The afternoon sun was warm against Zoltar’s scales as he soared out over the lake. The golden rays bounced off the dancing waters below, illuminating the vast shoals of fish darting beneath the surface. A soft breeze whistled through the trees hanging over the water’s edge as it carried the stray leaves of the forest up and towards the distant mountains.
Zoltar glanced to his right. Emerald was flying almost wing to wing with him, her scales rippling a warm mix of honey orange and hibiscus pink. She hadn’t said a word to him since they’d left the cave.
That seemed like an eternity away now. Never would he have dreamed that he’d be flying over the island with a Wisp Talon this morning, and yet, here he was.
It didn’t seem like they were heading anywhere close either.
Zoltar felt a chill run down his spine as he scanned the forest below. They’d cleared the lake and were headed up towards the eastern mountain peaks. This was the furthest he’d been since arriving on the island.
The forest was impenetrable here. Not a single break in the carpet of trees, their boughs stretched out in a protective canopy over the inhabitants below. The Wisp Talon village must be down there, but where?
As if reading his thoughts, Emerald hissed in a low voice, “We need to fly low from here on out. Try not to attract any attention okay.”
Zoltar gave her a worried glance, but nodded as he dipped lower over the tree tops.
Emerald’s scales were now a deep obsidian black, her back spines flexed up in an effort to mirror his.
“It’ll be less suspicious if we look the same,” she explained, before he could ask the question, “Groups of Wisp Talons often match each other’s colours. It helps us know which flock we’re part of.”
Zoltar gulped. It still didn’t really make him feel any better. Though she didn’t say it, Emerald heavily implied that there were Wisp Talons about. For all he knew there could be hundreds of them flitting through the trees below them, completely invisible, impossible to make out or see coming if they were discovered.
The shadow of the twin mountain peaks loomed over them as the dense forest began to give way to spiralling columns of limestone. The sharp spikes of rock jutted out from the trees, vines and straggly bushes clinging to the ragged walls. Cracks and gouges covered the columns like scars on an old dragon of war. Small caves carved out of the craggy rocks surface were everywhere.
Thins wisps of cloud vapour cloaked the slopes in a shadowy veil, the mist only growing thicker the further they flew.
The air had a sour note to it, causing a faint memory to stir within Zoltar as he swooped around another pillar. It tingled at the back of his mind. He knew it was important, but couldn’t quite put a talon on what it was.
Trying to distract himself from the weird sense of déjà vu, he looked over at Emerald. She’d shifted her scales from pitch black to more muted shades of copper and light blue.
She caught him looking at her and smiled, “Don’t worry. We’ll be safe now that we’re up here.”
Zoltar felt his muscles relax as he let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“It should be okay to land now,” Emerald continued as she pointed a talon to a small gap in the endless tree cloaked pillars, “Come on.”
She tucked her wings and dove towards the ground, her slender shape streaking through the air.
After a brief moment of hesitation, Zoltar followed. He kept his wings spread however, electing to go for a slower descent. Just because he was following her, didn’t mean that he trusted her completely. A sharp dive might be quicker, but it left him open. He wouldn’t be able to see danger coming and it would be hard to defend himself if he had to. With a slow descent, he could scan his surroundings and attack if there was an ambush.
The rocky ground crumbled under paw as he landed, a few stray pebbles tumbling down the mountainside. Zoltar tucked in his wings as he eyed his surroundings warily.
The echoes of birds calling to each other rang out through the damp air, the ghostly shrieks distorted by the towering columns. Mist curled over the ground, rearing up like snakes about to strike.
He shivered, jumping back when another scattering of stones bounced down the slope.
“Jumpy are we?” Emerald was watching him with mild amusement, her head cocked to the one side, “Don’t worry. Wisp Talons rarely come this far up. The mist gives us the creeps. Well…at least it creeps out most of us.”
She grinned again, “Come on. Nothing, but a few forest raptors up here. Nothing to worry about.”
Zoltar wrinkled his snout. Sure the area was kinda creeping, but why would the mist specifically freak the Wisp Talons out…enough that they’d avoid half the mountain?
“It’s perfect for me though,” Emerald continued as she began walking further up the slope, “It’s a great way to get away from everyone. It could also be a good place for you to hide as well, instead of that cave.”
She glanced over her wing with a hopeful look, but when Zoltar didn’t return the look, she went on, “Not sure why you and your friends thought hiding there was such a great idea, seeing as it’s not exactly safe out there with the Death Grippers and all.”
She shivered, a spike of white shooting through her pale blue and copper scales, “Up here’s much safer.”
“But I thought you and your tribe were fine with those creatures, seeing as you…” he stopped, catching himself before he said it out loud, but it was too late. The thought was out there.
Emerald stopped abruptly, her wings shaking.
Zoltar flinched. He should have stayed quiet. Blue moons, he should have just stayed in the cave. He knew this would happen. There was no way to avoid it forever.
Not turning to face him, Emerald whispered, “We only doing those things because we have to you know.”
She sighed and turned to face him, the hurt in her eyes mirroring his. “The Death Grippers would kill many more if we didn’t.”
She stared at the ground as though she didn’t really believe her own words, “Things weren’t always this way….”
She trailed off and looked away from him, her scales now a rolling mix of thunder grey and abyssal blue. She flicked a few stray stones down the slope with her tail as she let out a growl of frustration.
Zoltar hung back, his head held low as his mind raced. This wasn’t what he’d expected. She was expressing remorse for what her tribe was doing. Why? Why wasn’t she justifying the whole thing?
She technically was, but there seemed to be guilt behind it. Why? Were the Wisp Talons being forced into doing the sacrifices? What did she mean about the Death Grippers killing more dragons? What did they have to do with this and more importantly, what had happened cause this whole thing?