Chapter 374 – Wrong Step
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After dealing with the initial shock of the sudden revelation, Asterios continued to ponder over just how much of what he knew and didn’t yet was somehow related to Dragons. Every time he wasn’t that far from assuming that he had learned about almost all the twisted stories and deviating aspects, a cascade of new facts dropped onto him like a bucket full of ice-cold water. There was still so much to discover, so much hiding under the guise of normalcy.

The trio slowly walked up the solid steps now, entering the premises of the sky-high structure. At the very bottom, the tower was heavily overgrown with vines and moss, but the higher one looked, the natural coat faded away, revealing the wooden core to the world. A few small balconies jutted out of the circular stronghold, creating observing spots for the owners to spy on their surroundings. Besides those, the tower was adorned with the usual presence of tiny windows.

Reaching the massive double doors, Phatru gave the entrance a series of good knocks that echoed throughout the interior with rolling thunder. Asterios could already tell that the acoustics of this place were going to be insane. They might need to watch their ears while traversing the inevitably long staircase.

A minute passed, then two, and three. Not much happened in that time. No one came to greet them. No noise responded to their booming announcement.

Althea sensed Ast’s curiosity and gestured at the gates with her hand to indicate that she was speaking to him. “You might need to equip yourself with an additional dose of patience, my dear disciple. I assure you that we’ve been heard, perhaps even spotted, but it might take a moment before the hosts descend to greet us, depending on their previous business.”

~Are we sure they are even inside?~ he asked.

“Yes, we are.” Phatru nodded. “You will be unable to tell at this point because you have not spent enough time around the structure. It emits a very specific aura when at least one of the residents is inside. Plus, it’s a silent agreement between the Nest Mother and her people that someone does always stay behind to answer urgent queries or emergencies.”

~If so, I would definitely be aiming to check what kind of news the visitor or visitors bring us as soon as I can,~ Asterios replied.

Rusilthea snickered his way. “As Ma said, they most likely are already aware of our arrival and can tell that we aren’t either in a rush or panic. So, if they are in the middle of another activity or two, they might prioritize seeing them till the end before making themselves presentable for an audience.’

He didn’t miss the clear insinuation in the younger female’s explanation and decided not to comment on it. Whatever the occupants of the charming tower were up to, Asterios didn’t mind showing his patience to them. It could even possibly aid them later on if they didn’t present themselves as rash and restless.

In the end, they spent about fifteen minutes in front of the entrance before something thumped softly on the other side. Soon after, the double wings opened inwards and revealed a handsome man with short blond hair and long pointed ears, similar to Althea’s. He wore a simple tunic of dark green color and beige pants to match it, standing on the ground barefoot as most of the people they had seen so far.

“How may I help you?” the male Dragon asked calmly.

“Good day to you, Hevial.” Phatru gave him a respectful nod. “I hope we aren’t disturbing your family with our unannounced visit. Would it be possible to meet with the Nest Mother at the current time and date? There are a few matters we wish to discuss that she might be interested in.”

The man listened to her polite request while scrutinizing the trio with his bright yellow eyes, pausing the longest on Althea, and returning his attention to the speaker. “Come in. She’s waiting for you.”

As he turned around, the women exchanged silent glances and entered the tower. Asterios didn’t sense any communication between Althea and Rusilthea so he must have witnessed the rare skill all females possessed, synchronizing their thoughts with simple eye contact. He felt like the deep bond he shared with his mates would never reach such a profound level.

The doors snapped shut behind their backs and Ast’s focus switched to the regal interior of the tower. Most of the middle was empty and a ceiling-less tunnel ran high up, possibly to the very top. But, on the sides, there was just enough space left to form entire floors in the form of rings around that vertical passage. Everything was extremely intricate, displaying a plethora of draconic and natural motifs.

However, there was one thing that was clearly lacking.

The stairs.

Not a single floor was connected to another. As great as that looked, it did feel rather impractical. The distance between each level was fairly big, spanning around the usual size of two stories.

~How do they—~

Asterios began to ask, but all four individuals standing in the central point sprung into the air more or less at the same time. A mix of colorful mists and smoke swirled around as a group of Lesser Dragons soared through that empty middle while coiling around each other with impressive ease as if it was something natural to them.

~Nevermind. Should have seen that coming.~ Asterios chuckled to himself, evoking a smile from his mentor’s muzzle. ~Is there even a reason why they didn’t build a landing platform wherever we are heading to? And on the other crucial floors?~

~Yes, there is. And it’s a very simple one,~ Althea answered telepathically. ~Bragging rights. We love towers wholly, and that includes the interior. Having your visitors traverse through the levels brings them in contact with all the work you put into your magnificent home.~

~And here I thought it was True Dragons who were the prideful kind.~ He smirked internally.

That brought out a soft chuckle from her. ~We are just less overbearing with it, preferring a touch of subtlety instead.~

After a short while, they slowed down and took a sharp turn to the right, landing on the desired floor. Everyone transformed back to their humanoid forms near the edge of the chasm and the man led them towards ornate doors of normal size this time. He didn’t bother announcing their arrival or even knocking, just pushing the sides open with all he had.

They entered a spacious chamber in the shape of a quarter of a circle. The whole outer wall was gone, instead replaced by beautiful columns with arching connections. Asterios immediately picked up on that, realizing that it was possible to fly in and out of here at will. Just, perhaps as the ladies had said, that right was reserved only for the four individuals in front of them.

As the blond-haired guy led them to an enchanting set of guest furniture on the side, two more men joined him. One was almost a head shorter, had brown, shoulder-long hair, eyes of the same color, and wore only matching shorts. The other was the most muscular of the three, his total mass overshadowing them both, and had green hair combed into a bun, also greenish eyes, and wore a white button-up shirt and black pants from a suit. Silver-rimmed glasses adorned his sharp nose.

Naturally, the trio had their scaly tails out, displaying their race and lineage all the time.

Then, the scarlet veil obstructing the sizable mattress with ornamental bedposts and canopies moved, capturing the visiting group’s attention. A tall and lithe woman stepped down from the bed, her wavy crimson hair cascading over her smooth, bare shoulders, touching the beginning of her sensual blood-red dress with powerful cleavage and one full thigh revealed. She had a youthful face but her stoic gaze and calm expression betrayed maturity far over her appearance.

Her mates stopped behind a wide, cushioned sofa as she gestured at Ast’s group to sit down, taking a set in front of them right after. The men leaned onto the backrest from various angles, observing the other trio attentively.

“Thank you for finding time to meet with us, Lady Rhufija.” Phatru made a light bow and the other two followed suit.

The woman responded with a curt nod. “I will always find time for my people, Phatru. But, I see with you someone who isn’t yet part of this community, so allow me to make proper introductions. My name is Rhufija, and I’m this retreat’s Nest Mother. You have already met Hevial, my second mate. The Jade Dragon’s name is Mortiz, my first mate, and the Hazel Dragon is Abe. While I hold the final say in the matters of this sanctuary, their voices are just as important for any administrative matters.”

The trio inclined their heads with proper manners and continued to observe.

“Respectful Nest Mother, the Emerald Dragon I and my daughter bring in front of you today is none other than one of my most treasured roost sisters that I parted ways during our enlightenment period.” Phatru gestured at Althea. “We were reunited just earlier and her story brought forth a thought much beneficial for our nest and other surrounding shelters. I humbly ask you to listen to her proposal with an open mind as I and my daughter can vouch for the credibility of her every word.”

When Rhufija moved her serene eyes onto the person in question, Ast’s mentor placed a palm over her heart. “It’s an honor to meet you, Nest Mother Rhufija. My name is Althea. I’ve spent a few centuries away from our kin but finally made a fortunate return to offer the wisdom, knowledge, and experience I gathered to those seeking enlightenment. Although, my methods might appear quite unorthodox to someone of the ancient traditions.”

“Althea. I know of that name. And appearance.” The Nest Mother brushed a finger over her lips thoughtfully while Althea’s brow rose a little bit. “It’s been a long time since I last listened to your story.”

“And, please, do tell, what kind of story was that?” Althea inquired.

“One of your past, unfulfilled disciple oath, the art of ambitious seduction, and difficulties in fitting with those of better predisposition,” the woman revealed.

“Slander!” Phatru slammed her fist onto the coffee table between them, frowning angrily.

“Word of a respected mentor who guided many of ours against your own,” Rhufija replied calmly, not offended in the slightest. “Dare I assume that the earlier altercation I heard about wasn’t in connection with those qualities?”

~That fast?~ Asterios couldn’t hide his surprise.

~She’s most likely seen it happen from this very chamber,~ Althea answered. ~Do not underestimate the Nest Mother, Asterios. She’s spent centuries if not more protecting this small plot of safe haven from threats visible and invisible. Her eyes must have been on us since the very moment we showed up inside the borders of her nest. You might be very proficient at concealing yourself, but her senses and intuition are unimaginably sharp within this place. It wouldn’t be so shocking if she was capable of sensing that something was amiss.~

“No, Nest Mother, it had nothing to do with my mother’s nest-sister.” It was Rusilthea who answered the scarlet lady’s question with a faint scoff. “It was just the usual from the likes of Keruvia. We calmly listened to a few insults and were on our way to meet you as we initially intended.”

“The scent of blood traveling through the air suggested otherwise,” the woman replied.

“It’s not our fault her head is so full of herself she can’t even walk straight and smashed that stupid face of hers into the first flooring tile she could find.” Rusi snickered quietly. “We pray that the unexpected shock treatment aids her inborn ailment.”

“Nevertheless, the impulsive disputes between our young aren’t the topic we would like to discuss with you, Nest Mother,” Phatru butted in before they got sidetracked again. “My friend is back with decades of experience in guiding elf monarchs through their royal life in a remote world. Regardless of what the ancient rumors about her say and if we believe in them, Althea is now a completely different Dragon. She has always been one to seek wisdom and study the world, and now, she’s achieved comprehension of the highest level, willing to share it with us under specific, exceptionally beneficial circumstances.”

Rhufija brought her scarlet eyes directly onto Althea. “Let us set aside the matters of the past for a moment, then. What exactly do you bring us, o honorable mentor?”

“I would like to extend an offer of mentorship to your people, Nest Mother, in a realm with no True Dragons at the time of our conversation,” Althea began. “Well, save for one, but he can’t be taken in the same consideration as the others as he is my trusted mate.”

That made the other lady finally show some more emotion in her tranquil visage, resulting in slightly widened eyes and the faintest hint of tension in her lithe frame. Unfortunately, her mates didn’t show the same level of composure and bristled at the news immediately, their auras rolling off them in noticeable waves as more scales surfaced on their skin while their fierce eyes glimmered threateningly.

“Stop!” Rusilthea yelled out before anyone could do anything else. “She speaks the truth. He can be trusted. I took a leap of faith and visited that world, meeting her mate face to face. As you can see, I came back free and unharmed, just like all three of us. I’m willing to present myself as proof if you wish to examine my body for any signs of enslavement, Nest Mother.”

“You are aware that a bond is weaved into your Heart, child, aren’t you?” the leader of the retreat asked.

“That’s a summoning contract I formed with a human female from that world. It is the means for me to travel between our nest and that realm, where I will be attending Lady Althea’s lessons, alongside any of our brethren who agree to receive their generosity too,” Rusi explained as well as she could. “The Dragon provides us a place to live and personal protection, even if the only draconic individuals known to a few highest-standing rulers of lesser races are Lady Althea and his benevolent person. In exchange for a rather unrestrained service of protecting his kingdom alongside his valiant elite units, we are given what appears most likely as the grandest chance to gain enlightenment in the most untainted environment.”

“What if it’s just his elaborate plan to lure you all into his territory?” Hevial inquired, the only one capable of talking amongst his partners from how agitated they had become.

“It’s not.” Althea shook her head. “He is unlike any other, as I said. He grew outside of a roost.”

The combined fury simmered down a little bit at that statement.

“Murdered parents?” Abe managed a raised brow.

Once more, she denied the claim. “We have suspicions that they might still be alive. He was dropped in that safe realm with crippled lineages.”

“Then we should take him out as soon as possible,” Mortiz suggested. “One less lizard to threaten our realms.”

Althea’s face hardened as she turned to the man. “I would not recommend releasing thoughtless statements about my paired mate like that. You can consider yourself lucky that the only acts ending in your total annihilation would need to be directed at my person.”

The male Dragon glared back at her through a faint shiver but his mate stopped any response from him with a raised hand.

“Did you say lineages? What kind of ancestry does he belong to?” Rhufija ponderingly stroked her chin.

“Primordial Crimson and Primordial Onyx,” Ast’s mentor replied confidently.

A deafening silence descended upon the chamber and it felt like one side of the room forgot how to breathe momentarily. The simmering auras coming from the men were snuffed out, leaving only the additional scales and other features as proof of their presence.

“That’s impossible!” the green-haired male exclaimed.

“Do you doubt my understanding of my own mate,” she challenged.

“As his servant or slave—”

“I’m a True Mate,” Althea cut him off. “Just like six other lesser females. His entourage is as powerful as he is with how much essence he grants to his partners. Rusilthea witnessed their prowess on her own scales, slighting one of them on entry.”

Phatru shot her daughter a squinting glare while the culprit tried to not glance away from it.

“That’s unprecedented,” the blond-haired man stated.

“Just like Althea’s approach in mentorship,” Rusilthea said with a speck of conviction in her tone. “This might be the dawn of something grand. Just the sole realm travel is an incredible advantage, previously so limited for us and the others. Even the best, most ancient mentors have to rely on relics of the past in the form of hidden transfer gates and places of power. Establishing a positive relationship with Lord Asterios, we gain the ability to cross worlds almost at will, and I’m not talking about using summoning gates.”

“So, what will it be, Nest Mother?” Phatru joined her hands under her chin. “Will you be willing to let us bring the offer to your juniors and recruit Althea’s disciples from the willing?”

And once more, silence descended upon the discussion. Seeing their mate in heavy consideration, even the three males didn’t think of interrupting her live meditation. Not letting everyone wait for her for too long, Rhufija returned to the world of living soon enough, refocusing on Althea.

“Before any of that is possible to happen, I would need to request a meeting to negotiate the terms of such a partnership and see the truth with my own eyes,” she replied with a collected tone, shushing any opposition with another gesture.

“That won’t be a problem.” Althea showed a warm smile. “He may join us whenever you wish him to.”

That made the trio of standing men take a step back as they stared at her dumbfoundedly.

“This monster can invade our sacred grounds at any time?!” Mortiz yelled fearfully.

Rhufija ignored him. “Would now be acceptable?”

“Can your tower prevent mass panic?” Althea inquired.

The Nest Mother snapped her fingers and a wave of spiritual energy passed through everyone, extending outwards. Sensing that, the emerald-haired lady stood up and moved to the side of their gathering. Turning towards the table and its occupants, she continued to smile kindly at them.

Understanding her intentions well from listening to the whole conversation and paying attention to her inner thoughts, Asterios opened a gate next to his wise lover even though he didn’t need it. Still, moving slightly away ahead of time, he was now able to walk out of it in his full glory.

The moment his foot stepped on the wooden floor, the chamber was flooded with a storm of spiritual presence and two easily distinguished auras. Ast’s crimson eyes swirled with power, its centers tinged with a trace of onyx, as his spiritual energy turned the air sharp and heavy. He didn’t limit his lineages in the slightest, letting them announce his arrival as they should.

Before he could fully complete the transfer, a brave shout reached his ears. To his and everyone’s surprise, Mortiz managed to overcome Ast’s overbearing presence and launched himself at the newcomer while starting to shift.

Asterios didn’t give him time to finish.

Drawing on the already churning Hearts, he enhanced his body in a flash and sent himself to meet the man with an equally powerful lunge. Or perhaps a much quicker and stronger one as a loud explosion of air was the only evidence of his lightning-fast movement when he reappeared with his fully draconic hand wrapped around Mortiz’s throat.

Stopping the male Dragon’s transformation with the sudden action, he didn’t hesitate to slam the assailant into the floor with another trembling boom, creating a sizable dent in the wooden panels. Bringing the dazed man up and holding him by the neck, he turned to look at the leader of this community.

“I did not expect such an enthusiastic welcome.” He chuckled deeply. “I thought we were supposed to negotiate our partnership, not the forfeit of your lives.”

Rhufija paled slightly under his questioning gaze, her other two mates frozen in place. The other ladies gazed upon the limp male with pity in their eyes.

Things would have been too easy without at least one reckless idiot every time.

And considering the faint blush on Rusiltheas cheeks, she understood it rather well too.

 

Guess Lesser Dragons have a few common qualities.

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