The Wizards of Pangea Chapters

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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 http://wizardsofpangea.blogspot.com/
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.