Valentine

NC-17 [Private] Forged by Fate

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OOC: Private RP between myself and Erogenous Enigma. Rated 'NC-17' for violence, gore and dark themes.

 


 

 

Forged by Fate

 

 

 

Svarda, the ancient human capital. Home of the White Palace that has held the line of human Kings and Queens since the beginning of recorded time. Now the property of the usurper Queen, the Sorceress known as Aedra. She strode down it's white marble halls, assessing her surroundings as she went. Her quick, gliding steps echoing through the palace as a general of her armies, clad in black armour, struggled to keep pace with her.

"Have you any news, General?" The Sorceress inquired, in a curious tone.

The man was huffing as he spoke, "We... have six reports, Majesty." He took a deep breath, "None have returned... with any news of the egg."
Instantly, the Sorceress came to a halt and whirled on the General, and he was immediately struck by her terrible beauty. She was tall and curvaceous, slick black hair flowed over her head and fell down to her waist. Sharp, angular features framed by a pair of piercing green eyes and ivory skin. He struggled to come to a stop and quickly assumed a rigid salute.

"It has been, what?" The Sorceress feigned forgetfulness, "5 years...?" She queried, "Since your forces ambushed that Elven escort party, and yet, my egg remains lost. Why is that?" Her face tightened as her gaze bore down on the man, he trembled before her and licked his dry lips.
"I... well, when the egg..." He wavered, looking for an answer, "You see, it was magic, Majesty."
"I know magic, General. What I don't understand is your excuses. That Elf could only have teleported that egg a few hundred miles, at most."
"Well, I..." He began.

"I'm tired of waiting." She placed one hand on her hip and looked around, spotting a Lieutenant at the end of the corridor, awaiting her in silence. "Yes, he'll do." She added, and looked back at the General.
"Majesty?" The General asked, confused.

"Your services are no longer required." She replied, smiled sweetly and then instantaneously the General crumpled to the floor, his life snuffed as easily as a candle's flame. The Sorceress turned to face the Lieutenant as a pair of guards behind her lifted the body of the General to take it away.

"Lieutenant Gerren?" She asked, looking to the soldier with the scruffy sand-coloured hair.
"Yes, your Majesty!" Gerren replied, saluting her.

"I want you to take a unit of your finest soldiers, and track down what is rightfully mine."
"Yes, your Majesty." Gerren replied, bowing. He turned to leave but the Queen's voice stopped him mid-step.

"You are my General now, Rey Gerren. Do not fail me, as your predecessor had." Placing emphasis on 'fail', she left no confusion in her statement. He bowed once again and Queen Aedra was left in the halls of the palace, she smiled to herself and continued on her path to the main throne room.

 

Meanwhile, nearly 100 miles south of Svarda, in the small town of Wayford, a young boy, no older than 17, slowly drifted from the realms of sleep and dream. The morning rays shone through his open window in the home he had been born in, the home that his deceased father had built. He had short, messy black hair and skin tanned by long days spent out in the sun. He had dark hazel eyes and his face, though handsome, was relatively plain and slim from a meagre diet. He yawned, content to remain in his bed until he heard a shout from downstairs.
"Aeran?!" His mother called to him, she paused and then yelled again when she heard no response, "Aeran?!"

"I'm up!" He called back to her, sighing and blinking the sleep from his eyes.

"Well you better be, you need to go hunting again today, as you failed to bring us back any game yesterday - 'Master Archer'." She added with a playfully mocking tone. Aeran groaned and rubbed his face and then finally accepted there was no getting away from it, he had to get up.

He poured a jug of cold water into a bowl and took a deep gulp before plunging his face into the icy liquid. He washed his face and his underarms and then threw the remaining water out of the window and got dressed. He pulled a pair of dark brown trousers on and then a long-sleeved white shirt, followed by a pair of leather boots and a dark brown leather jerkin, fastening the buttons up to his collar bone. His family was poor, even as families went in Wayford, and they survived mostly on farming their own crops and hunting in the surrounding forest, so he had no mirror to check his appearance, but attempted to flatten his unruly hair all the same. 
"Morning." His mother smiled at him with a knowing expression, "Your breakfast is on the table." She added. Aeran sat at the table and ravenously attacked the miniature loaf of bread his mother had baked for him, it's warmth spread through his body like wildfire and by the time he'd finished it, he was fully awake.

 

"Well I guess I better get going while it's early." Aeran grabbed his quiver, slinging it over his back with a full compliment of arrows and then reached for his elm-wood bow, his mother touched her hand upon his and kissed him on the cheek, "Be careful, okay? The town guard said they'd seen signs of monster activity and I don't know what i'd do if something happened to you."
"I'll be careful." He muttered, reluctantly accepting her kiss before wiping his cheek. With that, he waved goodbye to his mother and walked outside into the fresh air, he closed the wooden door to their house and walked down the path. A couple of people were walking by, he recognized them from town but didn't know them personally very well, he knew they were friends of his mother but he couldn't recall their names. He nodded to them and they wished him luck with his hunt, and with that, he set foot into the twilight shadow of the forest.

 

Nocking an arrow, Aeran slowly crept through the forest. He had been walking for what felt like an hour or more. He had seen signs of deer, but had so far only seen the fleeting shadow of a rabbit running through the brush. He cursed his lack of reflexes for having let it get away but decided it was best not to dwell on his mistake, and surged deeper into the forest. After a couple of hours, Aeran paused to take a quick break, he opened a satchel on the side of his quiver and took out a small waterskin which he drained and then ate the small lump of bread left beside it. Revitalised he pushed on, careful not to disturb the inhabitants of the forest.

 

The sun overhead crept across the sky and upon seeing how late in the day it was, he was about ready to give up. Once again, he'd failed to bring anything back. He cursed to himself, angry at his inability to provide for his mother and then turned to make his way back home. But as he took his first step, something stopped him. He froze, confused at what had alerted him. For a long while he was silent, but readied his arrow in preparation. From perhaps 30 feet away, he heard a rustling sound. Aeran nocked his arrow once more, pulled back on the string and let the arrow fly. It soared through the air, vanished into a bush and then he heard rabbit's screech and a clang as metal hit metal. Aeran frowned and quickly ran over to the source of the noise and pawed his way through the bush just in time to see a rabbit vanishing into it's burrow. Distracted by the escaping animal Aeran shouted a curse into the forest, losing his temper. He twisted his bow in his hands, testing the wood with his anger until he finally released it, wary not to break something he couldn't likely replace.

 

"Oh, what am I going to do with myself..." He sighed, kneeling down to gather his thoughts. He rubbed his face with his free hand but at that moment, something caught his eye and he remembered the strange sound. Fuelled by his curiosity, Aeran began looking for his arrow. After a few minutes, he found it embedded in the soft ground beside a large silver-coloured stone the size of a large watermelon. He gasped as he looked at the unusual stone, and once he'd placed his stray arrow back in it's quiver, he examined it in detail. Tapping the stone with his knuckles he heard the familiar metal noise once again, but when he checked the stone for a mark from the arrow, he could find none. In fact, the stone was so smooth and frictionless that he felt as though his hands slipped over polished ice. "What in the world is this..." He muttered, curiously rubbing his chin. The ground below the stone looked as though it had been scorched by something, but the stone itself seemed to be an ambient temperature. He paused as he considered the object but although it clearly wasn't edible, he wanted to bring it home anyway, it fascinated him.

 

As he lifted the stone from the ground he noticed how light it was, despite it's size. He reached over his shoulder and pulled a small sack from a pocket in the side of his quiver and started to cover the stone with it, but as he did so the sack caught fire as if it had been thrust into a furnace. "Hey!!" Aeran cried and flung the sack across the ground and quickly stamped on it to put the fire out. He looked back at the stone and glared at it, confused and fearful but if anything, more curious than ever. "I guess..." He whispered and leant back down to cautiously touch the stone, yet it was still quite cool, "... i'll just carry it." He finished his thought and then lifted the stone and smiled at it appreciatively. He started his trek home but it was almost dark by the time he arrived. He watched as villagers ran to and fro, holding torches to light their way. The whole village was in an uproar.

"What's going on?" He called out, asking a passing farmer he knew as Layton.

Layton glanced once at the stone in the boy's hands and then met Aeran's gaze, "Karlod, the Blacksmith - he's been murdered!" 

"What?!" Aeran's voice cracked as his surprise exploded on his face, "By who?!" He pressed the famer.
"By the Gods, I don't know, but the town guard said it was a monster!!" Layton began scurrying away, "They even sent word to Northhaven to send one of the Queen's yellow-eyed monster hunters, but Gods preserve us, they're no better. We'll be overrun by monsters by daybreak, you just see!!" 

Humbled by his exchange with the farmer, Aeran walked home in a daze. He nodded to his mother, apologising for his failure during the hunt. She didn't question the stone in his hands and so he walked up to his room. Closing the door behind him, Aeran set the silvery stone down beside his bed and let out such a long sigh that he could have been expelling all the day's worries from his mind and body. He felt like he could have fallen asleep right there and then, but he heard a loud bang from downstairs that roused him from his torpor.

"Mother?!" He called down, for a long while there was no response, then at last.

"I'm fine!" She called back up to him.
Aeran relaxed and turned to look back at his new prize, the silvery stone from the forest. Something was wrong with it though, he rushed over to look at the stone and let out a cry, "Oh, what have you done now, Aeran!" He chided himself, looking at the stone. A crack had formed in the stone, spoiling it's smooth surface.

Before he had a chance to further delve into the depression that assaulted him at his now imperfect oddity, the stone wobbled and Aeran fell back in surprise, landing roughly on his backside. "Hey, stop!!" He barked at the stone, out of reflex. Strangely, it did so. He blinked slowly and rubbed his eyes, wondering if he'd imagined the stone moving. Then at once, the stone exploded outwards, sending shards of it in every direction. Aeran yelped and shielded his eyes as he was pelted by the shards of stone and then after a moment he looked back to see nothing but a handful of shards remaining. "Ooooh..." He leant over and picked up a small, thin piece. "Damn..." He grunted, throwing it aside. Aeran pulled his knees up and rested his face on them. What else could go wrong today? He sat there in the middle of his room for a few minutes until he realised he was not alone. He lifted his head, brushing some of his messy black hair out of his face and looked around. He could feel a presence, something was watching him. He had the strange sensation that now he had become the rabbit in the forest. He could hear a quiet panting, and tried to hone in on it's origin. After a few moments, he realised it was coming from under his bed. He stared into the darkness and waited, afraid to move any closer and yet somehow rooted to the spot. He had to know what it was.

A pair of dark shimmering eyes glistened in the darkness, like two drops of oil on the surface of a body of water. Aeran's breath caught in his throat as he watched a lizard the size of a small dog crawl from the underside of his bed. The creature was covered in bright silver scales and had a face with a long muzzle. Long, razor-sharp talons clicked off the wooden flooring and when it yawned, he saw a mouth full of dagger-like teeth. The most unusual thing about this lizard however, was that on it's back, was a pair of wings, each with a span as long as his outstretched arm. Despite his fear of the creature, he was drawn to it, as though gravity was pulling at him. The lizard seemed affected by the same thing, and as their eyes gazed into one another, their foreheads touched and Aeran felt a burning sensation emanating from his forehead, where it spread out and smothered his entire body. He felt like he was on fire, he became dizzy, the world tumbled before him as the candle in his room became so bright that it blinded him, and then he collapsed to the floor, falling deep into a dreamless sleep.

When Aeran finally awoke, he felt as though he'd been running for miles. His whole body ached and burned. Stumbling to his feet, he looked around his room, spotting the strange lizard lying on his bed, watching him quietly. "What did you do...?" He asked the creature, but it simply stared at him. He didn't know why he had expected an answer, and the idea of the creature replying to him made him laugh and feel more than a little silly. He walked over to his water jug, feeling uncertain on his feet, then filled the bowl with water and went to dive his face into the ice-cold water. Before his face touched the surface, however, he noticed something different about his face. He brought his hand up to touch his forehead, unconvinced until he felt the smooth white surface of the skin. In the centre of his forehead, just above the bridge of his nose, he had an upside down tear-drop-shaped scar. He looked back at the lizard and shook his head, "What did you do to me, eh...?" He asked quietly, just then he heard another strange noise from downstairs and his attention flicked back to his mother. "Just..." He paused, feeling stupid for addressing the creature, "... stay here, alright?" The lizard stared back at him and he shook his head again, almost laughing. Aeran ran downstairs and fell upon a confusing sight. He saw his mother lying on the floor, her eyes fixed upon the ceiling with an empty stare. Blood covered the ground around her, and yet, standing over her, he saw his mother with her back to him. He stared at the scene for a few moments as his brain ticked over, trying to understand what he was looking at, and when it failed to come back with an answer, he stupidly said, "I don't understand." His mother turned to look at him, at least the mother that was stood over her other body.

 

"It's okay sweetheart," She cooed, her face contorting into an unusually wide grin, "Mother's here." She added, raising her hands to offer an embrace. Aeran turned his gaze from her wild eyes down to the blood that coated the lower half of her face. "I don't understand..." He repeated, drawing his arms up to his chest in fear and confusion. As his other mother stepped towards him, her gaze locked upon him, the front door smashed inwards, sending shards of wood flying in all directions. His mother whirled around, turning her attention to the door as a figure stepped through it, brandishing a weapon.

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Svarda was always packed with humans bustling about normal lives, most of them recognized her, but how could they not? When you live in a town as long as she had people begin to know you, especially when there’s a three inch horn protruding from the left side of your head. Most the time it was hidden beneath a cloak and a mane of blood red hair, but it only took one little mess up for everyone to suddenly know. A glance out her window without her face covered, or one drunken night in a tavern, or a dozen other stupid situations that would get her caught. Regardless, of how it had happened, it had happened several years ago.

 

Solstice didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the city anymore, but it was where her house was, technically speaking. Aedra was a monstrous woman, but all her guards, or Infurus were housed somewhere. Her entire street was other Infurus, but no one knew that, they looked as human as actual humans; it was just her that stood out. It was almost like a camp, but less… campy? They had actual homes and carried on relatively normal lives, their homes only a jaunt from the palace should Aedra need them quickly. Other Infurus were stationed out across Lumia, guarding other towns, enforcing Aedra’s laws, picking of lurking Vicious’.

 

Squished between two other houses, built off each other’s foundation was Solstice house, a town house, or row house, or whatever you want to call it. It was small and quaint, it was nothing remarkable, people wouldn’t notice it out of the several other hundred throughout the city, it had been a good plan when she’d first moved into it, keep her head down, saw off her horn every other week – which was exceptionally painful – and pretend to be normal. Well, as normal as normal could be when you couldn’t have any more than passing acquaintances because eventually one of them would ask why she never took her hood off, or her gloves. At least the other Infurus didn’t scurry away from her, or act like she was the devil incarnate; of course, they didn’t exactly make friends with her either for fear of being found out of their own Vicious blood.

 

She hadn’t even seen her own parents since before the turning, which was when she was only six. She had considered going back to the farm to spend her time when Aedra didn’t need her guards or when Solstice wasn’t out hunting Vicious to feed the instinct. In the end she couldn’t face them, she didn’t blame them for what happened, Aedra would have forced the change on her one way or another, she just knew how much of a monster she appeared. How could she take the memory of their sweet little daughter from them?

 

Today she wasn’t home though, a report of a Vicious had called her to Northhaven. She’d slew the beast the night prior but didn’t feel like traveling the 100 miles back to svarda and so now she woke up in the local inn. A soft knock came at the door, but the door was barred with the only dresser in the room, just in case the innkeeper or housekeeper was actually brave enough to enter. It was massively unlikely they would manage to open the door without her waking up, but she might have been the slightest bit paranoid. As an Infurus she is acutely aware even in her sleep, when she wakes up it is very sudden, there is no grogginess, no resistance or yawning, she’s just suddenly awake and aware. And so she was actually awake before the maid had knocked. Solstice stared across the bedroom, wondering if the girl would go away if she didn’t answer. Another knock convinced her she wouldn’t just leave easily; she might even try and open the door.

 

Eventually, after the third knock, Solstice pushed herself from the bed, the room was almost pitch black, she’d ordered curtains so thick they could block out the sun, not that this phased her much, she could see in the dark with no trouble. Wrapping herself in her cloak to hide her features, and drawing her hood low she pushed the dresser out of the way with only her foot and threw open the door, startling the maid who was obviously unprepared for what she saw. Though Solstice’s monstrous features remained out of sight, beneath the black cloak, the very air around her seemed to hum with anger and violence. The small brunette squeaked much like a mouse would, the tray of food she’d been carrying shaking so violently Solstice couldn’t fathom how she was still managing to hold it. Before the tray could hit the ground Solstice snatched it away, holding it easily in one hand before slamming the door in the maid’s face without a word.

 

The dresser was pulled back in place and she set the food down at the small table in the room. She picked through the meal with little interest but manage to eat most of it. The meal was probably more than most of the citizens ate in an entire day, and of higher quality. The people innately feared her, they feared Queen Aedra and so they feared her elite guards as well. They would put their best foot forward, scarified mounds of money or in this case food just to keep her pacified in hopes she didn’t do anything vicious just for the amusement.

 

Done with her meal she pulled open the dresser and laid out her clothes. It was simple for her, unlike the girls who sought husbands that would dress in pretty colors and fancy gowns; Solstice would dress in all black to hide her deformities and which wouldn’t show blood. Her clothing was almost skin-tight, not for any aesthetic purposes simply because it gave less to grab onto when in combat. The only attention given to her attire was her weapons, she carried many weapons, all of them crafted with the use of Aedra’s twisted magic and Vicious blood – much like she herself was. The blades themselves an angry red, the sharp edges blackened; all Infurus were equipped with these strange red weapons, nothing else – not even elven – could match their calibur. A handful of knives were hidden within her clothes, around her waist, in her knee high boots, and even in her gloves. Her primary weapons were a longsword, a two handed weapon for a human and yet she easily carried it in one, and another sword that she qualified as a ‘short’ sword, but again was closer to a full length blade for a human; these both hung at her hips.

 

Solstice came to sit in front of the mirror, it was like a ritual for her, every morning the same practice. She would simply stare at her reflection, perhaps it was a vicious means of self-hating, to constantly remind herself of her deformities. Her left eye was yellow like the Vicious from which she was created, the pupil a slit like a lizards, an angry contrast to the sky blue human eye just next to it. Her skin was overall creamy and luscious, but not around that yellow eye, there the skin was black and hard like a reptiles – like the Vicious. She had no eyebrow over that eye, the hair simply didn’t grow there, above that was one of her most hated features – a horn. Just the one, almost three inches tall, it was jagged and hard like a bone that couldn’t figure out in which direction it wanted to grow, and yet it seemed incomplete. She constantly fears it growing, but perhaps she had stunted its growth with how often she’d cut it off, almost weekly, but it always came back and eventually she quit bothering, it was immensely painful and people already knew anyway, so what was the point?

 

She alternated closing one eye and then the other, amazed by how the Vicious eye saw so much better than her human eye; it could see the very fibers in her clothes, tiny, tiny little fractures in glass that the human eye was utterly ignorant too. Immediately after the transformation she used to get massive headaches as her brain adjusted to the two different levels of vision, but over the years her mind has finally found its comfort place and she no longer suffers from them. She touched the horn with her right hand, the hand that matched in the dark, almost black skin, with its rough, leathery texture, so unpleasant to the touch that she didn’t even like sleeping without a glove. At least her hand was still the same shape as a human hand, though each finger ended in a claw, a very deadly claw, she could easily cut open her own skin with them. They curved around each finger and generally didn’t affect her, but whenever she was fighting or angry they lengthened out of their own accord; she’d killed people with that hand alone.

  

Solstice didn’t care for using her right hand as a weapon though, it was too close to acting like a Vicious, to much of that which she feared. She felt enough like a monster she didn’t need to encourage her own self-loathing. So she was always with her weapons, unlike other Infurus who might try and avoid carrying them to make it easier to blend it, she’d rather stand out as an Infurus than chance having to fight with her claws. Of course, going out without her weapons had caused different problems. The one time she went out without them some brave human had attempted to humiliate her, pulling her hood back and screaming out various insults in a mocking tone. So what did, Solstice do? She killed him, though not intentionally. She had spun around so quickly the stupid human hadn’t even grasped the horror of what he’d done until after she’d struck him with her fist – thankfully not her claws. He had been thrown into a nearby food stand; it had crumbled over him from the force of her blow. Honestly, she hadn’t intended to be quite so vicious, the blow had ruptured internal organs, not to mention the massive head trauma caused by the crash. He hadn’t died immediately, instead it had taken a day or so, Solstice didn’t know, she hadn’t cared. Amusingly, Aedra didn’t care either, god forbid the humans kill each other – not that Aedra did fair trails or legitimate investigation work into murders, but she at least pretended – but when Solstice had killed one Aedra had called it ‘teaching them their place.’ Solstice had to agree. People had been leery of her before, now they were downright terrified, and gave her a wide birth when she walked by.

 

When her life had begun in the city of Svarda – she’d been only eleven years old – she had tried to be friendly, tried to show the people how Infurus protected and guarded them, but they would hear nothing of it. Over a decade later Solstice has since lost her patience and no longer bothers to pretend to be their friend or even that she hunts to protect them. She hunts because she enjoys it.

 

Just as she was leaving the inn keeper approached her with another man behind him. “The city of Wayford just south of here has been attacked by a Vicious….†For a moment Solstice just stared at the man, wondering if he’d beg if she waited long enough, but the other man beat him too it.

 

“Please! You must come help us!†Technically she must do nothing, Queen Aedra only cared about things that directly affected her not some random Vicious attack at some tiny little town she probably didn’t even remember the name of. Solstice pushed past them and went to the stables to gather her horse. The beast was magnificent, he was garbed in armor that had been treated in the same fashion as her weapons, if there had ever been any doubt of what she was the horse was a screaming clue.

 

Pulling herself onto the horse, she looked down at the two pitiful humans that had followed her. Her words were not out of pity, but actually out of desire, desire to make another kill; “Take me to Wayford.â€

 

The trip was not far but the man’s horse could not keep up with the pace that her warhorse could manage and so she abandoned him when she was close enough to pick up the trail of humans. The mark of humans was impossible to miss, the serenity of nature suddenly broken by the disgusting smell and pollution that was human life.

 

She stopped by the local tavern and bound off the horse, tossing the reins to a dumb struck stable boy who barely managed to catch the reins; “Tend to her; fail and lose a hand.†It was harsh, but Solstice had forgotten how to be any other way, it’s not like he could actually fail at sheltering and caring for the beast.

 

Solstice didn’t stop to acknowledge the many people that looked on at her in fear instead moving directly toward the blacksmith where the man had said there’d been a murder. Vicious left notable clues, one of them being smell, something normal humans wouldn’t be able to smell, but Infurus would, another being residue, they left this nasty grim whenever they would take a new form. Both of these were present, so much so that Solstice actually held a hand over her nose, the humans looking at her oddly, well those that dared linger while she investigated. It was a fresh kill blood was still seeping from the body. Solstice touched the grim laying around the blacksmith’s corpse, it still had its gooey like consistency, in two hours it would harden and become like clay and eventually turn to dust. With little respect for the dead she wiped the grim off on the blacksmith’s clothes, those standing about obviously displeased with her display but not brave enough to speak out.

 

She closed her one bright blue eye and focused with the yellow one, following signs too microscopic for even a normal Infurus to notice, as most didn’t have eyes quite like her’s. Her blue eye would be on par with most Infurus, greater than human vision, but not as great as a Vicious. She didn’t know if her yellow eye was as powerful as a Vicious’ eyes, but she couldn’t imagine seeing any more detail than what she could currently see with it. Even without her improved vision – though it certainly helped – she could pick out the slight inconsistencies with each of the Vicious’ footsteps as it began to walk more and more human like with each step, more importantly it even took on the limp the blacksmith must have had. It was eerie how perfectly they could mimic a person.

 

The villagers remained by the blacksmith’s corpse uncertain of where the Infurus was going as she seemed to be wandering without a cause, though her path was very specific. She was essentially following where the Vicious had gone, occasionally she would see a splotch of grim clinging to a wall where it had touched. She would focus on these points even if only for a moment and the humans would suddenly notice it as well, gasps ringing out each time she found a new one, but she never lingered to explain or talk about it, not that these people wanted to talk to her. They wanted her to solve their problem and get out.

 

The Vicious’ scent had been muddied as it wandered through town but now she was growing confident that she was drawing close as that vile odor became stronger and stronger. A small house stood before her, a new splotch of grim barely noticeable on the door handle, it was only residue from the transformation, or perhaps it wasn’t keen on its new form and was leaking as it struggled to keep its form. Regardless of why, Solstice knew this had only been placed here minutes prior. Voice from within drew her attention, a young boy she noted and then the Vicious’ voice, nothing obvious, nothing a human would hear, but the slightest hiccups in the way it spoke, slight ‘err’s’ and a bit of an edge, it took training even for an Infurus to notice these oddities.

 

She wasted no more time drawing her longsword and easily kicking in the door, it splintered around her boot and with her elbow raised to shield her face she pushed through the mess. Inside she caught site of the Vicious and the boy. Immediately the beast recognized her and its eyes widening but perhaps the boy it would appear as if she were only shocked someone had just barged through their door. Solstice threw herself into a burst, drawing her sword up and under and impaling the creature before it could shift to fight. The other sword was drawn in an instant, thrusting the shorter weapon through the skull of the ‘woman.’ Solstice had this thing about making sure it was dead. When she withdrew her blades – quite viciously – blood splattered across the room and even managed to hit the boy still standing by. With a moment of pity she realized the Vicious had taken the form of his mother and she decided not to wipe her blades on the beast, instead she thrust the longsword into the ground, breaking through a floorboard and picked up a dish towel to clean off each weapon. 

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Frozen by fear and confusion, Aeran watched helplessly as what he thought to be his mother, was cut down in front of him. Blood flicked at his face, covering him in a paintbrush smattering of crimson. He blinked as it hit him but couldn't begin to work his mind around to what was happening. It was only as the blade was withdrawn from the corpse that he realised his ears were ringing. He felt a rush of emotion coursing through him that he was neither familiar nor comfortable with. The strange twisting, grasping nature of his feelings clawed at him as he looked up at his mother's attacker. The woman studied him with an expression he didn't understand. The noise in his ears was getting louder and louder, he felt like his mind was about to explode and it was only as he finally let his mouth hang limp that he realised his screaming had been the source of the noise. Caring little for the sword in her hand, Aeran flung himself at the stranger, bellowing with all his rage. He heard a scrambling noise from upstairs as he brought his fist back but at the apex of his swing the woman deftly knocked his arm to one side and the momentum of his attack brought him forwards into a chair. Crashing into the offending object, Aeran doubled over in pain, clutching his side. 

The noise from upstairs intensified, he could hear a clawing at his door. Aeran figured the lizard must have heard the commotion and was trying to escape. He put the creature from his thoughts as he turned, looking at his mother's body on the ground. The copy beside it had already morphed into something he had never seen before. Upon seeing the foul creature splayed across the ground, Aeran pulled himself back up against the leg of their dinner table. Tears welled in his eyes as he turned to face the woman who had attacked what he had thought to be his mother, a creature that was humanoid in shape, but not much else. Taught, leathery brown skin stretched thin over heavy, defined muscle. A gaping maw, encrusted with dagger-like fangs and bright, serpentine yellow eyes. Aeran looked from the creature up to the woman, noticing that one of her eyes matched the monster that had been feeding upon his mother.
"Why..." He moaned, shaking and holding his arms up to his head in disbelief. The scratching at the door upstairs continued to escalate, he could hear pieces of wood being torn away from the door and he knew it was only a matter of time before the creature escaped. Right now, he didn't care any longer. The pain he experienced blotted out the world around him, there was nothing but a dull ache.

 

Solstice tilted her head down as she realized he noticed her mismatched eyes, an impulse ingrained into her from years of being ostracized, her hood falling another inch forward to shroud her features in shadows. A slight shift to her head, tilting her ear towards the stairs implied she heard the scratching as well, though she didn’t act on it.
A long pause mellowed between them before she mustered up a half-hearted answer, spoken softer than her usually angry tone; “Because it was just her time.†Because there really wasn’t an answer to ‘why,’ because it just happens, because sometimes life just sucks.
Lips moved, but no sound escaped them. Aeran sat dumbstruck by the scene in front of him. "You killed her..." His voice trailed off.
Solstice frowned at him as it occurred to her this boy wasn’t grasping the situation. “Not her, boy, it. I killed a Vicious, the Vicious killed ‘her.’â€
"Vicious..." Aeran muttered, parroting the word. 
 
At last, he heard the wood of the door to his room shatter and split apart as the lizard yanked itself free into the hallway. He looked up, distracted by the noise and watched silently as the creature came leaping down the stairs in a couple of bounds and whirled on the intruder, ignoring the rest of the scene. The silver-scaled beast leapt across the room in a single cat-like pounce and before Aeran could stop it, he found himself entrenched beneath it, "Get off me!!" He barked. It ignored him as he tried to push it up, but found it too heavy. An intense heat emanated from the creature's body. The lizard focused it's attention on Solstice, it's razor-sharp teeth bared in savage anger. Arching it's long neck, it let loose a fierce roar that despite it's size, seemed genuinely fearsome to him.
 
Solstice turned her full attention from the boy to the stairs as the distinct breaking of a wooden door pierced her over sensitive ears. From the stairs a silver lizard with wings upon its back signifying it was no normal lizard pounced down the stairs and more importantly towards her. But she remained static as shock drew her eyes wide, the stark difference between her normal human blue eye and the angry Vicious yellow eye practically glaring as her hood was pushed back by the one horn, far enough to expose the waning daylight in the cottage upon her features. 
Forgetting to shield her Vicious features she left her hood just barely perched upon her head in place of curiosity about the mythical creature. She hesitated a moment as it roared at her, a sound alien to her ears, but eventually she took a daring step forward only for the small creature to growl menacingly and Solstice decided it wasn’t worth having its razor teeth embedded in her hide to sate her curiosity. 
“It’s a dragon… it’s seriously a dragon. How in the hell did you end up with a dragon?†Solstice couldn’t help the wave of warmth at seeing it so fiercely protect the boy, it was endearing if nothing else. She knelt down and placed her weapons upon the ground, slowly as not to alarm the creature before raising her hands in a show of surrender. “There, there, little one, I’m not going to hurt the boy.â€

 

"Dragon?!" Aeran's breath caught in his throat and he stopped trying to pry the creature off him. "My mother said the dragons died out years ago..." At that moment, Aeran felt something strange. He tried to keep focused on the woman that had killed the Vicious and revealed the lizard's true nature, but something kept distracting him. 
Solstice only spared him a glance and quickly drew her attention back to the dragon. “Funny, Aedra said a similar thing to us, the Infurus.†Solstice dared a step closer. “Either they weren’t aware of another dragon existing, or were lying about it.â€

"The Queen...?" Aeran paused, looking at the apparent dragon who's attention remained locked on Solstice. He opened his mouth to question her but again, a strange sensation pulsed over him. He didn't like it, it was alien to him and he shook it off as quickly as he could, distancing himself from the peculiar presence. Once the feeling had finally abated he resumed his thought process, "I don't understand," Aeran added finally, "Don't the Infurus hunt monsters? What do you have to do with dragons?" He frowned.

 

Solstice inched forward again; hoping the boy’s relaxed state would allow her to get close to the dragon. “The Infurus were originally created to hunt dragons and their riders, since they’re all believed dead the Infurus had nothing else to sate the… instinct on.†She frowned as she spoke of her own desires to kill, most Infurus were well aware that they killed for more reasons than just because the Queen told them too, only a select few were in denial, but none of them openly discussed it. “Regardless, since the dragons have been gone for so long the Infurus took on a new missive: to eradicate the Vicious.†Her voice had since gone to a softer hue, a more human sound, a voice a woman should have, “I’ve never seen a dragon before. Where did you find her?â€

The snarling growl that echoed from the dragon's belly reduced to a background rumble but as Solstice approached, the dragon reared up and opened it's mouth, lashing out at the woman's head, ready to remove whatever it could grab hold of. "Don't!!" Aeran yelled, and watched in surprise as the dragon recoiled as though it had been stung. The action surprised him as much as it had the dragon. The silver serpent paused and looked at Solstice for a moment before snorting, releasing a short plume of smoke from it's nostrils in a gesture that seemed almost haughty to him. Then it took a step back and sat on it's haunches and stared off into another part of the room as though it could have cared less.
"In the forest..." He replied, then under his breath, "I don't understand..." Aeran pulled himself up and looked at his mother's body. "What am I supposed to do now...?" He asked the room, tears sliding down his face. Standing there in the deadly silence, hearing only the faint shouts of the villagers from outside, an idea formed in his mind based upon something the Infurus woman had said. "... and their riders?" His eyes widened, "How do you become a rider?!" He surged forwards, "Do you get a mark, like this?" He asked, bringing his hand up to the upside-down tear-drop-shaped scar. "I think he did this to me..." Nodding his head at the dragon.

 

Solstice jerked back out of instinct as the creature reared to attack but just as quickly the boy called her off. Decided she apparently wasn’t going to get the chance to touch the dragon she backed off and stood up, picking her weapons back up and sheathing them. The dragon seemed to have no more interest in her. “She - the dragon is female.†Solstice corrected easily as she quickly remembered herself her voice going hard as if bored. She straightened her clothes, in particular her hood that had almost fallen off her head, once again shielding her features. 
She closed her one human eye and took a long look at the mark on his forehead with her superior eye, even from her distance quite a few feet away she was able to make out the pores in his skin and the variation in texture and colour of the mark. “Yes, it is the mark of a rider, but having the mark doesn’t automatically make you one, it just means you have the potential to be one; riders were powerful warriors that worked in unison with their dragons making them an unmatchable threat. You are just a boy who stumbled upon a dragon.â€
 
A flush of emotions washed over Aeran as he felt excitement at the thought of being a dragon rider, and confusion for what it meant. He knew so little about dragons. He knew that the riders had been guardians of Lumia, that they had been wiped out decades ago, but he had learnt more about them in his short discussion with this woman than he had been told in his entire life. Was it because Wayford was such a small, remote village? Or did this knowledge simply no longer exist? The woman's words snapped him back to reality. He was no rider, just a boy who found a dragon. He felt foolish for having thought himself capable of anything like that and immediately discarded the idea, crossing his arms. As he lingered on his doubt, the same alien sensation came rushing back to him once more, this time it was all the more vivid and he was unable to stop it. Aeran felt a strange warmth seep into him, a feeling that he couldn't understand and it took him a moment to adjust to the unusual experience. He looked over to the dragon and saw it-- her, staring back at him, and then the feeling was gone again.
"What do I do...?" This time he asked the woman directly. He loathed relying on her so much, even now when his mother's body lay cold on the ground just a stone's throw away, but there was nothing he could do. It pained him to admit it, but it was true. He was just a boy. Whatever it meant to be a rider, if he really was a rider, or would ever become one, she knew better than he. "And who are you?" He asked finally. If there was one thing he had to know, it was her name. She might not have been the one to take his mother's life, but somehow, he knew it was her fault. He felt it deep in his aching heart, but no matter his feelings, he was forced to rely on this intruder. For now.

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Solstice frowned at the boy; though her face remained relatively impassive her mind was running with thoughts and emotions. A dragon! A real, live dragon! How was it even possible? Did the Queen already know? And what was she, an Infurus, supposed to do about it? The Infurus had been created to kill dragons and their riders, logically she should probably kill them both, but he was just a boy….

 

Of all the things Solstice was she wasn’t a murderer, not like this, not with such obvious intent to take the life of someone so clueless, so innocent. She may not pride herself in being a protector of innocent life like some of the Infurus made themselves out to be, but she wasn’t a heartless killer either. Even still it was all irrelevant, the boy and the dragon couldn’t stay here, they were entirely too close to Svarda, sooner or later they’d be caught, even if the villagers didn’t rat him out, Infurus could smell the dragon… and they’d smell it on her too. God damn it.

 

Her fingers rubbing at her temples couldn’t ease her headache as all the thoughts about what could go wrong if she didn’t kill him and the dragon went through her mind. She stared at the pair for a long while, trying to convince herself to kill them and be done with it, but even after several solid minutes had passed without a sound between them she still couldn’t do it and she knew she never would. “Well fuck,†She finally said, exasperated.

 

With a loud, frustrated sigh, she finally offered him an answer, “You’re going to go pack a single bag with only the barest essentials, you will gather any weapons you own and can carry or strap to your person, you’re going to figure out a way to stuff that dragon into a bag, and then we’re getting the fuck out of this town.†She stepped over the two corpses to the table and pulled out a chair, sitting down in a flourish of fabric as her cloak splayed around her and even draped over the body of his mother. As a second thought she looked back at him, “My name is Solstice and right now I’m all you have so be quick about it.â€

 

As he went to do as she told she was left sitting at the table considering what she was supposed to do if she took him from the town. The boy was clueless and she had a hunch he probably couldn’t fend for himself out in the wilderness. Of course, that would solve her problem too, leave him to die to a wild vicious, she could probably wash the odor off herself and go back to a relatively normal life. Normal? Hah, that was a joke, there was nothing normal about her life, the world didn’t allow her to be normal. It did beg the question on why this boy was talking to her at all. Even after he’d seen the corpse revert to the Vicious it was a surprise he hadn’t kept trying to fight her anyway, she didn’t exactly look like a friendly guard here to help out. If anything, she looked more like some disturbed vicious-human hybrid. Augh, what a gross thought: daddy-vicious. Solstice pushed the thoughts away; she still held fond memories of both her parents and even remembered her reflection from before the transformation.

 

When the boy came back down the stairs with the requested, err, demanded items Solstice stood up and moved over to him, he was still growing into his man and so she was a bit taller than him, of course that might have been the vicious blood that made her taller. “I’m going to gather my horse; you need to take the subtlest route out of this town. I want you to head about a mile out into the forest and I’ll meet you. Let me make this very clear to you, if you’re caught with that dragon you will be killed. Don’t chance letting yourself be seen by villagers, I don’t care if you think you can trust them. When I leave I want you to wait several minutes and take the rear exit from the house.†Solstice voice held that air of authority, of demand, as if she expected her orders to be followed regardless of threat to life or limb. She didn’t even wait for his answer or his nod of comprehension; if he couldn’t follow these instructions he’d be dead before the week was out anyway and so she simply turned from him and left the cottage.

 

Wayford was a small town and relatively close to the capital of Svarda, so much so that it didn’t merit constant Infurus supervision. Without the threat of being found out immediately she made her way to the stables she’d left her horse at. Her trip over was as it always was through a village, they stared openly at her and gave her a wide birth to avoid her gaze or god forbid, her touch.

 

She could hear the many villagers scurrying about as she approached the tavern, their calls back and forth to ready her horse least they anger ‘the demon.’ Solstice had to keep from outwardly hissing at them like the demon they cursed her as, and instead simply snatched the reins from the boy’s hands and stalked away. They didn’t know what demons looked like, they had no idea how to handle a Vicious and most of them would probably go into that cottage see the Vicious in its true form and be disturbed and horrified beyond words. As if she looked anything like them! But she couldn’t very well say she didn’t act like them. At least she didn’t eat people, anyway.

 

Throwing a leg over the horse, she easily pulled herself up and headed out the way she’d come. She never felt the need to ‘report’ to the humans that begged for her help, the looks on their faces disturbed her and so she simply avoid them. Of course, they usually came to her for confirmation and at the gate the man who had written the letter, Layton, she believed stopped her. She hoped the boy was out of the cottage cause she was about to send them there.

 

He didn’t even manage a word before she cut him off, annoyed that he stood in her way; “Your beast is dead, the corpse is in the cottage to the far southeast end of the village. It seems it took another victim before I came upon it.†She didn’t state the end as if she were ‘too late’ more she gave him a snide look as if he should have somehow known better or been better prepared for a vicious attack. Honestly, she did believe the average human was ignorant and stupid, believing it wouldn’t happen to them and so not being prepared when it does happen to them. There were a dozen things they could have and should have done to help prevent this, but instead they waited until after it occurred and then went screaming for the monstrous Infurus to come save them. They would give her nasty looks as if it were somehow her fault for this, as if she should have prevented the first murder. Early on, when she’d first gotten out of basic training and began monster hunting, she would try to argue there was nothing she could have done, would have practically beg the people to see the fruitlessness. Nothing ever convinced them, they were self-centered and weak, too weak to even protect themselves. Since it was always her fault anyway, she stopped pretending like she cared that another life had been lost. Well, that might be a bit harsh, she had cared at one point, but humans had taken that softness from her and replaced it with bitterness.

 

A pull of the reins had her shifting around Layton, just wide enough to keep from knocking him over but in the end he still had to step back and offered her a nasty curse under his breath, which she glanced back at him with narrowed eyes to make sure he was aware that she’d heard. His eyes bubbled and he quickly bowed his head and scurried off. Stupid human.

 

A mile out into the woods and it proved to be growing into quite thick terrain, she’d be surprised if the boy made it this far without getting lost. Not that she had really given him a specific direction in which to travel, it hadn’t mattered at the time, she’d follow his trail and scent and easily find him. From there she would decide on a path to head. Again she found herself wondering why she was doing this.

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Items of all shapes and sizes were thrown into Aeran's pack as he tried to imagine what he'd need for his journey. He had no idea where he was going or what was going to happen, so he found himself packing all manner of items. From a pan to cook with and a flint and steel to help light fires, to a variety of consumable goods they had been keeping in their larder. His mother was a farmer, and he was no warrior. But he did have his ash-wood bow, and he slung it over his shoulder once his pack was full, along with it's matching quiver. Then he turned to face the silvery-scaled dragon that sat upright, staring at him in the middle of his room. Assessing him with what he interpreted as a sort of quiet dignity.
"I don't know what to do with you..." Aeran muttered, staring at the creature. It was probably too large to fit in any bag he had, and on top of which he didn't think he'd even be able to carry it, with how heavy it had been while lying on top of him. There had to be another option. As he stood there, ready to walk out the door, a thought sprang to the forefront of his mind. "Am I supposed to call you something?" At this, the dragon inclined it's head and looked directly at him. "I don't suppose something like 'spot' would do...?"

 

The dragon snorted at him and he got a profound feeling that it understood him. After that, Aeran didn't feel quite so stupid for talking to it. "So what am I going to call you then..." He muttered, and looked over at his sparsely-filled bookshelf. Scanning the various volumes, he picked one out and read the title aloud, "Let's see... 'Great Warriors of Lumian History'," He turned the book over in his hands and blew off the accumulated dust. "I guess that's probably as good as anything." Aeran opened the book and started flicking through the pages, one after another, calling out the occasional name, "Dwarvin?" He looked up to see the dragon recoil as though it had eaten something foul, "No, I suppose not..." Aeran turned back to the book, "What about 'Leayase'? Says here she was a human archer that never missed, that's cool, right?" He looked back up but the dragon seemed disinterested. He sighed and turned back to the names, listing them off one after another after another. Every time a name was called, she ignored it or showed outward dislike.

"--and Náriel, who--" Aeran jumped as the book was knocked out of his hands. "...Náriel?" He repeated, and the dragon sat back down and looked at him patiently. "Alright then," He laughed, "I guess you're Náriel-- i'm Aeran." He smiled as Náriel snaked forwards and brushed her forehead up against his knee. He placed a hand on her silvery muzzle and shook his head, "What am I supposed to do, Náriel... i'm a hunter, a farmer's son... not a warrior." He sighed but in spite of his fear, confusion and apprehension, the presence of the dragon somehow dulled the pain. As he stood there stroking her muzzle, he came up with an idea. "You can fly!" He smacked his head, feeling like an idiot. "I mean... you can fly, can't you?" He asked, raising an eyebrow. Náriel stared back at him with an expression he couldn't read. "Well... I mean, you will be able to fly, I just need to get you out of the village and then maybe you can just fly overhead, or--" A voice from downstairs interrupted Aeran, mid-sentence. As one, he and Náriel both turned at the noise. 

 

"Aeran?!" The young girl's voice was immediately familiar to him.

He heard a startled cry from downstairs and he quickly looked to Náriel, "Stay here." He turned from the dragon and fled down the stairs just in time to see a red-headed girl fall back against the wall upon seeing the bodies of his mother and the Vicious beside her. Aeran steeled his voice from trembling, "Don't look, Fey." He ran up to her and pulled her eyes away from the carnage, "What are you doing here?" He asked, frowning.

"Someone said your house was the last to be attacked before that thing killed the monster. I was worried you'd been killed... oh, but your mother, Aeran..."

He nodded quietly, unable to reply at first. For a long time they were silent, but he knew that he had to leave and he couldn't wait any longer. If there was one person he could trust, it was Fey. He didn't care what Solstice thought, he knew he could trust her. "I have to leave." His words hit the girl like a slap, she stared at him in disbelief for a long moment and then shook her head.

"No!" She withdrew from him, "You can't!!" 
"I have to." Aeran pressed, "I... things have changed, Fey." He waited as he saw doubt creep into her face, "I think the Queen's soldiers will kill me if they see this mark." He pointed to the scar on his forehead and she frowned, "I'm..." He could hear himself saying the words, but it sounded ridiculous to him. Nevertheless, he found his voice, "... I think... i'm a dragon rider." He said at last.

Laughing with short but adorable snort, Fey quickly stopped herself when she saw his stern expression. "You're serious?!"
"I think so." He muttered.
"But... but Aeran the riders are dead, all the dragons are dead!" Her face cracked into a smile. After a few seconds he knew that there was no convincing her. Regardless of the situation presented before her and the strange scar upon his forehead, Fey could not be convinced on this alone. Aeran opened his mouth and thought to call to Náriel but before the name formed in his mouth, he heard the familiar sound of the dragon descending the steps of his home. Intrigued by the noise as he had once been, Fey turned to see the enormous lizard and for almost a minute, she remained frozen. Saying and doing nothing. If it had not been for the steady rising and falling of her breathing, he would have thought she was a statue.

When at last he could wait no longer, he opened his mouth to speak, and Fey beat him to it. "What do you need?" She replied at last.
Aeran smiled at her, "Thank you." He nodded and briefly explained his situation up to that point. 
"I'll distract the villagers that are already outside, that should buy you some time to get out without being noticed." She smiled wearily as she walked to the broken doorway of his house. Aeran walked up to meet her and Náriel fell in beside him.
"I'm sorry..." Aeran apologised feebly.
"Just... be careful, okay?" She forced a smile onto her face as she went to leave but Aeran grabbed her softly by the arm. Fey had been his closest friend for years, and it pained him to see her leave when he couldn't know if he would ever see her again. More than that, she was special to him. He had thought that maybe one day, if he had enough money, he would ask her father to marry Fey and they might grow old together. The idea pained him as he held her in the doorway and she saw his pain. Náriel remained silent but looked as disturbed by Aeran's mood, if not more so, than Fey did.

"I'll come back, okay?" He added, "One day, I will come back." Aeran nodded to her, "I promise." Fey paused to consider his words and then leant in and kissed him on the cheek and then she was gone. He waited for a few moments until he heard her yelling and shouting, she was drawing all the village into an uproar with tales of another monster on the other side of town, he could already hear men grabbing all manner of dangerous implements and with that, he took his leave. Aeran and Náriel fled towards the forest, unseen by prying eyes, or so they hoped. They reached the edges of the trees within a few minutes and started their trek. They had to find Solstice before it became too dark to see, else they'd get lost. Most of the daylight had already vanished, but there was still just enough to see that they didn't find themselves walking into trees. Though, Náriel seemed to have a much easier time of it than he did. He wondered how good her eyesight was but now wasn't the time for such a thought.

After a long and worrying walk, Aeran had almost begun to think they were lost when he saw a shadowy figure just ahead. As he approached his suspicion was confirmed. It was Solstice. He walked up to her with Náriel in tow and muttered a greeting, "Náriel is too heavy for me to carry her, and I don't think she can fly yet." He said, matter-of-factly as he came up beside her.

Solstice sat atop her horse that was still geared as if going to war in that strange red metal. “Náriel, huh?†For a long moment she eyed the dragon following him like a puppy, not even going to ask how he got her out of the town without being noticed if he couldn’t even manage to carry her. Finally, she drew her attention away, shaking her head of the impossible situation they were in. “We’re heading north to Northhaven, it’s not far, we’ll need to collect supplies. Now, show me your weapons. Travelling in the forests we will encounter all sorts of creatures and you’ll need something that can hold its own, not something that will fall apart or cause more harm to you than them.â€

"Oh..." Aeran hesitated but unslung his ash-wood bow and held it out to show her, when she didn't immediately reply he added, "I'm a hunter." He smiled for a moment and then waited quietly as she made an appraisal. Though he was unsure of whether it was of his bow, or him.

 

Solstice couldn’t help it; she just stared at the battered bow for several long moments, just barely keeping her mouth shut at its poor quality. With a deep breath to wave off the worst of the snide comments that came to mind; she spoke gently as if she knew something nasty was dwelling on her tongue, “A hunter? With that? Right, that will need to be replaced. And your other weapons?†She waited but when he didn’t move to reveal more she was unable to help herself; “For fucks sake, boy, no wonder your mother is dead when you can’t even defend yourself!†A sound similar to a growl slipped between her lips as she threw her cloak back, revealing more of herself than she had to anyone – intentionally – in years, though she was still garbed from neck to toe in black. From her thigh she unlatched a blade that would qualify as a short sword for humans, but she often used it as a dagger. She tossed it toward him with little care of if he managed to catch it or if it hit him, but at least it was still firmly sheathed. “You’ll learn to use that until I can obtain a proper sword for you.â€

Her words bit into Aeran and all he could do to stop himself from lunging at her was to clench his fists and steel himself. Though he managed to grab the hilt of the blade without injury, the weight of the weapon forced him to lower it to the point where it sunk into the cold earth. "It's heavy." Aeran grimaced, trying to lift it with one arm and finding every muscle and joint from shoulder to fingertip scream at him at the exertion.

 

Sneering at him, she replied, “Of course it’s heavy, it goes through flesh and even bone and doesn’t break or bend. Be grateful for its weight and get used to it. I expect you to carry it at all times.â€
Looking from her to the weapon in his hands, Aeran pulled on the sheathe and revealed the blade's metal. A brilliant crimson. He shook his head and addressed her while his gaze was still upon the unusual weapon, "Why is the blade red?" He asked. As he drew the rest of the blade out and held it aloft, Náriel snarled at the sight of the weapon as though seeing an enemy. Noting her reaction, Aeran replaced the blade in it's sheathe and fastened it to his belt.

Solstice couldn’t help but find amusement in the fact that the little dragon was snarling at the blade much like she had herself, of course that could have been knocked up to the fact that Aeran had been under duress. “It’s red because it was made with magic and Vicious blood, much like I was. You’d be wise not to let people see the blade unless you intend to kill them.â€

It felt strange carrying a weapon on him like this, though. The weight was one thing, but the meaning behind the weapon made him uncomfortable. Further, the idea of having to kill someone with it outright disturbed him. But Aeran understood Solstice, or at least on a base level, he felt he did. There was no use arguing, he would accept it quietly for now, because there was no other option. So it seemed that he had become shackled to this woman, though he was quite sure it was likely more the other way around, and now they had to make it to Northhaven. Aeran had never been a religious person, he had never really given it any thought, but regardless, as they set off, he reached out and begged anyone or anything that might have the power, to get him through this ordeal in one piece.

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Solstice didn’t offer him a ride on her mount, she didn’t even let him ride behind her, instead she made him walk, he apparently needed it anyway. After his bout of questions he fell relatively silent, perhaps he sensed her dislike of conversation, perhaps he was seething at her choice words, perhaps he was just considering how much he hated her for whatever reason. Of course, if he hated her it would make it all the easier when she ditched him, for she couldn’t possibly go long with him. At Northhaven she would acquire him his own weapons and from there she would determine the best location for him to become invisible, perhaps taking him to elves? They were the ones who created the dragon riders; they would logically adopt him in, or perhaps just take the dragon from him and throw him to the side. It was still a solution and currently Solstice’s primary.

 

The sun was growing heavy and it wouldn’t last long, she could see fine in the dark, but she was well aware he couldn’t, still she’d push him till he all but begged for a break. Solstice firmly believed he was weak and he needed to be toughened up if he was ever going to survive away from the safety of a village. The memory of the way his eyes lit up at the possibility of being a dragon rider flashed through her mind, she remembered when she had such fanciful beliefs. When she was a child she’d had all sorts of girlish hopes and dreams, primarily she’d dreamed of growing up to be a beautiful woman who would be swept off her feet by prince charming. Even though she realized now that was never the case for any woman, her fantasies had been particularly painful when shattered with a grotesque horn protruding from one side of her skull.

 

Solstice’s face reflected her unpleasant memories as her eyes went from a flat hardness that just seemed as if her face was always stuck in such an angry state to downright hateful, slanting her head down further, eyes burning like fire, her lips drawn thin, and her jaw clenching from grinding her teeth. The angry thumping of her heart grew stronger and she had to make a conscious effort to calm herself, the instinct didn’t like it when she got so upset and would push her to fight, to kill. She craved adrenaline and even more so she craved the immensely empowering sensation of being able to control another being’s life. Slowly, she visibly relaxed, with a soft outtake of breath; every day was a fight against being a monster.

 

Though Aeran was not unaccustomed to walking long distances, he had always done so at a leisurely pace, taking stops when he needed to and often moving slowly to avoid disturbing the wildlife. Now he was under a strict task master who showed no signs of slowing. Suddenly, Aeran's right leg gave in and he stumbled forwards, catching his face on a sharp branch and scratching his cheek. His breathing was ragged and he finally came to a stop, "I can't..." He said hoarsely, his chest heaving, "... I have to... I have to rest..."

 

Solstice allowed her horse to canter along several more steps until she pulled it to a halt. There were two lessons to be learned at this moment, the first being that he obviously needed a lot of work to be comparable to even the lowliest of dragon riders, the second was to know your limits and to not be afraid to speak out. “Passing out because you’re to stubborn to say something is far more embarrassing than actually saying something. You just might be traveling with me for a good while, don’t expect me to coddle you.†She turned the horse sharply and started moving again, “There is a stream not far, pick yourself up and come.†And it really wasn’t far, only about twenty feet or so to their right, Solstice had intentionally kept it within ear shot, but far enough that he wouldn’t hear or notice it through the thick brush.

 

As the forest opened up to the stream, Aeran stumbled over to it and let his face fall into the water, letting the cool liquid run over his head and the back of his neck. Once he felt refreshed he fell back onto his haunches and looked around, trying to see the rest of the forest. The moonlight was enough to get a vague idea of his surroundings, but he was otherwise next to blind. "What now?" He asked curiously. Náriel came to the water's edge and started drinking, ruffling her leathery wings with renewed energy.

 

Solstice slid off the side of the horse and began removing its armor one piece at a time until the horse was bare. It shook, flailing its mane of inky blackness that had been hidden beneath the many heavy layers. Its muscled body flexed as Solstice ran her gloved hand down its side and then over its snout, huffing appreciatively at her. A gentle smile softened the corners of her lips for the creature that was unaware it was supposed to hate her, but it quickly vanished beneath the shroud of Solstice’s hood. She stepped away and the horse moved to the water kneeling down to drink.

 

Walking away from the horse she found a spot to sit against one of the trees hugging the small stream. Her own throat was desperate for water but she would not pull back her hood or remove her gloves to sate her own needs. “Now, you rest, I suggest you not waste time, we will be moving again before the sunrises.†She would quench her thirst once she was confident he was asleep.

 

Nodding, Aeran watched as Náriel finished drinking and moved away from the stream. He heard an unusual noise and turned to look at her, as she seemed just as surprised at the rumble escaping her belly as he was. She looked at him expectantly and then her gaze wandered to Solstice's horse for a moment. "What do dragons eat?" Aeran asked, but before the question could be answered, Náriel vanished into the forest. Aeran waited in silence but within thirty seconds he heard a sharp squeal followed by a firm crunch, and Náriel emerged from a nearby bush, holding a limp rabbit in her jaws. Throwing her head back, the dragon snapped the large morsel down in just three bites and then let out a noise that almost sounded like a purr before she crossed over to him and laid down, placing her long neck and head on his lap. "Well I guess that answers that question, then..." Aeran muttered, half-laughing. He sighed; the day's activities had taken a lot out of him. He was more tired than hungry himself, and so he lay down to sleep alongside Náriel. As he lay in the darkness though, his back to Solstice, his muscles finally relaxed and the events of the day washed over him like a great tsunami. His mother's death hit him as though he had only just realized and he began to cry in silence, it took him a long time before he was finally so exhausted that sleep could take him.

 

Listening to him sob had been hard, she wanted to go over and yell at him to shut up, even though she knew he was desperately trying to keep quiet. He didn’t want her around as it was, so it begged the question why she was bothering. It didn’t matter though, she could both smell and hear his tears and the entire time up until he’d finally passed out from exhaustion she’d sat with her fists clenched.

 

When she was finally confident he was deep in sleep she unclasped her cloak, letting it fall into a pool of black fabric and then came off each glove, exposing those parts of her that she hated most. Before the last glove had even touched the ground she’d moved to the water to drink heartily, the cool water refreshing and revitalizing.

 

The horse was still awake but it eyed her in a gentle expression as if nothing were out of place. Even with her eerie yellow eye strained on it, it merely gazed back at her. She couldn’t help but to move over to the creature to lather it in more affection, knowing it was literally the only thing she could show any sort of kindness to. Curled up next to its large body as it sat on the ground, she nuzzled her face into its neck. The warmth in her chest brought another wide smile to her lips, but this one she did not immediately push away; instead she simply sighed and sat leaned against it for many long minutes, enjoying the contact that was not met with repulsion or hatred. “What a good boy….†She whispered affectionately in a tone that was alien coming from her lips. The horse huffed at her and curled its large neck so its head rested on her shoulder.

 

An ache in her stomach reminded her of Náriel and she grinned, the little dragon was adorable and she was slightly disappointed she couldn’t get closer to her. Regardless, she needed food and so did her horse so she pulled herself from the horse and with a gentle brush of her claws through its mane she cooed to it; “Stay and watch over our young charges while I go find us food.†The horse just stared at her, whether it understood her or not it didn’t move when she left and vanished into the forest.

 

She could have caught game, but honestly, she didn’t care to. She was to pleased with the gentle horse to think of taking life at the moment, and much preferred sitting with the creature and feeding it berries and fruits she’d scavenged. The leftovers she stored in an extra pouch and left it in front of Aeran for when he woke. With her gloves and cloak hiding her features once again and her longsword unsheathed and resting against her shoulder, prepared should something come about, she allowed herself sleep.

 

As Infurus she didn’t need a whole lot of sleep and was awake far before dawn, though for several long minutes she simply sat there, staring at her charges, letting her mind roam with questions she had no answers for. Sheathing her sword she took the few steps over to him, but kept a healthy distance should his dragon decide to suddenly attack her. A moment of kindness kept her from kicking him, but her voice wasn’t much gentler, the sound was booming and the trees rattled with the force; “Wake up, boy! It’s time to start moving!â€

 

Waking with a start, Aeran rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He was groggy and as he moved, he realised his muscles ached more than they ever had done before. He sniffed as the cold air bit at his lungs and he slowly, numbly, pulled the pouch towards him and gratefully ate his breakfast in silence. Stopping only for a moment to offer a handful to Náriel who turned her nose up at it and waited for him to finish. When he was done with breakfast he stood up, stretching and yawning. "How far before we reach Northhaven?" He asked, blinking awake.

 

Solstice had already geared up the horse that after having a good night’s rest was prancing with the desire to get on the move again, even with the heavy equipment. One hand on the saddle, she easily hoisted herself onto the horse, “We should arrive just before nightfall if we don’t dally.†Whether he was prepared or not she turned the horse and started through the heavy brush, the trained horse easily stepping around and through it, smart enough to avoid uneven turf or prickly bushes.

 

By midday, she was growing hungry herself, she hadn’t eaten a true meal since the morning prior and so she knew he was suffering. Rather than push him to his limits again, as was not wise when dealing with hunger, she suddenly dismounted. “Well, hunter, now is the time to prove your worth and go catch us some game. I’m patient.†To a degree she was patient, not so much when she felt something should be simple or easy, like hunting. Though she wouldn’t be waiting anyway she was actually going to head out and find sustenance for the horse and possibly herself if he failed.

 

"Alright then, I will." Aeran replied, with more than a hint of indignation in his tone. As he readied his bow and quiver, Náriel came alongside him and stared up at him. "What?" He asked, and then realized, "No. You can't come with me. Stay here." He started walking into the denser forest but Náriel gave chase and he looked at her irritably. "Well if you're coming you have to be quiet, you can't just stomp about." He muttered, and together the pair walked out of sight of their camp. As he left he called out, "You can get a fire going." Pleased at having had the last word but equally worried about his ability to back it up, Aeran moved stealthily through the forest, hoping to catch sight of an animal trail. He had been gone for a short while when he caught sight of a young deer in the distance, sipping from the rushing water further downstream. Nocking an arrow, Aeran pulled back and rose to his full height but as he readied to loose his arrow, something moved next to the deer, startling it. He looked to his side and realized that Náriel was nowhere to be seen. Cursing inwardly, Aeran loosed his arrow and it flew towards its target but the startled deer moved at the last moment and the arrow harmlessly whistled past.

 

"Damn!" He muttered, nocking another arrow. But the deer was already bounding further into the forest, out of target range. As it leapt from the ground, crossing the stream in a single leap, another creature intercepted it, knocking it to the ground and killing it with a single bite to its throat. The deer collapsed immediately, vibrating as its muscles rippled in a death throw, before it slumped over and fell still. Confused, Aeran ran to the scene and pressed his lips firmly together as he saw the culprit, much as he suspected. Náriel lay over the kill, as though guarding it from theft. Pulling the bow over his shoulder he stared at her irritably, "I would have hit that if you hadn't startled it!" He said angrily, but the only response the dragon gave was a head roll that somehow conveyed a feeling of, 'of course you would have'. He picked up the deer and slung it over his shoulder and together the pair walked back to Solstice. When they finally came back to camp and saw her waiting, Aeran let the deer fall to the ground and raised an eyebrow, "There. Alright?" He crossed their camp and pulled a piece of deadwood over to the fire to use as a makeshift seat.

 

His last snarky comment to her had only made her smile, knowing he wasn’t watching she allowed the gentle show of emotion. While he’d been away she’d done as he’d requested and made a fire, probably just as well that he had said something else she might have forgotten he needed meat cooked to eat it. She shook her head with all the possible scenarios that could have gone so wrong.

 

She had walked the horse through the woods with her, collecting fruit and berries for the creature and even with a bountiful harvest she had come back long before Aeran had finished with plenty of time to start the fire. Magic made it easy to start fires, a little heat and poof a fire, her magic was different from the elves, her magic was… wrong. True, natural magic came from the ancient language, she had no idea where her’s came from but it required no words, only force of will.

 

When Aeran came back she was sitting on the ground, the horse sitting behind her munching at fruits and berries left on the ground before it. Solstice stared at the carcass for several long moments and an almost vicious chuckle escape from her lips, “Do you intend to eat the fur and entrails as well? Please, tell me you know how to clean a deer, hunter.†But she wasn’t just saying ‘hunter’ like a title, she was saying it in a snide, mocking way that showed she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if his answer was ‘no.’

 

If he hadn't been convinced of her lack of faith in him, Aeran might have thought her mocking comments were used to incite him to action so that she might remain sedentary. He sighed and walked over to the carcass and preceded to skin, gut and clean the meat in the stream before he speared the choicest pieces to a couple of sticks and let them rest beside the fire. Within a few minutes the meat was sizzling and Náriel had a whole leg to gnaw at. Aeran sat back down and stared into the flames of the fire, lost in his thoughts.

 

Solstice left him to his thoughts while they ate. When the horse had finished it had laid its head on one of its hooves turned towards her as if cradling her. Solstice had to resist every urge in her body not to lean back on the creature and pet it affectionately.

 

She had two slabs of the deer meat before she was satisfied, though she didn’t harass Aeran into cutting her second portion. Instead she prepped it herself - one handed as she refused to remove the glove on her right hand. She hid the fact well by simply using the dagger in her right hand making it seem as if there was no need to take it off.

 

With her glove back on and her dagger cleaned she turned her angry eyes on Aeran, “Time for you to learn to work that sword,†And she drew her longsword pointing the end at him. 

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Feeling a little frayed at the edges after his enforced march through the forests of his home town, Aeran stood up and looked at the sword in Solstice's hand. For a moment he hesitated, hand on the hilt of his blade. "This is a bad idea." He muttered, looking over at Náriel as though she might tell him something useful. The silver-scaled dragon lay down a few feet away, watching the pair with a certain degree of curiosity. "I've never even held a sword before..." He added, drawing the blade and trying to lift it. It took him a moment to hold it upright and steady but once he had it centred he stood before Solstice, waiting silently.

Solstice was not a patient teacher; he had barely stabilized himself when she lunged at him, slashing her sword across, angling it just so he would think she was aiming for his head, but in reality she’d end up striking the other shining red blade -- assuming he blocks or attempts to block at all. "A bad idea, would be sending you out on your own without any training. You think that little bow is going to ward off a Vicious that is both faster and stronger than you?â€

 

Aeran lifted his blade in the nick of time, at the last moment he realised the blade was swinging to his own. Struggling to twist it in the other direction, he managed to catch Solstice's attack at the last second, but it was not so much a deflection, as when the steel bounced against steel, he was thrown onto his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. Concentrating on running, surviving. Even though he had been told he might become a dragon rider, it somehow hadn't occurred to him that he would be fighting. That he would be killing. The thought of it made him sick, and he tasted bile as he pulled himself back up. "I don't think this sword is either." He replied, taking up the stance he observed that Solstice was using. 

“You’re right, in your inept hands, that sword might as well be a twig!†Solstice swung again just as he was rising to stand again – at least she was considerate enough to wait until he was mostly on his feet.

Mentally cursing her, Aeran's newly adopted stance allowed him to take the blow without quite such an unbalancing effect. However, the force of her attack still slid his feet across the ground several inches and shook his arms so hard that he thought he was going to drop the blade. "This is too hard!" Aeran threw his sword to the ground and turned, touching a hand to his forehead in frustration. What did she expect of him?!

 

Solstice laughed, but she didn’t stop, neither did she outright kill him though. She did however throw herself forward as if she were about to strike down on him - regardless of him being weapon-less - but at the last moment she feigned to the side and instead kneed him in the stomach. Aeran let out a sharp cry as he hit the ground, falling beside his loaned sword. But at his pain, Náriel leapt from her position watching the sparring pair and stood between the two, her lips curling back to reveal her dagger-like fangs, her tail whipping back and forth while Aeran tried to stop the world from spinning.

Solstice stared at the dragon for a long moment, unalarmed, before turning her attention back to Aeran. She pressed the tip of her sword into the ground and leaned on it. “Yes, let’s throw down our weapons while the crazy monster lady is attacking us. That’s a clever one. Get up, boy, we’re not done.â€

Trying to shake off the effects of the blow he'd received, Aeran slowly pulled himself back up, wavering unsteadily. As he did so, he pulled his sword up from the ground and tried to take deeper lungfuls of air, but his chest was still tight and his belly was throbbing with pain. Once he had pulled himself together, Náriel reluctantly moved to one side. "What are you anyway?" He choked out, wanting to hurt her, "You look like that thing that killed my mother. So you're a monster hunter - so what?!" Aeran shouted his last words and lifted his blade, charging her and swinging with a downwards arcing attack.

Solstice raised a brow at his attempts at insults, as if every human under the sun hadn’t already called her every possible name his feeble mind could ever hope to come up with. As he came at her, she acted intentionally lazy in her motions and yet still easily dodged his attack letting him charge past her. With him past her she took an opportunity at his open back, kicking the backs of his knees to force him to fall again. “It’s always better to dodge; takes less energy than withstanding the full force of an attack.â€

 

Their sparring went on for over an hour, to the point where Aeran had exhausted all his stamina reserves. When they were finally done, he fell to his knees and let the sword drop from his hands. He rested his arms on his legs and saw then that his hands had blistered and bled while fighting. He clutched at them in painful silence as he watched Solstice readying her horse for them to resume their travels. Náriel padded up to him and pushed her forehead against his shoulder, and though it made him ache, he accepted her affection gladly. It was comforting to still have someone to turn to. He sheathed his weapon and then pulled himself up one last time, "So what now?" He asked, irritably.

Solstice climbed onto the horse, not a bead of sweat on her, even garbed in her black gear with the sun weighing down on them. “We continue to Northhaven. We still have a few hours of daylight left.â€

 

The unlikely trio travelled in silence and little disturbed the rest of their journey. At times, they came to a stop, halted by something Solstice had seen or heard that Aeran thought was either a figment of her imagination, or her senses must have been unusually keen. By the time Northhaven was in sight, the sun was waning in the sky. He could see the town guard carrying torches to light the sconce placed throughout the city, the port and the main gate where the town was being heavily patrolled. They came to a halt a stone's throw from the edge of the forest and Aeran frowned looking from the city to Solstice and back again, "Why are we stopping here?" He asked, frowning and staring hungrily at the gates in the distance. A soft bed and a decent cooked meal would do him the world of good.

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As they came upon the village Solstice started to notice the village was not so peaceful and with the sun already melting into the horizon, the sky gloomy with the coming darkness, it was abnormal. The town should have been settling down for the evening, the citizens preparing for bed, instead she felt the hum of anxiety, of energy buzzing around like flies. Something had the people bothered and it was keeping them from their beds. Solstice pulled her horse to a halt a few yards from the village so they were still guarded by the foliage, far enough that she could not smell any Infurus guards and that meant they could not smell her either. She slipped off the side of the horse and threw the reins to Aeran.

 

“Stay put, something is amiss….†She barely left him the brief warning, spoken on a whispered tone that was more curious to discover the issue than of her charge’s fate. With her hood drawn low over her eerie eyes and the mane of red hiding the left side of her face she eased through the brush and stepped onto the dirt path of the village, easily getting lost in the people buzzing about.

 

Solstice made her way to the market district but as she wandered she was disturbed by the tales of the villagers. Everyone was talking about the rider found in Wayford and what’s worse… the Infurus with him… named Solstice. Her fists clenched so tight she could feel the imprints of the claws on her right hand as they lengthened and were quickly slicing through her gloves. She was going to beat the shit out of him. Realizing the threat of being caught was now much higher than it had been moments prior she subtly drew magic around her, magic much like the Vicious used when taking a human form; hiding her aura, her scent, and ultimately making herself blend in with the rest of the crowd so the Infurus would not notice her.

 

The stands were all closed, not that it matter, she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to do business with them if everyone knew she was a wanted criminal, of course, she didn’t care to help the boy at all at this point. He had officially fucked over any semblance of a life she may have had.

 

She kept her head bowed low and her cloak pulled tightly around her as she headed back to the forest she’d come from, making a point of avoiding the other Infurus buzzing about, even though they shouldn’t be able to pick out her aura or scent it doesn’t mean someone completely shrouded in black wouldn’t be suspicious anyway. Solstice was practically vibrating with anger by the time she stepped through the veil of forest to reach Aeran, her head raised just enough to peer at him from beneath her hood, her eyes blazing fire. She snatched the reins from his hands and started walking further into the woods and away from the village. Being in his presence was only making her angrier; she only caught herself when she felt the wetness of her own blood coating the inside of her glove. She stopped abruptly and yanked the glove off exposing the blackish flesh that weaved up to her elbow and the angry talons slightly curved around each finger. Bright red blood shone on each claw and at the palm of her hand were little crescent cuts.

 

Her eyes jerked from her grotesque hand to Aeran’s face. In a moments breath she had shoved him up against the nearest tree, her right hand holding him at the collar tight enough to restrict his breathing, but not completely. “Whoever the fuck you told, I guarantee, is dead now.†Her blood stained his clothes and her claws began slicing through the flimsy fabric. The furious fire in her eyes promised a painful death yet the clenching of her jaw suggested she wasn’t quite ready to murder him though was just barely preventing herself.

 

Aeran struggled against Solstice's crushing grip, flailing, kicking and punching. "Let go of me!" He screamed, trying to force himself free but finding his own strength hopelessly inadequate against her own. He heard Náriel's roar from behind the woman, but she made no attempt to move and he realized that the dragon was forced to remain as she was, only because Solstice's deadly claws were already about his throat. "Get off me!!" Aeran choked, gritting his teeth in anger.

 

And then she dropped him, though she didn’t move away, instead she stood like a statue, her hand still suspended in the air, anger seeming to vibrate off of her. This boy had no idea what he’d done, her anger was misplaced, she realized; “You ignorant child. You have no idea what you’ve done.†Suddenly her fist shot out and crashed into the tree behind him, splintering it around her hand and drawing more blood from beneath the blackened skin. “I hope you didn’t care about them.†She hissed and pulled her hand free from the tree, forcing herself to back up lest she decide to kill him anyway.

 

Turning away from him she raised her hand and began picking out the splinters, the slight pain clearing the haze of fury from her eyes. She wanted to beat him into the ground, if not with her fists than with her words, but she knew it would be a pointless endeavor; he was literally clueless to his own errors.

 

Rubbing his neck, Aeran pulled himself together, "What are you talking about?" He muttered, scowling at her.

 

Solstice glared over her shoulder at him. She chided herself of her anger and forced herself to take several deep breaths before she spoke. “We’re wanted. They found out about the dragon, they know you’re Náriel's rider and they know you left Wayford with an Infurus named Solstice. Whoever you told, whether they squealed or the information was forced from them, we’re officially fucked. Thanks for that. I didn’t realize something as simple as ‘don’t talk to anyone’ would be such a difficult order to follow.†She sneered and began walking into the forest once again. The horse watched its rider wander a few steps before it began after her.

 

"That can't be." Aeran replied indignantly, crossing his arms as confusion and worry intruded on his otherwise collected thoughts, "I didn't..." His voice trailed off as he shook his head, it wasn't possible. Yes, he had told Fey about what had happened to him. But there was no way she would have told anyone about it, and if she didn't tell the guards then they couldn't know. "She wouldn't have told them anything!" Aeran spat, trying to contain his temper. Náriel quickly ran to his side, never losing her attention on Solstice, her lips curled back in unhidden rage.

 

Solstice chuckled a dark, vicious sound that held no mirth. “The Infurus never kept things from Aedra, if she wanted to know what time we ate breakfast in the morning we’d tell her, why? Because Aedra is a vicious woman and she has means at her disposal to do just about whatever she wants. If someone thought they could be clever and hide something from her - if she didn’t torture them directly - she might torture their friends or family, and if physical torture didn’t work… well there is always sorcery. Nothing is as invasive as someone probing into your mind and ripping your thoughts and memories from you. The more you resist the more painful it is and it’s impossible to not resist.†Solstice let her words sink in before she added; “Many people die from the pain.â€

 

"Sorcery..." Aeran repeated the word, unsure of what it really meant. He knew sorcerers existed, but to think that a person could invade your mind whenever they wanted. If that were true, then maybe they had done that to Fey, or maybe the entire village, trying to find out if they knew anything. Then he realised how stupid he'd been. Of course sorcerers are dangerous, if the Queen really was a sorceress, and took the throne by force and use of dark magic, then he should have known better than to say anything. He could have killed his friend without ever having realised it. Lost in his thoughts, Aeran remained reticent.

 

Solstice could practically feel his mind mulling over the words as he became lost in his own thoughts. She continued into the forest for a mile or so before she stopped and plopped down by a tree, the walk had at least calmed her fury, but she was still left with questions on how to handle this new turn of events. Even if Aeran’s now dead friend hadn’t seen her face, Aeran had given her name and there was only one Infurus quite like Solstice, at least to her knowledge anyway. Anyone would recognize her now.

 

The thought of ditching him was powerful, but as she turned her head and watched his dim witted expression she sighed. Where would she go if she did? And to what end? It seemed impossible to her that Aeran could be anything other than a boy who’d stumbled upon a dragon, the idea of him becoming one of the great dragon riders was almost laughable to her. Was it even worth the effort to help him? But in the end it didn’t matter, he’d managed to bind her fate to his or to solitude. She had lived in solitude for the most part anyway, so why not return to it? She could leave him to his own devices, he’d die or perhaps by dumb luck the elves would stumble upon him. Maybe she could plead that she’d found and lost him, no, never mind, that would never work, Aedra would kill her without much thought. She could drag him to Aedra, but as she looked at him she was faced with the same dilemma she’d encountered the first time she’d met him, she simply couldn’t kill the innocent boy and taking him to Aedra was as good as killing him. Ultimately, the slight, almost impossible chance it seemed that he just might become a rider was enough to keep her on track, at least for now.

 

“What’s your name?†She suddenly asked, peering at him with the one yellow eyes, scrutinizing his features even in the dim light offered by the rising moon.

 

"Hmm?" For a few seconds, her words were just noise. The silence had gone on for so long, and he had been so consumed by his thoughts that when Solstice asked for his name, it didn't quite register at first. "A-Aeran." He said quietly, bending down to rub his sore feet, grateful at the reprieve from their journey, whether it was long or short.

 

She didn’t seem to acknowledge his name and instead moved directly into her next comment; “You need to rest. I will be waking you in a few hours when I leave to obtain your equipment.â€

 

"Right." Aeran nodded, opened his mouth to say something and changed his mind. Then laid down and joined by Náriel, settled in to get what little rest he could.

 

Solstice leaned against the tree and closed her eyes for the few hours until midnight. It was all she would need and as expected she opened her eyes when the moon was high in the sky, she could hear Aeran’s soft breathing close by. Rising to her feet she moved over to Aeran, there was no point in wasting time. Apparently her rested mind was nicer than her tired mind as she knelt by him and touched his shoulder, “Wake up, Aeran. I have to go into the town now, and it’s not wise for you to be asleep without protection.†She nudged him a few more times until she was satisfied he wouldn’t fall back to sleep and stood to leave. Stopping at the tree line, she glanced back to Náriel, “Make sure he stays awake.†She warned before bolting off into the darkness.

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The night was cold, and because he knew he had to hide, he could not light a fire to keep himself warm. When he was woken by Solstice as she left their impromptu camp, he groaned and pulled himself up, barely awake. "Wh..." He muttered, licking his lips and almost falling back to sleep, but Náriel quickly snaked under his neck and nudged the side of his head with her rough, silver snout. "Mm!" Aeran sniffed, trying to blink himself fully awake. He let out a deep sigh when he realised that Solstice had left him by himself. Well, along with his scaly companion. Aeran shivered, he would have given anything at that moment to have a fire. It was at that moment that something occurred to him, and he turned to face Náriel. He had previously felt silly speaking to her before, but now in the darkness of the night, seeing her eyes staring back at him, he was certain she understood him.
"Can you breathe fire?" He asked, putting his hands on his knees.

The dragon blinked at him and then after a moment shook her head, though there was a hint of something distasteful in the way she did it, as though she were shaking off something quite disgusting from the end of her muzzle. "No... I guess not." Aeran replied, "Maybe you need to be bigger, or older, or something..." He looked around their camp, "And I don't suppose it would be a very good idea right now, even if you could." She shook her head once more, but this time it was affirmative to him. They sat in silence for a long while, studying one another's features. She was truly unique, nothing he had ever imagined seemed to compare with her. Staring at one another, he felt the same alien presence he had done several times before, intruding on his mind. For a fleeting moment he was terrified, thoughts of torture and sorcery swept into his mind but as it did, the alien consciousness tried to put him at ease. 

"I'm such an idiot." He muttered, smiling. "It's you." He added, shaking his head, "It was always you." With difficulty, Aeran allowed his mind to open as best he could, and Náriel's consciousness flooded him with a range of emotions. It was almost overwhelming at first. Joy, excitement, fear, pride, doubt and an abundance of love washed over him in hot waves. He couldn't understand what any of it meant besides the obvious, but it was incredibly intense. Watching her face, he tried to do the same and her face softened as he tried to project what she meant to him, for having helped him and comforted him. Náriel nuzzled into his neck and then as quickly as they had touched, her consciousness broke contact with him and bounded into the darkness of the forest. "Wait!!" Aeran called out after her, before he could stop himself. He looked around but when he was finally sure that nobody had heard him, he leapt up and ran after her. The forest was thick and in the darkness of the night, he scratched his face and hands several times, trying to push through the branches. It only took a few minutes, but he came upon a large clearing. The moon shone down on this spot as though it was made for that place alone. 

"It feels good to be out of the forest..." He said to himself, grimacing at what had been his surroundings for too long already. From across the other side of the clearing, Náriel came running up to him, stamping down the grass as she did so. Then when she was just a few feet away, she leapt into the air, extended her wings and for just a split-second, she glided. Then unceremoniously she crashed into him, sending him straight to the ground where he smacked his head off the cold, damp earth. 
"Hey!!" He winced, rubbing the back of his head and feeling a small lump quickly developing, "You could be a little more careful, y'know!" 
Náriel's face diminished with his chiding but then she quickly shrugged it off and tried again, this time she held herself in the air for almost a minute before she frantically tried to stop herself from descending to the ground, but with no luck. "I don't suppose you can fly yet either, can you?" He asked.

A snarl escaped her lips and he got the distinct impression that she had expressed something to the effect of 'you try it', before she resumed. It took a while, and a great amount of assistance from Aeran trying to hold her in the air under her stomach, just so she could remain suspended for a few precious seconds longer. She seemed capable of holding herself in the air through a mixture of gliding and flying, though only for a couple of minutes at a time. They had been at this practice for what felt like hours, and the moon had certainly made it's way partially across the night sky. The chill of the air had seeped right into his bones, and Aeran was close to collapsing, but Náriel sensed his fatigue and led him back to their camp and although he could not fall asleep again, he sat up and Náriel shoved her way into his lap and stood upright so her body pressed against his chest. Her intense heat emanated from her and warmed him substantially and he let out a sigh of pleasant relief.

 

"Maybe we can get you flying before Solstice comes back." Aeran said, looking at Náriel with a curious, gauging expression. At Solstice's name, the dragon bristled and rustled her wings uncomfortably. "I know she..." He began, but stopped himself unsure what to say, but found the words eventually, "... I know she's rough, and... but she saved me, didn't she?" He asked, frowning. Náriel stared back at him and unable to understand her expression his face screwed up in irritation, "But she brought that monster to my village!" He added, pushing her from his lap and standing up to stretch his legs. Aeran began to pace as he spoke, "I don't -- how am I supposed to trust her?" Shaking his head, "But then why would she take us this far if it wasn't to protect us? Is she really like those monsters? The..." He searched for the word, "... Vicious." The name tasted bitter on his tongue, "I don't know. This shouldn't be so hard!" Aeran turned to the nearest tree and punched it without reserving, splitting a couple of his knuckles which slowly began to weep little droplets of blood. "Aren't people good, or evil?!" He shouted, "If i'm a Rider... SHOULDN'T I BE ABLE TO TELL?!" He screamed at the forest, his throat hoarse with the exertion and then collapsed in front of the tree he had assaulted. Náriel cautiously approached him and pressed her rough, hot cheek against his own and he calmed just a little. "What do I do...?" He asked, staring at her.

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The village was quiet by the time she’d reached it but still there were the few Infurus guards lingering about. Solstice had no idea the depth of what she’d gotten herself into, but Northhaven wasn’t big enough to merit this many guards, it was all because of the rider that she’d helped. For many long moments she stood at the edge of the village her back to one of the shacks completely shrouded in darkness.

 

Magic did not come naturally to her, she had not been a sorceress before the turning, she’d been ignorant to the ways of magic. No, her talents were something that was trained and forced upon her in Aedra’s Infurus concentration camps. The feeling of it sliding through her body was not smooth or gentle, it did not feel warm and comforting instead it felt burning, like her insides were melting, it was a disquieting feeling and every time she was reminded of how queer it was that she could perform these monstrous feats. This was not the way magic was meant to be done. Without direction it would hum about her body like a black mist that seeped from her pores, it was alarming to her how appropriate it appeared against her right hand, swirling around the black fingers and vicious claws.

 

She let the power wash over it, the pain it brought was not unbearable but neither was it something she preferred doing, of course, if she’d had her way she probably never would have learned to fight in the first place. The Vicious could do many things with magic and her magic was born of the Vicious and dark sorcery, so her capabilities closely resembled those things, with a few tweaks here and there.

 

As she prepared to enter the village, a few deep breaths, the eerie mist swelled around her ankles and the sound of each step seemed to dissipate into the ground. The Infurus would have trouble locating her in the first place, she matched her aura and scent to that of Lumia’s essence, with only their sight to capture her she had even managed to hinder that. The strange dark magic shifted and spun around her, blurring her figure, and melding her with her surroundings. Though her physical form still existed, it didn’t appear too. One would have to catch her in the light of the torches to see her physical form, and even then it would appear off, like she was little more than a misplaced shadow.

 

The streets were bare so she kept to the alleys and darkest corners, it was a frustratingly slow process though. There were torches everywhere, it seemed down every corner was another Infurus patrolling, getting caught would mean certain death. Each new Infurus that caught her attention only reiterated how much trouble she’d gotten herself into. She really had screwed herself, and yet she pushed on. The village felt a dozen times larger without the hustle and bustle of people buzzing about, and she felt like a beacon.

 

There it was, finally, the weapon’s shop. Solstice waited pressed flat against the wall with only the sound of the ocean not twenty feet away to calm her. Her heart thrummed violently with adrenaline and innate fear of being caught as the guard’s footsteps pounded just around the corner from her. She closed her eyes and prayed for serenity to ease her racing mind. Before long the guard turned off as she knew he would and began down another path. She had no time to waste and slipped around into the bright light of the torches where anyone glancing by would see her, magic or no magic. From inside her cloak, latched onto her belt was her thieves’ tools, she was no thief but that didn’t make the talent any less useful. Kneeling down she pressed her ear to the door and began working at her laborious task. Two minutes was all she needed, but already she could hear a guard marching towards her. Sweat caught in her brow, but she urged herself to remain calm as she heard the tumblers click into place. Just one more! She chided herself, but the steps were growing nearer. How close was he? The lock suddenly clicked and she pushed the door in, but not before-

 

“Hey!†Solstice cursed at the voice behind her and slammed the door, knowing there was no point in relocking it, he would bust it down in the next moment. Her feet carried her faster than she could determine the halls and was just barely sliding around corners before throwing herself into her next sprint. The house opened up into the back parlor where the forge and work stations were, the walls lined with the weaponry she sought. No time to be picky, her eyes ran across the weapons at lightning speed, snatching down two daggers, a sword, and a bow. She carried the three blades under one arm and slung the bow across her torso before breaking down the back door where the shop keeper would have raised the awning to do business.

 

The guard was right on her tail, she could feel him and she knew better than to wait until he grabbed her. Solstice spun around drawing one of the daggers from beneath her arm and slicing clean through his throat without the slightest waver in her motions; she swung true, each and every time. The Infurus fell, but the noise she’d cause now would not go unnoticed. Already she could hear footsteps from every direction hurrying towards the chaos. Panic swelled in her chest and she had to fight with the natural response, forcing herself to remain calm as she slipped the dagger back into the sheathe and hurried down the next alley.

 

Solstice jerked from one alley to the next, but they had her trail now and they were beginning to surround her; her only tactic now being to get the hell out. The edge of the forest came into her vision and she could have screamed with relief, but she knew it was no safer than the village. She bound over fallen logs and raised roots, the foliage violent on her skin as her hood had long since been yanked back.

 

Searing pain shot from her shoulder and she stumbled but only for the briefest moment before she began again. An arrow, lodged into her shoulder, she was able to reach back and snap off the end but had to trade the weaponry into her dominant arm, which meant she wouldn’t be as quick should one of them catch up to her.

 

Aeran’s scent was not far ahead, her mind already forming a plan and she just hoped it worked. Solstice broke through the line of trees but didn’t stop, rushing to Aeran and yanking him to his feet, “Take off your shirt!†She yelled, before jolting over to the horse, pulling the beast to its feet, as it quickly noticed her panic and began prancing. “NOW!†Solstice screamed back at Aeran. The sound in the distance was growing closer.

 

Confused and startled not only by Solstice's sudden appearance but her unusually panicked demeanour and blood-stained clothes. Though he didn't understand, and wanted to ask a dozen questions, he quickly untied the leather ribbons on his sleeveless dark brown jerkin, pulling it off with a struggle and handing it to her, "What's going on?!" He asked, and heard a low rumbling noise coming from the depths of Náriel's chest; he frowned and looked back at Solstice, her panic infectiously spreading to him.

 

Solstice ignored him as she snatched the shirt from him and tied it around the horse’s neck loosely but well enough it wouldn’t fly off before smacking the horse’s rear. It bucked and took off, upon which Solstice grabbed Aeran’s arm with her left hand, wincing as it sent a shock of pain through her. “Now, isn’t the time!†She hissed while dragging him into the forest, sparing a glance back at the dragon to make sure she was following. “Quickly!†But the footsteps were still growing closer, even as she forced the boy to run with her, even injured he couldn’t move as quickly as she could and it wasn’t helping her alarm.

 

A level of relief washed over her as she felt the group of soldiers split off following the horse’s trail, but the other half went after them, that was still four men. She hissed under her breath as she forced them on. “We’re going to have to fight them.†She warned Aeran, but never stopped running, her hand like a vice around his wrist, yanking him to his feet should he stumble.

 

She pulled them to a stop in an open clearing, or relatively open anyway. Solstice shoved the sword into his hands and wedged the daggers into his belt. Her eyes met his, and they showed her determination; “I will do what I can, but you must be prepared to fight them. Don’t leave yourself open, keep your sword strong, and watch their eyes.†She gave him the few words of preparation that she could muster before the four Infurus came through the forest and into the clearing with them. Immediately, Solstice stepped in front of Aeran and Náriel, drawing her massive longsword, its angry red blade glinting in the moonlight.

 

“Queen Aedra will kill you for this betrayal, Solstice.†One of them spoke, stepping forward revealing his face in the twilight. He appeared no more than twenty five, he was decently looking and it only infuriated Solstice, other Infurus appeared human, normal, she looked like some sort of monster hybrid.

 

Even as her panic melted into anger and excitement at the coming battle, she masked it all with a grin, baring her small fangs, “Kill me? Aedra would torture me for the rest of eternity if she had her way. It’s a good thing I don’t intend to give her that pleasure.†Solstice voice spoke of only confidence and arrogance, none of the worry that had shone when speaking to Aeran.

 

Watching as the four Infurus warriors began to descend upon Solstice, Aeran drew his sword and held it up, a feat he only found possible perhaps because of the adrenaline coursing through his body, yet was equally guilty for making him shake with apprehension. One of the four Infurus broke away and turned his attention on Aeran. Náriel roared ferociously, the noise so loud that a flock of birds broke the tree canopy and fled into the sky, screeching frantically.

"It's true!" The man called over his shoulder to his comrades, without taking his eyes off of Aeran or Náriel, "The little shite has a dragon!!"

 

Solstice didn’t get to draw the guard’s attention back to her as the other Infurus took this call as incentive to kill the targets. The first attack came hard, all three of them in unison fell upon her, she dodge out of the way of two, and managed to deflect the third, but it was still a heavy strike and she felt it up into her arm. The one who’d made contact was already twisting into another elegant strike, they had all undergone the same training as she had, they had a great advantage over her, so she’d have to take that away, which would mean taking massive risks and essentially hoping to surprise them. Solstice ducked into a roll as they lunged at her again, but they were prepared for her motion and one of them met her as she sprung to her feet, just barely managing to catch his hand before his blade would delve into her stomach. Her smaller feminine body made it easy for her to twist and release his hand so he thrust into the air, but just as quickly as she’d moved out of his range she’d stepped into another. He grabbed her arms and trapped her against his torso. Another came up and grabbed her horn pressing a blade against her throat, “Look at this disgusting freak of a beast. Aedra really fucked up on you!†He cackled at her and Solstice couldn’t help but be reminded of the training camp, it was so stupid, just senseless bullying but it didn’t make her any less angry. At one point in her life the tormenting had upset her, she’d cried over it, but eventually she just got vicious about, like she did now.

 

Solstice snarled at him, baring her fangs like the monster he believed her to be, distracting him long enough for her to kick out, using the Infurus still holding her as a support. The muscles in her thighs flexed with power the other Infurus weren’t even capable off, throwing the man yards away from her and into the tree, watching it splinter upon impact. Her feet touched the ground for a brief second before she sprung off again, throwing herself up and over the other’s head, her cloak getting wrapped around his head and body. She easily unlatched it from her and used it to wrap him and trap him, shoving him into the other before drawing her short sword in a moment’s notice, mercilessly thrusting the weapon clean through him, though it wasn’t a lethal strike he did fall to the ground. She didn’t get the chance to make the killing blow as her attention was stolen with a dagger poking through her stomach. No sound escaped her lips, trained not to express pain in even the more intense situations, instead she spun around, the dagger slipping from his grip but also tearing the hole wider. With her own dagger she punctured it into the side of his neck, and tore the weapon free, his blood spewed out like a fountain as he collapsed clutching desperately at the hole in his throat.

 

Spinning around she faced the only uninjured one, he showed no fear, though she’d killed one of his comrades and seriously injured the other, instead he lunged at her and their swords met in a loud clash. Back and forth their blades danced, red steel hissing angrily through the air as they feverishly sought the other’s end. Out of the corner of her eye she just barely caught sight of the injured one rising. In a foolhardy attempt she yanked the dagger from her back and flung it at him between strikes from the one before her. It sored true, catching him in the chest, wedged between ribs and piercing his heart, he dropped like a stone. Her desperate attack left her for just a moment open and that was enough for the final Infurus to thrust his sword through her stomach. For precious moments her mind raced to catch up with the shock of the wound, her attacker standing before her a malicious, victorious grin on his face. He pulled his blade from her, slowly as to prolong her agony, she hissed in pain but the weapon eventually pulled free of her flesh with a sickening wet suction. Solstice stumbled towards him, reaching out and grabbing him for support. The man laughed but didn’t shove her away, amused by her helplessness, which was his undoing as her teeth suddenly sunk into his throat, cutting through flesh and veins to tear open his throat. She yanked back and the man fell to his knees gurgling on his own blood, clutching at the gaping hole in his throat.

 

Solstice stumbled back a few steps, pressing herself against a tree and then suddenly spit a chunk of flesh before his knees to let him see the portion she’d tore out. Blood coated her face, she did not smile with victory or arrogance, instead she merely stared at him as he slowly died, holding her own gaping wound. Her body unable to hold itself slid down the tree where she sat with heavy eyes, feeling dizzy and confused. One thought hummed through her mind: there had been four. She tried to focus on the world around her, struggled to fight against unconsciousness to see to her charges, but the world was buzzing now and as she struggle to rise she only ended up falling back onto the ground and eventually passing out.

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"Listen to me now, boy." The Infurus advanced on Aeran as he backed away from his enemy. He didn't want to fight, he wasn't confident in his abilities. Maybe against a town guard, now that he had a basic understanding of swordplay, but not against the sort of enemy that he knew Solstice could be. He was terrified. Náriel's growl echoed in the clearing, giving the Infurus pause. However, it didn't hold him rooted on the spot for long, "You've got one chance, boy - throw down your sword and call off that beast, Aedra doesn't want to kill you. She wants you to serve at her side." The Infurus advanced until Aeran could make out a little more of the man's face. He was tall and slim, his face pale in the moonlight and gaunt as though he'd missed one too many meals, yet he did not look sickly. Nevertheless, he was not someone Aeran liked the look of, and what did he mean 'serve at her side'? They want to capture him? Aeran glanced at Náriel beside him and realised at once. With Aeran under the Queen's control, Náriel would be just as much her puppet.
"No." Aeran growled, a fire growing inside of him. He raised his sword and gripped it firmly with both hands.
"Last chance, boy." The gaunt-faced Infurus advanced on him quickly, "If I can't take you alive, Aedra-be-damned, i'll kill you where you stand."

 

With a surge of courage, Aeran launched himself at the man, swinging his blade wildly and catching him off guard. For a few fleeting seconds he was pushed back and had to quickly dodge out of the way to avoid Náriel's snapping jaws, large enough to maim a limb, but then he recovered. Angered by the boy's mock courage, he pushed back. His first swing sent a shiver through Aeran's entire body, his second made his teeth clash and the third made his wrist feel like it was going to explode, and his hand lose the sword altogether. He was not nearly as strong as Solstice, but Aeran was tired and still no match for an accomplished swordfighter. He tried to look past the warrior to seek aid from Solstice, but he was horrified to see her collapsing to the floor, surrounded by the bodies of the other Infurus. Blood oozed from a fatal-looking wound, and Aeran lost what little colour remained in his cheeks. Spotting Aeran's distraction, the Infurus made a second series of blows that would have been the death of Aeran if not for Náriel. 

As the Infurus crashed his blade against Aeran's one final time, he flourished the blade, spinning it around Aeran's and sending the young boy's weapon flying out of his hands and into the ground a couple of feet away. The warrior raised his weapon, Aeran fell back and closed his eyes, throwing one arm up in a futile gesture of protection from the killing blow. He heard the whoosh of the blade as it cut cleanly through the air towards his head but then the Infurus was screaming in horror. Aeran opened his eyes just in time to see the man's other, empty hand sever at the wrist and disappear into Náriel's mouth. Opening his mouth in astonishment, he stared in dumb awe at his dragon. No longer was she the size of a small dog, but was almost as large as an adult dire wolf. Confused at Náriel's sudden shift in size, but seeing his only opportunity to attack presenting itself, Aeran lunged for his weapon.
"I'll fuckin' kill you both!" The Infurus bellowed, turning his attention on the silver dragon. Blood still gushing from his wound, the warrior ignored it and swung to attack. Náriel wanted to move, but it seemed her shift in size was almost as surprising to her as it had been to Aeran and she fumbled to cope with her new dimensions and found herself trapped against the trunk of a tree. 
The red-steel sword slipped from the Infurus' fingers. His mouth opened and closed repeatedly as he brought his remaining hand up to his neck and traced the shape of it to a cold point, which he then had to slide nearly eight inches out from his throat. He felt the sharp point and his eyes rolled down to look at the blade embedded in his flesh. His mouth continued to work, but his face went limp and he collapsed under his own weight. Aeran recoiled in surprise and horror, looking at the body (and to himself) with a mixture of pride, and revulsion. He collapsed to his knees, and vacated the contents of his stomach across the grass. 

 

I've killed someone, he thought. I've taken a life. Aeran's gut roiled as he tried to stand back up, his knees felt as though they would buckle at any moment. He stood over the body of his slain enemy, panting and dry-heaving for a few minutes until the realisation that Solstice was seriously injured, if not dead, just a few feet away from him. He turned his attention to her immediately and ran, as best he could, to her side. When he saw her wounds, he was sure she would die. They would most certainly kill him, he thought. As he leant over her to examine her wounds in detail he heard a low groan. Just two feet away from him, one of the Infurus she had fought was trying to move. He looked like he was all but dead, yet the message wasn't reaching his brain. He kept trying to grab the blade beside him but his hand didn't seem able to grasp it and lift it from the Earth, and his eyes rolled wildly in their sockets. Aeran almost felt pity for him, but before the emotion could sink in, Náriel stalked over to the man who's eyes focused just long enough to see her gaping maw clamp down on either side of his head and shake him violently. A dull crunch, and he went limp. Aeran could taste bile again, but there was nothing left in his stomach to vent.
"Remind me never to make an enemy of a dragon." He grimaced, yet Náriel seemed pleased at that comment and came to sit beside him. While sat, she was almost as tall as he was now, at least when she stretched out her neck. "And I wish you could tell me what happened... you grew so quickly... is that normal?" 

Ignoring his questions, Náriel shoved Aeran in the side and looked back down to Solstice. Aeran followed her gaze and leant down to Solstice's mouth and listened, he heard a croaky whisper of breath. "She's still alive!" Aeran shouted at Náriel who had a mixture of emotions on her face, though he could understand none of them. He paused however, when he realised he didn't know what to do, but to answer his question, Náriel's consciousness suddenly touched his own once more, only this time it was slightly more focused. She was able to share images of her thoughts with him, and she projected an image of the sleeve of his white undershirt into his mind.

"Oh!" He gasped, and quickly tore a section of the sleeve away and pulled aside any blood-soaked clothing that obscured her wounds. They looked worse than he realised but she was still alive, so he had to do whatever he could to save her. He supposed he owed her that much, despite what might have happened. Wrapping the makeshift bandage around her torso, Aeran pulled her away from the bodies and grabbed his bag to use as a pillow for her. She groaned as he moved her but fell relatively silent once still again. He was sure several hours had passed since she had left for town, the night was probably waning and now he was forced with a harsh decision.

Moving Solstice now might kill her. But if he didn't try, at least, then there could be more Infurus or guards or who knows what on its way to them. They could even be minutes away from their camp even now. He was still adjusting to the presence of Náriel's consciousness alongside his own, the sensation was strange but not entirely unpleasant, though it made him feel laid-open, bare for her to see into without secrets or privacy or anything he had come to understand as basic rights that should not be broken. Despite this, he also felt safer for it, and he could feel a degree of her strength empowering him to keep moving. An image flashed into his mind from Náriel's, showing him a secluded section of the forest only a few minutes away, a place she must have found in searching for the clearing to attempt flight just hours before. Nodding to himself, as though the act would reassure him, he picked Solstice up with a groan, to which she added, and slowly but steadily brought her to their new destination. It took him a while, how long he was unsure, but when they finally arrived, he carefully placed her down and then rolled onto his back and lay there, panting and unable to move. They had escaped death for now, at least, he thought. Staring up at the night sky, he wondered if the stars cared for anything that happened. Would they gossip and spread tale of what happened tonight as the people of his village might?

 

Wayford. Aeran closed his eyes in pain as he recalled what Solstice had told him. What if they were all slaves now? Or dead? What if Fey was among them? I can never make that mistake again, he told himself. He felt a rush of comfort from Náriel and knew she didn't want him to linger on his pain, but he couldn't help it, and so he ignored her mental reassurances as best he could. Now that they were safe, he just wanted to cry. To mourn the loss of his childhood, his life and future. The loss of his family, his home and his close friend. Tears slipped from the corners of his eyes and slid down the sides of his cheeks onto the ground. Now only time could say if Solstice would heal. All these thoughts, all the emotions raging around inside him, even the presence of Náriel's own emotions, for better or worse, it was all overwhelming him. Aeran suddenly felt all the tiredness he had pushed through, the lack of sleep and his arduous journey. His training with Solstice, and his fight with the Infurus warrior. He knew he had to stay awake, he had to watch over them, but he could not keep his eyes open. He drifted into a deep sleep as Náriel walked over and laid her head beside his chest. She lay there still as a statue, with a will as strong as steel. She would not sleep. Not tonight.

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Solstice did eventually return to the world of the living and when she did the sun was blinding, already heavy in the sky, mid-day perhaps? How long had she been out? She shifted, or attempted too, but the muscles in her body screamed at her, and the night prior suddenly rushed back to her in a flurry of memories. Her mind settled on the last thing she could remember, tearing out that Infurus’ throat with her teeth; bile rose in her throat at the memory, the taste, the vicious, monstrous way in which she’d acted. Logically, she knew it had been a desperate attempt at survival, but it didn’t make her feel any less like a Vicious.

 

She forced herself through the self-hatred and reminded herself of her charges that thought alone pushed her through the pain to sit up. Her back felt like it had an indent from where the bow had been trapped between her and the ground, she shifted it to the other angle. A sigh slipped between her still bloodied lips to see them sitting close by, Aeran was asleep but Náriel had noticed her awake and was already staring at her curiously.

 

Her hand trailed to her wound and noticed the fabric covering it her eyes lazily trailed back to the sleeping boy to see his torn sleeve. For a long moment she simply stared at him, her face seemed void, but her mind was racing, why had he done that? Why try and save her? It wasn’t like he’d expressed any fondness for her. She realized what all she’d done for him, but honestly, she hadn’t thought he had, no human had ever realized what she did for them. This kindness was alien to her and with no know how on how to handle it she simply turned away from him, brushing the thoughts off to handle at another time.

 

Pushing against the ground she struggled to raise but her body was having none of this, her muscles simply didn’t want to work though the burning pain. She glanced back to make sure he was still sleep, she wasn’t sure she could live with herself if he saw her so weak. Dragging herself to the closest tree she dug her claws into it and used it to pull herself up, but even when she was standing her head felt foggy and she was immediately dizzy, sway as she struggled to keep herself balanced. “Damn it,†She cursed to herself, she couldn’t remember the last time she was quite this badly injured, of course, she’d never had to fight off other Infurus either. She wasn’t even sure how she’d won; it had seemed like impossible odds.

 

Solstice sniffed the air, desperate for water, but all she could smell was blood. With her forehead pressed into the harsh bark she groaned at the fruitlessness of doing anything in her condition but knew at the same time she had to figure it out or they were all end up dead.

 

Shoving away her pride she looked down at Aeran and Náriel. “Aeran, Aeran….†She called, trying to wake him, her voice sounding weak even to her ears. She wasn’t willing to leave the safety of her tree for fear of falling and being unable to get back up unaided, her pride could only take so much.

 

Aeran slowly opened his eyes, but he was so tired he couldn't keep them open. "Solstice..." He murmured under his breath, while Náriel's head lifted from the ground and assessed what was now a smaller size gap between herself and the Infurus. "Are you alive..." He croaked, his throat was dry and he licked his dry lips. He could feel the warmth of the sun on his face, and the cold of the earth below him. At least he could be fairly sure that he was alive.

 

“Yes, mostly, anyway.†Now, without her hood, Solstice slanted her head in such a way that the mane of red waves tumbled forward and shrouded the monstrous side of her face; she could pass for beautiful like that. “Aeran… I….†She hissed, the sound ruining the image of a normal, beautiful girl as she struggled with her pride, “I need water and I need your and Náriel's help….†She trailed off unable to meet his eyes as if something as simple as asking for assistance wasn’t just embarrassing but physically painful.

 

"How can I help?" He muttered back, as though answering from some faraway place, still burdened by a crippling tiredness that seeped into his bones. "Náriel... go help..." He slid his arm across and bumped her on the chest, in response to which she drew herself up and looked off to one side as though the idea of helping Solstice was personally distasteful.

 

The dragon’s response was more hurtful than she cared to let on and Aeran’s brushing her off made her regret speaking. She would figure it out, as she always had, and turned away supporting herself with the tree before pressing to the next one, suddenly desperately missing the horse she’d abandoned to help save these two. The third tree was too far away to keep stumbling about and this time she fell and hit the ground rather harshly, a loud growl slipping out as her muscles twisted around the shredded flesh.

 

Groaning, Aeran slowly pulled himself up, his hand waving from side to side, "Wait." He said, more a sigh than a word. It took a few seconds, but he eventually managed to stand and walk up to Solstice, then stood in front of her in silence. Careful not to move too quickly for fear of collapsing from exhaustion.

 

God this was humiliating, she couldn’t even look up at him, her claws dug into the bark until it took her attention away from the pain in her stomach only to realize she was quickly drawing blood and staining the bark. She pulled herself back to her feet with a hiss and shoved past him, “Never mind, I’ll figure it out.†She bit out at him and continued to stumble deeper into the forest.

 

"If you keep going like that you'll only make it worse." Aeran tried to catch up to her so that he could offer her his shoulder. Though tired, he was starting to feel slightly more alert, and with Náriel's support he was feeling better with every passing minute.

 

“I’ll survive,†Her voice was a rumbly growl of pain and frustration, but she pushed through the pain. She wasn’t actually certain she’d survive, she’d never had a broadsword shoved through her stomach before. Most of her battles were one sided, one sided in that she took out her foes with little difficulty and minor injury.

 

She moved around him with difficulty as he tried to offer her support. “I don’t want your help.†Which made no sense in that she’d originally asked for it, but he’d injured her pride - that had fought with her in the first place for asking.

 

Blood was caked onto her face and was not easily brushed away as she kept rubbing at it to no avail. “What good is being cursed if I can’t even smell the fucking water…†her voice took on a tone of someone broken, of fear, and sadness that just dwelled beneath the surface.

 

Frustrated at her sudden change back to the prideful warrior that Aeran was more familiar with, but less than pleased about, he opened his mouth to object when Náriel did it for him. She moved over to Solstice's other side and then firmly shoved her into Aeran who caught her before she could fall, supporting her and glancing at Náriel in surprise and dismay. His feelings clearly spread across their link together because he suddenly felt her amusement at putting both of them in an awkward position. "I think Náriel is trying to tell us to stop bickering like children."

 

Solstice wasn’t normally easy to catch off guard, but at this moment the wolf sized dragon easily caught her unprepared and she found herself shoved against Aeran. She groaned and hissed, but was clutching him for dear life lest she fall to the unforgiving ground again. Her attention moved to the dragon, whose expression told of amusement at her mischievous ways, yet Solstice felt no anger or frustration towards her.

 

She had to bite back the urge to throw another childish response back at Aeran and instead kept quiet and let him help her through the forest. It took a while, but eventually they stumbled upon a stream, or more wet ground. It was through Solstice’s survival training that she was able to direct them towards the body of water from which it originated.

 

Aeran helped her to the water’s edge and she collapsed into it, uncaring of it soaking through her clothes as she bowed her head down and washed away the blood that had so painfully reminded her of her Vicious blood. She drank heavily, the water practically revitalizing even as her stomach cried at her for being bent over.

 

For many minutes she just sat at the water’s edge, sitting on her calves, her boots buried in the sand while the water lapped at her knees. Her hands dug mindlessly into the sand fondling the shells and stones. Eventually she forced herself to lie back, to ease the crying in her stomach, but she remained next to the water, letting the gentle waves brush against her. She wiggled out of the bow to keep it from forming another dent in her back and left it on the beach. Inevitably, her entire outfit was soaked through, for a moment she hesitated, but Aeran had since seen her worst parts, the rest of her body was pretty much normal, and so she began peeling off her clothes, her boots first, throwing them further inland so they could actually dry, followed by her leggings and shirt, leaving her in only her undergarments.

 

Using her shirt like a rag she gently cleared away the blood from her body and most importantly from around the wounds. The wound was strange, but that was because of her being Infurus, she healed much like a Vicious would, the wound did not have a scab in the conventional sense, instead the injury was covered with a hard black shell. Yes, it was similar to a scab but this was smooth and shiny, yet flexible, unlike a normal scab that would break off as it grew old this would peel off more like a second skin. None of her red blood would be visible, it was solid black. She would heal faster than a human, but the injury was still bad and could take a week or more to heal back to normal.

 

To her dismay she realized she’d been so distracted with her stomach wound that the arrow head was still embedded in her shoulder. With a groan she rolled onto her stomach, the sand was warm against her injury and oddly comforting. Reaching back she touched the nub of the arrow she’d broken off but there was no way she’d be able to get it out on her own. She crossed her arms in front of her and rested her head on them, seriously considering just leaving it there versus braving asking for help again. In the end she realized how stupid leaving it there would be and she turned her head towards Aeran. “I was shot with an arrow last night escaping the town. It’s still embedded in my back, I need you to get it out.†

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Articles of clothing fell to the floor, and it wasn't for several seconds that Aeran understood what Solstice was doing, but at that moment he turned from her, his face blushing in embarrassment at the ease with which she undressed, and having never seen a woman in quite such a state of undress. He stood there, waiting in silence with his arms crossed, unsure what to do with himself. It wasn't until a fresh image of Solstice suddenly filled his mind and his head whipped to his right just in time to see Náriel staring at him.
"That's not funny." Aeran hissed, his tone short and sharp and then with an effort, he retreated from his link with Náriel, disgusted with her sense of humour. She had found his reaction amusing at first, but at feeling his consciousness drift away from her, she recoiled and sat sulking a few feet away. The act of parting himself from their shared link was just as unpleasant for Aeran however. For the first time he realised just how much he had grown accustomed to feeling her emotions and relying on her support, in such a short span of time. It hurt him to be separated from her like that, but right at that moment, he wanted her to know how he felt, without sharing in those feelings. As soon as he had done it, he regretted it, but stubbornly remained withdrawn.

When Solstice made him aware of the arrow in her shoulder - something he felt stupid for having missed - he turned his head just enough so he could address her without looking, "I... I don't know how to do that..." He replied, nervously, then looked back to the ground in front of him. "Can't you do it?" He asked hopefully.

Several moments passed in silence as she struggled with patience. Eventually Solstice took a deep breath and spoke as calmly as she could; “I was struck in the back, I can just barely touch the shaft. So, no, Aeran, I can’t do it. I’m going to walk you through how to do this. First, I need you to get your knife - wash your hands and the knife and come here.â€
Shuddering at the thought of what he could imagine he was about to do, Aeran hurried to clean his hands and the hunting knife he used to prepare the carcasses of the animals he killed while in the forest. Once he was done, he approached her, looking away until he knelt down beside her and slowly brought his face to her bare shoulder, "W-what do I do...?" He asked nervously, holding his knife the way a surgeon might a scalpel. 
 
“Aeran,†Solstice turned her head to rest on her arms and so she could see his face, giving him only the human side of her head, her one blue eye watching him steadily. “You need to calm down, first, breathe, steady your hands.†She waited a moment to let him attempt to calm, but doubted his success. “Now, my body doesn’t heal like yours does, around the wound is a hard, black shell; this is essentially a scab, you’re going to have to cut through that. You can cut directly into it; I won’t feel it any more than if you were cutting my hair, and then you’re going to pull it off, it will peel off like snakes’ skin.â€
Nodding, Aeran repeated her instruction, "Calm down, breathe, steady my hands..." then added with disbelief and panic, "And then take a knife to your flesh, and dig out an arrow." He gulped as the blade touched against the hard shell of the black scab protecting her wound, noting the inch-long broken shaft of the arrow protruding from the centre of the scale. After a few seconds trying and failing to catch his breath, Aeran jabbed the knife as hard as he could into the shell, piercing it, though just barely. The dead, black tissue came away much like she had described, but the moment he had parted it from her skin and the shaft of the arrow, blood began to ooze from her wound and his face paled. Memories of his fight with the Infurus warrior flooded back, reminding him of the smell of blood, the sound of the blade entering the man's neck and worst of all, the images that accompanied it. "What now?" He asked, his voice notably weaker.
 
The removing of the scab had the slightest discomfort, but she was trained to endure great pains so she showed no outward response, instead she kept her eye on his face judging his capabilities and was immediately aware when the wound started to ooze simply by his expression. “It’s alright, the blood is just trying to keep the wound clean, this is a good thing, it means it’s not infected. Now, the way arrows are made, when the tendons and sinew that binds the arrowhead to the shaft is met with wetness it is loosened, so you can’t simply pull it out, else you risk pulling the shaft out and leaving the head stuck in my flesh, making everything much harder.†Solstice spoke slowly and allowed her words to sink in for a moment before she continued. “You’re going to use that knife to make an incision next to the shaft and then… you’re going to use your finger to dig out the arrow head.â€
Aeran's face turned as white as snow at the mention of physically removing the arrow with his fingers, he looked to Náriel who remained disinterested in Solstice's situation and cursed having temporarily broken his link with his dragon, then turned to look back at the wound. "A-alright." He swallowed and trying to be equal parts decisive and careful, plunged the knife into Solstice's flesh, then with a sharp tug he flayed the muscle just enough so he could see the edge of the arrowhead.

"I can see it..." He muttered, more to himself than anyone. Then steeling himself, pushed two fingers into the wound, gripped the arrowhead either side and firmly pulled it out. The wound began to bleed all the more, but there was no longer any foreign object stopping the healing process, or risking the start of infection. Pleased with himself, Aeran threw the offending object to one side, landing near Náriel who reacted as though she'd been spat at. She stood up and promptly moved a few feet away, then resettled. "Are you okay now?" He asked cautiously, continuing to stare at the wound.
Aeran didn’t give her a warning suddenly there was a knife in her back and she just barely kept her yelp under control by burying her face into her arms and biting her wrist. Her muscles flexed on impulse and she struggled to keep from responding outwardly, more so because she knew Aeran was having difficulty with the task as it was and showing pain would only make it worse. Still when he pulled the arrowhead free she sighed in relief and visibly relaxed. “Yes, I’ll be fine.â€
 
"Alright." He muttered, and stood up. "I saved some of the deer I caught--" Náriel snorted, "--we caught." He corrected himself with a hint of irritation, refusing to give her all the credit. "I've dried and salted it so we have plenty to eat for the next few days, so we won't have to hunt. I'll go get some." He turned to leave Solstice to change and Náriel followed after him. Once he was alone with her he turned and sat down in the camp, and while he was rooting for the meat he looked to Náriel and cautiously sent a tendril of thought towards her. Instantly, he felt her consciousness rush back over him, and he was enveloped in her warmth. Feelings of regret were passed amongst one another, then Náriel tried to console him as best she could, having felt his panic, apprehension and fear at the ordeal he had just experienced. They shared many feelings and images with one another until Aeran realised that they had been doing it for several minutes and Solstice was probably ready to eat, "Come on. We better get this to her. She's probably not in the best of moods." When he returned to Solstice he found her more or less ready and handed her a large cut of deer jerky and placed another piece in his mouth as he threw the third - and largest portion - towards Náriel, who snatched it from the air as easily as a hawk would it's prey, swallowing it without chewing.

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Aeran left her, Náriel following close behind him and so Solstice was left alone next to the water. She sat up with only a slight struggle and brushed off the sand but did not dress, the clothing was still wet, and she didn’t care to have the smell of the blood on her body again. Instead she opened up her boots to let the sun continue to dry them and took her clothes to the water to give them a thorough cleaning. Aeran would have to figure out how to deal with it. Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to her that Aeran was simply modest; she assumed it was because of her exposed arm that he was uncomfortable. Seeing her monstrous portions had made her uncomfortable for years after the turning, she knew it unsettled him, but she didn’t care; or perhaps she did, she just simply rejected the emotions out of habit.

 

Satisfied with her cleaning job she laid them out in the sun, using as little motion as possible to avoid upsetting her wounds. Just as she’d sat herself up at the water’s edge again Aeran had returned with the jerky, his eyes shifted uncomfortably at her partial nudity and she ducked her head, on impulse keeping her wet hair over her yellow eye and pulling her arm from his vision. He still didn’t look back; maybe it was the fear of possibly seeing her deformities? She didn’t allow herself to dwell on her charge’s discomfort with her and snatched the jerky from him, letting him escape her company.

 

She had seriously considered thanking him for removing the arrow and even for the jerky, but his unease around her quickly dissipated those thoughts and so they remained in silence, her angry, grim demeanor quickly shrouding the peaceful atmosphere in darkness.

 

Almost an hour passed, Solstice knew they were wasting precious daylight when they were certainly being tracked and without her horse they couldn’t move as quickly as those hunting them would be, not to mention her injuries only hindered her further. She was resisting moving because she knew it would only make the healing processes longer. With food and water in her she could feel her body knitting itself back together, by sunrise tomorrow she’d probably be able to move unaided, until then she wasn’t sure how far she’d get. Asking for Aeran’s help was less than appealing anyway.

 

She was short her two main weapons and had only three daggers left that were currently sitting by her drying clothes. In her best condition she could manage well with them against a single Vicious, but injured she was doubtful of her abilities. For a while she weighed the pros and cons of pressing on while injured versus just lying back down and sleeping to allow herself to heal. Ultimately her pride won out and she laid back down on the beach, letting the warm sand cradle her. She wouldn’t ask Aeran for help, so she’d wait for dawn and hopefully be able to manage on her own. In no time sleep claimed her, she didn’t worry about being attacked, even in her state she’d still wake at the fall of a leaf, but she would sleep much longer than normal. When she would normally only need three or four hours she would instead sleep through the entire night, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep would do wonders for her body.

 

Solstice woke with a start but there was nothing immediately around them, instead her senses picked up hostile powers perhaps a mile off, at least, hostile to her and her charges. It was habit that she jumped to her feet, but immediately bit her lip to silence any sounds of discomfort, while her wounds had done just as she’d expected and healed mostly, there was still a ways to go before she’d be at her best again. Her clothes were dry and cold, the sun had not yet risen, they were still shrouded under the safety of night. She yanked on her clothes and latched her belt with her remaining weapons to her waist before moving to Aeran. As gently as she could she nudged her charge awake, but did not speak, and when his mouth shift to ask question she pressed her left hand over his mouth and raised a black claw to her lips, signaling for silence.

 

Shaking himself awake, Aeran looked around trying to understand what had startled his impromptu mentor and guardian. He watched and waited but quickly grew impatient, his feelings spread across his shared link with Náriel and she roused from her half-sleep to peer around. Sniffing the air, a low rumble rose from her chest and between her reaction, and his previous experience with Solstice's unusually adept senses had taught him to simply accept what she was clearly warning him about. Danger was quickly approaching. For a moment he wished that he had the same shared link with Solstice as he did with Náriel, but the thought of it hit Náriel before he could close the link and she snorted with disgust. It was true, though useful, he didn't imagine that being a very pleasant experience. After waiting a few moments longer, he lost his patience altogether and whispered, "What...?" The sound was so low he could barely hear it coming from his own lips and hoped that that would be enough for Solstice to hear him, without someone of equal sensory advancement picking up on the noise.

 

Solstice didn’t answer him instead she glared at him for silence as she focused and listened on the threats lingering so close, they didn’t seem aware of them. The gentle river beside them made just enough noise to cover his voice. She urged her charge to his feet and directed him to follow leading him towards the water where she hopped across the river using a stone protruding in the middle to aid her passage without ever getting wet. With her hand held out to aid him if need be, she gestured for him to follow her means, hoping beyond hope that he managed this without ending up in the water.

 

Aeran quickly stalked to the edge of the water and turned his face up at her offered hand, he'd had enough of being babied. He watched as Náriel leapt over the water in a single cat-like pounce and then turned back to look at him expectantly. As soon as Aeran put his foot onto the stone, he regretted his prideful decision. The rock was slippery and he could find no purchase and he almost fell as he crossed in the darkness, but thankfully made it without making a sound. He stood on the other side next to Náriel and waited quietly, while she scanned the darkness for incoming danger.

 

Solstice let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as he successfully crossed without a sound. Quickly turning away from him without a word she led him from their camp, following the small river. In no time the water was growing wider and stronger and before long Solstice knew it would open up into the ocean.

 

“I don’t feel them anymore, but that doesn’t mean they won’t catch our trail.†Solstice pressed her hand to her stomach wound as she realized they’d been traveling for a good while and already her body was becoming weary. “We need to keep moving,†Her voice came out between pants; they had been moving quickly, sure, but nothing so vigorous she should be labored already. These wounds were causing her more trouble than she could have ever anticipated.

 

Sure enough the river opened up to the ocean, the sun was peaking over the horizon. Solstice didn’t waste time enjoying the view, several yards from the ocean she stepped into the river, watching her step as she took cautious steps to avoid slipping on the rock bed, wading through knee deep water. The current was a bit rough but nothing she couldn’t handle. She waded at an angle so when she reached the other side she was at the ocean and walking along the beach, still knee deep in the water.

 

Aeran followed in silence, preferring not to speak as Solstice seemed to be particularly agitated by both her wound and their situation. Without looking to Náriel, he knew she had felt his feelings on this and she gave a positive affirmation over their link. Yes, silence was probably best for now. As they crossed the rougher waters of the ocean-side river, Náriel supported him against the current, Aeran using her almost like a hand rail. Then he managed to catch up to Solstice and walk behind her, following without question.

 

Solstice continued in silence, glancing back briefly to make sure Aeran and Náriel were following her trail exactly. The ocean would carry away their scent; the power trail would fade quickly on its own. A mile down the ocean side and wading through the water had finally caught up to her. She couldn’t keep going like this and pulled herself from the water, the sand feeling like suction on her boots. It was far more tiring than just walking on hard ground would ever be.

 

She was at the point of dragging herself, but training and pride kept her going even when she was sure she had somehow managed to break open her wounds. Veering off she took them back into the forests where they would be covered by nature’s shroud. She was confident they wouldn’t find their scent again, at least not on this encounter, so she allowed them a break.

 

Dropping down next to a tree she leaned her head against the bark and closed her eyes, breathing deeply for several moments before speaking; “We’re out of the fire for now. We need to eat and then we’ll spend some time on your swordsmanship.â€

 

"Alright." Aeran muttered, falling back against the nearest tree and sliding down it until he hit the cold ground. His legs from toe to thigh were on fire, the mixture of speed, endurance and stealth that he had endured over the past couple of days had taken their toll on him already. Aeran looked to Náriel but felt she was fine, though she was still getting used to her sudden growth spurt. Finally free - for at least a moment anyway - from their pursuers, Aeran cleared his throat to get Solstice's attention, "Why..." He hesitated, but this time he didn't care how she reacted, he had to know, "... why did Náriel grow so suddenly? And how?!" His excitement seeped into his words and he grit his teeth as he waited for her answer to come.

 

Solstice opened her eyes and peered at the dragon keeping her distance from Solstice before putting her head back to rest again. “Why curious now? Did it not occur to you that the dragons and their riders were killed off 150 years ago, so Náriel’s egg was essentially a pretty stone for 150 years and suddenly hatched upon contact with you?†Solstice’s voice was obviously tired when she spoke, but there was an edge of amusement. “I couldn’t tell you exactly why. I know they don’t age like most creatures, I know their connection with their riders is very significant somehow. I’ve heard countless rumors and theories about dragons, but Aedra didn’t just kill them off, she worked at removing their very memory, any historical evidence about them was burned or locked away in her personal libraries.â€

 

"Oh..." Her words left Aeran in silence for a few minutes as he and Náriel stared at one another, their eyes had never met in height, but once he had looked down on her and now while they sat beside one another, she was already several inches taller and looked on him from above. "When can I ride her?" He asked, grinning stupidly. At this, Náriel actually mimicked his excitement and twisted her neck around to look at the Infurus.

 

Solstice scoffed, amused by the question; “When Náriel lets you, you may both be eager for it, but this isn’t the same as horseback riding; but more importantly maybe Náriel should work on flying first.†Her eyes were closed throughout their conversation, oblivious to the night Aeran had worked with Náriel practicing flying.

 

Looking down at his own hands for a moment, Aeran pursed his lips in thought. "Náriel can fly... sort of." He added after a moment. The after-comment caused Náriel to snort a little puff of smoke from her nostrils. "I mean, she can fly, but..." He looked at his dragon and he felt a sense of frustration from her and then turned back to look at Solstice, "I don't think she's big enough yet..." For a few minutes Aeran sat in silence, letting his comment take hold. He hadn't planned on saying anything further but his excitement got the best of him. "We can feel each other's emotions." He blurted out, and Náriel turned to face Aeran in surprise, "And we can show each other things we've seen..." Aeran twisted his hands and cautiously asked, "Is... is that normal?"

 

“Even if she can fly ‘sort of’†Solstice mocked skeptically, “In order to carry a person she needs to fly well. And yes, it’s normal. The connection between dragon and rider is said to be so intimate and powerful that if one dies, the other will as well.†She pulled herself to her feet, “You getting fire or food?â€

 

"I've still got some deer jerky leftover. But once this is gone," Aeran handed out the food, "We'll need to go hunting again." Standing up, Aeran walked into the centre of their camp and started kicking aside what little moss and debris scattered the ground, making room for the fire. He pulled his flint and steel from his pack and started gathering as much dry wood as he could. It wasn't easy, the ground was wet, but he ate his jerky while he worked. Once he'd gathered enough, he came back and piled it up using a little dry moss as a tinder bundle. However, the air was still moist and after striking his flint more than a dozen times, the moss still wouldn't take an ember. Eventually he fell back on his haunches and sighed, almost throwing the instrument aside. "There has to be an easier way than this?!" He snapped, scowling. "I thought riders were sorcerers too?! Why can't I just set this wood on fire or something..." He gazed at the wood irritably, hoping in vain that just the act of staring at the offending pile would set it alight. "Some rider I turned out to be. I can't fight, I can't cast spells, I can't even ride my dragon." Suddenly standing, Aeran kicked the pile of sticks and logs across the camp and stomped out of their camp. When Náriel rushed after him he whirled on her and yelled, "Leave me alone!!" Then vanished through the brush as she recoiled in confusion and panic, unsure what to do as Aeran withdrew himself from their shared mental link.

 

Solstice watched his temper tantrum in silence and let him stalk off angrily, even ditching Náriel who appeared obviously upset by this. Aeran’s essence remained in forefront of her mind as she kept track of him to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble. “He’ll come back,†She tried to reassure Náriel even knowing the dragon had no interest in her. Unsure of how long Aeran would be away she lit the fire herself, a black spark from her palm tossed into the heart of the wood quickly blazed into an angry roaring fire of purple and black before it settled and shifted into orange and yellow hues – unnatural. Nothing about her was natural though, but it still unsettled her to see it so openly. She sighed, “At least he’s normal. I’d happily sacrifice all the power and strength to be normal.†It was uncertain if she was trying to confide in Náriel or just thinking out loud.

 

Sitting down, Náriel stared in the direction that Aeran had left in. Her muscles tensed repeatedly, twisting into knots until finally she let out a frustrated snarl and leapt at the nearest tree, running her talons down the bark, creating two-inch deep scars the length of a full-grown man then she stalked away from the tree and settled by the fire, as clearly upset as Aeran but either unwilling or unable to follow him into the forest.

 

Solstice ate the jerky Aeran had left with her, vaguely she considered going after him, but the wounds in her stomach and her tired legs demanded otherwise and so she just relaxed.

 

Lifting her head, Náriel sniffed the air and stood upright, her head twisting back to the forest. Nearly five minutes later, Aeran stumbled back through the brush. He ignored both Solstice and Náriel and sat back down by the fire, brooding in silence.

 

Solstice let him have his silence for a while even though they had wasted entirely too much time talking and on his personal escapade, but she was tired and wasn’t eager to jump up again. She lay down and rested her head on her arms, the cold ground a relief against her aching muscles. Solstice wasn’t a people person in a good mood, but in her current mood she was at a loss as what to say to him, so she went with what she knew, being direct; “You ready to train yet? My magic isn’t natural, so I can’t show you, but I can direct you in the basics of natural magic.â€

 

Until Solstice had mentioned teaching him magic, Aeran had remained in a sullen mood, but at mention of this he roused himself from his dark thoughts and looked up at her in surprise, "You can teach me magic...?" He asked, a single eyebrow raising in disbelief.

 

She frowned at his disbelief, “I was in Aedra’s training camp for five years, leaning how to wield every weapon you could ever name, learning my magic, and learning to survive. Surviving means knowing your opponents, one of Aedra’s opponents happens to be elves, since elves are known for their magic, yes, I do know quite a bit about the ancient language. So, you going to stop being a bitch about not being an instant dragon rider after learning of this only three days ago?†Her eyes shone boredom, unimpressed with his prissy attitude.

 

While Solstice spoke, Aeran felt Náriel's consciousness touch the outer edges of his mind. Accepting her, the pair emotionally re-embraced one another, and it was only her patience that kept his temper in check as Solstice chided him for his recent attitude. He knew he had been impatient, but hearing it from her still made him want to lash out. But, he also knew that if she could teach him magic, his efforts would be better rewarded in keeping his temper in check. "Then teach me." Aeran replied, and felt a mental nudge from Náriel, "Please." He added, quickly if reluctantly.

 

At his sudden display of humility Solstice raised a brow and pushed herself to a sitting position coming to sit beside him. She raised her hand and with a waving motion the fire went out as if consumed by darkness, it was eaten away and suddenly was out, it didn’t even produce smoke, its essence was completely gone. “Magic isn’t like anything you’ve ever worked with the ancient language in particular is most interesting in that the power is derived from the words themselves. When you speak one of the ancient words, you pair it with your thoughts and your will to complete an action. The word is the lever, but you must still push that lever to make it happen. If you try something you can’t possibly do, for instance, move a mountain, and you speak ‘move’ you’ll probably kill yourself. Magic is volatile and it doesn’t like to be played with, so you must approach it with humility. When you push to try and move the mountain the magic will take your very life essence to complete the action, inevitable you’ll die and the world will laugh at your stupidity. Instead ‘attempt’ things, imagine things happening, and when you speak the word you want to always add the modifier ‘attempt - Eta’ in case you get too far in and realize you can’t complete the task without dire cost this way you can back out. So I want you to try and light the fire - imagine it, feel its warmth, visualize it starting as a spark and slowly growing and then… speak its true name - Ignís.†Her directions went from commanding to a gentle whisper as she recalled a topic she had found so intriguing and to a degree despised in that her own magic wasn’t so elegant and pure.

 

"Light the fire..." Aeran repeated the words and knelt in front of the now extinguished pile of wood. He began to visualize the fire, imagining the heat and light emanating from it. He imagined a spark setting light to the wood and strained, saying the words that Solstice had provided him. "Eta Ignís." He stared at the wood, then leant forwards to check it. Nothing. Disappointed he looked up at Solstice but one glance from her silenced any notion of speaking and he looked back at the wood, "Eta Ignís." He repeated, and again, nothing happened. This went on for a long time, until the cold had seeped into Aeran's bones and made him all the more irritable at his lack of success. He'd not seen so much as a spark, never mind a roaring fire as he'd somehow, stupidly hoped for. In-between attempts, he paused to ask a question that had been bothering him, "What language is that? 'Eta Ignís', it sounds like nonsense to me. You said it was ancient - ancient what?"

 

“Ancient Elven, they’re the ones that created the connection with dragons. Now, keep yourself calm, don’t let yourself be ruled by frustration. You’re not learning to run; you’re learning to crawl so patience is key. Focus on the spark.†She chided in a gentle almost motherly way as she focused on the fire as intently as he seemed to be.

 

"Oh," Aeran muttered, staring at the wood for a few seconds before resuming. "Eta Ignís." Still nothing. He always felt Náriel's consciousness mixing with his own, but despite her presence, she leant no assistance to him. He knew this was something he had to learn to do on his own. "Eta Ignís," he repeated. For a moment, he thought he'd seen something, but it was just his imagination. He continued his attempts long into the night, every time he would chant the spell, he would be treated to a moment of silence before he continued. He lost track of how long he had been doing it for, and though he had managed to control his temper - despite a few minor curses barked at the wood - he was in no better shape than he had been when he first started. He had been practicing for so long and with a complete lack of success, that when he repeated the Elvish phrase yet again, his brain and his face didn't immediately register the tiny blue spark as it danced across the logs for a split-second before dissipating. "Solstice!!" He yelped, looking up at her, grinning like an idiot. "Did you see that? I did that - I made a spark!" He clapped his hands together, while waves of happiness, pride and enthusiasm washed over him from Náriel.

 

His sudden joy caught her off guard; the slightest smirk caught the corner of her lips but she managed to quickly contain it. “Yes, you managed a spark, but it’s still cold and no fire.†She pointed out flatly with a raised brow, though she didn’t immediately lecture him into attempting again, she let him enjoy his small victory. Instead she lay down, not actually bothered by the cold and let him have at his new talent while she rested.

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For hours Aeran had been practising his magic. Trying to coax the smallest of flames from the remnants of the fire, but he was having little to no success. He had worn himself ragged, perspiration dotted his face and Náriel remained by his side, staring into the fire and willing it to life. When Solstice called to tell him it was time to move on, he reluctantly accepted that magic was out of his grasp. For now, he thought to himself, biting the inside of his bottom lip. Once they had packed up and hidden - as best they could - the impact they had had on their surroundings, they continued on their journey north. For a long while Aeran had been wondering where they were going, at first he had assumed that Northhaven would be their final resting stop, he hadn't expected there to be monster hunters and guards and all manner of commotion by the time they arrived. I think i'm beginning to realise how badly Aedra must want to capture us, he thought.

 

But if Northhaven was not their final destination, then where was he being taken? He had been running this thought through his mind for a while and couldn't work out where a woman like Solstice, would take a prospective dragon rider. He had never been much further than the woods surrounding his home before, only travelling to Northhaven on two separate occasions, and only for a couple of days. This, to Aeran at least, was some kind of incredible adventure, though his feet were making it quite clear they preferred the comfort of the fireplace. Trapped in his thoughts, Aeran knocked into Solstice's outstretched arm as she stopped him and pointed in silence to where the forest parted and they could see a small coastal fishing village.
"Oh, I know this place. This is Gerra, but why are we here...?" Aeran asked, shaking his head. He turned to look at Solstice, "You never did tell me where you were taking me, Solstice? Are we going to hide here from the Queen, or... what?" He frowned, staring at the quiet little town.

 

“We’re here because we need horses. At the rate that we’re currently moving we’ll be caught for sure.†Solstice’s eyes scoured the small town, watching the citizens’ move about. It was only midday, it would be stupid to attempt stealing the horses now, but she couldn’t chance dallying longer. “You stay here.†She commanded, not waiting for a response before she slips from the foliage and heads into the village, her task a hundred times harder than her trip into Northhaven. Now, without her cloak, she had to rely on her wavy mass of hair to hide her horn and horrific features, keeping her head bowed low and making a wide birth around passing citizens. It was a small village, they shouldn’t know of the rider, or her, yet; she didn’t hear anyone discussing them anyway, which was a good sign.

They were stopping here for horses? Aeran watched Solstice leave as he came to the obvious conclusion that if they were stopping to get horses, then they had a long ways to go yet. Then another idea struck Aeran like an arrow. Whether or not she had the coin, they were wanted by the Queen, and he'd seen what some of her monster slayers were willing to do to fulfil her wish. There could only be one thing Solstice was planning to do. She was going to steal the horses.

 

Anger rose in him, he felt Náriel pressing him to calm down but he refused her attempt and looked at her as he spoke, "I might just be a stupid child, Náriel, and maybe this is the only way that makes sense if we're going to get those horses, but I can't..." She stared at him in silence and uninterrupted, he continued. "I come from a poor family, a poor town just like this one, and if she steals those horses she could be condemning a family to starve come winter. I won't allow it." He surged out of the forest and Náriel ran after him but he turned and placed his hand on her snout, "You can't. You have to stay here or you'll be seen." He felt her panic and desperate need to be beside him for fear that something might happen, and there was no reassuring her. "You'll put us all in more danger if you come." He added, and left. Raking the ground with her claws, Náriel paced and watched as Aeran disappeared down the bank and into the village.

"Okay..." Aeran muttered to himself, and tussled his messy black hair, pulling it down over his forehead to hide the scar that identified him as a dragon rider. He slipped into the town without an incident, though the odd person looked at him for a moment, trying to place where his home in the town was, or who's son he was. He nodded politely to those that took interest in him, but his cheery nature relieved any suspicion they might have had. He didn't need to search for long before he found Solstice crossing a backalley and he immediately turned and followed her as silently as he could. The noise of the markets and the tradesmen yelling, along with the smell of both fresh and rotten fish, was surely hiding his sounds and smells from her superhuman senses. Though after having been in a forest with just her and Náriel for company for the past few days, the noise was almost overwhelming and he felt like his senses were being assaulted from all angles. Without a sound, Solstice had managed to enter a farmstead on the other side of town, he could see her only because he had been following her, otherwise she moved unseen. Slinking towards her intended target like a panther stalking its prey.

Waiting for the nearby villagers to go about their business, when all eyes were averted, Aeran dashed forwards and into the farm, running for the barn that Solstice had disappeared into just moments before. The inside of the barn was dark, barely touched by the outside sun. It took a few seconds for his eyesight to adjust but when it finally did he could see Solstice was already mid-process of fitting two horses with their saddles. He ran across the barn, no longer caring about his presence being discovered - by Solstice or the villagers - he tensed his jaw, "You can't do this." His voice holding a hint of venom.

Solstice continued to saddle the horses even at Aeran’s warning; “And why can’t I?â€

"If you take those horses from these people they could starve. They could mean everything to them - you have no right!" Aeran snapped, trying to contain his voice, careful for him not to raise it, just in case someone was nearby and might overhear.

"They can spare a couple horses." Solstice's voice was just barely audible, but it was still heavy with annoyance. "They might be a little short on supplies, but we'll probably end up dead without them, don't be so naive."

 

"I know you didn't come from a small town like me," Aeran's breathing was heavy as he spoke, "So maybe it doesn't mean as much to you, but the people here are just like they are in Wayford, and without the ability to travel, or help work the fields, or even the price they'd fetch at a market - you could be killing these people. Don't you care?!" He looked at her with disgust. Aeran knew he was naive to the world, but this was one of the few areas in which he knew his experience far outweighed her own.

Solstice pressed her forehead to the horse's neck and sighed, seeking patience from divine intervention. "Aeran!" Her voice held an air of threat like a mother's would as she struggled with her frustration. "I'm not quite ready to die yet and if we don't get faster means of transportation, we will be caught and next time it may not be just four Infurus, it might be a fucking army!" She hissed between her teeth, fighting to remain relatively quiet. The argument had barely begun, and Aeran was getting ready to launch another counter-offensive when the expression on Solstice's face changed suddenly, and a couple of seconds later, two men walked into the barn. One of them looked as if he had been talking, but at the shocked expression of his friend, he paused mid-sentence and turned to look at Aeran and Solstice. For a few brief seconds, there was a terrible, dooming silence. Then both men roared, but to Aeran's surprise, the men didn't launch themselves at them. 

Despite on what must have been on first impression, a young woman and a child, one of the men yelled out for assistance. Before Aeran knew what was happening, a flood of people threw open the barn doors and more than a dozen stepped inside, jostling for position. Aeran took a step back and looked towards Solstice who despite her calm exterior, somehow looked tense. He felt like she was going to draw a weapon at any moment but before anything occurred a deep voice parted the villagers.

"I don't like thieves." The man's voice thrummed with a deep bass, and when he moved the last couple of villagers out of the way with a gentle touch of his bear-sized hands, Aeran's eyes widened in astonishment. The man before them was taller than any he'd ever met before, he towered over the majority and was built like an ox. His hair was short and ashen, and though he was in his 40's, his eyes were as sharp and searching as a young man's. 
"We're not thieves..." Aeran bit down on his lip as he spat the words.
"Ye look like thieves t'me." The man replied, glancing over the pair.

 

Solstice was not intimidated, in fact, even in her injured state she was confident she could take him with her fists alone, what alarmed her was the number of people, if they all had weapons they would be a problem. Even as her mind raced to formulate a plan on how she would get them out of this she found her hands stilled at the realization that Aeran would be furious if she killed any of them and was suddenly drawing a blank on how to do this without violence, or at least murder. The threat of what she is and what she could do might be enough, but... what if it wasn't?

"D'ye hear me?!" The man barked, "You, boy. If yer not thieves then what are ye?!" 
"I... I can't..." Aeran fumbled for the words. He had to think of some kind of excuse, but even as his mind searched for an answer, he came to a quick conclusion. If he lied, and this man knew he was lying, then it was all over. But telling the truth would be absurd, or outright dangerous. Aeran could get them both killed. 
"Dammit, boy." The man stormed forwards, ignoring Solstice and seizing Aeran by the arm and began shaking him firmly, "Who are you and why are you here?!" With a shove he released Aeran, throwing the young man to the floor and standing over him like a great obelisk. But even as he raised a finger and opened his mouth to speak once more, a strange thump resonated through the barn. 

 

The villagers looked around, confused and alarmed but unsure of the noise. It was like nothing they had ever heard before in their lives. It was loud and sharp, not unlike a keen blade being tested with powerful slices, it's metal cutting through the air. Caught off-guard by the noise, the bear of a man paused as he tried to find his train of thought. "Blast it, what is that infernal racket?!" He roared, but his voice was drowned out as the far-side wall of the barn imploded, sending shards of wood in all directions. The force of the explosion, the debris, the noise and the angry wind that followed sent most of the villagers to their backs. Only the bear-like man remained standing, though even he struggled to maintain his balance. Immediately following the explosion of splinters, Náriel flew into the barn like a dagger aimed for the man's throat. She bellowed a blood-curdling roar and passed over Solstice's head by nary an inch before ploughing into the man, throwing him to his back like a child's ragdoll. Náriel roared again, delighted at the unashamed fear that wilted the man under her body, for which she could almost match in size. Her lips curled back revealing her fangs and her mouth began to part, "NO!!" Aeran yelled. Náriel froze and though she no more opened her mouth, she did not close it any further either.

Several of the villagers flew from the barn like so many frightened pigeons, but the rest remained just as frozen as the bear man, as though Náriel's body covered the entire group. Aeran rushed forwards and though he was touched by her courage and intention, he demanded that she allow the man to stand (if he could). After a few seconds more, for which Náriel seemed to extract great pleasure watching the man second-guessing if the dragon would obey Aeran or take his face from him, she finally relented and took a few steps back. Hurriedly pulling himself to his feet and running to join the other villagers, he looked from Aeran to Náriel to Solstice and perhaps back through them another three or four times in the stunned silence that followed his dragon's heroic - and somewhat destructive - entrance. He was clearly re-evaluating everything he had learnt up to that point, all his assumptions washed away and were replaced by confusion, fear and in spite of himself, wonder.

"W-who are you?" He asked, his voice a touch higher than before.
"My name is Aeran." He replied, and taking a deep breath, ignoring Solstice for now the deed was done, he brushed the black hair from his forehead, revealing the shiny, white scar underneath. Several of the villagers released an audible gasp, but most remained silent. "I am a dragon rider." His voice echoed through the barn as every face on every man and woman in front of him flew through a dozen emotions. 

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Divine intervention couldn’t come fast enough. Náriel had officially terrified the villagers, they could prance out of here with the horses now, of that she was certain, but they’d just condemned this village. The urge to sit down on the ground and tell them to kill her and be done with it was oddly powerful at this moment.

 

Aeran had pulled, or more, willed, Náriel off of the lumbering fellow, but he was still wide eyed and terrified. She couldn’t help but find amusement in the fact that Aeran had come after her to stop her from stealing from a family that might starve without a couple of horses, when his dragon flies in and just guaranteed their deaths from Aedra.

 

“A… A rider? I can’t believe it….†The lumbering man spoke up, his voice shaking with fear or perhaps amazement, Solstice was no longer sure as she looked up and saw a strange sparkle to his eyes. What was that? She’d seen that look before. Usually in those that meet death at her hands, just as she’s taunting them with the possibility of living. Oh, hope, that’s what that look was, it was hope.

 

“My grandfather spoke of their glory. He swore the riders would return to save us from Aedra… and here… here you are!†His voice grew quickly in caliber until Solstice was fighting the urge to cover her ears.

 

Another voice chimed in then, a woman’s, “I heard from the traveling merchant that Queen Aedra is hunting him! Said to be with an Infurus woman! There’s a reward!†Oh, wonderful! Solstice groaned, but stepped forward prepared to fight if that’s what it came too, moving to stand ahead of Aeran and Náriel.

 

“You’re not really dense enough to hope to collect on that, are you?†Solstice’s voice carried her threat and the woman seemed to fold back into the remaining people as she saw her yellow eye and blackened skin. Solstice so rarely openly showed her features that now as she stood in front of this crowd that stared at her with wide nervous eyes her heart thrummed like a drum with nervousness even though the face she showed shared nothing but confidence and anger.

 

“No!†The lumbering man spoke again, “I must take you to my grandfather.â€

 

“Roric! Are you mad? The Queen hunts them! Her armies are surely on their trail, we would be best to capture them and hand them over! Or kill them! Helping them will mean certain death! To all of us!†This was the voice of another man, a full head shorter than ‘Roric’ – the lumber man – but showed no fear of him as he spoke against his plans. Solstice agreed with this newcomer though, logically, they should either kill them, capture them, or run them out of town which might still result in their ultimate demise, but helping them would guarantee it. Still, she wasn’t going to point this out and she doubted it would occur to Aeran that everyone here was going to die if they aided them.

 

“Don’t be a coward!†Roric shot back, “The Queen has taxed us to our last copper! The Dragon Rider can stop her! We might be able to help in this injustice and you just want to pass it up? This is something much greater than us!†Roric’s voice was gentle as he spoke to the other man, but his passion was infectious. Solstice almost laughed, but wondered what Aeran must be thinking of this whole ordeal, to Solstice Aeran was still just a boy who had a long way to go before he fit the profile of what these people were envisioning.

 

“Roric is right!†Another woman chirped. “If we can help end Aedra than we should do everything we can! I say we help them!†Solstice realized then that this had started as taking them to Roric’s grandfather to actually helping them, though she wasn’t sure when or how, perhaps his grandfather held some power or significance to the village. She remained silent, but amused at the crowd as they fought amongst themselves to find even ground. Eventually they decided that Roric’s grandfather would be the decider on their fates.

 

Solstice never got the chance to decide on if she would allow them to take them to this grandfather figure or not as someone had apparently went and fetched him. The crowd broke like a wave, splitting to let the elderly man with his cane wobble his way to the front. Solstice stood her ground in front of her charges. The man slowly made his way to her and looked up but spoke no words before he looked to Aeran and moved past her, brushing against her as if she were no more a threat than a tree. If it had been someone younger, someone who would actually pose a threat, she told herself she’d be offended or at least irritated, but with this man she was mildly amused and perhaps feeling a bit… gentle.

 

So she simple watched him as he approached Aeran his wrinkly old hand raising up and touching Aeran’s forehead where the scar was and tracing it as if he were blind, likely his vision wasn’t so good at his age. As his fingers traced the mark he sighed and smiled, “A rider…. My own grandfather spoke of your return, of the egg that slipped through her fingers. Just a fleeting myth, they had said, no possible way was there another egg, but alas, here you are.†His voice was gentle and he smiled, showing only three teeth, the others missing. “And you,†His attention moved down to Náriel, “You must be the little egg that got away. It’s amazing. Come, come, I will not be found to be a bad host to the last Dragon Rider.†And with that the old man turned away and began his laborious task of walking out of the barn.

 

It occurred to Solstice that she wasn’t included in this invitation but they’d have to fight her if they thought to keep her from her charges, but no one argued her as she followed Aeran and Náriel after the old man, but that might have been from fear. The house he took them too confirmed Solstice’s theory on him being a significant figure to the village, it was easily the largest – which was still smaller than her own townhouse – and he actually had a maid, just one, the village was entirely too small to offer more, but she might have just been there because he probably couldn’t manage on his own. The one maid referred to him as ‘elder:’ a term for the leader of villages that were too small to merit a mayor.

 

He lead them into the open room, the house too small to have its own dining room, it was just one open space separated by thin walls for a kitchen area, and a bedroom. Solstice had been born on a farm, so she always had food, except for the year of the drought, but her own house hadn’t been much larger than this one. She recalled Aeran’s words to her and wondered what he’d think if she told him she used to spend her days gathering from the fields. He probably wouldn’t believe her.

 

The maid brought in a tray of stone cups steaming from their contents, to her surprise she counted enough for all, including herself, but one look at the young girl’s dark eyes and the tray began shaking in her hands. The old man took the tray from her and asked her to bring them supper and she disappeared quickly. The elder handed Aeran a cup and then came to Solstice fearlessly handing her one. She looked down into the cup, she could smell the tea, and that’s all it was – tea, no sugar or cream, which didn’t surprise her, actually what she’d been looking for was poison or some such agent, but she smelled none and so drank gratefully of the bitter drink.

 

“Why betray Aedra to help a rider?†The man’s voice was strong but held a tremble that came with age. Solstice looked no older than twenty one, which was just as Aedra had planned, none of the Infurus aged past their prime, though their life expectancy was questionable, most of them died in combat somehow and few kept track of their age.

 

“I could ask you the same.†Solstice tossed back almost playfully, a sense of ease keeping her usual temper mellow.

 

He chuckled, “I suppose you’re right. My name is Garin, as you’ve probably realized I’m elder of this village. I was told the rider’s name is Aeran, but I know not yours?â€

 

For a moment Solstice considered not answering, but what difference did it really make? “Solstice.â€

 

“What an interesting name, Solstice, like the winter and summer solstices? What significance did that hold to your parents?†His ease with talking to her was setting her off and she felt her anger that always seemed to mellow beneath the surface easily dissipating. She found his company comforting in some way.

 

“Sort of, I suppose. It would be more accurate to say its meaning is what made her choose it. When the sun stands still, as in, her world stood still for a moment when I came into her life…†Solstice suddenly found herself blushing and chuckled a girlish sound at words her mother had spoken to her in love and endearment.

 

At Solstice’s embarrassment the man smiled a fatherly look, “That’s beautiful, she must love you dearly.†This conversation just took a turn that crushed Solstice’s heart, but she didn’t blame him, or act out, she just lowered her head, hoping her silence would draw his attention elsewhere.

 

Garin’s smile turned to a frown as he realized the tender topic he’d touched on. Just then the maid came back in with fresh baked bread and fried fish, again the maid was too afraid to approach her but Garin had no problem in offering her a portion. Thankfully he did not question her again and left her to eat the meager portions his attention instead moved to Aeran and Náriel. 

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At the sound of Solstice's laugh, Aeran almost spat the hot tea from his mouth in surprise. He had never heard anything close to that noise escape from her lips, and in fact had already come to the conclusion that she was incapable of making such a sound. He felt Náriel's surprise in addition to his own, but where he felt wry amusement at Solstice's change in demeanour, Náriel only hardened herself further. Though her face couldn't really show it, he felt her scowl with irritation that anyone would be pleasant towards the Infurus. Aeran remained quiet while the two spoke with one another, content with being uninvolved with the discussion. He was just pleased for the hot drink and the company of other people. His life before Náriel, the Vicious that had killed his mother, and Solstice, seemed as though it might never have happened. He felt stronger for his ordeal, however short it had been, and maybe a little wiser too, but he knew he had a long way to go. 

The smell of hot food roused Aeran from his thoughts. Baked bread and fried fish. He knew they were being generous with strangers, even if he held more significance to them than the average traveller. This was likely food they needed for themselves. They did not look like a plump, well-fed community. He would not refuse their offer, for danger of offending them, but was honoured at what they could be sacrificing for them. Not just in their hospitality, but in the danger it presented them just by talking to him. For a few minutes, the elder of the village, Garin, let them eat in peace. His eyes however, were fixed upon Aeran like a hawk's, though, he suspected, were far less capable in his old age. 

"Aeran..." Garin began, letting Aeran finish his mouthful and meet his eye before he spoke, "I want you to tell me what you intend to do."
Unsure of the question, Aeran looked to Solstice, who remained impassive to the question. "I don't understand." He said finally, looking back at the elder.
"Well, you are a dragon rider. Do you not know what that means?" He asked, leaning forwards.

"I know..." Aeran paused, fidgeting with a fish bone on his plate, "... that the riders were warriors, or guardians."
"Mmm, and more." He replied, nodding sagely.

 

"I thought they just kept the peace." Aeran added.
"Well, they did, yes. But you see, Aeran, there was not always a war, or a catastrophe for the riders to avert. It was true that there was always injustice, but back then, there were many riders, and they were not always needed for their prowess in combat. Many were teachers, healers, advisors to Kings and Queens, among other things."
Excited at the topic that had now become an integral part of his own history, Aeran could barely contain himself, "How many riders were there?!" 
"Oh, I don't know for sure, but there were dozens, at the very least." Garin slowly nodded to himself, "Mmm. More I should think, but Aeran, there are more important questions that need answering. I would ask you to please wait until I am finished." His tone was stiff but not unkind and Aeran resumed his silence. "Now then, I asked you what you intended to do. By that I mean, you are a rider now, though many do not yet realise it or might even choose to deny it, you and Náriel are likely Lumia's greatest hope for being freed from the tyranny of the Sorceress Queen."

"But i'm just a child." Aeran admitted, sullenly. Náriel shifted her position in the small room, forcing several people to move aside so she was able to sit right beside Aeran, knocking chairs out of the way in the process. Aeran placed a hand on the back of her long, swan-like neck and kept it there. "I don't know what i'm supposed to do. Even if I could stop the Queen, I don't know how. I don't think I have the strength to do it."

"Not alone." Garin replied, honestly. Taking a deep breath he let it out and smiled, "And as to your own strength, that comes with time. The dragons and their riders are immortal, Aeran. My grandfather said that a rider will not perish. Not to the ravages of time, as all things do eventually, save for perhaps the elves."

"I'll never die?" He asked, frowning.

"You can die." Garin corrected himself, "But not from the passage of time. A blade can just as easily cut short your life, and that of Náriel's too, much as it is with the elves. The elves and the Dragons were once at war, and the only thing that saved their races from extinction was creating the riders. That act stopped averted all future conflict between them, and they included humankind in this spell as well. That is why you are immortal. All riders are bound with the magic of elves and dragons. Haven't you noticed?" 
"Noticed what?" Aeran asked, befuddled.

 

"Your ears." Garin laughed, then leant to his maid and asked something of her in a quiet tone. She left the room and returned with a small rectangular object even as Aeran opened his mouth to ask what Garin was talking about. The maid walked forwards and held up the object. It was a small mirror, and as Aeran looked in it, aside from seeing a smattering of dirt on his face, he saw nothing wrong with him. "Look closer." Garin pointed at his ears and Aeran brushed some hair out of the way and saw then that the tops of his ears were no longer entirely rounded, they ended in soft points. "Yes, I can see it's already begun."
"What has?!" Aeran asked, gasping as he stared at the unusually alien shape of his ears.
"The Awyé." Garin replied, matter-of-factly. "I've naturally never seen the process, and to be honest, that was one of the things my grandfather mentioned that I had a hard time believing, but it seems he was quite right." Garin laughed again, slapping his leg as he did so, "The Awyé is a process whereby a human rider will eventually become an elf."

The colour immediately drained from Aeran's face, "What?!" 
"Mm. Technically the Awyé happens overnight. You are not yet truly experiencing it. But over time, you will notice little changes that lead up to it, such as your ears." Garin laughed at Aeran's confused and worried expression. "Why are you afraid?" He asked.

"I-I don't want to be someone else." Aeran replied, a hint of panic in his voice.
"Hah!" Garin exclaimed, then shook his head, "Nay. You will still be you, your mother would still recognise your face, eh? Your thoughts would still be your own, but you would change physically. It is not something to take what you are, but add to it." At the mention of Aeran's mother, he fell silent and sullen. Garin watched him for a few moments and then sighed, "It seems in my old age that i've made a habit of saying the wrong things." He smiled with a warm, apologetic gleam to his eyes. "We live in a hard world, Aeran. But with a rider in it, so much less so." Garin then turned his attention back to Solstice, "Where are you taking the boy?" He asked.

 

"To the only ones I can think that can help him - the elves." She replied. Aeran's face contorted into one of surprise and excitement, mixed with confusion and doubt.
"What will the elves do?" Aeran asked. Looking from Garin to Solstice. He had never expected that one day he might see an elf, nevermind go to the homeland of the elves. A place he knew that no human had been inside for over a hundred years. 

Solstice looked to Aeran, her expression relaxed; "I told you, the elves are the ones who created the connection with dragons. Given their life span it isn't unlikely that we'll encounter those who were around when the riders were - assuming they don't shoot me on sight."
"Mmm." Garin stroked his chin in contemplation, "Relations with the elves has been bad with us, but I can only imagine how much worse it would be with the Infurus." At Aeran's confused expression, Garin cautiously looked to Solstice, "Have you not told him?"
"Told me what?" Aeran asked, getting further confused and annoyed at the cryptic nature of Garin's question.

 

Aeran felt a surge of hostile anger from Náriel and turned to stare at her in confusion, then looked back to Solstice, who sighed with a frown as if something vile were on her tongue before speaking, "The Infurus were not created to kill Vicious, they were created to hunt down and kill the dragons and their riders. It's not just a matter of war either, they weren't just soldiers doing their job by fighting the elves, they specifically targeted the riders and dragons. The connection between rider and dragon to elves is sacred, it's practically a religious thing to them. To say that they hate the Infurus is an understatement."

Suddenly Náriel's hatred of Solstice made sense, at least beyond what he had assumed was just his own feelings intensified through empathy. Though he constantly struggled with conflicting feelings about his mentor, Náriel had remained resolute in her despise of the Infurus. Aeran swallowed as the information shook him and made him question his fledgling relationship with Solstice, and the trust he had begun to form.

"Anyway..." Garin broke the silence deliberately, "For what it's worth, you are welcome here Solstice, Rider Aeran - as are you dragon Náriel." He bowed slightly, "We cannot offer you much in the way of supplies, but I will gift you two horses from my own stable so that you might reach the elves homeland as quickly as possible." Then he added, "However, to reach them, you should not go by land. At least not for the remainder of your journey. I happen to know that Aedra has sent a great many of her monster slayers, personal guard, and even a number of sorcerers to scour the land, with the intention of finding you all."
"So what can we do?" Aeran asked, feeling hopeless.
"Well isn't it obvious?" Garin grinned, his eyes alive with a youth that betrayed his appearance, "If you cannot go by land, you will have to take a ship and go by sea." He laughed and then added, "We have no ships that can bear passengers, and besides, we need our ships for fishing. But, although it is a terrible risk, you could travel north to Svarda."

 

The trio all exchanged looks with one another. That sounded like the worst idea anyone had ever suggested in all the history of Lumia. To ride straight into Svarda. A rider, his dragon and a traitor-Infurus. "I'm sure the Queen would be happy to have us." Aeran muttered, rolling his eyes.
Garin smiled, shrugging his shoulders, "The way I see it, she has sent so much of her forces out to seek you in the southern lands, or to block your passage to the north-east, to the great forests of the elves, that she has likely left Svarda exposed and comparatively unguarded. Perhaps you could sneak in, hire a ship to go east and she would never be the wiser. You would simply make land a few miles short of the forest, and make your way from there. Her soldiers will not come so close to it, so once you're off the ship, you'd be safe."
"But Svarda though..." The hairs on the back of Aeran's neck raised and he looked to Solstice for advice and a solid answer. Whatever they were going to do, she would likely know the best course of action, even if to him, it seemed like suicide to try and infiltrate the capital city. The city which contained the White Palace, and Aedra herself.

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Solstice didn’t have an answer for Aeran or the elder yet, she had just remained in silence and eventually they moved on to discussing other less dire things. They remained there for the night since they had already wasted most of the day talking. She was immensely grateful for the blankets offered even if their ‘beds’ would still be against the hard floor of the elder’s house. She of course didn’t sleep long, perhaps five hours or so since she was still recovering and it was still pitch black outside, but she wandered out anyway, confident Aeran and Náriel would be alright without her in the relative safety of the village.  

 

The village was silent as she walked down the dirt paths, the people tucked away in bed, but to her surprise she sensed one body still lurking, curiosity bade her seek them out. It was Roric, he sat by the water’s edge fishing pole in hand, casting and recasting over and over with no luck. For a time she simply watched him, wondering how he could live in a fishing village and apparently be bad at fishing.

 

“I know you’re there.†His voice caught her off guard; how?

 

Regardless she stepped forward and let the moonlight shimmer over her features, the blackened skin shimmered as if it were wet. “You’re too impatient. Give the fish a chance to take interest.â€

 

He looked back at her, “What would you know about fishing?â€

 

“Apparently more than you.†Solstice took the remaining steps to stand by him.

 

He frowned at her, not certain how he felt about taking advice from an Infurus woman about fishing, but decided to leave the line in the water. “Still nothing,†He said impatiently.

 

“You’ve barely waited at all. Be patient and hold your hands still, you don’t want to scare the fish. Jerk it slightly only when you’ve felt them nibble.†The line pulled taunt for a brief moment and Solstice could hear his heart pick up pace, “Gently, tug it,†He followed her order, over and over he taunted the fish until the line tugged hard, “Now, pull it in!†Roric yanked the pole with such force she wondered how it didn’t snap as it whistle through the air, the fish suddenly hitting the sand by her boot. For a moment she watched it writhe helplessly before putting her boot on it to hold it still then bending over to wiggle the hook from its mouth.

 

Roric came over and took his prize from beneath her boot, weaving a line between its gills and then returned to casting, this time following her advice without question. “Are they all like you?â€

 

“What do you mean?†Solstice asked, genuinely unsure of his question.

 

Silence fell between him, she could smell his discomfort and she was quickly piecing together his question. “I mean… the Infurus, I’ve only ever heard of them, you’re the first that’s ever set foot in this village, at least to my knowledge. Do they all look so human?â€

 

Her eyes went wide as saucers as she realized his confusion; luckily he wasn’t looking at her face to see her surprised expression, “What is it exactly they tell you about the Infurus?â€

 

“That they’re monster hunters that are barely human themselves.†He spoke softly, obviously uncertain if he should admit this information.

 

Solstice scoffed, “I suppose there isn’t much human left about us.â€

 

“You seem pretty human to me.†She found herself staring at him trying to gauge his age, he was definitely older than her, probably in his mid to late thirties, but was completely ignorant of life outside his village. “You obviously must be pretty human if you’re aware enough to realize the Sorceress Queen is a monster and needs to be overthrown. I mean, you’ve sacrificed everything in helping the rider. Why?â€

 

She didn’t know how to answer his question, why was she doing this? It was something she kept asking herself but the only answer she’d ever conjured was that she couldn’t kill the naïve boy, but what did it mean for her? She had never had such compassion before, why now?

 

“Do you not find me disturbing?†Solstice changed the subject, annoyed from hearing her own questions out loud, but wasn’t sure how that question was any better, perhaps it was a safe place for her - to be feared.

 

“You mean your eye?†He glanced over at her as if to reconfirm her face before looking back to the water at the still surface. “I had an uncle who was missing one of his eyes; the Queen had had it gouged out for some petty crime. Well, I doubt his crime ever reached the Queen’s ears but the guards had done it in her name anyway. He wore an eye patch most of the time but the few times I seen it I always found it unsettling to see the empty socket with the sick scaring around it. That was disturbing, you… you’re just different.â€

 

She was at a loss on how to respond to this. It occurred to her that he was thinking all Infurus were like her with grotesque features. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?â€

 

“Should I be? You haven’t really given me a reason to be. I mean, if all Infurus are like you, I’m afraid I don’t understand what the big issue with them is.†Solstice ran threw her mind all that had occurred since Roric had spotted them in the barn and realized he was right, she had barely said anything to him, let alone threatened him, because normally her appearance alone was enough of a threat.

 

“You do realize they killed off the dragons and their riders, right?†She frowned, beginning to wonder if he was slow.

 

“They, as in, your ancestors, to my knowledge my ancestors used to keep slaves. I sure hope no one would blame me personally for that though.†Technically they weren’t even her ancestors, the Infurus weren’t born they were created, so if any of them were related it was a fluke.

 

“You have a very simple way of viewing things.†Solstice stated flatly.

 

Roric shrugged, “No need to be making things complicated.†Suddenly his attention was draw to his rod again as another fish began tugging and before long, by following Solstice’s earlier instructions, he had pulled the fish onto the shore.

 

As he leashed this fish on the line with the other Solstice turned to leave but stopped, “Just so you know, they’re not all like me, you’d never know they were Infurus, they appear human.†Roric didn’t answer to this, for whatever reason, he simply watched her leave and wander down the dirt street.

 

The sun was beginning to rise, she had finished her wandering and now sat outside the elder’s house, watching the sky. She watched Roric walk by with a whole line of fish and couldn’t hide the slight smirk as he waved to her. This was a strange feeling.

 

“Good morning, Solstice.†She looked back over her shoulder to see Garin wobbling out of his house towards her. “The boy still sleeps; will you wake him to leave so early? Or can I persuade you to stay a while longer?â€

 

“I’ll wake him when everything is ready, but there is something I need to discuss with you.†Solstice spoke gravely the tension in the air suddenly suffocating.

 

“Oh?†Garin inquired, sitting down beside her.

 

“You need to send someone to Northhaven to tell them we came through here.â€

 

His eyes bulged, “Why would I do this?â€

 

“Because, if you don’t, everyone in this village will meet their end. Aedra is a cruel woman and if she finds out you aided us she will torture everyone here, mark my words. So, you need to be a step ahead of her, appear on her side.†Her voice came out harsh and commanding as she pressed the severity of the situation. “You will tell the guards in Northhaven that we were spotted stealing horses and that we left heading north.â€

 

Garin frowned, “I understand the significance of appearing on her side as you say, but I don’t see why we would tell them the truth of where you’re going.â€

 

“They’ll know if you lie, one lie will be all it will take for Aedra to send in sorcerers to torture the citizens and tear the information from them, if that happens there will be no saving the village. Answer the questions as honestly as you can, don’t leave room for suspicion.†Solstice clenched her fist as it occurred to her she was helping this village avoid a fate she had given to a different town in the past.

 

Roric came up to them leading two horses, one speckled and one all brown fully geared for riding, a smile wide across his face clueless to the dire conversation he had just missed. Solstice stood and greeted each beast, “They’re strong and they will get you far, be kind to them…†Her attention moved to Roric to see the kindness and love that shone for these horses.

 

“Thank you,†She responded, the words alien on her tongue as she stroked the snout of the speckled one. “I need to go wake Aeran now, we can’t linger longer.†Both of the men nodded to her in a fashion that proved their blood relation.

 

“Solstice… you’re a kind soul.†She glanced back at Garin before disappearing into the building. His words echoed in her mind, but she knew not what to do with them or the emotions they invoked.

 

Inside she found Aeran and Náriel curled together and resting peacefully, probably the best sleep they’ve had since Aeran had joined her company. Looking at them she wondered how Aeran felt now that he knew what the Infurus had been created for. Did he despise her? Would he kill her at the first opportunity? Náriel had wanted to kill her and only by Aeran’s influence had she stopped, would he allowed Náriel to attack her? What would she do if he did?

 

With a sigh she knelt down and touched his shoulder, “Wake up, we need to get going.â€

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Morning came too soon. Aeran half-opened his eyes, staring at the shaft of light peeking from the window on the far wall. Transfixed by the glittering dust floating around, reflecting the light of the sun. He heard movement behind him, and when Solstice touched Aeran's shoulder, he couldn't help but tense. "Yeah, I know." He muttered in reply, and yawned. Náriel mimicked the action beside him and now that both were awake, they pressed their minds against one another, mixing their senses and emotions together. Aeran pressed his face up against her muzzle and as one, they rose. "We're leaving now, then?" Aeran asked.

"Yes, to Svarda."

Náriel looked to Aeran, and he felt her concern emanating from their shared link. "I don't like this idea." Aeran replied, stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders to get the blood flowing, "Couldn't we wait until Náriel is big enough that I can fly her? That way, we wouldn't have to go into Svarda at all." 

"The last time Náriel grew it was because you were in danger. So, how shall you like to proceed with that plan? I'm sure I can hunt down some Vicious for you to take on, or simply go gather some of Aedra's guards again." Solstice sneered sarcastically.

 

"I meant..." Aeran paused as he tried to control his temper, "... couldn't we just go somewhere until Náriel is big enough and strong enough to get me there without having to sneak into a city that has Infurus, soldiers, sorcerers and the Queen herself. It would only take a few months, wouldn't it?"

Solstice sighed, "Aedra is hunting us, the longer it takes for her to find us the more vicious she will become. More and more people will suffer under her demands, completely innocent villages who know nothing about us or have never even seen or heard of us will be mutilated because she believes they're hiding something. Time is of the essence, Aeran."

Sighing, Aeran stood up and packed his things in silence. He knew that Solstice was right, but somehow he had hoped that there might have been another way. It was clear there was not.

Placing his left foot in a stirrup, Aeran hoisted himself onto the brown stallion which shook it's head with an ill-tempered stamp of one of it's front hooves. Rubbing the horse's neck to calm him, Aeran imagined what it would be like when he was riding Náriel instead. Though he had always liked horses, Aeran no longer found much joy in the experience. Perhaps in part it was his longing to be with Náriel, and perhaps because of their dire circumstances. He could feel a tense, haughty indifference waft from Náriel. Aeran grinned at her, realising that she disliked the idea that Aeran was riding on anything but her, moreover the fact that to her, he was riding a prey animal. A cowardly creature that would flee from danger at a moment's notice without care for it's rider. Her disdain for the creature was strong enough that Aeran had to reassure her, verbally and mentally. "It's just for a little while. Until you're big enough. Okay?" He asked, raising an eyebrow. Náriel looked the horse over once and snorted in his general direction, sending a small plume of smoke into his face and making him whinny nervously. With her dominance asserted, Náriel was content. At least for the time being.

 

As Aeran grasped his reins he felt a hand touch his right foot and he looked over to see the village elder, Garin, stood beside the horse. "I wish you luck, Aeran. You and Náriel are our best hope now, maybe our only hope. Stay safe, be careful. I cannot speak for all of Lumia, but for my village, I would be proud to see you become a true rider and smite the usurper tyrant right upon her stolen throne!!" Garin's voice cracked with anger he had been keeping simmering under the surface for many years, a fire growing ever stronger in his eyes, awakening something in him. It took him a moment before he could calmly collect himself, "Perhaps one day you will come back here and bless our village, eh?" Garin smiled.

"A blessing...?" Aeran asked, half-grinning. "I don't know how--"
"--it's fine." Garin interrupted, holding his hand up and laughing at the boy's confusion, "Another time, Aeran. Good luck."

"Thank you." Returning the man's smile and good wishes, Aeran, Solstice and Náriel made their way out of the village. Before they had ridden more than a few feet however, there was a loud noise as doors all over the village began swinging open frantically, people flooded from every building in sight. Aeran looked back just in time to see Roric step forwards from among the others and with his deep, booming voice, yelled, "Hail, Dragon Rider Aeran! Hail Dragon Náriel!" Then a beat, "Hail, Dragon Knight Solstice!" The village erupted in a cacophony of noise, repeating Roric's salute with a conviction Aeran had never heard before.

 

Grinning, Aeran made no attempt to contain his happiness, Náriel felt intoxicated with the intensity of the emotion, releasing a rumbling purr. Gerra, though only a small fishing village, had been his first taste of what at least some of the free folk of Lumia thought of the return of the riders. Aeran beamed with pride, excitement and a sense of duty. Somehow, despite everything he'd suffered through, it was worth it. He had never known people to be so inspired, and by him of all people! Maybe he wasn't just a stupid child playing hunter in a little forest village any more. Maybe he could dethrone Aedra. Maybe he could be the rider that Náriel saw in him. Maybe.

An hour had passed since the trio had left to head North to Svarda. The village had returned to normality for the most part, though tales of Aeran, Solstice and Náriel already began to spread through the village. Stories and observations, inspiring and amusing conversations held at the local tavern. Garin sighed as he sank into his softest chair, rubbing his legs, glad to be finally resting. He smiled to himself in spite of his discomfort, reached for his pipe and began to pack in a clump of tobacco. As he lifted the pipe to his lips, an ear-splitting scream echoed through the village. In surprise and fear, Garin dropped his pipe and forgetting his pain, leapt to his feet and ran as quickly as he could to his front door. When he opened it, his eyes fell immediately on a confusing sight. Stood but a stone's throw away were a group of strange men and women, cloaked in black with swords strapped to their hips. They surrounded a man who dressed in similar fashion, but unlike the others, he hid nothing of his features though Garin wished he had. The stranger clothed in black had a gaunt, death-like pallor about his face. His lips were razor-thin and he had an unnaturally wide grin, yet despite his apparent smile, his eyes were devoid of emotion. Long, greasy black hair fell about his ghost-like face, and he had an air about him that sent a shiver up Garin's spine.

"What's the meaning of this?!" Garin barked, storming forwards, his eyes simultaneously searching for Roric and trying to find the source of the scream. "Explain yourselves, right now!!" As he approached the group, the black-cloaked strangers surrounded the man in the centre, all of them pulling their blades at once, revealing the fiery glint of red steel. They were Infurus. Gasping, Garin took a step back reflexively, as the ghost-like man carefully stepped over something and approached him. Frowning, Garin looked down to see what the man had had to consciously avoid, and he saw the body of a young woman lying on the floor. Her eyes wide in her skull, staring off into space, white foam collected in the corner of her mouth.
"W-what...?" Garin wavered, almost falling over. "Audrey..." He whispered, choking her name. He had known her well. A bubbly, excitable young woman who worked at the tavern and liked to tease Roric when the mood took her. Now she lay as cold and still as a rock.

"One more." The pale man hissed to the others.
"Yes, Lord Yadrell." One of the black-cloaked soldiers nodded, and swept forwards to grab Garin by the arm. Garin gasped as the man's strength was enough to bring him to his knees, for a moment he thought his arm was going to snap and he cried out. But the pain of his arm, even the pain of seeing Audrey lying dead on the floor, was nothing to what he then experienced. The sensation of a white-hot needle piercing his skull filled his mind and blocked out all other thoughts. There was nothing but pain. Inexhaustible and inescapable pain. He doubled over, releasing a scream that rivalled Audrey's. For what seemed like an eternity it would never end. The needle jabbed through his mind, searching ever deeper. He couldn't stop himself as thoughts came to the forefront of his mind, against his will. Visions of Aeran, Náriel and Solstice. Their encounter, the offer of their hospitality, and more.

With an angry hiss, Yadrell pulled his lips back in anger, "He died before I could get everything..." He muttered angrily, then Yadrell's emotionless demeanour resumed and he scanned the surrounding buildings in contemplation. "Hrmm...."
"Shall we get another, my Lord?" An Infurus asked, motioning to a nearby villager.
"No..." Yadrell replied. Then added with a tone one might ponder on the choice of their next meal, "I think you could kill them. Yes." He nodded to himself, his unhealthy grin widening to the point of looking as though his face might split, even the Infurus shivered with discomfort, "Yes, definitely. Kill them, all of them. Burn the village to the ground. I want rid of it." Stepping over Garin's corpse, Yadrell pulled himself onto his black horse then turned to address the Infurus soldiers one last time, "They are only an hour or so ahead of us, travelling north to Svarda, if you could believe it - I expect you to catch up with me when you're done dealing with this rabble - else you should not return at all." All the Infurus present lost a little of the colour in their cheeks and watched as Yadrell rode away, driving his steed with an unusual cruelty. 

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Solstice’s heart dropped at their cheer for her. She knew the term, of course she did, she knew all about the riders. A dragon knight. The title mulled over and over in her mind as she considered all that it was. The Knights were guardians of the Rider’s, companions, aids, whatever they needed them to be really. Sometimes they were even aids of the dragons. Solstice couldn’t help but look over at Náriel – yea, right, she wanted her out of her life or more likely wanted Solstice dead. Náriel despised Solstice for what she was, but as Solstice thought this she couldn’t help but think of Roric, a person who didn’t blame her for what she was. This wasn’t the same though, Náriel’s disliking of her was more akin to a mouse fearing a cat, it was instinctual, a necessity of survival, and Solstice couldn’t blame her for that. A slight grin caught on Solstice’s lip as it occurred to her that she’d just compared the feisty dragon to a mouse and if Náriel ever knew she’d probably bite her.

 

For some time they traveled in silence, changing from a canter to a trot but nothing more strenuous. Solstice was concerned about the endurance of beasts that had spent their lives in a fishing village and so was gentle in testing their limits. She was pleasantly surprised though as they did well in maneuvering the awkward terrain and were fearless when entering a rather angry looking river. As they passed berry bushes and fruit trees Solstice made a point of collecting copious amounts to feed both horses, storing them in a bag the old man Garin had given her, he’d even stored it with some dried fish and bread, though she’d only asked for the bag.

 

Coming upon some rather appealing looking fruits high up in a tree she pulled on the reins and drew her speckled horse - who Roric had told her was named Dust - to a slow walk and attempted something she hadn’t done since she was a child and riding only ponies. Perhaps she was a bit arrogant in her abilities, or just really confident, but she raised one leg from the stirrup and then the other, shifting her weight from her bottom to her knees. With one hand on the back of Dust’s neck she brought one foot up and pushed herself to stand on the horse’s saddle. She realized only once she was plucking the fruit from the tree tops that she probably looked like she was showing off, but the euphoric glee she got from the nostalgic action over road any cares or worries.

 

Satisfied with her harvest she eased herself back into her saddle, stroking Dust’s neck and cooing to him softly. Coming to the lip of another river Dust stopped and leant down to drink, “Guess we’re taking a break.†But Solstice didn’t seem overly agitated by this, she’d intended to take a break soon anyway and so she slipped off the side of her horse.  Aeran’s horse came to the water to follow suit, drinking from the gentle stream. From her bag she pulled out two of the apples she’d gathered and by showing them to each horse she drew their attention from the water long enough to snatch the offered food from her hands, munch it down in all of about two bites before returning to the water. Their company pleased and comforted her and she was happy to show them affection, stroking their necks and offering them more food from the berries she’d collected along the way.

 

Reluctantly pulling herself back to the present she turned to Aeran, “There is something else I need to teach you when it comes to magic. Using magic is a powerful tool but it’ll do you no good if your mind is taken over. Remember, what I told you about how sorcery can be used to take one’s memories? Well, it can also be used to control someone’s will. It’s important that you know how to ward against such sorcery. Now, I can’t really teach you this any better than I can teach you magic, all I can do is explain how it works.†Reaching into her bag she withdrew two more apples and handed one off to Aeran, “Come,†She directed and started off into the surrounding forest leaving the horses to drink.

 

She ate her apple and while they walked she talked; “You will feel when someone tries to push into your mind, it becomes painful the further in they go. When this happens you want to focus on a single thought. The sorcerer will be trying to draw up specific memories or thoughts, even if it’s just a matter of forcing you to think of what happened yesterday, it can be that vague or it can be more specific, like trying to draw memories of a specific person or event from you.â€

 

Along her path she gathered wood for a fire handing some of the burden off to Aeran but carrying just as much herself. “It’s a battle of wills in the most basic sense, the more control and calm you have over your own will, the more likely you can resist them. A lot of people have trouble with defending their own minds, especially if they don’t know how to handle pain. If you can manage to keep your mind calm and not panic through the pain you can probably push them out. It’s not actually all that difficult – to my understanding – it’s just a matter of control.â€

 

Solstice veered them back towards the horses and dropped the wood in front of her, biting the inside of her lip as her stomach ached and reminded her of her wound. Though it was mostly healed it still burned like an overused muscle. “Meditation will be key in controlling your own mind. If you can meditate even when there is war and chaos flashing around you, you can push out a sorcerer.â€

 

Moving to the stream she gathered a bunch of river stones and tossed them to the pile of wood. She used these to make a circle for the fire. “Some people will think of loved ones or specific events that make them feel calm or happy, maybe it’s just me but I find thinking of things like a slow burning fire or a gentle river more relaxing when trying to meditate.†With the wood built up into a pyramid she directed Aeran to light it. “This time you’re going to use a meditation technique. Close your eyes,†Rising to her feet with complete silence she pulled a strip of bandaging from the bag Garin had given her and approached Aeran, “I’m going to blindfold you,†She warned him only a second before she wrapped the fabric around his head and tied it loosely. “I’m only doing this because I don’t want you checking to see if it lights. Just focus on your visual, spend as much time as you need making it as real as you can and only once you’re confident will you speak the words.

 

“Now with your hands I want you to touch the ground, the stones, the wood. Don’t just think of what it looks like, think of the smells, and the feel of it beneath your fingers, of what it is now – just wood in a circle of stones – and what it will become – first a spark, a glowing ember, the wind will brush it and breathe life into that ember rising into warmth and power. Watch it as it slowly grows, as small licks of yellow fire begin spiraling up each individual twig and branch. The smell of it as it burns away the green grass beneath, of the smoke that will spiral above….†She trailed off to let him focus.

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Sitting on the cool floor of the forest, Aeran tried to clear his mind of all the little sounds and smells that wormed their way into his thoughts. He could hear the sound of a woodpecker knocking at a tree, the sound of things scurrying across the floor, he heard a rustle of leaves as Náriel resettled herself. A chill crept across his skin, he rubbed his arms to relieve the goosebumps and bring some warmth to his bones, but he knew he had to get the fire going if he was going to warm up. Aeran had tried creating flame several times since being taught the words in the ancient language - the language of the elves. Every opportunity he got he would hold out his hand and attempt to spark a little flame in his hand, but he had had fleeting luck, at best. He could feel the warmth of Náriel's consciousness pressing on him, encouraging him. As he sat in front of the makings of their camp fire, he heard footsteps and a jingle of reins as Solstice pulled herself onto Dust.
“I’m going to go scout around, see if I can find any fresh game. Once you have the fire going, work on meditating.â€

"I suppose i'll just light it without seeing anything then." He retorted, but either she hadn't heard him, or more likely choose to ignore his comment. Aeran scowled and looked at what he imagined was the direction of the pile of twigs and logs surrounded by stones.

For a long while, whether minutes or hours, Aeran was unsure, he sat motionless, trying to let his mind clear of all thoughts and distractions. The first thing to go was the sound of the scurrying squirrels and rodents, then after a while he was able to ignore the sound of the woodpecker. Unlike magic, he found a familiarity with meditation in the way he had hunted in the forest for most of his upbringing. There was a similarity to the peace and concentration required that he found comforting. Before Aeran knew it, the world around him was silent. He slowly reached out with his mind, and uttered the words for 'attempt fire' in the ancient language, careful to pronounce them as he had been told. "Eta Ignís!

He heard a soft rush of wind and pulled the blindfold from his eyes just in time to see a silvery, liquid fire smother the logs. After a few seconds, the silver fire turned to orange and yellow and he felt a noticeable drop in his strength, as though he had just walked several miles. The sensation of the sudden loss of his strength almost panicked Aeran but he wrestled with the sensation and eventually overcame his fear. "I did it." He said, smiling at Náriel, her face softened and he felt an almost overwhelming sense of pride and love from her. He returned her feelings and together the two sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth that the flames gave them. When he had recovered, Aeran decided it was best to start on the next phase in his training. If there was one thing he didn't want, it was a sorcerer invading his thoughts, taking control of him - body and mind. The very idea sent a chill down his spine and he inched closer to the fire, holding his hands closer to the flame, warming them.

Once his hands were warm, Aeran pulled his blindfold back on and sat silently in front of the fire. Resuming his meditation with a sense of accomplishment, Aeran began the process of tuning out the world around him until only one thing remained. Náriel's consciousness brushing against his own. It was then he realised that he could not truly block someone from his thoughts if Náriel still had access to them, and though she understood when he began to pull away from her, they both hated to be apart. The time they shared when linked was special, and he had learnt that it had quickly bonded them to one another in no way he had ever experienced before. When they were apart from one another's conscious, they felt horribly isolated and alone. Half of a whole. When Aeran was finally alone in his own mind, he refocused his attempt to meditate, and like before, tuned out the world around him and quieted his thoughts until there was nothing. He had to decide on a single thought, a single image to rely on. Something he could focus on and could not be wrestled from him. The answer was immediate and obvious.

An image formed in Aeran's mind, taking shape quickly and accurately. It was so clear and bright in his mind that it was almost alive. Silvery, diamond-shaped scales covered her body from head to tail. Talons and fangs sharper and stronger than diamond and whiter than snow. Eyes so dark and piercing that to stare into them was like staring into an endless void, and yet, there was a warmth to them that put him immediately at ease. Her long, swan-like neck and wide, leathery wings. Her long tail that ended with a club-like bauble and spike. Her face with it's long muzzle and the scaly ridge that fanned out from the back of her jaw up to the back of her head, where two long horns jutted back, similar to an antelope's. Náriel was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Her image burned into his mind to the exclusion of all else, and it wasn't until he heard a low, rumbling noise escape her throat that he pulled himself from the tranquillity of his meditation to ask her what was wrong. Before he could open his mouth however, he got his answer.

"Quite impressive." The man's snakelike voice made Aeran jump and whirl around. He was surprised to see the man because of how deep in meditation he had been, but he was further surprised at the fact that it wasn't until the man was inside their camp that Náriel had seen or heard him. He was dressed in black, which stood in stark contrast to his pale white skin. "The fire," the man added, "I saw your little display of magic. It was really quite good." He paused, rolling his head as though tasting a fine wine, "Mmm, well for a beginner, anyway." 
"W-who are you?!" Aeran stood bolt upright and put his hand on the pommel of his sword.
"A friend. Just a friend." He replied. But whatever he was to them, he didn't like it. Aeran felt a consciousness press against his own and it wasn't until he felt the familiar warmth of it that he allowed it in. Panic and fear choked him as Náriel's feelings rushed over Aeran, reaffirming his own suspicions of the stranger. Whoever he was, he was not a friend.

"You are the missing rider, yes?" The man continued, ignoring Aeran's reaction. "You should not fear me, rider. I am Yadrell. Sorcerer of Queen Aedra, she wishes you well and hopes that you will accompany me to discuss your future with her. She wants no bloodshed, our Queen is a merciful one and if you come with me then no harm will come to you or your dragon, or your beautiful Infurus friend." Yadrell oozed the word 'beautiful' with a sneer and Aeran found himself thinking that he was one to talk, given his unusually gaunt-looking face and greasy black hair, but couldn't bring voice to his thought while the man stood in front of him. He was a sorcerer, and Solstice was gone. For how long he had no idea, but if she was hunting, she could be gone for hours yet. This man could attack him with magic, invade his mind. He had to be so, so careful now, even with Náriel by his side.
"She is not my Queen." Aeran replied, as calmly as he could, "And i'm not going anywhere with you."
For a moment, Aeran thought that Yadrell would launch himself at him, he was like a coiled snake and yet, after a moment the man seemed to brush the thought from his mind and shared an unnaturally wide smile, "Be reasonable, good Rider. She wishes only to speak with you."

While Yadrell spoke, Aeran could feel Náriel's anger growing, in a few seconds she was going to launch herself at the sorcerer in a desperate attempt to protect him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He had to act first. Aeran saw that the man carried no weapon on him, and so he knew that he must be adept with magic. Aeran could not hope to best him with magic when he only knew of a few rudimentary words that he had barely begun to learn, let alone master. If he was going to win, it had to be with the sword. Gripping the pommel of his weapon ever tighter, Aeran tried to remain still so as not to alert the man, and yet he seemed to find Aeran's stance amusing. 
"There is no need to be hasty, young Rider." Yadrell cautioned him. 
"Just... just answer me one question, and I will come with you." Aeran replied.

This notion seemed to amuse Yadrell ever further, and so he crossed his arms as Aeran relaxed and nodded, taking a step forwards, "Very well, I shall do this and you will come willingly?" The serpentine man looked slightly to one side, assessing the boy.
"Yes." Aeran lied, knowing that whatever happened, he was not going to go with this sorcerer. He might not have known much of the evil's of the Queen when he had been growing up, but if Solstice was right then she had to be dethroned. As he stood in front of Yadrell, he promised that if he survived, he would make it his mission in life to do this.

"Then - what do you wish to ask of me?" Yadrell raised an eyebrow.
"Have you ever been to Wayford?" Aeran asked.
For a moment, Yadrell said nothing, something caught in his throat and as he opened his mouth to speak, he grinned, lips curling back over his gums. "I have. Now, I believe I have answered your question, come with me, Rider." He motioned for Aeran to come to him.

Aeran nodded slowly, and taking his hand from the pommel of his sword, marched up to Yadrell, even as Náriel stared at him in confusion and surprise, to which Aeran explained as best he could across their link, able only to make her understand through images and feelings. Náriel finally understood and took a step forwards as Aeran was almost beside Yadrell.

"Good," Yadrell cooed, holding an arm out to take Aeran's shoulder, "Our Queen is--" Yadrell never finished his thought. Aeran grabbed his blade and in a single, sweeping attack, he pulled it from it's sheathe and struck at Yadrell's face. With inhuman speed the man almost managed to dodge the fatal attack, but not quite. The blade slid across the man's face, gouging a cavern of flesh from the bottom of his cheek, up through his left eye and ended just before his hairline. For a moment, Yadrell only stumbled back, stunned by the attack. But after the initial shock had passed, the pain began to bite into him and the realisation that he had lost the use of his left eye burned into his mind. Yadrell loosed an otherworldly scream that sent birds and beasts scurrying further into the depths of the forest. He raised his hand to strike and Náriel launched herself at him.

 

Screaming, Yadrell moved his hand to face Náriel and shouted, "Alva!" It was as though she had been hit by an invisible giant, for even as she soared through the air, ready to finish the work Aeran had begun on his face, she abruptly stopped and reversed. Flying backwards and crashing into a tree, which broke under her sheer weight and density, collapsing with a mournful creaking sound. 
"Náriel!!" Aeran screamed, as he felt her consciousness flicker as she blacked out, leaving him alone with the wounded Yadrell.
"Call her name all you want, boy..." Yadrell spat, cradling his wounded face with one hand, "I will have you screaming your mother's when i'm through with you." Aeran turned to face Yadrell and raised his sword over his head to deliver the killing blow.

"Klaera." Yadrell muttered, and Aeran yelped, dropping his blade instantly. He looked down to see that his sword had turned white hot. Then Yadrell turned his attention from Aeran's weapon, to Aeran himself.

A terrible pain assaulted Aeran and he fell to his knees, for a few fleeting seconds he was unsure what was happening but on the edges of his mind he felt Yadrell searching for a way into his thoughts. He was quick, but deliberate and sure of himself. Aeran tried to block out all thoughts, focusing only on Náriel. He felt a pang of frustration come from Yadrell, but the feeling passed as quickly as it arrived as Yadrell suddenly came to an epiphany.
"Your village burned like dry straw in a wildfire," He sneered, "And your friend Fey screamed as I took her thoughts and memories and used them against her, and moaned like a whore when my soldiers ravished her." 
Tears welled up as Aeran fought against Yadrell's control, he roared with all his pent up rage and reached out to grasp at the man's throat, and he would have succeeded, but he was unable to stop images of his home flashing before his eyes. He saw a happy, smiling Fey and then suddenly the village was burning and Fey was screaming. She was screaming over and over again, and her scream became his own as Yadrell slithered through his defences and began dissecting every thought and memory, every hope and every fear, every little piece of information he had ever learnt. The pain was unbearable and soon Aeran wished for nothing but death, he cried out in vain and collapsed as Yadrell continued his mental assault. "Now, you are mine. You will be chief among her slaves, Rider Aeran. As will you, Dragon Náriel." Still holding his mutilated face, Yadrell released a low, choking laugh until the snap of a broken twig alerted him to the presence of another being.

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Hunting for game had only been an excuse she was more interested in the caravan she’d picked up on a while ago. Aeran had thrown a tissy fit the last time she’d intended to steal something so she didn’t intend to admit to that again. She’d been following their trail for most of the day waiting for an appropriate opportunity, and now seemed like as good as any.

 

Her heels kicked into Dust’s sides and he leapt forward, pushing him into a gallop, all day she’d taken it easy, on the chance they needed a quick escape she didn’t want the horses to be too tired to do it. Now, she took advantage of this, Dust was an amazingly strong horse for coming from a fishing village, he had nothing on her warhorse, but she was still pleased with him. Solstice pressed her body flat against his neck as he maneuvered through small spaced, the tree branches sweeping over her head; he bound over fallen logs and pranced around roots when needed.

 

As she drew closer she caught the scent of six humans. Most caravans didn’t travel with that many people, not that she was worried, she could take out a dozen humans at once if she needed too; what’s more she would have surprise on her side. But upon closer inspection something began to alarm her, two humans sat in the middle, and the other four seemed to surround them? It only took a moment to dawn on her – bandits!

 

Solstice urged Dust on, cooing encouragement to him. When her mind went from indifference to ‘I need to save them’ she wasn’t sure, but her heart was pounding and she didn’t care to confront her morality at the moment. The forest thinned as she came closer to the road. Drawing Dust to a halt she had already throw a leg over before he’d even come to a stop. She wasted only the few precious moments it took to wrap Dust’s reins around a branch and calm him into silence before she hurried to the scene.

 

Skulking around the group buried in the forest she saw all six of them, the bandits had already ambushed them, the couple was tied up and sitting on the ground while the four bandits dug through their caravan carelessly throwing their wares about. The ground was littered with various bits of clothing and finery, guess they weren’t interested in anything but the big game. They had chosen the wrong caravan if they were looking for high priced items, one look at the terrified couple and she knew they had only common man’s items. Of course, caravans that carried high valued items would also have guards or mercenaries for protection.

 

Solstice drew one of her three remaining daggers and aimed for the one who was currently rifling through the back - alone for the most part, two of them were digging through the front, and the last was harassing the woman, though he hadn’t hurt her yet, Solstice was aware of the time constraint. The moment the bandit shifted so she had a clear shot she threw the weapon and it flew true catching the bandit in the throat in a quick and almost silent death, the sound of his gurgles lost to the voices of the other bandits. With him out of the way she snuck up to the back of the caravan and snatched her dagger from the bandit’s throat. She ducked along the side of the caravan, listening closely for their footsteps. As one of them began around the caravan toward Solstice she pressed her back against the wagon and waited with bated breaths. Just as he passed the turn his eyes widened to see her but she didn’t give him a chance to speak shoving the blade into his throat and holding him at the chest to keep him from falling, instead slowly pulling him forward as if he’d just moved around the caravan. His companions were none the wiser.

 

The one was still harassing the woman, the other had moved around the other side of the caravan, he would see his dead companion if he kept going. It didn’t matter though, the woman suddenly screamed into her gag and all thoughts of stealth left Solstice as she rushed around the caravan jumping the man who had just sliced open her bodice. He was surprisingly quick, even shocked beyond words to see this monstrous woman jumping him he still managed to pull forth his dagger. Solstice deflected his arm with only a shallow slice down her forearm to show for it, before delving her own dagger into his belly, yanking it out to shove it back into his chest, puncturing a lung.

 

The commotion had signaled the final bandit and he rushed for her, his footsteps were screaming in her ear and she threw herself from the one on the dirt, now gasping and clutching at his chest as his breath escaped him. She faced him with two daggers drawn, he with a sword angled towards her. But he was quickly realizing his situation as his hand went from strong and stable to suddenly shaking. His dark eyes jerked around, glancing at his dead companions and then back at Solstice. He turned to run but Solstice knew the price of someone going to rat her out, even being a bandit he’d go to a guard and tell them of her, he’d probably end up dead for running from her, but Aedra would still get the information and that simply would not do. So she pulled back one of her daggers and flung it at him, killing him as she had the first, the blade slicing through the back of his neck.

 

Solstice took a moment to breathe and wipe the speckles of blood from her cheek before turning to the bound couple. The woman partially exposed and the man had put himself in front of her to guard her modesty. Kneeling down Solstice raised her dagger, the man’s eyes shone real fear but just as easily it disappeared as she sliced through the ropes that bound and gagged him. She put the red dagger in his hands and he silently cut free the woman with shaking hands while Solstice gathered a shirt from the mess handing it off to the woman who quickly covered herself with it.

 

After this event Solstice didn’t have the gall to steal from them now and so she accepted her dagger back and turned to leave –

 

“Wait!†The woman’s voice called, Solstice turned back, well aware that her yellow eye was exposed and highlighted by the light of their camp fire, but the woman stared up at her bravely. Her eyes began to tear up all over again and Solstice was at a complete loss as to what to do or say. The woman quickly took the thoughts from Solstice’s mind as she threw her arms around her neck and hugged her fiercely, “Thank you…†She whispered into Solstice’s ear.

 

“Please, is there anything we can do for you?†The man spoke up behind his wife, or who Solstice presumed was his wife.

 

The woman pulled back holding Solstice’s shoulders as if she had something important to tell her. “I was sure I was going to die… or worse….†Her arms fell away and she hugged herself at the memory that would be forever scared into her mind.

 

“I… umm… well†This was a first for Solstice, she was completely without words. “I mean, I had come to barter with you….†She lied easily, but they accepted it nonetheless.

 

“Anything! Please, what do you need?†The woman spoke up.

 

Together the three of them gathered their scattered supplies, Solstice even helped to fold the discarded items. They gave her all of which she’d asked for and then some. She had come to get new clothes for herself and Aeran as well as cloaks, she had been rather picky about what she wanted but the couple was practically beaming that they could help her. She was confused, even when she did offer to pay with one of her daggers they had blatantly refused, just as well, as an afterthought she realized it would have connected them to her.

 

Neutral and earthy tone traveling clothes and corresponding cloaks to help them blend in once they reached Svarda. Solstice had lived in black clothes for the past twenty one years and now she would dress in color for the sake of subtlety. They stuffed all the clothes into a bag which she pulled across her body, the woman hugged her again, thanked her and Solstice escaped the awkward emotions they inflicted on her.

 

Dust was just where she’d left him, her little escapade had taken longer than she’d predicted thanks to complications so she wouldn’t be hunting and instead headed back to camp. As Dust trotted along she realized how far she’d gone, Aeran’s essence was only faintly noticeable in the distance of her mind.

 

A scream shattered her surroundings, birds took off and she was left looking around dazed and confused for a moment before realizing it had been Aeran’s voice. Anger boiled in her as she yanked Dust into a gallop, how dare some coward attack her charge?

 

The forest flashed by, Aeran and Náriel’s presence hummed in her mind, they were both weakened. Her feet hit the ground before she’d registered she’d jumped from Dust’s saddle and bolted the last few yards to the clearing she’d left him in.

 

The sorcerer came into view and she hissed at him, “How dare you!†Her words came out on a growl already drawing a dagger to end his miserable life. She lunged forward to plant her weapon in his belly.

 

Yadrell had no time to respond but quickly uttered, "Waes va illia!" The air in front of Yadrell shimmered and within a second a heavy mist formed and coalesced into a long, rectangular block of ice. Solstice's dagger embedded itself in the ice and at that point Yadrell sneered, "How dare I?" He said incredulously, "How dare you!" He spat, "How dare you for taking what is rightfully the Queen's, and for becoming a traitor to your ruler, she who made you, like a Goddess forming life from clay."

 

Solstice spun and kicked the block of ice with her heel shattering it into thousands of tiny shards. Her eyes narrowed with annoyance, raising the red dagger to keeping his attention on the weapon while black shadows misted around her ankles, there were no words for her corrupt magic, nothing to prepare the sorcerer for when she bolted at him her body thrown into speeds beyond reason as the magic propelled her through the air, her boots cushioned from the ground on a platform of magic voiding the friction. The dagger slashed across his stomach a deep gouge, not fatal, but it forced him to back up against a tree where she slammed her elbow into his throat holding him trapped against the trunk. “The Queen will not own this boy any more than I’ll allow her to use me ever again! I will see the rider crush her beneath his heels!†The words came from somewhere in her mind that she hadn’t grasped existed until just this moment, but she didn’t share her surprised at her revelation, instead she just pushed hard into his throat.

 

Yadrell gasped and struggled with his crushed wind pipe to form words, “Kind of hard to make magic when you can’t speak, isn’t it?†Solstice mocked.

 

“Tae-la… oro†He heaved and gasped, choking as Solstice’s fist bashed into his stomach, a malicious grin across her face. At this point Yadrell was beyond mocking, he coughed up blood, but still his voice rasped to form the words, “Gala… less-sitae….†Solstice didn’t know the ancient language quite well enough to grasp what he’d been struggling at until his form started to phase into mist.

 

“Son of a bitch!†She hissed, realizing he was teleporting, she raised her dagger intent on shoving it through his throat but instead it crashed into the bark, embedding itself several inches in from the force of her fury – Yadrell having disappeared before she could make her killing blow. Solstice cursed herself for playing with her foe, but drove the thoughts away as Aeran became a priority.

 

She dropped to the ground beside Aeran, drawing him up and cradling him against her, “You’re going to be alright, do you hear me!†Solstice demanded more than asked, a mix of panic and worry drowning out any other thought – like when she began caring this much. “Náriel needs you!†The dragon still unconscious across the way, Solstice pulled Aeran to his feet, half-carried half-dragged him over to her.

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Aeran leapt over the fence in his garden, laughing and chasing after his best friend, Fey. He could hear her lyrical laughter, carrying itself on the breeze to him. Just another minute or so and he'd catch up with her, gaining advantage due to her long skirt for which she had to hold up several inches from the ground so that it would not drag and quickly become dirty. "I'll catch you!" Aeran called after her, almost tripping himself up as the edge of his boot tapped off a stone half-submerged in the soil.
"As if you could!" Fey replied, her voice as soft as silk, darting in a beeline as she ran for the edge of the forest. A couple of passing farmers rolled their eyes at the pair of them, though one of them smiled and made a comment about what little youth was left in the village, though Aeran barely heard the comment as his attention was focused solely in the pursuit. Fey disappeared amongst the trees of the forest and Aeran cursed, he was going to lose her at this rate, and then he'd never hear the end of it. It wasn't fair, anyway, he thought to himself. They had been playing hide and seek, but when Aeran finally found her she suddenly created the rule on the spot (while already having started running from him) that to actually win the game, he had to catch her, not just find her. 

And so, Aeran ran after her, into the forest but when he passed the first few trees, he saw her nowhere ahead of him. He slowed to a stop and frowned, looking around, wondering in which direction she could have run. Then suddenly he felt a weight on his shoulders as she leapt onto him from behind and yelled, "I win!" 
"How do you win?!" Aeran scowled, trying to pull her off and failing.

"Because I win." She repeated, "You were supposed to catch me, remember?!" She laughed then and finally released Aeran who agitatedly huffed through his nose until her infectious smile caught him and then they both began to laugh. But it was going to be dark soon, and they knew they had to be back within the village before nightfall. There was always talk of strange things in the forest. He turned to look at Fey who had already opened her mouth to speak, "Are you ever going to leave, Aeran?" She asked, as though it was just a question of round-about curiosity.

"Leave?" He frowned, "Why would I leave?" Aeran shook his head, "I've got everything I want, right here." He smiled, and that answer seemed to satisfy her for a reason he didn't understand. They were nearing the village now, he could see the torches burning and then out of the blue -

"I need you!" Fey exclaimed, grasping him on both his shoulders. Her grip was so firm he couldn't break free of it, it was abnormal... inhuman.
"What?!" Aeran's voice cracked.

"I need you!!" Fey growled, her voice no longer her own, but something deeper and courser. More animal than human. Suddenly, her flesh rippled and became taught as she grew to twice, almost three times her size. Her skin turned a dark greyish brown and her lips curled back to reveal a set of deadly fangs. A pair of yellow snake's eyes replaced Fey's own, beautiful orbs and there in front of him stood a Vicious. The creature that had killed his mother. "I need you!!" She snarled.

"--needs you!" 
Aeran blinked, shaking his head. The voice did not belong to Fey, or that of a Vicious, but of Solstice. He felt as though he had been somewhere far away, lost in his own mind. His throat was dry and prickly, he felt sore all over his body but the pain that struck him most was a blinding migraine that intermittently produced little dots of colour, flashing across his field of vision. Closing his eyes to relieve himself of the experience, Aeran cradled his head in his hands, "Wh..." He croaked, his throat coarse as though half-full of ash, he licked his lips with a sandpaper-like tongue, "Where am I?" He groaned.

Solstice sighed with relief, "You're in the forest. Don't worry, the sorcerer is gone now, but you need to wake up, Náriel needs you."

"Oh..." Aeran rubbed his temples and tried to stand but found himself unable to, just the attempt sent spikes of pain rushing through his mind. "Uuugh... did I..." Aeran opened one eye just enough to look around the clearing, "... did I kill him?" Aeran asked, perplexed.

"Don't try to stand," Solstice said softly, pulling on him gently to remain with his head cushioned in her lap, "No, he got away."

 

A couple of feet away, Náriel slowly roused from her unconscious state. Aeran tried to reach out to her with his mind, but the pain was so bad it felt as though it was pulling him apart at the seams. Calling her name, Aeran held up a hand so she could see him. However, when Náriel's eyes fell upon Aeran, slumped over with Solstice lying over him, speckled with blood, she closed her mind to him altogether. He could no longer touch her consciousness let alone converse with her on any level. Aeran tried to calm her but the instant before she had shut herself to all outside influence, he had felt a torrent of rage so powerful, so intense, that he couldn't believe it could have existed in any one being, she had abandoned reason. Bellowing, Náriel leapt to her taloned feet and charged Solstice without thought for herself, knocking the woman to the ground like a sack of grain and then snapping wildly at her head. Her brilliant, white fangs seeking to disassemble her face.

 

Solstice threw herself away from Aeran the moment she realized the dragon's intent. The last thing Aeran needed were Náriel's claws in his chest from her stampeding over him. This stole precious time from defending and Náriel managed to get on top of her, her weight alone was crushing. Solstice grabbed Náriel's slender neck and managed to hold her head back and keep her from biting off her face, while also gripping one of her forelegs and used that hold to shove Náriel off of her, flipping them both over where Solstice could trap most of Náriel's body beneath her. "Náriel! Why can't you see I'm on your side, damn it!" Solstice hissed, still holding back Náriel's head.

The silver-scaled dragon writhed and snapped her jaws open and closed, trying to free herself of Solstice's grip, but for all the strength in her jaw, Solstice could match it with her hands and skill alone. The two remained locked in a deadly embrace, neither one gaining any footing. Frustration racked Náriel as she was unable to overpower the Infurus, but as she opened her jaws to attempt another strike, an instinct pressed on her and she opened her throat, a spark of silvery flame erupted in the back of her mouth but as she tried to exhale, the little ember fluttered and vanished out of existence. Roaring, casting droplets of spittle at Solstice, she began wriggling once more, desperately trying to best her opponent, when she felt a presence press against the edge of her mind so firmly that she was forced to acknowledge it, whether friend or foe.

"Stop it!!" Aeran yelled, trying to pull Náriel from Solstice, "Stop fighting!!" He screamed, and Náriel recoiled at his anger and leapt back, distancing herself from Solstice who took the chance to stand. Both of them seemed to be sizing one another up and Aeran shook his head, "None of us wants to be here!!" Aeran continued shouting, "But we have to! If the Queen is anything like Yadrell, then... then she has to be stopped!" He felt dizzy, his mind was still humming with pain and he almost doubled over, but kept himself upright, refusing Náriel's protective attempt to offer him her head to lean against. "We have to put up with each other... we just have to..." He finished, realising as the words left him that it was probably the most serious he had ever been in his life. He opened his mouth to speak again, when someone else spoke first. Their voice was light, yet firm and distinctly feminine with a slight air of pride and superiority about it, despite being wise in tone.
I don't care for yellow-eye two-legs, she said. Her kind slaughtered hundreds of my kin, and we are slow to forgive.
Though it was not voiced, Aeran knew, instinctively, the moment she voiced her thoughts via their shared link, that it was Náriel. Despite recognizing her, the sensation of hearing her voice in his mind, when previously he had only shared fleeting images or emotions with her, left him dumbfounded.

 

Náriel? Aeran asked, trying to reply in kind. Náriel kept her gaze upon Solstice but with Aeran visibly relaxed now, she took a step back and closed her eyes lazily to acknowledge him. He looked at Solstice for a moment who seemed confused at his sudden silence, but remained as locked with Náriel as she was with her.

Yes, she replied. Aeran felt her love across their link and he returned his feelings but also found himself needing answers.

Why can we speak like this? He asked, Why didn't we speak until now?!
Náriel blew a little plume of smoke from her nostrils and held her scaly chin up, trying to protect her pride. I wasn't strong enough, she muttered. But neither were you, she added quickly.

No, I suppose not... he mused, then looked at Solstice for a moment before returning his gaze to her. But... you were only born a few days ago, how can you be talking?
A short succession of coughing-like noises escaped Náriel's throat and after a moment of confusion, Aeran realised she was laughing. Because I am born of magic, because, I am a dragon. She tensed her wings and kneaded her claws on the soft earth. Then added; because I had grown weary of letting yellow-eye two-legs make all the decisions. Then she resumed her cough-like fit of laughter.

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Solstice rubbed her one injured arm that the bandit had slashed, the cut had since closed but her body was feeling the ache from battling, or in Náriel’s case scuffling. As much as Solstice tried to play it off knowing the dragon had simply been worried for Aeran the lingering thought that she would lunge at her back was now planted in her mind and she couldn’t bring herself to turn away or break her eye contact. Even now that she seemed distracted with Aeran, Solstice backed up to a tree and leaned against it, but didn’t sit, she seriously considered climbing the tree to rest but also knew that Náriel was an intelligent predator and would realize the act of fleeing and probably just make things worse.

 

Her eyelids heavy as her heart came down from the adrenaline rush. She was tired but she knew they couldn’t stay here not after the sorcerer had gotten away; he’d bring back a hoard with him, unless he was too afraid to admit his failure which wasn’t unlikely but still not something Solstice would rely on.

 

Solstice slipped into the forest to retrieve Dust and brought around Aeran’s horse as well, deciding the best course of action regarding Náriel was to simply ignore her like the event meant no more to her than squashing a fly - an annoyance at best. Whatever she’d been thinking when facing the sorcerer was surely a moment of madness.

 

“Let’s go, we can’t stay here, not after the sorcerer escaped.†It was already growing late, had things not unfolded like they had they would be making camp to rest, but that wasn’t an option currently. Solstice waved her hand at the fire and it was immediately extinguished in a wave of blackness. She eyed the rocks for a moment but decided there was no real point in hiding the fact that they had been here and instead pulled herself up onto Dust.

 

Solstice urged Aeran and Náriel ahead of her, partly because she no longer cared to have Náriel behind her but mostly because she was working at erasing their trail. The magic to do this was tiring though and in only a half hour her eyes were struggling to remain open but training kept her at her task, magic brushing off her form in no visible way, it was too delicate, too small to be noticed visibly. She leaned on Dust’s neck and he huffed at her to keep her awake. Another half hour passed and she pulled Dust to a stop, there wasn’t nearly enough distance, but it would have to do her body was empty of all her reserves.

 

Sliding from Dust she actually stumbled when her feet met the ground. With a great amount of effort she managed to pull off Dust’s saddle and gave him and Aeran’s horse the last of the fruit she’d gathered. “We need to rest….†Solstice spoke softly while gripping the closest tree she allowed herself to slump down against the trunk and lay her head back.

 

Thankful for the reprieve from their march, so soon after his mind had been assaulted by Yadrell, Aeran stiffly pulled himself from the saddle of his horse and stumbled to the nearest tree. Aeran sat down, using the trunk to prop himself up, and then started rooting through his bags, looking for some hopeful scrap of missed food.

 

You're hopeless, Náriel commented, her voice carrying to his mind through their link. I suppose i'll catch another deer for you, shall I? She added, amused.

 

Being so tired, Aeran replied without thinking, "I'm perfectly capable of catching my own dinner, thank you." He muttered back to Náriel. She blinked once at him, and then spread her wings and with a single rush of air, flew into the sky just above the canopy of the forest, disappearing within moments.

 

Solstice might have been a bit too tired to understand where his words were coming from or lack thereof; “Then go catch your own dinner, I’m not stopping you…†The words came out a slur as she dozed. When Náriel leapt into the air Solstice watched her fly off and with an afterthought she added, “Garin gave us some dried fish though.†Pulling the corresponding bag off she tossed it to Aeran.

 

The bag flew into Aeran's lap, "Oh..." He opened it and took out a piece of the treated fish and began to eat, muttering a thank you.

 

With a rush of wind, Aeran and Solstice looked up to see Náriel descend into camp, carrying a dead deer by the neck. She landed with a firm thud and placed the body on the ground and lay down with her muscular paws and ivory talons clutching its back as though it might escape from her if she let it. Náriel looked at Aeran for a moment, assessing his recent memories as much as he was her’s. Aeran felt through her the twitch of the deer's body as it struggled to break free, and the life drain from it when Náriel gave the killing bite. While Náriel understood the smoky flavor of the dried fish Aeran had eaten not that long ago. She paused and then turned to tear a strip of flesh from the deer's haunch.

 

You've already eaten, she said tersely. More a statement than a question. Aeran didn't reply, but he could feel a strange emotion touching him, at first he wasn't sure what to call it, because he didn't think he'd ever felt it before, at least not from her.

 

You're jealous! Aeran replied, his face curling into a smile even as his laughter pierced Náriel's mind. She did not respond, but turned her chin up at him and continued eating her deer in silence, which only increased Aeran's humor at her haughty disposition.

 

Solstice paid little attention to Náriel or Aeran as sleep became a pressing issue. Sitting against the tree with her head pressed against the bark exhaustion pulling at her limbs she dozed off, but suddenly her eyes shot open, the slightest movement from Náriel jerked her awake. She glanced at the dragon but quickly calmed her racing heart, seeing Náriel was preparing to rest as well after finishing her meal and of no threat. Again Solstice laid her head back to rest and again another fidget from Náriel jerked her back to attention. Oh no… Solstice quickly realized up to this point Náriel had meant nothing to her, an angry puppy at worst, she was of no real threat and hadn’t been particularly hostile but now after she’d attacked her - Solstice’s instincts were on high alert around her.

 

For several hours Solstice struggled with sleep, but as quickly as her eyes closed they’d spring back open to some little noise from Náriel. Eventually Solstice got up and walked out of the camp, though she didn’t dare stray far, the last time she’d done that a sorcerer had come and nearly killed Aeran.

 

Solstice wandered about, rubbing her eyes, her body exhausted but she was at a loss on what to do. Her exhausted mind lingered on the things Aeran had yelled at her and Náriel, that no one wanted to be here – correction, they didn’t want HER here. Náriel and Aeran enjoyed each other’s attention, she was the inconvenience. He was wrong though, she did want to be here, she may not understand why she wanted to but she’d at least come to terms with the fact that she wanted to do this, whatever ‘this’ was. Which was ironic in that they may not want her here but the reality was they wouldn’t be here without her, the sorcerer would have killed them or enslaved them, but even prior to that they would have never made it out of Wayford, or if they did they would have died in the forest to a Vicious or the Infurus would have caught them at some point. If things had turned out differently if she hadn’t seen Náriel that first day, would she be hunting him? Would she have killed him when urged on by a dozen other Infurus?

 

She dropped to the ground her legs refusing to go any further, she was a dozen or so yards from them, maybe she could sleep at this distance, but somehow she doubted it. Lying down in the cool grass her forehead pressed against her forearms she desperately craved sleep but as she’d predicted she was still too close to Náriel her body wouldn’t even let her attempt to sleep. “Fucking dragons….†Solstice hissed between her teeth.

 

Exhaustion was finally winning out against her instinct and she began dozing off, though it was still a restless sleep. Morning came and Solstice didn’t feel much more rested than when she’d lain down all she’d really succeeded at was tangling her red hair into massive knots from all her tossing and turning. She was reluctant to go back, memories from the night prior had not ebbed and she was feeling more like an outsider than ever, even amongst the Infurus, while she may have been the freak, she had been feared and to a degree respected. She had always been stronger, faster, and all around better than the other Infurus. None of that mattered to Aeran though he didn’t seem to care that she’d decided not to kill him that she’d gone out of her way to help him, and had saved his life on several encounters now. She was as much of a monster to him as she was to Náriel, the difference was that Náriel was still too naïve to realize she couldn’t make it without her.

 

Making her way back to her charges she finger combed her hair of the worst of the knots and pulled out any leaves or twigs she’d obtained through the night. Upon entering the camp she saw them both awake, Aeran was practicing with his sword, good on him, but Solstice’s tired mind didn’t care and was angry with lack of sleep. The words slipped from her mouth before she could filter them, “What the fuck are you doing? Prepare your horse and let’s fucking go.†Solstice moved to Dust who immediately sensed her ire and pranced uncomfortably when she approached him. Solstice would have none of this and yanked on his reins, demanding his obedience in a way she rarely did with animals. He resisted his rider’s nasty attitude but Solstice still managed to saddle him with little trouble and climbed up onto him.

 

"I'm doing what you taught me." Aeran replied, ignoring her foul mood. Náriel looked from Aeran to Solstice and back to her rider.

 

Can I eat her? Náriel asked, walking up to him and pressing the side of her head against his cheek.

 

That's not funny, Aeran replied, scowling at her.

 

I wasn't trying to be, she sniffed.

 

“And you didn’t think there might be a more appropriate time to do this? Maybe you’ve forgotten that sorcerer you failed at killing that happened to get away and could be right now only minutes behind us with an army of Infurus to aid him this time.†Solstice snapped back viciously, while leading Dust out of their camp whether Aeran was ready or not.

 

Aeran bit his tongue but he heard Náriel growling next to him.

 

I suppose she thinks that mastering sword and spell is a poor use of your time, she snarled, when you are being pursued by a sorcerer which you had previously failed to kill.

 

"Come on." Aeran replied, then patted her silver-scaled hide and, sheathing his blade, pulled himself into the saddle of his horse once more.

 

Solstice only realized after the fact the position she’d left herself in put Náriel behind her, as if she wasn’t grumpy enough, she now sat ridged as a board, one hand on the reins the other on her hip mere inches from her dagger. She sincerely didn’t believe Náriel would attack her again but that didn’t ease the tension or make it any easier to pull her hand away from her weapon. Reason be damned if that damn dragon ever came at her again she’d put her knife in her belly and cut off her head and be done with all this bullshit. 

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Hours bled into days on their journey north to Svarda. Aeran spent most of his time training with his sword and magic, and though he made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, he knew he was still hopelessly out-matched in skill, in both avenues. His occasional sparring match with Solstice always reaffirmed that, regardless of how he was feeling about it at that moment. Náriel and Aeran spent hours long into the night talking with one another. It wasn't until Aeran collapsed that their conversations ended and Náriel wrapped herself around the young boy. The journey had been tense, however, for although they had not been caught, now and then Solstice would suddenly grasp him and tell him to ride hard and fast. They would do so for many hours, putting whatever had been closing on them behind enough to resume a more regular pace. There was also the uncomfortable air that spread, most prominently between Solstice and Náriel, Aeran could feel the weight of the air when they came too close to one another, and on more than one occasion he had thought they were going to come to blows. That, thankfully however, did not happen.

Every other day, Náriel would launch into the air, low enough to remain unseen by watching eyes, to go hunting. She would return an hour or two later with a fresh deer, or a few rabbits, or similar such gifts, and they had no trouble with food on the last leg of their journey to Svarda. When they finally came to the edge of the forest, the group hung back. Náriel remained crouched so that her silvery, reflective scales would not betray their position or alert the city guard to her presence. Aeran stared in disbelief at the city, calming his horse with a gentle stroke on it's neck. Svarda was nothing he could ever have imagined. The city itself was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of black stone that stretched at least a hundred feet into the sky, with huge wooden gates on each point of the compass. North, east, south and west. They were stood a little ways from the southern gate, and were trying to decide how best to approach it. Even from this distance, and behind the enormous black wall, Aeran could see the gleaming white palace that stood out like a rose surrounded by thorns. It was beautiful and he couldn't help but gasp, and yet, he knew what it contained.

"What do we do?" Aeran asked, his voice a fraction above a whisper. He searched for another option into the city, but if there was one, it was not clear to him.

I hate sneaking, Náriel growled beside him.
I don't like it either, he replied, but there isn't much we can do about it. If they see you, there's no way we'll reach the docks, nevermind a ship to reach the elves.

 

Solstice slid off of Dust and opened up the bag she’d received from the travelling merchants, “First we’re going to change,†She spoke hesitantly fully aware of how foolhardy this plan was but tossed Aeran his new clothes and cloak anyway. She turned away from him separated by their horses and quickly changed into the earthy tones, hiding her red mane of hair beneath the hunter green cloak and drawing it lower than normal to hide her features without the use of her hair.
Satisfied with the new clothes but feeling very out of her element in colours she pulled herself back onto Dust, storing the battered clothes back in the bag to be discarded later where they didn’t run the risk of being found. “We’ll travel through the front gate; get wedged in with the many travellers and caravans. Once we get in we’ll stable the horses and head for the dock to see about passage. This is where it’s going to get tricky. You’re going to have to do all the exchanges. Your face isn’t actually known, keep your hair over your scar and you should be fine.†Solstice then pulled a small black pouch from one of the bags and handed it to him, it jingled with its valuable coins - gold. “You will tell the Captain that we seek passage to port Nakadi. We need enough space for two horses, that they will be stabled in the city at Burn’s Tavern, they’ll handle getting them on the ship from there and that we will require a private cabin on the main level. Náriel will join us through the cover of night and we’ll keep her hidden in the cabin until we dock.â€
"Alright." Aeran spoke confidently but swallowed with nervous apprehension.
 
I've had meals that had sounder future plans than this, Náriel snorted, releasing a little puff of smoke, before she stomped off into the forest to await nightfall. Aeran could feel her link to him getting ever more distant. The cold, sharp tang of the wind brushing against her leathery wings as she took flight for just a moment, soaring into a nearby tree. It wasn't until Solstice sat upon Dust once again, and the pair of them drove their horses onwards towards the southern gate that he felt their link diminishing to the point of non-existence. Moments before the contact broke altogether, he heard; Be careful. And now we are parted, yet again, Aeran thought to himself, feeling the bitter, crushing emptiness of his own mind, unattached to his dragon's.

Approaching the southern gate of Svarda, Aeran found the great black wall all the more imposing. He brushed his messy black hair down over his scar and pulled his hood up, but not so much that it would cover his face and rouse suspicions. They joined the various individuals, merchants and visitors entering the city. As they passed the huge, wooden gate that remained open 'till nightfall, Aeran nervously nodded to the guard on his left side who studied him for a moment, then accepted his gesture as a sign that there was likely nothing going on, and returned to scanning the others entering the city. The first things Aeran saw when he entered, surprised him. He had been expecting some kind of dark citadel, a foreboding evil place, writhing with the scum of the world. Yet merchants shouted from a market, selling their wares, children danced in the street, and although the air felt thick with the presence of Aedra's soldiers stationed at most every entrance and occasionally marching through the streets, it was not an altogether unwholesome place. Aeran looked around while Solstice remained silent, but after a few seconds of staring he felt a sharp jab as her boot hit him in the side of the leg, and he knew he couldn't tarry. They left their horses at the place they had agreed and moved on.
 
The sheer size of the city left Aeran feeling quite small. He had grown up, accustomed to Wayford, which next to Svarda seemed like a collection of huts in the middle of nowhere. This city was a sprawling metropolis, a trade-hub and perhaps even a place of happiness for many. Yet, at the same time, as they walked towards the docks, Aeran saw another side of the city. As they left the city centre, and came to its northern outskirts, the city turned to slums. The children were filthy, often unclothed or covered in stinking rags. Their feet bloody and their ribs exposed. They were like wild dogs. The women were missing teeth, were bruised and worn thin, as though they had been working for decades without rest. The men were an unusual mix, but most smelt like home-made liquor and piss, a sharp smell that curled Aeran's nose and made him choke as the smell of the city and all its various human effluence seemed to assault his senses at once. Solstice seemed worse off, though she managed to hide it a little better than he did.
 
When they finally reached the docks, Aeran explained the situation to a number of different captains, but none seemed willing to take them to Nakadi, even when he produced the jingling bag of gold coin. He had been attempting to get a charter for hours now, Solstice and Aeran stopped for a short while to get something to eat, but they quickly resumed their attempt to find a ship. When they returned they saw a ship in the harbour that hadn't been there earlier. Aeran shot Solstice a hopeful glance and once again they walked towards yet another ship. This one seemed to have just returned from a long voyage, they were unloading various silks and trade-goods, spices and the like. The crew were working furiously and, Aeran supposed, it was because they now had their coin and wanted to be rid of their trip and work duties so they could drink and bed their money in the city. A particularly muscular dock worker passed Aeran, almost knocking him over in the process, but Aeran quickly grabbed the man's arm, "Excuse me?"
"Eh?" The man looked down at Aeran and raised an eyebrow irritably. "What'choo want, boy?" 
"I want to charter a boat--"
"--ship." The man corrected.
"Ship. I want to charter that ship." Aeran pointed at the one the man had been helping to offload.

"If you want to charter my ship," A voice rang out, thick with a strange foreign accent Aeran didn't recognize, "Then you will have to do better than request it and my services." A portly man dressed in fine purple and brown silks stomped down the gangway onto the docks and wobbled up to him, stroking a moustache so wide, flamboyant and lustrous that Aeran thought for a moment that it was its own entity. His shaved-bald head was partially covered by a silk strip of red cloth that tied at the side of his head. The man carried himself with pomp and circumstance, and yet with an open, humorous and friendly personality. Aeran liked him immediately.
"I have coin." He replied, flashing the rotund man his resources.
"Well then," The man barked, chuckling and tweaking at his moustache as if he were calming a beast, "You have just hired the Silver Serpent, and it's Captain. Who would be me, Terralin." The man chuckled again and then, putting two fingers to his mouth, screeched a whistle so deafening Aeran's ears almost popped. As Terralin turned to speak to what Aeran assumed was his first mate, he shot a glance at Solstice and mouthed silently 'Silver Serpent' and grinned. 

"Right!!" Terralin clapped his hands together, returning his attention to Aeran and Solstice, "You may have my services - from tomorrow!"
"T-tomorrow?!" Aeran stuttered, "But... we need it tonight." 
"No, i'm sorry. I really can't. My men have spent weeks at sea and have rightly earned the right to waste their coin before they leave once more. Tomorrow is the earliest I can depart. I will see you tomorrow evening then." And Terralin snatched the purse of coin from Aeran and jingled it like he was waving goodbye. Then he stomped back onto his ship and resumed passing out orders to the men offloading cargo.
"Well, that's not good, i'm going to have to tell..." Aeran paused, realising he couldn't risk saying a name, "... her," He said finally, "That she has to wait another day without us." Before further words could be exchanged between them, Aeran heard a loud yell from behind him and Solstice tensed.
 
Turning to see the source of the noise, Aeran came face-to-face with a pair of city guards, marching on either side of an Infurus. Aeran could only tell that the woman was such a being, for she had already drawn her red-steel blade. The colour vanished from Aeran's face, and he sensed a slight movement from Solstice behind him. If this went as badly as he thought it was going to, people were going to die. Innocent people, either way. Whether it was city guards, or them. There had to be a way out of this.
"You there," The Infurus woman snapped, her sharp features turning to a scowl as she tossed her short brown hair out of her face with a single flick, pointed at Aeran, "Child, show me your face." She raised her blade and pressed it to the underside of Aeran's chin, and reluctantly, he found himself lifting his head to meet her green-eyed gaze. For a few fleeting seconds, a flicker of recognition spread across her face and her mouth opened to say something, but then something extremely strange happened. She bowed to him.

Aeran blinked. He blinked again. But the woman remained prostrated before him. He didn't know quite what to do, and felt both nervous and stupid at the same time, as though he was the one bowing. He almost returned the gesture when a broad-shouldered man strode past him, acknowledging the Infurus and the city guards. Aeran let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Stupid, he thought to himself. I should have known it wouldn't have been for me.
"What's going on here?!" The man asked. He was dressed from top to bottom in the white robes of some kind of religious order, Aeran assumed. His face was obscured by a white mask with a horizontal red line passing through it, but waves of messy, sand-coloured hair fell down around his masked visage.
"I'm sorry, Maester. I meant no offence. It's just a boy of his description is wanted by the Queen and--"
The man waved his hand, "I know you meant no offence, slayer of monsters." His use of a title other than 'Infurus' seemed to please the woman and she bowed again, honoured by the priest's apparent reverence of her other duties, "However," he added, "This boy is clearly not the one that the Queen is searching for. He has not the rider's scar, see?" 

The priest suddenly twisted, reaching for Aeran's forehead. He felt the man's hand press against his hair and skin, and begin to pull back the hair. He knew that any moment, the Infurus and her soldiers would bellow their discovery, the priest would be knocked aside, and they would come to blows. Yet as the priest moved his hand to show Aeran's forehead, the Infurus stared at him for a moment and then shrugged, "My apologies, Maester. I should not have been so rude." She bowed to him a third time, scowled at Aeran and Solstice for a moment and then stormed further down the docks.
"W-what just happened...?" Aeran muttered, panting with emotional exhaustion.
"Apologies, Rider." The priest whispered, "But it was just a trick of the eye, what little magic I know." Aeran saw the man's mask lift an inch and assumed he must have smiled underneath it, "My name is Othos, and I am an envoy for the Tamarane."
"Tamarane?" Aeran asked, frowning.
"Oh, I see not all children are brought up with our tales in their bedtime stories." He laughed and patted Aeran on the shoulder and looked to Solstice, "Peace, slayer. I am your friend and ally. As I have said, I am Othos, envoy of the Tamarane - those who stand opposed to the tyranny of the usurper Queen. On behalf of us all, I bid you welcome to Svarda. I will assist you in your journey to Lithwaera - or Elfwood, as some may call it. As apt a description as one might imagine, it is nevertheless inadequate to describe it's splendour as you will soon see, for Lithwaera means 'Land of Ever-Falling Leaves'. Not bad, eh?" He chortled, "It may be the elves who must train you now, but the Tamarane wish you every success as well and when your training with them is complete, our leader, Toyotori, will no doubt ask for your aid. She is a kind leader for our people, and many believe she should be the rightful Queen... anyway... this is all very serious... i'm hungry, shall we eat?" He grinned again, the mask lifting an inch, then observed Aeran's recent lack of coin, and so added, "It will be on me - I would be honoured to sup with the first new rider in over a century, as would I his Dragon Knight." Othos bowed to Solstice.

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