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A Season Of Dragons
The sound of the sea was a distant, muted thing, overwhelmed by the crash of fresh water as it plummeted a hundred feet to the grotto at the bottom of the falls. The smell of the tropical forest was fresh, underlaid with the sweet scent of nectar and the lurking presence of rotting leaves, mulch and small animals lying just below. Earthy. Refreshing. A virtual paradise with the bright blue sky, the lush greenery and the tumbling mountain fed stream that fueled the waterfall.
And Rowan couldn't for the life of him imagine how they'd been talked into coming back out here to aid the manipulating lady archeologist who'd broken Kento's heart. A sorry state of affairs that it had been Kento whom she'd convinced to drive her up here in a rented jeep, and lug all the equipment of her trade about like hired labor. And she wasn't even paying him. Not even in nookie - - which had been his most fervent hope up until a few days ago when she'd made a rather bold - - if not drunken - - pass at Rowan. Rowan had rebuffed her. Sai had embraced Kento and dragged Rowan along for the ride. Kento, who couldn't hold a grudge if he tried, was happy. He'd gotten his nookie and though what he lacked in expertise, he more than made up for in a sheer boundless energy that left Rowan, who was rather an old hand at the game - - somewhat exhausted.
Rowan would have been happy to let the woman sulk and complain and bitterly lament the possible shared credit for the discovery of the great dragon carving on the cliff next to the falls. Sai could have cared less if she fell off the face of the earth, she having doubly pushed his buttons by; one - - stringing Kento along merely to get his help and two - - hitting on Rowan. Kento, however, was a sucker. Kento relented when she came begging for the second time, using all her considerable womanly whiles to sway his sympathy.
Sai was not about to let him trudge off with her without proper protection from her selfish scheming and had no problem telling her so. Kento had blushed. Karen Dreskel and Sai had exchanged mutually venomous glares. Rowan had buried his face in a pillow and laughed until he cried. It was such a miserably humorous situation.
So here they were, at the top of the cliff overlooking a very pleasant little forest grotto where very pleasant things had almost happened. From above, looking down from the very edge of the cliff, the carving didn't look like anything so much as a lumpy collection of rocks. Rowan leaned there, with his hands on his knees, toes over the edge, mindless of the drop, while Kento secured the ropes to a nearby tree. They'd had to walk about a half mile from the jeep, the terrain too rugged for even four wheel drive to circumnavigate.
Karen was busy loading her camera with film and stuffing her backpack full of tricks of the trade.
"You sure you know how to rock climb?" Rowan asked her and got a sniff and an offended glare for the concern.
"I have to go all sorts of difficult places in my line of work." She announced loftily.
"Yeah, so do I." He muttered.
She wasn't half bad. She started lowering herself down without waiting for them once she had her harness secured and was ten feet down the cliff face before Kento could get his harness buckled and clamber down after her.
"She's a pain in the ass." Rowan decided out loud and Sai nodded agreement.
"Why are we doing this again?" Sai looked over the side distastefully, not quite flirting with the edge as thoroughly as Rowan.
"Cause Kento's a big softie?" Rowan suggested. "And you're too much of a bitch to let her get him out here by himself so she could walk all over him?"
Sai lifted a brow, not quite offended by that assumption. "I really don't like her."
"You don't not like her as much as you ought to,"
Rowan shrugged. There were certain things that great looks let a person get away with. He didn't mention that reasoning to Sai. "You sure you're not going down?"
"I'll wait up here." Sai declared.
"Okay." Rowan grinned at him and hopped off of the edge, swinging out in an arc and catching himself with his feet against the top of the carving some fifteen feet down. With all the agility of a squirrel at home in the branches of its tree, Rowan swarmed down the uneven face of the cliff, caught up to Kento and the girl at what might have been the mouth of the thing. They were standing on a narrow ledge where the jaw jutted out. The curve of the wings loomed up on either side of them, throwing the rough hewn head into shadow. Karen had her video camera out and was filming and talking at the same time. Rowan reached up and touched a stone fang as big as his torso.
"Pretty cool, huh?" he asked of Kento.
"Quiet." The girl shushed him, "I'm narrating."
"Fine. Whatever." He moved a little into the narrow cleft between the jaws. A bit of cool air washed over him. It was black as pitch at the back of the gaping maw, and he thought it was a deeper darkness than shadow alone could account for. He stepped further in and put a hand out, feeling for the stone. It went further back than would have thought. He took another step and the ground sloped down.
"There's a hole here." He said quietly. "Hand me your flashlight, Kento."
"A hole where?" Karen squeezed up next to him, shining her own light into the mouth. There was an opening, slanting downwards from the front of the maw, perhaps four feet high and three feet wide. Not too steep but who the hell knew when it might just drop off into nothing. Or narrow down to a point where a man might not be able to pass.
"Is it just a natural fissure?" Kento asked from behind them.
"Maybe." Rowan said, peering past Karen.
"There are carvings." Karen gasped in excitement. "Here, hold my light." She thrust the light into Rowan's hands and began crawling inside.
"Wait a minute - -" Rowan caught hold of her safety rope. "Maybe one of us should go first, just to be safe."
"I don't need your protection." She snapped.
Rowan glanced back at Kento, who shrugged. He let go the rope and she proceeded inside. He followed her in thinking that at least the view was nice. Sure enough, inside there were lines of ancient carvings on the stone walls. Karen aimed the video camera at them while Rowan held the light for her. When they'd moved in far enough, Kento followed, bringing his own light. Fifteen feet down the small tunnel and the ceiling rose high enough for Karen to stand without bending. Rowan and Kento had to duck their heads and slouch, but it was better than crawling on hands and knees over harsh stone.
"Incredible. Incredible." Karen was speaking more to herself than them, swinging her camera about the narrow passage in awe. "Do you know what this means?"
"A national Geographic special?" Rowan asked.
"I'm going to be famous." She ignored him. "I know they'll extend my grant when they find out about this."
"Swell." Rowan moved past her shining the light down the tunnel. The passage seemed to stop about twenty feet down. "Doesn't go much further." He announced. "But there's a lot more carvings at the end."
He put his fingers to the stone wall. It was flat, and circular, the blunt cap to the tunnel. As tall as he was and covered in concentric, hieroglyphic type designs that worked their way out from a central point. The hole in the middle was just big enough for someone to maybe stick their hand in. There was a diagonal split running from top to bottom. Probably damaged in the earth quake.
"This is - - so cool." Kento held his light up so that Karen could get a good shot of the thing. "What do you think it is?"
"Runes maybe. Some sort of seal. I'll have to get rubbings of the markings."
"Well, its a broken seal." Rowan remarked, running his fingers down the freshly made crack.
"Humm." Karen took the flashlight from his hand and shined the light into the small dark hole.
"Don't stick your hand in there." Rowan suggested, imagining nasty things living in the deep darkness. "Might be spiders or snakes or worse."
"Don't be silly." She sniffed at him, pressing her face close and squinting into the depths. "There's something back at the end."
"Yeah, probably something that will make the ceiling fall in on us or spikes grow out of the floor. Don't touch it."
"Don't tell me what to do. I'm the archeologist here."
"Yeah, well, we're the ones who will have to drag your ass out of here when you get stung or bit or whatever."
She turned a venomous glare his way, then deliberately stuck her hand into the hole. She had to go in all the way up to her elbow to reach the end and her face screwed up in concentration as she felt about at whatever it was that rested there.
"I can't quite tell what it is - - - ouch!!" she jerked backwards of a sudden, slamming her elbow into Kento's stomach.
"What happened?" he gasped, shining his light at her hand. There was a bright spot of blood welling on her fingertip.
"Something pricked me."
"God. I told you there were spiders."
"It wasn't a spider you moron. Just something sharp."
"Let me see." Kento was trying to get her to let him take her small hand in his larger one, shining his flash light down at the welling drop of blood. Rowan stared at the dark hole suspiciously, waiting for spiders to come crawling out in righteous indignation over their peaceful home being disturbed or the walls to begin an inevitable advance in upon them. Instead, a slow trickle of what looked and smelled like fresh blood began to seep out of the hole and down into the maze like grooves radiating out from it. He glanced back at Karen's hand and the very small, gash in her index finger. There was no way she had bled that much.
"Kento." He said slowly. "Shine your light back this way, please."
Kento did without asking why and the light glinted off the growing stream of blood working its way along the grooves in the seal.
"What the hell- -?" Kento almost moved closer but Rowan put a hand out to stop him.
"What?" Karen asked, irritated, not seeing the seeping red at first, then she noticed and her eyes widened. "Oh."
"Did you maybe break something in there? Shift something that was blocking this stuff?"
"No." She said softly. "What is it?"
"Smells like blood." Rowan said with a grim smile. "I really, really don't like the smell of blood."
"Maybe we ought to go back up and tell Sai what we've found." Kento suggested.
"Yeah." Rowan agreed wholeheartedly, wanting out of this small dark place badly.
"No, I want to see what happens." The girl was an idiot. Rowan cast her a glance, contemplating telling her just that when the seal shifted. The bottom half just sort of settled, as if the weight of the top half above the crack had become too much for it. Dust and powdered stone drifted into the air, the sound of heavy stone grating upon heavy stone assaulted the ears.
"Get back." Kento wrapped an arm around Karen's waist and wrapped a fist in the back of Rowan's shirt collar and yanked them all backwards as the stone finally gave way and shattered.
Dust filled the air, making the lights from the flashlight beams grainy with haze. It was hard to breath, with all the filth in the air. Rowan held a hand over his mouth and nose, coughing, staring at the rubble on the floor, hair ruffled by the cold breeze that blew out from ragged, gaping hole. There was light from the depths as well. A luminous green glow that made the rough hewn walls behind the seal cast shadows of their own.
"Fuck." The curse came out a barely coherent whisper. The goosebumps on his skin rose so quickly it made his teeth chatter. Almost it made him queasy, the feeling of - - unease that chill wind brought with it. He shoved a perceivably trembling hand into his pocket and felt the comforting coolness of the smooth stone that was his calling card to the armor of Strata.
"Tell me you have your thingamajiggy on you?" he didn't quite look at Kento when he asked it, eyes glued to that eerie glow down the dark tunnel.
Kento blinked, mouth agape. "Uh - - I didn't think I'd need it."
Rowan cast him an annoyed glance. "I want out of here. Now."
"I want to see what's down there." Karen declared.
Rowan caught her arm. "No."
"You don't tell me what to do." She tried to wrench out of his grasp. He tightened his fingers, too spooked to be gallant.
"Live with it. We're going back up."
"The hell - - you do what you want - - I'm exploring down that tunnel." She managed to jerk away.
"Listen, you stupid broad - - that rock just bled! There's a fucking supernatural glow from down the tunnel and I've had all the supernatural shit I can take for one year - - we're leaving."
"Just who do you think you are?" She shook a fist in his face.
He opened his mouth to respond and quite suddenly had the air sucked out of his lungs. In fact all the air in the tunnel rather abruptly changed directions, sucked into that new passage and towards that nimbus glow like a vacuum had been switched on. The girl lost hold of her light and it rattled down the passage. Kento caught hold of her before she could stumble after it.
For a handful of seconds breathing was impossible and then it stopped. Silence. Cold still air. Then a whoosh of movement and form as something large and leathery shot out from the darkness like it had been launched from a catapult. Too fast to follow, it slammed into Kento and Karen, knocking the both of them into the wall, a rough, leathery limb slashed out and came close to decapitating Rowan. He reared backwards, scrambling for purchase, getting half a glimpse of an inhuman face. Of a long tapered snout and gleaming teeth. Of lean awkwardly bent arms with talons on the ends of what seemed the wrong number of fingers. Of what might have been furled wings, held close to a body as thick as a steer in this small, tight space.
Then it was gone, rocketing down up the passage towards the faint glow of daylight.
"Son of a bitch." He breathed, stunned. He staggered up, one shoulder against the wall, staring dumbfounded at Kento, who was sprawled with the unconscious body of the archeologist atop him.
"What the fuck was that?"
Kento blinked, not having an immediate answer. When he did speak, it was to bring up a point that Rowan - - in his surprise - - hadn't thought about. "Sai. Sai's up there by himself."
"Fuck." Rowan whirled, not even bothering to touch the crystal, summoning the armor even as he sprinted up the narrow passage. Feeling the energies gather and tear through his body as he ran. Felt the simultaneous feel of the mystic armor clamp around his limbs, granting him strength and stamina and power that he hadn't had before as well as the oppressing weight of it on his bones - - his spirit - -his soul. No power came without its price.
He didn't need the rope to pull himself up. Just bounded up the cliff like gravity had suddenly ceased to effect him. It was hardly a thing he noticed anymore, that euphoric feeling of unlimited power. He knew how to gauge his strength. He knew how high the bunching of muscles would take him into the air, how much strength to put behind a leap or a blow and not commit drastic overkill.
He was barely a breath or two behind the thing when he reached the cliff top. He caught the hind end of the swing that sent Sai skidding through the dirt into their pile of gear. There was blood on Sai's face. And more of it on the thing's talons as it clenched its four long fingers and took another stride towards Sai. Sai wasn't doing much but lying there, stunned and tangled in rope and backpacks, which probably meant that Sai hadn't thought to bring his stone either. Fucking great. A body would think - - after being so long without them, the idiots wouldn't go for a leak without the damn things on their persons.
"Over here." Rowan called, and the thing shifted, long sinuous neck twisting to look over its shoulder. Not even close to human. Upslanted reptile eyes in a scaly face. Rust colored hide. A wide, high chest that narrowed down to a thickly muscled abdomen and legs with the knees positioned way too low. The stump of a tail twitched at the base of its spine. Maybe half an arms length long. It was very definitely male. That was twitching too with excitement, though Rowan doubted very much it was sexual. At least he hoped it wasn't.
With the sound of sails snapped taught by a sudden breeze, the wings unfurled. Impressive wingspan. The sunlight made the thin, leathery skin between the bones of the wings transparent. It looked delicate almost. Rowan smiled grimly, snatched his bow off his back in one smooth motion and loosed an energy arrow, determined to see just how fragile those wings were.
Not fragile at all, it turned out. The impact knocked the dragonthing backwards, but the energy bolt itself dissapated, not able to quite make a dent. The thing snarled and launched itself at him, claws extended. Rowan sprang out of the way, drawing another arrow as he did. One hop backwards that covered some twenty feet, another than put him at the tree line and he loosed the bolt. It hit dead center of the dragonman's chest. Staggered the thing and made it howl, but didn't quite break through that touch hide.
Fuck. It was not a good thing when his arrows weren't making dents. Not the normal attacks at any rate. He'd super charge the next one and see what that did. It better do something because he had only so much energy to expand on those suped up attacks. They were in no way as inexhaustible as his normal mystic arrows that were always at his beck and call when he was armored up.
"Rowan. Sai!" he heard Kento crying his name. Saw the ropes hanging over the side of the cliff tremble as weight was put on them. The dragonman looked too, and its reptilian eyes narrowed in speculation. There was something vastly intelligent in its eyes. Something that went beyond animal craftiness and well into reasoning thought.
"Here! I'm here." He cried, loosing two more energy bolts in quick succession. "I'm the challenge here, not them." He drew another one and grinned down the softly glowing shaft into those yellow eyes.
It hissed at him and with a launching of muscled thighs drove itself into the air, wings stretched wide, zeroing in on Rowan. Rowan didn't loose the arrow. He darted into the jungle instead, sprinting through the tangled growth at a speed no mortal man could have matched. The trees kept the dragon man from using those great wings, but he heard it crashing through the undergrowth after him.
Then quite suddenly - - silence. He froze, one hand clutching the bow with its knotched arrow, the other resting tentatively on the smooth bark of a tree. Without the sound of its pursuit, he didn't know where it was. He had the sudden fear that it had turned back and gone after Sai again. And with Kento and that woman coming up the cliff face - - more targets that didn't stand much of a chance against those claws and teeth.
He breathed a curse and started back, got half way there when the trees rustled and quite suddenly a great, dark shadow was dropping out on him from above. Rowan was quick. The armor made him downright blindingly fast when push came to shove. He still only managed to avoid the worst of the impact. He rolled and the thing's feet caught him a glancing blow on the hip. It was enough to throw him off balance. Enough to send him tumbling in the leaves with the Dragon man a second behind. He hadn't the room to loose the arrow, even if he hadn't of lost it in his tumble. The monster was upon him and Strata was the least accomplished off all the mystical warriors for up close and personal combat. He did his damage from a distance and did it well. Hacking up an opponent when he was close enough to smell his putrid breath was more Ryo's element.
Don't lose hold of the bow though. It was a weapon in its own right. He slammed it up under the long jaw with enough strength backing the blow to move a small car. Blood flew then, from sharp teeth piercing a forked tongue. It howled like a cat in heat and slashed at Rowan's face. He shielded himself with one arm and felt the strength of the thing through the armor. He felt bruised from the impact from above and it took a lot to bruise their bodies under the protection of the mystical armor.
"Get - - off!" he screamed and brought one armored knee up hard against the dragon man's dangling genitalia. That got a reaction. That got a strangled scream and a backwards arch of the body. Rowan sent both feet out then, and kicked the thing off of him. Sent it hurtling into the foliage covered trees beyond. He was summoning the energy for his special while he was still kneeling in the mulch of the forest floor. Felt it like a solid ball of weight at the center of his being that sucked at his chi - - at his own personal reserve of energy - - like a sponge. As powerful as it was, the armor was a two way street. It granted power and speed and mystical energies - - but it needed a human source to support it. Without the human soul - - it was nothing. And it would suck a body dry if a body weren't careful. Ryo got caught in that trap more often than the rest of them, because Ryo commanded more power when he was wrapped up in the energies of the White armor and you never got that much power without paying a price. Use the big attacks too often and they'd suck all the stamina out of you.
Rowan figured he had four or five of the suped up shots in him before it started to tell. He hoped - - desperately hoped one was all it would take. He fed that tight ball of energy he'd gathered into the bow, felt the prickling haze of power as the bolt formed, aimed down that crackling shaft at the dragon man who was crouched, ready to spring at him again and with a yell released the arrow. You could tell it was different from the way the sounded, from the way it sucked the air from around you, creating a sudden sharp vacumm that almost made him lurch forward. It hit the creature as it leapt for him, a reverbeating wave of focused air that could have shattered solid stone, catching it across the chest and head, the impact so loud and so close that it momentarily deafened Rowan. He wasn't used to being so near to the target when he used the the Shinku Ha. It rocked him back on his knees and he had to put a hand out to catch himself.
Wetness spattered his face. Blood. A great deal of blood that speckled the surface of his armor. It was as red as his own. The dragon man toppled forward, a great ragged wound at the top of its body. Or the stump of its carcass. If the head was intact anywhere, Rowan didn't see it. The body was in pretty good shape, considering the impact it had taken. It appeared that the head was a weak spot. Or maybe it was just decapitation in general that did the trick.
He spat blood that wasn't his out of his mouth and grimaced. There wasn't much he could do about wiping the stuff off his face without disarming and he wasn't quite willing to do that yet. The chill bumps were still up on his skin and that wasn't a good sign.
He got up, did that most heinous of unforgivable sins and prodded the body with his toe. It didn't jump up and attack him. It just sort of shifted a little on the loose mulch. Dead. Just plain dead.
He fastened the bow in place on the quiver and began back to the waterfall. It didn't take long. In fact the whole affair had been rather expeditious, if you got past the initial trouble of how to kill the damned thing.
Sai was up and functional, which was a relief. He was crouching over Karen Dreskel, who wasn't, along with Kento.
"She alive?" Rowan asked, slipping out of the forest. The both started, staring at him warily.
"Yes." Kento answered at the same time as Sai inquired. "Is any of that blood yours?"
He shook his head, striding forward with a slight clinking of metal shifting against metal. "I killed it. Whatever it was."
"Whyever did you let that woman touch anything down there?" Sai reprimanded. Apparently Kento had related what had happened while Rowan had been out slaying monsters.
"And we were going to stop her - - how?"
"We need to get her back to town." Kento said. "Get this bump on her head looked at. Its still bleeding a little. She's probably concussed."
"Serves her right." Sai muttered. "I wonder if there are any more of those things."
Rowan stared beyond them, to the edge of the cliff, picking up a sound that neither of the other two perceived due to the enhanced abilities the armor granted him. A scrabbling that sounded suspiciously like claws on rock.
"Sai - -" he said softly, taking the bow off his back and walking forward to place himself between them and the cliff edge. "You don't have your crystal on you, do you?"
"Well - - no."
"You didn't leave home without it, did you? Either of you?"
"Of course not."
"Then kindly get your asses out of here and take her with you."
"Why?" Sai stood, staring in the direction Rowan was staring, suspicion strong in his tone.
"Because I think, the answer to your question is, yes, there are more of them."
One moment there was nothing but blue sky and the peaceful silence of the forest; the constant, sweet sound of the waterfall that tumbled over the rocky, forest covered incline above the cliff and dropped dramatically off into the falls. One moment Rowan was staring intently at the cliff face, his hand slowly going for the mystical bow at his back - - sensing something that neither Sai nor Kento could discern without the help of armor.
And the next - -
- - all hell broke loose. Sai felt that was a literal enough description to fit. No one would fault him for over-exaggerating. They swarmed up the side of the cliff like locust. The one had been quite bad enough, appearing out of the blue unexpectedly and taking a rather nasty swipe at him when he hadn't been prepared for a monstrous attack. One hardly expected great, scaly, winged beasts to just pounce from out of nowhere. Several dozen of the things doing the same thing was just an appalling shock.
Rowan was shooting as fast as he could draw, knocking the things back off the face of the cliff as they clambered up and over the side. The sound of wings unfurling and flapping harshly could be heard, but the one's Rowan knocked over didn't soar back upwards to attack. They hardly seemed that adept at flying, as if they held too much muscle weight to gracefully support their bodies in mid-air. It had most definitely not felt like a hollow boned creature that had hit him. They did seem good at gliding though. When those wings unfurled and the things took a running leap they sailed through the air for a great distance before coming to rest. Rowan used his bow like a staff on the one that got past his initial array of arrows and knocked the thing backwards before it quite touched down.
"Go! Go! Go!" Rowan was shouting at them. Kento had found the hatchet out of the packs and had risen, ready to stand his ground.
"Get the fuck out of here." Rowan slammed another of the things backwards and it tumbled fifteen feet before springing back to its feet, not unduly hurt by a blow that might reasonably had smashed in the side of a bus.
"No - -" it was an abhorrent idea, abandoning Rowan. Even an armored Rowan.
Rowan hardly had the time to turn and argue. He got off another two arrows to what seemed very little avail and yelled without turning.
"You're gonna get killed. Maybe me as well if I have to stay here and look out for you guys. Get back to the bungalow. Get your fucking armor!"
"He's right." Kento cried, frustrated and bleeding. He'd gotten too close to one of the one's that had gotten past Rowan's defense. He'd gotten a slash across the shoulder before Rowan had interposed his armored form between Kento and the beast. Funny thing was, they all weren't concentrating on swarming over the four of them. They were scattering, drawn to the woods or up the mountain side, or taking off in gliding leaps over the side of the cliff to drift down to the forest below. If the lot of them had been intent on ripping them up, Rowan couldn't have stopped it. Not by himself.
All they were doing was hampering Rowan. Keeping him from taking to the trees where he could gain cover and distance. He was never at his best in a standing fight.
"Be careful." Sai cried and pulled at Kento's arm. Motioning him that retreat was an unanimous idea. Kento handed Sai the ax and bent down to swing the girl up and over his shoulder where she bounced like so much dead weight while they ran.
A half mile to the jeep and they barely reached the edge of the clearing before a winged monster lunged out at them from the forest. A deafening impact of force hit it high in the chest, exploding flesh and bone outwards. The thing screamed, a gaping wound in its chest showing bone and muscle and possibly organs. It fell to the ground, screeching and writhing, but not dead. That had been one of Rowan's big attacks and it hadn't quite taken the thing out. Horrifying thought. Then the forest swallowed them, and the trees and the foliage muffled the sounds of whatever mayhem was going on back by the falls. Sai felt sick. Felt the nausea rising and forced it down. There was blood on him, some of it his own, and bits of flesh from the creature Rowan had taken down practically at his feet. It wasn't the gore that got to him. It was the fear for Rowan. Rowan wasn't one hundred percent yet. Oh, Rowan claimed he was fine, but it took more than a few months for bones to fully knit and for a body to physically recover from near death. Or death, in Rowan's case. Rowan had been dead. Dead. Dead. And for those few moments that he had been Sai had felt every nuance of his passing. He had no desire to experience it again.
Stupid, really not to have the crystal on him. It was such a little thing, so easy to stick into a pocket. But he disliked carrying it. It was like hoarding a loaded weapon on his person. A constant reminder of violent things. And Sai desperately wished not to be reminded of such things. Especially when he was on vacation and trying to forget. Trying just to be normal. As if normality was ever a possibility for him. For all of them.
There. Though the trees sat the jeep. Sai got to it first, perched with one knee on the driver's seat and urging Kento to hurry. Kento pounded up, breathing labored, face flushed from having sprinted a half mile with 120 pounds of dead weight across his shoulders. He gasped out something - - a curse maybe - - that Sai couldn't understand, as he dumped Karen into the back seat and collapsed into the passenger seat beside Sai.
Sai barely waited for his rear to touch down before peeling off down what could in no civilized terms ever be considered a road. The trip up had been a slow and meticulous crawl, careful to avoid tree roots, rocks or natural obstructions along the path. The pell nell journey down was rife with teeth-rattling jars, scraping undercarriage and treacherous twists and turns. Kento had his hands braced on the dash, his face gone from pink to white.
"Sai! Watch out!" he cried as something large and ominous lunged out into the path before them. Something with a twenty foot wing span and a snarling, deadly demeanor. Sai uttered a curse word he did not generally let pass from his lips, pressed his foot to the floor and hit the thing dead on with an impact that slammed himself and Kento into the dash and tumbled Karen onto the floorboards. The dragon creature went sailing into the air, hit the ground some distance ahead of them and was promptly run over as Sai kept to his downward course. There was a feminine screech from the back as the jeep bounced over its victim.
The woman was awake. And screaming incoherently. Kento leaned back to try and quiet her. She batted his hands away.
"Get away from me! Get away! What's going on? What happened? Stop this jeep, right now!"
"Shut up!" Sai snapped. She wouldn't and Sai had the distinct urge to knock her back out again. He gripped the steering wheel with whitened knuckles instead. The jeep bounced over one last rut and hit more solid road. A dirt track bordered on both sides by fields of sugar cane. They careened down that narrow track at a breakneck speed, Sai desperately trying to ignore the woman's hysterics -- desperately trying to recall how long it had taken to get here. He had not been paying the most dutiful attention on the way up. It had certainly taken longer, because they'd had to stop and decipher the geographical map that the woman had gotten from somewhere.
"Look." Kento half stood in his seat, pointing out over the field to the right. There was something gliding low and fast over the stalks, not headed for them, but out towards the shoreline.
"What is that?' Karen demanded. "What the hell is that?"
They didn't answer, not quite knowing themselves.
"My God. It looks like a dragon. Is it a dragon?" she cried.
"We don't know what it is." Kento answered.
"You released them." Sai accused.
"Released - - ? The seal?" she took a shaky breath, but there was something in her voice that had nothing to do with guilt and everything to do with arousal. "The seal. The statues weren't merely totems to some insubstantial god - - " she whispered. "This is - - wonderful."
"Its not bloody wonderful." Sai snapped.
"They tried to kill us." Kento supplied.
"I'm going to be famous." She hardly heard them, she was so wrapped up in her own fantasy.
"You'd be dead if it weren't for Rowan." Sai said, thinking bloody thoughts that he knew he'd never act on. "And if he gets hurt because of what you did - - well - - I don't know what I'll do - - but it probably won't help promote your fame."
Rowan took the fast way down the cliff. Took a running jump out over the grotto, twisted in mid-air and shot off a set of bolts at the monster that launched itself after him, disrupting its flight pattern and knocking it back against the cliff face. He saved himself from a messy impact at the bottom by summoning enough wind to buffer his descent. He hit the ground running, mostly remembering the way back towards the beach along the bridal paths. It was a much shorter trip than way than by car up above. He'd seen at least a dozen of the dragon men disappear into the forest headed towards the ocean and the resort.
He'd taken six down permanently and wounded a handful of others, but the damn things were tough and they bounced back from tears in the flesh like they didn't feel the pain. Or they simply ignored it, which was a more chilling prospect.
Halfway down the bridal path and he smelled blood and death freshly made. He put arrow to bow and padded as quietly a an armor clad body could down the path. He saw the bodies of the horses first. Ripped up and bloody, their throats torn out and leaking wetness onto the mulch of the forest floor. The body of the man had been tossed a little further into the trees. More damage done there. Eviscerated, and not neatly. He'd seen worse things, but not recently. Rowan took a shaky breath, listening for sounds of the beasts that had done this. Nothing.
It occurred to him that there should have been another body. There were two horses after all, but he'd only found one half of the couple that had ridden them up this trail. He looked about, but found nothing. No sign of another person. No body parts, no shreds of clothing. Nothing. Which meant either she or he had fled and he doubted a normal human could really outrun the dragon men for long - - or they'd been taken.
Taken for what, he didn't want to think about.
"Take care of her. She's had a bump on the head." Kento thrust Karen Dreskel into the hands of one of the resort personnel while Sai hovered impatiently on the trail leading down to the beach front bungalows. Distantly the discordant sound of sirens could be heard. A dog howled, and another joined it. It was a mournful, unnerving chorus.
"Something's wrong." Kento said and Sai stared up at him, wanting badly to latch on to his thick arm and haul him along behind him.
"You can't just leave me here. Where are you going?" Karen was glaring at them balefully.
Sai ignored her. Kento did, for a change. Kento was biting his lip, a distant, worried expression in his eyes. A furrow between his brow.
"Come on." Sai urged, thinking of very little else at the moment but Rowan.
"Shit." Kento whispered and his fingers caught hold of Sai's arm and tightened hurtfully. Almost Sai complained, then the ground began to tremble under his feet and Kento's fingers biting into his arm were the least of his worries. The screams of the people in the resort wove in and about the deeper rumble of the earth. The sea frothed and tossed, disturbed by the seismic activity. A charcoal gray puff of smoke issued forth from the crowing peak at the center of the island.
"Oh - - God." Sai stared at the smoke in horror. "Please, please do not tell me there's a live volcano on this island."
"There's not supposed to be." Kento muttered. "Just a lot of earth tremors - - shifting of the plates and all that."
"And all that - - ? Then what in bloody hell is that?" He jabbed a finger at the hazy peak.
Kento had no answer for that. Kento looked spooked. They began running down the path towards the bungalows. The earth moved again and Kento caught hold of Sai and braced his feet long enough to get balance, then hauled the both of them on their way despite the earth's most strident attempts to toss them from their feet.
More screaming from the beach and at first it seemed as if it were only reaction to the earth tremor, but then one of the little girls from the neighboring bungalow ran out onto the beach towards the angry surf. Something sprang out from the shelter of palms behind her. A twenty foot jump that glanced off the child's back and sent her tumbling into the wet sand at the ocean's end. The creature snatched up the small body, clutching it with one clawed hand, unfurled its wings and twisted its body about, tensing to pace back towards the cabins.
"Let her go." Kento screamed, changing direction to head towards the beast. It swung its head about, reptilian eyes narrowing, focusing on a new threat. Not much of a threat though. Not without the armor.
"Kento. No!" Sai cried and snagged his arm. "Armor up first."
Kento hesitated, torn between rushing out to the little girl's aid now and taking the time to retrieve his crystal and do it with a bit of mystical help. Practicality won out. He and Sai sprinted for their cabin, Kento not even taking the time to go for his room key, but kicking the flimsy door in so hard it came off its hinges and slammed to the floor.
Each to their own rooms to tear though luggage and find that oh so helpful little harbinger of power. Sai felt the presence of his own even before he found it nestled within his luggage; pulled on that connection to summon the armor before he quite had it in his palm.
The power of the angry ocean rushed in, filling him with its power. So close to the sea he always felt the inherent force of it - - but now, with whatever seismic disturbance that rocked the island also infiltrating the ocean - - it was overwhelming. Sai took a staggering step, unprepared for the rush of power - - heard the sound of clinking armor distantly, ears filled with the rush of the sea.
Heard Kento's crow of victory as he armored up. Heard a crashing that might have been Kento and might have been something else. He took a breath, gaining control of himself and the armor's unpredictable reaction to its source power. Clutched the trident that had formed with the armor and stepped towards the door.
The source of the crashing became clear. A dragon creature haunched in the door, perching like some particularly bristly winged dinosaur in the gaping hole of their doorway. It wasn't there for long. Kento hurled his bulky, armored form at it, and the both of them disappeared in that flying tackle. He ran out after them, only casting Kento and the thing he was tangling with half his attention, interest caught by the scattered forms of people fleeing down the beach from the resort itself, pursued by a handful of the dragon creatures. He saw a man snagged from behind, his back ripped open by hand length claws before the beast reared down to tear out the back of his throat. Sai drew furious breath and called the angry ocean with hardly a pause to gather the power it usually took. The water geysered up from perhaps fifty feet out and hurled towards shore like some water based twister, slamming into first one creature then the next and finally knocking the third a hundred feet into the sand. One of them had been sucked into the ocean and Sai wished it a treacherous, soggy death. The other two were stunned but not dead. More screams from the hill where the resort perched. He saw one of the creatures disappear into the cultivated forest near the pool with a struggling young woman clutched under one arm.
He glanced back to Kento, who was quite busy slicing at a pair of the creatures with the sharp end of his bo. He didn't seem to require assistance, so Sai headed up the path towards the resort. The earth shook violently again, and he paused, staring towards the suspect mountain. More than a little black smoke was seeping from the peak. He had visions of lava and suffocating ash and the sea boiling from the heat. He might survive it. Kento and Rowan might - - but he feared for the mundane population of this island.
The stable at the end of the bridal path had been in a shambles. The stablemaster mauled to death and most of his charges fled. A few of the more unlucky ones littered the ground. One of the dragon men had stopped to feed, crouched over the still warm body of a horse, its claws dripping blood and flesh as it gorged itself. Rowan had blow its upper body to shreds with the Shinku Ha. He'd leaned on his knees a moment after that, sick to his stomach, trying to regain a bit of the stamina that so many of those powerful attacks had taken out of him. The earth shook again and he stood, bracing his hand on the side of the stable. The air smelled faintly of ash. He wondered if they'd caused this with the breaking of that seal or if it was merely another of the seismic disturbances that had unearthed the dragon statues to begin with.
It wasn't far to the beach. And from there maybe a mile to the resort. He ran the whole way, armored feet digging into the sand, bow clutched in one hand. There was a rift in the sand some fifty feet long and perhaps six feet deep not far from their bungalow, as if the earth had chosen that small, contained area to split. He doubted it was natural. It had more the feel of Hardrock's hand to it. The front door of their bungalow was a mess, and the cabin quite empty. There was the body of a man sprawled outside the cabin down from theirs. No sign of the other family members. A dead dragon man bobbed in the surf a little ways down, its head almost sheared from its shoulders. He did not see Sai or Kento. Hardly even heard them until the ocean surged up like something alive and a funnel of water torpedoed up the cliff towards the resort, crashing through the panoramic glass windows that faced the ocean and zeroing in on something inside.
It made guessing where Sai was rather easy. Rowan took the more mundane route up, bounding up the stairs leading from the docks. The lobby was a shambles when he got there. The restaurant was a sodden mess, with shattered glass covering the floor, and a badly overmatched dragon creature being cut down by the naginata at the end of Kento's bo. Sai had impaled one on the end of his trident, but the thing was still kicking and hissing, obviously not as effected by being gutted as it should have been. Kento's blade worked better. Rowan's Shunku Ha attack worked very well, but he wasn't willing to use it with Sai a mere few feet from the thing.
"The head seems to be a weak spot." He suggested, calmly drawing an arrow, taking the time to aim and placing the bolt dead center into one of the beast's eyes. Pinned as it had been by Sai's trident, it hadn't been that difficult a shot. It was a lot harder to hit an eyeball when the things were bouncing around like crazed geckos.
The shot blew the back of the thing's skull out and it slid down the wall. Sai yanked his trident out and gave Rowan a quick once over, then satisfied that he wasn't mortally injured stated calmly. "They're taking captives."
Rowan blinked, staring around at the mess. At two dead dragon men. At two bloody armored comrades. "How do you know?"
"Because we've seen them. Women and children mostly. They're just slaughtering everything else that gets in their way."
"How do you know they're not killing the others once they go off with them?"
"We don't." Kento said. "But why bother to cart them off, when they don't hesitate to kill everything else on the spot."
"They're taking them for a reason." Sai said.
"They took Karen." Kento added somberly.
Rowan looked to Sai for confirmation. Sai shrugged.
"What the hell for?" Rowan asked walking to the window that Sai's funnel of water had shattered.
"Don't know." Kento said. "But we've got to go after them."
"We've got to close that gateway or whatever it was we opened." Rowan said.
"Maybe that's where they've taken their captives." Sai proposed. "Back to where ever it was they've come from."
"He's right." Sai said. "We have to save them if we can. And we have to destroy their passage here. I could just throttle that woman for opening it to begin with. This is all her fault."
"She didn't know." Kento said. "How could she know?"
"How can you defend her?" Sai shot back. "After what she did - -?"
"You think she should die for it?" Kento cried.
Sai opened his mouth. Shut and frowned. "No. No, I suppose not."
"Before we go looking for them - -" Rowan said, hearing the sounds of a scuffle from outside. " - - I think we need to take care of the ones performing wholesale slaughter here."
"Fine." Sai agreed.
Kento reminded them stubbornly.. "But then we go back to the falls and see where they've taken Karen and the others."
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