
“I do not know. A mage perhaps,” she shrugged.
“From Skellglade?” He arched a brow questioningly.
In a couple of strides, he was by Aliedori’s side. He took Keidrop’s reins and mounted his dragon, reaching out for his sister’s hand. She allowed herself to be helped onto Keidrop’s back, the dragon spread her wings and rose rapidly barely stirring the fallen leaves. They dropped down almost instantly on the spot where the shadow had vanished. Aliedori felt the power ripple through Keidrop’s powerful body as her feet touched the ground.
“What are you doing we need to get to Skellglade?”
“Skellglade can wait we need to find this mage,” he said. “Why didn’t you take Keidrop with you?” Maldar finished.
“I did not realise that you were both caught in the spell,” she said dismounting. The bitter taste burned the back of her throat like acid and she swallowed as she scanned the darkened trees and bushes beyond the illumination. The light spheres carefully chased the darkness wherever it was found, but it never went far enough, there was always a dark spot just out of reach of the light.
“Something or someone is out there.” She visibly flinched and stepped behind a tree. She drew her seax; the earlier static storm was playing havoc with her senses
“Do you think this is part of our coming of age test?” Maldar was standing over her. She pushed herself up into a standing position and almost gagged. She breathed deeply and slowly; surely this couldn’t just be her reaction to the use of the elements in dark magic.
“No one has coming of age tests any more. It is dying out even among the traditionalists; there are just those ridiculous ceremonies now.” She was having problems controlling the growing nausea. The smell of burning incense was mixing with the bitter taste of the dark magic and Aliedori was struggling not to be sick.
“I hate that smell,” she said, but Maldar could smell nothing.
Suddenly a phanthora materialised, its wings close to its body, its glowing claws swinging perilously as it appeared before them. Aliedori pushed Maldar out of the way and dived in the opposite direction. Landing hard on the ground she sprang to her feet instantly drawing energy from the earth as her palm made contact.
“I thought those things never left the sacred forest.” Maldar replied, slightly breathless, but springing to his feet his sword at the ready “Well, apparently they do tonight. Perhaps you are right it could be a test, but somehow it does not feel like one.”
She was moving as she spoke, her seax in one hand and a silver bolt in the other. Maldar matched her speed as they attacked from both sides. Aliedori was met with a powerful force and found herself flying through the air again. A searing pain ran from her head to her toes as her back and head made impact with the hard ground. The silver bolt dissolved into nothing. Winded, she stood a little slower this time; her head hurt, she felt drowsy, her eyes grew heavy and her feet and arms grew weak. Despite the energy she drew as her body touched the ground, her seax slipped from her hand. She was unable to focus as she bent over to retrieve her sword; she felt the warm handle with a finger.
“Aliedori!” Maldar screamed her name.
She grabbed the seax and brought it up blindly. The phanthora let out an agonising roar and the light spheres splintered and perished like the embers of a dying fire. Darkness engulfed them and the red eyes glowed brighter.
“I think you only made it angrier.” Maldar grabbed his sister’s hand and pulled her out of the way of the springing feline. The forest was too dense for it to use its wings effectively.
They hid behind a large tree, breathing deeply.
“Where is that damn dragon when you need her?” Maldar said trying to catch his breath; they both peered cautiously around the tree.
“Whatever it is, it is not a true phanthora,” Aliedori said pulling Maldar out of the way just as the giant tree splintered showering them both in fragments from the tree trunk. The creature sprang again, and this time Aliedori was ready, using an incantation she snapped off and lit a branch before handing it to Maldar. She lit another branch, and they both charged at the creature. It faltered as they came hurtling towards it, swerving to avoid the flames and colliding with a bolder. Aliedori tore through forest with the seax in her hand. Then, using the boulder to elevate herself, she opened a gash in the creature’s side and watched as luminous fluid oozed from the wound.
“How do you know it’s not a true phanthora?”
Aliedori pointed to the ground; the luminous ooze was fading fast instead of setting everything alight.
“It can be hurt, and if that is the case, then we can send it back to the ancestors.” Maldar struck the creature with his own sword and more luminous fluid exploded onto the ground. The phanthora howled again.
“I think it’s getting bigger, Aliedori. I think each time we wound it, it grows.” Aliedori said nothing. A pale shape moved in the shadows. Hurriedly Aliedori dragged Maldar into the dense foliage of the fallen tree.
“There are more of those creatures. Look,” she indicated with her sword.
“What’s the plan again… send it back to the ancestors?” he sighed as he surveyed the area quickly.
She stood and pulled Maldar to his feet and touched a branch of the tree.
“Return to your place,” she commanded, “and tell your sisters of the gift I gave you.” Maldar stood still beside her as the splintered bark began to stir.
The sound they heard was like the Realm groaning under the combined weight of a thousand phanthora creeping along the ground, shaking everything; even the mighty oaks trembled and shuddered. When Maldar looked back to the tree, the old oak was standing firm as if it had never been touched. He stumbled and grabbed a small tree to steady himself. From out of the shadows the phanthora appeared. Maldar spun round, his blue eyes now large with fear.
They were surrounded!
He glanced towards his sister who did not appear to notice; her attention was still taken up by the newly reformed tree.
“Whatever you are thinking Alie, please think faster.”
“You’re right Maldar, this could be a test. If the phanthora’s intention is to send us to the ancestors we would be with them by now.”
“Test or not, we can still be sent home to the ancest…” Maldar’s words died in a scream as a mighty mouth came down and picked him up, flung him into the air then caught him and tossed him again. This time, he was hurled sideways. He spun round in the air and started to fall rapidly. He stopped with a sudden jolt and felt himself being pulled back. Then he was by her side, Aliedori had never used her abilities like that on him before. He collapsed onto his knees and knelt there for a while trembling. He felt her hand on his shoulder, a small comfort, but as she withdrew her hand and he attempted to stand, a slight tremor passed through him.
“A circular pit,” he said, “and we are on the inside, trapped.” He hoped she had built an escape route into her plans.
“Maldar hold on to me.” He did as he was told placing one arm around her waist while the other kept hold of his sword even though it was useless against the magical phanthora. In a last desperate attempt, Maldar slashed out at the approaching creature. Luminous fluid oozed out of each gash and sent a rancid, bitter smoke into the air each time the slime hit the ground. Maldar coughed, clearing the taste from the back of his throat. It was too dark to see the phanthora clearly, only the luminous slime and the red eyes shone in the gloom.
“Maldar, stop doing that! You said yourself that they grow when wounded.” Her voice was calm and even, without fear. With renewed strength and purpose Aliedori raised her seax to her lips and Maldar felt a new tremor rock the ground as she uttered the incantation. The serrated, long horn of the drac glowed brightly as did his sword; she dropped the seax.
“Throw your sword into the pit.”
“I liked my sword, that was my favourite,” he said as he watched it fall.
“We are sending them back home to the ancestors.” Jagged rocks, shaped like his sword and her seax appeared like teeth in the pit. The earth around them began to crumble, and broad fissures snaked out in four directions; the jagged razor-like teeth ran through each one.
“Why are we not moving?” It had taken him a while to come to his senses.
She ignored the question and instead wrapped her arm around his waist.
“This would be a good time for Keidrop to be here, hold on.” The pit of steel and bone became an endless grinding mouth.
“Return to the Ancestors!” she commanded.
The grinding increased. The ground was disappearing at an alarming rate. The phanthora took their chances and sprang into the air as one.
“Hold on,” she said, again her voice still calm, still strong. Maldar did not feel the same so he shut eyes and brought his free arm up to cover his head as a phanthora’s gaping maw opened ready to swallow them whole. Maldar felt something wrap around his waist, binding him to Aliedori, then he was swung up, and he felt weightless and small. When he opened his eyes again he was suspended high above the pit. Aliedori was clutching a vine, and her other arm was wrapped around his waist. He looked down, the ground had disappeared and the last of the phanthora was struggling to get free of the grinding teeth.
Aliedori gripped the vine tighter and turned her face upwards. The moon hit her face covering it in a silver light. She closed her eyes against the cold rays of the moon and drew the silver light into her lungs letting the light restore her energy.
“Take us down,” Aliedori commanded.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, we cannot stay up here forever; we still need to get to Skellglade.”
“You think the phanthorans are the work of the man-child?” Maldar asked in disbelief.
They were being gently lowered and by the time the ground came up to meet them there were no mouths of steel and bone and no phanthorans, just an abundance of green leaves blanketing the ground with their swords lying on top.
“Poor trees,” Aliedori said, not answering his question. She picked up their sword. Maldar took his and replaced it in its sheath. When he looked up she had her palm pressed again an old oak tree that had stood for centuries in the fabled Forest of Souls. Her incantation was, as always, strange but beautiful to his ears. Her voice… her words… came from the breeze, the earth, the moon and the water… all speaking in one voice through her.
“New leaves?” Maldar whispered in awe. He would never get used to her abilities. She said something else, this time she was talking to the trees; he would never get used to that strange secret language either.
“Heal yourself Maldar”. We need to free Keidrop.”
He rested against a tree and drew on the restorative energy. He felt better, reinvigorated, “Thank you,” he said talking to the tree. Then he turned to Aliedori, “What do you mean, free her?” he demanded.
Maldar turned and rushed back to the spot where he had last seen his golden dragon.
“In the name of the Ancestors,” he cried in disbelief as hot fury stung his insides. His beautiful golden dragon was ensnared in a trap of vines and giant makka bushes that had pierced her skin. Wherever they touched her body, small spirals of smoke emitted and blood was dripping from the wounds.
“They are burning her alive!” Aliedori do something!” he shouted, anguish evident in his voice.
“Move back Maldar.” When her brother didn’t move she shoved past him, took a deep breath and gathered her strength. Her mind was swimming with strange images, each one more violent than the next. She knew she had to stop this; she could not let those images take control, and so gripping her seax she strode forward. She shook her head, trying to eradicate the images from her mind. Her green eyes flashed gold. Aliedori moved through the darkening trees until she was in front of Keidrop who was suspended too high by the vines and thorny bushes for Aliedori to reach her.
“It burns,” the dragon said as her golden eyes fluttered open. Her wings were folded at an odd angle and her voice was sharp and filled with pain. There was the smell of burning flesh, unpleasant and cloying in her nostrils.
“Hold still Kei, I will get you free. Maldar I need your help. “Put your hands together like this.” She put one booted foot on his interlaced fingers and one hand on his shoulder for balance as he hoisted her up to reached Keidrop. With some difficulty, Aliedori placed a palm against the dragon’s face. She held it there for a short while until the dragon visibly relaxed. Her nostrils flared, and smoke was added to the gloom of the forest.
“Put me down now.”
Aliedori released a healing light sphere, momentarily penetrating the darkness. It splintered round her, sending shards of light like glowing stars that floated up and settled on the dragon. They worked their way onto her skin and under her scales, healing wherever they touched. Hundreds of giant thorns fell at their feet; they were as long as Maldar’s arm, and they watched as they melted into the ground and disappeared. A low rumble of relief was emitted from somewhere deep within the dragon. Aliedori shifted and placed one hand on a vine and the other on the ground and called to the earth to release Keidrop.
She tried again, but the vines remained steadfastly green; then she remembered something touching the largest tree.
“Ask your sisters to release my dragon,” she commanded and stood back, but Keidrop was sill suspended in the tight coils of vines and bushes that were pulling ever tighter.
“You know me, and you know I did not do this. I did not bring those creatures here.” She glanced behind her, and Maldar saw her green eyes flecked with gold for an instant.
“Release my dragon!” she said again. This time, Maldar did not recognise the voice; it seemed to come from somewhere else. Suddenly the vines and thorny bushes sprang back releasing the dragon.
Keidrop crashed to the ground with a mighty thud. Maldar rushed to the side of the motionless dragon, noticing that the burns and cuts were already healing.
“I can’t believe you actually argued with trees,” Maldar laughed. “And I don’t believe that the man-child is responsible for this.”
The dragon was breathing easier now and Maldar ran his finger over the dragon’s rough scales and down under the chin to his soft spot.
“Neither do I, but a spell did come from Skellglade. We still need to know if it was intended for our mother’s people.”
“Don’t you mean your people?” Keidrop was stirring and Aliedori sat down beside them frowning. She waved Maldar’s words away with an elegant movement of her slender hand that was run through with steel.
“Besides, I saw the mage responsible, he was still here.
Come on, Keidrop, open your eyes. We have things to do.”
The dragon opened her large golden eyes and looked at her two charges curiously but said nothing.
“He is gone, I saw him watching us fight,” Aliedori said, replacing her sword in its sheath. As she stood up Keidrop and Maldar also got to their feet. Keidrop unfurled her golden wings, flapped them twice creating a leaf storm; they had healed completely and were free from any scars. Before the small leaf storm could gather momentum, Keidrop and her riders were gone heading west.
The only evidence of a battle was the green blanket of leaves that covered the ground and the few dancing in the draught caused by the dragon.