TITLE: Rifts and Transformations. Chapter One of 'The Songs of Summerset and Midwinter'
CHARACTERS: Giles, Willow
FEEDBACK: Will be appreciated
SUMMARY: Sometimes you have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the world. And sometimes, you find you have a whole new world to save ...
Disclaimer: BTVS, its characters and the world it depicts isn't mine. It belongs to Joss and all those other people who helped him make it a reality.
'Dungeons and Dragons' isn't mine either. That was a wonderful idea thought up by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and is currently owned by Wizards of the Coast. The campaign world this story is set in, however is mine - as are most of the various characters who live there.
This is something of an experiment, as I will be trying to adhere to D&D rules in writing these tales - which means having to keep stats on all the characters, their spells and their magic items, as well as rolling dice whenever combat is initiated. I am, however, likely to exercise a certain amount of DM's discretion on occasions. It's my world, and the gods are on my side ...
Bath, Somerset, England - in the world overseen by the Powers that be ...
Rule number one is don't die' which is pretty easy to remember, although equally easy to break, given the variety of vampires, demons and evil sorcerers lurking in the kind of places she tended to visit these days.
Rule number two is either don't let Dawn out of your sight on a Tuesday' or don't step too close to strange portals, especially when you don't know where they lead.' Since it wasn't Tuesday, the presence of the howling, lightning filled, swirly light in the middle of the room was something of an inevitability. As the group that had summoned it hadn't even known they were summoning anything, let alone risking the end of the world, the situation was well out of hand; she and Giles were therefore busy breaking rule number two in order to prevent the possibility of rule number one being broken for the entire citizenry of Bath not to mention potentially applying on a global basis.
Which would not be good, whichever way you looked at it
Andrew had been the one to alert them, shuffling into the Council's library to sheepishly admit that, in his hurry to get to his regular gaming group the previous evening, he'd accidentally picked up a couple of highly dangerous volumes along with his usual gaming resources and that neither book had been in his briefcase when he'd unpacked it that morning. Giles had cursed and started checking his catalogues to identify what was missing. Willow, who wasn't even officially in the country, let alone meant to be working (she was less dropping by for a casual visit , and more hiding out with Giles after a bad break-up, ) had started dowsing the local maps to see if she could locate any unexpected magical hotspots. When the first pulse of energy had washed over the city, it had taken all three of them unawares.
It hadn't been directed, malevolent energy, like the opening of a hellmouth, or the summoning of some ultra big-bad. It had just been energy . Raw, chaotic, and totally uncontrolled. All of Willow's shields had snapped up the moment it had touched her. Giles had somehow managed to redirect the attack into the book he was holding - which had instantly transmuted itself into a flutter of a papyrus winged butterflies and Andrew had just as instantly collapsed into a shivering heap, overwhelmed by the shock. There'd been several Slayers in the building mostly trainees, but one or two experienced seniors half of whom had dropped unconscious, while the other half had been incapacitated by nauseating migraines.
Ten minutes later - while Giles was still checking that no-one was seriously hurt and Willow was staring frantically at the map the second pulse had hit. This time Willow had been ready for it. She'd caught the power, channelled it into the office's wards, and used to raise a barrier to deflect any further attacks.
It's localised. But growing, she'd been able to identify, trying not to imagine the impact of further bursts of power, each stronger than the last. She'd have been able to protect the Council buildings for a while at least but the rest of the city (and beyond that the whole of England ) was more than even her skill and power could achieve. Psychic sensitives, the magically inclined and anyone with a supernatural taint would be going down like nine-pins. Bigger pulses would take out the less sensitive members of the population and after that, reality itself could start to break down
Ten to one it's Corvian's Sigil , Giles had explained, nodding when Willow had pointed to the University campus as the epicentre of the magical earthquake. Some of that's in relatively modern Latin. If they've read any of it out loud, started misquoted passages
Can we counter it? Reverse it? she'd asked, shivering from the raw impact of the forces she'd had to work with.
Giles had had to think about it, diving for other references on his shelves. If I can get to the book and if you can shield me while I work yes, I think so.
It was a slender chance but then, slender was better than none, and since the alternative was to try and evacuate the area and pray that the chaos storm eventually burnt itself out well, that wasn't an alternative at all, really.
So they'd left hasty instructions with a still whoozy Andrew, jumped into Giles' car and headed towards the campus, hoping they could get there before things got completely out of hand. There'd been no time to call in any help, or even let anyone else know what was happening; Willow had had to focus on deflecting the pulses of power so that Giles was protected enough to drive and Giles had been busy breaking speed limits and avoiding swerving drivers who didn't have a really, really powerful witch sitting in their passenger seat making sure they weren't going to pass out.
Fortunately they hadn't had to go far although by the time they reached the student halls that were at the centre of the storm, the walls of the building were beginning to pulse in synchronicity with the energy bursts that were tearing through them. They'd both plunged in regardless. Giles had raced up steps, charged along corridors and slammed open doors until he'd found the right one. Willow had stayed hard on his heels, keeping them both protected as best she could and then they'd stumbled on the swirling, dancing lightshow, which looked a lot like a smaller version of the portal Glory had tried to open, back in Sunnydale.
And was just as dangerous.
Portals usually go somewhere but this phenomenon seemed to be more like a rip in reality, a tear in the fabric that wove dimensions together. She'd thought to find the pulses of energy surging in from the other side, like blood pumping from an arterial wound but the force wasn't coming through the tear it was coming from the tear itself, surges of power and magic being released as the tensions of ordered existence slowly stretched and snapped, exposing something that felt raw and wild and somehow primal . As if the materials from which space and time had been made still swirled and danced between the ordered weaving of worlds and dimensions.
The room itself was a mess; books and papers were swirling round it in all directions, some of them being sucked into the swirling hole in well everything while others fluttered around its edges like flies caught on flypaper. The air smelt of ozone, and there were at least three unconscious figures lying on the floor the students, Willow realised, probably knocked out the moment the portal opened. It didn't look as if anyone had been dragged into the rift yet.
But then the day was still young
Giles paused to assess the scene and then closed his eyes in a moment of pained realisation. The book they were looking for was among those swirling round the very edges of the portal, pages fluttering in the rising wind. Other detritus jostled against it, battered notebooks, thin hardbacks with lurid covers, and half empty ring binders adding to the confusion. There was only one way to get it and that was to step right up to the vortex, reach into the chaos, and pluck it out of the air.
Which after a world-weary glance in her direction that clearly said I'm getting too old for this was exactly what Giles did.
Willow bit back her instinctive cry of protest and alarm, and focused on keeping them both shielded as best she could. It was easier now that she'd realised that the energy originated in their own dimension; she reached down to anchor her connections to the Earth and out to redirect the flares of power away from both the rift and the man currently standing right in front of it. Not all of it bounced away from her shields. There was enough force behind each pulse to push a percentage of it through; she caught most of it, using it to reinforce her stance, but the rest reverberated around the protected space, setting her teeth on edge and her body trembling. Giles' face was creased in concentration as he hastily flicked through the battered tome, but Willow knew he was feeling it too. They had to hurry. She couldn't keep this up forever, and here right at the heart of the storm the forces that swirled around them were both unstable and unsettling. They were born from the breakdown of reality. Who knew what kind of damage they could do?
All right. Giles had found what he was looking for. He glanced up and threw Willow what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile which it was, in its way. She wasn't fooled though. He'd found something, something that meant saving the world, but as usual there was a price to be paid. They were going to do this. Surviving it?
Probably another matter entirely.
Giles flicked over a page, then back, checking the words and probably double checking the syntax with them. It wouldn't do to get the counter working wrong. Not with the world unravelling barely inches from where he stood. This doesn't look too difficult ....
She could see his hands trembling, struggling to keep the book steady. There was a limit to the amount of power she could deflect; his face was worryingly pale and his head, like hers, was probably pounding in time with the pulses. The text was probably dancing in front of his eyes. It said a lot for his strength of soul that he was still focused and on his feet.
Oh? she asked, shuddering as another soul shaking assault flared out around them. Neither of them could take much more of this. What's the catch?
He looked up and met her eyes. His were haunted, and somehow they managed to convey horrified apology, weary acceptance and grim fury all at once. It's just a few words and a focused direction of will. Stop the tearing, reweave a little of the breach and the natural patterns of existence should reassert themselves quickly. The rest will close up in seconds. Leave a little .. thinning of the walls perhaps, but nothing worse.
He drew in a deep breath. The reweaving? Has to be done from the other side
She knew why he was angry. She was angry herself angry that the entire fiasco had been caused by foolish inattentiveness and innocent play. There was a reason that Giles tried to keep books like the Sigil locked up behind spell strengthened glass and not just because eager, curious minds, overconfident in their abilities, might be tempted to reach that little further than their knowledge or skill would safely allow. She'd been lucky more than lucky in some ways, despite the high price she'd paid for her irresponsible impatience but some books were just plain dangerous ; the spells and rituals they contained were the magical equivalent of tactical nukes, and reading them without proper preparation or long hours of study and meditation was equivalent to setting them off in their own launching bays.
She understood his world-weary acceptance too: Giles might occasionally harbour thoughts of a quiet retirement with long days spent in a sunlit library with little more to worry about than making his next cup of tea but he wasn't the sort of man to sacrifice the safety of world in favour of his own comfort or the pursuit of personal dreams. He'd learnt the consequences of that the hard way, and he'd been trying to make up for his youthful lack of judgement ever since. Save himself, or save the world? No contest and not one moment of that decision would be concerned with justifying it with pride or delusions of chosen destiny. He'd just get on with what was necessary. The way he always did.
It was the apology she didn't get. Because right now there didn't seem to be anything for him to apologise for . And certainly not to her.
The other side?
He nodded, turning to stare into the depths of nothingness that raged beyond the ragged rip in the world. There's a theory, he murmered, that Corvian was a traveller from another dimension. That the Sigil was his guide book a way to move between the planes of existence. Open a doorway, step through and then close the hole behind you leaving you in the world that lies on the other side
There is no world on the other side. Willow stared at him, the knots in her stomach tightening with sick inevitability. There's just nothing
Her voice trailed away as she put two and two together and came up with hopeless odds and an equation that couldn't be solved by replacing x with one. The rift could be closed if the spell were cast by someone standing on the other side of it. But there was nothing to stand on on the other side and if the spell caster were busy focusing on making something to stand on, then they wouldn't have the focus needed to cast the closing spell
No wonder Giles had looked so horrified and so desperately apologetic about the whole impossible situation. If he'd been able to make that selfless sacrifice alone, he'd have probably just turned and walked into the rift without a word of explanation because, next to saving the world, protecting the people he cared about came top of the list. He'd never willingly sacrifice her . Unwillingly, perhaps and with a great deal of grief and guilt but it would never be a conscious choice, putting his own life ahead of hers. Any more than he would give up Buffy, or Xander, or Dawn or even Faith or Andrew, for that matter.
Of course, if he had, she'd probably have screamed, and used her power, and pulled him back because there was no way she'd be able to let him go like that. But it wasn't a matter of choice, or willingness.
Neither of them could close the breach alone.
I'm sorry, he said softly. This has gone too far to close in any other way
Her mind raced, trying to defy his words, deny his conclusions. There had to be another way. Why couldn't they weave across the tear from this side? Or hammer a mystic patch across the breach, the way Xander used to board up broken windows ..?
While she struggled for solutions the rip tore open a few more inches. Power flared in protest. Reality pulsed and flexed.
Willow and the world shuddered with pain.
Okay, she said, stepping forward to slip her arms around his waist. Standing that close she could keep her shields around them both with little effort, leaving her free to focus on more important things. I've always wondered what lies on the other side of the world.
She'd feared he might push her away, might try and protest her choice but Giles simply lifted his arm and pulled her close, wrapping her in a cloak of warmth and sorrow, one woven with gratitude and regret. Good girl, he offered softly. Ready? She looked up as he looked down at her and she smiled.
More than ready. And hey - you're the Watcher. You do the word weaving thing. Leave me to worry about where we stand
The ruined city of Sharshall, on the borders of Summerset, beyond the Edge - in the world overseen by the Elemental gods
Watch your step, Cullie commanded, dropping the torch a little so that the flickering light banished some of the shadows underfoot. This doesn't look very safe.
What is, around here? she heard Flux mutter. Want me to check it out?
Cullie nodded, letting him ease past her as she stared down into the dimness with a wary eye. This was the third passage they'd explored so far, the first two ending in a tumble of stone and no way to reach the hallways beyond. This one looked a little more promising, even if the descending steps were eroded and smoothed to a semi-slope by years of water damage. There was a faint drift of air wafting from below, and the inevitable clattering of their gear came back to them in whispered echoes, hinting at open space somewhere in the depths.
The walls of the passageway were dank and dripping with slime. Harmless slime, she was relieved to see, although that didn't stop Flux from keeping well away from it as he made his way cautiously down the narrow steps. There was the scent of green and growing things in the tunnel moss and other primitive plants that could flourish without much light and the air held a hint of chill, offering the coolness of damp stone.
We must be close to the Temple now, Ashley said from behind her. Look at these carvings and there were those glyphs on the pillars back there
Name of the goddess in letters five hands high? Meldew stepped past Cullie and threw her an exasperated and somewhat amused - glance. Might be a hint that we're heading in the right general direction
Cullie quirked a momentary grin, shaking her head at the way the alchemist wielded his dry humour quick and wicked and with excellent aim, just like every good weapon needed to be. He wasn't anywhere near as prickly or as cynical - as he liked to pretend, of course, but it was a useful defence against Ashley's wide eyed enthusiasms. Whenever she launched into one of her flights of fantasy he made sure of bringing her back to earth although never with a bump, and often with praise where praise was due; he'd do as much for her or Flux, of course. He was the constant rock that grounded their group and kept it steady, and Cullie valued his company.
Especially on expeditions like this.
This must be another of the service stairs. Ashley had blithely ignored their mentor's sarcastic comment and was still intent on providing a running commentary. It's far too narrow to be one of the main entryways. Although it might have ceremonial significance do you think this is what the Oracle meant?
Cullie shook her head a second time, this one echoing some of Meldew's exasperation. Ashley really had to learn to focus because there was a time and a place to discuss the interpretations of obscurely couched and distractedly muttered prophecy, and walking down a darkened tunnel with no idea of what might be at the end of it almost certainly wasn't it. Her free hand caressed the hilt of her dagger and she tightened her grip on the torch a little, glancing back to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them from behind. There was no room to draw her sword here, let alone swing it and if there was anything nasty lurking in the tunnel she'd have to deal with it at closer quarters then she usually preferred.
She said descend into darkness,' not dankness, Meldew muttered, poking at some of the slime with the end of his staff. And I doubt she meant it literally. Oracles never give exact instructions. Half the time the things they say have no meaning at all.
She was right about the ogres, Ashley protested. And if the rest of what she said was nonsense, why are we three days deep into Sharshall and still journeying?
Because we're a bunch of sharding idiots, that's why
It hadn't seemed so foolhardy, back at the Tower. The town's Oracle had been shrieking warnings about Ogres for weeks; when word came up from Two Rivers that organised bands of them had been seen in the North, and that half the Second Foot had been dispatched to reinforce the garrison at Lander, Farferry folk had stopped dismissing the warnings as signs of the usual late winter incursions and started listening to what else their young seer had to say. The town's clerics had sent for Cullie as soon as the crowd outside the enclave had grown large enough to threaten riot, and she, her officers and the rest of her quaternity had ended up in the Quartered hall, listening to the Oracle's mutterings along with the Farferry elders, the seniors of the elemental orders and a few other notables who felt safer inside the hall than outside with the rest of the crowd.
The nameless one blinds the eyes of the North with lies and deceptions remember? Meldew's snap was more about where they were and the dangers they might be facing than an attempt to rebuke his apprentice. Ashley shivered nonetheless, pointedly reminded of that disconcerting day. So did Cullie; she'd carried the mark of the Chosen ever since she'd been born, but she and the gods had been on distant terms for most of that time. Her service lay in her sword, not the focus of her soul, and she'd rarely felt the inner presence of her patron beyond the merest whisper of suggestion, the softest of gentle nudges. That day the flame had finally awakened within her. It burned even now, a flicker of holy fire deep in her heart, holding her to a purpose she did not yet understand. That much was clear enough. It was the rest of it that came wrapped in riddles and nonsense. Why the gods can't just come straight out and say what they mean, I shall never know. How about - sorry, we can't really stop to help you, because we're still cleaning up after the Fall but if you pop up to our old Temple in Sharshall, there might be something lying around there that'll help you out.'
I hope there is, Cullie said, gesturing for the two of them to move forward. Flux hadn't cried out for help, or come back to declare the way impassable so unless he'd been completely swallowed up by some fell beast, or struck down by some ancient warding spell, that probably implied they could move down at a little further at least. Although I thought it was more of a someone' rather than a something.'
They are coming , Ashley quoted softly. Chosen by fate. Chosen by heart. Chosen by deed.
Yes, but Meldew had been arguing about this ever since they'd left the enclave. He was a great believer in firm facts and physical evidence, and while he acknowledged the power and mystery of the gods, he tended to place a lot more faith in the practicalities of the world and the lessons of history. All that other stuff about the shield of Ignis and the sword of Sulis
Bronze edged and the mind given flight Cullie had often dreamed of owning a god-gifted sword, but she wasn't so full of hubris to assume that she'd be destined to wield one. She knew perfectly well that the message had probably come to their Oracle simply because the Farferry enclave was the one closest to Sharshall Fell, and that theirs was the best suited quaternity to make the journey. The gods might speak in riddles, but they usually spoke with a purpose.
Not always an obvious one, though
I know there are all sorts of stories about the treasures of the city, Ashley said, a little impatiently. But if there were artefacts and relics that powerful, surely the gods would have sent someone to find them long ago. The city was sundered in the Fall. It's been five hundred years. Why wait until now?
Why not? Cullie motioned them both onward, holding the torch high to help illuminate the uneven steps. It would have been easier if Meldew or Ashley had been able to summon a mage light, but this was no place for casual magic. They needed to conserve their strengths and reserve their power, just in case. The city is soaked in the shadow. The brothers have filled it with their corruptions, but they war for dominance amongst its walls. Decay owns the upper layers, Blight fills the spaces within but under it the Lord of Stagnation holds sway. Everything is preserved. Held. Suspended . And five hundred years is but a breath to the Gods. Who knows what relics still remain?
Too many to count and too few to matter, Meldew said dryly. Only fools and foolish heroes hunt treasure in places like this. And ah, look. Where are we and what are we doing? What does that say about us?
Favoured of the gods, come down! Flux's deep tones resonated up the tunnel, filled with eager command. You are not going to believe this!
The three of them exchanged a look and then hurried down the rest of the steps, drawn by the unexpected delight in their friend's voice. It didn't keep Cullie's hand from her dagger, not stop her from scanning the walls of the tunnel as they passed, but it added speed to her steps and she was determinedly ahead of both mages by the time they all arrived, breathless at the bottom of the steps.
They emerged from underneath a carved arch, her bootsteps ringing against marbled flags. A vast dome arched overhead, shaped by sculptured ribs of stone and held in place by a parade of delicate columns. Light danced in from high up, shafts of the late afternoon sunlight piercing into the cavernous gloom though a central opening at the very apex of the dome before being reflected back in shimmering ripples from the crystal edged pool that lay beneath it. Cullie's mouth dropped open. Flux was right. She didn't believe it.
The night after the Oracle had spoken, she'd been gifted with an unsettling dream. A dream of ruined stone and shadowed streets. She'd found herself running, driven by undefined urgency racing towards something, not flying in fear or retreat. And she'd arrived in an echoing, cavernous space, where water bubbled into a glimmering, crystal basin and flames danced from an endless line of roaring torches.
It had been this space.
There were no torches lining the walls, and the statues along the walls did not gleam like polished gold. Nor did the floor sparkle with the suggestion of inset gems. But it was the place in her dream, all the same. The floor here was mostly covered with a layer of dirt and moss. Damp slime slicked the pillars and clumps of sickly plants struggled up to reach the lure of filtered sunlight overhead. The space she was standing on was clear of that but only because the patterns underfoot revealed a telling story. The marble under her feet was worn down into a shallow basin, the result of centuries of rainwater cascading down the tunnel and out into the hall. A narrow and currently dry stream ran across the dirt caked floor and through a crack in the edge of the water filled basin. At first glance it seemed as if the Lords of Blight and Decay had claimed this place with the same arrogance they displayed elsewhere in the city.
But looks can be deceiving.
Because here the weight of the shadow the sense of sullen gloom and desperate hunger that permeated the shattered streets above held no sway. The space beneath the dome was filled with reverence and thoughtful silences. The air was sweet and held the scent of clean water. And the stone underfoot thrummed with a soft sense of power, the promise of holy ground.
When the gods speak, they speak well, Flux grinned, emerging from the gloom with a confident step. His hammer rested against his shoulder as usual, but he'd doffed his helmet so that the curve of his bald pate gleamed, reflecting the rippling light almost as brightly as the dome above him. The helmet dangled from his hand, filled with weight; a glimmering of gemstones lay inside its padded curves.
And they'll speak with angry voices if they see you looting their holy precincts, Cullie shot back, relieved to see the dwarf in one piece. Not that she thought he wouldn't be, but the city was a dangerous place for even someone with Flux's experience to go scouting ahead alone.
Maybe, he laughed. But these belonged to a poor lost soul I found over there. Clutched in a bony hand as if they had the power to bring him back to life. Don't think they do, though He glanced down into the helmet with very unconvincing frown and Cullie found herself fighting down a smile. Flux always seemed to find the humour in a situation even in the heat of battle and she suspected that if he ever did offend the gods with his behaviour, he'd immediate win it back with a quick quip, an easy jest or one of those convoluted stories of his, filled with heroes and deeds from before the Fall.
Get Meldew to check, she suggested warmly. Just in case. Her eyes were drawn back to the sweeping architecture, lifted from the depths to the heavens which was probably just want the ancient architect had intended. This place is amazing.
I thought so. Flux moved to join her, tipping his head back to admire the same curving arches that had caught her eye. The enclave in Ironheight has some of this grandeur, but half of that's natural. And the dome's half the size. There's some smaller worship halls down at the far end, but this this is the centre of things. And uh, he waved at the wide central basin with its crystal edges, - the water's running fresh.
Cullie tore her eyes away from the roof and stared at her friend instead. It is? You sure?
He shrugged. I know fresh water when I smell it. Taste it too it's as sweet and as cold as the birth pools of the Running.
A spring then? Cullie moved closer to the pool, leaving the fascinated mages to examine the murals that paraded around the walls. Elven work by the style the stones and the statues were probably dwarf cut and carved. The citizens of Sharshall had obviously employed only the best craftsmen to honour the gods.
Not exactly. I think most of it's good plumbing. Pipes bringing water down from the mountains probably the same source as the Shar or one of it's tributary springs.
Adonis' gift to Sulis
Exactly. Flux wasn't exactly bouncing , but his enthusiasm was hard to miss. He'd argued for the expedition right from the start, eager for the trip no matter what the outcome. He loved exploring new places and finding new things and he loved it even more when they were old places filled with the marvels of long lost knowledge and artistry. He liked a good fight too, so for him the threat of lurking monsters had only added spice to the challenge and since he never passed on a chance to serve his beloved goddess, their current quest was, for him, the perfect package.
She was rather glad that the Temple had not turned out to be a disappointment. Whatever it was they were here to find whatever it was they'd been sent to fetch there was already enough wonder and delight in the discovery of this ruined enclave to keep Flux in tales for weeks.
Cullie? Meldew's voice cut through her thoughts with a hint of excitement in it. Come and look at this!
She turned and then turned again to locate him; he'd wandered further than she'd expected from the sound of his words. The hall seemed to carry voices much further and clearer than might be expected in such a vast space. Ashley was using the end of her staff to hold back a covering of roots and vines that had been cloaking part of an alcove, giving access to the carvings within it. Meldew appeared to be busy reading whatever it was she'd revealed.
It's old Wisdom script, he said as she and Flux got close enough to see what he'd found. But I don't think the language is human high elven, or
Draconian? The hope in Flux's voice was unmistakable. Ashly smiled. Meldew snorted.
Don't be foolish, Flux. That would make it even older than the Temple. Besides no-one writes odes to the gods in the language that made the world. The language itself would form the praise Here His finger jabbed out to indicate a particular phrase. This says and I'm struggling a little to translate, you understand ask for no, that's speak to the watcher of the waters the sword drawn forth from Ashley, is that the word for stone or time?
Ashley leaned in to get a closer look. Cullie almost immediately glanced round, instinctively checking that nothing was lurking to take advantage of their distraction. Time, I think. Or distant space?
The higher plane Meldew had it now, his voice growing in confidence as he read the rest of the inscription. Yes, yes when the way is lost and the shadow looms, the gods provide. Let those who love the land, who cherish the waters, who delight in the air and marvel at the flame, come with humble hearts, and gifts? No, boons will be granted. Speak to shards, that is ask for' ask for the watcher of the waters, the chosen of Sulis, the sword drawn forth from time and eternity, the higher plane where dwell the creators And here, look His hand moved lower, pointing at another passage. Summon the wielder of the white flame, trust the shield of Ignis, defender of the spirit There's more, but
It's the words of the Oracle. Ashley stared at Cullie, who stared back. She was right. It was almost word for word. But how would a sixteen year old child know what was written on the walls of a half buried Temple that no-one with perhaps the exception of the corpse Flux had found had set foot in for nearly five hundred years?
The gods really were speaking that day
It's the priests, Flux declared suddenly. The high priests of the temple. Those were their titles . Watcher of the waters, wielder of the white flame are there matching lines for air and earth, too?
Yes. Meldew swept more vines aside to point at other panels. Here the hand of Adonis, death re-gifted, the breath of life and this Heart of insight, Terra's beloved, the earth's foundation He's right. The alchemist sat back on his heels and huffed. It's just a praise poem. Not prophecy or instructions, just a roll call of the great and good.
All this way for that ? Ashley looked stricken. Cullie didn't blame her.
There's got to be more. Flux stalked away to stare out into the hall with stern determination. The gods don't send quests without a purpose.
Maybe not. But it doesn't have to be a purpose we understand
She could remember the time when the old king, travelling to stare at the sea for six days and six nights, saw absolutely nothing, despite the exhortation of three difference Oracles on three different days. Flux
No , he growled. There is more , Cullie. Books, regalia, artefacts something. There are secrets in this Temple and we have been sent to find them.
There was an arrogance in the mortal races that brought about the Fall. Meldew's tone held sympathy, but made its point all the same. We are diminished, and that's the truth of it. Even if we found artefacts, it could take years to unravel the way to use them.
Maybe there is a sword and a shield, Ashley suggested. Someone could make use of those. And Flux is right. We do need to look further. Even a battered spell book could help us. And what about holy relics those don't need instructions, just faith. This is a Temple.
It wasn't some thing , Cullie recalled hollowly, disappointment churning in her gut. It was some one . They are coming Someone we had to meet. We had to be here
The sound came first; a hissing, roaring sound, like the breath of a god, drawn in sharply. All of them looked up in alarm as something hurtled down from the heavens, punching straight through the dome, scattering stone and toppling pillars. Cullie dived to the floor, covering her head as debris shattered around her. Somewhere she heard chanting; Meldew raising a magical shield, Flux muttering a hasty prayer Smoke and fire briefly billowed across the air, only to die in an agonised hiss as the source of it hit the water. Heat and steam fountained upwards. Cullie was soaked by a sudden downpour, drenched in hot water as the contents of the pool descended back to the earth.
And then silence fell a return of sacred stillnessess, broken only by the sounds of rock splinters hitting the floor, and the soft cough of mortal souls trying to regain their breath.
Twisted shards and moonfire , Cullie cursed, springing to her feet and staring through the billows of smoke and steam and shattered stone dust. Half the dome was down, collapsed into a tumble of rubble. The pool was completely empty. A remnant of fire flickered in the far corner, dying quickly as it used up whatever it was that had given it life. Her eyes darted skywards, nonsensically seeking the source of the attack. A little warning would be nice!
I think we had that, Flux said, climbing back off his knees. He was glowing slightly, evidence that his prayer had been answered. Cullie glanced down at herself and let the anger go. She had a hint of the same glow. Point , the dwarf called over his shoulder, to where Meldew and Ashley were emerging carefully from the alcove. In future, we don't read inscriptions out loud until after we check for magical triggers, okay?
Duly noted. Meldew nodded, staring round at the destruction with wide eyes. I know they say that shards still fall in the wastelands sometimes, but
You think that was a shard? Ashley's reaction came out as a squeak. Cullie swallowed. Hard.
Oh, I hope not, she said, striding forward to take a careful look into the now empty pool. She'd half expected whatever it was to have smashed straight through, but the bowl shaped basin appeared to be unblemished. Fresh water was beginning to trickle back in from a series of grids set into its lowest curve, but there was nothing else to be seen.
Another cough and a quiet groan lifted her eyes; her hand immediately went to her sword hilt, but she didn't draw it. Not yet. Flux? she called softly, and he moved to join her, hefting his hammer with commendable caution.
On the far side of the pool the one closest to the tumbled stone and the collapsed pillars a body was stirring. It was draped in scarlet fabric, and looked to be human it had two legs, two arms, a cascade of copper red hair, and a jangling of bracelets sitting at wrist and ankle. It looked like a young woman at first glance, a little older than Ashley perhaps, but certainly no older than Cullie herself. She groaned and started to push herself upright, clearly groggy and disorientated from
from what , exactly?
Where did she come from? Flux threw her a disbelieving look, and then pointed his finger skywards. Cullie sighed. Yes, all right, silly question. Next one who is she?
They advanced on her together, coming to a halt a sensible distance away. Only a fool would waltz straight up to a stranger who appeared from utterly nowhere. No matter how attractive that stranger might be.
Elegant legs emerged from the drape of her gown legs that seemed to be coloured or tattooed in someway, the design disappearing beneath the fabric to remerge on either arm. It was as if someone had swept her skin with a dusting of copper, painting her in swirls like shimmering flames. Her hair shimmered too, dancing with a hint of light, gleaming to match the metal jewellery that encircled her slender limbs. She groaned again and sat up, lifting a hand to push back the tumble of her hair. The movement brought her face to face with Cullie, whose fingers twitched against her sword hilt. The woman didn't look dangerous, but that didn't mean a thing.
Wide green eyes stared at her in startlement. Lips parted in an oh of surprise. Uh hi? the stranger offered tentatively. Her eyes darted round, clearly finding nothing familiar in her surroundings. Then she looked up, at the broken edge of the dome and her eyes went wider still. Did I do that?
I'd say so, Cullie responded guardedly. The woman's voice had a pleasant note to it along with a strange accent she couldn't place. But at least she was speaking the King's Summers.
Oh. My. Uh I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. But I had to make something for us to stand on, and I guess I I didn't mean to break your roof, honestly I didn't. I hope no-one got hurt. It's just we had to and I didn't have much time, and and An odd look passed over her face. I feel most peculiar. Me and not me. That is, me , but not entirely the me I'm used to
Oh, sweet elements , Cullie groaned, letting go of her sword and bringing both hands to her hips instead. The woman was befuddled in her wits. Even if she did have magic to call on, she was far too dazed to use it. She was about as much threat as a blinded beholder in a hall of mirrors. All of that the Oracle, the long walk here, the risk, the sharding shard and this is what we get? A chit of a girl, bereft of her wits, and painted like a street dancer? One look at an ogre and she'll run screaming into the night, let alone an entire army of them! Gods be praised, I thought this was supposed to bring us help - powerful help. Not land us with yet another innocent to protect!
Well, I don't know, Flux considered slowly, tapping the head of his battle hammer against his thigh. He wasn't looking at the woman, but staring past her with wide eyes. The girl might not look like much but if you ask me? I'd say the dragon was pretty impressive.
Cullie looked up. The rubble of the dome's collapse was beginning to stir. Stone debris dropped away as a richly sheened metallic body gingerly extricated itself from beneath the scattering of stones and the angles of displaced pillars. A finned tail was sliding out of the rubble. A sturdy body followed, pushed out from the tumble of stone. Wings carefully unfolded and stretched, shaking off dust and detritus. Taloned limbs untangled themselves from ungainly sprawl as the beast climbed unsteadily to its feet and last, but not least an elegant neck rose from beneath the rubble, lifting a jewelled and horned head into the light. The head twisted, and the back crest rippled as the dragon stretched and shook itself, shedding stone rubble and dust as if it were a dog, shaking off excess water.
Holy fire, Cullie murmured, unable to believe her eyes. It wasn't quite as big as she might imagine a dragon to be, but it was big enough twenty five maybe thirty feet from nose to tail - and there was no mistaking it for anything else. Wide wings curved down to blanket its flanks, disclosing the ripple of the fin across the curve of its back. White talons bit into the stone of the floor, and equally white teeth gleamed as it opened its mouth the taste the air. And it was beautiful . This was no twisted echo, a terror wrought from a dying dragonkin by the corruption of a tainted shard. This was the real thing, a child of the old forging, whose kind had not been seen on earth since the Fall. It was sturdily built but on slender lines, all muscle, not fat - and its body was shaped to cut through air and water with equal speed. Soft, glimmering scales painted it with patterns of bronze and iridescent greeny-blues. Deep green eyes dominated its face and there was a little patch of amber nestling in the corner of one of them, adding just a hint of character to what seemed to be remarkably expressive features.
The figure in red turned at Cullie's exclamation, blinking with almost as much surprise at what she found standing behind her. The dragon's eyes narrowed and it dipped its head, staring at the sprawled figure on the water soaked stone. Willow? it questioned softly in a surprisingly warm male tenor, the timbre of it rumbling through the air and setting Cullie's heart pounding. Are you all right?
The young woman Willow , her name is Willow stared in wide eyed alarm. Her mouth dropped open. One hand flew to cover it, while the other thudded back onto the stone in search of much needed support. Oh, sweet goddess , she gulped. Giles?
Change, they say, is as good as a rest. Which just goes to show what they' know, whoever they are. Willow hadn't been planning on any more change in her life not after stumbling on the horrifying truth of the supernatural world and finding herself one of the major players in the subtle wars against the dark. Certainly not after losing one wonderful girlfriend and then breaking up with another, not quite so wonderful but still a heartache in loss. And definitely not after nearly destroying the world, and then finding a way to save it by altering the rules and resetting a long broken balance.
No sir, no more change for Willow, who'd been finally learning to be happy just being Willow , and who'd come to terms with being one of the most powerful witches on the planet, and friends with influential people in high places. And some not so high, but still extremely influential.
And then the whole accidental apocalypse thing had rolled around, even though it hadn't been a Tuesday, and Giles had had to apologetically ask her to help him make the ultimate sacrifice, and they had although she didn't really remember much of that, just holding on to something , while he'd closed the rift, and after that a whole lot of chaos and confusion, with flashing lights and weird sensations and voices , talking through her.
There'd been something important about the voices. Something that had to do with the feeling of being torn into a thousand pieces while trying hard to stay whole and unharmed and Willow shaped, and an argument and a bargaining, and being made an offer she might have refused, except that she could only hang on to her if she let go of Giles, and she wasn't going to let go, no sir, no matter what
And then here she was, sitting on a cold wet floor, feeling well, Willow and not Willow and there he was, being decidedly not Giles shaped, and yet somehow still Giles in a way she couldn't explain, and wasn't entirely sure she wanted to.
Too much change. The world, her witchery, her Willowness and the Watcher, all shifted, inside and out. And there was this really cute girl staring at her well, staring at Giles now, but she'd been doing Willow staring to begin with only she was dressed in what looked like chain mail and she had a Buffy sized sword hanging at her back, and there was this guy standing right next to her, who'd barely come up to Buffy's shoulder if he stood on tip-toe. A guy with a shiny bald head, and a neck nearly as wide as his head, and a skin much darker than Robin Woods in a dark place on a very dark night.
Willow? Giles asked again, sounding worried and wary and whoa , that dragon voice thing he had going kinda sent tingles down your spine That is you, isn't it?
She took a quick glance at what she could see two hands, check, two feet, double check, red hair now a whole lot more coppery in colour and shrugged her shoulders in case she'd also been give wings (she hadn't) and tried not to look too hard at what seemed to be one of those magazine-faked painted on snake skin markings on her arm and legs except that it wasn't paint, and really was her skin and she looked up into familiar deep green eyes inset into a totally Todd Lockwood type concept except for the bronzy blue green colours and the being 3D and actually real and which somehow managed to still be Giles without having to stretch the imagination too far
I am going to kill Andrew, she announced firmly. If I ever get my hands on him. And possibly without hands. From afar. First chance I get
Giles managed to quirk a wry grin without looking as if he were going to eat everyone in the room. It's you, he sighed, sitting back with a rustle of wings and a look of bemused relief. And you're all right, thank God. Or possibly not, he added, taking a wary look around.
We should thank somebody, Willow said, climbing painfully to her feet. Everything ached which considering that they'd just punched an extremely destructive hole in somebody's roof wasn't entirely surprising and she felt as if she hadn't moved in centuries. Maybe she hadn't. Or even she threw another glance at the pattern of scales on her arms maybe never at all. Not in this body. I suspect the local Powers-that-be. I seem to remember something about an offer I couldn't refuse.
Yes. Quite. Giles was staring at their company; cute girl with sword and short guy with bald head had been joined by a tall skinny guy with a goatee beard and a not quite so cute, but still stand-out-in-a-crowd-ish young woman who appeared to have pointed ears
Forget killing Andrew, Willow decided, backing up so that she stood right in front of the transformed Watcher, one webbed and taloned foot placed protectively on either side of her. I'm going to take very single one of his precious D&D books and I'm going to set fire to them in front of him. One by one
The remark brought worried frowns to the strangers' faces and whipped Giles' head down and round so that he was staring at her out of his left eye, the right one still firmly fixed on their company. Dragons apparently had nearly panoramic vision. Now that was cool. Willow, please, he said. I will happily join you in the queue for meeting out appropriate punishment, but don't joke about burning books. Not even those. And speaking of books His head tilted to point out something on the floor, and Willow pounced with a joyful squeal.
It's the Sigil! And it looks intact does this mean we can go home? The question was out before she could stop it, a bright exclamation that landed like the dull thud of a sarcophagus lid being closed.
Oh, of course we can, Giles considered dryly. We'll just tear open a hole in this universe, step through and make arrangements with our Powers to erase any bargains we've made with the ones here, change us back to what we were, and put us back where we came from. Assuming that they can change us back, and if not that you or I could talk fast enough to ensure that I could survive being attacked by half the Slayers on the planet eager to add a dragon's skull to their trophy cabinet.
I wouldn't let them touch you. Willow's heart clearly wasn't in the mood for banter what came out was not joking reassurance but a heartfelt promise.
I know, he said kindly. We left that world to save it. I think we've been saved for this one. Shaped to fit whatever purpose we agreed to serve. Maybe if we can work through that debt if I can take time to study the Sigil and discover some of its secrets then perhaps there will be a way to send you back
Mmhuh, she denied, hugging the book to her chest and shaking her head with determination. Not going without you. Which probably means not going at all But you're right. This is home, now. Wherever this is. She held out her arm, letting him see the pattern of red and copper scales that swirled across her skin. I got the makeover too. Not quite as dramatic as yours, but I have changed. Inside and out. The magic's different here. I can feel it.
Well, he considered thoughtfully, changed is probably a slight understatement, but I know what you mean
Giles? she asked warily, wondering what was going on inside his head. She felt strange, her body and its sense of self oddly new, as if she were wearing unfamiliar clothes, or had been in a coma for a very long time and needed to retrain all her muscle responses. But she couldn't imagine what it must be like for him , in a body that was nothing like the one he'd spent fifty plus years getting used to. Too many limbs back legs and forelegs and wings - at all the wrong angles, not to mention motile crests and a tail .. . Why aren't you freaking? I'd be freaking. Actually, I am freaking. Seriously freaking. Because hello dragon. And it's you. But dragon. And I'm possibly half-dragon, or something. With mixed up magic, and that's not a scary thought, uhuh, no way and is your magic all mixed up too? Do dragons even have magic here? Do you? Can you tell? I hope you can tell, because I'm not sure I can tell
Willow, he interrupted gently, dipping his head so he was looking directly into her eyes and that would be a scary thing if he wasn't who he was, and she didn't trust him quite as much as she did. Willow, it's all right. This is a very strange situation and I can assure you that, under this apparently calm and collected exterior I am freaking' as you put it, every bit as much as you're expecting me too. I do have some experience with being physically transformed, but this is nothing like the last time. That felt forced. Wrong. I was continually fighting against the demon's nature to prevent it overwhelming me. This this feels
He blinked at her, a mental retreat to assess her suggestion. Yes, he said after a moment's reflection. Exactly. This form is unfamiliar, and I suspect it will take effort to master it, but it is mine. Entirely mine He tailed off, frowning a little as he considered what he was saying. Willow summoned up her courage and put out her hand to offer him a reassuring touch, a moment of mutual contact. He was freaking. Freaking bigtime. But he was Giles, and he was dealing with it in his own inimitable way.
Hey, she murmured, we made it. Saved the world and didn't die. That's a good, yeah? Whatever shape we're in. Dragon skin was warm and softly textured, silk smooth scales laying over powerful musculature. It was a little like snake skin, and a whole lot more like nothing she'd ever felt before. It was hard not to start running her hand over it, to resist the temptation to extend her touch, to explore the feel of it beneath her fingers. Giles had been getting much better at the physical contact stuff, even initiating the occasional hug from time to time but she didn't think he'd react well to being petted. Not without some careful negotiation first
Ahhh - excuse us, but Willow spun round at the unfamiliar voice. She'd almost forgotten they had company. Cute girl with sword had stepped forward, a wary expression on her face. Are you Cute girl glanced back at short guy, who encouraged her with a not so subtle hand gesture and a nervous nod. Are you the Sword and the Shield?
What? Their chorus was bemused. Willow looked at up Giles. He cocked his head and briefly ruffled his neck crest, offering her the dragon's equivalent of a shrug.
T-the Oracle said Not so cute but still attractive girl's voice started shaky, but grew stronger as she spoke. We would find help here. The Sword of Sulis, and the Sheild of Ignis.
The Watcher of the Waters, short guy piped up, his voice as deep and dark as his skin.
And the Wielder of the White Fire, goatee added gruffly.
Guardians of the summer's dawn. Cute girl completed the barbershop act with quiet confidence. Made to guard the Summerset.
What? Giles growled, and all four of them stepped back, hands going to sword hilts and hammer shafts, and hastily dipping into cloaks. The speedy grope for self-preservation froze in confusion as he followed his outburst with a backward slump, a pained roll of his eyes and the inevitable cry from the heart. Oh, good lord
Willow knew exactly what he meant. Not only did they arrive changed , they had a comic Greek chorus on meet and greet duty, with not one of them aware of the subtle ironies in their quoted lines. Mind you, it might make a change working for Powers who possessed a sense of humor. Even if they were the butt of the joke
That's us, she admitted wryly. I - I guess. White witch, she explained, patting her chest. Watcher. She pointed up at Giles, who rolled his eyes a second time. I don't about the sword and shield stuff, but guardians of the Summers Dawn? So us. Although probably not in the way that you think
We just came from Somerset, Giles pointed out, straightening himself up and starting to get Watchery. It wasn't really a case of recovering his dignity, since even in startled slump he'd managed to retain an impression of majesty but it widened the eyes of their welcoming committee all the same. Bath, to be exact. Which happens, he noted, eyeing Willow with a dragon's equivalent of the old hairy eyeball, to have a patron goddess called
Sulis Minerva, she completed, going a little wide eyed herself. Aqua Sulis Giles, you don't think ..?
I don't know what to think, he said. I don't know enough about where we are, or what's going on here to venture an opinion. On the other hand - I'm fairly sure we've been given the resources we need to address that particular problem. He was staring thoughtfully at the Greek chorus, who were staring right back. As if none of them could believe their eyes.
Oh. Right, Willow grinned, channelling her inner Buffy, since Buffy wasn't around to make her usual smart remarks. Welcome wagon, research source and tour guides, all rolled into one. Handy.
 Todd Lockwood's Dragon ...
Perhaps we should start with introductions, the dragon suggested gently, clearly used to his companion's strange style of speech. My name is
Giles, and this is
Hi, Willow said, wiggling her fingers at them in a friendly gesture. Her smile was trying to be friendly too, but it had a wary edge to it. Cullie didn't blame her. She hadn't understood much of the earlier conversation, but she'd quickly realised that the two of them had no idea of where they were, or what the gods intended of them. She didn't know what the gods intended either, but if they felt that Summerset needed a young Bronze dragon and what appeared to be a Copper touched dragonkin to be its chosen guardians, then she wasn't about to challenge them on it.
No matter how strangely the two of them were acting
A manual of protocols with clear instructions on how not to upset a creature perfectly capable of tearing you limb from limb would be really useful right now. That brief outburst had set her heart pounding, and her stomach was still clenched with remnants of tension; she'd faced all sorts of strange things in her life, but none of those encounters had been as disconcerting as this one was turning out to be. Most monsters wanted to eat you. The dead generally wanted you dead or serving them, or something and there'd been a few ogres, half giants, and twisted things that had been contemplating more unspeakable pleasures when she'd had to deal with them. She'd hunted, she'd fought, she'd dispelled and banished, and on occasions she'd talked herself out of harms way with well chosen words and the judicious use of an armoured knee and a sword hilt or two.
But how in the name of the gods was she supposed to deal with all of this?
She half opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again, unsure of what she should do, or say. The dragon hadn't given her his true name, of course, because to do that he'd have to speak in the old tongue and that was dangerous, even for a dragon. She knew that much.
But she didn't really know much more. Everything she'd heard about dragons belonged to myth and rumour and untrustworthy history and most of it had been lurking in Flux's stories, the ones he'd tell when mellowed with the breath and given to rambling in and out of legends. Tales of the making of the world, of how the dwarves were wrought, and the elves carved and mankind shaped from common clay. Accounts of ancient battles and long dead heroes; of magical, mystical artefacts; of arrogant mages that raised cities into the sky and made mountains walk; of the long, eternal conflict against the nameless one, the shadow of Death and tales of the Fall, when the last of dragon kind and dragon kin shattered their power against the descending Fist and scattered ruin across the world
Dragons were supposed to be wise. To be kindly towards those lesser mortals their ancestors had helped to shape, and to value honesty and truth above all things. They were said to be powerfully gifted in magic, extremely hard to kill, and possessed of both inner and outer strengths that put both men and giants to shame.
But some of them in the stories, they often despised both fools and foolishness; seemed quick to anger when faced with dishonesty or deception and sometimes settled contentious arguments by simply devouring their vexatious opponents
Could they trust this dragon? Or the copper-haired dragonkin sheltering between its claws? Cullie had not missed the way he'd shifted to keep her protectively close was that out of the possible arc of his breath? nor the way he'd spoken to her, soft and gentle, with affection in his tone. What was she to him? A child? A lover? A quarter of his own quaternity ..?
Oh, for water's sake, Cullie. Flux growled, rolling his eyes with impatience. You don't keep the likes of him waiting. He isn't asking for courtly courtesy. He's a dragon and it's your heart you must offer, not wary smiles that have no meaning. He stomped past her and planted himself firmly on the still damp stone, one hand resting on his hammer's head, the other clenched over his heart. I am Flux Wireform, sworn to Sulis, Defender of the Ironheight, and Keeper in the House of Bronze, he declared boldly. It's an honour to meet you. I am sworn to the standards of your metal, but I would not presume to claim brotherhood to one so clearly above me. Will you accept my service as one of distant kin?
Flux! Cullandra hissed, half outrage, half warning. Are you crazy?
I'm saner than you are, Flux shot back. We got what we were promised, Cullie. And more than we would have dreamed of. Help and hope. A child of the old forging, and a daughter of the red fire. I know you're being cautious, but that's no excuse to lose your manners! There may be foul things lurking in the ruins out there , but evil has no place at the heart of Sharshall, and the gods don't taint their gifts with the Shadow. Not when they come straight from their hands. I hold to the honour of my oaths, and those include the ones made to my house, and to my goddess and he's dragonborn, and Bronze forged, and he could bite my head off if he chose, and I'd be thanking him for it. Metal and fire , he muttered, returning his attention to the dragon and his kin, who'd both been watching this exchange with some bemusement. His bravdo faltered under the attentiveness of their regard. You ah - won't, though, will you?
Bite my head off?
The dragonkin - Willow clearly fought down a smile; the look that flashed across the dragon's face held echoes of some long suffering, but always affectionate forbearance a suggestion that he might be used to Flux's kind of foot-in-mouth impetuosity. Cullie relaxed a little just a little. There was something about this strange pair that she was beginning to like.
Well, uh Giles considered thoughtfully. I - I I don't think so. I uh try to avoid decapitating potential allies if I can. I - I'm not entirely sure that I'm who or what you think I am. But He paused for a moment, then very politely lifted his right forearm and turned over his palm, offering it in a gesture of friendship. It's a pleasure to meet you, Master Wireform.
Flux looked down at extended talons, and then up, sudden awe and gratitude dancing in his eyes. Perhaps he had expected to get his head bitten off. He glanced back at Cullie, swallowed hard and then stepped forward, carefully pressing his own weathered fingers against the proffered palm. He could have sat the whole of himself inside it with ease. The pleasure's all mine, he gulped, a little gruffly. Willow giggled.
Always the gentleman, she murmured with affectionate tease. The dragon cocked his head and glared down at her with equally affectionate annoyance.
It never hurts to be polite, he said a little archly, drawing back his forearm and planting his claws firmly beside her again.
Flux took the opportunity to step back, clearly heaving a sigh of relief, and threw Cullie a pointed look. The dragon was right. So was Flux. She had been forgetting her manners.
Lord Watcher, noble Lady she acknowledged, bowing from the waist in the courtly form she'd been taught to use when meeting senior churchmen, high mages and Royalty. As it pleases you: I am the Lady Cullandra van Regis, Knight of Summerset and Midwinter, Warden Protector of Farferry and Chosen in the service of Ignis Draconis. I welcome you to the Enclave of Sharshall, although it is a poor welcome and the Enclave long abandoned. By mortal souls, if not the gods.
Lady Cullandra. She didn't think a dragon would be able to bow, but this one managed it offering a polite and formal dip of his head that could put many a so called nobleman' to shame.
These are the other members of my quaternity. Meldew Fosterson, a Doctor of alchemy and follower of Terra Materilis Meldew stepped forward and proffered his own bow less courtly, but deeper than her own. And this is his apprentice, Ashley of the Rowan, student of the high arts and sworn to Atmos Adonis. Ashley bowed in the elven way, palms up and arms spread out to show no ill intent. The Bronze Giles - acknowledged both with a matching nod of his head. Mistress Willow tried out Ashley's version of the bow, although quickly realised it didn't really work when you had a book in one hand. She put the book down and tried again, managing an admirable attempt for someone who'd clearly never done it before.
And this is Flux, Cullie concluded, deciding it would be inappropriate to present his titles all over again.
We've met, Giles noted and yes, that was a smile. A rather charming one, considering it displayed a glimpse of teeth as long as daggers. The hint of crinkles around his eyes and the wry curve to his lips softened it although it didn't quite banish the anxious look, deep in his eyes.
They're a long way from home
Cullie shivered, suddenly struck by the immensity of that distance, by the strangeness of their words and their behaviours. Would she be so assured, so certain, if the gods tore her from the Set and carried her across the seas? Gifting her strengths to some far-flung kingdom, away from everything she knew?
Just how far had they come?
Met and well met, Flux decided, nodding his approval at Cullie's introductions. And welcome indeed, to both of ye. You must forgive our hesitations. For all our brave deeds, none of us have had the honour of meeting such notable and noble souls. And forgive us, also, if we offend in any way. The ways of dragonkin for all the tales and stories are not well known these days. Not even among my own people.
Cullie saw Willow glance up at her companion, although she didn't understand the look they exchanged. The dragon's snort was obvious though. He was definitely amused.
That's quite all right, he murmured. They're not exactly well known to us, either.
Before the shattering, before the Fall - Dragon's kin and Dragon's call , Ashley murmured softly. Born in splendour, born in light, Dragon's heart and Dragon's might The elves would remember. There are ancients still dwelling in Shimm who walked these halls when they were young.
We're not in Shimm, Meldew pointed out. It'd be a long way to go, just to get advice on dealing with dragons. Even if we needed it. No offence, Lord Watcher, he added warily, but from your words, your questions, I would surmise that the gods have given you little knowledge concerning the nature of our world, and even less of your own. Would I be right?
Dragon and dragonkin exchanged another glance. Busted, Willow sighed. We're kinda new here. Oh you knew that, right But where we came from? This wasn't us. Exactly. Only we are us. Just not the us we were there. We're the us we're supposed to be here . If we knew where here was, that is
Cullie blinked. Was that supposed to have made any kind of sense?
Clearly not; Giles rolled his eyes and by the flames that was expressive and heaved a quiet sigh. Willow, he murmured. Now is not the time ... He lifted his gaze, glancing from Flux to Meldew and back again. It wasn't that he dismissed herself or Ashley far from it in fact just that he was thoughtfully judging what lay before him and assessing the immediacy of its worth. You surmise correctly, Doctor Fosterson, he said after a moment. And because of it, it seems a little difficult to know where to start. What urgencies we need to know. What questions we should ask. May I suggest, he continued, turning to Cullie with quiet acknowledgement of her leadership, that we divide our resources and increase the range of our research? Perhaps you and the Lady of the Rowan could take Willow on small tour tell her about who you are, where we are and why you are here? And while you're doing that, the good Doctor and Master Wireform could share with me what they know about dragons?
Spilt up? Willow went a little wide eyed at the idea. Are you sure that's wise?
Cullie was wondering the same thing. There was strength in numbers. But then, the Bronze could practically swallow Flux in a single gulp if he wanted to and would be able to do so, whether she was there to guard his back or not.
Wise? The dragon looked down at her with the hint of a wry smile. No. But necessary ...? We need to gather as much information as we can, as quickly as we can. And you are better placed to examine this new world than I am, If I start stumbling around in here I'm likely to bring the rest of the roof down on us. For heavens sake , Willow, he growled, since her expression remained doubtful. I have wings and a tail and I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to be doing with them! The Lady Cullundra won't hurt you. We're the answers to their prophecy. They were sent to meet us. And we were sent to them, he concluded, his tone softening again. Go make friends. Do that girl-talk thing you're always doing with Buffy and Dawn and Faith Get to know them. Get the feel of the place. And ask the Lady of the Rowan about magic how it works here. What you have to do to make use of yours
Ohh . Willow's eyes brightened, and she started to smile. That is wise. She impulsively stepped closer and gave his forearm a quick hug. Have fun figuring all the dragon stuff. Just don't fly away without me.
Absolutely not , he said, and dipped his head to give her a gentle push in Cullie's direction. Now, run along. And try not to babble too much, hmm?
She did try . It was just that there was so much to learn, so much to take in. The three of them went on a very strange tour strange, because it quickly became obvious that this place they'd arrived in was almost as unfamiliar to her guides as it was to her circling the big room and then cautiously checking out the smaller halls that lay on either side. The Lady Cullandra stalked about as if she expected to be ambushed any minute, and Ashley wanted to poke into everything on shelves, under broken tables, behind screens, inside cupboards, inside boxes, even looking for sliding panels and hidden compartments in the altars and the statues that seemed to be everywhere. After the first couple of such studied searches, Willow began to realise that they had a point and started helping out, looking for odd cracks among the stones, or knocking her knuckles against carved panels in case they sounded hollow behind.
And wasn't that a surprise, the first time she found a hidden compartment - because her cautious knock turned out to be a lot stronger than she'd intended. Buffy strong, in fact; her hand punched straight through the thin layer of stone, letting the hidden contents spill out onto the floor. She gave a startled eep , and the Lady Cullandra came running, sword drawn and face creased with determined to-the-rescue intent. Ashley giggled, and then they all did, relaxing from tensioned surprise to shared amusement at having jumped for no reason at all.
Well, for some reason perhaps. I guess, Willow hazarded, dragonkin are kinda strong?
So the tales say. Lady Cullandra was using the point of her sword to examine the debris of broken pottery and dust and other stuff that had fallen from the compartment to shatter on the floor. Not as strong as the dragons themselves
Well, hardly. Willow flexed her fingers and then pumped her arm, not feeling any particular difference from before. I mean Giles is a little bigger than I am. But I'm slayer strong. Which means She grinned. Oh, he's gonna love that. He's finally got the edge on Buffy She sobered abruptly, realising that Buffy would never get to know about it. Would probably never even know what had happened, beyond there being a rift and perhaps them having to step through it to save the world. As far as the world they had left would know, they were both dead and lost forever
Scrolls, I think, Lady Cullandra announced, handing Ashley a couple of long metal tubes. And some ivory work, and rings non magical?
I could cast
No, not yet. Let's see what we find and do everything together. Unless - she turned to Willow with a wary frown. Do you possess the power to see magic, Lady Willow? She was holding out her hands; the palms of her gloves were covered in dust and piled with trinkets. Willow blinked. There didn't seem to be anything remarkable about any of the age encrusted pieces. The gloves, on the other hand it was nearly there, nearly within her grasp, a whisper of power, a pattern of light and then it was gone, lost in the none-too-subtle grab her mind had made, reaching for something that just didn't work that way anymore
She was uncentred, out of balance and hopelessly at odds with her new self. She was going to have to find a whole new way to think.
Nope, she decided, shaking her head. Don't think so. But if there's a spell? Maybe I could learn that
Maybe. The Lady tipped the objects into the pouch Ashley held out for her. It's a useful skill to have.
You're like an unwritten page, Ashley marvelled, staring at Willow with fascination. You have magic but no spells to call on, no words pre-learnt?
She did have spells old ones, old skills and older powers but she didn't dare try to reach or use any of them. Her magic had been changed changed to fit this world and until she learnt some of the basics, until she understood how power was supposed to be shaped by her new shape, then she daren't risk experimenting with old expectations. A simple summon flame might create a raging inferno or call up no more than a feeble spark.
Either one would be embarrassing, but incinerating everyone around her was definitely not the way to go.
I guess I'm supposed to find what I need here, she ventured, giving Ashley what she hoped was a confident smile. The elf no, elfkin , she'd called herself nodded.
The gods provide, she said. Perhaps you should take the scrolls and all else we find. This is your enclave, your place of calling, after all.
That was my thought, Cullandra said, then threw them both a wry smile. It's not wise to loot a holy place you've been sent to by the gods but when you are sent from the gods, it would be unwise to ignore what they have placed for you to find. By that reckoning, everything that lies within this enclave is thine. Thine and the Lord Watcher's of course. Beyond these halls in the city and its suburbs well, she shrugged, Sharshall has lain abandoned for nearly five hundred years. Its treasures and its trinkets lie free to any prepared to win their way to them.
Ashley laughed. And that's a task worthy of a tale or two, she said, sliding the pouch into a pocket inside her robe. A deep pocket by the look of it it took both pouch and scrolls with ease. Worry not, she smiled, catching the way Willow watched stuff she'd just been told was hers, disappear. I will keep them safe for you. We will search much better with empty hands.
Right. That made sense, It wasn't as if she had anything to put stuff in. Not unless her current and disconcertingly slinky dress had hidden pockets in it. And even if it did, given its low cut in front, even lower cut at back, and the way it was split from ankle to thigh, it was unlikely that they'd hold very much Thanks. Guess I'm not dressed for adventuring.
I think your dress is rather comely, Cullandra said, then bit at her lip as if she couldn't quite believe what she'd just said. That is umm
It's the temple style. Ashley came to both their rescues, which was probably just as well, since Willow had no idea how to react to that unexpected complement. The priestesses in the murals their robes are cut in just that way. It's a high elven fashion, I think. More for style than comfort.
Uhuh, Willow nodded, glancing over at the nearest wall painting, which given its compliment of slinky, elegant and long legged ladies wouldn't have looked out of place in a Paris fashion house. A la mode in its time, I suppose five hundred years huh? Cullandra nodded, still looking vaguely embarrassed by her comment. Willow grimaced wryly. So I'm wearing a toga to a medieval party. I don't suppose gods pay much attention to the fashion thing. And for the record? It's very comfortable. Just not practical. Not for wandering through ruins in, anyway.
A spare cloak would help with that, Ashley offered. And once we get home to Farferry, the seamstress will sew you an entire wardrobe should you wish.
A skirt, a jacket and a good shirt would do. Willow was still staring at the mural, realising that at least two of the figures on it had the same kind of snakeskin patterning on their arms as legs as she did. What happened to the dragons and the dragonkin?
They gave their lives to save the world. Cullundra jerked her head to indicate they needed to move on. When the mages of the Moonborn sought to steal the power of Wisdom and Destiny, they wrought havoc among the stars. The Moonshadow was torn from its place and fell, like a fist from the heavens. And the dragons and their kin gathered to wreak a powerful spell, combining their magics into a single bolt of fire in order to strike it from the sky.
It wasn't enough. Ashley didn't sound too put out about it but then, from her perspective it was ancient history. Clearly whatever the dragon had done had saved the world, because well, world but the ruins they were exploring suggested that there hadn't been as much apocalypse averting as most people would have liked
The Fist shattered, but it wasn't totally destroyed. Shards of it fell like spears, piercing the earth and plunging into the seas. Mountains tumbled. Entire kingdoms were destroyed. The gods and the world reeled in agony, saved from the death blow, but wounded to the core. There were earthquakes and eruptions and fires. The air was torn by hurricanes and furious storms. The seas boiled and surged with pain. A great darkness fell. The nameless reached down from the wound in the sky to stain the land, and the gods reached back with pain and anger. The sun lay obscured for over a thousand days. When it returned, its light fell on a world changed beyond all recognition. Everything had shifted into new shapes. Cities like Sharshall lay in ruins, abandoned in terror and left to rot. Where shards fell, infecting the land, twisted and tainted beasts and monsters were spawned to hunt and kill. Much was lost. Too much was destroyed. The gods themselves were crippled by the blow. And the dragons and their kin vanished into myth and legend.
Until now, Cullundra murmured pointedly.
We call it the Fall, Ashley continued, ignoring the muttered comment. Much of what came before it lost and forgotten. Those that survived had to fight to create new kingdoms, to carve out new lives in the ruins of the old world. History ended and a new history began. But the echoes of that time still whisper in the ruins and the shadows. The dwarves tell long tales of the times before. And the elves remember. Those few of them that remain.
Wow, Willow said, taking a look at her surroundings with new eyes. We always managed to stop the apocalypse back home. But then , no one ever tore a moon from the sky and dropped it on the neighbourhood. Think even Buffy would have difficulty with that one They all vanished? All the dragons and the dragonkin?
So they say. Cullundra pushed her palm against a carved wooden door and then stepped back hastily as it swung away from her, revealing the room beyond. There are said to be dark dragons in the world creatures of the new forging, dragonkin twisted and corrupted by the taint of a shard. But they are very rare, and rarely venture into civilised lands.
The room was small a robing room, or a place of private meditation perhaps but there were treasures lurking within it. A shelf that held four intact books along with the dust and detritus of others long since rotted away, and a small cupboard that concealed seven or eight glass and crystal vials. There was a carved wooden box too a long narrow one, containing an equally narrow rod of dark red crystal, bound with what looked like iron at one end, and polished stone at the other.
Now here's a treasure, Cullandra declared, being Willow noticed very careful not to touch the rod once she'd opened the box and realised what was in it. Dwarf runes and the old script, too. Flux might petition you for this, my Lady. Once we figure out what it is
If it's a dwarf thing, then no problem. Are these spell books? Willow had reached to carefully lift one of the leather bound volumes from the shelf, half expecting it to disintegrate in her hand. The markings down the spine were lost to age, and the gold filigree on the cover badly faded, but the pages were intact and still flexible, a soft scent of musty paper rising as she opened the cover to take a closer look.
Spell books, or histories, prayersets and litanies Ashley reached for the second volume, treating it with reverence. They could be many things. But valuable, to be so preserved. I do not read this script - but Meldew might know.
You don't Willow looked up from fascinated study of the curlicue penwork to look at Ashley in surprise. I can. Well, some of it. One word in three. Or four. This is something about summoning
No, Ashley reacted in alarm. Do not read it aloud. You could invoke something. Such things are best left to careful study. Some books and scrolls are enchanted to release energies bound within the paper when the words are read. Meldew has taught me the beginnings of that art and when the work and the content are unknown, they are best read in silence, least
Willow glanced back at the page and gulped, realising what she might have been about to do. We had things like that, back in our world, she said. Okay. No speaking Latin in front of the books. Makes sense. But I can read bits of this and I bet Giles can read a lot more. He's really good with languages. And he loves books. All books. Any books. Well not the ones with demons trapped inside them, but that's a given, really. Do you have demons, by the way? Because, if there are worlds without shrimp, there might be worlds without demons, but - I suppose if this was one, we wouldn't really be needed here. Which we are. I guess. Because we're here, and that probably means there are big bads to be dealt with, and that's kinda our speciality, or would be if Buffy she's my friend and Giles's Slayer if she were here, you could practically guarantee demons. Or vampires. Or other things of the nasty persuasion She tailed off, realising that both Ashley and Cullundra were staring at her with wide eyes. Deer in the headlights wide eyes. She coloured a little, realising that she'd manage to slip into full babble mode and mentioned a few things probably best left unmentioned except that she'd mentioned them now. Did I mention that Giles likes books?
You did. The Lady Cullundra sounded a little stunned. You have fought demons , Lady Willow?
Willow nodded; her smile was an embarrassed one, and she seriously hoped she didn't sound boastful or anything, because she was supposed to be finding out about her new world, not giving the wrong impression about the old one. Even if it wasn't wrong exactly. One or two. Itty bitty demons. Vampires mostly. And some things that got out of the Hellmouth and the Mayor, he tried to become like one of the Old Ones and there was Glory but she was a hell-goddess really, so maybe she doesn't count and there was the First. Evil that is. He had armies of demons, so I worked this spell, and then we had an army of Slayers and kinda stopped him She trailed off a second time, realising she was probably just making things worse. Deep breath , Willow , she reminded herself, thinking about what Xander would say were he there. She was babbling because she was nervous and uncertain and sweet goddess, she wanted these people to like her, and here she was throwing them for a loop and prattling on as if they knew exactly what she was talking about, when she knew perfectly well they had no idea
They probably both thought she was completely insane.
You have faced the nameless one? Ashley was looking at her with wide eyes. And denied him?
Okay so maybe they did know something about what she was talking about. Nameless one . That sounded ominous. But if that was the local big bad on high or down deep, depending on how they constructed their mythology then, in a way, that was exactly what she had done. Not just in facing down the First, but in confronting her inner demons the grief and anger that had once tried to end the world. Yeah. I ... I guess I have. Giles and I we're the good guys, you know? Trying to do the right thing. Defend the innocent. Protect the helpless. Stand up to the bad guys. Got diplomas in world saving and everything. Maybe that's why She paused to take her own advice, drawing in a deep, centring breath. We did something something probably very stupid, but, really, really necessary to save our world. To make sure there was a world, and that it would go on. Without us. And that was supposed to be it, really. Except it wasn't. Because we were lost, and someone found us and now we're here. With the mythical makeover and hardly a clue, but here . And since this isn't heaven and final reward time, I'm kinda thinking that we aced the interview and got ourselves a new job. In the old business. She glanced down at the patterns written across her skin. With promotion. She looked up and found the Lady Cullundra was watching her, her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed together in pensive thought. It was a good look on her. And excellent prospects
There are four gods. Flux was ticking off the list on his fingers, remembering the way he'd been taught as a child the numbering of the powers and the affinities turned into a determined game.
Earth, Air, Fire and Water, the Bronze rumbled softly, demonstrating that he'd been listening earlier. He'd settled himself in for a long conversation, belly to the ground, wings folded close to his flanks, forelimbs crossed, one set of webbed and taloned fingers laid over the other, and his head tipped down so that he could regard the two of them with thoughtful intensity. It was extremely disconcerting to be looked at like that, to be overshadowed by those deep green eyes and to catch glimpses of yourself in their depths.
The Sun, giver of life, the bright Moon, who takes it, and their daughters the child Birth, the maiden Growth, and the old woman, Age, Meldew supplied. He was being unusually quiet but then, who wouldn't be, given their current company? Safer to be silent than risk offence.
The nameless one, the Shadow
And his dark brothers - the Lord of Blight, the Lord of Decay, and the Lord of Stagnation.
Pleasant family, the dragon observed, the irony clear in his tone. Meldew snorted. So did Flux.
Aye. That's for certain. Sell your soul to one o' them and you'd regret it. Or the rest of the world would. They'd devour everything, given the chance. They hold this city in sway except for this bit, the gods be praised.
Dragon sighs were soft, but they stirred the air with tangible force. I suppose that was inevitable.
My Lord? The statement didn't make much sense not to Flux, at any rate, who'd been talking about the dark Four, and for whom the thought of them being inevitable was not one he'd want to contemplate.
Mm? Oh no, no, not your pantheonic mythology, which is um - rather interesting, actually - just familiar themes. Light, dark, good, evil the same old battle, but on a different battle ground. I um swore an oath once. To defend the world against the forces of darkness. Given the imprudence of youth, I never actually specified which world. Which rather means well, the Bronze quirked a wry smile. An oath, once taken, can hardly be untaken. Revoked or broken perhaps, but never erased. Once a Watcher, always a Watcher it would seem I'm sorry. I'm distracting you. Please - carry on.
Distracting Well, that was one way to put it. Flux had been fascinated by the idea of dragons all his life. He'd sworn his own oath to the goddess on an altar inlaid with metallic dragon scales, and he'd drunk his first toast to her from a bronze goblet said to have been made by Tharturanthrax himself in dwarven form, of course. He'd sought out histories of the time before the Fall, had hunted down legends and rumours and stories in a hundred taverns, and heard them from a thousand tongues. He'd even asked, once, for a memory from an old and nearly faded traveller elf, and won a murmured telling that still sent shivers across his skin. He'd imagined stumbling on the bones of an ancient and venerable Wyrm, sprawled along some ridge up in the Spines, laid out for two, three hundred feet from nose to tail. Had longed for more than whispered tales and outrageous claims that couldn't possibly be true
But he'd never, in all his life, imagined that one day he'd be sitting on a fallen pillar in a long abandoned temple of the gods, about to discuss the disposition of dragons with a true dragon. Especially one that had such little knowledge of his own nature, yet so far - had lived up to every possible expectation of dignity and nobility and thoughtful wisdom that the histories and legends claimed. Silver dragons were flighty and impulsive; Golds were solid and practical; Coppers were hot headed and hasty but Bronzes Bronzes were said to be both wise and reflective, as deep as the waters in which they felt at home.
He'd have to remember to mention that, somewhere along the line
You'd reached the first forging, Meldew prompted helpfully, and earned himself an irritated glare.
No I hadn't, Flux huffed. I'd got to the making . Which was when Terra unfolded herself, so that Adonis could embrace her and Sulis and Ignis squirmed between, shaping the seas and the mountains, and creating things like springs and lakes and rivers, and rain and then, he explained hastily, since he didn't think the dragon would want to sit through a whole retelling of the intimacies of the gods, even if it had all those wonderful passages about the making of the hidden gifts in the deep places, like ores and gemstones, and fire rock, Life looked down and painted the new world with plants and animals, and Death followed, so that there could be natural ends and new beginnings and that's when their daughters were born and everything was fine until, overwhelmed by his delight, Life stepped too close to his family and the impact of his light cast their shadows over the world.
Now that's interesting the Bronze said. A myth in which the balance the cycle between life and death is the natural order, and evil emerges from a recognition of the negative aspects of it, the possibility of the unnatural. Conflict threatening harmony. Denial of the cycle, rather than defiance of it This is fascinating, Flux but I need to know about dragons. Practical things. Not their place in your theosophy no matter how intriguing it may be.
Flux blinked, unused to his audiences being conscious of the nuances between tale and teaching, between myth and message. The thoughts and philosophies expressed in the discursions of the inner enclaves had little place in the day to day matters of the world. Except that they did and he was sitting here talking to a dragon , who probably understood how all that worked much better than he did.
Meldew was looking equally stunned. The studies of the Alchemists and the Mages ran different threads through the tales that shaped the world, but they also touched on the deeper philosophies, the thought behind the thoughts, much as the scholars among the chosen did. It took a particular kind of mind to be capable of grasping those concepts, let alone expressing them and the language of magic was as complex and intricate as the language of the spirit
but both had been born from the contemplations of dragons, over long centuries of consideration and though many generations of their kind.
Your pardon, Lord Watcher, but Meldew threw Flux an apologetic glance for speaking before he could. The two are fairly inextricably linked. Especially as the most we know comes from old tales, and scarce fragments of history. No dragon has walked the world for over five hundred years. Not openly, at any rate. It is true that many had the skill to shift their shape and take on the form of men and beasts and others of their choosing but if any did survive the Fall, then they have expressed that skill so well that no sign of their true nature has been witnessed since.
The dragon had half opened his mouth to protest the use of his title much as he'd been doing ever since he'd arrived but the words that followed it had silenced him for a moment or two. Shape shifting? he murmered, blinking at the thought. Really? Now that's the kind of practical detail I'm talking about. I don't suppose either of you would know how no , he concluded firmly. You almost undoubtedly don't. Something for me think about though All right, he said. Carry on, but try and keep the myth light and the details pertinent if you can.
I'll do my best, Flux promised, hastily reconsidering his choice of teaching tales. It would have to be mostly tavern rumours instead but he had enough of those to make some sense out of them. He hoped. The shortening of the tale is this while Life and Death danced and made the shadows, the gods, in celebration of their creation, decided to make each other one further gift. Ignis smelted an ingot of metal for each of them gold for Terra, silver for Adonis, bronze for Sulis
because tin alone would be too brittle for their purpose, Meldew interjected.
and copper for himself. From those ingots they created the first dragons, imbuing them with their essences and bestowing them with many blessings. They were shaped in the image of the gods' first born, the serpentine entwining of Life and Death. The metals made them strong and powerful, but the skill in their forging kept them supple and swift. They were given the gift of magic, and the wisdom to use it wisely. When Life breathed over them, it was a long and steady breath, bestowing many years and when it was done, each of the gods added further blessings to make them the noblest of creatures, worthy to guard and protect the world that they had made.
Hmm. The Bronze sounded sceptical. As opposed to them evolving from some primal reptilian ancestor, clawing its way bloodily to the top of the food chain only to discover that thinking helped it stay there ...? Myths explain the way things are , not the way they came to be and, in my experience, gods powers have a habit of claiming responsibility for things that may, or may not, have turned out the way they were intending. On the other hand He sighed, dropping his chin onto his folded forefeet and staring at the two of them with anxious bemusement. I like your version. And here it may well be true. Does it matter if mankind was shaped from common clay by the gods, or evolved from some primitive ape round about the time the last of the Ancient Ones were squabbling over who ruled the world? He is still, in essence, a man capable of great nobility, given to general mediocrity, and vulnerable to corruption to being dragged down into dark deeds with darker intentions. I was such a creature once. I suspect I still am albeit now burdened with the responsibility of some of these blessings you're talking about. I don't know about the dragons in this world's history but I suspect that I, at least, have been shaped by these gods of yours mine now, I suppose to reflect what you're describing. And what I want to know, he added with a sharp hint of impatience, is what the hell that means! Do I fly, or are these things , he asked, suddenly arching up to stretch and rattle his wings so that the dust danced, merely ridiculous ornamentation? What do I eat? Drink? You say I have magic? What sort of magic? For crying out loud , he bellowed at the darkening sky. even slayers get a bloody handbook! And a Watcher to go with it he concluded forlornly, his anger dissipating as quickly as it had arisen. He slumped back to the ground all the way back, wings sprawling out in misery and his throat thudding down on the stone. Only his tail stayed aflicker, expressing a remnant of agitation in slow, twitchy sweeps. Flux who'd scrambled to his feet and backed off in alarm, just as Meldew had done stared at him with a mixture of terror and concern.
I'm sorry. The words were soft and deeply apologetic. Green eyes blinked, harbouring embarrassment. That was uncalled for. You are only trying to help, and I'm obviously not coping as well as I'd thought. This has been something of a shock to me, I'm afraid.
Flux nodded slowly and just as slowly reclaimed his perch on the fallen column. His heart was thumping wildly inside his chest, and he couldn't tell if it were from fear, or excitement, or mix of both. The normally soothing presence of the goddess' power within him was surging with equal wildness, putting all thoughts of protective, or even offensive prayers right out of his head. Not that he thought the goddess would let him hurt her creature, but it would have been reassuring to feel that she would be willing to protect him , if he called.
I am chosen to serve , he reminded himself, wondering, a little anxiously, if that included being a newly reborn dragon's first meal
You fly, he said, taking a moment to steady the quaver in his voice. All dragons do. But Bronze's are even better in the water than they are in the air. That's their domain. The tales say their favourite food is fresh shark. Or deep water squid. The kind that sink ships, he added, finding a little note of hysteria in his tone. He'd been on such a vessel once. The goddess had preserved him long enough for Cullie to rescue him from the water after the many armed monster had dragged the shattered remains of the high prowed warship into the depths. He still had the ragged scar on his calf where the teeth lined suckers had ripped away his leg guard and time faded nightmares of the tentacle that had tried to lift him off the deck.
Good lord. The horned head lifted up in surprise. They grow that big here?
Bigger. Meldew was still standing at a distance, a potion bottle tucked into the palm of his hand. He slowly stoppered it before walking back to consider the dragon with what appeared to be fascinated sympathy. Or possibly an attack of indigestion, It was hard to tell with Meldew sometimes. I imagine it would be quite a challenge. Hunting them.
Yes. I imagine it would
Giles, Giles! The copper haired dragonkin came flying into the hall not literally, but at a speed that suggested she wasn't far from it. Are you okay? I thought I heard did you bellow, or something Her pace slowed as soon as she realised her companion was unhurt and in no apparent danger. His expression became a chagrined one.
Ah um. Oh err I uh freaked , I'm afraid. Momentary lapse. Won't happen again.
Flux wasn't so sure about that. Dragons had legendary tempers, and this one had every right to be angry at the situation he found himself in. But at least he wasn't angry at them and the return of the lady seemed to calm him even further; the twitch of his tail died away, and he drew his sprawled wings into neat folds with something of a self conscious shrug.
Yeah, right, the Lady Willow was laughing. And Buffy can walk past a shoe shop without so much as glancing inside Giles, she said, walking right up to him and determinedly wrapping her arms around his neck. It's okay to freak. Really. This is a freaky situation and there's a whole lot of freaky stuffy to get our heads round. I've been freaking the freakiest since we got here, and it's going to take a while for both of us to find our balance. But we will. Because hey we're us , right? If we can survive the Hellmouth, we can survive anything. And I think this place could be kind of fun ...
The dragon twisted his head so that he could return her embrace with the soft pressure of his cheek against her shoulder. It was an oddly affectionate gesture from a creature so powerfully built. You're right, he murmured. We may have been reshaped, but I'm certain our souls have remained our own. We simply need to take things one step at a time.
I would be honoured, Meldew said, to teach you both what spells and magic I know.
Aye, Flux agreed, and I to tell you all the tales you need of gods and men, of elves and dwarves, of ogres of dragons and even he swallowed hard. Squid.
Squid? Willow echoed, turning to stare at him. The Bronze chuckled.
Favoured dish, apparently. Good job I have more than a passing fondness for sushi
They'd made no plans for the coming night, but it seemed sensible to set up camp in the main hall of the enclave not just because the approach of darkness limited their options this deep into the city, but because it genuinely seemed the safest place to stay for a while. The sense of blessed sanctity seemed strongest closest to the now refilled pool, although it reached deep into the ruined hallways and had clearly kept the place free from the foul things that lurked almost everywhere else in the city's bones. That alone would have given them reason to linger, but Cullie thought it might be prudent for Ashley to scry the items they'd found as soon as possible and to try and teach the Lady Willow to do the same if she could. Spending the night would also give the Lord Watcher time to settle into his skin something he still seemed uncertain about, from the way he'd been carefully pacing the far side of the hall, folding and unfolding first one wing and then the other, twisting his neck and contorting his body, much as a warrior or a knight might pace and fret to accustom themselves to a new suit of armour. Meldew had stayed to talk to him, discussing the philosophies of magic and some of the history of the world after the Fall. Flux had reluctantly, it had to be said left them too it, ambling over to where Cullie had been building a small fire so he could find a clear stretch of floor on which to unroll the portable hole.
The thing had cost them all a small fortune two or three years back, but it had proved its value ever since, allowing them to travel light and still travel well. Packed, it was nothing more than a rough linen sheet rolled into a bundle and tucked into a convenient pocket one of Flux's, not Ashley's magic enhanced pouches in the lining of her robe. The two enchantments were dangerously incompatible, and they always made sure that the hole stayed well away from the elfkin's hands at least until it was safely unrolled.
Unpacked, it had to be spread flat across a space at least five feet across an exercise that puzzled the Lady Willow, who'd already asked where they stored their camping gear and clearly thought that this thin rough canvas was going to be a poor substitute for comfortable bedrolls. If that was all it was, it certainly would be but Cullie smiled as Flux smoothed the last of the material down, spoke the command word and revealed the two foot deep, five foot diameter pit that the fabric concealed. They rarely packed the hole more than a third full, just in case they stumbled over something that was bulky as well as valuable, but that was plenty of room for a tumble of padded and quilted bedding, the cook pots, the rations, a spare change of clothes for each of them, Cullie's kite shield, Meldew's travelling laboratory, Flux's ritual regalia, a box full of books, and the few other bits and pieces that had become labelled as necessities' over the years. The Lady Willow's eyes went very wide as the storage space was revealed and then she had to rush away to drag the Lord Watcher over so that he could witness the cleverness of the enchantment after which the two of them began badgering Meldew and Ashley with questions about folded space and magical sub-dimensions, until even the alchemist had to admit defeat. He understood the basic principles , of course but the skills and knowledge that had once marketed the portable holes as common conveniences throughout the Kingdoms had been lost in the Fall. There had been a great store of them provisioning the evacuation fleet, of course, and they'd been divided up as useful tools among the families who had survived to reach Landing after the long night at sea but they'd grown rarer and more precious in the centuries since, their magic handed down as valued heirlooms, and without the knowledge of how to construct more it was likely that they would eventually vanish into legend, like many another mythical magical device. But for now, they had this one purchased at great cost from a wizened widow whose sons had been killed before they could inherit this most precious of legacies and they used it with gratitude and care.
Although given the way the Lady Willow had been pacing round the edge of it, her features creased in thought and her eyes sparkling with excitement, it seemed entirely likely that - someday the art of their weaving one might, once again, become known to the world.
Flux's eyes were continually being drawn back to the dragon, much as might be expected. The dwarf made no secret of his regard for dragon lore and he'd meant every word of the oath he'd offered, even if he'd clearly not thought through what keeping it might entail. But Cullie despite the way the presence of the young Bronze inspired a disconcerting mixture of awe, uncertainty and fascination found herself studying the Firechild instead, watching her restless energy and considering the contrast between her delicate build and slightly elfin looks and the strength she had so casually displayed earlier in the day.
She was an odd little thing, in many ways; slender as the tree whose name she wore, gawky and given to shy like a young colt in company, yet determinedly graceful in those moments when she shed self consciousness and simply became and that becoming was breath taking a sudden expression of power and strength and inner fire that declared her kinship with confidence. Coppers, according to Flux, were the most impulsive of their kind, curious and courageous, given to charging ahead with little forethought, or being tempted to play with toys and untried magics just to see what happened next. Their half human kin were said to be as inquisitive as cats, and eager for new knowledge, new experiences. They were also said to give their hearts with fervour, to be deeply loyal to both friends and lovers, and to fiercely defend the things they cared for. That much Cullie had witnessed with her own eyes. There were those among her fellow knights who might have laughed at the determined way this seemingly fragile creature had rushed to aid the far more sturdy and intimidating Bronze when he'd bellowed. Those knights would be fools; even the smallest spark can ignite a conflagration, and the fire in the Lady Willow's eyes had been far, far more than a spark. Cullie even wondered if it would be wise for Meldew to offer her apprenticeship beside Ashley. A few known spells, and a fervour for more, and it was likely that she would soon outstrip him in raw power and possibly mastery as well. Not in the subtle works, though. Those she'd wager were more suited to the Lord Watcher's intellect. Fire and Water. Both forces to be reckoned with, and potently balanced when used in combination.
The gods have sent them , she reminded herself, and bent back to the task of seasoning supper. The Set was badly in need in some kind of guardianship, what with the Ogres seemingly migrating down from the Highlands in much larger numbers than usual, the sea raiders increasing their incursions in the south, and all the foolish political games and jealousies among the court splitting loyalties and distracting the nobles from their obligations to the land. The King seemed to be keeping his throne through cunning and increasingly desperate manoeuvres; the princes - her father among them were behaving like sots and wastrels; and the political leaders of the church were too busy arguing with the academics over the wisdom of trying to relearn lost arts to notice that there were wolves prowling on the borders and rats creeping into the barns.
Only her own order the Wardens and the Chosen Protectors were paying much attention to the troubles of the country. And they had enough problems of their own, dealing with the relics of the Fall - the restless dead, the remnants of ancient magics and incursions of monstrous things that still emerged from the shard tainted zones.
The dark orders those that blasphemously preached the power of the shadow had started rumours that the power of the gods was waning. That they'd taken great hurt in the days of the Fall, and that they had exhausted their strength in futile efforts to change the inevitability of destiny. It was true that the priests and the clerics could no longer work the kind of miracles that legend claimed had once been commonplace but Cullie tended to think that reflected more upon the worthiness of the clerics than it did upon the powers they called upon. She'd seen true miracles at work and one of them had been today, with words spun by a babbling Oracle unspun into legends and wonders, here in a city of the lost, at the heart of a dominion of shadows and darkness.
Perhaps the gods were still nursing desperate wounds but they had not abandoned the world, and they had found a way to send what aid they could. Not exactly what anyone had been expecting, but perhaps that was the point . Ancient magical weapons were all very well, but they could be used and abused by any that might lay their hands on them. What they'd found instead what they'd been given - was a shield that could, and would, understand what it defended - and a sword that knew its own mind, and could choose where to strike
Cullie found herself smiling into the stew, shaking her head and trying hard not to laugh. When the Oracle that named her choosing had warned she was marked by destiny and destined to stand by the sword and the shield' everyone had assumed it meant she was intended to become both Warden and Protector, which, of course, had been exactly what she'd done.
Nobody had ever suggested it meant that one day she'd find herself companion in arms to a dragon and his kin
Like this? Willow was asking, her hand outstretched above the scatter of rings Ashley had placed on a tumbled pillar, close to the fire.
Well yes, but Ashley's voice was amused. the words and the gestures are not enough. You must first read and memorise the patterns of the spell. The word unlocks that memory and the gesture directs it. Once cast, the pattern fades and it must be memorised again. You can't just oh
Willow had just' she'd made a gesture and muttered a murmured phrase. The same phrase, Cullie now recalled, that Ashley had spoken only a few moments earlier. Ashley's spell had done little more than snap a moment of light over the objects in front of her. Willow 's had spun a flare of light from her fingertips, one that danced over most of the camp, making all sorts of items take on a brief but noticeable glow.
Uh Willow was looking a little startled. Wow. Instant mojo-glow. That would have been handy back home. Saved a few arguments in the Magic Box, at least Is there one that lets you light up evil things, too? She slipped into a brief frown, Or would that be dark down .. ?
Cullie suppressed a snort at that. It was a rather good way of describing what the god-gift did letting you glimpse, however briefly, the balance of shadow and light that infused the living, the unliving and the simply dead. Where the taint of the shadow lay, the chosen sight revealed the depth of its darkness and where the nameless one held reign those depths could be very dark indeed.
I suppose it would be possible, Ashley was saying, staring at the Firechild's fingers with a look of disbelief. How did you do that?
Do what? Willow was looking around the camp, her eyes darting from item to item as she tallied what her casting had revealed. Oh the spell! But you just showed me.
Showed you the casting of it - yes. But not the spell . You can't copy patterns, just by seeing the expression of their release. You have to learn the shape of them. Read them. Understand them. Draw them in and hold them in your mind. I was going to show you the sequence, but
Dragon magic was taught by sight and voice. Flux had been standing in the hole, tossing up the bedrolls; Cullie hadn't seen him climb out again, but then she hadn't exactly been watching for it. Her eyes like his were fixed with fascination on the copperkin. At least from dragon to dragon. They only started to write things down after the dwarves taught them how to make runes.
Dwarves didn't create the written word, Meldew interjected, striding out of the gloom beneath the broken dome. The last of the daylight had given away to dusk, and even that was fading into night. For the moment, the only light in the cavernous hall was Cullie's carefully tended fire that and the soft gleam of a bronze hide as it caught and reflected the flicker of flame. The dragon had settled himself by the pool, close enough to watch them, not so close as to intrude. He seemed much larger in the dark, a looming presence revealed by hint and suggestion rather than clear sight. The well worn phrase the dragon in the room popped into Cullie's mind and she found herself shivering slightly. The people who used it had no idea They only invented the picture-glyph. It took a man to turn that into true text.
It was an old argument a teasing rivalry that neither man nor dwarf had any hope of settling, one way or the other. Flux would claim some innovation as dwarven wrought, and Meldew would counter with human ingenuity, topping the claim with one just as unfounded as the first.
They been doing it for years.
And the elves were writing poetry centuries before either of you could get past scrawling names on deathstones.
Score one for the elfkin. Ashley's pointed barb earned her chagrined looks from both man and dwarf and a quiet chuckle from the Lord Watcher, who was clearly enjoying the show. Willow was frowning at Flux, her nose wrinkled in thought.
Where we came from, she said slowly, there were several different kinds of magic. And the magic here is different again. More structured, somehow. Just having power isn't enough. It needs knowledge and skill and stuff And from what you said, it's kinda like a programme you need the code, and then you have to compile the code, and then you can run it She tailed off at the very blank looks she was getting. Ah, okay um how about music? Anyone can whistle, but you need to know a song in order to sing its tune. And you have to know how to keep it in tune so it sounds good? I think I've got the power and some of the skill, but I don't know any of the tunes. When you did the thing, she explained, looking at Ashley, I could feel this pattern - that you used. And I kinda looked at it in my head, and I guess that's like you reading it in your book, because that's when I had it. It's still there too only as something I know , not something I'm keeping in memory. So I could read it again inside and then cast it over. If I wanted to.
That's a rare talent. Meldew dug a hand into one of his pockets and pulled out a small glass sphere. Being able to recognise and recall spells as well as contain them. There's three of four cantrips I keep that way, but I can't hold onto a full pattern past its casting. He muttered something half under his breath, then tossed the sphere to Flux, who nodded and moved to set it atop of the stand he'd set up beside the hole. I have fragments of the spells I know best which makes it quicker to relearn them but if I think I'll need a spell more than once in a day I have to learn it twice. He threw a casual gesture towards the stand, and the light sphere began to glow, illuminating the camp site, but plunging the rest of the hall into comparative darkness. And you say you felt the pattern when Ashley cast?
Uhuh. Willow's nod was distracted, her eyes caught by the mage light. But I'm thinking that one's probably easy because well, I got it right away, and it isn't that complicated. But something harder well, it might take two or three goes. Or reading the stuff from the book. Like you said, she concluded, smiling at Ashley, who smiled back.
Magic is not an easy art. It takes time and practice to master it.
And you'll both be better off, sticking to the simple spells, Meldew decided firmly. Only fools try running before they know their left foot from their right. I've promised the Lord Watcher a cantrip or two as his starting point. I'll need to write them out for him tonight, so he can study them tomorrow, but I'll make you a copy too. He stared at Willow a moment longer, his fingers stroking at his beard as he collected his thoughts. The barest of wry smiles tugged at his lips. I've a mind to think that you'll master them quicker. I can only trust that you will use them as wisely as he will.
I'll take that bet, Flux announced. On the learning, at least. The wisdom of Bronzes, he added with confidence, is legendary
Willow took the plate of stew that the Lady Cullandra offered her along with one of the spoons that Flux handed round and left the small group to their meal and their discussions; she'd have been willing to sit and eat with them, but she didn't feel entirely comfortable about it not with Giles lying out there in the dark, all on his own. Cullandra Cullie , as the others all seemed to call her had already apologised to him for not having something suitable, or substantial enough, for him to eat, and he'd responded with lots of Giles-like reassurances and apologies of his own, saying that he wasn't feeling hungry, and she wasn't to concern herself about such things. Maybe she didn't need to but Willow felt she had every right to worry about him, and someone ought to start thinking about what he could eat, because she didn't think they'd find many giant squid lurking about in the ruins of an ancient city. Not too many sushi bars, either, for that matter ...
Cullie was making plans for the morning and contingency plans to go with them by the sound of it, responding to Meldew's suggestion about hiding their exit with a spell or two with a hint of exasperation. I don't think anyone can sneak out of a ruined city unnoticed, with a thirty foot dragon in their party. No matter how many don't look this way spells you might cast
Willow who'd found she had much better night vision than she'd expected, once she'd left the circle cast by Meldew's light had to grin at that. Giles was rather noticeable in his new form, even in the dark. He was lying curled up by the side of the pool, tail tucked in around himself, wings folded over him like a blanket and his head resting on his forearms. Foreclaws. Paws. Arms. Whatever
He'd just about fit in his office back in Bath like that. Just . Although they would have to throw out the desk, and most of the rest of the furniture, and he'd never get through the door in the first place, so really there wouldn't be much point to the exercise. Except, perhaps, scaring Andrew. And maybe startling Xander.
Because that would be fun
Hi, she offered softly, and he greeted her with a slow blink before lifting his head to study what she carried with a thoughtful smile.
Uncomfortable dining with our new friends? he asked, and she shook her head.
Nope. Just wanted the company of my oldest one. And I didn't mean that in an ageist way, just that in this world, you're the person I've known the longest, and anyway, Flux says you're really young for a dragon, so it can't possibly be an insult, and I really didn't need to go into that explanation, did I
Not really, no. His tone was slightly pained, but the roll of his eyes held the hint of a smile and he shifted onto his side a little, pulling back one wing and nodding at the space he'd made with clear invitation. Go on. Make yourself comfortable.
You sure? She'd have happily snuggled up next to him on a sofa back home, and had done so on more than one occasion but this would mean practically using him as a sofa. Which seemed a whole lot more intimate somehow.
Because you find the thought of sitting on cold, hard and slightly damp - stone a more appealing prospect? Of course I'm sure. Sit down and eat your stew. Just promise not to jab your fork into me.
It's a spoon, she protested, waving it at him. His eyes narrowed in a stern dragon stare and she felt an unexpected shiver run down her spine. That was much more effective than the old hairy eyeball. Oh, she reacted. Okay. Sitting down now.
He was warm and solid, and much more alive than any sofa would be. There was no sink-in' softness, just powerful muscles yielding beneath her weight and sofas didn't rise and fall with comforting breath, or pulse with the soft, reassuring, thump of a prodigious heart, beating deep within their chest. The scales on his flanks were larger than the ones on his legs and neck, but they were laid so close that they created an almost fluid surface over his skin, a ripple of shimmering, iridescence. His forefins the ones that ran all the way from wrist to belly - were folded up close to his body, slender ribs gleaming like metal quills in the dark. She'd carefully stepped over those as she'd climbed aboard; they looked fragile compared to the rest of him, although, given the sturdy strength of his shoulder and wing muscles, fragile was probably the wrong word.
She settled down with care, finding an oddly comfortable space just beside his shoulder and just under his wing joint and how weird was that , because up until now, Giles and wings hadn't exactly belonged in the same sentence
Comfy? he asked and she nodded, leaning her weight against his warmth.
You do good chair, she offered teasingly, and he snorted at the thought.
Glad to know I have some use. Beyond my ornamental contribution.
Oh, Willow noted airily, that's pretty spectacular all on its own. She scooped up a spoonful of stew and savoured the taste of it which was slightly spicier than she was anticipating, and a whole lot better than the grungy dig out of the ration pack and heat over the fire' taste that she'd expected when Cullie had scooped it into her plate.
Well, Giles acknowledged thoughtfully, it's hard to tell from a less than sterling reflection, but I do seem to have been given rather elegant lines.
Giles you're gorgeous . And don't look at me like that. I mean it. You make a totally what's the word you Brit's use? Spiffing? Yeah, spiffing dragon. All muscle and metal and strength and elegance, with just enough menace to mean business, but not so much that'd you'd look out of place on the Magic Box shelves. If you were only a foot long. And made of porcelain
Resin, he corrected.
The dragon statuettes we sold in the magic Box were made out of resin. Anya argued we'd get less breakages that way.
Yeah? Sounds like Anya. She paused with the spoon halfway to her mouth and sighed. It's weird, she said slowly, back home? I'd think of her from time to time and miss her. Just a little. But here I just realised. That isn't our world anymore. All those people we knew - our friends, our enemies, our ex-lovers the Slayers I empowered, the Watchers in the new Council everybody We're probably as dead to them as Anya is. Maybe some of them will be missing us. Just a little. But for me for us It feels as if they died. And how can you miss an entire world?
With wistful regret, perhaps. Giles's words echoed that exact emotion, a gentle reflection, murmured in the dark. He was looking at her with quiet sympathy. We did what we had to do. And in doing it, gave all those people a chance to go on. Without us perhaps. But go on, nonetheless. And we still have the Sigil . There might be a way to visit. One day.
Willow glanced down at her hand at the pattern of copper scales that flared across the back of it then up, at the strong curve of a bronze wing that sheltered her, and back to contemplative green eyes, shining softly in the depths of the night. He was right. The people back home were safe because of what they'd done and the situation they in as a result of it was a good deal better than they had any real right to expect. A new beginning, however far from home it might be
Hope is a far greater balm to the soul than grief. And being given a second chance at life, when all you'd expected to find was oblivion, goes a long way to soothe the loss of friends and family especially when it isn't really loss, but exile that tugs at your heart. There were no real regrets for her the thing with Kennedy was well over, and Xander would have Buffy to keep him from missing her too much. Oddly enough, the one person she would have truly regretted leaving behind was Giles and he was right there with her, so that was more a plus than a minus. She suspected the deepest source of his regret would be the struggle he'd had trying to reconnect with Buffy, the dance of guilt and mistrust that had created a space between them in those last days in Sunnydale. Those wounds had finally slowly - been beginning to heal but the chance of a true reconciliation now lay on the far side of an almost incomprehensible gulf. Almost. If there was a way, then he'd be the one to find it.
Flux is right, she decided. You are wise. You always have been. Most of the time, anyway.
Oh, I have been the epitome of wisdom my entire life, he declared with a snort. Since summoning demons, denying my destiny and betraying my slayer on more than one occasion, I might add have all been demonstratably justifiable and perspicacious decisions on my part. Wisdom is the culmination of hard earned lessons and painful recognition of consequences and I suspect I still have a few of those to face in the years ahead. Long years, as I understand it.
Yeah, Willow agreed, tucking into her helping of stew with renewed gusto. Well, yeah to the long years, anyway. Life lessons? I'm thinking we're here to teach a few. Not be taught. Although we will be, I guess. Because life's like that. Right?
She'd known him long enough and well enough - to translate the kind of expressions only a dragon could make back into the more familiar nuance of silent Giles-speak; raising the right eye ridge was a sign of wry amusement; lowering the left held mild admonition and right now he somehow managed to achieve both. Which was expressive, to say the least.
A little intimidating too.
But kind of cute, all the same
One could wish he said thoughtfully, If one did wish, which is never advisable, even if its unlikely that vengeance demons are in the vicinity that our new patrons had given us a more detailed briefing on this world and our place in it.
The stew was good. Willow chewed through another mouthful of sweet and tender meat before formulating an appropriate response.
Maybe there wasn't time, she suggested. Or Her frown was thoughtful. Maybe they think of it more like partnership than patronage. I get the impression talking to Cullie that the gods deal a little more directly with folk around here than they did back home. They have these people they call Oracles seers, I guess who speak in riddles and offer advice and guidance and folk can be born Chosen marked for service with the gods as priests or champions, stuff like that. They hand out powers and blessings, and they sometimes work miracles if people pray hard enough for them. But dragons and dragonkin? They didn't serve the gods. They were family. Free to choose their own way. Expected to be divinely guided by their own hearts.
Giles looked at her for a long moment, then lifted his head and stared at the small group gathered within the pool of mage light. Bloody wonderful, he muttered. As if mentoring a bunch of adolescent Slayers wasn't bad enough moral compass to an entire world ..? That's a somewhat daunting prospect.
I have faith in you, Willow grinned, suspecting that neither of them would have been given the gifts they had if the givers of those gifts didn't consider them worthy to receive them. And - uh so do they. She waved her spoon in the direction of their new friends and Giles sighed.
They're good people, he observed softly.
They're us, Willow said with a grin. Scoobies us. There's the mystically chosen, super warrior girl, and the guy that jokes around and keeps up morale, the mojo wielding witchy woman, and the wise and worldly knowledge guy. All they need is a laid back lycanthrope and a precious princess and we could be back in the library at Sunndale High. Although, her grin widened as she stared up at the sculptured silhouette above her, outlined against the star lit sky, I'm kinda glad there's no need to blow up the scaly, thirty foot long reptile type guy this time round
Giles laughed softly a deep, sonorous rumble that reverberated through the warmth of his flanks. I'm rather glad of that myself, he admitted, swinging his head round and down, so that he could gently nudge her shoulder with his nose. She boldly stretched up and stroked the smoothness of his snout, and he froze for a moment - before dipping a little lower so she could reach to explore some of the contours of his new visage. Dragon breath at least, his dragon breath - was warm and musky, with a faintly spicy odour to it that wasn't at all rank or unpleasant. His body scent was sharper, with a metallic tang but that wasn't unpleasant either. More comforting, than anything else.
I know that smell , she realised, unpacking the memories that the combined scents inspired. Old leather bound books, whetstones and sharpened swords, the faint fizzle of magic, and the tang of freshly brewed tea She grinned and leaned a little further back, confident in the warmth of his support. He smells of Giles
The mage light was dimming by the time they finished their meal. Meldew used a quick cantrip to clean the stew pot, and Cullie packed it and the rest of the gear away before picking a spot to set out her bedroll. They'd agreed there was no need to set watches, since the sanctity of the place was likely to keep away the nastier things that roamed the night and the presence of the Lord Watcher would almost certainly discourage the more simple hunters from venturing too close.
Ashley bid them all good night and curled herself into a bundle beneath her blankets, having studied her spell books with the diligence required to commit fresh spells to memory and still retain them in the morning. Flux, who still remembered the morning he'd woken up to find a very large phase spider spinning webs across their gear, took a moment to roll up the hole and tuck it away before seeking a spot to settle for the night. Meldew had staked out a place by the embers of the fire, and the dwarf moved across to claim the space beside him. A sudden sparkle of light caught his eye a momentary brush of starlight glimmering across bronze scales somewhere out in the darkness.
Flux grinned. The events of the afternoon were settling into memory, a weaving of breathless excitement, heart shivering terror, and mind spinning incredulity. This morning he had woken up, clambered out of his blankets and set about the day as if it had been any other well, any other on which he was part of an expedition into dangerous territory which meant being armed to the teeth with steel, brimming with curiosity and fired with the thrill of exploring the unknown. He'd earned his younger rankings stalking the edges of the Sharshall Fell, hunting down monstrosities and returning with the triumph of unearthed treasure: rare splinters of starsteel ore, and once just once a precious nugget of moonsblood. The secrets of the city had drawn him even then, although he'd never risked coming this deep into the ruins and because of it, he'd found pleasure in colouring his life with tales and legends and echoes of the world that had existed before the Fall. He had followed truth and rumour in equal measure. Had yearned for a glimpse of ancient glories, for evidence of mages that had once made mountains walk, or of heroes who had fought entire armies with nothing but wild determination and blades of ensorcelled steel. He'd dreamed of dragons. Had longed for a glimpse of metalled wings, passing over him, high in the sky and distanced by the shimmer of the sun. But he'd never never - in all his long years, and through all the trials and triumphs of campaign and adventuring, believed that there might come a day when he Flux Wireform, the son of Smelter, and youngest of his mother's sevenbrood would find himself standing this close to a true Dragon. A child of the old forging, noble in blood, steeped in wisdom and charged with magic.
A dragon, what's more, who was everything he'd ever imagined they might be while being nothing like anything he might have expected. Had he expected it.
And he'd stood this close and offered the creature his service - and had the offer accepted with a clasp of hands
One of these days, Flux, Meldew was saying, the note in his voice suggesting he knew exactly what his friend was thinking about, you're going to open your mouth and put much more than your foot in it.
Oh, aye? the dwarf retorted, drawing his eyes down from shadows in the dark and unrolling his bedroll with a flourish. I didn't see you stepping up to the parapet with any better defence. Truth and honesty is best with dragons or so all the stories say.
That's what all the books say, too, Meldew admitted reluctantly. I'm not saying you did wrong , Flux just that, one day, your luck and your wits will fail you. And I don't want to be the one burying you in six different pieces because you spoke your mind one too many times. You're supposed to live long enough to bury me .
And I will, Flux retorted warmly. In a crypt of hand hewed granite, all lined out with Merengivian Marble. Lead lining for the coffin, gold chasing on the edges of the bier. Although with you, it might end up the other way round
I wish. Meldew snorted at the thought. No-one's mastered that transmutation since before the Fall. Not so that it lasts, anyway.
Well, you've time yet. And so have I. Besides if I ever did get myself bitten in two, Cullie's the kind to dive into the jaws of Death and haul me back before she had time to swallow - and you'd be busy gluing me back together with one of those concoctions of yours while she did it.
I probably would at that. Waste of a good distillation though. I wonder if the Lord Watcher would
No, Flux interrupted sternly, halfway through unhooking his weapon belt. No asking the Sword of Sulis for blood - nor scales, nor spit, either. They aren't yours or any others' - for the asking. He'll gift you with them if he deems you worthy, and you'll treasure them for what they're worth. And if you're lucky, he added thoughtfully, you'll be around when he sheds his skin. A sliver o' that would serve your potions well enough.
It would indeed. Meldew folded himself down onto his bedding and wrapped his cloak around his lanky frame. And I would not be so impolite as to beg even a whisper of dragon breath from him or her. Tempting as it may be
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Night settled over the ruined city. Fell things stirred in the shadows and stalked in the dark, much as they had done for hundreds of years. Cold ghosts rose from the sleep of death and drifted through the streets they had strolled along in life. Hunger gnawed in forgotten corners, and malignant, bitter echoes lingered in the tumbled halls and the broken remnants of long corrupted dreams. Sharshall never slept, never stilled, never forgot .
Yet, in the very heart of the Fell, in the depths of the temple where the memory of the light had lingered, and the cold of the shadows had been kept at bay, souls did slumber, cradled in the sanctity of ancient powers and guarded by wise eyes that watched and wondered, pondering the perversities of fate and the absurdity of trying to unravel them.
Dragons have little need of sleep when they are young; they preserve their energies in other ways, balancing exertion and action with moments of quietness and thoughtful meditation. True sleep only claims them in times of injury, if they have exhausted themselves through extremes of effort, or in the hours after a truly satisfying feast because for dragons , sleep is less about rest and more about the chance to digest although this particular dragon had had no opportunity to discover that, as yet.
What he was busy discovering was an awareness of himself and his new shape, mentally exploring the world of sense and sensation that came with what Willow had termed his makeover.' The sense of her presence was part of that; she was a warm weight against his skin, comforting in her company and reassuringly Willow in a way he could not define but suspected had a lot to do with the package of sensory and supernatural abilities that both of them had been gifted with for survival in this new world.
He would know her anywhere. Would know any of the four souls that slept so trustingly barely a wing stretch away from him, too because while human senses logged features and figures and the sound of voices, he could easily add scent and the signature of soul to the list.
Bigger brains , he decided, wondering just how much of his additional cerebral matter was given over to the control of six make that seven limbs rather than four, along with processing the wider sweep of vision, the enhanced spectrum, the more subtle palate of enlarged nostrils and tongue, the fins that were apparently sensitive to air currents as well as variations in temperature, and the soft tang of electrical generation that sparked in the roof of his mouth.
Not to mention the energies that coiled though every inch of him, defining his shape and determining his true power. Willow was right. The magic was different here but it seemed less a difference in the nature of the world, and more about the change in their nature, in the innate gifts they had been given, and the expectations they had been shaped to fit.
He thought about that for a while, considering what the alchemist had said about the power of dragons to take other shapes, to disguise themselves in human, or other forms There was something it that that made sense in the certainty he had of being dragon , while retaining the memory of what it was like to be a man. Could he really shift from one to the other, compacting thirty foot of skin and bone and wing and muscle down into six feet of human anatomy?
It would certainly make it easier to avoid unwanted attention - and easier to integrate into whatever society awaited them beyond the ruined walls of the Enclave. Easier to walk unseen and watch unnoticed. It seemed he was no longer charged with Watching a Slayer and lord , he was going to miss her, despite the compensation of Willow's company but with Watching a world . A much harder task, but hopefully one that would turn out to be just as rewarding in the end.
Start small , Giles reminded himself severely. He was barely a beginner in this dragon business. He'd learn from this quaternity the gods had sent to greet and guide them, would help them protect their people, perhaps even find a place in their kingdom although if he did, he'd do well to remember those long lessons that had taught him to separate duty from politics, and obligation from patriotism.
Have to teach her some of that , he realised, looking down at the young woman currently curled against his warmth. Willow was part of his duty now a partner in responsibility as well as purpose and she would need to understand how to recognise the hard decisions, to consider the matters of the greater good although she was already well aware of the dangers inherent in possessing power and she'd stepped into the rift beside him with barely a hesitation, despite knowing what doing so might mean.
He quirked the kind of smile that only a dragon can, and curled his wing down to cover her as she slept, offering her shelter and protection, and defence against the cold terrors of the night. There was an adventure awaiting them both in the morning a journey into a new world and a new beginning.
So why did it feel as if he'd finally come home?
Here endeth Chapter One of the Songs of Summerset and Midwinter
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