Chapter 105 – Searching Deeper.
The campsite was familiar and welcoming, Ueana breathing a sigh of relief when it came into sight. Sure, it was just an open space with a small patch of blackened earth, but it still had that feeling to it, and it was a million times more friendly than the forests of Darkrest. It was also unoccupied, not a soul in sight, the rider from the previous night not having come back. That was a good thing. She still didn’t like or trust Trish, if that was even her name. It was just something about her, and she’d happily never set eyes on her again. Coorie contentedly dozed in her arms, warm and as beautiful and adorable as always. She could feel the magic working within her, no mistaking it now. Ueana was rather curious about what changes would be brought, but that they would find out in time. She had no doubt that their bondmate would be even more beautiful. That was just the way Coorie was, the prettiest of the three of them.
There had been no complaints from any of them when Asher had told them that they were heading back to the border. There was no way that Ueana was going to camp in a swamp, or even near one, the stench still lingering around her, and the trees of the kingdom were just as unwelcoming. They had learnt what they could from that location. Nothing about Water herself, only that this is what she had been noting. The assumption was that all of the locations that the ring was pointing to would be the same, nests of red eyes, but they’d need to look at least a couple more to confirm that for certain, as a sample size of one was too small.
The red eyes creeped her out. She had no idea what they actually were, if they had been human once, or always something else, and how they had gotten there. Nor why they were still there. It was all really strange. Water was a lieutenant of the demon king, so were they a part of his army, or intended for use as such, or something else? They didn’t fit into what they knew about him, but admittedly, that wasn’t much. That there was potentially so many of them as well was a significant worry, and even Asher had been at a loss as to what they could do about them. They couldn’t burn the swamp, and Asher had no idea of any other magics that could effect them on the needed scale. Sure, they could spend time trying to dredge them all out with her magic, and then destroy them, but she wasn’t sure of the scale of what was there, and what effect it might have on them. If all of the red eyes woke or became active, then they’d have more than just a small issue on their hands. Not to mention that the suggested method would be useless on the ones encased in ice. There was more to it than they knew, well that was obvious, and at this point in time the best plan was to take note, and leave it at that.
The dragons landed, all of them going about the familiar routine, preparing the camp, lost in their own thoughts as they did so. They’d done it enough times now that Ueana could probably do it in her sleep. The day was quickly ending, but that wasn’t much of an issue, a fire soon roaring within the circle of stones, shadows dancing around them. Perhaps she’d put too much magic into it, but it felt good. Needed. A source of comfort and protection against what they had just been through.
‘It’ll take more than those creatures to hurt us.’
Yes, well, they had survived that encounter. Quite well all things considered, and she was more than a little bit proud of Callisto. He could breathe fire! That was awesome, and a rather unusual thing. She gave her familiar a cuddle, checked to make sure that Coorie was comfortable, curled up against Seashae, all three dragons lying around her protectively, and looked at Kitni as the fox cub extracted herself from the saddle bags, giving Ueana that look that said, I’m hungry. I’m well overdue for some more food. I’m a growing fox after all. Or something like that. The impression was there at least. She fished out some of the meat from the previous day, Kitni happily taking it from her and devouring it, and then commandeering her lap as she sat down beside Fleur by the fire. Kitni was definitely growing.
“You’re awesome,” Fleur whispered to her, leaning her head against her shoulder.
“You are too,” she whispered back, wrapping her tails around them both, Fleur giving off a happy purr. She wasn’t the only one who had picked up new noises.
“So, we’re going to look for the next closest location?” Ueana asked Asher, the lady knight sitting opposite them, for once not actually doing anything.
“No, not quite. There’s quite a few in Darkrest, far too many in fact, but most of them are deeper in. We’re not in a position to be trying to investigate those, unless you really want to try landing in the trees or camping under one of those giants.”
Ueana shook her head. That she did not.
“We’ll travel along the border, and see if we can find another one that isn’t too far in. I’m pretty sure that there is, based on my experience and the strength of the pulls, but I could be wrong.”
Ueana doubted that. Asher was good at what she did, and had a lot of experience. “And if what we find is exactly the same?”
“Then we know that we have a serious issue. Not just us either. But, even if it is, I doubt that’ll be just it. There were demons protecting that last location, something that you didn’t encounter in the mountains. There will be a reason for that, and there will likely be the same at the next one as well.”
“Well, you did call us the demon hunters,” Fleur quipped.
“Indeed I did.” Asher gave them a dangerous smile, a glint in her eye. “We will face more of them. I’m sure the deaths of the ones we encountered won’t go unnoticed, and if it does, we’ll just make more of a mess next time. Force them to take notice. They will be missing the ring. It’s dangerous, the information that is stored within. They sent a demon after it once, I’m sure that they will do so again. Unless its owner is dead. But somehow, I doubt that.”
“Let’s just hope that we can take them on.” Ueana couldn’t help it, even though they had managed to kill the three demons. She was worried. For them all.
“Oh, we can, and we will. I’m not dying to some demon, nor will I let any of you suffer that fate. Visions be damned.”
At least Asher was confident about it all.
They broke camp at first light, their familiars taking flight as a blanket of mist rolled down from the mountains, covering everything in a sea of white. And hiding anything that might be lurking beneath. The air was cold and sharp, but the day was promising to be good, not a single cloud in the sky. Coorie was with Ueana again, and Kitni was back in her saddlebag. Coorie had reinforced herself just before they’d taken flight, the ethereal ears even more vivid than they had been, but shortly into the flight, she’d just dozed off again, a happy smile on her face.
The terrain however was not so nice, but familiar, reminding her of when they had initially flown into the depths of the Basat Line. On this section of the border between the two kingdoms, the Darkrest forests grew against and partially up the slopes of the Titans Rage mountains, tall, thick and domineering, roots stretching over the rocks in a complex and messy web, clawing and digging into the stony slopes where they could. Almost like some spreading disease. A few small shrubs and other plants were trying to grow within the network, but they seemed to be the exception, and even the occasional mountain goat that they spied seemed to be avoiding the trees. Which is what they were doing as well, hugging the rugged slopes of the mountains, keeping themselves a respectable distance away from the greenery. Steep inclines, clusters of boulders and loose rocks, shingled slopes, and barren rock faces flew by underneath them, the occasional flock of birds flying away when a blast of cold air pushed them too close to the trees. Nothing travelled along this section of the border unless they were desperate. Or they were riders.
It took them just under two days to pass over the Pincer, as Asher apparently termed it, camping on a somewhat stable outcropping that Asher spotted a little further up the mountain early in the evening on the first day. They ate cold food and snuggled up against their familiars, trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible, the day finishing quicker than normal. Then it was up again predawn, breakfast consumed as they resumed their flight. Ueana breathed a sigh of relief when the trees finally abandoned the slopes, a small stream meandering through a field of green that stretched out in front of them, claiming its place between the two extremes. A stream that they eagerly made use of, Ueana feeling considerably better afterwards. The others as well, even Kitni taking a short splash, and then spraying water everywhere. Then it was back to flying till the light had truly faded, the area opening up even further till both the mountains and the trees were gone from normal sight, Asher settling them down in the middle of the plains, having nabbed a few kills in the short time prior. It was easy enough to ignore that they would be going back to flying across the trees again within the next few days.
Ueana woke, feeling that something was different. Something had changed. It was still the middle of the night, a quarter moon looking down at them, the faint shadows of their dragons blanketing them as a carpet of stars twinkled in the sky. The night was still, not a breath of wind, no sounds apart from that of their breathing. Deep for their dragons, much lighter and rather adorable for them.
There was a tinge of magic hanging in the air. Familiar but also different, like the amalgamation of scents that she was used to with a little bit of new. A pair of fluffy ears tickled her chin as smooth arms wrapped themselves around her, pulling her closer, Coorie mumbling happily to herself, a tail brushing against her leg and toes.
Ueana returned the affection, holding her lovingly as she gave her ears a kiss, the resulting twitch tickling her face. Ears could be like that though. They were kind of sensitive at times, even her own.
Wait a second. Ueana shifted slightly as realisation set in, Coorie pulling back and sitting up, her eyes glowing faintly as she looked back at her.
“Are they cute?” Her ears twitched again. It was more a statement than a question, Coorie as confident in herself as always. She had every right to be.
Ueana summoned a small flame, colours dancing around them as a soft light illuminated her bondmate. She was more than cute, Ueana instantly feeling things warm up within her. That occasionally cocky and seductive smile beaming back at her, a beautiful pair of fluffy ash brown ears sitting there amongst her hair, so much more adorable than the ethereal ones that she’d been sporting over the last week. Her change had finished, but in a more subtle way than Fleur’s. It fit each of them though.
“An Ashfox,” Coorie whispered quietly, her eyes twinkling as she leaned back in. “Just the one tail, but we truly are the set now, aren’t we.”
“Mmm,” Ueana managed in confirmation before their lips touched, passion burning strong as she wrapped her arms back around Coorie.
“More than just a little bit stunning in fact,” Fleur giggled from beside them, her tail wrapping around them. She’d woken up as well.
Fleur was right. Coorie was more than just a little bit stunning, the changes accentuating her natural beauty. Her hair had changed from a dusty brown to an ash brown, and she had a pair of fluffy ash brown fox ears and a noble looking, but still quite fluffy, ash brown tail. Her eyes had changed slightly as well, also taking on the ash tint, the flecks of red and white still dancing within. And just like for Fleur, the tiredness was now gone, the change having taken only a week, while for their other bondmate it had taken two. As to why, none of them had any clue, but it wasn’t something they were going to complain about, especially given current circumstances. Experimenting with her magic, Coorie confirmed that her alignments hadn’t changed at all, at least since the bond had been created. She had both earth and fire, though her affinity for fire had increased significantly, her flames tending to a greyish black colour instead of Ueana’s red and Fleur’s blue.
Asher didn’t give them too much time to muck around though, breaking camp while the morning’s rays were still sneaking their way across the land. She seemed a little on edge, but to some degree they all were now.
Another day of flight, still sticking closer to the mountains, and by evening they reached the coast, the Circle Sea stretching out in front of them, the mountains to their left, waves crashing against the slopes, throwing salt spray everywhere and giving the air a sharp smell. A rocky beach stretched out in front of them, dark grey stones mixed with sand of the same colour, a river that was fed from the mountains lazily flowing through a section of it and joining the ocean. And to their right, to the east, she could just see the trees. They seemed to go right up to the ocean as well, the only flat and clear land the area that they had been flying over and were now standing in. The Stonewall Strip, apparently.
Camping by the ocean was certainly an experience. This was the first time in her life that she had actually seen the Circle Sea, even though Elmer’s Reach wasn’t that far from it, at least compared to most of the other clan temples in the kingdom. She just hadn’t gone there, no clan missions taking her there, and neither the desire nor the time to do so otherwise. The Circle Sea was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. It seemed to go on forever, with beauty and power from it’s size, the rays of the sun reflecting off its surface in mesmerising ways. But it also spoke of death. There was nothing friendly for her or Callisto in its expanse. If they somehow got stuck out across it, exhausted and worn down, they would just drown and die. There would be no possible second chances like there would be with the Darkrest forests. And the sand, it got everywhere, like it did for the desert, creeping up into the grass that bordered the beach, clawing in through the tussock that grew at the border. But Asher seemed to think near the river was a suitable spot, Bonebreaker happily planting himself as the lady knight went about her normal evening routines.
Waking up with the taste of salt in her mouth was not fun either, but at least there was fresh water to rinse it away. And to bathe in as well. She wasn’t going to miss the opportunity, three foxes splashing around in the river, four when Kitni decided to join them, though her dip was a lot shorter, the fox cub deciding that she only had so much tolerance for water. It also resulted in a later departure, not that there was any complaints, their familiars weaving their way along the coast, waves lapping at the shoreline below them, sea birds squawking in displeasure at their presence, and the trees encroaching far too close for comfort.
Crystal stared out the skimmer window, nothing but snow beneath them, a far stretching field of white. Even with all of the systems running, she could still feel the cold trying to seep its way into their vehicle, a never ending onslaught of nature against the machine. Or perhaps she was just a little sensitive at the moment. She sighed, pushing herself away from the wall, and paced around the main room of the skimmer, not really paying attention to anything. Well, apart from Rachael, who was looking at her with concern in her eyes. Crystal gave her a weak smile, and sighed again to herself. She was agitated, listless. A deep sense of unease within her. And she knew exactly why.
They were running out of time.
She couldn't say exactly why she knew this, but she did. The sense was clear. And she wasn't sure what to do about it.
She didn't regret the visit to Winters Haven, even if it had been a bit messy. She would never regret gifting the familiars with something that they desired, a deeper relationship with their riders. The look of joy and wonder on both of their faces. The realisation that they now had more than they had had, that they were more than they previously were. It was almost a purpose for her, instinctual. Part of what she was, a connection forged with riders as a whole. She was their guardian after all. At least, that was what the title said, and she knew there was some truth to that, something ingrained to both her and Rachael now. For better or worse. Something gained rather than gifted.
Which was rather weird all things considered, given all that they had been through.
As far as she was aware and had been able to glean from them, most of the riders that had responded to Starlight's summons had accepted the gift. Most, but not all, and that pained her, especially on the behalf of their familiars. Distrust of changes and of the unknown was still strong. But she couldn’t blame them for that. A pulse of magic had torn through the land, triggering changes that may not be realised for decades, but perhaps subconsciously sensed. It wasn't like they'd completely missed out though. Just like for Alysia's experiment, everyone who was present had been marked. That was the nature of the magic, of how she had weaved it, and of them being deep dragons, and in time, all of those who bore their mark would be able to talk to their familiars.
Of course their nature had kicked in in other ways as well. Even with the opportunity to pet and talk to some of the dragons, Kat in particular, who seemed to quite like her, and her back, Kat was a really beautiful dragon after all, they had cut their stop short, talking to Kyril and then leaving. Having too much attention from some of the riders, especially the lady knight, while not necessarily unpleasant, was not something that she wanted. She was Rachael's and Rachael's alone. And she would get jealous if Rachael suddenly got too close and personal with someone else, even though she knew that they were exclusively each others, and it was likely the same for her as well. Well, she kinda hoped so anyways.
She wasn't sure if she would ever get used to that part of their nature either. Ditto for how they had been treated when it had become obvious that they were directly connected to two ancients. Reverence did not sit well with her at all.
Kyril had told them what she could, but it hadn't been overly useful. They now knew the direction Ueana and her companions had headed, but as they were following a map that was contained inside of a ring, or something like that, they were still pretty much running blind trying to find her. Following a trail that was near impossible to track, especially given who was at the head of the group. They had enquired at all of the towns that they had passed, well all two of them just far, and Tayja doing the actual enquiries while they stayed out of sight to avoid any further issues or xenophobia, but hadn't learnt anything. Ueana and the others hadn't stopped at either, but from what Starlight had briefly mentioned, that was normal for Lady Knight Asher.
And once they hit the border, their options would be a lot more limited. If they didn’t lose the trail completely. Ignoring the lack of towns along it, there was the nature of the Darkrest Confederation. A huge massive forest. The skimmer could probably fly over the trees, but from what she’d learnt, the density would be an issue, for both the vehicle and for Nerida as well. She was curious to see the dragons of the Sisters of the Wyrm though, given that they were quite different from what she had seen thus far, but now wasn’t really the time for that.
"Any hints Clocky?" She asked. Couldn't hurt to try.
Clocky shook his head. "Still not a plot device or anything. Even with all of the changes, my magic is mostly still self focused. If it hadn’t been, then things may well have gone quite differently for us all. The warning about Ueana, that came from something else. Fate perhaps, if that is in fact an ancient? I still really don't know."
“It’s rather scary, the potential forces that are out there, and given how many were there at Odinsphere...” Fairweather left that hanging in the air.
Crystal gave Clocky a smile back. Yeah, she'd figured as much.
'What about from your end?' she threw towards Velvet. There were those statues in the temple, that she had seen the one time that she'd gone to the shadow realm, and one of them had shown Ueana, in her other race form too. There was definitely something going on there.
It took a little bit for the familiar voice to get back to her, directly into her mind. Feeling like an ancient but also not. Like multiple things all at once. Part of her nature Velvet had said, given that she was somehow a champion of herself. That bit made no sense, but Velvet was special irrespective.
'-Sorry. I don't have Myne's ability to sense and find things, and Ueana has changed enough that Myne doesn't know what her signature is any more. We can't use the statues, as the connection isn't directly ours. It's yours. She is your daughter after all.-'
Another sigh, Crystal slumping down against Rachael, her resulting embrace providing a measure of comfort, but not doing much for the anxiety. What other options did they have?
sorry, can’t help you on this one,
at least not at this point in time.
right now, it falls outside of my domain.
Huh. She actually apologised about it. Crystal would have given her a confused look if she could have, but given that Warrior was an ancient and all that, not so practical.
‘-Ueana is your daughter, a bond forged by magic and the words of the ancients. While we can’t use that connection, surely you can? At the least, you should be able to sense what direction she is in?-’
Crystal blinked, surprised. It still felt weird for Ueana to be called her daughter, even if her magic had been involved, albeit inadvertently. But perhaps Velvet had a point there. Connections were very much real, and she had been becoming more aware of them. One was indisputable, the bond with Rachael, and some were rather strong, like the ones to Velvet and Warrior. She would have expected the one to Dragon to also be just as strong, but the ancient themselves seemed to be keeping a cap on that. But she had also felt the connections to the riders when she had formed Promise, and each time the little dragon had done its thing. And she could even feel Promise there, inside of her, waiting. She just had to find Ueana’s, and focus on it. Or something like that.
She closed her eyes, focusing inside herself, on her magic, and the complex weave of everything that was there, that formed a part of her. She could sense an array flaring to life around her, Rachael’s hold tightening in shock, and then relaxing as she worked out what the array was for. An aid to help her focus, to see things that should not normally be seen. Crystal felt around, searching, tendrils of magic floating around her. Some were familiar, the ones that blazed with power, and those of her close companions, others not so much. Another array, her senses heightening. Ueana’s would be here, and it should stand out. She was her daughter after all. Right? And then she found it, a fragile thread, burning with fire, carrying the scent of another ancient as well. Of Fox. The one who had granted her her form, with Dragons influence of course. Granted all three of them their forms, the magic flowing through the bond that they shared. Crystal gasped in surprise. There was more knowledge there than she had thought, and more of a reason to want to keep all three riders safe. They were more than just a little bit special.
But she needed to know where they were. She touched the thread carefully, trying to glean more. It was there, she could almost sense it, but not quite. It was not something that currently fell within her nature. She still needed to know though. She probed closer, more carefully, a third array flaring to life around her. But still not enough. Crystal growled in frustration. If the damned ancients could sense those that were connected to them, no offence to them of course, then why couldn’t she. The connection was strong enough after all, and further boosted by the bond that the three fox races shared.
She could feel the other magic there, similar but foreign, lurking at the edges of her awareness. The nature of the shadow realm, the place of ancients themselves. Another array flaring to life as she reached for it, for a small snippet of it, enough to glean what she needed. She gasped as she took a tiny bit, the power searing through her. But she had also gained what she was after. She could sense, rather strongly, what direction Ueana was in, and that right now, at this moment, she was fine.
She released the thread, and opened her eyes. And then closed them straight away. Her arrays were still active, blazing bright. Dangerously so.
‘Yes, ouch.’ Spectre complained, his voice a little clearer than normal as well.
Crystal quickly dropped all of the arrays, opening her eyes to see the glow rapidly fade, and a look of relief on the faces of Clocky and Fairweather, and herself now sitting somewhat awkwardly, her wings and tail manifest, Rachael somehow still managing to keep her in her embrace.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
“That was impressive,” Rachael chuckled, “though I think anything sensitive in the kingdom probably felt that. You...” she started, then just shook her head. “You’ve found her right?”
“Umm, sort of,” Crystal replied. “I can tell that she’s in that direction,” she pointed in the exact direction, “and I have a rough guess as to how far, but that’s about it.” Probably a bit better than just a rough guess, but given how all the rest of her magic worked, it meant about the same. She could still feel the connection though, strongly, now that she’d brought it properly into her awareness.
“Hmm,” Fairweather said as she looked at Hope and then fiddled with some panels on the skimmer controls in front of her. “That might help, if we can work out a more direct route.”
“The Titans Rage is that way though, isn’t it?” Clocky asked. All of them had looked at some maps while in the palace in Avaraline, though next to the arkchildren, Clocky had the best memory of all of them.
Fairweather nodded. “Yeah, that’s the biggest issue. The skimmer has its limits after all, and Tayja can’t pull all-nighters.”
Well, it was something, but apart from that Ueana was currently well, it hadn’t help with the unease. They were still something like a week behind her, and not catching up fast enough.