Zoltar soared over the Shadow Lands, the sunlight flooding his obsidian black scales and the wind tugging at his wings. Far below, wide open plains stretched as far as the eye could see. 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 watch 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 village.
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.
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 in to land next to his brother who was getting redder by the second.
“One ostrich egg is not worth a whole salmon,” Mouzan 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 Mouzan,” Zoltar arched his eye crests, “Making trouble again I see.”
“I’m not making trouble. This reptile is a crook and he knows it,” Mouzan 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 Mouzan 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 at a stall to examine some coconuts.
“Still not thinking about starting a family?” Mouzan arched his eye crests.
“You know I’m not interested in that yet.” Zoltar said handing the stall owner two small quail in exchange for the coconut he’d been eyeing. “I don’t feel that I’m ready for the responsibility involved in such a commitment. It’s 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 chief and all that. Besides you get along so well with Nickeeta.”
“Yah, yah. I know,” Zoltar rolled his eyes, “I’ll marry when I’m ready and when I meet the right dragoness.”
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 Mouzan.
“Well, Nickeeta wanted me to bring home some ostrich eggs.” He scowled, “I guess a chicken will have to do.”
“Well you could have had them if you’d given him the fish.” Zoltar said, stopping at one of the stalls where a female Shadow Talon was preparing a whole chicken. Her onyx black horns caught the light of the dancing flames as she shot fire from her mouth.
Mouzan flattened his ears and scowled, before turning to the Shadow Talon at the stall, asking “How much for a chicken?”
“That salmon you’re carrying will bring you two chickens,” she said, smiling.
“Deal,” Zoltar shouted, before Mouzan had a chance to argue.
“I could have handled it,” Mouzan 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 chickens from the stall owner. He placed them inside the bag around his neck; its leaves would keep the meat nice and fresh.
Mouzan rolled his eyes and snorted as he and Zoltar headed home. Soaring over the village they passed the junior soldiers training grounds. 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 them.
“You know we should probably go see Scorpus after we’ve dropped the chickens off with Nickeeta,” Zoltar suggested, glancing at Mouzan who was floating just beside him, “It’s been a while since I’ve heard from him and I could go for a bit of excitement.”
They’d nearly reached their home on the far side of the mountain when the earth began to shake. Large boulders tumbled down the mountain side, crashing into trees with ear-splitting bangs.
Startled, Zoltar halted in mid-air, beating his wings to stay aloft. Mouzan had missed a wing beat and was trying to right himself as the earth below heaved.
Just as suddenly as it had started the ground stilled.
Zoltar dropped to the ground, shaking. His heart was pounding and his breath came out in short sharp bursts.
Mouzan crashed down beside him in a panic.
“Quick! We have to find Nickeeta. The cave could have collapsed.” Mouzan cried, breaking into a gallop.
Zoltar rushed after him, the thump of his racing heart filling his ears. He couldn’t bear to think what could have happened to Nickeeta. She wouldn’t stand a chance if the cave had collapsed. Zoltar tried to tear his mind away from the thoughts, but he couldn’t. Images of Nickeeta lying crushed beneath rocks flashed through his head, driving him forward. Maybe if they got to her in time, she could be saved.
They came skidding to a halt a few moments later. Apart from a few rocks thrown around the entrance to Mouzan’s cave, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Zoltar breathed a quiet sigh of relief. There were no signs of a massive collapse. Nickeeta must be alive.
Cautiously, Zoltar stepped inside, keeping a look out for signs of falling debris. Who knew what the earthquake had done to the cave's structure. Mouzan was close behind him. The echoes of their ivory claws clacking on the cold stone floor resonated through the tunnels. Fire rocks lit the interior of the cave, giving off an eerie red light that pulsed as they passed by.
“Nickeeta?” Mouzan called scanning the cave for familiar black scales.
“I’m down here,” a voice cried from the depths of the tunnels.
“She’s in the sleeping cave,” Mouzan cried in panic, dashed deeper into the mountain.
Zoltar kept close to Mouzan’s tail, his heart thundering in his chest. What had happened? Was she alright? Were the eggs okay? Nickeeta had been brooding over them for the last year and it was nearly time for them to hatch. His heart was drumming to the beat of his paws against the stone floor as they raced down the cavern.
Finally they reached the sleeping cave. Mouzan skidded to a halt, his claws creating a terrible scraping noise. Zoltar slowed to a stop behind him.
A Shadow Talon was crouched in the far corner of the cave, her bruised wings spread over a nest. Rocks littered the ground around her. Two boulders seemed to have trapped her barbed tail between them.
“Nickeeta,” Mouzan gasped, stepping forward to nuzzle her wings.
“Mouzan. Zoltar,” Nickeeta exclaimed in a relieved voice, lifting her wings to reveal her two eggs, still safe in the nest.
“Are you okay?” Mouzan asked as he and Zoltar heaved at one of the boulders trapping Nickeeta’s tail.
“I’ll be alright. They didn’t land directly on my tail.” she said, gritting her teeth as she dragged her tail out from between the boulders. Some scales had been knocked from her hide, but other than that there didn’t seem to be any broken bones or puncture wounds. “Oh, I was so afraid I’d be down here for hours,” she said, shivering
“Thank goodness you and the eggs are alright,” Mouzan cried, drawing Nickeeta into a hug. She nuzzled him closely, letting out a long sigh of relief.
“We came as soon as we felt the earthquake,” Zoltar started brushing dirt off the eggs and removing the rocks around the nest.
Mouzan nodded, still clutching onto Nickeeta.
“I’m going to find Scorpus. He and the other soldiers will be forming a rescue plan for any trapped dragons,” Zoltar said, turning to Mouzan and Nickeeta “You’ll be fine here right?”
“Yes. We’ll be fine,” Mowzan sighed, gently stroking Nickeeta’s bruised wings. “Scorpus and the others will need you.”
Zoltar nodded and dashed for the exit. Once outside, he leapt straight into the air, heading towards the soldiers’ camp outside the village. As Zoltar flew over the village, not much seemed to be out of the ordinary. Apart from a few rocks strewn across the paths, everything seemed normal. Maybe it had hit their part of the mountain worse than others.
But something in the back of Zoltar’s mind kept telling him there had to be more to this, more than just an earthquake. Things like this didn’t just come out of nowhere. The last earthquake had been less than two decades ago. It had caused a tsunami on the northern side of the Shadow Lands. It hadn’t done much damage, but if it had been on the south, it would have had an entirely different outcome. Zoltar decided to keep his ears and eyes open for possible side effects of the earthquake. It wouldn’t hurt to keep his senses on sharp alert.
Half an hour later Zoltar was walking down the winding tunnels where the chief and soldiers resided a few miles from the village.
The air was musty and clouded with dust from the earthen walls and ceiling. The fire rocks lighting the tunnels seemed to flicker and pulse as Zoltar strode past.
Finally he reached the end of the tunnel. It opened up into a magnificent room, the walls studded with various gemstones and precious metals. In the far left corner was a golden throne in which Hisster rested, his barbed tail lashing back and forth as he watched him enter. Scorpus and the other soldiers were there, their heads bowed in respect.
Zoltar, remembering the protocol, crouched with his wings spread and his head bowed so that his amethyst horns brushed the earth.
“Rise,” Hisster commanded, waving a talon.
Instantly they got to their feet. Zoltar caught a glimpse of female soldier he knew well. She was standing a few dragons away, scanning the others, looking. Nira caught his gaze and a flash of relief crossed her snout. Zoltar smiled as she looked back at the chief.
“I’ve called you here on account of the earthquake. I’ve just been consulting with Shadow Talons studying mount Mokewtu. The signs don’t look good,” Hisster said gravely, his paws clinched together, “The water on the mountain’s slopes has started to steam and fissures are appearing in the sides of Mokewtu as we speak. Experts think this afternoon’s earthquake was a warning of what’s to come. I don’t know how long we have. We could have months or a few days before the mountain bursts her seams.”
Zoltar’s mind was whirling. How could this happen? Shadow Talons had lived along the slopes of mount Mokewtu as far back as anyone one could remember. The mountain had never in Megalonia’s history erupted or so much as blown a puff of smoke. The Shadow Talons would have never settled on her slopes if they’d know she’d someday rupture. What would happen to their way of life, their homes and above all were would they go if Mokewtu did erupt?
“Sir,” Scorpus started, taking a step towards the chief, “We must evacuate the mountain. If Mokewtu blows there will be no one left apart from the few soldiers living here.”
Hisster nodded grimly, then turned to Zoltar and the other soldiers, “You must all go to the village and warn everyone. Scorpus and I will be along as soon as possible. We need to send for reinforcements. Quick, we must get everyone out before it’s too late.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison, spreading their wings in salute, before turning around and sprinting back up the tunnel. Zoltar’s heart was pounding as they tore through the passages.
When would the volcano erupt? Would it be a small explosion or would it be a big one? How long would they have to leave the mountain for? Would they ever be able to return once the mountain had given way? Would he be able to get his brother in time?
Paws thudded against damp earth as the dragons emerged from the tunnels. Instantly they took to the air, wings beating and claws racking at the sky as they rose. Thunder clouds were looming over head and an ominous rumbling filled the air around Zoltar as he and the others race towards the distant village. The smell of wet moss and fresh dirt filled the air; rain was on its way.
Zoltar scanned the ground. With a jolt of fear he realized there were cracks slashed through the earth below. They hadn’t been there this morning. They didn’t have days to evacuate the village. It was a matter of hours, even minutes before it would be too late.
Nira was flying alongside him. She cast him a worried stare as she brushed wings with him, the terror shining in her eyes. Zoltar nodded. They both knew that they had precious time before tragedy struck.
Without warning a sharp pain sliced up his spine and Zoltar let out a roar of agony. His body seized up and he was sent reeling towards earth as a cruel wind stung his eyes and bit at his wings.
“Zoltar,” Nira cried, tucking her wings and diving after him.
Zoltar was barely aware of what was going on around him the pain was so intense. Everything was blurred and from what seemed some distance away he could hear his name being called. A figure swam into view, reaching for him.
Nira grabbed his paw, locking talons. There was a sudden jerk as she thrust out her wings and caught the air, slowing their fall.
They both crashed into the ground. Nira released her grasp as Zoltar collapsed, his whole body ridged as wave after wave of pain raced up his back.
“Zoltar! Zoltar can you hear me?” Nira roared, slapping her paw across Zoltar’s snout, trying to break through his pain.
“Y-y-you carry o-on,” Zoltar finally managed to gasp for where he lay coiled into a tight ball. His sides were heaving as his whole body shook with spasms. He kept having flashes of red and gold across his vison and explosions thundered in his ears. Suddenly a mountain loomed in front of him, its peak a blaze with scarlet fire. Burning rocks of roaring flame fell from the crimson sky. Screams pierced the air around him as black smoke choked his lungs. Then just as quickly as it had appeared the image disappeared and the pain vanished.
“What? And leave you here like this? You must be delusional,” Nira said.
“You m-must go on,” Zoltar hissed through gritted teeth, “We don’t have much time. It’s coming.”
“What? What’s coming?” Nira asked, her voice starting to shake.
They both looked towards the distant shadow of Mount Mokewtu.
Suddenly a thundering boom shook the air around them as the ground began to shake. The other soldiers were blown from the air. They hit the ground, just as another deafening roar filled the air.
The Shadow Talons watched in horror as the entire north side of the Mount Mokewtu collapsed in a tsunami of molten rock and ash. Smoke roared from the great fissure, pouring out the mountain and up in a giant mushroom cloud. Lighting flashed in its depths as it spread, blotting out the sun and sky. No sound broke the deafening howl of the volcano as it engulfed the Shadow Talon village in a cloud of smoke and fire.
Nothing moved. It was over.
“No,” Zoltar whispered, crumpling like a wilting flower. His eyes were squeezed shut, but still the tears flowed. His chest hurt like something was squeezing every rib in his body. A strange chill had passed over him and he was shaking. It was over. Everything, everyone was gone. His brother, Nickeeta, even the dragonets in the eggs were gone.
He looked over at Nira, blinking through the tears. She was just standing there, her face as hard as stone. No emotion crossed her face as she slowly sank to the ground. She curled up into a ball and covered her face with her wings. A quiet whimpering was all that could be heard from the ball of scales.
Zoltar turned back towards the mountain. Great plumes of smoke were still rising from the mountain as rivers of glowing orange lava streamed down its sides, but there was nothing left to destroy. Everything he cared about …his home… his family… his friends… were gone forever, lost to the volcano. What was he going to do now? There was nowhere to go. Even now as he stood here, ash was starting to rain down on the landscape around him. Nothing would survive.
A shaky gasp escaped his jaws as he surveyed what only a few minutes ago had been a thriving community. What was going to happen to him, Nira and the Shadow Talons left?
There was a flurry of wingbeats and he slowly turned to find that Scorpus and Hisster had arrived.
“What happened?” Scorpus asked, his eyes filled with horror.
Zoltar knew there was no need to answer as his commander sank to the ground beside him, grief stricken. Silent tears slowly trickled from the old warrior’s eyes. It was the first time Zoltar had ever seen him cry.
Hisster stood just a little way off, neither moving, nor speaking. He just stared out at the burning pools of lava. The light of the fires reflected into his eyes, causing them to shine a smouldering red. Zoltar couldn’t imagine how he must be feeling. He’d had a wife and three young dragonets. All had perished in the flames.
As the evening drew near and the sun began to sink behind the billowing clouds of black smoke, neither dragon moved. Even as day turned to night they stayed, staring out at what once had been their home.