The mountains grew larger and the moon grew fat and bright in the sky. The addition of three more people actually re-energized the Araxi. Though Skyrel had worried about the additional mouths to feed, now that they were leaving the steppes and entering the weather system of the mountains, food was more abundant. There was more moisture, and the bristly shrubs that crouched between rocks yielded sweet red berries. Giant mountain goats with curved horns protruding from their plated skulls could be seen galloping in the higher hills, and there was a healthy population of rodents and birds.
While drachvolds roamed the range—which was undoubtedly why it was uninhabited—Ghokarian kept them at bay. He took the lead as they ascended toward the first major peak, walking at the head of the line and letting the children ride on his back, snug between his wings. Beledine took the end of the line, making sure no one fell too far behind.
Then, finally, they crested the ridge.
This valley put the first one to shame. As Ghokarian had promised, trees dotted the rocky slope leading to a vast basin. The land dropped steeply beneath them in sheer cliffs, but flattened out to the east, offering an easy, rambling road down to a sprawling, rippling lake. In the distant north Beledine could see rivers flowing down snow-capped peaks.
It was hidden. It was defensible. It was lush. And best of all, it was deserted.
“We beat the other tribe,” she said, smiling up at Ghokarian. “It's ours.”
The next few suns were spent setting up camp. Skyrel admitted it was even better than their original home, which had only been a small basin where rainwater collected. The icy lake here didn't look like it would ever run dry, not even in the warm season. It boasted a wide selection of fish and crabs, and was obviously a gathering point for all the animals in the vicinity.
The Araxi hunters knew their trade well enough to take only what the tribe needed, so as not to overfarm, but there was no shortage of food. Led by Kibar, the men brought back bountiful meals every night. Adsy wasn't able to move well due to his disfigured back, but he did have a way with fish. He spent most of his time by the shore, returning periodically with fat, wriggling coelocanths.
The earth wielders set up shelter at once, working to create drachvold-proof living quarters. Falme would have taken the lead on that project, but his illness had worsened in the thin air. Instead he let Badger manage things. After he'd gotten some proper rest and a few good meals in him, Badger was as bright and helpful as could be, and a decent wielder to boot. The Lothoko had forced him to hollow out caves for their dwellings, and he replicated that technique in the cliffs here. Soon the Araxi had a smattering of yurts by the lake, as well as tunnels leading into the mountains where they would be safe from even the most persistent drachvold.
It was what Beledine had always dreamed of. Everyone had a part to play, and everyone played their part well. Kamber led a group of earth wielders in cultivating a garden. The soil was shallow but fertile, and soon little rows of green buds were sprouting at the outskirts of the encampment.
But peace was hard to come by in the world of humans, as Beledine was learning. The moon had barely begun to wane again before trouble arose one misty morning.
Beledine, who'd been washing her face at the edge of the lake, stood quickly, alerted by Blure's cries. She and Ghokarian hurried back to the center of the encampment.
“What's wrong?” she asked, joining Skyrel and Kibar. Blure was tottering down the mountain from his watchpost. Too out of breath to explain, he pointed back the way he'd come. Beledine spotted a group of hunters loping along the ridge. She counted at least fifteen.
“The tribe from the south, I assume,” said Skyrel. “Lucky we had time to dig in and regain our energy before they arrived.”
“Should I wake the tribe?” asked Kibar.
“No need. We can handle it.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a dark shadow rose from the fog overhanging the mountain. It soared up on bat-like wings and banked toward the hunters.
“Drachvold,” grunted Kibar. “Maybe it'll take care of them for us.”
“That's not a drachvold,” Beledine whispered. She could just make out the silhouette of four legs tucked neatly beneath the creature's body. “It's a dragon.”
A low growl worked its way through Ghokarian's throat and his own wings fluttered at his sides. The beast wasn't attacking the hunters—it was joining them. A bonded dragon, which meant the other tribe had a rheenar.
The dragon landed and the figures on the slope gathered around it. Beledine reached out with her mind to make contact, but she sensed nothing in the place where its consciousness should have been. Ghokarian tried as well, to no avail.
<He and his bondmate have cloaked their minds,> Ghokarian thought. <I don't know why, but I don't like it.>
<Maybe they're just protecting themselves,> Beledine suggested. <We are a larger tribe. Perhaps—>
But whatever Beledine thought was wrong. A resounding crack echoed down to them as a number of large boulders dislodged from the slope. Beledine's eyes widened in horror as she saw they were tumbling directly toward the tunnel openings in the base of the southern cliffs.
Skyrel let loose an angry cry and motioned for Kibar to alert the tribe. Beledine began running. She sensed Ghokarian break into a gallop behind her, and with the grace borne of two minds melded into one arrow of conscious thought, she bounded off a nearby rock and took a flying leap. Her body twisted in the air, hair streaming behind her, her whole being a fiery fluid in motion. She arced over Ghokarian's left wing and whipped her legs around, landing neatly on his back and settling into the spot behind his wing joints that seemed, inexplicably, to have been designed for her.
He snapped both wings out and pumped them furiously, pushing off the ground and launching skyward. Beledine squinted against the rush of wind and crouched low, gripping one of his protruding neck spikes to steady herself as they rose on choppy mountain currents.
The screams of her people rose to meet her ears, even over the howling rush of air and the thunder of the falling boulders. She and Ghokarian angled forward, minds and bodies moving and reacting as one, and she wielded.
A wall of white-hot blinding light appeared halfway down the slope. Beledine poured everything she had into creating the flames. Strands of energy blazed through her, racing from her core, her magicsource, into the raging inferno. Even as she stoked the fire, turning it from mere flame to a scalding nova, she threaded more energy into a second spell that was designed to contain the heat, to prevent her creation from destroying the trees and wildlife on the slope.
It was the most powerful spell she'd wielded in a long time. She didn't often use her firemagic, for delving too deeply into her source sometimes unearthed dangerous memories of her long-forgotten past. But this was an emergency. She had to protect her tribe.
Despite being somewhat out of practice, Beledine had always had a talent for weaving spells. Her fire-wall was no exception. The boulders, gathering speed, struck the flames and caught, held in place by the sheer force of compact heat. Those that made it through to the other side came out slow and boiling red, having lost their momentum. They spat and hissed, and any greenery that touched them caught fire at once.
Ghokarian banked right, dipping close to the mountain. Beledine leaned over his muscled shoulder and extended her left hand. Physical movements had no bearing on magic spells—the dragon, in his wisdom, had taught her that—but adding a motion often served to focus intent. Using the power of her mind, Beledine wielded again, contracting her fingers into a fist. She wrenched the heat from the grasses and rocks on the slope, extinguishing all fires in the span of a heartbeat.
With the avalanche abated, the bondmates turned their attention to the bigger threat. Beledine had saved the men on the ground; she trusted that Skyrel and Kibar would lead them on in the fight. They could handle the mortals—she and Ghokarian needed to handle the enemy dragon.
<Any sign of it?>
At her thought, a bright flash erupted at the corner of her vision. Ghokarian had a fraction of a moment to react, but his instincts served him well. He tucked his wings and rolled over midair, narrowly avoiding the harsh beam of searing light that had been shot at them.
Beledine wasn't frightened by her dragon's aerial acrobatics. She had grown up on his back, accompanying him when he went hunting, learning about the land on his long-ranging flights, and occasionally engaging in brief battles when she'd gotten older. She gripped his scaly sides with her knees and clung to his neck spike, unperturbed by his jarring movement.
However, those early battles—the ones in which she'd learned every one of Ghokarian's movements and striven to become his equal and opposite, his counterweight, his extra set of hands—had never been against an enemy as deadly and cunning as this.
Wheeling upright and flapping vigorously, Ghokarian sought out the rogue dragon. He and Beledine spotted it as one, their senses working in tandem to bring their attention to a point directly above them. They noticed it just in time, and it was all Ghokarian could do to avoid a second beam of light. The attack missed the brunt of them, but it kissed his underbelly as he swerved. Beledine felt a flare of pain across her own stomach, a ghostly echo of her bondmate's injury.
<He's bigger,> thought Ghokarin, glaring over his shoulder. The brute was hiding in low-hanging mists, partially obscured, but even from this distance Beledine could tell he was massive. His wings whipped the fog into frenzied whorls as he hovered in place, watching, waiting.
<Why isn't he coming after us?> she wondered.
<His size will be a disadvantage in an airborne battle.> The dragon sent another beam of light rocketing toward them. Ghokarian whipped his head around and countered with a light attack of his own. The two spells met in a collision that sent a shockwave tearing across the sky. More rocks shook and shifted on the mountain. Clouds of birds fled from where they'd taken shelter. Ghokarian and Beledine dropped down, rattled.
<He's trying to keep us far from him. He knows if we get close enough, my speed will be a better weapon than his size.>
Beledine nodded. She tore her eyes from the mist-wreathed monster and did a quick scan of the action below. By the lakeshore: the Araxi earth wielders, fortifying their structures and creating barricades. By the cave entry: Badger, Kamber, and the women, shoring up against the attack. In the foothills: Skyrel, Kibar, Mota, Yalon, all the best fighters of the tribe. They darted between rocks, engaging the earth-wielding men making their way downhill.
Loath though she was to admit it, she was grateful for Yalon's presence just then. His airmagic was proving useful as a defense against attacks that involved wielding rocks down upon the encampment.
<We have to keep our enemy engaged in the air. It's our only hope.>
Ghokarian shot two more light attacks at the dragon, one at each of his wings. They weren't very powerful—they were only intended as a distraction while he climbed in altitude. The larger beast was slow to dodge, instead electing to counter-wield to bend the photons of Ghokarian's spells away from his body. Beledine knew that to be a very advanced and energy-consuming spell, but she also noticed something interesting.
<He paid more attention to saving the right wing than the left,> she thought as Ghokarian climbed high, coming level with the crest of the ridge. <He didn't want that side hit.>
<He's favoring it,> Ghokarian observed, one keen eye on his adversary. The rogue dragon rotated to watch Ghokarian, broadsiding with his left. <An injury, perhaps.>
Ghokarian was almost at the dragon's altitude now, and he spread his wings, catching an updraft, resting for a moment and waiting to see how their foe would respond. The dragon continued to hover. He lowered his head, and Beledine spotted a small figure hunched on his back: his human bondmate.
<They're plotting their next move,> thought Ghokarian. <Luckily I have a secret weapon.>
<Oh? What's that?>
Beledine smiled to herself. She sensed Ghokarian's plan, and though the mere thought of it sent thrills coursing through her blood, she nodded and hunkered down in preparation.
Both dragons struck at once. The larger one wielded a lower-intensity light beam, one that wasn't as concentrated but which could be sustained for longer periods of time. Ghokarian ducked and dodged, flying downward in a zigzag. The other was forced to swivel his head this way and that in an attempt to follow and fry him.
<Fool,> scoffed Ghokarian. <He will make himself dizzy.>
<All the better for us.>
The beam clipped one of Ghokarian's wingtips and he rolled over, hissing. Then he wielded the illusion spell he'd been preparing, bending the light of the world around them, making them invisible to all others.
They heard the enemy dragon roar in frustration. He began circling lower. Beledine could make out a small brown head poking over his shoulder, adding an extra set of eyes to the hunt. It was all in vain—Ghokarian was peerless when it came to wielding illusions.
Beledine clambered forward along Ghokarian's neck. She slid down his arm until she was cradled safely in his front paws. An electrical current of understanding shot between them, and Ghokarian suddenly launched her up into the air.
She burst from the confines of his illusion, becoming visible once more. The enemy dragon snapped his head toward her and fired a thin, wicked blast of light, the kind of spell that could burn a hole right through a man's chest. Ghokarian had subconsciously warned her to expect such a trick, so she'd prepared a powerful defense. She shut her eyes against the onslaught as she wielded a heat shield around herself. The intensity of her spell was enough to diffuse and dispel the dragon's attack, and she remained unscathed.
She could tell her enemies were shocked she'd survived. Her momentum from Ghokarian's throw was slowing, and soon she would begin to fall. She threw her arms out behind her, fingers splayed, and twin jets of furious flame erupted from her palms. A wielder usually elected to convert his magicthreads into physical spells when they were a safe distance from his body, but Beledine wanted the fire close to her. She activated her magic a hair's width from her skin, wielding a secondary spell—the reverse of her heat shield—to protect herself from being burnt. The spells propelled her upwards, and she shot toward the dragon.
He dove to meet her, opening his jaws to spit light again. She let him, for her heat shield was still in effect—but the impact of his concentrated light sent her spiraling off-course. She cursed under her breath and struggled to right herself in the air. It was harder than she'd anticipated. She felt winded, for deflecting the light attack had sucked a great deal of energy from her.
Before the dragon could strike again, Ghokarian reappeared. A pillar of light erupted into being and he shot upwards, propelling himself with his spell in much the same way Beledine had propelled herself moments before. It gave him more speed and power than his own two wings would have afforded him, and he careened headlong into his enemy's stomach.
The dragon screamed in shock as Ghokarian's weight slammed him off-course. Ghokarian kicked out with his hind legs and bit down savagely on the other's right wing joint. The larger beast screamed again and tried to get a hold of Ghokarian, but he pushed off, darting away back toward Beledine.
He held his hands out for her and she dropped her spells, allowing him to catch her up and zoom away. She felt the heat of another light beam narrowly miss them, but saw it impact on the ground below, sending up a miniature volcano of burnt rock and brush on the slope.
<He's stronger than I anticipated. I thought bleeding him might be enough to ground him—or at least keep him from wielding too much.>
They circled lower, gazing up. The large dragon was acting very odd—perhaps because of his injured wing? It looked like he should be flying with great speed, but he never moved from his spot. What was going on?
<Illusion,> Beledine and Ghokarian thought as one. The dragon was on the move, but was bending light to project its image into one spot in the sky. Beledine looked down and Ghokarian looked up, not seeking with their eyes so much as their other senses. She caught a spiral of smoke rising from the encampment below and fear lurched in her gut.
Perhaps she would have heard, or even smelled the beast if she hadn't been distracted. Either way, she never saw it coming. He rammed into them from Ghokarian's right, pitching them out over the cliff that dropped to the Araxi's valley.
Ghokarian roared and twisted in his foe's grasp. He tilted his head back and sprayed light at the bigger dragon, but now that their enemy had a hold on him, it was basically all over. The dragon ducked away from the attack and dug his claws into Ghokarian's scales, crushing his wings to his sides.
Beledine, jostled around in Ghokarian's grip, looked up. Her eyes locked with the human on the big dragon's back. He had a ruthless, feral grin on his lips, his yellowing teeth bared.
The large dragon flapped three times, gathering speed, then disengaged from Ghokarian, spreading his wings and leveling off over the valley while Ghokarian and Beledine slammed into an outcropping of boulders on the cliff face. Ghokarian roared again in pain. The boulders gave beneath their weight, and in a shower of debris and rock and flailing wings and limbs they tumbled onward, right toward the encampment.
Ghokarian was badly hurt and they were about to crush her tribesmen with their fall. Thinking fast, Beledine created a balloon of flame beneath her dragon's body, slowing his descent, keeping both of them safe from the heat with another inverted shield. Sensing her intent, Ghokarian loosened his grip on her. Like a squirrel she scurried up his arm and stood on his back, facing their adversaries. Fire fountained from her hands as she prepared a brutal counterattack.
She never had a chance to wield it. A sharp arm of rock suddenly burst out of the cliff, faster than a diving falcon. It caught the large dragon square in the chest, puncturing his dark gray scales. His eyes bugged out of his head, as if he couldn't quiet believe what had happened. The living rock retracted as quickly as it had come, wrenching itself free of the beast's flesh. Purple blood sprayed from the gaping wound. Then he and his bondmate fell.
They fell faster than Beledine and Ghokarian, who had righted himself and was allowing the lingering heat from Beledine's spell to fill his wings. Dragon and rider gathered speed, finally crashing against the mountainside. The slope quaked at the impact and loose rocks tumbled down to bury them.
<What in the name of the Shadow just happened?> Beledine thought, staring at the gruesome sight.
<I don't know.> Ghokarian's mindvoice was tight with pain, and filled with undercurrents of fury and fear.
Beledine extinguished her fire. Without the crackle of her flames it was eerily still. Far-off voices carried up to her and she looked back to the encampment. Broken rocks were scattered across the valley. Some trees had been crushed, others had fallen over. The ground was a churned-up mud hole. Their new home lay in ruins.
Sensing her need to check on her tribe was greater than his need to investigate the dragon's death, Ghokarian angled down to the valley. He landed with difficulty and Beledine leapt from his back, tearing across the open field toward the remnants of the dwellings.
Mota was there, and Falme. Beledine was shocked at the magnitude of the relief that swept through her when she saw they were, for the most part, uninjured.
“Mota! What happened? How did you fare?”
“We defeat the others.” His voice was grim, his face drawn. Beledine feared he was harboring some secret, terrible injury. She reached out, meaning to inspect him, but he shook his head and took her hand in his.
“Come with me.” He pulled her toward the entrance to the caves. “Sky asking for you.”
Something in his tone turned her heart to ice. “Is he alright?”
Mota's mouth thinned and he closed his eyes. “No.”