Chapter 94 – A Gathering of Riders.
“So essentially you are performing one massive experiment, with my... our riders as the subjects.” Willow rocked on her heels, arms crossed across her front as she stared out the palace window. “I’m not sure what I think of that. The whole ancients thing is hard enough to swallow. If it’s even true. I’m still not completely sure on that one.”
“It’s all a matter of context.” Alysia’s smile was downright scary as she looked at the lady knight, completely relaxed in her throne. “Better to know than not. It has already started after all, and will keep occurring. It’s not like anything is going away.”
“Doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”
“No. It doesn’t. But you are letting your pride cloud your judgement now.”
Willow all but hissed at the queen.
“You’re missing out,” Tayja said matter of factly.
The rider was standing with Crystal and Rachael on the other side of the room, eating some of the food that Grivene had brought in. It was good, Crystal unashamedly helping herself to some more. A light cake like slice with a slight spicy kick to it, with cream, some form of fruit scone, and a glass of apple juice. Not having had any breakfast yet was probably a contributing factor, but there hadn’t been time for that. Perhaps once they were finished talking with the queen. Or when this entire discussion was over, given that they’d hadn’t said much since the two riders had entered.
Willow glanced at Tayja with displeasure before returning to the city view. “Prove it to me,” she finally said with a hint of resignation in her tone as she turned to face the queen again. “All of it. Ancients. Deep dragons. Odinsphere. Everything that you’re claiming.”
“The word of your closest rider not enough?” Alysia asked.
“All that she can contribute is that she apparently can talk to her familiar.” Emphasis on the ambiguity of course.
“Not apparently. I can!” Tayja retorted defensively. “And Queen Alysia has stated that I’m not the only one, so...!”
Willow made a dismissive hmpf.
“And Nerida didn’t try and eat them,” Tayja continued. “That in itself is also something.”
“You came back in time, before anything could happen.”
Tayja shook her head, before devouring another scone. “No. They’d been with her for longer than that.”
“We could do the same as what we did for the delegation?” Crystal queried, looking to the queen.
“I doubt she’d believe even if she saw you talking to her familiar,” Rachael declared. “It not like Kitsune or Spectre have been making any effort to hide, and I’m pretty sure that we were told at that time that our horns were unusual in themselves.” Rachael started walking towards Willow, flaring up as her wings and tails materialized, motes of flames shedding harmlessly off them. “And if she can’t sense them already, given how much Warrior is around, the ancients are going to be a lot harder to prove. They are very much real though. We’re more than proof of that. But the blind are blind, and it’s not like they’ll make an appearance just because of some disbelievers whim.”
Warrior didn’t so much comment as she seemed to smirk. Like she’d almost consider it. It was an odd sensation.
Rachael shook her head and cracked her knuckles. “For all we know, for all her power, she may only be capable of understanding things through combat. Just like Nisha. Birds of a feather.”
“You’re insulting me child,” Willow growled, stepping forward, energy flowing and sparking around her hand.
“Enough!” Alysia shouted, voice laced with power. The command of a queen.
Willow stopped, her magic dissipating. Rachael sighed, tail lazily swishing behind her.
“I can do without you both destroying the palace. It took generations to build it, and it means something to the people. I’m sure the soul of the land agrees on that.”
“Fine.” Rachael sighed again. “You can’t stop it. We don’t even know exactly what’s causing it.” She titled her head in thought. “Apart from perhaps for Tayja. We should revisit that.”
Rachael stretched, her wings seeming to glow with power. “We’re young you know, only new into the power that we have, and the experiences. Probably the result of experiments ourselves, pieces in a grander game. What we know is limited right now, some of instinctual, other parts gifts. We were changed from what we were, into what we have become now, but there is no regret on our part. None at all. Elation even, especially for some aspects of it. But it all carries a cost, and we are marked now.”
Rachael paused, Crystal feeling the pull on the leylines nearby as arrays formed around them both and spread out, covering the whole throne room and then some more, pulsating with power and glowing a green tinged gold. Complex, intricate arrays, taking from the leylines and channelling and amplifying their own power, calling upon their own nature and those connected to them, and giving it some form. It was surreal in form, still changing as it grew, and she could feel the power of the others connected to them responding, Rachael’s voice seeming to take on a more ethereal quality.
“We are deep dragons, first of our kind and first of the other races.
Champions of Dawn.
Aspects of Dawn.
Chosen of Warrior.
Paladins of Warrior.
Children of Dragon.
Progenitors of Dragon.
Marked of the Ancients.
Guardian of Dragons.”
Each of the titles was soaked in power, something else there with Rachael as she uttered each one. Including the additional one, Crystal blinking in surprise, but entirely happy about it presence.
And then Rachael roared, loud and powerful, Crystal wincing at the intensity of it, the magic of the arrays amplifying it and projecting it outside of the palace. A beautiful roar, soft yet strong, a declaration. A statement.
She couldn’t hear it as much as sense it as the entire city paused and fell into silence, before the roars of every dragon familiar in the capital sounded in response. A draconic chorus, beautiful and haunting. They knew the source of the roar, and what it meant. The familiars were excited.
“They now know that we’re here, even if their riders do not.” Rachael’s tail swished, a ripple of mana just visible in the air that it passed through. Crystal felt herself get uncomfortably warm in certain places as she watched her soulmate, her own wings and tail also materialising.
Willow paled as she stared at the fading arrays, before looking back up at Rachael, staring hard at her. “You’re monsters.”
“No more than you are,” Rachael replied with a shrug.
Another chorus of roars echoed around the palace. A much smaller number this time, but the intensity of their voices and the message just the same.
“I pray that you know what you are doing here, Queen. If everything is as you say, then it won’t take long for all of the kingdoms to find out about it too. And those that weren’t here will either be relieved, or jealous, dependant on the outcome.”
“Oh, I’m working on that one too,” Alysia said, a dangerous sparkle in her eye.
Willow frowned. “That’s why you sent them.” She shook her head, before seeming to come to a conclusion. “The gathering happens tonight. Waiting any longer won’t work, given what’s just been done. I hope you come up with a proper excuse for it by then too.”
“Oh, but I have,” Alysia smirked.
“What! Why didn’t you tell us then?”
“Because you never actually gave me the opportunity to do so. Gather the rest of the Lady Knights and return. You can inform the rest of the riders after that.”
“And what exactly is this excuse?”
“The inauguration of another Lady Knight of course, and the introduction a new rank.”
“I wasn’t aware that we had any more lattice souls.” Willow gave Alysia a confused look.
“We don’t. But that has never been a requirement. More just an unfortunate consequence. Go. I will have Grivene invite the rest.”
“The stiffs can stay away,” Willow grumbled.
“Such an auspicious event requires that certain people attend, whether we like it or not,” Alysia replied dismissively. “It will be invitation only, though some of the others will still manage to worm their way in.”
Willow shook her head and sighed. “Fine. I will let the others know. Please tell me you aren’t going to let these two monsters roam freely. With that call...” The lady knight left the rest of the message hanging.
“I have no control over them. They will do as they please, just as you seem to. But I’m sure they will keep a low profile until tonight.”
Rachael gave a non committal shrug.
“We’ll be back,” Willow then stated as she turned and made her way out.
Tayja slowed down as she passed them, looking a little nervous and blushing. “Thank you,” she said quietly, before then hurrying to catch up with the lady knight as she ploughed through the throne room’s doors.
“So, these other riders that you encountered?” Alysia asked once the doors had closed again, the mana density falling back to normal as Rachael’s arrays faded away, both dismissing their wings and tails.
“A pair,” Rachael answered. “They seemed to be searching for someone. As to whether or not we were their quarry they weren’t sure. They seemed to be looking for ones ‘not as cute’.” Rachael chuckled. “We weren’t with them for long, as I decided a more direct method of travel was needed. Smaller dragons, relative of course. One had rose coloured armour and platinum hair. The other teal coloured hair, matching fingernails, and numerous black piercings. Both had cloaks.”
“The scouts. Bareth did mention them. They were just as startled at your disappearance. I will need to have a talk with them. Hmm. Anything else of note?”
Rachael shook her head.
“Then I shall leave you two to prepare. Clocky and Fairweather as well of course. Let the serving staff know if you need anything. This meeting is going to be interesting to say the least. Some people just don’t like change, and there is plenty more to come. And somehow people are going to learn about the whole heir thing before I even announce it, which will be its own challenge. News like that seems to just travel on its own.”
“Where exactly are you going to hold the gathering?” Rachael queried. “The familiars will probably want to be in attendance as well.”
“Ah yes. That is an additional complication.” Alysia pursed her lips. “But easily solved. The lady knights are going to be busier than they realise, and it’s about time I did some landscaping.”
Grivene eyed the queen warily. “You thinking of the palace gardens, aren’t you.”
Alysia gave her head servant a wide grin. “Indeed.”
“Then I shall start making arrangements,” Grivene said. “Patrice is going to have kittens.”
“We should do the same,” Rachael stated, giving the queen a light bow. “We will stay within the palace as requested. Less complications that way.”
“Please stop moving,” Fairweather moaned. “I know she’s distracting, but you’re making this very difficult.”
“Sorry,” Crystal mumbled quietly, focusing back on the catfolk and feeling embarrassed, Rachael’s chuckling not helping. She was more than just a little distracting. More like a beacon for attention. Especially for her.
Fairweather smiled, using a now stained cloth to clean the area that she had been working on before she started again. Crystal closed her eyes, trying to be as still as possible, the little brush tickling her face. She hadn’t done this before, wearing make up, but it was certainly the right occasion for it. It just hadn’t crossed her mind at all, something that she had never indulged in before. Rachael had of course, though always sparsely. Fairweather had offered, and while she had been a little hesitant, with Rachael’s coercing she had agreed. Fairweather had done an awesome job with Rachael as well, still minimalist of course, as was her style, but the little bit of extra colour and highlighting went brilliantly with the dresses that Rachael had formed for the occasion.
New dresses of course, and Rachael looked absolutely stunning in it, the image clearly burned into her mind. Add in Rachael’s seductive smirk as she had modelled it for her, and there was no way that she could resist staring. And feeling things. Lots of things. Rachael was well aware of what effect she had on her under normal circumstances, and this was just amplifying it. Crystal huffed to herself, trying not to pout, but it wasn’t like she was displeased or anything. Far from it. But she had to push them off to the side, or they’d never make it to the gathering. Or inauguration as it was now being titled, the rumours spreading like wildfire just as had all expected they would.
Crystal would have classified them as ball dresses, strapless, starting partway across the breasts at the front and lower down at the back, showing plenty of cleavage, the soft black fabric hugging their bodies tightly till it got to the waist. From there it hung more loosely, flowing down over their hips and down to their feet, hovering half a foot from the ground. It had a full length split that started at the top of their left legs, revealing all of it as they walked, not that it hid much in the first place, the fabric thinning and becoming semi transparent mid thigh. A decorative belt went around their waists, formed like a dragons tail, a deep red for Crystal and a deep green for Rachael. Simple delicate necklaces that matched their earrings and a pair of delicate high heels that were as much straps as actual shoe rounded out the outfit. Crystal had queried their practicality, but the servant at hand had said that there would be others wearing much more impractical footwear and that the queen would have taken that into account.
The dresses were definitely the style of nobles, and as much as she adored them, she did feel a bit out of place wearing it. Nobles they weren’t after all. She’d never had a lot of money or inherited wealth, her family very much nearer the other end of the scale.
‘No, that you’re not,’ Spectre agreed, in a somewhat amused tone. ‘You are in fact something else entirely.’
“And done,” Fairweather declared, Crystal opening her eyes as Fairweather stepped back, holding up a small mirror. Her lips were now a more seductive rose colour, and Fairweather had used a glittering pink eyeshadow. She had felt Fairweather’s brush elsewhere, but she couldn’t spot anything obvious, a testament to her skill. She had to admit that it did look good.
“Thanks,” Crystal said, blushing a little.
Fairweather was wearing the same style of dress that they were, with some minor modifications to accommodate her tail, slightly sturdier heels, and she was owning it. Clocky on the other hand was looking a bit uncomfortable in what Crystal would have described as a suit. It was all back, shoes, trousers, jacket, vest, shirt and tie, both the tie and jacket subtly embellished with the image of dragons in a dark brown. It suited him well, and he looked quite handsome, Fairweather purring her approval. Clocky had blushed at that, muttering something about feeling unarmed.
The palace grounds had become a lot busier as the day had gone on. While the morning had been quiet, relatively, the afternoon had been a chorus of people talking and the roars of the familiars. They had ended up spending most of the day in one of the palaces smaller libraries, and while the balcony on the outside didn’t have a view of the area where the inauguration was going to take place, it did overlook the clan’s temple. Crystal saw a lot of riders flying around, and more than a few of the familiars looked directly their way. None approached them however. As Rachael had said, they knew they were here, even if their riders were unaware. There was only so much reading that she could do in a day though, and she had ended up spending a portion of it just lazing against Rachael, chatting or dozing.
It was nice.
It was early evening now, and they were playing the waiting game. They’d already had dinner, the food gone quickly and barely noticed, distracted as she was by the events to come, and there wasn’t a lot to do. The weather outside was pleasant, the air warm with a gentle breeze that brought with it the flowery scent of the palace gardens. The sun was low, giving everything a slight yellow tinge, but it would still be a while before it set. Most of the wild birds had settled down for the day, including the sparrows that had made their nest in the side of the palace walls somewhere above the library balcony. Snuggling against Rachael wasn’t an option with their attire, but she was sure it wouldn’t be long before they were called, a steady stream of riders having left the clan’s temple.
As if on queue a knock sounded at their door, one of the maids coming in and giving them a bow. “The queen requests your presence.”
“Finally!” Crystal said as she stood up, stretched, and took Rachael’s hand.
“Just kittens?” Crystal asked Grivene as they approached the area for the inauguration.
“Cats. And then some,” the head servant replied, the hint of amusement in her voice, her face still as straight as always.
The gardens and grounds surrounding the palace were elaborate, colourful, well tended, and as was probably the norm for palaces, massive. After all, the royal estate did take up all of the top terrace of the city. You could tell at a glance that a lot of love and care had gone into its maintenance. The beds of flowers were perfectly arranged into swirling patterns, the colours flowing from one shade to the next, each bed a different variety or species. The trees were all perfectly trimmed and identical in shape, the lawns short and soft, and the paths clear and clean. A garden gazebo sat beside a small pond, tight shrubs clustered around it and vines growing up its side, the stream lazily flowing from it and deeper into the garden towards another pond and matching gazebo. Small square walls of trimmed shrubs surrounded various features, and the white stone paths meandered through it all.
And in the middle of it all, surrounding what looked like stone amphitheatre, sat a host of dragon familiars.
There was no way that the gardens was going to survive them intact, the damage from the landing of the larger ones as they approached evident, flattened and broken plants, and footprints clearly visible in the soft soil as they walked towards the gathering. The gardens probably hadn’t been designed to be dragon proof. That’s what the clan’s temple complex was for after all.
Crystal couldn’t help but stare at them all as they approached. There was so many dragons, more than she had seen in one place before. All shapes and sizes, the variety astounding. And all majestic and beautiful. Protocol or not, she was definitely going to say hello to some of them later.
‘You’re going to be the centre of attention well before that happens I suspect.’ The arkchildren were pattering along behind them, any potential noise that the arkchildren might have made drowned out by the clicking of the heels that they were wearing.
But of course, Spectre was right, all of the familiars turning their heads to look at them when they got close, walking along the final section of the white path to the amphitheatre. They knew who and what they were. Though it did appear that their riders weren’t as in tune, the murmur of conversation unabating, and only a few at the entrance acknowledging their arrival. It was probably fortunate that the real version of Alysia hadn’t arrived yet, as she would have commanded everyone’s attention as soon as she was in sight. Instead one of her projections was walking with them, wearing the same style dress as them, her appearance that of a cat feral that could easily be Fairweather’s younger sister.
A large raised semi-circular platform sat at one end of the amphitheatre, surrounded by a large open area, and then four levels of terraces. A series of stone columns surrounded the amphitheatre, lanterns hanging off the arches that ran on top of each pair, swaying gently in the breeze. Trestle tables had been set up along one side of the upper terrace, large barrels and mugs stack on some, and an assortment of fruits, nuts and bread on some of the others. Some magic must be involved in it all, otherwise Crystal was sure it would have all been blown onto the ground by now. Actually, that was a given, some arrays faintly seeable around the tables now that she was paying attention, and she could feel the power of others flowing under the amphitheatre itself. Nothing hostile as far as she could tell.
There were people everywhere, on all of the terrace levels and in the bottom arena area, and if she hadn’t known before hand that most of them were riders, she would have been hard pressed to tell. Few, if any, were wearing their signature skeon or had their armour manifest. Instead, the attire, and atmosphere, was more like what she would have expected to see at a university party. Mini skirts and dresses, tight clothes with low cuts, bare skin and heels. And some wonderful dresses as well, not quite as awesome as what they were wearing, but getting close. Those ones were probably some of the invited nobles, given that the men were in lavish robes or tidy suits. Similar to Clocky, but again, what he had was better than most, if not all, of what they had. The palace guards were present in their armour, and there were a number of armoured ferals as well, both men and woman, but they were the exception rather than the norm.
“This is a first,” Alysia mused pausing briefly under the entrance arch and looking at a rider who very much looked like she was trying to flirt, somewhat successfully, with a fox feral who was wearing flowing crimson robes. His face was going a similar colour. “I've never seen riders acting like this, with their inhibitions unleashed.”
“Don’t look at us.” Rachael stated. “Their actions are their own. They wouldn’t have just manifested those clothes. They’d be something that they would have already had.”
“Uh huh.” Alysia turned to Grivene. “How long have they been gathering for?”
“About an hour. Everyone arriving just as you saw. Some perhaps even in a state similar to what they are now. Significant others have come along as well I believe.”
“Hmm. What on earth did the lady knights tell them.”
The pairings were easy enough to spot, and it was kinda cute. Quite a number of riders were standing rather close together, some holding hands, others holding a lot more. Or even doing more, Crystal quickly averting her gaze. Other riders appeared to be much more familiar with the other guests, nobles she assumed, both male and female. Paired for influence, or perhaps more. She had no real idea of course, just speculation on her part.
A catchy tune permeated the air as the trio of musicians made their way onto the platform and started to play, couples in the arena starting to dance. Waving them forward, they followed Alysia as she made her way down two levels and then along the terrace, avoiding the more crowded areas. But they were starting to attract more attention now, hungry eyes on them, and it was making Crystal feel unsettled. The eyes of the familiars were one thing, and she’d quite happily go back up to them, but those of the people, especially the nobles. Yuck.
In fact, that was exactly what she was going to do, seeing that a group of young well dressed men were heading their way. It was too easy to tell what they were after. “Come on,” Crystal said, pulling on Rachael’s hand as she spotted one of the sets of stairs between the terraces, dragging her along with her.
“Not your thing huh,” Rachael teased as they ascended the second set of stairs, and ran straight into Tayja.
“Hey,” Crystal said quietly as their eyes met. She was dressed like the others, and actually looked quite hot. A tight fitting silver sleeveless dress that finished very high on her thighs, showing off her long legs, and matching heels. No jewellery, but she didn’t need it.
“Oh wow,” Tayja managed, her mug dropping from her hand and bouncing on the stone, spewing its contents everywhere as she blushed furiously. “You’re hot!”
It was Crystal’s turn to go a crimson shade as Rachael chuckled beside her.
Tayja breathed deeply a couple of times, her chest going up and down, before she composed herself and sauntered suggestively towards them, her movements just that little bit more pronounced.
“If you’re looking for company, I’ve available,” she stated bluntly once she had stopped only an inch away from Crystal, her breath hot and smelling of alcohol.
“I’m taken,” Crystal replied, surprised.
“Just for tonight?” Tayja said, leaning in even closer and whispering in her ear. “I know you like what you see. I can make you feel things.”
Crystal took a step back. “Umm. My lover’s right here,” she stated, holding up her and Rachael’s held hands.
There was a pause, the background noise of the evening seeming quieter than it had been.
“Oh!” Tayja stared at their hands, going even redder, before she put her hands over her face. “I though you were just sisters,” she mumbled, squirming on the spot. “That was so stupid of me. Stupid. So stupid.”
“It’s not entirely your fault,” Alysia said tenderly, stepping forward, the Fairweather and Clocky with her and having seen it all.
Tayja took down her hands and looked at Alysia’s projection. “Umm, yeah, I think I need to go now,” she said hurriedly, turning and dashing off towards her familiar.
Alysia looked after the retreating rider, wincing as Tayja stumbled on the grass border. “This is going to complicate things a little,” she stated, folding her arms. “I need to get this underway asap.”
Crystal gave Alysia’s projection a confused look, who just waved dismissively at her. “Stay here until I arrive,” she said as she started walking after Tayja. “I’m going to have a talk to her.”
Crystal was still just as confused. “Did I do something wrong?” she wondered out loud, looking to Rachael. She was pretty certain that Tayja had been hitting on her, and while she would admit that the rider was indeed attractive, and probably her type as well, she was already happily claimed and had no interest in involving anyone else or being with anyone else.
“No,” Fairweather said reassuringly. “While she may be somewhat inebriated, she was still well aware of what she was doing. And I’m not sure how you two can be mistaken as sisters.”
Rachael chuckled, still somewhat amused by it all, giving Crystal a kiss on the cheek. “It’s not just Warrior is seems,” she added quietly, a big grin on her face.
“Nothing you did directly at least,” Clocky stated as the queen reached Tayja. “She has plans for that rider. But weren’t you up here for other reasons?”
Oh yeah, the familiars, who had started moving closer. Crystal looked up at them, feeling the magic stirring within her.