Taka woke up to find the skies clear, the air tangy with moisture, and Lauren gone. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but they weren't playing tricks on them. His Melynx companion was truly gone.
In a minute, Relcia had woken up and noticed the same thing. "She left," she said simply, voice heavy with disgust. "She must have left the Highland entirely. That earlier fight must have scared her off."
Ordinarily, Taka would never believe that his faithful Melynx friend would ever desert them, but under sway of the darkness as he was, he could certainly believe it now. After all, he would certainly desert his companions first chance he got in the interest of his own safety.
The small amount of light still locked within him struggled briefly, but then fell still.
"Come on," said Relcia, getting up and stretching. "We're close to the Tower now. We should be able to make the journey within a day." Taka nodded once and adjusted his Qurupeco helm. He transformed back into a Berukyurosu and bent down for Relcia to get on. She climbed up quickly, and once she was secure, Taka took off with a running start. He circled once in the early morning sky, then made a banking turn and soared off toward the Tower.
Taka quivered in anticipation as he flew towards his goal. Why were they looking for the White Fatalis again? He knew his light side held the answer, but he was reluctant to ask. He didn't have the patience to consult the almost nonexistent conscience that still lurked inside, so he quickly rejected the idea.
All he knew is that there was destiny in the air. He could feel it.
Vulcan rapidly flew over the Gorge, Jin on his back as usual. Syrie carried Illeera and Elric, who had both fallen into a fitful sleep last night. The Nargacuga had kept close watch over them, mostly because her eyes were best adapted to seeing at night.
But now, Vulcan could see the massive fissure come to an end in the distance. Beyond that, he saw the land begin to slope upward and become much rockier. He smiled. We are approaching the Highland at last, he thought, and that is where we will find Taka and Relcia.
That thought made him increase his speed significantly, eager to see Taka again. Syrie struggled to keep up as he flew ever faster. Vulcan didn't notice, as all he could concentrate on was the prospect of seeing his best friend in all the world at last.
Soon, Vulcan and Syrie had flown far enough toward the Highland that they began to encounter rough winds and pouring rain. Syrie had told them about the unpredictable weather that the Highland was frequently at the mercy of, and that the monsters had evolved to behave in similarly unpredictable ways. She warned them to stay sharp for any unexpected surprises that might be waiting for them.
One of those unexpected surprises was encountered just a few minutes later. The storm grew slightly worse, with flashes of lightning occuring every now and then. The odd thing was, the lightning was pink.
Before Vulcan could comment on the unusual phenomenon, there was a high-pitched screech that sounded from everywhere at once. The lightning suddenly seemed to be aiming for them now, and Vulcan and Syrie expertly dodges the first few strikes. Jin sent a couple of Thunderbugs to scout out the source of the strange weather, and the information they brought back was far from pleasing.
The bugs say that this storm isn't natural! he shouted over the howling wind. They say that there's a weird-looking beast causing this, and it's trying to drive us away!
Vulcan looked over his shoulder for a few seconds, meeting Jin's worried eyes. Then he set his gaze straight ahead and said determinedly, Well, then this beast is going to have to chase us in this direction. We don't want a fight, so we're going to fly straight ahead and out of its territory. Just dodge the lightning, and if the beast appears, ignore it.
With that, the two wyverns forged ahead, keeping in a mostly straight line, occasionally avoiding a lightning bolt when necessary. When the third bolt was dodged, the screech came again, and Vulcan thought he could see a serpentine shape silhouetted against the flashes of lightning. It's here! he roared. Remember what I told you, just ignore it and it'll go away!Then the beast made itself known. It was a huge white Elder Dragon, and although they had no way of knowing it, this beast ruled over the Highland with its immense storms. It was called Shantiyen, and it didn't like visitors.
Shantiyen screeched again, and flicked its tail at the wyverns and their riders, sending a wave of icy, rain-lashed wind at them. Vulcan fought to stay on course, and Illeera and Elric tightened their grip on Syrie's scales. The Nargacuga was almost invisible against the black clouds they flew through.
Lightning crackled all around as Shantiyen flew circles around the group, looking for the best angle of attack. Finally, it slowly disappeared into the clouds below them.
Things were calm, despite the constant rumble of thunder. Their flight suddenly became uneventful, with no sign of Shantiyen. Vulcan began to wonder if they'd already passed through the Elder Dragon's territory.
Then a tremendous lightning bolt shot up from beneath him, striking him dead on and totally paralyzing him. Unable to move, Vulcan's wings locked, and he and Jin plummeted. Syrie screamed their names in fear as they disappeared into the clouds below.
Shantiyen's screech came again, and it rose up out of the blackness, focused on Syrie and her riders. Frantically, the Nargacuga shot a dozen spines from her tail, trying to drive Shantiyen away. Most missed, but three did not, burying themselves in the scales of its flank and belly. The Elder Dragon roared in pain and shook the spines out, causing a chilly wind to rip through the air.
A fireball blazed upwards, slamming into Shantiyen and hurling it higher into the air. Badly burnt, the Elder Dragon turned its head to see a shaky Vulcan emerge through the clouds. Small bolts of electricity still crackled around his form, but he was still alive, and more importantly, well enough to fly again. Jin barked an order to his Thunderbugs, and they combined their powers to create a huge thunderbolt that sizzled across Shantiyen's body.
The monster glared at them, then disappeared into the murk around them. This time, it didn't come back.
It left already? asked Syrie uncertainly. Did we chase it away, or did it simply leave? Vulcan nodded and replied, Yes, I believe so. Either we're out of its territory, or we simply gave it the impression that we weren't worth the effort to fight. Illeera looked thoughtful at his words, while Elric looked from one monster to the other, confused. With a shrug, Illeera translated for him.
Then as suddenly as the storm had been encountered, it was gone. The monsters flew through the last of the clouds and found themselves in a tranquil atmosphere. The sun was shining high in the sky, casting its light upon a landscape rich with cliffs and waterfalls. Vulcan smiled to himself at the beautiful sight.
We've reached the Highland at long last, he thought. Now all that remains is to find Taka and Relcia.
But Taka and Relcia were far ahead. They had left the Highland entirely, and now flew above the clouds. As Taka flew, he observed the clouds become gray and stormy. His almost-non-existant light side shivered and tried to back further into the corner it had been forced into.
Taka dimly felt a strange feeling overtake him. If it had been any stronger, he might have paid attention to it - but the feeling of dread was so weak, he dismissed it as a trick of the mind and ignored it.
"There!" shouted Relcia from atop his back. "I see it!" Taka strained with his keen wyvern eyes to see what she had seen. And then, all of a sudden, he saw it.
The top of an old tower, partially framed by crumbling ruins, poking up through the clouds. It looked in danger of collapsing, but it still held itself together, and it probably would for another ten thousand years.
The Tower, thought Taka triumphantly. The home of the White Fatalis.
He stopped. What were they to do when they found the White Fatalis again? He couldn't remember the original reason, and Relcia's earlier suggestion of using its power to rule the Great Frontier was definitely appealing. But something was telling him that it was a bad idea, and doubt crept into his heart.
Taka shook it away. One step at a time, he repeated again and again to himself. One step at a time.
But reality wasn't forgiving enough to allow Taka to do so. The instant he lighted down on the Tower's windswept floor and shapeshifted back into himself, there was a blistering breeze that swept across the barren ground. The gray clouds below them roiled. A high-pitched shriek rang out into the still air.
Suddenly, Taka saw a white light blaze from above. And the closer he looked, the less it seemed to be a simple light. It took on a form, a form with a long neck and tail. Strong wings beat, carrying the beast forward without any effort, and its scales shone with a radiance equal to the sun. Red eyes observed them from underneath the multitude of horns that adorned its head.
It was the White Fatalis.
Lauren cried out in delight and relief at the sight of Vulcan and Syrie passing over her. "Hey, Vulcan, Syrie!" she yowled, jumping up and down and swinging her staff. "Down here, nya!"
Joy took hold of her as she saw the monsters turn and see her. They landed roughly on the rocky ground, and Lauren saw Illeera and Elric slide down from Syrie's back. "Illeera, thank goodness!" Lauren cried, leaping forward and clutching Illeera's leg with her paws.
Carefully extracting herself from the Melynx's embrace, Illeera noted the expression on her face - a mix of strain and anxiety. "What is it?" she asked gently, and Lauren, hesitating at first, spilled out the whole story.
At the end of it, Vulcan looked stricken. It's true, he murmured. My dream is coming true...
Elric was similarly shocked. "We need to make for the Tower right away. Taka and Relcia must be healed, before they succumb to the darkness permanently."
If any monster were to walk by just then, they would have seen three monsters, two humans, and a Melynx take off with urgency in their wingbeats for the distant Tower.
And although they had no way of knowing it, a shapeshifter's soul depended on how fast they got there.
To Be Continued...