Everyone was silent as now both Lupin and Aster gazed warily out towards the place the group had come from almost a week ago now. So much distance had been put between themselves and the abandoned campsite where they'd been attacked. The zombie-like Guardian with the sickly, glowing pink eyes. Could it be that it had caught up with them? Iris stiffened briefly as she recalled the look of exhilaration on Lupin's face when Magnolia had spirited them to safety.
Cautiously so not to startle him, though she was sure her wheel would do it for her, she sidled up alongside the fluffy giant Tundra-like dragon. “Lupin?” Giving Willow a questioning glance as she passed the Mirror settled next to the Gaoler. “Lupin, you've been like all day now. It's starting to get to Aster too. Won't you tell us what's on your mind?”
“Darkness.” Iris flinched at the simplicity with which the word was said. What had happened to the sweet, constantly hungry little hatchling they'd all raised together? Now his voice had deepened dramatically, almost rivalling Aster's rumbling tones, keeping to himself or the dryad who had so suddenly sought him out.
“What... do you mean by 'darkness'?” She asked as she slipped more in front of the Gaoler in attempt to get him to look at her. How could it be that this large boy had once fit so snugly into her arms not a month prior?
“I don't know.” There was barely any emotion in his reply. No confusion, no sadness, no malice. Maybe a hint of anger or frustration though it didn't show on his rounded face if so. “I felt it before. When the monster attacked us.”
Iris' crests flared in shock. He could sense that thing? It was chasing them after all. “Is it the monster itself?” She wasn't entirely sure why she was asking but it had bothered her so much that Lupin had segregated himself away from everyone else for so long. “Is... is it coming back? Is it still following?”
Lupin only grunted. Her crests would have folded in sorrow at his dismissal had it not been for the subtle shift of emerald amidst his dark brown fur as he flicked his eye down to regard her. At least his gaze hadn't changed much; had that hardened as well she would be certain her baby had been lost for good but it was as soft and kind as ever. She smiled at him for that though she knew her concern was still plain behind it, brightening as she caught the slight lift of the corners of his jagged mouth.
As soon as the warmness had shown it quickly disappeared. Replaced by aggravated focus as Lupin rose to his feet. “Son of Nature, what bothers you?” Willow called up to him, suddenly appearing tiny next to his large form. “Dragons, honestly. Your kind is capable of so much more that I'd expected.”
Willow and Iris both raised an eyebrow. “What-”
“She's here!” The Mirror and dryad swivelled around to stare at the now very restless Aster as the Guardian bobbed anxiously from side to side. “She's come back! Why? I knew she was- But why here? Now?!”
“You knew what?!” Zinnia demanded, slithering in front of the large purple dragon before he had the chance to bolt. “Is there something we need to know about the thing
that's been chasing us?”
Aster went completely still, wide rose eyes staring at the Bogsneak in disbelief. “Chasing...? She's been... chasing you?”
“Well we've been chased by some undead Arcane Guardian lady at least!” She shot back, tail lashing as she switched her piercing glare over to Hyacinth who was trying to coax Gardenia, who had poked her head out to see what was going on, and Allium back inside the cave.
“You.. have?” Aster very suddenly sat down, staring off into nothingness as this information sunk in, spiny face paling. For a moment he considered throwing the Bogsneak aside to huddle in the cave with the smaller youths.
Rearing awkwardly on her hind legs, placing her front paws on his chest and using her tail for balance the Lightningborne's electric eyes bore into his. “Two and two clicked the moment you started your story.” Zinnia hissed dangerously. “There can't be any coincidence after you just now gave it away. So why don't you tell us now,” here her voice rose a few notches in volume, “what the hell is going on?!
In the distance an unearthly roar permeated the still air, silencing any and all wildlife in the vicinity. Lupin stretched out his maned neck to bellow a challenge in reply. Both Willow and Iris pleaded for him not to do anything untoward as he shifted stance.
“Please Aster.” Hyacinth far more calmly but no less seriously lay a clawed hand on the Guardian's arm, fixing him with a steady golden gaze. “Please explain. Is there anything we can do about this?”
Dumbly Aster shook his head, unable to form words as his tongue pinned itself to the roof of his mouth in fear.
“Aster.” He craned is neck back and around to see Magnolia towering over the group, pale eyes soft and pleading. “Please tell us.”
The great purple dragon heaved a sigh, stripping his tongue from its hiding spot and forced himself to speak though the words were strained. “She... Amaranth was far more adept with magic than I. I can only assume that is why this happened.” He smacked his lips which had gone rather dry, only to receive a swipe across the muzzle. Jolting in surprised pain and slapping a hand over his snout Aster watched wide-eyed as Magnolia wrestled an increasingly impatient Zinnia to the ground.
“When she fell in the water I tried to pull her out.” Aster forced himself to say, still holding his wounded face in his claws. “I had to leave her. I hated it but I had to leave her. But as I was leaving I heard something large coming out of the water. My... my instinct to guard my Charge... I didn't look. Couldn't. I ran because I knew. That's why I haven't killed myself yet after all these months. I could feel her. I knew Amaranth – my Charge – was still alive somehow. But not.
“The maren had already fled with the egg. I assumed she'd go after it. I wanted to do something but I couldn't.
I couldn't bare to see her like that, couldn't bare to know what she'd become, how she'd react to me. So I fled here until I could decide what to do.”
“By which you mean wasted away so that you were unable to do anything else?” Zinnia spat venomously. “Boss knows even I'm not so stupid to do something like that and I live every day hating every part of myself. You know why?” She paused for effect, not taking her eyes off of Aster. “Because even though I hate myself, hate my past, hate what I do, I can still do something
to help. Boss knows I'm no good at it but it's something
. Even if Hyacinth is doing a better job with it. He wouldn't be where he is now if I'd shut everything out. So I keep going because I know I'm helping.”
Her blue eyes narrowed. “So now it's time for you to help your mate.”
“Amaranth needs you.” Magnolia chimed in, allowing her dark-scaled friend to get back to her podgy feet. “She's needed you for a long time. You've both been in so much pain. Don't you think you should end it now? Together?”
Guilt piled heavily on his shoulders. The weight built and built and he wanted nothing more than to dig a hole and fall endlessly into the void in which he belonged. He should have tried harder, gone after her. Of course she'd only cause trouble elsewhere while he'd cut himself off from the world. It was his fault. All of it was his fault.
Another ethereal roar echoed over the land. Lupin bellowed in kind. The others moved over to convince him not to go out there, sounding like he was about to charge off on his own. Aster lifted his head solemnly only to catch sight of Gardenia and Allium peering around the edge of his cave at him. That's when he saw the Tundra's eyes properly for the first time.
Everything fell into place.
With her sleeping the while away under her now relenting fever he'd not gotten the chance to meet her as anything more than a pile of blue and purple fur. Now that her eyes were open he could see the very ripples of the ocean in which Amaranth had been sent. A strange, serene calmness washed over him then as they regarded each other. Claws tightening around the soil beneath them, jaw setting in grim determination Aster got to his feet, turning his back to the cave to stand next to Lupin, who threw him a knowing look.
Together they roared.
She knew for sure now that this was the right way as she stood upon a grassy ridge, panting hard from her sprint. Not only was that feeling
getting stronger with every step she took but now the air was ringing with the cries of dragons. Alstroemeria found herself missing the songs of the birds and the calls of the animals greatly but knew it would have to wait. They would return once the threat had been removed. With this resolved the olive Gaoler leapt from her spot to continue her mad dash across the countryside.
As she ran Alstro wished with all her heart that the winds would aid her in her quest. This was not the land she'd hoped for. It was too quiet, no melody, no sighs. It was on this that she blamed her strain, the amount of effort needed to run all this way. The second set of roars spurred her on however. They were louder. She was getting closer. What truly pushed her limit though was the third set.
The first two sets of roars had been a call and an answer, the call sending chills down her spine despite her fur and time spent in the frigid underground. This last cry did not do that. Two dragons challenging the Darkness together.
Chest heaving Alstroemeria clambered up upon a large boulder with thanks to her sharp claws and hand-like wings. There. A group of assorted dragons the likes she had never seen all huddled around – to her surprise – another Gaoler with only one antler. A warrior, she decided, spirits climbing with awe and joy at the revelation. Yes! They would fight off the Shade-infested creature together and bind it so it could not get away again.
Another rallying round of cries, this time the entire group had joined in with roars and shrieks and squeaks from the younger ones. She joined in with her own voice, leaping from the boulder to join them.
Only to falter as all eyes fell upon her in distracted surprise.
Images of her fellow wardens glowering down at her, sneering, jeering or simply staring blankly flooded her mind. All of a sudden Alstroemeria felt as if the very ground beneath her had taken hold of her legs as the attention froze her to the spot. She managed to bare her teeth in an awkward grin in hopes it wasn't Dripcave all over again, up until the unearthly roar sounded once more and the group all leapt to the front line. Nerves still pinched tight from being stared at by so many restricted the green Gaoler from moving too quickly and before any of them knew it the shredded form of a large, zombified dragon lunged at them, scattering them.
The brown Gaoler and the purple dragon with the frilled cheeks, not unlike the Shade-ridden corpse but thankfully very much alive, charged forwards as the one with the bony head and tapering, crinkled crests and who was curiously bound to a wheeled platform, the dark, lizard-like one with the frills running down a long neck and the one that resembled a large bird rounded the sides.
As she poised to join the fray two voices peeped from behind her. Twisting her long neck showed her the cowering pair in the cave and she froze all over again. The tiny grey one almost faded out of existence as the Gaoler fixated on the pale blue creature it was riding on. The one that looked like a Gaoler but very much was not. There had been murmurings of her kind being replaced by another through the will of the great Icewarden. Could that one be...?
No time to contemplate such ideas. A battle against the Shade was ensuing without her. She needed to join in lest the confidence placed within her by Solveig be for naught. Casting the little ones another glance a scream erupted from her throat as Alstroemeria pounced on the dead one's exposed tail as it whirled around to slash at each member of the party.
At least that's what she thought it was doing. No, it was whirling and slashing but not to fight the others directly. Breaking away again to observe Alstroemeria watched as the zombie attempted to push its way out of the throng of fur, scale and feather. The big purple one with the frills and the brown Gaoler who was around her size yet appeared younger kept moving to block it, ducking or dodging to one side as a fetid claw slammed sluggishly at where they had been. The boneheaded one was raking long claws across its flank, the bird not far from them spitting bolts of light that made her turn away to shield her eyes. Screaming from the other side and the occasional line of electricity running over the shattered body indicated the location of the lizard.
“It's not fighting.” Alstroemeria breathed aloud, not understanding its unwillingness to outright attack any of them. Sure it whirled and used the bony tail and ragged wings to push them back, but its intention was unclear.
Bonehead with the wheels broke away then, swinging her neck around to look at the Gaoler. “She wants Gardenia!” She called, gesturing with an arm towards the cave. “The Tundra! We think she's her Charge!”
That meant absolutely nothing to the Gaoler. What did was that the zombie was still pressing its way through the crowd, stopping only when the bigger two got in its way. It was a game of back and forth as it slipped through the gaps made when the male Gaoler and the purple on with the frills dodged an attack. And it was steadily getting closer to the cave. “Whatever that means I'm not about to let it do that!” Alstroemeria shouted, darting around to push herself in between the largest of the group.
With more brawn than brain she thrust herself shoulder-first into the dead one's chest in attempt to force it back. It rose up to slam and she forced herself underneath its chest with intent to topple, shouts of surprise following her action. The sight of its exposed, rotting organs and the sheer stench caused her to gag however, misjudging her footing and feeling the dead one's arms wrap around her midsection and teeth close around the base of her tail. Panicking Alstroemeria bucked wildly to shake it off, unaware of the others' positions save for the startled yelps and expletives.
“Stop! Stop! You're going to make it worse!” It sounded like it came from the male Gaoler, but it was hard to tell when her watering eyes were blocked by the zombie's bulk. Another jolt of electricity coursed over its leathery hide, not seeming to do much to it and definitely running through her. “Zin, stop!” Her body writhed as she lost control of her limbs, finding herself being crushed as the zombie proceeded to step over her. “Everyone stop!
“Why?” Came a sharp demand somewhere to the side Bonehead and Bird weren't on. “We can't just let her go!”
There was silence as she collapsed momentarily, regaining control gradually but still flattened under the dead one. Someone or something was preventing it from moving again; she could make out flashes of white as Bird pelted it with magic. “Lupin's right.” Another gruff, masculine voice she assumed came from Frillface. “We need another approach.” She wasn't sure but Frillface sounded sad, like a realisation had struck him and those weren't the words he truly wanted to say.
Finally the sickening weight lifted as the necrotic paws passed over her, leaving her gasping and gagging as the wretched scent lingered. “No!” Bonehead had run ahead this time, wheel squeaking angrily as she pulled herself between the dead one and the cave. “We can't let her!”
“Iris, no!” Bird had shouted too late – the zombie smacked Bonehead with a force not expected from one with no life. “Iris!” Wood snapped as the crested one landed heavily a short distance away, letting out a scream of pain.
“Son of Nature, what is your plan?” A voice not yet heard as an odd leafy, bipedal creature rushed over to the green-maned Gaoler. “We cannot let this abomination continue to walk this earth!”
“Let her see Gardie.”
“Have you lost your mind?!” Lizard yelled, spitting another ineffective lightning ball at the dead one.
Lifting herself up Alstroemeria rounded on the other Gaoler too, only to see him staring at Purple Frillface. “You too.” Frillface balked at that for some reason. Everyone appeared taken aback by her fellow's orders, like he'd never done anything like it before.
“B-but...” Frillface stammered, shrinking back, rosy eyes flicking between the Gaoler, the other Gaoler and the dead dragon shambling ever closer to the cave. “Why? What will this do?” The tiny one and the not-Gaoler cried out in alarm from the stony den, realising themselves what was happening.
The male Gaoler dashed past the zombie, this time not lashing out or biting. Shaking herself out of the embarrassing puffball she'd become from the electrical zap Alstroemeria raced around to observe his plan. The dead one was moving so slow now, glowing eyes like those of Frillface, she noted, trained on the fluffy one.
“Gardenia, come here.” His voice was soft, level. She sat a little away, fighting the urge to snap at the dead one's neck. “Gardie, it's okay.” Understandably reluctant the blue and purple not-Gaoler kept, trembling, from the safety of the cave, then made a break to huddle in the brown Gaoler's arms as the tiny grey one flew to the stump of his missing antler.
The dead one stopped, lowering its head to bring its pink eyes level with the blue of the not-Gaoler. Everyone around her tensed, holding a collective breath as they watched and waited. Her claws dug into the soil in anticipation, ready to pounce if things went wrong.
To her amazement however the dead one reached out to bump the not-Gaoler. A gurgling trill of sorts bubbled in its throat as it began nuzzle to with a tenderness none of them had expected.
“Wait... what is-?” Lizard began, only for the male Gaoler to cut her off with a stern, emerald stare. He then motioned at Frillface to join them.
“Say something.” Frillface was not quick to comply, hanging back and staring in fearful confusion.
“Say something.” A giant white spiny dragon who had been hidden inside the cave until now, startling Alstroemeria with their great, pale bulk, repeated gently. “She needs you.”
Frillface swallowed hard as he started towards the three with uncertain, shaky steps. The dead one lift its head to stare at him, a low, airy hiss escaping its jaws. He took a very, very long, deep breath, so long and deep she thought for a moment he'd inflate and drift away. “Amaranth.” He said at last, chokingly, tears leaking from his eyes. “Amaranth my love. My Charge. I am so, so sorry.” Staggering with the movement Frillface threw his arms around the rotten corpse of the dead dragon, who gurgled in surprise.
That's when something clicked in the back of Alstroemeria's mind. Shade-touched though this corpse was it had once been a living, breathing dragon like all the rest of those gathered here now.
“See, this is the one that was in the egg we'd tried to save.” Frillface's voice was shaky and laced with both joy and sadness. “She's alive. This is Gardenia, your Charge. Our child.” The dead one's neck swayed to look at the not-Gaoler again, then back at Frillface. Then it bumped against him, wrapping its tattered neck around his as they embraced for one last time.
She felt eyes on her and tore away from the spectacle to see the brown male watching her expectantly. Now was the time. She got up from where she'd found herself laying in the grass in awe of the situation, objective all but forgotten, and padded over to join him. He gently nudged and nodded at the bipedal creature milling around next to him and, despite its concerned bewilderment, the pair began to weave magic from the ground, the grass, the flowers around them. Everything glowed brightly in varying colours and shades as vines wriggled, bursting from the soil and wrapping around the dead one's legs.
The dead one shrieked and writhed in attempt to pull free from the entangling growth, ripping stems and uprooting others only for more to spring up in place. Frillface grasped its head in his hands, forcing it to look at him as it was covered with plant life. It stilled and he turned it to the not-Gaoler and it trilled sadly. The vines pulled it down, away from Frillface even as he reached his hand out to it. It screeched again as it was forced to the ground, wiggling and squirming. Until the not-Gaoler nervously came around and lay a paw on its face comfortingly.
“I wish I'd gotten to meet you.” She whispered, trembling lightly. “I saw... someone like you. In my dreams. But it was all muddy and faded.” A whine left the dead one then as it reached to nuzzle the not-Gaoler once more, and she leaned in to allow it. “Rest peacefully.”
That's when the male lay a hand over the squirming growths, nodding at Alstroemeria to do the same. She nodded in turn, placing her own hand in a similar manner as she reached for the blessing of the Icewarden to channel the Shade out of the dead one, who had fallen placid. As she forced the Shade to the surface, causing the dead one to writhe again, the olive-furred Gaoler noticed it being drawn out in a different way than she'd planned. Then again, she had no real plan. The idea was it would form into some tar-like globule she could transport back to be frozen. No, it was taking an altogether different shape by the will of the male.
As the last vestiges of the dead one's energy left it, still staring longingly at the not-Gaoler, a beautiful blossom grew from its withered chest, out of what appeared to be the puncture wound caused by some sharp weapon. It grew and glowed, and as the dead one fell still the flower opened into a brilliant pink rose laced with black lines that seemed to move on their own.
Well. She supposed a flower would be easier to watch than a- hey, what was he doing?!
Before she could say anything or react the male Gaoler had carefully plucked the rose and handed it to Frillface, who, after a short spell, took it and collapsed in a wailing heap as tears ran freely over his snout.
“Nature will take care of the body.” The bipedal creature piped up softly. Even now the dead one had begun to break down and wither away as it was smothered completely by the magical fauna. “She is at peace now.”
Another wail from Frillface as he clutched the Shade-laced rose close.
“Loopy?” It was the not-Gaoler as she tugged at a lock of green from his mane. “How did you know?”
He looked at Alstroemeria. She looked back.
Time to introduce herself, she supposed.
Inventory/Notes: Breed/Gene x2
Times spelled Lupis instead of Lupin: 3