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Thursday, June 15, 2006

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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Triton stopped at a secluded watering hole high amongst the stepped canyon walls of the Condorion cliffs before heading to Dimsbrough. Warmed by the midday sun, the water washed down the face of the canyon, slapping and splashing against rocky outcroppings before it cascaded into pools that dotted Triton’s favorite ridge.

After cleaning his clothes of rotting fruit and laying them on warm rocks to dry, Triton rested his aching body in a large pool rippling from one of the many waterfalls. Dagger emptied several of the pools in an attempt to quench his thirst. He waited for them to fill back in, again and again, emptying them several times before he finished.

Triton was determined to make the best of his situation. Sitting in the pool, he wondered about his future. What would he be doing at the hatchery and for how long? He was still surprised the king had allowed him to keep Dagger; especially since another supply of thresher dragons would not reach maturity for five sun cycles. He knew the hatchery was finding thresher eggs much harder to come by now so close to the monsoon season, but he had no idea of how and from where the eggs were obtained. Only rumors of the shortages had been spoken of around the kingdom. It was not an urgent problem in these phases free of war since threshers often lived to a ripe old age that extended beyond that of their riders. But good, battle-worthy dragons ranged in age between twelve and sixty cycles. Dagger was only twenty; considered in prime condition, a gift worth more than his weight in gold were a war to breakout. Most of the other threshers of Antheon were now far into their forties and fifties, a situation that had been allowed in light of the reduced threat of other kingdoms. But King Gabriel was on his side. The king knew taking a guardian’s dragon was like cutting off his legs. Triton would be faced with a life restricted by the slow pace of land creatures, of which the panga was the swiftest. It would be a severe step down to say the least.

Triton climbed out of the pool and checked to make sure he had cleaned himself of every last stain that marked his body. Satisfied that he was clean, he gave Dagger a hand signal to gently flap his wings. The breeze rid him of the remaining water he was unable to shake off, but not having thought things through, he nearly lost every stitch of clothing over the side of the cliff. Gusts from Dagger’s wings reached his shirt, pants and undergarments. They were sent in a swirl that twisted high over his head. Triton scrambled back and forth grabbing them before they flew over the cliff or landed in one of the many pools. To grab his pants, he leapt to the edge of the cliff stretching his hand over the precipice as he balanced on wet feet. He tore back to the pools to nab his underwear. With his best efforts, he had managed to save all but the sleeve of his shirt from one of the pools.

He dressed himself up to his waist, wrung the water the best he could from his sleeve and promptly slipped it on.

It was only another hundred lagrons or so to Dimsbrough, a trip that would take less than two solars to make by thresher. It would have been a good phase or more by foot. At least with Dagger as his transport, he felt he was still allowed some dignity.

Feeling refreshed, he lifted himself onto Dagger, clamped down his anchor-belt, and headed for Dimsbrough.

* * * * *

The town of Dimsbrough had expanded along the northern side of the Sandgill River at a rapid pace as it profited from the nearby cities of Belladon and Ellendale. But since it was positioned halfway between the eastern Kingdom of Antheon and the western Kingdom of Zendaria, the town had been subjected to the rule of both. Dimsbrough had seen the armies of both kingdoms march down its cobblestone streets many times as the two fought over their ever-expanding border. During its many cycles of changing rule, Dimsbrough’s buildings and streets had taken on the look of both kingdoms as well as displaying many scars from the wars that had taken place between the exchanges. Some buildings were built of large stones, mud, and timbers, resembling the architecture of Zendaria, while others were built of adobe, smoothed and rounded by sun-dried mud topped with thatched roofs, like that of Antheon. Both styles revealed patches of repair thick with mortar. Streaks of black soot from fires set by dragons painted many of their walls.

From high in the air, the varying styles of buildings could be seen as separate sections interlaced by dirt and cobblestone paths. Thickets of trees and bushes lined the outskirts of the town broken by wide expanses of hilly grassland. Beyond was a tame quilted pattern of crops, farmed by independent growers who sold to both kingdoms. It had only been within the last ten sun cycles that Dimsbrough, and those who shared the wide strip of land north and south of the town, benefited from an agreed upon neutral-zone treaty inspired by the wizards. Dimsbrough had become free of governmental rule allowing free trade. It had proven to be a wise decision as all involved profited by the outcome. Many items, obtained from craftsmen of both kingdoms, were sold and traded in Dimsbrough, which brought a wider, more diverse, marketplace. Colorful textiles from Antheon migrated into Zendaria and metal tools, weapons, and bracing for dragons and other beasts from the masterful blacksmiths of Zendaria, found their way into Antheon. Because of this, Dimsbrough had attracted traders from all across the land bringing the promise of wealth to those willing to make the journey. Within ten sun cycles, Dimsbrough had grown along the river being careful not to build beyond the boundaries set by the treaty.

Triton could see the busy streets full of vendors. People of many cultures roamed between carts filled with fruit, clothing, pottery, and even weapons. Moongruns and pangas were the only creatures visible in the middle of town while the larger dragons and thungriles-enormous four-legged beasts with a long necks, four horns (two at the top of their head and two protruding from either side of their upper jaw)-were left at the outskirts.

But this was not Triton's destination, he was headed for the hatchery.

He found it just north of the town; a complex of buildings that sat atop a hill with the northeastern side cut by a cliff. A grove of trees arched around its base in the shape of a crescent moon. A massive wooden barn with a stone foundation groped the cliff with heavy timbers, while another building, an adobe structure of interconnected circles with two round towers sprouting up at one end, framed the northern side of the hill.

As Triton directed Dagger closer, he could see two men repairing the complex thatched roof of the circular adobe building. Young raptor dragons, of no more than a single sun cycle, scurried and hopped around in pens built off of the barn.

Dagger stretched his wings and soared down the final few lags to the dirt-covered grounds. He cupped his wings then flapped them several times to land gently on the rutty dirt modeled, during wetter conditions, by heavy wooden wheels. While folding his wings and crouching, to provide Triton with a shorter leap to the ground, Dagger waddled into a comfortable ball. Triton quickly unclipped his anchor-belt and slid down Dagger’s side. He grabbed the bridle at the right of Dagger’s large head near the bit as soon as he touched his feet to the ground. Dagger growled his disapproval, but many cycles of training kept him from disobeying. With several quick tugs, Dagger followed sluggishly on all fours, using the clawed hands at the upper bend of his wings as feet.

Triton steered him to a grassy location shaded by several trees where Dagger would not block traffic along the main passage leading up to the barn. When Dagger curled up once again, Triton rummaged for the document declaring him a servant of the hatchery. He pulled the scroll from one of the pouches behind the saddle that had been filled with extra clothing and essentials then walked slowly to the adobe building.

He was unsure of what his duties would be, but knew full well the difficult rearing and training procedures that Dimsbrough’s hatchery was famous for. If not for the many long solars of training spent on each dragon during their younger cycles, forcing a giant beast, like Dagger, to do anything would be impossible. Humans would be considered a tasty appetizer instead of a master to be obeyed. Without the hatcheries, dragon-riders would not exist. They were not only essential to all the kingdoms, enabling them to defend against rivals in an unparalleled fashion that only another dragon-riding kingdom could defend against, but they provided speed and efficiency for travel and the transfer of important messages. Of all the hatcheries, Dimsbrough’s was the best; a fact that Triton could be proud of even if it was a long drop from his prominent position as King Gabriel’s personal guardian.

As he approached the main arched doorway, kicking up a cloud of dry dirt as he walked, he noticed many eyes staring at him. Besides those of the men working on the roof, he could see shadowy figures of women and children peering through small oval windows. Triton ignored the attention, continuing toward the door.

A large man wearing a pair of heavily patched brown pants with dark green suspenders stepped out of the building, folded his arms, and stood in front of the doorway. He wore an ill-fitted white shirt that clung tightly to his chest dampened by sweat. His skin was very dark, and his head was shaved bald. His body was a mass of pure muscle. He narrowed his eyes with an intimidating steely glare.

Does he know who I am? What I’ve been accused of, Triton wondered. Somehow Triton could feel that was not the case, but he could not shake his paranoia.

“Hey you! You over there!” came the closest thing to a welcome directed at him from the barns across the open yard. Triton turned to see a tall well-built black man walking toward him. He stepped smartly, with the stride of a learned man. A small hat with a tight brim, widened slightly at the front, clung to his curly black hair. A leather vest hugged his body over a tan shirt tattered and patched from many sun cycles of wear. Tall boots, loosely fit against his legs, covered the bottom of an emerald green pair of pants.

“What is your business here, sir?” he asked as he stopped at a waist-high adobe fence blocking his way.

Triton held out the scroll as he stepped over to the man. “I am Triton, a Guardian of Antheon, sir. This document signed by King Gabriel will explain.”

He handed the paper to the man. He scanned Triton with a curious eye from top to bottom, and then silently read the scroll.

He smiled and scratched his chin then chuckled a bit as he squinted one eye and looked back up at Triton.

“King Gabriel often forgets that he no longer owns or dictates what we do here at the hatchery.” He handed the scroll back to Triton, turned, and walked away. “Our function is profit. We provide for those willing to pay the price for a well trained dragon,” he said turning his face toward Triton as he walked. “The phases when we provided for Antheon’s guardians for a slaves wage are over. Dagmar doesn’t have to honor his decree.” With that, he turned his head away and continued his lumbering pace toward the open door of the barn.

“I’m here to help. A gift from the king to provide whatever services you would like me to perform,” Triton hollered.

The man stopped in his tracks and turned abruptly around. “You, sir, are a criminal, as stated within the document. For you, this is a punishment. For your king, you are a bribe given in the hopes that we will try harder to provide him with a new batch of threshers for his waning airborne army.” He turned around again quickening his walk.
Triton leapt over the fence and followed the man to the barn. “I’m sorry for the way I have been presented to you. Even if your presumption of the king’s intentions is true, you would be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

The man continued walking as if Triton were not there. Triton stopped within the doorway of the barn and barked one last plea. “Look, I probably won’t be here for very long. I have someone working to prove my innocence as we speak. Once I’m cleared, I’ll be on my way. But for now I must fulfill the duty my king has issued me.”

Silence filled the air for nearly a zale as the man chopped and quartered large slabs of fresh meat with a cleaver dripping with blood. He picked up several of the large chunks with his bare hands and tossed them into the sunken stables a few steps away. Grunts and roars from a young raptor dragon sprung from the pen with the sounds of snapping bone and tearing flesh.

“What did you do?” the man asked as he swatted at a swarm of flies surrounding his head.

“What?” Triton expelled, surprised to finally hear the man’s voice as he listened to the vigorous chomping of the young dragon.

“What are you being punished for? Your king didn’t elaborate on the specifics of your crime.” He wiped the blood from his fingers with a dirty rag.

“I will honor the king’s judgment. If he did not explain, I will not either. But I assure you I am innocent.”

Another man, short and stocky, wearing a light brown cloth on his bald head, strapped on by a colorful bandanna, carried out a clothed human dummy from the back of the barn. He laughed loudly, his chortle becoming a hacking cough as he limped past Triton with his awkward bundle.

“Sure you are,” he said with a gravely voice he cleared with a snort. He spat on the ground next to the dummy he had just laid down, and then grabbed a bottle from his belt. “No one’s ever guilty.” He laughed as he poured the liquid from his bottle onto the dummy making sure he hit every limb.

Triton covered his nose from the nocuous fumes. The short man stood up slowly from his crouch then looked directly at Triton.

Triton was shocked to see the man’s eye was missing-a jagged three-fingered claw mark scarring his face from just above his left eyebrow to the left corner of his mouth. A blank white orb filled his missing eye, and the scars, long since healed from an obvious mishap with a dragon, were faint pink grooves splitting his rough pockmarked skin.

“Could you give me a hand with this?” he asked as he took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his brow.

Triton nodded. “Sure.”

He lifted the stinky burlap figure off the ground as the man grabbed a pole attached perpendicularly from the top of a round post. He spun it freely in its stone base swinging a noose, hanging from its end, close to Triton. Triton stared at the noose imagining the thick rope wrapped tightly around his neck; one of many nasty outcomes, he knew, he had averted with the king’s generosity.

“I’m Dagmar. I run the hatchery,” the short, one-eyed man said as he slipped the noose around the dummy’s head. He tightened the noose, gave Triton a nod, and then spoke in an incomprehensible mumble between grunts.

Triton realized Dagmar was telling him to drop the dummy. “I’m Triton from Antheon. King Gabriel’s personal guardian,” Triton returned, letting go of the stuffed dummy.

Dagmar chuckled as he pulled on the opposite end of the rope to raise the dummy to the full height of the post above the dragon pen.

“You mean Triton from Dimsbrough, Dagmar’s personal assistant. Your old life is gone now,” he said with a laugh and a cough. “You can room with Bally, the guard you met at the door, and help Winston.” He pointed to the other man Triton met at the fence. “You can help with the chores around the barn; feed the dragons and clean-up around the stables. And since you said you were the king’s personal guardian, I assume you must be a good marksman.”

Triton nodded.

“We could use a proper guardian for our egg-run tomorrow. I say you can keep your guardian responsibility as well. Bally could use an extra hand fending off the riff raff, thieves and such who make their way here from Dimsbrough with the hope of finding young women to soil. But first you will travel with us to Orthinon.”

He spun the dummy so it hung over the middle of the pen where five young dragons moved about. They were only two or three dagrons tall, none of them over four, as they were all only a single sun cycle old. Two of the small dragons tipped their heads to look up at the dummy hanging above. Spotting the figure, they began to shriek short gurgling cries. In an instant, a group of twenty or more dashed out of a small door at the side of the barn. As the group of small dragons chirped, squawked and jumped, flapping their underdeveloped wings, Dagmar lowered the smelly mannequin.

“You’ve probably never seen a dragon’s natural behavior, as they are in the wild,” Dagmar grunted as he held the weight of the dummy on the rope.

Triton had seen wild dragons, flocks of them on some of his journeys in the past, but he decided to listen and not cut in as his run-ins with the wild creatures where usually from a distance.

Suddenly Dagmar let go of the rope and the dummy fell to the bottom of the pen in a drooped sitting position. The miniature raptor dragon’s scattered. At first they started bobbing and scuffling in a nervous frenzy until slowly, one by one, they snapped and bit the dummy’s floppy arms and legs. Some leaped up and bit the drooping head, catching their teeth within the heavy burlap weave. They would hang for a moment flapping and wriggling until their sharp teeth cut through the material. After they fell down, they quickly jumped back up to have another go at it.

Triton watched in awe at the frightful mass of dragons.

“They’re a vicious little bunch aren’t they?” Dagmar crackled in his raspy voice.

Triton continued to stare, only nodding his response. Winston stepped over to the pen and watched with a smile.

“Pretty soon they’ll be repulsed by the thought of eating a human, even a small bite.” Winston spoke under his breath as he too was enthralled by the young raptor dragon’s behavior. “We cover the dummy with a mixture that is repulsive to the dragon’s. Eventually they associate the awful taste with the human figure. Within a couple of lunar cycles Dagmar and I can even roam among them without the fear of being bitten.”

“So my thresher dragon doesn’t eat me because he thinks I taste bad?” Triton asked, still mesmerized by the small raptors.

“Yes,” answered Winston.

Dagmar laughed and scratched his leg.

As they watched, the dragons had become disinterested. Those who had taken a hearty mouthful of the stuffing shook their heads and spit the nauseating innards from their mouths. Others licked at their wings in an attempt to rid themselves of the bitter taste. After a few short zales, none of them took another bite. The dummy had many gashes but still remained intact.

“We go through about two to three dummies having the girls patch up the old ones before the dragons make the connection,” Winston added.

Dagmar pulled the dummy back up as all the dragons had become disenchanted with it. Many disappeared back through the small door to the barn, while the others still in the pen, scattered as the dummy rose from their enclosure.

Dagmar spun the post and dropped the gnarled smelly figure on the ground next to Triton.

Dagmar pointed his stubby finger at the torn dummy. “As you can see, wild dragons are a dangerous bunch. I’m hoping, with you along on our egg-run tomorrow, no one will have to end up looking like this.”

“How many will be making the trip? The ruins of Orthinon are a good ten to twelve solars southeast of here,” Triton said.

Winston adjusted his brimmed hat and cleared his throat. “A team of six runners, along with you and Dagmar,” he replied.

“If we use your thresher over there,” Dagmar added peering across the yard to the shady tree Dagger was sleeping beneath, “we should only need to use two other raptors to get us to Orthinon.”

“That’s eight people and only three dragons, not to mention the weight of the eggs you’ll be returning with. How do you figure?”

“He’s a quick one,” Winston joked as he returned to the barn to chop more meat.

Dagmar stepped closer to Triton and patted his shoulder. “You and I can use your thresher and the runners can use the raptors,” he explained.

Triton knew raptors, when fully grown, were a fair size, but easily smaller than a thresher. Three riders to a raptor would be impossible, he thought.

The sound of children suddenly caught his attention. He turned his gaze from Dagmar’s ugly grin to the front of the rounded adobe building. A group of ten children ran and played while Bally and two women watched over them. He counted another two children sitting within the frame of a large rounded window, making twelve in all.

“Children,” Triton uttered. “You use children to gather the dragon eggs.”

“Yes. They’re very good at it. Their low profile helps them hide in the tall grass. It’s an arrangement that has worked out quite well,” Dagmar said, his words trailing off into a gravelly mumble.

“Worked out for who? You? How many runs do you make within a sun cycle?”

Dagmar mumbled, “One usually, sometimes two if we get a bad batch. The best harvesting times are short, especially for raptors.”

“How many children have you lost to these egg-runs?”

Dagmar snapped back, angry and red faced. “We’ve done it this way for more than eighteen sun cycles, endorsed with the approval of King Minon of Zendaria during his rule of Dimsbrough. I don’t need the approval of a convicted Guardian of Antheon.” He looked out toward Dagger rustling beneath the tree on the far side of the complex. “Your dragon will benefit us on our run, but I’m not set up to feed such a beast this season. You’ll have to send him out to feed within Antheon’s borderland. That way your king can answer for his hunger when it decides to feast on the livestock of farmers.” He picked up the dummy still reeking of pungent fluid and stormed into the barn.

Winston looked at Triton, smiled, and shook his head, then went back to chopping more bloody morsels for the dragons.

Triton looked back at the boys and girls running and playing. “Children,” he repeated with disgust. “He uses children.”

* * * * *

Morton’s tavern was a short walk from where Rittan left Mizar in the lowland dragon pens to feed. It had become hot and humid, but the streets were still busy with people and pangas, carts and venders, and a few wondering vagrants. Conspiracy, demons, and rumors of the king having pardoned Triton were heard as whispers from passers by. How would he ever find evidence to secure Triton’s innocence, Rittan asked himself. It seemed like an impossible task. Rittan’s only guiding light was his faith and Triton’s word. It was barely enough for him, a close friend, to believe let alone the entire kingdom. He had to stay focused, he reminded himself.

He turned a corner and headed down one of the narrow twisting back streets lined by tall-interconnected adobe buildings. Narrow bridges spanned between them, two, and sometimes three stories up. Only that of the smoothly hewed mountainside, looking as if it climbed clear up to the sky where the kingdom sat, could be seen to the north. From the narrow street, Morton’s tavern was little more than a sunken wall sandwiched between two large buildings. Round beams extended off its front along an uneven roofline above two window openings. Its door, which stayed open throughout the day and night, doused the hot street with the inviting aroma of Rittan’s favorite dish; jamber steak.

A vagrant, cloaked in heavy black robes, sat slumped on a bench set outside the tavern. His long spidery fingers, gray and blotchy, lay folded together on his lap. Rittan, who was sweating beneath his armor, glanced at the man surprised by his ability to endure the heat. He figured him to be one of the vagrants who milled about the streets probably unable to enjoy more than a whiff of a good meal. Feeling sorry for him, he tossed a silver talon onto the bench.

The vagrant’s bony hand reached down to rest on the weathered bench after Rittan slipped into the crowded tavern. The coin, over two arm lengths away, shuddered then magically slid the full distance to rest beneath his gray wrinkled finger.

Inside, a large group of people, for the tavern’s small size, had already gathered for lunch and the company of friends. Rittan weaved through the crowd and ordered his usual, jamber steak, brown root, and smish beans with a pint of Morton’s popular ale. He tossed down a silver talon, two phrons and three copper clags, already knowing the price for his food without looking at the menu, and headed to a small wooden table. He gave his hellos to several acquaintances, dodged one of the many animal skulls decorating the interior, and then sat down.

The table was sticky with powdery orange thangrin spice spilled across it. It wasn’t the cleanest establishment, he knew, but the food was good. The robust smells of cooking meat and spilled beer filled the air as he listened to the stories of the men nearby. A mix of travelers, peddlers, farmers, and guardians all gathered here. The same discussions he had heard on the street were also the topic of conversation in the tavern. Everything from farmers claiming to have seen gorgonons flying over their land the night before the Lord Matriarch’s death to the retelling of old fables of the dark king’s rise to power could be heard. But it was a group of six men, two of whom were guardians, Rittan grew most interested in eavesdropping on. After being served his food by Morton’s plump wife, Rittan listened to the guardian’s story. They spoke of the large gossamers they had found and the bodies of the Lord Matriarch’s entourage of which, they explained, only one young girl had been recovered alive.

As Rittan dug into his lunch, he listened more intently. They were obviously speaking first hand of their experience. The details they spoke of fit with what little Rittan knew to be fact.

“It was I who found Triton,” bragged one of the guardians. “His dragon was laying in the water half-dead. Prodious was sitting on Triton’s dragon, and Triton was laying in the water unconscious.”

“Prodious? Why was Prodious sitting on Triton’s dragon?” asked a short pudgy farmer sitting at the table.

“Prodious said he stopped him. He knocked him out with a punch. He would’ve drowned if I hadn’t plucked him from the water when I did.”

“Would’ve been better that way,” said another.

“Justice would’ve been served as it should’a,” added yet another.

“King’s gotten senile,” shot the pudgy farmer.

The other guardian put down his drink then added what he remembered. “He was pretty beat up when we saw him. His face was red and swollen, and his hair was singed. We never did find his helmet.”

Rittan nearly choked on his food after he heard the last guardian. It wasn’t much, and would have easily been passed over had he not been desperate for the tinniest shred of evidence to prove Triton’s innocence, but it stood out when he heard it.

He stood up from his chair and cut in on the group’s conversation. “Did you say his helmet was missing?”

The young guardian, who suddenly looked worried about being reprimanded, said nothing. He noticed the dragon emblem on the upper left corner of Rittan’s breastplate, indicating his higher rank. The fear of punishment for discussing his experiences openly, after he had been told to keep quiet about the subject, made him think twice about uttering another word. The entire tavern grew silent, as Rittan’s question had been asked so loudly everyone had become interested in the answer and why it was so important.

The young guardian stood dumbfounded, unable to answer. His partner, showed no fear. He had seen Rittan before and knew him to be a fair man.

“Yes. In fact, he was missing his helmet, gloves, and his shield. His shield was found in the water, but we never found his helmet and gloves,” he answered.

Rittan thought for a moment with the entire tavern waiting for his next question.

It was not much to go on, but if he could find Triton’s helmet, he might have his answer. He just wished he could reach Triton to get more details now that he knew what to ask.

He gave the guardians a quick thank you and bolted out the door to the bewilderment of all those in the tavern.

As Rittan raced down the narrow street to head back to his dragon, the cloaked figure stood-up from his nestled position on the bench, watched Rittan for a moment, then turned and walked in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Look for more Wizards of Pangea art at
Rittan approached the king immediately after he had agreed to defend Triton. He had, as Triton had reminded him, defended other guardians in the past. Before becoming a guardian himself, his father had persistently nudged him into the political arena.

“If you wish to be above the commoners, you must educate yourself. Learn the laws and associate with the kingdom’s elite,” he would say.

Having held his seat in the council most of his life, his father had fed him a strict diet of public affairs, council disputes, and court indiscretions. Rittan knew, all too well, how things ran within the kingdom. It was for that reason, against his father’s wishes, he had become a guardian.

“It’s my way to be above the commoners," Rittan had told his father. “By protecting them from above on dragon-back.”

It was also his inner knowledge of the council and their lack of concern for defendants that gave Rittan little hope for success. Evidence would need to be substantial to sway the council’s decision. Only physical proof, backed up by strong testimonies on Triton’s behalf, would have a chance.

King Gabriel was pleased by Rittan’s request. After sending Prodious away to stand guard outside his chamber, he welcomed Rittan over to a table where he was sitting.

Rittan sat in a chair next to him.

“I’ve been warned that there are many within Antheon, and in this very palace, who are preparing to remove me from the throne,” he said. “The death of the Lord Matriarch of Ambergale is just the beginning.”

Rittan nodded agreeably then spoke with some apprehension. “I do not wish to question your motives, Your Majesty, but pardoning Triton from prison?”

King Gabriel became angry, looking Rittan squarely in the eye. The seriousness of his expression caused Rittan to sit up in his chair. But as the king held his gaze, a helplessness washed over him.

“Triton is like a son to me Rittan. If it were not for him, I would’ve been assassinated long ago.”

Rittan was surprised by his openness.

“I owe him my life many times over.”

“But the council will surely frown upon it,” Rittan returned. “And the citizens of Antheon . . . ”

“The citizens of Antheon!” King Gabriel yelled. “The council!” He stopped to catch his breath then let out a large sigh. “I did what I could out of respect and admiration for Triton. I’ve used him selfishly for long enough. I’m repaying him-giving him his life as he gave me mine so many times before. If there’s an outcry of injustice, it should be made by him. How the people and the council feel about me no longer matters. My time as king is nearly at an end.”

Rittan shook his head to disagree.

“Yes, yes, I’m very old Rittan. But Triton-Triton has much life in him yet. You must do what you can for him. You’ll need a witness on his behalf. A young servant of the Matriarch’s, the only survivor, may provide something.”

Rittan nodded. “Yes. Certainly. Do you know where I might find her?”

“She’s with the representatives of Ambergale in the east wing.” He stood up and waddled over to his podium nearby. Grabbing a sheet of parchment, he quickly scratched out a request. “I can’t promise their hospitality with all they’ve been through . . . but Triton’s honor is at stake. Do whatever you can to uphold it. I believe they‘ll be leaving soon, so if you want to catch her before she’s gone, you’ll need to go there straight away.”

As King Gabriel handed Rittan the request, Rittan noticed a despondent quality about him. The king glanced at Prodious who could be seen standing just beyond the chamber’s threshold.

“The stability of Antheon itself now hangs in the balance, Rittan. Beware of everyone you encounter. Few can be trusted,” he said, his words echoing Triton’s.

“Yes, Your Majesty, I will,” Rittan responded, then, with a bow, he left.

* * * * *

As the king had suggested, Rittan wasted no time. He headed straight for the luxurious accommodations housing the injured servant and the Ambergale delegates within the main palace. Upon arriving at the guarded entrance, Rittan found several palace servants helping pack the delegate’s things in preparation for their long journey back.

One of the distinguished officials intercepted him at the open door. She was a tall brunette with streaks of graying hair pulled back by a beautiful golden headdress adorned with polished ovals of opal and a string of emeralds. Her dress was a deep green, layered to accommodate the cooler altitudes that their gossamers flew.

Rittan held out the parchment given by King Gabriel.

“Excuse me madam, I’m investigating the incident to procure information that will help to uncover the truth about what happened during the Lord Matriarch’s arrival,” he awkwardly expelled as he looked at the woman’s defensive gaze.

She took a defiant step toward him that forced him to step back into the corridor. “I, good sir, am to be addressed as "Your Lordship." I suggest that you try again if you desire my attention.”

Rittan swallowed hard, his face emblazoned with humility. “I ask . . . I . . . forgive me Your Lordship,” he stammered. “I have not been instructed as to . . .” he sighed. “I would like to speak with the late Lord Matriarch’s servant, if possible. Being the only surviving member of-”

She cut him off with a disinterested look. “We have no time for this. We already know what happened. Our focus is on other matters now.”

“I understand, Your Lordship, but I need . . . answers.”

He stepped back into the room as the woman walked back to join three other delegates. They stood in a group just inside a large balcony framed by two carved goddesses.

“The king has a small army of guardians searching for her killer as we speak,” he finished.

The four women shot each other looks of annoyance at Rittan’s persistence.

“What information are you hoping to gain from her?” came an old wavering voice from a short plump delegate tightening a strap on one of her bags.

“I’m hoping to determine who is responsible for the Lord Matriarch’s death,” he said, clearing his throat.

The women looked at each other again, this time with a seriousness that hinted at their distrust of him and the kingdom.

The shorter woman waddled closer to him, pulling the front of her skirt up toward her large hips so as not to trip on it as she walked.

“Are you prepared to hear the truth?” she asked, peering deeply into his eyes from her low perspective.

“That is why I’m here.”

She looked him up and down as if sizing him up for the task at hand. “I must warn you. There is a greater force behind this than you might know. Your kingdom has become complacent-a stronghold of greed and politics, a hypocrisy of its former self. You know little of what goes on far outside your kingdom walls.”

She paused to gauge his reaction.

He was unaffected, even in agreement of what she had said.

Satisfied with this, as if she were able to see into his mind, she continued but in a threatening tone. “When speaking with her remember what I have said, or you will never learn the truth.”

Rittan stood for a moment surprised. He was prepared to extend another plea to emphasize the importance and urgency, and how one person’s life was hanging in the balance of his investigation, but none of his words needed to be spoken. The short old woman had somehow comprehended all this by looking at his face.

He looked at her for a moment, confused, unsure if she was actually allowing him to meet with the servant. But she stepped back and pointed him to a large arched doorway. The three other delegates, looking less than happy of the elder’s decision, accepted with nods.

Rittan proceeded into the room slowly, stepping out of the way of the palace servants carrying packages to the delegate’s gossamer dragons.

A young girl, no more than sixteen sun cycles, propped up by large pillows, sat at the end of a grand bed stately enough for that of the king himself. Large wooden posts intricately carved to resemble flowering bulbs and coiled serpents held up a white netting that draped over the entire frame. On one side, the netting was held open by bronze cuttings shaped as fairies that were attached in a pattern following the arch of the overhead frame. The girl was dressed in blue garments, the heaviest of which, to be worn during the flight, set upon the edge of the bed. A wooden splint held her arm stiffly to her side; her forehead was marked by a succession of scars. She looked at him with large brown eyes still weakened from her ordeal.

“Excuse me...” Rittan spoke, stopping his greeting as he searched his mind for the appropriate way to address her.

She smiled, realizing his distress as she had overheard him being verbally chastised by Enid in the other room.

“Ivy,” she said.

Rittan looked confused.

“My name. It’s Ivy,” she repeated.

Rittan smiled, walked to the side of the bed and pulled a wooden chair away from a table next to the wall. He sat on the edge of it and leaned over resting his elbows on his knees.

“Forgive me for this intrusion Ivy, but I need to ask you what you remember during the time leading up to the Lord Matriarch’s-” He searched for a more delicate way to say it, but came up with none-“her death.”

Ivy looked away toward a series of long narrow windows closed by wooden shudders with small rosette holes. Beams of sunlight speared through transferring the pattern across the netting onto the young girl’s tan face.

“They were horrible creatures,” she whispered as if watching the event play out before her eyes. “Red-faced demons on black dragons. Iris and Maura fought them off with arrows, but it didn’t help. They attacked very close and threw a weapon that wound around our dragon’s wings. Two, there were, on both sides attacking together. Our dragon was unable to lift its wings, and we dropped. We hit the water hard. I don’t remember much after.”

Rittan was awed by her story. His sensibilities told him it could not be true. She must have been delusional from a concussion, but he realized this was what the elder delegate had warned him of. He had to suspend his disbelief of the demons to find the real truth.

“Did you see who your escort was? The one who flew in front of the Lord Matriarch-Aurora.”

She paused for a long moment trying to visualize when the escort dropped in ahead of them. “He was a good distance away from where I was, far ahead in front of the Lord Matriarch’s gossamer.”

“Was it a thresher dragon?”

She looked confused but continued to stare toward the windows as if following the motions of tiny dust particles swirling in the beam of light.

“Thresher dragon?” she questioned.

“Yes. The dragon most used by guardians. They are large, reddish-brown dragons with wings attached to their arms. They would‘ve been adorned with ceremonial golden armor during the Lord Matriarch’s arrival. Do you remember any of them accompanying you?”

“Yes. One of them flew just ahead of the Matriarch. He and his dragon were dressed in golden armor, as you said. I remember his golden helmet shining in the sunlight like a beacon when he flew in ahead of us. Two, um, three more flew in behind, two were lost to the demons before they attacked our dragon.”

Two of the delegates stepped into the room. Enid, the one with gray streaked hair spoke. “We must go now. Our journey to Ambergale will be long.”

“May I ask one more question?” Rittan asked.

“No more questions. We must arrive at Ambergale before nightfall,” she emphasized.

He looked back to the young girl being helped up by two of the palace servants from the opposite side of the bed.

“Thank you Ivy.” Then he stood up and bowed to the delegates. “Thank you for allowing me to speak with her, Your Lordship.”

Enid squinted with displeasure, folding her arms together to hide her hands beneath the wide sleeves of her green robe. “If it had been left to me, guardian, you would not have spoken with her.”

Rittan said nothing in return but looked at the other delegate to see that she too felt the same.

As Ivy was helped from the room, the other delegate followed close behind. Enid held her position.

Rittan stepped past her to exit with the others.

“Guardian,” Enid called out, stopping Rittan in the arched doorway. She stepped closer to him and whispered. “Lord Miranda, the one who allowed your questions, has had her eye on becoming the Lord Matriarch of our tribe for many sun cycles. With Aurora’s death, she will attain that position. Be aware that she is capable of sorcery, although weak, which could explain Ivy’s clouded memories-that of demons and such said to be the culprits of her death. The elder Lord has opposed Aurora from the start. She believes Aurora’s abolishment of the old traditions will bring about punishments described in our ancient writings. The scrolls warn that an army of fang-claws will wipe out our people if those traditions are not continued. Just remember, no one’s motives are completely innocent, guardian. Aurora had many enemies. Any of them could be responsible.” She turned away before Rittan could say a word and followed the others out the door.

Rittan walked into the main room emptied of the delegate’s possessions. This was going to be more difficult than he had imagined.

He looked out to the ocean beyond the balcony and watched a group of thresher dragons circling for fish. It was time for lunch. They had been let loose to feed. He knew his dragon, Mizar, would be hungry as well. Seeing them, he convinced himself a stop at Morton’s tavern was needed before he continued. He would better serve Triton on a full stomach-as would Mizar.

Monday, May 08, 2006

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In the early morning of the lunar phase, after Triton’s imprisonment, Rittan stood vigil on the massive stone wall that spanned nearly seventy-five lagrons from the mountain kingdom to the higher plateau of the southern region.

He rested his arms on the stone, still cool and damp from the previous night, and looked out to the ocean glistening in the light of the morning sun. His thresher dragon, Mizar, spying fish wriggling near the shoreline, sat on the top of one of the giant stone-carved dragons lining the wall.

He turned and strolled to the western side of the wall as an elderly couple rode by on a wagon filled with bushels of wheat. Two pangas-tall two-legged plant eaters with stubby tails, large enough to hold a saddle but smaller than a raptor-pulled them at a slow, steady pace. Leaning on the stone railing, he looked out across the patchwork of farmland. Small adobe homes with reed-covered roofs, lit by the warm glow of fires burning within, dotted the rolling hills. Far to the north, the city was awakening. The sun blazed across the city’s eastern face. The lunar phase was starting out like any other phase, but Rittan knew things would be different from this lunar phase on. Nothing would be the same with Triton in prison. He blamed himself to a certain extent. Things might have been different had he been there.

Repositioning himself on the railing, he looked up to the kingdom. With its flattened domes and tall spires topped with ornamental bell shapes, the mountain kingdom dominated much of the northern horizon. It was an artistic arrangement of straight flat walls with rounded buildings and towers that bloomed from the mountain’s natural rocky outcroppings. But the most impressive part of the kingdom was the mountain itself. Much of the surface, from the bottom up, had been chiseled smooth, hewn into blocky outcroppings that narrowed as they reached toward the city at the top. It looked as if the entire kingdom had been cut out of the mountain itself. It was a grand and majestic sight in the glow of the misty morning light-a sight Rittan viewed as a symbol of strength and power. But after the Lord Matriarch’s death, that power had been challenged in a way that had weakened the people’s faith in Antheon’s guardians. Still, Rittan thought, to blame Triton for all that seemed more than one person should bear.

Rittan noticed four guardians riding pangas heading his way from the northern end of the wall. A moongrun pulling an open carriage followed behind them.

He stood tall, stiffening his pose in case it was someone of importance.

While straightening his silver helmet and adjusting his chest-plate, he realized Cassandra was riding one of the lead pangas. It was generally someone of royalty when Cassandra was leading the way, but this time their passenger looked less than worthy of the guardians surrounding him.

As the small group approached, Cassandra held out an open hand and the man steering the moongrun pulled back on the reins.

“Whoooa!” he yelled.

The beast stopped its slow trot to stand steady on long split hooves. Chains clanked and leather straps swayed as the creature lifted its head and let out a deep grunt. The unruly beast took another inadvertent step against the driver’s will, making him pull back even harder on the reins.

Rittan watched amused as the driver was nearly jerked off his seat. But the passenger, facing backward sitting at the back of the open wooden carriage, caught his attention. The man swayed smoothly with the unexpected lurch as if he had anticipated the moongrun’s extra step.

Rittan noticed shackles binding the man’s upper arms together with a chain that connected them at his back. It was Triton. His sandy brown hair was disheveled, and his loose white shirt was dirty in spots, but his posture was still of a man who refused to be beaten.

Cassandra strode closer to Rittan. “At ease guardian. Our prisoner has requested to speak with you.”

She shot him an accusatory glare then pulled her panga around to stand guard from a distance.

Rittan did not know if he should be honored or angered at Triton’s request, as anyone he spoke with would surely be looked upon as a possible accessory.

Triton stood up on the carriage and jumped off the back. As he stepped around the corner and turned to walk toward Rittan, he showed no hint of emotion. He stared at Rittan making him feel uncomfortable. He knew Triton was assessing him-his feelings about him.

Triton stopped, standing before Rittan and wrestling with his chains.

Rittan broke the awkward silence. “I wish things could be as they were, Triton.” He stared at the large bruise on Triton’s face and the singed hair at the top of his head. “I hate to see you like this. As much as I’m glad to see you, I’m also torn by this whole thing. I don’t want to remember you like this Triton.”

Triton shook his head. “This won’t be your last memory of me Rittan. My innocence will be proven. But for that to happen, I’m afraid I need to impose on you.”

Rittan sighed. “I don’t know that there’s much I can do.”

“Do you believe that I am innocent?” Triton asked.

Rittan hesitated, began to answer, then paused. He thought for a moment longer as Triton grew more despondent watching him wrestle with his feelings.

“Triton, I don’t want to believe it,” came his response, quiet and unsure.

“That will do. If you’re even slightly unsure, I know you’ll be willing to help prove my innocence.”

“Help prove? What?” Rittan nearly shouted. “I only know what I have heard as rumors. None of which shine brightly on you I might add.”

“Rittan, look at me,” Triton commanded.

Rittan obeyed reluctantly.

“You know me. You know I would never do anything like this. I’ve never held anything above the honor of Antheon or the safety of the king.” Triton could see Rittan was on his side.

“Even now, with my name tarnished and my future destroyed, it’s the king I am worried for. With Prodious at his side, he’s in grave danger.”

“What! Prodious?” Rittan said. “He wasn’t even supposed to be there. He took my place when I became sick.”

“You weren’t sick Rittan! You were poisoned! Prodious or someone working with him poisoned you and me both, except I wasn’t affected until the morning of the Lord Matriarch’s arrival.”

Triton spoke in a whisper as he continued, “My guess is someone else working with him would have filled my post as well if I had taken the poison earlier. Beware of everyone Rittan, I don’t know who else is working with Prodious, but you can be assured there are more.”

Rittan noticed Cassandra turn her head with concern as if she caught some of Triton’s warning.

“Please take the responsibility Rittan. If not to prove my innocence, to prove Prodious’ guilt. He’s working for the dark king, Rittan. It was demons riding gorgonon dragons that killed the Lord Matriarch. Prodious is working with them.”

Triton could see the surprise in Rittan’s face turn to skepticism. He had heard the rumors of demons being responsible but laughed them off as that of paranoia spreading among the people.

“I understand your skepticism, but don’t let it cloud your judgment. If you do this Rittan, the king will approve it. Otherwise he will appoint someone else, but as I said, I don’t know who else can be trusted. It’s the council you need to sway.” He sighed in frustration. “The king believes me Rittan. Instead of returning me to prison, he’s granted me refuge in Dimsbrough at the hatchery.”

Rittan gave a reluctant sigh.

“Rittan, you’ve stood up for other guardians, even in opposition to your own father who sits within the council. Please, I beg you, give me the same consideration. Please Rittan, I believe the very fate of the kingdom may be at stake.”

Cassandra rode her panga closer and raised a commanding voice much more threatening than her size. “Your time’s up Triton! We have to move on.”

Triton looked up at her and nodded. Then he looked back to Rittan with a seriousness Rittan could not ignore.

“All right. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you Rittan.” He gave a somber smile. “But be careful. Like I said, anyone could be working with him.” Obeying Cassandra, he then walked back to the carriage.

Triton knew his ride would not be without incident. The passage through the heart of the city, across much of the lowland farms before ending at the western gate, a destination only Cassandra was privy to, was really to parade him before the people so they might ridicule and throw food at him. It was custom before a prisoner was put to death, but, in his case, with the king not having made a decision, the council had decided to parade him to calm the anger of the people. It was just this kind of behavior by the council that King Gabriel had counted on to release Triton in secret.

As Triton was hoisted back onto the carriage by the driver, he gave Rittan a final request.

“Rittan! Speak to my mother for me. I wasn’t able to see her. Tell her I love her and that I’m sorry for all the grief this tragedy has brought.”

Rittan nodded.

The driver snapped the reins at Cassandra’s order and steered the moongruns onto one of the sloped paths that dropped down to the lowlands.

* * * * *

After a long and humiliating journey through the city and across the farmland where people lined up to witness, ridicule, and cast rotten fruit, Triton was finally at the western gate. The massive wall spanned one of many wide fissures in the tall Condorion cliffs. Its massive wooden doors were open but heavily guarded. The arched gateway at its center fed into the maze of cliffs and tall mountain spires.

The moongrun’s sluggish trot slowed to a halt as Cassandra slid off her panga. She walked to the back of the carriage to see Triton covered with rotting melons, eggs, green seedy mangleberries, and cloves of spiny brambles that clung to his loose-fitted shirt. His hair, face, and clothes were a mess; dirty and scratched with streaks of dried blood running from his cheeks and neck.

Cassandra stood at the end of the open carriage with the keys for the shackles. Triton rose slowly, his head bowed. He stared at her, peering out from beneath his dripping brow. Neither said a word, but Triton could see Cassandra’s harden facade was beginning to break. Her face was cold and expressionless, but her eyes showed signs of sadness. She, like Rittan, was struggling to hold open the door that had suddenly closed on their friendship.

He jumped onto the dry dirt, hardened by the wheels of heavily loaded carts. Chunks of melon and sticky black seeds dropped from him as he landed. Unshaken, Triton held out his bound wrists toward Cassandra.

She unlocked both of his wrist-bindings, the two that bound his upper arms by a chain that connected them across his back, then tossed the mass of chains and bindings onto the carriage.

“I have something I’m supposed to give you,” she said. She pulled a small scroll out of a bag hanging from the front of the carriage. Triton knew it was the king’s decree he was to take with him to Dimsbrough.

After Cassandra handed it to him, Triton took a last look across the lowland farms then to the mountain kingdom. This was his home. No matter what happened, he would always consider it his home. He turned and looked up to the gated wall. It climbed so high that a series of five shorter walls, each reached by a tall wooden ladder, rose nearly half the distance to the very top of the natural cliffs. Two guardians accompanied by their thresher dragons, barely visible from the ground, stood guard at the very top.

At the base four guards stood, two at either side of the open gate, eyeing Triton with suspicion.

As he looked at the threshers high atop the wall, Dagger suddenly appeared in Triton’s mind. It would be a long walk without him, he thought sadly. But as he followed behind Cassandra toward the open gate, Dagger’s familiar squawk echoed in the distance. Dagger was sitting on a large boulder near the side of the passage. Triton quickened his steps to walk beside Cassandra. As she looked at him, he gave her a smile.

“He’s yours to take as requested by the king. It seems he still wants to believe you’re innocent,” Cassandra said, her voice a much gentler tone than before.

Triton knew King Gabriel believed in his innocence, but to allow him to keep Dagger was unexpected.

“What do you believe?” Triton asked, stopping within the wide stone arch of the open gate.

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. It won’t change your situation,” she said.

He wanted to tell her it mattered to him, but he knew by her actions that she doubted his innocence more than his guilt.

He turned away and walked to his dragon. Hopefully Rittan would find something to change her mind as well as those of the council.

As he approached Dagger, Triton could feel the confusion and anger building within the guards. If not for Cassandra’s presence, they would have never let him pass beyond the gate alive.

When the tension of the moment had reached its peak, as he grabbed hold of his saddle and hoisted himself onto Dagger’s back, Cassandra broke the silence.

“If you are innocent Triton!” she yelled, “may Dagger protect you until your return.” She followed this with a whisper to herself. “And may you forgive me for performing my duties during your darkest phases.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

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Three lunar phases passed before Triton awoke from his sleep. His head pounded, and his body ached, but he no longer felt dizzy and sick. Still, the effects of the poison induced illness had done their damage. He understood all too well the consequences this tragedy held, not only for him but also for the king and the kingdom in the eyes of Ambergale.

He fully expected an inquisition about the incident and possibly punishment for dereliction of duty after he had pleaded his case, but nothing could have prepared him for the cold reception he awoke to.

He sat up on a thin cushion filled with soft yamgon fur set upon a heavy stone base. A simple wooden nightstand held a washing bowl and rag along with a tall ceramic pitcher.

The room was a modest cube excavated from the solid rock beneath the mountain palace. A small square window tunneled through the thick wall giving a narrow view of the smooth, steeply sloped palace exterior hewn from the very side of the mountain. Other than a dirty red woven mat that lay on the floor, the room was colorless. Three wall-mounted candles supplemented what little light reflected off the exterior palace wall through the open window. The candles danced in the breeze, creating shadows that whirled and pulsed across the dips and crevasses of the roughly finished interior.

Triton recognized it to be one of the many servants’ quarters that inhabited much of the lower levels dug deep into the mountain beneath the palace.

He sat quietly making fists with his right hand, still sore from burns. He had been fitted with a loose white shirt that draped down to his knees. His leather pants hung haphazardly off the end of the bed, his dark brown boots on the floor.

Two guards stood outside the wooden door that was hanging ajar off two large hinges bolted to the stone wall.

Triton had quickly deduced that it was Avery and Rufus standing at either side of the doorway. Rufus, to the left, was a dead giveaway with his constant throat clearing that, at times, caused a short ornate metal bracelet bound tightly to his fattened forearm to jingle; a decoration, Triton knew, Rufus wore proudly in memory of his father who died defending the kingdom in a battle fought long ago against a savage thorgon army. Avery, to the right, he guessed, oddly enough, because of his silence. If not for his trademark deep breathing, drawing in air through his large nose then expelling it through his mouth in a monstrous sigh, Triton might not have even known he was there.

He had not been thrown in the dungeon, but it was obvious he had been accused of something while he was unconscious. He thought back to the ill-fated passage through the Condorion cliffs, searching for answers to the questions that raced wildly through his mind. He remembered feeling sick, very weak, and abnormally tired. He remembered the panic he felt as he failed to lead the Lord Matriarch and her entourage, and the relief he had as he saw Rittan take his . . . No, not Rittan, Prodious.

Suddenly Prodious’ mocking smile appeared in his mind.

It was Prodious. He was behind all this. He had assumed Rittan’s position along the cliff passages and knew that Triton's water had been poisoned. He had led the Lord Matriarch and her entourage down an alternate route that held demon riders who executed a well-planned ambush on the procession.

It all made sense after witnessing Prodious with the fallen demon and the things Prodious had said during the last moments before Triton had blacked out. But no one would believe that Prodious, the exalted Grand General who had defended Antheon in so many skirmishes of recent times, could possibly be responsible for such an act. Even Triton, knowing Prodious to be nothing but an admirable person, could hardly believe that he could be allied with the fabled demon creatures. But if he was, Triton was going to find convincing anyone else of this truth nearly impossible. He figured Prodious must have already conjured up a report to malign his reputation while he was unconscious. If not for the respect and admiration he had gained for his many sun cycles of service protecting the king and his family, he probably would be rotting in the dungeon now.

Surely, Triton thought, they could not have named him as the man responsible for this incident.

The clapping of boots, first shuffling down a staircase then clomping down a long arching hall, echoed through the narrow opening between the door and the wall. Triton listened carefully to the quick steady pace of each step, boot-heel then toe, slapping against the flat rock floor. It was obviously someone of importance since Rufus and Avery stiffened, shifting within their cumbersome armor to a more erect pose.

The footfalls were quick and light, broken by an occasional tapping on every second or fourth step. The tapping was a long sheath, he recognized, encasing the person’s sword. All these subtle nuances added up, in Triton’s mind, to equal that of a high-ranking female of short stature.

As the steps slowed, approaching the threshold of the nearly closed door, Triton called out to her.

“Hello Cassandra,” he said, then to test her mood, he added, “Unless you’re willing to chance the sight of a half-naked man, I should ask that you give me a zale or two to slip on my pants.”

The door swung open swiftly, revealing him to be correct. Cassandra stepped into the small room holding the door with her left hand. Her bright blonde hair, ornately braided into a crown that wrapped into a larger braid hanging from the back of her head, accentuated her small girlish face. Young and beautiful but equally strong, capable of holding her own against other soldiers who had been deceived by her looks, she was the epitome of strength and perseverance.

She glared down at him through narrowed eyes, her brow stiffened by a serious scowl. “I would ask you to save me the embarrassment, but considering the allegations placed against you, the embarrassment you’ve laid upon our kingdom far out-weighs anything I might feel at the sight of your bare legs. I might add your sorceress ability to recognize me before I enter will do you no favors to those who will be prosecuting you.”

Triton recoiled at the biting tone of her voice. “You of all people must realize I am innocent of whatever it is I am being accused.” He searched her eyes for the friendship they shared.

She stood unwavering, resting her small hand on the hilt of her sword. “My sentiments are the least of your worries. It is the king and court to whom you should prepare your plea of innocence. The king has commanded an audience with you before your arraignment. Get dressed and follow me.”

Triton began to form another plea but stopped himself. He looked away from her accusing stare.

The charges against him were obviously very serious if even Cassandra was refusing to drop official etiquette. He could only hope the king would be more understanding-for he knew what an audience with the king meant. The council must have already decided his fate. King Gabriel was giving him a last chance. If he could convince the king of his innocence, the king could overrule the council’s verdict. He would have to choose his words carefully and hope his friendship with King Gabriel would help his situation. His entire future depended on it.

He slipped on his pants, tucking his white shirt neatly into them, then slid on his boots while Cassandra quietly stood within the doorway. As he stood up, a good head taller than Cassandra, she turned and exited into the hall. Triton followed, doing his best to comb his sandy brown hair with his fingers. As he did, a sharp pain stung his forehead, forcing him to stop and sneak a glance into Rufus’ highly polished helmet. A shockingly large bruise painted his right eye with purple, red and a wash of green all the way out to his temple.

Triton fired off a whistle. “That’s a beauty.”

Rufus turned his head shooting Triton a disdainful glare. Triton raised his eyebrows then smiled, a small curl at the corner of his mouth.

“Excuse me, Rufus. I was referring to my bruise.”

When he turned to follow Cassandra, Rufus shoved his back to hurry him on.

“All right, all right I’m going,” Triton expelled.

Rufus and Avery walked side by side, holding a position to Triton’s rear while Cassandra led the way through the maze of narrow candle-lit corridors and staircases that eventually led to the grand halls of the palace above.

The dull pain that crawled around to the top and side of his skull hurt less than the quiet hatred he felt from Cassandra, Avery, and Rufus. He had been acquainted with both Avery and Rufus, enjoying their company on several occasions over a pitcher of ale, and Cassandra, he considered a good friend after having worked side by side with her on many occasions within the palace.

In the time it took to navigate the spiral staircase to the grand halls covered with colorful tapestries and ornate sculptures, around the central courtyard, then finally to the marble staircase that climbed to King Gabriel’s private chambers, Triton had grown dejected. The palace, in all its grand beauty had become his home. The guards and servants, and even some of the council administrators, when they were not performing their official duties, had become a part of his family. His mother had even been given shelter within the hallowed walls of the mountain kingdom. And King Gabriel, in all his grandeur, had become more of a father figure to him than a king. His duty as the king’s personal guardian was gratifying since he held nothing but the highest respect and admiration for him.

Now as he stood before the golden doors that opened into the king’s private chamber, he could not help but feel a hopeless sense of remorse. He had stood guard many times before these grand doors never feeling the true power and fear they instilled in those who were requested to enter. Even though he knew he was innocent of the charges that had been placed upon him, he realized that the anger and hatred directed toward him was very real to those who felt he was responsible for the Lord Matriarch’s death.

He felt dead inside as Cassandra opened the large doors. Even if he could convince the king, he knew his reputation as a guardian, with all the trust and loyalty the position held, would now be lost.

The noise of a milling crowd filled his ears as the doors crept open. It was the sound of the circular court just below the curving balcony at the far end of the king’s chamber.

Cassandra stepped to the side of the open doors with Rufus and Avery taking positions at the two marble pillars at either side of the grand staircase. Two other guards whom Triton was less familiar with stood to the sides of the doorway within the grand hall that over-looked the garden.

So many guards, Triton thought to himself. At least he had not been bound in shackles. Surely a request the king must have allowed to afford him some dignity. He just hoped that it meant the king still had faith in his innocence.

He glanced at Cassandra. Her face was like stone, cold and expressionless. Then he walked into the chamber.

Two figures, one sitting the other standing, silhouetted against the sun drenched balcony, were that of King Gabriel and his new personal guard.

Realizing that he was breaking the first rule of entering a room occupied by the king, he quickly bowed, lowering his head in submission. It was a courtesy he had been weaned of after being the king’s personal guardian for so many sun cycles. He stepped to the center of an ornate circle embellished with many different colors of shaped marble and kneeled as he had witnessed so many others do. The large doors closed behind him with a loud thud. For a long moment, only the sound of the milling crowd could be heard echoing off the highly polished walls and floor of the chamber. Then the deep resonating voice of the king broke through the low roar, his words spoken slow and deliberate with a raspy edge brought on by age.

“Triton,” he expelled, holding the last syllable with a tired disappointment that lingered into the rest of his words. “You have been my most loyal and trustworthy guardian, to which I have entrusted not only my own safety but that of the queen and my two daughters.”

Triton slowly raised his eyes to see the king’s portly bulk sitting in a tired slouch upon his throne. His white beard flowed onto his chest, twitching with each spoken word.

“Since the time I first saw you during the test of wits and bravery, when you were only but a young man, you have proven yourself worthy to hold the title of Guardian of Antheon and all the honors that it bestows. But now you stand before me disgraced by accusations of a treachery that have spread far beyond this kingdom.” He paused with a sigh as if finding his next words difficult to speak. “Aurora, the newly appointed Matriarch of Ambergale, was slaughtered in the most gruesome of attacks, and all but one of her entourage killed. Is it true, Triton, that you are responsible for this horrendous incident?”

Finally the charge with which he had been accused was revealed to him. Triton swung his vision up to the newly appointed guardian to the king as he searched for his reply.

He could not believe his eyes.

It was Prodious.

The shock nearly sent him back a step. To see the very person he knew to be responsible for what happened standing in his place to the right of the king was not what he had expected. Prodious shot him a deviously sinister smile that quickly disappeared into an expression that tightened with concern. What devilish lies he had spoken to attain a position at King Gabriel’s side, Triton could only guess, but surely none of them had been told in his favor.

“Yes,” Triton said, witnessing the surprise on Prodious’ face. “I do feel responsible for the Lord Matriarch’s death, but I will not take responsibility for leading her into an ambush.”

The king’s tone grew agitated losing its quiet gentleness. “But Triton, you were assigned to lead the Lord Matriarch and her entourage. If it was not you, who was it?”

Triton held his tongue as he looked into the king’s drooping eyes; his gray brows folded in question. Then he shot Prodious a searing glare.

“It was Prodious. Prodious led the procession,” he spoke, belting out Prodious’ name with a deafening hatred.

The king looked surprised turning his attention now to Prodious.

“I assure you it was not I your highness,” Prodious defended. “I filled in for Rittan who had been taken ill and stood my post as he had been assigned. As I have explained before, it was not until I saw the procession heading down the wrong direction that I left my post to follow. By the time I had reached them, the Lord Matriarch had been killed.”

“So you poisoned Rittan as well?” Triton shouted, his words spilling out as he thought them.

“Poison?” Prodious said in a mocking tone, almost laughing at the idea.

“Yes,” Triton shot back. “I thought I had become sick, but it was Prodious who told me that my sudden affliction was brought on by poison. Poison that Prodious was well aware of. Poison he must have added to my water as well as Rittan’s to keep Rittan from his post. You thought I was too delirious to understand or remember what you had said, or maybe you had expected the dose to kill me. Whatever it was, I remembered. You admitted to poisoning my water.”

Before the king could weigh Triton’s accusation, Prodious retorted, “I must say - you do have a vivid imagination.”

Triton turned back to the king. “Sire, he is in league with demon riders! I fear for your safety. Had I not witnessed them myself, I would not have believed it. It was demons riding black gorgonon dragons who killed the Lord Matriarch and her entourage as well as Leo and Omar.”

Prodious laughed. “Demon riders? Surely, Your Majesty, you can plainly see, these are the rantings of a desperate man.”

The king’s shoulders rose, and his body stiffened at the word "demon." He looked back up to Prodious, confused, speaking his words with an urgency Triton was not used to hearing in the king’s usual belabored discourse.

“Demon riders? You never mentioned anything about demon riders.”

Prodious hesitated, and his reply was spoken quickly. “Demon riders are nothing more than the evil incarnation of fables, brought about by fearful imaginations survived through the telling of ancient stories passed down from one generation to the next. For him to add them to his ridiculous tale will surely give the council confidence in their judgment. My earlier statement was based on a logical assumption. I had guessed the attackers to be affiliated with those who opposed the union of Antheon with Ambergale. I never saw them myself, but I still stand by my original statement.”

The king stroked his beard suddenly lost in thought, and then he returned his attention to Triton, pointing his finger toward his bruise with a wavering arm.
“How did you receive your bruise?”

“I was hit by a gorgonon as I followed the Lord Matriarch toward the upper rim of the waterfall basin. One of them struck me, knocking my shield from my grip. Even Dagger, was taken down by poisoned arrows.”

The king stood up from his throne and walked slowly to a wide nook with walls displaying many books and scrolls.

He leaned on a podium, caged his fingers, and then said, “I have made my decision.”

Prodious turned with a bow and walked over to a horn mounted to an iron pedestal near the open balcony overlooking the crowded court. He blew it, sending a deep wail across the court that quieted the anxious audience. The large golden doors opened, and Avery and Rufus quickly escorted Triton out of the chamber.

Triton was confused. The king showed little sympathy and didn't seem to come to an answer. The king appeared solemn. He had definitely taken Triton's story into consideration, but whatever he had decided wasn't obvious.

Prodious’ presence did not help either. Had he been allowed to speak with the king alone, he could have pleaded his case on a more personal level. Still, Triton had always known the king to be careful with his judgments and had faith that he would make the right decision.

Avery and Rufus escorted Triton down several unfamiliar, narrow corridors to an arched doorway entering the center of the open court. Triton could not help but become a little skeptical.

When he broke from the dark passage into the sun-drenched court, the audience jeered and chanted for his death. They wanted blood, and Triton understood full well how the courts where easily swayed into making rash decisions to appease the anger of the people. Left to them alone, he knew he would surely be sentenced to death.

He stepped up to the raised circular platform of solid rock and looked up to the king’s balcony where Prodious stood vigil. How he wished he could convince the people that it should be Prodious awaiting this sentence and not him.

The clamor of malicious chants continued to fill the air until Prodious, once again, blew the horn.

The king stepped to the balcony’s stone rail high above and greeted the crowd with two raised hands.

“People of Antheon, distinguished guests, and appointed members of the court. Never before has such a heinous act of treachery plagued our kingdom. An act of evil so diabolical that it has single-handedly marred the honorable name of the Guardians of Antheon and split the union of two great kingdoms.”

“It is Ambergale-” he bowed himself toward a small delegation from Ambergale- “who has suffered the most from this injustice. I give them my deepest sympathies for their loss as well as the families of our two exalted guardians Leo and Omar who lost their lives defending the integrity of Antheon. It is in their names that our efforts will go in vanquishing this evil. I understand the distrust and anger felt by those of Ambergale and hope they will see that we too are bound with them in this tragedy. I assure you, our efforts will be directed to finding all those who are responsible.

“In the past two lunar phases I have heard many of the stories surrounding what has happened, adding to the complexity of the incident. Too often we want the quick and easy answer-the scapegoat that will bear the blame for all that has happened. In this way we can wash our hands and feel free of the questions that curse us.

“In that light, we all look upon one man who now stands before us to be judged on assumptions and accusations as to his involvement.”

Triton swallowed hard, feeling the weight of judgment bearing down on him. Normally the audience of a court, with such a volatile arraignment, would be feverishly screaming for him to be put to death, but the king and his ability to control the masses with words had brought them to silent contemplation. The king was on his side, or at least was in doubt about the accusations directed at him. Either way, Triton understood, he would be allowed to live. But he also understood that the king would be perceived as weak and possibly considered unable to reign over Antheon with the same authority if he did not come to a decision that appeased the people and those of Ambergale. Much was riding on his judgment for both of them.

“Because many questions still linger over this tragedy, I am going to hold my judgment on Triton until more information is presented,” King Gabriel proclaimed.

A low moan of disapproval emanated from the crowd. Triton scanned down the long hanging banner from the king’s balcony down to the twelve council members seated in a long, curving niche carved out of the solid rock wall. Obvious signs of anger and disapproval were on their faces. It was a bold decision, but the king was not concerned with the council or the people. He was, as he has always been with all his decisions, concerned with finding the truth. Something he was willing to wait for, unlike the people or especially that of the twelve appointed council members whose concerns were more for holding their seats than finding the truth.

The king directed his final words at Triton. “Because questions still linger over this matter, you will be imprisoned until answers are found.”

A smattering of angry words grew into a low roar as objections to the ruling past from mouth to ear. Shouts of disapproval shot from many locations throughout the audience circling Triton.

“Death to the traitor!”

“Burn him!”

“Of demon blood he is!”

As the words became more heated, many guardians rallied around the inner circle in front of the angry mob to prevent them from jumping the wall and attacking Triton.

Avery and Rufus bolted up the steps to the top of the platform and grabbed Triton’s arms, expressing their own distaste for the king’s ruling by nearly dragging him off the platform.

Triton couldn't say he was happy with the ruling, but all things considered, he had to count himself lucky.

As he was pulled from the court to the narrow arched passage, he glanced up to the crowd. Amongst all the raised fists and angry faces one stood silent and tall with a steady posture that exuded a confidence and knowledge that rivaled that of everyone in Antheon. It was Mendar, a wizard from the distant northern mountains. He was an ambassador of sorts, bringing information and sometimes warnings obtained by the gathered knowledge of the wizard clan who lived high in the temple of Centaria at the top of mount Airabus. His appearance could not be a coincidence. He must have foreseen this incident but arrived late in warning the king. It was probably Mendar who had informed the king of the demon riders, as his mention of them seemed to spark a hidden knowledge from the king. Triton had seen Mendar secretly council the king several times before, always with important information about things going on far outside Antheon and the surrounding kingdoms.

As Rufus and Avery escorted him back through the narrow hall, the angry voices faded into the distance. The passage seemed to close in on him as he thought about his future. To be scorned by all who had once revered and honored him was difficult to accept. The thought that he might never be found innocent suddenly crossed his mind. It was very possible, because of the circumstances; he might spend the rest of his life in prison.

As he worried about the decisions and events beyond his control, he was led to the deepest dungeon reserved for the worst criminals-many of whom were scheduled for public execution.

Avery and Rufus shoved him into a cell with three other prisoners and shackled his left wrist to a chain braced to the stone floor below a scattering of hay. Then they locked the heavy iron door and departed.

Triton lay on the prickly hay, feeling the dry stems stabbing into his back. He ignored the others for a long time while he contemplated his future. But as the pungent smell of urine and waste awakened him to the confines of his cell, he lifted his head to view his cellmates.

All of them looked haggard and underfed in their loosely fitted and heavily worn gray smocks. One lay fast asleep on a raised stone outcropping with his shackled arm hanging on the hay-covered floor. Another sat huddled near the back wall, hiding himself in the shadows. Triton could see the man’s side through a wide tear in his smock where a faint strip of torchlight cut across his body. Many long pink scars, layered one over the other, discolored his tan skin.

Down here, where the light of the sun never fell and fresh-air never blew, life was measured on a phase-to-phase basis. The prison guards, often bent on inflicting their own punishment, did not respect the judgments given by the court. Instead, they took it upon themselves, and sometimes with the payment of those who had been victimized, to maim or even kill prisoners.
Triton figured he would be lucky if he lived through the night.

The third prisoner, shackled to the floor closest to him, was an old man with thin white hair and teeth that looked like loose fence posts.

“Ya ain’t gettin’ outta here alive ya know. This’s gonna be yer grave,” he said in a hoarse, wheezing voice that grew to no more than a whisper.

Triton looked into the old man’s glazed eyes. He could feel no emotion, no sense of life in him. The old man only confirmed Triton’s thinking to be true: This cell was where he would die.

The torches suddenly flared so intensely on the wall outside the cell, Triton and the other prisoners covered their eyes.

Two figures stood in the haze before the open cell, one tall and imposing, the other, short and plump.

It was King Gabriel and Mendar. The king had taken off his crown but still wore the garments he had been wearing during the ruling. Mendar stood in long green robes that flowed down to the toe of his boots. A wide-brimmed hat with a long pointed tip that drooped over to slump onto the brim hid Mendar’s eyes in shadow. His arms were folded over his long white beard and mustache.

Triton jumped to his feet and stood next to the iron bars.

“Triton, the council is resolved to blaming you for this incident,” Gabriel said. “There is a treachery at work that reaches far beyond our kingdom. I believe in your innocence, but it is the council that demands proof. Without it, even with my blessing, you will be scorned by all of Antheon and despised by Ambergale. I have done all that I can to tame the council and Ambergale’s desire for answers. But it is the council’s desire for blood to appease Ambergale that brings me here.” He paused and looked up to Mendar who gave him a nod of approval. “I fear for your life Triton. I cannot guarantee your safety here or anywhere else you might travel, but I can give you a short reprieve until a sentence has been determined. On the next phase, you will be taken to the western lowland gate where you will be given a scroll upon your release. Take it with you to Dimsbrough. It is a decree, signed by me, ordering you to work at the hatchery until more evidence is obtained in your case. Dagmar, there, may not honor it straight off now that Dimsbrough has become independent, but he has never been one to pass on free labor. Triton, I wish I could do more. You have always been a loyal guardian to me.”

Triton bowed then spoke in a soft voice. “I thank you Your Highness, I assure you your faith in me is just. I will stay at the hatchery as you have commanded.”

King Gabriel smiled with moist eyes. “Mendar has assured me your stay here will be uneventful until your release.” He patted Triton’s shoulder though the bars. “May the Gods be with you.” With that, the king and the wizard turned and left, and Triton returned to his seat of prickly hay. The old man, lying next to him, just stared in astonishment.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Wizards of Pangea
by Jon Hrubesch

Registered WGAw No. 902134
Chapter 1
Look for more Wizards of Pangea art at
With a confidence built by many sun cycles of service as a guardian, Triton paced precariously near the rounded rim of his mountain spire. The cool early morning fog was beginning to fade as the eastern sunlight cut into the deep maze of crevasses before the towering Condorion cliffs. It was an important date, the morning after the fourth lunar phase of the lunar cycle of Death, less than half a sun cycle before the next monsoon season, marked for the coming of the newly appointed matriarch of Ambergale.

Triton placed each step with swift but careful precision as he navigated along the exposed narrow rock ledge next to the winged arm of his thresher dragon. The behemoth stirred in its slumber, still instinctively clinging its sharp talons into the narrow fissures snaking along the bare rock as it pulled the arrow-shaped tip of its tail beneath its wing. A deep rumble coursed along its curled, scaly neck and resonated in its heaving chest like a bass drum.

Triton peered across the numerous mountain towers banned by stripes of shadow and light from the taller eastern cliffs. He could just see Rittan, a fellow guardian and close friend, positioned on another mountain tower a lagron away. His golden chest plate blazed in a slice of morning sun that pierced through the cliff shadows.

He watched Rittan’s dragon rear up and unfurl its bronze wings basking in the warmth, and Rittan as he sat down near the ledge of his mountain perch. Mizar, Rittan’s dragon, danced in place fighting to keep its balance against the gusting winds that whirled between the maze of mountain ridges.

Rittan waved, his gloved hand only a dot in the distance. Triton returned the salutation, feeling a wave of dizziness overcome him. He stepped back away from the sloping edge that cut to a sheer drop to a steamy gray fog masking the narrow passages five hundred lags below. His boot-heel kicked the reddish brown wing of his dragon, and he stumbled. His thresher pulled its wing in closer to its body as if reacting to nothing more than a weevil bite.

Triton shook his head. His eyesight grew blurry. Even his helmet seemed heavy. He unclipped his chinstrap and pulled his helmet off, then stumbled toward the saddle strapped at the base of his dragon’s neck. He nestled himself into the bend of the dragon’s wing, dumping his helmet onto his lap and dropping onto a seat of solid rock. The air felt cool, combing through his sweaty hair as he rubbed his gloved fists into his eyes.

He squinted, and his blurred vision subsided. Once again, he could clearly make out the layered color bands of the separate strata in the mountain cliffs.

It was the worst possible time to be sick. He cursed the God of Light then the God of Darkness; whichever spiritual incarnation was responsible for his illness. It did not surprise him though. He had been sitting on this cold mountain pedestal the entire night awaiting the arrival of Aurora, the newly appointed matriarch of the Ambros tribeswomen of the northeastern Kingdom of Ambergale. As a gesture of good faith, the king had appointed his own guardian, Triton, to escort the matriarch and her entourage through the maze of cliffs to the kingdom of Antheon.

The Lord Matriarch’s journey would be long and arduous taking many solars to complete. Even with the well-adapted gossamer dragons, commonly used by the Ambergale tribe for their ability to glide high above the mountainous terrain, the passage would be steeped with complications. Triton knew all too well the many curses of the jagged mountain passages where the two mountain ranges of the Ru-wan and Randure met. The wind gusts alone posed enough of a challenge for any rider, but the marauding nomadic tribes of grundles as well as other mountain dwelling predators made even a short rest anywhere along the journey dangerous.

Triton strained to see the distant spotters, their torches now belching gray smoke from an entire night of burning. He could make out only a blur of light and shadow.

“Damn this wretched sickness!” he cursed. He grabbed for his food pack and canteen.

He pulled out his morning ration of dry millon root and gnawed off a strip. Gnashing it between his teeth, he moistened his pallet with the last swig of water from his canteen, drawing the bitter taste of the root across his tongue. It wasn’t the best tasting breakfast, but it would provide him with the energy he needed for his task-or so he thought.

He yawned and shook his head, fighting off the impulse to close his eyes. He couldn't understand it. Why was he finding it so difficult to stay awake? He had endured the boredom and sleeplessness of a night watch countless times without the slightest urge to sleep. It must be this infernal sickness, he convinced himself.

He looked over to his thresher. Its sleepy eyelid opened slightly, revealing the blood-red inner lid covering its black slit-shaped pupil. It was deep in dream. Still, Triton knew Dagger, his trustworthy dragon, would jump to life at his command.

Triton stared at Dagger for a long time feeling his arms and legs growing heavier and heavier. His eyelids were like lead weights-his breathing slow. He could no longer fight it. He was beaten by the fatigue of his illness.

“Maybe just a short rest,” he whispered to himself. Then he fell asleep.

* * * * *

Scraaaawk... Scraaaawk...

Dagger's ear-shattering cries echoed off the cliff walls. Triton was blasted into consciousness; his eyes opening to a bright blur.

He rubbed his face and listened to the deep wail of horns announcing the Lord Matriarch’s arrival penetrating the shrieks of his dragon.

Burooom! Burooom!

When Triton pulled his fists away from his eyes, he saw the huge majestic gossamer. Its giant wings were splayed out as it scooped the unpredictable cliff winds.

He sprang to his feet only to find himself dropping back to his knees to keep from falling unconscious. His leg armor clapped against the hard rock. His head felt as if it had been hit by a thorgon's mace. Every sensation seemed to be exaggerated ten fold. His joints were sore, and his stomach felt as though a steal blade was turning inside. The sound of his dragon’s warning cries, the scratching of its large clawed toes into the rock, and the deep wail of distant horns all melded together to echo loudly inside his head.

He peered at his helmet only a few dagrons from his face. It teetered in a small fissure. As it swayed, it sent brilliant beams of sunlight off its golden surface stabbing into his eyes. His body locked; his muscles tensed as every ounce of energy became concentrated into one spasmodic heave. A wash of white foam and blood mixed with his evening meal hurled onto the sloping escarpment.

He wiped the froth from the corner of his mouth then climbed to his feet, using his dragon’s leg for support.

The Lord Matriarch was nearly past him. He could just make out the large red flag mounted at the rear of her golden saddle. It rippled in the wind from the gentle rowing motion of the gossamer’s wings.

He was supposed to fly down ahead and escort her to the grand western entrance to the kingdom.

Attempting to pick up his helmet, he fought to keep the shiny undulating dome shape in focus. But even that simple task seemed beyond his capacity. He watched helplessly as the helmet rolled down the sloped top of the mountain spire after he clumsily knocked it with his knuckles.

“Damn!” he expelled in a long agonized howl, followed by, “Dagger!” in a commanding yet fatigued voice.

Dagger crouched in response, keeping his left wing slightly outstretched to avoid knocking his rider over.

Triton groped the saddle, fighting to reach his familiar handholds. His joints burned, and he struggled to lift his body over the seat. With every ounce of energy he could muster, he pulled himself to the top of the saddle and tossed his leg over the other side.

Dagger turned his head listening for the metallic clanking of clasps on the anchor-belt. Triton fumbled with the thick metal locks unable to sense the hook and clamp between his gloved fingers. He whipped his gloves off and searched to find the locks once again.

The Lord Matriarch soared past, her gossamer’s wingtips nearly touching a mountain pillar peeking through the fading morning mist lingering in the shadowy depths of the maze of cliffs.

Triton’s heart raced. He had failed to lead the Lord Matriarch’s entourage as mandated by the king. He fought to lock his clamps as he watched two more gossamers fly by carefully making the turn just below his mountain post. His vision cleared for a moment, and he could just make out three passengers per dragon. That was six servants or bodyguards along with the many provisions they carried with them.

Triton fumbled with the last lock wanting desperately to send his dragon into flight, but he knew it would be foolish not to lock down all four clamps of his anchor-belt. Triton was so incredibly fatigued; he feared he might not be able to control Dagger’s aggressive nature.

He snapped the last of his belt-locks in place and looked toward the entourage. Rittan had assumed the position of escort farther down the passage. With a quick jerk of Dagger’s reins, feeling too week and disoriented to send a proper physical command, he yelled, “Dive!”

Dagger dove, releasing a flood of controlled energy surging from his winged arms and muscular legs that nearly caught Triton off guard.

Triton hugged the front of his saddle, feeling his anchor-belt taut around his waist. Dagger kept his wings locked in close to his body, allowing gravity to generate his speed. Triton felt his fingers slip and nausea return as tears spilled from his eyes to be pulled away in a torrent of wind. But their descent was quick, ending in no more than a heartbeat as Dagger unfurled his full sixty-two dagron wingspan to cup the air and send them in a quick climb back to the level of the procession of gossamers.

Two more threshers soared over Triton to fall into positions at the rear of the third gossamer. Each soldier held a long spear and a large round shield with a silhouetted dragon emblazoned on it. It was Leo and Omar, two of Antheon’s finest guardians.

Normally Triton could pick out individuals by recognizing the distinctive hexagonal patterning on their dragon’s outstretched wings, but now his eyesight was so blurry he could only make out fuzzy shapes and colors. Still, he knew it was them as he remembered they had been assigned to the rear position during an early briefing.

Unable to muster the strength to pull back on the reins, Triton instead kicked his boot-heals into Dagger’s sides. He hoped it would be enough to signal his dragon to stay to the rear. Triton was far too weak to control all the maneuvers of the flight.

Dagger seemed to understand, and he kept several wingspans back from the two gossamers. Feeling assured that his dragon would hold a position at the rear; Triton lowered his head onto his hands still tightly griping the front-lip of his saddle.

He filled his lungs with the dewy morning air then relaxed to become more in tune with the bobbing motion of Dagger’s flight. Everything would be fine, Triton assured himself. Rittan was leading the procession and two of Antheon’s finest guardians held watch at the back. Surely the king would understand once it was explained that he had been stricken ill.

He closed his eyes feeling his energy slowly returning with every new breath.

It was certainly a strange sickness, he thought. Maybe it was something he had eaten. His joints still felt like rusty hinges and his stomach like he had eaten a bramble shrub, but his dizziness was slowly subsiding.

His senses also seemed to be growing more acute as well. He could feel the slight temperature variances between light and dark as they passed by long running bands of sun and shadow from the taller cliff spires.

The winds suddenly twisted, buffeting Triton with several brisk punches from his right side. Then a much cooler wind took over. Dagger suddenly dropped into an unexpected dive and turned, making Triton lurch up and look around.

The procession was heading into the shadowy underpasses leading to the southwest. He blinked his tired eyes. Where was Rittan taking them? If he followed the opening to the left beyond the overhangs they would eventually pass over the lowlands facing Craven Bay, but it was an unusual path that would add more time to the Lord Matriarch’s already lengthy journey.

When Rittan drove them even further into the shadowy depths, Triton reached for his shield. The passages Rittan was directing them down were far too dangerous for the enormous wings of a gossamers, and the many mountainous archways that spanned from cliff to cliff made it impossible for them to rise to a safer height.

Triton leaned over reaching for his wrist-crossbow. Two arrows suddenly pounded into his shield, sending out an ear-piercing chime.

Whoosh, thunk...

Another arrow came whistling past his ear to bounce off Dagger’s scaly neck. Triton crouched, covering his back with his large round shield. He couldn't see his attacker but by the force of the arrows he knew he couldn't be too far behind.

Managing to direct a surge of energy to his arm, he yanked on Dagger’s reins and drove him to the right. As he did, he peered out from beneath his shield to see two dark riders zip past. Dagger’s wings were cupped and pulled into a narrow V-shape swinging Triton close to the canyon wall. The rock face rushed by in a blur. Using Dagger’s momentum, Triton pulled the reins, guiding his mount back in an arch through a narrow opening between the canyon wall and a tall blocky spire. When he leveled up, Triton nearly dropped the reigns.

Demon riders on black gorgonon dragons winged through the air. The Lord Matriarch had some powerful enemies. A good thirty lags ahead of him, they closed in on Leo and Omar. Triton lifted his arm taking careful aim on one of the creatures, ignoring the pain still burning in his joints and stomach.

His vision began to blur again, but he shook it off. “Concentrate,” he shouted at himself.

The highly polished armored headpiece Dagger wore suddenly turned a fiery red. Triton tucked himself under his shield, inadvertently sending his arrow to the rocky canyon floor. A curtain of orange and yellow flames enveloped dragon and rider. Sharp, hot tendrils coiled around the shield burning Triton's unprotected fingers. Dagger roared; more from anger than pain, as his scaly covering was impervious to fire.

An oily-black gorgonon swooped over Triton, trying to rip him from his mount; its giant claw pounding into his shield, engraving three deep gouges through its middle.

Triton was crushed for an instant, the wind knocked from him. He gasped for breath and watched as Dagger returned the volley with a well-placed breath of fire to the gorgonon’s underbelly. The gorgonon turned and dropped to protect itself and avoid a collision with a low mountain bridge. As it did, just a few lags ahead of him, Triton readied another bolt for his crossbow. While aiming, he saw, over the horned head of the gorgonon’s demon rider, Leo and his dragon descending in a swirling mass and Omar being torn from his mount and tossed onto the jagged rocks below.

Triton fought against the pain in his arm, clutching the handgrip of his crossbow and pulling the bowstring taut. It snapped into place, and he slipped in a fresh arrow and pulled the trigger.

The bolt fired straight and true, slipping through the narrow seam between the demon’s shoulder and back-armor. The demon flinched and roared. It turned to look back at Triton with glowing red eyes. A sense of fear washed over him. Thoughts of falling, being hit with a poisoned arrow, or crushed and burned by a gorgonon suddenly entered his mind. Triton had heard of the fabled demons and their ability to reach into a person’s mind, but never believed any of it was true. He always lived in the moment allowing his adrenaline to kick him through his most perilous moments. But then something else, deeper, more telling, opened up to him. A vision, as if snatched from the demon unexpectedly: that of a grand army of demons, a sky filled with gorgonons, and troops of thorgons and phantoms marching across the land.

The vision faded as abruptly as it had come. It seemed the demon had been taken by surprise. Somehow Triton had been able to pull from the demon’s mind a vision of the future.

The demon goaded its steed, flying swiftly ahead to join two other riders who had already taken down one of the giant winged gossamers and were heading to the next.

The gossamers were no match for the stealthy gorgonons. The gossamers, their hide a tan leather, teeth made for chewing plants, and long bony hooves for traversing sand were designed for the northern desert regions. Unable to breath fire, their only defense was their ability to soar higher than any other dragon. They were great for long journeys but a poor choice for battle. Still no one had expected a swarm of demon riders to set up an ambush.

The narrow passage opened into a large basin with several long waterfalls pouring like unspooling ribbons into a lake far below. It was the opportunity Aurora needed to escape high into the sky.

Triton kicked his boot-heals into Dagger’s sides.

He watched helplessly as two of the demon riders flanked the gossamer behind the Lord Matriarch’s dragon. They spun heavy lead balls high over their heads then flung them at the wings of the gossamer.

The three riders shot arrows at the demons in retaliation. Several bounced off the demon’s shields, and those that stuck into the gorgonons' black hide did little to stop their advancements.

Each of the heavy lead balls twisted around the ends of the gossamer’s long wings, pulling the delicate membrane into the thin rigid bone that formed the wing’s leading edge. The gossamer was quickly overcome by the weight. Unable to lift its wings, it plummeted to the lake far below.

The Lord Matriarch was the only one left. Rittan guided her higher above the distant waterfalls. His thresher beat its wings four times to gain the same height the Lord Matriarch’s gossamer made in one.

Triton locked in another arrow, doing all he could to keep his weakened body balanced between each of Dagger’s ferocious wing beats. As he gained on the demon rider trailing the pack, Dagger arched his long neck then drew it straight to expel another huge pillar of flame into the gorgonon’s abdomen. The beast curled in pain as flecks of seething flame torched its black leathery skin. No longer able to continue its pursuit, it dove in a smooth spiral down toward the cool water below.

Dagger continued his climb, forcing his poised muscular body closer to the other two gorgonons with every beat of his wings.

Aurora was said to be a cunning warrior who had outwitted many attacks on her homeland of Ambergale. She was strong, fast, and easily smarter than most who had attempted to stand up to her. But now, sitting on the back of a gossamer dragon, she was outmatched and outnumbered.

Triton held out his weakened arm, finding it increasingly difficult to hold the weight of his wrist-crossbow steady. Just as he had managed to match Dagger’s pounding rhythm, Dagger would twist, thrusting his massive body left or right against the churning cliff winds.

Aurora cut down the pole of her large red flag with a single swing of her sword, sending it looping wildly toward her pursuers. One of the gorgonons twisted, dodging the obstacle. The other grabbed hold of it with its massive clawed paws. The large flag rippled and twisted around the beast’s neck and arm. It quickly became knotted around one of the dragon’s hind legs, binding its limbs together. A moment later the dragon tore it apart. Still, it was enough to slow the demon down, giving Aurora one less pursuer to worry about.

Triton slipped by the slowed gorgonon, saving his arrow for the swifter demon rider.

As they approached the uppermost lip of the basin wall, Rittan turned to keep from smashing into the mountainside. The clear blue of the sky, just over the ridge, suddenly turned into a black cloud of gorgonon dragons. Triton counted at least seven heading straight for Aurora and him. Two broke off at either end of the mass, while three others bounded toward them. The other two flapped their wings to hover above the base of the highest ridge, directly in Aurora's path.

Triton fired his arrow at the demon still giving chase to the Lord Matriarch. Filled with disappointment and consumed with frustration, he watched as his arrow bounced off the demon’s armor. The other three intercepting gorgonons were upon him the moment after. They slipped around the demon rider just ahead of him to blast a firestorm in his face. Triton managed to whip his shield around in front of him to block the monstrous wall of fire. The billowing plume lapped at his hair and boots and heated his shin-armor with a blazing intensity. Then, with heavy pounding strikes, a rapid succession of arrows riddled his shield through the flames. A bone-jarring punch from one of the gorgonon’s massive clawed paws followed, ramming Triton backward-flinging his shield into the air. Triton laid back helpless, reeling in pain, and he began to black out.

Dagger leveled out over the open basin just above the ridge with Triton’s body hanging upside-down to the right of the saddle.

Triton peered through eye-slits, his consciousness wavering as he watched the macabre assault transpire. The two gorgonons that split off to either side had arced around to grab the gossamer’s outstretched wings with their clawed paws. As they tore into the fragile membrane of each wing, the gossamer wailed a distressed, gurgling cry. The two demons hovering just above the ridge, flung a large net over the Lord Matriarch. In moments, the gossamer was pinned on the rocky flat near the cliff edge.

The two hovering riders joined the pursuing demon, who had landed near the tail-end of the gossamer. Five gorgonons surrounded the defeated beast, creating a nightmarish wall of black flapping wings and claws.

Dagger drifted lower, becoming weaker with each flap of his wings, but before he had dropped below the lip of the ridge, Triton saw the demons dismount to retrieve their prize.

Aurora was no match for five demon riders twice her size. She cut herself out of the netting then stumbled and fell across the tangled mesh as her gossamer tossed and failed beneath. Unable to find a proper footing, she tumbled further loosing her sword. The demons wasted no time. Two of them grabbed her arms. Another cut off her head. The nauseating image of the Lord Matriarch’s head with her long red hair dropping to the ground became forever burned into Triton’s consciousness.

Triton hung from his saddle, lifelessly bobbing from side to side as his thresher’s flight slowed. His throbbing hand knocked into something sticking from Dagger’s side. He forced a weak glance toward the object, feeling his head growing heavy with the settling of blood. It was an arrow protruding from beneath one of Dagger’s scales. He grabbed onto it. Using the weight of his body, he swung against Dagger’s gentle wing strides, prying it loose. It slipped out easily, and he could see the tip was laced with poison-the wooden shaft still wet beyond the bloodied tip.

Dagger suddenly dove, spinning wildly toward the lake far below. Triton gripped onto his packs at the back of his saddle, his body now upright to Dagger’s downward spin.

Triton’s belt-clamps bent, nearly giving way under the immense strain. Dagger, delirious from the drug that had struck him earlier, began to tumble head over tail. For a moment, Triton saw the lake rising swiftly at him with Dagger’s huge body in a curled mass above. In the next instant, as the roll continued, Dagger’s wings opened, cupping the air just enough to slow them before they impacted the water.

* * * * *

Dagger lay in a heap in knee-deep water near the lake’s edge-one wing splayed out across the water the other folded up and curled in against his body with Triton’s head hanging helplessly beneath the rippling waves.

Triton drank in several lungfuls of the cold water, coughing and gagging as he struggled to unlock his belt-clamps. Pounding furiously, with what little resolve he had left, he managed to release the locks. His body slid down to splash into the water beneath Dagger’s outstretched wing. He lay there for a moment, allowing the water to cool his burns, thinking he would have been better off if he had just let himself drown. He had failed as a guardian and had single-handedly dismantled the strength of Antheon’s military might in the eyes of Ambergale. His mind raced through all the possible outcomes this incident would create once word of it reached the king. Cries of conspiracy would surely deafen any attempt to explain the truth. Demon riders had been more myth than reality-spoken of only in stories that had survived from ages past. No one would believe they had been the attackers.

Triton lay on his back, holding his head above the water on bent elbows beneath the shade of Dagger’s wing. With his face wrapped by the rippling current and his ears below the water’s edge, he could hear the muffled thundering waterfall’s steady rage. Then he heard something else. A heavy splashing and thumping that was becoming ever louder. The fallen demon rider, Triton remembered. It was coming for him.

Too weak to grab another arrow and clip it into his crossbow, Triton sucked in a lungful of air and dropped his head below the water.

He relaxed his face and body, allowing his head and limbs to drop to the lake bottom. Playing dead wasn’t the option he would have preferred, but since he was in no condition to fight or run, he didn't have much of a choice. He just hoped the demon was not looking to take his head as a trophy.

The heavy footfalls resonated through the rushing water. It was a steady determined stride that pounded the lake bottom with the weight of a huge creature laden with armor and heavy weapons.

Triton’s heart raced faster with each successive thump he heard. He felt as though his heart would burst from his chest when he saw the hellish beast’s muscular blackish-red leg and clawed foot, looking more dragon like than human, as it churned the water just in front of Dagger’s limp wing. He peered through his eyelashes being careful not to betray himself with movement.

The beast pushed Dagger’s wing aside with its left arm and the weight of its body. The water was suddenly pressed downward and Triton felt a strange energy wash his face dry. Somehow the water was pressed into a crater around the creature never touching any part of it.

A wretched smell stung his nose. He saw the sharp black claws of the creature's three-fingered hand. Then the beast leaned down, and Triton got a close look at its ungodly face.

Dark red skin clung tightly to its features, revealing every dip and curve that formed its wide skull. Two dark horns reached out from either side to snake up and over with their points curling skyward. Eyes, burning red specks firmly held at the centers of two black voids, stared intensely through the clear rippling water with flaring nostrils forming an upside-down V-shape above exposed teeth perpetually locked in a hideous grin.

The sight nearly made Triton jump. The creature was said to be the embodiment of pure evil that could kill its prey from fright alone. Remembering the spell the demon had cast upon him with a mere glance, Triton knew better than to look the creature in the eyes.

The hellish beast broke its gaze and reached over its left shoulder with its right hand. At that moment, small dots of flickering white light appeared in front of Triton. They fluttered and moved about. The demon’s motion seemed somehow slowed by this, as if time were being lengthened for Triton to saver his last moments-or maybe it was a heightened awareness to allow him to react for a second chance at life. Either way, Triton found himself unable to move, locked in his death pose, praying the demon would lose interest in him if it thought he was dead.

The creature tore something from its shoulder and tossed it into the water beyond the magical concave bowl it created. The object floated for a moment before sinking. It was the arrow Triton had shot. As it sank with a trailing black cloud of blood swirling off the tip, the demon let out an angry growl, and then slid its arm back down to its side in a slow, methodical movement.

Triton kept his eyes trained on a row of small animal skulls lining the creature’s belt and held his breath against the stench. He still felt his only chance, in his weakened condition, was to play dead.

The creature drew its hand from its side, bringing with it the glint of a long sword. It raised the blade, the sharpened edge threatening imminent death. It was then, Triton realized playing dead was not going to work.

Just as he was about to make a desperate break for cover beneath Dagger’s wing, a distant, muffled shout groaned through the magical bubble surrounding the creature. The demon stood steadfast, ignoring the plea, but the shout persisted, repeating the command. The demon reluctantly turned away from Triton, paused for a moment, and then stomped toward the distant voice.

The water, once again rose to its natural height flooding around and above Triton’s head. Triton lifted himself on bent arms and gasped for a breath of fresh air, then turned to face the retreating demon keeping only his eyes and ears above the water’s edge.

White clouds of misty water rained down to the left of the demon from two long waterfalls. They splashed and foamed with a thundering roar that was amplified by the rocky canyon wall. Triton could see the invisible bubble revealed around the demon as the mist warped around it. From where the water was unnaturally bent into a crater, below the demon, the mist curved over the rest of it above. Looking at the demon’s back, Triton saw that it carried an orb on a staff attached to its armor. Inside the orb, a black cloud rolled and twisted with glints of blue lightning dancing around its edge.

Rittan stood tall in the distance, his armored frame a hazy image through the waterfall’s mist, reflecting beams of morning sun.

The shadowy figure’s voice broke through the steady clapping of splashing water. “Mordoc! Leave now. Your work is done here.”

A chill ran down Triton’s spine. Now clear, he could hear that the man was not Rittan. His voice was deep and raspy, unafraid of the much larger beast’s imposing figure standing before him. Triton was almost certain he recognized the voice: the stern gruffness demanding respect, the subtle tones masterfully balanced through inflections that compelled one to obey-not by fear but by the need to gain respect from him.

Triton was gifted at reading a person’s intentions: knowing their sounds, the rhythmic pattern of a person’s gait, shallow breathing, nervous ticks, and the like. It always gave a visitor away before he could see them with his eyes. But this time Triton was confused. How could it be? No swords were drawn between the two, no hint of defense, only that of a command and reluctant obedience.

The man, a good third shorter than the beast, pointed the demon toward the gorgonon dragon patiently waiting several lags away. The demon bowed its horned head and sloshed through the water toward its dragon.

The hazy figure watched as the demon climbed up the gorgonon’s thick muscular shoulder and strapped itself onto its saddle. Then the gorgonon leapt from the water, unfurling its black wings to grab the twisting winds. In a quick succession of wing flaps, the black monster climbed into the air.

Triton continued to study the mysterious figure. He sauntered slowly through the water to reveal himself to be the person Triton had guessed him to be. Prodious, The exalted commander of Antheon’s army.

Triton was shocked. It was the one time he wished his senses had been wrong.

Prodious’ long black hair twisted and danced in the wind from the gorgonon’s wings, his ceremonial red cape billowing as it cupped the air with its heavily soaked fringe locked onto the water.

“I’m afraid your going to have a lot of explaining to do when we get back to the palace Triton,” said Prodious, his words spoken through a mocking smile framed by a black mustache and short beard banded by two gray swathes.

He laughed then slipped past Triton, splashing water in his face as he dragged his cape over him. He climbed onto Dagger’s saddle sitting sideways, so he was perched above Triton.

Triton tried to speak, but all that came out was a slur of incomprehensible words. His body had become weak again from the combination of illness and the tremendous blow he had endured.
Prodious stroked his beard and smiled. “You haven’t been drinking any of Morton’s brew while on duty have you?”

He leaned back and grabbed Triton’s water canteen and opened it, smelled the spout in a mock gesture, then hefted it in his gloved hand. Another smile broke across his face as he stared down at Triton tipping the canteen upside-down. “You didn’t save any for me.”

His expression grew serious, more analytical, as he looked down at Triton who was struggling just to keep his head above water.

“Most would have been out cold with the dose you got,” he added. Then he dropped the canteen in the rippling water next to Triton’s bobbing head.

Poison, thought Triton.

As the realization hit him, he saw three thresher dragons soar down from above. More guardians from Antheon had arrived only to discover the aftermath of what had happened.

Then it all made sense to him, but it was too late. Blackness shrouded his vision and pulled him into a poison-induced sleep.