Chapter 26: Sacrifices of the White Wyvern

            Through the fallen stones, the sounds of the SangreLin marching faded to nothing outside the collapsed entrance of the cave, until the cavern itself came alive with sound. VonWhitager and Santeris crouched side by side, trying to catch their breath as their eyes adjusted to the gloom. Both of their pale faces were smeared with blood, most of which did not belong to them. Scraped and bruised, VonWhitager shook his head as he wiped the blood from his blade with his bare hand.
“How can we fight an army that never dies?” he said and did not wait for an answer before turning away from the others.
            Santeris glanced in his direction and answered the frustrated question anyway. “We must kill Danathyl,” he said grimly. He sat stroking his crossbow with the tender touch of a father for his child. “That is the only way to keep them from coming back,” he continued in a rough tone. “I need some water.” His head sank, almost bowing to the shame of a moment of weakness. “I would rather fight and die than run as we are doing now.”
            Shadd stood facing the wall he had just created by dropping to the ground the massive stones that had been the solid roof. “Our company is broken for the first time,” he said as he stroked the stones with his palm. His eyes squinted as he tried to stare out into the arctic plains of Mangend through any errant crack or hidden pore. “Two are captured. One is dead, and the rest of us are beaten.” He turned to the other two men kneeling upon the ground. “It would have been better to die on the field of battle, than watch our friends taken,” Shadd said. His massive yet soft voice cracked as he stared down at his axe with tears shining in his dark eyes.
            Iolore emerged from the darkness holding a torch that burned brightly. She winced in pain as she walked, but still stood tall and held her head high. Her face was dirty and covered in soot and dried blood, though her eyes shone in the darkness with resilience and hope as she stared upon the others. She stopped and held her stomach as she saw an absence in the company.
            Her husband was not standing there before her.
            “They took Tallic, didn’t they?” she asked, tears welling up in her eyes.
            VonWhitager nodded slowly. “And Dirlan, as he tried to save Pestileras from the SangreLin’s arrows.”
            Iolore let out a hard, painful sob into her cupped hands. Her muffled cry echoed off the stone walls, slick with moisture. She quickly wiped the tears from her eyes and stared hard at the remaining members of the Forghonyi. Her face twitched with pain as she swallowed hard, willing words to come forth past the gateway of pain that had spilled its black emptiness throughout her whole body. Yet as she stood there in the darkness of the cave, Iolore's eyes met the others. They glistened from a peaceful place far off as she looked upon them, and focused. “We are beaten,” she said, her voice deep and regal as she staved off the pain of her losses, “but we are not yet defeated. Our losses are great, and yes, our plight seems pointless now, VonWhitager, but our losses stem only from the sacrifices of our loved ones.”
            VonWhitager bowed his head before her, as a knight would before his queen.
            “Why should we regret any of our actions if they have saved the lives of others, Shadd?” Iolore asked.
            Shadd turned from the massive puzzle of fallen stones and blinked back his tears. “If the army of Kelastra would have come as promised, we might have stood here victorious. Sirrenti Prahla is a coward!” he shouted into the darkness.
            Iolore stared hard at his hulking form as the torch flickered, casting dim shadows across his face. “They may help us yet.” She looked over at Santeris. “For now we may have to rely on another ally. Why should we kill the one being that may be able to help us in this fight, Santeris?” Iolore asked, pointing the torch in his direction.
            Santeris rose to his feet with his crossbow at his side. His gaze remained fixed toward the darkness that rolled out its black tongue behind Iolore. “No bolt will leave my crossbow, unless no other means of victory can be found,” he said. His voice was nearly as cold and hard as the echo that filled the air all around them. “But if the moment comes, I won't hesitate to pull the trigger and strike the beast down. My mercy's reached its end today.”
            Shadd peered into the darkness behind Iolore as well. “Where is Steedwing?” he asked in a low, wary voice.
            Iolore turned and looked behind her. “He was just here,” she said and held out the torch as the flames licked the retreating darkness. Her eyes traced the trail of blood along the dusty ground into the shadows.
            VonWhitager rose to his feet. Worry marred his white face as he stepped forward and stood beside Iolore. “Come, we may be divided, but one of our friends at hand is still in need,” he said.
            Her eyes met his with sadness. “There may be two that need our help,” she said. “My child could still be in this cave.”
            VonWhitager nodded, and extending his hand, he took the torch from her. “Allow me to take the lead as well as the torch, lest my hair go up in flames before you,” he said with a sad grin.
            Iolore smiled and blinked back her tears as she drew her curved daggers. “Fine, but I'll be right beside you,” she said.
            Shadd and Santeris followed behind them as VonWhitager led the way deep into the cave. The torch he held high atop the length of his svelte frame, and as the four of them walked, a pale blue glow filled the darkness before them.
            Santeris tightened his grip upon his crossbow. “Danathyl lives,” he said staring forward with cold eyes. “I don't wish to feel the wrath of an angry dragon.”
            Iolore turned and shot him a glare. “Mind the promise you made. Power and anger don't always go hand in hand,” she said and turned back to face the glowing aura before them.
            “It doesn't hurt,” Santeris muttered.
            As they advanced slowly through the tunnel, dimly lit by the pale blue glow ahead, the rhythmic dripping of condensation and the trickle of tiny streams of water in the darkness filled the warming air. The further they ventured into the cave, the damper the air thickened into sticky breaths, drenching the very stone that surrounded them to seem alive. Heavy, strained breathing from massive lungs echoed in the cavern ahead, and to their ears, the drip and trickle of the cave became muted as their own deep breaths quickened with anticipation for what lay around the next bend. All eyes stared unblinking through the final crude arch of the tunnel as they emerged one by one into the fading blue glow of Danathyl.
            For the first few steps into the vast cavern, the glow of the White Wyvern was almost blinding, but once the darkness faded from their eyes, the four of them looked upon the great beast with ease. His power was waning and the light of his blood was fading.
            The four of them looked upon Danathyl lying across the dusty floor of the cave with his neck crooked, straining to elevate his massive head as he peered down into his outstretched palm. His weary eyes strayed from the object he held in his hand to the cavern floor at his left.
            There, Steedwing crawled with a dingy sword protruding from the base of his neck. The wound drained into a crimson swath, painting the dust behind him as he clawed in desperation at the ground toward Danathyl’s side. His yellow eyes looked painfully upward to the giant white dragon, and then rolled back into their sockets as he slumped upon the ground.
            Danathyl stared down at the Atrecan, a mere tiny lizard beside his mighty form. “I see the shadow of my former self in this creature beside me,” Danathyl said. His voice rumbled like far off thunder with not quite the might to call forth lightning. His eyes glazed over as his mind recalled the distant memories of his simpler years as an Atrecan in Yorescialen, where he sat at the side of King Tortanell before his master, and Tortanell’s brother, Crissmal' DiSonn took him into his care.
            The sharpness in his eyes returned as he looked down at the four people who had entered his home and prison. “This is the second time today that I have received visitors free of scaly faces and harsh words. The name Tallic Shawen must be familiar to you,” Danathyl stated.
            Iolore stepped forward. “He's my husband and the father of my child and the captain of the Forghonyi,” she said sweeping her arm behind her towards the others. “These men.”
            VonWhitager, Shadd, and Santeris all bowed as they stared in awe at the beast that sat speaking before them.
            Danathyl smiled dimly down at Iolore. “Good friends you keep,” he said. His blue eyes focused upon his own outstretched hand. “I have something that belongs to you then.” A tiny sneeze echoed from Danathyl’s huge palm. “Your son is awake,” he said and slowly extended his massive hand down to Iolore.
            She stood frozen in place as his giant hand drew near; and as her son’s face crested the scales of Danathyl’s cupped fingers, she saw the image of her and Tallic’s bonded life, joined into one being. Tears began to stream down her cheeks.
            “Take your son, my child,” Danathyl said. “He is strong like his father and needed little help from me to survive.”
            Iolore reached down and with shaking hands took up her son into her arms. Through her tears, she stared into his blue eyes, which seemed to emanate the same blue glow as Danathyl, as he looked intently at his mother’s face for the first time. He smiled with toothless glee and wiggled his new appendages free of the cloths that wrapped him.
            Danathyl stared down at the two of them with a grim look upon his long, birdlike face. “My blood has brought nothing to this world but evil, until this day.” His eyes followed the length of Steedwing’s limp body – from his slender tail up to the base of his strong neck. He stared at the blade that sat buried in the Atrecan’s scaly flesh. “I had begun to think that I was my master’s single biggest mistake. There did not seem to be a purpose for my accidental creation until now,” he said with his eyes aflame with purpose even through his waning vitality. Danathyl brought the palm of his hand to his fanged mouth and chomped down hard through his scales. One of his great teeth broke and fell to the dusty ground. He then held his wound over the sword in Steedwing’s neck. The blood shone dimly with fading power, but as it flowed over the weapon’s handle and blade, its gleam became overshadowed by another. There, the Luzblad glowed in the darkness through the blood and muck that coated its blade, unnoticed by all until now.
            The others stood in silence with eyes unblinking as the precious sword emerged from their memories and an uncertain dark future into the reality before them.
            With two fingers, Danathyl gently removed the sword from Steedwing’s neck and held it before him in his other hand as the Atrecan’s wound healed beneath Danathyl’s falling blood.
            “Hello again, my friend. It has been long,” Danathyl whispered as he stared into the blue glow of the Luzblad.
            Steedwing stirred upon the ground at his side, but Danathyl's eyes did not leave the blade. “I see your hope one last time before I fade back into your care on the other side,” Danathyl said, seemingly to the sword itself. “Hope that this evil will not endure,” Danathyl’s voice cracked and faded as he strained to keep his head up as the blood drained from his body.
            Steedwing rose from the dust and sat before Danathyl like a rapt disciple, staring with keenness in his yellow eyes. The others walked over and stood around the Atrecan, staring in awe at the feat they had just witnessed. No wound remained where the sword had pierced the beast’s flesh.
            Danathyl’s neck gave way to its own weight beneath his loss of strength, and crashed upon the ground beside them, nearly shaking them to their knees. As he struggled to keep his eyes open, he placed the Luzblad safely in the scabbard that hung from Steedwing’s saddle. “You all have guarded this well and shown me that good still exists in these dark times,” he said. His massive blue eyes began to fade to grey as he spoke, yet the distant smile upon his long, scaly face did not fade. “Guard this hope well, as you have already,” he said, tapping the hilt of the Luzblad with the tip of his claw.
            Iolore walked over, clutching her new son in her arms. She placed her hand upon Danathyl’s nose and stared, weeping, into his eyes. “How can a being of such power and mercy die?” she said. “We must be able to do something.”
            Danathyl breathed deeply. “Your touch is so warm, and your love is great, both for your husband and for your child. Yet even without both, I know you would still strive to protect the good in this world. What price have you all paid to be standing here today, defending someone else's homeland and an old creature you had never met?” Danathyl slid his head along the ground to face them. His breathing was strained and shallow; and though his body shuddered in pain, his face did not show it. “When that hope and that nobility are gone, then we are all truly lost. That is why I give proudly to you the last drops of my life,” Danathyl said as his eyes closed of their own accord. His tail curled up around his body, revealing a piece of the cavern wall that had been covered from view. “Behind me there is thin stone that you may break through.” Danathyl strained to open one eye. He looked upon all of them as his last ounces of strength left his body. “In the autumn of this green world, leaves always show their brightest colors at the dusk of summer, when they are faced with the darkness of approaching winter. The leaves of this world are falling. Let your colors shine bright and true in these dark hours, my friends, the Leaves of Dusk.” Danathyl’s eye closed and the air slowly left his massive lungs like an army of deep whispers.
            Iolore leaned down and kissed the White Wyvern's nose. “For this hope we thank you, Danathyl,” she said, wiping her tears away and wrapping her arms around her child. She knelt and picked up the broken tooth from the ground and held it tightly in her hand.
            “So my son may know why he still lives. I will save this for him,” Iolore said as she walked away.
            One by one they walked past the giant beast and placed a loving hand upon his scaly skin. Every eye stared solemnly upon his peaceful face as they made their way toward the stone wall behind his body.
            Santeris was the last to do this. The cold stare and haughty sneer had departed his sullen face, if only for a few minutes. He placed his hand upon Danathyl’s snout and knelt. “Forgive me for wishing to strike you down. I'll kill many in your memory, and even more for your death here today.” Santeris rose and followed the others to the wall. He stopped and looked back upon Danathyl for a moment with the remembrance of his meeting with Tallic at The Surly Stoat and of their conversation regarding mercy as weakness. From then on, the image of the most powerful creature alive, dying to save a stranger’s baby and a lowly Atrecan, would be forever etched in his mind as the most noble thing he had ever seen.
            Danathyl, though they’d known him only a short time, held a special part in each one of their hearts, and as Shadd broke through the stone wall, and each of them stepped out beneath a curtain of ice from a frozen waterfall, they all looked back for one last time upon the being that had saved any remainder of hope in their hearts.
            They walked around the column of water that had been halted in its pursuit of the ocean and entered the remains of the battlefield, cold and littered, yet empty.
            Shadd delivered a fierce crack with his axe upon the stones of the cave and sealed the hole of Danathyl’s final resting place. “Good bye, our friend,” he whispered, and turned away to follow the others.
            To the East, a spire of smoke striped the sky black. They all saw it, but said nothing, instead choosing to follow the dark beacon that the enemy had left behind on the path to Yorescialen. They walked alone across the battlefield, finding only the company of the dead, and the fowl and beasts that scavenged the flesh from their bones.
            Danathyl lay in peace, and as the remnants of the Forghonyi made their trek toward Yorescialen, the last of the White Wyvern’s blood drained from the cave through the cracks beneath the stones that barred the entrance. It sluiced as a tiny stream past the frozen waterfall and out over the surface of the ice, where it found a break and drained into the water beneath. The last of Danathyl’s precious blood would wash away in the icy waters of Danat-Lanne, and as his spirit left this world, the final drops of his blood would find a different destiny and live on. In the bleak and empty land surrounding Collaldron, beneath the ice of Danat-Lanne, life once extinguished began to stir once more.

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