Apologies in advance as Chaos will not be making his cameo in this chapter. It ended up getting very long so he and Vunguza will appear in the next chapter instead.Chapter 16
Silence gripped the cave for a good, long time, the pale Wildclaw's question hanging in everyone's ears. Ilmatar flinched, refused to look around. Anvindr squirmed, the pressure of guilt crushing him. Both fidgeted uncomfortably as four pairs of eyes, Light, Lightning, Fire and Plague, dug into them. Waiting.
The newcomer tilted her head, feathery crest bouncing with the movement, smooth horns glinting in the light filtering in from outside. “Has... Did something happen?” she questioned uncertainly, glancing around at all the figures gathered inside. “It is quite all right if you have not seen him. I passed by a small village on the cliffs and they, having not heard of him themselves, told me of a group of travellers headed this way who may have seen-”
All heads turned to the red Coatl, laying on her side, back towards the others. She didn't look up. Her voice was flat, dry. Tattered feathers tight against her neck.
“Dead?” the Lightborne uttered, shocked, dropping the geode to the floor. “What? But how?”
A shrill wail erupted from the dark-scaled Spiral as he launched himself at the Wildclaw's feet. “I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! It was me! I did it! It was an accident I swear! I'm an alchemist and I saw them and he had gembond and I wanted to cure him I only wanted to help but it all went wrong! I wanted to test my potions on them but he died! He died and she hates me!” Vin sobbed messily, a shivering wreck at the Wildclaw's feet. He managed to look up at her as tears ran down his face. “You have every right to hate me too but I swear I swear I don't know what happened to make him... to...” he trailed off, wrapping his arms around one creamy-white leg. “Please don't kill me I want to make up for it.”
Once more silence reigned, punctured only by Vin's sobs and wails. Makani, perched atop Matar's shoulder, turned away, tiny hands balled into fists as he tried not to cry. Matar herself remained as she was. Eurus and Isaura stared in horror at this news, Sora gasping loudly.
“You...” the Wildclaw whispered, voice taut. “You... did what
?” She deftly kicked the Spiral with the leg he'd been held onto, sending him sprawling. Quick as a flash she was on top of him, clawed foot pinning down his neck, long talon poised to end him, wings flared in dominance. “You killed Ahio?!” she roared furiously, baring needle-fine teeth at Vin, then swung her head around to glare at the others. “You harbour a murderer? The murderer of my family?!”
Makani squeaked fearfully and clambered down to hide between his mother's arms where he trembled. Matar shifted enough to hold him close, finally lifting her head to regard the very angry visitor. On the ground Vin writhed like a trapped snake. She watched, lashing her long tail.
“It was an accident!” Vin rasped painfully under the talons, which only pressed down harder and forced out a squashed, airless sound. The longest claw pressed dangerously against his neck.
Still the red Coatl only stared. Sora was panicking. For the first time in her life things had gotten deathly serious. Potentially literally, given the Wildclaw's intention. Stamping her feet anxiously she swung her neck to look pleadingly at Eurus, the dull Coatl simply standing and watching. He looked puzzled but not worried. Seeing Sora's fiery eyes lock into his he shrugged.
“We can't just stand here!” the red-and-blue Guardian hissed. “We gotta do something!”
“Like what?” Eurus hissed back. “He killed a dragon. He deserves it, right?”
“What? But... no?” Sora hopped from foot to foot. Obviously being hit with the news that they'd joined a group in which one of them was a murderer was shocking, but was it really right to let him die? He'd seemed like such a nice person. Was death for death really equal? Didn't that just mean they'd make a new murderer? She'd only just gotten here! There was no way to know for sure, Vin's immediate grovelling aside. As her mind raced for the best move a tiny voice echoed through the cave.
All eyes now rested on the small green Fae who had resumed his perch on Matar's shoulder. He was still trembling, head crest pinned tightly to the back of his neck but his face frills fanned to their fullest in apprehension. He stood as tall as his minute stature would allow, wings flared showing of the vibrant colours that had begun to appear over the previous days.
“Makani, you shouldn't-” Ilmatar started, reaching up to pull him back into safety.
“No!” Maki squeaked, dodging the hand and flitting down to stand on a loose rock. Lifting his head he fixed his green-red eyes squarely on the stranger's yellow ones. “Leave him alone! You... you bully!”
A sharp intake of breath was sucked between her teeth as Matar rolled onto all fours and attempted another grab at her adopted son, who once again flitted out of reach. “Makani stop!”
“Are you challenging me?” the white dragon demanded, eyes narrowed as she followed the Fae to his new location. “You?”
Maki stood at his fullest, fins and wings splayed for effect. If he could he would have been glaring and baring his teeth at her. “Fin is my friend. I won't let you hurt him.”
Vin coughed and spluttered as air was allowed to flow through his throat again, the Wildclaw stepping away to stand in front of Makani instead. “I can't believe I'm fighting a Fae child.” She clicked her tongue in frustration. “But a challenge is a challenge.” She poised to jump at him.
“No!” Suddenly a larger shape was between them. Sora had made up her mind and was now blocking the Wildclaw from reaching Makani. “Are you nuts?! He's so small compared to you! You'll squash him!”
Then Maki was in front of her again. “I won't let her hurt Fin!” He breathed in and began tracing shapes in the air which he blew into. The spell formed into a strong blast that hit the Wildclaw right in the face, staggering her.
Ilmatar used this opportunity to rush in and grab her protesting son, clutching him close to her furry chest. “Enough Makani, this is not the place for you.”
Likewise Eurus was doing his best to drag Isaura back by the tail. “You're calling her nuts? You're the one who's nuts!”
“Killing people is not right!” the Guardian bellowed, lurching forwards and dragging her friend with her. She stuck her snout right in the stranger's face, blowing smoke from her flared nostrils. “Russ and I only just got here too but these guys seem like real nice people. I don't care if the Spiral killed someone and we are all deeply sorry it had to be your cousin. But he came out and admitted right away and apologised and seriously why do you think killing him will make things better?!”
The Wildclaw rubbed her face where the Contuse blast had struck her, growling at Sora. “Because a murderer does not deserve to live. What if he kills again? You might be next!”
“And then we'd have to kill you cos you killed him!” Isaura retorted, flaring her own wings and fins. “If that's how it's supposed to work. You kill him cos he killed your cousin. Then you have to die cos you killed him. Then whoever kills you needs to die cos they killed you! And so on! WHAT'S THE POINT?!”
Before anyone else was able to interject further something small and round rolled along the floor between them, smoke streaming from cracks in its surface. It was Vin who saw it first, still laying on the ground with a hand at his crushed neck. He wheezed a warning, barely heard over the argument. Too late. Everyone looked at him, then at it... and it burst, spewing a choking gas. They all coughed and gagged, stumbling around in confusion.
Then everything went black.
Vin was first to stir. His large eyes felt too big for even his head, almost too swollen to open them. His throat was raw and dry, the point where the aggressive Wildclaw's talon had been stung. Groggily he peered about through painful, slitted eyelids. It was bright. Too bright. They weren't in their cave any more. His vision was too blurry to make out where they were but he was able to pick out the shapes of his companions, all slumped heavily in the grass. Something covered their arms, legs, wings, tails, necks... He tried to move, sluggish from whatever that gas had been. Something held him back. Rope? He tugged at it weakly. No give. Who, or what, ever had done this really didn't want them going anywhere.
Lolling his head to the other side and wincing as the world shifted he was able to spot other draconic shapes, ones he didn't recognise, and a group of round objects in different shapes, sizes and colour. A pinkish one seemed to be hovering. Eggs?
A new shape slithered into his vision. Serpentine. Legless. Vin rolled his head to look up at them. It held itself upright on a long, snakelike tail, its upper body lean and muscular. Two arms holding bottles. A flat face hidden behind a scarf. Serthis.
“It wakesss.” It drawled, coiling its tail and lowering itself to look directly into Vin's eyes, folding its arms and studying him.
“Water.” Vin choked. It felt like he'd swallowed sand.
The serthis pulled away, shaking its head. “It getsss no water. But we are pleasssed. It hasss been very ussseful to usss.”
The Spiral frowned. “What?”
Another one joined the first, this one red to its companion's green. Not far away blue and orange shapes began to gather, watching. He heard snickering. “The dragon who playsss with potionsss. We were fortunate you are... inattentive.” The green one lifted one of the bottles. “You helped usss a lot with your little tessstsss.”
What were they talking about? He'd never met any serthis before today. How, and more to the point why, would he help- Oh. Oh no. Inattentive? The times he'd left his camp to seek out subjects to test his concoctions on... Had they snuck in while he was away and tampered with them? “...You... you... I never... he didn't die because of me...” Vin wheezed, anger broiling up inside. “You! You waited... for me to leave my potions! You waited for me to leave and poisoned my potions! I didn't kill Ahio! I didn't kill anyone! You did! You made me kill them!
” His voice was strained and shrill, almost screeching as the realisation set in.
A ripple of laughter swelled over the now large gathering of snake-people, blues and reds and greens, mottled and piebald and solid. One of them picked up a branch and began prodding the tied dragons with it. “We were ssso lucky to have found you.” the green one said triumphantly, pulling her scarf down to reveal a sick grin. “For you to have being going the sssame way. How could we not utilissse your abilitiesss?” She clasped her hands together and rested her head on them, smiling innocently. “Oh dear ssso many sssick dragonsss! Maybe I can help them with my potionsss. But oh dear I mussst leave my camp ssso often in order to find dragonsss to tessst them on! Nothing would happen if I did that, would it?” Her slitted eyes drifted down to catch Vin's again, the smile twisting into a smirk.
“Wha... what's going on...?” Came a voice from the pile of blurry shapes next to them. The conversation seemed to have roused the others back to consciousness. Isaura was the first to lift her head up, peering around blearily. Ilmatar, too, had awoken and, while remaining quiet, had the look of “not this again” - no doubt reminded of when the maren had dragged her underwater and bound her in that net.
“Ohh yesss! The red one who had been with the one who perished.” The blue female who had sniggered exclaimed, holding a hand to Matar's chin and forcing her to look up despite the great size difference between her and her captors. “Pity you didn't join him. It would have been even better knowing there were two lesssss, or more.” Ilmatar snatched her head away in disgust, still not saying anything.
“Tell me.” The first green female began, picking up a vial of a very familiar-looking liquid. “Red dragon, do you remember thissss?” Still no response, though Vin's eyes practically popped from their sockets. That was the same one he'd given Ahio! “No? Well, maybe thisss...” The serthis began pointing between the gathered dragons, who were all awake and watching by now. Her finger moved to each of them in turn and back again, a look of thoughtfulness on her features. She was picking a target.
“Don't you dare.” Vin gasped. “Don't you dare.”
With fluid movement the snake-woman was next to the fuzzy lump that was Eurus who tried desperately to pull away, panicking when he realised he couldn't. Feather crest pinned to his neck to turned his head as far as the binding would allow. Not far enough. She reached up, tilting the bottle so that a drip of the substance landed on his tongue. He spat, rubbing it in the grass, resisted the urge to bring it back inside his mouth. It was futile. It was drying out, making it uncomfortable. He began to drool in response, an attempt to moisten it again. Now it was making a mess. Don't. Don't... He couldn't any longer, licking up the spittle and bringing back into his mouth. Electric blue eyes widened in fear as he began spitting again, trying to remove the poison.
Too late. Too, too late. It wasn't long before the same symptoms that Ahio had suffered began to show. Eurus began coughing violently, foam gathering on his lips, blood spattering the grass in crimson droplets.
“Russ!” Sora screamed, pulling against the rope with all of her might. “Russ! What have you done?!” Everyone else did the same, twisting and turning in their restraints in vain attempt to pull themselves free and get to the ailing Coatl, whose breath had become laboured and watery. “Please! No!”
“Jussst like the child.” The blue one goaded, chuckling. “The look on your faccce when the purple long-claw did the sssame thing! And then he died, and hisss cousssin getsss to sssee what happened to him!” For a moment the white Wildclaw went still, gleaming eyes round as the information hit her, as she watched the dark-coloured Coatl writhe in pain, listening to the gurgling in his chest and throat as he struggled to breathe. “We've been following you for a long time.” the blue serthis smirked, running a finger down the flat of her blade. “We know you and he were family, white one. And sssoon you will join him.” The Wildclaw screamed, a piercing, banshee-like wail as she doubled her efforts to get free.
With a rage he never knew he had Anvindr pushed and pulled until an arm came loose. With it he was able to pull the rope off of his head, down off the other arm. An alarm was called as his wings came free and he took off before the serthis could get more around him, sending them slithering back, unsheathing swords and lances.
Against initial thought it was the Wildclaw he set free next, allowing her to vent her fury on the closest group of serthis, tearing them apart with tooth and nail starting with the blue female with the sword. Isaura came after, who unleashed a jet of searing flame into another group, scattering and burning them, before running over to Eurus and ripping off his binding. Finally Ilmatar, who in turn released Makani and together the group of dragons decimated the beastclan camp. Most of them fled, others succumbed to grievous wounds. Only a few lucky hits made it through, piercing scale and hide. The carnage did not stop until those few living serthis had escaped.
Gasping and trembling from the exertion all of them turned to Eurus and the sobbing Sora. He had gone limp, his head laying a pool of blood still spilling from his jaws as his glassy, lifeless eyes stared into nothingness.
A sharp pain struck Vin in the back and he howled, whirling around and slashing at the offender with contagion-ridden claws. They struck flesh, tearing the face of the green serthis female who had done this, her blade falling to the ground as she clutched at the wound.
“You...” Vin could barely keep himself together. “You...!” Like black lightning he snatched the vial of the poison then grabbed the throat of the serthis. He grinned widely, manically. “You like this do you? You like killing us do you?! You like poison do you?!
” He couldn't help himself. He cackled, thrusting the neck of the bottle into the snake-girl's mouth and tilting it so she had to swallow it. “Drink! Yes drink it all! See how you like it!
The serthis gagged and spat and spluttered as she retreated, falling to the ground, pulling herself along with her hands. “You'll pay for thisss.” she managed venomously as she slithered away. He let her.
“You know that won't kill her.” a weak voice spoke from amidst a pile of dead serthis where the Wildclaw had dumped her kills. Instantly the group was upon the owner; the red male. “You know we are resssissstant to poissson.” He glowered up at the dragons baring down upon him. “Ssso why?”
Everyone turned to the dark-scaled Spiral, who had managed to regain his composure. “What's the point?” he echoed Sora's remark from earlier.
The serthis half grinned, half grimaced. “Becaussse we'll die anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Ilmatar demanded, making sure to stay on the opposite side to where Vin was. No longer because she viewed him as the one who killed her first friend any more, but still she couldn't bring herself to trust him. Not after that display.
“They will come sssoon. They will kill anyone who is weak or sssick or injured.”
“Who is “they”?” the Wildclaw chimed in.
“Our familiesss.” He took in the group's confused expressions and sighed. “You know nothing, do you? Ssserthisss familiesss kick out their young onccce we can ssspeak and leave usss to fend for ourssselvesss. Then onccce a few yearsss have passsed they return, knowing we would have weeded out the weakessst. Then they do the sssame, keeping only the ssstrongessst membersss.”
The white Wildclaw pondered this. “So it's either kill you now, or let you live only to be killed by your own kind.”
She flicked her gaze between Vin and Matar for approval as she clicked her talons.
“Let them do it!” Sora sobbed, still clutching her deceased friend. “Leave him, let him die by his own! He's lucky he's not the one who did this!”
“Says the one who asked what the point of killing a murderer is...” the Wildclaw muttered, rolling her eyes. Sora heard this and turned away, eyes squeezed shut. “Justice.” She finished, moving away from the grieving Guardian and towards the snake-man.
It was Vin who stood in her way. “No.” he said simply.
He regarded her tiredly. They'd just gone through so much. She had learned the truth. They all had. They all could have died by serthis hands, if not directly than through him and his creations. “I want him to come with us.”