"We have made it! We see it! Haven is in sight at last!"
A grand chorus of cheers and song rang from the head of the migrating clan, rippling down along its entire breadth like waves upon water. Far and wide, using powerful and leathery wing beats aft of the wind, the dragons of ice kept together in a tight-knit flock. The sun was just below the horizon to their left, but already they could feel its warmth, a light spilling over the clouds hanging and watching above the unending ocean currents. The waters reflected the long-awaited dawn in a splash of colors, a beauty that was always welcoming to the arriving migrants after weeks and weeks of travel over open ocean.
The light hadn't yet spilled upon their gleaming white bodies, which were covered in thick downy fur to keep the stinging cold from ever reaching their skin. Many were mottled in their own pattern of icy blue spots, ranging from very light to very dark in the old-aged. There were many different ages flying in this flock this season. There were youngsters who had gained respect by surviving the most deadly trial of their lives; a long migration, from pole to pole, and back again. It was a deadly ritual, but traditional. The dragons had passed the route for thousands of years. Many others were older and better experienced, yet still the dangers didn't surpass them either.
If all went well, another generation would live through the harsh landscape of the South Pole to face the migration once more. The dragons of this clan were all females, lacking the dignified horns erupting from the brows of their larger counterparts, and many were carrying within them a reminder of the last sacred and blissful meeting with their chosen mates. Now it was their focus to return to the planet's lowest and coldest extreme, in the haven in which they all were once born, to raise their own children.
"At last, at last!" the chorus kept singing as they winged over the ocean's harrowing and encompassing waves of blue towards that which they spotted. It was the gleaming pearlescent edge of the Antarctic continent. Glaciers floated atop the waters lining the cold stone beaches, and giant blocks of ice formed protective cliffs that greeted the dragons like guardians of their land. It came closer and closer, and with as it did their songs of elation grew.
At the head of the clan, a large and elderly dragon let the wind capture her wings and take her higher into the misty clouds, hanging over the pre-dawn season. The dark blue spots on her flanks hinted at the age she had come to earn. She was the proud leader of the community of females and the most respected of their whole race. She was the matron Chyama.
Behind her, the faithful followers cast their wing beats to match hers, and soared quickly above the clouds alongside and above her. Children and grandchildren on into generations of nearly three hundred years, it was a legacy that she was going to carry for as long as life took her.
"The land approaches!" her strong voice boomed through the sky and reached the ears of the others. Below their bellies, the ocean slowly vanished to be replaced by a giant wave of white. The Antarctic landscape was painted with ridges, mountains, and slopes, new or ancient, ever-changing. Creatures such as penguins and seals dotted the beaches and further inland. Shore birds fled at the sight of the return of their greatest sky rivals. All were searching for one area that they always expected was untouched.
Finally, one of them spotted it. "There it is! The Glacier Sanctum!" she called with excited urgency.
They flew over the spot that she pointed out until they confirmed it…yes; this was their home and haven, sanctuary and nursery. It was a giant circular bowl in the icy earth, hidden by mountains and hills that one could only get over by flying. A series of icy lakes sat in the middle, and the concave walls were riddled with natural caverns. Many remembered exactly which caverns they were born in themselves, and so often those were the ones that mothers laying eggs for the first time had chosen. It was not a far fly from the beach and the sea, where food was plentiful.
With a symphony of bellows, the dragons darted from the clouds and dove for the head of the sanctum, marked with a towering spire and a cave that only the matron herself resided in. Their bodies looked from a distance like large white raindrops the way they all came in bunches from the receding darkness.
The bowl became filled with the dragons, all of them trilling excitedly. Chyama was the last to land, taking up her position on the spire with the others looking up at her with expectation.
She looked over them with dark eyes, filled with pride and hope for the clan standing before her. The matron stood up straight and spread her wings to their full extent. "Mothers, sisters, and daughters!" she exclaimed. "Today we greet the rising sun and the southern equinox with bliss and song. For we have finally reached our haven, the Sanctum, birthplace of our ancestors and forever the caretaker of our descendants. Today, we once again build the future!"
The audience roared applause and approval, and Chyama awaited them patiently before speaking again. "Thus I say to you as I have said for many years as we reach the pinnacle of this time…and thus may you always take it to heart…may the sun warm your wings and guide your young as they hatch, walk, fly, and hunt to their strength." Her head then hung briefly. "And to those who have not made it across the sea, may their spirits forever fly in freedom from mortal restraints."
Again the dragons below her crooned their agreement, this time echoing a saddened tone as their heads too lowered. Not all of them had made the crossing. Many of them were their sisters, mothers, daughters, or cousins, mourning the loss of their beloved children in the hopes that the new generation would bring them each a new victory.
But it was then during their time of silence that the sun finally peeked above the horizon, giving light to the harsh landscape after months of unending darkness. The sunlight poured over the gathered, and caused them to lift their heads for Matron Chyama's final words.
"The sun begins her long circuit until the darkness claims the light again…until then, mothers of the ice…may your children be strong, and yourselves stronger."
Thus she lifted her wings and departed the spire, the group echoing their gratitude for their guidance and relishing in the familiarity of their homes, until all lifted wing and spread along the Sanctum's bowl for their roosts.
"I wonder just how she manages to remember that same speech time after time," a dragoness grumbled in laughter as she walked tiredly to her cavern. Next to her was a younger female, her daughter, whose spots only took the light blue of one having seen two full migration cycles before.
She replied to her mother with a half-hearted laugh, but her mind was focused on other, troubled thoughts. The older one stopped and looked into her daughter's golden eyes with her own deep brown. "Does something ail you, Mariin?"
The dragoness returned her glance, unsure. "I'm nervous, mother. I'm afraid that after two migrations of being denied children, I won't…"
"Bah," the old mother interrupted and resumed walking. "If you keep thinking that, the heavens won't allow you children at all. At least this time you have finally chosen a mate. That should help greatly," she chuckled. "Trust me, my daughter. When the time comes, your nervousness will dwindle."
Mariin continued her pace next to the elder. "I hope you are right. It's just…I fear for their very well-being. Many of the others have been very cross towards me for my decision."
In reply, her mother only hummed until she reached the wide chasm that was the entrance to her own nest, a place that Mariin was very familiar with…her birth chamber. It made her feel comfortable, being there. Her own chosen cavern was right below this one, in which she could always feel the older one's comforting presence.
"Do not listen to them," she said at last, turning to the younger one. "To be able to survive the migration is fortunate. To be able to have little ones at all is fortunate. You must concentrate on you and yours, instead of listening to their jeering. Your decision was as good as any." She gave a reassuring smile and craned her neck to nuzzle the back of her daughter's. "In fact I swear you have my tastes. Your father wasn't always so strong either."
"At least you think so," Mariin laughed and nuzzled back with a soft croon. "Thank you, mother."
"Most welcome," the elder one replied, then gently pushed her head away. "Now, go and rest, child, it has been a long flight; and you know you have your own cavern to get to. This one is only for me and my current brood."
Mariin snorted in laughter and jumped down from the cliff to her own chamber, muttering. "Maybe that's why it's hard to find my older and younger siblings around here."
She landed smoothly on the rocks below and glanced up to where she had been; only catching a glimpse of the end of her mother's furry tail. Her cavern she was proud to find…the entrance was smaller than that of the elder, but the chamber inside was a warm, stony palace, much larger in size. She could feel the extra weight in her body shifting uncomfortably, but reassuringly. This was how she knew that she was carrying eggs, and like all of the others, would soon be laying.
But before she could take one step inside, a low growl emanated from the darkness within. She peered closer, only to catch a glimpse of a narrow fanged maw reaching out to snap at her with lightning speed.
Mariin nearly toppled from the edge of the cliff, but thankfully she had stopped herself with her claws and glared menacingly at the intruder. The dragoness staring back was larger than herself, and had a familiar countenance as she stood calmly sneering with her wings flared menacingly. Well, not every sibling, she had corrected her earlier statement. "Damn you, Altsoba, You know that is my den!" Mariin growled.
The bigger dragon barked a laugh and slid out of the entrance. "Oh, my apologies, little sister," she jeered. "I didn't think you would have a use for it. Like you didn't for two cycles."
Mariin bared her fangs wide in response. "Well, I do now. So you can just fly off and steal someone else's."
Glaring at one another for a long instance, Altsoba broke the silence with a cold chuckle. "Oh that's funny." She took one step forward, her talons gouging the ice, and her younger sister took a step back. "You accuse me of dishonorable acts. You, who right now bear the children of a shunned and despised weakling coward." She raised one talon above her head. "You want to fight for your prized den? Because heavens know that you aren't at all deserving of it."
Taking a few steps back, Mariin still held the expression of defiance. "Take back your words. My mate is not a coward."
Altsoba just snorted and lowered her talon. "You mean was not. The other males probably ripped him to pieces by n—AH!" She interrupted her sentence to find herself reeling back from the cliff edge, having been slammed in the midsection by Mariin in retaliation.
"Get away from my den!" she roared as her older sister regained balance and glided down to a nearby hill.
As Altsoba took in a deep breath, her shimmering teeth bared and wings flared fully, she was joined by two other females who silently urged her to not bother with a fight. "You will regret that, sister," she hissed and started to walk off behind the snowy outcrop.
Mariin snorted after her and calmed down with her own breath, meeting the neutral gazes of the two other females who were watching back. She recognized them as her best childhood friends…and now they were distant from her, as if they were strangers, and really only followed Altsoba since.
She knew this, and tried to call to them. "Samelle? Atla? You don't believe her, do you?"
The two looked between themselves and back to their former comrade, and then turned their backs without a word, trailing after her surprisingly bitter older sibling. Mariin was left behind in silence, feeling dejected, until an aching jolt within the womb reminded her of what she had been waiting to do for so long.
In the whole of the Sanctum, females were either resting or flying around with haste to get their nests prepared. Many of them flew out past the boundary to visit the beaches and capture the plentiful prey making use of the glorious sunlight. The seals in particular were in demand to capture, as after their flesh could be eaten, their pelts could be used to line the floors of their den with warmth.
The Matron Chyama only took part in the activity until she had enough warmth to keep herself content; in her old age, she could no longer feel the burden and the blessing of carrying eggs and could just watch from the spire as the rest of her underlings excitedly made haste.
Mariin had slept before going on her own trips, but for the most part she was restless and weighed with wonder. She could feel it each passing sun movement as she could get ready to give birth to her precious cargo, a pressing and growing feeling of need. At her mother's gentle requests and help, she soon was able to fly and hunt at her leisure. Her only hesitation came from the thought that Altsoba had come back to try claiming her territory…but thankfully she saw that her older sister indeed had a den of her own and didn't attempt at any more infringements.
Her stomach had been aching for the taste of warm meat and blubber from the seals and penguins after weeks of catching fish, sharks, and the occasional porpoise. As she grew a little warmer and bigger around her midsection, Mariin also grew a little slower until her den was full of warm pelts and she no longer had the will to fly or to hunt, but to just sleep.
The day had come when she awoke and didn't even get up at all, but merely stayed on the ground clenching her teeth. Her mind reeled with harried instincts and relentless pain, and she often twitched restlessly before her eyes glazed over and she started slipping into a sort of trance. Mariin remembered being told by her mother stories about when it came time to clutch…the Trance of Birth was called a waking sleep. Dreams and visions she had always heard would come to her. Many mothers even boasted that they could speak to the very spirits. It was happening to her now, and these feelings confirmed it. She let the trance slip over her mind, closing her off from the world for a time as the pain just turned into a faraway notion.
It was as if she were sleeping with her eyes open. The mother-to-be even dreamed. She could remember long ago her own hatching day, lying in a bed of warmth with her three brothers and her mother draping her wing protectively over all of them. The flashes turned into memories that played through her life, and retold all of the feelings. Mariin remembered her first try at flight, at hunting, and the great fear that came with her first ocean crossing. The elation that she had made it…the disappointment of coming back with nothing to show for her hardships…all of it came back until the last fond memory, the face of her beloved mate, Kybar...the sight of him sent a warmth through her body, and just for a fleeting moment, she was saddened…was he a spirit of the dead come to speak with her?
Then the flashes ended as smoothly as they had started, leaving her eyes with the faint darkness of the inside of her den and the silence accompanying it. The pain was gone, leaving behind only a quick pang of exhaustion. But Mariin had the energy to at least sidle around to look at what she had accomplished.
Lying in the warmth of the pelts, shadowed by Mariin's wing, was a single icy orb dotted with flecks of gray like the stone which surrounded it. Its surface shone with newness and a beauty the likes of which caught her eye easily, and brought her protective nature into heed.
One single egg…at that very moment, it was the greatest thing that the dragon could ever have seen, or done, in her life.