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A Season Of Dragons

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Three

 

Seiji. Goddamned Seiji. Showing up in the forest like a wraith - - drawn here as certainly as Ryo had been. And with so many more resources available to him he damned well could have let Ryo know - - damned well could have made an effort to track Ryo down before tromping out here by himself.

"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." He cursed as he ran and Ryo was hardly ever reduced to such a disreputable outlet. He ought to be glad to see Seiji. Ought to be grateful for another ally to figure out what was happening here and where their other friends had gone. Instead he was pissed and thinking violent thoughts directed at non-reptilian things. It made it hard to concentrate on the problem at hand. Made it hard to stay as sharp as he should have in his pursuit. He lost the trail. Lost his sense of direction entirely and stood floundering for a heartbeat in the forest, trying to glean a clue.

There. A tiny, whimpering cry cut abruptly short. He sprinted north, up a steep, mulch slick incline of land. Heard the rush of water not too far off and breached the cloak of forest to come out into moonlight. A flat span of clear land greeted him. Hard earth cut through by tumbling water coming down from the rocky, tree dotted slopes above to fall off the edge of a dark cliff. A shadow of movement, the leathery scrape of wings catching wind and a dark form disappeared over the edge of the cliff into the blackness below. Ryo bolted that way, one sword drawn. Skidded to a precarious stop at the edge and peered down into inky darkness.

Nothing. No sound of flapping wings, no falling shape. Nothing. As if the night had eaten the thing up.

A sound from behind and he snarled, whirling. But it was only Seiji melting out of the forest in his wake, his armor a prickly silhouette in the night. What did you say to a body who'd left - - what, almost a month ago? - - without even the benefit of a decent good bye? What did you say, when you'd been relieved almost at that departure?

"Damnit." Ryo whispered, glancing once more back at the cliff's edge.

"What were you after?" A soft query.

"Don't tell me you haven't seen those things?"

A silent, patient stare. Seiji had his sword out. It was answer enough.

"There was a kid - - two kids - - it killed one --" He hissed and shut his eyes in horrified revulsion as that image flashed across his mind's eye. "And took the other one. Its gone now. Fucking gone." He slammed his katana back into its sheath and stood there, glaring into the darkness at Seiji.

"You didn't do this?" Seiji moved the tip of his sword to indicate a crumpled, still figure on the ground. Not a human figure. There was another one not too far off. Another one at the edge of the clearing. Bloody corpses. Messily headless ones.

"No."

Seiji crouched by the closest, the sword across his knees. "Rowan." He concluded.

"Rowan?" Ryo stalked over to another of the gruesome bodies and prodded it with his toe. "So where in hell is he? Have you seen any of them?"

"No."

"How long have you been here?"

Seiji glanced up, shrugged. "A day."

"A day. Didn't it occur to you to come looking for me before you left?" He was angry. It glowed with crystal clarity in his voice.

"You felt the same thing I did." Seiji stood, slowly sheathing his blade, staring about the clearing. "I trusted you'd find your way."

"It felt like they died." Ryo blurted out what he'd been afraid to think about for days now.

Seiji's gaze swung back to him. "You would know that feeling better than me."

At which Ryo just wanted to say, 'fuck you', or slap Seiji across the mouth, or merely break down and cry at the utter coldness in his voice. He didn't do any of those things. He turned about and padded back to the edge of the cliff, surveying the impenetrable shadows below. He could heard the crashing of water, but how far down, he couldn't tell. There was a great deal of forest down there. He could just make out the vague undulation of treetops, could hear the rustle of leaves in the breeze. It was utterly silent otherwise. No birdsong, no crickets, no frogs, as if the forest was frozen with fear. He couldn't much blame it.

"You could have stopped by the house - - even left a message if you didn't wait for me." He couldn't let it go. He wanted - - an apology maybe for something so mundane as mere carelessness - - which would be easier to accept than the reparations offered for more serious offenses. He turned around and Seiji stared at him across the distance. Then Seiji took a step forward drawing that damned big sword of his and for a split second Ryo thought he was coming at him, before the arms wrapped around him from behind and abruptly yanked him backwards over the edge of the cliff.

Falling. Falling. For a split second he panicked, then he struggled, pitting his enhanced strength against that of the thing clutching him. It was damned strong. It held on. The flap of its outspread wings was deafening. The few stars above were quite suddenly blocked out as Seiji hurled himself off the cliff after them, the sword he held a twinkling glint in the night. Ryo grunted, twisting, changing trajectory just enough to hit the cliff face with a shoulder. He broke the hold, glanced off an out thrust rock and dug armored fingers into stone. The thing had an arm about his neck, still holding on. He could have merely let himself fall, trusting in the armor to save his life - - but the unknown distance made him wary - - The unknown frightened him just enough to make him scramble for a foothold. The thing tried to yank him backwards, claws scraping along armor. Then Seiji sliced into it, bounding down from above as if all those dark protrusions that constituted hand and foot holds on the cliff face were as clear as day to him.

Blood spattered. The thing shrieked its pain loud enough to deafen. But it released its hold, either out of shock or onrushing death, Ryo didn't know. Seiji hauled Ryo up until he found purchase of his own, then the both of them pressed into the rock, breathing hard.

"What are those things?"

Seiji didn't have an answer. Seiji held his blade out over the dark distance below them, and it flared softly, a beacon in the night. Not that far down. Not much down there to make out even with the mystical illumination. Tropical forest, a dark pool of water at the foot of the falls. No sign of his winged assailant. No sign of the child that had been stolen. Which meant going down there and looking for a trail.

"Wait." The light from Seiji's sword wavered - - went out.

"What?" Ryo was impatient

Seiji gestured. From the right, amidst a collection of oddly jutting stone, there came a faint, greenish glow. So weak, it was almost imperceivable - - but plainly there against the darkness. Ryo narrowed his eyes and levered himself away from his perch, leaping for the nearest outcropping.

"Wait." Seiji cautioned. "We don't know what - -"

He ignored Seiji and Seiji's counsel. Easier to concentrate anyway when Seiji wasn't right there next to him, armored shoulder to armored shoulder. Another leap and there was a niche. His feet came down on flat surface and the faint green light illuminated what seemed to be a cave leading into the cliff. He moved in, listening intently for the sounds of moving things deeper inside where that scant light could not quite banish the deep shadows. His foot connected with something soft and wetly fleshy. He looked down and recoiled, reaching for one of the katanas out of reflex. Hard to see the details, but he thought it might have been a head. He swallowed down bile, and stepped around it, scanning the floor nervously for more body parts.

A scrape of metal on stone and Seiji entered the cave behind him. An in-drawn breath of disgust/horror/dismay as Seiji encountered the grisly remains. Maybe Seiji caught more singularities than Ryo had - - he had the better night vision. Ryo didn't ask.

He didn't pay much heed to the features of the path he followed, more interested in avoiding the scattered bits of what might have been humans on the floor. He stepped on something squishy, that popped a little under his heel, and sprang back with a startled hiss - - thinking intestines or some other organ - - and coming close to gagging in revulsion. Seiji put a hand on his back and urged him on.

"Don't think about it." A quiet bit of wisdom, which was damned hard to heed.

What the hell had they been doing here? Merely random, bestial killing - - or had it been more of a feeding frenzy? Was that lost child to end up torn limb from limb and consumed? His hand tightened on the sword, horror based anger fueling determination.

A turn of a bend and the glow intensified, until they came to a stretch of passage which ended abruptly with a shimmering wall of green energy. The floor was littered with stone, but no body parts. There were bloody foot prints on the stone.

"What the hell is that?" Ryo voiced the question out loud, not expecting an answer. Seiji didn't offer one. Seiji very carefully moved along the wall, stopping an arm's length from the opaque green light. It was so thick that nothing could be seen beyond it. He tilted his head curiously, half lifted his free hand towards it, then pulled back.

"It's - - powerful. And old." He surmised, and Ryo narrowed his eyes, not comfortable with the faint prickling feeling that ran along his spine so close to the thing.

"Okay, so its old and it's strong. What is it?"

Seiji glanced back, face illuminated by the glow. "A portal. Probably."

"A portal? Probably?" Ryo echoed. He'd been through too damn many portals, leading to too damn many nasty places not to feel threatened by the presence of this probable one.

"Why do you think?"

Seiji gestured to the floor. "The foot prints lead up to it and disappear."

That did seem to be a good indication. "You think the guys passed it?"

Seiji shrugged, turning to survey the tunnel. "There are carvings all over the walls."

"Yeay." Ryo said dryly, still staring distrustfully at the glowing portal.

Seiji moved over to the pile of rubble at the very edge of the light, crouched and picked up what looked to be a video camera.

"How'd that get here?" Ryo took a curious step forward.

"Someone brought it." Seiji lowered himself enough to state the obvious.

He was a bit too close and a bit too distracted to avoid the thing that bounded out of the light. Of course if it had been making a go at him, rather than merely traveling through the portal, things might have been worse. As it was, Ryo yelled a warning even as Seiji half turned and met the entry of the dragon man full on, the both of them tumbling in a startled pile of armor and leathery sinew at Ryo's feet. At those close quarters Seiji's sword was of little or no use and as Ryo was contemplating where to strike the thing and not hit Seiji in the process, Seiji smashed the video camera against the side of a the huge head. The camera shattered with impact, and served little purpose other than to make the creature rear back in surprise, shaking its head and snarling. It gave Ryo the opportunity he needed and with one clean swipe he severed the head of the unsuspecting creature. It hit the floor between Seiji's legs while the big body still knelt over Seiji, on the verge of toppling. Seiji hissed and shoved it backwards, scrambling out from under it and glaring in distaste at the blood on the front of his armor.

"Now we can't see what was on the video camera." Ryo admonished.

Seiji's glare transferred up to him.

"I guess that proves it is a gateway." Ryo wanted to clean his blade, but doubted leathery reptilian hide would make a good surface to wipe clean the blood. "Well, I guess we're stuck."

"Stuck - - how?" Seiji asked cautiously.

"Seeing what's on the other side." Ryo waved his sword at the portal.

"I think we ought to see if we can't find Rowan, Sai and Kento first." Seiji was dubious at best at the notion. Seiji was always slow to commit to rash acts.

Ryo shook his head. "Maybe they're already there. Maybe they're on the other side of the island fighting off these things. It doesn't matter much. The thing with that little girl disappeared down here. If it went through that - - I've gotta follow and see if I can find her. I promised."

Seiji stared at him, irritated. Ryo stared right back, not flinching. Seiji broke the gaze first.

Ryo walked past him, drawing the second katana as he did. "Go look for the guys if you want to." He gave Seiji that out. "I don't mind."

Seiji's lashes swept down, covering some flash of emotion. Ryo didn't question what it might be. He stepped through the green light and felt the world vanish around him.


It hurt. It hurt a lot. He thought he was dying. It felt that bad. Felt like his heart was going to burst and his lungs explode. It felt like his veins were swelling so outrageously that they would rupture and pop in short order. He didn't think he screamed. Didn't think he could have if he'd wanted. His body fell into shock that quickly and that severely. For a while, he blacked out entirely and the thud of his panicky heart, which had flooded his ears from the split second he'd stepped into the green light of the portal, just disappeared.

Simply stopped.

And he was dead.

He wondered if that was how it had felt for Seiji. And wondered absently how he could question such a thing if he were dead.

Maybe he wasn't. Maybe he'd just done something terribly stupid and the pain was apt payment. Maybe it was a dream. Or a nightmare. Distantly, he thought, it might have been what he sensed - - three fold - - when Rowan, Sai and Kento had disappeared from his awareness.

He blacked out. Or the world blacked out and he was trapped in nothingingness that no sense of his could penetrate.

He came out of it on his knees, the fingers of both hands curled around sword hilts and pressed into hard stone. He couldn't quite see for an instant. Could only feel the solidity of the ground under knees and knuckles, could only feel cool air on his face and the weight of the armor on his shoulders. Like he had worn it long and hard for days instead of hours. Like it was about to drag him down into oblivion with it. He thought he was going to vomit. If he didn't get that oppressive weight off his shoulders, off his neck, his back, his arms - - he was going to be sick.

He banished it with a desperate, single-minded thought. Felt the solid grips of the hilts dissipate in his hands. Felt the rest of it melt away, leaving him weightless and relieved. The stone bit into his flesh and his hair fluttered in his face.

But he could breath again and he could see, even if it was merely the space of night dark ground between his hands. He pushed himself back, settling on his heels, staring about warily. He was not in the cave. He was on, as far as he could tell, a pinnacle of rock overlooking a grassy, rock dotted valley. He sat in the shadow of a standing stone. A great, stone-hewn dragon that towered some twenty-five feet over his head. There was an arch between the things legs - - man sized and jagged, that leaked power. It was that space that he had passed through. It did not glow the same eerie green that it had on the other end.

"I'm alive." He observed. Which meant, that Sai and Kento and Rowan were alive if they had passed this way. Which meant that little girl was. It stole some of the soreness of mind and body, that knowledge. He pushed himself up, wavered unsteadily for a moment, then forced strength into his legs and moved to the edge of the incline and looked out over the valley. It was hard to see with the night sky devoid of all but the bravest of stars, but it seemed as if mountains ringed this vale. It seemed as if spread out over the valley floor was an undulating mass of movement. He tilted his head, chewing on a lip, wondering what could cause such a phenomena - - then it occurred to him.

Tents. A sea of dark tents. A sleeping army. But an army of what?

The portal hissed behind him. Crackled and sent goosebumps racing along his skin. It glowed briefly for a heartbeat before it spat out a body.

Seiji staggered. Took a step - - two - - before falling to one knee, head down and gasping. Ryo glanced away from his after a moment, and swung his gaze back out to the valley.

The subtle clank of armor as Seiji pushed himself to his feet. A soft, almost imperceivable groan as Seiji vented some of the bone-weary exhaustion Ryo had felt upon exit of the portal. He might suggest shedding the armor for a few precious moment's respite. But Seiji didn't always receive suggestions well and Ryo wasn't up to debating any point with him at present.

"God." Seiji breathed, realizing what it was that held Ryo's attention.

"Looks like that's where they're coming from. The dragon men." Ryo remarked. "And that's probably where they're running back to with their captives."

"Don't think it." A little desperation tinged Seiji's voice.

"That little girl's down there."

"And she's likely to stay down there whether we go down or not. We're likely to die."

Ryo narrowed his eyes. "I'm not just turning around now I'm here."

"Don't be a fool." Seiji snapped, irritation replacing the desperation. "That's not ten or twenty or a hundred of them down there. A thousand might be a low estimate. We're not up to that, Ryo. Even at our best, those odds are too high, much less after - - coming through that." He glanced back at the portal with a shiver. He made a try at sheathing his sword. Couldn't quite get into his back sheath with his usual swift grace. Managed it with stubborn persistence and refusal to shed his armor. He did sweep his helmet off though, revealing sweat dampened blonde hair that clung to his face in tendrils.

"It feels like days, doesn't it?" Ryo said softly.

Seiji looked at him with one raised brow.

"Like we've been wearing the armor for days, non-stop."

"Maybe we have." Seiji shrugged. "Who knows how portals such as this work. It could be worse."

It was Ryo's turn to cant his head in question.

"The last one we passed through, left us bereft of both clothing and armor - - if you recall. At least on the way in."

"Oh." One truly did wish to forget the recent trip to hell and all of its repercussions. "Maybe the guys are down there too."

Seiji shook his head. "Not alive."

Ryo looked back down to the valley with its dormant army of monsters and thought Seiji was probably right. If Rowan, Sai and Kento had gone into that - - the sea of tents would not be nearly so orderly, the army nearly so complacent in the dark. There would be signs of destruction - - of battle. If their friends had come through here, they had either gone the other way - - or that army hadn't been encamped at the time.

"Ryo. We can't go down there. Not blind and ignorant."

It hurt almost physically to admit that reasoning held merit. He wanted to find that child and fulfill his promise. He wanted to wreak a havoc of his own to equal what had been done to the people on that island. So what did they do, then? Pride kept him from voicing that query aloud. Seiji's advice was already grating enough. Ryo looked up beyond the dragon statue. The mountains rose up like jagged black teeth against the night sky. Impassable for most. They could travel those pathways, scant and dangerous as they might be. The choices were limited. It was down into the valley and into the jaws of an enemy army or up into the heights until they could figure out what to do. He'd have just as well waded into the army - - but it very well might have been a suicidal foray, he had to admit, now that Seiji's damned logic had seeped through his anger.

"The mountains, then." He said, and called the armor back. Felt its weight settle about his body like an oppressive, living thing. It was a sentient thing - - the armor. And too long in it could drain a living bodies energy, his stamina, his sense of self. You didn't wear it for days on end without respite if you could help it. Not and be capable of much afterwards. You didn't draw its more powerful magics time and again without paying for those withdrawals later. And god help you if it wasn't just the simple armor of Wildfire that had its grip on you for extended periods - - but the white armor of Inferno . A body knew when it had overextended itself in that armor. A body failed and fell and refused to do more than lie there comatose when that armor had taken too much of a toll from it. Almost it felt like the beginnings of that now. Almost it felt like it wasn't the armor's strength he was relying upon to take him up that first steep mountain path, but his own, carrying both himself and a hundred odd pounds of armor. He imaged Seiji was feeling the same. Neither of them were evidencing the agility they usually exhibited. A place to rest and recoup was badly needed. A place to shed armor and bask in the lack of its weight and its presence. A place to figure out what the hell to do now that they were here.

 

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