Chapter Seven

The journey certainly felt easier now that Thæon was travelling with Morak; Gryka especially making traversing Tangek’a simpler when she took to the skies, slipping in and out of the Shadow Realm to scout their path ahead, saving them pushing their way down one path between towering plateaus only to find the way ahead impassable and forced to walk all the way back simply to find another route. The days in the jungle passed quicker with the rain’s consistency beginning to thin the more they pushed north and close to the boundaries where magic was stretched thin across the region.

The morning where they awoke on the shore of Tsaulpayora, Thæon was startled by the presence of the fifth member of their party: Sagen, Morak’s horse, and second Shadow Soul, pawing lazily at the ground while Morak was stood at his side, adjusting the straps on his saddle.

“And where in the nine realms were you hiding him?”

Morak shot Thæon a smug grin. “The second, actually,” he says, cocky and teasing, but his tone sobers to contend with the early morning and to soothe his mount as he goes about storing his travelling supplies to hurry their departure. “It was safer for Sagen to wander the Shadow Realm than it was for him to carry me through Tangek’a. Too many predators and not a decent path for him to walk, so he roamed the Grynn plains while I searched the caves.”

And Thæon could only feel respect towards the extent of Morak’s magic, and perhaps a spark of excitement for how his own might blossom as he grew stronger.

With Sagen carrying Morak, and Bröder carrying Thæon, their pacing quickened even if the weak magic of the region played manic with their inner magics; Morak growing exhaustingly tired beneath the unrelenting light of the sun while Thæon struggled to moderate his temperature where his magic flared between burning far too bright and dwindling like a candle flame.

He had thought that the rolling golden sands and barren dusty plains would be a defence for a clutch of dragons to hide in the depths of the desert, but now that he’s stood here on the edge of it, with the sun hot on his face, he knows himself to be wrong.

The world is wrong here; dead and empty, void of life; void of sound and smell and taste beyond the expanse of dust that blows in a feeble wind that feels desperate to breathe life back into this scorched wasteland.

“Fourteen hundred years and Ered Naur’s fear still scars this landscape,” Morak whispers, his voice tainted with sympathetic pain to what must’ve once been a beautiful country; luscious green and teeming with life; now nothing of its former glory.

And truly, it is a shame, and a very present reminder to Ered Naur’s callousness. They were the ones responsible for the fall of the dragons, and had the might to enact their brutality.

Thæon dreads to think what Obí’s fate will be, should the Scorched King learn that he is hiding within his kingdom.

While Tangek’a and Iskí leave Thæon still searching for a dragon clutch, they do not mean the end for his search, and he continues to push further north, along Falathren’s tail with the days falling into a familiar pattern with Gryka taking the lead, and the boy’s following behind, filling the peace and quiet with their conversation, or sometimes not at all, content to listen to the world around them.

“You’ve changed,” Morak says one afternoon when they have left behind the desolation of the desert, and now nearing the northern shore where they’ve stopped to give their mounts a well-deserved break at midday; the Nomad having taken up residency at the foot of a towering tree, leaning against it while his fingers turn the charms on his obsidian wristlets; Thæon leaning against his own nook of buttressed roots, leaving Bröder and Sagen to graze on the long grass that grows around them.

Thæon turns his head in question. Morak, seeing this as permission to continue talking, does so.

“There’s something different about you, to how you were back in Medellin. I know in your homeland you had people watching you all the time and it made you… different. But there were times when it was just us and you relaxed, but now you’re… more you, I think,” he says, with all the confidence a childhood friend might have, laughing to himself when Thæon throws him another raised eyebrow. “More… me?”

“More yourself than when you were playing the part of Mundanaï,” Morak grins, bowing his head, right fist curled over his chest in mock salute at the formal title of respect, laughing again when Thæon grabs a stick from the ground and throws it at him. “I told you to knock that shit off,” he growls, but it’s weak and Thæon knows it.

Morak knows it too, but he knows enough not to tease.

Quiet draws in; easy, peaceful, and Thæon knows that, should he choose he can let the silence surround them a let the conversation be forgotten, or conduct its course into something without weight or secrets. And yet, he choose to meet Morak at the line in the sand, because while he might have suspicions that Thæon is calmer because he was no longer under the heavy watch of his entire clan and the constant reminders of his father’s death, Thæon knows it to be the months he spent in company of Obí, and now the trial set before him by the Twelve.

“I left home before the Elders and the Adanaï could push me to take mother’s place as Tae’adanaï,” he says, telling the same parts of truth he had already told Morak, near four weeks past; voice monotonous in recital of words he’s already told. “I wanted to experience the world without that weight, or being held back by the restrictions that come with accepting that title. I think, in the beginning, I was being selfish. But then, the more I travelled, I saw things, met people; saw how no matter the power of the Scorched King and the devotion of his people, there were still those that suffered and those that were left to struggle for reasons beyond their control. I knew that I didn’t want my rule to be anything like his, but there were still things that I could learn.

“And then I found Obí.”

Thæon chooses to keep Obí’s truth to himself; for the sake of protecting him and his clutch that is still somewhere, still alive.

Or at least, that’s the lie he tells himself, but the boy knows the name of serpent that writhes in his chest; knows why its scales are a luscious shade of green, like the gentle grass around them; not fool enough to not realise the implications of what it means when Morak says that Obí is man worth meeting, and the serpent bares its fangs.

“He is,” Thæon agrees. “I wanted him to come with me, but he had his reasons that made him stay, and I had my reasons for leaving,” he says, firmly pushing away the emotions that rise with the memory of having to walk away because the mountain slopes wouldn’t hold Bröder through the Deep Snow, and Obí’s pained refusal when he revealed in his own way that he wouldn’t be joining the Fireheart when he left.

Thæon pointedly does not let his mind linger on the all-too-familiar loneliness that raises its head come nightfall even now, when he glances across the firelight and doesn’t find Obí’s blood-red eyes watching him.

“Looking back on it now, it was the right decision.”

“Whys that?” Morak asks, and Thæon doesn’t need to see the way he leans forward to know how much he’s interested in this stranger.

Thæon just shrugs, leaning back against the roots, head resting on the ridge as he stares up at the dancing canopy and the crepuscular rays that break through.

“He’d be in constant danger if the pair of us travelled together. He’s not— He would attract the wrong kind of attention, and I knew that he would hesitate if it ever came to defending himself. When I first met him, he couldn’t even hunt for himself, but even when we did it together, I knew he still felt guilt about killing them. He was living off fish when I first found him,” he laughs, unashamed of the fondness that softens the edge of his voice as he recalls watching Obí snap up the river fish in his maw and the countless times he got frustrated with his attempts at fishing, and simply boiling the river water with a sharp burst of fire.

“If you saw him. you’d think that he was fearsome: all big and powerful, but the truth is that he’s actually just a huge pushover.

“And yet, he protected me when I was in trouble,” he says softly, almost as if it was a secret between himself and the forest around them.

“The first night I met him, I understood. There were these three assholes. Bandits, poachers—whatever. It didn’t matter. They’d been searching for him and they found him, and Eyonfel’s mercy, he was so, so scared,” Thæon says, his voice having fallen to a whisper, eyes unseeing as his mind returns to that first night, when Obí set the meadow ablaze in his desperation to protect; and he had thought that the dragon’s fire would burn untamed until there was nothing left.

And even after they’d been quelled by the wind, Thæon had stood witness to his dragon panicking; choking on air at the crushing guilt of having killed, even if he had done so at the defence of himself and the human caught by iron chains.

His heart still hurts with the pain of distance between them.

“Then he was lucky you found him,” Morak says kindly.

“I like to think we found each other. And while the gods haven’t been the kindest to me or my family, I know that they had a hand in our meeting too.”