Artwork by @FlamingPhoenix
Zoltar soared over the Shadow Lands, the sunlight flooding his obsidian black scales with warmth as the wind tugged at his wings. Far below, wide open plains spread out before him, stretching as far as the silvery horizon. A clear blue river snaked through the emerald grasses, twisting and roaring on its way to the distant sea.
Countless prey animals grazed on the lush vegetation, a herd of zebra scattering as Zoltar’s shadow swept over them. He grinned, flashing his fangs as he watched them flee. It was such fun to watch them panic and run at the first sight of him.
Just ahead loomed Mount Mokewtu, jutting out of the vast grass lands like some great disfigurement in the earth. Pine forests clocked the rocky slopes of the mountain while snow frosted its twin peaks. In its shadow lay Zoltar’s home; the Shadow Talon city.
Dozens of caves spotted the mountain’s slopes as Shadow Talons walked in and out of the shallow tunnels. In the streets outside, dragons stood with the morning’s catch at their paws. Some had fish while other’s had game and all were hissing and growling as they went about trading their goods on woven grass mats.
As Zoltar scanned below, he spotted a familiar snout among the crowd. He smiled as he recognized his brother, fighting as usual with a Shadow Talon bartering ostrich eggs. He swooped into land next to his brother who was blowing out more smoke by the second.
“One ostrich egg is not worth a whole salmon,” Mowzan was roaring, waving the fish around like a wet rag. His barbed tail was lashing back and forth with such force it sent dusk and pebbles scattering.
“Hey Mowzan,” Zoltar batted his brother playfully with his wing, “Making trouble again I see.”
“I’m not making trouble. This reptile is a crook and he knows it,” Mowzan bared his teeth at the dealer, who looked at Zoltar beseechingly.
“Come on. There are other places to get ostrich eggs,” Zoltar said as he dragged Mowzan away.
The two wandered along the village’s main road, catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives.
“So how’s Nickeeta?” Zoltar asked.
“She’s doing alright. Tired from tending to the eggs, but okay. You?”
“Same old, same old.” Zoltar shrugged, stopping to examine some coconuts.
“Still not thinking about starting a family?” Mowzan arched his eye crests.
“Why do you keep bringing that up?” Zoltar laughed, handing the seller two small quail from the pouch in his back in exchange for the coconut he’d been eyeing. “Just because you’re suffering the pain that is married life doesn’t mean I have to join you. Besides it is hard enough dealing with Hisster without a wife and kids on top of it.”
“Oh, you know Hisster’s just difficult. He has to be, being the General and all that. Besides I’ve seen you eyeing that dragoness,” Mowzan winked, bumping wings with Zoltar.
“Nira?” Zoltar gave his brother a sideways glance, “We’re just friends.”
"Rrrrright," Mowzan drawled.
They’d passed the raw produce section of the market and were now in the cooking area. A rich banquet of spices flooded their senses. On either side of them, Shadow Talons were rubbing chilies, preserved lemons, and other aromatic spices into large slabs of meat, before blasting them with tongues of red hot flame.
“Did you need to bring anything home?” Zoltar asked, turning to Mowzan.
“Well, Nickeeta wanted me to bring home some ostrich eggs.” He said, scowling at him, “I guess a pheasant will have to do.”
“Well you could have had them if you’d just given him the fish.” Zoltar hissed, stopping at one of the mats where a female Shadow Talon was preparing a whole pheasant. Her onyx black horns caught the light of the dancing flames as she shot fire from her mouth.
Mowzan flattened his ears and flicked out his forked tongue, before turning to the dragoness at the stall, asking “How much for a pheasant?”
“That salmon you’re carrying will bring you two pheasants,” she said, smiling.
“Deal,” Zoltar blurted, before Mowzan had a chance to argue.
“I could have handled it,” Mowzan hissed quietly as he handed over the fish.
“I know. It’s just that you tend to like arguing over nothing,” Zoltar said, taking the two roasted pheasants from the seller. He gave them to Mowzan, who placed them inside the pouch behind his neck.
Mowzan rolled his eyes and snorted as he and Zoltar opened their billowing black wings and lifted into the afternoon sky.
Before long they were soaring over the soldier’s living and training grounds, positioned just below the pine forests cloaking the great mountain. Dirt packed arenas now replaced most of the Shadow Talon caves that had looked out over the market, leaving only a few scattered caves for the soldiers that resided there. Everywhere dragons came and went while new recruits went through their vigorous training regimen.
Dipping their wings, Zoltar and Mowzan swooped into land on one of the narrow dirt paths winding through the area.
As they walked along towards Mowzan’s cave, they passed some of the newer trainees. The young Shadow Talons stood in perfect formation, practicing lunging and guarding against invisible enemies. Older Shadow Talons stood on tall rocks overlooking the dragonets, instructing and guiding them.
Zoltar saw that Mowzan’s eyes seemed to linger on the younger dragonets. He bumped wings with his brother and gave him a questioning stare, “Come on. Just say what you’re thinking.”
Mowzan sighed as he paused to watch the battalion, “It’s nothing really. I just can’t believe that that’s going to be my dragonets someday.”
He smiled, “It’s just sometimes hard to picture that inside those little, white eggs there are real, living, breathing dragonets and they’re mine.”
“Oh, brother,” Zoltar huffed and shook his head, “You’re a father alright. Better get used to the feeling.”
He grinned, bumping horns with him before bonding up the path, “Come on. I still need to check in with Scorpus. Can’t be hanging around all day chatting about your parental issues. Plenty of time to do that when the little tykes hatch.”
Mowzan laugh behind him as he hurried to catch up.
Before long they reach Nickeeta and Mowzan’s cave, the dark chasm reaching deep into the mountain side like a black hole into another realm. The echoes of their ivory claws clacking on the cold stone floor resonated through the tunnels as they entered the cave. Fire rocks flickered to life, giving off an eerie red light that pulsed as they passed by.
Just then Zoltar stopped, ridged as a strange tingling rippled up his talons and into his chest. Something was wrong.
He was about to warm Mowzan when the earth around them began to shake.
“Earthquake!” Zoltar yelled as his paws gave from under him. Mowzan had also lost his balance and was crouched, his wings held up over his head to shield him from the debris.
Cracks scuttled up the cave walls as tremors continued to rip through the mountain side. Outside the cave the thud of boulders colliding with trees could be heard.
Then as quickly as it had started, the earthquake stop, the ground still as though it had never moved.
Once the earth had stopped heaving under his talons, Zoltar got to his paws. His heart was thundering in his chest, but apart from the shock, he was unharmed.
“That was a little weird,” Mowzan said a little shakily, “We haven’t had one of those for a few years.”
“I know,” Zoltar said as he examined the fractures running over the cave walls. They seemed to be minor, nothing too serious. It looked like they’d gotten away with little to no damage.
“Well, that’s what we get for choosing to set up base around a dormant volcano,” Mowzan remarked, apparently having brushed off the fright of the tremor, “We’re going to have these earthquakes every once in a while.”
“Still,” Zoltar said as he tried to lay his raised back spines flat again, “We shouldn’t take it lightly. An earthquake can be signs of the volcano waking up.”
“Don’t worry, Zoltar,” Mowzan knocked tails with his brother reassuringly, “You got your back spikes up last time this happened and nothing came of it. If it’s really bothering you, go check with Hisster. He’ll know if the Chief’s heard anything from the volcanologists. They’ll have warned him if there’s anything to worry about.”
“Okay,” Zoltar said, taking a deep breath.
“I’m going to go find Nickeeta. Let me know what Hisster says.” Mowzan said as he hurried further down the tunnel.
Zoltar watched him for a moment, before turn to head back the way he’d came. He’d almost reached the mouth of the cave when a load roar resounded from outside and Hisster’s voice growling, “Soldiers, attention!”