Chapter 101 – Wandering Rider.
Ueana had half hoped that they might return to Winter’s Haven, to wait out Coorie’s change. They knew what was going on, just not how long it was going to take. Fleur had been tired for two weeks, and they’d all been asleep for around that long in Fox’s temple, so it stood to reason that Coorie might be the same, and if they were going to be facing demons, or well, anything really, Ueana wanted them to be in top form. As much as Coorie would protest otherwise, even with her reinforcing herself with her magic, there was a limit as to how much she could do. She hadn’t even survived the day, falling asleep against their familiars as soon as Kyril had left, the jet black familiar taking to the air and heading back towards the capital. Kyril’s experience with the ring had unnerved her, the rider finally deciding that she should report back to Starlight, but not before telling the miners in no uncertain terms that they were not to go into that mine. There were things down there that were better left alone. Or more precisely, things that Kyril wanted to keep to herself for the moment, and Ueana couldn’t blame her. The miners had just nodded in response.
Asher had other plans of her own though, dismissing the suggestion as soon as Ueana had brought it up. She did not want to go back to the capital, the pain obvious on her face. She was not willing to risk the lives of the other riders there, or anyone in fact, should the demon decide to attack them while they were there. Sure there was safety in numbers, but most of those at the capital were weak, said rather bluntly but without malice, and should they battle in the city or the temple complex, many would die. A fact that the lady knight was sure of, and on that she was probably right. Nor did she want to waste too much time. Now knowing the nature of the ring, she stated that there was a degree of urgency to it all. Coorie could rest as they flew to their next destination, and the rest of them would be able to protect her, should she not be in a good state if the worst came true. And her little trick with her magic would let her operate at a decent level when needed. They were all fair points, but Ueana could sense that there was more to it than just that. Knew it in fact, the conversation the previous night replaying in her mind, but there was no point in pushing Asher on it. She was a lady knight, she had been a dragon rider for a lot longer. Ueana did trust her decisions.
They left the mining camp shortly after Kyril, Ueana cradling Coorie in her arms on top of Callisto, not willing to risk having her fall off Seashae. Fleur had managed it quite well on Lily, but Seashae was a lot more slim. More like Coorie, the dragons reflecting their riders in all sorts of ways. And she was also certain that using reinforcement magic to keep her awake and active was also more draining on her, and her sleep would be a lot deeper. Yes, it was probably also an excuse to protect her, but she was allowed to feel that way. They were in a relationship after all, and she was allowed to worry. She would swap with Fleur as needed though, as Fleur was just as concerned, hiding it just about as well as she was.
At least there wasn’t any more snowfall, and by nightfall the following day they had reached the slopes of the mountains again, the western edge of the Sheltered Domain. A part of the Titans Rage if she remembered correctly, but one that had a number of actual passes going through it, connecting the Sheltered Domain to the Western Domain, which bordered the Darkrest Confederation. They camped, snuggled, and slept, the others for once deciding to stay a bit closer to their bundle of dragons, and benefit from the warmth.
Then it was waking at dawn, and following the closest pass through the mountains. It was a pleasant change, low and wide, an icy stream occupying some of it, fed from the slopes on either side, and an actual road that ran along it, bridges crossing the water at regular points. Roads liked to be straight, as much as possible. Water always had plans of its own. The road wasn’t in the best of shapes, the weather and environment having played havoc with it, but at some point in the past someone had made an effort, and it had survived. To some degree. There was no one travelling along it though. No other riders, no guild caravans, and no ferals meandering their way through. Plenty of birds though, a couple of wolves that looked at them from higher up in the slopes, grizzled with heavy coats, but more than clever enough to know that a dragon was a thing that you just left alone, no matter what, and plenty of the white snow rabbits that seemed to be everywhere in this area. Their numbers were dwindled slightly, probably barely a dent in the overall population, Asher taking the opportunity to hunt some as they flew over to replenish their supplies. Kitni complained when he was told that no, he couldn’t have one of the fresh kills for himself because it would make one hell of a mess in the saddlebag, and Ueana wasn’t going to clean something like that up. Big wide eyes and the cutest look ever, but she wasn’t going to budge. He could wait. There would be plenty for him when they finished flying for the day. Now, if he caught his own, that would be a different story, but she was pretty sure that he wasn’t quite up to that yet.
Another four days, and they had passed over the Western Domain, flying Southwest and roughly following the Titans Rage range, avoiding both of the settlements that they saw, reaching the border between the Southern Peaks and the Darkrest Confederation at the point where the forests grew right up against the slopes. More hunting, plenty of the evenings spent smoking meat as Kitni tried his hand at hunting, failing, but being oh so adorable at it. And just snuggling, for Ueana, Fleur and Coorie at least. Not so much the others. Asher seemed so alone, keeping to herself, deep in thought again, far too many sighs as she absently prepared the rabbits or made camp. But Ueana couldn’t think of what she could do for her. Asher wasn’t being open to being talked to, and she didn’t want to push the matter. That could end up being detrimental instead. Armur engrossed herself in her training, the snow packed down underneath her feet as she swung her blade around and practised forms, and talked to her familiar. She was rather obvious about it, sometimes talking out loud, other times just looking at Lizabeth with an intensity and love in her eye. That particular gift, it meant a lot to her.
‘It means a lot to us all. The changes, they haven’t finished. We are beginning to be able to understand each other better as well, more of a connection between us all than there had been. Even for Lizabeth and Bonebreaker, who are outside of the bond.’
Corrie just slept. A lot, snuggled into either Ueana or Fleur when she wasn’t required to be awake. More than Fleur had, Ueana holding a tiny hope that with all of the rest, she might get through it quicker. It wasn’t a disease or anything though, but the magic of the ancients, and it wasn’t something that they had any influence over at all. No amount of wishing would hurry it along. They just had to wait, as difficult as that was.
Even at the border between the two kingdoms, the trees of the Darkrest Confederation were huge. Larger than she had seen in any of the forests in either the Empire or in Avaraline, some of them even dwarfing Callisto. And they were just the small ones, the trees apparently getting larger the further you went in, enough so that people built their homes in them. Something that she could well believe, having seen the canopy rising in the distance as they had flown to this point. She’d been told that some of cities of the Confederation were entirely up in the trees, others a combination of traditional ground dwelling structures and raised ones.
But that also raised the question of how riders and their familiars managed to fly within the forests. Even with the massive trees, it would still give Callisto issues, and definitely Bonebreaker.
“They don’t,” was Asher’s reply when she asked. “Darkrest has the smallest clan of all of the kingdoms, and all of the dragons of the Daughters of the Wyrm are thin spindly things. Like Lizabeth, but a hundred times more so. More like a wyrm than a dragon, hence the clan’s name, but for most that reference is lost. It’s also the most pronounced case of the environment affecting the familiars. Everywhere else, they’re pretty similar, for a given, very wide, definition of similar. But here, it’s very stark and pronounced, and you don’t even find them like that at summons anywhere else in the Innerlands.”
Half that was indeed lost on Ueana, Fleur looking just as confused. “And what we’re looking for is in the Confederation?”
Asher nodded. “The ring is pointing us in this direction. Well, in multiple places around here, but we’ll have a look at the closest that we can access easily. I’m pretty sure I know exactly where that will be, but we’ll get a better idea tomorrow when we start flying over the forest. I just don’t want to fly too far over without a clearer idea of what our destination is. If we have to land in the forest, it’s going to be messy on all sides, and that is something I want to avoid.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“I’ve been to a lot of places. And I have maps. Clan made of course. Flight has its advantages.”
“Is the ring just pointing to the Confederation, or lots of other places too?”
“No, it’s not just isolated to Darkrest, but it’s not so easy to tell where they all are either. The ones that are physically closer I can feel more clearly, but they do seem to go in all directions. There wasn’t anything even remotely close in Sheltered or Western Domains, nor much from directly east. But this way, plenty. Where we’re going is the strongest, though not quite the most recent additions.”
Camp was made before they hit the border, still on the slopes of the range, but at a point where the wintery environment of Southern Peaks had lost its hold, the ground managing to showcase some actual grass, like you would find everywhere else. Some of which got crushed under the familiars, but losses were always to be expected when they landed. Ueana started a campfire in a circle of stones, Asher preparing the day’s catch. It was quite a bit smaller than the previous ones, but the terrain had changed and the snow rabbits had become more scarce. Kitni had managed to catch something as well after they had let him out of the saddlebag, happily crunching his way through it as he sat up against Callisto, giving her that look of it’s all mine. Don’t dare. Which she wasn’t going to. She had no idea what it was, that was slow enough for him to catch, nor was she going to find out. She preferred her meat cooked. He’d be hungry again soon enough as it was.
‘It looks like we have some company.’
The light had started to fade, but not enough so that she would have said that it was properly night. Ueana looked around, quickly spotting what her familiar was talking about. A shadow, zipping along the side of the mountains, in the direction that they had come from and steadily getting larger. Then quickly taking the form of a dragon as it lifted itself away from the slope, a large one at that, dark black, and of the usual style that she was used to. So not a Daughter of the Wyrm. It knew that they were there too, flying straight for them, the dragon gliding over them once it got close enough, a figure dropping down from the familiar as it then banked and flew back a bit, landing far enough away that the gusts wouldn’t make a mess of their camp. Whoever it was, they knew clan etiquette at least.
Bag slung over her shoulder, the rider walked her way over to them. Her entire body, face included, was covered in bone armour, a sleek black that had an almost sinister feel to it, concealing pretty much every detail about her apart from the long black hair that flowed out from behind her helmet.
“I saw your fires, and wondered if you’d humour my company. It isn’t as safe as it used to be.” Her voice was nice enough. Soft, with the accent of one who was learned and experienced. “Sorry, where’s my manners,” she then said, a surge of magic around her as her armour was dismissed, leaving the rider standing there in just her skeon layer. “Trish, Daughter of the Sea.”
She was tall, with a lean and toned build, and just like Armur, somewhat lacking in the curves area. Well apart from her chest, another thing the two of them had in common. Long black hair that went part way down her back, an anchor and a cat earring in each ear, her face soft and pleasant. She looked to be around Asher’s age, her skin almost ivory white, her fingernails painted a deep red.
“You’re a long way from home,” Asher stated, giving her a wary look.
“I’m hunting the nasty things that have emerged since the pulse. The wyrmies aren’t that competent outside of their trees, so I’ve been working around the edges of their little kingdom. A joint effort, as we really don’t need any of them learning how to swim, and there has been a lot more of them since the pulse.”
Asher gave her a disbelieving look.
“What?” Trish protested. “Would you rather I concocted some tale about a grand hunt for demons or a deluded cult? Cause I’m sure they exist too, but I’d rather not run into either by myself.”
“Fine. You can join us. Your familiar can rest where he is.” Trish’s familiar had sat itself down a respectable distance from Bonebreaker. It was on the larger side of familiars, just a bit bigger than Bonebreaker, and just as muscular, its tail a mess of spines and spikes.
Trish smiled, walking forward and sitting down by the campfire, holding her hands out to the flames, Ueana giving her a curious look. The rider was wearing a full suit of skeon, which was usually enchanted to help regulate temperature, and right now it wasn’t too bad. Only a little chilly, but not enough to cause any discomfort. Perhaps times had changed for the Daughters of the Sea. But the rider, she seemed odd. Something about her was off, but Ueana couldn’t put her finger on it. Kitni growled at the new arrival, shuffling himself further under Callisto with his catch, and she could feel herself wanting to do the same. Both parts, the noise almost escaping her. Her bondmates were wary too, the feeling clear across the bond.
Trish laughed lightly as she looked at them. “I’m not going to bite. I’m just as human as you are. But you certainly are an interesting lot. Cute.”
“Though you feel like you’ve run into something powerful,” she added, tilting her head, her eyes briefly glowing a faint blue, before they settled back to their dark brown.
Fleur growled, specks of ice and flame floating around her.
“Sorry, not my place,” Trish said, holding her hands up in apology. “That was inappropriate of me.”
“Watch what you do,” Asher growled at the newcomer. “Some of us are a bit sensitive, and I’ll revoke the hospitality, etiquette be damned.”
“Sorry, sorry. I’ve just never seen riders with feral traits before. No, it’s more than that.” She shook her head. “Not my business.”
“The world really has changed though,” Trish continued, staring into the fire as she pulled out some bread from her bag and started tearing at it with her teeth. “And it has only been, what, three weeks since the pulse? I’m going to be a wreck before I even finish my first circuit.”
“What have you seen?” Asher pulled some of the smoked meat out, throwing it to all of them, and then also to their guest.
“The night beasts, they’re stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. Not quite to the level of the tales of demons, but I wonder if some of those things will get close. And the smaller things, what normally would have been just pests? Not quite so insignificant any more. Half a village got taken out before we managed to stop the herd.”
“You’ve been busy then.”
“Far too busy. I liked my life better before she returned.” Trish looked up at Asher. “I didn’t ask your name.”
“Asher, of the Demon Hunters.”
“Oh. You’re a brave lot. Mind you, there are five of you, and none of you are to be sneezed at. Especially you, Asher. You feel like you’ve been at this a long time.”
“Long enough.” Asher stated curtly.
“And your companions?”
“Daughters of the Demon Hunters,” Armur stated. “Some things are best left unsaid.”
Trish shrugged, finishing off her food. “Fair enough. Everyone has their secrets. You look like you’d be a good group to work with though. Good companionship. Trust.”
There was something almost wistful in the way that she said it, Trish back to staring into the fire. Ueana’s flames. Yes, there was some wood there as well, but nowhere near enough for what was needed, and her flames were more than eager to burn. Trish’s magic was wrapped around herself, held close, there but not, and really hard to look at. She was probably a lattice soul, given the size of her dragon, and she was sure that the power was there, under the surface, just hidden away. But it was hard to tell, to confirm. For Asher, it was easy. You could feel her presence when you got close, the magic radiating off her and Bonebreaker. But this rider, not so much.
But was there more to it than that?
“Are you Water?” Fleur asked, Ueana looking at her in surprise.
Trish gave her a curious look back. “Hmm? No. I’m darkness. The whole black as the night thing. Onyx, Obsidian, Jet. But thicker and more viscous. And you’d be ice?”
“The one with the bite,” Fleur replied coldly, before snuggling back into Ueana.
“You’ve travelled far? You don’t look like you’re frosties.”
“We go where we’re needed.” Asher threw the skin of one of the rabbits onto the fire, the flames hissing and spitting as it took hold. Ueana looked away. She didn’t really like this part of the preservation. Process, but it had to be done.
The rest of the evening went as it usually did, even with the presence of Trish, sitting by the fire and just staring into it, her familiar curled up in the same spot. Coorie had well and truly fallen asleep, Ueana and Fleur helping her over to their familiars, and then all just snuggling up together against them. Fleur fell asleep pretty quickly, her arms wrapped tightly around Ueana, Coorie purring in her sleep as Ueana held her close. Asher kept to herself, finishing off dealing with the days catch, the smell of the meat wafting past. A bad idea if they had been anything other than riders, but with their familiars only a suicidal creature would even try and get close. Armur got up, practising till the light had fully gone, half an eye on their guest, then also retiring, wrapped up in her furs as she leaned against Lizabeth.
Ueana had a hard time trying to fall asleep. She was more than a little tired, and she did wonder if part of that was due to Coorie’s change, taking from them as well. Not that she’d complain about that if it was, as they were all in it together. But she just couldn’t relax. Trish made her feel uneasy, that niggling about something being off still present. The rider just sat by the fire, looking at the flames, almost still apart from the slight movement of her body as she breathed. Then, after what might have been an hour or more, she pulled a blanket out from her bag, threw it over herself, and lay down, curled up by the fire, the somewhat empty bag as a pillow.
‘We’re here. We will keep watch. You do need to sleep.’
Easier said than done, but she could feel herself start to drift. The warmth, comfort and security of her lovers and all of their familiars. A force to fear should something happen. But she hoped that nothing ever would.
It was well and truly daylight by the time she woke. The sun was well above the treeline, rays carving their way through the canopy in patterns of gold and green, a swarm of birds weaving their way through it, feasting on the insects that they had stirred. A light mist was threatening to flow down from the mountains, the air still sharp and a little crisp, and a single brown rabbit from somewhere that had discovered that the dragons were not going to eat it was hopping around nearby. A false sense of security. As soon as Kitni woke, he’d be tearing after it. And probably failing to catch it too. Asher was pottering around the campfire, Armur back to her practising, and Trish was still lying there, covered in her blanket.
‘She stayed like that the entire night. She is awake, has been for a while, but I’d hazard that she isn’t a fan of mornings.’
It wasn’t till the three of them had gotten up and made their way to the campfire that Trish finally stirred, sitting up and looking around her, giving them a smile as her gaze reached and then lingered on them.
“Okay, wow. You lot are more impressive in the actual light.” Her hands shot up as Fleur growled at her. “No, not asking any questions.”
“Good,” Ueana managed, the rider still putting her on edge.
Trish turned back to Asher. “Thank you for the hospitality. It was the best night’s sleep that I’ve had in a while, and that’s the honest truth. Ground and all. But, I should take my leave. It seems that I am having an effect on these ones.”
Asher picked up a bundle, throwing it to Trish after she had stuffed her blanket roughly into her bag, a corner still poking out even after she had pulled the drawstring. “Travel safely.”
“Oh wow, thanks,” Trish said in genuine surprise, catching it and giving it a quick look. “May we meet again, hopefully in circumstances just as good.” Then she wandered over to her familiar, stuffed the bag and bundle into one of the saddlebags, and summoned her armour. A sleek jet black, and still with that sinister feel. Turning and giving them a final wave, she hoisted herself up onto her familiars lowered neck, and then they were off, the dragon launching itself into the air, a gust of wind blowing through the camp. It was fortunate that most things had already been put away, only a single pot rattling off to the side, caught by Armur’s foot. It had been a lot more careful when it had landed.
Ueana watched her as she flew due south, straight towards the convergence of the mountains and the trees. “I don’t trust her,” she finally said, once the rider was well out of sight. “There is something off about her.”
“Yes, but so very well hidden that most wouldn’t notice. She is a very dangerous lady, and there is probably good reason that she works alone,” Asher agreed, looking after her. “But, for while she was here at least, she carried no malice towards us.”
“She seemed particularly interested in you three,” Armur observed, banishing her sword.
“But to be honest there,” Asher said with a chuckle, “anyone would be.”