Amaranthine Flame (Elorwin and Rai'Athar)

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Humans struggle to survive in a world with Dragons and Dark ones.
[tab=Cast List]
Characters in order of appearance:
-Isa, the Little Fang: Hunter
-Kari: The Chief's Daughter
-Chief Duskan: Hunter and Chief of the tribe.
-Nanuka: Village wise woman, healer and Kari's grandmother.
-Helyn, Selios and Meridia: Duskan's wives
-Malik, the Golden Bear: Hunter
-Dimos: Hunter and friend of Malik.
-Cezar: Hunter and father of Dimos.
-Ulva: An black, wingless dragon.
-Aylaria: A shimmering, winged dragon.
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The thrill of the hunt; the struggle to survive, it's what Isa hungered for. More than that, he believed that the hunt was his purpose for existing in this world. There was nothing as satisfying to him as the sheer rush of primal emotion while on the chase, and the instant before he claimed his prey was the height of the climax. Like the wolf and the jaguar, Isa also saw himself as a fierce predator in this world. His knives, spear and bow were his fangs. Every tribes hunters knew the unspoken law of the hunt: to never return to the village after the sun disappeared beyond the horizon whether it be with or without meat...lest the Dark Ones wake from their slumber and trail them back to their homes. The Dark Ones were nocturnal creatures, that is, unless they were especially hungry. In most cases, hunters that did not return before nightfall had become the hunted, and to return home after the night had fallen was punishable by death because it could endanger the survival of the whole tribe. Those that survived the night seldom -if ever- joined the hunt again. The jungle was not safe for man; this world was not safe for man. As for returning before nightfall, the same could not be said of Isa. He did what many hunters seldom dared to do if it was in their power. Isa didn't always return from the hunt before the skies went dark; he knew the law, however, he never came back to the tribe with empty hands. If this meant staying many nights alone in the depths of the jungle or the outskirts of the savanna to find suitable prey, he would do just that. Oft times in his younger, novice days as a hunter, he returned with wounds either from claw or tooth or the weapons of rival tribes. He had frequently lost bouts to fend off animals or other tribes from his hard earned kill, but with great tenacity, he persisted in the path of the solitary hunter.

In spite of Isa's hunting prowess, the ability to feed his fellow men and women, he was a social outcast among the tribe. This seemed to be the fateful result of his scars coupled with his wild ways. Mother nature was indeed a harsh teacher. Isa's body and perhaps his mind too were a testament to her lessons. Best to not learn from mother nature, but in his quest to become the exceptional hunter he had made many mistakes and sacrifices by her. Fortunately, he hadn't made the ultimate sacrifice. Not yet. Even so, to die on the hunt was a good a death as any. The hunter that out-hunted him would surely be a worthy opponent. Today was not that day. The sun had broken free from the east, casting it's glorious beams of yellow and orange over the vast canopy above. Once again, the jungle was slowly elucidated by the creeping light of the rising sun and the cacophony sound of the jungle's vibrant life. The slipstream of a large low flying dragon rattled the trees above Isa. It was time to get moving, quickly. Isa's catch, a giant forest hog, was laid dead on a makeshift sled constructed from wood. Tight around Isa's waist was a loop of sinew rope that was attached to the front ends of the sled. He was tired, there were bags under his eyes, body bruised and battered, but he had to move fast. Perspiration drenched his clothing and his breath was ragged. Isa had been trudging with his kill for almost an hour with no rest. A familiar, unwelcome, scent brushed past his nose. Dire wolves. In a flash, Isa quick-drew his longest dagger, stepping out of the confines of the sled's rope. The dagger in his hand was wickedly sharp. When asked, Isa claimed that this particular dagger was made from the tooth of a Dark One. The spear would have been the weapon of choice if it hadn't broken on him last night. Several seconds later, a black pelted dire wolf casually sauntered out of the thick foliage around nine meters ahead of him. Isa displayed his teeth in a fierce snarl as a show of impendent violence. His weapon was at the ready. The dire wolf responded in kind. The large wolf knew it had the advantage.

Midday had not arrived but Isa had, and with meat to spare. He ambled into the encampment, or rather below it. The sentries had spotted him a ways off, yet no one came down to help him. Finally, Isa collapsed forward onto the ground. The right side of his face landed into a puddle of thick mud. His body was slick with sweat. His fellow tribesmen took that as cue to move out. They ascended down on ropes and began hoisting Isa's kill up into the tree-house village with a system of rudimentary yet effective pulleys. The left haunch of his catch missing was of no significance. There was still an ample amount of meat to go around. The chief, his kin, and his best hunters would get the choice cuts. The rest of the meat was divided evenly among the tribe and as per usual, Isa always received the least if there was any to spare at the end. The fires were lit and cooking would begin soon. Isa still lay on the ground below, face in the mud. He was tired, hungry and in pain. His heavy eyelids struggled to keep from closing, but to no avail. It appeared that the spirit of dreams had taken him. The tribe paid no attention to him. They knew to keep their distance from him, especially after the incident several years ago in which he attacked one of his own tribesmen in his sleep. To make matters worse, the woman he attacked happened to be the daughter of the chief, Kari. Though the damage was insubstantial, the deed was never forgiven.

Suddenly, the peace had been interrupted. A sentry sounded the dreaded warning call. It was the call made when a Dark One was spotted. Under their breaths and aloud, many of the tribe cursed Isa. It could only have been him that had led the Dark One here. The entire tribe's survival was now at risk. Out of anger, one of the tribesman fired an arrow down at Isa with intent to kill. The arrow landed just short of Isa's skull, barely missing him. Preparations to move out were about to commence, but then another call was sounded. It was a false alarm. Thank the gods. The creature that had been sighted was not a Dark One. It was only a black dire wolf. The tribe was safe a while longer. As the wolf approached, the hunters fired arrows at it from above with none hitting their mark. The wolf was quick and it had purpose. It scooped Isa up between its vice like jaws like a stray piece of meat and darted off into the vastness of the jungle. Isa showed no sign of struggle. If he wasn't already dead, he certainly was now.
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The first thing she was aware of was the cool breeze that played across her face and almost seemed to tug at her hair, teasing her into wakefulness. Opening her eyes slowly she gazed around, blinking the sleep from her eyes before she was able to focus properly on the room in which she lay. She was in the rooms centre lying closest to the door but still near enough to the fire pit to benefit from its warmth. The room was circular and made entirely from wood and animal skins, the only real permanent part of the structure was the base as it was too costly and time consuming to make the whole thing each time they had to move. Instead the bases jutted out against the tree similar to how the large plate mushrooms grew, rope ladders and bridges connecting them all.

Struggling out from beneath the lavish furs and into the unpleasant coolness of the pre dawn air Kari groped around for her shoes. Knowing she would miss the chill later in the day when it became so hot it was almost hard to breathe Kari adjusted her headband. It was a beautifully crafted piece, made of leather and decorated with bright threads and small stones that shone and sparked even in the dim light. Her headband was a one of a kind, passed down from her mother she had been told, it was a relic of when humans had time to create things with no other purpose other than being aesthetically pleasing. Sweeping her silvery blonde hair into the correct position she nervously fingered her ears ensuring they were covered by both the headband and her hair. Reassured Kari stood up and began to tiptoe towards the door being careful not to make a sound, she did not want to wake anyone. The room was full of four other people, her father, chief Duskan and his three wives, Helyn, Selios and Miridea. Despite having three wives the chief had only one child, her and so it was she that was due to inherit the leadership and the responsibility for the clan and their safety. However that was not for some time yet Kari thought. It was for this reason that she was awake so early, her father had said he would need to speak to her about something important and she was determined not to give him a chance.

Reaching the door which was a slit in the animal hide exterior, without incident, Kari slipped out onto their platform. The world was still dark, the sky still alive with a thousand stars that sparkled and glowed above them like iridescent fish swimming in a dark pool. To the east Kari could just make out the smallest change of colour as it darkness paled by a shade. For a moment she gazed enthralled into the sky and felt keenly her smallness and insignificance in this world. Then with a small shake she brought herself out of her reverie and turned her attention to the tree that was their home. Her slender fingers finding small grooves in the bark Kari was able to scamper up the tree, as nimble as a squirrel, she was light and agile and seemed to have a keen sense of where to tread. Very soon she was up amongst the tallest boughs and although it was still dark her large eyes were more than capable of seeing each leaf, outlined in silver starlight.

Taking a deep breath of the clear night air Kari smiled with excitement, with a confident spring she launched herself onto the next tree’s branch. Flowing gracefully between the branches moving further and further from the home tree, each step causing no more disturbance than a passing breeze Kari ran with joy in her heart. However this was no mere pleasure trip, she was out searching for special ingredients. Within half an hour Kari made it to the tree that was her target, it was an ancient tree but despite this it she could feel the life thrumming through each of its limbs. Running her hands across the smooth bark Kari continued up the trunk until she reached the very top branches which were precariously small. A trail of pink flecked with gold was now to be seen fringing the horizon. In the pale light Kari saw what she had travelled so far to reach, the top most leaves and star point flowers of this tree were known for their healing properties.

Gathering the leaves and flowers in a pouch at her belt Kari continued her harvest of the best of the crop. Her work was not yet done, there were several other trees that only she knew about and each of them had leaves or flowers with important properties. The village elder and healer who happened to be Kari’s grandmother had been low of supplies for some time and not having healing herbs at a crucial moment could and often turned fatal. So she continued her search, moving from tree to tree and gathering as she went Kari danced between the branches.

Finally reaching the last tree on her list to gather from Kari collected what she needed and took a seat on a branch that overlooked the jungle. She was hot and slick with sweat from running constantly and the temperature had been increasing steadily. Looking up Kari was shocked to see the sun had actually made its way past midday, letting out a soft groan of frustration she sprang to her feet. She had not meant to be out this long but once she started it seemed pointless not to continue to gather these life saving herbs and although all she wished at that moment in time was to rest for a few minutes she forced herself to stand. Kari thought she would be very lucky indeed if her father didn’t flay her alive for being out of the village so long.

As she was about to start her journey back to the village a loud snarl that rippled up from below caught her attention. Gazing intently between the foliage Kari quickly spotted the large black dire wolf that stood panting in the small clearing just beneath her. The animal was monstrous, its fur as black as midnight and scars of countless battle mottled its hide. It turned suddenly so Kari could see its face, its eyes seeming to glow like coals despite the bright sunlight and there in its jaw was a human. Leaning dangerously far over the branch she squinted down to the human below and with a jolt that nearly made her fall from the tree she recognised Isa from the village, she could see the dark skin and hair that marked him appart from others of her tribe. She had absolutely no idea what she was going to do but she did know she couldn’t leave him, he seemed so small and helpless clamped in that monsters jaws and when it came down to it he was a part of her clan and as the chiefs daughter she was bound by duty. Pulling a small but wickedly sharp knife from her belt Kari began to shimmy silently down the tree, eyes fixed on the monster, intending to use her height and drop down onto the creatures back, surprise was both their only chance at survival.
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Isa was quickly able to form the connection between the events that had transpired. The onyx black dire wolf had followed him to the Baltikana tribe's home. Isa never called it his home. The wolf must have sensed his weakened condition. He knew someone, eventually, would have realized that something wasn't right but never once did he hope it. Hope was not to be trusted --ever. As the time passed sluggishly, no one had yet to come down for him. Before the incident a couple of years ago in which Isa had bitten Kari's arm, that someone likely would have been her. From that moment onward as per Chief Duskan's command, Isa was to stay away from Kira and her away from him. Nowadays it was Selios, Duskan's youngest and barren wife, who led the charge when it came to taking care of Isa's well being infrequent as it was. However, after what had happened between her and Isa several nights ago, he didn't expect her to come to his aid. His supposition was correct. Everyone had an inner flame, even someone as small and wild as Isa. His inner flame, surprisingly, was an effigy of a raging blue sun. Its flame radiated tremendous amounts of heat, so as a natural consequence he kept people at impossible distances --for his sake and for theirs. Life for him had become complicated by orders of magnitude in less than a weeks time. Existence was simpler when one only had to worry about living to see the next sunrise, and it's how Isa preferred it. Thusly, instead of receiving the hand of fellow a tribesman, he received the maw of a giant wolf.

Within the conscientious yet firm confines of the dire wolf's deadly orifice, an eerie sensation of weightlessness accompanied by a steady, rhythmic saltation pervaded Isa's slack body. The ostensibly chilly breeze that washed over his extremities did little in the way of cooling him down. Despite the afternoon heat, there was no longer any perspiration in his garments or on his body for it had completely evaporated, leaving behind a salty flavor on his lips and a bone-dry mouth. A thin layer of dried mud caked the right side of his face and neck. He could sense the pounding of his own quickened heart beat throughout his entire body and more-so he felt the throbbing above his shoulders. His mind was still fully alert to the happenings inside and around him. His body, however, would not fully comply with his commands. This sensation was not one unfamiliar to him, although in this instance the intensity was many times greater than what he was normally accustomed to. His body was in desperate need of hydration, a fact that he was well aware of before he set out for the village today. He was no fool but he was certainly was very foolish. Now he could do nothing except bide his time and reserve the little strength that was available to him.

No more than an hour had passed before the dire wolf's pace began to recede. Isa could smell the water before he could hear it. The wolf had brought him to a gently flowing stream deep within the jungle. Rooted in its stony bedded perimeter were primarily large exotic trees and flora. It was here, at the water's edge, that the wolf let Isa out of its jaws. On his own, he desperately crawled the last few feet into the clear shallow water. The first small sip of clear blue water felt like liquid ice on his nerves. Every sip after that felt warmer until finally it was a steady lukewarm. In the meantime, the male dire wolf also helped itself to a drink. Isa could feel his strength returning, enough that he was able to bring himself to sit onto his heels, but he had to use his arms to hold himself up. He stared below at the clear reflection of his muddied face. Two handfuls of water easily removed the mess. When the cleaning was done, he looked back into his reflection within the pool. His two fingers traced the scaring on his right ear all the way down his cheek, stopping at the corner of his lip. Some scars could not be worn proudly.

It happened roughly three years ago. The Ya-anaa tribe, the same tribe Isa was born in and ran away from, had found him. The Ya-anna were ready to start a blood feud with the Baltikana, and the two tribes already weren't on good terms. Hostilities only escalated when Isa killed the Chief's dire eagle in self defense when a group of Ya-anaa attempted to capture him while he was hunting in their territory. Isa did not escape unscathed. He received two arrows scars, and the long scars that marked his backside and back were from her dire eagle. The chief of the Ya-anaa at the time was Janna. She was Isa's mother by blood.

Naturally, Isa's didn't eat as much as the larger members of Baltikana tribe. This was part of the reason why they didn't give him much when it came time to divide the meat. In general, he avoided meat because it made him physically ill. His body simply rejected it. The flesh of avians, fish, insects, and small reptiles and amphibious creatures passed through his body with less difficulty. If Isa had a choice, he would altogether never eat meat again. He was undoubtedly of weak stock. Even he knew his blood was not fit for future generations. It was Isa's mother who personally insured that his unique and anemic attributes would die with him. His mother was a near six feet tall warrior goddess. She was beautiful by any tribes standards. It was no surprise that Isa bared resemblance to her.

The feud between the Baltikana and Ya-anaa tribes was unofficially settled when Isa killed his mother in a duel to the death. He barely won. It happened so quick that all it would take was blink and one wouldn't have seen what happened. Janna appeared to be the clear victor. She had had Isa with his back on the ground and disarmed. The tip of her dragon-bone sword was to his neck. She had asked him to surrender but Isa foolishly bit onto the end of the blade to keep it from advancing. Janna sharply wrenched the blade from Isa's mouth, cutting up along the right side of his cheek and taking off a little more than the lobe portion of his ear. Isa turned to his right with the cut then quickly rolled his body over as he chambered his right leg to hook a kick up and around from his left side. Janna dropped her sword and put her hand to her neck to stem the flow of spurting blood. It was over for her. While Isa had Janna's sword trapped within his jaws, his right foot had been reaching for the dagger that was just outside of Janna's view. It was a blade, not Isa's foot that made the cut. Janna had fallen forward, bleeding onto Isa. She whisper something into his crimson soaked ear before she faded away. Just when things couldn't possibly get worse, Dark Ones were sighted in the area the night after the duel. The whole tribe had to relocate. The Ya-anaa had also dispersed. Where they were now, no one knew. Isa's mouth wound became infected. He mistakenly bit Kari when she woke him from his sleep. As punishment for attacking a fellow tribesman, he was whipped mercilessly. There was more to it than just that. It was Cezar that convinced the majority of the tribe to punish Isa, and it was Cezar who held the whip. No one expected Isa to recover from his wounds. Somehow, he did.

Less than a moment had passed while Isa reminisced old memories. It was now that he noticed peculiar movement above and behind him within the reflection of the stream. It was Kari. What was she doing here so far away from her tribe? He thought. When it dawned on him that his pancho had snagged on something and came loose while the wolf was carrying him, he promptly crossed his arms over his chest with his hands resting over shoulders.

“Daughter of Duskan” Isa said aloud. His voice was still dry and husky. He kept his back to Kari, not moving from where he sat on his heels within the shallow water. “Do not come down. He chooses to not attack me, but I cannot guarantee your safety if you come down from the trees.” The dire wolf's ears perked up at the sound of Isa's raised voice. It sauntered over to him and began licking away at the residual traces of salt on his face.
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She perched on the branch, balanced precariously on the edge, her whole body was tense and poised ready, however she was pulled up short by Isa calling out to her. Sitting like a cat still ready to spring she glared down at them in surprise, just mere moments ago the wolf had seemed like it was ready to have him as a scrawny meal, no more than an appetiser to such a large beast and now it sat beside him licking his face like one of its own. She had never seen the like of it before nor heard of anyone being this close to a dire animal of any description. She felt torn for some reason she could not explain even to herself and for a moment she crouched irresolute. Then making up her mind she began her ascent back up the tree, the movement causing a few small flowers to be fall from the branch and making no more noise than the wind through the leaves. Soon she was running through the neighbouring trees and within minutes she could no longer see the clearing where Isa was.

It was only now that the panic and fear of her father’s wrath caught up to her, she had forgotten it in light of the surprise. Running as fast as she possibly could Kari flew through the trees, she was going faster than was wise but there was no helping that, at least if she broke her neck her father couldn’t get mad at her, she thought with a wry smile . Finally after a surprising short amount of time Kari made it back to the village, just outside the perimeter. Gasping for breath she sat in the tree and observed the village, it was promising that there was no signs of uproar and Kari turned her keen eyes to the surrounding areas, searching for the lookouts.

Her eyes caught sight of seven, no eight lookouts on this side of the village at least and now she had them pegged all she needed to do now was avoid their sight. When the nearest one looked over to the right she dashed forward grabbing the branch of the main home tree she began to climb in its shadow. Scuttling up the bark like a squirrel Kari stopped in a cluster of leaves as she felt the eyes of a sentry turn back in her direction. Scanning the field again Kari waited until the coast was once again clear before continuing to her destination. Finally she made it up to one of the highest platforms, even higher than her family’s home platform, this was the home of Nanuka the village wise woman and Kari’s grandmother. Flowing through the shadows that hung to this side of the tree Kari crept up to the house and slipped quickly through the animal hide door.

“Grandmother, grandmother, it’s me, Kari. I have the herb you have needed for a while.” She walked softly upon the wooden floor towards the hunched shape by the fire. The old lady turned towards her voice with surprising speed and the wrinkly face, so lined like a fruit that had been left out in the burning sun, broke into a warm smile.

“Kari my girl, come in, come in.” Kari returned the smile and came quickly to sit at her grandmother’s side. With a grin she gazed down at the fire, it was typical; the day was as hot as ever and yet as always the old lady would have a blazing fire going and a rough woollen shawl around her shoulders. “So you said you had some herbs for me my girl.” Nanuka’s voice was soft and sweet, as light as a summer breeze and it put Kari completely at her ease, she had pretty much grown up running around her apron strings. Grasping at the pouch at her waist Kari brought forth all the herbs and flowers she had gathered setting them out before her grandmother. The old lady made a small noise of excitement as she examined the plants that were laid out before her, picking them up in her wizened hands and holding them up to her failing eyes. Then reaching out she gently patted Kari’s cheek, her hands though rugged through a lifetime of hard work they were still quite soft due to the oil she used for her joints.

Suddenly a shout could be heard not too far away from where they were, this was answered by other voices and the sound of running feet across the walkways. They both looked around towards the doorway, Nanuka’s face showing concern where as Kari’s expression was one of dread and her heart began to race. Turning back to face her Grandmother Kari’s eyes sparkled with worry.

“Grandmamma please, please I beg you if anyone asks, tell them I have been with you all day.” Nanuka eyed her granddaughter sternly for a moment, knowing that she wouldn’t ask unless she was desperate and turning back to look at the flowers on the ground she recognised the distance Kari would have travelled to get them. Nanuka also knew that no one else in the village would gather these life giving herbs, it was only her and Kari that were skilled in the craft and if they didn’t do it no one else would and then where would their people be. Before she could answer, the door to the hut was thrust aside and there in the doorway stood Duskan.

Duskan was an impressive man to behold, nothing short of 6’5 and although not a mountain of a man every inch of his lean body was muscle as hard as rock. His hair was the colour of dry summer grasses, eyes as green as new leaves and skin bronzed by the sun so it imitated the colour of bark. His face was angular and at the moment it was set in serious lines of worry, the odd thing about Duskan is that he had absolutely no facial hair, never had and with his strong chin it was very easy to read his emotions. At the moment he looked furious and terrible but if you looked a little deeper it was easy to see the concern that was the true emotional at work. His bright green eyes raked the room and quickly came to rest on Kari.

He moved like a shadow across the room and in an instant swept Kari into a bear like hug and held her so tightly that for a moment Nanuka was concerned he would smother her. Just as she was about to reach up and tug his sleeve Duskan released his daughter who looked none the worse the wear. Kari laughed lightly and automatically adjusted her headband back into its normal position, although these were the only two people of the tribe that knew the truth; however her laughter was quickly silenced by the look her father turned on her.

“Kari, where in the name of our blessed mother have you been! Bed empty, no one’s seen you all morning! You could have been killed for all I knew, a dire wolf has already been seen in the village today. What do you have to say for yourself?” It was like a torrent of water had come crashing down upon her head, chilling her through and crushing her down like a physical thing. Dropping her eyes to the floor Kari tried to get her mouth to work properly, although she was a woman grown and only a year away from her true naming ceremony when her father was like this she was a little girl again. Getting no more out than umms and errs it was Nanuka that jumped to her rescue.

“Now, now Duskan this is all my fault, Kari has been with me all day, I sent her just beyond the home tree to gather some herbs for me and we have been preparing medicines all day. Time just seems to fly by when she is here with me, I didn’t know she hadn’t seen you, it was before sun up that she came; you know I don’t sleep as much now days.” Nanuka’s soft tone seemed to be winning Duskan over and with one more suspicious look between the two of them he sighed and released the tension that had been riding on his shoulders. His large callous hand reached out and cupped Kari’s face and she offered him a small, apologetic smile which he returned.

“Don’t scare me like that again.” Duskan whispered his voice quiet and Kari shook her head and snuggled her cheek further into his hand. Suddenly more footsteps could be heard running towards their direction. As an automatic motion Duskan stood and angled himself in front of both Kari and Nanuka as the door was once again swept aside this time to reveal Malik in the doorway his shout preceding his appearance.

“Chief, did you find her, no one around the village has seen her at all today…”
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Quietly and without a word, Kari disappeared from the reflection off the stream in Isa's view. Isa did not look back for her or move from where he sat. The wolf had wandered off to who knows where not long after Kari had wisely taken her leave. He or rather, the wolf, had a bad habit of running into him in the least convenient situations. They would certainly meet again --Isa and the Wolf. More than an hour had passed before Isa stood up, alone, from the shallows of the stream. After what the tribe and Kari had witnessed, Isa had decided it was best to not return. He practically didn't live in the village to begin with and he was confident that no one except for Selios would lament the absence of his presence for any significant length of time. Never once did Isa believe that this day wouldn't eventually arrive. It was always a matter of when that day came. So as of today his time with the Baltikana tribe had at last come to its fateful end.

Isa was still tired and in pain yet with slow and methodical movements he began to climb the nearest tree with the finesse of a small primate. Death was his only certainty. One day he would die, preferably on the hunt. Everything else was an unknown to him. Isa peered up beyond the thick canopy, then he staggered off about the branches like an old injured gibbon into the uncharted depths of the jungle. The clouds were gathering. A great storm was coming tonight. Momentarily, a shimmering glaze had overtaken Isa's large amber eyes. Though it was only in a reflection, Isa was glad that he was at able to see Kari one last time.

“Chief, did you find her, no one around the village has seen her at all today… And there you are” Malik sighed. There was a definitive intonation of disappointment in his the gesture. His voice had raised. Standing behind him and to his right was his good friend Dimos. “You had your father very worried, you know that right?” Malik asked. It was an understatement to say that Malik was only a little irritated at Kari's disappearance. Given this, he was more worried about her than he was irritated, but the former was the side of him that he wasn't going to show her. Malik didn't wait for Kari to answer, “While you were missing Isa got dragged off by a dire wolf. Shortly after, we weren't able to find you. Can you guess who took priority? That's right, you did. May the Gods rest Isa's tortured soul. I barely knew him but he was a damn good hunter. I respected him, I don't care what everyone else says. He helped feed the tribe.”

Malik was smarter than to say anything too rash or crude to Kari with Chief Duskan around. It was only when he was alone with Kari that he behaved in a misogynistic way. He had once asked Isa to hunt with his and Dimos' hunting party. Isa declined. Malik told him the offer was always open should Isa ever change his mind. Malik and Dimos alone brought in more meat to the tribe than Isa. Dimos was not as tall as the average Baltikan, standing at a mere 5'10” and he was a couple of years older than Malik. He also hadn't found a mate. Dimos was shorter than his father and his hair and eyes were brown. To say that Dimos was good with a bow was an insult. He wasn't just good with the bow, he was the best. It was only when Dimos began to show his worth as a hunter that Cezar, his father, began to take notice in him.

“Malik,” Dimos placed a hand on Malik's shoulder, “lets not be too hasty. There's plenty of blame to go around for what happened.” His voice was level; smooth.


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Kari glared out from behind her father’s back as everyone had turned towards the noise from the doorway; she detested Malik, with a passion and she did nothing to stop these feeling colouring her features. He then proceeded to have the audacity to scold her like a child, having already endured one already she had no wish for another, especially not from him, he had no claim over her and no rights to berate her actions. Her face twisted into what could only be called a snarl, it changed her normally calm loveliness into one of deadly beauty, much like the sleek jungle cats, terrible to behold but impossible to look away from. This was reserved only for Malik and for a moment their eyes locked, then her features slipped easily into a look of mild annoyance and no one else had seen their backs being turned to the doorway, even Dimos had been looking at Duskan at that moment. It was in fact Dimos that surprised her; with a pacifying hand on Malik’s shoulder his voice was calming

“Let’s not be too hasty. There's plenty of blame to go around for what happened.” This time catching Dimos’ eye Kari smiled at him, the rare smile that showed the two dimples in her cheeks as her eyes sparkled warmly, this was not a smile she gifted to many and Dimos coloured slightly and looked away but he could not hide his own smile. Then standing properly Kari turned her focus back to Malik with a hard edge, she would not allow him to get away with what was said, that would just inflate his ego.

“Indeed Malik, I thank you for your concern but let me make three things very clear to you. One, I care for each and every member of this tribe; never imply that I am above anyone or that I don’t care about them all, I would never knowingly put anyone in danger. Two, as the only other healer amongst us it is up to me to gather the healing herbs, so that when you hunters get wounded,” She said gesturing to the scars up his chest, wounds she had helped tend to, “someone can patch you up. And thirdly your chief and my father have already spoken to me on this subject and I can assure you it has already been closed.” Her last word was said with such finality that it was clear to all the matter was done and for a few seconds no one spoke. Then with a small cough Duskan moved between the pair but Kari could have sworn that she saw a grim smile on his face.

“Aye Kari you have said your piece, the matter is now done, it is to be discussed no more. The loss of Isa is to be lamented indeed but I cannot sacrifice anyone else to be lost in the jungle, if he is able to escape Isa knows that he has a home here. Now we still have a tribe to run, Malik and Dimos thank you again for your assistance, now all to your duties.” With that he stood and motioned for the men to follow him from the room and this they did but each of them spared her a backwards glace however Kari could not read their features.

Suddenly she and Nanuka were alone and for a moment Kari just stared at the floor, panting slightly, that had been a kaleidoscope of emotions all within a very short period. The looking up at the old lady Kari could not help the giggle that escaped her which turned into an indignant huff when she received a playful, painless blow around the head.

“Your father is right lass, times a wasting and we need to prepare these herbs before they are of any use. There is a storm brewing, I can feel it in my bones and that means trouble. We best be prepared.” Kari nodded and quickly set about gathering the items they would need to brew their healing concoctions.

The twilight never came properly that evening, the storm clouds were a solid mass of stone grey fury that came rolling in with thunderous booms and roars. Kari sat huddled on the tallest branch of the home tree; it had been dead for a long time and it stood higher than any others, bare and lonely she looked out over the land and watched as the storm blew in. The air was sharp and metallic with the lightning and the wind cut through her like a frozen blade but still she stayed, sentinel to the storm. She was waiting for something and whatever it was she and the tribe were going to be right in the centre of it. All at once the world around her got darker till it was almost pitch black. Then there was a boom so loud it shook the earth, it even shook their tree, a feat not even managed by the fiercest typhoons. Then came the dazzling fury of the lightning, so close that Kari felt her hair stand up on end, the smell of burnt atmosphere making her choke and gasp for breath. It was in that instant she saw it, an outline of a colossal shape in the distance. It was only there for the space of a heartbeat before the light faded and Kari was left in darkness once more, spots dancing in her vision and unable to tell if what she had seen had been real or merely an illusion of the light but there was one thing she did know, even if it was a hunch you took no risks in this area. Scurrying down the tree at breakneck speed Kari rushed to find her father.
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“Have you ever tried to be honest with her?” Dimos asked. “If you were honest about your feelings and stopped trying to be someone you're not, she might actually take an interest in you.”
“It's too late for that now” Malik countered, “she would just laugh at me. I wouldn't be surprised if she thinks I've only been making advances on her so I can be the next chief of the tribe.”
“Listen Malik, I know that you're afraid that she will reject the real you. It's the reason why you behave the way you do. Have you though of what would happen if she were to take a liking to the fake you. Would you keep up your charade until the end of your days?”
“I never stopped to think about that.” It was an honest answer.
Dimos teased “That's probably because I usually do the thinking for the both of us”
Malik let a long, grief ridden sigh escape his lungs, “Just tell me what I need to do, Dimos.”
“Do what your heart tells you.”
“My heart's been telling me to not be myself because it's afraid of getting trampled on.”
“Then don't do what your heart tells you. If it doesn't work out, just move on. Kari is not the only single Woman in the tribe” advised Dimos.
“At least Kari is single.” Malik emphasized the is in his statement along with giving Dimos a wide eyed glare.
“Then I suppose we're both fools,” Dimos concluded with resignation, “but you're still the bigger fool. So, how much longer do you plan on keeping our scaly little friend a secret from the chief?”
“I never stopped to think about that one either” replied Malik.
Dimos nodded his head in disappointment which prompted Malik to enthusiastically pat him on the back, “Us fools need to stick together, right?”
“It's getting late, Malik” Dimos stood up and quickly reconnoitered his surroundings. “The winds are starting to pick up. We should head back to the home tree. Now.”
“Us fools need to stick together, right?” repeated Malik.
Dimos smiled softly, “Right to the end.”
“Alright, no dallying. It's getting late and it's windy. Back to the home tree!”

The storm was not Isa's ally. He was cold, wet and hungry, and huddled in the high crook of a large jungle tree that provided him minor protection from the elements. Comfort was a luxury he would seldom abide. Only for brief intervals was the world around him abruptly illuminated, casting ominous shadows all around at the same time. After each and every strike of lightning, Isa's world was again plunged into a deeper darkness than the one before it. Some of the ominous shadows the flitted about were not shadows at all for within those particular shadows were pairs of glowing red orbs. These red orbs were steadily floating nearer to him --something that Isa was not a stranger to. Through experience Isa had learned that if he tried to bring his state of mind to a place of clam and he stayed relatively motionless, the Dark Ones would not be able to sense him. The Dark Ones, he hypothesized, could sense fear especially well.

Unfortunately, the storm made it difficult to hear anything besides the heavy rain and thunder. By the time Isa noticed the poisonous tree snake that was within arm's reach of him it was too late. The snake had likely sensed Isa's heat. Isa had been caught off guard; unpleasantly surprised. He didn't like surprises. His reaction to surprises was usually instinctive. Lightning flashed. The snake was pinned against the tree with a dagger through its mouth and out the back of its head. It was in that instant that a sharp pain clawed at Isa's skull. He could feel the incorporeal tendrils begin to tear into his mind. It was these incorporeal tendrils that drove the men mad, the ones who encountered the corporeal claws and fangs of a Dark One and lived to tell the tale. Though the Dark Ones had found him they purveyed no indication of it in their stride. It was Isa who made the first move. He jumped out of the tree and grabbed a long vine, using it to swing down to the muddy jungle floor. Then he ran as fast as he could, criss-crossing between and diving or vaulting past the jungle's obstacles. The heavy footfalls of the creatures behind him quickened and were accompanied by the sounds of breaking branches and splintering bark. The Dark Ones were in pursuit. The hunt was on. This time Isa was the hunted.

Isa's left arm was a bloody mangled mess --the arm would never see use again if he managed to live through this ordeal-- and he had been speared through the back by an appendage of some sort. It was getting hard to breath, hard to move even. His right lung was probably punctured. The adrenaline was wearing off now, and without it, the pain of his wounds began to set in. Unable to run any further, Isa fell to his knees. He tried with all his strength to stand but it wasn't enough and so his forehead hit the wet and muddy jungle floor. The impact tremors of the Dark Ones' steps distanced out. They seemed to be aware of the fact that their prey was unable to fight. Will it end now? Will the suffering end? Isa eyes slowly closed, and then he did something he thought he had forgotten how to do --he smiled. His question had been answered. A painfully large burden had finally been removed from his small, knobby shoulders. Silent tears masked by heavy rain rolled down his tired face. He couldn't remember the last time he had cried. His tears, however, were not out of sadness, they were of relief. In death Isa believed he would find the peace he never found in life. Soon mother, we will be together.

An ardent red glow soon overtook Isa's vision. At first the glow was warm and welcoming. A few moments later, he felt as if his whole body was set ablaze. Never had he experienced a pain of this intensity. This time, he wasn't able to stop himself from screaming in anguish. Just when he thought it would never end, the pain stopped. It was finally over.

Malik was unable to sleep. The storm played no part in his wakefulness. Isa's death had him deeply disgruntled so he lied awake in bed, running scenarios through his head of how things might have been different if Isa had been accepted by everyone within the tribe. Not much good it did him or Isa at this stage. Malik silently vowed to himself that if he became Chief, he would never allow what happened to Isa to happen to anyone ever again. “Wherever you are now, Isa, may you find peace.” Malik's mind was still restless and his body too. It wasn't the best time to take a stroll, but perhaps the cold deluge of the storm would cleanse his mind, he hoped. He threw on a cloak and exited his tent. There was one particular spot that Malik was fond of. As a child he was able to make it up there, but now, all grown up and heavy as a bear, it was impossible. A few years ago when he attempted to climb up there for the last time, he saw Kari gracing a branch that was higher than the one he used to climb up to. She clung to the branch as naturally as a leaf would. The sight took his breath away. When Kari had noticed him through the lattice of foliage, he miraculously was able to stop himself from blushing, and instead sneered at her before wandering off. It was a downhill game from then on.

The loudest thunderclap Malik had ever heard had nearly broken his focus as he was crossing the last rope bridge. He stood there in awe of nature's fury, clenching the wet rope tight in his hands as the bridge perilously swayed to and fro. It was a long fall down from where he was. This wasn't a good idea. Malik was about to proceed further up the shaky bridge but hesitated when he noticed something scrambling down the tree ahead. At first he thought it was Isa due to its speed. He realized he was mistaken as the shape drew nearer. A flash of lightning revealed to him the urgency in Kari's features. Over the storm, he yelled “Kari! Are you okay!?”
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Kari sprinted like a thing possessed, ignoring the wind that tore at her hair with icy fingers seeking to pull her platinum locks in different directions and rip the headband from her head, Kari ran towards her home. She vaguely noticed that she ran past someone but it was of as little consequence to her other than avoiding the obstacle. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, like she was running in tree sap, pushing herself as hard as she could but not gaining any ground. After what felt like an impossibly long time Kari found herself on the familiar ledge of her home and without a second thought she sprang across the threshold. The fire had been banked and was burning low, by its light Kari could see three huddled shapes of the wives around the fire but Duskan was still awake, his back to Kari.

“Father!” Her voice was shrill, piercing and she took no trouble to keep it down. Duskan spun around his face automatically settling into lines of displeasure at her volume as the sleeping women fidgeted however his features changed into a question as he registered her alarm. Half rising from his seated position Duskan raised a questioning eyebrow at his daughter who was now gasping before him. Kari’s breathless panic seemed to be choking her and there had never been such a bad time when words were essential, possibly everyone’s survival counted on it. “Father ... I ... I saw something on the horizon, it was big but ... well honestly I don’t know what I saw. The lightning only lit things up for a moment but when I saw it I felt a chill, I can still feel it now.” As if in emphasis of her point a shudder trembled down her spine and she chaffed her hands against her arms which were now covered in goose bumps. Duskan’s eyes raked over Kari as he assessed the situation, his brows knitted together in concentration.

Suddenly he was the epitome of action, springing to his feet and marching purposely out the door out into the storm and almost walking straight into Malik who had been hovering nearby. The chief clasped the hulking mans shoulder and stared intently into his eyes, despite the howling wind Duskan’s deep voice cut through like a knife.

“I need you to gather the bravest men in the village, if Kari is right and her eyes can see the furthest, we may all be in great danger. Now go and meet me at the base of the tree in ten minutes.” Kari had followed along behind her father not knowing what else to do but knowing she had to be a part of it, the thought of what she had seen silhouetted by the lightning seemed burned into her retina, even when she closed her eyes the image remained. So she stood immobile, a pace behind her farther as she watched Malik race off into the night to action the chiefs will.

“Father,” unlike Duskan’s rich timbre her voice was thin and almost lost to the howling wind, “Shouldn’t we flee, if that was what I thought it was, we need to run. There is no fighting such a thing.” The chief turned to his daughter, despite the storms ferocious strength only his clothes seemed caught in its power; he was as solid as a mountain not giving an inch whereas Kari seemed like at any moment she would be plucked into the air and swept along its tides. Duskan reached out a large calloused hand and gently held her cheek as his unfaltering gaze met Kari’s wide panic-stricken eyes.

“Arimelda, there is no running from such a thing, nor from ones fate. All we can hope is that our actions will protect the ones we love. Now go home and I know that should I not return that you will lead our people to a bright future, it is your birthright, let no one take that from you.” It seemed to Kari that although the storm blew harder than ever it was silenced in the wake of the rushing terror that pounded in her ears and wiped everything out but the singular thought, her father was saying goodbye and she would be left behind. Her hands shot out grasping Duskan’s arms, her grip so tight that her nails embedded into his flesh as she attempted to articulate her protest. Before she could make her throat cooperate properly Kari found herself within her father’s warm embrace, it was as if a bubble had sealed over them, the storm truly quietened, the wind died and the air was balmy. Duskan stroked her hair, calming and soothing her as he had done when she had been little and frightened by storms. There were no words now; Kari could no longer fight against the tears that tracked down her cheeks like streams of silver. It was no use; no begging or pleading would persuade Duskan from his chosen course especially if the fate of their people was at stake and it was not in him to send others into danger and not go himself. It was within this instant Kari felt a small fracture in her heart, no matter what happened this moment would forever be a scar she would carry.

All too soon Duskan withdrew from the hug and Kari was almost knocked to the floor by the force of the wind, its deafening roar in her ears forgotten for that moment out of time. With his head Duskan gestured back up to the house and Kari knew that she would obey, she did not linger. She knew if she dragged this out it would be more painful, instead she turned her back to him and walked quickly into the house. Despite the fires warmth and the walls blocking the wind Kari found the space colder than the depths of winter now that she knew what it would lack. Looking over to Helyn, Selios and Miridea she felt the cold void increase its hold on her, she did not think she could endure having to tell them where Duskan was when dawn finally banished the storm. With this thought hanging over her head Kari sunk to the floor, the tears that had already marked paths down her face fell without restraint but her sobs were silent although their force racked her entire frame.

It was some time later when the fire had truly died and Kari had no more tears left to shed that she looked up, her eyes hollow and without hope. She would not allow this to be the end of this tale, this would not be her part, to stand at the sidelines and endure the sorrow. Recklessness stole through her thoughts and she welcomed it as a bright spark of feeling against the overwhelming nothingness that threatened to crush her once again beneath its weight. Silently she gained her feet, touched the sharp hunting dagger that was strapped to her side and then swiftly ran through the door. Like the wings of the owl she flew as a ghost across the tree, seeming to sense the patrols before she saw them and making use of the deep shadows that engulfed her small form. The storm was still raging which only aided her escape, she easily marked the path of the hunters and took and following their trail, carefully keeping within the tree line, they didn’t have more than an hour lead on her.

She ran as quickly as she could, running till her lungs burned in protest but still she did not stop, although quick and agile she had a lot of ground to cover. Kari could no longer see; whatever it was she had seen and for a moment there was a brief flush of embarrassment as she wondered if her eyes had deceived her. However the cold chill was still creeping up and down her spine, warning her of danger nearby told her there had been no mistake. Very soon Kari came across a fork, a fork in the path, in the tracks and her very destiny although Kari could never have guessed at the last part. It seemed that the hunting party had gone right, kneeling down she ran her fingers across their tracks, and they were no more than twenty minutes old. However the feeling of unease, a disquiet she could not explain was emanating from the left.

The reckless spark that had ignited before blazed brightly inside her chest as a plan began to take shape in her mind. It was said that the dark ones sought human flesh however if the whole group of hunters attacked it Kari was sure it would slaughter them all in anger but if she could distract it, lure it away from the hunters and her tribe. She had no real intention to die, martyrdom was not a particularly appealing idea but, she rationalised, her people would have a far better chance of surviving with her father and the hunters. Losing her would not impact them greatly; Malik could even take over from her father eventually. With this thought in mind Kari turned to the left and began to lope through the forest, she ran more quietly now, mindful of her footfalls as the storm had finally begun to die down, the wind still rough and cold but lacked the violence it had possessed.

It was not long until her sensitive ears picked up on an alien noise to the normal symphony of the forest at night. It was a low, pained keening, a sound of sorrow and misery, although not human Kari could easily hear grief in its call. She moved slowly now, careful that each footfall was silent and would not give her away to whatever called into the night. The moonlight filtered through the trees and bathed everything in silver light, up ahead Kari could see it was brighter, there must be a clearing, it was from here that the noise was emanating and Kari crept like a shadow to the edge of the trees.

There was a moment before her eyes adjusted to the brilliance, it felt like looking out onto a world of silver however her eyes quickly adjusted and she was able to make out the details. This was no naturally formed clearing, until very recently it had just been a part of the forest, sweeping her eyes from left to right Kari could see the path of destruction that had been wrought here. Large trees lay bent and broken, the ground was ripped and torn, splinters littered the floor like fallen snow. There in the centre of the clearing Kari saw the source of the noise ... a dragon.

Kari could see it perfectly, its body as sleek and agile as a large feline predator, all graceful lines and curves that flowed sinuously as it moved. The wings that were currently furled took her by surprise, they were coated in feathers, indeed although its body was covered mostly in shimmering scales, tufts of feathers circled its face, neck and back. Kari was so absorbed in looking at this most wonderful creature she had not noticed what it was doing, even the wailing could barely penetrate her consciousness as she admired its beauty. Then she actually looked at where it was sat and a small gasp escaped her involuntarily. The dragon was perched on what remained of a once large and beautiful tree, within the remains of its shattered branches Kari could make out the torn shape of a woven nest and within its heart were fragments of shell and the small still shape of a baby dragon. Kari could not move her eyes from the tiny shape that lay sprawled within a half of its egg, even from a distance she could see it was nearly perfectly formed, almost ready to experience the world before being cut down. The dragon must be its mother, there was no other who could sing such a haunting song of loss, her paws gently stroked her still child.

Turning her eyes away from the sad sight Kari looked at the tree itself, this one in particular had been targeted, all the other trees and been pushed or pulled out of the way, possibly for effect or simply for the thrill of destruction. The dragons nest tree was completely ruined, stomped on it seemed and Kari could only assume it had been done purposely, targeting the baby within the nest. Something wasn’t right in her mind, a piece of this puzzle was missing and it niggled at her while she gazed at the still wailing dragon. The wind rushed about her; again it tugged at her hair but in a familiar way, like a friend trying to get her attention.

She would never know which came first, registering that the goose bumps up her arms or the chill up her spine had nothing to do with the wind or working out that this was a trap for the dragon. Everything fell into place with searing clarity and Kari looked up to her right and saw it, nightmare and terror had taken physical form and she watched it watching the dragon with an abhorrent hunger in its eyes that glowed like coals, the dragon trapped in its world of grief noticed nothing, this was the one emotion that could drown out all others.

Kari could not move, she could not breathe and she could not drag her eyes away although every nerve and instinct screamed at her to run. The creature was foul, its flesh darker than the night, she could see it enormous outline by the void it created, the light of the moon did not seem to touch it so she could make out no true details of its visage and for this she was grateful. Its head stood just above the trees, large horns protruded from the top of its head and its arms were sharp and curved like a scythe. Everything inside Kari wanted to shut down, to black out, to escape the horror that was eating away at her very being. She felt it was stripping away at her identity, her resolve and this was just from being in its presence, if its gaze was actually upon her Kari wasn’t sure she could survive.

Through sheer force of will Kari pulled her eyes away from the terror and back to the dragon that was still crouched over her lost baby. It was then she felt something inside, like the recklessness that had overcome her fears before but this was new, a white hot flame that brought life and feeling back to her extremities, not banishing the fear and darkness but making it manageable. Seeing this creature stirred something within her she could not explain nor could she fight but she knew that she had to try and protect it. Forcing her legs forward was hard but not the impossible task it would have been moments before, the white fire continued to burn within her heart, shielding her from the overpowering fear. Within a few short strides Kari stood in the centre of the clearing, equidistant from the dragon behind her and the creature that stood within the tree line. Kari glared at it, her face contorting to a feral snarl, eyes looking straight into its own, her teeth bared as she dropped into a hunting crouch she pulled her dagger free of its sheath, its grating squeal filling the clearing. The dark one seemed taken aback, amused even, nothing in all its long years had ever stood before it, waiting for the fight except the dragon race, which is why it had developed this most perfect hunting method but here stood before him a soft, defenceless little human, its face fearless and full of indignant rage. A horrible chuckle ripped from its throat, mirthless and terrible it spoke of imminent pain, well it supposed it could eat the human first, it had been a while since it had eaten human.
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Malik watched Kari as she sprinted with an unearthly grace in her stride across the rope bridge and towards him. Her long, rain-drenched platinum blonde hair whipped the left side of Malik's face as she darted past him without saying a single word. The sting that Malik felt on his cheek was superficial; however, the sinking feeling within his stomach cut deep. It seemed to him that Kari hadn't acknowledged his presence when she decided against giving him any further indication of what was happening. If anything, Malik had only gotten in her way; slowed her down. “So this is how it's always going to be, huh?” Malik whispered to himself. In that moment, he had finally come to terms with the fact that Kari would never see him as anything more than a rival or a nuisance. Regardless of what had transpired, something out of the ordinary was happening --Malik was sure of this. He doubled back, trying to keep up with Kari the best he could and failed at it but wasn't to concerned when he lost sight of her because he knew where she was heading: to the one man that she could always rely on.

Duskan was on his way out of his tent by the time Malik arrived. He pulled Malik in close and solemnly said what he said. Malik nodded his head and without any hesitation set out to gather the men. He was not in complete agreement with Duskan's plan because it placed the tribe in great danger, but he would never publicly question the Chief's orders. Besides, if there was a man that could stand up to a dark one and survive, it would definitely be Duskan. Almost everything Malik knew, he learned from him.

The men that departed the home tree were aware of the consequences of leaving at this hour: they could not return home until after the sun had risen. This was the way of things. Most of the men that ventured out with Duskan in defense of their tribe were young adults and elders. It was to be expected that neither Cezar and the group of men he hunted with had not departed from the false security of the home tree. Duskan was not a fool. He knew that Cezar would be content should he never return from this foray. Cezar had a strong following within the tribe after all. It was possible, that with Duskan out of the way, Cezar could forcibly attempt to wrestle the position of chief away from the rightful successor if the worst should happen. Then there was Dimos who was very unlike his father Cezar. The phrase “like father, like son” was not one that could be ascribed to him. Dimos had disobeyed his father's direct command to stay in the village. Cezar had thrown a fit of rage when Dimos turned his back to him and called him a coward, and after that saying he was ashamed to be his son. Cezar said he would kill Dimos if he took another step away, but the threat was hollow. Then Dimos was gone, leaving Cezar to stand by himself in the cold rain. All Cezar could do was curse Duskan under his breath for taking his only son away from him.

Torchlights burned unabated in the eerie jungle night --wind nor rain could smother their hungry flames. Were it not for Isa, the trek into the jungle wouldn't have been an option that was available. Not long ago, while out on the hunt, Isa had found a pool of a viscous tar-like liquid. This black tar was inedible and should not be used to paint the body, Isa had claimed, but he did state that it had useful properties. When subjected to flame, it burned strong; its smoke was black as night and could quickly take the breath away; and it carried a thick, acrid odour. Isa had said his tribe called this stuff Batralawan; the Baltikans decided to call it Olje. With their olje torches, the bravest men of the Baltikana tribe continued their forward march into the darkness to do battle with an ancient enemy that could not be defeated by man.

“Dimos” Duskan bellowed over the cacophony of the storm. “Were you absolutely certain that the tracks went right?” Dimos could not see Duskan's eyes, yet he could still feel the intensity of the Chief's glare boring into his mind's eye. Having come this far, what needed to be done had been done. Dimos did not answer, choosing instead to stay silent. He could not bring himself to lie to Chief Duskan again. “Malik!” Duskan called aloud. His voice sent a shiver down Dimos' back. There was no reply from Malik however, and it was quickly determined that he was not among the group. There was going to be hell to pay later. Dimos was not concerned with the repercussions of his actions at the moment. As long his and Malik's foolish plan worked, he could live or die knowing he had done the right thing.

Blood-lust and intentions of heavy violence clung tightly to the damp air. The storm had passed, and as always, another was brewing wherever two opposite forces of nature met. The silence of the jungle's nocturnal creatures foreshadowed things to come. Tonight, two opposing forces that were said to be stronger than nature herself were on a collision course. There was no telling the resulting chaos of this impending maelstrom. Within the jungle, something was weaving through the array of trees with incredible speed and purpose. Its power and grace were unmatched by anything its size. The radiant moonlight that shone through the clouds and jungle cover intermittently revealed the outline of what appeared to be a man, a man that was riding on a streak of black lightning.

The dark one's aura is strong, Malik.
“We're stronger, Ulva” Malik retorted.
Together, I feel like we can take on the entire world.
“That's because we can and we will.”
I know.

For a smaller breed of dragon that was confined to travel on her feet, Ulva was confident as ever in her battle prowess and just about everything else she did. Her tail, too, was short in comparison to other dragons but it still had its uses. Ulva stood taller than Malik, she was about the size of a dire bear. Excluding the skin on her pointed ears and stone-crushing muzzle, her canine-shaped body was covered in smooth, articulating scales of a dark bluish-onyx hue, providing her with adequate protection without hindering her mobility. Four claws protruded from each paw, and a little ways up she carried a long, razor sharp inward curving dewclaw that resembled the talon of a bird, or more rightly, a dragon.

The dark one is not far now. Familiar scents also lingers in this place. Prepare yourself.
“I'm always ready.”
I'm more ready.

Ulva broke through the final stretch of trees and into the clearing with an earsplitting, bellicose roar that echoed throughout the jungle. It was hard to imagine that something her size could make that much noise if it hadn't been witnessed firsthand. They had seized the attention of the dark one. Malik could feel its insubstantial claws raking the outside of his skull but they were unable to penetrate the barrier of his mental fortress. Standing before them was the stuff of nightmares and not to far from the dark one was another, larger dragon. Malik noticed Kari first.

It appears that woman is here also. Should we wait for the dark one to eat her before attacking?
Malik ignored her comment, “WE ATTACK NOW!” Ulva sprinted forward with tremendous speed, easily slipping her much larger opponent's sluggish attack, while Malik swung his large dragon-bone club --with the backside facing forward-- at the foul creature's extremities. The backside of his club had a bladed edge. A horrible shriek of pain escaped the dark one's maw as Ulva and Malik's spirited charge cut deep into its accursed flesh.
“YOU DO BLEED, SCUM!” Malik yelled.
Again and again, Ulva charged at the dark one, and Malik slashed at it with the bladed side of his club. The cuts were deep, but not where it mattered.

Can the other dragon help us?” Malik asked.
She is consumed with an overwhelming sadness. My voice cannot reach her.
Then we're going to need a different plan of attack.”

Ulva could sense what Malik was thinking. Like a lizard, she ran up a large tree and vanished among the thick foliage above. On the next pass, she was able to get behind the dark one, then leaped onto its back where its neck was. Ulva vicious maw latched into and pulled on the dark one's flesh and bone while her claws raked at its back. Malik was no longer in tow, he jumped from the treetops with a thick vine grasped in one hand and in the other hand his club was poised to strike at the dark one's head. Simply by chance, the dark one swatted Malik out of the air like a mere plaything. He struck a tree back first, letting out an “ugh” as the breath escaped his lungs, and fell to the ground. The sound of Malik's body striking the tree reverberated through Ulva's mind.

Malik? There was no reply Malik!? Still nothingness. MALIK!

It was then that the dark one was able to get its grasp on her. It painfully pulled Ulva from its body and flung her over its back and across the clearing, sending her crashing through several trees. Ulva got up quickly, seemingly unharmed, and continued in her offensive. She leaped onto the dark one from the front, biting into its thick neck and leaving herself very vulnerable to attack. Soon, the tide of the battle began to turn --in her blind rage, Ulva could not see this. She continued to be battered across the clearing. At times it looked like she had gained an advantage but the recklessness of her fury gave the dark one many opportunities to retaliate. Both Ulva and the dark one were covered in wounds though most of the blood, a thick black ichor, that smeared Ulva's scales was not her own, although; there was a noticeable decrease in her speed. At this rate, she would not survive against a dark one of this caliber.
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Kari stood dumbfounded, rooted to the spot by such a shock she felt paralysed by it, Malik had come charging into the clearing atop the second most beautiful creature she had ever seen. It was a dragon, an agile hunter encased in sparkling dark scales and it was a hunter in all aspects, as sinuous as water and as swift as the breeze. Together they looked like the stories of legend, man and the mythical together as one to fight against the horror that stood before them as a nightmare made real. Kari still could do nothing more useful than stand there between the dragon at her back and the horror to her front as Malik and his companion attacked the beast, they moved together in harmony, although their attack styles were completely different they somehow worked together perfectly each making up for the others weakness.

The minutes trickled by with Kari feeling more and more lost, not knowing if she should help or even how, the arrival of Malik had surprised her so much her courage had drained, although she was not the focus of the dark ones attention its malignant force was still in effect on her. Suddenly the tide of the battle changed and she watched in terror as Malik was hit out of the air by one of the dark ones large hands, he struck a nearby tree so hard it shook from the leaves down and Malik fell to the ground as limp as a puppet whose stings had just been cut.

“MALIK!” Kari screamed her voice raw and harsh as the dragon’s growl had been. An angry heat began to pulsate inside her, Malik may not be her favourite person but he was tribe and that made him part of her family, as the future leader of the tribe she was protective of all of them. How dare this creature hurt one of hers, he had been so brave to charge in and take on something so many times bigger than himself and the dark one had just brushed him aside like annoying insect. The rage built up until she could hear it pounding in her ears and her limbs shook under its pressure. Another scream built up inside until it could no longer be contained and it rent the night air, a savage and primal thing the scream even gave both combatants a moment’s pause, the dragon recovered first and began the offensive again.

The dragon was no longer battling alone, Kari had slunk forward her movements quick and agile as the dark ones attention was once again claimed by the black dragon. Kari raced up the nearest tree pushing herself as fast as she could until she reached a branch that was level with the beast. The rage had pushed all other thoughts from her mind and once again she felt no fear, she leaped from the branch her body weightless for a moment until she landed upon the dark one’s arm. The smell of both it and its tar like blood brought bile to the back of her throat and she had to master herself. Then breathing through her mouth she continued to scale the beast going up its arm until she too came to its throat. Grasping at her small dagger she watched how it glimmered in the moonlight, the silver sparkling, Kari thought how it looked like a star in her hand. Luck was on her side for the next moment the black dragon had made another fantastic leap and had clawed all down the dark ones back, Kari being so small and light she had not even been noticed on its shoulder. As its head swung backwards and a bellow of pain escaped the creatures mouth Kari moved, her small but wickedly sharp dagger plunged with as much rage fuelled strength as she possessed deep into its neck. She was rewarded with another deep scream of pain from the creature and a fountain of disgusting blood which soaked her from head to toe.

Kari's vision swam before her eyes, the overwhelming stink engulfed her and she almost fell from her perch, she was quite sure this stuff would be near enough toxic in these quantities. As she attempted to clean her face as best she could Kari suddenly felt movement, her own reactions were slowed and clumsy and she did not move in time. A thick and muscled hand appeared and clutched Kari in its meaty grip, it was as large as Kari and each finger ended in a sharp talon. She was swung around until she was brought face to face with the snarling horror, she had never felt fear like this but in spite of this she was still defiant, her lip curled back into a snarl as she glared at it, she was pleased at the damage both she and the black dragon had wrought. If she was to die and those terrible red eyes said she would, at least he had known the bite of her dagger.

The scream that reverberated around the clearing was different from the defiant call she had given before, this one spoke only of pain, the long thin wail was drawn out, and it scrapped against the ear like nails on a chalk board however it soon cut off to pitiful whimpers. The dark one had locked Kari in its vice like grip and had begun to squeeze her, Kari had never known such crushing pain. The grip relaxed slightly and Kari was left to gasp and cry, eyes swimming in earnest Kari looked up to see a terrible smile stretch across the dark ones face, he wasn’t just going to eat her, he was going to enjoy this. The reprieve was not long and again Kari’s scream echoed around, this time it had pressed the claw on his thumb against her shoulder and not only was he crushing her bones but the claw had entered deeply into her shoulder. Her tormented screams and muffled begging were suddenly cut short by a loud snap.

It was the final scream and whimpers that had at last pierced the tan winged dragons sorrow and brought her to the present. The small cries of the girl had triggered something in the dragon, the same connection that Kari had felt now forged itself in the dragon and she gazed at the pale head of hair barely visible from within the clenched fist. Rising to her clawed paws she bellowed a roar in challenge at the dark one before her, one that had brought such suffering to her life, she would let it claim no more.

She was built like the well muscled hunting cats that stalked the plains but she was at least twice their size. Her large feathered wings were unfurled which made her presence even larger and more intimidating as her wide green eyes glittered and her snarl showed row upon row of large shinning canines. Her true colour was the golden tan of the prairie grasses with stripes and markings in a darker brown which provided camouflage when stalking prey. Her head was large and boxier than her more canine brethren; and she was crowded with two scrolling ivory horns which tapered back across her neck.

Bunching her muscles beneath her she sprang into motion, her legs making short work of the distance and with the aid of her wings she leap up and attached herself upon the dark ones wrist that held Kari. Biting down firmly she began to rip and tear the flesh of its wrist with all four paws, dark blood splattering out around her. The dark one was slowing down now, it had barely been able to react to the dragons blinding speed, and he had never been taken unawares before but the dragon was on him before he could even defend himself. Roaring with a terrible inhuman sound the dark one began to shake his wrist vigorously trying to dislodge the attacker. Kari had thankfully fallen unconscious and her head whipped back and forth limply with the movement but the dragon would not be moved, she was intent on releasing the girl held captive in his grasp and she would gladly sever the tendons to do this.

Another snarl spilt the air as the dark scaled dragon jumped back into the fray, it was plain to see she was wounded but not fatally and she quickly scaled the beast and found her way back to its injured neck. Sinking her teeth into the original wound she too began to work at the thick skin. They both worked tirelessly, both dragons snarling with righteous anger and both impervious to the dark ones attempt to throw them off. It was plain to see the dark one was tiring now; the ground was stained with jet patches of blood which the moons brilliance did not reflect in. Then with a roar of trumpeting triumph the winged dragon managed to slice through the tendons within the wrist causing his grip to slacken, dropping the limp girl like a rag doll. With lightning like reflexes the winged dragon sprang forth, catching Kari with her four paws and flying gently to the ground fifty feet below. Laying her catch tenderly upon the solid earth the dragon very lightly nuzzled her cheek and crooned in alarm as her only answer was Kari’s rasping struggle for breath and the frothy blood bubbles that pooled in the corner of her mouth.

Wake up little one, hear my call and come towards my voice.” The voice was soft, sweet and broke through the darkness that surrounded Kari where she floated in nothingness. With an irresistible pull she was drawn towards the voice, its light and power overwhelmed her and with a thud she landed back within her own body. Kari regretted coming back immediately as pain enveloped every part of her, with two major focuses being the puncture wound in her shoulder and the broken ribs. Her eyes sprung open as she struggled desperately to breathe around the pain, the smallest movements bringing on fresh waves of agony, raspy coughs bringing up more bloody bubbles to trickle down her chin. She was almost lost to the darkness again but this time she was held anchored by the beautiful green eyes that shone above her, locking on to her soul and not letting her slip away.

Who are you?” Kari asked mentally not really expecting a response the blood loss was making her silly, she couldn’t speak telepathically. Her heart nearly stopped when the velvet voice answered, the colour of the voice was different to her own mental voice but not unfamiliar, it felt natural in her mind although still distinctly different. “My name is Aylaria little one and I see from your mind your given name is Kari. I need you to hold on for me, don’t give in to the darkness, I will not let you go, I will bind you to myself if need be.” Kari struggled to form thoughts around the words that entered her mind so effortlessly but even with the ease of communication she was starting to slip; her blood was drenching the ground and it was getting hard to breathe.

Suddenly there was a movement next to her and Kari turned her eyes to see the black dragon standing next to Aylaria who turned her head to look at her companion she was a head above her. In the common dragon tongue Aylaria spoke.

“We need to work together to finish this quickly.” She looked over to where Malik had fallen. “Your human should be alright but mine will not last long and I cannot bind her while it is alive.” Her companion sniffed at Kari and said with distain.

“Why bother, she won’t live long anyway.” Aylaria growled at her companion but continued to glare at the dark one who was visibly slackened but it would still take the two of them to finish it off. “Fine you can do what you wish but we will have to work together to finish this. I am Ulva.”

“Agreed. I’m Aylaria” Aylaria stated. With silent agreement both dragons sunk into hunting couches and prepared to spring. “Hold on Kari!”
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Ulva's first instinct was to kill the creature that brought harm to Malik. Her mind was bereft of any notion of self-preservation. As the battle between Ulva and the dark one continued, several of the hardest scales that covered her thick hide had been raked off by her enemy's powerful strikes and her right ear had been torn off. She had broken bones too, but none of that mattered to her as she was swept up in a surge of murderous intent that could only be quelled by the blood of the dark one that currently stood alive before her. Who would have thought that of out of all things it was to be Kari's piercing battle cry that freed Ulva from her blood thirsty trance. In her unconscious mind, Ulva had sensed within Kari a flickering spark transform into a jungle wild fire of tremendous vigor and resolve. It was no wonder that Malik was drawn to her like moth to a flame.

Still, it seemed to Ulva that there was little that Kari, with her paltry weapons, could do to harm the dark one. She thought Kari would only get in her way, yet she played along in this dangerous game, distracting the dark one long enough to allow Kari to scale it and deliver a vital but not fatal blow. Ulva was impressed. The light-foot could fight, she thought, but she shouldn't have let herself get covered in the dark one's bloods given that it had impaired her senses.

The dark one lashed out in a retributive strike against Ulva and took hold of her throat, pulled her off its back and slammed her to the ground, consequently pinning her on her back to the jungle floor. Then the dark one brought its free hand down like a sledgehammer onto Ulva's skull. Before the mighty blow landed, Ulva was able to send her final thoughts to Kari: Run. Kari was easy prey for the dark one now that Ulva was out of the way. Still holding Ulva by the throat, the dark one picked her lifeless body up and threw her violently into the trees. She did not get up.

A most dreadful feeling within Malik's body made him snap awake calling Kari's name. There was blood caking the side of his head. Had an ordinary man received the blow that Malik had, he or she would surely have died. His connection with Ulva made him stronger in spirit and in body also. How else could he have earned he name Golden Bear? There was no mistaking that a battle was still raging on ahead somewhere in the darkness of the jungle. The instincts of most if not all creatures would be to run way. Malik picked up his bladed club and began to sprint towards the epicenter of the carnage.

When Ulva came to, she was relieved that her thoughts had reconnected with Malik, Ulva! protect Kari! I'm on my way! With complete disregard for her own condition, Ulva jumped back into the fray. This time she had help from her own kin. The other dragon had fought her way out of that deep, dark place that only the brightest souls could escape from. Together, Ulva and the winged dragon, Alyaria, were able to wrestle Kari free from the dark one's death grip. Alyaria had gracefully caught Kari midair and brought her away from immediate danger while the injured yet still fierce Ulva held the dark one at bay. Soon, Malik would be by her side, and together they would vanquish this dark one. Malik. Hurry. I need you, were the thoughts that Ulva sent to Malik.

Malik sensed something terrible had happened. Parts of Ulva's mind were closed off to him. She was hiding something. This made Malik worry. It abruptly became apparent to him what Ulva was keeping from him when he saw Kari's broken body laying on the ground. He rushed over to her. “Kari . . .” he said, kneeling down and brushing the hair away from her eyes and forehead. His voice was filled with regret. Incidentally, Kari's headband was torn. It easily came loose revealing to Malik her pointed ears. “. . . I knew it. I knew, somehow, that you were different. . .”
"Malik, we need to end this quick if Kari is to survive” Ulva cautioned. Deep within her heart of hearts, Ulva did not want to see Kari's flame burn out. Ulva had ascertained that Kari was a righteous being from Malik's memories as well as from her actions earlier. It hurt her soul to say to Alyaria that Kari wouldn't live long especially since she was so in tune with Malik's feelings. Just thinking of the pain Malik would suffer from her loss made Ulva's blood splatted scales quiver in discomfort. Her words had been cold so she momentarily lamented. There was still a battle being fought.

“You just try to leave me, Kari!” Malik issued her a challenge. “I'll follow you into the next life! You'll never get rid of me! I'm going to be the next chief of the tribe on the day Duskan steps down and you're going to my wife whether you like it or not! How does that sound to you?!”
“Malik, time is of the essence” came Ulva's voice into Malik's mind.
Kari's eyes were beginning to glaze over and her breathing was very shallow. Malik hoped that she could hear his words, “Don't stop fighting. I promise I'll be back.”

“Alyaria, I will take over from here”
Aylaria began to protest “You cannot win in your condition and what good can your human-”
“I will not lose with Malik by my side!” Ulva interjected with an angry growl, “Go to the light-foot's side. She is the one that needs you now, not us!”
“You are still young Ulva; however, I will I trust in your strength and the strength of your bond-mate.”
Aylaria turned around and quickly withdrew from the battlefield prompting the dark one to lunge toward her while her back was turned. Ulva was not close enough to intercept the attack.

To the dark one's surprise, not a single one of its claws so much as grazed Alyaria's scales. As a matter of fact, the dark one's claws never reached her. Alyaria continued, without pause, on her way to Kari. In her stead stood Malik with his large bladed club in hand. Scattered around him were the dark one's severed fingers. Torrents of black ooze erupted from where the dark one's finger once were. The dark one recoiled and screeched in pain, getting ready to smite Malik with its other arm. In response, Malik threw his club at its skull. There was inhuman strength behind that brutal throw for Malik nearly knocked the dark one prone when his bladed club sunk into its forehead. The dark one was dazed from the blow and stumbled to regain its balance. Malik would not let this opportunity go to waste. He was already dashing to the dark one, then he jumped higher than what was possible by any human, striking it with a devastating right hook. Several of the dark one's teeth shattered from the force of the impact behind Malik's fist. Malik started to fall as he lost momentum. It was as if time had slowed down: the dark one had managed to stay on its feet, barely; it lashed out with it's claws to grasp Malik; Malik could see the attack coming but there was nothing he could do to evade it -he didn't need to.

Ulva had charged into the dark one with deadly speed. The two of them, Ulva and the dark one, rolled a considerable distance leaving a path of snapped and up-rooted trees in their wake. When they stopped rolling uncontrollably, Ulva was able to get the advantageous position. Her teeth were once again deep into the throat of the dark one. Ulva pulled and rended at its vile flesh with everything she had, struggling to keep it prone. All the while, the dark one battered her with its limbs but Ulva did not let go. Malik arrived as quickly as he was able. A spray of black tar spewed out from the dark one's wound when he wrenched his bladed club out of its forehead. As he brought his club overhead to deliver a crushing blow, it had already ended. Ulva had snapped the dark one's neck with a death roll. Its head almost did a complete rotation. Malik, having fallen from the dark one's head on the first roll, watched resolutely as Ulva rolled again, and again, until finally the dark one's head tore free from its shoulders, showering obsidian gore all around.

Ulva flung the dark one's head to the side. Scintillating golden sparks began to emanate along the edges of her mouth. A pillar of golden flame came forth from her maw as she looked to the stars above and let loose a thunderous roar of triumph.
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Was breathing normally this hard Kari pondered with the small part of her mind that wasn’t consumed in agony, she vaguely knew what was happening around her but the rest of her world was a hazy swirl of crimson edged with darkness. Tongues of flame coursed through her body emanating from her chest and pulsing with every beat of her heart but in her fingers and toes Kari could feel an icy chill, numbing her, this terrified her more than the pain as it opened a vast chasm beneath her into which she was slowly slipping.

Then he was there, leaning down to her, his face softer and more full of emotion than Kari had ever seen before, his eyes showing more pain than one soul could hold. Now she understood why he was called golden, even as her eyes dimmed he seemed to glow with an unknown radiance. The hand that he reached out was warm and gentle against her skin as he moved the hair from her eyes. She did not notice that her headband had come away; even if she had how could it possibly matter now, when at this moment she was struggling to breathe, as blood welled up from her mouth. And when all she could focus on was the warm fingers that gently traced down her face.

“You just try to leave me, Kari!” Malik issued her a challenge. “I'll follow you into the next life! You'll never get rid of me! I'm going to be the next chief of the tribe on the day Duskan steps down and you're going to my wife whether you like it or not! How does that sound to you?!” Suddenly another anchor fixed itself to Kari’s soul, more familiar than the one that tied her to Aylaria but just as strong and unwavering. With the last of her strength Kari gave him one last smile; broken and wearied it was the last gift she could give because despite the tethers on her soul she could feel the cold creeping further up her arms and legs. Kari felt more detached from her body, like that moment between dreaming and waking, where one’s mind still lingers in the dream but you are aware of your physical form. She could feel her eyes glaze over, feel the motion of her chest as she strained against the broken ribs that pushed against her lungs and her head as it fell limply to the side, tendrils of starlight hair stained ruby.

Then there motion beside her and Kari knew that she was moving, away from the combat and the danger, as the wind rushing past her created an odd sensation on her cold limbs. When she felt the earth beneath her back once more Kari was pleased to find the air was cleaner away from the dark one who tainted everything around it. Once again the melodious voice of Aylaria sung out in her mind, like a golden river that enveloped Kari and held her close, pulling her back from the hungry void that was determined to drag her down.

“Kari. You must stay with me, fight the darkness, do not listen to its lies of rest and freedom; there is so much for you here. I will bind you to me but I must wait, to do so now would bind some of that creature’s essence to you.” Aylaria was cradled around her mind like a protective cocoon and from her memory she pulled faces to the forefront of her mind. Duskan’s smiling face proud and strong, Helyn, Selios and Miridea each one kind and gentle, Nanuka who’s smile could light up a room and oddly Malik, his face concerned and tender as she had just seen him, a new side to him. With these images coursing through her mind even the voids numbing embrace did not seem as tempting, despite the pain and the release that was offered Kari resisted, mentally digging her heels in, refusing to fall. It was not easy, the agony that had been ebbing from her redoubled through her body as her mind fought to stay conscious.

Time seemed to have no meaning as she continued to struggle just to survive, to keep breathing, to keep her heart beating, it was so difficult and she knew it would only take a moment, one falter and the tide of darkness would override her, sweeping her from this world. Seconds could have passed or hours or days, Kari had no idea, however she was aware in the change in Aylaria whose attention was focused back on the clearing and even Kari did not miss the earth shattering roar that erupted from the other dragon. Her mind echoed with Aylaria’s voice.

“It is done, the dark one is no more.” Kari’s eyes fluttered as she attempted to focus on Aylaria as she moved in her line of sight over head. There was no rational reason behind it but just the sight of Aylaria’s beautiful feline face made a smile bloom upon her lips like a bloody rose. “You must trust me Kari, this will feel uncomfortable.” The gurgling laugh that escaped Kari was involuntary and she regretted immediately as she attempted to regain control of her breathing.

Aylaria gazed down at the broken girl beneath her paws and the rush of affection flooded through her, despite everything the girl was still full of smiles and laughter, throughout both human and dragon kind she had never met her like. Aylaria was unsure about what she was attempting, to her knowledge it had never been performed and was just a myth but she could feel the desire within her, she hoped that would be enough to achieve her goal. Reaching within herself Aylaria sifted through her emotions, the maternal instinct the girl awoke within her, the protectiveness and the hardest to understand was the deep rooted bond she felt, it was as intangible as smoke but strong as iron chains that bound them together. Focusing on these emotions Aylaria sought the light that shone brightly within her; it was wild and vital. Looking down to upon Kari she could see her light was weak and sputtered like a candle in the wind. Once this was done it could not be undone, their lives would be connected forever. Apart from Ulva Aylaria knew of none of her kin that would do this, they would be puzzled by their interest, as most took no notice of the quickening races but the thought of watching her light disappear hurt more than a physical wound.

Taking a deep breath Aylaria burst forth a stream of bright orange fire that encircled Kari’s prone form. Reaching out from within Aylaria saw with perfect clarity both their lights and from her own golden light small tendril began to emerge; they swam through the air, seeking out Kari’s flickering light. The motion was easy as the tendrils closed the gap and enveloped the girls dying silver light, wrapping it in golden threads that tethered them together. Within seconds of the binding Kari’s silver brightness pulsed with renewed strength, from her feet Aylaria heard Kari’s gasp as her breathing evened and her heart beat stronger. It was done, they were bound together and while it was in her power Aylaria would keep Kari’s light shining. She could not heal the damage that had been done, that part she would have to leave to time but time is what she now had, even if apart they would be bound.

Aylaria’s mouth blossomed with hot orange flame, it undulated and writhed but never fell from her mouth, leaning down Aylaria pressed her mouth to the open wound in Kari’s shoulder sealing it closed before Kari could even register the pain. Extinguishing the flames both around her mouth and that encircled them both Aylaria gently nuzzled Kari’s face with her own, although her ribs were still broken and her breathing still laboured but she was alive and would remain so.

Suddenly her head shot up as her ears wheeled around, their clearing was soon to be set upon by the hunting party they must have been drawn to the noise, which was hardly surprising. Aylaria stood rooted to the spot for the moment indecision coursing through her; she knew it was humans that approached and assumed they were of Kari and Malik’s clan although she wasn’t certain. It was probably best for now that she wasn’t here, a hoard of angry humans would not be very welcoming to any creature. Dipping her head to nuzzle Kari once more she bounded over to where Malik and Ulva had fallen exhausted, grabbing Ulva she flung her across her back and with a last backwards glance she bounded into the night.

Kari lay exhausted as she gazed up at the stars, her vision was blurry but it did not falter and she basked in their glorious light. Then Kari’s ears picked up on what Aylaria had heard, the heavy thuds of feet come crashing through the undergrowth, panting gasps of men who had been running hard and a terrible roar of loss and pain. For a moment Kari could not understand it, this was no roar of a beast but of a man and it was made all the more terrible as Kari never knew her father could make such a sound. Then before she could comprehend what was happening Duskan’s face loomed above her in the darkness, worry creasing his features as his warm hands gently lifted her head from the floor.

“Kari!” he exclaimed, his face flushed with relief to see her eyes open and breathing. Seeing her father was like a blessing and Kari smiled warmly, lifting her arm weakly from the ground she sought him and he obligingly grasped her hand.

“Duskan,” someone called from behind them “Malik is over here as well, he is alive.” Kari’s smile grew wider at these words, she was happy he had survived.

“Good.” Came her father’s reply although his eyes never left her face. “Then let’s get these two home.” His voice was gentle as he spoke next. “Sleep Arimelda, you will be home soon.” Kari was only too happy to follow his instructions and her eyes fluttered closed, there was no danger of the void claiming her now, not bound as she was in golden light and she embraced the comfort of unconsciousness.

Kari’s eyes slowly fluttered open but she could only make out vague shapes and colours above her so she closed her eyes and tried to rely on her other senses. To her right a fire popped and crackled, she could feel its warmth against her cheek and the homely scent of wood smoke. The smell of smoke was mixed with the smell of herbs both fresh and dried, taking a deep breath through her nose Kari tried to identify as many as possible. She knew exactly where she was, Nanuka’s house permanently smelt of medicinal herbs and having spent many hours in her care it was basically home to her. She relaxed back into the plush sleeping furs that felt at least three deep and for some period of time she lay in a resting stupor not quite asleep but with no thoughts in her mind, there was no pain and she was content.

Suddenly her eyes flew open again and she gasped, forcing herself onto her elbow and looking around in alarm, where was Malik and the dragons? Last she had seen they had been in a battle for their lives. Blinking rapidly she waited for her vision to come into focus, next to her lay a mountain of furs and after a moment or two she was able to make out Malik’s golden hair splayed across the floor, his limbs stuck out at odd angles as he slept. Despite the fact she could see him breathing Kari was still unsure if he was truly real or a dream from which she would wake and find herself alone. Fingers trembling she reach a hand over and very gently stroked his muscled forearm and was glad to find it warm and solid not mere smoke or vapour.

“We are both here as well, although hidden for now. Fear not, all you need do is call and I will come.” Aylaria’s voice echoed like wind chimes in her mind, sweet and distant but clear and Kari knew that they would forever be linked in their minds. It was both an odd and comforting thought; she didn’t know what it was like to not have her thoughts private. “It doesn’t work quite like that. Don’t fret now, we will discuss it later, for now rest and heal.” The surprise of hearing Aylaria mind voice had made her sit up and with a hiss of pain she now registered her bound torso, the pain was milder than before, each breath was uncomfortable but not unbearable. Unconsciously she reached up to check her headband as was her habit and found it in her normal position covering her ears.

“I had to repair that for you. It’s an heirloom you know and you should take better care of it.” Kari jumped again as Nanuka’s soft voice came from the entrance as she closed the flap behind her. Gently holding her ribs Kari beamed as Nanuka walked slowly over and knelt at her side, she had never been so please to see the ancient face with her eyes that twinkled like summer pools. For a moment they just gazed at each other, drinking in the other, for Kari, when she stood down that dark one she had been sure she would never see any of her loved ones again, it was a miracle just to be here. Then without warning Kari lunged forward, tears in her eyes as she flung her arms around her tiny waist, her head in Nanuka’s lap like when she was young. She didn’t care about the throb which protested the movement or the tears that fell thick and fast, all that mattered was the hand which stroked her hair and the soft lullaby that Nanuka was humming.

After some time Kari’s tears dried and she calmed but the residual ache in her ribs had grown, she was paying for all the movement. Nanuka heard the hiss of pain and clicked her tongue but her smile was indulgent. Delicately she helped lift Kari back onto the bed rolls and tucked her in.

“Sleep now my girl, I have only just set your ribs and you, the both of you need time to heal.” Her voice raised a little towards the end, sure Malik was at least conscious but Kari was spent, those small movements had used her entire reserve. Eyes fluttering shut Kari reached out her hands, one came to rest on Nanuka’s knee, the other sought Malik’s arm, her fingers resting lightly on his arm.

“Don’t leave me.” Kari whispered to the room at large, her voice thick with weariness and she was asleep, a smile lingering.
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