Things were already way past desperate - it looked as though Malmon was on the verge of winning. Talmon had already fallen, struck down by Malmon's blade, and we had just seen Iriok thrust a blade into Irion's back. Something had to be done to stop this madness.
It was at times like this that I wished my powers extended beyond mere shapeshifting, that I wished I had the power to actually do something to change things in our favour. Helplessly, I turned in the direction of Cera and Chi; they were tending to Elondar, who had, moments before, crawled out from under a pile of rubble, only to collapse.
"Is there nothing we can do?" I asked.
Chi, who was directing Doma to heal Elondar's injuries, looked up. "This is beyond any of our original company," she told me. "Only the Dragon Queen can stop Malmon now." She turned to Cera. "Quick! Use your powers before it's too late!"
Cera looked round at our fallen comrades, her eyes eventually settling on the dragon form of Irion, who lay wounded on the floor. Iriok lay beside her. "What happened to Irion and Iriok defies the laws of Draconia!" she declared. Then, in a flash of light, she transformed into her magnificent dragon form.
I watched as Cera advanced on Malmon, her body seeming to radiate anger as she prepared to do what she had come all this way to do. I had seen dragons in battle before, but the Dragon Queen was something else entirely. Her poise, her bearing, spoke of a power handed down through countless generations, a power far beyond the grasp of a mere human.
"Malmon!" she said telepathically. "Your evil ends now!" She reared back and prepared to launch her attack.
"What do we do now?" I whispered to Chi as we watched from the sidelines. For a moment, I was tempted to try and take on Malmon myself, but Chi stopped me.
"No - Malmon would turn your powers against you like he did the others. Cera's the only one that particular brand of magic won't affect . . ."
"Because she's the Dragon Queen?" I asked, thinking the battle could have been resolved much sooner if Cera had used her powers in the first place.
Chi nodded, then turned her attention back to the dragon form of her sister.
I shifted painfully as I reached around and ripped the sword from my shoulder. It dropped to the floor and vanished into a black vapor.
"Careful, young blood," called a voice in my head. It was Iriok, but, then again, it wasn't.
"Careful?" I inquired.
"Kill a dragon, the human lives. Kill a human and the dragon dies. But kill an element, destroy a god . . . Think before you act."
I brought my head back around and started at Iriok, who began to stir. She pushed herself up onto her side as she stared at the beastly form of herself. But, as my eyes flicked to the rival dragon, something seemingly released itself and flooded my mind with everything I had somehow not remembered before.
"Elendra? Chi? Elondar!" I finally said, staring at the weakened group. I then looked to the Queen, but saw my brother crouched before the animal. Instinct grabbed hold of me; I could not stand by and simply watch my brother get killed. I bounded forward and skidded along the marble floor to a position before the Queen and almost over my brother.
"Irion, move," Malmon said stiffly.
"No . . ." I said as I stared at the Queen.
"I don't need a little sister's help!" Malmon said in an angry tone. Then, he yelped as I turned on him, placing my foot on his chest and staring at him coldly with the blue dragon eyes.
"You said that once before and, idly, I stood by our broken father like the good child I was. Our mother died, Malmon - accept that. But you? You ran away. I, now, am far more than just a little sister. You'll either let me help you or die right here and now."
"If I die, you and Iriok will die as well. Only I know the spell to release the dragon spirit as well as the stone and return you to a human form."
"Then I shall die honorably. Draconia will know my name for ages to come," I growled.
"Kill an element, kill a god," the voice whispered once again.
This was a dilemma few would relish - somehow, we (or, rather, Cera) had to find a way to defeat Malmon without killing him outright. For only he had the power to restore Irion and Iriok to normal and their lives were in danger every moment they were affected by Malmon's spell. If Malmon was killed now, neither Irion nor Iriok would survive for much longer.
But I knew - we all knew - there was no way we could trust Malmon. Even if we spared him on condition that he restored Irion and Iriok and called off his evil plan, he was bound to renege on his side of the bargain. Then, the whole thing would start over and everything we had been through would have been in vain.
I turned to Cera. "Is there nothing we can do?" I asked, hoping against hope that she might have the answer we all needed to know.
"There is something," she told me. But it's something no Dragon Queen has ever attempted before. I must absorb Malmon's power into the Sapphire . . ."
"Will that work?" This question came from one of the others, but I was too focused on the situation at hand to tell who had spoken.
"I don't know," replied Cera. "And there's a risk that Malmon's power could corrupt the Sapphire."
I looked at Cera, praying with my very soul that she would do the right thing. From what she and Chi had told me, I knew the Sapphire was important, that it was the source of the Dragon Queen's power, and . . . Well, I wouldn't want to risk corrupting something so powerful. However, I could see no other course of action and, judging by the expressions on my companions' faces, they couldn't either.
"If it has to be done, then do it!" I told Cera, all the while wishing there was some other way, something we could do that didn't involve such tremendous risk. But there wasn't.
Cera nodded, slowly and reluctantly, then reverted to human form and stood facing Malmon. As she took up her position, the Sapphire began to glow with a strange intensity.
Malmon gloated at her. "So? The fabled Dragon Queen chooses not to face me in her dragon form? She prefers to adopt a puny human form? Very well, it will make my victory . . ."
"You haven't won yet, Malmon!" Cera retorted. "In fact, I'm going to turn the tables on you . . . now!"
The second she said "now", there was a blinding flash of blue light, so intense that I had to screw my eyes up tight and cover them with my hands. Even then, I could still "see" flashes of blue through my eyelids and I could hear Malmon wailing in anguish. But, unable to open my eyes without being blinded, I had no idea what was happening to him - whatever it was, I felt sure he deserved it.
Presently, the flashes of blue light stopped. I slowly opened my eyes to see all my companions (human and dragon) doing the same. The only difference from a moment ago was the complete absence of Malmon. "Where's . . .?" I started to ask Cera, who was still holding the Sapphire.
"Absorbed into here," she replied. "It seems the Sapphire's power was stronger than I thought - not only did it absorb Malmon's powers, it absorbed Malmon himself. Anyway, he's trapped there for all eternity . . ." She paused, then looked at all of us. "What do we do now?"
I looked at Irion and Iriok, both of whom appeared to be weakened following Malmon's absorbtion, and remembered what Malmon had said minutes before. "First of all, restore Irion and Iriok to their true bodies . . ."
As the blinding lights faded, Iriok dropped to her knees, her heart ceasing its heavy rhythm.
I was also feeling the weakening effects of Malmon's lost magic, as well as the defeat of my sibling. With what strength I had, I gave a hideous roar and flung myself at the Dragon Queen. She was knocked backward, but I had missed truly hurting her. Dragons all along the corridors began to screech out.
The healing spells Malmon had placed upon them now faded and the decay their bodies had been sheltered from now resumed. The black scales literally fell from their bodies to reveal mangled colors. Blood and ooze drained down their arms. I was no exception. Iriok remained slumped against the stone pillar, her eyes glossing over from death. My scales began to drop away, revealing white scales beneath. My wings lay along the floor, seemingly broken.
I could see Irion and Iriok literally rotting away before my eyes. Every second counted - if the spell on them was not reversed quickly, both of them were doomed. We had already lost Talmon and I did not want us to lose another member of our party.
"Hurry, Cera!" I called. "I think they're both still alive, but we can't delay!" I glanced from Irion to Iriok and back again, all the while praying that we were not already too late. Malmon's plans had been stopped, but at what price?
Once more, Cera raised the Sapphire. And, as we watched, it began to glow again, seeming to come alive in her hands. Slowly, the room was bathed in blue light as Cera prepared to undo Malmon's last bit of evil magic. Seconds felt like hours and I began to wonder if this would work. Or had absorbing Malmon in some way corrupted the Sapphire's magic?
I voiced these concerns to Chi, who could only shrug since she didn't know the answer herself. "Perhaps, Elendra - we don't know for sure. But it's the only chance Irion and Iriok have . . ."
Then, as I watched, the spectral form of a dragon flew out of Iriok's body and another form, this one resembling a human, flew out of Irion's. They crossed in mid-air, momentarily seeming like some strange dragon/human hybrid, then separated once more and were quickly absorbed into their rightful bodies. The light grew brighter, so bright that Irion and Iriok were briefly obscured from view; when it faded, both of them were sitting on the floor, seemingly restored to full health.
I turned to Cera. "Did you . . .?" I began.
"Restore them? Yes, they are both back in their rightful bodies. And I cast another spell, one which will keep both their souls from being switched again."
I was relieved that Irion and Iriok had been restored without any hitches. But I was also troubled, wondering how we could be sure that Cera wouldn't be damaged in some way from using Malmon's dark magic. "Don't worry," she said, seeing my expression. "Remember, no magic is evil in itself - it's the person who chooses to use magic for evil. As for Malmon, I will make sure he never escapes from the Sapphire for as long as the line of the Dragon Queens continues."
I felt cold, my mind was black and all the pain I had once had was now missing from my mind. I opened my eyes to be faced with a pillar, my head placed on the floor like a wounded animal. "Color . . ." I said softly, my breaths returning to me. My hands flexed stiffly, my muscles seeming unused and strange once again.
"Color, the blend of all. Life," came Iriok's voice inside my head.
"You're still in my mind," I said into my own head.
"'Tis something we will both have to get used to. We are now more than one . . ." Iriok replied as I heard a shift in weight behind me.
"My brother," I whispered as I curled my body in slightly, listening to the Queen's words. "Talmon . . ."
"Irion?" Elondar said softly as he crawled to me.
I shifted my eyes to him, still unmoved upon the floor.
Suddenly there was a cracking noise and a frightening shake. The building was collapsing. "Malmon - he's destroyed the under-caves. Upon his defeat, not only do all we dragons die, but the mountain will bury us."
"No! I don't want to!" I said stubbornly, now saddened at the loss of yet another family member.
"Irion, without you, I die. Without me, you die. You cannot linger, none of you can," Iriok said, staring at the humans. "Are you deaf?! Move!" she said, before swatting my body toward the opening, picking me up and flying off into the horizon. Elondar had grabbed hold of the massive white dragon's leg.
I stood dumbstruck as Iriok, now restored to what Cera said was her true form, scooped up Irion and flew towards the exit, with Elondar clinging to the dragon's leg. But I did not have time to wonder what this turn of events meant, for the building had started shaking violently.
"What's going on?!" I shouted, struggling to maintain my balance as the floor shook beneath me.
"The Ignile Mountains are erupting!" Cera shouted. "Malmon cast a spell over this region to keep the volcanoes dormant. Now, with him gone, they have awoken! We must get out of here!"
"But what about Irion and Elondar?" I asked.
"There's no time to worry about them!" It was Toran who spoke this time. I figured he could probably use his powers to hold back the volcano for a while, but there was no way he (or any of us) could do so indefinitely. That was why we elected to flee.
Cera transformed into her magnificent dragon form, bending down to allow those of us without our own means of flight (Chi, Evora and Dria) to mount her back; Chi still held Doma in her arms. Meanwhile, Lynn mounted her dousha, Briar, while Toran activated the magical hammer that allowed him to take flight. Finally, I assumed the form of a golden eagle and took to the air, with the rest of our dragons flying behind me.
As we all flew through the exit and out into the open, we heard the rumbling of erupting volcanoes behind us.
As we left the Ignile Mountains behind us, we came upon an astounding sight; an entire contingent of Old Blood dragons was flying towards us. Mala Shea was at their head, looking as majestic as I remembered her. But even she looked like a common dragon when compared to Cera's dragon form.
Then, Mala Shea "said" these words into our minds: "It is done."
I slumped against the rocks Iriok had placed me at and stared over at my dragon counterparts.
"Irion?" Elondar said. He had dropped onto the rock face once Iriok landed. He crawled up to me, though I sat slumped in my depression.
"Iriok!" called Mala Shea, though the white dragon merely glanced at her for a moment before taking a few steps back on the solid flat rock face.
"Iri, c'mon! We gotta go home," Elondar said, grabbing my shoulder.
"She's going nowhere with you, human!" Iriok said as she glanced back at him. She watched as the massive Dragons landed all along the mountain, growling, roaring with a scary brilliance.
"Iriok!" Mala Shea called again. "You, beast, should be destroyed for all your treason! You should have been left to die among the rotting corpses of Malmon's troop! How dare you take advantage of the Dragon Queen and the human's strength?!"
"If you wish me dead, Mala Shea, simply reach out your fangs and strike me down. You know how - you did it to my mother, my sister and my uncle. Why Should it stop you now?!" Iriok threatened. "That's right, because I have the Stone of Light hidden within my breast and, without this stone, the Dragon Queen's bloodline wouldn't be passed, would it? So easily the corruption of dragons is made . . ."
"You were Malmon's pawn and all of Draconia has suffered for it!" Mala Shea said as she snapped forward and clawed a bit of Iriok's neck. "Thanks to you, these humans no longer have a home to return to. Their families are destroyed and the rotting dragon stench can be smelled for miles! And, to boot, you demonized a human into a dragon body!"
"Realize what you have said, Mala Shea," Cera's cool voice said to us all. "Kill an element, kill a god. The human Irion could hear nothing but this when she was Iriok. Both human and dragon have memories, experiences and, unfortunately, the connection of soul. The human and Dragon are bound in Fate from now on. Humans . . ."
"That's not true!" Elondar yelled out, pointing his finger at me. "Rohon sent us out to leave Brelhan defenseless! What's the point?!"
"Silence, human!" Mala Shea ordered with a harsh growl.
"Enough!" Cera snapped as she looked at us.
"Nothing will be the same after this," Toran said coldly. "Without the Academy . . ."
"Then, where will we go from here?" asked a brown dragon at the back.
We had come across Irion and Iriok at the Old Bloods' camp and Mala Shea had filled us in on what had been happening. Apparently, that scene Malmon had shown us of Brelhan under attack from his dragons was not a glimpse of the future, but of what was then the present; it had been happening even as we were plotting how to bring about his downfall.
So it was all over, I reflected. We had beaten Malmon, but we hadn't won. For, even though his dragons had ceased their assault the moment Cera absorbed him into the Sapphire, the damage had been done. Draconia was in ruins and we had nowhere to go back to.
Then, when the brown dragon asked where we would go from here, everyone (humans and dragons) turned to Cera, hoping she, as the Dragon Queen, would have the answer. But she shook her head. "Even I cannot restore a life once it has been lost," she told us. "And many lives were lost to Malmon's dragons . . ."
She paused and we all sat in silence, each of us thinking how hopeless it was. Or was it? Surely, I thought, some people and dragons must have escaped Malmon's attack. It was a long shot, but we could not give up hope that there were at least some survivors. And those survivors would be the ones who would rebuild our world, create a new Draconia out of the ruins of the old. "What about those who survived?" I asked.
The others looked at me for a moment. Then, Toran spoke. "Elendra's right - there are bound to be some who escaped."
"But where do we look for them?" asked Lynn. "Draconia's a large place and . . ."
"I will find them," Mala Shea said into our heads. "I and the rest of the Old Bloods."
"And I'll see to it that Malmon never breaks out of his prison," added Cera. "The Sapphire will be buried and its location shall be a secret known only to me."
I looked at her in surprise. "But the Sapphire is your emblem!" I protested. "You can't get rid of it!"
Cera dropped her head to Elendra's level and gently shook her head. "It is merely an emblem. I cannot destroy it, but I can bury it. The creatures of the mountain will guard it until Malmon finally perishes within the orb - only them will it return to my possession," She said with a hint of motherly charm. "With each passing day, Malmon dies within the abyss; we will all do well to remember his deeds, both horrible and honorable."
She brought her head up as the others began to chat and disband for the night's rest. They were to start their search for survivors in the morning.
Cera then looked at me. I stook with my wings held slightly open, the stance of a fighting dragon. Dried blood stained the white scales along my neck, as Cera found my eye unmoved from Mala Shea's.
"Iriok, I want a word with you," Cera said as she turned to move away from the group, to a mostly secluded area. Cera was bigger than me, so, reluctantly, I followed her command.
I, on the other hand, had disappeared from the group, hiding myself within a tree limb, ironically close to where Cera brought Iriok.
Cera growled softly, apparently spilling forth a chosen line of lectures Iriok was forced to listen to. After a while Iriok growled and took a few steps closer to Cera, hissing. I felt as if she knew exactly what they were saying, why they hated one another so much . . . Suddenly, Cera jabbed forward, caught Iriok by the muscle of her chest and brought her to the ground. Iriok gave our a roar and began to claw and bite at Cera's neck with no luck.
"Stop it!" I said as I jumped from the tree onto Cera's massive pumping chest. I drew my sword and held it behind Cera's head. "Dragon Queen or not, it does not make you an executioner!"
Iriok's eyes fell on me, then looked to Cera, who released her grasp. "You should not be involved," she said coldly, dropping me to the ground with a sickening thud. "Is this what the Dragon Queen is?! Or is this the corruption of black malice over your soul?! The rightful Dragon Queen should have been the other child, you are nothing!" Iriok stood and limped forward, picking me up and placing me on the crook between her shoulder blades.
"Neither of you should have lived through any of that; your family should have been wiped with the death of your mother," Cera said.
"My mother?" I asked.
"She was the first human to die from the dragon's sickness. You have both the infection and the immunity - Malmon did as well. Neither of you were suppose to live, but the Dousha dragons you raised gave you the immunity. As of now, you both are banished from Draconia. The black heart your brother had still linger in both of you. You cannot be trusted," Cera said as she walked from us.
I could hardly believe what I had just heard, Cera exiling Irion and Iriok from Draconia because of the danger they posed if they were allowed to stay. I suppose, after all the trouble Malmon had put us through, I could hardly blame her for wanting his family line wiped out. But was any of this really Irion's fault? Had she asked to be Malmon's sister?
I put these questions to Cera, but she shook her head. "Irion is an Ambiguous, one who possesses dark magic and could potentially use it for evil," she explained. Then, seeing the blank look on my face, she continued. "You know no magic is evil in itself? Your friend, Evora - she has dark magic but is aligned with good. With Irion, her family background makes the situation more complex; few of her line who possessed dark magic did not pursue the side of evil. And, though she travelled with you and the others from Brelhan, I was never entirely sure of her motives - I kept quiet because I didn't want to worry you. But, now, I can't take chances."
She turned to Irion and Iriok. "You must go now," she told them. "You must both be out of Draconia by sunset. Irion, I cannot tell you which side to take in the battle between good and evil - that is your choice alone. But, should you choose to renounce your brother's evil, there is a chance that you may return."
With that, Iriok, with Irion mounted on her back, took off into the air and flew off into the distance, heading for the wild uncharted lands that marked Draconia's borders. My companions and I watched them go, each of us wondering if we would ever see them again. It seemed a harsh penalty, but maybe it was for the best. Maybe Draconia would have a better chance of recovering from Malmon's evil if the last member of his family line left our land - at least until she had time to decide once and for all where her allegiences lay. And I think Irion thought so too; that's why she left without saying anything.
So it was over. But what would happen to those of us who remained?
This question - which none of us asked out loud, although we all longed to do so - was presently answered by Mala Shea. "You must now rebuild this land," she told us. "You and the other survivors. Then, one day, Draconia will flourish anew."
I looked across at my companions - Chi, Evora, Lynn, Toran, Dria and Elondar - six out of the seven people who had travelled from Brelhan with me. Our dragons were nearby, mixing freely with Mala Shea's followers. We had been through so much together and, now, we faced the task of rebuilding our shattered land. I nodded decisively. "We'll begin tomorrow," I said.
Beside me, Elondar also nodded. "Yes. Tomorrow."