The sun was just rising over the island when Zoltar stirred. The growing light bathed the land, flooding it in a sea of crimson and copper hues. The sweet calls of birds filled the misty air as the creatures of the forest began to awaken.
Zoltar stretched, flexing his claws as he yawned.
He needed to get going. The sooner he found a Wisp Talon and got a scale the better. He’d decided the night before that he’d have to go back to the place he’d first seen the Wisp Talons. It was the only place he knew of and there was a possibility he’d find a shed scale, which he’d prefer over having to confront a Wisp Talon.
It was light out now and they didn’t seem to come out after dark as he hadn’t seen them during the day the first time he’d been on the island or yesterday with Felistia. He should be safe so long as he was back well before sun down.
Taking a deep breath of the cool breeze flowing through the vines cloaking the entrance to the cave, he looked around. Felistia's soft breaths and Shiraku’s walrus snores emanated off the cave walls behind him. They couldn’t know about what he was doing.
Zoltar quietly walked over to the cave entrance, the sun shimmering off his onyx black scales. He stepped up to the opening, his claws on the very edge. Closing his eyes, 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 snapped open his eyes, thrust out his wings and catch 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.
Spring was in the air. The trees were in full bloom, the whole forest bursting with color. As Zoltar scanned below him, he was reminded of Krakatoa’s last words to him. He only had until winter to complete his mission. Spring was already in full swing and soon it would be summer. He had to focus and hurry. This was only the first thing he had to retrieve and who knew how long it would take to get the rest of the objects for the Riconra?
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. He 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 soaring in gracefully, landing 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, 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 Wisp Talons out there and a lone dragon was easy prey.
Silently, he glided gently down to the ground. The dirt was soft 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.
As he walked, a flood of memories and emotions threatened to break forth. Who knew what he’d find when he reached the place they’d been attacked?
Zoltar squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep his thoughts from Nira, but they still came. The image of the Wisp Talon lunging at her, striking her with its deadly bite, it was burned into his memory. It all went by in a flash. The attack, the escape, his sense of relief, before it all came crashing down on him with her lying lifeless on that still, cold beach.
He swallowed the lump building in his throat and heaved a sigh. He couldn’t let this affect him. It was in the past. He couldn’t help her. She was gone. What mattered was the mission. Slim as the chance may be he was the Shadow Talons only hope. He had to do his best.
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 sound, 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. He remained there for a few moments, staring out into the gloom of the forest, but nothing happened.
After a few more glances in the direction of the sound Zoltar went on his way, more alert that ever.
It should be safe. The Wisp Talons seemed to only come out at night and he hadn’t seen any on his flight here.
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 spine protruding from the earth. Zoltar jumped back in horror. In front of him was the remains of a Shadow Talon. The skull was mounted on a branch jutting out of the ground a few steps from him. The rest of the bones were scattered around it.
Zoltar's stomach lurched and he hurriedly looked away from the scene.
His heart skipped a beat when he forced himself to look back at the carnage. A rib cage was lying just under the skull, a large spear driven straight through it.
He breathed a shaky breath. It was Scorpus. He and Nira had left him in the attack after he was struck down by a spear. How could the Wisp Talons have done this? It was bad enough that they’d attacked them without provocation, but this was something else. To take his body and put it on display. It was sickening.
Suddenly there was a roar from behind him as something leapt through the undergrowth, pounced onto his back and knocked him to the ground.
“Don’t move,” it hissed, holding him against the damp, slimy leaves covering the forest floor.