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    version 22: awakening


    GHAUL -- Year 209


    "(souls are not meant to live more than once — death was not meant to be temporary, and she is so sure that every time her heart starts to beat again that irreversible damage is further inflicted)" -- Anonya, written by Colby

    [open quest]  Will you join us on our lonely peaks? ROUND III

    In the face of that massive, stony creature they come, and they give their answers. With features carved of sandstone, the unusual feline betrays no emotion, no flicker of approval, no hint of the accuracy in their answers. Her only response comes in the form of a rumbled purr, before she stretches forward, mouth gaping wide as she reaches down to swallow each supplicant whole.

    It must be frightening to them, to see nothing more than a large maw stretching to swallow them with no warning. But of course, the sphinx had already given her warning. It is not her fault if they do not understand the reward they sought.

    In a breathless instant, each and every one of them is tumbling down a sandy slide with only a yawning blackness at its end. Whether they scream in terror or find some unexpected thrill is irrelevant. The sphinx had upheld her end of the bargain.

    It’s impossible to say how long they slip downwards. It could have been an eternity or only a few moments. Regardless, when they whoosh from the end of the slide, they are spit into a dense jungle. Ferns cling close around them, the birds and insects nearly deafening after the echoing hush of the tunnel. Heat hangs thickly in the air, humidity drawing beads of water on equine coats almost instantly.

    As they reorient themselves, it becomes clear there is only one option in this depthless jungle. A single, narrow path that winds away into the distance. They must follow it, of course.

    And when they do, eventually, it brings them to a mountain. One surrounded by burning stone, only a narrow, rickety bridge offering passage over the bubbling rivers of magma. One must be very brave to cross that bridge. Or very foolish.

    And lo, on the other side, one would discover a castle. A stone behemoth guarded by something far more fearsome and frightening.

    A dragon.

    It’s terrifying, this beast. But as you look up, you see a face peering from a window high above, lovely and pale and alarmed. As you watch, she pulls the curtains closed, disappearing from view.

    And now, the conundrum becomes clear. Or more garbled, depending on the viewer. So what do you do?


    Congratulations on surviving the first round! Everyone passed! Pretty easy right? Well, now that the sphinx has tested your minds, it’s time to test your mettle. Everything you know of the Princess and the Dragon is above. So what do you do with this information?

    This is YOUR time to shine! Tell me how you respond to this situation.

    In this round the only rule is to have fun. There is not necessarily a ‘right’ answer here (indeed, there are many right answers. And one wrong answer), but remember, outside the box thinking is your friend! (Collaboration IS allowed if you like. Or you are welcome to go it alone. In this round, pretty much ANYTHING goes.) Your deadline is Monday September 30th at Midnight CST.

    So the Sphinx thing was actually kind of fun? I dunno, I've always had fun with riddles, and she seems like a pretty cool creature. I bet no one disagrees with her about anything. Getting swallowed is slightly less than fun, and like, what kind of thanks is that for doing what she asked? The cold stone slips beneath me unseen, slick as ice. I'm not sure how long I'm falling before the light suddenly opens around me and I'm dumped on my ass.

    "Ouch! The hell..." I mutter, getting back to my feet and looking at where I've been dropped. A sandstone chute fills one edge of a tiny clearing, thick green growth making walls on every other edge. Only along one side of the chute is a tiny break, golden sand making a narrow path that cuts through the green like a ray of sun. "Guess that's my way out." I sigh, kicking myself for following that damn speck of light. It is long past too late, however, and onward I go.

    It's stupidly hot, and I'm dripping sweat by the time the path let's me out onto a stony plateau. Gross. Do you know how absolutely nasty it is to sweat between your scales? It's horrifying, and I'm kind of caught up on that for a moment before I can acknowledge that the one way path is continuing. Heat is radiating from the ground by now, and as I step to the edge of the path where it meets a frankly useless looking rope bridge, I can see why. 

    Bright, glowingly hot lava is bubbling beneath me, spitting up gobs of molten stone as bubbles of the stuff rise and burst. Oh no. Oh no no no. Absolutely not! My foot stomps stubbornly against the hot stone, even though there's no one around to see my tantrum. I am so not a fire-type girl. Air? Yes. Water? Hell yeah! Dirt? I can take it or leave it, honestly. But fire is just not my thing. And having a whole river of the stuff boiling beneath me like some twisted play on water is just sick. 

    Ugh, whatever. Its not like I can go back, and if I'm not mistaken, I can hear other hooves on the path I just came from. Time to make like a tree and leaf. Not trusting that bridge though. No way, no how. 

    Flying it is! Though I'm careful to stay just above the rickety rope deathtrap. Good gods, it is hellaciously hot here. Why not just drop us in the volcano and get it over with? I'm grumbling the whole way across, but finally i make it to the other side and can fully appreciate the hulking mass of dead rock perched on this island of stone. 

    Light shines from the highest window, and I can just make out the silhouette of someone delicate and swooning through the heat shimmer. Normally I'd mock the heck out of someone four swooning, but... Honestly, I'm feeling a little woozy myself. Did I mention it's hot? But she pulls out of sight, and I'm suddenly much more concerned with a rattling hiss coming from around the corner of the building. 

    My crest flares in dismay, only to fold back down when I see its just a dragon stepping out of the shadows. He's huge, much bigger than Tana gets when he shifts, but the dude is also probably way older than my brother. He's got gnarly horns and ragged claws and just looks altogether gruff. I let him move into the big flat area before yelling at up at him to get his attention. 

    "Hey you! Hi!" I holler at the top of my lungs. He's a lot taller than me, and if he's as old as he looks, probably deaf as a doorknob. I wait for the grim faced fellow to find me at about his knee height, and I'm suddenly struck by the realization that I don't know this guy? It could totally be my day to be swallowed by arcane beings, and I really doubt this guy's throat leads anywhere but his stomach. Not ideal. But it does give me an idea. 

    He hasn't said anything, but also hasn't eaten me yet, so I guess he's waiting to see what the fluorescent weirdo wants. Very well. "Hi! So like, this is a very nice castle. First rate. But it looks like you might have a damsel infestation? I can totally take care of that for you." I pause, waiting for a reaction. A bit of smoke and a not really convinced expression. Yikes, okay, plan B. 

    "Right, no, I know you're probably holding her for her shifty parents who want some kind of hero dude to rescue her. I get that, it's a job. But I bet she hasn't talked about anything but her future knight in shining armor, like, ever. Gotta be getting old. How about a trade?" I ask, a winning smile painted on my lips. "I take Speaking Beauty up there for a little ride, find some nice farmer guy to park her with, and you get to keep whoever followed me here. I'm sure they'll have a lot more interesting stuff to talk about. So you get a better pet, she gets her Fairly Okay Ever After, and I get to finish my quest. Everyone wins!"

    For a moment I'm just standing there like an idiot, hoping the rather jagged teeth I'm staring up at don't sudden become the last thing I ever see. But then the smoke turns into puffs of hoarse laughter, and I'm chuckling along warily. A head as big as my entire body drops to look me in the eye, and the grey scaled dragon smiled in a way I'm sure would be lovely and good natured to another dragon. 

    "You could talk your own hind leg off, couldn't you?" He asks in a voice like a landslide. I grin because it seems safer than getting indignant. 

    "Yeah, I guess. Did it work?" 

    "Perhaps. You are correct, she is not much of a conversationalist. You, however, seem ready enough to talk. She can go. That ought to be rescued enough. But I'm keeping you. You may bring me entertainment for quite some time before I grow bored with your prattle. I'm sure whoever is coming behind you will make a decent snack in the meantime." 

    My jaw drops at the dragon's counter offer, and for once I'm at a loss for words. That... Is not how I planned on this going.
    The heat is unbearable once the blackhole had spit him out. The amount of time he had lost was unclear though if it had been eternity it had not bothered him much, how could it when he had lived over 30 year but had only aged the equivalent of 2? His eyes scanned his surroundings while he sucked down humid gulps of oxygen while reorienting himself.

    This wasn't to bad, he thought, as he started forward - the only path possible. Beads of sweat layered his coat instantaneously as he went. It was not as inconvenient as one would think if you were a lonely ghost boy though, he simply shifted slightly to an in between form just enough to allow the sweat to drip effortlessly through him to land forgotten along the dense path.

    He wanders for what seems like hours before the jungle suddenly opens up before him, the heat more intense here. It did not take him long to figure out why as the castle with its lava moat rose definently before him. Kha's head cocked to the side in simple curiosity as he edged closer to the weathered bridge. His eyes darted across to the other side, widening as he spotted the giant, leathery, sleeping dragon.

    He had heard stories of dragons old and new. Many who had passed through the forest were dragons themselves, but none had ever been a threat to him as long as he had stayed in his ghostly form. His traveling eyes wondered up past the dragon, admiring the rough, thick stone that assembled it. It was darkened by years of soot and so the glimpse of shimmering paleness in contrast caught his eye unexpectedly. But when he strained to see what it was the pale face disappeared suddenly, as if whomever it was had been spotted doing something they shouldn't have. 

    He would be lying if he had said that it didn't pull on his adventurous nerves to figure out the what, who, when, where, and why of the situation at hand. This is ridiculous, he thought as he shook his head in hysteria. Nothing from this adventure so far had been "normal", but should he attempt to figure out this story in front of him? Was the dragon protecting this being or was it holding her hostage? Worse, was the dragon protecting everyone else from it?

    The moment dragged on awkwardly before he decided that he had no choice, it's not like he could go back anyways. He stared at the bridge suspiciously.  How would this thing ever hold him in the first place? It's not like he could ghost across it, he would simply fall through, living form it was. He put one cautious hoof infront of the other, making his way slowly and quietly as not to wake the sleeping dragon.

    His effort was thwarted however as one charred, tattered, plank crumbled beneath him into the bubbling magma. Kha let out a small holler of surprise, and that mixed with the cracking of wood had done it's job in walking the beast.

    It was quick and ferocious in it's hulking form not giving Kha a moments chance to turn tail and run. The beasts claws yanked sharply at the ropes that held the bridge in place, causing a quake so fierce it shattered the remaining board beneath Kha.

    Down he went, eyes wide and certain of death. The last thing he would ever see is the black, leathery beast that had sent him to his final resting place. This would not be the case, however, Kha involuntarily shifted to his ghostly form before being swallowed by the fiery substance below. The feeling was indescribable as he watched the magma surround him and literally fill him. His eyes searched frantically as he slowly fell to the bottom of the pit, unharmed.

    Before hitting the bottom Kha had regained his composure,  the shock of death leaving him determined. With great concentration he forced only the bottom of his hooves into existance. The heat was excruciating even in this form as he clawed his way along the bottom of the magma pit towards the solid rock form infront of him.

    The base of the castle mountain came quickly, it was only luck he knew that an opening loomed infront of him. He could only hope that this opening went up and not down, farther from existance and deeper into hot, undeniable death. He could only elude true death for so long.

    One could imagine his relief when the magma came to an end, bubbling out into a pitch black cavern. His hooves found solid marbled ground as he yanked himself from death's claws. The magma slipped effortlessly from his body and back to its home as he walked up the narrow tunnel.

    Eventually the heat of the lava dissipated and he could see a faint light ahead. Hope grabbed at his mind as he went. When he finally exited the tunnel his jaw dropped in utter amazement. The great hall infront of him was covered floor to ceiling in pure gold, an ugly exterior to hide it's most prized possession. This was definately not what he had expected. He walked slowly through the hall coming upon two large golden double doors. He used his shoulder to shove past them into an enormous throne room, equally as glorious, and there she sat.

    She looked royal in appearance, pale gold hair tumbling down her shoulders. Her garments were a deep purple, trimmed in deep gold, and upon her head sat a crown of intertwined vines in every color of gold you could imagine. As he walked closer his brow crinkled in confusion for as beautiful as this castle was, the being that ruled it was a hideous creature. This realization felt as if a film was pulled from his vision, revealing all that was real.

    Who are you and why have you come here? it screamed at him. Kha could only shake his head in confusion.  I watched you fall. I watched you die. How? How did you find your way here? it continued to scream in an ear shattering pitch.  No worries, I have plans for you. it said, rising from it's hard, cold throne. When he turned to run it was with total surprise that he realized his hooves where now solid gold, heavy and almost unmovable. 

    He was trapped.
    it doesn't matter what world you live in; it only matters what world lives in you

    I won’t go into detail about the all sorts of mess I made while the stone-thing was swallowing me after I very politely answered its random question – I had not expected to be plopped into someone’s vore fantasy on that day and my intestines really weren’t prepared. But honestly, whatever mess I made that creature had it coming. Trying to eat me? No way no how! Not without my consent!

    Then I tumble into a whole new situation and everything is all wacky but I roll with it. I mean, I’ve come this far – right? What’s a small path or a rickety ol’ bridge to a god like me?

    Now, I’m not one to make assumptions. Well… I am, but in this case – I’m not. Someone might look at this rather dramatic looking tableau and think that the princess or whatever is being kept up there and trapped by the dragon.

    But what I see is someone who has a REALLY COOL guard dragon and I want to meet it. Plus maybe, once we’re friends with the dragon, I can find out what the dealio is with this situation and see if everything is okay or if there are some shenanigans afoot.

    It’s hard to be “afraid” of “monsters” when that’s literally your family, you know? For all I know, this dragon is one of my siblings! It would honestly fit right in, if it wasn’t for the size. But then who knows what that crazy dad-kinda-mom I have is up to these days. Anaxarete is probably cooking up some new monster-child as we speak and this whole wild trip could be her doing. Though, unlikely considering – while I have certainly soiled myself twice, it has been relatively painless so far.

    Plus, I’ve already been eaten once today and survived (possibly) and I really don’t think it’s in my cards to be eaten twice.

    “I’m gonna go say hi.” I announce to no one in particular, and with as little caution as anyone could, I trot forward towards the dragon. I wouldn’t call it so much “brave” as “not thinking about it long enough to realize I should be afraid”. “Well hey there!” I call out in a bright voice, my dark eyes widening a bit as I come to a stop nearby. “I sure like your scales. Very pretty. You know, I have a friend with some pretty cool scales and fangs, but she’s a lot smaller than you.” I wonder briefly what Adna would think of this dragon. I'll have to tell her about it when I see her next!

    “What’s your name? I’m Velkan!”

    artwork by space1993


    The little pink girl’s eyes widened as the sphinx’s mouth opened wide and swallowed her.  Maybe someone smarter would have tried to run - but Lala just stood frozen to the spot, eyes wide. But before she could even comprehend the sense of impending doom that was brewing in her belly, she was sliding.  If she hadn’t been so damn overwhelmed by the emotions of the last hour or so, it might have even been fun.  Regardless of what she thought, she couldn’t stop the near snort of laughter that escaped her as she slid.  It was dark, but Lala was focused on the distant point of light, growing larger with every second.

    The thrill ends abruptly with a tumble into the light and a thick bed of ferns. The little pink girl blinked as her eyes adjusted and pulled herself to her feet - shaking to try to rid herself of the sandy remnants of the slide.  Lala had never been in a jungle, but this one looked just like those she’d imagined. She absentmindedly used her wings to try to move air against her sides - for it was hotter here than anywhere she’d ever been before.

    Lala spots the path right away and immediately sets off. Perhaps she didn’t know enough to consider the implications, but she continued down the path with blissful naivety and a spring in her step. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been walking before she discovered the rickety bridge suspended over a river of lava. It was even warmer here, if such a thing was even possible, and the pink girl was afraid that the bridge would spontaneously combust at any moment. Lala look wistfully at the birds circling the mountains. She bit her lip, cursing the fact that she’d yet to learn how to fly. Wings would sure come in handy, and not just as oversized fans.

    Well. No time like the present. If she couldn’t figure out how to fly, at the very least she should coast if the bridge were to give way. At least that’s what she was telling herself.  She sucked in a deep breath and extended her wings.  The girl launched herself down the bridge, trying to make contact with the bridge the least amount of times possible and gliding as much as possible with untested wings.  She kept her gaze trained on the other side of the bridge, refusing to acknowledge the glowing, bubbling death from below.

    When her hooves found purchase on solid ground on the other side, Lala let out a triumphant blast of laughter. “I did it! I almost flew!” she announced, to no one in particular. Pride put a spring in her step as she continued on her adventure - her confidence bolstered by her new ability.

    Fatigue was only just creeping into her bones when she found herself staring up at a castle.  And a dragon. Maybe she should have noticed that first. “Whoa,” she muttered under her breath. She’d never seen a castle and certainly never seen a dragon.  She doesn’t shrink away or try to hide - she’s frozen in her current state of awe.  The little pink girl sees the movement in the window of the castle.  However she didn’t understand the look. Was she mad? Concerned? Upset?  Lala chews on her lip as she tries to decide what to do next.  She didn’t really draw the parallel between concerned woman in tower and giant dragon outside or if there could be a relationship between the two.

    Feeling emboldened by her newly discovered gliding abilities, Lala felt that the only obvious answer is just to fly up and see what was wrong with the princess!  One problem.

    Flying was hard.

    It always looked so easy but Lala found herself panting with the effort the moment her golden hooves left the ground.  She struggled to stay level, but pushed herself higher and higher - muscles in her wings and back screaming at the effort.  When she got close-ish to the window, panting with the effort, she tried her best to reach out to the princess.

    ”Hi I’m Lala, are you okay do you need help?” she says yells, in a hurried tumble of words. It sounded more like “HiI’mLala,areyouokaydoyouneedhelp?” than anything, but it was an attempt.  However, the effort of staying aloft was causing the girl to tire and pretty soon Lala found she was losing the battle with gravity.  "Uh oh," she muttered as she felt herself tumbling towards the ground.  She spread her wings wide in an attempt to glide, but found that things like steering were...difficult for the inexperienced aviator. 

    Her eyes widened as she realized that there was an obstacle in her way.  They widened further when she realized that it wasn’t just an obstacle in her way - it was the dragon.  The creature was so large, Lala had difficulty trying to navigate around the creature.  It quickly became apparent that avoiding the dragon was, well, unavoidable.  Oh crap, she thinks, as she mentally prepared herself for impact. The little pink girl, in a flail of wings and pink legs, bounced off the scaly hide of the creature as she tumbled to the ground.

    “Sorrrr-reeeeeeee” she manages to scream, as she falls, doing her best to slow her descent as the ground grows ever nearer.  She almost crashes into someone else - but manages to twist just before making contact with the blur of black and antlers.  She lets out a decidedly un-graceful “Oooooof,” finally coming to rest in a cloud of dust.  She tries to shake off the sense of disorientation when she hears What’s your name, I’m Velkan!

    Lala, completely unaware that Velkan was not talking to her. “Hi Velkan, I’m Lala!” she trills, while rolling herself back to her feet.  Her back was to the dragon upon her crash landing, so she remained blissfully unaware of the situation for another heartbeat.  But as she turned, a little “Oh…” as her wide, baby blue eyes widened at the sight of the dragon.  “Um…” she stammers, reorienting her very sore wings against her sides, “Hello to you too,” she adds, uncertainly, but loud enough the dragon could undoubtedly hear her.  She just hoped it wasn't mad for her, um, less than polite greeting.

    But honestly, all she could think about in this moment - even when confronted with a huge dragon - was the fact that she had flown!!

    there's nothing you can do that can't be done,
    nothing you can sing that can't be sung.

    I never cared for anyone so much. I was born with a bomb inside my gut.

    She is too stunned to scream.
    The sphinx begins to tip and she cowers, quivers, sucks in a sharp breath.
    She thinks it will crush her.
    Instead, it opens its great mouth and swallows her whole.

    Her first thought is that she’s arrived in hell. The heat is so oppressive that it makes her head swim. She is disoriented from the fall – or the slide, or whatever it had been – and it takes several moments for her to force her vision to focus. She sucks in a sharp breath that makes her woozy and she stumbles, staggers, struggles to regain her balance.

    Sweat gathers along the crest of her neck, drips down her chest. She staggers down the path without making the conscious decision to do so. Because it feels good to move, even if it is so hot that she can hardly breathe. It helps to stop the swimming in her head, which is reason enough to continue.

    She doesn’t know where she’s heading or why but there is nowhere to go but forward. She doesn’t know how long she walks, but by the time she reaches the clearing the sweat is dripping down her face. She loses all of the breath she’d managed to gain when confronted with that mountain, that castle, the radiant heat of the magma. She swallows thickly, desperate for water.

    It does not occur to her that, if she is thirsty, she must not be dead. She is too preoccupied with thinking that this is hell. Her belief is cemented when she catches sight of the dragon breathing smoke in her direction. Its eyes are slitted, narrowed and she spends a long moment staring back at it.

    Something dark and cowardly twists in her gut as she swallows and shifts her focus back up to the castle window and the face staring back at her. It is only a glimpse. But it is enough. Enough that she can feel the girl’s fear in her own heart. There is only a moment of deliberation.

    She feels a strange sense of disconnect as she takes a step toward the dragon. She has already been damned, she thinks. There is no one coming to save her. So, she tips back her head to look the dragon in the eye. She drags in a staggered, stunted breath. “Take me,” she says and the dragon lowers its great head, blinks at her. Its breath is hot and she feels faint, sways on her feet.

    Take me,” she says again. “Let her go and take me instead.” The dragon lifts its head and peers at the window, blinks its great eyes. But she feels no fear, despite the way her muscles quiver with exhaustion. The dragon tilts that enormous head and nods. ‘Tell her.’ It’s as if the dragon speaks directly into her psyche.

    She swallows and edges her way across the rickety bridge, her heart pounding in her throat. It is difficult, as a horse, to navigate the stairs but she scrambles to the top of the tower. The girl stares at her, stunned. She is beautiful and Lilian smiles. Here, in hell, all she has to do is open her mouth and say, “you can go.” The girl goes on staring a moment longer before, apparently willing to take her chances, scurries down the stairs. Lilian turns to the window, tugs open the curtains, and peers out in time to watch the girl hastily cross the bridge and run down the path that had delivered Lilian here.

    She turns then and eases herself onto the hard stone floor, lays her cheek to rest on her knee and tries to find sleep in the oppressive heat. If only to escape her crippling thirst. 


    Whether because this was always the plan, or because of her careless words, the Sphinx has eaten Popinjay. There is only enough time for a strangled "Hey!" and then she tumbles head over hoof down the long slide of the creature's esophagus. The interior is dark in a way that the doorway had not been, a breeze of ancient air whistles past her ears, and there is a sense of structure around her. Her grunts and squeals echo back to her and, were she a bat, she might map the whole interior by their sound. Instead, she can only feel herself slipping endlessly into the cavernous night of the Sphinx's belly, eyes darting about yet finding nothing but starbursts and folding geometric lights as her brain struggles to pull patterns from the darkness. There is a bump and, for one breathless moment, she finds herself airborne. Her heart drops into her stomach, unsure in that brief weightlessness where or when she will find the ground again. It happens unexpectedly, she hits with a jarring thud, rolling through damp vegetation with eyes squeezed tightly shut. They fly open when she finally comes to a stop in a thick pad of ferns, but the world spins crookedly and she can make no sense of what lays before her. Something green and wet, something whirling wickedly around her, a merry-go-round that she can't get off, swirling color and light and smells. With a grunt and an awkward heave, Popinjay lifts herself to unsteady feet, her head listing, twisting, low and to the left, pulling her clumsily sideways. She steps on her own hooves, falling with tangled legs into dense brush, and remains prone in the tropical shrubbery until everything stops spinning.

    It takes some time before the yearling lifts her head with clear eyes, but several minutes later, she does. As she rises, her gaze sweeps the canopy above, a troupe of howler monkeys is navigating from branch to branch and noisy green birds swoop among the leaves with ease. For her part, she charges forward in fits and starts, stopping periodically to test the edges of the path, to nose a red flower, to snatch a pretty stone in her mouth as the Sphinx had so recently done to her. The stone rolls over her tongue and clicks against her teeth as the yearling meanders along, her mood darkening, tired of the narrow trail. This is not fun, it is dull and dreary and she hates it, hates the packed earth under her hooves and the feeling of being trapped, hates the way the air feels too thick to breathe. It is too much. From utter stillness, the dark bay becomes a flurry of action, angry hooves tearing at the undergrowth, she will make the way herself, if she must. A small, dark hole opens before her and she thrusts her nose into it, her head, and, slowly, squirms through it like a snake shedding its skin until she is on the other side, finds herself in a dense jungle with no path and no direction. If she were not already lost, she might be more worried about becoming lost, but instead she darts forward and away as rain begins to fall.

    The rain is brief, but torrential, quickly washing sweat from her coat and replacing it with black mud. Popinjay slips and slides haphazardly and is soon covered in a thick layer of it from the belly down with mad splashes up her haunches and across her face. Her star is lost, her mane and tail caked and tangled and encrusted with bits of leaf and wood, and a shining black-and-white beetle stuck upside-down near her ear. It whirrs and clicks angrily at her, discontent with its circumstances. Popinjay, however, is bright once again, she is utterly lost and doesn't care a bit. The sound of rushing water draws her nearer and she chases it through the last of the rain, but what she finds is not simply rapids. She is struck with the scent of sulfur as magma rolls into the river, boiling and hissing. The way forward is not immediately obvious, in truth, there appears to be no way across and Popinjay frowns and wrinkles her nose, thinking hard. She is at the very base of a mountain that is surrounded by the melted rock and the only way across, high above her, is a limp bridge. She is certain that her original path must have led directly to it, why else have such a path, and such a bridge? But she has not come so far to back track, there must be another way.

    With nostrils full of brimstone, she traces the red slash a short way around the mountain's base, unsure what she is looking for. She treads deeper, until the only light comes off the magma and everything reflects its crimson glow, but here, under the ledge of the cliff above, where no sunlight shines and few plants grow, here she finds what she is after. The river of fire is split like a braid, twisting around jet-black rock formations. They are - more or less - within leaping distance of one another. Absent-mindedly, Popinjay tongues the stone still in her mouth, and in the next instant she is galloping straight ahead, launching herself at the first table-topped rock. She lands with a clatter of hoof on stone, charges for the next, and the next, throwing herself with abandon. Something, some cautious, adult, thing inside her, quails at the last jump, and she misses her take-off. When she lands on the far bank, it is too near the edge and she slides backwards with a squeal, hooves scrambling for purchase on the burning rocks. The smell of burning hair is her searing hoof just inches above the flow, but the tip of her toe finally catches an edge and pushes off, pushes her up just enough. It breaks under her weight as she pulls away from danger, the rock splashing into the magma with a WUNK, send spray reaching across her haunches, burning relentlessly, and she takes off in a blind panic, bucking.

    It is late when she arrives at the castle, and the filly does not know how she got there from the red river, does not remember the journey, she only recalls the white-hot pain, the smell of burnt skin, and running. She does not see the face in the window. It is not until she comes before the unreadable dragon that she awakens from her stupor and comes to a halt. She's never seen a dragon before, and she isn't sure exactly what to do with it at first, only cocks her head to one side. It looks like a big lizard, she thinks, and lizards are just a kind of bird. She reasons this, incorrectly, from the fact that they both lay eggs, and since she is not afraid of birds, has even befriended a rare few, she decides that she is also not afraid of this creature. She is not, however, in any mood to make new friends just now. She feints a charge, stopping in a cloud of dust, and tossing her head in its direction. The dragon is unfazed, doesn't even flinch, but the yearling did not cross a river of flaming death just to die cowering in the face of a lizard. She charges again, mouth gaping wide, her stone finally falling away as she throws herself at the beast, grabs recklessly onto a wing too slow to pull away. Her sore hooves hit dirt again and she shakes her head as though to rip the wing away. All around her, golden light flickers to life, illuminating the courtyard.

    "Excuse me!" The voice pierces through the night like a bell, "Would you mind not destroying my topiary?"

    carried by the current of the morning
    miles below the surface of the dawn

    Before she knows it, she is falling.

    She sees the mouth reach down to grab her and she doesn’t even have the time to react. She doesn’t have time to be scared or wonder how the creature is going to fit her in her mouth or do anything but simply draw in a quick inhalation of air and then fall tumbling down the slide, spitting her out in the jungle.

    It is relatively quick and she lands on her feet.

    Almost as if she stepped through a portal instead of falling down.

    But she doesn’t have time to contemplate that either.

    She glances up, her hair hanging heavy and thick around her face, flowers seemingly blooming even more vibrant in the lush atmosphere. It is almost like Tephra, humid and beautiful and she smiles despite the small fear that blossoms in her chest. She steps forward, she sees the path that appears and, curious, she dips her head down toward it. She wishes, painfully, for her brother, or Midnight, or Malone. Just someone to be here by her side (she has never been one for adventure) but they do not come. She is alone.

    So she does the only thing that she can, which is walk.

    She follows the twisting path as it weaves and dips. She follows it when it grows impossibly narrow and then expands at parts. She follows it until she reaches the peak and the bridge over the magma. This, too, is like home and she finds that the more that she reminds herself of Tephra, the more it becomes okay.

    Larke steps onto the path and feels it creak. She swallows hard and steps again.

    She continues, refusing to look down, until she reaches the other side.

    But she doesn’t even get a chance to recover from this because as soon as her feet on stable ground, she is looking up to see the dragon looming over her. Larke angles her head to see the pale face in the window and the castle and none of it makes sense—none of it is clear. She feels her heart clench in her chest but she doesn’t run from the dragon. She doesn’t do anything but breathe in deep and imagine her brother and sister. They are softer versions of this dragon, but they are dragons, and just like the jungle was home.

    This, too, can be home.

    “E-excuse me?” she says, stepping forward into the dragon’s vicinity. She startles as it swings its wide head toward her, as it drops down and breathes toward her. She feels her hair fall back to reveal her face, feels the way that his breath is like the wind, and she trembles but doesn’t back away.

    “You look like my little sister and brother,” she manages, her smile small.

    The dragon says nothing—just continues to stare—and she swallows again.

    “I just,” she glances up to see the face in the window and a hand pressed to the glass. “Can she go?” It feels lame, to ask such a thing, and she would blush if she was able but she just continues. “I mean, is there any way,” and her voice trails off when the dragon finally angles his massive head away, exhaling sulfuric breath. “No one has asked me that before,” he says, contemplative, and nearly amused.

    But then he laughs.

    “No,” his teeth show in a gleaming row. “No, I don’t think she can.”

    He shakes his head and she sees it then—sees the cuts, long and angry. She inhales sharply and takes a step forward, her mother’s heart beating in her chest with compassion. “Are you hurt?” she breathes, nearly reaching out with her magic but holding back, waiting for the permission.

    “I’m never hurt,” the dragon scoffs, and she sees the glow of orange in the back of his throat.

    But she also sees the way that he flinches and adjust himself to hide the wounds.

    “Did you get that protecting her?” she asks, pieces suddenly clicking into place, watching as his face shifts—things hidden and shifting—and feeling whatever fear she felt disappearing. “Are people coming here to hurt her?” and his face changes even more, nearly sullen, and she reaches out now—letting her healing light suddenly reach for him. He startles and the ground shakes beneath her and she is quick to try and soothe him. “No, wait, I’m not trying to hurt you,” her voice is steady. “I’m trying to help.”

    He looks suspicious and the glow intensifies but, for some reason, holds it back.

    So she continues.

    She lets the golden light build and then unspool, reaching forward and finding the wounds on his neck and sinking into it. She lets it sink into the scales and the flesh, lets it mend the places where it has been ripped apart. It takes longer than she thought it would and her vision is blurry by the time that she is done. She sways on the spot, her sage green eyes flicking upward as she sees him mended together again.

    “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she smiles and he dragon’s face falls out of focus, but she swears that she can see him smile as she hits her knees—and right before her consciousness leaves her, she looks up to see the pale face down by her, with a hand on her cheek and the only thing she hears is thank you.

    And then she is gone.

    this is not the place that I was born in
    but it doesn't mean it's not the place where I belong

    She doesn’t know what she had expected the sphinx to do after she had delivered her answer. She assumed there would have been some sort of sign that she was correct, such as a nod of approval, or a dismissal if she was wrong. What she had not expected was for that great, gaping mouth to swallow her whole. In the length of time that transpired as she tumbled in this yawning stretch of eternal darkness, she found herself wondering why hadn’t she ran? Why did she freeze in fear and uncertainty when she saw those jaws opening up for her? That wasn’t who she thought she was; she was suppose to be smarter than that, able to react to things instinctively.

    When she is finally spit into the humid jungle, it is with an ungraceful thud that she lands in a pile of ferns. Scrambling to her feet and sputtering, with twigs and leaves clinging to her lengthy mane – a typical look for her, honestly – she takes a moment to take in her surroundings. It was disgustingly warm. Tephra had a tendency to lean towards the warmer side, with tropical scenery and the glowing volcano. But it was tolerable. This...this was gross. The moisture in the air was nearly asphyxiating, and as she set off on the only path available she could feel her mane begin to stick to her skin.

    As soon as she got out of here, she was swimming in the river.

    She was still fantasizing about water when she finally comes upon a sketchy bridge, and she stops to stare at it dubiously. This place was not scoring many points with her, between the pitch-black slide of doom that brought her here, the humidity, and the fact that they didn’t bother any sort of upkeep on their walkways. She was about to turn back, even though that small voice in her head was reminding her that 1) that slide probably disappeared and 2) she couldn’t climb back up it. Apparently her only way out of here was across this bridge.

    Since she has such a solid record of making poor decisions that more or less work out, she begins her careful trek across it, doing her best to ignore the lava flowing beneath her. That part wasn’t really anything different for her. She was used to the lava flows in Tephra, and she had learned long ago how to find her way across them. Giving her mother anxiety was one of her favorite hobbies, until her younger siblings were born and Ryatah more or less forgot about her (what better way to get attention though than to fall into a river of lava – Alleria and her selkie-shifting could shove it).

    Rushing the last few feet with her eyes squeezed shut, she doesn’t realize she had been holding her breath until her hooves hit solid ground again, and she gulps that gross, completely unrefreshing hot jungle air. She had been so focused on getting across the bridge that it takes her a moment to realize it was leading her to a great stone castle. Nestled in the mountainside, she can see the glow of light coming from its windows, and something very large sitting outside of it. Squinting as she gets closer, she eventually realizes that what had looked like just another large boulder was in reality a dragon. She immediately thinks of her older sister, Casimira; Aislyn had never had the chance to meet her, because her sister was killed in the same war she had been born during. But her mother had told her about her; how she could shift into a dragon, and how beautiful she was when covered in white, glittering scales.

    This isn’t her sister, she reminds herself. This is a real dragon, not a horse than can shift into one. And so she creeps forward cautiously, her curiosity, as always, getting the best of her. The beast was laying curled close to the castle wall, and once it heard her footsteps, she froze when a large, red-orange eye with a black, slitted pupil suddenly flew open at her. It lifts its large, angular head, slowly rising to all four feet to peer down at her. Swallowing hard, Aislyn stumbles backwards, but the loud clanking of chains causes her to stop. Clasped around both back legs and anchored to the castle wall, she blinked in alarm when she realized that it was trapped. “Umm...hi. My name is Aislyn, and – please don’t set me on fire – I can help you,” she can feel herself rambling, and by the way the dragon was still staring and occasionally cocking its head, she is pretty sure it doesn’t understand her. Taking a few more tentative steps forward, she makes her way towards where the chains attached to it.

    The dragon spins abruptly, hot plumes of smoke erupting from its nostrils and Aislyn squeals in surprise. “I’m going to help you, I promise. And then you can fly away and go to, uh...Dragonqanna, or wherever dragons live. Or you can live in Tephra! Do you like volcanos? We have a huge one, and –” she had noticed that whenever she talked the dragon seemed to stop trying to kill her, and she managed to get one leg undone by striking repeatedly at the latch with a front hoof, but her narrative was cut short by a voice that sharply cut through the air, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing!?” Jumping backwards, she peers upwards to find the source of the voice scolding her. There, she sees a young girl – a human? – glaring down at her. The face quickly disappears, and moments later, a door flings open

    Aislyn knows almost nothing about people, and even less about fashion. But she does know that this girl looks like she got her princess dress from the discount rack at a Spirit store. She’s also yelling at her, still, and Aislyn soon realizes maybe she should be listening. “That’s my dragon, and you can’t have it,” is what she manages to get out of all of that.

    “What? You can’t just keep a dragon. And if you have to chain it up, it obviously doesn’t like you that much anyway.” The girl was standing with her arms crossed, glowering, and when she bravely – stupidly, really – made a move to herd Aislyn away, the young filly made one last strike against the clasp, and it broke open. Smirking triumphantly at the princess, she wheels around and bounds a few strides away, calling over her shoulder at the dragon, “You’re free, let’s go!” She was ignoring the way the girl was still yelling at her (she learned three new swear words!) as she hastily made a beeline back towards the bridge, and she didn’t have to look up to know the dragon had taken flight. She could hear the loud whoosh of its wings, and from the corner of her eye she saw it disappear behind the tops of the mountains.

    Aislyn herself disappears back along the path from which she had came, not really sure where it was going to take her this time, but trusting she had at least accomplished something on this strange adventure.

    i have loved the stars too fondly

    He can’t say what he was expecting the Sphinx to do. Really, he had no expectations at all having never met a Sphinx before, but he can say that he was not expecting it to swallow him whole. As the sandy creature’s maw yawns wide above him, he doesn’t move. The boy doesn’t run or scream but assumes he got the answer wrong and either this was it, or maybe it’d all prove to be a dream.

    Darkness surrounds him and he’s tumbling; slipping and sliding down the throat of the strange, feline thing that eats horses. He falls and falls, finding it terrifying and fun all at once. The ride is thrilling, but the unknown destination that’s probably a stomach was far less thrilling and put a bit of a damper on the whole experience.

    Finally he tumbles out of the darkness and into what is, thankfully, not a stomach. A stomach might be this hot though.

    Aedan takes a moment to survey his surroundings. It is not a wood, but it is a jungle and it’s similar enough in that he takes heart in it. Here, at least, he can pretend to be the boy in the wood. The boy who escapes, who lives to tell the tale. Someday perhaps he could tell his mother a bedtime story, but it would have to be far in the future. If she knew he’d gone off wandering into other worlds, there’d be no sneaking out ever again.

    Everything is vivid and wild around him, shades of greens and purples and reds so bright he cannot quite imagine them being real, and yet this also reminds him of Ischia. They are not the same, but Ischia was real, so perhaps this place is too.

    There is only one path forward, and clearly he cannot return the way he came, so he steps forward and begins the next part of his journey. The walk is long and his legs are even more weary than when he began, but he cannot stop. Instead he focuses on the creatures in this place. There’s a tiny little frog colored purple and yellow and he’s vaguely tempted to touch it, but decides better. If giant sand statues could eat him, certainly tiny frogs were also not to be trusted.

    He keeps going until finally the jungle gives way to a mountain. The mountain is no better than the jungle. Magma moves in lazy swirls around the base of the mountain, and no matter how hard he looks, Aedan sees only one rather pathetic looking bridge across. The boy takes a tentative step, suddenly very glad he is still small and relatively light. His small body does little to disturb the rickety old bridge and he makes it across without incident.

    Somehow, at the end of the bridge, it gets worse.

    A dragon sits nearby, guarding a castle. Aedan looks up, up, up at the massive stone building and the massive dragon. He just stands there, paralyzed not necessarily with fear but with sheer indecision. What exactly is a colt supposed to do in such a strange situation? The feline statue at least told him what she wanted. This though? He has no idea.

    Thankfully, it is not long before a white and teal winged stranger comes across the bridge as well. “Um, hi,” he says to the stranger, eyes flicking back to the castle and the dragon just in time to see a pale face in the window. She looks out for only a moment before turning away, and Aedan blinks. Maybe this is the weirdest dream ever. “Did you see that lady in the castle? Do you think the lady needs help? Or maybe the dragon is guarding her...but from what?” The words half tumble out, though he tries to keep his cool. There’s definitely fear in his veins, but uncertainty and excitement too. It’s a few too many emotions to process all at once.

    He waits, hoping the stranger will prove to be kind and answer him. Heck, he probably doesn’t have to be kind, but two horses against a dragon and a pale lady seems safer than one horse against a dragon and a pale lady. He is immensely grateful when Pteron stops to actually talk to him, saying that it may in fact be a good thing to have two of them. Well, at least they have that thought in common.

    Pteron suggests that one of them go to the dragon and the other the castle. Aedan nods. “Do you want the dragon or the castle?” he asks, not sure which he’d prefer. A dragon seems scary enough, but an unknown pale face isn’t exactly comforting. Pteron picks the dragon though, and so Aedan adds, “I can make horses go to sleep. I don’t think that’ll work on the dragon but I can try to make it a little drowsy, if you like.” It was something, though it wasn’t much. Maybe this stallion had better options up his sleeve, but Aedan waits for some sort of answer. Either he needed to make that thing sleepy enough to pass by, or his new friend would have to distract it.

    When Pteron agrees, Aedan throws out his power across the distance as best he can. He hopes enough of his power will make it to the dragon to leave it a bit slower, perhaps contemplating a nap, but not so tired that Pteron can’t go talk to it and see what he can learn. Talk to it. Talk to a dragon! That seems so very unlikely but then again all of this is basically impossible, and yet here they are. So it’s not impossible at all, only improbable. Or one heck of a dream.

    Aedan leaves Pteron at this point to the dragon, which seems cruel, but then again maybe Pteron got the better end of the deal. Or maybe they are both marching off to their doom. Yet part of him feels drawn to the pale face, alarmed as it was. Aedan skirts around the dragon, who, to his delight, seems to be closing his eyes just a bit in that lazy Sunday afternoon, I need a nap, kind of way. Good, he thinks, as he slips into the castle. It is dark and quiet, but the place must have been beautiful once. Cobwebs and dust cling to glittering chandeliers and ornate treasures that still, somehow, shine from beneath their disuse. His hoofbeats echo through the castle, and it is clear he will not be making a subtle arrival. He moves through the entrance hall of the castle, figuring he has to go up to find the face that had peered out from the window. Instead, she finds him.

    “What do you want?” she asks, and the face is pale and lovely, with ice blue eyes and golden hair. Her dress glimmers a pale blue with silver embroidery, trailing behind her. How she is so clean in a place so dusty he will never understand, but then again, far more improbable things have happened today.

    For a brief moment, he is struck dumb at the sight of her until finally, the boy manages to find his tongue. “Um...we saw you in the window. You looked, well, alarmed. Are you okay? Do you need help?” The girl laughs lightly, and it seems she is laughing at him. He catches sight of a small tiara on her head, and he wonders what she is supposed to rule over.

    “Oh, sweet boy, long ago I would have said that I needed to be rescued from that dragon out there,” she begins, moving down the stairs with impossible grace as she speaks. “But my prince took too long. I befriended the dragon and now he guards me, keeps me company. I looked alarmed because strangers often try to hurt my dragon, and in return, I find I must hurt them to keep him safe. What did you do to my beast to get in here?” At the question, her voice grows just a bit of an edge to it, and there is something absolutely more terrifying to a kind girl with a razor-edged voice than the dragon outside.

    “Oh. I just made him a little drowsy, and someone else is talking to him. He’s okay though,” Aedan adds hurriedly, watching the features of her face smooth, the simmering anger beneath her blue eyes fading. “Oh, I am glad to hear that. You are a sweet thing, perhaps I will keep you for company.” Aedan blanches, and she must see it on his face. “Now now, would that be so bad?” She reaches out a hand to stroke him, trailing long fingers along the base of his white mane. “Or perhaps, for a price, I will let you go along on your little quest.”

    Aedan says nothing, but waits. Worst case he could put her to sleep and run, but to where? The next part of the quest was not clear and so he cannot flee. Instead, he waits to hear her price, assuming that will lead him on to the next stage. Or perhaps this was simply the end. Perhaps there was no next stage. Oh, just let there be a price he can pay.

    to be fearful of the night


    collaboration with @[Pteron]

    Use of mild power playing is allowed; no injuries without permission


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