The creatures who approached Phos, Aurelia, and Veskar were half their size, but far more numerous in number. They looked wary rather than threatening, and kept a respectable distance from Veskar.
With the heads and front legs of various birds of prey, and the bodies of large cats, these creatures were unmistakably griffins. Their tails were like those of a feline as well, save for the fan of feathers sprouting out to act as sails during flight. Their physical appearance showed as much uniqueness as it did for dragons— no two griffin looked the same. They squawked and meowed among themselves in a foreign language Phos couldn’t understand, before a dusty brown one with a speckled white chest flapped forwards.
“Fair winds, dragons,” she chirped, her voice revealing herself to be female. “I am known among my kin as Haru. What purpose brings you through our aerial domain?”
Veskar hovered in place as he responded. “Fair winds to you as well, Haru. I am Veskar, an Elemental Guardian among the draconians. We seek peaceful passage through your territory, on the orders of Queen Nimbus, the current reigning matriarch of Cirr.”
At the name of the Queen, the flock of griffins began squawking once more. Haru silenced then with an ear-splitting shriek. “I approve of your request, dragons. So long as you mean us no harm, the skies of the Empire will be free to you… As free as all the Aether should be.” she added, her glassy avian eyes piercing them like daggers.
Veskar nodded respectfully, and the griffins moved away to allow them to continue their journey. Haru watched them until they disappeared into the horizon, but as far as Phos could tell, she made no move to follow them.
He turned to Aurelia now. “You’ve told me a few times that I look like a baby griffin. You must be off your rocker, because I don’t look anything like them!”
“You didn’t see any of their chicks, Phos,” Aurelia snickered. “Their fluffy down definitely looks just like your hair. It’s even the same color too, until they start growing their feathers in.” She bumped his shoulder with her own, and he playfully shoved her back.
The massive structures the griffins built were called aeries, and they came into view as Phos flew over them. Surprisingly, they were made almost entirely of wood, painted bright red and forming bridges that connected land together. They reminded him of the structures he’d see in picture books, from the days of old. Temples, I think they were called? Places of worship for religious people. Maybe the griffins were inspired by those…?
He mused over the thought for a while, until the Empire was out of sight.
A few more hours passed, and Phos knew he was at his limit. His body felt like it was weighed down with iron shackles, and every wingbeat sent painful aches across his cramping body. He was utterly exhausted, and feared he would lose his magic and shift midair, plummeting from the sky to his doom.
“Veskar… I can’t go on any longer. I need a break!” He gasped out.
“Alright, hold out for just a moment more, Phos.” Veskar said. He led them to land on the closest island near them, an unremarkable one that could barely fit the three dragons. “You can shift here, and hitch a ride on me for the rest of the way.”
Aurelia tilted her head in confusion. “You’re offering to carry Phos? There’s no need, Esteemed Father. I don’t mind doing it myself.”
Veskar glowered, and for a moment Phos was certain the cobalt blue dragon would argue, insisting that she couldn’t shame herself in such a way. But he only sighed. “Very well, my dear daughter. I suppose it is only natural for you to wish that.”
Phos shifted, releasing his magical energy and collapsing to his hands and knees. Every muscle in his body hurt. Even keeping his eyes open was a struggle, and Aurelia had to pick him up and hold him in her paws instead of placing him on her back as she usually did— if she had to dive or spin while flying with him like that, he’d topple off instantaneously. Aurelia kept her grip loose as they continued on, allowing Phos the space to curl up inside her palm and go to sleep, lulled by the rhythm of the white dragoness’s beating wings.
When Aurelia shook Phos to woke up, he was groggy and somewhat grouchy. It took him a moment to come to his senses.
The world around him had changed completely. Ranges of mountains towered in the distance, looming over them like sleeping giants. The ground was sandy and dry, cracks in some areas deepening to deep ravines that split the earth and went so far down that darkness prevented him from seeing the bottom. Prickly cactus plants and succulents with fat, rotund leaves filled with water were all that called this place home… And Stoneshaker, too.
The island of Durange, the Kingdom of Deserts, awaited them.
Phos shielded his eyes from the sun, already feeling sweat clamming up his body. He removed his fur parka, and then stripped off his outer layer of clothes as fast as he could. The heat was unbearable, and he sighed in ecstasy as his skin was allowed to breathe once more. A breeze helped cool him off, carrying away the warmth clinging to his body.
“Not a fan of Durange, are you Phos?” Veskar laughed. “Not to worry. You’ll feel better once we’re in the mountains. That’s where Queen Cecropia built her kingdom, and the shade keeps it cooler than out here. Direct sun like this will roast you before long.”
The cobalt blue drake spoke true. For once they entered the rift valleys and canyons between the mountains, the temperature dropped to a level that was almost tolerable.
The shade protected his delicate human skin as they continued to press on. They all walked now, except for Phos, who was still being carried along by Aurelia. Now that he was awake, he had moved to sit up on her back like usual, happy to have the opportunity to continue resting and recuperating his strength.
The white dragoness’s paws kicked up dust and particles of sand, her body moving in a slow loping gallop. Veskar had set the pace, and Aurelia didn’t seem to mind. A break from flying was fine by her, and a nice change in scenery.
Strange birds circled above, vulture looking creatures with gnarled plates of armor and skin covering their necks and backs. Every so often one would scream, causing the horrid sound to echo throughout the canyon. Aurelia almost stepped on a rattlesnake— except this one had small, scaly wings. It rattled its tail angrily before slithering away into a crevice nearby. After that, the white dragoness made sure to watch her step.
“Damn serpent,” she muttered. “They’re just as foul-tempered as the ones we had in Azmanthus, I see.”
Phos chuckled at that. “The snakes we have in Terra are small and docile. They’re not venomous, either. Maybe the cold makes them sluggish.”
Every serpent Phos had encountered in Aether had been extremely large. If he had to guess, he’d say seven to eight times larger than the arm-length bell snakes he was used to.
Bell snakes were rather cute little reptiles with large eyes and smooth scales that loved the tinkling sound of bronze and silver bells. The children of Terra made a game centered around beckoning them forth from their burrows with them. The snakes sheltered in their burrows deep beneath the ground to stay warm, emerging in the spring and summer when the temperatures were slightly warmer. But every year, the winters in Terra got colder and colder… Until one day, the bell snakes were seldom ever seen above ground, no matter how many children rang their little bells. Nobody knew whether they were going extinct, and since nobody could check and see, it would likely stay that way forever.
“You’re lucky, then,” Veskar chimed in. “The serpents in Mortis, the Kingdom of Shadows, are the most venomous creatures in Aether. A single drop of their scale-corroding venom is more than enough to kill an adult dragon, and within minutes at that.”
The thought of a venom so powerful it could melt away dragon scales made Phos shudder. “The dragons who live there must be out of their minds. Who would ever want to build their kingdom in a place like that?”
“Many consider the dragons of Mortis to be… Of questionable character. Most of their island is consumed by a forest of prehistoric trees, with a canopy so dense it blocks out the sun. They don’t do much flying, either. But the most intriguing part? More than half of all their eggs hatch with a natural affinity to the element of shadow.” Veskar narrowed his luminous yellow eyes, his tone darkening. “Yes… Very strange. I have been unable to unravel the mystery so far. And perhaps I never will.”
Aurelia spoke up. She had been silent for a while, and Phos could tell she was getting tired. “Those tree-dwelling assassins are up to no good, I bet. I’d sooner chew my own tail off than trust a dragon from Mortis. They’ll stab you in the back the moment it benefits them to do so.” She growled.
Phos had only met one shadow dragon before, and that was Silvermere. If every dragon in Mortis was similar to him, then the kingdom was doomed. But surely, that was not the case— and deadly nature or not, Phos was overwhelmed with curiosity. “I want to visit Mortis eventually,” he said. “Surely the whole kingdom can’t be that terrible.”
Aurelia grumbled obscenities, but Veskar seemed pleased. “Of course, young one. There are not many good words I have to speak about the personalities of the dragons there, but there is much to learn and experience. Their smiths craft draconian armor and weapons of exceptional quality, to say nothing of the— Oh?”
Veskar paused suddenly, his ears perking to stand at attention. “It seems our presence has been noticed…”
Aurelia immediately crouched low to the ground, alarmed and ready for battle. But Veskar waved her to be at ease with one of his blue wings. “Calm yourself, my beloved daughter. If the Guardian of the Earth wanted to fight, he would have attempted to kill us already. We are in his domain, surrounded by his element; he has the advantage here. Keep your wits about you, but do not panic. As long as I stand by your side, no harm shall come to you.”
“… As you say, Esteemed Father.” She breathed, muscles still tense. “I don’t like this though. He must be up to something.”
“We shall see. Stoneshaker is not responding to my mental link. He has never been one for social calls, but nor is he a drake rude enough to ignore an old friend like me… Let us hurry.”
The three of them finally arrived at their destination…. And what awaited them there would change their fates forever.