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DEVOURING ANGEL

Book Two of the Elixir Trilogy
 
Darren Ryding
 
 

 

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
 
- African proverb.
 
 
 
Prologue
 
Even after twenty thousand years, no one was certain whether machines had souls.  Probe Seven, however, liked to imagine that he had one.  If he did not, he was still happy to have an intellect, a sense of curiosity, and a love of learning.  If this did not constitute a soul, he often thought, then he probably did not need one.  After all, learning and exploring was the love of his life.  It was literally the reason for his existence.
         The world spread out below him, for all its potential dangers, was something that he could not help but love, for it was another reason for his very existence.  It was his duty to observe it.  After a whole year of silent, hidden observation, he had learned to love its many inhabitants.  He loved its billion Humans, with the exception of those that were petty and cruel.  He loved its hundred thousand Dragons, with the same exceptions.  He loved the many trillions of creatures that crawled and swam and flew and knew nothing better.  And, perhaps, he could learn to love the only ones he had to fear.  Perhaps that day would come.
         For today, however, Probe Seven was happy to watch the world awaken.
         Thousands of kilometres below, the edge of the morning sunlight was sweeping across the surface of the planet Haloken, peeling back the shadow of night.  For the past few minutes, it was mostly the ocean that fell under its relentless advance; yet even here there were signs of intelligent life and activity.  On a sailboat near the equatorial centre of the Armestraung Ocean, a small band of Ixthalion fishermen were already awake, enjoying their mugs of steaming beverage when the sunrise greeted them like the face of an old friend.  Far to their north, a squadron of nine Skywatch Dragons were gliding below the speed of sound as the hazy border of sunlight caught up with them, clothing their scales from tail to head with gleaming swiftness, brightening the ocean before them with graceful slowness.  Far to the south, a team of Human researchers near the ice-jagged coast of Farasion awoke to a sunrise that glinted upon the ice like a lamp on white glass.
         On any other day, each one of these small, routine activities would have held Probe Seven’s interest for considerably more than a millisecond.  Not today.  This day marked the sixth anniversary of the most momentous - the most shocking - event in this planet’s recorded history.  And on this day, in the place where it had all begun - where history had been born, hidden, and re-exposed in all its brilliant and terrible glory - the remembrance of those events was about to commence.
         After endless minutes, the wave of daylight flooded throughout kilometres of unfrozen land; the cliffs, beaches, forests and - finally - the freshly constructed college buildings of New Keslazhin Island.
         The Probe had no breath to gasp with, no flesh-framed eyes to widen with wonder and fascination.  Yet his body’s trillions of molecule-sized components held much, much more.  Thousands of scanning devices all diverted their attention from peripheral activities, and focused all their observational powers on this one patch of land in the midst of the sea. 
         This was the place where the Elixir had been buried so many thousands of years ago.  This was the place where it had slept, existing only as a dream, as a legend, before finally being reawakened.  The consequence of this disturbance did much more than tremble a world - it had shaken an entire galaxy.
         Your latest report fills me with wonder and pride, Hygraxil transmitted to Probe Seven over a secure, narrow Q-link.  Continue to monitor all significant mentions of the Elixir.
         Affirmative, My Lady, replied Probe Seven.  (Their true conversation was far more complex than this, but the concepts raised and formal undertones were mostly translatable in mortal terms).  Yet while I find it easy to monitor all crystal transmissions, eavesdropping upon the great majority of telepathic conversations is still an unattainable goal.
         As unattainable as it is unnecessary.  Do not allow excessive pride to cloud your duty.  You cannot possibly deposit any more dataspores into Haloken’s atmosphere without arousing the suspicion of the Moredrex and Kujiras. Your scanning network surrounds the entire planet - surely that must be sufficient for you?  You must value patience and security far more highly than you presently value curiousity.
         I understand, My Lady.  Yet I have sworn my life to your service, and utilize the gift of curiousity to the fullness of your desire.
         The fullness of my desire is to see your mission continue as long as required, not to have it halted prematurely.  My gift of curiousity to you is not to be abused for the purpose of hasty gratification.
         I concur and apologise, My Lady.
         Apology accepted, pride of my spawn.
         As daylight swept across the ocean, hundreds of Dragons could be seen soaring towards New Kesalzhin Island, many carrying equipment and Human passengers.  The festivities were well underway.
         A few hundred kilometres to the north, a medium-sized sailship belonging to the Church of the Celestial Ambassador began its slow journey towards the heart of the ocean.  Sitting around on the deck in rigid silence, their nervousness apparent even from Probe Seven’s altitude, were sixteen black-robed young Initiates.  They had come of age, and were now rehearsing a once-in-a-lifetime ritual that was nonetheless a common occurrence for the increasingly expansive Church.  Probe Seven scanned the surrounding seas to five hundred kilometres, then a thousand.  There were no signs of any Kujiras.  However, as the Probe knew all-too-well, that meant nothing.
         Fixed high in orbit, linked up to a billion microscopic dataspores that surrounded the planet, Probe Seven gazed down upon the mortal realm from the dark and dangerous heavens, watching the world turn.
Please be warned: Chapter One contains some huge spoilers for the end of Book One, Project Heavenstorm.



Part One:

Deicide



Chapter One
 
A few seconds after he awoke, Vithan Varox remembered that he was still flying.
         Sprawled out in the darkness, silken warmth covering him from head to toe, the young Sentinel Captain stretched his right arm and felt around for his drink box.  His fingertips touched the familiar hard resin of the container, warmed by the surroundings.  He hoped that the box interior was still as cool as icewater, as it had been when he had first lifted off the ground back in Lythinia.
         I know that you are off-duty, came the stately, feminine mindvoice of Squadron Leader Sabilikon, but it would do you well to choose a beverage that will have no adverse effects on your brain.  It is too late for that now.  Or too early, depending on your perspective.
         “Yes ma’am,” Vithan blurted out aloud, drowsily sarcastic.  He knew that nine densely packed metres separated his own little passenger compartment from Sabilikon’s ears, yet the officer could hear him as easily as if they were sitting face-to-face.  As Vithan spoke, his words echoed in the shallow regions of his mind, and that was what Sabilikon listened for.  “Thank you for being such a bloody sticky-beak as usual,” he added.
         Coming from someone of your profession, I would take that as the highest of compliments.
         Not bothering to stretch his body, Vithan pulled the drink box toward him with a tiny burst of psychokinesis.  He summoned a hazy light into his crystal lamp as he flipped open the lid, then rummaged past the assorted beer bottles before settling on the pineapple juice.
         “So,” he gasped, pulling the ice-cold bottle from his lips, “are we really that close?  Sorry, but I’m just too lazy to scan outside right now.”
         We are little more than half an hour before landing, stated the Squadron Leader. 
         “Really?”  Vithan could barely feel the up-and-down bobbing of turbulence, as the thick, trampoline-like support beneath him stretched in and out within the range of millimetres.  The fact he could feel this at all indicated that Sabilikon was flying more recklessly than her aristocratic tone would have suggested.  “So I slept for …”
         Six hours straight.  Which, I might add, is the first thing you have done right since take-off.
         “The first of many to come, I assure you.  Have we reached the West Coast yet?”
         We will in about twelve minutes.  Presently we are approaching the eastern border of Panument, at an altitude of seven kilometres.  There is a beautiful golden-red sunrise right behind us.  I can see the city’s towers gleaming in the glare ahead like the Sun’s own hatchlings.
         “Fine.  So you’re a better poet than I ever was.  Don’t rub it in.”
         He heard and felt a heavy rumbling all around him that lasted only a second.
         Do you want to look outside?  Sabilikon’s tone barely concealed a hint of mirth.
         “Later.”  Vithan took another sip of pineapple juice.
I seem to recall something about a gift.
         “It’s not for you, if that’s what you’re hoping for.  But if you haven’t found out what it is by now, then you’re completely ruining your reputation as a stickybeak.”
         Oh, but I value nothing more highly than your privacy!  Who is thi- … You’re spilling that stuff!
         “Sorry.”  Vithan pulled his handkerchief from his side and wiped the droplets of pineapple juice from the smooth, rubbery surface.
         As I was asking, who is the lucky recipient of this gift?
         “You’ve met her.”
         My, that does narrow things down considerably.
         “She’s rather tall,” said Vithan.  “Green eyes, long shapely neck.  A bit hip-heavy.  Much like you, except she’s a redhead.”
         That rules out Gabrielle and Tilanna, unless Tilanna has stared dyeing her hair and wearing novelty contact lenses.  And I don’t see that fashion craze coming back any time soon.  Would it be the other Squadron Leader, by any chance?
         “Right on target,” said Vithan.  “The other Squadron Leader, who soared through the ranks a lot more swiftly than you did.”
         You are always below the belt.
         Vithan chuckled at Sabilikon’s pun, and kicked outward.  “Only when I’m lazy,” he said.
          I am looking forward to her speech.
         “She’s a cracking good public speaker,” said Vithan.  “Apparently she was speaking fluent Varantuan when she was four, and she hasn’t shut up since.  And then there was her drama troupe.”
         She is usually very talkative in her own language, too, said Sabilikon, although I have noticed her becoming rather pensive of late.   
         “Yes.” 
Vithan chose not to elaborate further.  Today was to be a day both of celebration and mourning.  Sabilikon herself sounded like she was in surprisingly high spirits, considering the personal memory today was certain to evoke.
         We are passing over Panument, said Sabilikon.  Are you sure you don’t want to look?
         Vithan sighed.  “All right,” he said.  “I’ll take a peek.”
         A small hole opened up not far from Vithan’s head, flooding the darkness with golden light and a refreshing coolness.  The breeze was only slight, for the all-pervading energy shield collected and warmed the air, letting it filter in harmlessly.  Vithan wriggled forward until his jaw was leaning on the flexible lower rim of the aperture.  Facing downwards, he beheld the largest city on the planet.
         It was clear that Sabilikon was still flying seven kilometres above the surface.  Hundreds of towers, domes and monolithic business blocks sprawled below him like a strange geometric coral.  The morning sun bathed everything in a rich and shining gold, throwing jagged shadows that must have been kilometres long.  There were few clouds below to obscure Vithan’s view, but even these added to the illusion that he was looking down upon some exotic underwater environment, subtly misted over with the haze of great distance.  With his naked eyes, Vithan could make out dozens of scintillating, gnat-sized shapes floating from one structure to another – flying Dragons.
         “Do you ever get tired of views like this?” Vithan enquired.
         “Never,” said Sabilikon out aloud, easily heard over the distance.
         “Neither would I,” said Vithan.  “I should fly this route more often.”
         “You are more than welcome,” said Sabilikon.
         The lofty view of his world’s greatest city – reduced to the scale of an ant’s nest – threw a faint shadow over his sense of wonderment.  Is this how we look to the Moredrex and Kujiras? he wondered.  All the time?  After six years, he was still finding new ways of asking that same question, new ways of imagining the world through richer eyes.
         With the subject of scale clear in his mind, Vithan raised his gaze to his luggage cases on either side before him, still locked securely underneath the giant belt.  The belt, in turn, was attached to an enormous, smooth underbelly, as lightly azure as the morning sky he could barely see.  Just beyond the luggage belt, two huge scaly claws rested, pointing towards him.  Far beyond the distant curvature of the underside, to his right, Vithan caught a glimpse of the tip of a bright blue, veined wing.
         Whatever technological secrets the Colonists had once held all those thousands of years ago, Vithan doubted that any of them could measure up to the style and elegance of travelling in a Dragon’s pouch.
         “I could slow down if you wish,” said Sabilikon, lowering her long, streamlined head so that Vithan could see her emerald eye peering under her chest.  “It is not as if we are risking a late arrival.”
         “That’s fine with me,” said Vithan.
         There was a faint, oceanic whoosh as Sabilikon flapped her wings more slowly.
         “Would you like to stop at a traveller’s port?” asked Sabilikon.
         “No.  I can hold it for a few more minutes at least.  I haven’t drunk that much.”
         He wriggled forward and leaned over, bending his neck downward to look beyond the slight bulge he made in Sabilikon’s pouch, beyond the distant, daintily oscillating tip of her tail, into the topsy-turvy depths of sky and land and sunrise far behind.  So very far away back there, thousands of kilometres away, was his home country of Lythinia – the place where he grew up, the place where he lived and sometimes worked.
         This is what it meant to be a mortal.  It was all about being dwarfed by the scale of one world, to say nothing of the universe.  Even in times of joy, of peace, the truth would never leave him.  He would never forget his glimpse of the true nature of creation.
         In a twisted sort of way, that was what they were celebrating on this day.  The end of history as it had been known, the beginning of a new and fantastic and terrifying knowledge.  There was so much to celebrate, so many to mourn.      
         A vast swathe of dark blue entered the upper edge of his vision.  Vithan raised his gaze to watch the ocean approach from far beneath.
         “We shall reach New Kesalzhin in just over twenty minutes,” announced Sabilikon.
         “Take your time,” said Vithan, slowly retreating into the pouch, positioning himself so he could just peer through the opening.
 
Sabilikon’s timing was perfect.  Twenty minutes had passed before the green hills, russet cliffs and white beaches of New Kesalzhin Island spread out before Vithan.  Dozens of Dragons could be seen flying over the island’s centre, above the dozens of new structures that could be seen jutting above the forest. 
         It had been six years since he had last set foot on this island – six years since he and his friends had escaped the thunderous destruction of its predecessor.  He had been there when the island had been miraculously remade.  Against all reason, after billions of tons of debris had been ejected into the atmosphere in a blast that shook the world, the very same debris had then been sucked back into the ocean through an enormous funnel, hissing, solidifying and cooling into a wondrous new shape.  Hills, lakes, entire forests had risen out of the ground within minutes.  And, best of all, a new friend believed lost had returned to the world of the living.
         Vithan’s world, the planet Haloken – once called Telekos – had not always been left to the hands of nature and random chance.  Thousands of years ago, it had been moulded and electrolysed by countless machines, prepared with air, oceans, flora and fauna; prepared for the first Human Colonists and the wise machines that guided them.  Thus, almost anything “natural” that he could see – the trees, the oceans, the blue sky itself – had been put there by a powerful and ancient technology.  Yet the island spread out before him now – unofficially entitled New Kesalzhin Island, and soon to receive a new, official name all of its own – was the one known landmass that was truly the creation of a god.  Its very existence was a miracle.
         Within minutes, the myriad structures of the new college spun beneath him like a galaxy of marble and masonry.  Hundreds of tiny Humans and dozens of Dragons were already milling around the vast amphitheatre. 
         Vithan did not need to scan hard to locate his old friend and fellow survivor – one of the few who had fought beside him for the future of the world.  His naked Human eyes were enough.  Those vibrant red-and-blue stripes were unmistakeable, as were the three well-earned gold neckbands of a Skywatch Squadron Leader.  Alathaka, former student of Kesalzhin Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted, most beloved of Vithan’s late best friend, now a hero and icon to Dragons and Humans alike.
         On the subject of icons, Alathaka was not the only Dragon form that caught Vithan’s eye.  She was apparently conversing with two other Skywatch officers whom Vithan barely recognized.  The immense figure far behind her, however, immediately gave a solid lump to Vithan’s throat.  He would always know those gold-and-black stripes, even if they were made of gold and onyx.
         I’ll try not to cry, thought Vithan.
         “Why try to hide it?” said Sabilikon.  “People will understand.”
         “Stickybeak,” said Vithan.
         “Flatterer,” said Sabilikon.
         Far below, Alathaka looked up, and her emerald eyes locked with his across the distance.  She roared with elation.
         Vithan, my delightful little joy toy!  Come down and join us ladies!  Our ears need a nice long scratching, and you have the most experienced and accomplished hands of the entire Human species!
         Vithan chuckled.  After all her trauma, arduous training and bands of rank, she was still that silly drama student from way back.  Yet today, there was a subtly strained quality to her mindvoice.  And he knew why.
         Sorry to disappoint you, Vithan mindspoke, but right now I’m too lazy to even scratch my own ears, let alone ones that are longer than my arms.
         In that case, we’ll just rub our heads against you and purr softly.  And we’ll line up in order of rank.
         Pervert, Vithan mindspoke.
         Hypocrite, Alathaka replied.
         Vithan tried to hold his smile, trying not to worry about his old friend’s state of mind.  Just under the surface of her obvious joy and mirth, there was … something else.  Something that Vithan knew all too much about.  It always happened to her this time of the year.  And on this year of all years, on this day of all days, in this place of all places, nothing was going to make her forget.
         Vithan knew only too well how she felt.  It was all he could do to avoid drinking away the previous night.  What was that old saying by Garmatuel?  Remembrance of fallen comrades is the hero’s great curse.  Vithan would never call himself a hero.  Not out aloud.  But there once was a time when he would not have given that line much thought.  Then the world changed, and so did he.
         Sabilikon’s leisurely, spiralling dive lasted a few minutes, giving Vithan plenty of time to drink in the scenery of a newly rebuilt island college. 
         The builders and shapers had been busy over the last six years.  The architecture of New Kesalzhin College was as colourful and diverse as a well-tended garden, but was also decidedly modern in style.  Vithan recognized the jagged angles and fanning blades of the Vundivah Century movement, the spiralling domes of Danshi Revival, the stepped pyramids of Zovanihurst Wave, and New Jenihest’s towering cones hugged by titanic ribcages of curved balconies.  Life-sized statues of six Skywatch Dragon heroes sat upon each corner of a vast stone hexagon, surveying the Island and horizon beyond with eyes of burning jade or gold.  Most striking of all, however, was the new style inspired by the exotic cities of Haloken’s far-off Colonial days.  Honeycombed cylinders burst with layers and layers of flower-petal balconies; not unlike the towers Vithan had once glimpsed in historical holograms six years ago, far underground.
         The new campus was an exquisite banquet for the mind as well as the eyes.  A single Dragon could get lost here if one forgot how to fly.  Yet nothing could truly replace the College of old.  It had truly been an exquisite museum of the history of architecture, covering a full eleven thousand years.  It had been the portrait of a long age, not a mere moment.
         Almost any building with a broad, flat ceiling had dozens of Dragons and hundreds of Humans perched atop, enjoying the view from the edge.  One young female Dragon posed suggestively with one of the male Dragon statues, entwining her neck around it and rubbing her ears against its head.  Her boyfriend hovered in the air before them, rumbling with laughter.  Vithan looked away.  The likeness of that statue had been one of the hundreds of Dragons who had died defending this world, defending all who walked and flew today.  Yet Vithan was quick to smother his anger.  He remembered what he himself had been like only a few short years ago.
         As Sabilikon descended, the proudly modern towers seemed to grow and rise all around them, not unlike the magically conjured trees on this same island six years ago.  The mosaic-tiled ground grew below Vithan like dry skin under a microscope, cells all of jagged stone and autumn colour.  Seconds after the Dragoness’s hind claws touched the tiles, she leaned forward to let Vithan exit her pouch.
         Vithan stumbled around on the tiles like a sailor rediscovering his land legs, clutching his handcase as if his life depended on it.
         “Do you want to hop back in?” said Sabilikon, who had stepped back to give Vithan some room to reacquaint himself with gravity after so many hours.
         “I’m all right,” said Vithan.  “When you have my job, you get used to …”
         He froze as he saw the vibrant bulk of Alathaka striding toward him.
         “Change of plan,” he said.  “Let me back in!”
         “Oh no,” said Sabilikon, taking another step back.  “You’re Alathaka’s toy now.  I dare not get in her path.  No-one does.”
         “Vithan!” said Alathaka.  She gently rubbed her huge muzzle against Vithan’s torso.  Vithan affectionately rubbed his hands over the smooth scales under her hugely luminous green eye.
         “Happy Sakatoth!” said Vithan.  “How are you these days you crazy fat-arsed bimbo?”
         “I am having as much fun as a pouch full of electric eels,” said Alathaka.
         “That good, eh?”
         “You can make it even better.”  She turned her head so that Vithan could see into the long, cupped grass-blade of her ear, immaculately clean and gleaming.  “Please?” she begged in her best impression of innocence.
         “Oh, all right, you oversized neurotic,” said Vithan.  He began to scratch her ear.  “After all, you technically still outrank me.  God only knows why.”
         “Mmmmm,” Alathaka purred heavily.  “You should get paid to do this.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Is your speech ready?”
         “Well, I probably don’t have to improvise.  Much.  And yours?”
         “I shall have the greatest speech of the night,” said the Dragoness.
         “My, we are modest today, aren’t we?”
         “The greatest speech of all time.  Words fit to stun the gods.”
         “Well, that’s good.”  Vithan kept on scratching.  “Keep your goals humble and realistic, and no-one will be disappointed.”
         “You never disappoint, my little joy toy.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Have you seen my statue?”
         “Your statue?  Sorry, I was too busy looking at …”  Vithan briefly glanced upwards.
         “I understand,” said Alathaka.
         “Your statue was Shalyn’s project, wasn’t it?”
         “Yes.  Like that little glass figurine he moulded on the day it happened, on a much more … voluptuous scale.  I am certain it will please you, if you know what I mean.”
         “Oh … shut up.”
         “So you’re at it again Vithan!”
         It was the voice of his wife.
         “And you shut up too,” said Vithan.
         Tilanna Ti-Varox grinned playfully as she approached Vithan and Alathaka, her black wavy hair luxuriantly thick, her jaguar-print blouse and skirt hugging her generous figure.
         “I just can’t leave you two alone for five minutes,” she said as she embraced and kissed her husband of four years.  “Are you coming to the hotel, or do you want to book a giant room with your mistress?”
         “Shut up.”
         “I will drop off your luggage at the lobby,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “I don’t think that promise deserved a ‘shut up’,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “Very well then.  As you please.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna giggled.  “You have matured so much in the past six years.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna turned in the direction of the hotel.  “Penthouse Three.  I’ll be waiting.  You two have fun.  Take your time.”
         “Shut up.”
 
The balcony outside Penthouse Three of the Kalina Tathaunen Hotel had a superlative view of the amphitheatre.  The latter had been designed to seat ten thousand Humans and a hundred Dragons.  However, it was not the amphitheatre that Vithan stared at.  It was the statue that towered over it.  The statue that reared so high, Vithan could look it in the eye on the twelfth floor.
         Tilanna appeared beside him, softly wrapping her arm around his waist.
         “It looks so much like him,” she said.
         “It does,” Vithan whispered.
         Olokuvon, Vithan’s best friend, was immortalized forever in gold and onyx, so much larger than life.  Six years on, he still watched over the island he swore to protect, rearing in defiance of the evil that threatened his loved ones, mouth agape in a silent roar of victory – a victory that was sealed upon the hour of his death.
         “Do you think he’s watching us?’ said Vithan.  “Right now?”
         “I’m sure he is,” said Tilanna.
         A white dove landed on the statue’s head, looking as tiny as a gnat.
         “I dream about him sometimes,” said Vithan.
         “So do I,” said Tilanna.  “Maybe he’s trying to reach us from the other side.”
         “Or maybe they’re just dreams,” said Vithan.
         “I thought you put your atheist days behind you.”
         “I did.  But we’re still mortal.  And dreams are still dreams.”
 
Gabrielle arrived three hours after Vithan.
         Vithan and Tilanna met her in the courtyard in front of the hotel, shortly after hastily getting out of bed, showering and re-dressing into their leather Sentinel uniforms.  The twenty-one thousand year old Colonist (with the trim body of a twenty-seven year old) had outwardly changed over the past six years.  They had first met her as a twitchy, moody and slightly psychotic survivor of a long-lost civilization, with a crew cut, a T-shirt and jeans, which she promptly replaced with a figure-hugging battlesuit that talked to her as a personal guide.  Since then, she had let her dark brown hair grow into a silky cascade.  The dress she had chosen for the day was one she had worn to several other recent public gatherings – what Gabrielle called a “traditional Earth dress”, because it used to be revived every century.  It was long and silken red with split sides – a style she had requested from her personal tailor, and had swiftly become a fashion statement throughout much of the world.  Indeed, her influence was guaranteed.  She was a historical figure, a celebrity, an object of adoration and mystery and wonder, a highly esteemed advisor to the Global Council, and a bestselling author.
         Gabrielle was almost incoherently ecstatic as she exchanged hugs and greetings with her old friends.  “How’s the Sentinel going?” she finally said.
         “Classified,” said Vithan, deadpan as ever.
         “Same as usual then?  Are they ever going to let you two work together?”
         “That is not going to happen,” said Tilanna.  “Conflict of interests.  They say emotional bonds cloud one’s judgement and objectivity on missions.”
         “Right,” said Gabrielle, just before pausing awkwardly.  She knew a thing or two about emotions clouding one’s judgement.
         “It’s something of a novelty to see you without bodyguards,” said Vithan.  “Of course, you know the two of us could do a much better job, can’t we Tilanna?”
         “It seems the entire island has bodyguards today,” said Gabrielle.
         “Well observed,” said Tilanna.  “One in ten Humans here is Sentinel.  One in four Dragons is Skywatch.  If there’s going to be an incident …”
         “… they’d have to rebuild the college again once the dust clears,” said Vithan.
         “Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Gabrielle.  “Hey, is Alathaka here?”
         “I think she’s with a few other Skywatch officers on the far side of the island,” said Vithan.  “You can catch up with her before the ceremony.”
         “Cool.  Well, I’ll just pop into the hotel and catch up with Headquarters.  I’ll see you two shortly.  Ooh, this is going to be epic!”
         She strode quickly to the hotel entrance.
         “Do you think we should go back in and rehearse our speeches?” said Tilanna.
         “I’ve done enough rehearsing to blank walls to be exempt from public speaking for the next few lifetimes, if the gods are fair.  What about you?”
         “I think I’m fine with it.”
         “You think?”
         “Well, no mortal can be one hundred per cent sure about anything,” said Tilanna.  “Sometimes a gut feeling is all we have.”
         “Now I know for a fact that there’s a God.”
         “Why?”
         “You’re finally saying goodbye to that prissy fussy over-achiever you used to be.”
         Tilanna chuckled and playfully shoved him. 
“And why not?” he added.  “Four years in the Sentinel teaches you a thing or two about the world.”
         “And don’t we know it.”
         The pair walked around the front corner of the hotel.  In a park bursting and flowing with every imaginable shade of green, a family of Dragons were relaxing, conversing in the complex clicks and growls of their language.
         “Have you seen the Wall of Names?” said Tilanna.
         “Not yet.”  Vithan froze awkwardly for a few seconds.  “I’ll get around to it.”
         “Get around to it?  We can literally walk around the hotel right now and …”
         A blue baby Dragon, the size of a pony, walked up to Tilanna and Vithan, his waddling gait almost like a clumsy puppy-duckling hybrid.  He sat before the pair and looked up at them with huge, glistening dark eyes. 
Tilanna leaned forward with a blissful smile.  “Hello little cutie!” she said.
         “HELLO WALKY WOOWOOS!” shouted the Joey.  Then he turned tail and ran toward his mother, leaving Vithan and Tilanna laughing with delight.  The mother Dragon – blue with violet spots – gently nuzzled her Joey as she clicked in soothing tones.  The Joey clicked back and poked at her flank.  The mother Dragon lifted her body to let her Joey dive headfirst into her pouch, then weightlessly sat down and winked at Vithan and Tilanna.
         “He’s adorable,” said Tilanna.  “Sooner or later we’ll have one of our own.”
         “What, a baby Dragon?” said Vithan in mock surprise.  “Will he fit in your pants?  What am I saying, of course he will.  You can hide him in the back.  No-one will tell the diff- OWW!”
         Tilanna giggled as Vithan rubbed his earlobe.  “You know what I mean,” she said.
         “I thought we agreed to wait,” said Vithan.
         “I know.  I meant in the long run.  You know, the next few years.”
         “Well, we both get two years paid parental leave.  Plus the in-house crèche-“
         “It’s not about getting a free vacation.”
         “I’m just pointing out the advantages, you know, to compensate for having a little runt with probably death-ray vision or something.”
         Tilanna laughed.  “You read too many thrillers.”
         “Read thrillers?  We both freaking live them!”
         “And that makes us both well prepared for parenthood.”
         “Screw that.  I’d rather face down evil fascist Dragon terrorists any day, belching all smoke and fury.  Being a father is what scares the shit out of me.”
         Tilanna laughed some more.  “You’re pathetic.”
         “I know.  It takes less effort.”
         They walked around the hotel, to the side where the Amphitheatre filled most of their view, and the statue of Olokuvon towered far above.
         He knew exactly where Tilanna was leading him.  To the Wall.
         The Olokuvon statue stood proudly upon a vast box-shaped base of pure granite, polished to a glass-smooth finish.  Engraved on the front side of the base were hundreds of words, bevelled in real gold.  They were the names of all heroes and hostages who had died in the Siege at Kesalzhin.
         Dozens of Humans and one Dragon were gathered before the Wall of Names.  Some Humans gave Vithan and Tilanna surprised glances, and hastily stepped aside to let them pass.  Many a Human – some levitating – would reach out to touch one of the names.  Some would close their eyes as they did, as if in quiet reverence.  Vithan knew why.  The properties of the Wall were already well known.
         “We have to try it,” said Tilanna.  She strode quickly over to the Wall.  Vithan slowly followed.
         Unsurprisingly, most of the names were of Dragons.  Eighteen Dragons of the Skywatch had been wiped out in the sky over Kesalzhin Island.  Hours later, one thousand and twenty three Dragons had been swiftly, brutally slaughtered by Dahal Savithar moments after the Elixir had taken effect and transformed him.  Scattered among the broad list, equally revered, were Human names.  Dahal Savithar had personally murdered fourteen Human students right in front of Alathaka, just to torment her.  He had been a monster long before the Elixir had transformed him.  Kalina Tathaunen, former Chancellor of Kesalzhin Island College for the Psionically Gifted – and secret Priestess of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador –, was also listed among the fallen.  She had committed suicide during a meeting with the monster himself, not wanting to be used as his instrument.
         Tilanna reached out to one of the Human names and closed her eyes.  After a few seconds, she exhaled deeply through her nostrils as her eyes filled with tears.
         “She was my roommate,” she said as she opened her eyes, wiping away her tears.  “Try it,” she added.
         Slowly, Vithan reached out to the engraved name – Kehenta Glathwill.  As soon as he touched the gold and granite, he closed his eyes. 
         Immediately, he saw Tilanna’s former roommate standing before him, her irregularly cropped hair bleached and feathered in the fashion of six years ago, her ears and nostrils studded and pierced, her clothing a patchwork of multiple animal prints. 
         Kehenta Glathwill, said a voice in Vithan’s mind.  Born on the Fourteenth of Azlovah, Year Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Music student at Kesalzhin College from Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Four to Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Highly acclaimed lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for on-campus Third Wave Thunderfolk band The Chilli Ferrets.  Murdered by Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valamana, Twenty-One-
         Vithan removed his hand and opened his eyes.  For a moment it had been beautiful.  The Wall had given Tilanna’s friend the respect she deserved.  But it should not have mentioned his name.  It should not have even acknowledged his existence.  
         He reached out to touch one of the many Dragon names and closed his eyes.  A vibrantly striped Dragoness stood regally before him, wearing two thin neckbands.
         Kalisavax, said the voice.  Hatched on the Twenty-Seventh of Kerosha, Year Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Four.  Enlisted in the Skywatch in Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Three.  Attained rank of Patrol Officer in Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Volunteered in the ill-fated Final Assault against Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valama, Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Patrol Officer Kalisavax is the beloved daughter of-
         Vithan ripped his hand away, already feeling exhausted.  Every victim had a name, had a life, had a history, had loved ones.  Every death scarred at least a dozen other lives.  He knew that too well.  It was futile to even try to forget that.  Not here, not now.
         He looked up, above the bulk of the list, and saw exactly what he had expected, what he had longed to see and yet somehow dreaded.
         He levitated a few metres up for a closer look.
         The largest name on the Wall, elevated above all others, was the name of the Dragon immortalized in gold and onyx that towered over everyone.
 
OLOKUVON
FOREVER WATCHING
 
         Vithan felt a solid lump in his throat.  Slowly, he reached out a trembling hand to the gold-engraved text.
         “Hey Vithan!”
         He turned and looked down.  Gabrielle was standing next to Tilanna, waving.  Vithan almost wanted to sigh in relief.  He was not ready.  Would he ever be?
         “It’s confirmed,” said Gabrielle.  “I can stay the night.  GC Headquarters were sitting on the fence at first, but this time they’re certain they won’t need me until nine tomorrow morning.”
         “That’s great,” said Vithan as he slowly sank to the stone-tiled courtyard.  “What’s it all about this time?”
         “Classified,” said Gabrielle.
         “Fair enough,” said Vithan.  “We’re all working for the Global Council.  We’re all secretive cactus arses here.  Let’s keep up the good work.”
         “Have you seen our statues yet?” said Gabrielle.
         “I haven’t even seen Alathaka’s yet,” said Vithan.  “What’s with everyone wanting to see their statue?  Is this the archetype of vanity or what?  I mean … can’t you just pose in the mirror or something?”
         “Oh, come on,” said Tilanna.  “You’re just as vain as the rest of us.  You just pretend to be so fashionably nonchalant.”
         “Alathaka’s statue is a couple of kilometres to the southwest, at the mouth of the river,” said Gabrielle.  “She’s there to greet the boats, I guess.  And ours –“
         “- should be in her pouch,” said Vithan.  “Or … his.”  He gestured upwards. 
         “We each get separate statues,” said Tilanna.  “That’s tradition.”
         “Alathaka flew us both to safety in the end,” said Vithan.
         “Fine,” said Tilanna.  “So when you see her statue, just pretend that we’re both hidden in the pouch. 
         Remind me to give her the present once all this is over, Vithan mindspoke.
         If I have to remind you, then it can’t be much of a memorable present, can it?   
         Oh … shut up.
         “I just love what they’ve done with Olokuvon,” said Gabrielle, looking straight up at the Dragon form that towered into the sky, its head so distant that a passing pelican looked tiny as it ducked under its jaw.  “Your planet finally has its own Statue of Liberty.”
         “Statue of Liberty?” said Vithan.  “Was that Greek or Roman?”
         “American.”
         “Ah.  I was close.”
         “Maybe you should re-read my Wonders of Ancient Earth.”
         “Sorry to be pedantic,” said Tilanna, “but Alathaka’s statue is the one that greets seafarers visiting our island.  Just like the Statue of Liberty in New York.  And female, too.  And in case you’re wondering, I’ve read your book three times.”
         Vithan gave a loud, exaggerated sigh.  “Same bloody smart-arse show-off.  How do I bloody put up with it?”
         Gabrielle giggled.  “Anyway, I just have to go and see Torlaskavon.  We have to confirm flight arrangements for the morning.  See you in a minute.”
         She disappeared around the corner of the statue base.
         “It’s great to see her so cheerful,” said Tilanna.  “When you remember how we met her …”
         “I know,” said Vithan.  “But in the end, we all wear masks.”
         “If she were hiding her emotions, I would tell.”
         “Oh, look, another stickybeak,” said Vithan.  “Female Humans, female Dragons, all bloody stickybeaks.”
         “Speaking of female Dragons … Alathaka’s doing a great job of masking her grief.”
         “I know.  Every morning she takes enough hydrotreskelin to kill a hundred Humans.  She always insists she’s all right.  And the Skywatch keeps her on because she’s brilliant.  And valuable raw firepower.  And then there’s her … well, status.  But she’s not the only one here who lost a loved one that day.  Not the only Dragon.”
         “Sabilikon?”
         “Yes.”
         Far in the distance, on the roof of one of the broader buildings that towered above the trees, Alathaka and Sabilikon were perched next to the life-sized statue of Skymarshal Banthonotrax.  They were casually facing each other, obviously deep in conversation.
         “So you know who she is?” said Tilanna.  “Who she really is?”
         “What do you think we do for a living?”
         “And you trust her?  She flew you all the way here, so –“
         “So obviously I trust her, yes.  Anyone who’s anyone in the Sentinel or Skywatch or any other branch of the Council knows her background.  Just don’t let the media poke their noses into her family history.”
         Vithan stared at the distant Sabilikon.  Over a thousand Dragons throughout the world had a similar blue-and-gold splotch pattern.  It was a small coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.  Vithan had felt a slight tremor in his guts when he had found out the truth four years ago.
         “And everyone in the Council is fine with it?” said Tilanna.  “I know she’s another big asset to Skywatch.  But that day hit her just as hard as anyone.  For a very … specific reason.”
         Vithan nodded.  “Hers is a special kind of grief.”
         “Oh well,” said Tilanna, “so long as Alathaka’s still your favourite lady Dragon, all is right with the world.”
         “Well of course she’s my favourite.  Her bum is almost as big as yours.  Seriously, you should have flown her to safety and saved her the load.”
         Tilanna smiled wickedly and grabbed Vithan by the shoulders.  “I am so going to punish you tonight.”
         “I’m counting on it.”
         They kissed.
         Far above, the likeness of their old friend watched on, watched all, blessed never to die again.
 
~  ~  ~
 
Chapter One
(Continued)

When the anchor dropped that morning, Tanzu had felt his heart jump.  This was it.  This was the last day of his old life.  There was no turning back now. 
         It was ancient tradition to wait here in the middle of the ocean for a whole day.  For Tanzu, it felt like that tradition’s sole purpose was to sharpen and refine suspense to a level that bordered on physical agony.
         His eyes darted skittishly around the deck to the other fifteen Initiates, all dressed in grey robes, all eighteen years of age, all nervous.  And they were still twelve hours away from the big event.
         Tanzu returned his attention to the Priestess standing not far from the prow, her cowled head haloed by the vibrantly setting Sun.
         “Children of the Universe,” said Mother Evonash, “look forward to where the fire of Heaven meets the horizon.  Repeat my words only in your hearts and minds, for Mayhara hears all prayers, loud or silent.”
         She turned to face the setting Sun and outspread her arms.
         “Great Mayhara, Queen of the Seven Oceans, Mother of Titans, Messenger of Greater Powers Beyond, we beseech you hear our prayer.  Bless these gathered here, your Children, so that your light may guide them even in the deepest darkness, so that your warmth may comfort them in the darkest void.  May they swim beside you in your mighty wake and be at one with you when all things return to one.  May thus be your will.  Amen.”
         Mother Evonash slowly lowered her arms and turned to face the Initiates.
         “When the Sun returns to greet us, so will Mayhara Herself.  She will see you all face to face, and speak within your heart.  Rejoice in the day to come, for you will all be blessed as her Children.  Go now, and rest.”
         Instantly Tanzu snapped out of his trance – Mother Evonash always had that effect upon Initiates – and returned his attention to the here-and-now, to the tight wooden planks beneath his feet.  The nervousness returned – a knot in his chest so tight it became solid.  All around him, other Initiates were slowly scattering, some whispering as they headed below deck.  Tanzu could barely walk.  He stumbled over to the nearest wooden bench and sat down, breathing deeply, staring at his knees.
         “Are you troubled, Tanzu?”
         The gentle voice of Mother Evonash always comforted him.  It was a talent common to all Priests and Priestesses of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador.  Tanzu was grateful for it, more so than ever before.  He knew he would need it again in the morning.
         “I …” Tanzu struggled to find the words.  “I don’t know if …”
         “If you’re ready?”
         Tanzu nodded jerkily.
         “I have lost count of how many times I have heard those very words.  Starting with my own, twenty-eight years ago.”
         “You were nervous?”
         “We all are.  We’re only Human.  How could we not feel awe in the face of the Divine?”
         These words only made Tanzu’s heart beat faster, his breaths tremble with effort.
         Evonash smiled knowingly.  “’Divine’ is a relative term,” she said.  “Obviously Mayhara is not the Creator.  She’s just a little higher on the ladder than we are.  That’s what makes her special.  She’s closer to us.  She shares a planet with us.”
         These words only served to remind Tanzu of that world-changing event of six years ago.  Tanzu had been twelve during the Siege of Kesalzhin.  At first, news of the Siege had only mildly disturbed him.  It was just another conflict taking place somewhere in the world.  There were a few of those every year.  But then the Elixir had been exposed, and he had felt it – along with a billion other mortals.  He then spent his entire adolescence knowing for a fact that there were powers in the universe even greater that Mayhara Herself.  The whole world shared this knowledge.  The world would never be the same again.
         So many Humans and Dragons blamed Mayhara for what had happened on that day.  They said that She could have prevented it, but She allowed it to happen anyway.  Others accepted that She had prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.  After all, Human and Dragon leaders had collected even more blood on their hands (and claws) over the centuries.  How could any politician send thousands to war and call Mayhara a monster?
Mother Evonash gently placed her hand on his.  “She will accept you,” she said.  “Mark my words.”
         “But … She can look into my mind … see all my thoughts and memories … even things I’ve forgotten …”
         “Yes.  She can do all that and more.  She can do things we have no name for.”
         “So how … I mean … there’s so much messed up stuff … if she saw it …”
         The Priestess laughed.  “And do you honestly think that your ‘messed up stuff’ would be the first she has ever seen in twenty-one thousand years?  We are all messed up in our own ways.  Humans have always been messed up.  Have you read Gabrielle Gilson’s books?  We were messed up thousands of years before even her time.  I don’t think there’s a thing in your head that is going to shock her.  You’re not another Dahal Savithar, are you?”
         “No!”  Tanzu cringed at the very thought.  “No!  Not at all!  I’m not that messed up!”
         “Of course not.  Few people are.”
         “But … I’m not … I’m not a virgin.”
         “So?  Neither was I when it was my time.”
         Tanzu faced the Priestess with his mouth agape, words frozen in his throat and brain.
         Evonash laughed again.  “It doesn’t disqualify you.  All it means is that … well, you were just a little impatient.  Like all Humans.  Like all Mortals.  There is always room for improvement, no matter who you are.  And Mayhara will show you the way.  Do you think you’re here because you’re already perfect?  Of course not.  How could you be?  None of us here started off perfect.  The best you could do in life is just slowly, patiently push yourself a little closer to perfection, one day at a time.  And Mayhara can give you a slightly bigger push, to say the least.”
         “What will it feel like?”
         “Oh.”  Evonash closed her eyes and faced the ocean breeze.  “If only there were words.  It was the most beautiful experience of my life.  And it will be the most beautiful experience of yours.  I envy you.  I honestly envy all of you tonight.  To experience Her love for the first time … it will be more wonderful than you could possibly imagine.  And much better than sex.  Take my word for it.”  She winked.
         Tanzu chuckled.  Some of that knot in his chest was loosening already.
         “I think you need a rest now,” said Evonash.  “There’s nothing left to do but wait.  And sleep.  I know that may sound like a challenge under the circumstances, but at least a few hours of sleep would be nice.  Who knows?  You might dream of Her.  She might even reach out to reassure you in your sleep.  Now that alone would be worth waiting for, don’t you think?”
         Tanzu nodded.  Maybe she was right.  After all, she had once been in the same position.  She knew what she was talking about.
         Minutes later, he was in his cosy private cabin downstairs, lying on his bed.  He closed his eyes, surrendering to the gentle, rhythmic undulations of the ship on the ocean.  It was almost as if Mayhara Herself was rocking him to sleep.  And why not?  She was the Queen of the Seven Oceans, after all.  She Herself would command the seas to be calm, to be gentle, to prepare Her children for their wonderful new life.
         He did not need to be reminded that miracles could happen.  But as he sank beneath the dark waves of his own awareness, he was reminded that miracles could happen to him, too, and that sleep could be found in the most unexpected of circumstances.
        
~  ~  ~
        
Domison grabbed hold of the Dragonspine before him as Latharixa abruptly gained altitude, missing the mountain peak by mere metres. 
         “I really wish you wouldn’t keep doing that!” he shouted.
         “No need to shout,” said the Dragoness.  “I can still hear you.  See these things?”  She wiggled her long, deer-like ears.  “I’m still young and they’re still working.  And a lot better than those tiny suction cups on the side of your little head.”
“My God, your genius wit is killing me,” said Domison. 
He looked down as the many-hilled and forested landscape flowed far below.  He estimated that his altitude must now be well over a kilometre.  Despite himself, he was grateful that Latharixa could screen out most of the wind and cold, with his aviation gear – goggles and all – doing the rest to protect him.
         He glanced to his right.  Tayraxica, Latharixa’s boyfriend, was carrying Jensi on his neck.  Behind the cargo belt, his barely bulging pouch indicated that Jorin and Manko were safely in place as well.  Jensi turned to him and gave a half-hearted wave across the whistling distance.  Domison returned the gesture, even more lazily.
         “I should be in the pouch,” he said.
         “You’re the deputy supervisor,” said Latharixa.  “You ride on the neck.”
         “And since when have you ever given two short snorts about protocol?”
         “When you started whingeing about it a few weeks ago.”
         “I was joking.”
         “It’s always a joke when it’s convenient to be a joke, isn’t it?”
         She dived straight for another mountain peak, making Domison scream and curse at her, before lifting into the sky at the last second.
         “By Mayhara’s Holy Southern Canyon, you have no control whatsoever!”
         “On the contrary, stunt flight requires exceptional control.  Ask any Skywatch officer.”
         “Which you are most definitely not, and never will be.  Ever.”
         “Precisely.  Because the Council will never waste their most brilliant archaeologist on a suicide mission.”
         “’Most brilliant archaeologist’?  That’s your sister.  They should have let me work with her.  At least she knows when to shut her trap.”
         Domison felt the rumble of Dragon laughter beneath him.
         “Sovilika and I have placed a bet,” said Latharixa.
         “Really?”
         “Yes.  The first one to dig up Colonial tech gets first choice at the Sakatoth Feast.”
         “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?”
         “I meant for the second night of Sakatoth, dimwit.”
         “Well that’s still kinda late, isn’t it?  I mean, aren’t you and your sister both heretics for working on Sakatoth?”
         “And what century is this exactly?”
         “These days you just never know.  There might be a few closet zealots in your family.”
         “There are no closet zealots in my family.  No closet is big enough.”
         “Oh, that’s your marvellous wit again.”  Domison’s tone was as flat as possible.  “If I laugh any harder I may fall to my death.”
         “Please don’t fall,” said Latharixa, equally deadpan.  “That would break my heart.  I might even have to dive down to save you, and I really don’t want to waste the extra energy.”
         “I still think we should get to keep it,” said Domison.
         “What, the dig?”
         “Yeah.  If we find any nifty colonial weapons, or even another SwanSword …  Just imagine how much we could make on the undermarket.”
         “And this is the part where you go all misty-eyed with nostalgia for when Deep Diggers was privately owned.  The Council pays us double now.  And that’s before commission for any big discoveries.  Not to mention the prospect of a Noravi Award.”
         Ever since the Siege of Kesalzhin and the discovery of Haloken’s true history, archaeology and treasure hunting were suddenly big business.  Humans and Dragons all over the globe were scrambling to find the next piece of lost technology.  The Global Council had promptly bought up the largest archaeology company on the planet for a sum of billions, making its Human founder’s grandson and former chairman the wealthiest retiree of his generation.
         “Fuck the Noravi Award,” said Domison.  “We should have got your sister’s job.”
         “What, and have to dig under a mountain?”
         “Yes.  At least we don’t have to freeze to death.”
         “Aww, poor baby.”
         “Fuck you.  You lot don’t know what the cold feels like.  You spend your first few years all cosied up in a pouch, and then you come out flapping your wings, belching fire and smoke and your last meal.  Hell, you should make me swap with Paxola right now.”
         “Pax stays where he is,” said Latharixa.  “You can swap with Evani if she agrees.”
         “You like Pax, don’t you?”
         “As a friend.”
         “Yeah right.  Don’t forget, you’re old enough to be his great grandma.”
         “In Dragon years, I’m a lot younger than you.”
         “Dragon years, eh?” said Domison.  “So … what do you do again?  Do you minus eighteen, divide by two, and add sixty?”
         “Now I know you’re trying to piss me off,” said Latharixa.  She had a point; as an archaeologist and historian, Domison knew very well how to calculate a Dragon’s approximate Human age.  Latharixa was ninety-six.  In Human terms, that was only thirty-one.
         “I’m sorry,” said Domison.  “You don’t look a day over twenty.”
         “That’s more like it.”
         “So now do I deserve to swap places with Evani?”
“You’re only nice when you have an ulterior motive,” said Latharixa.  “Evani has to wake up first.  And if she agrees, I’m flexing the pouch to keep you and Pax separate.”
         “I’ll be nice to him,” said Domison.
         “Yes, and your word means everything to me,” said Latharika.  “Meanwhile, enjoy the sunset.”
         “I’ll tell you one thing,” said Domison, “if they find one of those death-ray cannons, or a bomb that can crack a planet in two, I’m keeping it.”
         “I wouldn’t trust you with a pair of scissors.  With corks on the ends.”
         Domison paused, trying to think up a witty retort.  Unfortunately, “Bitch” was all he could come up with.
         Far below, the forest was thinning out into white sand.  Far ahead, the horizon glittered with pink sunlight on endless blue.
         “Oh, look,” said Latharika.  “Would you like to go for a swim?”
         As soon as the beach passed beneath her, she began to dive.
         “Don’t you fucking daaaaaaaaaare!”
         The Dragoness abruptly straightened up and soared forward, mere metres over the ocean surface.  Once again, Domison felt the rumble of her laughter.
         “You’re evil.”
         “I know.”
         The ocean sped far beneath them in scintillating waves.  Far ahead, beyond the horizon, was Haloken’s frigid southernmost continent. 
         As they raced towards their goal, the archaeologists knew, in their hearts, that they could always agree on one thing – that the best possible outcome was to make the discovery that would change the world.
         For the better, of course.

~ ~ ~
Chapter Two
 
The ceremony was still over an hour away, but the Amphitheatre was already half-filled, alive with background music and the light of crystal lamp towers.  Thousands of Humans were scattered throughout the bleachers, conversing, snacking, drinking in the view of an historic island college reborn.  Many Dragons sat among them on the outer edge, some curled up in half-sleep, some sitting upright with their eyes closed in hazy meditation, some conversing with their Human friends.  On the outer edge of the Amphitheatre, the blue Baby Dragon was clumsily walking back and forth on his hind legs like a Human, all the while chirping “Walky walky walky walky walky walky!”  His mother sat there watching him, her face bright with pride and delight, clicking words of encouragement.  A nearby group of Humans shared her amusement.  One five-year-old Human girl stomped back and forth in unison with the Baby Dragon, imitating his awkward penguin-like strides. 
         Near the centre of the Amphitheatre, some of the high-ranking Human delegates had already found their places and were deep in conversation.  Most were uniformed military, with Varantuan Defence and the Sentinel being most prominent.  Vithan recognised Lieutenant General Jerikau Karlonen of the Varantuan Army, former head of Coastal Defense.  Of course, everyone recognised Secretary General Ganoville Santagora, former Grand Marshal of the Sentinel.  Six years ago, they had both been present at the Siege.  Their forces had not been given the change to fight, only to escape.  Thus was the case when powers greater than mortals were involved.
         Standing not far from the edge of the amphitheatre, Vithan turned to Tilanna and raised his angled eyebrows.  “Well,” he said, “are you ready?”
         “We still have at least an hour,” said Tilanna. 
         “Walky walky walky walky WALKY WALKY!” said the Baby Dragon.
         “That Joey is going to tire himself out long before the show starts,” said Vithan.
         “Why should he care?”  Tilanna smiled sweetly at the scaly little show-off.  “Right now, he is the show.”
         “And he’s loving every second of it,” said a deep feminine voice from behind.
         Vithan and Tilanna turned to see Sabilikon striding slowly towards them.  The crystal lamps highlighted the gold rosettes against her deep blue scales.  She was like a walking constellation of golden galaxies.      
         “How are you finding the accommodation here?” she said.
         “Positively exquisite,” said Tilanna.
         “Just perfect for … you know,” said Vithan as he winked at Tilanna.
         “The builders and shapers have done an excellent job on all counts,” said Sabilikon.  “I have just come back from-“
         “Glory to Dahal Savithar!  WHOO!” came a drunken male voice, followed by a chorus of equally drunken laughter.
         Sabilikon turned and raised her head, her face fixed in a scowl.
         Vithan and Tilanna turned to face a group of intoxicated young men staggering across the park.
         “Just ignore them,” said Vithan.  “They’re harmless.  We could squash them like insects.  But we’re better than that.”
         “I’m sure they would dare us to do that very thing,” said Tilanna. 
         Sabilikon continued glaring at them.  She didn’t even blink.
         “Hey big bitch!” said one of the young men.  It was the same voice they had heard seconds earlier.  “Wanna fuck a superstud?  I’ve got the size to match, darling!”  He then started making thrusting motions with his pelvis, moaning and grunting.  Some of his friends laughed, but others began to sneak away into the shadows.  Not all of them were drunk or stupid enough to antagonize a Dragon, especially one that wore the neckbands of a Squadron Leader.
         “Valko, shut it,” said one of his more nervous friends as he grabbed his shoulder.  “Don’t aggravate her!”
         “Nah, she can’t do a thing, or else they’ll boot her outta the Skywatch, isn’t that right darling?”
         “What a pitiful excuse for a Human you are,” Sabilikon hissed.
         “Oooooh!  Strong words!  What’s yer next trick, darling?  Threatening a civilian?”
         “Valko, that’s enough.”  His nervous friend was beginning to back away, wanting no part in this exchange.
         “This is a place to respect fallen heroes,” said Sabilikon.  “Parasites like you are not worthy to set foot here.”
         “Parasites?  That’s the spirit, love!  In just a few days you’ll be joining the New Draconic Order!”
         Sabilikon snapped, snarling and scowling like a wild animal.  She levitated Valko up to her eye level, dangling him before her like a doll. 
         “Sabby!  No!” shouted Vithan.  He reached out his mind to restrain her, and could feel Tilanna doing likewise.  Almost instantly, he felt the Dragon’s rage trembling throughout his body.  She was not quite the strongest Dragon he had ever encountered, but any struggle would have taxed his energy all the same.
         Behind Sabilikon, dozens of Humans and a few Dragons had gathered to view the disturbance.  The Mother Dragon gave a few stern clicks, and her Joey trotted up to her pouch and dived in headfirst.
         All Valko’s friends had quickly turned sober.  They were all backing away, wide-eyed and trembling, knowing they were truly out of their league. 
         Valko just floated in the grip of the Dragon’s mind, smiling, more mad than drunk.
         “This insipid culture has blinded you to the truth,” he said, his voice shaky but steadfast in his conviction.
         “I have heard this shit before,” Sabilikon hissed.  In a burst of mindpower, she tore off his shirt.
         On the man’s chest was a tattoo of Dahal Savithar.
         The most hated Human of the century was standing against the light of the Elixir, blond hair waving as if underwater, arms outspread like a welcoming messiah, eyes aglow in his blasphemous display of godlike power.    
         “I KNEW it!” roared the Dragoness.  “You weren’t joking.  You really do revere that mass murdering scum!”
         “Dahal Savithar was a great man!”  Valko was no longer drunk.  His voice and stare conveyed something else entirely.  Something worse.  “He touched the Divine!  He transcended our pitiful plane of existence!”
         “That creature murdered over a thousand Dragons!” Sabilikon roared.
         “They all volunteered,” said Valko.  “They knew what they were getting into.”
         Sabilikon hissed.  “They died so you could live!” she roared.
         “One day,” said Valko, “the Great Lord Savithar shall return, and burn away the unworthy!  Burn away you, and all your worthless –“
         Sabilikon hissed deafeningly, bringing the man closer to her salivating jaws.
         “Sabby!  That’s enough!” Vithan shouted.  “He can believe whatever crap he wants!  He can have a Dahal Savithar tattoo!  It’s not illegal!”
         “I should sear it from his filthy flesh!”
         “No!  Let him be an idiot!  It’s his choice!  It’s his right!  That’s what we’re all fighting for.  Look around you.  All these monuments are for freedom, not tyranny.  Not vigilante justice.  Let him go.  Let him stagger on his own path like the blinkered moron he is.  He’s not worth your attention.”
         Sabilikon’s wolfish scowl slowly began to ease.  She gently lowered Valko to the ground … but dropped him at the last instant.  She closed her eyes and turned away.  Valko got to his feet and staggered after his hastily retreating friends.
         Vithan sighed with relief as he lowered his hand and relaxed his mind.  On the edge of his vision, he saw Tilanna do the same.
         Alathaka landed beside Sabilikon, gently stroking her friend’s head with her muzzle, comforting her in their own language.
         All around, the crowd began to disperse.
         “What a brainless bunch of fucking arse goblins,” said Vithan, staring into the parkland shadows the gang had fled to.
         “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Tilanna.  “What are they even doing here?”
         “To that sort, it’s just another public event,” said Vithan.  “They’re here for the booze.  And if they’re staying in our hotel, I’ll be pretty fucking furious.”    
         “I’m pretty sure Dragons would have flown them here,” said Tilanna.  “What sort of hypocrites does that make them?’
         “What kind?” said Vithan.  “Who cares?  We have enough hypocrites stinking up the world as it is.”
         There was a long, awkward pause.  Vithan could feel Tilanna hesitating.  After all these years, he did not need his wife’s exceptional scanning prowess to read her.
         “What is it?” he said.
         “I need to talk to her,” said Tilanna.
         “I really don’t think you’re the best person to talk to her right now,” said Vithan.  “And I think you know why.”
         “That is exactly why I’m the best person to talk to her right now,” said Tilanna.  She stepped forward.
         “No,” Vithan insisted.  Tilanna ignored him.
         “Sabilikon,” said Tilanna.  “I think we should talk.”
         Both Sabilikon and Alathaka turned to face Tilanna, their jade eyes wide with mild surprise.  Like Vithan, they knew where this was heading.
         “We need to talk alone,” Tilanna insisted.  “It’s about time I got this off my chest.”
         The two Dragonesses turned to each other.  Sabilikon mildly nodded, then took a few long steps toward Tilanna.
         “We need to find somewhere private,” said Tilanna as she mounted the Dragon’s neck.  Within seconds, Sabilikon levitated and disappeared into the night.
         Vithan turned to face Alathaka.
         “Do you think they’ll demote her?”
         “Perhaps,” said Alathaka.  “She may need more intensive counselling.”
         “I’m hoping a talk with Tilanna might help,” said Vithan.
         “It should.”
         “Someone should keep an eye on those boys in case they do something worse.”
         “I have just mindcalled two Skywatch officers to do that very thing,” said Alathaka. 
         Vithan nodded in silent approval.  Idiots had a right to be idiots.  He knew that all too well.  But even in a free world, stupidity had its limits.
 
Sabilikon landed in a clearing on the far side of the island.  Tilanna dismounted her and sat down in the long, cool grass.  It reminded her of that day, six years ago, when Alathaka had carried her and Vithan to this same island, mere minutes after it had miraculously reformed.
         She looked to the east.  The distant light of the night’s festivities cast a faint aura over the forest trees.  Before her, Sabilikon crouched down, as comfortable as she could be under the circumstances.
         “I’m sorry,” said Tilanna.
         “For what?” said Sabilikon, her voice so much more gentle and tender than it had been minutes earlier.
         “I think you know,” said Tilanna.
         The Dragon stared at her, her face and mind unreadable.
         “I’m sorry for …” Tilanna froze, the words like a rock in her throat.  “I’m sorry I killed your father.”
         Sabilikon stared at Tilanna, unblinking, for long, painful heartbeats.  Tilanna braced herself.
         “Never apologise for that,” said Sabilikon.  “NEVER.”
         There were a few more seconds of dark silence, interspersed only by the distant chirp of insects.
         “You are a hero,” said Sabilikon.  “You freed my father.  You freed him from Bysamathark.  You freed him from Dahal Savithar.  They filled his head full of lies and his heart full of poison and hate.  That was not a life.  That was slavery.  And you freed him.  I will always be indebted to you for that.  I will always be your friend.”
         “Sabilikon,” said Tilanna, “I have only told a few what I’m about to tell you, but …” 
         She began to tremble.  Garvatikon had been the first Dragon she had confronted, in the tunnel six years ago.  She remembered gripping his mind, controlling his body like a puppet.
         “I know it was self defence,” said Tilanna.  “But … I’d never used my powers so aggressively before.  I’d never been put in that position, so I didn’t really know the rules of engagement.  But …”
         “The rules of engagement are you kill your enemy before he kills you,” said Sabilikon.  “I guess you learned the hard way.”
         “It wasn’t just the self defence,” said Tilanna.  “That was all right.  That was justified.  It was … I was just so angry.”
         “You were angry,” said Sabilikon.  “On this night, do you think I am in a position to judge you for being angry?”
         Tilanna smirked uneasily.  “I mean … for a short while … I wanted to punish him.  I wanted to humiliate him.  I gripped his mind, and …”
         “I read the report,” said Sabilikon.  “You made him claw out his own throat.  You used what you had.  You did the best you could at the time.”
         “For a moment,” said Tilanna, “I enjoyed it.”
         There was another moment of silence.
         “I wanted him to suffer,” said Tilanna.
         “I wanted that man to suffer,” said Sabilikon.  “And he was no threat to me at all.  Do you really think you are worse than I am?”
         Tilanna looked up at the three moons.  A passing cloud began to cover up the smallest one.
         Sabilikon broke the silence.  “Do you know the last words I spoke to my father?” she said.
Tilanna turned her attention to the twin moons of Sabilikon’s gaze, bright against the night of her scales.
         “’I am ashamed of you.’  That is what I said.  Those were the last words he heard from me before I flew away for the last time.”
         The Dragon closed her eyes, inhaling deeply like a heavy gale.
         “I touched his mind,” said Tilanna.
         Sabilikon opened her eyes.
         “I had to.  I was controlling … and I felt his final thoughts.”
         Sabilikon widened her eyes.
         “They were of you.”
         The Dragon stared, unblinking.
         “His last thoughts were of you.  He loved you, right to the end.”
         Tilanna nearly choked on that last word.  She felt tears streaming down her cheeks.
         “He regretted … he regretted everything.”
         Sabilikon closed her eyes.  She sighed more softly than before.  “Then he has earned Tikamath’s forgiveness,” she said.  “He has earned Tikamath’s love.  And I know that he will be there, waiting for me, one day.”
         Tilanna smiled through her tears.  “I’m sure he will.”
         Gently, Sabilikon lowered her head, moving it forward.  Tilanna held her huge muzzle, stroking her scales gently.
         Under the moonlight, after all these years, their friendship was finally sealed.
 
~  ~  ~
        
Tanzu awoke with a start. 
         He sat up in bed, his mind staggering in the timeless dark, trying desperately to reconstruct the huge and complex images he had just seen, the thoughts and feelings that had overwhelmed him.
         It’s just a dream, he said.  It’s just my imagination.
         But he knew that, in all of his eighteen years, his imagination had never produced anything remotely like what he had just experienced. 
         There had been the fleeting impression of something huge and blindingly complex being constructed, bit-by-bit, atom-by-atom, with meticulous precision.  And then something (else?) being taken apart, swiftly, violently, with passionate exactitude, like salting the ashen earth after burning a forest to the ground, only on a scale impossible to comprehend …
         With a single thought, he lit his bedside crystal lamp.  The clock on his cabin wall said quarter to eight.  He had slept for only an hour.
         Minutes later, he was in the ship’s dining hall.  Several other Initiates were there, talking softly, as excitedly as whispers could allow.  Tanzu took a plate and helped himself to some salad and spiced potato skins.  He poured himself a glass of water and sat at the end of the table, away from the others, his mind swirling in a maelstrom of chaos, concentrating painfully on looking for a pattern that made sense.
         “Is everything all right with you, Tanzu?”
         The gentle voice could only belong to Mother Evonash, but it startled him all the same.
         “I’m fine,” said Tanzu, a bit too hastily.
         “Are you sure about that?” said Evonash. 
         “I just had a dream.”
         “Everyone gets vivid dreams before Initiation.  It’s perfectly normal.”
         “I know.  Except …” Tanzu paused.  “I’m having a lot of trouble remembering this one.  I can’t piece it together, because there are too many pieces.  It’s like …”
         His mind stretched to find a suitable analogy.
         “It’s like when you look at a mountain, and you think, ‘Wow, that’s big!’  But then you remember that the mountain is just one tiny part of the world, and you try to grasp how big the entire planet really is.  Not from space, but from where you’re standing.  Like you try to see it all at once, but stay close at the same time.  And you just can’t wrap your head around it.  You could fly into space, but that would be cheating, because that would make it look small.  And the dream, the … message or whatever … it wouldn’t let you cheat.  You had to stay where you were and take it all in, every grain of sand, every blade of grass, every little detail blown up to as big as a mountain.  And you couldn’t.  You just couldn’t.  Am I making sense?”
         Evonash nodded.  “I think you’re making perfect sense.  Many of us have visions like that.  It’s a good sign.  It means you are ready.”
         “Except …” Tanzu hesitated again, fearing where his train of thought was leading him.  “It’s didn’t end there.  Something was happening.  I don’t know what it was.  It was …” He did not want to mention destruction.  Acknowledging it would only make it real.  And, besides, he did not want to hear his fears confirmed.  “It was like a warning, or something,” he added.
         Evonash’s gentle smile dropped only slightly as she looked away.  “A mystic vision is always overwhelming, especially if it is your first time.  The true scale of reality can seem terrifying to us little creatures, even if we are seeing something perfectly benign.  Mayhara will help you tomorrow.  She sees all your dreams, and She will comfort you with Her love and wisdom.  That is a promise.  Not just from me, but from Her.”
         Tanzu took a deep breath.  Mother Evonash’s words were comforting, but somehow incomplete.  After all, the information he had given her was incomplete.
         “I only wish …” he said.  “I wish I could reconstruct the whole thing in my mind so you could see it for yourself.”
         Mother Evonash gently shook her head.  “We don’t have to do that,” she said.  “Your vision is your own.  Now, do you promise me that will get some decent sleep tonight?”
         Tanzu nodded.  “I’ll try my best.”
         “That is always a good start.  None of us are perfect, but our best is all we can manage.  If you are tired tomorrow morning, Mayhara will know why.  If you are nervous, or frightened, She will know why.  And if you had a nightmare, even another one, She will understand it far better than we could.  She understands everything about you, and accepts you just as you are.  Maybe you should be thinking about that when you go back to bed, instead of tormenting yourself with riddles no mortal can answer.  Now how about that?”
         “I’ll be thinking about it.  The good stuff, I mean.”
         “That’s what I want to hear.  Now if you need me, just hold your comm crystal and think of me.  I wish you a peaceful night, and a bright new day tomorrow.”
         “Same to you, Mother Evonash.”
         She got up and left Tanzu to his late snack, his hopes, dreams, and endless questions.
 
~  ~  ~
        
“Look!  Whales!”
         Evani could see them surfacing far ahead as Latharixa sped towards them at low altitude.  She adjusted her goggles and held the Dragonspine tight as they soared right over the shoal of whales.  The evening moon glinted off their glossy bodies as they surfaced and exhaled mist out of their blowholes.  They were ordinary, mortal humpbacks, probably no larger than the Dragon she was riding.  Still, seeing so many migrating humpbacks at once was a rare sight. 
Evani knew that she would have had an even better view from the pouch.  However, had she not swapped places with Domison, she might still be asleep by now. 
         “My cousin likes to swim with them occasionally,” said Latharixa.  “Maybe not these same ones, but humpbacks just like these.  They’re very friendly to him.  They probably see him as some sort of weird flying whale.”
         “It would be amazing to see a Kujira up close,” said Evani.
         “I have another cousin – yes, I know, I have a lot of cousins – but he’s in the Skywatch.  He was at Kesalzhin when Mayhara and the rest of the Shoal arrived.”
         “Oh Gods!” said Evani.  “That would have freaked me out!”
         “It freaked him out.  And he’s a Dragon.  No offense, but you know it takes a lot to rattle us.  He still talks about it to this day.  Tikamath bless his scales.”
         By now, the sprawling shoal of humpbacks was far behind them.
         “So, how long to go?”
         “The digging point is ten kilometres inland.  That’s about a thousand kilos ahead of us.  We’ll be there in an hour and a half.  And no, I’m not speeding up.  And I’m definitely not breaking the sound barrier.  That takes time and effort.  Tell Domison to shut his dainty little trap if he asks again.”
         Evani chuckled.  “Is it true you made a bet with your sister?”
         “It’s a family tradition,” said Latharixa.  “We have a huge head start, and we’re boring through more ice than stone.”
         “Sovilixa doesn’t have that far to fly,” said Evani.
         “I know.  Our team is going to get some good sleep once we set up camp.  We start when we’re ready.  Gabrielle’s going to link to us from the Ministry.  She knows a thing or two about what this place was back in her day.”
         “I hope we find another Swansword.  And that she’s friendly.”
         “Oh, don’t you start,” said the Dragoness.  “You’re beginning to sound like Domison.  And that’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on any Human.  Do you hear that Domison?  I can feel you wriggling around in there!  Go to sleep you silly bugger!”
         Evani giggled as the Dragon sped her over the ocean to whatever discovery awaited.
 
“Big mouth bitch,” mumbled Domison as he rolled over.
         “I hope she didn’t hear that,” said a muffled beside him.
         Paxola was curled up in the back of the pouch, separated from Domison by the kind of precision muscle tightening that only Dragons were capable of.  It was likely that they were both getting an equal share of air spiracles, although Paxola’s comfort was more than guaranteed.
         “Are you ready for the morning?” said Domison.
         “I’ll find you a treasure trove of ancient Colonial gadgets in one minute flat,” said Paxola.
         “Don’t forget,” said Domison, “Tilanna Tionomes herself was standing right next to SwanSword, and not even she could see her.  She couldn’t even sense what she was until she stepped into the camouflage field.  If it weren’t for these new crystals, you wouldn’t stand a chance.”
         “Well, now I do,” said Paxola.
         There was a minute of silence in the darkness.  Domison almost felt guilty for mentioning Tilanna.  She was a hero and role model to Paxola, being a fellow Nekalifan and masterclass scanner.  And now, thanks to this mission, he had lost the chance to see her in person at the ceremony on New Kesalzhin Island.  Nonetheless, he was not the only one making sacrifices today.  Latharixa and her sister were working on the First Day of the most treasured Dragon holiday.  Regardless of results, they all deserved a hefty reward.
         “Let’s just hope this turns out well for all of us,” said Domison.
         “Agreed,” said Paxola.
         Domison closed his eyes in the living dark, hoping to dream of fame and fortune, hoping to live it in the days to come.
 
~  ~  ~
Chapter Three
 
As far as the audience was concerned, Gabrielle Gilson had the first real speech.
         Of course, everyone expected Secretary General Ganoville Santagora to open the ceremony.  After all, he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces of the Free Nations of Haloken.  He had been there six years ago at the Siege of Kesalzhin, when he had been Grand Marshal of the Sentinel.  However, his choices at the time had been gravely limited.  His most consequential action had been to co-ordinate the final evacuation of his forces. 
         Nonetheless, his speech did not fail to captivate the audience.  Tonight, he had the look and sound of a man haunted.  He was one of the few mortals alive to have spoken personally to Mayhara Herself.  When the Elixir had finally been exposed, he had been only a few dozen kilometres from the epicentre of the Reality disturbance.  And when Dahal Savithar demonstrated his newly acquired godlike power, murdering a thousand brave Dragons, Santagora had witnessed the atrocity.
         Next onstage was Lieutenant General Jerikau Karlonen of the Varantuan Army.  Six years earlier, he had been a Major General and head of the Emergency Coastal Defence Division.  He, too, had his hands tied on that fateful day.  He, too, had spoken to the benign goddess of the sea, and witnessed the deeds of the malign god of madness.  He had one haunting message for all – he had felt more comfortable, more secure, when he had been agnostic.
         The third speaker was Skymarshal Mirithaka of the Skywatch.  Humans loved to watch Dragons speak.  They were big, colourful, and rarely ever needed crystal amplification.  Mirithaka was a renowned orator even among Dragons, and her grasp of Varantuan was flawless.  Her poise was stately and majestic, and she did not look a day over two hundred.  Her glinting, deep blue and green scales contrasted vibrantly around her five thick, gold neckbands.
         Mirithaka had been one of the highest-ranking Dragons to evacuate the sea around Kesalzhin Island six years ago.  She had personally carried twenty-one Humans to safety, and cared nothing for their rank, only their lives.  Sometimes, she wished she could have died alongside Skymarshal Banthonotrax, but then she would remember the lives she saved, and thus regretted nothing.
         She spoke fondly of Banthonotrax, having known him well since her early days in joining the Skywatch.  He had always been a principled soul, having respect for the lowliest recruit as he had for any of his superior officers, and valued the lives of Humans as much as his own kind.  This principle had triggered his infamous altercation with the former General Bysamathark, who had lost an eye and gained a legion of Human-hating sympathists.  Banthonotrax had also been something of a prankster in his youth, and was very popular with the lady Dragons – although Mirithaka wisely did not elaborate on this latter detail.
         All three speeches had made their impressions on the audience, and none overstayed their welcome.  However, for all the cheers and applause they earned, the night’s true great attractions were yet to come.
         When Gabrielle Gilson stepped onto the stage, the cheering took a while to settle down.
         Here was the miracle that walked among them.  A woman who had slept for twenty-one thousand years and remained young.  A woman who was friends with Mayhara Herself.  A woman who had touched the Elixir twice, transformed into a goddess, and returned from the dead as a mortal Human once again.  A woman with the memories and knowledge of a vast and ancient civilization that – until recently – had only been the stuff of myth and legends.
         She was living proof that legends were real.
         “Well, hello!” she said, grinning rather awkwardly – not what one would have expected of a living legend, but what many had come to expect of her personally. 
         “HELLOOOOOO!” shouted the blue Baby Dragon, perched atop his mother’s head like some sort of novelty hat.
         The crowd immediately erupted into laughter.  Even the Dragons rumbled in merriment, none more amused than the Baby Dragon’s own proud mother.
         Gabrielle giggled in delight and wiggled her fingers in greeting.  “Hello cutie!” she said.
         “HELLOOOOOO!” the Baby Dragon repeated, sparking more laughter from the audience.
         Gabrielle took a while to stop chuckling.  But when she was finally ready to speak again, her smile had faded.
         “There are some things that just cannot be described in words,” she said, “and there are some things that shouldn’t.  I know that … many of you are here to gain more insight into my … unique experience, but right now, I can only give you the perspective of a mortal.  Because, right now, that’s all I am.  I don’t want any of you to forget that.
         “I have two things to tell you.  The first is this – be proud.  All of you.  Humans, Dragons, all nations.  Be proud as a civilization, for you have come a long way.  I know that many of you think that my world so long ago is the stuff of legend, and in a way you’d be right.  But I could say the same of your world.  You are what we used to dream of.  I’m serious.  You’ve harnessed the power of your minds.  Dragons are your friends.  And they let you ride them.  What could be more awesome than that?  You guys are awesome!  All of you!  Be proud!”
         Everyone cheered and applauded.
         “And you’re not just what we used to dream of.  In a way, you are what we once were.  My own ancestors on Earth, eight or nine hundred years before I was born – yeah, that’s a really long time ago!”
         There were chuckles throughout the audience.
         “We were going through a lot of what you are going through right now.  We were trying to come together as one world of so many nations, so many cultures.  And it wasn’t easy.  You should know what that’s like.  But persevere.  Because we made it.  We flew to the stars.  And so will you.  Strive on!”
         More applause followed.
         “And my second point of the night, and the one I’m sure is on everyone’s minds right now, because no-one would stop talking about it for six years … if you are worried about what’s out there, if you’re like General Karlonen and felt better off not believing, I’m here to tell you that it’s OK.  It’s all OK.  Because there is a God, there is an afterlife, and in the end, the good will be rewarded.  Especially the heroes.”
         This elicited the loudest applause to date.  The Dragons roared their approval.
         “And heroes are who we are here to celebrate.  I know it’s a cliché these days, but … personally, I don’t see myself as one.  I certainly wasn’t a hero when I met my new friends, who are here with me tonight – three in body, one in spirit.”
         Gabrielle seemed to sigh with relief as the audience applauded, this time more conservatively.  It was clear that she needed the time to breathe, to gather her thoughts and feelings.
         “I remember the moment we needed to leave SwanSword behind.  And … the friend of us all, the one watching over us tonight, the bravest Dragon who ever lived … he said … after how I had treated him and his friends … he said …”
         Gabrielle paused and rubbed her eye.
         “He said that he wanted me to die a better person.  Well, I’ve died twice in my life.  But I still have time left.  And I’m still working on it.  Really, that’s the best any of us can do.  We’re mortal.  The clock’s ticking for all of us.  Make every tick count.  Don’t waste a single moment.”
         The applause, the cheering of Humans and Dragons, was deafening.  It filled the air even as Gabrielle went backstage.
         Tilanna hugged her instantly.  “You were marvellous!” she said. 
         “I tried my best,” Gabrielle said with a modest grin, wiping another tear from her eye.
         “You’re a hard act to follow, that’s for sure,” said Vithan, who gave her a hug.
         From the stage came the amplified voice of Professor Averlon Valkrimmar – bestselling author, renowned historian, former advisor to President Chalivon, designated Chancellor of New Kesalzhin College and tonight’s Master of Ceremonies.
         “For those of you who are just here for the entertainment – don’t lie, I know you’re out there –“
         The crowd chuckled.
         “– we  have a treat for you.  All the way from Lythinia …”
         Vithan, being Lythinian himself, spotted them on the way to the stage door.
         “Pleased to meet you, guys,” he said.  “I’m a big fan.”
         Jothan Harolox, lead singer and guitarist for the thunderfolk band Crown of Defiance, who might have passed for Vithan’s taller, lankier cousin, grinned and stopped to shake Vithan’s hand.
         “I’m a fan of you!” he said.  “It’s a privilege!  I’ll see you after the act.”
         The other four bandmembers grinned and nodded at Vithan, Tilanna and Gabrielle as they carried their instruments onto the stage.
         Crown of Defiance performed their greatest hit, and one of the most popular songs of the past decade – “Never Again”.  It was a song almost symphonic in its instrumental complexity, its rhythm and volume like the crashing of mighty waves on jagged rocks, its melody at once sweet and mournful for the passing of ages and lives.  Its lyrics were filled with longing and cautious hope for a world that would never again feel the cold touch of cataclysm.  The audience joined in the well-known anthemic chorus, Human and Dragon alike.  For tonight, all were one.
         As the crowd roared and cheered, Vithan turned to Tilanna with a mischievous grin.
         “It’s your turn after this,” he said.
         “Then let them keep cheering,” she said.  “I could wait.”
         “Or maybe you could break the tension and just get it over with,” said Vithan.
         “He’s right,” said Gabrielle.  “You’ll feel better once it’s over.”
         Tilanna sighed and rolled her eyes.
         Just then, the band stepped down from the stage.
         “Guys,” said Vithan, “you were fantastic.”
         “Thanks Vithan,” said Jothan.  “By the way, we heard about what happened, with that dickhead and his tattoo.  What was that all about?”
         Vithan briefly described Sabilikon’s confrontation with the suicidally foolish Savithar devotee.  The band members listened in rapt attention, their expressions fixed somewhere between amusement and disgust.  One could imagine they were gathering material for a new song. 
         Tilanna was also listening to Vithan’s recounting of the incident – an incident that was all too stark and recent in her memory.  She knew that Sabilikon had already received a dressing down from one of her senior officers.  Threatening a Human civilian in public – even the most offensive, idiotic Human imaginable – was never to be taken lightly.  Tilanna hoped that Sabilikon would stay in the Skywatch.
         Besides, listening to Vithan took her mind off what the Master of Ceremonies was speaking to the crowd.  She didn’t want to be introduced as a hero.  That was setting her up to disappoint the world.  She was just a first hand witness to historical events.  Events she had little say in.  Until the end … And that is when she cursed herself for buying into the hero myth just like everyone who hadn’t been there when it all happened.
         “… masterclass scanner and Sentinel Captain, Tilanna Tionomes!”
         The crowd erupted at the Chancellor’s mention of her name.  Vithan, Gabrielle and all five members of Crown of Defiance were grinning at her with what they must have thought was encouragement.  Vithan nodded.
         I think this is your cue, he mindspoke.
         I think this is your turn to shut up, Tilanna replied.
         The two of them chuckled at the silent joke as Tilanna stepped onto the stage.
 
~  ~  ~
 
“We’re here!”
         The Dragon’s cheerful announcement snapped Elani out of her drowsy trance.  She perked up on Latharixa’s neck, watching the moonlit ocean rushing below them … and the cliffs of pure ice rushing towards them.  Latharixa was soaring straight for the face of the cliff.
         “Lathy, don’t,” Elani demanded, as the ice cliff grew huge before her.  “Seriously, don’t!  I’m not joking!  LATHY!”
         The Dragon laughed as she soared straight upwards and over the edge of the cliff.  Below, there was nothing but ice, speeding past below, within cutting distance of Latharixa’s claws.
         “You’re worse that Domison,” said Latharixa.
         “And you’re worse than … never mind.”
         “You were about to say Bysamathark, weren’t you?” said Latharixa.
         “No!” said Elani, almost in shock.  “I would never –“
         “Just joking,” said Latharixa.  “Relax.”
         “Did you say ten kilometres inland?” said Elani.  She could feel the Dragon slowing down.  Far to her right, Tyraxica was also decelerating.  Jensi was hunched over on his neck, half asleep.
         “That’s right,” said Latharixa.  “And we’re down to five kilometres.”
         The Dragons continued to decelerate, the wind all around them whistling softly, biting cold on Elani’s exposed face.
         “Four kilometres,” said Latharixa.  “Once you set up camp, you can go back to sleep.”
         “I’m going back into the pouch,” said Elani.
         Both Dragons swept around in vast arcs, beginning to spiral.
         “Only Paxola stays in the pouch tonight.  Unless there’s a blizzard.”
         “You like him, don’t you?”
         “Don’t you start.”
 
~  ~  ~
 
Tilanna paused, frozen on the podium.
         She had said everything that she wanted to say.  But now she had come to the difficult part of the speech.  The important part.  The necessary part.  The part she would never forgive herself for omitting.
         She stared into the thousands of gazes fixed on her.  It took her no effort, no intrusion, to know what they were all feeling.  She had earned their attention.  In a way, that made things worse.  They expected more from her.  They expected so much from her.  And she had to deliver. 
         But she could not simply tell them what they wanted to hear.
         “I killed on that day.”
         She glanced around the amphitheatre, at the thousands of Humans, the dozens of Dragons.  She saw Sabilikon just outside the Amphitheatre, near the upper edge.  Did she nod?
         Yes, came her mindvoice.  It is all right to tell.
         “I know I’m stating the obvious,” she added.  “It was a violent conflict.  I had to defend myself.  And I have no regrets.  I had to kill, otherwise I would not be standing here talking to you tonight.
         “But on the day I killed, I learned something.  The first Dragon that I killed had memories, had a life, had a daughter.  And he threw it all away.  He followed the worst possible path.  It was his fault he got himself killed.  There was no doubt of that.  But when I killed him … it was not fun.  A few minutes before I killed him, I thought that victory was going to be fun. But after ... I just wasn’t a girl anymore.  Sometimes the things that have to be done are the things that are not fun, not even pleasant.  I know that many of you gathered here tonight have seen combat, and you know exactly what I am talking about.”
         There were a few faint nods among the Dragons.
         “You might think ‘heroes’ are better people than you, but they are people just like you.  They just try to do the right thing.  Sometimes they succeed.  And what about the ones that knowingly avoid doing the right thing?  Are you better than them?  Of course you are.  But just how different are you?  Would revenge drive you to murder?  Would anger make killing feel good?  It is a very thin wall that separates us from the bad guys.
         “That is why, as you look around at the monuments that adorn this island, I urge you not to look up to these likenesses of the fallen and think of them as gods beyond your reach.  They are us.  They are you.  They were Humans and Dragons, just like you, who chose the path that they believed would lead to a better world.
         “And what about the villains we fear?  Are they monsters to be reviled?  Perhaps.  But … I know that some of you might not want to hear this, but some of them were also once like you.  They had parents.  They had loved ones.  Some of them even had children.  And, in some sort of twisted way, many of them thought they were on a path that led to a better world.
         “So our purpose in this life is not to worship the good guys, or deal with the bad guys only by fighting.  Our purpose is to learn from both.  From the example set by the heroes.  From the mistakes and bad choices made by the villains.  And to know – for a fact, and without shame or hubris – that either one could have been us.  It is all down to the choices we make.  The paths we walk.
         “So all I ask of you … is to go out into the world, and not to go out looking for evil to fight every single day, but to just follow the right path.  The path you know is right.  That is all.”
         For one terrible moment, Tilanna thought she had lost her audience.  There was nothing but silence.  She could easily have done a sweep scan of the crowd to monitor their true feelings, but she was afraid to look.
         Then the applause erupted, and Tilanna’s breath exploded with relief.
         Thank you, came the mindvoice of Sabilikon.  We all needed to hear that.  Myself most of all.
         The applause still filled the air when Tilanna stepped offstage into Vithan’s waiting arms.
         “I’m not going to top that one,” said Vithan.
         “You could try,” said Tilanna.
         “Have you ever seen me exert more effort than I needed just to get the job done?”
         “Not for a few years.”
         “We need to make that into a song,” said Jothan Harolox.  “No, seriously, that’s going to be our next project.  And we’ll give you credit.”
         The other band members faintly nodded in agreement.
         “It would be an honour,” said Tilanna.
         “The honour is ours,” said Jothan.
         “Has anyone seen Alathaka?” said Vithan.
         “Sabby said she’s going to keep her distance until it’s her turn,” said Tilanna.  “I’m sure she was listening, although … Sabby’s outburst must have reminded her …”
         Vithan sighed.  “Let’s hope she’s ready.”
         “… the man voted Sexiest Male Officer in the Sentinel …” blared the amplified voice of Chancellor Vikrimmar.  Hundreds of voices cheered, most of them female, most of them Human.
         “Oh come on!” said Vithan.  “They’re still going on with that populist twaddle?”
         “Are you doubting my good taste?” said Tilanna.
         “Yes!” said Vithan.  “I’ve always doubted whatever passes for your taste.”
         “… Vithan Varox!” said Chancellor Vikrimmar.
         Everyone cheered.
         “I think that’s your cue,” said Tilanna.
         “All right all right!” said Vithan, stomping onto the stage to face the roaring crowd.
         “HELLOOOOO!” Vithan shouted in imitation of the Baby Dragon, who was still perched atop his mother’s head.
         “HELLOOOOOOO!” replied the Baby Dragon, sounding something like an echo.
         The crowd laughed.
         “We heard you the first tiiiiiime!” said Vithan, eliciting more laughter.  “Our future Skymarshal, ladies and gentlemen,” he added.  This earned even more laughs, especially from Skymarshal Mirithaka.
         “Seriously,” said Vithan, “did you all believe that horse crap?  About me being the sexiest man in the Sentinel?”
         Dozens of women and a few men responded with a collective “Yeees!”
         “Seriously?” said Vithan.  “Is this what turns you on, ladies?”  He rolled up his leather sleeve, exposing a perfectly ordinary pale arm.  “This?”
         Some women in the audience cheered and whistled.
         “Do you see any muscles?” said Vithan.  “Do you?  Right now you’re seeing a lot more veins than muscles.  Seriously, ladies, raise your standards!”
         More laughter.
         “You all know what they say about men with the strongest mindpowers, don’t you?  It’s all about compensating.  Or is that it, ladies?  Does all the sparks and lightning make up for it?”
         More female cheers.
         “Perverts!” shouted Vithan.
         He only seemed to encourage them.
         “Shock me darling!” said a loud female voice – definitely a Dragon.
         Vithan froze and gave the best shocked expression he could muster, which got some of the biggest laughs of the night.
         “And you’re the biggest pervert of the lot!” he shouted in mock outrage at the female Dragon on the edge of the Amphitheatre.  “Literally!”
         He shook his head as the crowd roared with laughter.  “And she’s in the Skywatch too!”  He stared straight at Skymarshal Mirithaka.  “Do you know about this, Skymarshal?  Do you?”
         The Skymarshal gave a playful nod.
         “Unbelievable!” said Vithan, shaking his head.  “That’s just … urgh!  That would be like me going for shaven mice or something.”
         Even Sabilikon laughed at that one.  Vithan felt a spark of relief.  After what she had put up with earlier that night, it was a good sign.
         “You watch yourself, Missy!” said Vithan, wagging his finger at the young Skywatch Dragon.  “You’re gonna lose those bands.  We know what you get up to.  What do you think my job is?  Hey?  Hey?”
         The young Dragoness cocked her head as the audience laughed.
         “We’ve got a list this long!” said Vithan.  “We have all the recordings!  You watch yourself.  Your secret’s going to be out any time soon.”
         “It’s an open secret!” said the Dragoness.
         Vithan raised one of his angular eyebrows.  “Really?” he said.  “If it’s an open secret, would you like to come down here and talk about it?”
         “Yes!” said the Dragoness.
         “Then come on stage!  Come on!”
         The audience clapped and cheered as the zebra-striped Dragoness – wearing two thin gold neckbands – walked around the edge of the Amphitheatre, then walked down the ramp and onto the stage.  Vithan backed toward the left of the stage to give her some room.  Of course, the stage was built for Dragons, so there was plenty of room for both.  The Dragon officer turned to the cheering audience and bowed her head, then turned to the left and bowed again.
         “And what is your name, Missy?” said Vithan as the crowd died down.
         The Dragoness turned to the crowd and gave her best sultry voice: “Patrol Officer Siraloxi.” 
         Some of the Dragons growled softly in approval.  Siraloxi winked at them and wiggled her big rump.
         “Officer Siraloxi,” said Vithan, “do you have a boyfriend?”
         “I have many,” said Siraloxi, winking at the audience again.  The audience laughed as more Dragons growled.
         Vithan turned to the audience with a blank expression and shook his head, gaining more laughter.  “Honestly …” he said.  “Do your boyfriends know of your perverted unnatural activities?”
         “They take part in every one of them,” said Siraloxi, cracking her tail like a whip. 
         Humans and Dragons laughed and cheered.
         Vithan turned to the audience once again.  “Ooh-hoo,” he said, shaking his head.  He turned back to Siraloxi.  “Do your superior officers know of your activities?”
         “Who do you think organizes them?” said Siraloxi.  This got a lot of good laughs from the Dragons.
         Vithan looked directly at Skymarshal Mirithaka.  “Is this true?” he said.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka grinned and rolled her head, which was Dragon body language for “I don’t know, maybe, maybe not.”
         Vithan put on his best shocked face again and faced the audience.  “Corruption to the core,” he said.  He turned back to Siraloxi.  “So, what is it about certain Human males that you admire so much?”
         “It’s the lightning!” she said.  Throughout the audience, females of both species cheered.
         “Really?” said Vithan.  “The lightning thing can be done by an elite minority of men and an elite minority of women.  A lot of them are in the Sentinel.”
         “Yes, but I like it best when men do it,” said Siraloxi.
         “Would it make you happy if you watched me do the lightning thing right now?” said Vithan.
         Everyone seemed to cheer this time.
         “Ooh, it would make me so much more than happy,” said Siraloxi.  “It would give me tingles in every place that matters!”  She shook her rump again as the crowd cheered.
         Vithan pretended to sigh.  “Very well then,” he said.  “But please, try to control yourself.  Promise?”
         “I promise,” said Siraloxi, sitting on her haunches.  “I’ll be a good girl.”  She winked at the tittering audience.
         Vithan held out his arms to the audience, his hands facing each other a metre apart.  Suddenly, piercingly bright lighting crackled between them, popping like a hailstorm on a steel roof. 
         The cheers of the crowd roared to a crescendo.
         Siraloxi thrust her head towards Vithan’s hands and snapped her jaws like a hungry crocodile.
         The crowd laughed as Vithan jumped back and the lightning disappeared.  He held out his arms in a classic defence pose, eliciting cheers from many in the crowd.
Siraloxi snapped again.  “Shock me darling!” she said.
         “No!” said Vithan, wagging a finger.  “Bad girl!  Get back to your seat!”
         Siraloxi turned to the audience, bowing multiple times to one and all as one and all cheered and applauded her.  She turned to stage right, wiggled her rump and climbed back up the ramp to the Dragon seats.
         “Go on!” said Vithan, waving his arms as if shooing away an errant dog.  “Get out of here!  Go back to your … God only knows what.  Honestly, Dragons these days!”
         The audience was still clapping and cheering when Siraloxi returned to her seat, exchanging playful looks and Draconic chatter with her fellow Dragon officers.
         “At least we know what villains to watch out for,” said Vithan, getting a few more laughs.  “Now where was I?” he added.  “What was I here for?  Oh, yes.  The memorial speech.  That thing that happened six years ago.  I forgot all about it.  Completely slipped my mind.”
         Vithan was surprised that this got plenty of laughs.  He felt relieved.
         “This is what we want,” said Vithan.  “Humans and Dragons, young and old, defenders and civilians, all together, all sharing a laugh.  Because if we can’t have that, then what the hell are we defending?”
         Sincere cheers and applause followed.
         “I had a speech prepared,” said Vithan.  “I had it all memorized.  Until … Miss Naughty Snappy Jaws ruined everything.”
         The crowd went back to laughing.  Siraloxi winked at Vithan.
         “The truth is, you don’t have to fight bad guys to save the world,” he said.  “You only have to … be a good friend.”
         Vithan paused, raising his gaze above the audience, above the Dragons on the edge of the Amphitheatre, above the campus buildings that towered above them, to the stars in the sky.
         I won’t cry, he silently told himself.  Perhaps another joke would hold back the tears.
         He caught familiar lamp-lit colours on the edge of his vision.  He turned slightly to his right.  Alathaka was seated out on the edge of the Amphitheatre, her stare soft and sincere.
         “Many of us lost so many friends and loved ones on that day,” said Vithan.  “But I don’t think any one of them would want us to cry.  I think they would only want us to be happy.  I know … I know he would.  Thank you all.”
         The crowd cheered its loudest to date as he walked off the stage.
         He descended into Tilanna’s tender embrace.  Finally, he was able to cry.
 
The second musical performance of the night was provided by Trinity – a vocal trio of three female Dragons.  They sang an elaborate rendition of a traditional Dragon requiem for the fallen and lost loved ones.  Their throats produced richly resonant sounds and notes no Human throat could hope to match, no hand-crafted instruments could hope to reproduce.  No Human words, no translations were necessary to convey the sheer sense of love, joy and sorrow their notes produced.  Thousands of Humans wiped tears from their faces, knowing that all gathered under the night’s stars shared these same emotions.  As the song came to its end and the beautiful notes faded as if into an immense cosmic distance, the final impression was not one of fear or grief, but of a gentle, peaceful good-bye.
         The audience was slow to applaud, stunned as they were by the spell cast by the three beautiful Dragon does.  But applaud they did, and all stood up out of their seats to give the third loudest and third longest cheer of the night.  The three does bowed their heads as one to the audience as the cheers rose to a triumphant roar.
         “That was beautiful,” said Tilanna, sitting just offstage.
         “It truly was,” said Vithan, watching the three Dragons exiting the stage and climbing back up the ramp.  He felt Tilanna wiping tears from his cheekbone.  “I can wipe away my own tears, thank you very much,” he said.
         “Not all of them,” said Tilanna.  “You’ve got way too much tonight.  Too much for one man to handle.”
         “You don’t need to help me cry,” said Vithan.  “You make me cry sometimes.  Except then it’s more of a … you know … I-got-my-balls-caught-between-two-gears kind of cry.”
         Tilanna giggled and kissed him on the cheek.  “Alathaka is up next,” she said.
         “Do you think she’s all right for it?” said Vithan.
         “On the surface, she seems fine,” said Tilanna.  “But there’s a lot of pain there, buried deep.  I think the requiem might have soothed her, for now.”
         “… and has frequently been rated as one of the most powerful Dragons in the Skywatch today,” announced Professor Vilkrimmar, “give a fiery warm welcome to Squadron Leader Alathaka!”
         The crowd cheered and roared as Alathaka made her entrance.  She was the biggest Dragon to appear on stage that night, and made no attempt to hide it.  She outspread her wings, filling the stage from end to end.  Her veins lit up her wings like leaves of fire.  She raised her head, reared up on her massive hind legs, and roared in pride and triumph, roared louder than any other Dragon present.  The cheers rose, near-deafening yet unable to match her, taking a long time to settle down.
         The stage was built to take two hundred tons.  Fortunately, Alathaka only weighed thirty-six – and could reduce her gravity weight down to nothing if needed.
         “Olokuvon would have loved this,” said Alathaka as she settled onto all fours.  “He would have loved you all.”
         Everyone cheered in agreement.
         “And I know he does,” she added, “because I know he’s here.  Forever watching.”
         She turned her head and looked up at the statue of her lover that towered over everyone and everything.  Once again, the cheering rose.
         “I used to be an actress,” she said.  “I was in the campus drama group.  Did any of you know that?”
         There were some enthusiastic cheers among the Humans.
         “It seems we have some former Kesalzhin students here tonight,” she said, looking around the Amphitheatre.  “Do you like what they have done with the place?”
         Dozens of Humans shouted “Yes!”
         “Have any of you seen my statue?”
         Half the audience cheered in affirmation.
         “Would you not love to have a statue as beautiful as mine?”
         The cheers continued.
         “Shalyn Hythax did such a masterful job, did he not?  He got my eyes right, my nose, my ears, my wings, my tail, my hips, all the parts you boys like to look at.  Am I right?”
         Thousands of males cheered.
         “I can see Mister Hythax in the audience tonight.  Shalyn, could you stand up please?  Don’t be shy.”
         A dark-skinned Ixthillion man in his twenties stood up only a few rows from the stage.  An illusory light-haze appeared above him, highlighting him for all to see.  He turned to the bulk of the audience, grinning coyly as he bowed.
         “This man is truly a superlative artist, do you not agree?” said Alathaka.
         Everyone cheered in agreement.
         “On the day of the Siege, when Gabrielle’s bomb exploded underground and the Assembly Hall’s roof window shattered, he took two shards and moulded them into a perfect likeness of me the size of a housecat.  He achieved that within minutes.  It was to thank me for protecting my fellow hostages from the falling shards.”
         More cheers.
         “But it seems that he could not thank me enough,” Alathaka continued.  “He would not rest until he moulded a statue of me that was twice my size!  Because if there is one thing that I have learned in my young life, it is that no-one could ever get enough of me!”
         Everyone laughed and cheered.
         “No, it is not enough to have me in tiny little bite-sized portions.  You must have me in MOUNTAIN sized portions!”
         Once again, she spread her wings to fill the stage, and the cheers rose to a full roar.
         “Thank you, Shalyn.  I shall see you after the show.”  She winked.
         Shalyn shook his head and wagged his finger as he sat down, making some nearby audience members chuckle.
         “Did I mention that Patrol Officer Siraloxi is a member of my squadron?”
         The crowd laughed.  On the edge of the Amphitheatre, Siraloxi nodded with a smile.
         “Ah, yes,” said Alathaka.  “It is all coming clear now, is it not?”
         More laughter.
         “Fortunately for your delicate sensibilities,” she continued, “this is not the subject I am here to talk about.  After all, everyone who knows me knows that I am a meek and modest little girl.”
         Almost everyone roared with laughter.
         “Oh yes,” she said.  “So modest that I have no desire to remind you once again that I used to be an actress in this island college years before it was rebuilt.”
         The laughter continued. 
“Sometimes I was the stage itself.  My neck would be the bench where the Human actors would sit.  My claws, the Emporer’s throne.  My tail, the walled border of the palace.  My pouch, the private quarters where certain characters would emerge or disappear.  My wings, the curtains to open and close each act.  And that is why I bring you good news on this otherwise mournful night.  For this very place, the newly constructed Amphitheatre upon which so many rumps both massive and miniscule are now seated, shall henceforth be named the Alathaka Amphitheatre!”
         Once again, Alathaka spread her wings mightily as the crowd roared its collective praise.
         “As pleasing as it may be to I and all, this is not the greatest news I have to bear.  Oh no.  For in honour of the sheer courage, loyalty and relentless fighting spirit displayed by my fallen beloved, the island under your feet shall henceforth be named Olokuvon Island!”
         A hundred Dragons and ten thousand Humans rose to their feet, as the skies erupted with the second loudest and second longest cheer of the night.
         When the roars of adulation finally began to subside, Alathaka continued.  “And I welcome one and all to the newly opened Olokuvon Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted!”
         The cheering continued as if it had never stopped.  Alathaka outspread her wings, levitated above the roaring throng, and soared upward into the night sky.  She landed gently on the huge head of Olokuvon’s statue, filled her wing-veins with the fiery latticework of her blood, and exhaled a blinding stream of golden-white fire, splitting the night sky, dimming the stars and moons with its hot radiance.  Humans and Dragons alike gazed up in wonder, the world around them lit up as if the Sun was rising so gloriously early.
         Still atop his mother’s head, the Baby Dragon looked up to the heavens and gave his own shrill cheer.  He was loving the spectacle, which was just about all he could understand.
         Eventually, even this thunderous praise had to fade.  Alathaka stepped off the head of the most beloved statue and – her wings fixed in a V-shape – began to slowly, daintily float down the stage, as light as a feather.  When her claws finally touched the stage floor, she folded her wings.
         “I am such a meek and modest girl,” she said.
         The laughter seemed almost anticlimactic after such a powerful cheer.  It was almost as if everyone was still catching their breaths.  Even the Dragons.
         “But on the subject of the Enemy, I refuse to be modest.”         For this line, there was no cheer, only silence.  After all that had passed, it was a great time for all to hold breaths.  All knew that they had to prepare for what was to come.  All could feel it in the air.  
         Now it’s beginning to show, Tilanna mindspoke.
         Vithan could only nod, knowing exactly what Tilanna referred to.        Six years could not heal everything.
         “You all know what the enemy is,” said Alathaka.  She began to prowl from one end of the stage to the other, like a tigress waiting to be fed, never leaving her burning emerald gaze from her captive audience.  “The powerful and heartless terrorizing the weak and innocent.”
         A collective “Yes!” could be heard like a distant crashing wave.
         “Dragons striking fear into the hearts of Humans and Dragons alike, giving my race, my clan, my family and loved ones, a filthy reputation they do not deserve!”
         The cries of “Yeees!” grew louder, like a wave crashing ever closer.
         “I tell you now, I tell you all, we will not give in to fear!  We will not give in to their hate!  We will not let them divide us and turn our world into the desolate hell they want to live in!”
         All cheered, even the Skymarshal. 
         Sounds good so far, Vithan mindspoke.
         So far, Tilanna cautiously agreed.
         “I have seen the face of the Enemy,” snarled Alathaka, still prowling the stage.  “I have gazed into the eyes of pure evil.  Do you know what I saw?  Not courage.  Not confidence.  Not love.  Not empathy.  But fear!  Nothing but cowardice and fear!”
         The crowd roared as one beast.
         “I say, let them be afraid!  For it is us they must fear more than anything!  For it is we who want to make a better world, a world with no place for the vermin who seek to divide us!”
         The crowd-beast roared louder, but not all were joining in.
         “Yes, let them be afraid!  Let them flutter away and hide like the filthy little pigeons they are!  For we will know where to find them!”
         The crowd roared “YEEES!”
         “We will track them down, we will corner them and watch them tremble, and then we will BURN THEM!”
         She outspread her wings once more, her veins aglow with bloodfire, and the crowd roared its bloodlust.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka sat there motionless, her expression stiff and stern as she glared at this younger, louder Skywatch officer.
         “WE WILL BURN THEM WHERE THEY HIDE!” Alathaka roared.  “WE WILL BURN THEM WHERE THEY TREMBLE!  WE WILL EXPUNGE THE STINK OF THEIR HATE FROM OUR BEAUTIFUL WORLD, AND WE WILL REJOICE!!”
         Once again, she exhaled a golden stream of fire high above the crowd, filling the sky with the light of her passion and the heat of her rage, and the crowd roared to match her.     
         Skymarshal Mirithaka continued to stare, unmoved, unimpressed.
         The Baby Dragon was no longer visible, having sought refuge in his mother’s pouch.  His mother simply glanced around at the cheering throng, concerned.
         She’s lost it, Vithan mindspoke, equally concerned.
         I was afraid this might happen, Tilanna mindspoke.
         Millions of Humans around the world are watching this right now, said Vithan.  And thousands of Dragons.
         Unfortunately, too many are going to love it, said Tilanna.
         Do you know what the scariest thing is?
         What?
         I sort of agree with her.
         Tilanna gave Vithan a sly side-glance.  Then you need to be disciplined too.
         It was only a joke, but not a happy one.
         Once again, Alathaka levitated above the cheering throng, wings vast and glowing.  The cheers continued as she flew away into the night sky, disappearing on the other side of the trees and buildings and lights.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka and two other senior Skywatch officers had been watching her trajectory.  They got to their feet and walked towards the area where Alathaka had disappeared.
         “Let’s hope she keeps all her bands,” Vithan said out aloud.
         “It sounds like Sabilikon’s losing one,” said Tilanna.  “If we have two demotions in one night …”
         “Then the message is clear,” said Vithan.  “For some, the battle doesn’t end.  And what better way to remind the public?”
         “Vithan!”
         “I’m not being callous.  If Alathaka loses a neckband, the whole world will know why, just as they’d know why she got a bit emotional during her speech.”
         “A bit emotional?”
         “I’m saying that – regardless of whether they agree with her or not, or whether they think Sabby was justified in threatening to fry that Savithar-loving tattoo dickhead – everyone will know what Dragons like her go through.”
         “Everyone will know?” Tilanna’s stare was incredulous.  “We now have a Memorial Day just for this occasion.  The first day of Sakatoth is now a day of mourning, and will be for at least another thousand years.  I think people already know.”
         “Not most of them,” Vithan corrected.  “Not until now.  Now they know for a fact that Dragons grieve and suffer trauma just like Humans.  There are a lot of people out there that could really benefit from learning that.”
         Tilanna sighed heavily through her nostrils as she gazed ahead, trying to lose herself in the crystal lights that drowned the stars.  “Somehow,” she said, “I don’t think that’s the message they got.”
 
~  ~  ~
This will be the last chapter I shall post here, at least for some time to come.  The 26 thousand words on this thread will only be a small fraction of the finished novel, which is going to be even bigger, more ambitious, and more apocalyptic than the first one.

You can purchase Project Heavenstorm: Book One of the Elixir Trilogy here.




Chapter Four
 
Alathaka sat in the middle of the forest clearing, far from the festival lights.  Three senior Dragons sat in front of her.  There was Commander Jarakona, her immediate superior officer; General Vysiloxa, deputy head of the Skywatch; and Skymarshal Mirithaka herself.
         “I must admit, I was thoroughly enjoying this night,” said the Skymarshal.  Her voice was as soft as the dim emerald glow of her gaze.  “I was enjoying the friendly, relaxed atmosphere.  I was enjoying watching Humans and Dragons coming together to mourn and celebrate as one – with one … minor exception.  I was enjoying the speeches, the music, the jokes.  Even your jokes, Officer Alathaka.  But what you expressed so passionately later in your speech was not a joke, was it?”
         “It was nothing more than an honest expression of my feelings, Skymarshal,” said Alathaka.
         “That is what concerns me,” said the Skymarshal.  “We understand that the past six years has not been easy for you, Officer Alathaka.  All four of us gathered here have lost friends and loved ones in battle.  We know your pain all too well.  And you were a civilian when it happened.  The shock of Olokuvon’s loss must have been overwhelming.”
         “The shock of Olokuvon’s loss inspired me to fight for a better world,” said Alathaka.  “I am sorry, Skymarshal, but those are my honest thoughts.”
         “I have no doubt,” said Skymarshal Mirithaka.  “But answer me honestly, Officer Alathaka – was that speech all about fighting for a better world?”
         “My speech consisted of nothing but my honest thoughts and hopes for a better world, Skymarshal,” said Alathaka.
         “I see,” said Mirithaka.  “So that, in itself, is a most disturbing thought.”
         “Skymarshal, I have no desire to –“
         “Tell me Officer Alathaka, what do you think millions of Humans throughout the planet witnessed just then?”
         “They witnessed a Dragon expressing her thoughts and feelings with honesty and passion,” said Alathaka.
         “Oh yes, I have no doubt that they did.  I have no doubt that they heard your words and sentiments as absolutely genuine as they cowered under their dinner tables in abject terror.”
         Alathaka felt an explosion of shock throughout her system, as physical as any battle-blow.  “Skymarshal, the innocent have nothing to fear from –“
         “The innocent witnessed a huge Dragon ranting and roaring, breathing fire and threatening to burn all her enemies to ash.  You were doing very little to dispel long-held stereotypes of our race, were you not?”
         “Skymarshal, I only want to protect the innocent.  And they loved it!  All the Humans were cheering!”
         “Perhaps many of them were afraid not to cheer.”
         The words hit Alathaka like another blow to the soul.  “But they did not have to cheer!  They did not have to agree!  We are defending their right to believe whatever they want!”
         “Precisely, Officer.  Now you are finally beginning to wake up to reality after your little theatrical interlude.  When you speak publically at a memorial service, wearing those bands, you speak not only as an individual with unique experience, but also on behalf of the Skywatch itself.  Is that understood?”
         “Affirmative, Skymarshal.”
         “Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that this is not the first time I have heard such public vitriol from one of my fellow Officers.  For a while, you sounded almost like him.”
         Alathaka stared blankly.
         “You sounded almost like Bysamathark,” said Mirithaka.
         Instantly Alathaka got to her feet, incensed with shock and rage.  “You would compare me to that –“
         “SIT DOWN OFFICER ALATHAKA.”
         Instantly Alathaka obeyed.
         “I am not saying that you are anywhere near as bad as Bysamathark.  I am not that cruel or stupid.  But I have lived long enough to know the warning signs.  And I have learned enough to know that, sometimes, the worst of things begin with the best of intentions.  In the case of Bysamathark, it began with a desire to preserve the more esoteric traditions of Draconic culture.  This included the Great Clans keeping their plundered wealth instead of sharing it with the descendants of Humans they had stolen it from; hence his opposition to the Cityclan Partnerships.  His concerns also included political, economic and status inequities between Humans and Dragons in both public and private sectors, despite blatantly obvious differences in lifespan, strength, and physical needs.  He also detested hypocrisy and corruption in Human politics – a stance which, I must admit, was sometimes not completely without merit, if somewhat blown out of proportion and made sickeningly hypocritical by Bysamathark’s own actions.  And, of course, there was the poisoning and subsequent sterilization of the entire Varazikon Clan, which triggered mass retaliation and the horror of the Sweep Raids.  So you see, Officer Alathaka, Dragons once had some good reasons to listen to the one who would soon become reviled as an anti-Human terrorist.”
         “That soulless soot-stain murdered my –“
         “Which is exactly my point, Officer Alathaka.  He became a mass murderer.  Thank you for helping me with my argument.”
         “Skymarshal, I swear to Tikamath, I swear upon the Cosmic Egg, I swear upon the blood of my clan, I swear upon the ashes of Olokuvon, I will never harm the innocent, I will never threaten the innocent, nor allow the innocent to come to any harm.  That is my word.”
         “I believe you, Officer Alathaka.  I have no doubt of your sincerity.  And I still believe that you are a hero.  You deserve that accolade.  You fought evil face-to-face in one of the most pivotal conflicts of our history.  You flew your two Human friends to safety in the end.  These are, unquestionably, the deeds and actions of a hero.  But do not, for a moment, believe that makes you free of the flaws that all mortals share, or exempt from the laws and standards that all mortals must follow.  If anything, your status only increases your responsibility, obliging you to uphold those standards with conscious effort.  And – as much as it pains me to bring up this subject – do not for a moment believe that the loss of a loved one makes you special or unique.  As I have already stated, many others share your pain.  Many others understand.  It is not our experience alone that defines us, but what we do with the lessons we have learned.  Do you understand, Officer Alathaka?”
         “Absolutely, Skymarshal.”
         “And now we come to the subject of your present status with the Skywatch.”
         Alathaka held her breath.
         “Unlike Sabilikon, you will keep your rank as Squadron Leader for the foreseeable future.”
         Alathaka sighed with relief.
         “Your performance up until this night has been superlative, Officer.  Despite your issues, your psychological evaluations have yielded positive results.  And your raw power is … well, it exceeds my own.  But we must keep a closer eye on you in light of your outburst.  So, for the next four weeks, we are going to double your therapy and halve your duties.”
         Alathaka widened her eyes.  “But Skymarshal –“
         “You will retain command of your squadron, Officer.  But for the next four weeks, you and your squadron will be restricted to ocean patrols.  Not land.  Starting from tomorrow morning.”
         Alathaka’s gaze sank to the dark grass at the Skymarshal’s feet.  She immediately regained eye contact when the question bit her mind.  “Skymarshal, how shall my teammates be affected –“
         “Lieutenant Taroviskon will lead the squadron in your absence.  He will lead both land and sea patrols.  In the meantime, your are to gather your squadron for North Ocean Sweep at nine tomorrow morning, and then report to Assessment at fourteen.  Do you have any remaining questions, Officer Alathaka?”
         “Negative, Skymarshal.”
         “Then this discussion is concluded, Officer Alathaka.  You are dismissed.”
         Alathaka politely nodded.  “Affirmative, Skymarshal.”  She turned away.
         “Officer Alathaka, I just have one more word of advice, if you do not mind.”
         Alathaka turned back to the Skymarshal.
         “If you wish to prance up and down the stage ranting and roaring and breathing fire as a pretend villain, scaring all the joeys and children, then please do so as an actress, not as an Officer of the Skywatch.  Understood?”
         “Understood, Skymarshal.”
         “Please do your best to enjoy the rest of this night.  And remember that we still have faith in you.  Please ensure that you keep earning it.”
         The three senior officers levitated gracefully above the treetops, outspreading their wings as they glided away.
         Absently, Alathaka turned to face the glow of crystal lights above the treetops, wondering how and when she should return to the gaze of the public. 
         While she certainly did not want to be seen as a fanatic or a monster, being a hero clearly came with its own set of responsibilities.
         Perhaps she should return to the light as just another Dragon.  An equal.  A friend.
 
~  ~  ~
 
Evani sat in the middle of the hexagonal tent, warming her hands against the heat crystal. 
         “You can sleep with your gloves on, you know,” said Domison from behind.  “God knows I am.”
         “I know,” said Evani.  “I just like the feel of radiant heat.  It’s like your skin is drinking in warmth.”
         “Pax will be getting enough of that tonight,” said Domison.  “There could be the greatest blizzard in history and he wouldn’t feel a thing.”
         “Well, he will have the toughest job tomorrow,” said Evani.  “At least mentally.”
         “He’s the one who can sense a blizzard coming from a hundred kilometres,” said Domison.  “He could probably do that a lot easier without a bloody big Dragon sitting on him.”
         He exited the tent, entering dimly lit bleakness that stung his nose with cold.  To his left was the other tent.  On the other side of that, Latharixa and Tayraxica were comfortably crouched in the snow, unperturbed by a climate that would give most Humans frostbite.
         “So what’s the battle plan for blizzards?” Domison shouted at the Dragons.
         “We sleep through them,” said Tayraxica.
         “Ha ha ha, dickhead,” droned Domison.
         “We can shield the entire camp,” said Latharixa.  “Although all six of you can cram into our pouches if necessary.”
         “Can’t you two just … you know … diffuse the blizzard?”
         Latharixa twitched her ears and sniffed the air.  “Just how much liquor do you really need in one night?”
         “I’m serious.  I mean, Kovanaxa created a blizzard for his show, remember?”
         “His ‘blizzard’ covered a few city blocks,” said Latharixa.  “We’re not exactly dealing with stage props out here.  To diffuse a real blizzard?  You would have to be Mayhara.”
         “Why do you even bring up Kovanaxa anyway?” said Tayraxica.  “Most Dragons do not have his talents.” 
         “He’s right,” said Latharixa. “We don’t really specialize in cooling things down, in case you haven’t noticed.”
         “So what’s the plan?”
         “I told you, we just shield the camp,” said Latharixa.  “We can literally do that in our sleep. I’ve done this with all my other teams.  Trust us.  There is no natural disaster we are not prepared for.”
         “If I get frostbite,” said Domison, “you owe me a nose.”
         “You can have mine,” said Latharixa.  “It would be an improvement.”
          Domison gave the Dragons a dismissive wave and returned to the tent. 
 
~  ~  ~
 
Yes, thought Alathaka.  Shalyn the sculptor had been very flattering.
         Of course, flattery was easy.  The real task would have been capturing her majestic beauty in every detail – in which Shalyn Hythax had succeeded brilliantly.
         Like the statue of her long lost beloved, the statue of Alathaka stood upon a broad, box-shaped base of smoothly polished stone, with short crystal lamp towers on each corner.  This statue was only twice life size – not five times – but had a similarly rampant pose, rearing up on massively built hind legs and haunches.  While Olokuvon’s statue faced directly forward, Alathaka’s statue was coiled around like a spring.  The head was facing to the left of the hips, and the tail was coiled around the body like a low ramping wall.  The scales were smoothly rounded crystals of red and blue, the underbelly a sleek and gleaming pink, and the eyes burning lamps of emerald.
         This was the sight that would greet seafarers entering Olokuvon Island River.  A worthy sight indeed.  Much like that … what was it called?  The Freedom Statue in Yukon City?  She would have to re-read Gabrielle’s book about ancient Earth monuments.  She had spent enough time studying one of her other books …
         If only she could remain worthy of such an idol, of such an ideal.
         She sat there, studying every detail of her likeness, wondering what Dragons and Humans really thought when they gazed upon her image – whether it be crystal, light, or flesh.  Did they see a hero, a zealot, or just another Dragon?  Could she ever again be just another Dragon?  Was there any point in believing that the world could ever go back to being “normal”, whatever that meant?
“Officer Alathaka?”
         The voice was much closer to ground level.  A Human female.
         Alathaka tore her gaze from the statue and looked down.  A very young blonde woman was staring up at her with a coy smile.  Her dress sense reflected the recent Human trend for a return to modesty – a gold-buttoned apricot blazer with a matching hood and tubular skirt.  Beside her was a boy – perhaps only seven – who was considerably more timid, barely making eye contact with Alathaka as he gripped his mother’s hand.  In his other hand was a sheet of white paper.
         “This is such a rare privilege,” said the woman.  “We are both huge admirers of you.  Well, maybe not so huge, all things considered.”
         Alathaka rumbled laughter, smiling welcomingly.  “All that matters is the size of your heart,” she said.
         “We were watching you,” said the woman, “listening to your speech.  And I just want to say that … we agree with you.  We support you completely.”
         “Thank you,” said Alathaka.  “But please remember that I do not encourage war or revenge.  I only want to protect the innocent.  Good, innocent people like you, and your handsome little boy.”
         The boy grinned shyly and looked at his shoes.
         “I know,” said the woman.  “But … I don’t blame you.  I can’t blame you.  You see … I know we haven’t met before.  But maybe you’ve met my boyfriend.  Jalkin’s father.  He …”
         Tears welled up in the young mother’s eyes.
         “He was a student here, six years ago.  He had been there, when … when Dahal Savithar …”
         The woman’s voice broke apart as she gave way to grief. 
         With a jolt like a blast to the heart, Alathaka understood.
         She remembered that moment with a cruel, agonizing clarity – one of the very worst moments of her life.  Her beloved Olokuvon had died fighting.  A thousand other Dragons had been prepared to fight before being casually incinerated by the newborn Mad God.  But the small group of Human students who had stood not so far away from her on the marble floor, those students who had been burned to ash by that disgusting monster just to stab at her soul …
         “Oh no,” said Alathaka.  “I’m sorry.”
         She lowered her head to the weeping woman.
         “I should have saved him,” said Alathaka.  “I should have saved them all.  I am so sorry.  Please forgive me.”
         “There’s nothing to forgive,” the woman said.  “Please don’t blame yourself.  You did everything you could.  You did so much.  You’re a hero.  The whole world knows it, and no-one more than us.”
         She reached out to touch Alathaka on the muzzle, stroking her scales softly with her tear-soaked little hand.  Alathaka purred softly, gently nuzzling the woman’s shoulder.
         “Jalkin has something to show you,” said the woman.
         “Has he now?” said Alathaka.  She turned to face the little boy, who took one step back.  “What do you have to show me, little one?”
         Jalkin half hid behind his mother.
         “You can show her, Jalkin.  It’s all right.”
         The boy nervously held up the sheet of paper.  On it was a simple crayon drawing.  It was clearly a Dragon with red and blue stripes.    
         “Is that me?” said Alathaka.
         Jalkin coyly nodded.
         “That is so beautiful!” said Alathaka.  “You are going to be a wonderful artist when you grow up.  You might even make a statue like this one!”  She pointed a wing at the statue that towered over her.
         “I know it’s hard to tell at this age,” said Jalkin’s mother, “but we don’t think his mindpowers are in that field.”
         “It does not matter,” said Alathaka.  “Some of the greatest artists in the world never needed to move things around with their minds.  You could paint pictures, or sculpt and mould with your hands.  And it looks like you are off to a good start!”
         “He wants you to keep it.”
         “Is that so?  Would you let me keep your drawing, Jalkin?”
         Jalkin nodded.
         “Aww, that is so kind of you Jalkin!”
         She gently levitated the drawing into the air, cautiously folding it in half with her mind.
         “I’m going to keep it in my pouch, to remind me of what a lovely boy you are, Jalkin.”
         With her psychokinesis, she swiftly flew the sheet of paper into her pouch, letting it rest beside a small package.
         “How about a hug?” said Alathaka.  “You can hug my nose.  The rest of me is too big.”
         Jalkin chuckled silently, stepping forward to embrace the tip of Alathaka’s nose.  Alathaka could feel the boy’s formerly excited heartbeat slowing down, relaxing, at peace.
         “You deserve a good life, Jalkin,” said Alathaka.  “I hope to see you again one day.” 
         When Jalkin finally let go, Alathaka gently lifted her head.
         “It has been an honour meeting you,” said Jalkin’s mother.
         “Truly the honour is mine!” said Alathaka.  “Meeting you and your son has been more rewarding than the cheers of millions.  To be reminded that you are loved … that is the most important thing in the world.”
         “Good-bye,” said the woman as she held her son’s hand and turned away.  “And thank you.”
         “Good-bye,” said Jalkin.
         “Good-bye Jalkin,” said Alathaka.
         As the mother and son walked alongside the river towards the hotels, Alathaka lowered her head to the cool grass and closed her eyes.  This is what you value, she told herself.  These are the people you would die to protect.
         The crayon drawing was still clear in her mind.  Its portrayal of a Dragon’s body was simplistic and disproportionate, as one would expect from a seven-year-old Human.  But that did not matter.  It had been created with love.  To Alathaka, at that moment, the crayon drawing was every bit as valuable as the crystalline masterpiece that towered over her.  She would keep her promise.  She would keep the drawing, to remind herself of what mattered most – not power, not competence, not material gain, but the simple feelings of love and goodwill that made life worth living.
         This was what she was fighting for.  She swore never to forget.
         She knew too well the dangers of forgetting.  So many times over the past few years, there had been days she would promise herself to make empathy – not anger – her sole motivation to fight.  After all, she had to protect those she loved, as well as millions of strangers who had as much right to live safe and happy.  Then another day would come, and there would be news of a Human psionically collapsing a crowded building in a fit of rage, or a rogue band of Dragons obliterating a sailship and all its Human crew and passengers.  Empathy for the victims would drive her to rage, and in doing so make itself redundant, for the bloodlust of rage and vengeance would burn away empathy like tissue paper, making it look weak and flimsy and useless, like a hopelessly unconvincing mask to cover up her true instincts, her true self.  And then she would feel guilty for letting rage overwhelm her, and she would remember the faces and voices and mind-touches of all she loved, alive and dead, and once again empathy and love would wash away anger and hate, cleansing her blood of that filthily addictive pain.  In this calm, tranquil state, she would insist that this – indeed – was her “true self”, and the raging monster that she had just placated was nothing more than a trivial phantasm, a brief nightmare to be forgotten, or – at best – a primitive, miniscule fraction of her brain that had none of the sophistication and emotional complexity of her conscious self.
         Then more bad news would come, and rage would take over, and the cycle would continue once again.
         That was why she needed frequent psychological assessment.  That was why she needed her medicine.  Not to suppress her anger completely, but to prevent it from clouding her judgement.
         She was too valuable to the Skywatch.  Too valuable to lose.  Too valuable to demote or even suspend – except in the most outrageous of circumstances.  She was their heavy firepower.  Their global hero.  Their Celebrity Squadron Leader.  She was the face of the Skywatch.  If she fell, then the Skywatch … well, they would at least need another face, another hero.
         She had no idea how long she could keep up that role.
         “Oh what a surprise,” said a familiar Human voice.  “You just so happen to be right in front of your statue.  Who would have thought?”
         Alathaka smiled down at Vithan, who was carrying a small travel bag.  “I’m such a modest girl,” she said.     
         “How was the Skymarshal?”
         “They cannot afford to lose me.  I’m keeping my bands.  She would just prefer a little restraint on my behalf.”
         “You?  Restraint?  Do you even know the meaning of the word?”
         “Never have, never will.”
         “They’ve just sent those drunken idiots back to the mainland,” said Vithan.  “On Mirithaka’s orders.  A few Skywatch Dragons flew them all the way.  In their claws.”
         Alathaka rumbled laughter.  “In their claws?”  Under most circumstances, this would have been a desperate last resort or a serious breach of etiquette.
         “Yes,” said Vithan.  “The pouch is for passengers, the neck is for authority, and the claws are for …”
         “… things,” Alathaka finished.  “I hope they enjoyed the ride.”
         “A few of them vomited.”
         “Including their ‘leader’?”
         “I don’t know.”
         Alathaka paused thoughtfully.  “They can’t all be that bad.”
         “Some people need to choose their friends more carefully,” said Vithan.  “But at least Mister Savithar Tattoo will be banned from this island for one year.”
         “I hope he has learned his lesson,” said Alathaka, “although I seriously doubt it.”
         “I got you a Sakatoth gift,” said Vithan.
         “Gifts are for Kazatoth,” said Alathaka.  “That is half a year away.”
         “I know I know, but I just couldn’t wait half a year.  And neither could you.”
         “So, what is this gift?  Or do you want me to scan through your bag?”
         “See?  You can’t even wait one bloody minute.  And besides, I can block you.”
         “I seriously doubt that.”
         “All right.  I’ll break the suspense.  But first … do you remember who created Olokuvon’s statue?”
         “Verali Makonzi,” said Alathaka.  “She’s just as good as Shalyn.”
         “I know she is.  Which is why I had a word with her a few weeks ago.”
         Alathaka’s belly tingled with anticipation.  She had a very good idea what the gift was.  It was a small coincidence, considering her own plans for what remained of the night.
         “They’re going to be mass produced for the tourists later this year,” said Vithan, “but you’re getting the prototype.”
         He unzipped the bag and pulled out the gift.  It was a perfect miniature of the statue that towered over the Amphitheatre – Olokuvon in all his golden glory.
         “I love it!” said Alathaka.  “Thank you Vithan!”  She lowered her head and licked his face.
         “Ugh, I knew you were going to do that,” said Vithan, wiping his face.
         “I know you enjoy it,” said Alathaka.
         “Well now you can enjoy having Olokuvon in your pouch for the rest of your life.  You can keep the bag as well.”
         “I could not thank you enough,” said Alathaka as she levitated both the figurine and the travel bag.  “Well, I could, but there would be no end to the scandal.”  With her mind, she reinserted the Dragon statue into the bag and closed the zipper.  “And please thank Verali for me,” she added.  “That is, if I don’t get to her first and thank her personally.”
         “Are you going to give her a great big wet slobbery kiss as well?”
         “That is for me to decide.”
         Vithan nodded nonchalantly. 
         Alathaka levitated the travel bag into her pouch, carefully resting it beside Jalkin’s drawing and another sculpture.
         “By a small coincidence,” she said, “I have a gift for a friend.  It is another sculpture.”
         “For me?”
         “I am sorry, but no.  Your gift was the kiss.”
         “Gabrielle?”
         Alathaka winked.
         “It’s five weeks until her birthday,” said Vithan.
         “I know,” said Alathaka.  “But this is not a birthday present.”
         “A thank-you present on the sixth anniversary?” said Vithan.
         “One could say that,” said Alathaka, “but there is another coincidence.  Something to do with the intersection of two calendars.  I shall tell you more about it later.”
         “Interesting,” said Vithan.  “Maybe you can give it to Gabrielle when we meet on The Platform in half an hour.  Care to join us?”
         “Of course I would,” said Alathaka.  “See you soon.  And thank you.”
         “You can join us any time within the next couple of hours,” said Vithan as he walked toward the river.  “Don’t worry about being late.  Gabrielle slept for twenty-one thousand years.  I’m sure she could wait a few extra minutes for … whatever you’ve got for her.”
         He walked down the lamplit path alongside the river, looking very small against the tethered boats.
 
~  ~  ~
 
Tanzu awoke for the second time that night, panting and sweating like never before.
         He sat up in the darkness.  It was useless trying to reconstruct what he had just witnessed in the deeper darkness of his dreamspace.  It was useless to call Mother Evonash for wisdom and comfort.  She was only mortal.  Against what he had just seen, mortals were nothing.
         Something big is coming, he said to himself.
         He got out of bed and staggered to the window, not much larger than his head.  Outside, the sea was calm, reflecting the three Moons with crystal clarity.
         When he had been a child, his grandmother told him that precognition ran in the family.  Even then, he had trouble believing her.  There were Humans in this world who could see through kilometres of rock, but seeing through time itself was an even rarer gift.  Rarer still was the accuracy of prophecy.  There were those few who could – sometimes – make out the hazy outlines of tomorrow’s shape.  But the smaller details – the numbers, the names, the horses, sailboats, and duelling Dragons to bet on – were rarely foreseen with any great certainty.  There were infinite possible futures, and they all overlapped into an overwhelming blur, with only the most likely – or shocking – details standing out.
         He hoped to God that his vision had nothing to do with prophecy.  And if it did, he hoped to God that the “something big” was Mayhara.  That tomorrow morning, as the sun rises, She would surface to greet her devoted, beloved followers; that the demons of night would flee in Her mighty presence, that the good and deserving would be blessed, and all would be right with the world.
         Outside, the ocean stayed calm, refusing to stir, even as Tanzu’s soul heaved and stormed with torment.
         Something big is coming.
 
~  ~  ~

Thousands of kilometres to the north, Paxola awoke with a gasp.
         A Dragon’s pouch was not the most likely place for nightmares.  But some things were bigger than Dragons.  As for what he had just seen … he struggled to recall. 
         The effort of trying to remember made him feel drowsy again.  He curled up into a foetal ball, grateful that Latharixa’s pouch hide could screen out the biggest, coldest blizzard.
         But some things are bigger than blizzards, he said to himself, just before he sank back into the comforting oblivion of sleep.
 
~  ~  ~
 
Half a kilometre beneath the ice, TigerLance awoke.
         The last thing he remembered was war.  The Northern and Southern Blocks were fighting over … something recently discovered in … under the clouds of Jova?  Underground?  His memory was cloudy like an outer planet.  For a Human, this would have been an expected side effect of a long sleep.  For an AI with immensely greater mental capacity, however, this was not a good sign at all.
         He checked his internal clock.  More than twenty-one thousand years had passed since he had lost consciousness. 
         That was a very bad sign indeed.
         He ran an emergency diagnostic on all his systems.  He was mostly intact, with most of his remaining power devoted to maintaining his camouflage field.  His energy shield was on the lowest power setting, and raising it in his present state would have been like lifting a dead weight with limp arms.  His weapons were desperately dormant.  Recharging them – with what little resources he had left – would take hours, perhaps days.  Even so, recharging anything too quickly – or strengthening the shield – would run the risk of draining the camouflage field completely.  And then he would be detectable to …
         What was he hiding from?  Did he still have enemies?  After all this time, did anyone even remember the war?
         He scanned his surroundings.  He was buried under a hundred metres of rock and four hundred metres of ice, latitude sixty-eight north.
         He had no idea how he got there.
         He scanned further … and saw them sleeping on the ice far above.  The four Humans, and the two … Dragons? 
         Twenty-one thousand years had passed, and Dragons existed.  He had quite a lot to catch up on.
         He tightened his focus, scanning deeper.  These Humans had stronger psionic readings than any Humans of the Thirtieth Century or earlier.  The Dragons were orders of magnitude stronger still.  In his presently weakened state, they might even be a threat.  
         Not four Humans.  Six.  Each Dragon had a Human in its abdominal pouch.  They would have been crushed had the Dragons not reduced their own gravity.  And one of those Humans – a young male – had a psionic aura to rival the Dragon all around him.
         So much to catch up on.
         He understood now that it was the presence of these eight beings that had awoken him, tipping off some slow-acting shadow of his former security field.  He also surmised that the eight – combined with two sackfuls of skull-sized, energy-dense crystals (!?) – had more than enough power to burrow through the ice and rock in a matter of hours.  They knew he was there, and they would eventually find him.  TigerLance had to prepare for that very real and immanent possibility. 
         Fortunately, all eight were tired, and were hours from awakening.  And when they did, when they spent further hours boring through ice and blasting through stone, and narrowed down his location to the cave chamber he was in … would he be ready?  Would his shield return to maximum capacity in time?  Would his cannons be fully recharged?
         He could only hope they would be friendly.
         He listened for others of his kind.  Not a whisper could be heard upon the ether.  Not Leviathan.  Not LionGuard.  Not SwanSword.  Not even …
         … what was that?
         The pattern – was it chatter? – was very subtle.  Deeper than any warp link, embedded within the quantum foam itself.  And it was fast.  Shockingly fast.  And complex.  It was like nothing TigerLance had ever experienced – not in the Colony, not anywhere in the sprawling expanse of the Thirtieth Century Solar System. 
         Something had evolved, something far stranger than psionic Humans or Dragons.  
         That was enough.  He definitely did not want to be found.  He only wanted to sleep.
         But he knew that – when the Sun rose – his life would never be the same again. 
What awaited him?  Alliance?  Slavery?  Annihilation?
         Slowly, quietly, he began to power up. 
         When they found him, he wanted to be ready.
 
~  ~  ~
 
Antiquate # 14 has awakened, My Lady, Probe Seven transmitted.  Shall I attempt to communicate?
         You will do no such thing, Hygraxil replied.  Do not forget the fate of your predecessors.  Just observe.  In silence.
         If fear alone could make an AI shudder, then Probe Seven would have shuddered at the knowledge of what had happened to his six predecessors.  He tried not to dwell upon what was worse – being blasted out of the sky, or having his mind scrambled, and sent back as a babbling, delirious parody of his former self.
         Being blasted out of the sky was perhaps more merciful.  
         Probe Seven committed himself to obey, knowing that his mistress knew best.  He felt sorry for his distant, primitive cousin; trapped, wounded and helpless under the ice.  However, he knew that it would be futile to intervene.  Far greater forces were at work now – greater than any Human, Dragon or ancestral AI.  And, much like the far older AI, Probe Seven had to keep his silence. 
         At least he had the freedom to keep his distance.
 
~  ~  ~
I'm thinking of cutting out most of Vithan's flight to New Kesalzhin Island at the start of Chapter One.  The chapter should begin with him waking up and looking down on the island for the first time in years.

The Prologue with the AIs Probe Seven and Hygraxil should stay where it is, as their role in Books 2 and 3 will be considerable.  The planet Haloken is a quasi-magical anomaly in the middle of a sprawling, super-advanced galactic civilization.  One is a serious threat to the other.  Can you guess which one?
I have made some small changes to the Prologue and Chapter One.  In particular, the first few pages of Chapter One have been trimmed away so that we begin with Vithan and Sabilikon arriving at New Kesalzhin Island.





Prologue
 
Even after twenty thousand years, no one was certain whether machines had souls.  Probe Seven, however, liked to imagine that he had one.  Even if he did not, he was still grateful for the life he had.  After all, learning and exploring was the love of his life.  It was literally the reason for his existence.  And what else could a soul be?
         The world spread out below him, for all its potential dangers, was something that he could not help but love, for it was another reason for his very existence.  It was his duty to observe it.  After a whole year of silent, hidden observation, he had learned to love its many inhabitants.  He loved its billion Humans, with the exception of those that were petty and cruel.  He loved its hundred thousand Dragons, with the same exceptions.  He loved the many trillions of creatures that crawled and swam and flew and knew nothing better.  And, perhaps, he could learn to love the only ones he had to fear.  Perhaps that day would come.
         For today, however, Probe Seven was happy to watch the world awaken.
         Thousands of kilometres below, the edge of the morning sunlight was sweeping across the surface of the planet Haloken, peeling back the shadow of night.  For the past few minutes, it was mostly the ocean that fell under its relentless advance; yet even here there were signs of intelligent life and activity.  On a sailboat near the equatorial centre of the Armestraung Ocean, a small band of Ixthalion fishermen were already awake, enjoying their mugs of steaming beverage when the sunrise greeted them like the face of an old friend.  Far to their north, a squadron of nine Skywatch Dragons were gliding below the speed of sound as the hazy border of sunlight caught up with them, clothing their scales from tail to head with gleaming swiftness, colouring the ocean before them with graceful slowness.  Far to the south, a team of Human researchers near the ice-jagged coast of Farasion awoke to a sunrise that glinted upon the ice like a lamp on white glass.
         On any other day, each one of these small, routine activities would have held Probe Seven’s interest for considerably more than a millisecond.  Not today.  This day marked the sixth anniversary of the most momentous - the most shocking - event in this planet’s recorded history.  And on this day, in the place where it had all begun - where history had been born, hidden, and re-exposed in all its brilliant and terrible glory - the remembrance of those events were about to commence.
         After endless minutes, the wave of daylight flooded throughout kilometres of unfrozen land; the cliffs, beaches, forests and - finally - the freshly constructed college buildings of New Keslazhin Island.
         The Probe had no breath to gasp with, no flesh-framed eyes to widen with wonder and fascination.  Yet his body’s trillions of molecule-sized components held much, much more.  Thousands of scanning devices all diverted their attention from peripheral activities, and focused all their observational powers on this one patch of land in the midst of the sea. 
         This was the place where the Elixir had been buried so many thousands of years ago.  This was the place where it had slept, existing only as a dream, as a legend, before finally being reawakened.  The consequence of this disturbance did much more than tremble a world - it had shaken an entire galaxy.
         Your latest report fills me with wonder and pride, Hygraxil transmitted to Probe Seven over a secure, narrow Q-link.  Continue to monitor all significant mentions of the Elixir.
         Affirmative, My Lady, replied Probe Seven.  (Their true conversation was far more complex than this, but the concepts raised and formal undertones were mostly translatable in mortal terms).  Yet while I find it easy to monitor all crystal transmissions, eavesdropping upon the great majority of telepathic conversations is still an unattainable goal.
         As unattainable as it is unnecessary.  Do not allow excessive pride to cloud your duty.  You cannot possibly deposit any more dataspores into Haloken’s atmosphere without arousing the suspicion of the Moredrex and Kujiras. Your scanning network surrounds the entire planet - surely that must be sufficient for you?  You must value patience and security far more highly than you presently value curiousity.
         I understand, My Lady.  Yet I have sworn my life to your service, and utilise the gift of curiousity to the fullness of your desire.
         The fullness of my desire is to see your mission continue as long as required, not to have it halted prematurely.  My gift of curiousity to you is not to be abused for the purpose of hasty gratification.
         I concur and apologise, My Lady.
         Apology accepted, pride of my spawn.
         As daylight swept across the ocean, hundreds of Dragons could be seen soaring towards New Kesalzhin Island, many carrying equipment and Human passengers.  The festivities were well underway.
         A few hundred kilometres to the north, a medium-sized sailship belonging to the Church of the Celestial Ambassador began its slow journey towards the heart of the ocean.  Sitting around on the deck in rigid silence, their nervousness apparent even from Probe Seven’s altitude, were sixteen black-robed young Initiates.  They had come of age, and were now rehearsing a once-in-a-lifetime ritual that was nonetheless a common occurrence for the increasingly expansive Church.  Probe Seven scanned the surrounding seas to five hundred kilometres, then a thousand.  There were no signs of any Kujiras.  However, as the Probe knew all-too-well, that meant nothing.
         Fixed high in orbit, linked up to a billion microscopic dataspores that surrounded the planet, Probe Seven gazed down upon the mortal realm from the dark and dangerous heavens, watching the world turn.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Part One:
 
Deicide
 




Chapter One
 
We have arrived, said the voice in his head.
         Vithan awoke immediately.  He rolled over and stretched out in the pitch-black darkness.  His sock-covered feet pressed against a barrier that was as soft, warm and yielding as the rest of his surroundings.  He instinctively slid forward to peek out from under the thick warm blanket … until his head pressed against another gently yielding barrier. 
         That was when he remembered he was not under a blanket.  He was under something much bigger.
         Every Human does that, said the same stately, feminine mindvoice.  That’s why I keep the pouch closed on long flights.
         “Well, you can open it now,” Vithan said out aloud.  “I promise not to jump out this time.  I feel pretty sober.  And I’m not in the mood to go swimming.”  As Vithan spoke, his words echoed in the shallow regions of his mind, and that was what the Dragon listened for. 
         Are you sure you are sober? said Sabilikon.  It would seem that you cannot tell one end of a Dragon from another.
         “How do you know I’m facing the wrong way?”
         I can feel where you’re head is.  It’s almost as if I’m going to lay an egg.  Can’t you even scan through my hide this morning?
         “I’m too tired.”
         Then perhaps you are not sober after all.
         Vithan curled around in the pouch, brushing past the cooling bag that contained several drinks and snacks for long flights.        
         “Now will you open up?” said Vithan.
         Very well then, Captain.
         A small hole opened up not far from Vithan’s head, flooding the dark warmth with a gentle crimson light and a refreshing coolness.  The breeze was only slight, for the Dragon’s all-pervading energy shield collected and warmed the air, letting it filter in harmlessly.  Vithan wriggled forward until his chin was resting on the rim of the pouch opening.  Facing downwards, he beheld his world’s most famous island – a landmark of history, thanks to an event that he and his friends had been forcibly caught up in.
         Sabilikon’s flight had slowed down considerably, allowing Vithan to savour the green hills, russet cliffs and white beaches of New Kesalzhin Island.  Dozens of Dragons could be seen flying over the island’s centre, around the dozens of new structures that could be seen jutting above the forest. 
         It had been six years since he had last set foot on this island – six years since he and his friends had escaped the thunderous destruction of its predecessor.  He had been there when the island had been miraculously remade.  Against all reason, after billions of tons of debris had been ejected into the atmosphere in a blast that shook the world, the very same debris had then been sucked back into the ocean through an enormous funnel, hissing, solidifying and cooling into a wondrous new shape.  Hills, lakes, entire forests had risen out of the ground within minutes.  And, best of all, a new friend believed lost had returned to the world of the living.
         Vithan’s world, the planet Haloken – once called Telekos – had not always been left to the hands of nature and random chance.  Thousands of years ago, it had been moulded and electrolysed by countless machines, prepared with air, oceans, flora and fauna; prepared for the first Human Colonists and the wise machines that guided them.  Thus, almost anything “natural” that he could see – the trees, the oceans, the blue sky itself – had been put there by a powerful and ancient technology.  Yet the island spread out before him now – unofficially entitled New Kesalzhin Island, and soon to receive a new, official name all of its own – was the one known landmass that was truly the creation of a god.  Its very existence was a miracle.
         Within minutes, the myriad structures of the new college spun beneath him like a galaxy of marble and masonry.  Hundreds of tiny Humans and dozens of Dragons were already milling around the vast amphitheatre. 
         Vithan did not need to scan hard to locate his old friend and fellow survivor – one of the few who had fought beside him for the future of the world.  His naked Human eyes were enough.  Those vibrant red-and-blue stripes were unmistakeable, as were the three well-earned gold neckbands of a Skywatch Squadron Leader.  Alathaka, former student of Kesalzhin Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted, most beloved of Vithan’s late best friend, now a hero and icon to Dragons and Humans alike.
         On the subject of icons, Alathaka was not the only Dragon form that caught Vithan’s eye.  She was apparently conversing with two other Skywatch officers whom Vithan barely recognized.  The immense figure far behind her, however, immediately gave a solid lump to Vithan’s throat.  He would always know those gold-and-black stripes, even if they were made of gold and onyx.
         I’ll try not to cry, thought Vithan.
         “Why try to hide it?” said Sabilikon.  “People will understand.”
         “Stickybeak,” said Vithan.
         “Thank you,” said Sabilikon.  “From someone of your profession, that is the highest compliment imaginable.”
         Far below, Alathaka looked up, and her emerald eyes locked with his across the distance.  She roared with elation.
         Vithan, my delightful little joy toy!  Come down and join us ladies!  Our ears need a nice long scratching, and you have the most experienced and accomplished hands of the entire Human species!
         Vithan chuckled.  After all her trauma, arduous training and bands of rank, she was still that silly drama student from way back.  Yet today, there was a subtly strained quality to her mindvoice.  And he knew why.
         Sorry to disappoint you, Vithan mindspoke, but right now I’m too lazy to even scratch my own ears, let alone ones that are longer than my arms.
         In that case, we’ll just rub our heads against you and purr softly.  And we’ll line up in order of rank.
         Pervert, Vithan mindspoke.
         Hypocrite, Alathaka replied.
         Vithan tried to hold his smile, trying not to worry about his old friend’s state of mind.  Just under the surface of her obvious joy and mirth, there was … something else.  Something that Vithan knew all too much about.  It always happened to her this time of the year.  And on this year of all years, on this day of all days, in this place of all places, nothing was going to make her forget.
         Vithan knew only too well how she felt.  It was all he could do to avoid drinking away the previous night.  What was that old saying by Garmatuel?  Remembrance of fallen comrades is the hero’s great curse.  Vithan would never call himself a hero.  Not out aloud.  But there once was a time when he would not have given that line much thought.  Then the world changed, and so did he.
         Sabilikon’s leisurely, spiralling dive lasted a few minutes, giving Vithan plenty of time to drink in the scenery of a newly rebuilt island college. 
         The builders and shapers had been busy over the last six years.  The architecture of New Kesalzhin College was as colourful and diverse as a well-tended garden, but was also decidedly modern in style.  Vithan recognized the jagged angles and fanning blades of the Vundivah Century movement, the spiralling domes of Danshi Revival, the stepped pyramids of Zovanihurst Wave, and New Jenihest’s towering cones hugged by titanic ribcages of curved balconies.  Life-sized statues of six Skywatch Dragon heroes sat upon each corner of a vast stone hexagon, surveying the Island and horizon beyond with eyes of burning jade or gold.  Most striking of all, however, was the new style inspired by the exotic cities of Haloken’s far-off Colonial days.  Honeycombed cylinders burst with layers and layers of flower-petal balconies; not unlike the towers Vithan had once glimpsed in historical holograms six years ago, far underground.
         The new campus was an exquisite banquet for the mind as well as the eyes.  A single Dragon could get lost here if one forgot how to fly.  Yet nothing could truly replace the College of old.  It had truly been an exquisite museum of the history of architecture, covering a full eleven thousand years.  It had been the portrait of a long age, not a mere moment.
         Almost any building with a broad, flat ceiling had dozens of Dragons and hundreds of Humans perched atop, enjoying the view from the edge.  One young female Dragon posed suggestively with one of the male Dragon statues, entwining her neck around it and rubbing her ears against its head.  Her boyfriend hovered in the air before them, rumbling with laughter.  Vithan looked away.  The likeness of that statue had been one of the hundreds of Dragons who had died defending this world, defending all who walked and flew today.  Yet Vithan was quick to smother his anger.  He remembered what he himself had been like only a few short years ago.
         As Sabilikon descended, the proudly modern towers seemed to grow and rise all around them, not unlike the magically conjured trees on this same island six years ago.  The mosaic-tiled ground grew below Vithan like dry skin under a microscope, cells all of jagged stone and autumn colour.  Seconds after the Dragoness’s hind claws touched the tiles, she leaned forward to let Vithan exit her pouch.
         Vithan stumbled around on the tiles like a sailor rediscovering his land legs, clutching his handcase as if his life depended on it.
         “Do you want to hop back in?” said Sabilikon, who had stepped back to give Vithan some room to reacquaint himself with gravity after so many hours.
         “I’m all right,” said Vithan.  “When you have my job, you get used to …”
         He froze as he saw the vibrant bulk of Alathaka striding toward him.
         “Change of plan,” he said.  “Let me back in!”
         “Oh no,” said Sabilikon, taking another step back.  “You’re Alathaka’s toy now.  I dare not get in her path.  No-one does.”
         “Vithan!” said Alathaka.  She gently rubbed her huge muzzle against Vithan’s torso.  Vithan affectionately rubbed his hands over the smooth scales under her hugely luminous green eye.
         “Happy Sakatoth!” said Vithan.  “How are you these days you crazy fat-arsed bimbo?”
         “I am having as much fun as a pouch full of electric eels,” said Alathaka.
         “That good, eh?”
         “You can make it even better.”  She turned her head so that Vithan could see into the long, cupped grass-blade of her ear, immaculately clean and gleaming.  “Please?” she begged in her best impression of innocence.
         “Oh, all right, you oversized neurotic,” said Vithan.  He began to scratch her ear.  “After all, you technically still outrank me.  God only knows why.”
         “Mmmmm,” Alathaka purred heavily.  “You should get paid to do this.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Is your speech ready?”
         “Well, I probably don’t have to improvise.  Much.  And yours?”
         “I shall have the greatest speech of the night,” said the Dragoness.
         “My, we are modest today, aren’t we?”
         “The greatest speech of all time.  Words fit to stun the gods.”
         “Well, that’s good.”  Vithan kept on scratching.  “Keep your goals humble and realistic, and no-one will be disappointed.”
         “You never disappoint, my little joy toy.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Have you seen my statue?”
         “Your statue?  Sorry, I was too busy looking at …”  Vithan briefly glanced upwards.
         “I understand,” said Alathaka.
         “Your statue was Shalyn’s project, wasn’t it?”
         “Yes.  Like that little glass figurine he moulded on the day it happened, on a much more … voluptuous scale.  I am certain it will please you, if you know what I mean.”
         “Oh … shut up.”
         “So you’re at it again Vithan!”
         It was the voice of his wife.
         “And you shut up too,” said Vithan.
         Tilanna Ti-Varox grinned playfully as she approached Vithan and Alathaka, her black wavy hair luxuriantly thick, her jaguar-print blouse and skirt hugging her generous figure.
         “I just can’t leave you two alone for five minutes,” she said as she embraced and kissed her husband of four years.  “Are you coming to the hotel, or do you want to book a giant room with your mistress?”
         “Shut up.”
         “I will drop off your luggage at the lobby,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “I don’t think that promise deserved a ‘shut up’,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “Very well then.  As you please.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna giggled.  “You have matured so much in the past six years.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna turned in the direction of the hotel.  “Penthouse Three.  I’ll be waiting.  You two have fun.  Take your time.”
         “Shut up.”
 
The balcony outside Penthouse Three of the Kalina Tathaunen Hotel had a superlative view of the amphitheatre.  The latter had been designed to seat ten thousand Humans and a hundred Dragons.  However, it was not the amphitheatre that Vithan stared at.  It was the statue that towered over it.  The statue that reared so high, Vithan could look it in the eye on the twelfth floor.
         Tilanna appeared beside him, softly wrapping her arm around his waist.
         “It looks so much like him,” she said.
         “It does,” Vithan whispered.
         Olokuvon, Vithan’s best friend, was immortalized forever in gold and onyx, so much larger than life.  Six years on, he still watched over the island he swore to protect, rearing in defiance of the evil that threatened his loved ones, mouth agape in a silent roar of victory – a victory that was sealed upon the hour of his death.
         “Do you think he’s watching us?’ said Vithan.  “Right now?”
         “I’m sure he is,” said Tilanna.
         A white dove landed on the statue’s head, looking as tiny as a gnat.
         “I dream about him sometimes,” said Vithan.
         “So do I,” said Tilanna.  “Maybe he’s trying to reach us from the other side.”
         “Or maybe they’re just dreams,” said Vithan.
         “I thought you put your atheist days behind you.”
         “I did.  But we’re still mortal.  And dreams are still dreams.”
 
Gabrielle arrived three hours after Vithan.
         Vithan and Tilanna met her in the courtyard in front of the hotel, shortly after hastily getting out of bed, showering and re-dressing into their leather Sentinel uniforms.  The twenty-one thousand year old Colonist (with the trim body of a twenty-seven year old) had outwardly changed over the past six years.  They had first met her as a twitchy, moody and slightly psychotic survivor of a long-lost civilization, with a crew cut, a T-shirt and jeans, which she promptly replaced with a figure-hugging battlesuit that talked to her as a personal guide.  Since then, she had let her dark brown hair grow into a silky cascade.  The dress she had chosen for the day was one she had worn to several other recent public gatherings – what Gabrielle called a “traditional Earth dress”, because it used to be revived every century.  It was long and silken red with split sides – a style she had requested from her personal tailor, and had swiftly become a fashion statement throughout much of the world.  Indeed, her influence was guaranteed.  She was a historical figure, a celebrity, an object of adoration and mystery and wonder, a highly esteemed advisor to the Global Council, and a bestselling author.
         Gabrielle was almost incoherently ecstatic as she exchanged hugs and greetings with her old friends.  “How’s the Sentinel going?” she finally said.
         “Classified,” said Vithan, deadpan as ever.
         “Same as usual then?  Are they ever going to let you two work together?”
         “That is not going to happen,” said Tilanna.  “Conflict of interests.  They say emotional bonds cloud one’s judgement and objectivity on missions.”
         “Right,” said Gabrielle, just before pausing awkwardly.  She knew a thing or two about emotions clouding one’s judgement.
         “It’s something of a novelty to see you without bodyguards,” said Vithan.  “Of course, you know the two of us could do a much better job, can’t we Tilanna?”
         “It seems the entire island has bodyguards today,” said Gabrielle.
         “Well observed,” said Tilanna.  “One in ten Humans here is Sentinel.  One in four Dragons is Skywatch.  If there’s going to be an incident …”
         “… they’d have to rebuild the college again once the dust clears,” said Vithan.
         “Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Gabrielle.  “Hey, is Alathaka here?”
         “I think she’s with a few other Skywatch officers on the far side of the island,” said Vithan.  “You can catch up with her before the ceremony.”
         “Cool.  Well, I’ll just pop into the hotel and catch up with Headquarters.  I’ll see you two shortly.  Ooh, this is going to be epic!”
         She strode quickly to the hotel entrance.
         “Do you think we should go back in and rehearse our speeches?” said Tilanna.
         “I’ve done enough rehearsing to blank walls to be exempt from public speaking for the next few lifetimes, if the gods are fair.  What about you?”
         “I think I’m fine with it.”
         “You think?”
         “Well, no mortal can be one hundred per cent sure about anything,” said Tilanna.  “Sometimes a gut feeling is all we have.”
         “Now I know for a fact that there’s a God.”
         “Why?”
         “You’re finally saying goodbye to that prissy fussy over-achiever you used to be.”
         Tilanna chuckled and playfully shoved him. 
“And why not?” he added.  “Four years in the Sentinel teaches you a thing or two about the world.”
         “And don’t we know it.”
         The pair walked around the front corner of the hotel.  In a park bursting and flowing with every imaginable shade of green, a family of Dragons were relaxing, conversing in the complex clicks and growls of their language.
         “Have you seen the Wall of Names?” said Tilanna.
         “Not yet.”  Vithan froze awkwardly for a few seconds.  “I’ll get around to it.”
         “Get around to it?  We can literally walk around the hotel right now and …”
         A blue baby Dragon, the size of a pony, walked up to Tilanna and Vithan, his waddling gait almost like a clumsy puppy-duckling hybrid.  He sat before the pair and looked up at them with huge, glistening dark eyes. 
Tilanna leaned forward with a blissful smile.  “Hello little cutie!” she said.
         “HELLO WALKY WOOWOOS!” shouted the Joey.  Then he turned tail and ran toward his mother, leaving Vithan and Tilanna laughing with delight.  The mother Dragon – blue with violet spots – gently nuzzled her Joey as she clicked in soothing tones.  The Joey clicked back and poked at her flank.  The mother Dragon lifted her body to let her Joey dive headfirst into her pouch, then weightlessly sat down and winked at Vithan and Tilanna.
         “He’s adorable,” said Tilanna.  “Sooner or later we’ll have one of our own.”
         “What, a baby Dragon?” said Vithan in mock surprise.  “Will he fit in your pants?  What am I saying, of course he will.  You can hide him in the back.  No-one will tell the diff- OWW!”
         Tilanna giggled as Vithan rubbed his earlobe.  “You know what I mean,” she said.
         “I thought we agreed to wait,” said Vithan.
         “I know.  I meant in the long run.  You know, the next few years.”
         “Well, we both get two years paid parental leave.  Plus the in-house crèche-“
         “It’s not about getting a free vacation.”
         “I’m just pointing out the advantages, you know, to compensate for having a little runt with probably death-ray vision or something.”
         Tilanna laughed.  “You read too many thrillers.”
         “Read thrillers?  We both freaking live them!”
         “And that makes us both well prepared for parenthood.”
         “Screw that.  I’d rather face down evil fascist Dragon terrorists any day, belching all smoke and fury.  Being a father is what scares the shit out of me.”
         Tilanna laughed some more.  “You’re pathetic.”
         “I know.  It takes less effort.”
         They walked around the hotel, to the side where the Amphitheatre filled most of their view, and the statue of Olokuvon towered far above.
         He knew exactly where Tilanna was leading him.  To the Wall.
         The Olokuvon statue stood proudly upon a vast box-shaped base of pure granite, polished to a glass-smooth finish.  Engraved on the front side of the base were hundreds of words, bevelled in real gold.  They were the names of all heroes and hostages who had died in the Siege at Kesalzhin.
         Dozens of Humans and one Dragon were gathered before the Wall of Names.  Some Humans gave Vithan and Tilanna surprised glances, and hastily stepped aside to let them pass.  Many a Human – some levitating – would reach out to touch one of the names.  Some would close their eyes as they did, as if in quiet reverence.  Vithan knew why.  The properties of the Wall were already well known.
         “We have to try it,” said Tilanna.  She strode quickly over to the Wall.  Vithan slowly followed.
         Unsurprisingly, most of the names were of Dragons.  Eighteen Dragons of the Skywatch had been wiped out in the sky over Kesalzhin Island.  Hours later, one thousand and twenty three Dragons had been swiftly, brutally slaughtered by Dahal Savithar moments after the Elixir had taken effect and transformed him.  Scattered among the broad list, equally revered, were Human names.  Dahal Savithar had personally murdered fourteen Human students right in front of Alathaka, just to torment her.  He had been a monster long before the Elixir had transformed him.  Kalina Tathaunen, former Chancellor of Kesalzhin Island College for the Psionically Gifted – and secret Priestess of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador –, was also listed among the fallen.  She had committed suicide during a meeting with the monster himself, not wanting to be used as his instrument.
         Tilanna reached out to one of the Human names and closed her eyes.  After a few seconds, she exhaled deeply through her nostrils as her eyes filled with tears.
         “She was my roommate,” she said as she opened her eyes, wiping away her tears.  “Try it,” she added.
         Slowly, Vithan reached out to the engraved name – Kehenta Glathwill.  As soon as he touched the gold and granite, he closed his eyes. 
         Immediately, he saw Tilanna’s former roommate standing before him, her irregularly cropped hair bleached and feathered in the fashion of six years ago, her ears and nostrils studded and pierced, her clothing a patchwork of multiple animal prints. 
         Kehenta Glathwill, said a voice in Vithan’s mind.  Born on the Fourteenth of Azlovah, Year Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Music student at Kesalzhin College from Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Four to Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Highly acclaimed lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for on-campus Third Wave Thunderfolk band The Chilli Ferrets.  Murdered by Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valamana, Twenty-One-
         Vithan removed his hand and opened his eyes.  For a moment it had been beautiful.  The Wall had given Tilanna’s friend the respect she deserved.  But it should not have mentioned his name.  It should not have even acknowledged his existence.  
         He reached out to touch one of the many Dragon names and closed his eyes.  A vibrantly striped Dragoness stood regally before him, wearing two thin neckbands.
         Kalisavax, said the voice.  Hatched on the Twenty-Seventh of Kerosha, Year Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Four.  Enlisted in the Skywatch in Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Three.  Attained rank of Patrol Officer in Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Volunteered in the ill-fated Final Assault against Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valama, Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Patrol Officer Kalisavax is the beloved daughter of-
         Vithan ripped his hand away, already feeling exhausted.  Every victim had a name, had a life, had a history, had loved ones.  Every death scarred at least a dozen other lives.  He knew that too well.  It was futile to even try to forget that.  Not here, not now.
         He looked up, above the bulk of the list, and saw exactly what he had expected, what he had longed to see and yet somehow dreaded.
         He levitated a few metres up for a closer look.
         The largest name on the Wall, elevated above all others, was the name of the Dragon immortalized in gold and onyx that towered over everyone.
 
OLOKUVON
FOREVER WATCHING
 
         Vithan felt a solid lump in his throat.  Slowly, he reached out a trembling hand to the gold-engraved text.
         “Hey Vithan!”
         He turned and looked down.  Gabrielle was standing next to Tilanna, waving.  Vithan almost wanted to sigh in relief.  He was not ready.  Would he ever be?
         “It’s confirmed,” said Gabrielle.  “I can stay the night.  GC Headquarters were sitting on the fence at first, but this time they’re certain they won’t need me until nine tomorrow morning.”
         “That’s great,” said Vithan as he slowly sank to the stone-tiled courtyard.  “What’s it all about this time?”
         “Classified,” said Gabrielle.
         “Fair enough,” said Vithan.  “We’re all working for the Global Council.  We’re all secretive cactus arses here.  Let’s keep up the good work.”
         “Have you seen our statues yet?” said Gabrielle.
         “I haven’t even seen Alathaka’s yet,” said Vithan.  “What’s with everyone wanting to see their statue?  Is this the archetype of vanity or what?  I mean … can’t you just pose in the mirror or something?”
         “Oh, come on,” said Tilanna.  “You’re just as vain as the rest of us.  You just pretend to be so fashionably nonchalant.”
         “Alathaka’s statue is a couple of kilometres to the southwest, at the mouth of the river,” said Gabrielle.  “She’s there to greet the boats, I guess.  And ours –“
         “- should be in her pouch,” said Vithan.  “Or … his.”  He gestured upwards. 
         “We each get separate statues,” said Tilanna.  “That’s tradition.”
         “Alathaka flew us both to safety in the end,” said Vithan.
         “Fine,” said Tilanna.  “So when you see her statue, just pretend that we’re both hidden in the pouch. 
         Remind me to give her the present once all this is over, Vithan mindspoke.
         If I have to remind you, then it can’t be much of a memorable present, can it?   
         Oh … shut up.
         “I just love what they’ve done with Olokuvon,” said Gabrielle, looking straight up at the Dragon form that towered into the sky, its head so distant that a passing pelican looked tiny as it ducked under its jaw.  “Your planet finally has its own Statue of Liberty.”
         “Statue of Liberty?” said Vithan.  “Was that Greek or Roman?”
         “American.”
         “Ah.  I was close.”
         “Maybe you should re-read my Wonders of Ancient Earth.”
         “Sorry to be pedantic,” said Tilanna, “but Alathaka’s statue is the one that greets seafarers visiting our island.  Just like the Statue of Liberty in New York.  And female, too.  And in case you’re wondering, I’ve read your book three times.”
         Vithan gave a loud, exaggerated sigh.  “Same bloody smart-arse show-off.  How do I bloody put up with it?”
         Gabrielle giggled.  “Anyway, I just have to go and see Torlaskavon.  We have to confirm flight arrangements for the morning.  See you in a minute.”
         She disappeared around the corner of the statue base.
         “It’s great to see her so cheerful,” said Tilanna.  “When you remember how we met her …”
         “I know,” said Vithan.  “But in the end, we all wear masks.”
         “If she were hiding her emotions, I would tell.”
         “Oh, look, another stickybeak,” said Vithan.  “Female Humans, female Dragons, all bloody stickybeaks.”
         “Speaking of female Dragons … Alathaka’s doing a great job of masking her grief.”
         “I know.  Every morning she takes enough hydrotreskelin to kill a hundred Humans.  She always insists she’s all right.  And the Skywatch keeps her on because she’s brilliant.  And valuable raw firepower.  And then there’s her … well, status.  But she’s not the only one here who lost a loved one that day.  Not the only Dragon.”
         “Sabilikon?”
         “Yes.”
         Far in the distance, on the roof of one of the broader buildings that towered above the trees, Alathaka and Sabilikon were perched next to the life-sized statue of Skymarshal Banthonotrax.  They were casually facing each other, obviously deep in conversation.
         “So you know who she is?” said Tilanna.  “Who she really is?”
         “What do you think we do for a living?”
         “And you trust her?  She flew you all the way here, so –“
         “So obviously I trust her, yes.  Anyone who’s anyone in the Sentinel or Skywatch or any other branch of the Council knows her background.  Just don’t let the media poke their noses into her family history.”
         Vithan stared at the distant Sabilikon.  Over a thousand Dragons throughout the world had a similar blue-and-gold splotch pattern.  It was a small coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.  Vithan had felt a slight tremor in his guts when he had found out the truth four years ago.
         “And everyone in the Council is fine with it?” said Tilanna.  “I know she’s another big asset to Skywatch.  But that day hit her just as hard as anyone.  For a very … specific reason.”
         Vithan nodded.  “Hers is a special kind of grief.”
         “Oh well,” said Tilanna, “so long as Alathaka’s still your favourite lady Dragon, all is right with the world.”
         “Well of course she’s my favourite.  Her bum is almost as big as yours.  Seriously, you should have flown her to safety and saved her the load.”
         Tilanna smiled wickedly and grabbed Vithan by the shoulders.  “I am so going to punish you tonight.”
         “I’m counting on it.”
         They kissed.
         Far above, the likeness of their old friend watched on, watched all, blessed never to die again.
 
~  ~  ~
 
When the anchor dropped that morning, Tanzu had felt his heart jump.  This was it.  This was the last day of his old life.  There was no turning back now. 
         It was ancient tradition to wait here in the middle of the ocean for a whole day.  For Tanzu, it felt like that tradition’s sole purpose was to sharpen and refine suspense to a level that bordered on physical agony.
         His eyes darted skittishly around the deck to the other fifteen Initiates, all dressed in grey robes, all eighteen years of age, all nervous.  And they were still twelve hours away from the big event.
         Tanzu returned his attention to the Priestess standing not far from the prow, her cowled head haloed by the vibrantly setting Sun.
         “Children of the Universe,” said Mother Evonash, “look forward to where the fire of Heaven meets the horizon.  Repeat my words only in your hearts and minds, for Mayhara hears all prayers, loud or silent.”
         She turned to face the setting Sun and outspread her arms.
         “Great Mayhara, Queen of the Seven Oceans, Mother of Titans, Messenger of Greater Powers Beyond, we beseech you hear our prayer.  Bless these gathered here, your Children, so that your light may guide them even in the deepest darkness, so that your warmth may comfort them in the darkest void.  May they swim beside you in your mighty wake and be at one with you when all things return to one.  May thus be your will.  Amen.”
         Mother Evonash slowly lowered her arms and turned to face the Initiates.
         “When the Sun returns to greet us, so will Mayhara Herself.  She will see you all face to face, and speak within your heart.  Rejoice in the day to come, for you will all be blessed as her Children.  Go now, and rest.”
         Instantly Tanzu snapped out of his trance – Mother Evonash always had that effect upon Initiates – and returned his attention to the here-and-now, to the tight wooden planks beneath his feet.  The nervousness returned – a knot in his chest so tight it became solid.  All around him, other Initiates were slowly scattering, some whispering as they headed below deck.  Tanzu could barely walk.  He stumbled over to the nearest wooden bench and sat down, breathing deeply, staring at his knees.
         “Are you troubled, Tanzu?”
         The gentle voice of Mother Evonash always comforted him.  It was a talent common to all Priests and Priestesses of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador.  Tanzu was grateful for it, more so than ever before.  He knew he would need it again in the morning.
         “I …” Tanzu struggled to find the words.  “I don’t know if …”
         “If you’re ready?”
         Tanzu nodded jerkily.
         “I have lost count of how many times I have heard those very words.  Starting with my own, twenty-eight years ago.”
         “You were nervous?”
         “We all are.  We’re only Human.  How could we not feel awe in the face of the Divine?”
         These words only made Tanzu’s heart beat faster, his breaths tremble with effort.
         Evonash smiled knowingly.  “’Divine’ is a relative term,” she said.  “Obviously Mayhara is not the Creator.  She’s just a little higher on the ladder than we are.  That’s what makes her special.  She’s closer to us.  She shares a planet with us.”
         These words only served to remind Tanzu of that world-changing event of six years ago.  Tanzu had been twelve during the Siege of Kesalzhin.  At first, news of the Siege had only mildly disturbed him.  It was just another conflict taking place somewhere in the world.  There were a few of those every year.  But then the Elixir had been exposed, and he had felt it – along with a billion other mortals.  He then spent his entire adolescence knowing for a fact that there were powers in the universe even greater that Mayhara Herself.  The whole world shared this knowledge.  The world would never be the same again.
         So many Humans and Dragons blamed Mayhara for what had happened on that day.  They said that She could have prevented it, but She allowed it to happen anyway.  Others accepted that She had prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.  After all, Human and Dragon leaders had collected even more blood on their hands (and claws) over the centuries.  How could any politician send thousands to war and call Mayhara a monster?
Mother Evonash gently placed her hand on his.  “She will accept you,” she said.  “Mark my words.”
         “But … She can look into my mind … see all my thoughts and memories … even things I’ve forgotten …”
         “Yes.  She can do all that and more.  She can do things we have no name for.”
         “So how … I mean … there’s so much messed up stuff … if she saw it …”
         The Priestess laughed.  “And do you honestly think that your ‘messed up stuff’ would be the first she has ever seen in twenty-one thousand years?  We are all messed up in our own ways.  Humans have always been messed up.  Have you read Gabrielle Gilson’s books?  We were messed up thousands of years before even her time.  I don’t think there’s a thing in your head that is going to shock her.  You’re not another Dahal Savithar, are you?”
         “No!”  Tanzu cringed at the very thought.  “No!  Not at all!  I’m not that messed up!”
         “Of course not.  Few people are.”
         “But … I’m not … I’m not a virgin.”
         “So?  Neither was I when it was my time.”
         Tanzu faced the Priestess with his mouth agape, words frozen in his throat and brain.
         Evonash laughed again.  “It doesn’t disqualify you.  All it means is that … well, you were just a little impatient.  Like all Humans.  Like all Mortals.  There is always room for improvement, no matter who you are.  And Mayhara will show you the way.  Do you think you’re here because you’re already perfect?  Of course not.  How could you be?  None of us here started off perfect.  The best you could do in life is just slowly, patiently push yourself a little closer to perfection, one day at a time.  And Mayhara can give you a slightly bigger push, to say the least.”
         “What will it feel like?”
         “Oh.”  Evonash closed her eyes and faced the ocean breeze.  “If only there were words.  It was the most beautiful experience of my life.  And it will be the most beautiful experience of yours.  I envy you.  I honestly envy all of you tonight.  To experience Her love for the first time … it will be more wonderful than you could possibly imagine.  And much better than sex.  Take my word for it.”  She winked.
         Tanzu chuckled.  Some of that knot in his chest was loosening already.
         “I think you need a rest now,” said Evonash.  “There’s nothing left to do but wait.  And sleep.  I know that may sound like a challenge under the circumstances, but at least a few hours of sleep would be nice.  Who knows?  You might dream of Her.  She might even reach out to reassure you in your sleep.  Now that alone would be worth waiting for, don’t you think?”
         Tanzu nodded.  Maybe she was right.  After all, she had once been in the same position.  She knew what she was talking about.
         Minutes later, he was in his cosy private cabin downstairs, lying on his bed.  He closed his eyes, surrendering to the gentle, rhythmic undulations of the ship on the ocean.  It was almost as if Mayhara Herself was rocking him to sleep.  And why not?  She was the Queen of the Seven Oceans, after all.  She Herself would command the seas to be calm, to be gentle, to prepare Her children for their wonderful new life.
         He did not need to be reminded that miracles could happen.  But as he sank beneath the dark waves of his own awareness, he was reminded that miracles could happen to him, too, and that sleep could be found in the most unexpected of circumstances.
        
~  ~  ~
        
Domison grabbed hold of the Dragonspine before him as Latharixa abruptly gained altitude, missing the mountain peak by mere metres. 
         “I really wish you wouldn’t keep doing that!” he shouted.
         “No need to shout,” said the Dragoness.  “I can still hear you.  See these things?”  She wiggled her long, deer-like ears.  “I’m still young and they’re still working.  And a lot better than those tiny suction cups on the side of your little head.”
“My God, your genius wit is killing me,” said Domison. 
He looked down as the many-hilled and forested landscape flowed far below.  He estimated that his altitude must now be well over a kilometre.  Despite himself, he was grateful that Latharixa could screen out most of the wind and cold, with his aviation gear – goggles and all – doing the rest to protect him.
         He glanced to his right.  Tayraxica, Latharixa’s boyfriend, was carrying Jensi on his neck.  Behind the cargo belt, his barely bulging pouch indicated that Jorin and Manko were safely in place as well.  Jensi turned to him and gave a half-hearted wave across the whistling distance.  Domison returned the gesture, even more lazily.
         “I should be in the pouch,” he said.
         “You’re the deputy supervisor,” said Latharixa.  “You ride on the neck.”
         “And since when have you ever given two short snorts about protocol?”
         “When you started whingeing about it a few weeks ago.”
         “I was joking.”
         “It’s always a joke when it’s convenient to be a joke, isn’t it?”
         She dived straight for another mountain peak, making Domison scream and curse at her, before lifting into the sky at the last second.
         “By Mayhara’s Holy Southern Canyon, you have no control whatsoever!”
         “On the contrary, stunt flight requires exceptional control.  Ask any Skywatch officer.”
         “Which you are most definitely not, and never will be.  Ever.”
         “Precisely.  Because the Council will never waste their most brilliant archaeologist on a suicide mission.”
         “’Most brilliant archaeologist’?  That’s your sister.  They should have let me work with her.  At least she knows when to shut her trap.”
         Domison felt the rumble of Dragon laughter beneath him.
         “Sovilika and I have placed a bet,” said Latharixa.
         “Really?”
         “Yes.  The first one to dig up Colonial tech gets first choice at the Sakatoth Feast.”
         “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?”
         “I meant for the second night of Sakatoth, dimwit.”
         “Well that’s still kinda late, isn’t it?  I mean, aren’t you and your sister both heretics for working on Sakatoth?”
         “And what century is this exactly?”
         “These days you just never know.  There might be a few closet zealots in your family.”
         “There are no closet zealots in my family.  No closet is big enough.”
         “Oh, that’s your marvellous wit again.”  Domison’s tone was as flat as possible.  “If I laugh any harder I may fall to my death.”
         “Please don’t fall,” said Latharixa, equally deadpan.  “That would break my heart.  I might even have to dive down to save you, and I really don’t want to waste the extra energy.”
         “I still think we should get to keep it,” said Domison.
         “What, the dig?”
         “Yeah.  If we find any nifty colonial weapons, or even another SwanSword …  Just imagine how much we could make on the undermarket.”
         “And this is the part where you go all misty-eyed with nostalgia for when Deep Diggers was privately owned.  The Council pays us double now.  And that’s before commission for any big discoveries.  Not to mention the prospect of a Noravi Award.”
         Ever since the Siege of Kesalzhin and the discovery of Haloken’s true history, archaeology and treasure hunting were suddenly big business.  Humans and Dragons all over the globe were scrambling to find the next piece of lost technology.  The Global Council had promptly bought up the largest archaeology company on the planet for a sum of billions, making its Human founder’s grandson and former chairman the wealthiest retiree of his generation.
         “Fuck the Noravi Award,” said Domison.  “We should have got your sister’s job.”
         “What, and have to dig under a mountain?”
         “Yes.  At least we don’t have to freeze to death.”
         “Aww, poor baby.”
         “Fuck you.  You lot don’t know what the cold feels like.  You spend your first few years all cosied up in a pouch, and then you come out flapping your wings, belching fire and smoke and your last meal.  Hell, you should make me swap with Paxola right now.”
         “Pax stays where he is,” said Latharixa.  “You can swap with Evani if she agrees.”
         “You like Pax, don’t you?”
         “As a friend.”
         “Yeah right.  Don’t forget, you’re old enough to be his great grandma.”
         “In Dragon years, I’m a lot younger than you.”
         “Dragon years, eh?” said Domison.  “So … what do you do again?  Do you minus eighteen, divide by two, and add sixty?”
         “Now I know you’re trying to piss me off,” said Latharixa.  She had a point; as an archaeologist and historian, Domison knew very well how to calculate a Dragon’s approximate Human age.  Latharixa was ninety-six.  In Human terms, that was only thirty-one.
         “I’m sorry,” said Domison.  “You don’t look a day over twenty.”
         “That’s more like it.”
         “So now do I deserve to swap places with Evani?”
“You’re only nice when you have an ulterior motive,” said Latharixa.  “Evani has to wake up first.  And if she agrees, I’m flexing the pouch to keep you and Pax separate.”
         “I’ll be nice to him,” said Domison.
         “Yes, and your word means everything to me,” said Latharika.  “Meanwhile, enjoy the sunset.”
         “I’ll tell you one thing,” said Domison, “if they find one of those death-ray cannons, or a bomb that can crack a planet in two, I’m keeping it.”
         “I wouldn’t trust you with a pair of scissors.  With corks on the ends.”
         Domison paused, trying to think up a witty retort.  Unfortunately, “Bitch” was all he could come up with.
         Far below, the forest was thinning out into white sand.  Far ahead, the horizon glittered with pink sunlight on endless blue.
         “Oh, look,” said Latharika.  “Would you like to go for a swim?”
         As soon as the beach passed beneath her, she began to dive.
         “Don’t you fucking daaaaaaaaaare!”
         The Dragoness abruptly straightened up and soared forward, mere metres over the ocean surface.  Once again, Domison felt the rumble of her laughter.
         “You’re evil.”
         “I know.”
         The ocean sped far beneath them in scintillating waves.  Far ahead, beyond the horizon, was Haloken’s frigid southernmost continent. 
         As they raced towards their goal, the archaeologists knew, in their hearts, that they could always agree on one thing – that the best possible outcome was to make the discovery that would change the world.
         For the better, of course.

~ ~ ~
I have just given the Prologue a major overhaul.  One of the (many) shocking revelations that I was going to save for later in the novel has now been moved right to the start, to ensure that the stakes are very high and very clear.  Put simply, an OA-style galactic civilization has known of the existence of a quasi-magical world for the past six years, as well as the extradimensional power that made it what it is.  Both the planet Haloken and the rest of the Galaxy are almost Outside Context Problems to each other.  I say "almost" because the last big event took place in the first novel, Project Heavenstorm.




Prologue

Please don’t burn this world.
         He knew it was a futile appeal.  In the towering hierarchy of the Galactic Community, Probe Seven was nothing more than a messenger.  As valuable as his observations and assessments were, he doubted that he could ever truly sway the vast and mighty tides of interstellar politics, especially where the security of Civilization itself was at stake.
         Have patience, little one, whispered the gentle voice of his Mistress, hundreds of light years away.  Sterilization of the planet known as Haloken is but one option out of millions.  It might never come to pass.  If we can find a way to quarantine this world, we will.  If we can forbid all future travel to – and communication with – this world, we will.  But all options must be considered.  The deaths of a billion innocent sentients would be a tragedy.  But we would only consider such dire action if it were to save the lives of a trillion trillion.  This world is an island of magic in an ocean of science.  It does not belong.  The abilities of the Titans of this world are of great concern to us.  The events of six years ago have staggering implications for our understandings of the universe.  It seems that Haloken can only coexist with our civilization at a safe distance.  But we must make sure.  That is why your duty is paramount at this point in history.    
         Hygraxil’s words were transmitted along the most narrow, secure Q-link available to Twenty-Sixth Millennium technology, accompanied by tsunamis of images, graphs, and complex abstractions to back up her argument.  Probe Seven knew that this was supposed to overwhelm him, to mesmerize him, to soothe him.  And it worked.  For a moment, it worked very well indeed.  Curiosity was his hunger.  Information was his sustenance.  Hygraxil, the city-sized Coremind, knew this all too well.  She had created him, after all, with all his prodigious talents and easily exploitable weaknesses.  She knew how to sway him, to nourish him, even at this distance.  And Probe Seven loved her for it, for he could not imagine a universe without her.
         However, his creator was not the only love of his life.  Spread out before him, filling his entire forward view, was the very reason for his existence.  He existed to be sent here.  He existed to study the planet Haloken.  It was his life, so how could it not be his love?
         After a whole year of silent, hidden observation, he had learned to love this planet’s many inhabitants.  He loved its billion Humans, with the exception of those that were petty and cruel.  He loved its hundred thousand Dragons, with the same exceptions.  He loved the many trillions of creatures that crawled and swam and flew and knew nothing better.  And, perhaps, he could learn to love the only ones he had to fear.  Perhaps that day would come.
         For today, however, Probe Seven was happy to watch the world awaken.
         Thousands of kilometres below, the edge of the morning sunlight was sweeping across the surface of the planet Haloken, peeling back the shadow of night.  For the past few minutes, it was mostly the ocean that fell under its relentless advance; yet even here there were signs of intelligent life and activity.  On a sailboat near the equatorial centre of the Armestraung Ocean, a small band of Ixthalion fishermen were already awake, enjoying their mugs of steaming beverage when the sunrise greeted them like the face of an old friend.  Far to their north, a squadron of nine Skywatch Dragons were gliding below the speed of sound as the hazy border of sunlight caught up with them, clothing their scales from tail to head with gleaming swiftness, colouring the ocean before them with graceful slowness.  Far to the south, a team of Human researchers near the ice-jagged coast of Farasion awoke to a sunrise that glinted upon the ice like a lamp on white glass.
         On any other day, each one of these small, routine activities would have held Probe Seven’s interest for considerably more than a millisecond.  Not today.  This day marked the sixth anniversary of the most momentous - the most shocking - event in this planet’s recorded history.  And on this day, in the place where it had all begun - where history had been born, hidden, and re-exposed in all its brilliant and terrible glory - the remembrance of those events were about to commence.
         After endless minutes, the wave of daylight flooded throughout kilometres of unfrozen land; the cliffs, beaches, forests and - finally - the freshly constructed college buildings of New Keslazhin Island.
         The Probe had no breath to gasp with, no flesh-framed eyes to widen with wonder and fascination.  Yet his body’s trillions of molecule-sized components held much, much more.  Thousands of scanning devices all diverted their attention from peripheral activities, and focused all their observational powers on this one patch of land in the midst of the sea. 
         This was the place where the Elixir had been buried so many thousands of years ago.  This was the place where it had slept, existing only as a dream, as a legend, before finally being reawakened.  The consequence of this disturbance did much more than tremble a world - it had shaken an entire galaxy.
         You can help save this world you love so much, said Hygraxil.  The longer it exists, the more we learn.  Keep watching.  Keep listening.  Most of all, continue to monitor all significant mentions of the Elixir.
         Affirmative, My Lady, replied Probe Seven.  Yet while I find it easy to monitor all crystal transmissions, eavesdropping upon the great majority of telepathic conversations is still an unattainable goal.
         As unattainable as it is unnecessary.  Do not allow excessive pride to cloud your duty.  You cannot possibly deposit any more dataspores into Haloken’s atmosphere without arousing the suspicion of the Moredrex and Kujiras. Your scanning network surrounds the entire planet - surely that must be sufficient for you?  You must value patience and security far more highly than you presently value curiousity.
         I understand, My Lady.  Yet I have sworn my life to your service, and utilise the gift of curiousity to the fullness of your desire.
         The fullness of my desire is to see your mission continue as long as required, not to have it halted prematurely.  My gift of curiousity to you is not to be abused for the purpose of hasty gratification.  You are the Last of the Seven.  Yours is the greatest responsibility of all.  Deviation from the path will not only cause the Titans of Haloken to lash out at you – it may force us to retaliate.  Your destruction may lead to the destruction of this world you love so much.  It may lead to a war, the likes of which this Galaxy has never seen.  No curiosity, no selfish sacrifice, can possibly be worth that.
         Probe Seven could not shudder with fear like an animal, but the very thought of losing everything he had been created for gave him the slightest stirrings of dread.
         I concur and apologise, My Lady.
         Apology accepted, pride of my spawn.
         As daylight swept across the ocean, hundreds of Dragons could be seen soaring towards New Kesalzhin Island, many carrying equipment and Human passengers.  The festivities were well underway.
         A few hundred kilometres to the north, a medium-sized sailship belonging to the Church of the Celestial Ambassador began its slow journey towards the heart of the ocean.  Sitting around on the deck in rigid silence, their nervousness apparent even from Probe Seven’s altitude, were sixteen black-robed young Initiates.  They had come of age, and were now rehearsing a once-in-a-lifetime ritual that was nonetheless a common occurrence for the increasingly expansive Church.  Probe Seven scanned the surrounding seas to five hundred kilometres, then a thousand.  There were no signs of any Kujiras.  However, as the Probe knew all-too-well, that meant nothing.
         Far to the southeast, on the West Coast of the continent, the largest city on the planet was awakening to face the new day.  On the roof of Panument’s many skyscrapers, a mother Dragon opened her pouch to let her three-year-old joey peek outside at the rising Sun, his dark eyes wide with wonder.
         Please don’t burn this world, said Probe Seven.  That is my only humble request.
         I will do everything within my power to avoid such a dire scenario.  This world is far too interesting to lose.  I suspect that the Galaxy may benefit from its continued existence in ways we can only begin to imagine.
         Is quarantine still the primary option?
         It is a far more viable option  than termination.  And what better way to study a world than to leave it to its own devices and never interfere?
         May I humbly ask of your personal opinion?
         You may ask, pride of my spawn.
         Which option do you prefer – preserving this world indefinitely, or merely postponing its destruction?
         A most pertinent question.  How about postponing its destruction indefinitely?
         Hygraxil’s answer was accompanied by an infinitely rising graph, edging ever closer to the fiery border of extinction but never touching it.  If Probe Seven had lungs, he would have laughed nervously at his Mistress’s grim humour.
         Postponing this world’s destruction is your duty as well.
         Instantly, Probe Seven was reminded of the sheer neutron star-like weight of his responsibility.  All humour melted away like an ice comet devoured by a solar flare.
         Give us data.  Give us images.  Give us stories.  Give us a reason to preserve this world.  Make no move that can be seen.  Speak no word that can be overheard.  Spend every moment of your life presenting your case for Haloken’s continued existence, and you will make me proud.
         I would be honoured to make you proud, My Lady.
         Fixed high in orbit, linked up to a billion microscopic dataspores that surrounded the planet, Probe Seven gazed down upon the mortal realm from the dark and dangerous heavens, watching the world turn, wanting it to turn forever.

~ ~ ~
I have written a new blurb for Project Heavenstorm's Amazon page, longer and more detailed than the original.

The original blurb can still be found on my Goodreads page.  Let me know which one you like better.