When next Rennette opened her eyes the cave was bright. Sunlight was streaming in from the cave's mouth; the stiffness of her body suggested she had slept in that uncomfortable position all night long. The wildlin shifted below her, jostling Rennette until the dragon could rise.
"Alright, hold on—here." The wildlin bounded up, stretching and careening to the cave's mouth. Rennette watched covetously as the wildlin took to the air, circling high above in her typical gyre.
The cave's mouth itself shocked Rennette; it opened directly into nothingness. There was no way any un-winged creature could reach it, even had they not needed the Noara's permission. She felt that the whole world stretched below her.
"It is one of my favorite manifestations. Impossible to reach and impossible to see beyond the horizon." The Noara sat on a scant precipice jutting over the cave's opening. Rennette stretched out to look at him; his legs hung dangling into space, the feet bare and human. The rest of him followed this human form, though his eyes were hauntingly off and she could see a suggestion of wing folded behind him. The effect was disturbing.
He grinned at her. "I'd be careful leaning out like that. I do not know if a fall here would kill you, but I suspect neither of us wishes to learn."
She straightened, pressing the cave wall beneath her hand. The roughness of the stone grounded her and she felt secure. "Where are we?"
"We're in my mountain. This space—this is all memory. A projection, perhaps. Over there is where your keep will be. And that—that is the land your people are currently fighting over. Now it is overrun by finlare. Humans in this time are still trying to domesticate them; they'll continue to try for another hundred years or so before they develop the hunt that you know so well."
"How long ago was this?"
"Seven hundred years."
The land before her was hauntingly familiar. She recalled finding a portrait of her mother at a young age, her familiar features soft and smooth—this was much the same feeling, the feeling of love for a stranger.
She looked at the Noara's kicking feet. "I am sorry for yesterday. I meant no disrespect—"
"Let it go." The Noara launched himself from the precipice, scaling the mountain side as she had seen small lizards do. Watching him do this in his partial human form created in Rennette a forceful revulsion; she pushed herself firmly against the cave wall.
"Does it upset you?" The creature before her stretched impossibly, turning such that his wings no longer existed, his claws becoming human fingers. "I am sorry. This inbetweeness is easy for me to obtain—I often slip into it. I did not mean to disturb you so."
Rennette shook her head vehemently. "It's alright—you just startled me. I did not know you could do that; it's no problem, really."
He quirked his head, the strange eyes gripping her. "Yes, well, I shall avoid it nonetheless."
The wildlin continued circling outside of the cave, executing precise rises and dives. Rennette pointed her out, eager to focus the Noara's eyes elsewhere. "Do you think she knows this is a projection?"
"Yes, she does. She knows how to slip through it as well—I showed her. She plans on hunting soon. It has been days since she's eaten."
"Yes. It slipped my mind, I suppose."
As Rennette watched the wildlin seemed to rise higher and higher, eventually flickering out of existence. Despite herself she felt a brief moment of panic. "Will she be able to find us again?"
She continued to stare at the wildlin's vanishing point, jumping when the Noara spoke again.
"I apologize myself. I did not mean you any discomfort yesterday. I do enjoy conversing and hope we may continue to do so. I have not had company in a long time; I forget how to behave, it seems."
Rennette shrugged. "I did not mean to pry."
"Please do. We may have plenty of time to know each other's life and ways. What will we learn if we do not pry?"
"I do not think we have so much time," she whispered. Her eyes felt dry and she blinked, squeezing them shut. "I want you to take me to the horn today, to the first Nering. Is the sun really so far already?"
The Noara's voice was small. "Yes. It is fitting for what I remember; I only relive this memory at this time."
"This evening then." She opened her eyes and walked back to the cave's mouth, sitting. "Yes, this evening I want you to take me. I want the sun to still be up—ever so slightly—and the shadows to be long. Will you take me then?"
"Then so be it." She scuffed the rock with her heel, watching the smaller pieces tumble down.
"The story you all but refuse to tell me. Please—tell it now." He came and sat next to her. "I have a great fear that I shall not know it, that I'll never know it if you do not tell me."
The rocks also flickered out of existence, dropping somewhere in another memory. She placed her tentative hand over the Noara's. "Will you be very lonely once I am gone?"
"Yes." His face darkened. "And no. I suppose I will simply be busy. Things will have changed greatly, no? I suppose I will be too busy to think of loneliness."
"That is good. The story which comes to mind paints you as a lonely creature. It was in the very beginning of it all, when you were in just the form of man and nothing more. You had not learned how to return to what you once were, even in impression, and all you truly had were your memories.
"It must be a frightening thing to be thrust into a different mind, to observe not only the world around you but all you have formerly experienced in a different light. The other Noara fought against this, and though they learned what it was to be human in time, they fought to first regain their dragon forms. You did your best to push them away, relearning the form as they did but refusing to venture into the world. They allowed you to remain here with your grief. They saw that you were plagued with your memories and desperate for a reason to hope, so when they ventured into the world they left you, promising their eventual and necessary return."
She held his hand tighter now, her own thoughts generating his grief. "But you were lonely even before it all, were you not? A creature that understood the development of the world around it, but not its own origin—this bred a loneliness of its own. It was because of this you began to speak with the one you call Monster. He would come to you with his questions and his insistence and you would indulge him. The more you gave him the more he wanted—he began to make demands. There were things you would have explained if you could, but even the Noara cannot understand the world in its entirety. You began to refuse him and he turned from matters of the world to matters of the human heart. What was the difference between right and wrong? Had you ever experienced love or hate? He was a conqueror of men, a powerful leader with no equal. He wanted someone to understand him in his entirety, to approve of him through his innermost soul. He turned to you but you could not understand—you were not the same as he. A great friend, a mentor, but too different in the end. And so he created music.
"The music was the closest humans came to communicating their feelings to the dragons. Some dragons understood it more than others, their bodies taken over in song and dance. All dragons, however, loved it, and even a krys's gentle kreen can be known to carry a tune. With such great promise you can imagine Monster's surprise when you still did not understand him completely. He became desperate—he would see to it that you understood, no matter the cost.
"You did not see it because you were not a human. You missed the frantic look in his eyes, dismissed it as another passing emotion, one of the moods which confused you but improved with time. There is no fault in this, no blame. How can you wish to have caught something you simply did not know?
She squeezed his fingers. "Every moment he poured into the creation of that horn harbored his desire. With this, the purest music, he would be able to show it all to you. You would awake and you would be as he was, see as he did, think and breathe as he did—you and he would be in mutual understanding. I can never say it was the right thing to do—it wasn't. He didn't pause and wonder about the world through your eyes—no. He wondered only at your inability to see it through his. This was his ambition, his knowledge that he had done so much that it was you who missed out by not seeing it. He never took pause to think it through, to come to a different decision."
She would not release him, though he pulled. "He was rash. He finished the horn. He knew that all of the Noara were meeting, knew where to take the horn so that you might hear it best. He truly thought he was doing a true and good thing, rejoicing every step of the way. When at last the horn was at the top of the mountain he placed his lips to it and gave voice to his turmoil. What he saw frightened him: the terasnai heard the music the most keenly and it tore them from the sky; wildlin lost their minds to the sound. He stood in terror and despair as all fell around him, his very people running back to the forest. And then—then he saw you: a broken, half human creature. You crawled towards him through it all, your body flickering in-between what it was and what he would have it be. You saw him laughing—he laughed for joy. You lived. He saw that you lived."
He tore against her but she held fast. "You lied! You are the origin of these stories and yet you would remember them falsely! He did not claim success—he did not damn you to eternal suffering. He, in his immense ignorance, was happy. He had gotten what he wanted—taken it without ever thinking to ask. To see you before him, not quite human but less different—such joy he had never felt before.
" 'Beautiful creature,' he said, 'to think yourself so different from me—'"
" 'Now you shall live as I live, married to the land and living with it. Rejoice, dragon! Rejoice in the change within those you love! All of our memories are but stories, and all stories end with us as equals!'"
"No!" The Noara jumped to his feet, his form shattering before Rennette's eyes as he pushed away from her. Their surroundings blackened, cave, horizon and sky all vanishing into pitch. She could hear his roar as he thrashed; the darkness was cold and probing. Rennette lunged her voice towards him.
"Your words—your interpretations! It's all you—your own sadness! You would call yourself Monster! You would claim that it was your entire fault, that you did nothing to prevent it! You killed him because of your own fear, your own overwhelming understanding of our emotions! You blame yourself—you make him evil by forcing yourself upon him. You made him into the monster you see yourself to be!"
The world shattered around her. The cave crashed back into existence. Her own current world appeared through its mouth, the wildlin perched on a high tree, watching her warily. The Noara sat in the back of the cave, head in his hands, voice raw.
"It was a moment—a moment and a gust of fire. It killed him so quickly and then came the shock of the finality of it all. That was the moment we were the most similar, I think. Both of us, changing lives without a moment's hesitation."
Rennette rose and walked towards him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "The Noara do not blame you."
"I should have killed him long before."
"No one but man can know his rashness. It's a gift, I think, but a dangerous one."
He snatched up and grabbed her, staring with his inhuman eyes. "This changes nothing. I cannot promise anything more. This man's actions were not directed through malice—no. But, be that as it may, the actions of his ancestors demand attention. They have enslaved us. They have used us. I would have it set right."
"I understand. But please, if you've learned nothing else as a man learn this: everything you do will have a consequence. You cannot turn it back. Think long about what you wish to do and ponder all of the possibilities. Tell this to the others—let this be the true ending to the story."
The Noara shook his head. "That there is no right or wrong…it is a concept I would have understood once. Now I wish he were evil, or myself. What was the fiend in this tale?"
"There isn't one. It is up to you to see that there never is."
The wildlin perched at the cave's mouth, kreening curiously. Behind her the sun had begun its decent, already hanging low near the horizon.
"It's time, I believe." Rennette stood, holding out a hand to the Noara. He took it, heaving himself up. His eyes narrowed as he took in the sun, still gripping Rennette lightly.
"After all of this I feel that it's been no time at all. I feel I should have learned more. Perhaps my fellows will have done so."
"It is hard for one individual to know as much as he wishes, dragon or no."
The Noara nodded absently. Rennette released his grip as the wildlin flapped to join them—it was time, horrible and fleeting. She approached the wildlin, communicating with her gently. Parting. She turned again to the Noara, her determination beginning to falter. I must hurry. I must go before I am too afraid. "Please. It is time to go."
He looked at her once more, clearing his throat. "Very well." He snapped out his wings. "So be it."
The feeling was less unsettling this time. The sky stretched blue above them and her breath caught at the view. There was nothing hindering her sight. The world stretched out around her, the wilds dark and imposing and the cities of man mere clusters in the distance. She could see vast rivers, black in the sunlight and moving sporadically. She questioned the Noara as they touched down.
"Armies. Those are your people, marching towards the fighting." The Noara retained his dragon form, though it seemed to tax him. He sat next to the wildlin, dwarfing her as she did Rennette. On his other side stood the horn.
The horn was a deep reddish brown, gleaming in the sunlight. Engravings covered it in intricate designs, reminding her of the Nering she had once called her own. It was smaller than she had assumed but still quite immense, monopolizing the part of the peak that the Noara and wildlin did not occupy, the vast bell tapering to a small, delicate mouth.
"This is it." She approached, brushing it with her fingers. It was cold to the touch, chilled by the cooling air. "What will you do when it's all over?"
The Noara's eyes never rested on the horn, instead looking towards the armies. "In all honesty I do not know. An old part of me would swoop down upon them, ending their lives. The part of me that has had time to consider, however, time to think, knows that is not the right thing to do. I suppose I will have to think even more." He shook his wings. "Yes. I will need much more time to think."
Rennette accepted this in silence, taking a deep breath before approaching her wildlin. Distress poured off the dragon in sickening waves, seizing Rennette's stomach with unquenchable sadness. Rennette reached out and placed her hand on the dragon's nose, pressing her head against it. Love. Through all of it there had been the wildlin's love, Fetter's love, the love of her family. There was no questioning how lucky she had been. Even in the worst of times, someone always cared for me. It is almost too much to give away.
She approached the horn a second time and placed both hands upon it. She closed her eyes, letting the words come to her. Goodbye, Fetter. Goodbye Sophia and Tatrim, Tate, Noni, and Byron. Mother, Father, Benano—be well.
Without further thought to the risk—her life seeming more precious by the second, the fear creeping up her spine—she opened her mind and moved through her voice.
"The time has come for my story to end. Those I have loved will never be forgotten. They are touched, changed. They will begin stories of their own—long tales of love, pain, and happiness. Stories of the ages, for memories never still.
"My story ends and begins anew. The dragons will soar, the dragons will fight. The dragons will seek revenge. My story ends in much suffering. There will be bloodshed. There will be misunderstanding. The world will not return to what it once was. It will become something else, something darker.
"One day the battle between man and dragon will end. Man will lay down his arms and dragon sheave his claws. All will come right, and they shall converse. What they shall know, what they shall become—such is not for me to know. It is for you, the Noara, and you, wildlin, my truest and most beloved part of myself. You will know this freedom, you will bring this future.
"It ends now, my story and your imprisonment. Your ignorance will be washed away, as will your security."
The words echoed about her as she pressed her lips to the horn and blew. The sound began, clear and long, a tentative note that radiated outwards. The note grew in intensity, sinking ever lower, vibrating the mountain's peak. It became louder, stronger, truly deafening. The horn awoke.
She felt as though the sound would tear her from herself but she held firm. The metal seared into her skin—somewhere she was aware of her wildlin bellowing and the Noara roaring towards the sky. She felt the sound pass through her, felt the breaking of bones, the shattering of her mind.
The dragons were all with her, krys and wildlins and creatures she had never known. She even felt three more Noara, their bodies large and impossible, their bellows breaking the earth. They all surged towards her, filling her mind, thousands of different curiosities and fears, interests and confrontations. They understood her now, understood it all—but what, what were they to do?
Fly. She pressed this into every mind. Fly, fly upwards, higher and higher. Take it back—take it all.
And so they did. She saw krys barns explode to splinters as their dwellers poured forth. Wilds fell at the beating of wings—great mountains roared and became alive. She saw the snaking armies of man covering the land and killing each other—saw them stop and stare at the sky in horrified awe, saw them abandon their fights and rush for the trees. She saw all the spirits of dragons past and dragons to come, all the faint palpitations of creatures who had long ago forgotten their worth. She called to them all—fly, fly and take yourselves back. She called and they obeyed.
The note died out but the sky whirled with winged beasts, their passing making a noise of its own. People pointed as the creatures came to circle the mountain to the west, all but engulfing it in their horde. On the top of the mountain rose eight wings, the wings of the Noara, larger than the world itself. It was around them the dragons circled and around their greatest savior the Noara stood. Burnt, unrecognizable, and clutching a horn in her ruined hands she stood, their storyteller, their whisperer of words. A broken thought—take it—and they understood. The Noara moved as one, gently touching the horn with their noses. The horn shimmered to stone and their secret-bearer fell to dust, her ashes circling the mountain. The dragons knew unbearable grief and their kreens caused all in the land to shudder, a fear mounting in them, realizing itself when they turned their heads once more to the mountain.
From the mountain top arose four plumes of flame, reaching through the sky. Slowly each lesser dragon emitted a flame of its own and the mountain became engulfed in a maelstrom of fire. Armies scattered and people ran in fright, their minds feeding them frantic directions. As the heat of the fire sped outwards people fled madly, ancestral pulses urging them to hide. The dragons have escaped, they called. They have discovered fire.
When the fire ceased the mountain was a black, shiny thing. The dragons took refuge inside as the people looked on, ash raining about them, lives unset in quick moments of panic and minds set on an impossible realization.
The old ways were over, fallen on the eve of a new age. The dragons had come again.