Chapter 31 - Memories of Sunset
A streak of dappled white flittered through the trees as the snow leopard leapt and ran silently through the forest. Bounding over fallen tree trunks and halting on occasion to look back before finally stopping at the sight of a lone woman with copper hair and eyes walking along a forest trail. Emerald eyes watched, assessing the threat the woman posed. Slipping behind the cover of a fallen tree, the magnificent cat shifted until it could watch the woman from behind. Its ears twitched and it glanced back over its shoulder, the winged one and the child were in the distance. Another quick glance and it launched itself silently off, its large paws soaking up the uneven forest floor, each step of silence as it melted into the terrain.
“Did you see it?” asked Antrandis in excitement, quickly looking up to Winter.
She smiled peacefully and gave a small nod, “Why did you not follow? I have seen your other form before.”
“I would have to leave you behind.” he said over his shoulder, his eyes briefly meeting hers.
A slight smile came to her lips as she watched the boy walk ahead. She let herself relax, the lush surrounds of the forest cool and moist despite the warmer air on the mountain. A sense of calm swept through her as he walked in front of her.
“Winter, are you not happy with Mother?”
Her brows rose, “I panicked, Antrandis. You had been taken from me without warning.”
Antrandis frowned in thought, “How did you find us?”
“You, how did I find you.” said Winter, “I followed our bond. I can feel you at all times…inside.”
“Is it like a string, a string that connects us?” he said.
“Maybe. Sometimes it is more of a voice, a whisper.” she said quietly.
“Winter, do not be angry with Mother. Please.” Antrandis said as he turned to look at her.
Winter stopped, her eyes on his, “If that is your will, then it will be so.”
He smiled, taking her hand, “Thank you.” he said, watching the serene expression sweep over her face.
With a light frown he turned back to the path, stopping as his eyes met the trail ahead. In the distance a copper-haired woman dressed in blacks and deep shades of green stood watching them hesitantly with burning metallic eyes.
“Antrandis, get behind me. Now!” she hissed.
He looked at Winter, the steel in her eyes taking on a light glow, her body starting to harden as she prepared for battle.
“That is not an elf, Master.”
Winter met his eyes, “Then, we must leave.”
“I was trying to tell you and Mother. She is awake.” he said, gesturing to the woman in the distance, “I will go and meet her.”
Winter stared at him, a wild expression in her eyes, “You are only a child, her kind are extremely dangerous.”
She stared at him hard, “Master, I have lost to her kind before. She is one of the…”
Antrandis smiled slightly, his eyes on hers, “Winter.”
“You will never lose me.”
Winter looked at him as her voice caught in her throat, her eyes flaring out and growing quiet. The hardness in her body returning to normal while she stood in a shocked silence.
He smiled quickly in reassurance, “Wait here, I will meet her and take her to Mother.”
She frowned, her eyes darting to the distant figure and back to him in worry, “Is it your will?”
Antrandis nodded before stepping away, taking a quick glance back to see the valkyrie watch from where she stood, her eyes on him possessively. Looking back to the woman standing in the distance he continued to steadily make his way toward her as she waited. He could feel her eyes on him, assessing his movements before she took a step back as he neared. Slowing his pace, he held out a hand and lifted his jacket, slowly turned and showing he was unarmed.
With just under ten yards between them, he stopped. A slight frown came to his brow; her clothes once regal were battered and torn. A slight shimmer shone through in places as her skin shifted reflexively, fine polished copper scales caught the dappled light of the sun through the trees. A dark patch of turned scales and raw, broken skin was just visible over the ripped collar of her dress. Her eyes flared, fire smoldering and thin wisps of smoke defensively trailing from them.
He concentrated, his eyes fearlessly meeting hers, trying his best to remember the words, “I offer myself as a friend, an ally to be called upon, a…”
“That is not a child’s greeting to an elder, Youngling.” she said, her voice low and waspish as she took a step back from him, “You are her child.”
Antrandis nodded quickly, keeping eye contact, “I come to you in greeting…As a friend.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously, “A friend with the most vaunted of weapons at his command? A weapon of one known to me, it does not bode well.” she said, her voice smoky but shaken.
He quickly glanced over his shoulder. Winter stood where he left her, but in full battle raiment, her features aggressive and form taut in readiness.
“You first, Youngling.” she said as she took another step back.
Antrandis shook his head at Winter, “Stand down.” he whispered.
“You speak it well, young one. Who taught you?” she asked, watching the valkyrie shift form.
He looked back to her, “Those I recognise as family in name.”
She took another step back, her eyes flaring brighter, the red heat of the flames showing through the scales around her eyes, “My kin can not be trusted. They abandoned those that mattered most.” she whispered, slipping further away.
“Wait, please!” he said, raising a hand, “Let me show you.”
He quickly took his jacket off and laid it on the ground before kneeling, quickly unbuttoning his shirt and stripping it off. He kept his eyes on the ground as she stepped closer, walking past him. Despite the heat radiating off her, he shivered as he felt the unexpected gentle touch of a finger on his back. Hearing her faint gasp, he turned his head slightly.
“Both? You bear both of their sigils? I would never expect a Youngling of the new world to speak in my tongue. But those sigils...” she said, coming back around and crouching before him.
“Your hand, Youngling.” she said softly.
He looked up to see her skin returned to a warm, dusky olive. Bright copper eyes meeting his, no longer burning as her rich hair fell around her round face. His eyes lightly grazed the exposed and puckered circular scar that ran under her collar. She stood, drawing him to his feet and handing him his shirt. Her eyes straying to the valkyrie as he reclothed himself. Finishing with his jacket, he placed his hand in hers, palm up, watching her carefully as she scrutinised it, gently spreading his fingers and following its few creases.
“I slept and the world was dying, I woke and the impossible had taken place. Then I saw your mother from a distance and for the third time in my existence I was afraid. I have not truly slept since, just slumbered in a half dream filled with nightmares.” she said quietly to him.
She suddenly jerked, her head snapping around with eyes wide and flaming to life, the scurrying of a forest animal nearby startling her. Antrandis placed his other hand over hers, his eyes stirring slightly.
“It is just an animal. You are safe.”
He watched her face twist, a frown furrowing her brow, “We are all animals, Youngling. Some are only worse than others. There is always something bigger or more terrible that will devour those smaller or meeker.”
She met his eyes, a sense of wonder on her features, “They survived. Those that you call family in name.” a hot tear skipped down her cheek and fell, “They survived… I searched for so long…” she smiled, glancing at Winter as she stood waiting.
“The Valkyrie, is she your guide?”
“No, she is my guardian, my protector.”
She glanced at him, “It doesn’t appear like you would need it, Youngling. If you can tame The Host’s prized weapon, protection is the least of your concerns.”
Antrandis looked at her, “The Host?”
She nodded, watching his reactions, “He has fallen then. Like all else.” she said quietly, looking again at his hands, inspecting his fingertips, “Do you have a name, Youngling who speaks the tongue of dragons like it is his own?”
“Antrandis Darkfall, son to Lumos, Goddess of the Night.”
“Goddess… A true god, not those acting in the stead of the gods?” she said quietly as she spread his fingers carefully.
“I am Neci, known as the Dragon of Sunset, the Copper and Firebrand of Dusk.”
A faint smile came to her lips, “It seems I have nothing left, I fought for so long. Waiting.” she said while looking into his eyes, slipping to her knees as her strength gave out.
“Winter?!” he called, steadying Neci as she wavered.
His eyes narrowed as the wound on her neck and shoulder became further exposed. An intricate set of deliberate cuts and gouges making up a rough symbol that seemed to stretch further then he could see. A sharp flurry of wings and a brief gust hit him as Winter came up from behind. She quickly came around and helped steady Neci.
Neci’s eyes shifted to Winter, “You are the boy’s?”
Winter nodded, quickly checking the wound.
“You are the better for it, Valkyrie.” she grimaced as Winter exposed her shoulder, “Tell me, did The Host bother to return when the world fell?”
“No, and we are grateful he did not.” Winter said distractedly.
“If he perished, I do not grieve his loss either.” Neci said as she nodded, her eyes on Antrandis, “You…” she stopped, her attention drawn to his movements as he brought a thumb to his lips.
In shock, she watched as he bit into his thumb, at the blood starting to flow and trickle to his wrist. He reached out, wincing as he pressed the bleeding puncture to her upper chest, drawing a rough circle between and just below her collarbones. Her eyes widened suddenly.
“Where did you learn this?” she whispered.
He did not answer, instead hovering his palm over the rune he had completed.
His eyes surged to life, his stormy blue irises pulsing and flaring with bursts of light as a delicate crystal blue glow built between his hand and the rune of blood. Neci gasped lightly as his blood started to glow a warm golden colour before she felt energy surge through her, chasing the weariness and bringing a lightness to her limbs. She could feel the raw torrent of his power flood into her, his direction in its flow rudimentary at best.
He looked at the wound, bending his will toward it before a woman’s hand blocked his view.
“No, Antrandis. This must stay for now.” Neci said, drawing her hand to his face and guiding him to meet her eyes, “Who taught you this? This is magic of my time.”
“It does not matter who.” he said, allowing more life force to flood into her.
She gasped and watched his eyes shift, the storm within them growing dark as black smoky tendrils started to wisp from the edges.
“Master, it is enough.” said Winter, speaking into his ear as she embraced him from behind, reaching along his arm and trying to draw his hand back from Neci’s chest.
Antrandis nodded, looking directly into Neci’s eyes and in one final movement he struck his thumb down. The final stroke of blood shifting the rune and changing its purpose. Neci’s eyes widened in disbelief, the rune flaring momentarily before dispersing.
She quickly pulled away, shifting back with her eyes on his with a startled expression, “I can not accept this gift.”
Neci hastily drew the strap of her dress back over her wounded shoulder, “You do not know what you have done. You must break it. You must.”
The boy stood and held out his hand, his thumb now healed, “It is a gift to prove that you can trust me. Nothing more.”
She stared at him, his hand offered as he stood before her. The valkyrie behind with her hands on his shoulders protectively without protest in his actions. She hesitantly reached out, feeling his borrowed strength hum through her body as he took her hand, pulling her to her feet without effort.
“You do not act or speak as a child, Antrandis of Darkfall.”
He smiled, “I am a child, but unlike any other.”
Neci adjusted the remains of her clothes, her eyes straying to Winter and her natural closeness to the boy, “Quite.”
“Mother is waiting.” he said, holding his hand out to her.
Sian slowly opened her eyes and breathed deeply. They still stood in the middle of the ruined room. Closing them again, she rested her head on his shoulder as the new memory raced through her mind. Her arms were still locked around him in a tight embrace and she sighed as she felt the brush of his cheek against hers. Pulling away she met his eyes.
“That bastard.” she whispered.
Antrandis nodded slightly, “He might not have returned here, but he felt it when she severed herself from him.”
“But, he carved it into her neck and shoulder, how? What type of…” she stared at him, “What type of blade could even turn the flesh of a god?”
Antrandis nodded slowly, “Nobody ever said that a god couldn’t bleed. It just takes a lot to achieve it.” he said quietly, glancing about the room at the repeated runes scratched into the walls.
He looked to her, “A few days, she stayed with Lumos and myself for a few days. Then she returned to hibernation.” he smiled slightly, “Though she did wake again several years later for a day or two.”
“Did you meet with her again?”
Antrandis shook his head, “No, but I knew.”
Sian stood, looking down at the peg and the symbol it had pierced. Piecing together the memory from the distant past and the present. She quickly looked at him.
“No, I was not a part of my mother and Neci’s discussions. But I was integral to getting Neci to see us as allies.” he answered.
He stopped, feeling Sian’s hand on his shoulder. Turning he looked into her eyes.
Sian bit her lip slightly, “Who taught you blood runes at such a young age?”
“Aisling.” he said with a smile.
“Do you think…”
“Yes, I do.”
A smile came to her lips as she tilted her head, “Are you still sustaining her?”
He raised an eyebrow, chuckling.
“The Neci I know would never accept help like that from a child.” she said with wide eyes.
“The dragon you knew was not halfway to death and abandoned.” he said quietly, “Nor had she been subjected to horrors that brought silent anger to Lumos, Aisling and Auryl.”
Sian stared at him, “You do not know.”
“No, I do not. And yes, I still sustain her life. His wounds on her remain to this day and they have to or he will wake.”
Sian nodded in understanding, “This is just one small part of the puzzle, and somehow it is all…”
“Yes, my dearest Sian. It is all connected.”