“He stirs,” Terranox lifted his head, blue eyes piercing the newly renewed darkness, his tortured features lit from below by the still-cooling magma, which cast the features of his face into sharp contrast. “Deep beneath the island of Yalith, Zenhir stirs.” The Shessstorath paused before her leap, weight falling back to the floor in shock. The involuntary widening of her eyes revealed that she understood the importance of this knowledge. The dragon’s rage was suddenly cut off as her mind attempted to process the true meaning of his words. But in the vacuum of her thoughts they made no sense, as if they were a riddle that necessitated discovery. Silence reigned. When it was broken, the light of the lava was gone, cooled to a craggy crust surrounding Terranox.
“No. That is impossible. He is bound!” Shessstorath denied the possibility. Her tone of incredulity would have been comical coming from a creature the size of the black dragon, had the visceral terror that laced it not been so infectious. The tyranny of the Dragon Emperor’s rule had not been limited to the mortal races, but had bound all dragon kind as well. Terranox shook his head slowly, his own soul not wanting to give voice to the truth. But the weight of the need gripped him and the words slipped past lips pale with tension.
“Zenhir is dead, this is true. But his soul is too mighty, his will too complete, to ever allow mere death to end his lust for dominion. Did you truly think mortal sorcery could forever bind him? It was a fool’s hope, one that I ignorantly embraced.” His words were then only for himself, eyes averting to the mangled floor. “I believed that one betrayal would suffice.” He then found his voice and returned his gaze to Shessstorath. “The fact that he stirs merely an Age later means the mortal labors, while impressive, were woefully insufficient.” Terranox again ceased talking to her directly, whispering softly to himself. “I had hoped for more. But an Age is too short a time. He stirs.” Terranox could not keep nihilistic resignation from seeping into that statement. Shessstorath’s head slowly rose up as if gauging the night sky could be wide enough to hide her forever. Her onyx studded hide rippled as the muscles underneath bunched and flexed like a cornered animal.
“So this is why you have called out? To collect the remainder of our kind for him? So that when your master rises again you may present your race as a peace offering, our necks bent ready for the binding?” The fear that gripped her voice wrenched empathy for his rival from Terranox. In another place or time, he would have reveled in Shessstorath’s emotional torment. But here and now, he shared it. In another low whisper, so low that his dead former master surely could not hear it, Terranox whispered.
“No.” Shessstorath’s head snapped down to take in the elven shape that blotted the floor. Her eyes still held her fear like water in an overflowing vessel. Terranox stared at the large head that could swallow him in a single motion. “No, I mean to see that he never rises, or if he does that he is opposed by those who can stop him. A conclave of dragons to oppose the rising of the Tiam Emperor. And for that,” Terranox swallowed tentatively, apprehension filling his chest, “I need you.” It galled him to say that, his pride irrevocably wounded at the voicing of his need. But the truth of the matter remained; he needed allies, and Shessstorath was all that he had.
That no power emanated from the Elf was plain enough for Shessstorath to see. The level of trust he had mustered stunned her. His presentation of vulnerability gave credence to his claim, despite her wish that it was untrue. Eyes narrowing, she dropped her sinuous neck down and slid her head along tortured stone till the breath from her snout ruffled the fringes of his robe and kicked up embers from the floor. “If you speak sooth, we have retread familiar ruts. We are afflicted by the inertia of our previous experiences like any other base creatures. We have both made mistakes tonight and I fear they will not be the last ones.” The wedge shaped head lifted and ocher eyes regarded the elf. “There are too few of us left for blood to be spilt over ancient feuds. You have called, and I have answered, at great cost to myself. I will endeavor to restrain my… responses till I have heard you out.” She stretched with a roll of her shoulders, as if not entirely comfortable in her natural form. Terranox understood those restrained movements as if they were a reflection of his own. His appearance, along with her involuntary reaction, drove a point home. Even here, even now, millennia after the Great Domination and the purge that followed, the memory of draconic terror still gripped the world of Ta’nar by the throat. Dragons were still daemons of myth and legend, even though one of his kind had not been sighted by mortal eyes in seven hundred years. And dragons, for all their power, remained hidden out of fear of mortal reprisal: whether cloaked in the flesh of lesser creatures, as Terranox and Shessstorath had been, or by hiding away in some secret respite deep in the dragonsleep, waiting for a time when the world would be safer. With great difficulty, he swallowed down the bitter rivalry he shared with Shessstorath for the greater good of his race. It was true that he had called a conclave of the elder dragons, but the fact that any, let alone Shessstorath, had answered the call to gather was beyond his expectations. None of their kind knew how many dragons were left in the world or where they were. There was no easy way to contact even the few dragons that were known to Terranox, so he had resorted to the only secure method he had at his disposal, the dragonsleep. The call to gather a new Tiam had threaded subtly through the shared dream space that all dragons shared. And after a year of intense effort, only Shessstorath had responded. Secretly, Terranox found he was grateful for her presence, the cunning and power that made her such a fine rival provided him a sliver of hope that his desired future would come to pass. The looming threat provided much impetus to cast aside their rivalry, but he was not so naive to believe that she would not attempt to twist any outcome to favor herself. And to leave him crippled. He would be wary, but trusted in his own cunning and accepted the risk. The future of his race must be secured. Her voice called out to him in the dark.
“What you propose will be a tightrope stretched over a river of lava. Stray but a bit to one side or the other, and this conclave of yours will be incinerated: by Zenhir’s fury, mortal retribution, or by the wrath of the rest of our kind. I can only assume you have a means of navigating this path and avoiding the hazards?” Shessstorath could hardly keep the anxiety out of her voice. The return of Zenhir was a doom that hung over the remnant of the draconic race, indeed all of Ta’nar, and Terranox proposed to meet this burgeoning threat head on. It would require manipulation and planning on an immortal scale. Impossible for either of them aloneand possibly out of reach for the whole of dragon kind. The chains that bound them all to Zenhir were fell and irresistible. She had no doubt that they lingered beneath the surface of her soul, even after centuries of dormancy.
“I have no plan as of yet. What I have are gossamers that need resources and time to solidify into plans. I needed others to join me, to risk everything in this venture to remain free. The Wanderer’s war against Thoan has wrecked devastation upon Yalith, and the Rivener’s dark army’s campaign on the main land has cast all of Sentali into chaos. I believe that it was the clash of these forces that teased Zenhir from his millennia of deep slumber. Now is the time to begin, while all is fluid, while Zenhir stirs restlessly, but the chains that bind him still hold. It is my belief that they will hold for some hundred years yet, perhaps even as long as half a millennia.” Terranox raised one fist to punctuate his point. “Not since before our rule has the world been this malleable. If we are to prepare for his return we could not ask for a better time.” His eyes shone with a febrile hope. “We must begin soon if we mean to oppose him. Are you with me?” The last query was impassioned, an outpouring of all the raw emotion that had claimed Terranox. This was it, the summation all of his planning and divinations, the end of his foresight and resources. It all came down to this moment, this question, and to the acceptance of the offer by an ancient and powerful rival.
In response, the dragon’s amber eyes flared with sudden light that flooded the Meet. Shadows were banished and for a single moment, the light threw the shear walls into stark relief, creating the impression of a razor-fanged maw possessed by some great rock worm that threatened to swallow everything within the Meet’s boundaries. Inborn magic, pervasive throughout the entire race of dragons, responded to draconic will, and Shessstorath began to change. Her whole form became as unbound as quicksilver, mass and size no longer any constant. The black silhouette quickly contracted, bones shortened and changed shape, claws retracted, and organs shifted or disappeared altogether. Skin replaced scales, yet retained their dark hue. Shessstorath’s profile tapered and then expanded up, shifting from the long sinuous shape of a dragon to humanoid shape standing upright. Clothing blossomed out from some extra-natural space, stored perfectly preserved till need pulled it back into being. Time so swift as to defy the definition of its passage past, and where there once was the majestic shape of the terrible dragon Shessstorath, there now stood a handsome human female. Too stern to be called beautiful, Shessstorath’s warm black skin and wide almond eyes marked her for a Derthanii, a people who lived west of Shadow’s Reach. Her hair was cut short, in the fashion of the people, and like most Derthanii women, she was thick with muscles and armed for battle. The raven-haired woman wore chainmail, dull from use but meticulously cared for, over well-worn black leathers. Iron vambraces, worked with copper filigree, covered hands that rested on a thick weapons belt. A pair of plain daggers were held there in simple leather sheathes, as were two notched throwing irons. Over her left shoulder, the two-handed hilt of a greatsword extended past her collarbone next to a bundle of javelins in a quiver against her back. White teeth showed through pulled back plumb colored lips.
“It seems I am not the only one who has changed,” mused Terranox, who now could look slightly down, as opposed to having to strain upward to make eye contact with his rival. Accomplice, he corrected himself mentally.
Shessstorath nodded, “Much has happened, to both of us. It seems we have much to discuss before we start to broach your plan. Hear me, Terranox. We will never be friends; too much lies between us. And the weight of our history compels me to believe that you will attempt to shape this plan for your gain, as I will for mine.” She paused, considering with the long lived eyes of an immortal dragon their as yet unknowable venture. “But perhaps, in time, we will be able to see each other as allies.” She rested comfortably in her mortal form. Her hands touched lightly on her weapons belt, the weight there a silent reassurance. Her legs had assumed a fighter’s stance without thought, presenting her profile to Terranox. The whole of her posture conveyed the easy violence of a trained human warrior. It appeared that they had both been spending far too much time in the forms of mortals. Terranox wondered if this is why only one of his kind had answered his call. How long could anyone remain behind a mask, especially one as perfect as a dragon could craft, before losing one’s self completely in the lie? How long before the masquerade became reality, and the dragons faded entirely from the fabric of Ta’nar, apathetically condemning themselves to oblivion. Much more depended on this new alliance than he initially thought. Perhaps in working to save their race from a tyrant, they might stumble upon a way to save it from themselves. But if this venture failed, its consequences would be a problem neither one of them would have to worry about.
“Do you have a place in mind for this grand experiment to begin? From what I have heard there is no place on Sentali that the war has not touched. The north is in chaos from the fall of the Half-Elves; in the south, the lands of Allair were devastated by the Wraith King. The High Elves currently lay the foundation for their destruction with daemon binding, and the so called Perversions of Reach have left their city just as chaotic as any other place on the continent. With the collapse of the Pathihn Empire, the other continents are likely to be in similar straits. Such is the nature of the turning of an Age. And we cannot go to Ruin.” The mysterious sub-continent still repulsed any draconic incursion; whatever magics the Isphan left to guard their lands remained just as deadly to dragons as it had at the end of the Third Age. She turned away to inspect the Meet, studying the walls and floors with her amber eyes. “Perhaps here?” Her voice was musing, testing her volume against the walls to see if they would still hold after the previous violence that had been unleashed.
“No, not here. Perhaps never here again.” He spoke with a weight of judgment against this place, but elaborated no further. “But still I have a place in mind. It is a small trader’s town, along the Great Trade Road. Through no simple measures, I made sure it escaped the notice of the Great Powers and their wars. It is coastal town, nestled against the Great Bay. Small now, but with the right nudges, it could be something to shape the world. And it sits on Dwharven ruins, abandoned of course, which the populace has yet to discover. That is something else we could use to our advantage.” His cheeks tightened and dragged his lips into a grimace. “Granted, Var have taken over the lower depths.”
“And who knows what other powers have taken up residence in the other levels, yes yes, I am familiar with the hazards of the Dark Deep.” Shessstorath rapidly dismissed the threats that would have to be overcome, for they were but minor stumbles on the path to the threat that would loom in her mind for the next several centuries. “But do you think we can do it? Do you really think the mortals are capable of standing against him, even with our help? The last time it took all the hosts of the heavens to end his dominance. And more, if he stirs, he does not stir in a living body.” Her fear once again threaded soft tendrils through her voice, which threatened to overwhelm them both.
“I honestly don’t know. Miracles do happen.” Tension thrummed in his voice, taught and tight, attempting to stave off the fear of the Tiam Emperor that was bred into their souls. On an impulse, his right hand crossed the intervening space and gripped her shoulder, as if to reassure Shessstorath that she was not alone. More likely, if he were honest, it was to reassure himself. “But isn’t it better to die fighting than to roll over and accept such a dark fate? Isn’t that the lesson the mortals truly taught us through sword and spell and god? No matter how tightly fate may try to bind you, you can always chose to fight. And in fighting, you may find a way past what is fated to a wonder yet unknown.” She gave no immediate answer to his encouragement but clasped her hand upon his. Fingers tightened, seeking to both draw and impart strength from that simple contact. They stood there, in darkness and silence. Two enemies drawing comfort and solace from the simple presence of one of their kind. It was a need that they had been denied for so long. Yes, miracles do happen. And hopefully, she thought, this was the just the first in a long line of miracles. Shessstorath finally broke the silence.
“I do not know if it is within us to resist him, but resist him we shall. Let us be off. The destruction of this place now weighs heavily upon my soul.” With a nod, Terranox agreed. They had nearly destroyed not only this holy place, but the only chance their people had. This was not the place for the birth of a new hope. Heart heavy with burden of purpose, Terranox began a spell. He recalled in perfect detail the house he had purchased in the small village of Mo’zanbaal, specifically, the basement of that house. He recalled the smell of saltwater and damp earth, the feel of the dirt floor under his feet, and the rough timbers that supported the underground room. He heard the sound of footsteps echoing off the stone stairs and walls that gave the room definition. He saw the warm glow of the globes of myair set into the stone that kept the room bathed in soft light. And of course, he found the tiny slivers of his soul that he had bound into silver spikes driven home into the substance of the walls. As this recreation of reality formed within his mind, Terranox forced ambient magic into his hands, and with his will, he braided cables of argent fire. Twisting them into an archway, he drove the two ends into the pitted stone of the Meet’s floor. Within the white frame, the room, as he saw it in his head, existed. The connection was strong and the portal held.
“It is fitting,” Shessstorath said looking at the room that was briefly joined to the Tiam Meet. “That we start in a more modest place this time. What we began here,” she gestured to the Meet, “ended in bondage, tyranny and the near death of our race. Perhaps more noble designs require more humble beginnings.”
With that she stepped through the portal, a declarative statement of trust in Terranox’s intents. He smiled, knowing a dozen ways to have made a more deadly spell appear as this one did. Perhaps this truly was the beginning of something remarkable. Looking around at the darkness of the Meet, he spat on the ground.
“We will be ready for you this time, you vicious bastard. And I will be damned a third time before I let you bind me again.” Spinning on his heel, Terranox stepped through the portal, which whisked him away from the Meet, crossing untold number of leagues to the small village on the western coast of Sentali, where he would forge a key to free his people.