"How could you let this happen?" Valentina groused.
Not for the first time in his life, Whitaker thought about turning his card’s considerable power on the other hive leader. One good push out to do it. The slopes were steep. Valentina's birdlike bones would snap like dry twigs on the sharp rocks.
As for the dragons… Crag was younger, stronger, and heavier than Valentina’s dragon, Elissa. He could win handily in a bloody match.
Then Whitaker could rule the hive as he saw fit without Valentina's nattering in his ear.
This was just a daydream. The truth was Valentina wouldn't hit the slopes. The air would catch her, or the ground would turn springy and spongy under her. Then she would be up and throwing fire and lightning in Whitaker's face.
But the two seconds between him shoving her off and her return might be worth it.
"Well?" Valentina demanded, tapping the point of her cane impatiently against the stone. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Oh. that question hadn't been rhetorical.
"How about you keep your tongue behind your teeth for once?" he asked, though none of his exasperation showed on his face. More and more dragons and riders were showing up by the second. While none dared to stand close enough to hear their bickering, he didn't rule out any spying cards at play. "I can't be expected to pay attention to every Common who disappears after their rider dies."
Again, Valentina tapped the point of her cane against the rocky earth. This time, chips of stone flew away.
"That's always been your problem. You've never cared about our lower-tiered dragons. Now, look what that's gotten us, eh? A dead purple and a lost egg."
Whitaker dearly wanted to roll his eyes. He had never heard Valentina give a sniff about purples before. They were classic Common dragons with only a few showing up in the Uncommon ranks. There might be one or two Rare purples in other hives, but in Whitaker's estimation, that was a waste of a card.
"Be quiet," he said again. "I'm trying to concentrate. The body's practically mummified, and I'm trying to ease it out without breaking any bones."
It may be only a purple, but Whitaker wasn't a complete idiot. If the Hive leaders weren't seen to be showing respect, the other dragons would protest.
Crag, his dragon, was currently resting several ledges up. He was too large to move any closer without his weight upsetting the loose scree and possibly causing a rockfall. Several Rares -- what Crag sometimes joked was his council -- surrounded him. Their heads were put together and they all looked like they were plotting.
Again, Valentina tapped her cane. This time Whitaker felt the ominous vibration of an earthquake through the soles of his shoes.
"Better to be quick about it. That egg is likely dead anyway, as long as she’s been in there. If you paid more attention to the rider rolls, you would have seen a gap in the nesting schedule. Then this whole unpleasantness could have been avoided. We could have had two Rares at once! Imagine wiping the smirk off of Harvest Moon's leader's faces..."
Through decades of practice, Whitaker ignored her. Instead, he focused on his Legendary Telekinesis card's power.
He was having an unusual time moving the purple's corpse out of the tunnel, even using Crag's linked Material Manipulation card to widen the tunnel within.
The purple felt unusually heavy. Perhaps she had been dead so long, the organics in the body had fused with the rocks.
Whitaker certainly wasn't going into the cave and check. He was pushing fifty and in no shape to go scrambling up a thinly supported rock ledge. The delicate rock face was the same reason Crag couldn't lift him there, either.
That purple had certainly found an inconvenient place to creep off to and die.
"No doubt we'll have all the female dragons slinking around for days, afraid they'll die from egg binding, too," Valentina continued. "If they can't trust their leaders to take care of them, who can they trust?"
"Their riders?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm. "If that silly purple bothered to link up again, she would have had someone watching over her—Ah, finally."
The dragon's body had finally wrenched loose from whatever had kept it snagged down. Hand extended, Whitaker twisted his wrist, eyes half shut as he carefully floated it out.
"You will have gotten the entire body out in one piece, I hope," Valentina said. "We've collected quite an audience. There's no need to punctuate our failure."
Whitaker appreciated that she was willing to admit it was her failure too. Though he said, "Dragons die all the time--"
"To scourge, yes. But here, in their homes, they are expected to be safe."
Whitaker didn't answer.
Down below where a crowd of dragons, riders, and morbidly curious hive dwellers had gathered, there came a sudden hush.
The back half of the dragon's body floated out. He had gotten it all in one piece and hadn't had to break any limbs along the way. The purple looked dehydrated and mummified but strangely peaceful. Posed as if she were sleeping.
She was curled around nothing. Damn it. Whitaker had left the egg behind.
Ah well, he would get it next.
Using exaggerated care, he floated the body over the ledge, down the slope, and to a spot just before the flat area where the bulk of the crowd had gathered.
There were more gasps and tiny cries from those who recognized the dragon.
“Oh, poor Cori!”
Again, Whitaker had to struggle not to roll his eyes. How convenient that people were concerned about the creature only after learning of her death, and not while she had gone missing. This wasn’t his fault.
In fact, the stupid purple was being shown great honor by the marked attention of the two Legendary Hive leaders. Valentina was nosy, and officious, and should have died when she reached a decrepit age — approximately three decades ago — but she was right that the Hive would be in a minor uproar by the purple’s death.
They asked their dragons to risk their lives, cards, and riders every time there was a scourge eruption. This hive was to be their sanctuary. The one place they could be safe.
Having a purple die while laying eggs was not the image of competence the Leadership wished to give.
He and Valentina were lucky the Uncommon rider who’d stumbled across the body hadn’t run yammering to her friends. Instead, she did the right thing by immediately passing the news up to leadership.
Whitaker let the body rest so gently on the stone before the crowd, he didn’t stir up a mote of dust.
Either that or Valentina was helping him by keeping the dust down.
“What of the egg?” the old woman snapped.
“You want me to float out a dead egg in front of them, too?” he asked sardonically.
“They’re not stupid. And it will serve as a reminder to the other laying females that they need to be in a designated spot should the worst happen.”
Valentina had just been arguing the opposite point which was very much like her. The Uncommon rider who’d reported the body had been hysterical stating the egg was a Rare or better, which was preposterous. A Rare out of a Common? A Common purple? One that had been left to the elements for how many months?
He would be lucky if the egg didn’t crack on route and shower everyone with rotten egg goo. Whitaker had accidentally cracked a rotten egg once as a child. It was not a smell he would ever forget.
He couldn’t very well leave the egg there. Not unless he wanted to seal up the cave to entomb it.
And Valentina had a point. Damn her.
So Whitaker ignored the continuing cries and beginnings of sobs from down below and turned his attention to the egg. Thanks to his and Crag’s combined powers, it was barely an inconvenience.
Or it should have been.
He held out his hand and lifted. And continued to try to lift.
“What in the world?” he gasped.
“What’s the problem?” Valentina snapped.
“It’s like trying to move a mountain.” Suddenly, he wondered if this were the thing Cori’s husk of a body had been caught on.
That would mean…
Valentina frowned at him as if concerned Whitaker was trying to pull a prank. Then she looked up to the cave. She was even less able to climb up there than Whitaker was, though Whitaker would have paid very good shards to watch her haul her ninety-year-old body up.
But Valentina was a Legendary card wielder. She was plenty powerful just by staying in place.
“Where is it?”
“There’s a small chamber at the back of the tunnel. It’s open to the sky—“
Whitaker went silent as his telekinesis senses went wild. Above came the sounds of rock grinding on rock, and Whitaker got the impression of a thousand different pieces spinning and relocking into place.
“You’re going to smash the thing, fool woman.”
“Quiet, child. Let me work.”
Valentina’s eyes were half closed. Then, without any warning, the cave floor flowed out from the entrance into the sky via a ribbon of rock. Tons of weight and material floating in the air and supported by Valentina’s pure elemental might.
The rock gently broke apart and floated back into the cave save for the end of the ribbon which supported a single small object.
It was more the size of an ostrich egg than of a dragon egg and so deep black that for a moment Whitaker thought it must be rotten all the way through.
Until the moment he felt the power of the egg.
Then he knew that young Uncommon rider had not been hysterical.
From her place on top of the hive, Valentina’s dragon, Elissa, flexed her might. The bright day’s sun was instantly blanketed by clouds and a roll of thunder rumbled through the sky.
Crag, too, tipped his head back and roared. Every speck of solid material for a mile vibrated just the tiniest bit as he announced.
Whitaker turned to Valentina. The woman’s lips were pinched as she guided the egg, still on its raft of stone, downward.
“How is this possible?”
“Pick your jaw off the floor,” she snapped, though he noticed she sounded winded. That little stunt had cost her. “I don’t know either and I don’t care. But if you want to keep this egg, you put out a call for everyone in our territory with a Legendary to come. Now. And for the sake of Common Shards, don’t let anyone under-rank near that egg. We don’t need a massacre on our hands.”
She turned and walked off.
“Wait, where are you going?”
Valentina continued walking, cane tapping on every other stride though it didn’t look like she needed it. “To talk with that Silver rider. You felt the power of that egg. I want to know how she’s still alive.”
Valentina picked her way down the steep slope towards the massing crowd down below. Some kind souls had already returned with flowers to lay tucked up against the purple’s hide.
Valentina thought of herself as a strong woman, but she didn’t care to look at the poor beast directly. It had deserved better. Surely there must have been some farmer or forgotten child that wouldn’t have minded linking up with a purple?
If Whitaker had been doing his job, the purple wouldn’t have slipped through the cracks.
Though… it was not all his fault, Valentina supposed. The man was full of himself but dreadfully overworked. Considering the troubling amount of scourge-eruptions recently, that work was increasing.
Which was why they needed a Legendary egg.
So did every other hive. They’d fight for it, too. Valentina was determined that whoever linked with the thing would be one of their own.
Once people saw she was coming down, they rightfully edged back. Some pretended to be very busy.
Now, where was… ah. There. Valentina raised her cane and pointed. “You, there! I intend to speak to you!”
About a quarter of the crowd froze like scourge-mice under the gaze of a dragon.
With long practice, Valentina pulled on the wind and the moisture that was in the air. Mist collected at her feet, and she stepped onto a cloud. That cloud sank down the slope much faster than she had been able to move before, even with the rocks rumbling out of her way.
It was a fancy way to travel, but nowadays her bones ached when she drew too hard on her mana.
It was worth it today. Her quarry had not escaped.
“You,” Valentina pointed her cane again. Closer now, she was able to center on a young Uncommon rider. She was pretty enough, with clear dark skin and curly hair pulled fetchingly back in a puffy tail behind her head. Her big brown eyes went wide at Valentina.
“You’re the one who found Cori, weren’t you?” Valentina had always prided herself on her ability to remember names. And mentioning the dragon made it look like the leadership cared more than their regular actions hinted at. “Well? Come here, girl.”
The girl swallowed and looked back over her shoulder at something — likely her dragon. A gangly young Silver stood not far away.
“That was me, Ma’am. I’m Kenzie, and that’s Marteen.”
“One of our recruiters, yes?” Valentina asked. She craned her neck to look up at the girl, though Kenzie was not tall. “What brought you to these slopes, eh? Surely, you weren’t recruiting the rocks.”
The girl looked hesitant and glanced over her shoulder again. “It was… ah…”
A teenage boy stepped out from behind Kenzie, though he was taller than her. Valentina hadn’t seen him walk up, either.
Stealth card, she assessed. And a strong one if it could hoodwink her.
She took an extra moment to regard him. He was reedy in a way that suggested he had more growing to do. Dirty blond hair, middling color eyes, but there was something about him…
“Earnest Kane, isn’t it?”
He blinked. So did Kenzie. They both looked shocked and chagrined enough for Valentina to guess why the two of them had been up here, alone.
“I’ve noted your presence around that glittery Rare egg that’s been causing us so much trouble,” Valentina continued. “But what I want to know is how did an Uncommon rider and a Rare recruit survive a brush with a Legendary egg, hmm?”
“I… uh…” Ernest babbled.
“Luck, Ma’am,” Kenzie said. “Ernest was heading for it, but I stopped him. I felt the magic — I’m linked to a Silver, you see. And Marteen’s always been sensitive to magic.”
The fact that the girl was babbling what was obvious was telling. Valentina rested her gaze on the boy. How old was he? Every teenager looked like a wet-nosed child to her nowadays.
Interestingly the boy didn’t offer an excuse of his own. He just blurted. “The egg’s okay, right? It… it’s been alone for some time.”
Valentina snorted. “It may be as big as an oversized chicken egg, but a Legendary is made of sterner stuff.”
The boy’s shoulders slumped in relief.
Valentina would have to think about this. She knew of the Kane family— despicable people, put in charge of a despicable job — but if the boy had loyalty to Wolf Moon…
He could be molded.
But he would find himself with fierce competition with noble brats much more powerful than a mere Baron.
Valentina’s cane poked Kenzie in the sternum. The dragon rider winced but didn’t step back. “You were lucky. We could have very easily had three corpses today, not just the one.”
“Why?” asked Ernest. Kenzie elbowed him.
“Because Legendry’s take only the best, the strongest,” Valentina snapped. “Do you know how many boys and girls Elissa’s egg killed before I stepped up? Six! Sucked the air right out of their lungs. Or fried them with lightning. Whitaker’s Crag got all the way to hatching and practically melted an entire noble family before he linked. So you think on that, boy, before you write your father for a Legendary card.” Not that she expected a borderland Barony to have that sort of wealth.
Or perhaps… perhaps they did.
That had been a strong bit of Stealth.
She turned to Kenzie. “As for you. I expect you know your job?”
The girl had gone slightly ashen. “You want me to recruit Legendary wielders, ma’am?”
“No!” Valentina prodded her again with the end of her cane, sharper this time. “Every noble will be willing to scratch each other’s eyes out for a taste of that egg, even if their brats are killed. No, your job is to make sure that—“ she swung around and jabbed at the purple corpse, “never happens again. Find us more Common and Uncommon riders. And maybe a Rare that will interest that glittery egg, if you can manage it.”
Valentina shook her head, frustrated. She could practically hear the arguments of the other hive leaders now — Wolf Moon couldn’t find a partner for their current Rare. How could they be allowed a Legendary?
She was exhausted by the thought of it, and loath as she was to admit it… Valentina found herself tiring easily nowadays.
Not that she would ever let anyone other than Elissa know.
Without waiting for an answer from the shocked Uncommon rider, she called up another cloud around her feet.
Then Valentina took to the air.
She may be old and tired, but she still had style.