Chapter Twenty-two

Toni stood quietly between Ramous and Rahu as she watched Sir Clementine, Echidna, and Bane say their last goodbyes. Echidna giggled after the knight whispered something in her ear and threw a sheepish look at her brother as he glared at the man in warning. The girl could sense the light atmosphere as the evening wind blew through the leaves, a warning of the fall of night on its way. A deep sigh ran through her as she thought back to the worriless days of her life, her carefree childhood in the memories of the home she'd left behind in the human realm. She reminisced at how content she'd been, thinking that she'd finally found the home, friends, and family she was meant to have when she'd found the Imarie Palace.

Now her perfect world was turning upside down. If she'd known that her presence in this realm would bring so much chaos and danger she would have stayed at the Youth House. But now it was too late…

Toni looked down at the gem in her chest with sad eyes. She never wanted this responsibility; to be this priestess that everyone depended on so much. She didn't know how to be a hero or leader or anything. The closest she'd come to being called a hero was when she'd found a little girl's torn up doll in the middle of the park and returned it to her. And she doubted very much that magical stones were as easy to find as a rag doll.

Not to mention the fact that she had rules she had to act by as the priestess. If she undermined the whole "saving the world" bit and pushed herself forward about two years after puberty Toni might have gone into depression. Sir Clementine had spoken to her as the dragons had walked out of the cottage in preparation to continue their journey.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

As Bane and the other dragons left the cottage one by one Toni moved to follow, but Clementine gently gripped her small arm, pulling her back into the house.

"Forgive me, my lady, but I must speak with you alone for a moment, ye know."

Toni nodded with a nervous smile. "You could just call me Toni, Clementine. 'My lady' is so…old."

"Yes, well call me old fashioned if ye will," he chuckled. "I've been addressing the high folk for too long to simply drop the habit if ye know what I mean."

Defeated, Toni shrugged shortly as the knight's face suddenly took a serious look, his eyes staring straight into hers. "What I'm about to tell you is gravely important, little one. What I say you must never tell anyone else. Do you understand?" As she nodded, he continued. "Now, forgive my forwardness, but I must ask you…have you ever been intimate with any man in your life?"

Baffled, Toni sputtered for a moment before she looked shyly to the floor. "Well…I mean…I've been kissed once…it was sort of an accident though so I'm not sure if it really counts. I've…hugged Ramous and…"

"No, no," Clementine interrupted. "Have you ever slept with any man before?"

"NO! Oh my god, are you serious?! What kind of girl do you think I am? I mean I'm adventurous, sure, but not like that. Eww, it's…"

Clementine waved his had, dismissing her next words. "Good. Now, priestess, listen to me. You must remain untouched until you complete your journey. Do you understand?"

"…Un…untouched? What…"

"A virgin," he explained bluntly. "Tiamat's priestess must be a virgin in order to summon her into this world. If you are not then you will be seen as unclean to the stones and holy temple will reject your presence. You will be unable to summon the goddess if you have any sort of sexual encounter with any male…or female depending on your preference," he added with a mischievous grin.

Toni's face scrunched silently at the word 'female' but remained silent, holding the man's gaze steadily with her own.

The knight pointed to the mark of the dragon's eye that lay hidden under the sleeve of her tunic. "If you do Tiamat will take her mark from you and banish you from this world. Distance yourself from the males, Toni, no matter what your emotions tell you…you cannot be close to any male in this way."

The one Clementine spoke of remained unsaid between the two but the name hung in the air over Toni's head like an anvil waiting to fall, the feeling just as heavy as the real thing.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

As his sister gave Clementine a final embrace, Bane's eyes met the knight's as the man gazed at him shortly over Echidna's small shoulder. Refraining from flinching under the human's sharp gaze, the Moon Dragon looked away to glance at Toni as she stood next to Ramous as he watched Echidna with a jealous look in his golden eyes. Their newest companion, Rahu, stood protectively behind Toni, his eyes staring off into the edge of the forest in front of Clementine's small home as if he saw something faintly in the distance.

Bane looked back to Toni. She stood there between the two dragons, fiddling her fingers with the scent of nervousness covering her. Her eyes darted back and forth from Echidna and Clementine, and she chewed the bottom of her lip in agitation. Suddenly, she turned and locked eyes with Bane. Without blinking, Bane returned her gaze softly, offering a small smile of comfort, but almost instantly Toni's eyes widened and she looked away to the ground.

He fought the urge to go over to her to see what was wrong. It was obvious she didn't want to look or talk to him. To be truthful, it had been strange. Ever since Clementine had released from their private confrontation in the cottage Toni had refused to even stand anywhere near him as if she were afraid of him.

However, considering the words that Sir Clementine had spoken to him as Echidna and Ramous became acquainted with Rahu, Bane wondered if the reason for her sudden distance was similar to the knight's warning.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Leaning against the hard wood of Clementine's cottage, Bane watched Rahu with hard eyes. The Sky Dragon stood a small ways away from Ramous and Echidna as they talked amongst themselves, his head rotating slowly atop his broad shoulders as he surveyed their surroundings. No matter how the knight vouched from the dragon, Bane refused to let his guard down around the newcomer. With all that had been set on their shoulders he couldn't afford to let even the smallest thing go unnoticed; all of their lives depended on his vigilance, especially Toni's. She was so important to them all – to the entire dragon race.

The Moon Dragon growled in annoyance as Rahu lifted his head for the fourth time to sniff the air. "I have already scanned the area for trespassers. There is no need to concern yourself so with the forest. There is nothing – and no one – out there."

Rahu's shoulders slumped slightly, like a father who was tired of explaining to his son. "No one is immune to error, Stormwing," he called, growling out Bane's second name. "You must excuse me if I show concern of the little one's welfare."

Before Bane could snarl a retort, Toni walked out of the cottage with Clementine in her wake. As the dragon bent his head to see if she was well, the girl glanced up at him and hurriedly scurried over to Echidna and Ramous.

Before he could move to follow, Clementine moved so that he was in his path. The knight met the dragon's evenly glare for glare. The man's green and gold felt as if they were boring holes into the front of Bane's face and before the dragon could growl in warning he was forced to look away or lose his eyesight.

"What are you?" the Moon Dragon whispered, his eyes daring to look back up at him.

Clementine chuckled lightly as he shrugged his strong shoulders. "I am an ancient, one of many of the great descendants of your kind. A half-breed if you will." When Bane's eyebrows furrowed in question the knight waved his head in dismissal. "That is of no true importance. I must tell you something quickly before you and your companions leave."

Bane's head cocked to the side in suspicion as he looked at the man. "What?"

The human stepped closer to him until they were both face to face, neither one backing down from the other; a true challenge of power and dominance.

Clementine barely blinked as he spoke. "I know that you are long past your adolescent years, Stormwing. The Dragon Father has taught and disciplined you well; you are mature far beyond your years so I expect you to take my next words with serious caution." Bane continued to stare at the knight as he continued. "As a full-grown beast…as a man…you come to your rut every year but I tell you on this journey when the season comes you must not act. Your duties as a son of your race and protector of the Chosen One demand you do so. Surely you know this?"

"What sort of beast do you take me for, human?" Bane spat, his nose wrinkling in disgust at the mere thought of what the man suggested. "I would never beseech my honor in route. Surely you know this."

"I do and so I expect much of you." Clementine conceded. "However, it is my duty to make it undoubtedly clear to you that you must maintain the distance of a warrior and protector. You cannot - will not - take the role of a lover during this mission."

"I already told you that I know what my honor holds me to. I warn you, Clementine, if you address me as a child again I will take it as a challenge, I promise you."

Clementine bowed his head in understanding before he raised it again to look squarely in the dragon's eyes. "Even so I must say that you cannot take on any intimate relations with anyone until all Catari stones are found and Tiamat has been summoned. If you cross the boundaries the God and Goddess have set, I promise you, you will feel Tiamat and Kingu's wrath."

Without another word, the knight gave him a carefree smile and turned to walk over to Ramous and Echidna, leaving Bane to let what had been said sink into his mind. The Moon Dragon stood there silently for a moment, staring at the place where Clementine had just been seconds before. Slowly, he turned his head to glance at Toni as she stood beside Rahu watching the others. His eyes filled with an emotion so foreign to him that he shuddered to shake the weight of it from his shoulders. With a heavy sigh, Bane turned to join the rest of his companions.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The group of five – a Moon Dragon, Sun Dragon, Mist Dragon, Wind Dragon, and human girl – stood before Sir Clementine with mixed feelings swirling deep in the stomach of each. Toni shuffled from one foot to the other, eager for them to be on their way, a small bag filled with fruit, cooked meat, and fresh water. She glanced up at Bane who stood to her right, protectively shielding her from the bright afternoon sun, and then to her left where Rahu had settled himself. Ramous and Echidna stood behind them, as always, protecting their backs. She could feel the tension that had risen in the group ever since Rahu had joined them. She knew that the others didn't trust the new dragon but tolerated him nonetheless for the sake of the group. Though they would be cautious around him they were, deep down, grateful for the extra protection added to their ranks.

Clementine looked over them all, like a father gazes at his children before they venture out into the world on their own. He looked into each of their eyes as he began to speak, the red-backed wolves who still settled just outside his home raising their heads to listen as well.

"And so the five left on the journey that would determine the fate of the dragon race, that they did," he sighed deeply. "Your faith and strength will be tested now, my friends. I will not lie to you…there are many dangers waiting for you and the majority of them will not be Zatara as you'd expect. There are many black magics and dangers more threatening than Zatara. Siamai has many allies that wait in the darkness. You would do well to stay close to one another, trust each other, never separate, and trust none but those who bear Tiamat's mark on their bodies. Your lives depend on that."

Glancing at the ground for a moment, Toni shifted the pack on her back. "Where are we supposed to go from here?"

The knight's gaze shifted to stare beyond them into the woods and mountains in the distance. "Search for the Catari stones to the west, near Calito's clan. If you run into them, tell them I sent you for their aid. They will help you."

Ramous suddenly stretched his arms out wide and yawned loudly, his voice barely covering the sounds of his cracking bones. "Well, I say we get on with it. We'll be here forever sobbing over goodbyes…never was really good at them."

"I agree," Clementine chuckled. "The faster you get on your way the closer you'll be to the end."

As Bane and the dragons turned to shift to their dragon forms, Toni suddenly whipped her head around towards the forest. "Wait! We left Cherryblossom!"

Echidna sighed as she threw a harsh side-look at her brother. "I told you we should not have left him alone. The poor thing is probably terrified."

"It isn't like he has not been left alone before," Bane muttered, carefully avoiding Toni's glare. "I will fetch him."

"Tis no need for that," Clementine called.

The knight motioned to wolf pack still lounging outside his home. Lazily, the wolves rose to their paws to move aside, glancing behind them as if summoning some unknown creature from the brush behind them. As Toni squinted her light brown eyes she could just make out a white shadow treading out of the forest's darkness. Then, suddenly, she nearly squealed in relief as Cherryblossom slowly walked out from huddle of the wolf pack. His white coat looked bright and fresh as though someone had given him a warm bath and his light pink eyes shone in the soft glare afternoon sun.

The unicorn paused beside the pack's leader, Jacai, and whinnied softly. Raising his head from atop his large paws, the immense wolf bent down from his perch atop the stone to lick CB's muzzle. Cherryblossom danced in a small circle, waving his silver tail from side to side. With their goodbyes said, he trotted over to Toni who hugged him, leaving him to squirm in her tight embrace.

Rahu raised a dark eyebrow as he looked from the unicorn to the pack of wolves. "I may be mistaken…but are not wolves supposed to…devour horses, not cuddle them?"

Clementine shrugged. "I saw the little one on the cliff before I came to find you all and led him back here, leaving him in the care of Jacai's pack. Even if they were hungry they wouldn't eat him, 'tis ancient law that any who kill a unicorn for the simple purpose of food will be doomed to a poisonous death."

"See?" Toni cut her eyes up at Bane. "At least someone has a conscious."

"I doubt having a fear of a painful death can be called having a conscious," Bane spat.

Echidna stepped in between the two before Toni could throw a stone at the Moon Dragon. "Enough, please, there is no time for this. The sun is already going to set soon. It's time to leave."

Toni barely had time to blink before the dragons were back in their coats of scales, their wings nearly blocking out the dimming sun as they stretched wide. She turned to look at Cherryblossom as Clementine walked up to the yearling. The knight bent down to stare deep into the creature's pink eyes; CB only snorted once before returning the man's gaze silently. After a moment, the man stood up again and scratched the top of the unicorn's head. "Keep close to this little one, priestess. His pain will be yours."

Toni shook her head as she moved to hug him. "My name is Toni. Call me Toni."

Clementine smiled as he nodded. "Your name is Toni but your role is priestess. The second is what most will see first." Gently pulling back from her, he nodded at Bane as the dragon moved to pick up the girl gently in his teeth and set her slowly back down atop his back.

Ramous and Rahu bowed low to the knight before bounding into the air, the wind from their wings causing the trees to sway and swagger in their wake. Echidna came closer to gently nudge the man affectionately with her muzzle before flying off as well.

But before Bane could follow his companions Toni lent over, peering down suspiciously at him. "I'm…just curious…how did you know so much about the goddess…and about me? You don't look like a philosopher or anything. No offense," she quickly added.

Clementine gave her a wry smile in return, his eyes suddenly glinting a mischievous gold, close to the same shade as Bane's. "Things are not always as they seem, Toni. I am much older that your young eyes can tell."

"Yeah…can you speak clearly for once, please?"

"I am one of the grandsons of the dragon prince , born in the days of the human deliver." He shifted slightly to lower the back of his color, baring the view of his golden scale-covered back to her.

Toni nearly choked from her shock. "You…you were born when Jesus was alive?! But that means you're…you're half dragon…"

Bane's chuckle shook his entire body as he glanced back at her. "Now I suppose we know why Lord Ayani values his opinion so."

As the Moon Dragon turned to leave, Clementine called out to him, "Do not hold Zatara's curse idly, Stormwing. Watch for the signs in your dreams and remember the prophecy; it will guide you."

The dragon nodded to the man as Cherryblossom quickly jumped atop his back to snuggle securely over Toni's lap.

Toni pulled on one of Bane's scales. "Uh, Bane…you're not actually going to fly are you?"

Without uttering a word, Bane leapt into the afternoon sky, leaving Toni to yell in fright as his wings flapped up and down around her like giant fans. She squeezed CB to her and clenched her legs around the thickness of the dragon's scales to gain some sense of security, nearly choking the unicorn in her lap.

Careful not to fly too quickly to allow her to regain her wits, Bane flew upwards with the wind to catch up with the rest of their companions. As he glided up between Ramous and Echidna, Toni dared to slowly raise her head. She glanced over Bane's side to look down at the earth at least a thousand miles below her. Her eyes widened as she gazed at the small human villages and farms they flew over. The homes all looked like miniature squares and the people like ants crawling around busily at the height that her dragon friends soared. It wasn't until a small flock of birds fluttered by below them that Toni swallowed the rising scream in her throat and buried her face in Cherryblossom's fur.

Ramous chuckled as he watched her small form shiver atop Bane's back from the cool wind. "How do you like flying, Toni? It's…what's the word…invigorating, is it not?"

"It's horrible," she muttered. "We're too high. Why can't we just walk?"

"We can travel swifter this way, little one. We have to use as much speed as we can to find the stones," Bane replied.

Rahu flew closer to the group, looking at the Moon Dragon through the corner of his green and black eyes. "How are we to find them if we are not certain where they are located? We have no way to track them."

"That is where Toni comes in. As priestess she should be able to sense the stones when we are near them."

But the girl didn't hear a word the dragons said – she was too sick to focus on anything else. She could feel her small stomach churning and fluttering from the motions of Bane's body as he rode the ever changing winds. She turned her head to the side against CB's back to gaze at Bane's wings, but the up and down motions only made the bile in the back of her throat bubble.

Cherryblossom whinnied quietly at her scrunched body, showing his concern. Toni shook her head as she moaned sickly. "I think I'm gonna throw up."

Without a word, Ramous glided to put more distance between himself and his friend, nervously looking at the human girl as if waiting for the remains of her breakfast to spew through the air.

Echidna came closer to peer down at her. She nuzzled the girl's side gently but she groaned and tried to push the dragoness' muzzle away irritably. "Perhaps we should travel by land for a while," Echidna suggested to her brother. "Toni isn't accustomed to flying and I doubt you want the remnants of day-old food stuck between your scales."

The Moon Dragon shivered at the thought but shook his head. "We have to use all the speed we can. We cannot afford to slow down even if one of us is ill."

"Even if the sickened one is Toni?"

Bane turned his head to look back at the girl. He watched as every few moments she would dare to peek over the side of his back to the ground miles below them before shuddering and burying her face back in the unicorn's fur. "She is not sick, only dizzy." But still the dragon slowed his flight and reached towards her with his tail to rub her back softly. "If the height and wind make you ill lie against my neck," he murmured.

Toni raised her head slowly to look at the back of his head, the cold wind blowing harshly through her soft, black hair. Moving from under Cherryblossom who bleated in protest, she started to crawl on her hands and knees toward the offered shelter. But just then a gust of wind decided to blow hard against her left side, nearly toppling her off the dragon's back. She screamed and clutched herself down against his back again, adamantly shaking her head. "I can't, I'm gonna fall…I'll fall…"

Bane looked back at her worriedly. She looked so small and frail lying there atop his back, her petite body shaking from fear and cold. He couldn't reach for her with his tail for fear of holding her to tightly, and he couldn't take her in his jaws for worry of dropping her.

As he continued to search his mind for a way to help her, Rahu glided swiftly to his side. Ignoring Toni's protested squeal, the Wind Dragon balanced himself perfectly against the onslaught of wind as he picked her up gently between his teeth. He stretched his long neck to reach forward and carefully place her down in the curve of Bane's neck.

Nearly hyperventilating, Toni hurried to snuggle herself into the raised, white scales where Bane's back met his neck, pushing closer to the welcoming, still warmth. She peeked out at Rahu after she'd settled herself, trying to slow her frantic breathing. She smiled at the dragon. "Th…thank you…" she uttered through quick breaths.

Rahu merely bowed his head slightly before riding the currents above Bane and Ramous' heads. It was then that Toni had a moment to clearly see his dragon form. Rahu's scales were a light brown shade that almost seemed golden in the sinking sun's glare. They were long and pointed, laid back against his body neatly like a bird's freshly preened feathers. Right above his small, pointed ears sat two large horns on either side of his head that were just as long as her forearm. His body was long, lean, and nearly curvaceous like the shape of a greyhound, and his tail stretched out behind him like a long, thick cobra with a long spike at the end of his tail in the same curved shape of a scabbard. The dragon's body was undeniably graceful and rode the wind like he'd been born in the air – as he most likely was.

Toni stared at him silently as if entranced by the flawlessness of the dragon's body. Feeling her gaze on him, Rahu turned his head slightly to look back at her and smile softly. When their gazes met, Toni blushed furiously, the passing wind feeling like icicles on her hot face, and she quickly whirled her head away to bury it in the warmth of Bane's scales. With a final glance back at her, the Sky Dragon turned back to the clouded path ahead of him, a small grin on his lips.

Unnoticed by either human or dragon, Cherryblossom looked back and forth between Toni and Rahu before whinnying indignantly. The unicorn curled himself into a tight silver-white ball atop Bane's back, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the Moon Dragon's as he rode the wind.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The afternoon sun rose high as the thick morning clouds slowly gave way to reveal the bright blue sky. The trees limbs swayed softly in the gentle wind as the birds, hawks, eagles, and swallows alike, flew through the air scouring the lands for food. Besides their light chirps and caws the land was quiet as the deer and elk huddled back in their caves and the safety of the rushes as the wolves began their hunt.

It was here that Rahu landed first. His paws touched the earth gently but his weight still devastated the ground, causing a heavy thud to sound through the quiet forest as grass and debris flew around him.

His dark turquoise eyes surveyed his surroundings slowly, careful to let every sight of rock, tree, and grass sink into his mind. The Sky Dragon considered himself a steady, cautious beast but he believed in being thorough when it came to not just his own safety but others as well. In the past he'd learned the hard way that failing to be observant to your surroundings could prove fatal in the near end.

As he raised his slender muzzle to sniff the air, Ramous landed heavily behind him. The Sun Dragon shook himself, resettling his scales as he pawed the ground to stiffen his claws. Keeping his red-gold eyes fixed on Rahu, he laid his wings against his back as he walked over to his new companion.

If Rahu felt his suspicious gaze cutting his back he didn't let on. Marching up next to him, Ramous idly sniffed the air himself before cutting his eye at him.

"There's nothing here for miles," Ramous said, his voice cold and dry. "I don't understand why you insist on patrolling so. There are four of us. I doubt any beast could ambush us without at least one noticing."

Without looking at him Rahu replied, "You would be surprised at what the enemy can do if they possess the right motivation." Now he turned to Ramous, his eyes blank of emotion. "Considering who travels with us I would think you would be more cautious of where you rest in these times."

"Do not dare imply that I do not worry about Toni's welfare."

"I imply nothing…I simply state that I would expect more caution from those who claim to be the priestess' guardians."

Before Ramous could move to slash at the Sky Dragon, Echidna landed gracefully to the ground, her paws barely disturbing a single blade of grass as they settled to the earth.

As Ramous turned to inform her of what Rahu had said the back of his head collided soundly with the blunt of her tail, nearly knocking him off balance in shock.

"What…what the bloody hell was that for?!" he yelled indignantly as he shook his throbbing head.

The Mist Dragoness rolled her eyes as she rubbed her petite shoulder against a nearby tree, causing his trunk to bend slightly under her weight. "Stop attacked Rahu," she chided. "All he does is look after Toni's safety as well as the rest of us. Do not blame him for being a little cautious."

"A little…?"

Bane was the last to land as he flew slowly to keep from awakening Toni. He landed softly to the ground and dug his claws into the earth, getting a feel for the ground again after traveling so long in the sky. The Moon Dragon bent down so that Echidna could gently take the girl in her jaws, lift her, and lay her down gently under the shade of an oak tree. As the girl started to stir from her sleep, Cherryblossom jumped down from Bane's back and shook himself, shaking the last bits of sleep from his light pink eyes.

Bane was silent, brooding in his own deep thoughts, as he moved to lay himself beside Toni, protectively shielding her from the glare of the sun before her fragile eyes could open.

"How far are we from Calito's lands?" Ramous asked.

Bane barely raised his head from gazing down at Toni's waking body as he answered, "At least twenty more miles or so as the eagle flies."

"That's over two days," Ramous groaned. "Where the hell does that beast live?"

"It's said that he lives in the mountains looking over a human village," Echidna said softly. "He protects them and the humans look up to him like a leader or a sign of peace."

"The Moon Prince."

The dragons turned their heads to Rahu when he spoke suddenly. "What?"

He turned from where he'd been staring at the sky as if he'd seen something. "The humans there call him the Moon Prince. The human men say he's the strongest beast alive with magic that can raise the heavens or release hell on earth, yet he's fair and sensible; the women speak of him as if he's the most beautiful creature in the world. They say his eyes and voice can make a human nun break her vows of celibacy."

"Heh, what does he do?" Ramous snorted. "Lure the women away to caves?"

"Actually he does," was Rahu's chuckled reply. "The humans who live there have stories of how the most beautiful village women disappear at nights to be with him. You can hear them singing to him in the middle of the night – or screaming in ecstasy depending on his mood. At times they won't see the girls again until months later."

"He's a player."

Rahu laughed lightly at Toni's opinion. "That would be an appropriate way to describe him, yes."

Toni had just rubbing her eyes as she listened to Rahu. As she began sit up Cherryblossom neighed excitedly as he trotted over to her, but Bane's tail blocked his path as he glared at the unicorn. For a moment the girl's hand slipped when she tried to support herself but Bane's muzzle met her back before she could fall, giving her balance until she was awake and strong enough to.

"What time is it?" she asked, still rubbing her eyes.

Rahu came over to lay apples beside her. "Late noon," he replied.

Bane glanced at the apples but said nothing as Toni eagerly scooped one up in her hands and ate as if it were a feast. "We will rest here until the sun sets then travel by night."

"Why?" Echidna frowned. "Night is the Shadow Dragons' time. We would be caught completely unawares if we did that."

"I know but still it is safer. If we stay to the sky they will have no earthly shadows to hide behind and we'll know when they approach."

"It would be worse if we slept during the night at any rate," Ramous added as he preened his scales. "If we were ambushed in our sleep we would be in an even worse state than if we were awake."

By now, Rahu had lain down in front of Bane, forming a small wall around Toni and Cherryblossom as the two dragon bodies huddled around them protectively. CB nuzzled Toni as he whinnied softly and waved his silver tail when she smiled and scratched his head.

Toni looked up at the Sky Dragon, trying not to look flustered as he met her gaze. "Are you an Indian?"

Her question caught him slightly off guard, making Rahu cough lightly before he answered, "No, priestess, I am not."

"But you look like it…," she continued. "The way your nose and chin are shaped make you look like you're an Indian chief from the eighteenth century or something."

"I was born in their territory a little more northern ways from here, so I would suppose that I resemble them, but I am not one of their people. I am dragon, nothing more."

"An overly magically-endowed dragon," Bane muttered.

"Do I still threaten you in some way?"

"I am threatened by no one, but I suspect many. Any beast who is decapitated, resurrects himself and retrieves his head does not receive my immediate trust."

Toni suddenly smacked the Moon Dragon's paw, causing him to look down at the girl with a thin, silver cocked eyebrow.

"Leave him alone," she chided. "He didn't do anything; he's here to help. He's a good guy."

"Good guys don't steal religiously renowned artifacts and attempt to sell them to the human black market in exchange for treasures," was Bane's snarled retort.

There wasn't much Toni could say to nullify that fact but she still frowned up at him. "That's in the past though. He's gonna help us."

"'Tis alright, my lady," Rahu said softy, rising to stand on his paws. "I appreciate his honestly. The past cannot be erased but the future is yet to be seen."

Nor will the past be forgotten, Bane thought as he watched the Sky Dragon turn away. "Where are you going?"

"I am going to scout on ahead to see if I can scent the enemy." With that, Rahu spread his wings wide and leapt into the air, disappearing from sight as quickly as a leaf in the wind.

Ramous huffed as he stared after him. "He really is the skittish one, isn't he?"

"Quite close to paranoid I'd say," Bane chuckled, ignoring Toni's second smack.

Echidna rolled her eyes as she rose to walk over to Bane and Toni. "You beast are the most childish lot I've ever met."

"On the contrary," Ramous laughed. "We're the only childish lot you've ever met. May I remind you that you've never been to the yearlings' quarters before?"

The Mist Dragoness snapped her jaws at him before nudging Toni a small ways away from the males. "Come, Toni, we can relieve ourselves from these egglings for as long as possible."

Toni walked with her until them came a small ways past the trees and rushes that outlined the clearing. All over she could hear the voices of birds as they sang. Chipmunks, squirrels, a raccoons ran back and forth across the ground in a skittish frenzy, dashing from burrow to tree and back again. The light from the bright sun shone through the branches and leaves of the tall trees, making it seem as if she were looking up into at dark green night sky filled with large, brilliant stars. As she breathed in the fresh, clean air she smiled happily. This had to be the most beautiful, peaceful place in the world.

"Toni." The girl turned at Echidna's call and walked over to a fallen tree where the dragoness sat in human form. As she plopped herself down next to her friend, she looked up to meet Echidna's concerned eyes. "I wanted to talk to you for a moment before we continued on to Calito's cave."

Toni shrugged, unconcerned. "Ok, what's up?"

The Mist Dragoness took a small breathe as she thought of the best way to form the words in her head. "Toni…back at Sir Clementine's cottage, when Siamai possessed you…what is it that made you so angry?" As the girl's eyes suddenly became cold and distant, Echidna rushed to calm. "I know this makes you uncomfortable, little one, but we must find out what causes this so we may prevent it in the future. It is our duty to protect you…even if it means from yourself."

Toni blinked as she looked down at the soft ground for a moment before meeting the dragoness' gaze. "I don't like talking about it, Echidna. I really don't."

"I know it is hard, but sometimes it must be done."

She sighed deeply as she looked back to the ground, her eyes becoming distant again. "I just miss my mom is all; I haven't seen her in almost two years now. She's made so many promises before so I know she'll keep it…but I don't know why this one feels different."

Echidna shifted slightly to get a better look at the girl's eyes, prepared to call Bane and the others if the discussion took a turn for the worst. "What promise did she make you this time, Toni? What did she say?"

"…She'd come back…that's what she said. Before she left during the storm, that's what she said. She promised."

"What storm?"

Toni only glanced at the dragoness before she continued. "There was a storm outside; it'd been happening for the past four days before Mom said she was leaving for a little while. I didn't want her to; something was wrong with that storm. The lightening was black and red, not white, and the sky was still dark blue instead of grey or black like it's supposed to be. But she left anyway…she said she'd meet me here…"

Echidna had already filed away Toni description of the storm before her ears perked up at Toni's last words. "Toni…Toni, she said she'd meet you here? Here…in this world?" When the girl didn't answer, she gently laid her hand on her shoulder. "Toni…"

But the girl shrugged her hand off, her eyes starting to reflect that same dark anger that the dragons had seen at Sir Clementine's cottage. "She said she'd come back so that's all that matters. She'd never just leave…"

Before Echidna could speak, the ground beneath them began to tremble in a violent pattern, causing the trees around them to shudder. In front of them, just a few hundred yards ahead, the trees were being knocked over and thrown away as if some invisible hand were yanking them out of the ground from their roots. Immediately, she changed back to her dragon form and crouched low in front of Toni protectively as the girl jumped off the fallen tree to clutch the back of her large, scaly ankles.

The Mist Dragoness had already bared her teeth and could feel the boiling water stirring readily in the pit of her stomach before Ramous suddenly burst into the clearing. Echidna's first reaction would have been to reprimand the Sun Dragon for startling her and Toni so, but the look in his reddish-gold eyes frightened her into silence. His glare was filled with anger, frustration, and pain, the emotions all jumbled into one in his swirling pupils.

Toni screamed as Ramous barely paused before he leapt into the air, his wings spread wide, claws extended, and fangs bared. It wasn't until the shadow of his body had covered them both that they saw the griffin.

The golden-brown creature had been steadily sneaking up on them from beyond ever since Toni had begun to speak, the fangs hidden in the creature's beak already dripping hungrily with saliva as he'd spied the defenseless prey. But it hadn't had the time to raise its lion's claw to deliver the fatal swipe before Ramous' body plowed into him.

All Toni could hear was the angry snarls and hisses of the two fighting beasts, her vision blocked by the flying debris of falling branches, leaves, and dirt. As she fought to clear the dust from her eyes, Toni glimpsed Ramous rear up on his back haunches as the griffin tried to lock his jaws around his throat. The dragon raised his paw and swung, cleaving the creature's head from its shoulders.

Echidna stepped forward cautiously. "Ramous, what the devil…"

Ramous didn't answer as he turned, blood still dripping from his paws. He dashed past the dragoness and swiftly picked up Toni between his teeth, ignoring her shocked cries. He barely glanced over his shoulder as he yelled through his teeth, "RUN!"

Not needing to be told twice, the Mist Dragoness followed quickly in his wake, running through the debris that Ramous had created in his rush.

As they finally reached the clearing, Bane turned to them, blood smeared over his face so you could barely see his eyes as he yelled, "No, go back!" But it was too late.

The crows dove on Ramous instantly, clawing at him with their talons and hooked-beaks. Unable to see through the horde of feathers and birds the size of Toni, Ramous reared up and swung his paws wildly, lashing out at anything that attacked him. Only the crows weren't aiming for the Sun Dragon – they were trying to reach the human girl. Every fell swoop Ramous delivered threw away a crow that dove for the girl caught in his jaws as they fought to reach her.

Echidna had been ambushed as well, a combination of griffins and crows scratched and bit at her body, her back already covered in gashes and cuts. The dragoness nearly threw her own breath from her lungs as she spewed water and mist from her belly at her attackers, burning any that got too close and slashing at others within her reach.

Bane fought doggedly to reach them, seeing his companion and sister overwhelmed. He'd tried to reach them before Ramous brought them back into the ambush but the crows had blocked his way, scratching at his eyes in an effort to blind him. He and Ramous hadn't seen the enemy until they'd come at them from all sides out of the rushes in the forest. Ramous' first thought had been to reach Toni and Echidna and Bane hadn't been able to stop him. Bless his heart but his friend had led the enemy right to their prey. He and Ramous could have fought the first wave of them off but when they'd spotted the human girl all of hell had begun to thwart them.

The Moon Dragon had already called his magic to help, the skies darkening ominously as silver lightening struck down crow and griffin, but with only have on his concentration on the skies, his magic was nearly out of control as the sparks nearly hit him and his companions twice as it randomly shot to the ground.

Just as he broke through the wall the crows had made to block his path his eyes fell on Ramous as he was finally overcome. A crow wrapped its talons around his neck and dug its beak hard against his scales, striking home as it ripped past the scales and into his jugular. The Sun Dragon didn't even get the chance to roar in pain as a griffin rushed forward to swat at his head, its blowing throwing him to the ground and Toni into the air.

The girl was thrown from the grip of Ramous' jaws from the strength of the griffin's blow, and fell hard onto the ground. Pain caused sparks to rise in her eyes as her arm hit the ground first and she heard a sickening crack. Her right arm twisted and useless, the girl rolled on the ground as she fought to sit up. The smallest movement caused knives of pain to slice through her body, but fear pushed her into action as she rolled to her knees.

Bane saw Ramous and Toni fall and he only had a few seconds to make an extremely difficult choice. Nevertheless, the Moon Dragon bounded over to Toni's side and stood over her as crows and griffin's rushed him. As he fought off the masses and ignored the agonizing pain of claw and teeth slicing through his body he could see Echidna rush to Ramous' side as he struggled to rise to his paws, his sister standing over him with formidable purpose.

Beneath him, Toni had fallen back on her rear, the pain in her arm and lungs too much for her to take. Her eyes fluttered open and closed as she fought to remain conscious throughout the chaos. She could hear Bane roar and hiss above her in pain as he battled to protect her; she could smell the blood that drip from his body and fell around her. She turned her head to see Ramous weakly crouched to the ground as he spewed fire from his gut, scorching bird and beast as they came at him, now too weak to lift his claws to fight as blood dripped from his neck and mouth.

Echidna fought at his back like the possessed, her claws slashing and cleaving. It looked as it she could hold her own for both her and Ramous until a griffin hit her in her tender side. As she stumbled, off balance, the creature dove for her neck, ripping out her throat. She opened her jaws to scream but no voice came through as fresh blood squirted from her torn jugular. The dragoness fell instantly, her chest heaving as she fought to breathe.

Toni herself began to cough and sputter as more and more debris found its way into her young lungs. Just then, she lifted her heavy head to see a crow bobbing its head at her from between Bane's back legs. It had snuck its way past the others as they distracted the Moon Dragon and found the small human wheezing weakly beneath him. The bird cackled at its luck and edged its way closer to her.

The girl stared at the bird, too weak to defend herself. Feebly, she opened her lips to inaudibly mouth Bane's name as its beak reached out to grab her.

But before its hidden teeth to grasp her collar, Cherryblossom burst between Bane's legs and rushed the crow, driving its horn deep into its feathered side. The crow screeched in pain and tried to flap its wings fruitlessly before it died. After stomping at the dead body, CB turned to walk slowly over to Toni. As she gazed at the unicorn gratefully she saw his chest rising and falling weakly in the same pattern as her own. She reached forward and CB caught her hand on his muzzle. Nuzzling her shortly, he moved to stand in front of her, his head bowed low and horn ready.

As the darkness behind Toni's eyes began to overpower her, she could swear she heard a voice in her head say, "I'll protect you, Toni…Cherryblossom will protect his Toni."

Bane continued to fight above them, but his strength was waning and the pain of his wounds bearing him down. Gradually, the number of crows and griffins finally began to dwindle as they withdrew from their attack at some unheard command. Watching the last griffin burn from the electricity of his lightening, Bane suddenly thought to look to the sky.

Ramous, crouching over the fallen Echidna as he coaxed her to stay conscious, followed his gaze. The sight above him was enough to nearly throw him into despair. "Oh no…"

There only had to be thirty or forty of them, but the sight of a horde of Shadow Dragon is enough to make it seem like three thousand. Led by a lone white dragon, the buzzing sound of the dragons' wings filled the air and their shadows loomed over them like a dark cloud.

As Toni finally lost all strength and fell limply to the ground and Ramous shook as his rose to his feet to stand over Echidna to face the oncoming attack, Bane stared defiantly at the onslaught as he threw his lightening into the midst of them. As he watched dead bodies fall the darkened sky, he roared as the first wave of Shadow Dragon hit him full on. Instantly, he was thrown into a circle of trees; he could feel the bones in his left hind leg twist to the breaking point but he was concerned of one thing only – he'd been separated from Toni.

Before he could return to her side he was surrounded by Shadow Dragon as the bite and slashed at him. He roared in frustration as he battled his way through. Cherryblossom had fallen unconscious next to the girl – no sooner than her head had hit the ground so had his limp body.

As the dragons fought for their lives, a Shadow Dragon landed next to the fallen girl and unicorn. He glanced up at the white dragon who had nimbly perched himself in a tree above them, his face and body shadowed by the large branches and leaves.

"What of the unicorn?" the Shadow Dragon asked him.

Without glancing at the silver-horned creature, the dragon swung his tail. "Leave it; take the girl." As the dragon lowered his head with his fangs bared, his leader hissed at him. "Gently, you fool! Zatara will have your head if she is delivered half dead from your rough handling."

Just as the dragon's teeth began to lift Toni from the ground, the white dragon was shaken from the tree as if shoved by some invisible force. As he fell to the ground, the Shadow Dragon looked up in shock before the tree's branch caught him soundly under his jaw, throwing him back and away from Toni's body.

As Bane finally burst through the circle of dragons he was met with a sight that startled him speechless. All the trees around them had suddenly come to life, walking on their uprooted trunks like any other two-legged human. They moaned and groaned as they were shook from their sleep and hauled into battle.

The Shadow Dragons, completely caught off guard, were swatted aside like flies in the trees' wake. No matter how they clawed at their thick trunks or spat fire at their swinging branches they kept coming, ten more rising as one fell.

Crashing to the ground above Toni, Rahu watched his magic work as the dragons were slowly driven back by his warrior trees. Bending down, he gently licked Toni's face. Seeing her stir slightly beneath him, he rose back to his full towering height and roared to the sky.

As the remaining Shadow Dragons took to the sky, out of the reach of the battling trees, they turned to look to the brightening sky. Bane started to follow their gaze but Ramous screamed over to him as he huddled over Echidna's still body. "No, look away! Don't look at the sun!"

Without question, the Moon Dragon hid his face away just as the sun burst a wave of light and heat into the enemy's eyes. The dragons fell from the sky to writhe on the blood-covered ground, their eyes blinded and burned from their sockets. Their scales and exposed skin were scorched through as the sun seared their bodies in mere moments.

Just as the chaos had reached its peak, Rahu returned an illusion of quiet as the earth was riddled with the bodies of dead griffins, dragons, and crows. The Sky Dragon hurried over to Toni and Cherryblossom; lifting them carefully in his jaws he glanced to Ramous and Bane as they struggled to their paws.

"We must hurry, more are on their way. I've found shelter. Come."

As he spread his wings and once again leapt into the air, the Moon and Sun Dragon glanced at each other before weakly flapping their bloody wings, Bane close behind Rahu and Ramous in his wake with Echidna on his back.

They flew for what seemed like hours, Bane and Ramous barely conscious from their battle. The only thing that kept Bane from falling to the ground was the sight of Toni's seemingly lifeless body in Rahu's grasp. He would remain strong for her until he was sure she was alright.

Finally, they came to land in front of an open cave that dripped with moss and dirty water. When Rahu gently laid Toni down in a bed of damp dead grass, Bane rushed to her side, nearly shoving the Sky Dragon out of the way. Nuzzling her body softly, he nearly whimpered as he silently pleaded to the gods for her to be safe. Just scarcely he could feel her heart beat weakly against his muzzle while, beside her, Cherryblossom began to regain conciousness. Relieved, he turned to Ramous.

"My sister…" was all he said.

Ramous nodded silently, before returning to tending the Mist Dragoness' neck wound, lapping at it gently with his tongue as the healing saliva swept over her open gash.

Breathing hard, Bane turned back to glare at Rahu who was quickly gathering herbs and berries in his human form. "Where were you during the attack?" he snarled, ready to slash at him. "Why didn't you come sooner?!"

Unfazed, Rahu didn't bother to raise his gaze as he muttered, "You are fortunate I was able to return at all. Do not blame me for your inability to guard the priestess and yourselves. Why the god and goddess chose you to watch over I will never know, but do not lash out at me for your fatal errors."

Before Bane could attack him, a human shadow loomed in the opening of the cave. "Do not lecture him, Rahu, now is not the time."

Bane and Ramous turned in shock to stare at the one who'd spoken as the Sky Dragon merely bowed his head in compliance.

Ramous shook his head, dislodging clumps of dried blood from his scales. "I don't believe it," he murmured.

"It is good to see you too, son," Amadeus greeted with a soft smile. "We have much to catch up on."

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Zatara laid on his full belly as the wounded crow whispered in his pointed ear. Annoyed with its new, he swatted the bird away and growled.

"Damn that Rahu…I thought he was long dead. I nearly had the girl until he appeared, damn it all."

Behind him, a shadow in the shape of a dragoness emerged with a red and black unicorn by its side, dragging chains embedded in its body. The same beast Serpentous had seen in his vision before he'd gone mad.

"Do not be discouraged, my love," the shadow whispered in sweet, sultry voice. "The guardians are weakened now and it will only be short matter of time before we have the priestess. All things are in time."

"But Amadeus is with them now," he objected. "He knows of all my dealings. In any case we need the stones now, not later."

The shadowed lowered its head to nuzzle him gently, purring. "We are not without our tricks, darling. If it is Amadeus' blood you wish to taste so dearly then I will give it to you to abide you. But you will not rush and ruin all we've planned."

With a gruff grunt, Zatara conceded, lulled into compliance by the shadow's intoxicating smell. Just then, a dragon walked by the two as he didn't see them, idly walking through the cave as if in an unseeing trance. The dragon's body was completely transparent and Zatara could see the entrance of the large lair through the beast's belly. He'd seen so many ghosts within the last few days that alone wouldn't have fazed him. But it was the back of the dragon that made him stare – the beast had no wings.

He looked up at the shadow with a question in his eyes. It chuckled softly as the unicorn besides it shook its long black mane, rattling the chains entwined in its hide as its master whisper the line for the prophecy, "When Siamai is thought of with horror and dread, and the wingless fly prepare for the dead."

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Hey everyone! I can't imagine how mad you are at me for waiting this long to update the story and I'm really really sorry. I just started my classes in college over here and work and class combined is horrible. But I've got everything settled now so things ought to go a little smoother from here on out, k? Hope you enjoy!!!