Ayxin hadn't known panic in as long as she could recall, not since she had been a human girl trying to awaken her wyrmling powers.
An Ashen Bolt flew past her face.
“What are you-” Ayxin was in the midst of dispelling Misty Realm when the Ash Mage disrupted her incantation. The bolt had been too weak to harm her, but enough for her to flinch.
"- don't you want to leave?"
“Not right now.” The man grinned. "Give it time."
“I am letting us out of here!” Ayxin's eyes formed two cold slits of repressed anger. “Golos is subdued. Your niece is safe. Father had no desire to maim you; he said he wished to hold an audience.”
“That's hardly fair on the girl!” The Ash Mage became once again cloaked in dark fire. “You weren’t going to let me out to help my niece, no? Why should I let you out to help your brother?”
“You-” Ayxin wasn’t sure how to respond. “You insolent, arrogant ape!"
A blast of lightning struck the Mage, more purposeful than harmful.
The Ash Mage took it unflinchingly.
“I know it's not fair, but I took the opportunity to inject a Greater Resist Elements potion,” the man explained, amused by her frustration. “You’ve paid too much attention to the fight. I could have sneak-attacked you a dozen times and over. Miss Ayxin, you don’t get much fighting up on these mountains, do you? Nice and peaceful up here, no? Are you not getting enough action around here?”
“I get enough!” Ayxin’s face would have flushed if she had possessed the soft dermis of her human form. As she was, her draconian-scales merely bristled.
“Tell me, how old is that wyvern? Would he leave behind a core? I suppose I need to be down there for the core to be preserved. The more powerful a creature gets, the more likely the core shatters on death. Unless he's over a century or two, so which is it?”
“…” the dragon-woman's eyes bulged.
“Do you have a Core? A half-human like you?”
Dragons were warm-blooded creatures.
Even so, Ayxin felt her blood run cold.
Below, the girl was approaching the fallen wyvern, her eyes glowering with murderous intent.
“Well, I am not going to stop you. As I said, I need to be present for Gwen to retrieve your brother’s core. So if you’re happy to let us out, go ahead. I am just as happy to duke it outside.”
“If she kills him, I will destroy you and your niece,” Ayxin spat.
The man shook his head.
“NO. You will not,” the man retorted in an almost friendly manner. Such was his confidence. “You’re a powerful being, sure. But your combat experience is laughable. You’ve never fought a contest of life or death, ever.”
Ayxin trembled with frustration.
Her hands wrung the hem of her Hello Kitty t-shirt.
WHERE THE HELL HAD RYXI GONE?
She could guess.
Their eldest was either hiding somewhere, shivering with fright-
Or hiding somewhere, giggling with glee at Golos' abuse.
“So, what will it be?”
Was the Mage right?
Could he be bluffing?
More importantly, dared she test his hypothesis?
"Take your time." The Ash Mage pointed to the scene below.
"Gwen is about to start."
* * *
Gwen watched the wyvern fall from the sky.
Her draconic vitality was spent, a dozen tier 5 spells, two dozen tier 4 spells, and an endless number of Void Bolts and Dimension Doors had drained her reserves.
Her head throbbed, her brain felt inflamed; the mental drain from spell-fatigue was tremendous.
When she tried to breathe, her chest ached. Without the draconic-vitality, she was unable to sustain the intensity of the Void-mana ravaging her body. Much less the injury she had sustained. Even walking the distance to engage the wyvern made her breath rip out in rags; no matter how hard she gasped, she couldn’t get enough air.
Additionally, she felt ravenous despite a sumptuous feast of two-dozen Merfolk. Given a choice, Gwen would have chosen the warriors - had the males not been the first to flee. Unluckily for both herself and her victims, there were only the females and the elvers left.
But she couldn't afford the sentimentality now, her body was vitality-poor, and beggars couldn't be choosers.
The final choice of expending her Almudj-Essence had been a significant gamble. Without the Rainbow Serpent's breath of life, she couldn’t use the Void variety of Dimension Door without corrupting her constitution.
Then the wyvern flew out of range to launch a massive attack.
The downpour was easing up, though the rain persisted. Already the water was ankle deep in the gorge. Even from her diminished vantage point, Gwen could see what the brutish wyvern was trying to accomplish.
Her plan involved feeding Ariel all of her Essence, allowing it to climb the cliffs until it was within a hundred or so meters of the wyvern, then launch a volley of positive-charge Lightning Orbs that would hopefully disrupt the wyvern’s 'spell'.
Then Ariel exceeded all of her expectations.
After Almudj’s altered essence infused her Familiar, it lifted into the air, growing to multiple times its standard size. Its Eland’s horns, two twisted spirals, grew large and protruding, splitting into stag-horns. Her mongoose marten’s mammalian face likewise distended, taking on a strange draconic shape.
When Ariel furthermore began to dog-paddle through the air, she became struck with a sudden epiphany; the sort one gained when moments away from extinction.
Her intuition was right, and the rest was history; one in which she'd been written the victor.
That was the best Gwen could do for now.
The wyvern, for all its terror and bluster, landed with a comical splat, cushioned by the soft mud. Gwen had hoped that, like in the movies, it would fall on pailings or spikes, skewering itself. Real life, it seemed, seldom provided such serendipitous clichès.
Elsewhere, Caliban continued its hunt.
When the wyvern did not move from its muddy crater, Gwen took the liberty of waiting until she was jolted by a surge of meagre vitality from an eel-woman before she approached the great beast.
“Caliban! Ariel! On me!”
The three of them converged.
Twenty meters from the wyvern, it suddenly twisted its head in a last-ditch effort, letting loose a clap of thunderous air.
Gwen’s Non-Newtonian Shield manifested instantly with a speed that would have made a Master Abjurer applaud. Her barrier weathered the blast without strain, splitting the palpable force in twain. Around her semi-dome, a 'V' shape formed in the muddy ditch, then sloshed inwards as the breath faded.
“Where’s Uncle Jun?” Gwen stated the first thing on her mind, enhanced by her Illusion.
The wyvern regarded her with its fierce eyes; two blue-white orbs split with dark slits. Its maw snapped; just one of its fangs was the size of her forearm.
“You will never see him again, Ayxin has taken care of him,” the wyvern laughed cruelly even as its body convulsed. It tried to rise.
“You really do speak my language.” Gwen’s nostril flared, a block of icy despair engendering in her bosom at the wyvern's boast. The rain ran from her pallid face in clear streaks, washing away the mud and grime. Her fist clenched.
Gwen's complexion took on an ashen cast as vitality from her final Merfolk drained into her Conjuration staple.
Four writhing tentacles wrapped around the wyvern’s neck and wings, pinning it to the ground. Where the dark matter touched its scales, it scorched the skin and ate into its hide. A tiny trickle of vitality began to feed into Gwen, far from sufficient to keep her standing. The wyvern's natural resistance was beyond her affinity and her tier of magic.
“GNNNARGN!” the wyvern howled. “BITCH! I’ll mount you! I’ll skewer you with my cock!”
“I hope you’ll generate a sizeable Core.” Gwen’s voice lost all emotion, it rang hollow and cruel through the cascading rain. “Caliban!”
Caliban skittered toward the wyvern.
The wyvern writhed and struggled, dangerously whipping its tail.
Gwen materialised two healing injectors and jammed them into her thigh.
She was well past the limit for alchemical fatigue, but every mote of Positive Energy helped.
Her cheeks were sallow now; it was as if she were a ghost. Against the dark leather of her armour, she appeared almost like a Wraith.
Caliban! She commanded her pet. YUM-YUMS!
Her spiderling skittered beside the wyvern and struck at its sides with its forelegs. Despite striking sparks, it couldn’t penetrate the leather. The difference in tiers was too great.
“You cannot get past my armour! Your monster is worthless!” the wyvern mocked her. “When I recover, I am going to tear you apart!”
Gwen parted her lips to deliver a riposte. Alarmingly, she realised that her consciousness was waning. Her sneak-suit was torn; the water ingress had lowered her body temperature significantly. With her vitality running on fumes, she was likely coming down with hypothermia.
Her tentacles tightened.
“Hurmph! Hurmph! Hurmph!” The wyvern chuckled arrogantly.
She had to finish this soon; the wyvern grew stronger by the minute.
"You probably have no idea what I am talking about, but once, I watched a movie called Stalingrad where these Germans had to fight tanks. They couldn't get through the armour, so they had to hide, then stick explosives onto the tank's engine blocks, jamming sticky bombs into exhausts."
"..." Golos glared, its eyes uncomprehending.
The rain was clearing up.
"Anyway - Caliban!”
Gwen commanded her spider to revert to its serpent form, long and sleek, torpedo-headed, translucent and obsidian. Within its carapace, purple muscles and sinews writhed like worms.
“… enter from its anus.”
The rain stopped.
The wyvern remained as still as a draconic-statue, trying to make itself appear as a rock. This was because rocks, for all intents and purpose, lacked an anus.
Caliban began to move.
“MMMMM! GHMMM! GGGGGMNNNNNNN!” The wyvern was in a frenzy now. It managed to open its maw, forcing apart the tentacles in an adrenaline-fuelled rush of desperation.
“TOO LATE FUCKER!” Gwen willed Caliban to hurry the fuck up. Her body was a hot mess; she doubled over in pain, she could barely breathe. Once she lost her consciousness, there was no telling what this half dragon-half maggot would do to her. "YOU WANNA LIVE? GIVE ME UNCLE JUN NOW!"
“CALIBAN! GET THE FUCK IN THERE!”
“I WANT ITS COR-”
She fell forward.
A pair of arms took her by the waist and picked her half-flailing, half-wrecked body up from the ground.
Shit, Gwen immediately regretted her grandstanding. Her mind was a chaotic mess of shell-shocked noise and sound. Reinforcements for the wyvern?! She needed another vitality injection ASAP. Caliban, hurry the fuck up!
She spun, her backhand striking a human face.
“Gwen, calm yourself.” The familiar face had a five-fingered mark over the right cheek. “It's over. You're safe now.”
“Uncle Jun?!” Gwen reflexively blurted out.
The man was smiling, albeit awkwardly. He opened his mouth to explain.
“UNCLE JUN!” a cathartic utterance exploded from her lips, her knees crumpled. Before she struck the mud, her uncle's hands caught her, one arm wrapped around her knees, while another first slid around her waist. In the next moment, she was lifted from the ground and cradled like a child.
“I am glad you’re okay.” Jun held onto her tightly. “There's no need to keep fighting. Miss Ayxin and I have arrived at a compromise.”
Over? How could it be over, just like that?
Gwen’s mind was immediately suspicious.
Uncle Jun would never spare the Demi-humans.
They were harvesting CORES, for fuck’s sake.
Why would the Dragon-kin negotiate now?
Was she in the midst of a delusion?
Is this an Illusion?
“AYXIN!” A screeching voice cried out beside them in the human tongue. “TELL HER TO RETRIEVE HER THING! IT IS INVADING MY G-GUTS!”
Ah~ right, Gwen reminded herself. Of course.
“Lady Song,” a woman's voice sounded beside her. “Do you mind retracting your creature from my brother’s anu… insides? Your Uncle and I have agreed to parley with my Father.”
“Gwen, do as the Lady says.” Her uncle’s voice was the same low and assuring tone she’d been hearing all week, certifying the authenticity of the man who now held her. “Do it now; else we'll seriously be in trouble.”
Tension drained from Gwen's body in torrents.
A horrid fire erupted over her right lumbar and solar plexus.
Gwen's head rolled against her uncle’s bicep, free falling into uncertain darkness.
* * *
Round and round the corroboree went, circles within circles.
She was there, amidst the ring, moving her body wildly, a migloo ghost swaying to the beat of the thumping cadence. Sweat trickled off her chin, soaking into the body paint, the earth clung to her thighs, covering her feet. Faster and faster they went, following the pace set by the clapstick.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!”
The material world became less defined, the figures above and below her, in front and below her blended into one space. The rumbling of distant thunder joined the didjeridu. Above, the snare-drum sibilance of wind-tossed blood-gums splattered dewdrops over the frenzied figures below.
She was in the midst, Singing the Snake, inducing the tempest. Its waters came from the oldest place, from Uluru, from a hole where all the waters of the world originated. That was its home, the cheeky snake, the Old One who comes when called by the singing, pleased by its sound and rhythm.
When the snake spoke, its voice filled every crevice in her head.
* * *
Gwen opened her eyes, her vivid irises adjusting to the brightness.
The scent of hibiscus was heavy in the air.
There was also the melody of a gentle guzheng adding to the ambience.
She was floating.
Don’t panic, she told herself. A dungeon did not smell like a five-star day spa at the Shangri-la.
Slowly, her pupils focused.
Indeed, she was in a spa.
Everything was white. Alabaster walls, ivory floors, porcelain pillars. Even the mineral-rich bathwater was white and milky. On the ceiling was a carved fresco, a scene of women bathing. The water was warm and buoyant, and pink-lilac hibiscus petals were floating here and there. Amongst the visage of naked women, there was a dragon with wings.
SHIT. That can't be good.
Was she imprisoned in a draconic seraglio?
Something was slithering up her thighs and caressing her toes.
Her eyes scanned the placid pool.
Was there something in here with her? It had felt like a hand or at least an appendage. Could it be a woman? A man? A fish-man-woman?
Another tactile sensation, indistinct, rubbed her shoulders, kneading her neck. The richly mineralised water lapped between her breasts. As more of her faculty returned, Gwen realised there were other ‘hands’ in the water, massaging her calves.
The massage felt good.
As a long time patron of her inner-city masseuse, she could differentiate between a hydro-massage and an assault. It was just that the disembodied experience was creepy as anything.
'Am I being molested by watery poltergeists?' was the thought that immediately occupied her mind. She channelled a mote of Almudj's Essence through her body and found that she was in perfect health. Not as hale as her halcyon days of draconic-constitution, but as hale as can be for a woman who had gone vis-a-vis with a wyvern.
"Don't fret, they’re water elementals,” a soft voice emitted from behind her.
Gwen slowly turned her head.
A woman was there.
Or a man, she couldn’t tell.
She had rarely seen anyone so androgynous.
He or she had a perfectly symmetrical face, Asian, but mixed with something unfathomable. Her face, an aesthetic masterpiece, was angular but not sharp, long, but not obtrusive, masculine, but not oppressive, feminine, though not delicate.
“You are…” Gwen scanned her memories. “Ayxin?”
The being nodded.
“This is my human form.” Ayxin caught Gwen staring at her chest. Indeed, there was a gentle swelling there.
Comparatively, the woman’s chest was barely noticeable, much less protrusive. Her waist as well was slender but not waspish. Then there were features that hinted at her inhumanity. She had a small horn jutting from her forehead, her hair, which fell to her waist, was silvery-platinum.
Her eyes were the most obvious giveaway. They were impossibly blue, speckled with snow, possessing a single slit in place of a round pupil.
“Are you finished with the healing pool?” the woman enquired impatiently.
Gwen had never bathed in public, much less in an open hall with Water Elemental masseuses and a dragon-lady voyeur. When it was clear that Ayxin had no idea what privacy entailed, she steeled her resolve and lifted herself from the water, streaming milky minerals over her already porcelain-white skin.
One of the formless water elementals inundated her for a final time.
When it departed, her skin and hair were bone-dry.
“Convenient,” Gwen remarked.
The room was a little chilly.
“Where are my clothes?”
“Do you not have any in your Item Ring?”
Gwen turned away to mask her faux pas. Of course, she had her rings. If the Contingency Ring had been forcibly removed, she would have Teleported all the way to Shanghai by now, perhaps in the nude.
Amazed that she was still being watched, Gwen grudgingly materialised intimates and slipped on her bra and panties.
“May I see one of those?”
The dragon-woman appeared interested in her briefs.
Gwen wordlessly handed over a spare, a mundane pair constructed of fine cotton; wondering if the Chinese wore briefs a century ago.
While Ayxin hefted the garb, ruminating on its purpose, Gwen slipped on a porcelain-pattern ankle-dress in cobalt and white, seeing that whoever ruled this place clearly had a hankering for white and blue. She then produced her wedge sandals, hoping that the cork would soften her footfalls and make walking on the granite less conspicuous.
“Is there a mirror here?” Gwen asked Ayxin.
The dragon-kin stared at Gwen’s shoes intently as she muttered a word Gwen couldn’t even begin to pronounce. In the next moment, one of the water-elements formed into a what could only be described as a reflective pool, suspended in mid-air.
“I am not your friend, nor your love.”
Gwen tipped her eyes with wings and applied a pink-petal gloss to her lips. She had a pretty good idea what their next meeting was going to entail, and showing up to meet the owner of the mountain looking like a pale, colourless undead certainly wouldn’t do.
“Can I see those?”
Gwen passed over the makeup kit.
“Those shoes, they look uncomfortable, and yet…”
She passed over a spare pair of platform pumps.
“Why does that dress cover so much of your body? Is it a religious garb?”
Gwen gave the woman a new dress she hadn't yet worn. A white and floral number that reached the knees suggestively. If anything, Gwen had never worn it because she felt it was a little immodest. When she regarded Ayxin, however, she realised the dragon-lady was wearing a single layer of silk, like a kimono, and nothing underneath. She wasn't leaving much to the imagination.
The woman held her treasures thoughtfully.
"Thank you for the gifts. Come, your Uncle awaits.”
Thank you for what now? Gwen blinked.
But the woman was already walking away.
Gwen felt a strong dislike for this Ayxin.
* * *
Gwen stifled the desire to run to her uncle as they entered a grand hall with an impossibly tall ceiling. The carved architecture was seamless, polished with a blinding gleam that made orientating one’s eyes a chore. A sort of sanctified music played as they walked, but after a pillar or two, Gwen realised it was the wind playing through the vaulted roof, creating a gentle echo that resembled voices in prayer.
Her Uncle was still garbed his sneak-suit. Unlike her own, his equipment appeared relatively unharmed, though his optic-cloak was missing.
What was surprising, however, was that they weren’t convened in a throne room. Instead, the white palaces’ corridors led to an outdoor garden overlooking the breathtaking view of Huangshan.
Even more incredibly, Gwen acknowledged from the dozen or so gates which were in view, that this was the exit.
That’s it? What happened to the Yinglong kicking their ass? Where was her grand meeting? She had a whole speech in her head!
Her uncle assured her that indeed, they were leaving.
Gwen turned to Ayxin, whose demeanour was as unwelcoming as ever.
“Your Uncle will explain, child.” The Dragon-kin pointed toward the descending stairs. “You must leave now. The Sacred Mount is not for the likes of Humankind, Vessel or otherwise. Your presence here has already taxed my father’s generosity and sullied the White-Jade Hall.”
“Gwen, let’s go.” Jun reached out to Gwen, taking her fingers in his palm. “I’ll explain later.”
* * *
The trio flew through the mountain range, taking in its majesty.
Below them, above them, beside them, Huangshan’s magnificence revealed itself as fog and mist parted, revealing thousand-year-old life-size bonsais contorting from cliff-sides and crags. An occasional waterfall added to the breathtaking scenery, cascading until the stream turned to vapour, fuelling the mystic realm below.
With Ayxin leading the two, the conversation was kept strictly to business.
Gwen still couldn't believe they were leaving, just like that.
What about all the animals they hunted? That talking pangolin? The wyvern that she defeated?
“Miss Ayxin,” Gwen ventured an inquiry. “The Lord of the Mount has forgiven our transgression?”
“Father’s interest in worldly matters has significantly diminished as he grows ever wiser with age,” the Dragon-kin replied cryptically. “You will do well not to venture into our realm again. Father has decreed that you are a force of Calamity, and I for one applaud your expulsion.”
"A Calamity for whom though?" Jun interjected. "Lord Yinglong was not specific in his prophecy."
“What Calamity?” Gwen recalled that her grandfather had said something similar as well. A peevish annoyance crept into her chest. “I am the 'Calamity'? That’s hardly fair. You make it sound as though I have no freedom nor will, that I'll harm those around me simply because I exist. What am I? A Tsunami?”
Ayxin slowed until she flew beside them. With her diaphanous shawl and silken garb, she really did look like one of those mystical women from ancient legends. Gwen was reminded of the mythos where a mortal kept a 'heavenly maid' who had lost her shawl as an unwitting bride until she stole back her clothing and could flee her husband.
Gwen doubted Ayxin would have that problem though.
She’d probably nuke the whole village from orbit.
“Of course, dismissing the ageless wisdom of infinitely greater beings is also a very human thing to do,” Ayxin riposted smugly. “Father does not wish to consult with you because to do so would disrespect an elder. Our race is very particular about seniority.”
“Do you mean Almudj?” Gwen did a double-take.
“You dare speak the Old One's name?!” Ayxin snapped at her, her eyes suddenly ablaze with fury. “Your audacity knows no bounds, human girl! One wonders how you have lived so long! Or what the Old One sees in you!”
The winds picked up. The moisture crackled with static.
Dragon-fear washed over the landscape below.
The sound of lesser creatures fleeing filled the valley. Birds rose from the treetops in splendiferous colours, scattering in all directions.
Gwen bit her tongue.
Jun shivered, feeling his muscles knot and his fists ball unconsciously.
Without his Transmutation magic active, he had to endure the brunt of Ayxin’s draconic presence with his will alone. Not wanting to appear intimidated, he circulated a mote of Ashen mana through his system, forcing his heart rate to slow and his sensibilities to return.
The Ash Mage then observed the exchange between the two women.
Gwen seemed entirely unfazed by it all, looking more like a girl scolded than a lower being whose existence had been threatened with extinction.
Contemplatively, he noted the ‘presence’ shared by his niece and their draconic counterpart.
“Never say the Old One's name without the proper respect,” Ayxin warned her, annoyed that the girl didn’t panic and fall. “In fact, do not enunciate that name at all, and especially not to your fellow Humans. One's true name cannot be used with impunity.”
Gwen nodded. There was no point contending on how much respect she felt for Almudj. It would appear that the relationship shared by the Indigenous people of the wide-brown land with their deity was far more intimate than that of the Yinglong, who had marketed himself as a deity to be worshipped and feared, rather than loved and admired.
The flight continued in silence until Gwen could no longer withhold her curiosity.
“What’s happened to the wyvern?”
“Ah~ about that,” her uncle pipped up. “I tried my best, Gwen. But no dice. I am afraid there is no Dragon Core.”
“Hmmph!” Ayxin jeered her uncle. From the look on her face, she had recalled an unpleasant memory.
Jun smiled broadly at the Dragon-Mage, then turned to Gwen.
“Conversely, I have spoken with the Lord of the Huangshan, and he has informed me that there will be reparation for the loss of your victory-spoils.”
Ayxin lowered her eyes, glanced at Jun, then turned her chin away from him.
Gwen regarded the atmosphere between the two. She was very good at reading people and what she read right now made no sense to her. In her human form, Ayxin was extraordinarily beautiful, albeit aesthetic in the artistic sense. There was tension between the two, but it wasn’t sexual. If there were, she would know. Gwen was confident she could read sexual tension like a violinist tuning the tautness of her strings. No, what the two shared was a kind of cross-species admiration, and that made it worse.
“And what may that be?”
“Golos owes you his life, though no doubt my brother would prefer death to indentured servitude, so your Uncle here negotiated your terms with Father in your stead.”
Gwen reminded herself that there was still a dozen or more cores held captive within Caliban which she had not examined. Whatever spoils she could receive now would be in addition to the surety of her secret stash.
“Yes, Golos shall save your life - THRICE - in the years to come, even if it means he would expend his own in the process. Should he survive the endeavour, he will be allowed to return to his former position.”
“That’s…” Gwen mulled Ayxin’s words in her head twice over, only to find that she couldn’t comprehend a single word of it.
“Gwen,” her uncle came to Ayxin’s defence. “The Yinglong is well known for its prophecies. I believe it’s a good offer. Think about why we’re here. Despite everything, we’re leaving unscathed. As for saving your life, if Ayxin says her father is to be trusted, then that's literally three-times you will cheat death!”
H-her uncle was playing the devil's advocate for the dragon-lady?! The nerve!
Gwen fought down a sudden soreness in her chest.
Suddenly and unbidden, she felt Almudj's essence come alive.
Ayxin regarded Gwen with wonderment, then matched Gwen’s unconscious projection with one of her own.
Caught between two opposing waves of draconic-fear, her uncle appeared hen-picked.
He had spoken the woman’s name with such familiarity!
“I am not doing anything,” Gwen snapped.
“Ayxin,” her uncle again turned to the Dragon-kin. “Can you teach Gwen how to… control that? I am afraid we’ll be having incidents back home if she keeps leaking.”
“Control what?” Gwen confirmed she was safely provisioned underneath her skirt. Her maxi-dress was likewise bone-dry. Her face took on a darker shade. “What’s leaking?”
“Your aura, your presence, or rather, I should say - the presence of the Old One.”
Gwen stopped herself.
“As a Vessel-”
“What’s a vessel?”
“You presume to be too familiar with me!” Ayxin chided her, cutting her off. “I am older than your ancestors! Learn some manners, girl!”
Gwen chose diplomatic silence.
“Please continue,” her uncle urged his new favourite.
“Your niece is a Vessel, meaning she has been chosen to contain a portion of the Old One’s being. As for what it means, Father would not say.”
“Surely you know something?” Jun coaxed the Dragon-kin.
“Maybe I do.”
Ayxin shrugged; her lips were pressed.
“Why am I leaking? What am I leaking?”
Jun felt exhausted already.
Gwen turned to her least favourite Dragon-kin.
“Can you answer the question, Ma’am?” Gwen added sweetly, her voice tinged with tartness. The sound of her voice surprised her, and she caught herself before proceeding further.
Why was she so peevish? Gwen touched her chest uncertainly. It wasn't like her to be like this.
“Miss Ayxin. Allow me to apologise.”
“Hmmph!” Ayxin slowed their progress. “Come here, girl.”
Gwen drifted closer.
Ayxin placed a finger to her forehead, then withdrew from it a mote of light. The rarified substance condensed until it formed a small trinket, not unlike an Ioun Stone. Upon closer inspection, she noted that it was a dragon-scale.
“Father foresaw, and instructed me to give you this.” She turned to Jun with a knowing look before returning her judgemental eyes to Gwen. “Wear it like one of your magical items. It will help you temper the draconic-essence within your body. Eventually, it will teach you to perform the meditation unconsciously.”
“Good, take this-” the woman placed the scale in her hand, then she smirked at Gwen. “- now go over there. Your Uncle and I need to speak in private before I leave you both.”
Gwen surveyed their whereabouts.
Indeed, they were at the border. She could see the line of Dragon-pine standing at the base of the mountain.
“A moment please, Gwen,” her uncle requested. "I'll be with you soon."
Gwen took the scale ungratefully and drifted far enough as to be out of earshot.
She would have a ‘talk’ with her uncle at the earliest convenience!
* * *
“Sorry, she’s young.”
Ayxin shook her head.
“She is not young.” The Dragon-Mage’s expression softened. “You know this. Father told you so.”
Jun breathed out, sighing deeply.
“She will be a Calamity. Father is never wrong.”
“I don’t believe in predeterminism.” Jun shook his head. “I only believe in choice and consequence.”
“No. I am sorry.”
“But the girl isn’t who she says she is,” Ayxin protested. “Your niece is no longer; what inhabits her body now is an aberration. A being that should not exist.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Jun met the concerned woman’s single-slit eyes, like pale water amidst the soft light of the mid-morning. “Did you know that I had previously not known she existed? I never knew this ‘original’ that you keep harping on about. It makes no difference to me. Gwen - is Gwen.”
“Enough! Lady Ayxin.”
The dragon-woman lowered her eyes.
Jun took the quiet moment to wipe the expression of vexation and conflict from his face.
“I am sorry.”
The two listened to the lilting melody of Dragon pine swaying below their feet.
“I will remember you,” Ayxin said at last.
Her candidness surprised Jun; such a promise was not an easy thing for a near-immortal to declare. He thought of the Yinglong's offer, of the conversation he had shared with the Demi-Deity about the Drought Goddess, about family secrets, about the Amulet. The Yinglong had bestowed upon him a prophesy as well, just as it had given his niece.
A lock of Ayxin's silvery-flaxen hair blew across her face.
Now was the right moment to touch her hand and speak softly, but he was neither Hai; nor was he happy with the Yinglong’s meddling.
Humans took fate in their own hands.
Jun drifted away from her.