The next thing Agera knew was pain. Inconceivable, unthinkable, unbelievable pain. Her muscles shivered uncontrollably, and her consciousness withdrew into a protective shell, trying to stave off the torture and insanity all at once. Foam gathered around her mouth, and her scales dropped from her body. Screaming could be heard through the darkness all around, moaning, people crying out for friends or loved ones. Several draken were working on her rapidly, shouting for tools. Agera spotted Kiesah, who also looked to be suffering her own trauma, burnt and vomiting.
It wasn't long after that she blacked out.
The next time she awoke, she was in a haze of confusion, the pain was still present. Her muscles jerked and spasmed uncontrollably in reaction to her torture, and she screamed at an unearthly pitch in protest. Her mind wasn't working properly, the pain blocked out all else.
It happened again some time later...
And again while a bright light was present overhead...
The cycle continued for time unknown until, finally, blissfully, she awoke, and the pain was gone. Venus was there, sleeping next to her on the floor, which was a good thing. The lights were dim. Agera was hooked up to a multitude of support machinery. She was wired to a heart-rate monitor, various diodes attached to her body measuring her blood-flow at different points. An IV carried nutritious fluids to her, while a makeshift bedpan caught waste leaving her. A mask, modified for dragons, pumped clean air into her single working lung. She took a deep breath, and her mind blissfully cleared. Her head, wing, and entire side were bandaged. Dropped scales, a dull golden-yellow color were in a bucket.
She couldn't move at all. Only her eyes roamed around the long, low tent. Screaming was everywhere.
And so this was what hell was truly like. Agera had been in hospitals before, had seen injured dragons, but she had never truly been one. She felt weak and broken, as if she had been beaten to within' an inch of her life. And she was scared. Unbelievably scared.
She also had to piss badly. The IV was constantly pumping her full of fluids. Nutritious, yes, but it chilled her, and made her need to void her bowels something awful. She hated doing it, it was so embarrassing to be humbled this way, but she had no other choice than to void herself into the bucket below her bed.
The sound of her vacating herself woke Venus, who spotted Agera's eyes open and watching.
"Agera!" she turned to the room, "Jiza! She's awake!"
Jiza was suddenly at her side and checking vitals and the status of fluids and machines.
"Agera, can you hear me? Blink if you hear my voice." Agera gave a slow deliberate blink, signaling her affirmation.
"You suffered third degree radiation burns to seventy percent of your body. Also, with the amount of electro-magnetic radiation you were exposed to, you're going through high levels of radiation sickness. Your scales are falling out, and many of your vital organs have shut down as your heart focuses on keeping you going. Be grateful it's still strong. Right now I am unsure if you're going to make it." Jiza turned to face her, "Normally, I lie to patients and tell them they're going to be OK, but I know you wouldn't want me to bullshit to you. You've got a tough mentality, and I know you don't give up, but some things just can't be overcome with force of will. I'd suggest you make peace with the Ancient."
Agera's eye rolled to Venus, wide with fear. At last she had found an enemy she was powerless to resist. She couldn't fight this, she could only wait and hope. Venus kneeled down next to her, and placed a paw on the side of her face, rubbing gently. It hurt, but Agera wanted it to stay. She much preferred if someone was with her as she died.
"You did more than I ever thought you could, Geri." Venus said quietly, tears rolling down her cheeks, "You overcame yourself, fought Avila, and saved over ten thousand lives, including those of both Kiesah and Pyrrus, and mine and my mate's. If you can do that, then I know you can do this."
And the image of her home, of her friends and family popped into her head, glorious flights over the rolling waves, raves on the boardwalk, and sharing a pint with her best friends, and she remembered why she was alive, why she wanted to fight. Even the image of her biological parents kept her going, something that she rarely thought about.
And she realized she still had work to do.
Agera stayed conscious for the next five days, knowing that if she succumbed to her exhaustion, she would never wake again. She would like to have said that she couldn't remember any of that week, but it was impossible to escape those terrifying memories. They would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life, and she knew it. All she knew was to keep her eyes open, and keep her mind working.
All throughout the week, Venus stayed with her. Soldiers, both draconic and human came by to thank her and encourage her. And every time they did, she added them to her mental image, till she had an army of faces all cheering her on. Janus and Vienzo joined her best friend halfway through the week. Later, the rest of Omega, including those who had been brought into the fold in Berlin, visited her bedside, sharing stories with her.
"Agera?" it was Jiza. She had been temporarily drafted back into the medical corps, something she seemed grateful for. It helped keep her mind off the hell they had just been through.
"Ma'am, my respect to you. You are one tough bitch. Kiesah gave you a ten percent chance of survival when you got here. I gave you even worse. But unbelievably, your kidneys turned back on two hours ago. Your colon is struggling still, and your left lung is out of commission for now as well. But your muscles are starting to come back online, which is a very positive sign. I'm confident in saying I think you're going to make it. Keep on recovering like this, and I daresay you'll fly again."
"Ugh this stuff is disgusting." Agera complained as Venus passed her the MRE.
"Oh stop complaining. It's not like you have to run double patrol shifts." Venus growled, rolling her eyes. Agera chuckled at her.
"So what's it like running your own squadron?" she asked, bemused at her friend’s situation.
"A damn nightmare. Forget the complaining, nobody wants to follow my orders." Jiza passed by behind Venus.
"Hey, Jiza! Any news on when I can start eating some meat again?" Agera asked jokingly.
"Not for a while. Don't pester me." she said, distracted.
"Hey, Jiza. Any idea on when Agera can come back and lead her squadron again?" Venus asked.
"Not for a while! Now I'm busy, so stop pestering me!" she said, looking up now at them from two beds over.
"Hey Jiza, when can we -" Jiza brought a paw up and cast several shots of ice over Janus's mouth, sealing it shut. Venus and Agera laughed out loud as he tried desperately to get the foreign object dislodged.
"Ow, it hurts to laugh!" Agera cried, clutching her side as she chuckled.
"It be healthy for you though, daughter-friend." Agera looked over to the entrance to the medical tent to find a very cramped looking Pyrrus.
"Uncle!" Agera shouted in joy, "Good to see you well and healthy! Hopefully your artillery made it? How's Kiesah?"
Pyrrus gave a grimace, "As ornery as ever. It's a good thing I love her so much, for she be a thorn in my side. Why did you request an audience, daughter-friend?"
"Venus, can you and the others give us some privacy?" Agera asked quietly. Venus motioned to the others with a wing, and they filed out of the small tent. Agera turned back to the Guardian, "I want to know more about my parents."
Pyrrus considered her for a long moment, "That be a vast topic, daughter. Why do you wish to know it now of all times?"
"I want to know what they were like. I nearly died, Uncle. I want to know that what I'm doing is what I SHOULD be doing." she replied quietly.
"You were never concerned before now. I can assure you, Agera, that while battle is not noble, killing is not noble, and pain is not noble, protecting the innocent is." he growled uneasily.
"You need not worry about me leaving, Pyrrus. I joined of my own free will. I'll see this through to the end. But I think I deserve the right to know what my parents would have wanted for me." she said, suddenly smiling. It threw Pyrrus off guard. Agera rarely smiled. He returned the smile himself.
"Changed you have, Agera. Perhaps a new appreciation for life is what you have gained?" he said, nodding.
"You could say that." Agera whispered to herself, brushing a few fins behind her horn. Pyrrus lay down in front of her, settling into a more comfortable position.
"Your father, Spire, was far older than I, when he died. But he didn't look it. He was a golden dragon, as both your parents were. His scales gleamed with a brilliant white-gold, his horns as polished ivory. His body was perfection, something almost all dragons strive for. He was small for an ancient, smaller than even Kiesah. But it's said that because of their elements, golden dragons age differently than others. Unlike me, who is only seven hundred years old, your father was around three thousand years old when I met him.
As good of a warrior as your father was, he was an even better politician. He was the reason I got my guardianship. He had always opposed wars and violence. He was one of the few who thought humans our equals, something that proved to be true. He knew a good honest soul when he saw one. He was dedicated and hard working to a fault. And he was a stickler for rules. Even if he didn't agree with a law or a rule, he would still follow it until it was revoked."
Pyrrus paused here, "And he was an excellent friend. Loyal until death.
Your mother, Cindi, loved nature. She could work wonders terraforming a location. The terraforming of Ganymede was her idea, and you see what a paradise that turned out to be. She loved to laugh and to make others laugh, and this made her one of the best practical jokers ever. She was outgoing and fun loving. And you should have seen her fly! She was such a dancer in the sky. She could curve her back in a half circle as easy as you or I could spread our wings. Her wings would always glisten with beauty whenever she..."
Pyrrus seemed to stop himself here, realizing where he was going with his thread of speech, "Forgive me daughter. Just a young drakes fantasies."
Agera grinned at him, "You sly old dog. Did you have a relationship with her?"
Pyrrus grinned sheepishly, "I did, long before I met Kiesah. I was a bit of a renegade a couple hundred years ago, and several females loved that. We broke it off before anything happened. She was far more important than I was, and was constantly making flights around the world. We both knew our relationship wouldn't work."
"So do I have any half siblings I don't know about then?" Agera asked teasingly. Pyrrus snorted in surprise, small jets of flame flying from his nostrils.
"Relax, Uncle, I jest." she said in Drashish. He smiled at her.
"Agera, we just might make a dragon of you yet." he said, ruffling her fins playfully as she growled at him.
"Oh damn, Agera." Janus said quietly as the female pulled the gauze off from around her head.
"Oh it's not that bad doofus, stop scaring her." Venus said with a fake smile.
"I want a mirror." Agera said quietly. She pulled the bandaging from around her paw and flexed the scarred, shriveled appendage. Venus handed her a small hand mirror from one of the humans.
"Shit, I look like a ghoul." Agera said. The skin on one side of her head was vacant of mature scale; little pebbles pocked her hide where new armor was growing in. Her face sagged sideways. Fortunately everything seemed to be functioning just fine. Jiza stood to the side, shaking her head.
"Two weeks. I never thought anyone would recover from third degree radiation burns like that Agera. By all accounts you should be dead. Your recovery is nothing short of amazing."
"Glad I'm such a fucking miracle. Can I get back to work, Jiza?" Agera said, rubbing her rough skin.
"Don't over extend yourself, Agera. Take it easy for the first week." Jiza said quietly, "But yes, you are cleared for duty."
"FINALLY! Two, with me, I need to see our barracks. Three, see about armor from the quartermaster. Four, keep your mouth fucking shut. Six, upon relief of your medical duties, you are to report back to Omega ASAP. Let's get to work, Omega! We've been out of business for too long."
Agera swept aside the flap to one of the seven tents set aside for medical purposes, and was presented with a site few others had seen before. Despite the amount of creatures she had saved, their camp was small. Squadrons were sharing tents, taking eight hour shifts. Three squadrons were bunked in each tent, and two were always there, with one squad sleeping, and the other relaxing or out doing various activities. Omega was currently sharing their barracks with Delta and Beta squadrons, their tent set in a block with the twenty-four others. Nine hundred dragons were living in just those twenty-five tents.
Beyond those were a single mess tent, the armory tent and a command tent. After that was nothing but open dirty landscape as far as the eye could see. Agera had been outside a couple times before, and had been nearly dumbfounded by the planet they found themselves on.
Well, technically they were on a close orbiting moon, as the massive blue gas giant that filled a third of the sky attested to. Several other moons orbited in a tight path, accompanying their super-massive neighbor through the cosmos. The land was a mess pockmarked with gaping crevices and sharp spires. Crystals laced the area casting a red glow over everything. It constantly rained, causing glowing lichen to grow on every surface facing towards the gas giant.
There was no sun. The planet they orbited was drifting through space, the surface using the bioluminescence of the crystals and lichen to provide livable light, and the highly active, yet stabile, volcanic core to provide heat.
The last problem was the massive void presence. The scientists that had escaped what was now being called the scourge were estimating a population of around fifteen billion. Command was almost sure that this was the home of the void.
The Dark Lands.
There were legends about this place, both human and drakian in origin. The humans thought this land was Hell, quite literally. A place with boiling lakes of fire and pain. Typically human in drama. The drakian legends were far darker. This land was supposed to be a place of curses and foul creatures. A place belonging to cannibalistic bloodthirsty savages. A place where there existed creatures bent on ripping you in half from snout to tail spade as slowly as they could. Where your spine would be turned into a chew bone.
As far as Agera could tell though, the dark lands were mired in legend and myth. It just seemed a slightly gloomy planet to her. She kind of liked it.
So far the army they had in location had not spotted any enemies. It seemed the moon they were on was actually larger than the earth. Venus stepped up next to her friend on the slight rise they were on, overlooking their camp lit with fires throughout the night.
"Everyone is waiting for you back in the barracks." she said quietly. The two walked through the camp. Electricity wasn't available, so they used campfires augmented with red glow in the dark labels to see. Presently the pair arrived at Omega's barracks. Agera swept aside the flap as she entered, her hearing assaulted by all the sounds of a restless squadron attempting to rest.
Everyone stopped in their tracks as they saw Agera enter. The remainder of Theta and Epsilon squad was there as well. Theta Six stood up, approached her and bowed low, wings sweeping wide in humility. Dragons very rarely bowed to any other, because of pride and exposing the back of your neck, so when they did, it truly meant something. It meant they trusted you more than any other.
"Your warriors are ready for battle, ma'am, what are your orders?" the wind dragoness asked in drashish. Agera glanced nervously at Guin who watched warily from behind. Agera stood up taller, striding forwards, and placed a paw on the young females shoulder.
"Rise and face me, Italia." the dragonelle stood, "Why did you bow?"
"You saved our lives without any thought to your own." she said simply, ruffling her wings.
"Before the siege, I saw you, Delta battalion as my family. I never wanted to lose any of you.
I did what I would do for my family. I'd do anything. It was once said my squadron, and my battalion, would follow me into the pits of hell. It's more than just that. I'd dive into the pits of hell with a roar on my lips for any one of you.
As you were, Omega. We're not out of this yet. Get some rest. I'm going to the GM tomorrow to see if I can get an assignment."
"You look like hell Krigsman." the GM said casually as Agera stood before him.
"Thank-you, sir." she said quietly.
"I assume you're here for a reason? Make it quick."
"Sir, Omega squadron is requesting orders, sir. We've had nothing to do since we got here, and our wings are itching for some action." she said, glancing at him. He sighed quietly.
"Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't even be in the military anymore Agera. Unfortunately, we have to take some extreme measures." he said, rubbing his temples, "Your request is authorized, against my better judgment. I have a scouting mission for you and two hand picked Omega members. A three day run out and back, to the far north. We have small teams like this going out all over the place, something like sixteen missions. You'll be leaving at the same time as them, 0230 two days from now, when that gas giant is presumed to set. Be ready to fly by unknown stars. If you encounter void, you WILL NOT ENGAGE. This is a scouting run and you are not healthy enough for open combat. Fly as far as you can and watch as much as possible for the first thirty-six hours, then return. Understood?"
"Before you leave, you need to see Pyrrus about your armor. Also Kiesah has requested your presence."
"Why?" Agera asked, cocking her head sideways.
"She wouldn't say. She's been very reclusive and quiet lately. Very odd behavior for her. I know she was as injured as you were at the scourge, but she recovered quicker, something that is baffling us. Let me know if it's anything serious..."
Janus was the one to knock on the tent pole the next morning, "Hey Kiesah, do you want to build a sno -"
Agera punched him, "You asshole. Kiesah, it's us, can we come in?"
Agera almost didn't hear the response, it was so quiet. Kiesah growled an affirmative. The tent had barely any light, just a single lantern next to the entrance, but it was stiflingly hot, it took ones breath away how hot it was.
"Kiesah?" there was movement in the corner. Agera could just barely see the Frost Guardian's outline in the gloom.
"Do not approach me. My mind is not normal right now, and I may attack." Agera was truly baffled by this.
"Kiesah, it's just us four." Agera said, "What's the matter with you? You can trust us."
"It matters not. I trust only one other dragon right now, and for one reason only." there was another knock on the entrance.
"It's just me love, no need to attack on sight like last time." Pyrrus hunched himself into the tent. He spotted them and saw his eyes flash dangerously.
"Is it custom now for strangers to just barge in without invite?" he growled.
"Uncle!" Agera said sternly, "What's gotten into you two?!"
"Peace, Pyrrus. I invited them." Kiesah said quietly, "Please keep your voices down."
It was so unlike Kiesah to be this quiet and gentle. Agera was wondering what had happened to her.
"Mother, what's wrong? What's happened?" Venus asked, stepping forwards cautiously and laying down. Kiesah looked over at Pyrrus who shrugged.
"She deserves to know. They all do now. It's pretty evident that he'll live." Pyrrus reached up and turned up the lantern slightly, enough to see detail, and Agera gasped. So did Venus. There lying against Kiesah's belly was a tiny deep dark blood red hatchling, still fresh from the egg. Shell fragments lay clustered around them, and bits of membrane still wetted his skin. He was sleeping soundly.
"By the Ancient!" Vienzo said quietly, "How?"
Pyrrus grinned like a fool as he lay down behind his mate, licking her cheek with affection, "Take your guess. A miracle perhaps? He only just hatched something like twelve hours ago. Kiesah laid his egg three months ago, but we said nothing. No need to get everyone’s hopes up when it might never hatch."
"How did he survive the scourge?" Janus asked quietly.
"The shell. A dragon’s egg isn't hard, but it is hardy. It could easily have survived much worse radiation. I still can't believe we could have an egg." Kiesah said quietly, laying her head down next to her son.
"What's his name?" Venus asked in a whisper, head between her paws.
"Nero, after Pyrrus' grandfather."
“I can’t believe it. Why tell us now?” Vienzo said as they walked a fair distance behind Pyrrus, following the massive dragon in his wake as he parted the crowd. They needed their armor after repairs, and Pyrrus was head forge master now with the death of Fiam.
“I suspect that they’re worried now that the egg has hatched, about their own deaths. That last one was a close one.” Agera said quietly.
“And yet we all made it. Maybe we are invincible.” Janus said. Agera grabbed his horn sharply.
“Get that thought out of your head, four. If you had taken a hard enough hit, you would be dead. Your scales melted off. You start thinking that, you die.” She growled, “The problem I have is who they are going to name caretaker in case of their deaths?”
“And how was Kiesah even able to conceive in the first place? I thought she was barren.” Vienzo said rubbing the back of his head.
“She was. An – incident – in her youth rendered her sterile. I suspect with all those ‘Last nights’ a lot of something-something was happening, and, well, you through enough shit at a wall and some will eventually stick. Are you alright Venus, you’re being awfully quiet.” Agera said.
“I’m fine. I’m ok.” She said, startled.
“You don’t look fine, dear.” Vienzo said quietly. She rubbed up against her mate, purring, but her scales were still a bit pale.
“I’m just suddenly worried. I suddenly find myself a big sister with a little brother, and I’m in a war zone…”
They were quiet as they thought on that. All the way through their provisioning for the scouting mission the next day, nobody said anything, not even Pyrrus. As they walked back out into the sunlight wearing their armor, Agera turned to them.
“Our family is growing.” She said quietly. Nobody tried correcting her; they all learned long ago that family was more than just those who shared the same blood as you, “We need to end this war. For their sakes.”