Draped across my back, my father's mantle seemed unusually heavy today as I stood upon the low balcony. Underneath me, a line of black Dragonkin filed by, on either side of them armed guards ensuring that there was no trouble made by the thousand odd-survivors who'd surrendered. Shackled and chained, wings bound, my mother's people trudged by in silent defeat to the worksites where the reconstruction was going on, heavily supervised by overseers who shouted and roared at them, but I had drawn the line at brutalisation. That hadn't gained me much favour amongst most of the veterans who'd served at the Bulwark, but I was their Overlord, and they obeyed me, despite the huge legacy of mutual hate between Gold and Black Flights..
All the demons had been slain on that night, utterly destroying their corporeal bodies and banishing their spirits back to the Demonic Planes, but the Black Flight had been spared; by order of the Dragonlord. Those still behind the Bulwark were probably now too few in number to make any serious trouble for a long time, but the Red Flight was ever vigilant, still rebuilding Fort Rez'kul to a shadow of its former glory.
Perhaps it's for the better, I thought as I leant on the railing of the Overlord's quarters. Varied reactions to my presence were elicited from the prisoners below; some of them glared at me with barely controlled rage, others bowed briefly in grad, but most simply kept their heads down and could, or would not look directly at me. Whether that was because I had temporarily housed the Dragonlord in my body, or due to shame at finally being defeated for good, I did not know, and rather would not prefer to.
"Thinking, T'alnoth?" a familiar voice came from behind me, and there Zh'ess was in her gold-hemmed, hooded robe. Stepping forward to join me, my mentor slowly shook her head at the black Dragonkin that slowly passed beneath us.
Slipping off the cloak that had once belonged to my father and the Overlords before him, I carefully eased my wings through the wing-slits and the gilded, furred piece of clothing in one clawed hand. "Zh'ess…"
"This cloak…it feels so heavy. I…I don't know how I'm going to don it for so long, until I abdicate and leave the position of my future offspring…"
When she heard this, the Head Lorekeeper smiled, a true smile that I had not seen for a very long time. "And rightfully so, T'alnoth. However, you will always have advisors; the trick is to pick the right ones." A sigh. "While the day will come that I too will pass into the Void and no longer be able to aid you, listen to L'zul Alexain Harddon. He may not have led a perfect life, but I believe he will help you."
Closing my eyes for a moment and feeling the weight of the golden mantle pressing down on my arm, it was with a little less reluctance that I placed it once again upon my back and continued watching the train of prisoners roll by. Shuffling along in their manacles, I noted that a few of their number were carrying eggs close to their bodies, eggs that would someday hatch into black-scaled, spined dragonets…
"What are you going to do with the prisoners of war?" Zh'ess asked, her face solemn again.
A shrug. "Even without a divine order, I can't bring myself to kill them, Zh'ess. They are my mother's Flight all the same, I share their blood, their Aspect." Even as I spoke, the mantle seemed to grow heavier, crushing my shoulders and wings with its weight. "Firstly, I'm going to have them repair what they did to Sunstone, then…"
"I don't know, Zh'ess. Truly, I don't know. I can't set them free for fear of what the common people would think, yet I can't do away with them. According to S'aturinni, all those soldiers heard and saw what K'thus declared, that the killing had to lessen. This is the first step. We can't control what goes on behind the Bulwark, but we can make sure of events that occur here."
"And what then? Keep them as slaves? Since eight thousand Rounds ago, slavery has ceased to exist in most civilised parts of Arkon, T'alnoth."
The last of the black Dragonkin passed, and the ravaged sections of Sunstone once again became alive with the sounds of hacking, drilling and blasting, punctuated with the bellowed commands of foremen. "Some of them told me how they used to live. Because the bone and gristle we discard from our tables are delicacies to the Black Flight, they actually…they actually believe that such an existence is paradise, although we would consider it a much reduced state." By then, two streams of oily, rainbow tears were pouring across my jaws and dripping onto my belly. "Is it so wrong to not know so many things, Zh'ess? Even having being raised for this position ever since my hatching hasn't prepared me for this."
"I don't know, but hear this, T'alnoth. Several hundred golden Dragonkin and even more black ones, along with countless humans saw the form of K'thus revert into you. This is not the end, bronze one. There will be famines and floods, taxes and wars, emissaries and public works to take care of, resentful lords and ladies to be placated. Your status at the Dragonlord's avatar will serve you in good stead; few will think of arguing with you until your first blunder. The Gold Flight is relying on you, your advisors and your subordinates, T'alnoth. Do not fail them and expect the other two thirds of the Tripartite to take up your duties."
As if guided by some invisible hand, I bent my neck to look at the scars that crisscrossed the yellowish-tan skin of my chest and belly, and Zh'ess smiled.
"You've proven your life-force is strong, T'alnoth. Spread it around, and I don't mean only mating. Oh, yes. When you have the available time, the human emissaries would like to speak to you about the small matter of the H'ran trade…"
We met the envoy on the road to Sunstone. Dressed in nothing but the Overlord's mantle, I went to meet the Blue Flight a small escort accompanying me for the official reception, but it seemed mostly unnecessary. Armed with rapiers of coral and bone, twenty blue Dragonkin surrounded a lavishly decorated litter, bright with shades of blues and greens, colours of the sea. As was customary, coupling of mates was a quiet affair, even amongst personages such as myself; after all, there would be enough noise generated during a Dance.
Two figures detached themselves from the group, one which I recognized as Duke S'enth and another wrapped up in swarthy, enveloping garments, a mishmash so thick I couldn't make out what was beneath that layer of cloth. Stepping forward, the Duke bowed in grad, his naked body gleaming as sunlight reflected off his scales. Returning the gesture, I remembered the informality of the Blue Flight even in such supposedly serious situations, a wide, draconic grin adorning my face as he patted me on my shoulder.
"Well, T'alnoth-or should that be Overlord now? Seems like we'll be getting your bloodline after all. My sister has entered the Void at long last, and my niece rules in her place…with my guidance, of course."
"I pay my debts, Duke. But that doesn't explain your companion over there."
Have you truly forgotten me so soon, T'alnoth? I am most deeply hurt.
"Al-" I almost cried out loud.
Illuvriens, rather. There seems to be no use hiding my true name from you; you have heard it. I've survived to tell the tale.
"But I thought you were-"
Dead? No. I don't think you saw or heard my corporeal body being destroyed; it seems that you've misled yourself. I did give myself some pretty bad odds at defeating my fellow shapeshifter, but it seems I was the stronger.
"We wouldn't have believed the whole business with M'rani if Alastor hadn't dragged the demon's body back to us, tentacles and all," the Duke said, his face growing grim. "To kill one of my nieces and impersonate her for so long…it scares me, and the shock seemed to have hastened my dear sister's passing."
"Well, are we going to stand here and banter all day?" I said, throwing a glance back at the escort which Armsmaster D'ren and Battleguard S'aturinni led. "Let's go back."
Swiftly, S'enth flashed his impressive array of teeth. "Indeed. Personally, I haven't been up to the surface for so long, beef, mutton, pork…plenty of things to eat later on in a private celebration, hmm? The two of you will have a large brood, I'm sure. Granted, I'm hungry, but first…"
Princess M'eela stepped out of the litter, her paces awkward, unused to dry land. When I stepped forward to take her into my arms, I noticed the fresh pair of azure wings that sprouted from between her shoulders, but what drew me most was her eyes. Inside the shimmering robs, I read many things; terror at the prospect of being separated so far from the sea, pain at her sister casting her aside so, worry, doubt, hope and much, much more.
Was this how mother had felt when father had first brought her to Sunstone after she'd betrayed her Flight? What had father done to win her devotion? How could I copy it?
Her scales were pleasantly warm, her blue-green hair still smelling faintly of the sea as I pushed my snout against her head. There had to be something, anything I could do to soothe my soon-to-be mate's frayed nerves…
"When I have some free time soon, I'll take you to one of our mountain lakes. You'd like that, wouldn't you?" I asked softly, and got a whimper in reply.
If only mother and R'eyortsed were here to see me now. But they would never be able to; that much I knew, not when mother was scattered in father's grave and R'eyortsed blown to the winds.
Slowly leading M'eela on, all of us headed back to the towering peaks of the Sunstone Ranges.
In the darkness of night, the white wolf let out a whine, and her mate, a hulking black specimen of its kind, trotted forward and gave her an encouraging lick, gently pawing at her swollen underbelly.
It doesn't hurt, or if it does, I've long since blocked it out. We are werewolves after all; a Change is more painful than this, Iryane reassured L'zul, who continued to look on worriedly as the silvery-white werewolf took in ragged gasps of air. It's just…tiring.
Cocking his head to one side as if to say "so be it", the black wolf trotted out of the room, pushing open the door with its muzzle. Shortly after, Lord L'zul Alexain Harddon returned in human form, a damp rag in hand, only to find to his dismay that two pups had already been whelped, with a third in the process of being born. Before The Den had been granted to him by the Gold Flight he wouldn't have thought this possible, but it was happening right now before his very eyes…
Exhausted, Iryane still found it within herself to snarl and snap at her mate's leg even as he tried to come close in order to clean up the afterbirth, before realizing what she was doing and pulling back.
"Worried that I might come and gobble up one of our little pups?" L'zul asked his alpha female, teasing her.
Rolling his eyes skyward as he dried off the little mewling balls of fur and guided them towards their mother's teats, where they eagerly latched on and began to draw at length. L'zul shrugged. "You've never encountered this instinct before, and thus have had no idea what would come. It's okay this time." The pups were varying shades of grey; L'zul knew they would be blind and deaf for a short while after their emergence from their mother's womb. This didn't trouble him as he began to mop up the mess on the floor.
Three of them, Iryane said, and L'zul could almost detect the groaning in her mental voice. However are we going to take care of them all, especially when they Change back into human form?
"You're the one who prefers mating to sex," he replied teasingly, receiving a feeble nip at his heel in reply. "Seriously, though…we'll manage. We always have."
Standing side by side, W'rmthalak and R'xxra glanced at each other, then at the wonder before them; a tree that grew even as they watched, albeit slowly, its branches a miasma of colours. Nestled against its base were both halves of the Sentinels, huddled against each other.
The voices grow quiet, K'thus. What did you do?
I disciplined wayward children is what I did, the Dragonlord replied as he let out an immense yawn. Regrettably, I had to spank them, but once was enough.
No Dancing for you for the next thousand Rounds.
Affectionately, the Dragonlord twined his own scaly neck against the Dragonmother's, causing her to hum gently. Are you so sure? Soon, you'll feel the urge to lay again, and will be begging me for Dance so my seed can quicken to life inside your womb.
Naughty, Ar'zsha replied as she butted her head against her mate's flank.
We've been together so long ever since I first caught you above Mount Theror. Don't you think I should know you inside out? Incidentally, you seem to have brought two of our children here…
Ah, my apologies, W'rmthalak and R'xxra. I seem to have neglected you, Ar'zsha addressed both Dragonkin as they looked around in awe, Great Dragons flying in the inky blackness from branch to branch, from one suspended crystal to another.
"This is the Tree of Life?" W'rmthalak asked, still fixated upon the wonder.
Your offspring has seen it before in his dreams, although he did not recognize it for what it was. This is where everything is reduced to its essence, stripped bare of all guise for all to see.
Everything. Both Sentinels turned to face each other for a moment, and playful gleams crept into both pairs of eyes.
"I don't underst-" R'xxra began, but she never finished the sentence, for her humanoid form fell away, and in her place a black Great Dragon stood upon all fours, letting out a small rumble of surprise at the sudden transformation. Her mate, too, was confusedly trying to work paws that a short while ago had been hands, the golden sheen of his body radiant even in the darkness.
Go, Ar'zsha urged. Go and soar in peace, for Arkon now belongs to others; you cannot protect T'alnoth forever. Decasia will find others to fulfil her needs. Go and fly free, for dragons are what you are, and dragons you will be for eternity.
Gold and black beat their wings and rose into the air; together, both mates spiralled upwards in a helix, flying faster and faster until they were but a blur, and in this blur one could almost discern a bright bronze, the colour of tarnished gold.