** DAISUKE **
The muscles of the shimmering bronze dragon tensed even more; I could feel it as I leaned over my saddle, hands braced against my partner Vrekk’s smooth scales. Taking a brief second, I stole a glance back over my shoulder. "They’re still there! Can we go any faster?"
// I’m at my limit! // Vrekk admitted, a strained feel laced through the words. // If I go faster, I won’t be able to keep going faster – and they can go on for days! //
I was starting to get a little desperate; who wouldn’t, with a bunch of little flesh-eating wraiths chasing after them? "We’re gonna have to lose then somehow! It’s our only chance! If they catch us, they’ll have us for breakfast – literally!"
// I’ll give it my best shot! // Vrekk promised, before swooping down closer to the ground and diving into a narrow valley. The sound of eerie moaning faded for a moment, then came back full-force.
All I could do was hang on tight. This was a bad idea from the start…
"We should take the longer route," Takeru said, in his most cautious, practical tone of voice. The blond was poking at the logs in the fire with a practiced ease; so many nights spent camping out during missions and such had given us all those basic skills. "We know it, and it’s safer."
I could already see Iori nodding his head in approval of the idea; the youngest of us was pretty impressed with practicality. Miyako’s impatient sigh told me her opinion, and Hikari looked torn. Time to voice my assessment of the situation.
There were five of us, and that was in existence as well as on that particular trip. You could say we were chosen, since dragons picked their own partners, and hardly anyone ever got the chance. Vrekk told me that there were only five dragons in the world right then, though more might come some day from what we usually called the Land Beyond the Seas. I’d never been there, but my dragon had told me stories…
"I think we should go through there." I pushed away thoughts of ‘Beyond the Sea’ and ran a finger across Takeru’s map. "If we go through the mountains instead of around, we cut a whole day off our trip. Anyway, what could happen?"
Hikari’s Silver, Gyvera, snorted.
"I agree with Dai," Miyako said abruptly, getting up to snatch the map right out of our hands. "Why waste time? It’s not like we’re completely helpless, and anyway, we can always fly our way out of trouble, right?"
"Yeah!" I grinned triumphantly at Takeru, glad to have support.
He rolled his eyes, but not in an insulting way. "I still think it’s too dangerous, but we can put it down to a vote. I know Iori agrees with me, and Miyako and Dai are against us…" He looked up at the slender brunette who had been listening quietly. "What do you think, Hikari?"
I fought back a scowl as Takeru’s blue eyes caught and held those beautiful brown ones. I’d had a mad crush on Hikari since the first time I met her, but she and the blond DragonRider were always so close. He had a gold and she had a silver, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they were mated! It just wasn’t fair! How could I get Hikari’s attention if her dragon was mated to Takeru’s?
"I think… I agree with Miyako and Daisuke," she said slowly. "I’m sorry, Takeru, but we took so long with the formalities at Koushiro’s court that our brothers are going to start getting worried. We should get home as soon as possible."
"Yeah!" I said again, thrilled by her unexpected agreement. "See, Takeru, Hikari’s on my side!"
"Our side, wonderbrain!" Miyako smacked the back of my head in an ‘irritated but not angry’ way. "Or did you forget that I’ve been arguing for this just as much as you?"
"Fine, sorry!" I rubbed the back of my head, trying my best to look wounded. "Our side."
"I still think it’s a bad idea," Iori said, with a sigh.
"Hey!" I shrugged, grinning. "What could happen?"
I should’ve kept my big mouth shut! I had my arms wrapped as far around Vrekk’s neck muscles as I could reach them, and my knees dug into his flanks. My saddle-straps had been in rough shape before we started abusing them – now I had nothing to hold me on.
I just had to pray that Vrekk wouldn’t let me fall.
"Can’t we turn around and fry ’em?" I asked, almost yelling in my panic. Warm-colored dragons breathed fire, and Vrekk happened to be a nice warm bronze. I stole another glance at the creatures behind us.
Daeaphon. That was what Takeru had called them. They were completely in shades of grey, and vaguely shaped like humans – except for the insect-like wings sprouting out of their backs. Instead of buzzing, though, their wings groaned – as if the beings attached to them were in terrible pain. The creatures’ twisted limbs were pale and hairless, and their faces were distorted in ways that looked painful. It looked like their necks were broken, but they still had bright, hungry glints in their eyes. Even from where I was in front of them, I could see how unnaturally sharp their teeth were.
// It won’t do any good. They’re not really alive! // Vrekk answered. He was getting tired, I could tell. // They only know hunger. And they won’t wait until you’re dead to start feeding, either! //
"Great!" I’ll admit it, my voice was starting to get a little high-pitched with fear. "Can we not talk about that when we’ve got about two dozen of the little creeps on our tail?"
// I’ve only got one thing left to try! // Vrekk answered. He felt at least as desperate as I did. // Hold on tight, Dai! //
"Hold on for wha – AAA!" I screamed as Vrekk went into an abrupt dive, right straight for a lake in the middle of the valley. I barely had time to gasp in a breath, and then we were underwater.
I felt the little disturbances as the Daeaphon followed us in. They can swim; this isn’t going to work… we’re gonna get caught and they’re gonna eat us…! I thrashed around, feeling more and more desperate as Vrekk went deeper and holding my breath got harder. Bright stars were starting to appear at the sides of my vision, and I flopped back, struggling to hold it in.
Vrekk chose that moment to try and pass under a sunken tree. He went through it perfectly, his back straight. I was sitting up trying to control my lungs, and the thick trunk caught me right smack in the face, knocking me off of my dragon’s back. Dazed, I lost myself and breathed in, swallowing a whole lung-full of water.
The Daeaphon were coming for me from one side, but I was too busy drowning to care any more.
Then the water went cold.
Before I could give that even the slightest hint of a thought, a set of warm arms closed around my waist, and I was being dragged upward. That was the last thing I felt before blacking out completely.
** IORI **
"How far to the border?" I yelled, pressed low against the green scales of my partner Ayviar’s neck. The question wasn’t directed at my dragon, but at the other Rider, to my left. I stole a glance over, and found her bent forward like I was, lavender hair streaming behind her as her Red sped forward at the same speed as mine.
"Not too much longer!" Miyako shouted back, eyes intent on the mountains ahead of us. "Once we’re back in the plains, they won’t be able to follow! Are they still back there?"
I checked over my shoulder. The Daeaphon hadn’t given up; if anything, they were gaining on us. Ayviar and Miyako’s Red, Hukaan, weren’t built for speed like Daisuke’s Vrekk, or fancy flying like Takeru’s Gold, Pekkue, and Hikari’s Gyvera. Ours were built for power.
A lot of good that was going to do us now.
"We need to buy more time!" I shouted back at my friend. The Daeaphon were gaining on us. If only we hadn’t been so darn careless…!
"Stay close together," Takeru cautioned, eyeing the mountains around us with apprehension. "A lot of nasty things live in the mountains around this part of the world, you know."
"We know!" Daisuke said impatiently. The red-head was a little ahead of the rest of us – which was normal. Both he and Vrekk were fond of speed, and it was their specialty. "Lay off, will you?"
"He’s just trying to be cautious, Daisuke," Hikari responded, immediately coming to Takeru’s defense before I could even open my mouth. "You could try actually listening to him, you know."
Takeru smiled at her.
I turned away, hoping I didn’t look like Daisuke did at the moment. It was obvious that he was jealous of Takeru and Hikari’s closeness, but I was sure hoping nobody could tell I was. Being a couple of years younger than the others, I’d probably get it laughed off as a silly crush of some kind.
Even though I’d been in love with Takeru for long enough by then to know that it really hurt when I thought about him with Hikari. Their dragons are mated! They’re practically destined!
I didn’t even have a place in that equation.
"So why are we wasting our breath arguing about it?" Miyako asked, looking a little irritated as she eyed Takeru and Hikari. "Isn’t that kind of dumb?"
Hikari turned from Takeru and gave her an apologetic smile. "Sorry Miyako," she said, and even I could tell she meant it. "I think this whole ‘danger’ business has us all on edge."
"Well, it’s good to be cautious," I added in. Something flitted past my vision at the side, and I twisted around in my saddle. "Hold on – what was that?"
Daisuke looked. "What?"
"I saw something!" I insisted. "Like a grey… person."
"You must’ve been seeing things, Iori!" Miyako scoffed. "Whoever heard of a grey person, especially living up here in the mountains? Besides, people can’t fly, grey or otherwise!"
"Don’t be so quick to dismiss it, guys." Takeru looked thoughtful. "There are a lot of strange things living around here. Besides, that description sounds kinda familiar…" He was too lost in trying to remember to see the twisted grey shape coming at him from the back – but I saw it.
"TAKERU!" I shouted, and Ayviar reacted instantly, ramming into Pekkue and shoving both him and his Rider out of harm’s way.
That was when the Daeaphon came flying at us…
"We’re not going to make it, Miyako!" I shouted, over the steadily increasing volume of the moaning behind us. "They’re too fast; we’re going to have to slow them down somehow!"
"I know! Just wait a minute…" Beside me, Hukaan suddenly spun around and released a scorching blast, enveloping all of the Daeaphon behind us in flames. It was an impressive sight.
But when the fire cleared, none of the twisted grey shapes were even a little bit charred.
"Ayviar!" I yelled, and my Green responded to the plea, whirling to swoop down and push Miyako and Hukaan out of the path of the danger that rushed at them through the remains of their attack. We didn’t have a lead any more, so we were pretty much forced to find a way to keep them away from us.
"Iori!" Miyako called to me, as Hukaan swept back, beating his wings against the hungry little wraiths. "Fire won’t work because they can’t be hurt or killed!"
"Got it!" I knew what she was implying. Dragons with warm-colored scales breathed fire. However, dragons with cool-colored scales – like Ayviar – breathed ice. And, even though the Daeaphon couldn’t be hurt… it was still possible that they could be frozen!
I rode between Hukaan and the creatures attacking him, then Ayviar turned, knowing what to do. // Here goes nothing! // he told me, and let out a huge streak of ice.
For a moment, I thought it had worked. The Daeaphon were frozen in a wall of solid ice, which immediately fell toward the ground. But, as I watched, they began to slowly ooze out from that cold prison, emerging from the top. "It didn’t work!" I yelled, whirling again.
"Well, at least it slowed them down!" We were flying forward again, trying to gain as much distance as we could before they could completely free themselves. "That’s more than I could do! If they start getting too close now, we can just freeze them!"
"Good thing!" I thought back desperately, then remembered, with some relief, that Takeru was with Hikari, who also had a cool-scaled partner. Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever been glad that he’s with Hikari! "I wish we could let the others know somehow!"
"Hikari can figure it out for herself!" Miyako yelled back to me, confidently. "She’ll be able to take care of Takeru, and you know that they’ll be together, since Pekkue and Gyvera both wouldn’t want to be separated when there’s danger. So we’re all – " She stopped abruptly.
"What’s the matter?" I had to yell louder than before, since the moaning behind us had started up again. "Is there something wrong?" She doesn’t think they’ll have trouble… does she?
"Iori, if Hikari’s with Takeru, and you’re with me… who’s looking after Daisuke?"
I froze. Oh no…
"He knows we’re supposed to try and get out of these mountains, right?" she shouted at me. "I mean, Takeru yelled it out when we got separated, so he has to know!"
"I hope so!" Vrekk was the fastest of all our dragons; if anyone could out-fly the Daeaphon, it would be him. "But he’ll get away anyway!" I was trying to reassure both Miyako and myself by saying it. "Daisuke always gets away! He’ll be fine!"
"Yeah… they’re gaining again, Iori!"
As Ayviar spun about and caught the Daeaphon in another fierce ice blast, I worried. I sure hope I’m right. I don’t know what any of us would do if something happened to Daisuke!
** HIKARI **
"The border of these mountains should be just past that area," Takeru told me in a hushed whisper, pointing to a region that looked to be a few hundred miles long.
Flying, it would take Pekkue and Gyvera about five minutes to cross.
I found myself wishing we had Vrekk’s speed. He could probably make the trip in three minutes – or less. But then, he probably wouldn’t have been able to hide us so skillfully while the Daeaphon were recovering from Gyvera’s ice breath.
Actually, he wouldn’t have even had the advantage of an ice blast.
"Takeru," I whispered, to the blond boy crouched a few feet away from me, "Daisuke’s alone out there, and Vrekk can’t breathe ice. Do you think he’ll be okay?"
"Sure he will." Takeru gave me a reassuring smile. "Vrekk’s fast enough to keep him out of trouble. Anyway, you know Daisuke. He always manages to pull himself out of these messes."
"I guess you’re right," I agreed, with a sigh. "I hope Miyako stays with Iori, though. Hukaan isn’t built for speed, and he can’t breathe ice. You don’t think…"
"I’m sure Miyako is fine," Takeru assured me, in the calm, even tone that always made me feel better. "Iori wouldn’t leave her, and I’m sure he can make sure she stays safe."
"Yeah." I couldn’t help worrying, all the same. When those Daeaphon attacked, we had such a short amount of time… I can’t be sure that everyone got out of it all right…
Iori’s "grey person" had more friends than we could have possibly anticipated, and they didn’t stop coming, even when Takeru had been neatly knocked out of the way. They had sharp, nasty-looking teeth, and expressions of cruel hunger on their faces.
"Daisuke, move it!" Miyako screamed, as the creatures headed for the red-haired boy and bronze dragon in their path. With Takeru missing, he was the one in their path.
"Huh – WAH!" Daisuke grabbed at his saddle as Vrekk turned upward with an abrupt jerk. I clearly heard the sound of his saddle-straps tearing, and he had to cling to his dragon’s back for dear life. "What are those things?"
"Daeaphon – watch out, Hikari!" Takeru’s Gold swooped in front of Gyvera and me protectively. "Don’t let them catch you – they eat flesh!" A flurry of the moaning little creatures swarmed over us, and we had to fly away.
"Miyako!" I screamed, watching over my shoulder as a second set of Daeaphon attacked her from the side. Iori was there already, pushing her out of the way and urging her to fly off out of reach of the grey "people".
"Try and get to the plains!" Takeru yelled, over the moaning of their wings. "They can’t follow us there, and we’ll be able to find each other!"
That much was true; with level ground around us, we’d be able to see for miles. I took another glance back, where Daisuke had already gone, and Miyako and Iori were getting rapidly smaller. Takeru and I were on our own.
"Are you ready?" Takeru asked, turning to face Pekkue. "They’re still out there, I know, but we have to get out of here, and I heard that sometimes those things don’t give up for weeks! If we make a quick dash for the border of these mountains, we should make it."
// This is about as ready as we’re going to get, // Gyvera told me. // If we’re going to try, we might as well go now. You wouldn’t want the others to come looking for us. //
I nodded at Takeru. "We’re ready. Let’s go for it."
"Right." He pulled himself into Pekkue’s saddle with a practiced ease, and I was quick to follow that example with Gyvera. "No wasting time – let’s go!" His Gold took off abruptly.
Gyvera was right in sync with her mate; that’s what made working with Takeru so easy for me. That and the fact that he was my closest friend, and I was more comfortable with him than with anyone else, of course. We worked well together – as partners.
Definitely not as lovers. I didn’t even want to think about that, and I’m sure Takeru felt the same way.
The groaning Daeaphon quickly took up the chase as we rushed from our hiding place, and rapidly gained ground. Again, I found myself wishing for Vrekk’s speed; Daisuke could surely match their pace. But… Gyvera had more speed that Ayviar, or Hukaan…
Miyako. Out of all the others, I was most worried about her. Daisuke had a speed advantage, and Iori’s Green breathed ice. But Miyako had nothing to help her against these creatures. I was desperately concerned for her safety.
Especially since she meant the whole world to me. Be safe. I love you…
One day I would tell her that.
// Pekkue! // Gyvera’s shriek brought me back to reality. My head jerked around and I noticed immediately that some of the Daeaphon had surrounded Pekkue and Takeru, and were attempting to rip out chunks of their flesh.
"Gyvera!" The shout was hardly even necessary; my Silver had already ducked into a fierce swoop, ready to deliver death and worse to the enemies threatening her mate.
Great beats of Gyvera’s wings knocked away the creatures; I could tell how furious she was because of how much strength she put into the attack. // Nobody threatens my mate! // she screamed, filling my head with outrage, and fear for Pekkue. // Never! //
The minutes they were blown back by that, she let loose a furious ice blast that covered every single one of our enemies. Not one of the Daeaphon escaped that fierce attack; they were encased in a temporary ice prison.
"That was amazing!" Takeru exclaimed, as both dragons rushed forward again. "You totally got them! I didn’t know you had it in you, Gyvera! Did you, Hikari?"
"Well, I figured she’d get angry like that if Pekkue’s life was in danger! It only seems natural, right?" I pressed my hands against my Silver’s neck. "It’s love, Takeru. You know."
// I’d do more, for him, // Gyvera told me, fervently.
"And he’d do the same for you!" I looked ahead, and straightened in my saddle. "Takeru! Look over there! We’ve made it!" The plains were fully in view ahead of us.
"All right!" Takeru cheered, as we passed over the last hints of high land unchallenged. "We did it, Hikari!" He glanced around anxiously. "Now we need to keep an eye out for the others…"
I looked around, and a glint of coppery fire caught my eye. "There!" Gyvera flew closer, and I felt relief rushing through me as I recognized the sight of sunlight shining off of pure, red scales. "Miyako!"
"And Iori!" Takeru echoed me with the same relief. "They’re safe!"
My relief was short-lived. As we drew closer to the two on the ground, I noticed something that made me worried all over again. Miyako was safely out of the mountains, and I was glad for it, but… "There are only the two of them, Takeru."
His eyes met mine, and I know we were both thinking the same thing. Where is Daisuke?
** DAISUKE **
My mouth and nose were blocked, but I was breathing.
I wasn’t awake.
My lungs weren’t even trying to draw in air.
But I was breathing.
There was a warm and not-unpleasant something pressed against my mouth. As I started to drift back into consciousness, I realized that my lips were parted, my nose was pinched shut, there was warmth hovering over my sprawled body, and whatever soft thing was pressed against my mouth was also blowing into it and then sucking back out.
Somebody was breathing into my mouth. And whoever that somebody was had a careful hand resting over my heart, in a way that was oddly comforting, and making me feel warm and safe.
And I was being kissed…
I didn’t drown!
The second that thought came to mind, I started to squirm – and then regretted it as whoever had been giving me mouth-to-mouth backed off. I started to cough, and gasped in air like I’d been running miles. Feeling like each eyelid weighed fifty pounds, I tried to lift them and get a look at my rescuer.
My vision was so blurred it was almost like looking through water, but I found myself staring up into the most beautiful pair of blue-violet eyes I’d ever seen in my life. They were like liquid crystal, shining and smooth and… well, beautiful. I’d never seen anything so perfect before… I decided right then and there that I was dead, and looking at an angel.
I tried to voice this, but my voice was a watery croak. "A…angel?" I managed.
Amusement should’ve been dripping from those eyes, they were suddenly so full of it. I think that my angel was about to say something to me, to correct me or agree with me, I don’t know…
But my mind chose that moment to conk out, and I fell back into blackness.