The Sea of Cinders <Ashlands>
Ash. The powdery residue of matter that remains after burning. The deathlike grayness of a pallor suggestive of death. The residue of something destroyed. The is symbolic of penance, regret, and remose. That which a Dragoness left in her wake.
If anything, the sea of cinders that the ashlands are composed of remain a bleak and desolate place; a place where the land is fertile, yet where nothing will grow as if life wanted to take root in the soil again but was denied by something far more powerful. A place of deafening quiet and despondency that has little equal within either the rest of the Wildlands or Fastheld itself. Even the Valley of Blades, a place of utter slaughter and loss of life, fails to compare with the bleak nature - and very essence - of what remains of the vast ocean of endless nothing.
Even the sky seems beset with cinder, for while the ash is settled and heavy upon the ground, the setting sun fails to hold the same elegance that it should, as even that canvas had been marred by the events of what unfolded across this place, and within the dark and evil forest that once stood.
Yet the Ashlands are not totally without life, for amidst the endless portrait of death and ruin that is painted across the horizon, a beacon of power remains: Val'sharax the Arbitrator, the Crimson Drake.
Laid out in what one would call the "sphynx" position, the red Dragon exists within the Ashlands as a powerful image indeed; a sovereignty of ancient authority against a backdrop of consummate devastation. Metallic red upon bleak silvery-gray. The radiance from his scales serves to bathe the immidiate area in soft rose, and yet for all of his size it seems curious that neither ash nor cinder has been displaced by his very real stature. No tracks flow behind him. No dust taints his form. No depression warps the ground beneath him.
His wings remain furled across his back, draping him in a leather blanket of dark scarlet that serves to dampen some of the radiance of his form. His tail, coiled around his right flank, twiches with an apathy of boredom and discontent, yet the wedge-shaped head upon that slender neck offer nothing but a display of keen interest, his amber eyes at once both filled with the crystal depths of intelligence and the endless substratum of wisdom and malice. Of channeled power and contained wrath. Yet the effect known as Drakesfear - that near magical aura of terror that permiates from a creature such as he - seems tempered somehow. Dulled to an ambience of quiet caution, but not outright fear.
"You're late." the Dragon notes, his voice tempered in the waters of general hospitality, yet offered with indifference, lacking none of that commanding presence regardess.
It turned out to be surprisingly hard to track the dragon. Surely it wasn't a matter of Val'sharax being too /small/. Hardly. It was more tied into to the Ashlands being so big. That, and there were minimal 'tracks' to follow either, at least in the traditional sense. It could be more accurate to say that the ranger had been wandering, hoping to get lucky. "There," Vhramis mutters to Ashlynn and gestures at the seated dragon, his normally dark clothing smeared with grey and white with ash.
His eyes are locked on the drake, his awe of the creature not diminished in the slighest by his past meetings. In fact, the bleak surroundings only seem to make Val'sharax more magnificent in comparison. He hesitates, not moving forward just yet, forcing himself to look to his travelling companion to check her status.
Ashlynn's whites and earth-toned leathers are forced into even more neutral tones by the land through which they had journeyed, her already pale hair's hues dulled into near-indecipherability from that which they travel in. Her manner is similarly subdued, less awed as simply numbed by the bleakness of the surroundings, her gaze rising to meet the drake's visage before quickly turning away with a swallow.
"Beg pardon...m'lord," she answers, hesitating over the habitual title, uncertainty and apprehension in the look she sends Vhramis. She takes a breath, but then lets it out again waveringly, without words, at a loss as to how to continue.
"So the good Kalath'aria senses no Composers upon Sho'drakar. How fortunate for us that such keen-eyed custodians stand vigil over our gates."
The Red Drake seems not to speak to the recent arrivals at that, it seems, but more to himself. His gaze, it should be noted, remains clearly set upon the Aegis of Fastheld; his snout and body all pointed towards the City-State as if watching event there unfold from afar. Ears perk and fold back, his tail twitches and falls dead once more, and after a few moments of relative silence the surveillance of Fastheld is finally broken to permit amber orbs to direct their scrutiny upon the two Fastheldians that are now within his range of attention.
"Ah, you brought your Ashlynn Birch with you. Perhaps THAT explains the delay. Still, do I detect uncertainty in your purpose?" Val'sharax tilts his head to the left in a gesture of almost feline curiosity. "We shall see. You're lost, Vhramis Wolfsbane. Fastheld is to the south."
"I'm not lost," Vhramis replies in quiet protest, the words said to Ashlynn as much as the dragon. Perhaps more so. She's certainly more approachable, even on her worst days. He clears his throat and turns back towards Val'sharax, taking a steadying breath to settle his nerves, and help tide the quaking of his legs, and moves to approach. "I was seeking you, Lord," he answers, eyes tracing along the powerful form, before he lowers his eyes to the dusty ground. "I heard the rumors that you were spotted, and... I needed to come."
Ashlynn stiffens a bit upon the drake's first direct address to them, old courier pride pricked by the implication that she had any involvement in untimeliness. Yet there is little difficulty in holding her tongue in the face of such a creature - only a habitual lift of her chin serving to remind her of the being's vastness - and she instead simply moves to step up beside Vhramis in silent and mutual support.
"Do I LOOK like a LORD to you?" The Crimson Drake abruptly snarls; the use of a Fastheldian title apparently more than enough to earn his ire. His wings flex a little from their furled position upon his back in irritation, his tail taking this opportunity to last back and forth behind the regal posture that his body remains flawlessly cast with. Yet as that tail sweeps, no cinder is displaced in its wake, nor dust kicked up from the displaced air that flees from his moving wings.
"Spare me your useless titles, Vhramis Wolfsbane, AND your pointless enigmas. Why have you left Fastheld to seek me?" The snarl is forgotten, and only level tones remain. "I sincerely doubt it was to take in the scenery with your mate."
Vhramis instinctively takes half a step back at the verbal lashing, eyes widening in a bit of alarm. "Lord in the sense of.." he begins to explain, before apparently thinking differently of it. While the Drake is certainly his better in many ways, Val'sharax likely doesn't need to hear it. Best move on. And quickly.
"Arbitrator," he begins, using his given title instead, likely sounding much more brave than he actually is as he looks to the face of the dragon. "You were spotted by soldiers soon after that rift opened in Fastheld. And the creature or man emerged from it. At least, rumors suggested you were. But I somehow knew you were here." Or he hoped. It was a long walk. "I came to ask you of it, to see if you would share you knowledge with me. And..to be so bold as to ask you if you were going to take action."
Ashlynn flinches, involuntarily gasping as she begins to wince back with Vhramis, before the incautious breath produces a coughing fit after it inhales some of the ash that floats up from their sharp motions. Turning aside, perhaps secretly grateful for the excuse to remain silent yet, she attempts to stifle the spasm with haste, even as she murmurs between coughs for Vhramis' benefit in the hopes of alleviating at least some of the tension, "Scenery...is a bit drab...maybe riverside, next time?"
Val'sharax watches Ashlynn during, and for a few moments after, the litany of reasoning that Vhramis offers to him by way of answers. A few moments of quiet in which there remains only the silence of the Ashlands, the two Fastheldians, and one Dragon. Until, that is, the crimson drake shifts that depthless gaze unto Vhramis, offering a soft incline of his head in final reply.
"Perhaps." he muses as an answer to both inquiries, "However, you ask much, and nothing is given within something of equal value being traded in return, Vhramis Wolfsbane. For this knowledge, what do you offer as barter? And..." He tilts his head to the side to look side-long upon Ashlynn once more to rumble, "Next time, the riverside."
Riverside? Vhramis glances to Ashlynn questioningly, her suggestion taking him rather off balance, the mere suggestion of scenery causing him pause, before the faintest of smiles curl his lips, and he reaches a hand to fumble for one of hers. Back to business, he returns his gaze to the large dragon, mulling over his words. "..what would you want? What do I have to offer, that you would wish to have? I can offer you information in return. Perhaps... inform you of going ons in Fastheld. But, you seem to already know much in those regards."
One last clearing of her throat, and Ashlynn takes a cautiously deeper breath before seeming to assess that everything is back to normal. When she notices the drake's regard upon her, she uncomfortably averts her gaze at first. But, between her own curiosity and the warmth of Vhramis' grip, she manages to meet it briefly, an expression of wonder stealing over her face for a moment as she examines the alien visage in more detail before the drake's last comment has her looking down again with a twitch of her lips.
"That is, of course, not for me to decide." True to his nature, the Red Dragon seems to have indulged the two Fastheldians in a game of riddle and barter, and - perhaps most importantly of all - he seems to be enjoying himself. A happy dragon is a dragon that might not eat you, after all, so this can't be a bad thing. "However, the trade of information for information regarding the events that transpire in Fastheld right now are of little interest to me. As amusing as they are."
At this point Val'sharax stirs from his previously flawless "sphynx" posture, pushing himself up and onto four legs; wings unfolding to full span with a thunderous *CRACK* of taut leather that threatens to claim the very ground from under the two Fastheldians, yet again does little to stir the ash and cinder that dominate the landscape when even the slightest of breeze could cause dust storms of hellish proportions.
"Thus, the question I submit to you is this: What DO you have to offer that I might wish to have?" he finally states, now standing on all fours, before turning to face his two smaller companions directly.
"You certainly don't make this easy," Vhramis mutters at that, only somewhat grudgingly. "I used to barter and make contracts, at one point in my life. It feels very long ago." He squeezes Ashlynn's hand at that as he attempts to find a suitable answer for the Drake's question. "I suppose the things worth it are never easy," he adds distractedly, watching the Drake stretch it's wings to it's full length appreciatively.
Ashlynn winces at the sharp sound of leather snapping to its full span, involuntarily swaying into Vhramis' side to feel the comfort of his shoulder bolstering hers as her eyes flick toward the wide expanses stretching from the drake's shoulders. "Conversation?" is her first, mumbled quip; offered instinctively to the drake's question before she clears her throat with a touch of embarrassment. "Not that I think you care much for a Fastheldian's natterings... but I do not suppose there are some things you occasionally need done that such a size and form would not lend itself graciously to?"
"Well, if my TIME were something that could be traded, I would ask for it back." Val'sharax mutters in a kind of way that doesn't quite lend itself to actual muttering, due to the fact that just about everyone can hear it. As is the intention. Refurling his wings upon his back to drape down his sides once more, the Dragon sighs. "This is FAR less amusing than it should be. I swear, you Fastheldians have fallen a long way since the days of wishing for immortality, or great weapons of unimaginable power, or the classic "Oh Great Lord Val'sharax of the ceaseless tide and far reaches of sky and land, I beseech you to vanquish my foes and grant me control of all that I survey" pact. Now I have to endure /this/. Conversation?!"
The Dragon shakes his head, sighs, and - with a swish of his tail - sits back upon his haunches, ears perking to attention as he fully regards the two Fastheldians again.
"Flattery," he notes to Ashlynn in a tone as deep as the depths of his gaze, "Is also worthless. I suppose you shall have to owe me a boon that I SHALL reclaim at some point, as the Order demands to ensure balance. Is this a reasonable trade, or must you CONTINUE to WASTE my time?"
It's not every day one is told he's not as ambitious as he should be. Or at least as he should be to be a source of amusement. Vhramis blinks up at the dragon and frowns slightly. "But you were just sitting here," he protests, before grimacing at that. No sense in /trying/ to irritate the Dragon any further than it already is. "We're tired from walking for the past several days. Please forgive us if we're not as... sharp as we could be," he asks, by way of apology. Or as least explaination.
He sighs and glances off to the distance, confirming that, yes, there's still nothing there, and turning his attention back to the far more interesting sight of the Drake. "I'll offer you my service, then," he states with a small nod in agreement. "If you find there's something you need my aid in, I will help you."
Oh, that manages to strike a chord in Ashlynn, who had grown up under the on-and-off-again patronization of near half a dozen elder brothers. "Well, we were not going to offer up the light of our beings - who knows what anyone would do with such things anyway - for just a fistful of information anyway," she retorts in the heat of the moment, her jaw set stubbornly at an angle that harks fully ten years back. "Perhaps if you added the overthrow of Zolor Zahir and the revelation of the Church as arrogant frauds, *then* we have something to bargain over."
The look that Val'sharax places upon Ashlynn is as sharp as the many rows of pristine aciculate teeth that rest within that vast jawline of his, and twice as deadly. His wings *flex* once to full spread, standing to attention as a "V" in relation to his body, tail lashing with cold malice and intent as he lowers his neck, bringing his head dangerously close to the Fastheldian pair.
"Fool." he snarls, "That is HARDLY a revelation worth bargaining with."
Well, this is going well. It's almost like talking to Trayon when he had just woken. Vhramis slides in front of Ashlynn, which, unfortunately, puts himself even closer to the Drake's head. And many teeth. "Please. We didn't come to fight. We've dealt in the past, and there's no reason we need to be enemies," he states to the Drake, straightening.
Ashlynn blinks, her entire form stiff with a wholly visceral fear in the face of such a display. But, perhaps, it is simply too much - such terror as the drake induces simply cannot be fully appreciated on a conscious level, and the erstwhile courier continues with the vague distance of someone currently disconnected from the rest of her logical reasoning - particularly that which is involved with self-preservation - "But then the overthrow of Zolor is? Perhaps you can throw the church's overthrow in free of charge, then, since it seems to be such a trifle." Bargaining the drake had looked for, and bargaining is what he gets, even if the other party has briefly taken leave of her sane senses.
"Fight? We are not fighting. We are not worthy of such grandiose labels as 'enemies'," she snorts before her own words finally sink in, and she finally falls into a sort of stunned silence, paler than the thin layering of ash upon her can account for.
"The Church of True Light is doing a good enough job of destroying itself." Val'sharax notes, his wings shifting from a "V" to a "T" as they fold together behind himself, before he himself takes a half-step backwards to settle back upon his haunches once more, tail swaying lightly abaft his metallic crimson form, ears folding back against his head.
The snarl, the ominous rumble, the premontions of the inferno of Draconian fire and the death that would soon follow, all now fade away into nothing and - again - the Drake adopts that almost amiable tone of voice. "They suspect everyone of heresy," he notes, using his left claw to illustrate his statement, "Yet fail to see the sheer irony of that which Halo demonstrated. Regardless, what did I tell you both about flattery?"
The ranger nearly stumbles as the tension abruptly breaks. Apparently he won't be facing death just yet. "But are they right? They named what emerged a threat. Such a thing wasn't unsuspected," he adds to the discussion, trying to steer it somewhere towards what he had originally planned. "But we know nothing about the creature. Aside from the fact that it apparently glows, and it's tall, as rumor states."
"Yet you cannot deny that we would make very poor hors d'oeuvres," Ashlynn grumbles, looking perplexed and woefully off-balance after the two extremes of heart-stopping terror and breath-stealing relief, and a most bemusing admonition from a being several orders of magnitude larger and better equipped for trouncing than they are. "The church points their fingers at everyone, but that does not deny simple blind luck in some of their accusations," she begins to recover, joining her voice with Vhramis'.
Val'sharax sighs, finally, and raises his shout towards the inky depths of the heavens above; paying special attention, one might note, to the four moons above as they stalk the sky behind dark puffy clouds. His wings twitch once, and after looking back upon those that stand before him, the Drake - in all of his metallic crimson glory - relates a tale:
"He is named Marrokamir," the Keeper of Names begins, his voice a dull rumble as he continues, "One of the Old Ones that once shared Sho'drakar with us, long before the Cataclysm. We name them Composers for they weaved the song of much that exists today. THIS one you speak of, however, does not belong here and already disrupted the balance upon this very night."
A pause and a cold smirk follow, "Is he powerful? To you, yes. To one such as I? No. Though his kind as they exist today and my own have clashed before - and be thankful you will never see such a collision of power - this one poses little threat to the Drakes that remain. He is a mere curiosity, and a taint upon the Order that cannot be easily removed."
Vhramis slowly steps aside from blocking Ashlynn, the danger apparently over. Or passed as much as can be. "Composers? Sho'drakar?" He glances to the woman beside him questioningly, as if she may have an inkling of what's being spoken of. "Was this an ancient city?" he asks, looking back to the Drake. He shakes his head, pushing past the thousand questions that seem to build upon each other, trying to stay on the point. "Why can it not be easily removed?"
Ashlynn touches Vhramis' arm, wordlessly conveying her appreciation of his instinct to protect her, no matter how futile the gesture. "Why has he come here?"
"The same reason you came here." The Crimson Drake purrs to Ashlynn as he pushes himself back onto all fours, his tail sweeping around in an arc as he move half-circle around, evidently taking this as his moment to leave, forsaking the further questioning of one Vhramis Wolfsbane with a cold smile and a knowing glint within the depthless gaze of his amber eyes. "Because he had no choice."
And so, leaving neither trace nor mark upon the delicate ground beneath him, Val'sharax the Arbitrator takes his graceful leave having traded enough information for the amusement given to him upon this cold night. In his wake?
Questions answered, and questions raised.
Return to Season 4 (2006)