The next morning, Zoltar woke up bright and early. The sun had just risen above the horizon. Its scarlet flames were reflected in the ocean like a mirror. The light licked the island, flooding it in a sea of ambers and crimsons, the chirping of birds and other forest creatures echoing through the forest below. Sunlight was streaming through the cave entrance lighting up the copper and bronze hues in crack riddled walls. He could smell the fresh earthy scents rising up from the trees beneath the cave. He could also hear Felistia's soft breaths and Shiraku’s walrus snores behind him. He needed to find the tablet. Hisster hadn't allowed him to look at the tablet of stone, so he had to find it before he could carry on with the mission. He glanced at Shiraku and Felistia, making sure they were still sleeping. They couldn't know about this.
Zoltar quietly walked over to the cave entrance, the sun shimmering off his onyx black scales. He took a deep breath, sucking in the fresh morning air, letting it run through his veins. After one more quick glance at Shiraku and Felistia to make sure they were still asleep he stepped up to the opening, his claws on the very edge. He tipped off the edge of the cave. The wind tugged at his tail and whistled through his ears and snout as he plummeted downwards. A carpet of green and yellow rushed up to meet him and at the last second he thrust out his wings, catching the air. His claws skimmed the tree tops scattering bright green leaves and vivid red berries in all directions. The sun was warm on his back as he tilted his wings and soared up above the forest.
'Now to find that carved slab,' he thought, watching a flock of bright red and purple birds dart in and out of the trees below him. 'I have to find it or I won't know what items to collect for the Riconra.'
'Where could it be?' Zoltar pondered, gliding around a moss covered pillar. He remembered Hisster mentioning that the soldiers were to head to the east of the island. Maybe he'd find clues as to where the tablet was there. Just then a terrifying thought entered his mind. The east side of the island was also where he'd first seen the Exltron. Zoltar shivered as a tingle of fear ran down his spine.
'I'll just have to stay alert and be careful,' he decided, glancing down at the trees. Autumn was on its way. You could see the orange and red slowly creeping over the trees. It was almost unnoticeable from the ground, but at his height it was like looking at a fire sweeping over the forest.
Suddenly a group of bright red and purple birds rushed past him. They were in such a panic they didn’t notice Zoltar soaring towards them and had to swerve to avoid his talons and tail. They soon disappeared behind him. Their calls resonated through his head as he scanned the forest below for what had spooked the birds. He could only see a bunch of crimson and violet feathers sinking beneath the withering leaves. His ears were swiveling this way and that trying to pick up any sound coming from the trees beneath him.
As he neared the east side of the island the forest became noticeably darker and the trees were twisted into strange shapes as though someone had squeezed them like clay. Zoltar had a strange ominous feeling that he could not explain. It felt like someone was dragging their claws across his stomach over and over again.
Zoltar scanned the forest below for miles, looking for the allusive opening in the trees. Then like a dark, gaping hole into another realm, a clearing appeared. It wasn’t really a clearing, it was more an area of the forest that had been burned away leaving only blackened trees and the stubs of bushes.
He hovered for a second before folding his wings like a falcon and plummeting downwards. At the last few seconds he snapped open his wings and landed with his claws outstretched onto the branch of a gnarly tree. The branch creaked, threatening to break as he dug his talons into the crumbly black bark. He shifted his weight by spreading his wings and wrapping his tail around the rough bough like a chameleon.
Dark shapes darted through the trees around the clearing, carefully staying in the shadows. Shining yellow eyes stared out of the trees at him, evil and alive with menace. Zoltar caught the flash of a silver claw as the creatures retreated back into the depths of the woods. A chill ran down his spin. He had to be careful. There was more than the beast out there and a lone dragon was easy prey.
Silently, he glided gently down to the ground. The dirt was gritty under his paws and black soot speckled the earth. A light breeze was blowing, tossing the charred specks against his scales and around his head.
Zoltar cautiously crept towards the forest, every muscle in his body poised to strike. His claws scraped the dry earth, leaving deep, trailing trenches in the sand. He paused on the edge of the trees, their trunks towering above him. His eyes darted from shadow to shadow, looking into the forests inky depths. Tall, dark trees stood in front of him, blotting out the sunlight. Small rods of light peeked through the branches, lighting up small patches of the leaf covered ground. Strange moaning bird calls echoed through the misty morning air. The air was thick with the smell of decomposing leaves and moss.
Creeping into the trees, Zoltar's ears strained for the slightest sign of danger. He carefully placed his paws in front of him, taking great care not the make a noise. He sniffed the air trying to pick up a faint scent of shadow talon, but his snout was flooded with other smells, ripe, oaky nuts, large, mounds of red and brown mushrooms and the wet, mossy scent wafting from the trees themselves.
He slowly inched further into the dim wood. The trees creaked as the wind brushed through the ancient boughs. The leaves rustled overhead like rain on a wooden roof. Leaves floated through the air, before dropping limply back down onto the forest floor. The shadows danced over the ground as Zoltar padded through the undergrowth, his paws make no sound.
Zoltar smelt the air again, taking in all the scents around him and somewhere in that jumble there was the faint whiff of shadow talon. It seemed to be coming from further inside the forest.
Being careful not to make a noise, Zoltar edged towards the scent. His ears were pricked, trying to pick up the slightest sound coming from within the woods. The smell was getting stronger, almost pungent in the damp air.
Suddenly a twig snapped somewhere behind him. He whipped his head round, his amethyst eyes scanning the shadows for signs of movement. His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his throat, but all was silent apart from his heart pounding in his ears. After a few more glances in the direction of the sound Zoltar went on his way, more alert that ever.
The forest was getting denser all around him and the smell was almost overpowering. It reeked of decaying and rotting meat. Nausea started to rage through his stomach. He passed through a clump of spiky bushes and almost tripped on a rib cage protruding from the earth. Zoltar jumped back in horror. All around him lay the remains of what must have been shadow talons, their distinct metal armor dented and twisted. The three dragons were almost unrecognizable under the cloud of black flies swarming over them and the stench coming from them was unbearably strong.
Zoltar's stomach lurched and he hurriedly looked away from the diseased carcasses. He forced himself to look back at the carnage. There were three shadow talons lying about four meters from each other. None of them seemed to have the rock slab he was looking for. Zoltar tried not to think about their last moments alive. Their jaws were open in an eternal scream of terror. Many of their bones were snapped or had vicious bite marks chipped into them.
He breathed a shaky breath, his thoughts running back to about a month ago when he was on the island. He didn’t know how the howler dragons were going to scare the beast away or how trustworthy they were, but they didn't get the Ruby of Fire then they definitely wouldn't fight the Exltron. The shadow talons needed a home and if they couldn't get the island then the only other alternative for another home was war with the moon talons and that could be catastrophic for both sides. Zoltar turned to go back to the clearing.
'Wait a second!' Zoltar thought, looking back at the shadow talons. There were only three, Hisster had sent four to the island.
Suddenly there was a crash from behind him and something leapt onto his back, knocking him to the ground.
“Don’t move,” the something hissed, holding him against the damp, slimy leaves covering the forest floor.