Suddenly the birds stopped. It was like they flew into a strong gale and couldn't come farther. I slowed after the grackles withdrew. They landed in the damaged trees, squawking like deranged demons. Not one bird left its perch to peck at me. Why did they stop? What were they afraid of? Oh crap. What would make flesh-eating birds retreat from easy prey? Turning slowly, I knew it had to be behind me - something that frightened those birds - something that was much worse.
Looking around, I finally noticed the crushed landscape. Trees laid in piles, splintered from their massive trunks. The forest floor looked as if it had been dug up and thrown askew. Clumps of dirt were everywhere. But it was what was in the center of the clearing that concerned me. Several trees were clustered together forming a silver ring. It looked like a nest; a gigantic silver nest. I stared at the spaces between the downed trees. Large red eyes stared back. Through the silvery foliage I could see dark scales surrounding those horrid red eyes, accompanied by a massive yawning maw filled with pointed teeth. My eyes grew wide. I suddenly stopped breathing. It was a dragon! And it wasn't just any dragon; it was the dragon from my vision. The one that killed me. I froze. Nothing happened. Nothing moved. It was like time stopped and we just stared at each other. Whatever chance of saving Collin that I thought I had shattered and blew away. This beast would kill me. I was certain of it.
So far, it hadn't moved. It lay there, staring at me. I slid my foot backwards slowly like I was backing away from a rabid dog. I hoped it wouldn't move. But, I had no such luck. As soon as I started to drag back my other foot, a grackle decided I was close enough, and dove at my arm. Its razor sharp beak tore through my skin, and its claws yanked a chunk of hair from my head. I swatted at it, yelling, until it flew away. Clutching my arm, I looked behind me. The grackles were still there, eerily quiet, watching me - waiting for me. And in front of me was a dragon. My options sucked. Go back and be attacked by a flock of demon birds. Or go forward and risk facing whatever scared the grackles enough to let their meal walk away.
I didn't get to decide. The red eyes flew straight up into the tree canopy, followed by a massive black body covered in glimmering scales. The dragon's talons were black like brimstone, its enormous maw filled with razor sharp teeth. A long tail hung down from the branch where it perched, stopping several feet above the ground. Before I realized what I was doing, my feet were moving. I shot under the branch and ran out the other side. The dragon bellowed that horrible sound that I heard in my vision. The ground shook as the tree where the dragon was perched came crashing down. It let out another cry and bounded off the ground and into the air. The sound of metal scraping metal made me turn. The beast was retracting its claws over and over, as its enormous black veined wings propelled it faster and faster towards me. If it had been able to shoot off the branch at top speed, it would have caught me already. My feet pounded the uneven terrain as I neared the edge of the forest. Its wings forced gusts of air against my back, it was so close. But, I didn't slow down. I didn't turn to see that it was near enough to breathe down my neck. The vision I had of the dragon was still vivid, and there was no doubt in my mind that this was the creature that I saw slicing Collin and I into a million pieces.
The edge of the woods was in sight. I hoped to God that the beast was bound to reside within the forest. Otherwise there would be no way to escape it. I'd have to turn and fight. And I'd die. How the hell do you fight a dragon? I only had that tiny comb. Its scales were larger than my hand. What would a little comb do? Nothing!
Fear burst though me giving my muscles another spurt of energy, but I wasn't fast enough. The dragon's wings were pressed tightly to its body as it shot from the sky and straight towards me at top speed. Its maw was open as it made an ear-piercing cry. The cry sounded like a distant echo, muffled by the pounding terror of my own heart, growing louder as it rapidly closed the distance between us. Panting, I tried to think of what to do. The beast wasn't stopping. It sounded more agitated. More horrifying. I'd have to turn to fight it, or it would rip me to shreds from behind. My fingers faltered, trying to grab my comb from my hair and extend the tines, but I didn't get the chance. An arm grabbed me, pulling me into a patch of underbrush. I screamed, fighting the hands that yanked me to the ground.
"Shut up," Shannon scolded me. "It's just me." I dropped to the ground, lying face-down in dirt so I could see what was happening.
Eric had jumped onto the path when Shannon pulled me off, and held up his palms. The dragon looked even more pissed off than before, and extended its black talons at Eric's head. The brilliant flashes of blue light that emanated from Eric's palms were instantaneous. The beast reared up, exposing its scaly underbelly to Eric, and cried out slashing it pointy claws blindly. As the light grew brighter still, Shannon started to pull me toward the clearing ahead. The light pulsed from Eric's hands like a strobe. With each flash he took a step backwards, until the dragon retreated. It was obvious that the beast didn't like the blue light. I wasn't sure if the dragon hated the brightness of it, or if Eric was using his Martis powers to do something else. Either way, it was working. After one last bright surge of light, the beast flew off smacking into trees and splintering off huge chunks of silver as it passed.
I doubled over, trying to get enough air to speak. Eric reached us and looked relieved to see me. He grinned, "You can't keep it no matter how much you beg. Dragons are not pets, Ivy." He laughed.
I sucked in air, still too tired to speak, and punched him in the arm. "You jerk," I laughed, still panting. "I thought those birds were going to kill me, then I ran straight into that dragon. How did you know it didn't like light?"
He shrugged, "Most creatures down here don't. I was too stunned to try and use it at the Pool before. Not to mention that it's not that discreet. It's like waiving the Martis flag down here. It's possible that others will know we're here now. Blasting Martis powers around down here isn't exactly inconspicuous." He sighed and looked at me. "I thought we might not see you again. I screwed up at the Pool of Lost Souls. I thought I saw..."
"It's all right. There was no way to know," I said looking away from him.
"But you must have seen Collin, right?" I nodded. He stepped in front of me, forcing me to look up at him. "But, you didn't walk into the water. I did. I never expected to see her again. It was like being sucker-punched in the worst way possible. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. It was just Lydia...and me. I would have been trapped there if you didn't step in." He smiled weakly at me. It was a humble smile. It must have been weird for a warrior to be saved by me. Eric was the one who trained me, and knew first-hand that my mad fighting skills were non-existent. I just got lucky. A lot.
"Don't even go there," I smiled, walking past him. Humble hero; that was an oxymoron. I was glad to see him again. And that he and Shannon were together. It bothered me a little bit that they didn't wait for me, but with those demon birds flying around, a dragon, and God knew what else - it made sense that they didn't wait. "I'm just glad to see you guys again. What happened? Where did you guys go? I started to think you turned back."
His eyebrow shot up. "No, we didn't turn back. Shannon dragged me away from the Pool. She left me to recover and then ran back to get you. Then those birds came and separated us. I couldn't find Shannon or you. So, I kept walking. The paths were twisting and I had no idea if I was even going the right way."
Shannon continued, "Same here. When I went back for you, those stupid birds dive-bombed me. I never got to you. I had to run. And when I ran back for Eric, he was gone. After I ditched the evil birds, something was herding me. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it above me. Once in a while when I didn't know which way to go there was an ominous black mass on one of the paths... so I chose the other one."
Eric was nodding, "Me too. That dragon was trailing us, pushing us back together."
"So he could eat us all at once," Shannon said, shivering. "Did you see the claws on that thing?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I saw them." A grackle screech startled me into motion. "We need to keep moving. Stopping makes the evil things down here think we're a buffet."
Shannon walked quickly ahead. "I hate those birds," she said as she quickened her pace. I hung back a few steps, walking behind her with Eric. He was quieter than usual and had his hands shoved in his pockets.
Lines creased his forehead as he looked at the ground. His voice was soft, "Ivy, I'm sorry... "
I cut him off. There was no need for apologies. I saved him. He saved me. Besides, long apologies made me uncomfortable. "Eric, it's fine. We're all alive, and we found each other again. That's all that matters." I smiled at him.
His golden eyes slid to my face. They looked plagued with pain. There was no trace of a smile, no hint of the lightness that was usually so transparently Eric. His voice was a whisper so Shannon couldn't hear. "I feel like I've just relived the worst day of my life. Losing her once was bad enough. Ivy, I don't know how you're still standing. You've had more than enough shocks today too, but you keep going."
I looked at him puzzled, "Eric, what choice do I have? Give up and die? That's not really a choice."
"No, it's not," he agreed. And we began walking again. I didn't turn around to watch the silver forest shrink into the distance. I could feel the dragon's eyes still following me, waiting for another chance to rip me to shreds.
Shannon walked in front, leading the way through the winding Underworld. It appeared to stretch on forever. We were back to trekking over rocky rust-colored terrain. The bond was weak, but it still pulled me forward. The weakness of it worried me. Did that mean that Collin was worse? I didn't want to think of what it would mean if the bond totally disappeared.
Eric broke the thought when he finally spoke. "I never told you about her. I figured the past was the past, why talk about it? But seeing her again made it feel like it just happened." I looked over at him. He stared straight ahead as he spoke, with his golden eyes fixated on the ground in front of us. "I was glad I was turned Martis. It was the only way to kill the bastards who stole her from me. I was born in the ancient world and things were different. I spent my childhood by the sea, along a trade route in the Mediterranean. I remember seeing the traders that sustained my tiny town. They brought the things we needed and traded on their way to the major ports. We were literally lodged between two huge cities, well, huge for then." He smiled. "I liked my village and my life. I didn't have much, but I loved what I had.
"Then odd things started happening. No one noticed at first. We thought a girl ran off and eloped, or a young man had hopes of being a trader and left the village behind. But, it wasn't true. With each passing day another person disappeared, and it was as if they never existed at all. They simply vanished. The attacks were becoming more widespread and more frequent." He smiled softly, "Lydia was a strong woman for a sixteen-year-old. Her hair looked like black silk. And her eyes...Her dark eyes were perfect. She rarely said anything about her fears, but with another villager snatched in the night even the strongest people were terrified. Myself included.