Scarlet stood in front of the cavern upon the lonely mountaintop, looking down over the forests. She could see for miles, as it was a clear day except for a few clouds in the distance. Several crows flew off in the distance, circling around something freshly dead. Scarlet looked on, then cast her gaze southward. In the last few days, dragon hunters had come from the south, more than she cared to see. The people were crying for dragon's blood... She sighed heavily, looking down at the small necklace in her hand. She twirled it in her hand, watching the white opal pendant sparkling in the sunlight.
Scarlet stared at the precious necklace, lost in her thoughts. She had made many very bad mistakes recently, mistakes she could not afford to make. The party was alive. She had anticipated this, knowing their skill, but she had not anticipated Celes' resurrection and Atlas' corruption. With Atlas out of the picture, she could not use his anger to control the party. Instead, she had to rely on the anger of Glitterspike, which was far more calculated and under control, and therefore much deadlier.
Secondly, she had grossly underestimated Xeiss. Scarlet still wanted her back. She was the ideal choice, but was far too dangerous at the moment. She had to give up. Xeiss was one in ten thousand, the like not found easily, but time was not on Scarlet's side... The moon was nearly full. Someone else would have to be found.
Thirdly, she had not anticipated the wild rumors flying around. She had heard everything from armies of men turning into armies of dragons to dragons ruling most of the towns in the guise of human form. The most amusing rumor she had heard was the one where a dragon assumed the form of a sheep, and crept in along with the flocks. However, several innocent people had already been lynched because of their eye color. All the rumors had led to one thing, however. An outcry for draconian blood to be spilled.
And finally, she had let the secret of her lair's location slip out. That was a mistake she had to remedy immediately. If only she had not brought Xeiss... if only she had not let her get away. If only she hadn't killed Celes...
She stopped herself. She had been in human form far too often of late, and the human emotions were rubbing off on her. Regret should have been a concept alien as alien to her as the five Cycles of Sublimation were to a human. However, she could not stop thinking of Celes' death. The Guardian had been her best friend, and yet Scarlet thought more of Celes than of her. Abadon's ending up with total control of Celes was like robbing Scarlet... She shook her head, pushing the alien emotion away from her. The time had come. She knew what she had to do.
Returning to her cave, she carefully put down the necklace in its right pile, and returned to the entrance. She always hated this part. Breathing heavily, in pain, she gasped as she began to grow. Her red dress melded into her flesh, growing along with her. Her face elongated, and her hair disappeared, spines instead forming on the back of her head, and all the way down her back. Claws grew over her fingertips, and she roared as wings sprouted from her back. Her body contorting in agony, she finally reached her full size, and true form, of an enormous red dragon. She grinned. "I am finally Dragoneyes again." Her gaze fell on the neat piles of gold stacked about. Lowering her head, she took a large amount into her mouth, stuffing it into the special pouch there. She flew off, beginning the tenuous procedure of moving her lair.
A full day later, she observed her new surroundings in satisfaction. The second highest peak in the mountain range, it was far enough from her old lair that would-be dragon hunters seeking her old lair wouldn't find it, but close enough that Westmarch was easily reached with a two-day flight. Flying back to her old cave, she prepared a trap. A very special one. When she was finished, the cave sparkled once more with the glow of gold. She could see right through her own illusion... It was a fine one at that. She touched the ground in front of the illusionary gold, and it shifted. Quicksand. Scarlet smiled in satisfaction and returned to her lair.
Her task completed, she curled up on the bed of gold for a nap. She had not been asleep five minutes, however, when her eyes suddenly flew open. There was one place, and one place only, where Xeiss could have found mercenaries willing to steal gold from a dragon.
The town of dragonslayers and paladins.
In Westmarch, the inn was filled with hubbub. The tables were filled with people. The inn was very busy, filled with people fleeing the small villages to the north. Rumors of dragons could be heard at every table, and most of the people at the inn figured they were safe in this town, at least compared to the threat of dragons in the north. Many farmers could be seen, talking.
"I left and I ain't goin' back until this thing blows over. They'd better catch those dragons soon." The farmer sipped his ale.
"Why'd they pick NOW to cause trouble?" a maid from the bar asked, sighing. "It's almost harvest time. Won't you go back for the harvest, at least?"
"Like I said, miss, I ain't going back till those dragons are catched. Even with this year's crops at stake." The farmer grumbled.
The door to the tavern burst open, and two people, obviously brother and sister, ran in, panic-stricken. The girl looked to be in her late teens, and dressed in the dull brown garb of a farmer. The other was a man of about twenty-six. He was wearing leather armor, which looked extremely beaten and worn. The two sat down at a bench, and the girl began to sob on the man's shoulder.
"Dragon trouble?" asked the farmer, half shouting to be heard over the hubbub in the room.
The man nodded. "To the west. We saw them... we watched as they set our farm ablaze." He sighed. "Iris was rather... shook up by it, and she insisted we come here." Iris looked up, drying her eyes.
"It was horrible. I think the dragons are still there. There were two of them. I don't know what they wanted with the farm. We couldn't even save the horse. We had to run for our lives. We didn't even take any money, so they wouldn't follow us." She sniffed.
"Where is your farm?" a paladin from the next table asked. Paladins didn't drink, but a few often came to the taverns to hear the local gossip, it being the best source of news around.
"To the east, about thirty miles." said the man.
Iris spoke up. "I think we should keep moving, Johnathan." She sighed. "Between the dragons and Diablo, there's nowhere that's really safe anymore." She stood up.
"Wait." said the paladin. "What kind of dragons were they?"
"Both red," said Johnathan. "If we hadn't been in the forest when they came, we'd be dead."
"That sounds like the dragons we've been looking for." said the paladin. "To the east, thirty miles, you said? Perhaps we can finally catch them, now that we know where they are." He stood up. "I am sorry about your farm." He handed Johnathan several gold coins. "Perhaps this will help."
Johnathan looked at the money, a bit startled. It was a considerable sum. "I... thank you." The paladin smiled, and headed out the door.
The paladin rushed to the high priest's home. The church, ever since that fateful day the whispering was heard, the floor had been covered in ice, the room filled with mist. Frost lined the stained-glass windows; strange messages could be seen in them, if one was looking hard enough. Rumors had been flying that the church had been taken over by an evil ice demon; however, all attempts at an exorcism had failed. Nevertheless, despite the desecration of the church, the paladins met. The Religion of the Light would not be cowed so easily as that.
"Father. I have good news. The two dragons we have been looking for have finally been found. They were spotted to the east, at a farm. Shall I send for Glitterspike?"
The priest had a serious, business-like look to him. "Daniel, Glitterspike and his companions have disappeared for now, it seems. We have to take the two dragons alive, or at least the one named Scarlet. We can't wait for Glitterspike." He frowned. "We have to act now."
"But sir," said Daniel uncomfortably, "With the desecration of the church, there has not been enough money coming in. It will take every paladin in the city to bring down two dragons, if they're together."
"Then every paladin in the city will go. It will be the last thing they expect." He coughed. "Dragons are cunning creatures. We must use that against them. My son, you will lead the assault."
Daniel's eyes widened. "Y... yes, Father. I will call them right away. We'll move at daybreak." The Daniel quickly bowed his head and left.
The Father watched the paladin leave. "I pray you are right, my son. I pray you are right."
Scarlet was the last to arrive. The Council was held on a large, lonely mountaintop. At the Council of Wyrms was Sunrunner, Scarlet's brother. He looked over at her and smiled. Also present was a black dragon, obviously from the Mist Marsh. Finally, a green dragon, very young, was also present. Scarlet judged him to be around a hundred and ten years old, barely an adolescent. She was wary of this one, he seemed a bit cocky and arrogant.
Scarlet bowed to each of the other dragons, more of a lowering of her serpentine neck than a bending at the waist. "Greetings, cousins, brother. I suggest today we skip the formalities, we have a more important problem to deal with."
"You mean Westmarch, right?" said the green dragon. Looking closer, Scarlet noticed that he had a large white scar over his left eye. "The city has the sweet smell of prosperity. And reeks of slayers."
Sunrunner shook his head. "I moved my lair further from Westmarch just so I wouldn't feel threatened. Humans are weak, but a hundred or so of them are far more trouble than I care to deal with."
Scarlet nodded. "I had to move mine as well. What's worse, someone from Westmarch stole a great deal of my horde. I must make him pay." Her claw gripped at the rock she was perched on, and fragments of it flew as her claw crushed the tip.
The black dragon spoke quietly. It had a feminine voice. "Slayers from Westmarch killed Shadowmoon, my mate. The odds were extremely unfair. Three hundred to one dragon. I did not arrive until it was too late. They had the nerve to skin him, the barbaric bastards."
"I suggest we put our differences aside and deal with this threat. Westmarch will fall... It MUST fall." Scarlet roared, letting a tiny jet of flame flow from her open mouth, aimed at nothing. "Will you help me?"
"I, for one, will help you, sister." Sunrunner spoke. Names were never used at a Council... it just wasn't done. Of the dragons, the only name she even knew was Sunrunner's.
The green dragon piped in. "I will help you too. As long as I keep what I take."
The three of them turned to the black dragon. She was silent, thinking. Suddenly, she shrieked wordlessly. A sparkling shape was approaching from the south, still very distant. As it approached, they could all readily make out that it was another dragon. A golden dragon.
The four dragons immediately tensed. Scarlet quickly judged the size of the approaching dragon. It was half again her size, but she judged the four of them could take it down if it came to that. It probably would.
Finally, the enormous dragon landed in front of them. The four dragons surrounded it, ready to spring upon it. The golden dragon simply stood there, waiting. It was the black dragon who broke the silence. "You are not wanted here. Unless you have a message for us from your masters, leave and never return, or it will be the worse for you."
"Really." The gold dragon spoke quietly, a look of amusement on his face. It turned to Scarlet. "Nice to see you again, Scarlet."
Scarlet recognized the voice. Abadon's. "How dare you. It is unwise to mock dragons by pretending to be one."
"Now, now, Scarlet." Abadon seemed amused. "Aren't you going to introduce me to the boys?"
"Don't be a fool. I suggest you leave now." Scarlet scraped her claws against the rock, leaving four deep trails in it. The other dragons tensed. "You are meddling in affairs which are not yours to meddle in."
"Am I, Scarlet?" The golden dragon chuckled. "Very well. If you want my help, just call." Abadon took off, flying back to the south. The four dragons visibly relaxed.
"Friend of yours?" asked the green dragon. He was staring at Scarlet with malice.
"I did not know he could do that," said Scarlet quietly. "This does not change anything, however. Abadon is no true dragon. And therefore no concern of ours. We must deal with Westmarch."
"Pray you are right," said the green dragon. "If you're not, there is going to be hell to pay."
The paladins reached the farm. The destruction was obvious - all the crops had been flattened, and in the muddy ground, several enormous footprints could be seen, though they were none too clear. The farmhouse had been burned. There was no sign of the dragons, however.
"We were too late," sighed Daniel. He kicked at some fallen rubble. "Too late."
Suddenly, a caw was heard from the distance. A shimmering dot on the horizon could just barely be seen, glinting in the setting sun. Daniel drew his sword, smiling at the rest of the paladins. "Perhaps we were not too late after all."
Daniel readied himself and waited. The golden, sparkling speck on the horizon quickly grew, until its shape could be seen... the shape of a dragon. It soared overhead and continued on, stopping only when around fifty arrows struck its golden underbelly. It stopped and stared down at them, in disbelief for a moment, then, to Daniel's dismay, it began to laugh.
"You FOOLS!" roared the golden dragon. "You have fallen into a trap not even intended for you, into a net not laid for you. You miserable fools." The golden dragon chuckled. "Now you will see just how foolish you have been."
At a word from Daniel, the paladins lowered their spears to strike. The dragon opened its mouth. Instead of fire, thousands of sparkling, golden shards flew from its mouth, striking the shields of the paladins. Not all the shards were stopped, however, and the ones that struck home brought screams from the paladins as they dug themselves deeper into their flesh. Then, the paladins struck back with their spears. Most hit home, and one even hit an eye. The golden dragon roared in rage. Daniel rushed in, brandishing a spear, and struck home, straight into the dragon's heart. The dragon collected itself with some effort, and flew towards Daniel, ignoring the spears as they struck.
In the meantime, the men who had been struck with the shards fell to the ground, screaming. One coughed up blood. Another shrieked and clawed at his eyes frantically. Soon, but not soon enough, all of the unfortunate men laid still, and small pieces of living, golden metal flowed out of their mouths and back toward the dragon. Daniel stared at them in horror, then steeled himself. He charged, and plunged his sword into the dragon's exposed underbelly, just as it was about to breathe again. The dragon choked, and writhed on the sword blade. Daniel pulled the sword back out with a yell. Strangely, there was no blood, not even the green ichor he expected. It was as if the dragon was MADE out of gold, not just golden colored. Then, the dragon backed up. The large gash in its chest that Daniel had made rippled and vanished before his eyes. It then turned, and ponderously flew away, southward.
Daniel breathed a sigh of relief and tended to the men. A quarter of them were dead; the rest were uninjured. The dragon's breath had left no room for error. He sighed and motioned for the Paladins to follow. He watched as the dawn broke over the small farm. He would not fail... not after this...
The dragons came with the dawn. Two from the east, one from the north, one from the south. In the fields, the farmers ran in terror at the sight, but were untouched. The dragons attacked came from all sides.
Circling high above the town, Scarlet took in all the sights: People bustling around in the marketplace, the town square, with people talking next to a small fountain in the middle, faint singing coming from the tavern, children playing in the yards in front of their houses, even a mugging happening in a dark alleyway. She began circling around the town, gradually coming lower and lower, until finally the inhabitants could easily see her. Some of them screamed, grabbed their children, and ran for their houses. A few brave men drew their swords, waiting for her to get close enough. She grinned, thinking of how the fools would suffer for their insolent bravery. She hovered for a moment, so that her shadow fell across the town square, and the townspeople went scattering out from under it.
The other dragons came from all directions. The green one, being eager, struck first, releasing a choking breath of green gas into the northern part of the town. Citizens began writhing in pain. The dragon wasted no time, but began clawing open houses, getting at the goods inside. He ignored the running citizens, thinking only of the gold.
In another part of town, the black dragon furiously began tearing through the busy marketplace. Screams were heard as the dragon meticulously grabbed a one of the few soldiers that had not run away already. She cracked his armor open as if he were a nut, and began skinning the unfortunate soldier alive, finally dropping him and leaving him to bleed to death. She moved on to another soldier. Rage burned through her eyes as she exacted her revenge on the next soldier. Her tail swished back and forth, knocking over buildings, but she was unconscious of this, focusing on one unfortunate victim, then the next.
Scarlet cawed, and dove toward the town hall, letting out a breath of flame as she reached the bottom of her dive. Two houses next to it burst into flame, and a quarter of the people in the town hall were incinerated, the rest at least scorched. The men who had drawn their swords were now beating frantically at the flames, their swords laying on the ground where they had been dropped. Scarlet landed in the middle of the square, crushing the fountain and several people who had dived into it to put out their flaming clothes. She roared loudly, her tail thrashing back and forth, smashing several buildings and sending the crowd of people behind her flying, killing many of them. She drew her breath in, and blew out a second gust of flame, setting alight many other buildings, and the flames quickly started spreading.
In the meantime, Sunrunner had turned toward the church. He latched onto the top and began tearing at it, thinking of the treasures inside, and hating what the church stood for. However, he quickly let go, yelping and shaking his claws. The roof of the building was pure ice. Sunrunner looked confused, then blew a huge stream of fire at the building. The heat from the blast incinerated a nearby building, but the church itself remained untouched, shrouded in a veil of ice. Sunrunner finally gave up, and moved to an easier target.
Scarlet turned around in the square, knocking over the few people still left in it, and walked down the street. She pried off the roof of a jewelry shop. The terrified owner fled, but didn't get far before being snapped up and swallowed in one gulp. She looked over the jewelry and took the best pieces, stuffing them into a special pouch in her mouth. She went down the street a few buildings and did the same thing. After raiding several stores, she stopped, remembering what she had REALLY come for. She looked over a couple of the houses, finally choosing a small house in a side street. Walking around and occasionally through other houses to get to it, she first looked over her shoulder to check that no soldiers had come yet, then she peeled off the front of the house. A mother and three children huddled in the middle of the house under the kitchen table, eyes wide with terror.
One of the children, a boy of about thirteen, got up from under the table and stepped toward Scarlet, quivering in terror. Nevertheless, he held up a kitchen knife, waving it in some small gesture of a threat. "Go away, Dragon! I... I'm not scared of YOU!" Scarlet chuckled and opened her mouth slightly, showing all her teeth. She was easily big enough to swallow the whole family in one gulp. The boy whimpered as the knife flew from his grasp and stuck in the kitchen wall, driven out of the boy's hand by her telekinesis.
Scarlet continued to smile in triumph. She had found what she was looking for... he was a good choice, if not as good a choice as Xeiss. Before the boy could run, she grabbed him, pinning his arms. She lifted him and dragged him out of the house, then spread her wings and took off, carrying the boy in her claws and leaving the town to burn, and left the other dragons to their fun. The devastation of Westmarch had taken less than ten minutes. She circled round the town a couple times. Half of it was in flames, and another third had been smashed by her tail or her rampage through the streets. Dead and dying littered the streets, some people wailing, crying over this and that charred and broken body. The other three dragons were still pillaging, occasionally eating a human, but mostly simply destroying and burning.
Scarlet flew back to her cave satisfied.
"What is it?" Mercy looked over Glitterspike's shoulder, trying to read the letter he held.
Glitterspike sighed and handed the letter to her. "It's a letter from the Paladins in Westmarch. Scarlet's been spotted."
Mercy read the letter. "Thirty miles east of Westmarch..." She handed the letter back. "I'll come with you."
Triesque groaned. "Westmarch is a long way. Can't we just stay here?"
"Triesque, you know how important this is. We've got to go." Mercy stroked his mane.
"All right, all right, but we'd better not go too fast." Triesque grumbled and walked away.
Xeiss came round the campfire, to take a look at the letter. "I'm not sure if I believe this. It sounds too good to be true."
Shin came up and read the letter. "This may be a trap, but it's too great of a chance to pass up. We should go."
Glitterspike folded the letter carefully. "Yes... Tomorrow, we set out."
After circling the mountaintop a few times to check for intruders, Scarlet landed at the entrance of her cave. After stashing the spoils of her raid in the already immense piles of wealth, she dropped the boy she had kidnapped onto the floor of the cave. As soon as he was out of her claw, he took off in a mad dash for the entrance. Scarlet brought her talon down on him, not killing him, but pinning him to the ground, like a cat pinning a mouse to the ground, and she swung herself around, catlike, to block the entrance. She brought her massive head down and blew a puff of smoke into the boy's face. He started coughing.
Scarlet spoke softly. "What is your name, child?" She slowly lifted her claw up, and the boy crawled out from under it, and backed away, staring up at her with wide eyes. He didn't speak. Scarlet spoke again, this time with a hint of malice in her voice. "Your name. Now."
"M...my name is Brian," he said nervously. "You... you're not going to eat me, are you?" He backed up again, tripping over a small heap of treasure, mostly golden and silver coins. He stumbled and fell backward into a sitting position.
Scarlet took a couple steps forward. "I will not eat you if you're good. You will be good, won't you, child?" She smiled, this time not showing her teeth.
"I'm not a child! I'm thirteen! I'm almost old enough to be a man!" replied Brian indignantly, crossing his arms and glaring up at her, though he still trembled a little.
Scarlet laughed. "Of course, of course, Brian. Do you know why I've brought you here?" She laid down, effectively blocking any possible escape he could have made, and held her head in front of him, curling up like a giant snake. Brian gulped. "No, unless you're going to eat me. Don't do that. I want to go home..."
"You ARE home, Brian," said Scarlet, solemnly, speaking in a soothing tone. "You have been chosen. By me." Brian looked up, confused and frightened. "I am going to make you into a hero, Brian. The greatest hero in the land. My hero." She smiled again. "Wouldn't you like to be a hero, Brian?"
"But... but... you killed all those people! You tore apart mom's house! You... You're a DRAGON!" cried Brian, now clinging to any excuse he could, the dragon's subtle influence now quickly seeping into his mind.
"Appearances can be deceiving, Brian. Just because I kidnapped you makes me evil? Just because I'm a dragon makes me evil? I want to HELP you, Brian. But now, it is getting late. It is time now for you to sleep. Think about what I said." Scarlet hushed the boy's objections by singing softly. The notes had an eerie, hypnotic, almost otherworldly sound to them.
"Hush now, my darling...
close your weary eyes.
Let the nightingales sing
their gentle lullaby..."
Brian's eyes began to close a little, even though he tried hard not to fall asleep...
"Now stay awhile with me...
In my home there's none to fear.
As Night Wind whispers softly
His gentle lullaby."
Scarlet was falling, falling, falling. She spread out her wings and halted her descent, and viewed her surroundings. Everything was gray and a bit hazy, and Scarlet realized she was in a cloud. Scarlet relaxed as she recognized the dreamworld, and let the gentle air currents carry her for a moment. Then she realized she didn't have much time. She flew quickly downward, finally breaking through the bottom of the clouds. Below her stretched a large plain, to one side a mountain, and to the other side a vast swamp. Remembering her bad experience with the mountain last time she was there, she turned toward the swamp.
The swamp looked remarkably like the Mist Marsh, only smaller, and none of the towns near it could be seen. Circling around once, she landed in the very center of the swamp, unheeding of the chilly, dirty water. She waded in the ankle-deep water, her tail dragging in the water. Suddenly, she stopped. The air somehow... felt different. She waited, and soon she could see a dark, shadowy shape rising in front of her. It was black, and had a ghostly appearance to it. Its shape was dragon-like, though the borders of it were not defined. The most definite part of this phantom was the eyes, which bore into Scarlet with an odd intensity.
The phantom hovered in front of Scarlet, dwarfing her. Scarlet was a bit uncomfortable, as was every dragon that met one of these creatures: A Dragon Soul.
Scarlet bowed, the movement more a lowering of the neck than anything else. "Hail, my lord. I do not have much time. At least not now. Time is quickly running out."
"Welcome Scarlet, my child," the phantom hissed, writhing like smoke in front of her. "You have not come to learn more of the Ceremony of Sublimation today... You have come for something else."
"Yes, quickly. I must know two things... whether the Gathering of Elementals is possible, and where the Osnova can be found..." Scarlet instinctively held her breath, not knowing whether her unusual request for knowledge would be granted.
"My child, I can grant you the first request... the Gathering of Elementals is possible, though difficult. You already know that the victim must be willing... As for the second, I cannot grant you that knowledge. Of all dragons who have come to me, you are the only one that has asked such a question, Scarlet. I can only tell you this: The path of blood and tears must be trodden to find the sword Osnova. In fire was it born, and in fire it lies, until it can be finally claimed..." The Dragon Soul began to fade. "Now, my child, you must leave... Dawn approaches fast in the dreamworld."
Scarlet bowed again. "Yes, my lord. Fare Well, and may we meet again."