Artwork by @FlamingPhoenix
Zoltar rushed home towards the Shadow Lands, the wind from his wings churning the ocean as he soared low over the dark waters.
His heart raced like a million fluttering wings. Maybe this was the one. Maybe they’d finally be able to get away from this hell on earth. The island looked so green, perfect for prey animals. It was almost the same as the Shadow Lands had once been. Surely, after all this searching, this could be the one?
He couldn’t wait to tell Nira. She’d be so happy.
Just up ahead was the beach, it’s now dirty grey sand tainted from the clouds of ash that filled the sky. A towering cliff face bowed over the shore, its rim speckled with sickly pine trees that seemed to cling to life despite everything. Etched into the rock face were numerous caves where the remaining Shadow Talons resided.
In the distance, a few miles away, loomed Mount Mokewtu, its peak a blazing fury of scarlet and gold fire. Black clouds of chest burning ash spewed from the volcano’s gaping mouth. The volcano rumbled and belched out continual streams of molten rock. The rivers of glowing crimson lava twisted over the bleak landscape like snakes on their way to the sea.
The foul smell of ash and sulfur clouded the scorching air, raking Zoltar's chest with toxic claws, causing him to cough and gasp. They couldn’t last much longer in this desolate waste land. Food was growing scarcer by the day. Before long they’d have to start raiding other tribes’ territories for food. They couldn’t risk that. The last few years had greatly weakened them. If they were caught stealing prey, they wouldn’t stand a chance against a healthy tribe.
Landing on the cliff side, Zoltar looked around. There was not another Shadow Talon in sight as the evening's grip tightened over the desolate plain.
It was never a good idea to stay out after sundown, despite the need to spend almost every waking moment looking for food.
Bands of ravenous Shyfu leviathans hunted by the light of the lava flows and would take down anything they could find; big or small.
Off in the distance, he could see a pair slithering out of the molten rock, their long serpent like figures covered in a fresh coat of glowing orange lava. Their mottled black scales matched the chunks of cooled lava strewn across the landscape as they slid along old lava flows.
Zoltar growled quietly. The beasts had skulked out of the volcano soon after the eruption, laying waste to the wildlife left from the explosion.
As if sensing his stare, the Shyfu turned their gaze and fixed on him with their pitch black eyes, hissing in their shrill voices. Within seconds, more black fins could be seen trailing through the lava as more of the creatures were summoned by the call.
Shivering, Zoltar stepped off the cliff edge and floated down onto the beach below.
One Shyfu would be a large meal for a dragon, but killing one was dangerous enough. A whole pack could take him down. It wasn’t worth the risk.
Taking one last look around to make sure that nothing was following him inside, he ducked into one of the caves. Glowing fire rocks lit up the tunnel, their red light flickering in the murky darkness. Stale air clouded the passages and it was unpleasantly warm.
The branch he was in connected to many other passageways that snaked off into the darkness, creating a huge underground warren. Despite the number of rooms though, all was quiet in the corridor apart from the clacking of his claws on the hard floor.
Practically all the tunnels and rooms Zoltar passed were empty, their inhabitants having fallen victim to the volcano. The air was hauntingly still like the souls of those who were lost were still wandering the tunnels as silent ghosts.
Very few Shadow Talons had survived the eruption, less than two hundred souls and the last four years had not been kind to them. Half the eggs never hatched and the dragonets that did manage to make it out soon died from the hostile living conditions. Even the adult dragons struggled under the constant hunger and toxic air conditions.
Slowly, but surely their numbers were dropping. If things didn’t change soon, they’d…
Zoltar sighed and shook out his wings. He couldn’t stand being down here. The brutality of his tribe’s situation, the memories of the past and those he’d lost… it was all too vivid. It was one of the reasons he’d become one of the Land Scouts. It was a dangerous job, but it was better that this. Living and sleep in these suffocating tunnels, reminded constantly of the hopelessness he faced …it was almost like he’d already joined the dead.
He gritted his teeth. He had to stay focused on the present and ones still with him. There was still some hope left. After all these months of searching, this was the first promising piece of land. It suited their tribe perfectly and from the looks of it, there didn’t seem to be anything left of the Wisp Talons. The island looked wild and ready for the taking.
He passed another cavern, but unlike the others, this one had a Shadow Talon inside. She was curled up around a pile of mouse fur and clumps of fresh dirt. There was a single black egg nestled in the nest. It seemed almost ready to hatch judging from the thin orange cracks beginning to form along the surface.
Zoltar realized with a stab of worry that she was alone. Hisster had made it law that all Shadow Talons had to be underground be nightfall. If there was no father around now, it meant that he was no longer with her. Many things could have taken him out, a hunt gone wrong, disease or sickness, a misguided step along an old lava flow. It could have been anything.
The dragoness guarding the nest was in a sorry state herself and was heavily emaciated. Zoltar felt a wave of guilt pass over him. Due to his role as a Land Scout, he had better access to consistent food since he was outside of the Shadow Lands more than half the time. Part of his job was to bring back as much food as he could, but it was never enough to support the dragons left behind.
Reaching into the pouch around his neck he brought out one of the fruits he’d gathered. He was supposed to give it to Hisster so that it could be distributed evenly amongst the tribe, but the dragonet and the mother need the food desperately. One missing fruit wouldn’t hurt.
Taking a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, he gently placed the bright green melon beside the egg. There was no need to wake the sleeping dragoness. She’d find it when she woke.
He looked back at the egg by its mother’s side. There was little chance of the dragonet inside surviving with its mother in such poor condition. It had become a sad, but familiar sight since the eruption.
Sighing, Zoltar moved on.
Before long he reached the heart of the warren were Hisster resided. Despite the fact that this was supposed to be the throne room, no guards stood outside. There just weren’t enough dragons for that.
The walls of the throne room were lit with many scarlet fire stones, causing it to be much brighter than the tunnels outside. Inside, Hisster stood hunched over a large flat boulder, a scroll spread out over the uneven surface. His violet, curved horns glinted like polished glass and his poisonous barbed tail rested like a waiting snake beside him.
His ears twitched as Zoltar walked into the room, but he didn’t look up.
Zoltar spread his wings and dipped his head in respect, “Chief, I bring news of the Misty Mountain Island.”