Chapter 4

The Emerald Dragon by Solitaire Parke


It’s been two weeks since I impressed with Demi and admittedly, I still haven’t met that many people. We’re still shunned by the majority, but the bar fight did wonders in that general direction. I’m hoping it will plant seeds that will grow into thoughts of good will. If nothing else, it seemed to have broken the ice with Elfred and Thomas. They act like friends now, and perhaps others will see that I’m not what they thought I’d be. I’m a relatively nice guy. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part. Time will tell.

Tonight Demi and I were supposed to go on our first diplomatic run and we had chosen the Gold Grotto. Might as well get the rough one out of the way. Scuttlebutt around the mountain says that those guys were pretty angry with me, and in some ways I could understand that. However, most of the other riders were apparently having problems with the gold riders too. They just hadn’t done anything about it. What Demi and I were hoping was that by establishing some sort of rapport with the gold, maybe it would ease the tension between us and everyone else. A tall order, but hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I secretly thought the other riders were pleased with the downfall of the Gold’s Pub. It’s just that nobody had said anything publicly, and I think fear of reprisal was the chief reason why.

As a secondary thought, I had mentioned to Demi the possibility of performing a bad landing right in front of the Gold Grotto. Would that be good or bad? It isn’t like they hadn’t seen her land, but I’m not sure I wanted to start the mission with embarrassment in front of the very people we were trying to gain respect from. On the other hand, it might work in our favor for her to seem new and inexperienced.

In the end it was taken out of my hands. Demi and I had just emerged into Commons from the Green Grotto when she stopped and before I could say anything, she crouched down. If I haven’t learned anything else, I’ve learned what that means, and I gripped the two handles on the front side of the saddle just as she sprang into the air. The inertia is amazing. We went from being on the ground, to airborne at fifty feet in one movement. Demi’s wings beat furiously as she struggled to gain altitude, and the first half mile went quickly.

“Demi, what’s up. You okay?”

“I can land correctly and I’m not afraid of what they think.   You’ll see.”

“Oh Sweetie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“I’m not mad at you Tanis, I’m just mad, and I’m tired of people laughing at me. Especially the Gold’s.”

“Demi, maybe we should tackle this some other night. We don’t have to…”

I could tell she was angry and she didn’t even let me finish.

“No…We go and we go now!”

We had lifted to about two hundred feet and our speed was increasing with every beat of her wings. It didn’t appear as if she had any intention of slowing down, and our first flight flashed through my head. Only this time I didn’t hear any bells and she wasn’t laughing. The Gold Grotto was coming up fast and we still weren’t slowing down. Glancing in front of us showed me that several of the gold riders and their dragons were milling around the entrance to the grotto. It also appeared to me that they had known of our arrival and had begun to arrange themselves to get out of the way in case of a botched landing. Demi roared, and I jumped involuntarily.   She had never acted like this before and it took me by surprise. Admittedly, I didn’t have all that much experience, but everything I had seen so far had shown Demi to be a gentle soul. Right now, that gentle soul had left the building and had been replaced with hot smoke and sassafras. Startling, but this was the first time I had seen the dragon within.

We still hadn’t slowed, and when I thought that it was too late to do anything but crash into the far north wall, Demi’s body arched upward and her wings furled into two air-catching cups. Our speed reduced from immense, to stopped in mid-air roughly twenty feet above the ground. I was forced into a standing position, leaning forward just to stay in the saddle. Demi’s wings beat in a reverse manner as we came to about ten feet above the rock floor. Then five feet, then three feet and finally her back legs, angling downward touched the ground. The front legs and feet were running in place as fire blew from her nose and mouth into the air. The noise was deafening. Finally she brought her front feet down, and as soon as they touched, she undulated back and forth in a serpentine configuration as she approached the rider closest to where she had landed. Her wings were pulled tightly back against her body as we made our way toward the Grotto’s entrance corridor. Now that we were down, I was beginning to feel a bit more confident and I knew I wasn’t going to fall off. As a new rider, trust me, that’s a big deal.

As we drew nearer the grotto entrance, each of the riders tried to bar her way but she would have nothing to do with it. The flames alone began to push them back. The ones who were more brave, slowly started to move to the sides of the opening as Demi began lunging at them when they barred her path. As for me, I just hung on and tried to lean into her movements as she carved out an erratic lane toward their entrance. That’s when I noticed the riders we had passed were closing in behind us, and we had virtually nowhere to go but forward. I kind of think that was Demi’s plan from the start, but it showed a tad bit of short sightedness on her part because plan A didn’t have a way out. Something that was obviously needed, but was sadly missing. Blocking the entrance was only one more dragon and we would be in. But to what end? I had no idea what she had in mind and what she would do to accomplish her goal – whatever that was. She finally came to a stop and I glanced around trying to get a body count. That’s when I took stock of the dragon and rider in front of us. They constituted the only hurdle left to actually gaining access to the Gold Grotto. The dragon was immense. Not as large as Basiliskos, but certainly ten times greater than Demi. The rider was sitting casually in the saddle with a bored look on his face like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Tanis, the rider’s name is Alexander and he is a very bad man. The dragon is called Arannis, and I don’t see why he would choose such an evil man.” Demi said quietly.

I don’t know how to keep my thoughts down to a quiet level, but that’s what I was trying to do.

“Demi, what are you doing? Am I supposed to beat the crap out of this guy, and if I try won’t that bring the rest of them down on us? Tell me what to do.”

“Tell him to let us in so nothing bad happens to him.”

“That was your plan? Back the guy up on his own door step and demand things from him where the others can see and hear? What in the hell were you thinking?”

He who hesitates is lost, at least that’s what I’ve always heard. While I sat atop Demi, Alexander climbed down from Arannis and moved to stand in front of the golden dragon. He folded his arms across his chest and adopted an “at ease” stance as if he was waiting for something, so I climbed down as well. I can’t tell you how glad I was that I had put the suit on before we left. I took three steps to make sure I was standing in front of Demi and then I stopped, slowly looking around. I tried to make it seem like I was unimpressed and maybe just a bit annoyed, but with the helmet closed no one could see the expression on my face. I hoped that maybe it would work in my favor. Finally, I faced Alexander and gradually walked toward him. I’ll give him credit; he had balls. It takes a special kind of stupid to stare down the Emerald Warrior. I had Walter reset the interior gases and expel the excess while resetting the plates all over the suit. It makes the suit seem larger for just a second and the intimidation factor is fairly high. When everything had finished, I nonchalantly pressed the gauntlet switch to bring down the helmet, although I left the shroud in place just in case. I stopped when the distance between us was just short of uncomfortable. The length of the silence became awkward and I was just about to say something, although I was unsure as to what, when Alexander spoke.

“What do you want, green rider?”

His voice was low but somehow didn’t match his size. Alexander was about six feet six inches and was built like Charles Atlas. His hair was long and sort of a dirty blonde in color, giving him kind of a “Thor” look. The whine in his voice took me back just for a split second because it just didn’t fit his looks.

“We want entrance into the Gold Grotto. A tour of the facilities would be nice. If we don’t get these things then something bad will happen, and I don’t think either one of us wants that. So, what’s it going to be?”

I was hoping Demi was right, but it just seems rude and overly aggressive to demand as well as threaten, as an opener. Wouldn’t that just egg the person on to give you the very thing you didn’t want? I thought the first patch of silence was bad. This one went on so long that I thought Alexander had gone to sleep, when for whatever reason, he laughed. It was quiet, you know, more of a chuckle really. His arm came up and I brought mine up too and then we shook hands. Just like that. There was no violence. I’m really going to have to start trusting Demi. I can see that now. I was still curious as to how she knew, and I made a mental note to question her about that later.

Alexander looked back at Arannis. The dragon stood up and moved sideways to make room for Demi to pass.

“Welcome to the Gold Grotto, green rider.”

We spent almost an hour there and it was interesting, to say the least. Most of the occupants were self defined elitists, and those that weren’t, came across openly as bigots, snobs and caste mongers with delusions of grandeur. All the sentiments seemed to be based on the color of the dragons and their winged state. Near as I could tell, that dictated your status and determined whether you were a burden to their existence. For instance: A gold dragon had the highest status of all dragons, whereas the green and brown non-winged dragons were little more than beasts of burden. The Harlequins were the lowest in the winged caste system, and were considered illegitimate and half-breeds at best. The blue, red and grey, occupied a different position on the list depending on who you talked to at the time. The green winged weren’t supposed to exist at all and the one who did, was nothing more than an abomination to all dragons, not just the gold’s. As mad as this should have made me, it did something else instead. I saw clearly for the first time. This is the very thing that Demi wanted me to see, in all its dismal aspects. This is what the mountain had been reduced to and what The Ariella had been fighting since she first impressed. The Ariella had become an opportunist when Demi had called me. Both of them knew what I was capable of and the penance I was attempting to pay. She had seen a way to fix so many problems with the introduction of Demi and I. Assuming we lived through the trials that the mountain and its occupants threw at us, we just might bring about change in The Ariella’s monarchy. Oh, and one side note: The two Kings both black and white were never talked about, and I mean never. I could detect a note of fear if the gold’s thought the two of them were near, and it was painfully obvious how none of the gold riders mentioned them at all. They seemed to work at not mentioning them, which of course, makes you think of them that much more. I think they may be attempting to stay out of the communal mind that all dragons share. If this proves to be possible, then there will be some rough roads ahead and secrets that I wouldn’t have thought possible to keep. None of this looks healthy for The Ariella reign, and I for one have a vested interest in keeping her alive.

Demi and I had been slowly but surely working our way toward the entrance to the grotto for about half an hour. After the final comment made by the last rider, in what felt like an endless row, there were no more obstacles in our way. I could see the Commons and I desperately wanted to reach an area where the air didn’t seem quite so oppressive.

We kept walking for several minutes even after we had gained The Commons proper, and I did not look back. Demi finally stopped, and after taking a long and ragged breath, laid down with her chin resting on the bare floor. She hadn’t spoken a word since we left the Gold Grotto. We were out in the open, just out in the middle of Commons. I walked around so that I was in front of her and sat down.

“I know we can’t talk about this, at least not here. But know this…I understand. I didn’t before; but I see it. I’m not going to let this continue. I promise.”

“Thank you, Tanis.”

I don’t know how long we stayed there, but it felt like hours. Demi seemed distraught and listless, until finally I could tell that her breathing had become deep and even. I sat with her until daybreak, when she opened her eyes and yawned.

“I’m hungry.”

“And I’ve got to take The Ariella back to the city. Go get something to eat and take a swim, Demi. The Ariella and I will be back later. I’ll let you know when.”

Demi stood and stretched, flexing her wings to full extension. She pulled them in about halfway and shook her whole body like she was trying to get feeling back into her limbs; then without warning, she pounced into the air. I watched her as she gained altitude and flew in the direction of the river.

As it turned out, The Ariella had already gone back to the city and Invectum told me she knew of our ordeal the night before. Beyond that, he wouldn’t say much, so I bid my goodbyes and left to rejoin her.

Upon arriving, The Ariella was waiting with a hot cup of coffee and a sad but sympathetic look on her face. We talked for a while and she told me that the two Kings had filled her in on the Gold Grotto meeting that Demi and I had arranged. We talked around the way Demi and I felt without actually addressing any one issue, but it helped to know she understood and would not keep us from doing what we thought best. I finished my coffee and stumbled off to bed. I was exhausted.

When I awoke, there was an almost tangible tenseness in the air. A steaming, hot cup of coffee was sitting on the night stand and I think it was partially responsible for waking me up. The Ariella sat at the foot of the bed looking at me with a strange glint in her eye.

“Hope I wasn’t snoring. What’s up?”

I quickly wiped my mouth; snoring was bad enough without drooling too.

“It’s almost time to leave and we’ve got a big night at the mountain. A quick shower for you, and then we’ve got to go.”

“What’s going on at the mountain?”

The Ariella was already on her way out of the room.

“Shower, Tanis,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.

Twenty minutes and one shower later, we were on our way to the mountain. I flew us there using the Magna, contacted Demi en route, and we didn’t even land this time upon arrival. We flew directly into the foyer cave, shot down the corridor, over the ramps and landed directly on the outside of the wheel in the middle of Commons. The Ariella let go of the breast plate handles as I released the restraining strap holding her in place. She turned immediately, walked over to stand in the middle of the wheel and called for the Drago security guards that were standing about thirty yards away. She hadn’t spoken once during our trip here and had been all business since our arrival. The look on her face told me not to ask. In seconds, the security team had surrounded her and she conferred with them in lowered voices. I couldn’t hear what was said, but the entire team took off at a dead run toward the medical area. I started to walk over to her but she held up her hand to stop me. Then her head tilted over to one side and the look on her face took on an absent appearance. Not more than a minute later Demi landed next to me, a perfect landing by the way, and she dipped her head down nuzzling my arm. A warm feeling shot through me that only Demi can evoke. Then in the distance you could hear the sound of wings, big ones, getting closer by the second. Directly overhead from out of the ever-present darkness, two dragons shot down into the light and came to rest on either side of The Ariella. I felt the short hairs on the back of my neck stand out and a shiver went up my spine. I will never tire of seeing the two Kings land, especially when they do it at the same time.

Basiliskos stepped forward until he was slightly ahead of The Ariella, turned to face her and said;

“All section leaders and those you requested are being assembled now, my Queen. They shall arrive momentarily. They are, of course, bringing their dragons and I or Invectum will carry those who need transport.”

“Thank you, Basiliskos,” responded The Ariella.

When everyone had assembled, The Ariella pointed toward each of the arrivals, and a section on the wheel to indicate where she would have them stand. In each case, the corresponding Dragon would then line up behind them in the section along the same spoke. First big surprise of the evening; she pointed to me and then pointed four sections over from where I stood. I moved to the indicated part of the wheel and took my position, as Demi lined up behind me. I heard a snort noise to my left. The Ariella heard it as well.

“Shut up Alexander.”

Alexander closed his mouth, but if looks could kill…

When everyone had taken their places, The Ariella, standing at the center of the wheel, began to turn slowly in a circle and then spoke.

“When I call your name you will mount your dragon and proceed to the Veranda. Do not leave until all introductions have been made. This is for the benefit of anyone here who has not had the pleasure of your acquaintance.

Section One…Alexander and Arannis from the Gold Grotto.

Section Two…Elfred and Big Red from the Red Grotto.

Section Three…Famill and Tanicur from the Grey Grotto.

Section Four…Thomas and Caseil from the Blue Grotto.

Section Five…Gypsy and Calypso from the Harlequin Grotto.

Section Six…Tanis and Demios from the Green Grotto.

“Shut up Alexander”

His mouth had opened but nothing had become audible. The Ariella hadn’t even looked at the would-be perpetrator, but the sidelong glance he gave her, told us all that she had been right about his intentions. Alexander was obviously upset and I knew why.

Each one of us, in the order she had called, mounted our dragons and waited about thirty seconds before taking off. Demi was the only one of the dragons there that performed a vertical takeoff. I found out later that she and Invectum were the only dragons in the mountain agile enough to take off in that manner.

One by one the dragons took to the air and gained altitude, some slowly because of their size and others quickly being sleeker. As a side note here, Famill is a Class Four Demon that turned against his own kind and fought his way to the mountain where he ultimately impressed with a Grey Wyvern named Tanicur. Class Four’s are generally referred to as Soldier Demons and visually have become bent and twisted versions of an earlier time in their lives. That’s a nice way of saying they used to be good guys but turned evil somewhere along the line. I wondered idly if his previous looks would ever come back, but I seriously doubted it. The fact that he has four eyes is probably a contributing factor to the doubt; but in his favor, I had to admit he was obviously a lot different now than he was. Famill was well liked, and today was a leader.

When it became our turn, Demi crouched and I could feel her muscles tensing just before she jumped. At fifty feet she brought her wings down hard and I could feel the difference in altitude as she rose. With each beat of her wings we gained a few feet, and within seconds we banked and slowly positioned ourselves to make the vertical climb to the Castle.

All the riders refer to the vertical climb as the Cone, taking the name from the shape of the hollowed top of the mountain. From the floor of Commons, the Cone is shrouded in darkness, but once you enter there’s more than enough light to see. The intricacies that become the interior walls, and the alcoves that have separated the different and various levels glow with a light that defies its origin. Looking down I could see the floor of Commons clearly. Although the amount of light below hadn’t changed, it looked better lit from here than when you’re at the wheel. As we passed each level on our way up, I could see alcoves carved into the interior wall that were easily large enough to hold a dragon, and the placement hinted at something more than just natural openings. They were too evenly placed; their regularity was obviously pre-planned. Level after level of these alcoves dropped beneath us; until it occurred to me that the dragons probably use this configuration as a vertical meeting hall. I began to see dragons in the higher alcoves and people milling around, but we were passing through the layers so quickly that all the details became a blur. On a quick count I estimated there to be about eight alcove levels in all. Gradually the lighting began to increase until, like a flash bulb going off, we cleared the top lip of the Cone. Looking up I could the see the roof, and from the edge that marked the Castle from the hollowed Cone, I estimated it to be about two hundred feet. Directly in front of us was, for lack of a better term, a runway wide enough to hold two dragons side by side. There were offshoots that led to both sides, giving ample room for the dragons to land and then conveniently move away. It allowed others to do the same. These offshoots ultimately curved around to the three major sections that comprise the Castle. Like everything else I had seen since my arrival at Drago, it was huge.

Demi touched down and immediately began moving toward our right, taking the first offshoot. She moved at a steady pace and the curve led us to an area that had three corridors. She picked the one on the far right and began to pick up speed. I estimate the corridor’s length at around sixty yards, at which point it opened to another area that was to the right of the Cone. From the front side of this area, you could actually look down to see the Commons. They called this the Veranda, and the entire expanse was literally filled with the largest conference table I had ever seen. There was enough room to navigate around the table, which then eventuated into a corridor that presumably led back to the runway.

Already seated at the table were the riders that had preceded me. In addition to them were several Dragos that were setting out drinks and large bowls of what looked like fruit. I climbed down from Demi’s saddle, and made my way to a chair. It was located on the Veranda side and had my name written on a piece of cardboard, perched on the chair back. I couldn’t miss it, and noticed several of the other riders playing with theirs. Apparently, you don’t get to pick where you want to sit. I was slightly ill at ease with my back to a one mile drop. The Veranda has a railing that stretches across the bulk of the open side of the Cone, but it seems too little for such a potentially dangerous ledge. I’m told that from the Veranda to the floor of Commons totals to just over fifty four hundred feet. Kind of makes your skin crawl. Demi continued on and made her way back to where we landed. There was a place there set up for the dragons while they waited for us to finish.

All the riders except Alexander and me ate liberally from the fruit. I wasn’t hungry and he looked too bored. He sat with one leg up on the table and systematically shredded his name card into confetti. Occasionally, he would mutter to himself when anyone said something he didn’t like. He was positioned directly to my right, and neither of us was pleased with the arrangement. Fifteen minutes slowly passed, and then The Ariella and the two Kings, in human form, walked into the conference area. Basiliskos was wearing his usual black leather outfit while his brother was all in white, complete with a cape. The Ariella was wearing a black and white flight suit with a matching beret. The ensemble was made complete by her black combat boots with white laces. The conversations that weren’t really conversations stopped and everyone looked over at them as they took their seats. The Ariella looked briefly at each person sitting around the table, and then took a drink and rummaged around in one of the fruit bowls. I pushed my name card around in a circle and tried to look bored. Not one person at the table had acknowledged my presence since my arrival, which was pretty much par for the course. I think Elfred and Thomas held back because of the others.   I got the impression that no one knew what this meeting was about or why they had been invited. That included me.

“Okay guys, let’s get this show on the road. I’m sure everyone’s wondering why I called you here. Well, here’s the long and short of it…New grottos have long been overdue and the plans for the first ones have been finalized. Three locations have been approved, considering feasibility and structural integrity. That having been said, I’ve heard quite a bit of scuttlebutt about the naming conventions.”

“Just admit it Ariella…this is all about the winged green. Pretty hard to ignore her much longer since she decided to call for a rider. Even that looks fairly suspicious if you stop and think about how that worked.”

All eyes had been on Alexander, and his outburst was only a prelude to what everyone thought.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” said Elfred.

“Oh come on, Elfred. Have you been absent the last two weeks or just gone brain dead?”

Thomas looked around and realized he’d been standing. He quickly sat down.

“None of the Greens want her there in the grotto, so where do you expect her to sleep?”

Gypsy was gesturing with both hands and looking directly at The Ariella.

Alexander cleared his throat and slapped his hands on the table.

“She can sleep in the same damn places she used to, and as far as I’m concerned, so long as she sleeps somewhere besides the Gold Grotto, why in the hell should I care. She’s not even supposed to be here. New grotto, my ass.”

I was just about ready to backhand the gold rider.

“Ariella, if the Green Grotto doesn’t want us around, then Demi and I will leave. There are plenty of places in this mountain where we can rest.”

The Ariella raised her hand in a sign of shut the hell up.

“This is exactly why we’re here. Nobody wants…Everybody wants…This Sub species is better than that sub species. This one should exist… That one shouldn’t. Nobody here has the right to say who is and who isn’t…Which one comes and which one goes. If they’re born, then they have the right to live and if they live, then they have the right to live in the same way with the same privileges as every other dragon that has ever lived. The only thing I expect to live without, is this constant bickering and prejudice that I have had to endure since the day I impressed. The Gold Grotto is fast making its way to the same ending that the Greens suffered two thousand years ago.”

Both Basiliskos and Invectum edged closer to The Ariella almost imperceptibly, but I shifted on my chair sensing alarm as Alexander stood up.

“So, this is how you’re going to accomplish your version of good behavior? Threats and the constant fear of either banishment or death? Well, we’re not going to let that happen. We’re already more powerful than you or your dragons, you stupid, pathetic bitch.”

Everyone started yelling but I never had the chance to do anything, not yell, not move, nothing. Before anyone knew what was going on, Invectum was moving. I didn’t think anything in this universe could move that quickly, but somehow, Invectum went up and over the table, no easy trick by the way, and had Alexander by the front of his flight suit. There was smoke coming out of his nose and a constant low growl that was overpowering the conversations of the other riders. At that moment I wasn’t sure there were other conversations; nobody was doing anything but watching the drama play out between Invectum and Alexander. There was a split second of indecision and the defiant look on Alexander’s face was undeniable; then Invectum was moving again. He continued straight at the railing that surrounded the Veranda and when he reached it, Alexander seemed to rise up, higher and higher until he was over Invectum’s head. When he realized where he was in relation to the Cone, he began to shriek. The sound of his voice continued as he went over the railing, falling out of sight. Gradually the screams receded until they too, just stopped. Not more than a second later Alexander’s Dragon, Arannis, flew past us and headed down the Cone, wings beating with desperation. He apparently thought he could catch the falling rider and pluck him out of thin air. Neither of them slowed until they hit the floor of Commons. I’ve heard that when riders die, the bonded dragons will sometimes end their lives too. Maybe that’s all he had in mind. I guess we’ll never know.

Invectum stood at the railing for several minutes; I wasn’t going to be the one to bother him. The pain showed in his face like an opened wound. He was in agony. Emotions flexed and changed on his countenance while he stood there, and no one moved or breathed. I kept going over what was said and tried to figure out what had caused such a reaction. I kept coming up blank. What I finally began to suspect was pieces to a bigger puzzle that I, maybe everyone, was missing. I had no experience with either of the Kings, only two weeks seniority and almost zero contact. Basiliskos had maneuvered himself in front of The Ariella and was crouched down like something was imminent, but God help me if I could figure out what it was. The minute Alexander had gone over the side, I jammed the gauntlet switch and brought the suit up to full power with weapons armed, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to fight, or if there was one.

The Ariella had never moved…Still hadn’t, but tears were flowing down her cheeks unbridled and she was taking blame for this event. It was so obvious and so wrong. Then through the silence, Walter’s voice came over the interior speakers.

“Tanis, I just heard gunshots, very faint but gunshots none the less. My sensors are unable to pinpoint the exact location but the shots are definitely below us. Perhaps if we were closer…”

“Demi, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Tanis, something bad is happening in the Gold Grotto and..”

“Stay where you are Demi. Don’t move. I think you’re safe where you are, so just stay there until I get back.”

The other riders were pushing away from the table and making a mad dash to the corridor at the far end of the conference area, each yelling something different and unintelligible. There was too much happening to tell what it all meant and the screens in my helmet were bouncing around, giving me so much information that it became meaningless.

I detected movement from the right of where I stood, and as I glanced over I could see Invectum diving over the rail. Like a swan dive, he had his arms out, feet together and just sailed over and down. I turned around to tell The Ariella I was going to the Gold Grotto and was just in time to see Basiliskos wrap his arms around her. She was in the progress of standing, but as she gained her feet from the chair, she and Basiliskos just faded out. There was a mist momentarily that sparkled and shimmered as it moved toward the railing, and then it was gone. I wondered if that was the phenomenon The Ariella referred to as standing in the dragon’s mist, but I was too busy to ponder it at the moment. I turned back around, stepped up to the railing and dove over. Walter and I free fell for about twenty five hundred feet, at which time I could see the screen in my helmet move into place, indicating the rocket boosters about to fire. We were the only ones in the Cone but I kept a constant lookout for anyone in the air around me knowing Invectum was ahead of us somewhere. We didn’t need another disaster at the moment. I moved my hands into position and made sure my feet were together just before the rockets fired. We increased speed considerably and I could feel the suit rock back and forth until it stabilized. We dropped another five hundred feet and then the secondary rockets fired. Our speed increased dramatically as we pulled up and angled to the left. From our flight path we could see where Alexander and Arannis had impacted. There were a large number of people working at the site in an attempt to lessen what the general populace had to see. They had already begun setting up a perimeter around the affected area and I could see more Security on the way. The entrance to the Gold Grotto was now visible in the distance, and had an enormous number of people rushing in and out, most of them with rifles. The response time was so quick, I suspected more people were in on the potential outcome than was immediately apparent. Seconds later we landed in the standard three point touchdown to minimize the possibility of accidently burning anyone on our approach. It means cutting the rockets at around fifteen feet and hitting pretty hard, but well worth it under the circumstances. I stood and looked around for The Ariella but she was nowhere to be found. As I approached the entrance, several men I had seen at the medical area were rushing in with stretchers and portable gear associated with paramedic units. Never a good sign.

“Walter, set up the standard dart arrays, flush the system and standby. We’re going in.”

I could hear the whirring inside the suit as well as the plates lifting and resetting. The Suit made a whooshing noise as Walter flushed the system with nitrogen, and we took our first step into the grotto.

Every grotto has an area just inside the main entrance that is used as a foyer. This was no different, but at the moment was more like a M.A.S.H. unit. One of the gold riders was lying prone as medics knelt next to him. Just at a glance he appeared to have been shot in the chest. To the right, a small child was lying next to a rock outcropping and medics were working on him feverishly. I glanced back at the downed gold rider just as the medics pulled a sheet up over his face. The noise around me was incredible and heart wrenching. Several riders were converging on their downed companion, one of which was wailing. I took her to be the rider’s mate. Then as I looked down the main corridor, the carnage became evident. At least three gold dragons were lying collapsed in the corridor, and I didn’t need to be a doctor to know they were dead. Off to one side was The Ariella with both of the Kings standing next to her. I could see by the movement of her shoulders that she was sobbing and the two Kings were trying to console her. Further down the corridor, I could see yet another dragon lying in the contorted posture of death. From the posture of the first three, I’d say that they had torn each other apart. I couldn’t fathom why any of the dragons would do this.

To my immediate right, two security guards were en route to me and they didn’t look friendly. I turned to face them and they both raised rifles and pointed them at me.

“Are you armed, green rider? Our orders are to not allow anyone in the grotto that is bearing arms.”

“Am I bearing arms? You’ve got to be kidding…”

“He’s supposed to be here, Captain. He’s here to help me; just let him do his job,” said The Ariella between sobs.

“Sorry Queen Mother, we didn’t know.”

The two guards turned immediately and tried to look busy as they moved away.

I hadn’t seen The Ariella approaching until she spoke and my heart went out to her. I hadn’t been here very long but even I knew this was a catastrophe, and unprecedented in these people’s lifetime. The scene up in the Castle was beginning to make sense now and the scope of these events was growing in leaps and bounds. My first order of business was to make sure that whatever was happening here had actually stopped; that it was over.

“I’m sorry Ariella, but my first thought is to make sure you’re safe, and this grotto doesn’t feel safe yet. Have all the other riders been called yet? Do we know if they’re all here? Were any riders from the other grottos involved?”

“I’m sorry you had to see this, Tanis. It really isn’t always like this. I’m pretty sure it’s over though.”

“Pretty sure? I’m pretty sure that’s not good enough.”

I had never seen The Ariella so distraught. I couldn’t think of anything to say to help her, and I floundered momentarily feeling worthless. Get a grip and then get to work, Tanis, was all that came to mind, so that’s what I did.

I retraced my steps back to the child who had been shot and asked one of the medics if he would survive. They told me his condition was critical, but he had stabilized and they thought he had a good chance of surviving. Oh, and he’s no child either; they told me he was an adolescent dragon and was in human form when he had been shot. The shooter was the downed gold rider behind me. Then who the hell shot him?

None of the slain gold dragons had made it to the foyer, which I took to be good news. As I made my way down through the main corridor, I confirmed that there were three dragons dead toward the front of the grotto, one about halfway back. These were fully matured dragons and as such, were very large. It would take a crane to move them out of the grotto, and once they were out, then what? Further back along the same corridor is where the rest of the fallen riders had been found. All of these men had been trampled to death and the remains were grisly.

I stopped my investigation when I saw security ushering other gold riders from deeper within the grotto. Apparently, the rest of the gold riders were being herded into one of the guest areas to be interrogated. One of them was being taken to a different room, and I wanted to know why. It was a woman in a gold flight suit, so she was a rider, but something must be up or she wouldn’t be segregated to another room. Not more than a minute later The Ariella went in. As I approached she turned around, looked at me and shook her head no. I can read between the lines; I turned and walked away.

Well, the other riders were exonerated from any association with the five that had been killed. Alexander had been found out, so to speak, and the drama that played out in the Castle was the thwarting of a plot to murder The Ariella. When that failed, the others were caught in the crosshairs.

After quite a bit of argument, I convinced Demi to stay in the Castle; it’s not that she didn’t know what was going on. The dragon communal mind thing was at work all over the mountain. I think all the dragons knew what had happened, plus all the ins and outs, to a higher degree than the rest of us; but I felt better keeping her away from actually seeing the aftermath first hand.

It took hours to clean the affected areas and scores of volunteers, myself included, before the spot close to the wheel and the Gold Grotto began to look normal again. The fallen dragons and their riders were eventually taken to the river, where a massive pyre was erected. The Ariella spoke the eulogy by the river and the fires burned for a very long time. The atmosphere in the mountain, both air quality and emotional content, has been grim. I’m not sure we will recover any time soon.

It’s now been four days since the tragedy and we finally have a piece of good news. The small boy, aka adolescent gold dragon, managed to pull through. His name is Akabar, and he is the only dragon at Mt. Drago that has blue eyes. I’m not sure if that is really significant, but it seems to be a big deal to the Golds. Once the news was released of his impending recovery, the atmosphere around the mountain improved considerably. I was thankful for that, and it produced a smile on The Ariella’s face for the first time in days. Demi came down from the Castle at around the same time, and even though I had visited her numerous times, it was good to see her with the general populace again. I’m told there will be a town meeting tomorrow night to explain in full what was learned and where we go from here. This place needs a pep talk in the worst way. I also heard they were going to wheel Akabar out so he can see the proceedings as they unfold. Dragon or not, he’s a cool little kid.

We spent an uneventful night, although The Ariella tossed and turned and got up before the dawn. She paced around the house, smoked like a chimney and drank coffee like there wouldn’t be a tomorrow. Occasionally she would make notes but eventually they got tossed as if they weren’t good enough. By the time of first light, several trash cans were full and she seemed more nervous than ever. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much sleep either. It also didn’t come as a surprise that she wanted to go to the mountain early. I guess it’s easier to be nervous there than it is here. At least there you can see what you’re nervous about. We had only just arrived when she decided to spend some time with Akabar, so I went to go find Demi and log a little time in the air. Here’s another surprise. When Demi and I had finished flying, The Ariella had gone A.W.A.L and we found her in the Gold Grotto. The female rider she had talked with several days before, a woman by the name of Ariel, was taking the death of the riders and their dragons pretty hard. Understandable, and I also learned that Alexander’s dragon, Arannis, was brother to Ariel’s dragon Arraness. So in retrospect, I think Ariel took Arannis’ death the hardest. I can’t even imagine what Arraness must be feeling right now or who she blames. SIDE NOTE: I had only heard after the fact about Famill, Thomas, Arraness, Caseil and Tanicur getting wounded. Seems they had been in the gold grotto when the shooting had started and had played a role in forcing the cessation of hostilities. By the time I had gotten there, they had been taken to one of the interior areas to be treated.

I went by and visited with Akabar, to find that he didn’t have the same sentiments about Demi and I. Akabar liked Demi and just automatically extended that same friendship to me. Trust me, it was refreshing to know we weren’t hated by everyone. I promised to check on him everyday till he got out of the medical area. And then my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, tell me, how is it that you’re in human form all the time, I thought you were a gold dragon?” (Pretty subtle, right?)

“We don’t learn how to do it…to morph till we’re older…usually, but I woke up like this one day and I don’t remember how to change back. Basiliskos says it’s just a phase.”

“Well, I’m sure Basiliskos is right, nothing to worry about.”

Out of all the answers I expected, that wasn’t even close to being one of them. I really should learn to keep my mouth shut. In my defense, my question didn’t seem to bother him but I made a hasty goodbye and left the medical area.

The Drago Clan had been working all day getting ready for the town meeting. Literally hundreds of mats were laid down in row after row, starting with the south side of the wheel and working back toward the south wall. I guess they used mats because it would have taken twice the amount of chairs. That would have been a lot of chairs. The area to the east of the wheel had also been cordoned off and from the size of it, the dragons would be sitting there. Eventually everything that could be done had been, and it was just a matter of waiting for everyone to make it to Commons and find a place to sit. The Ariella had made sure there were mats to each side of the podium. She would, of course, be speaking to the people from there. The grotto leaders were to sit on the mats placed at the side. For once, there was no order as to where we sat. I chose the one on the far left side where I could clearly see Demi once I had taken my place. Cables went back almost a hundred yards to the portable generator that gave power to the public address system, which was positioned at either side of where The Ariella would stand. Slowly the crowd quieted when they saw The Ariella step up to the podium.

“Can everyone hear me? Good. The last few days have brought great sorrow. Many of our friends have been taken from us and can’t be brought back. It should come as no surprise that the things we did, and did not do, can’t be changed.   What surprises me is that we didn’t see it happening until it was too late. Regardless as to their status of innocent or guilty…these riders were our family and friends, and as such, we need to remember them for what they accomplished and how they touched the hearts of so many. The list of our fallen is as follows:

Alexander Kraven and Arannis Annar Nimbus from the Gold Grotto.

Phillip Tanes and Meridian Axamar Rogannen from the Gold Grotto.

Jeff Morgan and Titesera Balimon Gar from the Gold Grotto.

Michael Jones and Anoneil Critus Milan from the Gold Grotto.

Steve Norton and Barone Mandraka Vell from the Gold Grotto.

“Will all of you please bow your heads for a moment of silence in honor of these warriors.”

You could have heard a pin drop and after a few moments, she said.

“Thank you…The list of our injured is as follows:

Akabar Kanna Nimbus from the Gold Grotto.

Famill and Tanicur Candra Panzike from the Grey Grotto.

Arraness Annaya Nimbus from the Gold Grotto.

Thomas Arden, Caseil, Dale Campbell and Daseilla Bidiran Secundus from the Blue Grotto.”

The injured had made their way slowly from behind The Ariella as she had been naming them. This included Akabar, who was rolled up on his portable hospital bed. The rest had kind of ringed him as they took position to one side and behind The Ariella. Pointing to them, The Ariella, with obvious pride in her voice, said.

“It gives me immense pleasure to tell all of you here tonight that a full recovery is expected from each of these heroes. Without them our losses would have been even greater than they were. We owe them our admiration, our thanks and our service in the future.”

The applause erupted across Commons and within seconds brought everyone to their feet. It continued for several minutes, and then The Ariella held up her hands to quiet them down. After the crowd noise had subsided, The Ariella continued.

“I believe in new beginnings. I believe in forgiveness and forgetting past transgressions. I believe in second chances. And… I believe in all of you. We need to find the courage to put the last few days behind us. We have collectively said goodbye to our fallen and now it’s time to say hello to our new faces. The first, admittedly, is not really a new face but she has stepped up at a critical point to help the Gold Grotto in its time of need. I’d like to present the new section leaders of the Gold Grotto…Ariel Dannon and Arraness Annaya Nimbus.”

Ariel stood and put her hands in the air as her dragon, Arraness, lowered her head between them. I scanned around and saw more than a few surprised faces, while the applause of the crowd swelled with its approval. The Ariella waited for the noise to lower before she continued.

“We have discussed at some length as to the disposition of new grottos, and holding with my sentiments about new beginnings, we have decided to start construction on the Emerald Grotto. May I present to you the section leaders for the new Emerald Grotto…Tanis Nikolai Theatra and Demios Reptillus Stag.”

I stood and put my arm out in the direction of Demi, hoping there would be applause. She stood, lifted up on her back legs and roared. There was a moment of nothing and then applause, tentative at first, and then like a wave it just rolled in and over us. It felt spectacular, but I was afraid it would come to a screeching halt when they realized they still hated us. But you know what? It didn’t happen.

 Continue on to Chapter 5 ——>

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