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Title: The Sun, the Moon, and the Truth
Chapter One: After the First Attack
Fandom: something like the Marvel Universe, leaning mostly toward the Movie!Avengers branch. but with dragons. and the Fae. in a historical, mostly AU setting.
Rating: 18 and up
Warnings: lots of sex and violence, some language, anything else that strikes my fancy
Disclaimer: the recognizable characters and places contained herein are the property of Marvel and whoever the hell else owns them.. i'm merely borrowing for the sake of entertainment. no money is being made from this venture. the Sues are the sole property of their originators, [livejournal.com profile] dazzledfirestar, [livejournal.com profile] mistress_o_muse, [livejournal.com profile] ginevrasm, [livejournal.com profile] rylan_m, and [livejournal.com profile] ladydeathfaerie. the concept and title of The Mary Sue Virus are used with permission from Dazzledfirestar.

The Sun, the Moon, and the Truth - Index Link

~*~

"There's something wrong." Clinton's voice, soft and quiet as he was, came from behind him. Just barely loud enough to be heard over the soft shush of the wind blowing through the trees. The trio stopped and Nicholas didn't need to look behind him to see that his companions had already reached for their weapons. He cleared everything from his mind and flared his nostrils, taking in a large lungful of air.

He found the normal scents that one would find in the woods. The pungent aroma of rich, loamy soil. The sharp, woody smell of bark. The fresh green of leaves newly grown on branches. The musk of forest creatures. The area smelled of trees and life and nature. But those smells were not the only ones his nose found.

Under those earthy scents were much grimmer scents. Things that spoke to death and destruction. He could smell blood. A good deal of it. Freshly spilled, belonging to both human and dragon alike. He could smell torn earth. He could smell the tang of metal. He could smell sorrow and loss. He could smell the sharp burn of urine and the more malodorous stench of excrement. He could smell death.

He didn't immediately reach for his sword. Instead, he motioned with one hand in either direction, indicating that his companions should spread out and move in from the sides. And he didn't need to look to know that they were doing exactly as he'd ordered.

As he moved, he finally noticed the silence that surrounded him. How he'd missed it before, he didn't know. But the silence alone was enough to suggest that something horrible had happened in this forest, some horrendous thing that had damaged the very feel of the air. Gods damn the insanity that had brought the world to such sad times. How many times had he came upon a scene like the one he just knew waited for them just beyond the trees.

Hunters roamed the land in large groups, men and women trained to seek out their kind. They attempted to capture females. If that wasn't possible, they were ordered to gather any eggs they could find. And slaughtering the men was the order of the day. Their kind was dying. Between the hunters that destroyed the males and stole the eggs and females, he and those like him were facing the winter of their lives. Which was why he and two of his most trusted companions, men who were capable warriors, were always seeking out the small groups and trying to convince them to return to the sanctuary. Where they'd be safe.

He let his senses spread, let the part of him that was in touch with nature flow out into the trees and the plants, the grass and rocks and twigs, to take a lay of the land. The soil beneath his feet told him everything he wanted to know. And more. Nicholas held back his sigh and issued orders through the mental connection their kind shared. The hunters have been here. I think they're gone, but remain alert. Search for any survivors.

There was no answer to his commands. That was fine because he hadn't been expecting any. The earth beneath his feet continued to sing to him, telling him everything that had happened and all they'd find. His heart grew heavy as sorrow filled him. It was starting to look as if the task he'd been given was doomed to failure. He didn't like failing. Not his assigned duties and not his people.

The sight that met him when he broke out of the trees was enough to still the beating of his heart. The cozy stone building that had been home to an old friend and his family was decimated, the stones scattered by the thrashing of long, whip-like tails. Ancient trees had been uprooted and thrown as if they'd weighed no more than mere twigs. The grass was ripped up, leaving open trenches of churned soil that looked like scars carved into the earth. There were scorch marks here and there, and the air was acrid with the familiar stench of sulphur. Livestock had been slaughtered and left where they'd fallen, a rotting feast for the carrion birds that even now circled but didn't dare land.

Sunlight gleamed obscenely off the jeweled hides of his fallen friends. His brethren. It was easy to spot Alexander's distinctive orange scales amidst the green. There was a broad smear of crimson staining the soft flesh of his chest. Nicholas could see the gaping wound where an axe had cleaved through skin and muscle and bone to find the heart. A hunter's corpse lay close at hand, torso connected to the legs only by a few tenuous strings of tissue.

Brendan's deep scarlet bulk lay twisted near the trees on the far side of the expansive clearing. His long neck was at an odd angle that said his neck had been broken. Nicholas wasn't sure how that had happened. Obviously someone had been taught a few new tricks. A trickle of cold fear slid down his spine. This whole thing did not look promising.

Nicholas moved on silent feet, traveling from one corpse to the next. He found two more hunters near Alexander. And a third next to Brendan. He did not find the bodies of anyone else. A hard knot of fear took root in his belly as he recalled visits to the clearing. Visits that were filled with loud, boisterous young males. And a trio of females as outspoken as any he'd ever known. They were all missing. The knot grew larger.

Closing his eyes, he allowed himself to dig deeper into the ambient magic that came straight from the ground beneath his feet. It was torn and rent, as if someone had driven claws into the very fabric of the magic and pulled hard. There was also a taint of darker magic, something foul and evil. He thought he could push his way past the darkness and find answers. But the darkness lashed back and shoved him out. The sudden change left him reeling and he would have stumbled if not for the hand on his arm. When he looked at Phillip beside him, he let the emotion on his face convey everything he wanted to say.

"He beat us here. He sent his hunters and they destroyed everything. The ground has been laid to waste with so much foul magic that I fear the area won't survive," Nicholas told his companion softly.

"I found the young males," Phillip reported. There was a distinct lack of emotion in his face that saw rage boiling to life under Nicholas' skin.

"Show me." Phillip hesitated for a moment, obviously considering putting himself between Nicholas and the tragedy that awaited him on the other side of the trees. But he heaved a sigh and nodded, then turned on one heel and started off in the direction from which he'd obviously just come.

The entire area was deathly quiet, birds and small animals still. Or absent. There were no insects to chirp and scurry under the grass. No tiny claws scrabbling against the harsh bark of the trees. There was nothing but quiet and death and the stench of evil. He swore an oath to himself, one he'd sworn far too many times in recent memory, that he would find the madman responsible and make him pay for his crimes.

They crossed into a smaller clearing and came to a stand still. It was like nothing Nicholas had ever seen. There were mangled parts of bodies here and there, splashes of pale flesh and far too red blood mixed with the thick, verdant grass. Brendan's sons were laid out neatly, as if on display. Their scales gleamed like fire in the bright light of midday, the colors ranging from a deep, dark maroon to an orangish-red to a fiery crimson to a brilliant shade of red. Their chests had been carved open with sharp blades. Blood still oozed from the wounds and he didn't have to get close to know that the boys' hearts had been taken.

"There's no sign of the women," Phillip said softly. His words broke through the thin, bitter layer of hatred and Nicholas found that he'd curled his fingers so tightly into his hands that his nails, slightly longer and sharper than they had been only moments ago, cut into the meat of his palms. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.

"I can't find them," Nicholas replied.

"Then they've been taken." It was said with little inflection. But Nicholas knew Phillip well enough to know that he was filled with as much rage as Nicholas was. He'd seen far too many of their own left to rot like this. "There's no hope of getting them back."

"There's always hope," Nicholas replied, though his tone lacked real conviction. Phillip gave him a look that said far more than the man ever did with words. Nicholas bit back his sigh and shook his head. "We don't know for certain that he's got them. It is entirely possible that the women are away. Until we know for certain that they've been taken, there will be hope."

Phillip opened his mouth to speak, but the opportunity was taken from him. I've found something. You should see this. That was the third member of their party finally reporting in. The two men glanced at one another before starting off in the direction they'd just come. It was no easier to see the felled bodies a second time as it had been the first. It was hard to see so many young lying dead in pools of their own blood. The only thing that could be seen as a positive was that the hunters had been taken with them.

They passed from the wide open space of the clearing into the trees once more. On closer inspection, Nicholas could see that there were claw marks scarring the bark on some of the forest sentinels. Others had been snapped in half well over the heads of any normal men, suggesting that a large body had come through here. The knot in his gut tightened and grew even further because it could only mean one thing...

They broke into a smaller clearing that, under other circumstances, would have been welcoming and peaceful. Tall trees circled it, making it private and giving it the feel of a lover's haven. A serene pool of water took up nearly half the area. Or it would have been serene if not for the bodies in it, staining it bright red with blood. Laying near the edge, half her body in the water, was Brendan's mate. The rosy color of her scales was unmistakable. He paused a moment to take a deep breath and try to center himself.

"She's alive," Clinton announced softly. He knelt next to her head, her very human head, a pair of fingers pressed against the woman's throat. A few scraps of her gown clung to her torso, held there by the crimson stain of her life's blood, oozing from a gaping wound in her belly. Her human legs had disappeared, morphing into the familiar, scaled length of her tail. She hadn't had time to form the hind legs of her other shape and the scaled length of tail gave her the look of a mermaid.

"Can anything be done for her?" Nicholas asked as he moved closer. Clinton shook his head, even though he no doubt knew that Nicholas had known the answer before posing the question. The younger man stepped back to give Nicholas access to the woman. Nicholas sank to one knee beside her, his hand seeking one of hers.

Her palm was cold and clammy, fingers limp against his hold. He could sense that her death was close at hand, her skin ashen in color and her breaths short and shallow. A curse that was as old and ancient as himself ran through his head. She struggled to hang on, each breath sounding pained. "You can let go now, Mary Magdelaine. You can give in."

Her eyes fluttered open, gaze distant and hazy. It took her some time to find and focus on him. Nicholas offered her a smile and squeezed her hand. Her mouth worked, trying to form words. Each movement saw beads of scarlet bubble up over her lip and slide down the side of her pale face. She gasped, her hand tightening on his. "Hunters."

"We know."

Another gasping breath. "Brendan."

Nicholas knew the word for the question is was and considered giving her a lie. But it was a brief consideration. Despair filled him and his head dropped. "I'm sorry. They brought him down."

"Boys."

"They died fighting," he assured her.

Her eyes fluttered up and down as she coughed. He could feel the pain as it rolled through her, stealing her ability to speak. It took her several moments to force the next word out. "Alex--"

"He didn't make it," Nicholas said softly.

Mary Magdelaine shot him a dirty look that told him to be silent even as she battled for the last of her strength. He gave her a chagrinned smile. His free hand came up to stroke her hair away from her face, a tender touch meant to offer comfort. She swallowed hard and squeezed his hand. "No. Girls. Where... are the girls?"

He didn't want to lie to her. She was dying. But he could, at the very least, try and break the news to her gently. "We haven't found them yet. I'm afraid--"

She cut him off with a shake of her head. "No. Sent them... into the woods. Challenged the hunters. They have to be safe." He felt the attention of his two companions sharpen on her announcement. A moment later, Nicholas felt them both move off into the trees. They would move in two different directions, fan out and search for any signs of the girls. Nicholas prayed to the Gods that they would get lucky in at least this one thing and that the two girls would be found safe. If they'd been taken... He'd move heaven and earth to get them back. It was the least he could do for a family that had put their lives on the line to save those of two young females.

"We're looking for them," Nicholas promised. "Just rest and save your strength."

"You find them. You protect them."

~*~*~*~*~

The farther Phillip went into the trees, the wilder the terrain became. The trees here were old, standing tall and straight against time and the elements. Shrubs, vines, and various other plants took up all of the available space, fought for room to grow and spread. There was a faint path worn between the trees, barely visible through all the green. His keen eye sight allowed him to pick it out and he followed it carefully

Here and there, he passed signs of intrusion. Broken leaves and branches spoke of someone passing along this way in a hurry. He wasn't sure if that someone had been a pair of frightened women seeking a hiding place or mindless hunters bent on destroying or capturing their prey.

Those broken branches soon gave way to blatant signs of struggle. Some leaves had been torn away and scattered on the forest floor. Some leaves were stained with splashes of ruby. Phillip paused and inhaled sharply, drawing any lingering smells into his lungs. The stench of death nearly choked him but he forced himself to remain calm and steady. Prepared for whatever he might find. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. His fingers curled around it loosely. Then he pushed through the shattered limbs to confront the place of death.

He found the body of a hunter. The man's clothes were ragged and heavy, proving he'd come to the forest from the colder climates. He was large, all bulk and heavy muscle. A sword lay only a few feet from him, too finely crafted to be the weapon of a hunter. In fact, the man's sword was still sheathed in its scabbard. Eyes locked to the man's body, Phillip eased around the corpse so that he could pick up the forgotten weapon.

It was as fine a sword as he'd ever seen. Magic hummed through the Faerie forged steel and the rubies set into the guard winked with light despite the dimness of the forest's interior. A minor skirmish had taken place here. He had no doubt that whomever it was that had carried this blade and dispatched the hunter with ease. So why had they dropped the sword? Why had they left it behind? The questions tumbled through his brain like feathers rolling on an air current. He did not like the answers he came up with.

Sword in hand and ready for any threat, he pressed ever forward. Passing the corpse, he stepped through an archway formed by a pair of trees and found himself in a small meadow. The trees standing guard around what was obviously a sacred place were tall and broad. Their branches arched high overhead, the thick, dark green of the leaves filtering the light down to a soft, pale greenish-yellow color.

There was another corpse near the entrance. This one lay on its face and Phillip didn't need to roll it over to know it was dead. The hunter's innards had been punctured by a blade, releasing the stench of excrement into the air. The long grass around his body was trampled and stained dark with blood. Whomever it was that was responsible for his death was obviously injured and in dire need of help. Phillip scanned the meadow but saw nothing immediately. The grass was long and waved in a gentle breeze, providing a perfect hiding place for anything smaller than a horse.

It took precious minutes he didn't have to spare to see the wavering pattern in the shifting grass. There was a path, but only just. The meadow had offered protection and was doing its best to return itself to an undisturbed state. Phillip followed the faint impression of a path until he was all the way across the meadow and on the other side.

He found them one atop the other, as if the female on top thought to protect the one under her with her body. A last, quick scan of the area proved to him that there was no one else there. He slid the sword into a ring on his belt and knelt down. I've found them, my Lord. And they're alive.

There was an audible sigh through the connection. I'll let Mary Magdelaine know. She's hung on this long. I think she can let go and be peaceful if she knows that the girls are safe.

Nicholas closed the connection between them before Phillip could say anything else. Sighing, he sought out the third member of their party. Clinton. I'm going to need--

The man's thoughts cut him off before he could even finish. I'm on my way. I should be there shortly.

Phillip took a breath and said a quick prayer to whatever Gods might be listening, then reached for the girl on top in order to shift her over so he could inspect her and the girl beneath her. He was expecting a bloody scene. He was expecting serious injury. He was even, to some extent, expecting death. He wasn't, however, expecting the girl to lunge toward him with a feral cry on her lips and a very sharp dagger in her hand. The blade was slick with blood and her fingers were tight on the hilt and there was murder in her eyes as she took a swing at him.

He barely found the time to jerk back out of her reach. The tip of her blade almost sliced his chest open. One hand came up and unerringly found her wrist, catching it in his grasp so that there was no chance she could actually do him injury. And that's when he noticed her eyes. They were purple, like the amethysts he'd seen in more than one hoard. And they were as far from human as they could be, the pupils long and slitted and reptilian instead of small and round and human. It was momentarily disconcerting to see those eyes in a soft, human face. It was even more so because Phillip honestly could not remember the last time he'd seen eyes that color.

Once, a very long time ago, eyes the color of amethysts were very common. One saw them all the time. But then something happened and they were harder and harder to find. It was almost as if, with the threat of encroaching humanity, those things that marked them as different, as other, became something of myth and legend to protect their kind from discovery and mankind's incessant need to destroy that which they didn't understand. Phillip had seen purple eyes before. A very long time ago. It was intriguing to see them now again after so many centuries.

She made a sound that was halfway between anger and desperation, warning him that she was going to make some kind of attempt to drive him back. His motions were fast, his free hand reaching up to carefully pry the blade from her hold. She stared at him with wide eyes, her expression suggesting she couldn't believe he'd just done that. "You don't have to fight anymore. You're safe now," he told her, voice soft and gentle.

It was sad to watch her look around the clearing, searching for the truth in his words. When she realized that she was truly safe, she heaved a long sigh and sagged forward, eyes fluttering closed with relief. He caught her in his arms when it became apparent that she'd closed her eyes with more than simply relief. That was when he found the blood slick gash on her side. Phillip was in the process of laying her down in the soft grass when Clinton joined him.

The other man didn't ask questions. After a quick glance at Phillip and the unconscious woman in his arms, Clinton's attention turned toward the other woman. Phillip got an impression of a good deal of red and paleness that spoke to too much blood loss. Then his focus shifted back to the girl who'd attempted to attack him so he could study her.

Her skin was pale, though if it was due to blood loss or if it was just naturally that shade was impossible to say. Hair the color of flame seemed extra bright against the darkness of the grass beneath her. Her clothes were simple and homespun, though not so rough as those made by the mortals, and ran to earthen tones. If he was more poetic in thoughts and words, he might say that the brown hues of her garb did nothing to detract from her beauty, that they instead enhanced it. But he was not prone to being poetic. So he kept such thoughts firmly caught up in a small corner at the back of his mind.

After his cursory examination, he turned his attention to more important matters. Namely the wound in her side. Gentle probing with his fingers proved it wasn't very deep despite bleeding somewhat heavily. The problem was that the blood was just barely oozing, which meant that she'd had the wound for some time. He closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment or two, trying to find the ambient magic that was solely hers. He wasn't as old as Nicholas, so some things still came with some effort. He was more soldier than anything else and those skilled with certain aspects of the finer arts, reading recent events in the magic on the air was not exactly one of them.

He found the thread, a faint wisp of magic that should have been easy to find because it was the same gemstone purple as the girl's eyes. The more he concentrated, the stronger the thread became. It felt as if it was mixed with flames, burning both hot and cold. He thought that it was an odd sensation, but this wasn't something he usually did. He was no healer and he was not the leader of their people. Nicholas held that position simply by being older than the rest of their kind. For all he knew, it was something that happened with every one. He pushed the sensation aside and turned his attention to the task at hand.

Pushing away the feel of the gentle breeze against his skin and the smell of grass crushed under his knees, he turned all of his skills and abilities toward seeking out the extent of the girl's injuries. His magic worked its way along nerves, tendons, muscles, sliding deeper and deeper into her physical being until he was literally everywhere. Until he was melded with her.

For just a moment, he lost himself in being one with another being. It was the most amazing thing he'd ever experienced in his very, very long life. He could see the story of her life written into every single molecule of her flesh. Every minor scrape, every major injury. Every milestone. Every high and low. Every event that shaped her into the woman she was. It was a heady feeling, one a soul could easily get lost in. Part of him wanted to stay lost in that feeling. But he had a job to do, so he forced himself away from it. Forced himself to concentrate on the feel of her pain.

The pain was a minor thing, yet it wasn't. It tried to pull him down with it, forcing him to hold himself away from it so he could examine it with a clinical mind. There was a foreign influence to it, something making it worse than it should be. Even from the inside, the wound was minor. Something that she should have started healing on her own. The healing hadn't begun, though. There was some kind of barrier that slowed the healing and held it back. He didn't think they'd ever encountered something like this before.

He allowed himself a little longer to search for any other possible problems. If he relished the feel of being part of her, it was something he didn't acknowledge. Not even to himself. And when he felt he could no longer rationally explain away the amount of time he'd spent melded with her, he began pulling back as slowly as he could. He told himself that he was doing one last check, searching for any minor thing that might be out of place, and that required that he move with slow purpose. Even he couldn't quite believe the lie.

He was almost completely withdrawn when he felt a spark against his skin, as if someone had set fire under it. That spark hung for a moment, waiting, sitting right on the cusp of exploding, before it started racing through his body. In seconds, his entire being felt as if it was being roasted alive. And it wasn't an entirely unpleasant feeling. The spark became a burning conflagration of sensation. He could feel it in his very veins. And he could see it behind his eyes. Vibrant purple flames licked at the air around him, somehow hot and cold. Painful and pleasant. In a way, it reminded him very much of being one with her...

Instinct drew his gaze down. The purple flames had engulfed the young woman, too, and her eyes were wide. Staring up at him. Her pupils were lengthwise slits that spoke to the dragon living inside of her. The purple was so dark it was almost black. They looked like they were made of the finest velvet known to human kind. The sensation was so real that he thought he could reach out and touch them. He was reminded of the gowns he'd seen in the mortal courts and on members of the Fae courts.

The moment their gazes locked, the burning sensation under his skin flared and grew until he could think of nothing else but her and how good that feeling was. She gasped, a soft sound that danced and shivered along his nerve endings. The sound chimed through his body, drew every muscle tight with anticipation. Her hand found his, fingers curling around it as she clutched at him. Contact made the burn flare into white hot heat. "What?"

He stared at her, incapable of understanding what she was asking. The word didn't even make sense to him.

Her voice slid into his brain, rubbed against it like a cat rubbing a mortal's leg in search of a tasty morsel or some attention. He shuddered at the feel. What is this feeling?

"I--" he began, only to cut himself off when he sensed that someone was coming their way. Logic told him it was Nicholas joining them, but that didn't stop him from reaching for the hilt of his sword. And, just like that, the spell or whatever it had been was broken. The girl seemed to sag back against the ground, but he saw her hand shift to the hilt of her dirk. A quick glance toward the other girl showed him that Clinton was still lost in trying to heal her wounds and was utterly unaware that they were no longer alone in the clearing.

Nicholas strode into the clearing, the leather of his well worn leggings creaking softly. The gentle breeze tugged softly at the edge of his tunic and pulled at his cloak almost playfully. The blackness of his garments made him a dark shape in the sun-dappled clearing. Phillip turned back to the girl. "You're safe. He's with me. We're going to get you to a healer. You have my word."

"Alexis?" she asked softly, her head turning to look at her friend.

"She'll be taken care of. You'll both be taken care of. On that, you have my word," Nicholas told her. Phillip watched as her gaze shifted from him to the man standing beside him, watched as she stared at him for a time. Watched as she looked him over. And watched when she finally realized just who he was. Her gaze went wide and her hand fell away from the handle of her dirk. She sighed, a sound that was long and heavy with relief. As if that was all she'd needed to be sure she was safe, her eyes slid closed and she relaxed into the softness of the grass.

Phillip felt it when she slipped back into unconsciousness.

Nicholas sent him a look that said they'd speak about this later. Obviously he'd sensed or seen something. Then he turned his attention to Clinton. The man was still kneeling beside the other woman, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He'd been in that position for a very long time. And, as Phillip took a closer look, he could see that Clinton was under some kind of strain. Sweat dotted his forehead and his free hand, hovering just above the wound in her belly, shook with effort. Something was obviously very wrong.

Nicholas closed the distance until he stood behind the younger man. One of his hands settled on Clinton's shoulder and remained there for several moments. Finally, after what seemed an age, the man's hand lifted away from the girl's shoulder. He sat down in the grass hard, chest heaving as he sucked air into his lungs. "What is it?" Nicholas asked.

"There's something blocking my magic," Clinton told him, voice edged with no small amount of anger. His gaze lifted to lock with Nicholas'. "I tried everything I could but I couldn't get past it to heal her. The best I can do is work a stasis spell. It will keep her from getting worse. But that's all."

Nicholas turned to look at Phillip. "Did you come across anything out of the unusual?"

"There is some kind of magic preventing her body from healing its injuries." Phillip glanced at the girl and frowned. "I think it was something on the hunters' weapons. I've not encountered anything like this before."

"That's there, too. But that isn't what's stopping me," Clinton said, pulling their attention his way. One hand lifted to rake through his hair, an outward sign of his frustration. "There is... some other magic there that prevents me from healing the damage done to her body. Something beyond whatever was delivered through the hunters' weapons. She needs a more powerful and experienced healer than I."

Nicholas said nothing for a while, his gaze fixed on some point in the distance. Phillip let his eyes slide to where the younger man sat. Clinton looked worn. He'd no doubt exerted a large amount of his energy in his attempt to try and heal the girl. He was going to need time to regain his strength. Phillip was sure that they would not be returning to the sanctuary by the quickest means. He rose to his feet and was startled to find that he was a little light headed. "We need to make preparations. The bodies need to be dealt with before we can leave."

Nicholas gave an absent nod of his head. "We'll also need to find a method of transport. Taking to the skies with hunters obviously so close would be far too dangerous. Especially with injuries." The other man was silent a moment. "There are horses in the barn. You'll probably find a wagon. We'll use that. Search the farm house. Stow anything we could possibly need into bags. Be sure to bring clothing for the girls. Food. Any medical supplies you find."

"Yes, my lord," Phillip replied and cast one last look toward the girl, then turned and made his way across the clearing.

~*~*~*~*~

Strangers bellow as they charge the house, drowning out the sound of the dog as it barks and growls out a warning. She sees swords and axes in their hands. Murder in their eyes. Even before she can reach for the sword she always carries at her side, her mother is shoving her toward the forest, screaming at Miriam to take her and hide. Miriam dutifully takes hold of her hand and pulls.

She's so strong.

"Mother! I can fight! Let me stay!" she insists, even as Miriam tugs her toward the trees behind their home.

"I know you can, my girl. But this is a fight you won't win. You'll be safer in the trees. Stay there and wait for me to come fetch you. Please? Do this for me?" There is a look on her mother's face that she's never seen there before. She says nothing, but her mother knows she's relented simply because Miriam pulls her away from the other woman.

"What's going on?" she asks Miriam as they run headlong through the waist high grass, toward the towering trees that have been her home for as long as she can remember.

"Later! There's no time!" Miriam insists, though she's sure the other woman knows something. She can see it in the way Miriam's free hand clutches at the hilt of her dirk. The sounds of metal scraping metal reaches her ears and she stops, instincts seeing her turning back toward the battle. Instinct must be driving Miriam because she stops, as well. Comes around to stand in front, as if she will protect her from everything. There is a deafening roar, then heat and fire fill the sky. She tugs her hand free of Miriam's and draws her sword.

The ground is trembling beneath her feet. Something is making it shake. Something large and-- The roaring ends in a pained screech. The ground shakes one last time, like the great heaving breath of a dying horse, then goes still. The sudden silence only lasts a moment, then is shattered by another cry. This one louder and more enraged.

She cannot begin to fathom what makes those noises. And she cannot begin to fathom why strangers would attack her family. They're peaceful and they keep to themselves. The only time they deal with people directly is when they trade goods with the townsfolk. Most of the time, they keep to themselves.

The dog is still barking, once high pitched sounds dropping lower and lower until they sound like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. She's never heard the dog make that sound before and she has to wonder if the dog is really capable of making such sounds. Maybe she's only imagining things. The situation is as confusing as any she's ever been in, so its possible that she...

Her thoughts are shoved aside abruptly when the ground beneath her feet shakes so hard that she almost stumbles. She can hear the sharp crack of trees as they break. They had to have been hit by boulders the size of her family's home for such an event to happen because she's been told by her father that the trees surrounding their meager farm are as old as the hills. "Miriam? What's going on?" she asks.

Miriam doesn't answer her. A glance shows her that Miriam is staring off into the distance, her head tilted like she's listening to something on the wind. It is something that she thinks she's seen her family do before. But she's never gotten the sense that they were listening to the wind. Not before now.

Her attention is pulled away from Miriam by the sound of another roar. A glance at the sky shows bright red flames eating away the clear blue. Something large and bulky glides overhead, blotting out everything, and she's left with an impression of a broad body and expansive wings. She thinks she can see scales. For a moment, she can do nothing but stare. And then Miriam is jolting her from her thoughts, trying once again to shove her behind her body. She pushes the woman off and levels her sword on the men advancing on them.

They look rough and uneducated, and they are carrying weapons that are better suited for warfare and battle. She offers her sword for their pleasure, letting them know she is ready to fight. But something the color of pale summer roses swoops into the clearing and lashes out at the ruffians with a long, thick tail. A serpentine head turns their way for just a moment, large and vibrant blue eyes that feel familiar locking on where Miriam stands. Then the moment is broken and Miriam is dragging her away from the men and the...


She was dragged away from the dream by the gentle brush of wind across her face. It was cold, which was wrong because it was still the growing season and the winds always came warm. They always came dry, too, and this wind felt damp, as if it carried rain upon it. And under it all, she could smell the rich, loamy smell of freshly turned earth. That odd inner instinct she'd had all of her life, the one that had allowed her to sense a coming storm on the wind or which plant was going to bloom first, told her that she wasn't anywhere that she would find those scents mixed together. Something was off.

The first thing she realized was that she was laying on a pallet made of pine boughs with a few blankets spread over them. With her nose pressed so close to the cloth, she could smell home on them and that might have been enough to convince her she was still at home if not for the rock poking her in the back. She tried to shift over, tried to move away from the sharp edge, but it took more energy than she had. It felt as if there were lead weights holding her down. The best she found she could manage was rolling her head to the side and prying her eyes open.

She was in a cave of some sort. A fire burned in a pit not far from her and, beyond it, she thought she saw a glimpse of night sky. She thought she heard the sound of a boot scraping against the stone floor but it was hard to locate a possible source because turning her head was so very hard to do.

Somehow, she managed to tip her head in such a way that she could see the wall of the cave closest to her. It took her a moment to fully realize what she was looking at. Light from the fire painted Miriam's face with touches of gold and made her hair look like rubies. She was propped up against the wall, settled next to a stranger. The look on her face suggested she didn't want to be there, that she was afraid and being held against her will.

She had to help her friend.

Somehow, she found the strength to pull herself up. Made it to her feet and took a lurching step forward. "Miriam!" Her voice came out hoarse and raspy, as if it had been some time since she'd used it. Her cry brought Miriam's gaze her way, as well as that of the man beside her. A hand fumbled for the blade she wore, intent on dispatching the man who appeared to be holding her friend hostage. But her hands were clumsy. And so were her feet. It reminded her of that one time her brothers had convinced her to partake of some mead and she'd drunk far too much of it. "Get away..."

"Alexis! No!" Miriam returned as she came to her feet. The tone of her voice stopped Alexis in her tracks and she watched as Miriam took a few steps toward her. Wobbled. Would have fallen if not for the man who had been sitting behind her. He was at her side in an instant, moving almost too fast for Alexis to track. One of his arms slid around Miriam's waist and pulled her in close. She sagged against him almost thankfully, her face pale and dotted with drops of sweat.

"What witchery is this?" she hissed. Numb fingers found her belt and discovered that there was no sword sheathed there. It didn't matter. Her brothers had taught her to fight with her bare hands. She'd do that. "Unhand her lest I..."

Nausea and dizziness cut her speech off, forcing her to close her eyes and swallow. It wouldn't do to lose control in front of the ruffians she planned to battle and defeat. It felt as the world lurched under her feet and she felt herself toppling to the side. She had a moment of panic, imagining how painful it would be to hit the floor of the cave, before she felt solid arms coil around her and she was soon caught up in someone's embrace. "Unhand me!" she ordered and struggled weakly against the hold.

"Do you wish me to lull her to sleep, my lord?" a man's voice asked quietly.

"No. I want you to go collect more wood for the fire." The reply came from just above her. It gave her pause, because she recognized that voice. It had been some time since she'd last heard it, but she was sure it was him. "Allow me to handle this."

She somehow managed to open her eyes to find a single eye, so dark that she had never been able to tell if it was brown or black, staring down at her. He wore one of the grimmest expressions she'd ever seen on his face. But it was him. "Uncle Nicholas?"

He found a smile for her. It looked pained and she thought she should know why. But memories were fleeting and she felt hot and cold all at once. She also seemed to be losing snippets of time because the next thing she was aware of, he was pulling the blankets back up over her, smoothing them into place with hands that she knew were capable of great gentleness and great violence. After casting a glance over his shoulder, he settled down to sit beside her.

"Uncle Nicholas?" she asked again, when it became apparent he wasn't going to speak. "What's wrong?"

He wasn't really her uncle. He was a friend of her mother and father, someone they'd known for a very long time. She'd known him for as long as she could remember and she'd always called him Uncle Nicholas. He stared at her for a moment or two, then heaved a sigh and turned to look over his shoulder. One hand lifted and made a gesture and, for a moment, she thought she saw some kind of sheen on the air. She was sure she felt something. Then he turned back to her. The look he wore was as serious as it could be. "There are some things your parents chose to keep from you. But that isn't really an option anymore. So there are things you need to know. Immediately. And they're probably going to be hard for you to hear."

She blinked at him. "I don't think I understand."

"Alexis, do you recall the stories your mother told you of dragons and faeries when you were a wee lass?" he asked her quietly.

Did she recall those stories? Of course she recalled those stories. She remembered asking her mother to tell her about the dragons and the faeries every night before bed. Each story had been filled with dragons colored like gemstones. Every color under the sun. They flew through the skies on wings as wide and broad as the ocean and they ruled the land with their great wisdom and mystical talents. They were great warriors that were nearly indestructible in battle. They were kind and gentle and lived in harmony with all of the other creatures in the world. They were ancient and timeless. She'd always been fascinated with the pictures her mother had spun about the dragons. The stories her mother had told her had made them seem real. She'd always wanted to see a real dragon.

"Mother made them seem so real," she replied softly, fighting the urge to close her eyes.

"That's because dragons are real," he answered.

She blinked up at him, the words not quite registering with her. He was telling her dragons really existed? How was that possible? Her mother had always made it seem like they were the things of legend. Something one saw in their dreams. That thought sparked her memories and, for a moment, she saw the serpentine face that had been in her dream. She'd thought it was a dream. Maybe it wasn't?

She was so confused. And she couldn't force herself to think it through because her brain felt muffled and muddled. Like it was wrapped up in the warmest blanket her mother had ever made. She tried to recall the entirety of the dream, tried to see the edges in the hopes they would tell her if it was simply dream or if it was truly reality. "I... I don't think I understand."

"Dragons exist," he told her, tone gentle. But she was sure she heard a little bit of an edge to it. She knew that happened sometimes when he was under a great deal of stress. Her father had told her once that Uncle Nicholas was the leader of a great people and that he took his duties very seriously. She wondered what had happened to put that edge in his voice.

Dragons exist. The words echoed in her mind, seemingly growing in volume until she felt like her head was splitting in two. Why was he telling her this now? Did it have anything to do with her dream? Why had her mother let her believe that they were nothing more than myths and legends? Why had her mother lied to her?

She needed to ask her, needed to know what was going on. That thought saw her searching for her mother's face. When she looked around the interior of the cave once more, she only saw the strange man sitting with Miriam. She could not find the familiar face of her mother. Nor did she see those of her brothers, those of her father and Uncle Alexander. The confusion must have shown on her face because Uncle Nicholas laid a hand on her forehead and drew her attention back to him.

His touch felt so cool, as if she was burning up inside.

"What is it?"

"I need to talk to Mother," she insisted and made the effort to try and get up. The hand that had just been on her head was suddenly pressed to her chest, keeping her in place with ease. Why did she feel so weak? Something had happened, but she was having a hard time recalling it. "Where is she? I need to talk to her. I need to ask her about the dragons."

"She isn't here right now, Alexis. You can ask me about the dragons. I'll answer your questions," he promised.

"I had a dream. There were men attacking the farm." Even as she spoke the words, the tendrils of the dream were degrading, fading away into little more than uncertain memory the way the smoke from a fire wisped away into nothing. "I don't know why they did that. But there were these sounds that I've never heard before. And there was fire. And... I saw one?"

"What did you see, Alexis?"

She frowned, thinking hard on it. The memory was already fuzzy at the edges, fading fast like any dream she'd ever had. "I saw scales. And wings as big as a ship's sails. The color of summer roses in full bloom. It was so big and... The eye. There was an eye that stared at Miriam. It was the blue of berries when fresh and ripe. It was the same color as my mother's eyes. But..." She trailed off, confused, because it made sense and yet it didn't. And she didn't know how to make it any clearer.

"Because that was your mother, Alexis," Uncle Nicholas told her. She frowned. She had to have misheard him. Her disbelief must have shown in her eyes. His hand drifted down to take hold of hers. "That was no dream you had. It was real. Dragon hunters came to your family's home. Your family took their true forms to fight the hunters."

"Mother? Father? Uncle Alexander? My brother? All of them?"

"All of them, Alexis. Including Miriam. Including yourself."

She let his words sink in, tried to understand and make sense of them. She couldn't. None of it made sense. Because that meant her mother had lied to her. Her brothers and father and Uncle Alexander had lied to her. Miriam had lied to her. Nicholas had even lied to her. She struggled to get to her feet again. "Where is she? Where? She's going to explain to me why she lied! Where is she?"

Uncle Nicholas frowned down at her and his hand came to rest on her head once again. It felt so warm. "Stop fighting, girl. You've been injured. No doubt you've already done damage by attempting to go after Phillip. I won't have you doing anymore."

"I want to talk to my mother," she snarled.

"Later. After you've recovered. For now," he said and she thought she saw regret in his eye as he gazed down at her. The hand on her head grew warmer and that heat spread through her. Even as he opened his mouth to speak, she could feel herself falling under. "For now, though, sleep."

His voice was distant. And then it was no more.

~*~*~*~*~

Nicholas broke the small bit of magic he'd used to provide some privacy for his conversation with Alexis to find that Clinton had returned and was watching him with the eyes of a hawk. Phillip was less overt about it, but the other man was paying very close attention to his leader. A glance toward Miriam showed him that she'd drifted off. Her head rested against Phillip's shoulder while the man's arm held her close. If the situation wasn't so damned serious, he'd have smiled at the unintentional implications. As it was, he sighed, rose to his feet, and stalked past both men to pass through the cave's opening out into the welcoming shadows of the night.

This whole thing was a mess. He'd been tasked with reaching Brendan's clan and convincing them to take refuge. Move to the sanctuary. Their Lady protector wanted nothing more than to see the dragon race survive and the current menace they faced was steadily whittling away at their numbers. If the war wasn't put to an end, and soon, it would destroy everything. The life he'd known for far too many centuries to count. The lives of his remaining friends. The lives of the mortals who shared their world with such mighty and deadly creatures. The entire world would face extinction at the hands of their enemy.

The urge to shed this weak human shape and take flight thrilled through him. There were times, like now, when being the oldest of his kind weighed heavily on his shoulders. When that feeling settled upon him, the only thing that lightened the weight of his heart and thoughts was to take to the skies and simply soar for hours. To look down upon the land and see the world through dragon eyes. He considered doing it. Briefly.

But there were hunters out there who were trained to see danger in the skies. And he had responsibilities here. Alexis and Miriam were in no condition to defend themselves. And he'd sworn to the Lady that he would deliver Brendan's clan, what little remained of it, into her safe and loving care. He couldn't protect them if he didn't stay grounded.

The soft scuff of boots against the rocky entrance alerted him to the presence of another person. He looked away from the sky, from the twinkle of tiny diamonds high above him, and turned to face his companion.

The silver light of the moon, hanging full and heavy and high, washed over Clinton's form, turning his hair white for a brief moment of time. When he saw that Nicholas had seen him, he moved forward with intent and purpose. "You didn't tell her about her family." It was a general comment. And yet it was more. A question and an accusation. Nicholas let that go because he'd seen what delving into the girl's being had done to the young man.

"No. And I won't until I feel she's strong enough to accept their deaths. She's too fragile at the moment. She needs to heal."

"Perhaps if you suggested she shift," Clinton pointed out.

"That would be difficult." Nicholas sighed and stared down at the young man. He debated how much he should tell Clinton and how much he should keep to himself. There was so many things that the youth didn't know about himself. Things that he definitely had a right to know. But his life had not been one of ease and joy. The other dragons had made it their life's goal to see the boy humiliated at every turn. The life of a half-breed was never easy. Nicholas had done what he could to make Clinton's life less torturous. But he couldn't be there all the time. And Clinton was an adult, fully grown and capable of fighting his own battles. "Her mother went to extremes to protect her from the hunters and their master's greed."

"How so?" Clinton asked, letting his gaze lift to the sky. No doubt he felt the urge to take wing, too.

Nicholas walked some distance from the mouth of the cave even though he knew that Alexis would not hear what he had to say. Clinton followed without being asked. "When Mary Magdelaine's youngest dragonling turned out to be female, she realized that the girl would never be safe from the hunters. So she contacted a magic user. This magic user performed a spell that bound Alexis' true form and magic inside that of her human form. She hasn't been able to shift her shape since she first took the child's version of the form you see now. She knows nothing about her people beyond what Mary Magdelaine told her in stories."

"She's... never shifted? She doesn't even know?" There was disbelief in the man's voice.

"No. Alexis is highly spirited. She let nothing stand in her way and she showed no fear. Even when she was still barely fresh from the nest, these traits were plainly obvious. Mary Magdelaine thought that she could keep her only daughter safe by keeping her human."

Clinton was silent, obviously considering something Nicholas had told him. While he thought, Nicholas remained still and waited. He thought he knew what the next question might be. "The spell that you say has been placed upon the girl..."

"Its there. You felt it earlier today when you tried to help heal the damage done to her," Nicholas told him.

"Such a spell would take a magic user of great power and skill. There are only a few of them in the world. This wasn't our Lady's magic, but it felt familiar." Nicholas nodded and continued to stare. Clinton was very smart and there was no doubt that he would figure it out. The other man gave him a hard look as he tried to deny what he knew in his heart to be truth. Anger and tension pulled Clinton's shoulders tight even though none of it touched his face. "When?"

"A century and a half ago." He watched the boy do the math in his head. Saw him calculate it all out. Knew the moment it really hit him. Clinton stalked away from him, rage rising off him like smoke from a fire. He was going to need some time to process that bit of information. Nicholas held on to a sigh and turned for the mouth of the cave. He stopped just before stepping into the cave. "Take first watch. You've the horses and the dog to keep you company and warn you of impending danger," he suggested, his tone not unkind. Clinton nodded, not looking back at him. Nicholas stepped into the cave and left the man to his thoughts.

"Problems with our young companion?" Phillip asked. Nicholas shot him a look before moving over to settle on the pallet he'd made for himself when they'd arrived.

"A few truths that need facing," he replied cryptically. Phillip nodded and, thinking that Nicholas had looked away, turned his attention back to the woman sleeping against his shoulder. There was a look on the man's face that Nicholas had seen before. He had simply never seen it on this particular face before. Something had obviously happened earlier. Something between himself and the woman presently cradled in his hold.

Nicholas didn't bother hiding his smile. Nor did he hold back his words. "Shall I start planning a joining ceremony now?"

The question saw Phillip's head shooting up, his eyes wide as he stared at Nicholas. There might have been some embarrassment in the man's gaze, but he shuttered that away much to quickly for Nicholas to be certain about it. "Of course not," Phillip replied. "I'm merely concerned about her well being."

"Of course," Nicholas replied, though his tone of voice made it clear that he saw the lie in the man's words. But he didn't bother to push the issue any further. Nicholas knew something had happened between the two of them earlier in the day. He suspected that magic was involved, but it had been a personal moment and Nicholas wasn't going to pry. Especially since he knew how Phillip's mind worked. No doubt the man was giving more consideration to Miriam in this matter than he was to himself. To put Phillip at ease, he decided to steer the conversation toward a much safer subject. "How long do you think Miriam and Alexis can survive without healing?"

Phillip took the time to consider it. "Miriam's wounds aren't very life threatening. I suspect she feels weak and very much like she's been plagued with the ague. I would think she has some time before healing becomes a dire need."

They turned as one toward the other girl, slumbering heavily under the influence of Nicholas' magic. Even from a distance, it was easy to see the beads of sweat on her brow and the way he skin had lost some color in the hours since they'd arrived at the family's home. "Alexis should have already seen a healer. The longer she has to fight the magic, the longer it will take for her to fully heal. We know how important it is to have every last dragon healthy and capable of fighting."

"Do you believe we can spare even one female for battle?" Nicholas asked, genuinely interested in Phillip's opinion.

"We may not have a choice. Look at what the hunters did to her family. Brendan's clan has long been a line of warriors," Phillip replied steadily. They both knew what it would have meant if either of the girls had been taken by the hunters. If they were to be taken by the hunters. They'd wish for death in the end. "We're running out of warriors to fight this war, Nicholas."

It was a sobering fact. And it was a painful truth. His kind was diminishing with a quickness that he found alarming. Dragonkind had long been growing smaller in numbers, but it had always been a very slow and gradual thing. Since the start of the hunts, their demise had picked up in speed. And it was nothing that could be helped. They bred too slow, the females forced to remain near the nest and the eggs. Assuming that a mated pair even produced eggs. It as was if there was a curse upon his people.

"I know, Phillip. We keep trying to draw them in. We keep arriving too late. I don't know what else I'm to do." And with that statement, Nicholas felt his many centuries pressing heavily against his shoulders. The weight of his responsibilities was almost too much for him to bear.

"Perhaps you should take--" Phillip began, only to have Nicholas stop his words with a single glare.

"I have no time for such foolishness," he snapped angrily.

"She offered you a solution. You should consider taking it. You're the strongest of our kind."

"My responsibilities say I have no time because I have to keep my people alive."

Phillip sighed gently, his gaze flicking briefly toward the woman leaning against him. That look said more than any words Phillip would give him. "Clinton and I can seek out the remaining clans and draw them back to the sanctuary. There are those already among our ranks who would make good lieutenants. Allow us to risk ourselves. If the hunters were to capture you, there would be no one to hold us together. And then the war would end before it began."

"You're my oldest friend, Phillip. You're almost as powerful as I am. I can no more afford to lose you than I can afford to lose Clinton. I won't allow you to go out on your own and risk death. I can do no less than my people," Nicholas told him, making sure that his voice said there would be no more discussion of the matter. He never should have told Phillip that particular bit of news.

Phillip sighed and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. When he lowered his arm, his gaze was intent and it remained focused on Nicholas. "I think we should try to travel as quickly as we can tomorrow. Alexis is in desperate need of healing."

Nicholas nodded and allowed himself to think upon the long journey still ahead of them. "The rest tonight will do the stallions good. They were no doubt upset by the events of today. They were given no chance to protect their master."

"Likely a good thing. They come from a dying breed. It would have been a waste to see them slaughtered by the hunters," Phillip commented lightly. "They will be welcomed into the paddock with the mares. Perhaps we can breed a new line of dragon steeds from them. And the dogs will be good warning against the hunters."

"We start out at first light, then. We need to move as quickly as possible, for as long as possible. How are our rations?"

"We have jerked meat to last for several days. And that includes what we took out from Brendan's home. There are some vegetables that won't last more than a day or two. If you want to get some rest, my lord, I'll see about making some kind of broth that we can feed to both of the girls during the journey."

Nicholas considered it. It was a risky proposition, but it had to be done. There was no way Alexis would be able to eat more than a few bites at a time and she was in no condition to chew jerked meat. Miriam was better off, but Nicholas wasn't sure how long that would last. Finally, he gave a nod and took a moment to unbuckle his sword belt. The weapon was laid out next to his pallet, close at hand if needed. He undid the brooch holding his cloak together and carefully folded the flowing black garment up. It became his pillow. "Waken me at the first sign of trouble."

"Of course, my lord," Phillip replied.

Nicholas turned his gaze to the pile of fur near the entrance. "Dog." The animal lifted its head to peer at him inquisitively. "Sleep by Alexis. Keep her warm. Keep her safe." The dog huffed out a sound that was half bark and half growl, then it rose to its feet and ambled over to the sleeping woman's side. A wet nose sniffed at her for a few seconds before a full growl filled the air. "We're going to take her to a healer. Guard."

The dog shot him a look, then settled down beside the girl, making sure he faced the cave's opening. It huffed out one last breath, then seemingly drifted off to sleep. Nicholas stretched out on his own pallet and pulled a blanket over him. Closed his eye and tried to sleep.

Closed his eye and tried not to think about what he was going to have to do tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And all the days that came after that. Because he didn't have a single clue.

~*~

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 02:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dazzledfirestar.livejournal.com
EEE! What an amazing beginning! I can't wait to see what you're going to do with all this. You've got some wonderful threads spinning out there! Seriously wonderful work, hun. Bravo! :D

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 03:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ginevrasm.livejournal.com
Wow. This is really cool. So different. I can't wait to read more. Good stuff.

(And all those cryptic references are going to drive me batty while I'm waiting.) ;)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-05 11:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mistress-o-muse.livejournal.com
Wow! This is really faboo, sweetie! I, too, am anxious to see how this 'verse develops. I totally suck at comments, but I hope you know I really and truly do enjoy the way your mind works - evil though it may be from time to time! ;D)

Makes me wonder what other scenarios you can *possibly* put these girls/guys into...LOL. ;D)
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