Currently, Aurelia was being squeezed harder than she ever had in her life.
“My beloved daughter! I’ve been worried sick!” Veskar roared, causing all of the bystanders in the vicinity to scatter with the volume of it. He held her tightly against his chest, embracing her with his bat-like wings. “To think you had gone to Cirr, of all places! But at last, I have found you.”
Even though Aurelia was finding it difficult to breathe, she choked out a strangled chirrup of delight. Veskar released his grip upon realizing, and she nuzzled his neck. Her father was surprised; before, Aurelia would have grouchily snapped at him for his antics. The astonishment on his face swiftly changed into a solemn, genuine smile as he realized the small changes developing in his daughter. Veskar pat her head with his paw, and Aurelia stepped back to sit down and catch her breath.
“Esteemed Father, welcome back… I’ve missed you, too! I’ve been so worried,” she said between pants. “I didn’t know if you had died, when Azmanthus collapsed. I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
Veskar spread his wings gallantly, the sunlight showing off his impressive cobalt colored scales. “My beloved daughter, do you truly believe your father would die to some falling rocks? Perhaps one bonked you on the head, instead,” he teased, winking at her. “And must you refer to me so formally when we’re alone? Just ‘Father’ is fine, you know.”
“I know… But I prefer the formality.” Aurelia dipped her head. Because I respect you more than I know how to convey, Father. She thought, but kept those words to herself. Aurelia felt as if saying them would cause the words to come out as disjointed gibberish.
Perhaps understanding his daughter’s plight, Veskar only purred— a deep rumble more akin to a growl— and turned his attention to the tiny human boy who had been watching from his seat atop a stone nearby.
“And who might you be?” Veskar questioned. “A friend of my dear daughter, perhaps?” His voice was uncharacteristically stern, and it made Phos suddenly aware of how intimidating this powerful storm drake was.
“Hello, err… Aurelia’s Father? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name or the formal way to refer to you. I’m Aurelia’s… Hmm…” he wracked his brain, panicking. Phos had to make sure he made a good first impression on Veskar, so he hurriedly sifted through his recent memories to find what he thought was an impressive response… “I’m her wing-brother.”
That should work, right? Phos proudly thought.
Aurelia groaned, holding her face in her paws.
… But Veskar froze, going completely still. Then, suddenly, he disappeared in a flash of magical light. Only crackling blue sparks were left in his place as he blinked to Phos’s location, rippling with the element of storm as he held Phos up in one of his clawed fists.
“Who do you think you are?! Some frisky dragon trying to seduce my beloved daughter, are you?! Well, I won’t ever let some heat-stricken drake steal her, so move along, you cur!” He roared right into Phos’s face, electricity causing his long grey hair to frizzle and stand on end.
“Nnn… No, sir… I’m a healthy boy, but we’re just friends, I promise…!” he coughed out, gagging for air. “Just… Friends!”
Veskar released his grip, demeanor brightening up now. His magic released, lightning no longer arcing off his scales. Still holding Phos, albeit gently now, he held the human boy up to his face so he could look him over. “A friend of my daughter? Why didn’t you just say so, lad! Why, it’s been many moons since Aurelia has introduced me to one of her friends…”
The storm drake chuckled, and Aurelia scowled at him. “I wonder why, Esteemed Father. Truly, I do.”
Phos felt like a rag doll throughout this whole exchange. He understood now why it was more convenient to stay shifted as a dragon when living among them— perhaps Lilia was right all along. But his magical energy was exhausted, and he couldn’t bear to even think about attempting a shift right now. Luckily, awakening to whatever mysterious powers he had obtained made his body tougher and more resilient than it had been before. If it hadn’t, he worried that being tossed and squeezed by overly dramatic dragons would have killed him days ago.
After resolving their misunderstandings, Phos, Aurelia, and Veskar had gone to a large field East of the Spires and throne room of the Queen. It was filled with beautiful red and orange flowers, blooming in the relished sunlight offered to the field. They were unbothered by the frost and snow that was typical of the Cirr climate. These hardy and willful flowers known as dragonsbreath lycorids. Their fragrance was blown gently by the wind.
Aurelia explained the current situation her father, telling him about the predicament they were in, and how Queen Nimbus wished for Veskar to confront Stoneshaker. He listened without a word, his expression gradually becoming more grim. When she had finished her monologue, Veskar plucked one of the red flowers by their feet, delicately bringing it to his nostrils to sniff.
“… I see.” Veskar said. “Of course Her Majesty would wish to eliminate Stoneshaker. The Guardian of the Earth lives up to his namesake— with a single stomp of his feet, he can summon forth mountains, and destroy them just as easily. The dirt, stones, and metals beneath us are all his domain… Naturally, that senile old water drake would fear him. Seiryu would never be a match for Stoneshaker in a duel between two dragons. He understands this, and it frightens him.”
“What about you, Esteemed Father? If you had to fight Stoneshaker…” Aurelia asked, her red and pink eyes filled with anxiety.
Veskar let the flower go, watching it as it was blown away by the wind. “I would win. Stoneshaker is old, and while his elemental power may not have faded, his mind grows dull, and his body feeble. But, my dear daughter… Do you believe that we should act on the conclusions drawn by a dragon such as Nimbus?”
The white dragoness swallowed, glancing at Phos. He shook his head. “I don’t know her as well as you do, Aurelia. But doesn’t she give off a weird vibe? I honestly don’t trust her.”
Phos was awed by the size of Queen Nimbus, being the first draconian matriarch he had met. But her impervious cruelty, impatience, and condescending personality had sent every warning siren off in his mind. He didn’t know enough to determine whether or not this was just normal behavior for queens… But he did know that he didn’t like it. The chieftain in his town, Lotor, was a man of impeccable character and unbreakable will who abided by the laws and morality valued by the humans who populated Terra.
“I think we should just leave, Aurelia,” Phos murmured. “Nimbus is not our Queen, and holds no power over us. Why should we have to do her bidding? It leaves a sour taste in my mouth.”
Aurelia pinned her ears, but Phos could tell she agreed with him. “I do not trust Queen Nimbus either. You two are correct. But if Stoneshaker is truly the one responsible for the destruction of Azmanthus, the slaughter I bore witness to, and the loss of Queen Viridian’s clutch of eggs, then I…” Her eyes filled with rage, and crystal colored flames licked at the lips of her parted jaws. “I won’t ignore it. I can’t ignore it. If he is the culprit, his blood shall pay for his atrocities.”
Veskar looked sadly at her, but he did not move to comfort Aurelia this time. “Anger and hatred are virile accelerants, my daughter. They can bring you temporary strength, but it is merely borrowed power. True strength comes from your own will, not the whims of your emotions.”
“… I understand, Esteemed Father. Thank you.” She said, shifting her paws in embarrassment. How could she forget the words she had just told Phos this morning? Aurelia’s emotions truly were getting the best of her now. She calmed her breathing, willing her mounting adrenaline to disperse. Phos came over and plopped himself down on her right paw, running a hand reassuringly over the keeled scales of her digits. “… Thank you, too, Phos. I’m alright now.”
“Azmanthus was my home too. I understand how you feel, Aurelia. I will agree to follow the orders of Queen Nimbus— but how we deal with Stoneshaker will be on my terms, and my terms only. I shall speak to him first, as civilized dragons should. Stoneshaker has always been honest to a fault, and a terrible liar to boot, as most earth dragons tend to be. If he is guilty, I will know. And I will deal with him justly. Do you two agree?”
Phos nodded first. It took Aurelia a moment longer, but she followed suit as well. Satisfied with their concluded discussion, Veskar stood up and unfurled his wings, turning to leave. “Unfortunately, there are other matters I must attend to this evening. We will depart first thing tomorrow morning. You two are welcome to accompany me, but I will not allow either of you to join me if a battle ensues… Fair winds, children.”
With that, the Guardian of the Storm took to the sky, soaring through the clouds to head towards the Spires. Perhaps he was meeting with Aurelia’s mother, or their extended family— she didn’t know. None of them had cared enough to greet Aurelia when she arrived in Cirr, so she paid them no mind either.
Dragons had very loose families, if any at all. A dragoness would fiercely protect her clutch of eggs and dragonets, but once they grew up, they were expected to fend for themselves and find a mate of their own to keep them company. Aurelia was truly blessed to hatch with a father like Veskar.
“… I like your father.” Phos said, parroting her thoughts with scary accuracy. “He reminds me of my Uncle. Minus the whole part where he tries to burn me to a crisp with magic because he thinks I’m a… What did he call it? A ‘heat-stricken drake’.”
He smirked, putting a hand on his chin to mockingly admire himself. “I can see why he’d say that. I am a pretty stunning dragon, if I do say so myself.”
“I’m sorry to say this, but you’re much too large,” Aurelia snorted. “I’ve never met a dragoness who claims a drake larger than her, let alone one who is less colorful.”
“It’s always about si— Ack! Stop!” Phos squeaked. Aurelia was holding out two taloned fingers behind his back, threatening to flick him with them and send him flying.
“That’s enough of your horrible jokes. Please, spare my ears.” She rumbled. “Let’s find somewhere to rest for the afternoon. You don’t have enough energy to shift again, right? You’ll need to sleep soon.”
He clambered up her back, settling in to the crook of her shoulder blades. Aurelia trotted off, keeping her head high to search out a suitable location.
Phos resumed their conversation. “Yeah, you’re right… I don’t like shifting, but I can see why it’s necessary. The dragons here don’t pay attention. I can’t count how many times I’ve almost been stepped on in my human form.”
“Why don’t you train more with Tsuki? She could teach you how to be like us. You could be a dragon all the time. So why don’t you?”
“I’m sure it sounds weird to you, but I prefer being a human. When I’m a dragon, I can’t read books. I also can’t sew, or work with leather, or express myself like I’m used to. I really enjoy doing these things, so…”
Phos’s voice trailed off as he looked at his hands. They were the hands he’d known all his life, part of the body he’d grown up with. His sense of self was connected to this form, and he didn’t know if he’d ever accept his other one.
“Why don’t you ever shift, Aurelia? I’ve never seen another dragon shift, except for dragonets when they’re playing with each other. And even then, it’s only for a few heartbeats at most.”
Aurelia hummed, slowing down her gait to a slow lope as the pondered. “The same reason as you, I suppose. I’d never really thought about it until now… ‘Humans are weak, so why would I want to transform into one?’ Is a sentiment shared by every dragon. When you’re in a human form, you can’t fly, nor can you defend yourself with tooth and claw. You can’t even breathe fire… That scares me, honestly.”
“You’re afraid of being weak?”
“Of course. To be weak is to be at the mercy of others.”
“Hmm… I guess so.” Phos said. He leaned back against her, looking up at the sky. The sun warmed his face, and he found himself missing the scent of the flower field they’d been in. “I don’t think that’s a problem, though. Being weak, I mean”
The white dragoness tilted her head. “How so? That seems utterly problematic to me.”
“A single human isn’t ever going to be a match for an enemy as powerful as a dragon. Alone, we’re weak. But humans work together. We have families, friends, communities… We help each other. Terra is a cruel, inhospitable land. But together, my town managed to keep everyone safe. And other towns are the same, too.”
“Strength in unity, huh…?” Aurelia whispered. Two amber, lupine eyes seared in her mind as she remembered the strange talking wolves she had defeated in Terra. A fight she had nearly lost. The wolves has moved as one, a river of fur and teeth that trusted their pack more than anything else before them.
Reducing their ranks to piles of scorched corpses left Aurelia with a feeling of emptiness. She had won, but she was alone. Big Grey had been right about that.
Dragons were always alone.
“Maybe there’s some truth to what you say.” Aurelia responded.
Whether or not it was to Phos or Big Grey, she didn’t know anymore.