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A Season Of Dragons

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Five

 

Seiji looked frayed about the edges, but it was a good sort of frayed about the edges, if such a thing were possible. Ryo just looked wary and annoyed and vaguely pissed at Seiji. Well, when he looked at Seiji at all, which he was actively attempting to avoid.

Rowan felt giddy as hell looking at the both of them, having had moments of pessimism during the last week in which he'd feared he'd never get to see them or good old modern day earth with cable TV and internet porn and greasy hamburgers again. It had been a bad week. A terrible, miserable, back breaking week. They'd fought what seemed a good sized war. Seen hundreds of innocent people slaughtered, came close to getting slaughtered themselves and been driven away from what seemed to be the only portal back to the place they'd come from.

Coming out of that selfsame portal smack dab in the middle of a full fledged battle had not been a settling experience. Especially after the trauma of the portal transit itself. When a body felt like it had been turned inside outwards, flayed and dragged a few hundred miles behind a truck down a bumpy back country road - - well, having to hop up and start hacking away at an army of tough skinned dragon men was not high on Rowan's wishlist of things to do when visiting alternate realities.

Very low in fact. They'd gotten their asses - - if not soundly kicked - - then at least bruised in a most undignified manner. Embarrassing as hell, considering. But when the armor felt like it was dragging you down under tons and tons of black water and it was hard to even stand under the weight, much less send arrow after arrow into the mass of scaly hides - - well such a situation presented a pretty good argument for retreat.

At least they'd saved the lives of the humans the dragon army had been slaughtering. If not for his and Kento and Sai's timely arrival not a man would have been left alive to flee that battle. They still left a lot of corpses behind. And they'd fought a running battle for miles into the mountains, staving off flying dragons and land bound ones and even running into the mother of all scaly creatures and only barely avoiding getting swallowed up by her toothy maw. They'd gotten to safety - - relative safety at any rate and Rowan had just blacked out. He didn't remember shedding the armor. Didn't remember anything until he woke up next morning, sore and feeling the ache in bones that had yet to completely mend from the time when possessed Halo had kicked his ass.

Kento had made some sort of peace with the humans. God knew they weren't much for dealing with Sai. They didn't like his eyes and they didn't like the color of his skin and they were prejudiced as hell, but one couldn't very well come down on them for it, considering the disadvantage one was at - - being a stranger in their strange land and all. They were hard to understand, but not impossible. It took Rowan an hour or three to get really good at interpreting what they were saying and even then there were words that completely foreign. He figured those out as they were thrown at him.

"Ne'Gal." He threw out one of those words, sitting in the little tent, with all his friends safely around him, with bowls of the gamy tasting stew that the hun'ra were good at making in all their hands and two of the hun'ra natari or warrior caste sitting at the edges of the tent, observing them with wary respect.

"Ne'gal?" Ryo echoed, dripping a little bit of stew and wiping his chin with the back of one hand.

"That's what the dragon men are called. It means, the dragon born and if I'm not mistaken, they're the native inhabitants of this place. Humans are sort of immigrant workers. Or at least they were originally a long, long time ago."

"Yes," Sai cut in, leaning forward so he could see Ryo around Rowan. "The hun'ra, which is what these people call themselves, have been sort of a slave-race to the Ne'gal for generations and generations. Rowan thinks that the Ne'gal used the portal to cross over into our world a very long time ago and abducted a great many people."

"Probably all islanders from the look of them." Rowan said. "And probably a very long time ago. According to some of the guys here, the Ne'gal haven't brought anyone new in for like seven or eight generations - - which probably means the portal got shut down somehow until Kento's girlfriend decided it would be fun to open it."

"Kento has a girlfriend?" Ryo blinked at Kento. Kento blushed and gave Rowan a glare.

"She's not." Kento grumbled. "Just a girl I met - -"

"An archeologist." Sai added. "And very rude."

Ryo kept blinking, baffled and off balance after having all the technical stuff thrown at him, then getting tackled with Kento's personal disasters.

"Anyway, " Rowan said, trying to get back on topic. "There was like this rebellion a hundred years ago or there abouts and the hun'ra broke the yoke and fled across the mountains here to live in the desert lands on the other side. The Ne'Gal let them because there was some big internal powerplay going on at the time. Now they want the hun'ra back and have been making forays over the mountains trying to recapture some of them."

"Okay." Ryo tapped the side of his empty bowl thoughtfully. "So, that's why they were taking people on the island - - to renew their slave population. Do you know where they took them? We can't just let them do whatever to them."

Rowan lifted a brow and glanced towards the wall of the tent to one of the hun'ra. "That's Thome. He's the leader of this war party. He was trying to track the Ne'gal band that had taken prisoners when we ran into each other. Any ideas, Thome?"

The hun'ra inclined his head respectfully, eyes flickering to Ryo, then away like Ryo was just too damned bright to look at for too long a stretch of time. "I think we do, Kan'tara. In the low lands to the east, the Ne'gal have built new fortifications as they encroach into the mountains.'

"Um, okay." Ryo leaned close to Rowan and asked. "He keeps calling me that. What's it mean?"

Rowan lifted a brow, having only just recently learned the word himself. "What'd you do to impress them, Ryo? Must have been really good, for them to consider you a Kan'tara. It means like - - a warlord or the like. I think its a Ne'gal word that they've melded into their own language."

"And Shak'nor?" Seiji asked dryly from next to Kento across the fire.

Sai made a face. "It's not very flattering. They're not very much for foreigners - - or a least people that are visibly different. They're sort of the mindset that if you're different you're either an enemy or a slave. They look down on either one."

"Ah." Seiji didn't look particularly surprised.

"I think they got that from the Ne'gal, too." Rowan said. The hun'ra were Shak'nor to the Ne'gal, foreigners who were brought in as slaves, and now that the hun'ra are on their own, they feel the same way about anybody different from them. Conditioned learning, I guess. Sai's my shak'natari."

"Humm, I'm Ryo's." Seiji said, without glancing in Ryo's direction. "What's the difference?"

"Its a whole step above Shak'nor. It means you're a bonded warrior. Which is pretty cool for you, since they think he's like a warlord and all. Nobody tried to accuse any of us of being kan'tara's. I think I'm jealous."

"Did you kill a dragon the size of a house?" Seiji inquired dryly, not thrilled with Rowan's assessment of the situation. "That seemed to impress them."

"No shit?" Kento piped up. "You killed that thing?!"

Ryo shrugged, never one to blow his own horn. Annoying habit that, if only because it meant he tended to leave out important facts like the killing of mythical dragons and what not.

"You saw it?" Ryo asked.

"We saw and we were so wiped, we could hardly stand at the time." Rowan defended their own decision to run like rabbits from the thing. "We'd just come through the damn portal and just finished extracting our asses from a honest to goodness war, so don't give me that disappointed - - we just shattered your illusions about our bad-assedness - - look, Recca."

"I wasn't." Ryo said.

"Bull shit."

"So what are we gonna do guys?" Kento interjected. "Now that Ryo and Seiji are here, we can really go in and kick some ass and get those captives back." Kento was worried about the woman. Kento had been worrying about the twit since they'd got here.

"I'm up for that." Ryo agreed. Ryo was perpetually in go mode during things like this. Kento generally was. It usually took the calmer heads of the other three to temper the gung ho attitude.

"Well, that sounds like a plan, but, if we go in there gun's blazing, then a lot of innocents might get hurt. And Besides which, we promised these people here that we'd try and help them keep the dragon army from crossing the mountains and spilling over into hun'ra lands en'masse. There are a lot of innocent people that are gonna get killed over there too, if those lizardmen get their claws on them."

"Promised, how?" Ryo asked.

"Well, according to Thome here, the mountains get pretty difficult to travel east of here. Not even much chance of flying over them, because of the heights and the weather. There's only one pass big enough for an army to pass through."

"So, can we destroy this pass? Take the mountain down around it?" Ryo asked like it was no big thing to carve out a chunk of mountain. The hun'ra present got sort of wide eyed and whispered amongst themselves.

"You can do such a thing?" Thome edge forward, giving Ryo the reverent look one usually reserved for the worship of patron saints and gods.

"Well - - probably." Ryo didn't like the look one bit, that was clear, but he was right. With their combined energies poured into the Inferno armor, Ryo could take down a mountain without breaking too much of a sweat.

"Amazing. But the lord of that mountain might disagree with such a tactic, I fear."

"Lord of the mountain?"

"Sarag'sa." Thome whispered, eyes flickering about as if he expected something to materialize from his mere uttering of the name.

"That's the other potential problem these folks have got." Rowan said. "Or potential advantage, depending on how the wind blows."

"How so?" Seiji asked from his quiet vantage across the fire.

"Sarag'sa is a Ne'gal prince. He was ostracized by the Ne'gal royal family due to his 'fondness' for hun'ra about a hundred years ago. He rules the mountains between Ne'gal and Hun'ra lands. So far he's been impartial. He's got a problem with the current Ne'gal king - - his brother, since it was him who kicked him out of the nice, fertile Ne'gal territory. Thome and his people were hoping to form an alliance with Sarag'sa of a sorts and have him and his close the pass and deny the army passage. It'd be easier than blowing the pass up, Ryo, really. Only problem, Sarag'sa wasn't much impressed with Thome and his guys and with the Ne'gal, first impression is everything. So's power. The Ne'gal don't respect anybody who's not as bad as they are - - so, what we were sort of thinking was that we go back there with Thome and see if we can't impress this guy enough to make him shift to the Hun'ra side."

"And meanwhile," Kento said, bitterly, "Those bastards could be doing anything to the prisoners." Kento was against the idea of traveling away from the dragon encampment to parlay with some exiled dragon prince. Kento - - regardless of how much she'd dicked him over - - was still crawling out of his skin with anxiety over Karen Dreskel. What had Ryo in such a state - - other than the fact that he was Ryo and tended towards acts of irrational valor - - was anyone's guess.

"He's right." Ryo said, proving Rowan's estimation of him. "With all of us together we could go in there and wipe them out."

"There's quite a lot of them, Ryo." Sai pointed out. "Perhaps we ought to put a little thought into it, first."

"The hell with thought. I'm not going to be happy until those people from the island - - a lot of which were kids - - and these folk's people, are free."

"Its that lack of thought, which will probably get them all killed." Seiji said softly, calmly. "You're overestimating us, Ryo, if you think we can waltz in there and take on that army. We were barely holding our own against a fraction of that number. Calm down and start thinking for a change."

It was a perfectly Seiji-sort of thing to say. Nothing unusual about it at all, save for Ryo's reaction. One minute Ryo was sitting there, all inflamed about the notion of charging the Ne'gal army - - and the next he was on his feet, that aura of power that hinted that the armor was on the verge of popping into existence, shimmering around him. He took one angry step towards Seiji, foot scattering crockery, finger stabbing down towards Seiji's face.

"You don't tell me what to do! Ever! And I don't give a fuck what you do as long as you stay the fuck out of my way when you're doing it."

Seiji stared up at him, expressionless, unblinking, not moving an inch, not even looking like he really cared that Ryo was throwing a fit. That Ryo had that look on his face that he reserved for the worst of their enemies or bad calls against his favorite team by referees during play-off games. Rowan saw a muscle twitch at the side of Seiji's mouth, though. A patent, subtle sign that Seiji wasn't happy with this show at all. That airing dirty laundry in front of Rowan and Sai and Kento was bad enough, but to spew it out in front of total strangers was insufferable.

Kento and Sai were staring, gape-mouthed at Ryo. Rowan had the feeling he was as well. Ryo was cursing. Not only was Ryo cursing, but he was cursing at Seiji, which was unheard of.

"Hey - - uh, Ryo, calm down." Kento climbed to his feet, putting hands out to urge Ryo back, because Ryo looked like he wanted to jump down Seiji's throat. Ryo growled and glared at Kento, who hesitated in his attempts at mediation, glancing down to Rowan in an appeal for assistance, like Rowan had the magic touch when it came to mediating madmen.

"Ryo, chill the fuck out." Rowan snapped. "Go outside and let Kento show you the camp."

Ryo glared at him and Rowan lifted a brow, Ryo's glares generally not that menacing unless backed up by a sword and a reason to use it. Apparently, Ryo was slightly more inclined to take Rowan's advice than he was Seiji's, for he turned on his heel and stalked out of the tent. After a wide-eyed look and a shrug, Kento followed him out.

Rowan looked at the two staring hun'ra and lifted an indifferent hand.

"He gets touchy like that - - after killing big-assed dragons and all. Don't sweat it, he doesn't bite - - generally." He gave Seiji a glance, and Seiji's eyes narrowed just a little.

He didn't know whether the hun'ra believed him, but they inclined their heads and took their leave of the tent, no doubt to spread the word of the strangers insanity among their fellows.

"So, I'm guessing you and Ryo are still on the outs?" Rowan said cheerfully.

"Fuck you, Rowan." Seiji hissed. Oh, a very pissed off, very agitated Seiji, who wasn't particularly bothering to hide the scowl. Uncharacteristic of him, to let so much emotion slip. Which meant, in Rowan's learned estimation, that there was more than anger present - - there was hurt.

"Really, have the two of you been fighting?" Sai demanded, frowning and concerned and about to become bothersome. "What did you do to agitate him so, Seiji? Ryo never uses those words."

Seiji glared coldly at Sai and Sai ignored the dangerous look and leaned forward to put a hand on Seiji's arm. "Don't tell me the two of you haven't talked."

"Sai - - back off." Seiji warned, very softly, very strained.

Sai sniffed, not intimidated. Sai was very much still in the Seiji need's mothering mode that he'd gotten used to while they were hauling Seiji's sorry ass through the throes of withdrawal. Seiji hadn't liked it then and he sure as hell didn't like it now.

Rowan sighed, wishing not for the first time, that in addition to the decent food these hun'ra prepared, that they had some sort of local brew. Just enough for a little buzz to dull the headache that had been coming and going since he'd gotten here. It was on its way back now.

"Listen, Seiji, as much as Sai would like to make it, what you and Ryo do or don't do, isn't really our business - - as long as it doesn't effect the overall working relationship. Get my meaning?"

"I don't need a lecture from you, Rowan." Seiji said softly. Oh, he was all soft and cold now, keeping his head tilted at just that angle than managed to make his hair slide down and camouflage those glittering blue eyes of his.

"Oh, come on, that's no way for a properly respectful shak'natari to talk to his betters."

Sai glowered. "That's not funny, Rowan. I really do wish you'd get over it."

"I'm not the problem." Seiji said and rose. "Go talk to Ryo."

"I don't think Ryo's much for talking right now." Rowan said, as Seiji brushed past him. Which left him alone with Sai, who he really had pushed the whole shak'natari joke too far with. But it had been amusing when Sai had to pretend some sort of deference to him and Kento in front of the hun'ra. Not that he was that good at it. Rowan imagined Seiji would be much, much worse. Or maybe not, now that he thought about it. Maybe all Seiji's traditional training and stupid bloody honor and extended silences would fit in nicely with how the hun'ra thought a proper bonded servant ought to act. Better than Sai's indignant babbling.

"Were you trying to make matters better or worse?" Sai asked.

"I dunno." Rowan shrugged. "Just trying to get a feel for what's going on in his head."

Sai sniffed. "Well, that's a bloody difficult task. When do you ever know what's going on in Seiji's head?"

"He's letting things slip. A lot of things. There was like - - emotion - - all over the place."

"Really? I failed to see - -"

"No you didn't. Think about it. Seiji was upset. Visibly, audibly upset. Ryo wasn't the only one cussing."

"Humm. Well, I suppose you have a point. Do you think this is - - left over from the Incident?"

The Incident. That was how Sai referred to the whole miserable situation with the dead queen. Rowan supposed it was as good a term as any for one of the nastiest periods of their lives, interdeminsional wars not withstanding.

"Of course it is. It'll take forever to shake all the side-effects of what that bitch did."

"Can it be fixed, do you think?" Sai leaned conspiratorially close.

"I don't know. I'm not Ryo and you're not Seiji. Ryo's not pouting, he's pissed - - his tantrums usually don't last once he lets off steam. Maybe he just needs to kick Seiji's ass good and sound to get over it."

"Humph. I don't think that's a very good idea."

"Yeah - - well - - regardless, I'm thinking they're not going to be much good working together - - if for no other reason than Ryo's gonna dig his heels in towards anything Seiji has to say - - good sense or not. Which could fuck us up in a major way if he starts getting stubborn about perfectly good advice just because it came from Seiji."

"Ryo's not that obstinate." Sai frowned, dubious.

Rowan snorted. "What world do you live in? He's soooo that pigheaded and he so hears what he wants to hear and nothing else when he's got his back up. We need to separate them."

Sai sat there, mulling that over, chewing thoughtfully on one dirt rimmed nail. Finally he looked up, having come to the conclusion Rowan wanted him to come to.

"We should split up? Let Ryo and Kento go and try to save those captives and we go to this Ne'gal prince and negotiate?"

"Sorta. Only Ryo and Kento need a sane head with them to keep them from doing anything suicidal."

"Meaning - - me?"

"Meaning you. I gotta go and talk with the lizard prince, cause Seiji's a shak'natari and therefore beneath respect. So are you, baby."

Sai glowered, not happy, but reasonable enough to see the logic and stoic enough to bend to it.

"Right. Makes sense."


"It doesn't make sense, to split up and cut our advantage." Kento was pissed off and glaring at Rowan as if he'd come up with the idea purely to spite him - - or because Rowan wanted to see Karen Dreskel get carved up into dragonfood. Which was silly, because Rowan didn't really have anything against her, other than the fact that she'd used Kento - - it was Sai who'd not shed any tears if she ended up a lifetime slave of the Ne'gal. Sai really, really didn't like the woman.

"It makes perfect sense." Rowan disagreed. "Its not like we could have just breezed in there in a full frontal attack and not have the whole thing back fire on us. It's gonna have to be subtle and its gonna have to be under their noses. The three of you will be fine, while me and Seiji finagle some sort of treaty with the lizard prince." He tried to believe that first part, the stuff about subtlety and all. Sai would have his hands full trying to impress upon Ryo and Kento the notion of delicacy.

Seiji didn't have an opinion on any of it. Seiji hadn't said much of anything since Ryo's little tantrum in the tent. Seiji leaned against an knobby tree trunk with his arms crossed, with his shirt hanging loose around his relatively clean khaki's and let Rowan argue the point. Of course Rowan won the argument, what with only Kento against the idea. Like Seiji, Ryo wasn't offering much of an opinion. Though he was adamantly for traveling to free the captives, he didn't seem to have much of a problem with the lot of them splitting up. He wasn't looking at Seiji - - was adamantly making a point in not glancing Seiji's way - - though he slipped now and then, casting little furtive sideways looks in Seiji's direction. Looking for Seiji's reaction to the whole notion, maybe. Maybe just habit.

It was settled.

Rowan and Seiji and a few of the hun'ra would head up towards the pass and the outcast dragonlord who guarded it. Ryo, Kento and Sai, with the bulk of the hun'ra raiding party would shimmy down to the ne'gal camp and see what luck they had in freeing the prisoners without waging a full-scale war. Rowan kept trying to get an agreement out of Ryo on that point. No all out wars. Avoid as much conflict as possible because mortal hun'ra hides didn't take as much damage as mystical armored ones. Ryo agreed. Reluctantly. And if Ryo agreed, then Kento would follow, no matter how much he might be against the notion of restraint.

It was settled.

At dawn the next morning, they'd go their separate ways. Rowan managed to get Sai aside for a bit of a private fare well. A bit of heat in the cool hours of pre-dawn, and writhing flesh and roaming hands and mouths that didn't particularly want to part - - and the both of them knowing better than to take it as far as the both of them would have preferred - - not in the midst of a foreign land with enemies breathing down their necks and allies that they only knew the barest hint about lurking about the edges of the thin film of privacy they'd found.

Out in the public eye, when everyone had gathered and camp had been broken down, Sai only cast him a wry look and a suggestion to 'be good'.

"I'm always good." He grinned. And Sai shook his head, doubting that and had to scurry afterwards to catch up with Kento and Ryo and the horde of hun'ra that they were departing with. Which left Rowan in Seiji's company and Thome's and a few others. They had the smaller group by far. But they weren't out to fight. They were out to impress and to parlay.

"So," Rowan said, for lack of anything better to do. "Looks like we're off, too, shak'natari, think it would be more seemly if you carried all my gear?"

Seiji gave him a look. Rowan was sure he would have withered on the spot if it had held any mystical power whatsoever. Rowan grinned.

"Oh, I don't have any gear, do I? Oh, well, just be sure to grovel a lot and everything will be cool. Maybe a nice foot massage at the end of the day, a sponge bath - - oral sex - -"

"Rowan," Seiji leaned close, hair almost brushing Rowan's cheek. He had absolutely no humor whatsoever in his eyes, no appreciation whatsoever of Rowan's idea of amusing commentary. "If I got my mouth anywhere near - - that most valued part of your anatomy - - you might very well come away from the experience lacking."

Rowan's brows shot up. Oh, nasty Seiji. Foul tempered and testy. A challenging one, that made the corners of Rowan's mouth twitch in a grin that he didn't quite allow to see the light of day. "Oh. Well. And I'd heard you were so good at it. Nasty rumors, huh? Oh, wait, I was the one spreading them. Silly me. I'll have to go and erase all those things on all those bathroom walls - -"

"Shut up, Rowan."

Rowan snickered. Maybe he'd see some battles after all. It was nice to see Seiji was getting back to his old, egotistical, sharp-tongued self. He hadn't been nearly so fun to goad when he was depressed and wounded. It was going to be an interesting trip.

 

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