The fires burned for two days after the Atranochs came. Clouds of thick, black smoke rose in billowing columns towards the heavens as the mountain village of Strathworth Down lay in ruins, the earth red with blood. A peaceful clan of herders and healers, the people of Chimaria were a gentle race, ignorant of the ways of war. The Atranochs swiftly and brutally murdered them as they slept unaware in their huts. Men, women, children, horses and livestock; the Atranochs were merciless, leaving nothing left breathing. As the smoke ascended into the night sky, a sharp wind carried the stench of burning flesh high above the village, over the grassy hills of Kilacomb and straight into the Crystal Caves sitting deep within the mountains.
Daelyn, the youngest member of Shadow dragons, lifted his great head as a gust of wind found its way inside the ancient caverns. Swirling down through a chain of long, narrow tunnels, past luminous towers of crystal and limestone walls, it reached the largest chamber, where, for thousands of years, the Shadow dragons made their home. Daelyn’s sensitive nostrils picked up the briny scent of the Sargonian Sea to the east, and to the west, another smell he wasn’t familiar with. Acrid and unpleasant, it made him shake his head and sneeze mightily.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve smelled that scent,” Baylor said solemnly, coming to stand under the great lunar vent near his son.
“What is it, father?” Daelyn asked, his head shaking with the force of his sneeze.
“It’s the smell of death and destruction,” Baylor answered softly, “About twenty miles from here. Come, we must tell your mother we’ll be making a trip at nightfall.”
“I’m coming with you, father?” Daelyn asked, “Shall we tell the elders?”
“Yes, you’re coming,” Baylor told his only son, “and yes, the elders need to know, if they don’t already. Go to the Chamber of Crystals and summon them, quickly. Tell Astor the Atranochs are back.”
Daelyn ran to the Chamber of Crystals located in the deepest recesses of the caverns. A virtual labyrinth of unending passageways and mini chambers, only those born to the caverns could ever find their way. His long, dark tail straight out behind him, wings tucked tight against his body as he wound his way to the elder’s lair. Daelyn, a fourth generation Shadow dragon, was next in line to rule the clan. With dark, effervescent scales, he was bigger than most of his clan, a full fifteen feet in length at only three years of age. He was just beginning to learn how to use his dragon’s breath, a dark mist of that drained the energy from his enemies. His cousins, the Fire Dragons in the East, were far more fearsome, but less intelligent. Found deep in the underground caves of the earth, his fiery brothers chose to stay out of sight, keeping to themselves. Sometimes known for breaking the peace treaty and killing humans, it was a practice frowned upon by his kind. It was unfair to kill such piteous beings. Human’s fear made them dangerous, but without their weapons, they were as harmless as children. Truthfully, Daelyn wondered how they even survived this far. Born without fangs or claws or without even knowing how to walk or talk, humans were an enigma. Fascinated by them, Daelyn often crept away from the lair to spy on their villages in the dark, amazed at how they lived. But they weren’t very clever, Daelyn noticed. They built flimsy dwellings made of wood and mud easily destroyed by the enemies. The higher born humans were soft and spoiled, using slaves to do their work. Why, they didn’t even raise their own offspring, opting instead to have servants tend to their needs. They were a pathetic lot, the high born.
Deep within the bowels of the mountain, Daelyn could hear the snoring of the elders as they slept peacefully. Sometimes sleeping for decades at a time, the elders awake were a magnificent thing to behold. Scales as big as snapping turtle shells and fearsome horns and claws, the old ones were at least one hundred years old. His grandfather, Astor, was the oldest at one hundred and twenty-five. Daelyn picked up a striker with his teeth, using it to strike the crystal rods jutting out from the wall of the Elder’s chamber. The sound emanating from the crystals was beautifully melodic. Resonating throughout the chamber, penetrating deep within the recesses of sleep, the Elders stirred. Astor opened a sleepy emerald green eye, blinking several times to shake off the fog. Next, Atechi, Daelyn’s uncle, woke with a mighty yawn, showing fangs long enough to make even Astor shudder with dread. Rumbling deep in his barrel-like chest, the massive dragon stretched his wings with a groan. Atechi’s mate, Xyadran, a smaller, beautiful female with scales much lighter in color, lifted her head sleepily. Her eyes were endless pools of amber which contrasted nicely with her grayish-green scales. Wings tipped with a deep magenta, stretched out as she, too, yawned mightily.
Astor eyed his grandson grumpily, pushing his humongous head next to Daelyn’s.
“What is the meaning of this, Daelyn? Why have you woke us from our slumber?” he asked, showing his teeth. “Is it time already?”
“Grandfather, I’m sorry to have awakened you,” he explained, somewhat fearful, “But there’s trouble. Father said to tell you the Atranochs are back. They’ve done something terrible not far from here.”
Alert at the news, Astor snapped his jaws, his teeth making a horrible gnashing sound. It had been a long time since he heard the name of his enemies; the Atranochs. Banished years ago, he never thought he’d never have to deal with those horrible creatures ever again. Atranochs lived to cause chaos and fear. Armed with razor sharp teeth and claws, they were formidable foes. Incredibly fast and agile, several Atranochs could kill a young dragon in a heartbeat. Astor knew this because they killed his youngest son. Grinding his teeth, he swung his great head toward his grandson.
“You’re sure of this?” he asked, “What does your father say?”
“He said we’re to leave at nightfall, grandfather,” he answered, “he wants to see what damage they did just west of here. We can smell burning flesh and fear on the wind.”
Astor was all to familiar with the Atranochs’s tactics. Powerful, tough-skinned bodies, long, razor claws and rows of shark-like teeth, the beasts were built to kill. But they weren’t very smart. Though they hunted in wolf fashion, tag teaming their prey, they were easy to ambush. His son needed to investigate their latest shenanigans before they did any more damage. He knew the Chimarian’s settled west of the mountains and wondered if it were they the Atranochs killed. He hoped not, they were good people and minded their own business. It would be a shame to see such a gentle race destroyed by those monstrosities.
“What’s happening, Astor?” Xyadran asked the older dragon sleepily, “Why have we been disturbed?”
“Young Daelyn has come to with disturbing news,” he answered, “I’ve just been told there’s trouble west of here. From what my son can determine from the smoke that’s drifted our way, those despicable Atranochs are at it again. He thinks they may have destroyed the Chimarian’s village.”
“That’s preposterous!” Xyandran snorted, a puff of ebony escaping from her nostrils, “They haven’t been around for ages! We banished them years ago!”
The small bony horns all along both sides of her along her jawline bristled with anger. Her eyes darkened to a deep umber, for she, along with every resident of Kilacomb, detested the Atranochs. Their unnatural love for blood sport, killing for the joy of killing was anomalous and perverted. Not even the heart-eating dragons in the far south were as hated as they.
“Precisely!” Astor agreed, “This is why it’s imperative we investigate! Daelyn, as soon as you both find out what is going on, report back to us and we’ll decide on a course of action. If this is as bad as I think it might be, we may need to gather many other clans to get rid of them once and for all.”
“Yes, grandfather, I’ll come right here when we return. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” Daelyn apologized, “Respect to you.”
Astor nuzzled his grandson affectionately with his whiskered muzzle. This youngster was going to rule the clan one day and he was proud of the young dragon’s size. Even he wasn’t as big as Daelyn at that age. He wished his son and grandson a good journey and prayed to the Wise One for safe passage to the both of them.
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