The mountains of the western lands were tall and packed tightly together, huddling in groups as if in defence from the frigid skies. Trees and grass reached up over part of the mountains' bases, but the higher the stone stood, the less foliage was to be seen. By the time one reached a mountain peak, the world was devoid of life and colour, defined only by the breath of wind and swirls of silver snow. Once the moon was high in the night sky, the flurries rose to stinging storms, and the wind bit with a sudden new fury in the darkness. The sky grew pale and cloud-obscured, bathing the mountaintops in smudges of frosty white.
The high altitudes of the mountains saw few visitors, but it was during one of these cold, harsh nights that a group of five dragons were silhouetted against the crescent moon. The party folded their wings and drifted downwards, coming to rest on the craggy slope of the nearest mountain.
"Listen up!" the largest of them, a green-scaled male, called above the whistling wind. "It's cold tonight, and I know all of you want to get back to the Clearing soon. We're going to split up. Take spiral routes starting here until we end up back at the Fleet. And don't linger, I don't want to have to send any more Fighters after you if you get lost. Let's go!"
The dragons obeyed, each leaping into the air to follow the commands. Only one held back, and stepped over to the leader, who was still balanced on the edge of the rock.
The lead dragon looked at her. "What is it, Lydia?"
"Should we really be splitting up?" The slender blue dragoness shifted uncomfortably, looking embarrassed. "If one of us encounters anything, then we'll have no backup."
The leader chuckled. "It's all right-- the Fleet of Jade Oceans hasn't had a real attack since we moved here. Nothing will happen."
"There was a rogue attack a few years ago." Lydia pointed out.
"Barely." the large dragon snorted. "A couple of trainees could have fought off that attack. Really, Lydia, it's fine." The leader hesitated. "Is something else bothering you?"
Lydia's eyes narrowed at the question. "I really wish you would all stop tiptoeing around me and tell me if you think me fit for duty or not, Nogard, Sir."
Nogard stared her down. "The other Fighters are worried about you. The whole Fleet knows how hard you took your daughter's death, and I know it must be difficult to get over something like that. But you've been very able recently. I believe that we may entrust you with all Fighter duties once again, but I suppose that is up to you."
Lydia dipped her head. "Of course, sir
I'm fine." She turned and spread her wings, leaning over the mountain's side. "May the wind guide."
"And the sun watch
" Nogard murmured in response as Lydia jumped forward and took to the air.
At first Lydia busied herself with scanning the ground below, but her vision was obscured by the flurries of snow. She could feel the freezing particles stinging at her eyes and the insides of her ears, the only parts of her not covered in scales. With a sigh that trailed steam from her mouth, Lydia narrowed her eyes, and tried to relax. Truth be told, she rather enjoyed being alone on a patrol. It gave her time to think.
Suddenly, a dragon scream ripped through the mountains. The sound echoed back and forth faintly, sounding ghostly and dreamlike, but Lydia knew that it was real. Was one of the other Fighters injured? Lydia's heart pounded in anxiety, sending new warmth through her frigid muscles. She rotated her ears, trying to pinpoint the scream's origin. Every mountain looked the same; misted with snow and grey ice.
There was a flash of movement somewhere below Lydia, and she zeroed in on it. There was a dragon flying out from a nearby crevice, riding the flurries like they were river currents. Lydia slipped into a dive, squinting against the icy air as it bit at her face. For a moment the world disappeared in a whirl of white and silver. By the time Lydia pulled out of the dive and looked around, the flying dragon had gone.
She pondered on continuing the patrol, but then she remembered the scream. Where had it come from? Had the flying dragon screamed? Why? She remembered Nogard's dismissive words-- Nothing will happen. Lydia flapped around, until she was facing the cave from which the flying dragon had emerged. Perhaps the answers lay there.
She flapped forward and gripped the frosted stone with her talons. The cave was pitch-dark inside; the moonlight only reached several claw-lengths into the shadow. Lydia blinked, making her eyes glow blue with night vision. The light cast a soft circle around her as she walked into the mountain's mouth.
Her talons touched some warm liquid, and she flinched back with a startled gasp as she saw that it was blood. Dread filled her as she looked around the room, and saw two bodies lying in the corner.
The first was a dark-red male, whose claws had scored marks into the stone below. His green eyes were open and lifeless, staring with what seemed to be a lingering hatred held cold and deep within his expression. The other was a dragoness with aquamarine scales, her mouth gaping open. A pool of blood surrounded them, and Lydia shuddered to think of what horrible wounds had been inflicted on them. The scent of blood was overpowering, blotting out all other senses. All Lydia wanted to do was to get out and forget what she had seen.
She turned, and her heart nearly stopped as she saw a third body. This one was not an adult like the others-- the child could not have been older than four or five years, his tiny claws stretched towards the exit in some final attempt at freedom. His face was streaked with tears and blood, and his wings had been torn nearly to shreds. Lydia was hit with a deep hatred for whomever could do such a thing. The flying dragon she had seem earlier-- could he have been the murderer?
She was about to fly out and search for the mysterious dragon, when the small hatchling gave a whimper. She started. Alive? Even after those terrible wounds? Lydia hurried over to the child and nudged it gently. Though the child must have been traumatized and badly hurt, it seemed like he was indeed living. Lydia carefully scooped the hatchling into her tail, and gently carried him to the exit. He didn't make another sound, and Lydia was worried that he would not survive the trip back to the Fleet.
Her head was spinning, but she forced herself to concentrate. The cold mountain air met her like a wall as she leaned out of the cave. This was when backup would have been helpful! Working as gently as she could, she transferred the child to her front talons. She felt sick as she saw that the hatchling had left bits of his wings behind.
Once she was sure that the child was held securely, Lydia jumped into the air and turned back towards where her Fleet's Clearing lay. The rest of her patrol would have to be neglected. As she flapped higher into the frosty air, a slender, snakelike dragon watched from beneath the black shadows of a mountain.
"So it begins
" The dragon murmured, his voice swallowed up by the wind. He turned and flew in the opposite direction of Lydia, carefully weaving through the air currents. His claws left smudges of blood on the snow.
It was not his own.