Chapter 11:

Blood On Fresh Snow (I)


After dropping Aurelia off at the abandoned quarry and leaving the disgruntled dragoness to make herself at home, Phos hurried on his way back to the town of Lotor. The gate guards greet him as he passed through, but for the most part, he was ignored by people as they went about their business. Many were clearing the fresh snow off of their houses and tents, or helping to clear the roads.

The sky was clear today, with barely any clouds in sight. Phos had a good view of Aether, and found himself lost in thought as he gazed up at the sky.

So many islands...

Which one had Aurelia come from, he wondered? Were they all unique, or was every island the same? Did dragons rule over all of them, like the chieftains of Terra?

...What even is Aether, and why is the mysterious white dragoness he met here in the first place?

As he pondered, Phos missed the excited voice calling out to him.

“Big bro!”

Come to think of it, Aurelia showed up right after the bizarre earthquake that sent what he presumed to be rocks from Aether crashing down to Terra... Had she fallen with them?

“BIG BRO! You’re back!”

Lilia smacked Phos in the shoulder, smiling ear to ear. Her green eyes positively sparkled as she looked at him, but Phos could see their edges were reddened— she must have been worried sick about him. Wrapping his arms around her in a bear hug, he felt a stab of guilt for not immediately going to find her.

“I’m home, Lilia... But what was that smack for?”

Lilia hugged him back weakly, breaking down into a fit of laughter. “Y—You’re crushing me! Eeee!”

She wriggled out of his arms like a slippery fish, gazing curiously at the full bag slung over his shoulder. “Where have you been? Uncle has been worried sick! And what’s in your pack..?”

“I’m sorry... I was too focused on the hunt. I found a tritan, but the blizzard caught me before I could make it home. Ah, I brought some of the meat back. Here. Make sure Uncle gets it today, okay?”

He handed Lilia the linen-wrapped meat from his satchel. She sniffed it, pleased to see it showed no signs of spoilage. The chill in the air was useful for some things, it seemed. The tritan meat could likely be stored for days in its current raw state without accumulating bacteria, but their Uncle would turn most of it into pemmican and jerky.

The two of them made their way home, Lilia pestering Phos with rapid-fire questions all the while. He answered each of them calmly, albeit with less energy each time. While tiring for someone as reserved as he was, it was oddly pleasant to be able to speak with his little sister after being away for so long, and it passed the time quickly.

Before they knew it, they’d arrived at the large tent structure that served as his family’s home. Large beams of scrap metal were used to create frames to hold thick, shaggy tritan and delicate foamwolf pelts in place, creating an enormous tent large enough for an entire family to comfortably live in with space to spare for storage. A fireplace filled with coldcoal warmed the interior, and next to it sat their Uncle.

The ancient looking man, well past his prime, with a whiskery beard and long white hair passing his shoulders, gingerly closed the book he had been reading.

“Phos. Lilia. Welcome home.”

“It’s good to be back, Uncle. I’m sorry for worrying you,” Phos lowered his head. “And you too, Lilia.”

His Uncle stroked his beard, while Lilia filled the awkward silence that ensued. “Uncle, Phos brought back tritan meat! Here, here.”

He accepted the packs, then finally spoke. “You did well making it home safely, Phos... But I hope you will remember next time that a hunt is not worth your life.”

“Yes, Uncle.” Phos replied. Lilia pat his back as they both took a seat next to him by the fire. “I won’t make the same mistake next time.”

The old man nodded, satisfied with his response. “The council has been in a great uproar since the night of the earthquake. Chieftain Kai and Smith Corder presented me with these rocks collected a fair distance from town.”

He held out a gnarled hand, skin pulled taught along his fingers. In his palm was an assortment of rubble— pure white and smooth, a mineral unknown to terra. Phos’s eyes widened. It was the exact same thing that he’d seen falling, albeit in house sized boulders.

“I see you recognize it, Phos. I presumed you would.”

“Yes, Uncle. I’ve seen them. They fell from Aether, I’m almost sure of it. I don’t know what they are, though...”

Phos mused, his thick eyebrows giving him a comically serious expression. His Uncle handed him the book he had been reading; Practical Draconian History. It was an old book, with a worm cover and yellowed pages made from the paper of trees. It must have cost a small fortune.

“You are correct, Phos. It is a most perplexing stone. The dragons call it spirit marble, and build their aeries from it,” he tapped one, eliciting a plink noise. “It is said to be shaped from their very life essence; their spirit. Beautiful, don't you think?” 

Lilia’s eyes sparkled as she held one, admiring it. Phos felt his blood run cold as the dark realization hit him. The puzzle pieces had finally come together. 

“Uncle... It can’t be! How can an entire kingdom of dragons be destroyed? How can an entire island collapse?”

Such an event was beyond “not heard of”— it had never happened. The innumerable islands that made up Aether simply floated as they had since the beginning of recorded history, a heaven ruling above the frozen hell below. 

“I do not know why this has happened,” his Uncle muttered. His voice was grave, and he reached out to cover both Lilia and Phos’s hands with his own. “But I do know, this is an ill omen for all who live on Terra and Aether. For men, goodbeasts, and dragons alike... Calamity is surely coming.”