Proven - Or, the Dragonslayer
dragons, drama, death, no smut, head canon
"What is better: to be born good or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?" --Paarthurnax
"This is not the story you wanted or deserve but the story that evolved. Keep the music looped and the narrator voice engaged." --me
(~~music: 'Phantogram - When I'm Small' ~~)
Proven - Or, the Dragonslayer
She came in when the water hadn't yet fully gone.
"Hello, d-" Scaled, but still angelic wings. Sweetness incarnate. He smiled. "Had a good flight? Bet your sisters had a lot to tell."
Nothing. Silent stares as an ominous shadow approached. Sniffed. "I think there's still some meat in the-"
Touch. Touch. On his skin, his chest. Good. Nothing there. His back. Nothing there. His legs... "Ah! It's only been three days, no need to-" Nothing.
"At least let me take off your backpack." Apparently, the picture album had been heavily used. As suspected. Meanwhile, she was still systematically surveilling every centimetre of his - "Hands." "Sure, just let me put the-" There. A flinch. Pupils widening to rage. And there, on his palm, the travesty. The heresy. The armaggeddon. A cut. "Listen, I-" Actual armaggeddon, building up to swallow him whole. "She's been here again and you didn't use the charm." "She just wanted to talk. Blow off some steam. She's not taking anything." A hiss. Sparks of amber. "She should know better." "I think she just has a hard time. Smallest of the bunch, you know? The most to prove." "I had talked to her." He sighed. "It's not how it looks." "Oh, what does it look like? That she came in again, told her tales of nature and dragged you into some obscure competition - armwrestling or blade-duels or whatever her newest obsession is- and instead of using the charm you let her push you around because you thought she'd reign herself in, but then it got worse, and she beat you up." "Okay, maybe it is how it looks." Her nemesis. Uncertainty in his voice. Time to take off the gloves - figuratively, obviously.
An iron hug. Minimum time, a minute. "M trn t" Fine. A bit less of an iron hug. "...eathe here." Still continuing inspection for any other dangerous affliction. No, all intact. She closed her eyes, hugging his neck. God, she had missed him. A gentle peck on his cheek. Mh, just how he liked it, even if he never admitted it. More were in order, yes. More. More.
"Rule number four." He sighed. "Really? I thought you had enough of draconic rituals after the weeke-" "Rule. Number. Four." Her claw, poking his belly. Unspoken threats of tickling hanging in the air. "Trust is a two-way road." Good. That deserved at least a dozen more kisses. "Rule number three." His neck and ears were in dire need of massage. Spiky beard. "Power begets responsibility." Which meant he was going to be responsible for that heat starting to dwell in her. "Number two." It was getting hard to get in the words between her assaults with every part of her body. Wings, folding a tent around them. A shell. "Mmmmh. Treasure needs to- mph. protected." "One." A long, minute-long deep kiss. 'sure.' "I did not hear that." "I'm a treasure." Well, that sealed the fate of the night, and its glow lasted for snuggled sleep deep into the morning.
They woke with her wings still safely tucking him into her embrace. She was comfortable, but deep in thought, looking at his hand again.
"Morning." "Morning, knucklehead." Sounded like she had picked up some new weird pet names. Bad influence, clearly. Annette probably. She should meet them more often. "I just don't know what to do with her." Silence, as the two thought of the dilemma at hand. "Maybe it'll just grow away." "It never does." Hisses, hisses in her voice. "Hey." His soft touch. "We went over that." Shadows, shadows of her past flying past her mind. "I wish I could just murder the one who came up with the damn book." She growled. "Easy. Maybe you could just write a better book." His hands, stroking her hair as they stared into the sun. "I'll just have to talk to her again." Dangerous undertones. Dangerous, dangerous undertones. "No." Bold stance of his. As much as he could be, snuggled into her. Still, no give. "But-" "No." "I hate it", she hissed again. "The entire culture." He moved his head. Stared into her eyes. "Then change it." She blinked. "What?" "Change it." "How?" "You think beating her up will get her to change her ways?" "No, but she'll at least leave my hoard alone when I blink for a-" "You want change?" "...Yes." She wasn't sure where he was going. "Would it helped you, back then?" She flinched. Past. Buried, buried past. "No." Barely a whisper, a breath even. Trying to avoid eyecontact, but he didn't let go. "What would have helped you back then?" Squirming. Regret, memories. This was not where she had wanted her morning to go. Tears, even. "Easy." His hands, his voice. But the words lingering until she found an answer. "I'll make some breakfast." And with a kiss, he stood, and left her to her prison he couldn't free her from.
The smell of meat set her free from haunting flashbacks, but she was still in thought as they ate, as she enjoyed the sight of him she hadn't had for the last few nights. They took their time, the sunlight glittering in the fortified..."home." It just broke out of her. Like a splash of poisoned water. The syllables, slowly waving through the air. "Home." Tears in her eyes again. A hug, drowning him. Suffocating, but he didn't say a tone. "Home." A whisper. So many thoughts of darkness. And his presence. The ray of sunlight. The path of redemption. He somehow wormed his head out of the draconic grip, and kissed her neck - or well, her shoulder. Draconic grip was draconic grip. "Then we'll give her that." So simple. Why, why? Why could he make the tallest mountains seem so simple to climb. Her anchor in the sea. Her torch in the night. The tears just kept coming. And that was alright. And so, they spent their second day.
It was another windy afternoon. The fire was steady, parts of hoard and stone glowing with steady, stored heat. Occasional, lost tiny raindrops finding to glimmer, and vanishing. He looked hard into her eyes. Drilled into her soul. "I do not want to leave you here." What a ridiculous statement. A frail being, towering over a power dwarfing his existence. And yet, his words clawing into her, straight through any scales. "It has to be." Thousand-mile stares into past and future. Dozens of outcomes, and how to handle them. His hand, on her cheek. The gentlest, but unstoppable pull. "Promise me, Ada." "What?"
Much later, a third soul to crack the floor, following an invitation. "I am here." Rebellious red, contrasting her amethyst shades. A torch, and a forest. Young, yet full of pride. So much emotion, so deep the walls. It was as if she looked into a mirror of her past. She gulped, but remembered her plan. "I have noticed you have broken your word." Inquisitive stares from the guest. "I never took him." The sheer thought consuming green in darkness. Utter poison, poison she had to fight, fight, fight back into the place it had come from. The place within her.
"Selene the Arrow." Claws, digging into rock, leaving scars for decades to come. "I want to challenge you for my horde." Thunder. Selene's eyes widening. For minutes, the sheer magnitude of the occasion prohibiting any answer. Rain pitched against them, against the entrance. "What is your demand?" What could she possibly have that Ada would wage this for? Had she underestimated her desire for revenge? She had barely scratched him, and not even on purpose. Not that she'd ever admit that. Her powers flowed, and she had yet to control them, but didn't feel rushed, instead enjoying the tides, wherever they brought her. "Does it matter?" Ada's thin smile. "Any doubt or condition that would keep you from accepting?" Another surprise. Selene fell into untypical thought. Not for long, though. "I accept." Live by the fire, die by the fire. There was no stopping, because stopping meant to stop existing. And Selene...Selene was falling and flying, damn the landing. A noble spirit. A force of nature. A shape to print her touch on the world. Nothing to lose but herself, nothing to win but new heights. No chain could hold that, no promise bind this life. Force. Selene was force, in the purest definition, and the only thing she desired was more of it. It wasn't even the prospect of the hoard to win. It was the promise of challenge. The world against her. And the world would break.
"Rule of Earth. The fourth rule." Selene began the incantation. "Trust is a two-way road." Ada responded and gestured into the cave. Showed her back to Selene, as she ventured inside and waited in a sufficiently spaced-out room, a campfire's coals glowing behind her. Only with her opponent's steps halting, she turned around. And with the tradition adhered, more a way for both sides to boast their dignity than anything else, the battle began, with Ada on the inside, and Selene between her and the exit. Dragons have an impressive arsenal of weapons already when encountered alone; claws, fangs, tails to crash stone and limbs to rip trees. The reflexes of a predator, and the force of nature and beyond. They might act full of pride anytime else, but when it came down to it, combat between dragons was less of a clash between immortal titans than a flurry of lethal swipes, feints and vicious, disgraceful carnage, an explosion of evil into every direction. One reason the melee duel was traditionally held in caves was to ensure the fallout didn't outright kill everyone in the area except the duelists; however, the real reason was that in the adrenaline- and survival-instinct-fueled heat, it was hard to see what one attacked; keeping distractions outside meant everything that moved, was probably a target, and not a particularly unlucky decoy. And last, it wasn't a show of particular prowess to boast about. Pride was for competition. Earth wasn't competition. Ada shifted her weight. Closed her eyes. Listened. To everything screaming inside her. Dozens of voices trying to drag her into their directions. And one, just one, that mattered. Selene, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the environment. Seconds. And then... No, Earth wasn't competition. The floor, walls, ceiling all becoming one, as directions stopped mattering except forward. A growl. This was what life was about, and death even more. Red. Flashing, lunging into spears to spike her limbs. A dance of madness. Ada's eyes opened. Earth was war.
What Selene had to make up for in experience, she proved in speed. More nimble than Ada in the limited area, her jumps were free to use any wall to redirect her movement, having room to use her claws, kicking, crashing feet, her tail and even her wings. It was a dance of no gravity, rotation her weapon rather than weakness, any retribution equally distributed to her skin. Meanwhile, Ada held with even damage taken, but mostly on her front and her limbs - even in the widest parts of the tunnels, her attempts at tailswipes were blocked by the dirt. In the end, Selene's wounds were more of afflictions of impact; Ada's were straight-up cuts rarely piercing her scales. And yet, even in murderous frenzy, Ada had to retreat step by step as countless swipes were connecting and many more were attempted. The few times Selene had been roughly brought against the floor from misjudging a jump and consecutively suffering a hit were not enough to stop her progress. The stone crumbled, the rocks echoed, the surfaces screamed and...coals hissed. A claw, pushed back into the glimmer. Ada's limbs, slowing, freezing. "Enough." Heavy breath from pain. Madness in her face. Selene's panting beneath her. A gulp. Ada's tail, long forgotten after failure in the widest parts, barely above Selene's chest. A direct hit to crush her to the surface. She had risked everything for the last step. But she had won. And so, she didn't realize any of the fights within her green enemy. The darkness. Consuming, growing, corrupting. Held back. For now. And not immediately, but eventually, more crawling than walking, more clutching than grasping for the walls, they made it out. The storm hadn't stopped yet, which was good. It made the next part easier. Still, it took a while for Selene to continue. Scuffles with the larger dragons had been her life, but that was more of play, sport and rivalry. This...was death. And she hadn't had experience with that. It had been the first duel of her life.
"Rule of Fire. The third rule." She coughed. The rain cleansed the dirt from both their afflictions, but it didn't help with the pain. Ada, meanwhile, looked like she had seen her life pass by, Selene thought. Maybe she had. A stare between trance, regret, survival, adrenaline, murder and... something.
"Hrm. Power begets responsibility." And so they went, an unequal pair, trying to maintain pride while staying alive, until they found a sufficient part where the forests cornered meadows. Two cones, carved into the ground of the meadows, pointing into the trees. Then, an arching line through both, at a third of the height starting from the grass. Long, long minutes where the outer lines were broadened and buried in dirt, but it wasn't time spent without purpose - both to give them opportunity to adapt to their wounds - or fall to them - and to create a wall of hardly-burning mud. Easier due to the rain in general making everything more burn-resistant and also softening the ground. A creation, paradoxically made in cooperation. When viewed from above, like two fangs on a plain, ready to devour the leaves. Selene chose. Ada took the remaining cone. They stood at the focal points. The competition was simple:
Step as far back into the forests as you can trust your abilities to steer the heat. Fell trees, rip bushwork if necessary. Then, with a single, collected roar, cut...everything into ashes. From your stance to the cut. Leaving all grass behind intact. Fire was a gift of the gods, but it meant mass destruction. Controlling it was important to dragons not wanting to scorch the ecosystems they depended on. Those who overestimated their power, would not reach the line. Those who overestimated their sense of proportions, would torch the grass beyond the line, still save from burning down the lands. And those not capable of keeping the foremost section of their breath in control, were deemed so shameful that the destruction of the forest was adequate to their transgressions. Dragons were a proud culture, but death was part of the rites just as tradition. Just like the death of others - a constant potential in every breathing moment of their power. They stood. They breathed. They waited. Ada started.
Two, three steps. Looking at the grass. Another step back. Looking at Selene. A step forward again. Selene squinted, the affront as clear as the clouds weren't. Disrespect. Still, what else to expect in a duel? Ada's eyes focusing. Limbs, coming together, cut legs still stiff from the wounds and rain. A glow inside her. Embers in her heart. Dimensions in her mind. Instinct, her planned assault an extension of her being. Dancing stars, haunting colors waiting to bloom. Pupils, wide. Slower than necessary. Fast enough to bring death. Her roar shattered over mountains, silenced thunders for a minute, led anything that hadn't run for its life to reconsider. The power of her core, spreading forward. Infernal shades of orange engulfing blades of muddy, wet grass, rain steaming in a giant cloud of air enclosing her proximity, a ball of light glistening below dark grey clouds. Ashes in ashes. Water to air. Stopping, ceasing, shrinking... eradication ending a hand's width before the line, at most. Breathing in, she moved her head. No rogue sparks. No glimmering, moving branches. Practiced. It was precise. It was gone. And now, it was Selene's turn.
The young one had used her fires thousands of times. A trait kept from birth to death. And unbeknownst to Ada, she had also used it in rivalry. An escalated bout, an unexpectedly brutal clash. Both sides had went home alive and mostly unharmed, without their escalation becoming common knowledge, if only for the fact that they had fought in thin air, on top of a mountain, as opposed to these depths with fuel aplenty in all directions. Selene stepped back. Three steps. Where Ada had stood. Another one. Expected, as anything else was without sense. Looked at the grass. Looked at Ada. And then, three more large steps back. The green elder's mouth opened. So deep into the forest, a tree was in the way, but Selene felled it silently. It might not even have been necessary due to the rain still pouring down, but rather was her proof to her rival that she knew how to wield all the tools required. The bark splintered, the branches descended, the tree laid slain, pulled aside. Free line of sight. Unhindered range of rage. She took longer than her opponent in collecting herself from her panting, but in her defense, she had already used more force before even making her mark. Claws, crossed in front of her chest. Legs bowing. Wings, first closeby and then wide, exploding, everything stretched into every direction. A scream, halling through the valleys. This was what she was here for. This was what she was. Primal fire lighting the land, unleashed, unravelled from her soul, her body taken in by the excess of her struggle. The echo of her voice, reverbing in the trees and beyond. And before her, scorched, recolored earth. She was smaller than her competition, but the distance of her breath had spread far longer, to the line. And beyond, in the very center. A step, perhaps, but all the clearer the border of glimmer in the dirt. A sign of her loss, but she took it in stride. "I overestimated the rain.", she quipped when she could speak again. Nothing more. Eyes sparkling, opened wide, revelling in the amplitude of her efforts. Steam faded, grass drowned in saving splatters, and half of their bout had ended, with noone yet to lead.
The third rule might have had benefit from the weather, but it was to be counteracted by the second. A river, life's vein through the lands, once peaceful, now treacherous, rapid, unpredictable. Grown and swollen from the downpour, out of its borders, redrawing them, eroding stone, reshaping earth. Water that ripped everything with it in icy cold, death and neverending chaos of tides. Nature was a matter of balance, and currently, the vein brought many things, deafening noise and drowning bushwork some of the more harmless of them, but rarely life. They had come here by claw - no sense in wasting efforts yet to be required - as the storm ravaged the world over them. Finally, through limited viewrange, they found a rock crushing against the waves of a vertical lunge into nothing, streams from the mountains to join the bigger depths stirring beneath. A rock too firm to be cut from its position, but exposed enough to let them feel the rushing fog above the morphing surface. Usually, this was a challenge of eyesight and precision; today was no different, except that there was no distance to glance. No, their stare was to come close or cease its efforts. And so, they stood, barely an arm's length apart yet so focused in their approach, the other might as well be buried in the seas. "Rule of Water. The second rule." Ada's turn to speak, and muffled by the barrage of movements around them, but clear in its message. "Treasures need to be protected." Selene's tongue dull from the dampening aura and her earlier, inexorable efforts of guiding heat. From blasting heat to seeping cold. And so they stood. And watched. Dark, dirt, borderless shapes and sparse branches breaking forward. Treasures often sparkled in the light, but today only held gray, and gray was everywhere. Patience then, to keep the mind sharp and the body coiled. A hint in the tangential flow. Ada jumped, or rather, stepped into emptiness, as she let the fall shape her entrance into another world.
Sight close to zero, touch and smell useless, but mental calculations and touch of drag to give the search chance, with held breath and a battle. A battle against time, of dexterity against impact, of softness under assault. Tension. Anticipation. Persistence. And closure. As she rose from grasping waves, her claws surrounded the prize of her wager. To fall next to Selene, after a path where flight still held more effort than worth, most of her return bound by friction. Life, if only fleeting. A fish, ripped from its place, battered into new direction and yet- not a cut in its presence. Last efforts, spasming from its structure. A contract fulfilled, as Selene searched for hers. Thunder, somewhere in the distance. Light, and darkness. Her answer was not sudden. She had the time she wanted and the world required, a trade, of virtue against continued existence. The world held no guarantees, but it promised chance. And as the first loot spent its death throes, she vanished in a dance of drops, submerged herself into blindness, to keep up, grasp, clutch in ebbing, evasive flow. One. Two. Long, long time with tightened lungs, deeper dive than Ada's. Now, the question...where had the surface gone? Tides, tides, temperatures. Claws and limbs propelling. Ice seeping in, constrained, if twitching grip. Ground. And after her path to the origin... "Twice the depths and the reward." Shivers. Deeper, maybe. Near to a trunk's burial passage. But it didn't matter. Each hand of hers, a comparable trophy within as Ada's, who jolted back at her words as if struck by lightning, a disgraced expression slowly washed away. The rain subsided as if solely motivated to obstruct their fate, and now without guidance. The cold, however, had crept into them, if only on the surface of their inner fire.
The rock and its secrets were left for the afterworld, as they had served their purpose. Only one place left to go, and as if welcoming them, the thinning clouds gradually dispersed. In the distance... "Fire?" Selene was triumphant, but intrigued. A glimmer that had evaded their attention? No, not in this hour. Concentrated flames clutching taller than the meadows hiding them, and refusing to leave their spot. "A beacon." Silence, silence falling around them as the rear guard of infinite drops. Glistening paint, thrown over leaves and blades of grass. A sizzle...far. Distant. The systems had dropped their burdens, and the drafts were following their emptiness. The core of being. The peak of reign.
Just because the rain had ended didn't mean the storms had. It was time to unfold. It was time to abandon hesitation. It was time to fly. To lift and carry oneself as message over the horizons. "Rule One: The Rule of Air." By now, Ada seemed in trance. Far, infinitely far away. Another mind, another person. Forces long unprovoked, newly throwing her in turmoil. It was her time to surpass. "Power begets respe-" Before Selene could finish, Ada's wings had left her behind. Larger, wider, and compared to Selene's, considerably less harmed by the prelude. She flew, and Selene kept up. Soaring. Circling, gliding, the freedom to go. And yet, as high as she ascended, still always in sight of the beacon far beneath. Selene was content with this; she had advantage. A last chance to let her opponent struggle before the final, inevitable cut. Her spirit was unfolding, her existence in blossom, as the winds teared and dragged on her outlines, sending her into directions unknown, but with speed uncontained, every change exploited to increase her rate of passage. They spent time beneath the traces of dissolving clouds. Broke them. Saw the sun, sinking, partially hiding, revelling in its last velvet behind black.
Any last shadows beneath them had passed on their physical state. From now on, their kingdom, their universe was invisible. Treacherous as the rivers, impactful as the tunnels, beautiful as the blasts. But all its powers and promises, all its challenge and potential to leverage one's skill...
Invisible, as the two of them shook off their earthen dust and flew, suns in eternal bind.
The fire still burned. Somewhere. Deep.
The final test. There was no draw. The air was everything. Three challenges bound to survival and the body. But not air. Air wasn't about survival.
Air was about thriving.
Selene thrived. Beaten, tossed by unknown heights, unwilling to fall behind, wings bruised from her efforts, the hidden walls of hostile flux a constant presence, but she thrived.
And Ada did the opposite.
Howling, screaming, deafening, shattering. Air was doing nothing, and everything at once, as Ada turned, rotated in her inertia, staring at Selene's bloody red flapping barely seconds behind her, or at least that was what Selene thought. And then... the greenscale let herself fall. Wings closed, backwards, vertical. It wasn't a flight anymore than the drop of a rock to shatter. The young one blinked. All the effort to come up here, just to throw it away? And yet she refused to be left behind. If Ada did it, she could do it. Speed, unknown speed promised. A mirror of the arch before her in time...a slope up, then down a cliff. She screamed. She was alive. She had never gone so far before, upwards, downwards, and yet the other's proximity had given her the courage, no, the obsession to do so. Far, far, far below still, the ground. And Ada spread her wings again.
Flight always was about controlling your fall. Usually, however, dragons used the winds to enjoy their speed and aid their efforts, and the heights for the view. Not the other way around.
In a way, it was resembling their competition in water. The forces were threatening to even draconic bones. Adjusting one's angles towards sustainable directions was a battle of time left and strength of bones, skin and muscle. Selene's reflexes instantly imitated Ada's control, but her wings were smaller. Her fall, faster on equal height as she was only reacting so far. The moves to hem such bleeding of elevation were unnatural, and she had to learn them from her predecessor within split seconds, and so, her fall was deeper, her recovery slower, her bow and dive screaming, tearing at her weathered wings, and earth, earth was still so far away, but not due to her success, but the excess of their initial route.
And still, Selene thrived. She wouldn't be a dragon if she wouldn't. It was in her soul. It was in her wings. It was in her blood. Bloody wings, keeping up with the leisurely glide of amethyst. Taking her velocity partially back into the horizontal, to match, no, overtake. Her message, as clear as her mind. Wild, looking back at her polar counterbalance.
Show me what you've got.
And as Ada's heart screamed in the wind, she rose again. Once.
There were no traditions, guidelines even for the final stage. Wind and air were living, moving, ever changing properties reincarnating themselves, representing the concept of freedom. To submit oneself to a tradition constricting ideas and expressions for flight's exploration would be against a dragon's very being. Which meant that the introduction so far had not been just for joy, although it never was without. It was a test of the waters, a probing of what shape their challenge would take. And as Ada overtook, turned to her back, gestured with her hands, shivering, twisting in the air, an arch, a distance of palms, palms moving, Selene didn't look at her face bent from sight, but she understood, and did so even before Ada's posture quickly turned away again. Fire's precision. Earth's lack of give. Water's turmoil. Air's freedom of choice. How typical of a dragon with larger wings to propose this path. How obvious her advantages, hoping to win with surplus experience and surface. How foreboding, now, the fact she had meticulously tried to keep damage to her wings and back within constraints. Everything fell into place as past events towards the plan for how she would try to outmaneuver her young opponent, and her expectations and hopes it would end this way.
Controlled flight. Controlled fall. Controlled return.
As precise as possible without touching the ceiling of the sea of trees.
Odd. The rain had stopped long ago, but something still dripped against her wings in traces.
Ada's soul drowned in black. And below her stare into death, somewhere, still...
With a last wave, Ada threw a fist. Opened it. Closed it. Broke away to the side, trying to find her own height of choice. Seemed to find it. Selene understood, for the first time in her own direction.
It was goodbye.
In parallel, they drew across the lands far below, but not unreachable anymore.
And Selene took three steps back again, figuratively, soaring high above Ada, just moments before they both dove into the depth in synchronized manners.
Dropped like a stone, two meteors to extinguish each other.
The speed was maddening. Wherever Ada was, she wasn't there. But Ada could wait. Her wings couldn't. Screaming. So fierce, rabid, frantic the slightest winds and distortion to hit them, that red wings lost precious seconds in a failed attempt to open ever so slightly. Slightly was too much, even. Speed didn't slow. Only her wings, barely extending, barely able to move without getting straight ripped from her shoulders, fingerwidth by fingerwidth, extending, applying downforce in pain, screaming pain, extinguishing pain, pain or death, pain, the angles moved, the flight arched. It was everything. The ground, mere breaths away. Time stretching thin, her mind extended to its limits and beyond with every split moment broken into eternity. Everything breaking, burning, ripping, her left already limp, but still extended, the dragging forces not even letting it close. It was not enough. The flight arched. Ground, now less distant than a bird's flight height. Forward. Forward. Drafts against her, creating uplift, additional uplift, making up for the lost seconds of before. Lost in herself. Lost in the pain. Lost in her wings, screaming at her muscles to lift, lift, extend, prevail. Skin, skin breaking. Torture. Speed. Flight. She made it. Broken wings, but she had made it-
Uplift, gone. Frontal wind, gone. A change of tides.
Air from her back.
She hadn't made it.
A meteor, striking the surface.
And nothing else but long, long silence.
Rule Number One. Power begets respect.
The pain was unbearable. Whatever she had endured earlier, against this, it paled like the white ash of spent coals in front of torching flames.
So much wagered. Not the prize, no. Their emotions. Their character. Their innermost nature, played against each other like two trees strangling each other's roots, none left to prevail.
And her body, screaming too, now that the joy of adrenaline and blank BEING no longer could coat all the destruction.
Somewhere, wings. Everything pain. Everything a flurry of color, sight blurred, nothing possible. Nothing made a sound, even when colors appeared to move.
She tried to move her wing. The one in her view didn't move an inch. Broken, then. Ripped. Like an eagle cut to pieces.
She tried to move a claw. Pain. So much pain. Impact upon impact, crowned by a last effort to shatter all before.
A simple fact in her mind; if she hadn't stopped her fall somehow, she wouldn't be alive anymore.
A fact, hanging above her like a sword to split her soul. She had done the right thing.
There was nothing right.
There was only pain.
Another twitch. Another whimper. Another failure to move her limbs.
Draconic power. Godlike nature. Nothing to stop them.
She had failed.
The world against her... and the world had broken her.
It had been a silent trip. The fires of the beacon behind him still in full force, to last the night and longer. Longer than it would matter.
Keeping track of their flight had been impossible. Keeping track of the dustwave, however, hadn't. Roughly. It had become dark, after all.
Wrong directions. Wrong directions, everywhere. Darkest night. Darkest black. Steps, one after the other. The glow of the lamp in his hands, heavy from what he feared to find, and feared to not find.
"Promise me." Beautiful words. Spoken against the innermost tension tearing one apart. Tears. Tears. Why, why had everything to be so wrong. A joke of nature. A stroke of cruelty unmatched. The glowing stones giving warmth, hung from iron beneath the candle. Rain had stopped long ago, after all. Just his steps, steps into nothing, steps into a rough direction.
He searched for hours, but the glowing stones' heat didn't fade, and neither did his arm's strength.
Green, covering her eyes.
Somewhere, light. Noise. Movement. Screams, screams as distant as a dream in fog, until she realized it was her mouth.
She couldn't move her wings.
She was moved. Carried. Heaved, somewhere. Slow. Pain. Coals. Black.
Double the weight, none of the solace.
Smoke. Sizzling, spreading, filling lungs. Smoke. A cough, and sore regret. Warmth. Warmth on shoulders, feet...nothing moved. Panic. Nothing moved. Coughing. A shadow. "Easy there." A bitter voice. A stare. "More stones." Open skies. More warmth. Warmth burying her limbs. Warmth enclosing her soul, shielding from the pain in a coat of flowing, melting, heat. Shaped by the warmth. Caught by the warmth. Grasped from unconsciousness in merciless resistance. Fire, flickering, sizzling high, burning the outer brinks of clouds somewhere. Somewhere which probably was up. Heat, melting everything into orange. Somewhere... "-re stones." Clacker, like the avalanches she had witnessed once. Pebbles upon pebbles. Orange.
Air. Fresh air, teasing her cheek. Twitch. Mouth. Opening. The sheer audacity of her muscles actually doing her bidding again- nevermind. Only the mouth. Pain. Shoulders. A whimper, if her lips weren't closed again. A bed of rocks. An embrace of heat. Sparks, sparks everywhere around. Shivers. Shivers! That meant her limbs were moving, barely. Orange.
A familiar face, coming in and out of vision, minutes away for some times, always around in the next ones.
"Don't move your wings." A warning not heeded, and screams broke her lips. A sigh. "Always." She blinked. Debated on whether to move her head the slightest bit. Won. Looked into the stars, far above, occasionally covered by smoke and sparks. Arched a claw. Pain, but manageable pain. Other hand. One by one, slowly making it up to all claws, the tail. Tail stuck firmly somewhere, likely under wings. Okay, not moving that then. She only cried a little bit. Something that got his attention. "Good. You can cry again." Some iron contraption, a mock bucket of mesh, held by a hook with a smouldering wooden stick. Full of glowing, angry stones. Heat. "Next round is ready." Awkwardly held iron, slowly dropping the rocks on her skin one by one. A shower of leftovers of...a furnace? No, nothing in sight. Just absurd, absurd amounts of wood everywhere. Moving the head to the left. Bonfire. Beacon. Only much bigger now, or was that because it had been so far away? No, two heaps now. Moving the head to the right. Freezing despite the warm shower. If she was drowning in pebbles...then the hill over there equaled a smaller mausoleum.
"Keep to yourself for once, would you." A hand, wiping the sweat off his head. Clanking. Somewhere. Sizzles. Cracks. He stared at her. She could stare back. Eyes, unmoving coals. Enough time spent that way that he had to swipe his face again. And the dread, growing in her like an unstoppable typhoon. Tears. Tears in her eyes, almost instantly cast away by the heat of her bed of warmth. She was not in a position to cry. And yet, the green, green wings lying in front of her, the image burned into her mind. She hadn't made the landing. "You know, Selene", he said, "it's always the same goddamn thing with you dragons." Another whimper failed to escape her. And then, the next round of glowing stones, one third for her. And two thirds for the mausoleum.
She wanted to scream, so she tried to move her wings again.
The sun set again.
Clouds covered the stars.
For a few hours, he even slept. Then, he got more trees. It wasn't like they were lacking. In the moments Selene stared at the deposit of heat he told
her to not bother with, it didn't move by a single pebble.
The next day, she could use her tail again. Or rather, move it from her wings. Anchors of death, still pinning her to the grave she laid within like a buried butterfly. Progress was slow, and he was getting slower. Not enough sleep. Trees from larger distances. Twice, she caught him slipping. That probably was why the stick to hold the stones was so long.
He was slowly, but surely running out of food as well. Not enough time in between stoking the fires, collecting more wood, constantly showering them with fresh pebbles, shoveling away the cold ones every few hours.
She noticed that he hadn't eaten for the day.
And then, long forgotten, from another age. A look at his hand. The flinch when he used it. The cut she had caused in another world, out of her mind, but not out of the world. He tried to hide it, but he'd become too tired and busy.
She felt empty. She felt helpless. She hated it. And so, she tried to move her wings again.
She roared. Douzed herself in her own fire. What little had recharged after she had given her all, spent away, not enough to harm, just enough to heat her cover. Enough stones for her. And her own heat, emotions, breath, flowed down her limbs. She could move, if not for her wings somewhere beneath. Able to move her arms and legs, she rearranged the stones she had been able to touch. Around her wings. Absurd, like digging out of her grave on one side and stacking it up behind her. She kept her mouth shut, so she could spare herself another comment of his, or just a checkup even. Still, every move of the wings a nightmare. They had taken the brunt - no. No, they hadn't. Frustration clenching her claws.
It took a lot to get a dragon close to death. Unfortunately, it also took a lot to get them back from there. Something she hadn't yet experienced, and arguably still wasn't in this moment.
Somewhere, he had jumped from the doze he had fallen into sitting on a stump, mechanically checking for the fires, trying to get another round.
Ironically, in his trance, he didn't even realize she had rearranged herself. Stones here, cold ones shoveled here, stones for the mausoleum, cold ones shoveled there. She spent the night forcing herself to stay awake, trying to move her wings and changing the positions of her stones herself, skipping excess ones over to the heap. When morning came around, she tried - yelped. Tried again. Again. Again. Hours. Repeat. Apparently, he slept for a while, because she didn't see him that day. Enough stones to keep their heaps warm in the meantime. The sun set. And after days and nights of pain, of lying helpless, useless, worthless on the ground, of watching him tirelessly keep them heated, of unknown heights and deepest fall...she stood. Bowed. Almost kneeling. Panting. Wings still tucked away and not to be thought about. But she stood.
Selene the Arrow was alive again.
And she had no idea what to do.
"Congratulations", a voice said behind her. Sleep was optional. Fire was not. She turned around. Blinked. He was tired, but he had only half the work from now on. Sitting on a tree stump, staring into the fire. "You survived. Feels great, doesn't it." No it didn't. She joined him next to the fire, its heat less stable, more smoke and flames, but warmth was warmth. Silence was their companion.
"Question is, what do you do now?" Could he read her- no. A sigh. "Dragons." As if he talked about a nuisance. Annoyance, bitterness in his words. "The single species to ever be too damn proud to be honest to themselves." He put another round of stones out of the fire, did his routine, sat back where he was. Selene had watched, but hadn't moved. Her mind was telling her a dozen things at once, none of them made sense, and everything still hurt. "Personally, I think the pride is not just cultural, it's a simple survival mechanism. All those years of age, all those memories in an ever-sharp mind. Having strong opinions on what's right is just a way of having less of what you have now - the only thing strong enough to get through that thick skull of pride." What did she have? She tried to follow. "Pain?" A dry tone. "You're all dying to feel pain. Another reason why you're almost immortal, I guess, because it's the only way you can survive that sacrificial mentality. No. There's just one thing in there-", he pointed at her chest, "that keeps you up at night." His sleepless eyes stared into the flames. He sighed. Tired. "Welcome to the concept of guilt. Pride is just the coating. Because you winged hypocrites couldn't possibly just admit to yourselves that you want to be nice and fix everything." Her eyes, filling with tears again. Wings. "I'm not guilty of anything." "Oh, really." A silent voice. "Good thing I'm wrong then." And with that, another round of stones as she was frozen on her stump.
"Why do you think she challenged you?" Another question out of nowhere. "Because..." She wanted to squirm out, sink into the ground. "Because I hurt you." Barely a whisper. Everything. Everything was her- "Wrong." He stared at her. "Wrong", she repeated his word, trying to make it sound like a question, but too beaten down for it. "Let me tell you a story. It's not one many people have heard, and I trust you to keep it a secret." Eyes. Eyes into her soul. "Yes." Silence and fire. "There once was a dragon. Young, wild, ferocious. Only one desire - to prove herself." She gulped. "Always feeling the least worthy of her group, never secure in her own life. Orphaned or left behind, no roots, no home, nothing but restlessness and panic, panic to be weak." A pause. "And so, she made the panic her identity." He whispered, his face lit by the play of shadows. "And it allowed her to do anything. Go where others didn't. Dare what others couldn't. Recklessness as her weapon. Because the only thing she feared...was to fear." Pain in his voice.
"Now, adventurous mindsets are inherent to all dragons. It doesn't make sense to be scared when nothing can hurt you, after all. And all dragons, as far as I know, have this almost imprinted set of values as well - telling them, in theory, what they should do. Instinctual, impossible to erase. It's a part of their soul. It keeps you grounded, slows you down, gives a sense of self. To her, it was fear, so she shut it out. And the way she had lived, she had made pride her everything. Everything else, silenced as potential root of fear. That was her edge over others, after all- not the fact that she didn't have her values. But the success with which she suppressed them and told herself they didn't exist. Her only rule, to not let fear rule her. And up to this point, her life had worked out this way. Every scaled soul thinks they're living for their pride. The difference was, that in contrast to those around her..."
Black eyes. "She had nothing else. She made it true more than anyone else. Her inertia carried her forward, and there was only one way. Up. Fame, fear and terror in her path. The most feared dragon of the known world, slowly climbing her way above all others until they weren't even trying to follow any more. Darkness. Dread. Destruction."
A small pause. "More challenges than any sane dragon would ever agree to. She did not refuse. She sought them, found them, prevailed. She was at the top." Sparks rising in the dark, vanishing into the night. "As she had been making her way up, the air was getting thinner. As there were fewer and fewer left to stand up to her, she had to target them. Goad them. Play on the strings in their mind she was familiar with like noone else. At first, it had been about proving herself in the most ultimate way by finding someone to duel. Duels were growth, and growth was her. But now, it was all about getting them to accept the duels. Lowering herself, sinking beneath them, lower on the foodchain. Playing with their pride. Giving them a taste. Showing them a path to victory." He stood, got more firewood. Drank from a flask she hadn't seen, and sat down, while Selene hadn't moved.
"There's a point of balance in the traditions, the traits, the instincts. The challenge starts with combat, sure, but in the end, it's built around countless graceful ways to unconsciously back out. Most dragons aren't cruel to themselves, up to a certain limit. And only very few pass this limit, usually to their rapid demise. Pride is your existence, losing it is everything, and that prevents massacre. If it was otherwise, not only would your species probably be dead by now, but also everyone else. A dragon that can't control their fire starves. Losing control over death means losing control over one's own survival. And the same instincts keep the challenge from ending in the tunnels. Two going in, one coming out? Fastest way to win. Noone would know. So why does it never end there? Why all the traditions in the first place? Because there's something more. It's not about trust in each other. It's about trust that if the other has grown enough in power to be dangerous, they have done so by avoiding to self-destruct up to now. The unspoken ceiling you don't breach, and only even come close to in the very rare occasions of settling with a challenge. The reason she existed, the reason she had an edge, the reason she sought to challenge - her willingness to rise to this place. Shut out that instinct, to make the rest of her identity her everything. By now, she had been there many times more than her opponents would in their lifes. The disbalance was becoming obvious, if not to them, then to her. She needed challenge. But even in those occasions she crafted to get it, there was none. And so, as she had grown used to testing her own limits, she hit another ceiling. The ceiling of others." Rummaging. A stone for her. She took it without realizing it. Intended for her wings, but remaining in unmoving fingers, as her gaze was lost in the fire. He continued.
"It wasn't that she couldn't get them to accept a challenge for that first taste, but that she couldn't get them to follow through with her. It wasn't about goading them into a challenge, it was about goading them into emotional, reckless madness to sweep them away from everything that kept them alive. It was about giving them a taste of her life, her way to power. It was about that point, where respect for her turned into fear, as her challenge no longer meant a risk of loss of pride, but loss of something beyond pride, if only for a moment. She was no longer winning. She was leading others to their breaking point, to forget the unspoken something hiding behind the pride, by the eversame game of starting with the smallest provocations, never stopping, up to rage. The direct path to prove herself, to shut up that hindrance not just in her, but in others, to let them rise beyond. And she got better every time. And that was how she had broken the second barrier, and was rising to the top again, for her final challenge. The strongest opponent she could get, by making her so. She showed her the light." Another stone, another hand.
"Her opponent hadn't been known to be reckless. Her opponent hadn't been known to be strong, as far as the top was considered. She could have beaten her, as decisive as she had wanted. The whole encounter was only possible because of her experience in awakening other's rage. But she didn't want to win. She wanted her to know she could cut that voice out of her own head as well, if she only wanted to. Regardless of how long she had lived with it, succumbed to it. That it was a hindrance, a shame for their species. So they could explore together what else there was to slow them down. She didn't have an enemy, and so she took it on herself to mold one." The stars shone, far away above them.
"In the history of dragons and their long lives, there's been exceptions every century who were able to seal this part of themselves particularly well, and still live. To break the balance of nature by being all of pride, and none of the counter, there to keep them breathing. They reign in terror until their inevitable end, and then the world rebuilds. An unspoken contract between the rest of the world, to bring them down. Eventually. But these fights are not challenges. These fights are plain to the death, and challenges exist to prevent them. What she had done...was to take everything the challenge stood for, and prove she could break it, shed it like a broken scale. Not in someone who was like her. But in someone who wasn't." The night had cooled the stones in her hands. Another round, another interruption of heat exchange and fuel to the flames.
"What her plan was for the challenge, she herself probably didn't know. She hadn't even dreamt of getting that far. The battle had only been the last chapter of the long journey she had led the two of them on. By the end, they were two moving stars, reduced to primal emotion. She controlled her opponent. She had changed her opponent. She had made her her mirror image. And she had led her to a fight, another duel of earth, so far in the skies it was just as invisible as underground. Madness against their wings. The forces only she could play with, finally with purpose. Two unstoppable forces on collision course, falling from their greatest heights. To burn against each other, back down where everyone could see them. Wings crying, scales cutting the air, vision barely to see their respective compass falling far from them, to right their angles and then defy the world by bending their flight towards each other. Death was certain if they wouldn't be able to make it, but their reflexes and skills would be tested to their limit even if they did, in almost certain peril. They sunk. They fell. They slowly opened their wings. And their archs finished. Their curves evaded earth. Their destinations united. Collapse." His voice had come to a whisper. His fist closed. And Selene continued to forget to breathe. "They were parallel to the horizon." His hand sank. "And then, a split second before the end, her opponent decided that instead of using her claws, she would close her wings instead."
He shifted on the stump. "I imagine the impact was a bit larger than yours. Large enough to have everyone know. To everyone else, it was what made her immortal. Her story to be told. Her name, not chosen but given on that day, the black sun. The shadow in everyone's heart. After all, she had won, by chasing the sun, folding the winds, and breaking the earth. Breaking not just the challenge, but everything it stood for. Breaking nature, the traits in dragons tied to them tighter than their scales. All the years of silence. She had won. She had done it. There was nothing more to gain. She was empty. She had proven it possible. To kill the voice in other's hearts." Coals, cracking in the red light. "And as a reward, a single smile had awoken hers again." He stared into the void. There was nothing to do.
"She flew. She flew. She flew. She didn't hide. She didn't hunt. She didn't show herself. Her wings carried her through the nights. Not because she didn't want to be seen, not because she had reason to fear. No matter how high she flew at day, how far she flew at night. Every time she landed, her shadow stared at her. Every time she passed water, that smile stared back to her. She had lost her mirror, but the one she couldn't hide from, was the one inside her head. Winds don't stop. Horizons never end. Suns don't land. And dragons...dragon's don't forget." Finality.
If the night had progressed, Selene hadn't noticed it.
"And that is how I found her. The greatest menace of our time. I don't know how long she had flown. I don't think she knew, either. It didn't matter. She had tried to stay in the night. But eventually, eventually...day came back to haunt her. Maybe she had tried to land like her rival had. But by now, all she was able to was to crash into the lakes. To look her image in the eye one last time, who knows. A rainbow in her splashing trail and a shimmer in the depths. To quell the fire and drown it for forever." A small pause. "And I pulled her out. Would I have done it if I knew her story? I don't know. Probably. I don't like people drowning in front of me. I'm not a hero. But I try."
He stoked the fires.
"What followed, were uneventful months of the two single most stubborn beings in the universe refusing to give in. It took a year to get her to talk. And when she did, the dams broke loose."
He stood and put a hand on Selene's head. "No", he said, looking at her, "she didn't challenge you because you hurt me."
He stroked her head. Everything hurt.
And she didn't know what to do.
He grabbed her chin. Black eyes.
"The way I see it, there's three ways forward for you now." Clouds had moved in front of the stars. "Way one." He gripped her arm. Put it to his neck. "You kill me and claim the hoard you rightfully won." Her eyes went wide. Her face paled. "Because if you value your pride, you can shut that voice down too. I'm not going to lie to you. Many can do it for their whole existence. You can never feel regret again. You will grow greater than anyone who does. You have that strength. You can go down that path, or she wouldn't have challenged you. And a hoard like this would be a great start, a chance to grow far beyond your dreams. In that case... all of this was just the story of a dragon who was weaker than you, imprisoned in her own past, forcing you into a rigged game you never knew about and couldn't be blamed for. Who dragged you into her misery without you deserving it, and I'm backing her up. There's noone who will avenge her. In fact, probably the opposite. You earned this." Black eyes. "All you have to do is take it."
A stare into her soul. Her pupils focused in infinite height beyond. A hand, holding her arm hostage like a chain of gold.
She didn't move.
"I didn't think so either." Freedom. "It's why I listened to you when you came."
Her arm, dropping like a dead weight. "Way two." He stepped aside. "You just leave. This had nothing to do with you, and everything with her. You're a young one trying to find her way, and she is simply scared you'll end up where she was, so she tried to ruin it for you by spoiling the only thing a dragon needs. The feeling of achievement. By making your victory taste shallow. There's nothing that holds you here. You didn't lose, and didn't win, because she broke the rules you fought by, and the rules you live for, because she's obsessed by the demons of her past, and projected them onto you. In fact, you can even take the hoard. We'll leave. And you can have all the time in the world to figure out what you want, not pressured into anything, not with cheap tricks, and not by anyone but your own will."
Stars. Coming back, behind the clouds, as he stood. Wind, whispering. Darkness, slowly lifted.
She didn't move from her seating.
As the twilight of dawn sent its first rays, he sat back on the wooden stump.
"Way three." They watched the darkness leave. "You thought it was a good idea to provoke the single most cruel, regretful and desperate being in the universe and her husband, by deliberately seeking them out to prove the rumors of our identity, and hope for getting something out far beyond your wildest dreams, but you didn't have the guts to ask, so you tried your little game of provocation, escalation, testing your own bravery. It felt good, and it promised more, and you liked the taste. You hurt her mate. Partially, because you wanted to see what came from it. And partially...", he opened his hand, and she winced, "because you had absolutely nothing and noone else to go for." Words like hammers. Hammers in her head. "She didn't gift you life. She gave you a decision, and a warning, and a proof." Three fingers, held high.
"A decision, because she hammered into your head the realization that you still can decide on your path, a fact she communicated in the endlessly stubborn, overdramatic, emotional, self-sacrifical, painful, only way she knew. Like I said...dragons. Blessed by nature with everything, and cursed to never change." His thumb sank.
"A warning, because she didn't show you what it's like to lose. She doesn't fear you losing and killing yourself. What she fears much, much more...is that you'll win. And keep winning. Like I said...if she hadn't seen it in you, she wouldn't have challenged you." A finger sank.
"And a proof, that no matter how much you think you've already decided who you are, that it's not too late to decide which way you'll go." A fist.
"Three truths. Three decisions. Three ways. What you want. Who you are. And who you want to be." The palm on his leg, the cut now hidden.
"So, you've got everything you came for. The story of the black sun. The story of the black knight. The stupidest, most pathetic love story of the world. There is no beauty, no excitement, no moral in this story. Just a never-ending cycle of violence and dirt. There are no heroes, and no good dragons, because it is the story of the dragonslayer."
The sun's rays came from the horizon. And they waited.
Until he stood.
"But if you want to stay, you may as well make yourself useful until I have her in a state where I don't have to poison her to keep her asleep. You already know the place. And you can always come back. Under one condition:"
"No redemption in self-sacrifice without my permission."
He moved to guard what he always did.
1. Power begets respect - INVALID. Responsibility begets respect, but that's covered in rule 3.
2. Treasures need to be protected.
3. Power begets responsibility.
4. Trust is a two-way road.