Shirrin stares at Cirrus in disbelief.
“You want him to what?”
“Telmin is fading and there are no other dragons to replace him. Karista must do his duty.” He turns to walk away but she grabs his arm.
“No! Karista is barely fledged. He won’t last two weeks. Find another!”
He glares at her, his distaste of her touch clear. She ignores it. His prejudice is his problem, not hers.
“As I said, there are no others. If Karista does not replace Telmin within the hour our home will fall from the sky.”
“Where are the others? The sun has barely touched the island’s roots.”
His eyes flicker and he shakes her off, striding away. She watches him go, feeling her face grow cold as the blood drains out of it. They have chosen Karista and made it impossible for her to refuse.
Karista is awake and waiting for her in the fledgling caves. His scaled hide gleams in the muted torchlight and she pauses a moment in her headlong rush to admire him. His unusual colour, starting as gold at his head and fading into green around his shoulders, makes him look every inch the warrior. She has seen the pictures in the hall. Karista is a throwback to the ancient line of dragons. It was his bad luck that he was imprinted by her. The fury makes her head spin and it is Karista’s humming that calms her enough to concentrate on the task at hand.
“They would not tell me where they were going,” he tells her as she scratches behind his left horn. “Even Ferrin went, who hardly flies yet. They all left.”
Poor Ferrin. He will be lucky to make it to solid ground before his young wings give up. Karista starts humming again and she smiles at him.
“We have to go as well.”
The great golden head, already close to the length of her body, tilts in confusion.
“Cirrus said I would be staying.”
Did he now?
“Well, he was wrong.” She turns away to find his harness and comes to a halt, her mouth hanging open. Strips of leather litter the floor beneath where the harness should hang. She picks up a piece and briefly examines the clean-cut ends. She swallows. Cirrus knows her too well. She drops it and turns back to Karista.
“You remember the day you were born?”
“And you said you would never let me fall?”
“Now’s the time to prove it.”
Technically the harness is just to help a rider to stay on, by giving him (or her) something to hold on to. But it is possible to ride a dragon without one. Every fledgling is initially ridden without harness until they stop growing so fast that they would need a new one every day. Riding is an intrinsic part of the imprinting process, the priests say. Which is probably why they tried to stop her from riding Karista early on. And why she ignored them.
As she looks down from the cave at the ground far, far below, a cloud flows across her line of sight. Calm. Serene. The underside of the island is cool and fresh, smelling earthy and real from the cool of the night. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. Lets it out.
“Go,” she whispers. Karista takes a step forward and drops into empty air.
No one knows why the dragons’ magic is failing. It used to take years for a dragon’s soul to finally expire and require a replacement and only old dragons were used. Those who had led their lives and were content to spend their evening years snoozing in the main courtyard. The priests sing and talk to them and bring them food. They are the guest of honour at every evening meal. Telmin is young but the priests have only been channeling his soul for five weeks and already he’s gone. Tears slide across Shirrin’s face as she remembers Talmar’s face at dinner the night before. His eyes rarely left his dragon, lying so quietly beyond the high table.
She shakes her head and looks forward and down to the sea glittering in the sunlight. A huge ship ploughs across the waves. Sea gypsies. Although it doesn’t look that big from up here, she knows their ships are large enough to land a fully grown dragon on. Further out over the water is another skyland. She doesn’t recall its name.
Shirrin clutches at the neck spine in front of her as Karista suddenly banks hard, tearing her from her thoughts.
“Sorry,” he says. “But look.”
They are a good distance below the island now and the ground is clearly visible. Ahead and to the right is a large city and she can see the copse of trees at its centre. They would draw their magic from the strength of those trees, making masks to carry it with them. Above them and to the left is the island. But it’s sinking. Her mouth opens as she realises that Telmin is dying and the magic is running out.
“Do we go back?” Karista asks. For a moment she considers it, and then she remembers Karista’s hatching day. The way he sought her out in the stands. The way her friends, or those she thought were her friends, hadn’t spoken to her since.
They watch the island as it falls ever faster, sliding sideways through the sky. It’s heading straight for the city and as its shadow falls over the buildings they can hear the screams. They are still close enough that she can see Telmin curled in the main courtyard, his hide a dull grey-green. She blinks back tears. Dragons aren’t meant to be grey.
The end comes very quickly, Telmin turning grey from one instant to the next. One moment a slight gleam is reflected and the next it is gone. The island drops like a stone.
By some miracle it misses the city. Mostly. It passes over it so that only the trailing edge catches the outer wall. A deep boom echoes as the island hits the ground and the earth explodes. A fountain of dirt shoots up into the air and a roaring wind comes out of nowhere, buffeting them in the sky. Shirrin’s hands are slashed by the hard edges of Karista’s neck spines before he can hold still again.
They look down to see a crater the size of the city itself. People are still screaming but she suspects it’s more from shock than injury.
“Where are we going?” Karista asks over the rhythmic thump of his wingbeats.
An excellent question.
Where should they go? You decide!
1/ The city below
2/ The other skyland
3/ The ship
Voting ends on Saturday midnight (US Pacific coast time)