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Chapter 11: Brewing Storms

It only takes three days of good weather to make it back to the Dragons’ Nest Isle. It has moved closer to The Light since our last trip. But Silv, looking at the clouds above our heads as we enter the caverns of the floating island, warns our return journey might be less serene. I don’t doubt her claims, even the clouds look ominous– grey and floating just above our heads, heavy with pent up rain. 

Our approach was strange, no dragons patrolled the skies nearby, we hadn’t met any scouting parties. Faladel and Silv had planned to approach from below and try to sneak inside, but the lack of guards made that sort of thinking entirely unnecessary. Faladel helps Elen prep the boat for a fast takeoff, while Fin, Silv, and I spread out to scout the caverns. I remember the place we’ve landed. It’s where I originally woke up, and where Smay had killed the dragon that I had paralyzed. These caverns are near the floating island’s summit, and we slowly make our ways past the dull stone walls deeper into the maze of huge tunnels. 

Almost as soon as we are out the main cavern, I see a large swath of grey stone splattered with something darker than the stone. The torchlight makes it look almost brown, but I suspect it’s actually red. Scratches and grooves on the floor indicate a fight of some sort. I grimace, what happened here? Why haven’t we come across any dragons? Fin and Silv don’t even notice the bloodstains or floor markings, continuing onwards down the tunnel until I call them back so I can spend more time studying this. 

Three torches confirm what I suspected. A fight has happened here. Within the last twelve hours if I had to guess. I can’t tell who the dragon fought– I don’t think it was more than one of them, there aren’t that many claw marks on the stone and they all seem to have the same distance between the toes–but they seem to have lost and taken a lot of damage. I track the blood trail down the dark hallway, Fin and Silv following behind me. It isn’t long before we end up at the split, one hallway goes back up and to the left, the other down and to the right. My nausea returns as I look at the tunnel heading down, remembering vaguely the feeling of being chased before blacking out. But the nausea isn’t as strong as I remember. “Do you feel anything?” I ask Fin and Silv, trying to figure out if it’s just a ghost of a sensation, or if my memory was just hyper inflated. That does happen sometimes. Silv looks at me confused, but Fin nods.

“Something’s off about that tunnel. It’s annoying to look at.” He points at the one heading deeper into the island. 

“Yes, exactly!” I turn back to him. “It was so annoying that I went down it to figure out what was causing my head to hurt so much from looking at it, but I think whatever spell was on it has weakened, because my head doesn’t hurt nearly as much now!” I frown. “Perhaps the dragon’s disappearance has caused the spell to weaken?”

“You think a spell caused…” Silv hesitates “Whatever ‘annoying’ effect that apparently is leaving me out?” 

“You don’t feel anything?” I turn to stare at her. She in turn goes to the entrance to the tunnel and peers down it, torch held high above her short head. 

“Nothing. Want me to go down there?” She offers, returning to me and Fin in the center of the intersection. 

“I mean, I’m pretty sure your store of floatsones is down there.” I begin, remembering her interest in the glowing stone. Sure enough, her eyes widen and sparkle. “But I really wouldn’t like to split us up further right now. All this doesn’t feel right.” I finish, turning to follow the blood trail up the other path– the one that leads back to my cell and to Smay’s living quarters. It doesn’t take long before my sense of dread is heightened as we stumble upon our first dead dragon. It is a small purple– probably no more than a child–its golden eyes clouded over in death. A sword strike in the chest clearly is the cause. I grimace when the blood trail continues. I knew it was too small to cause the claw marks, almost all the dragons would be too small honestly. But I don’t want to think too hard on that. 

The blood trail starts thinning soon after the corpse, the dragon apparently tried to staunch the bleeding. We have long since left the route to Smay’s living quarters, and I honestly don’t know where we are now. In one large cavern, I nearly lose the trail. The dragon had taken flight and circled many times to disguise the direction it was heading, fleeing from a slower pursuer. But I find where he exited eventually. However, when I look up, Silv and Fin– who had admittedly been silent for a while– were all the way across the cavern, looking down a different exit. 

“Guys, the trail goes this way!” I call out, and then wince, remembering that there still could be people here somewhere. But my voice bounces around the cavern with no other answer than Fin’s “You should really come see this Briareth.”

When I arrive at their exit– well, more like, entrance into a second catacomb –the first thing I see is Silv’s grimly smiling face. The next is a literal blood bath. The cave floor beyond, despite the hours that have passed since the slaughter, is still covered in undried blood. Dragon bodies lie haphazardly on what must have once been nests and beds, some seemingly dead in their sleep, others looking like they struggled for a bit before death. 

Even though they weren’t nearly as smart or civilized as Smay, I still feel disgust well in me at this slaughterhouse. We might have planned to kill them in battle, but this somehow is completely different. These dragons were just napping when they were murdered. Fin looks similarly nauseated. His red eyes are bright, and he has pulled a handkerchief over his nose and mouth so the smell won’t tempt him.

“This amount of death…” He whispers. “Why?” 

“It’s nothing they wouldn’t do to us.” Silv claims calmly, as she steps into the puddles of red on the floor. I remember her past, the story she had told us when we were heading to Outpost Seven, how over a hundred dragons had slaughtered her entire town, unprovoked. 

“Perhaps.” I say, my pity for the dead creatures dropping a lot. “But I doubt any of our allies did this. The ability to kill all these dragons, and to get away with it, and they don’t use it during the war effort? It just doesn’t make sense!” Silv continues walking towards the nearest of the bodies, the on the floor covering her feet entirely. I’m not normally squeamish, but that takes a level of guts even I don’t have.

“I’ll fly you?” Fin offers, seeing my grimace as I look at the blood on the floor. I gladly take him up on his offer, feeling a need to inspect the dead dragons to get a fuller picture of what happened here. 

Fin’s large, leathery black wings unfurl and we glide together above the red floor. There isn’t a dry spot, so we just land on one of the dragon corpses. It doesn’t take long to establish a pattern of death. Silv takes care of ones closer to the entryway to this sleeping area, and Fin and I cover the ones in the back of the chamber. All the wounds on the dragons were clearly made by a blade, and the dragons weren’t prepared for an attack. Either they knew and trusted their killer, or someone had managed to get the jump on over fifty dragons and kill almost all of them before the last few began to fight. Either option sounds ridiculous, but I’m constantly reminded of the mysterious figure in the strange glowing cavern. If it was him… Perhaps the first option isn’t so unlikely after all. But again, there is the question of why? I’m going to have to ask Faladel for help when we return to the ship, because I’ve got nothing. 

In five minutes we’re following the trail of blood again. There is another cavern on our path, this one full of dead hatchlings and violently smashed eggs, and even Silv doesn’t have the stomach to try and explore that one. She might have taken an oath to kill all the dragons, but even that doesn’t make her immune to the horrible scene in there. I don’t think anyone could be. 

Far up the tunnel heading into the very center of the Island, I hear a rumble, and then a roar, and I can feel the tremors of that roar in the ground, even this far away. Silv gasps, and then covers her mouth. Fin jumps ten feet in the air. My mouth drops open and I start sprinting down the tunnel. I recognize that voice! Relief swamps me as I realize that Smay isn’t dead. Although… I begin to slow as I realize something. “He’s certainly not happy.” I mutter, turning my headlong sprint into a steady walk.

“Why are you heading towards the dragon?!” Silv calls after me, short legs working hard to catch up. Fin glides behind her, never having come down from his jump. 

“There’s a survivor!” I call back at her, “Don’t you want to see how they’re still alive? Learn what happened?” 

“Yes,” She gasps, slowing as she catches up to me, “But you can’t just run headlong into these sorts of things Briareth! They sounded hostile!” 

“That’s why I’m walking now.” I reply, “Besides, I think that dragon was Smay, it certainly sounded like him. I doubt he’d kill me now if he didn’t earlier.”

Fin swoops low overhead. “I don’t know, Briareth, he sounded pretty angry to me.”

I shake my head confident in my ability to survive and talk my way out of any situation with Smay in it. With our increased pace, it doesn’t take long before we’re in a large cavern, but we pass through it quickly, another roar from Smay guiding our direction more clearly than the few drops of blood left on the ground. When we get to his cage, the roars are deafening. 

“OUT!” He bellows, and I instinctively take a step back, as he thrashes his tail and beats at the walls of his prison. The stone shakes and trembles from his anger, a large crack running through it. He pries at the crack and bangs at the stone again. He’s the only one in this room and doesn’t even seem to notice us. Sucking in a deep breath into an entirely different set of lungs, he flames the stone . It must be thirty seconds before the flames disappear from the small window we can see into. 

This whole room is filled with cages. They are mostly solid stone, with a barred window set into each wall and a flat, unnatural ceiling for each cage. They almost appear to be built into the floor; they fit into it so seamlessly. The cages are massive, far larger than the simple room I stayed in as a prisoner, but Smay’s is clearly too small for him. There’s no way he can even spread out to his full length in there, much less open his wings. He lets out another howl of protest that rocks the cavern and causes SIlv to stumble forward and fall to the ground with a thud. I grab for her, but it is too late. He twists his neck around to the window on our side, and peers out, spotting us. His hackles pull back and he lets out a low snarling hiss. “Murderers!” 

I hear the intake of breath into a place deeper than his lungs, and recognize it. 

“Wait! Smay! It’s me, Briareth!” I jump in front of Silv, holding out my hands as if that can shield her from dragon’s fire. “These are my friends! We’re here to help!” 

Smay cocks his head, eyes dull, unrecognizing. “Murderers?” It’s more of a question now. He shakes himself, “Thieves…” He hisses, and then bellows once again. “OUTTT!!!” I clap my hands over my ears, and stumble slightly. Out of the corner of my eye I see Fin fall out of the sky and collapse to the ground. 

“We’ll get you out.” I promise when the ringing echo has finally stopped bouncing around my head. “We just need to know what happened here.” Smay glares at me, uncomprehending. “Come on.” I try to coax him, “I’m your friend Smay, remember? Who did this to you?” 

“Friend.” Smay spits, like it’s a dirty word. He opens his maw again, sucking in a deep breath, and I yank Silv to her feet and dive to the tunnel, the fire that shoots above me toasting my hair and sucking breath from the vicinity. I gasp and pant, heart racing as I get back to my feet. “I don’t think we’ll get anything from him.” Silv grimly pats herself down. 

“I don’t understand, he’s so different!” I begin, but she cuts me off. 

“You said he had changed right? Well, perhaps this is another change brought on by those scales we came here to find. Perhaps he’s becoming more like our dragons, and less like your friend. Eventually, he might end up the same mindless beast as the rest of them.” That thought silences me. I don’t know what to do if that’s the case.

“We should go see if those scales you speak of are still here.” Silv says, leading the way back up the tunnel we came through. 

It doesn’t take long to retrace our steps. And once I recognize one of the turns we passed earlier, I take us up to Smay’s personal living quarters. The scales are waiting, shining in the light of our torches. They really aren’t meant for use by dragons or elves, too small for one, too big for the other. I pick up the heavy silver and ruby creation, and, careful not to damage it, place it in my bag. We’re ready to head back to Faladel and Elen, I hope they don’t think we’re lost somewhere and go out to follow us.

On our way out, Silv insists on heading down the headache-inducing side tunnel. Reluctantly, Fin and I follow her. It’s empty, the softly glowing cavern devoid of any strange objects or people. My headache worsens the longer we stay down there, and I’m grateful when we finally leave. Silv is delighted by the quantity and purity of the floatstones, but all I can think about is getting back to our ship.  

Faladel and Elen have hardly moved, and are deep into debate on the relative merits of mechanical parts being fused to people as replacements for ‘broken or missing pieces’ as Faladel delicately puts it. He seems fascinated, both by the process of how it works, and the discrimination the receivers of these treatments suffer from.

When Silv starts summarizing our experience to Faladel though, he instantly goes from good natured bantering to analyzing. He insists on going back, this time with Elen and himself, to see if they are affected by the headaches. He isn’t, Silv is, and this time I stay out of that tunnel entirely. When he gets back he seems anxious and asks me to describe the person I saw down there as exactly as possible. He paces as I provide the garbled information that I remember. Bearded, no wings, too tall to be a Dwarf or Zytherling. Like nothing and nobody I’ve ever seen. He shakes his head, not disappointment but something similar crossing his face. 

“Somethings not right here.” He looks at Silv, “What exactly were the words Smay had said again?” 

“Out.” She hesitates, remembering “Thief, Murderer, and Friend I believe. Although the friend might have just been a repeat of what Briareth said, he didn’t seem to understand what it had meant.”

“What do you mean, he didn’t understand?” Faladel presses.

“Well, he didn’t seem too happy when he said it.” Silv says, which is a blatant understatement.

“He said it like he had a personal vendetta against the word.” Fin supplies, and I nod my agreement. That is a much better description, although I’m curious how somebody can have a vendetta against a word. Doesn’t a vendetta mean you want to kill the person? You really can’t kill a word. Not unless the word is a person, but that’s an entirely different–

“I think I’ve got it.” Faladel muses, breaking my thought train. “But if I’m right, we might be in serious trouble. Unless–” He turns to Elen. “How common are amputations of both wings?” 

I see a shudder go through Fin at the mere thought. He had mentioned wings were sensitive. “Insanely rare.” Elen tilts her head questioningly at Faladel, “But why is that important?”

“I saw the shadow of a person at Chairholder Helios-Lime III’s house that was as big as you or I, but with no wings, and who disappeared when I called out to them. Briareth sees a similar person here doing something in a sinister cavern. Smay suddenly has an avid hatred for the word ‘Friend’ and might be associating it with the words ‘Thieves’, ‘Murderers’, and ‘Out’. The corpses of almost all the dragons you’ve found don’t look like they were expecting an attack. For a person or message to get from the Chairholders house to here, assuming it left as soon as we arrived after rescuing Briareth, it would arrive almost exactly at the right time for the fighting to occur.” Faladel rounds up all the facts that had been jumbled in my head, and adds in a few new ones of my own painting quite the distinct picture. “There were very few people who knew that we had arrived, much less when we were leaving. And a secret room is all cleared out when we come here, the people we could ask, fled, dead, or driven insane.” Faladel continues, his pace quickening as he muses. 

“You can’t really call most dragons people–” Silv begins, I cut her off. 

“But why?” I ask, “What would be the point of all this?” 

“That’s the real question isn’t it?” Faladel snaps his finger at me. “He outfits us to go rescue you, but why would he do that if he’s working with the dragons? And why kill the dragons if he’s working with them? And why lock up Smay? And who’s the strange accomplice? It still doesn’t make any sense!” 

“Still,” Elen says, “No matter how nonsensical, the timing is uncanny. And it would be just like a politician to lie. Especially the Chairholder Helios-Lime III.” 

Silv and Fin looks at her confused. “I didn’t realize your family held some sort of bias against him Elen.” Fin offers.

She blinks “I don’t, but we heard him lie before, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t be that hard to do again.”

“When did he lie?” Faladel asks, chewing on one of his knuckles as he paces. 

“He said he hated war, when we first met him, remember?” Elen looks at us all strangely, and then turns to focus on the Kashan “You do know, Fin, that he has numerous investments in the war industries– guns, ships, the lot of it– right? He’s a war profiteer who has voted heavily to increase investments in the military, and has multiplied his wealth many times over since the start of this mess.” She shakes her head. “Seriously, Fin. Silv I wouldn’t expect to know all this; she’s a country girl who never cared. But I thought you, with your family training, would have at least kept up to date on politics.” 

Fin shrugs. “I’ve tried to leave them and all their nonsense behind me.” 

“That might not be possible at this point.” Elen shakes her head slowly. “Your family is the only one we can go to in The Light.”

“What?!” Fin actually takes a step back from the shock. His voice rises. “We are not going to my family! Where did that come from Elen?!” 

She shrinks down into herself. “I just… thought…” 

“It’s okay.” Faladel stops his pacing to put a hand on her shoulder. “Take a deep breath, and please, continue.” 

Elen obeys, but her voice is still shaky as she continues, “If what we’ve discovered is t-true, Chairholder Helios-Lime III might have tried to k-kill us by sending us here to rescue you Briareth. He knew where the d-dragon’s nest was, but only gave information to us, not to raiding parties. He p-provisioned us himself. T-Then he encouraged us to get out of the city a second time when we failed to die.” Her voice becomes stronger, as she becomes more confident. “He shuts down any at-risk operations before we arrive. We’re gone for six days minimum, a week or more if we get caught in a storm. He can do and say whatever he wants behind our backs during that time. Nobody is there to question him. Silv’s family is dead. Mine has been trying to distance themselves from me for years and will probably ally with him if it looks like trouble is brewing.” Fin’s face goes from the surprise and anger at her initial statement, to guilt about his actions, to the pain of acceptance quite quickly. 

“I see what you mean, and I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I’m sorry Elen.” 

Elen nods, gracefully accepting his apology. She breathes once more to calm herself and then says with a slightly sad smile. “It’s fine, I really need to stop being so sensitive.”

“Don’t push yourself to heal,” Fin goes and hugs her tightly. “You take your time. You deserve it.” He looks at the rest of us, eyes determined, but clearly still unhappy with the decision. “We can go to my family to assess the situation, but we’re getting out of there immediately if everything looks okay, alright?”

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