"GET UP GET UP GET UP!" Agera's shout instantly roused Omega squadron to some effect. Venus jumped up nearly instantly, Vienzo right behind her, both having old instincts from universal training. Janus lifted a paw groggily.
"Five more minutes mom." and he went right back to snoring. Agera stood on his tail, and he squeaked a roar out in surprise, leaping to his feet and biting and clawing at her. Jiza slept on, completely oblivious to her surroundings. Janus nudged her into consciousness. Kiesah had already been awake for several hours, not having slept with worry for her mate. She still wore her blood stained armor from Berlin.
"Times wasting, squad!" Agera shouted out, birds rising at her shouts. They had flown the rest of the way across the Mediterranean non-stop, coming to rest at the Vatican. Rome was a ghost town now, not even priests resided in the burned out hovels, and nature had already begun to take over. The streets were cracked, and grass had risen quickly towards the sun. Buildings had fallen years ago, and no cars remained free of rust. Fortunately, there were no bodies, those that had been slain having been picked over by the carnivores that had followed the herds.
Morning flight however was a different story. Shortly after takeoff they came to the great European forest that blanketed the continent from east to west. Or at least what was left of it, for when they breached its borders, they saw all was laid to waste, bare and fallen trunks still smoldering from the flames that had consumed them. As far as they eye could see, horizon to horizon, was dead.
"This can't be it." Agera said quietly as they soared on silent wings, "One dragon can't have done all this."
She shrugged, scanning the horizon, "You would be amazed what a single dragon can do young one. Our powers have few limits."
"With power like this, we shouldn't be losing." she said, turning her attention back out to the distance. They flew slowly for a while, hunting for any sign of their ally. A small smudge broke the horizon line, and it took four wing eats before Agera realized what it was.
"Fire and brimstone, that's not possible!" Venus said, shocked, when Agera pointed out the horizon spanning smoke to the rest, "You don't think Pyrrus did all that?"
They landed on a rise that overlooked the burning foliage, the roaring of the flames consuming everything.
"Lead, we can't fly over that! The thermals alone would rip us to shreds!" Vienzo shouted over the flames.
"And going around would take time, which we don't have." Janus added.
Kiesah stepped forwards. She turned an eye towards Agera, "You think our powers small? See what a Guardian can do."
The Ice dragonelle raised a paw and drew it across her chest in a wide sweeping arc, her eyes flashing. A disturbance flew out, as if it were a wave, rippling through the air as it went.
The space around them instantly dropped in temperature at an extreme degree. Kiesah's skin crystallized, refracting the light around her till the female sparkled like diamond. Her eyes glowed a fierce blue, as if on fire. Frost and then ice spread in a radiating circle from her paw. Agera half expected to be frozen solid, but she felt only a chilling wave pass over her. The trees flash froze, the air plummeting past normal temperatures into the negative one hundreds. The fires fought the front for a fraction of a second before they crystallized in midair, holding their form in exotic sculptures.
When all was finished, and the air was still, the group was presented with a sea of white. Agera's jaw hung half open, she had never realized how destructive an Ice Dragon could be.
"I never realized how destructive you could be, Kiesah." Janus said quietly.
"Yeah, remind me never to piss you off." Vienzo said quietly, "Especially since you're my dame-by-mating." he added the second line quietly.
Agera looked at the large female. The sun shining off the ice lining her hide hurt the leader’s eyes, "Was all that really necessary?"
"Na, I just like being awesome like that." she said, showing a rare smile.
"No, mother, you just like being a show off and a drama queen." Venus said, nudging Kiesah with her robotic limb.
"So sue me. When you get as good with your element, it's sometimes refreshing to pit it against the largest of challenges."
They took off again, soaring over the super chilled, and much smoother, air. The silence that now enveloped them was startling. They spread out to cover a greater area, moving out of visual range into the limits of radio contact. Only Venus stayed in audio contact with her, relaying orders through everyone else. She found herself alone flying over gorges and mountains, death, and beauty as far as the eye could see.
Suddenly Agera spotted a speck of red on the crest of a smaller mountain. Lord Pyrrus lay among at least twenty dead Voidwings, their blood staining the snow. Agera called her squadron, but Kiesah arrived first, her breathing labored. She waited for nothing else, only dove towards her mate.
Agera spotted more movement between the trees and spotted a group of Heavies emerging between the limbs. The dragonelle shouted a warning through her mike, but Kiesah had already spotted them, shielding her vanquished mate from further harm. There were only three heavies, but it would take the entire squad to bring down only one, according to Guin's numbers.
The trio of massive Void flapped their wings as they roared, flattening small saplings before them.
"A little help here? I can't hold them off all on my own!" Kiesah called over coms. Agera dove, silent as the wind, the only sound she made was the whistling of the wind over her wings. The lead brute didn't even know what hit him, as she landed right on top of its back. The damage was light for all the good it did.
The creature roared, and bent it's arm up and over to grab the female, but she dodged into its blind spot, clawing at the paws that came close and it's many wings which were trying to beat her about the head.
Veins pulsed in the back of its neck, and she bit down on the largest she could find, the creature gushing blood. Suddenly a fist the size of a small boulder plowed into her chest, and a gong rang in her horns as the plate crumpled inwards like a tin can.
Fortunately, the tree she hit was crystallized, and shattered upon impact, dispersing the force, otherwise she probably would have just blown apart. Her chest plate had a dent in it the size of a watermelon, and breathing was difficult. She ran a paw inside the armor, and felt smooth unbroken scale. After a couple of slips, the nylon straps holding on the covering fell away, and the plating hit the ground with a thunk, her lungs sucking in cool air.
Across the clearing, Omega squadron was handling one of the heavies, whilst Kiesah was fending another off with tails and wings. She was at a serious disadvantage because of her protective placement between the enemy and her mate. The heavy was easily her size and half again tall, hulking over her.
A scream sounded from omega squad, strangely muted to Agera as she whipped her head around, trying to bring herself to her senses. Venus’s fore-leg was held beneath one of the heavies massive paws, and her leg was held at an odd angle. She was scrapping at the inch thick scales on its toes, trying to pry the monster off. Vienzo, an out-of-place etching of rage on his face barreled into the foe’s side, pushing it off balance, Janus helping him, and their combined weight toppled the creature. Its head impacted in the snow at Jiza’s feet.
“Jiza! Kill it! Finish it off.” The young female stood there, eyes wide, for half a second before she brought her spade up and over her head, a sickening crunch punctuating the winter air. The last enemy saw his comrades fallen, and roared a frustrated cry before taking to the air in retreat. Agera, panting, waved her paw at the others.
“Let him go, we have other priorities right now.” She gasped. Jiza stared at the enemy she had just slain, her spade still lodged in its skull. Janus went and nudged her sideways, and she jerked out of her stupor, pulling the sharpened point free with a sickening squelch. She looked as if she might faint, but approached Agera.
“Let me look at you lead. You might have broken bones or internal bleeding.” She poked and prodded the dragoness thoroughly and when she was satisfied, she nodded her assent. Her cheeks were still tinged a minty green.
“Excuse me.” She mentioned, before running to the edge of the clearing and vomiting over a boulder. Her chest plates had been splattered with gore. One of Vienzo’s horns was bent at an odd angle, and Venus was holding her strangely flattened forelimb to her chest.
“Now I get why it’s so tough to fight them.” Kiesah looked at her pointedly as she realized what was going on, “Nearly all of Drakenkind has learned to fight with an element.”
Guin nodded quietly, “Exactly. We’re used to fighting at a stand-off range. If it weren’t for that, we could have easily taken them on from the air. I could have taken on all three of them by myself if I could have used my light element.”
“Pyrrus.” Kiesah mumbled into the fallen guardian’s horns, “My love, awaken.”
There was a deep groan, and Pyrrus opened an eye.
The fire dragon was easily the largest drake Agera had ever seen. He was easily as large as the enemies they had just faced, and had a double set of wings, something nature had grown for him to allow flight. He bleed from many gashes across his great body, including an exceptionally nasty wound across his chest plates, something that had cut through a full six inches of custom made armor plating and inch-thick natural chest plates, and it oozed blood. The injury appeared fresh. For any of them, it would have been a death sentence, but for Pyrrus, it was a medium sized wound.
“Took you all long enough.” despite her injury, Venus limped to her adoptive father’s side, and pressed her injured paw against his shoulder, wincing at the pain, “I feel you daughter.”
“And I fell you, father.” Kiesah nudged her with her muzzle, and the two got under a wing and lifted him carefully. They looked a sorry lot between all of them, with Agera missing a major piece of her armor plating, and Jiza covered in brains and blood, and the rest sporting some sort of wound.
“We need cover, Omega lead, can you scout ahead with your squad?” Agera nodded, and motioned to Janus, Jiza, and Guin, and they took to the sky, Vienzo staying back to guard the rest.
Agera first watched over the mountaintop they were hunkering in the shadow of, landing with the rest to get a look at her surroundings. Janus spotted the brick walls first.
“That a castle?” he said over the wind. It was indeed, though an incredibly old one. The brick ramparts rested on a ridge between two mountains, and trees surrounded it. The walls were crumbling, old and forgotten, and none of the roofs still stood.
“Where the hell are we?” Agera asked, directing the question to no one in particular.
“We’re at Poenari Castle.” Jiza said quietly, “My sire and dame brought me here, before they died. We’re in the Carpathian mountains.”
A spectacular valley was laid out before them as they landed on the walls, which held one of the twistiest and most convoluted roads Agera had ever seen.
“That’s the Transfăgărășan highway. Incredible view, incredible road.” Jiza continued, Janus smiled, and she knew what he was thinking. This was dragon country.
“Only a madman could build something like that.” Agera said quietly. She turned to the inside of the castles walls, and they conducted a search of the rooms and central chamber, which was large enough for all of them to rest in at once. Kiesah and Venus dragged Pyrrus up the incline, with the help of the others. It took them several hours to get him there, but when they did, he was able to warm them with a blast of fire upon some stones picked from the crumbling structure. While Jiza looked at Venus’s paw, and Kiesah began work on nursing her mate back to health, the rest drew straws, and Agera got the midnight watch shift.
“Alright Guin, get some rest.” Agera said as she climbed onto the tower roof. The light guardian nodded, but didn’t get up.
“I wanted to talk, ma’am.” She said quietly.
“So talk. I have horns.” Guin opened her mouth twice, then closed it.
“I’m sorry.” She said after a while, “I’m sorry about what I did yesterday on Malta. I guess I’ve just been so used to giving orders, that taking them was kind of hard for me.”
Agera sighed, “Guin. You’re one of the best fighters I’ve ever met. I remember our rivalry from Uni. You were one of the few who could beat me in a fair fight.”
“Unfortunately, not all fights are fair.”
“Isn’t that the truth of it? You’re also the only whole dragon in this outfit. The rest of us have some kind of scarring, either physical or mental. And I can understand why you didn’t want to do what I asked. Kiesah can sometimes be a fucking asshole. I know that. But you can’t just turn down an order because you don’t like it.”
Guin opened her mouth to speak again, but Agera cut her off with a raised paw, “AND, we’re in a war, as I said before. And to get through it, we’ll need a common goal to fight our enemies. We’ll need coordination and an objective. What’s going to happen when I give an order you don’t like? I welcome criticism, but I will not tolerate downright refusal, of any order I give, no matter how small, understand?”
“There is not to reason why. There is not to give reply. There is but to do or die.” Agera said quietly, “I give an order, you follow it, even if it means suicide. And trust me, if we ever come to the point where an option is suicide or survival, then I’ll give you the choice.”
Guin nodded once more, almost deep in thought, and then turned to leave.
“Guinevere?” The female stopped and looked over her shoulder. Agera smiled at her, “I hope this doesn’t mean we aren’t friends.”
Guin smiled sleepily back.
The night was silent, and still. Little wind hummed through the treetops, and Agera could see the stars brilliantly. She scanned the sky in quarters, as was her routine, switching sectors every fifteen seconds or so, watching for movement. She loved these times of the night, when nothing stirred. It made her feel alive, all this space and concentration. If she ever had a difficult problem to figure out, she would rest on the top of her apartment and watch the stars in Cayman, contemplating her best solution.
She remembered the last time she had done this, and smiled at the thought. Siberia. Her adoptive mother had shouted at her violently that night, about being ejected from her first pass through universal training. She had stayed on the roof that night of the castle Kiesah and Pyrrus had called home, on the outskirts of berlin, where Venus had been raised. She had thought about what to do with her life after that horrible day. She found sorrow, at her situation, and the death of her parents, and her current guardian parent. She found if she focused herself, she could overcome that sorrow. Sorrow had never done anything for anyone.
Tonight though, tonight was a night of thanks. Thanks for what the Ancient had done for her. He had given her hope, a future, and a real family, despite her disability. Funny how things like this happened. Despite her not having an element, being the underdog in all four passes of Uni, she was still here on earth, fighting the Void, wearing the armor of a warrior. She was grateful that she could apply herself.
And she was grateful to know that her dame and sire would have approved of her choice.
“Lead.” Hells bells, had four hours really passed already. Jiza climbed onto the towers battlements, and saluted with wing, “I’m here to relieve you, ma’am.”
“Go ahead and start, six, but I’m restless and will keep you company.” Jiza looked surprised at her, but didn’t protest and settled down next to Agera. After a while, Jiza spoke.
“Ma’am, do you ever feel guilty when you kill an enemy?” Jiza asked quietly, slowly scanning the sky.
Agera was quiet for a moment, but finally responded quietly, “No, I don’t feel guilt when I slay an enemy. It was not I that ordered the attacks, and so it is not I that has to deal with the guilt.”
“Do you ever see them in your dreams?”
“You mean nightmares.”
“I mean whenever you close your eyes.”
Agera considered Jiza for a while before speaking, “No, not all the time. But there are differences between you and me. We’ve all had some sort of sorrow in our life before, but you’ve had an extraordinary amount. Neither I nor Venus knew our parents, and although that doesn’t bother her hardly at all, it enrages me. Vienzo has had nothing but happiness in his life. Janus however. From what I can tell, Janus is much like you, though he’s older, so he’s had more time to adjust to his losses. I know little of Guin, but it matters not, I trust her.”
“So is that why I’m having such a hard time with PTSD? Because of my trauma.” Jiza asked, looking away from her commander in shame, “Poor little Jiza, always the sad-sack, the grief-ghoul. She’s shy and she has had a hard life, so you should all feel bad for her! Keep your pity, I don’t need it.”
Agera growled at her, “I never gave you any. Pity hasn’t done shit in the past. I was stating fact.”
Jiza jerked her head back around and stared at Agera hard.
“Now do want help coping with this or not?” Agera said quietly, “We all have our own way of living with PTSD. Janus has his jokes. I try to stay active as much as possible. Vienzo and Venus have each other. Kiesah has her aggression. So what do you have?”
“I can sing.” Jiza said almost immediately, “But the words don’t come easily anymore. They bring back bad memories.”
“Are they bad memories, or hurtful ones?”
Jiza was silent for a while, “No you’re right, they’re good memories about my family, but it hurts to think about them.”
“Better to think about good memories now than bad memories later. Now let’s hear it! Sing, that’s an order.”
Jiza nodded, and then launched into verse, her voice echoing hauntingly out into the valley below.
“I stand between two worlds
There is no middle ground for me
The tears that fall have wanted it all
There is no return for me
One look is all it took
And I fall apart...”
The song was melancholic, with much sorrow, but beneath it all an unconquerable strength, which fit Jiza well. It wasn't long, but it was difficult. Yet through it all, the young dragonelle didn't miss a beat. Agera had to admit, she could sing. The lyric ended on a long quiet note, and someone whistled low behind them.
“And here I was thinking Jiza might want some company tonight. Good to see our great leader has our best interests at heart.” Janus said quietly, moving out of the shadows.
“Janus, just because I’m your commander doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass.” Agera replied smiling at him.
“That was beautiful, Jiza. Do you know any Irish pub songs?” Jiza laughed, and Agera realized it was the first time she had ever heard the youngling do so. The sound was cold and clear, like a deep long breath. Janus laid down beside her, and Jiza stretched into his stomach, still watching the sky.
Agera faked a yawn, and moved to the stairs before descending. The night was too cramped for her tastes now, and she wanted to give the two some time alone.
“Don’t stay awake till sunrise now. I want you two well rested during the day. There’ll be no falling asleep in the flight wing, understand.” She called back over a wing as she reached the steps down to the keep.
“Yes ma’am.” Janus said, rolling his eyes at her. Jiza saluted for them both. Agera smiled at the pair before descending the steps into the cold stone.