Sherakk could not keep up with her father, Rizjar, as he led the flight. So few remained of his army, the Pride of Aran, but they were all far ahead of her, the glimmer of their scales in the deep red sunlight fading in the distance. She resorted to her gift again and everything slowed but for her. Her wings beat at the windless air and drove her forward above the stilled sea. To fall in her exhaustion to its motionless swells was death now, where they had been inviting and luxuriant the day before.
Slowing and stopping time came with a price, and that price rose higher with each stroke of her broad leathery wings like a tendon near her heart that wound around and snugged ever tighter. When that tendon could hold the strain no longer, it would release and all time would catch back up to her in an instant—worse—it would drive her forward in time. Sherakk willed that tendon to greater strength, if she was left behind now, it would be worse than death for there was no time left for life upon their corrupted world.
Their war with the Pride of Chreen had endured too long, grown too violent. It had drained their world of life. Her mother had begged for peace before they killed the living spirit of Dakkar with their drain upon his magic- Sherakk halted the thought and roared in despair—it was a poisoned thought, laced with agony she could not bear.
Instead, she focused on her gift, holding tight to the strain as her snout passed through the shadow of the rearmost of her father’s guard. Several more wing beats brought her up beside her carmine red sire and she let time resume its normal flow, the tight-wound strain inside she held in a grip of will.
The blood red sea below resumed its’ rolling, and the shadows of great flapping wings above her began flashing once more in the deep ember glow of the sun.
The recrimination in her father’s great golden eyes flashed at her for only the briefest of instants. “Take strength daughter,” his voice rumbled low so that only she could hear. “It is Aran’s final gift to his Pride. There is no shame in accepting the last threads of his lingering spirit.”
Sherakk bobbed her head in acceptance, though tears streamed back from the delicate scales at the corners of her eyes.
Aran, light-giver! She trumpeted in her mind, though there would never again be an answering trumpet from the great blue dragon. What came was a dim glow, the last shreds of his spirit, to flow into her and restore the vitality of her limbs. This was the last, after this there could be no more. With a whimper, she consumed the very last of his spirit. “I am so sorry, Lord Aran.”
A mournful bugle rippled through the Pride, the precious few who remained. Her wings flashed effortlessly through the air again. The strain in her chest of time fighting to regain its stolen moments eased and she sighed. Sherakk, youngest of her people, the least of the great dragons, had claimed the last spark of life from the god of her Pride.
“Fly high, Sherakk,” her father blessed. “We will not fail his memory. Even now, we follow the course he set for us.”
“Where does this lead?” Sherakk asked. “There is no place to land and roost, and even if there were, the blight cannot be far behind.”
“It leads to the salvation Aran promised us, daughter,” her father rumbled while his wings beat strong and certain strokes. “What that salvation is, I cannot say, I lack the vision of your mother.”
Sherakk quieted and flew just ahead and below the wash of her father’s great wings, each vane longer than her entire length. She was his first born, yet because of the cost of her gift, she was now his youngest, and only her brother, Razoth, at over twice her length, survived with them. She held herself from lamenting at five centuries she lost when the last surge of returning time had flung her ahead. What she felt within her chest now was enough to fling her even further ahead. Many friends had been lost to their ceaseless battles and her brother, already her equal in size had far outgrown her.
Razoth flew immediately above and behind their father—the only other red besides her and her father. Off their left wing was the emerald green of Vindaf, her father’s second, it was his keen eyes that saw the attack coming.
“They come, Lord Rizjar,” he called as his wings flashed for higher air. From ahead came a dozen metallic gleams, as her father and the Pride all climbed for everything they were worth.
“Why do they keep fighting?” she said before stretching her jaws in preparation.
“They are Chreen’s sycophants,” Razoth declared. “They do not see past his lies to the true reward he offers them.”
Vindaf chuffed out a plume of vapor. “When Dakkar’s transformation is complete, they will succumb to undeath. His blight will leave nothing untouched.”
“They must be told,” plead Sherakk. “All that remain are precious—Aran’s words. Please father, let them be told—let them flee with us.”
Now they could see the gold’s, silvers, and bronzes of the approaching attackers clearly. Chreen had gathered all the iridescent ones to him, as though they would lend the ebon black of his scales and heart their flashing hues.
Karanath and Seccula, the mated blacks who were among the last of her Pride, were proud of their hue, though not for any association with the color of the Lord of Vengeance. They were pure in their love of Aran and that purity, not their color, made them among the loveliest of the great dragons.
“We will speak, daughter,” her father said in his deep rumble that could shake the very heavens. “They may be deaf to Aran’s word, but I will see they hear them nonetheless.”
The attackers numbered fewer than the Pride of Aran, but they were battle veterans all. Her father led survivors, some warriors yes, but their children and their mates as well.
Cold despair rose in Sherakk’s gullet to mix with her fire as her wings stroked for even more altitude—“To own the sky is to own victory” the eternal warrior in her spirit quoted.
Razoth swung in tight beside her, her protector. “Do not let them grip you,” he cautioned.
“Well you are going to know more then,” he scolded, as was his place as her physical elder. “Please, Sherakk, heed me. I have fought before and still I own the sky.”
She bobbed her head in acceptance as a leading copper struggled to match their altitude during his approach.
“Shut your eyes and mouth against their breath,” Razoth continued. “Neither will yours harm their scales. As impervious as you feel yourself to be—know that they are your equals in this, it is the strength of their greater size that is the biggest threat to you.”
“I will elude their grip,” she assured him as she took measure of the coil of tightness in her chest.
“No,” Razoth said, reading her thought as clear as if she had spoken it. “If time traps you again we will lose you forever, you must not use your gift you are all that remains of mother,” his voice lowered. “Father cannot afford to lose that and neither can I.”
Father rose before them and thundered. Each powerful clap of his wings as he hovered in the air was a hurricane of wind. Nothing, in all the sky had ever been so enormous and daunting. The attacking pride halted and roared back at his display. The great fans beneath his horns spread wide and snapped with limitless energy. Even Sherakk backed air with lateral sweeps of her wings, instinctively giving him the sky.
The largest of the Pride of Chreen, a gold whose scales seemed aflame in the red glow of the ancient sun, stood off before the might of Rizjar. He was fully three quarters the size of her father and a clear danger to any other dragon in her Pride.
“Ferdahl,” her father trumpeted, acknowledging the gold’s presence.
“Rizjar, Lord of a godless Pride,” Ferdahl bravely insulted her father. “Return with us, with your people. Bow your heads to Chreen and he will spare you and welcome you into his Pride of immortals.”
“Return to what Ferdahl?” the skies tore with the strength of her father’s voice. Sherakk’s heart pounded as her father unleashed his gift. “And what of your mate, she who dreams? You have already sought her safety have you not? Does your Lord know that you have seen her away from the twisted monster that Dakkar becomes? Look to the sea below you, the doom that flows within its waters awaits you too. Flee with us, the life that remains is precious—even yours. Do not believe your Lord’s lies. There will be no safety for you. Oh, you will indeed become his immortal elite, in undeath. When the bale-light shines from your eyes, as it does from those of my mate, you will know only the hunger of undeath.”
Ferdahl’s laugh rumbled from his leonine chest. “Your gift of persuasion is wasted here, Rizjar. We are warded from the coercion of your voice.”
“They are blinded to all reason,” Razoth murmured to her without taking his eyes off their sworn enemies. “Their minds are unthinking and empty of all but rage.” His voice rose enough so their father could hear. “They have willingly enslaved themselves to Chreen’s will, only Seccula can break their bonds.”
“Bring the Spellbreaker forward,” her father hissed toward Vindaf. She heard the regret in his tone clearly, he did not want to put Seccula at risk, did not want to make her a priority target of their enemies.
Vindaf hastened to the sleek female black and returned with her what seemed only a dozen wing beats later. He must have relayed their need on the way for she began singing her gift immediately. Within the sound of her voice, all enchantments would be broken and none could be cast anew while her piercing song endured. Only the time locked within her chest was free from the song’s effect, for time was beyond all influence but Sherakk’s own.
Ferdahl bellowed the call to attack, demanding the attention of his stunned allies, while her father thundered in warning.
“Chreen lies!” her father called loud, above both song and bellow. “He seeks only your sacrifice to the monster Dakkar becomes!”
“Silence!” Ferdahl cried. “He seeks to charm you. Attack, brothers!”
“The only charming that can happen while Seccula sings is Ferdahl’s lie. He has taken his wife to safety already. While your mates are back in your weirs, being consumed by the blight of undeath, as was mine, he flies before you and lies!”
Four of their number pulled back while the others rushed in, Ferdahl himself arrowed toward Seccula to disrupt her song, for she cancelled all their gifts that they would use to attack with as well. Three of their number streaked toward her father while the rest headed for the other large males of her pride, antagonists they have fought and learned to hate from previous battles. Despite her father’s words, they would hold onto their past hatreds earned over thousands of years of dire skirmishes.
Razoth peeled away with one of her father’s attackers while the other two raked for his wings. Her father sought to ward Seccula, but he could not ignore the immediate threat to the relatively vulnerable membranes of his wings. He folded them with a snap of thunder and his tail lashed like lightning, its speed defying his enormous size. Only a desperate dive prevented the target of the tail strike from having his own wing broken, though the impact still tumbled him away to fall many lengths below the battle before his silver wings stretched back out to catch the air.
Her father’s bared teeth met the remaining bronze and held him at bay, but he lost any chance at intercepting Ferdahl.
The shadowy streak of Karanath was there, driving a wedge between his mate and the enormous gold. With rapid beats of his wings and darting lunges of his snout, he brought Ferdahl up short, but there was a significant mass disparity between the two. A strong buffet of Ferdahl’s wings rolled Karanath back, almost colliding with Seccula.
Two dragons tumbled past Sherakk, a large copper and the green form of Drawhn, Vindaf’s brother, locked together belly to belly as they gripped and raked at one another. She weaved in the wash of their turbulent air, and did not see whatever strike Ferdahl had made to drive Karanath back, but drive him back he did. Sherakk looked in time to see that Seccula had no defender warding her from the gold’s approach.
Sherakk whipped her head quickly through the sky and found her brother still struggling with the tarnished silver he had drawn away from her father. Of all the Pride of Aran, only she was close enough to halt Ferdahl, and she was barely a sixth of his size.
The fearsome gold lunged at Seccula with his jaws open wide, aiming to clamp down on her neck, possibly to silence the female black forever.
He froze that way, mouth agape, as Sherakk clenched down on time once more, winding the coil in her chest to a painful extreme. She gasped and fought down the imminent release that would damn her to a baleful-eyed doom like her mother, once she revived, untold years into the future. By then, Dakkar would have completed his transformation, his betrayal of life, and this universe would become a place of cold and hungry darkness.
The entire battle froze, indeed the entire universe halted in its tracks as only Sherakk moved and the beat of her wings pushed numbly stilled air. She swooped down to the open gullet of Ferdahl and filled her lungs, igniting the fire glands in her throat that would mix her own personal incendiary spittle with the spew of air. She stuck her snout deep into the gold’s open throat, like a fledgling taking her first meal from her mother and let loose the greatest torrent of flame she could produce.
It was a long breath, and through her slitted eyes, she could see it charring Ferdahl’s throat black before she was done. She whipped back her head and flew down and away before releasing her hold on time. What had been only a moment of halt in its inexorable flow now pained her intensely. The strain coiled tighter now than it ever had been, and she fought against all nature to hold it restrained while still maintaining steady beats of her wings.
Turmoil erupted all around her once more. A choking cry sounded from Ferdahl. Her flame would not kill him, dragons were practically immune to the elements, but he was out of this fight. His wings backed him away from Seccula as black gouts of smoke flowed from between his teeth. He looked around wide-eyed and frightened at the mysterious and painful strike, while Sherakk winced at her own pain.
There was a sudden flutter of wings beneath her, startling her out of her misery. The silver that had plummeted from her father’s tail strike was rising up beneath her, head reared back on his long serpent neck to strike. She sought to weave away, but he was already too close, and to use her gift once more, however briefly, would condemn her.
She hissed and spread her talons and fans wide in her bravest display, prepared to meet her end as the eternal warrior within her demanded. The end did not come for her, instead the sky darkened above her with a shadow that all the Pride of Chreen feared. Her father’s long neck darted down past her and his jaws clamped down with the crash of a landslide upon the whole head of the silver.
Sherakk flew wide as her father gave the silver a shake that snapped his near adamantine vertebra. He released his jaws to let the corpse fall end over end into the sea far below. Blood flowed freely from the roof of his mouth were the silver’s horns had impaled the softer tissues, but his enormous vitality would heal this minor wound quickly.
“This fight is done!” he shouted at the retreating Ferdahl. “Flee to your murderous, betraying god!”
The remaining iridescent dragons broke from their battles and fled with their golden leader, anxious to escape a similar fate to that of their silver companion should the dread shadow of Rizjar ever fall across them.
“Drawhn!” Vindaf trumpeted, searching the sky for any sign of his brother.
Sherakk looked below and saw the red sea bubbling in several places, not just were the silver had fallen. “He’s gone Vindaf, but justice has been served to the copper who slew his mate.”
Vindaf shook his snout in a long, rolling undulation that rocked his length from nose to tail tip—a display of utter scorn. “May there one day be justice for the horrors that Chreen has unleashed in his betrayal of the balance.”
A glorious call rose out in the sky above them, turning all heads of the Pride of Aran upward. The white dragon of the Lady appeared to them, covering the darkening sky with wings that glittered with the light of countless stars.
“Justice he shall have, but it will not be served here, nor even in this age,” the Lady trumpeted in her perfect clarion call. “Dakkar, my child, has failed and his last warden, Chreen, betrays the light with him.”
“What of us?” her father called out, even his titanic size humbled by the Lady’s presence. “Our Lord Aran is slain and his brother Lorn with him. Our world that we have loved for spans of years without number becomes a monster beneath us, drained because of our own insatiable hungers.”
“Fly beneath my wings and I shall tell you,” the Lady beckoned. “Dear children, Pride of Aran, nothing would be served by your ending. Fly with me.”
The knot straining in her chest, Sherakk was the first one to begin ascending upward toward the Lady’s wings. Her brother and father soon followed, as did the mourning Vindaf and the rest of the Pride. They ascended into the thinning air, as high as great dragons could fly, yet further they pushed themselves upwards, finding the wind and sweeping it back and down with their mighty wings.
Light filled her senses as she closed on the spangled vanes of the goddess of destiny’s wings. She looked below, past the ascending Pride to see Dakkar falling away, dwindling into a curved sphere that in turn shrank further still.
“Look about you, my dragons,” the Lady bade them.
Sherakk looked not just below, but to the sides and to the rear, dimly at first, but gaining in substance other God Dragons appeared—unimaginably grand and beautiful, they too seemed made of stars.
“The Traveler, the Warrior, the Fledgling, the Ancient, the Hunter, the Thief, and the Dreamer are here to aid you,” she said, naming all the god dragons, those who existed before the Lords of Balance broke from their shells. Before the world of Dakkar had even cooled from his primordial birth and become living and aware. They surrounded them now, cutting them off from all of the sky.
Sherakk’s stomach lurched, she feared the release of the time trapped within her and gasped. She held on, but the sensation of falling grew, and she heard other gasps as the sensation spread among the Pride.
The Lady and the other God Dragons furled their wings tight to their backs, yet they did not stoop into a dive or fall.
“Rest your wings, my dragons,” the Lady said, “you are in my embrace now.”
Sherakk furled her wings and huddled beside her father, her eyes wide and rolling about, watching for the next incredible event to occur. Her pride floated around her, within a sphere of light created by the bodies of the god dragons.
“We have now sealed Dakkar away from the living universes,” the Lady said softly like a mother mourning a clutch that never hatched—an infinitely sad note. “We take you to a place between, where you will sleep until a new universe awakens for you, one who will have need of your mighty spirits, where you will find a home your hungers cannot harm.”
“How long must we sleep, in this place between?” her father rumbled softly.
“You will know no passage of time,” the Lady crooned, turning her star filled gaze upon them. “Sherakk has done well, filling herself with the essence of ages. All of you must touch her now, her wing, her tail, her lovely long neck. Hurry before she can hold back the flood no longer.”
Indeed, she had to let go, yet she struggled not to while the Pride reached out to her with their hands and wingtips until they covered her entirely with their touches. Great and long was her sigh as she released the surge within her.