Author's Note: How odd is it that a single phrase can inspire a whole short? Not very odd, actually, but there was something about the way it was said that touched my feelings. Maybe it was the tired, resigned tone of voice, maybe it was the glimmerings of hope contained therein, maybe it was…you get the point.
An Arkonese Short by Lccorp2.
"We survive." To my ear-fins, the statement was weak and tired, most befitting an aged Dragonkin who'd seen far, far too much in her lifetime. "We survive. We always have, no matter how terrible things have been. It is what the Black Flight does best."
"Then you must survive too, Servitor," I managed to choke out, barely making myself heard above the din that came from below us, the roars, hisses and gurgles that seeped through the mountain's solid rock and into the chamber we were in, punctuated by the pings and pows of lead shot against rock, metal and scale. "We need your help and guidance."
"Shouldn't that be 'I need your help and guidance', Ikkirath?" Ex'vhal asked, her jaws twisting into a pained grin for the briefest of moments before they collapsed once again into a grimace.
"That too," I replied, snorting. Only my father had called me Ikkirath ever since I'd been a hatchling, and to hear it from someone else was…disturbing, to say the least. Yet this was no time for arguments or berating. Carefully, I picked off the crude strips of cloth off Ex'vhal's underbelly, hearing her grunt as the crusted-over makeshift bandages left her leathery hide. Stopping only to soak proper bandages in something strong-smelling the Restorers had left me, I bound her wound again.
"It stings. I'm too old for this-past a thousand Rounds and seen far too much fighting for my time."
"If you're that old and weak, why are you speaking like that to me with a huge gash in your underbelly? You should be silent, or at best hissing and spitting incoherently in pain."
"Not possible. A leader must know how to…"
"…Dole out suffering, take suffering, buy and sell, comfort, write a book, read a book, listen, speak, do something, take no action, press forward, retreat, be cold, be charismatic. A leader must at least have some idea of whatever is expected of subjects, or at least have in their employ people who do know about it."
Another pained grin. "You've learnt well. Specialization is for those who breed and die too fast to truly enjoy what they do."
"Not well enough, Ex'zhal, not well enough. I still need you, and through me the Black Flight needs you. Please, live to see another night. Odd that in the midst of all this death we should be…"
"Hgrath. It's…not as if you could make any difference now. You'd only get in the way of others, Brood Mother or not. A young Brood Mother…we haven't had one of those for some time. Nevertheless…the defenders and shadowmancers are getting along fine."
The chamber smelled of ichor, scale and most of all the acrid tang of barely constrained arcane energy. Behind us, the few who still knew something beyond the intuitive about manipulating the Black Flight's Aspect toiled away, the crystal focus gradually taking shape as tendrils of darkness wrapped themselves about the device's core.
"You're always too…serious about things," Ex'zhal continued. "Even when you were a broodling, you wouldn't grin or play, and that worried your father so. If far too few of us have a healthy sense of humour, even fewer have a healthy sense of play. It's not good, even if it is understandable, given our history. They were never kind to even those who played."
"We survive, though."
"We survive." Spreading her wings just enough to let herself lean against the rough-hewn wall without discomfort, Ex'zhal gingerly scratched at the chitin plating her chest. "We've survived, despite all that has happened to the Flight."
"We survive," I repeated numbly. When I'd first come up with the phrase, it'd seemed innocuous enough, yet the way Ex'zhal said it made me want to curl up in the darkness and shiver. Perhaps that was why my kind still followed me, despite my Hand and Servitor doing all the actual administration with me serving as a figurehead of sorts. If the scouts and spies were to be believed, those who still remained in Sunstone used it more than traditional sayings like "The night shadow your path."
Ex'zhal was right, though. When I'd been first recognized by my Flight as Brood Mother, I wouldn't even have cared about what was going on below or around us. Now I had to clench my jaws together, unwilling to believe that I couldn't do anything to help, raging at my own impotence. Useless, more like.
The shooting continued, and my claws tightened around the rifle's polished wooden stock. Not that it would make any difference should the invaders actually manage to break into this cavern, but its hardness in my palm let me breathe a little easier, think a little more clearly amidst the din. How the shadowmancers could work in this noise I didn't know, but I was most definitely grateful they could.
"Your tail's twitching," Ex'zhal said dryly, her voice a little fainter than before.
"So it is. That thing's over there's almost ready, after all-how can you blame me for being just a little anxious?" Even as I watched, more and more Arcane Crystals were set into the hollows onto the device's surface. According to Ex'zhal, the Arcane Crystals' crude cutting and faceting would diminish the ethereal resonance and through that their ability to function as foci. We had enough power to do the task at hand, though. Hopefully.
"K'ransa, Ikkirath…don't lie to me; it's my hide that's cracked, not my mind. You can comfort an old Dragonkin in the midst of all this chaos if you truly want to make yourself useful." She began to hum gently, singing amidst all the death and destruction that was taking place around us as if to defy the gravity of the situation.
"Home," she whispered. "We survive."
Now I truly felt like curling up into a scaly, spiny ball and creeling. There wasn't a chance to do that, though, before a young black Dragonkin who couldn't have been much older than I had burst in through the entrance. Snapping to alertness, I had the rifle cocked and ready to fire before realizing the newcomer didn't pose any threat to us. Cautiously, I watched as he carefully bowed slightly and extended one hand in Grad, the other pressed against the most grievous of his wounds. Crude ichor-soaked bandages like the one I'd stripped off Ex'zhal covered most of the male's body and I feared more of those in the tunnels were like him.
It's getting from bad to worse. There's flesh not just on his claws, but also on his spines…the melee has started, they're pressing in earnest. Freed slaves against the best of what both the Gold and Red Flights have to offer…what chance do we have?
Stolen portal magic. Hurry, hurry hurry!
"Forgive me for my unorthodox greeting and dispense with the formalities. My Hand sent you, didn't he?" I growled.
"The Hand of the Brood did send me to report on the current situation. While we're holding the tunnels for now, there're simply too many of them, far too many of them for even an easily defensible spot to be held for too much longer. Every one of us that goes down takes ten along with him or her, but it just seems they're coming out of the tunnel walls themselves!
'Crossfire has ceased, and they've moved within melee range of us-we don't have any caltrops or burning pitch left. Not that the latter harmed the Red Flight that much, anyways. The automated defences we had the shadowmancers construct are still functional, though some are pretty scratched up from bullets and whatever magic they're throwing at us.
'We've collapsed the northern and eastern tunnels as you've ordered, though I'm sure they're working to reopen them even as we speak. The last one we spent all that time digging is still open…"
"…But to move the whole Flight through the tunnel would take far too long. It was designed for moving goods in and out, not a whole people," I finished. "Yet if the portal we're creating fails, start evacuating anyone who isn't fighting out that way. Best some of us survive, than none of us."
Throwing the contraption a glance, I sighed. The Gold Flight taught us many things. How to work the land instead of eating the dead and conjured food amongst many, many other things that we had to learn after so long in a blighted land.
What they couldn't or wouldn't give, we stole and secreted away. Basic necessities; food, fuel, the odd discarded focus, already severely depleted from repeated usage in channelling but still barely workable. We stole these humble things, and then progressed to more…useful articles. This portal magic, for example.
Survival first. Morals later.
In some ways, they aren't wrong-they are our benefactors, in a twisted sort of way; if only they didn't have to do this to us. I think I now have some idea why Ex'zhal wouldn't let go of that handful of grass back then, although she probably is right-it's something I will never fully understand.
"K'ransa!" Ex'zhal had gotten unsteadily to her feet and pounded on my head with a gnarled fist before settling down again. "That's why you'll never be a leader like this! Listen to the runner!"
Glancing around him, the runner managed a nod. "As I said, Mother, we aren't going to be holding them back too much longer, no matter how defensible our fortifications are. They'll simply overrun our positions with sheer numbers not too long from now."
"Begin preparations for the evacuation and start moving the non-combatants towards this chamber. My Hand himself can decide when to fall back from the line and overload the automated defences. There are already too few of black Dragonkin; I want as many of us to live as possible."
"Dismissed. Relay this message to El'darath immediately-he'll get everything done." I should have helped; my tail was twitching, hide itching in anticipation, but…what could I do to help?
Watching the runner retreat into the darkness, I turned my attention back to the game board between the two of us. The three eight-sided stone dice still lay where I'd left them-scooping them up in the leathery palm of one hand, I offered them to Ex'zhal.
Silently, she eyed me for a moment before turning her attention to the pieces upon the board. Lit by only the faint glimmers of light from the contraption's Arcane Crystals, each of the pieces seemed…stolid with their deep, long shadows. In the aeons since it had first come into being, Nrg'shar had changed with the times and fortunes of the Black Flight, although the basic premises still remained unchanged.
Pieces moved. The dice fell upon the floor, clacking and jumping before they came to a halt.
"I take the initiative and my aerial gunners mount the offensive against your wall."
"My defenders hole up and counterattack, despite being outnumbered." It was my turn to roll the dice, and I had the pleasure of removing a tiny replica of a flying Dragonkin from the board." Chance can throw everything into chaos.
Pausing to soothe a coughing fit, Ex'zhal carefully moved a few more pieces off to one side. "My remaining units feign retreat and attempt to flank your defenders while my ground troops create a diversion." The dice rolled twice more, and this time the old dragoness hazarded a grin. "They fell for it. What's strategy or luck without the other?"
"More than what T'lin has, considering she's tried to besiege us and starve us out of hiding. You can't surround a whole mountain range, much less one inhabited by a people adept at tunnelling. Not that it matters, thank the night." Reluctantly, I removed my wall from the board, along with every single piece attached to it-a bitter loss indeed.
Two females playing a game, a game of and in death and destruction. Perhaps Nrg'shar could have been better if there had been more sides, more players whom with to ally and betray, more scheming and plotting. Then again, the game was divided into two sides: light and darkness, much the same way it'd been for most of our history, if Ex'zhal was to be believed.
One day I'd make a variant to reflect our changing fortunes, if time permitted.
"Mother?" an unfamiliar voice came from behind me. "It is ready. You and the Servitor will most definitely want to see it, I know."
"Indeed." Helping Ex'zhal to her feet, I followed the shadowmancer a little way before peering at the contraption that was supposed to save us. Fashioned out of scavenged and stolen odds and ends, the portal didn't look like any of the machines I'd come into contact with during my time in Sunstone. Angular fragments and spokes of this and that jutted out of a central core, the hole in it perhaps wide enough to admit three Dragonkin standing side by side. Every now and then, sparks and flashes of violet lightning arced from crystal to crystal before dissipating into nothingness.
The more I looked at it, the more uneasy I became about entrusting the face of a whole Flight to this contraption.
"Has it been tested?" I managed to ask.
"It has, with much success. The test subject returned with no apparent ill effects," the shadowmancer replied, gesturing with one claw at the fat white grub with a rope looped about its middle. "The scrying-stone attached has determined the destination is exactly where we've wanted it to be-an overcast night sky will provide sufficient cover for those who wish to fly, and those burdened shall have to walk along an overgrown but serviceable path. We will be there and in hiding by daybreak."
Cautiously, I bent over to study the creature, watching in satisfaction as the foot-high grub squirmed as I prodded it with a claw. "Shame if it had been lost. One this size is definitely a good eats."
"Definitely better than what they fed us."
"We survived. That's more than what many others have done. K'ransa, we'll have to abandon that game for now, perhaps even leave the board here for T'lin's hatchling-brain to wonder at. You there! Send word down to the domicile that it's ready. I'll be along shortly to help matters-"
"Ex'zhal, your wound-"
"I'm too old to lie around. If I'm going to die, might as well be doing something useful while I'm about it," Ex'zhal snapped before hobbling over to retrieve her crude walking stick from where it lay.
I didn't dare stop her. Come to think of it, I hadn't dared to do many things, either; and that had more or less landed not just me, but my people into daylight with nowhere to hide. They had placed their trust in me-the offspring of a poet and playwright-and were now paying the price.
With both El'darath and Ex'zhal's help, we might just survive.