((AN: I'M ALIVE! That's right, I actually finished the next chapter of this story, after a few years' hiatus. Again. XD I'm sorry to make all of you wait for new chapters, those of you who are left watching it. x3 Like I keep saying, real life gets in the way, and my muse keeps hitting roadblocks.
I've actually had this chapter nearly finished for a while, but I ended up working on other, different writing projects-some of them were commissions, and others were books that I intend on publishing (and thus probably can't post here, otherwise, who'd buy the book if they just had it here for free?) x3 But rest assured, this story's still saved and fresh in my mind, and I do want to keep going along with it. I managed to finish this finally today, as I've disciplined myself to write for at least ten minutes every night, but I couldn't find any motivation to work on anything else.
So anyway, I hope this action-filled chapter was worth your wait, and don't worry, hopefully, I'll have more soon enough. =) It depends on whether my motivation stays or goes.
The next morning, once everyone had taken to the skies, Stribog flew together with Zen, Sol, and Lun and told them of his impromptu meeting with the great Patron the previous night. Needless to say, the others were rather impressed.
"The Patron doesn't speak to anyone unless he's interested in them," said Sol, reverence and humility showing for once in his brazen tone—well, for about two seconds. "He probably just wants to protect you too, though. You know you'll probably have to fight as soon as you land, Shame-Blood."
"Sol, go bite a rock," Lun snorted and looked back to Stribog. "Don't worry, I think the Patron's right. A lot of us accept you as just one of the males, no matter what you think you see or hear."
"Yeah," Zen agreed. "Don't worry so much. Besides," he grinned, "You got to talk to the Patron! However it came about, that's a real honor!"
Stribog laughed. "I guess so."
Sol rolled his eyes. "Eh, don't let it go to your head. I'm still going to beat you in all of our spars."
It was fairly easy to say that each of the youngsters were on edge and anxious, ready to finally see the great land of the Northern Ice rising from the horizon. Their saving grace was the fact that they were now far past the halfway point and swiftly approaching. The air currents were starting to turn cooler and daylight was starting to become a little more scarce. The waters were turning cold again.
That was when the storms arrived. While the weather was fairly mild on the first half of their trip (bar for some sudden downpours), here, the winds began to blow fiercely and the skies looked dark and tumultuous.
"Be vigilant, young ones!" the Patron had roared. "Stay close! The storms are our last great obstacle!"
Before the large flock of ice dragons, the clouds looked like a great wall of rising black. The youngsters pressed on, each one wanting to keep pace with the great Patron, but at the same time uncertainty started to cross each of their faces. Closer and closer they came, and the sound of rolling thunder came along with the feeling of static in the clouds, a sort of strange force all around their wings.
"It looks dense in there," observed Lun as he flapped harder to gain more height on the others. "I hope nobody gets lost."
"I'm sure if we stay together, like the Patron said, we won't," said Zen.
"If it does get too dense to see the others," hummed Stribog, "Then we all could roar, to find each other again."
"Good idea," Lun replied, "But if we keep flying straight, I doubt we'll have to do that."
"Don't be scared, you bunch of hatchlings," Sol gruffed and flapped faster. "The Patron's easy to see, so we won't lose him. Just follow him, and we'll all be together anyway."
It was rather hard to argue with that assessment, and so the friends all flew on, keeping an easy pace (and sometimes moving faster) with the others. The Patron kept up his bellowed encouragements, and even as they crossed into the storm clouds, things seemed like they would run smoothly.
Then the thunderclouds came. Each flash of light and bolt of electricity arcing across the sky, moving closer and closer to the youngsters and scaring them out of their minds, seemed miles-long and never-ending. It came to a dangerous head when the rumbles were louder than any of their voices or their roaring.
"You must keep moving, my sons!" Elberon could be heard just barely over the gale as the wind picked up and started battering the fliers. "Power through the wind! All of you can do it! And use your ice breath on the clouds where the lightning is the closest; it will calm the storm!"
The youngsters did readily as told, pushing the warmer storm clouds further back and halting the thunder. But it was still hard to focus as the wind blinded them, sent some off-course, and tested each of the young males to the limit.
At some point, the fog rolled in like a thick blanket over the flying males. Blinded and deafened by the surprised roars, Stribog flapped hard to try to get into a clear spot above the clouds and fog.
When he did, he shook his head free of the vapor and hovered where he rose. He was the only one in the patch; none of the others were in sight.
"Uncle Zen!" he roared as a slow panic started to overtake him, fearing for the others. "Sol! Lun! Anybody!"
"Stribog, down here!" a voice called from below. Craning his neck and squinting to peer below the shifting fog, he saw the face of his young uncle. "Hurry! Something's happened to Sol!"
Instantly moving into a dive after Zen, Stribog tried to keep his vision clear as his body knifed through the clouds, level by level. As soon as he'd seen the bottom of it though, he leveled off his flying.
"There, look!" Zen exclaimed from beside him.
Stribog gaped. What he saw was what everyone had seen for the last many days of endless flight: the bright and clear sea. But it was the foreign objects that caught his eye the most. Several of them, buoyant vessels made of wood, floated upon the cold ocean currents. From his vantage point, he could barely see very tiny shapes maneuvering around on the vessels; they looked like crabs swarming over a large carcass having been beached.
He would have thought the new sight fascinating, even comical, if it weren't for the fact that Sol was caught in mid-air with several strands of woven material thrown by those creatures and flapping violently to try and escape. Lun was doing everything between roaring for help and trying to get close to free his brother without becoming trapped himself.
Stribog's head shook with disbelieved panic as he tried to think of what to do. "What in the name of the gods are those things?"
"Let's get Sol free, and then we'll figure it out!" cried Zen, already moving down towards the floating armada. Stribog was close behind, keeping an eye on the little two-legged creatures that seemed to spot them and had started to reach for more of the capture-things.
Lun was stuck, unable to find the will to go anywhere near the melee. But he watched as Zen and Stribog immediately went to the heart of the problem, catching the strands between their jaws and having their teeth either snap through them or dislodge them from the reach of the creatures, who were spewing foreign curses upon being relieved of their weapons. Seeing his opportunity, Sol escaped while carrying only one piece of the capture-thing around his neck, his strong wings blowing back a few of the creatures.
By the time the four of them returned to the clouds with the shouting of the vessel-animals far behind, Sol was breathing harshly and bleeding from one of his old scars. "Damn those things..." he rasped.
"What happened to you?" Stribog said, also tiring of the constant hovering flight. "I lose you for just a minute..."
"Saw the floating things, moved closer to...investigate, and they...saw me and...AH!" he growled, nearly tumbling out of the air. "Too tired. Must land."
"Look, there's an iceberg ahead!" Lun said.
True to his word, the cold waters indeed had a few floating patches of ice below them after a moment of searching. Seeing no other choice, they all dropped down gratefully onto the cold surface.
For a while, there was nothing but silence as they all caught their breath on the softly-wavering sea ice. The air was crisp, cold, and thankfully free of anything else, though the fog was starting to roll in onto the surface.
"Okay..." Zen breathed after a moment. "Now I think we can try to figure out what those things were."
"And why you decided to let curiosity try to kill you," Lun said, glaring at his brother.
Sol growled, barely moving from his lying position. "Shut it, Lun. I'd never seen them before; I just wanted to get a better look. They reminded me of what Mother used to talk about, things she'd seen on the Migration. I think they were called...uh...'ships'? Things that humans ride on the water."
"And what are 'humans'?" Lun said, his head tilted and his temper somewhat forgotten for a bout of his own curiosity.
"They must be the creatures on the things, the 'ships'," said Stribog. "The ones that tried to throw these things around you," he picked up the piece of it still carried with Sol in his talon.
"The things are called 'ropes'," Sol continued. "Humans tie them together to make fishing nets and also tie them to weapons to hunt whales. That's what Mother said, anyway; I never thought that her stories were true."
"Well, whatever the deal was," Stribog sighed, "We're okay now. Can you get up? We have to catch up to the others."
"Don't bother worrying about me, I'll be fine," Sol growled and stood up on shaky limbs, his bleeding having already subsided. "At least we're nearly there. If there are icebergs, then the Northern Ice can't be far off."
"You're welcome for the rescue," Zen muttered and stretched his wings to fly with the others.
Before they could even move, however, something shot out and pierced the side of their iceberg with a metallic CRA-CRUNCH.
Startled, the young dragons looked to see the side of one of the humans' pointed weapons sticking out of the thick ice. Then, with a whistle through the air—CRA-CRUNCH, CRA-CRUNCH—two more of them struck the same side, the thick ropes sticking to the other ends.
And out of the fog, looking much bigger than they did from the air, were the ships.
"We're being pulled to them!" Zen roared and leaped instantly off of the iceberg. "Everyone fly, now! Stribog!"
"We can't leave Sol!" Lun called back. "He won't be able to fly fast enough out of here!"
Zen looked worried, his head whipping between the quickly-approaching ships and his stranded friends. "Stribog, come on! We have to get out!"
Indecision gripped the young dragon, but he clenched his teeth against the urge to flee. "Zen, just go and find the others; bring back help! I won't leave Sol!"
"Get out of here, shame-blood," the injured young dragon hissed. "After all the trouble you went through to get to the Northern Ice for your mother and your father, you can't die!"
"I also can't leave a friend, and especially not when I'm partially responsible for his weakness," Stribog insisted. "Now get up." His head whipped upward. "Get help, Zen!"
His young uncle growled and shook his head, quickly turning up toward where the others would be in the clouds. "You'd better not be dead when I get back!"
Stribog watched him fly, and then watched as the shadows of the ships became a little more pronounced and shaped. The waters churned against the ice as they were coming closer; either the dragons were being pulled to them, or they to the dragons. Either way, he had the feeling, along with a lump in his throat and his heart pounding in his ears, that this wasn't going to end well.
Seeing all of this unfolding, Sol let out an angry growl. "Just go, you idiots! I will fight my own way out of this!"
"You barely could before with the...the ropes around your body!" Lun argued, trying to push his body against his brother's to get him back on his feet. "Just get up and fly! Hurry!"
But despite the pushing and shoving, the ships were now towering over the young dragons and their little piece of ice. Stribog could look up and not only hear the closer, louder, shouting voices of the humans that peered over the edge and pointed towards them, but he could also make out their faces, covered and protected from the cold by what he recognized as animal skins or fur.
Diminutive creatures, he observed with no small amount of fear, but more than dangerous enough.
Then, suddenly, the air was made silent and dead by a roar that could crack the ice. The humans on the ships all turned their eyes from the stranded young ones on the floe to the cloudy air above them, frantically searching for the source of the thunderous sound as it echoed everywhere.
To the humans, it looked as if a fierce shadow was falling across the storm clouds above them. They saw a massive outline...flapping wings...another roar that came closer and shook them to their very cores, reverberating through the boats that kept them safely abreast of an icy grave.
The young dragons would never forget the sight then, for as long as they would live: the Patron in all of his gargantuan ferocity had broken through the barrier of clouds and mist, spraying his ice breath across the circle of boats and splitting the small armada in half.
They felt the gusts of wind from his wings as he flapped to gain altitude, and the air from his breath even made them shiver.
"Young ones!" he called, and his voice they swore was carried on the very wind itself when he disappeared back into the fog, with naught but his mighty shadow to betray his location. "Fly north! Fly high! Rejoin the others! I will keep the hunters at bay!"
Another roar sounded, and it was as if it carried strength for the younger males to take for themselves. Lun gave his brother a rough shove. "You heard him, Sol! Move it!"
"Oh, damn you all, alright!" the stubborn dragon snapped back as he lifted his wings and flapped for all of his dear might. "I'm moving!"
He was flapping on dead air until both Lun and Stribog lifted him with what they could of their bulk and heaved. He struggled and breathed harshly (and for sure he was in a bit of pain), but Sol managed to catch the cold breeze and gain altitude with a triumphant hiss.
His brother and Stribog were soon right behind, riding the drafts of wind that they could surely feel from the flapping of Elberon. The Patron was still attacking from the depths of the fog and clouds, and the humans were paying too much attention keeping themselves and their boats afloat to noticed that their quarry had escaped.
The last they'd seen of their gargantuan leader, he was still but a low-flying shadow of menacing proportions, standing his ground against a floating army that was turning their attentions upon him.
It didn't cross the youngsters' minds yet to make sure that he was following behind...they figured that he would, surely; he was a force of Nature, with nothing to stand in his way. They simply flew on, faster, forward, higher, until they could see above the dense clouds and could pass the white-outs of the mid-air blinding snow.
Once they could take a moment to look around, Lun was whimpering. "The others...they flew on without us! I don't see them anywhere!"
Sol grimaced. "The Patron said to just fly north. They will be there."
"And north is...?" Stribog questioned, letting his voice drift into quiet confusion as he, like the others, craned their heads around to look. But it was like every direction was the same; they couldn't trust the sun, for they were too far away from the equator to tell whether it was setting or rising, and for how long.
Even the cries of the dragons seemed to have quieted...
All but for one. An anxious bellow came to them from a patch of cloud in front of them...and from it, Zen flapped out, hovering before his friends.
"Oh, thank the spirits and gods, the lot of you are alive," he called out. "Come! The others have passed us...they are heading this way!"
"Zen!" Stribog called back to his young uncle, flying behind with Sol and Lun quickly on his tail. "You're sure this is the way?"
"Positive! Hurry, I hear the last of their roars fading!" he shouted with haste, leading the three lost dragons onward.
It wasn't a trick, either, for soon they could hear them too...the excited, happy, relieved calls of the young males as they sensed their goal coming up...so soon, after such a long journey...their new home.
Once they felt that they could catch up, their flying became a little more relaxed. Stribog had to give Zen an impressed smile. "I didn't think that the Patron knew where we were down there. Was it you who got him?"
Zen grinned. "Well, you told me to get help...he was the only one who heard my shouts. The other males were still trying to fly on. I hope most of them got through the storm."
"I'm sure they did," said Stribog with confidence. "We're almost there now. The skies are calm, and clear."
"What will it look like, I wonder?" Lun mused out loud, flapping a little higher, but not so high as to leave his brother out of his reach.
And Sol, keeping inside his gratefulness to the others for not leaving him there to die at the mercy of the foreign hunters, just merely huffed.
Soon, through the parting clouds, the welcoming sight of the other males loomed into view, all flying straight as the sun went about its lazy path. Below, the floating icebergs were getting more and more numerous, and the waters more and more covered in patches of thick cold.
They were at the border of the Northern Ice...each of them could feel it.
Each of the young males could only hope though, as the cold landscape loomed into view and the rising spires that marked the territory of the ice dragons started to focus, that the Patron would catch up soon enough to usher them into the sanctum.
So long as they still heard his bellows in the distant horizon behind, they had hope, and the courage to look forward instead of back.