Taria’s concern welled up inside her with every passing hour. She and the others had to retreat far deeper into the forest than she had ever intended doing just to lose the trail of their pursuers. Though there were far more of the soldiers than there were students of the monastery, the heavy armor that they sauntered about in slowed their advance through the otherwise dense forest.
In the race to lose them, Taria, Jarek and his brother Orias got separated from the others they were with, so they sat patiently in a small enclosure of thick bushes waiting with the hope that they would simply be missed by all of the search parties. Taria on the other hand only waited hoping that Wraith would be able to find them, or at least get close enough for her to feel his presence.
All of her teachers at the monastery always told her how strong the bond between a pair of Dulaaren was, but she never really understood the extent to which it went. Half the people she knew since she was a child were dead or captured, and she could only thing about him, a man she had only known for the span of a few hours. As hard as she tried, she was compelled only to think of his safety. Her life was bound to another for as long as she’d live, it was a far stronger commitment than a piece of paper, or a ceremony held in some dusty temple.
This was forever.
She shook her thoughts and began collecting various roots she identified in their enclosure. During their scramble for the forest Orias was struck by an arrow to his calf, severely restricting his movement. Though she’d learned many spells over her years of reading and training, she could do nothing without Wraith nearby, so she instead worked with what she had, as she did all those years before.
As she scuttled to and fro, Jarek asked near endless questions about the origin of the army that attacked them, why they were there, why they would attack a place of learning like the monastery, what it meant for the other colleges and monasteries and a slew of other seemingly unimportant questions.
For a while Taria simply tuned him out, until he said something about the unarmored men at the head of the divisions before the attack. Something about his description reminded her of a book she had read long before she had started training to become Dulaaren.
“Those men… They’re disciples of Sargot the Betrayer.” It made more sense, they were disciples of an otherwise long forgotten dragon lord who ushered in the destruction of his own race by igniting the conflict between the mortal races and the dragons.
Jarek fell completely silent, and Orias’ whimpers were reduced to near silence. Taria enjoyed the brief silence and took the opportunity to being mixing a poultice from the various roots she had collected by mashing them together in a dimple between knotted roots of a tree.
“They were there for us.” Jarek looked down at his lap, and pulled his legs close so that he held his knees in a tight hug with a look of disappointment mixed in worry.
“What do you mean they were there for you? What could a bunch of deranged maniacs want with two untrained Dulaaren?”
Orias responded in turn. It was the first time she had heard him speak. His voice was surprisingly gruff, it didn’t seem to fit the boy who was probably barely sixteen years. “They were after us because our parents were Preservers for I’min and Dorokai.”
Taria struggled for a moment to remember the names. I’min was the last dragon killed in the wars, but Dorokai didn’t sound familiar, and the term “Preserver” eluded her. She was a learned girl, since she’d spent so many lonely years reading, but nothing he said sounded familiar.
Orias saw her confusion and continued to explain himself “Before we hunted all of the dragons down, they would willingly give themselves to be immortalized. Preservers would guard the remains of dragons who had decided to move on to The Next. Then the Drakoniiri would go about forging their remains into weapons to live on forever in the heat of battle.”
“So I’min’s remains are still out there? I thought once the hunters killed him they stripped him jaw to tail and sold the parts to be turned into more weapons.”
Jarek interjected “That’s what the stories say, but I’min didn’t actually die in battle. His tail was hacked off and he managed to escape before they could bring him down. He flew to the only place he could think of in his blind rage and anguish, the site where his life mate Dorokai had been laid to rest. Our father’s parents catered to her resting place and our parents afterwards. I’min became ill to the point he couldn’t even fly, and instead rested by her side until he died of starvation because he refused to eat. He never left after he got there. It took over fifty years for him to die.”
“That’s horrible. I knew dragons lived a long time but I never suspected that it would take that long just to starve. Waiting all that time…” Taria couldn’t help but think about Wraith being alone again. She couldn’t stand the thought of him dying, even though she knew if he died, she would die as well, she still couldn’t help but worry for him.
“Grandmother said the only thing I’min would say was that he failed his race. That he failed the world.” Orias looked sadly at his arrow wound, almost indifferent now from his apparent suffering. No pain could match a being with so much power ultimately becoming powerless.
“Your grandparents spoke to I’min?” She was amazed, unaware before that any one person alive could have been so close to a dragon, or known someone who had spoken to one. It’d been so long since they all had died off.
Jarek leaned his head against a nearby tree trunk, staring up at the now dark tree canopy. Bugs and various other creatures of the night sung their normal tunes as if blissfully unaware of the horrible tragedy that had taken place at the monastery. “It seems so ridiculous now, that an entire race of beings was wiped out because a few people wanted more power. They were just tired of the dragons being stronger than them, and they grew so jealous they were driven mad. They killed hundreds for a few hundred weapons and pieces of armor.”
“So what would they even want to do with you?” Taria inquired “Your parents were preservers but you’re Dulaaren, you never followed in their footsteps”
“Our parents and grandparents were murdered.” Orias said, bitterness in his voice.
“Our parents always told us that Sargot’s disciples were determined to acquire every drakon-made weapon so that they could ‘Call their master back to our world’. So they’ve hunted down every Preserver they could find to try and find stashes of weapons that were hidden away after the fall of the dragons, or the remains themselves to attempt to forge more weapons.”
“Are the drakon-made weapons powerful enough to summon someone from the dead?” She’d read plenty about the weapons that were forged by the Drakoniiri, the humanoid dragons that forged weapons from the remains of dead dragons. However; she’d heard almost nothing about what any of them did, let alone the ability to summon a dead dragon back to the world of the living.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that was something they could do.” Orias shifted about in an attempt to get into a more comfortable position. “They never dull, never break, are lighter and faster, yet they hit harder and are stronger than normal weapons. Some of them even can only be wielded by those who are deemed worthy of the ability. They’re steeped in ancient magic because they’re forged from the very essence of the dragon from which they are made.”
Jarek continued on for his brother, who looked pale and drained from his wounds. “There’s almost no record of all the weapons that exist. There are a few hundred from before the war, and maybe a thousand or so from the fall. Although that’s just what our parents told us, there could be a lot more out there we don’t know about. There’s no way to keep track of so many different objects that change hands so often it’s difficult to even tell which ones are real and which ones are fake.
Taria completed her mixing of the poultice and scooped it up in her left hand. She approached Orias, who looked nervously at the green paste in her hand. “This won’t burn or anything?” he questioned, gesturing toward her hand. She nodded and patted him on his leg in an attempt to comfort him, so that for a brief moment he let his guard down. She took her chance and with one quick swoop, plucked the arrow from his thigh.
Orias didn’t have much time to scream out in pain before Taria stifled his agony by dropping the arrow and covering his mouth with her hand. A brief moment passed until he stopped his outcry, and Taria reluctantly ceded control of his speech back to him.
“You could’ve told me.” Orias said through gritted teeth.
“I said the poultice wouldn’t burn, I never said that the arrow wouldn’t.”
He glared silently while Taria went about slathering the open wound with the green paste. She did her best to wipe away the grime and blood around the wound, but the conditions they were in were not ideal for dressing a wound.
“So how do you know all these things? Why should I even believe you? You can’t have possibly just memorized it all when you were children.” As far as she was aware, no one she’d ever met possessed such in depth knowledge about dragons, let alone I’min, the last of the dragons. There certainly was little proof for their claims, especially something that she’d never read or even heard about anywhere in any record.
Wordless, Jarek stood up and pulled the front of his tunic down, exposing the head of a dragon imposed in ink upon his skin whose long neck snaked down toward his right shoulder. He then lifted the bottom of his tunic to show the other half of the tattoo, an overhead view of a dragon flapping its wings as if it were flying to the sky right off of his body. Before she could examine it closer, he let his tunic fall back to place, and crossed his arms as if indifferent to the massive artwork.
“It’s not actually a tattoo.” He sat back down against his tree stump. “It’s a part of I’min Greatwing. It was passed down to our grandparents from I’min when he died, it contained all of his past experiences, and everything he knew and loved. Memories, thoughts, feelings, all of it. It was passed down by our father’s father to him. Orias carries Dorokai’s mark, passed from our father’s mother to him. He bore both marks as no one had done before for nearly twenty-five years. When our parents realized what was going to happen, our father took us both in his arms and sang. He sang until the marks flew from him to us before they stepped out of hiding to be murdered by the same monsters chasing us now.”
Taria looked down at her hands which she had been busying tending to Orias’ leg. “I’m sorry, for you both. No one should have to go through the pain of losing their parents.” The pain she felt for them was all too familiar.
“We’re here now.” Orias squeezed his hands together so that his knuckles cracked loudly. “Our parents died to protect this knowledge. Their deaths will not become meaningless so long as we live.”
Taria took a seat at another tree trunk in their small clearing. She had so many questions to ask a dragon, but the one that kept coming back to her rang in her head over and over again until she blurted it outright. “What were I’min’s last words? What does an immortal say with its last breath?”
Jarek cast his eyes up as if he were calling a memory forth from years prior. “‘This place is no longer a home for the likes of me.’ All of his brethren either betrayed him, or were dead and gone. The world he left wasn’t the world he loved.”
“Fitting, I suppose.” Taria sighed “He was just as lost as we are now.”
“Except we will not lay down and die to the tune of a thousand screams of the innocent being torn from our world. The dragons may all be gone but that doesn’t mean that we will stand by idly while monsters walk where legends stood.” Orias was defiant. Taria was somehow reassured against what seemed to be impossible odds of their survival in a world where nearly everyone they knew was dead. The more she thought about it, the more similarities she saw between them and what she knew of I’min, although they were small, they stood true.
The night carried on in relative silence. The only noise that permeated the forest was that of the creatures of the night who called out across the wood. The silence was discomforting, Wraith hadn’t made any contact with her and she couldn’t risk searching for him without the possibility of being discovered by the soldiers. Even though it was getting colder, they couldn’t start a fire without the worry of letting their whereabouts being known.
What seemed like hours passed.
Every exhale lit the air in front of her like a puff of smoke from a pipe, illuminated by streaks of moonlight penetrating through to the forest floor.
More time passed.
Somewhere an owl signaled its presence.
Insects chirped their chirps and called their calls.
A nearby bush rustled, loudly enough that it couldn’t be any ordinary small animal. Taria froze in an attempt to make herself blend into the surroundings, only to have the trees rustle in the wind so that they parted just enough to brighten her face against the otherwise dark forest below.
The leaves separated and Wraith, supporting himself upon a huge two-handed hammer, lumbered through, clutching onto the haft as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. He looked at Taria’s brightened face and smiled a devilish grin, his teeth smeared with blood. He cast his hammer to the ground, and proceeded to fall directly from an upright position, face first into the ground with a decidedly audible thud.
It was the only thing keeping him upright.