By : Stewart Alasdair MacDonald

Chapter One

The Madness of Savle

The clouds where nothing to him. He pushed them aside, so much more powerful than they. His lithe body could slice them like his talons could slice meat. His fevered mind wondered if he could shape them, carve these pathetic wisps into whatever he desired. Tapestries of violence... Murals of massacre. Who could stop him?! Who else could follow him here, who could match his speed? His brethren? Ha! The others were weak. They would be fighting him only for justice. Savle had a deadlier weapon.

His madness.

He knew he must be mad. The sickly sweet voice assailed him day by day, guiding his every bloody move and even predicting outcomes to his atrocities. From a disjointed perception he watched, almost in boredom as houses were torched before him, and their screaming denizens sizzled and writhed so nicely. At first he followed just to appease the dark voice... Perhaps hoping it would go away. But now, the disjointed feeling had increased, and he found himself only watching after time, and with this disassociation came accepting, and even enjoying the violence, as children in our world will become numb to the violence and materialism of the media.

Another cloud was sliced in twain by the streamlined body of the silver dragon, cleaved in half like a a torso from it's legs. It was then a sudden and very certain epiphany struck the great beast. He was bored. The voice agreed, rather joyously. The transport procession had been fun. An entire convoy of religious pilgrims on their way to Zeideroth for the funeral of the King! My, my! How he had pleased the voice by melting their flesh and crunching their bones between his teeth!

His attack had been so fast that they only began attacking as the third last wagon burned, but their arrows and spells did not account for the Voice. It simply spoke, telling him which way to weave and when to use his flame. Nothing stopped them. Savle often wondered why those he once knew feared going mad. It was almost a supernatural ability, no? The loss of shame... This foresight! His eyes scanned the dotting of houses below, waiting for the voice to choose a target.

When the voice shrieked laughter, Savle studied the house he had been looking at, and the lone man striding to a feeble wooden structure. With no further thought (Not that what ran through the dragon's mind could really be considered thought) he dipped toward it; flames in his gullet, ice in his gaze, and madness on his side.

As the clouds had meant nothing to the wyrm, the world meant nothing to Zeck. Not the somehow painful rain beating upon his prone form... Not the grass in which he and Taisha had frolicked in not days ago; the grass which now seemed to pierce him like a million tiny swords. Not even the wind, which now ripped at him like a banshee, intent upon devouring his flesh and soul. Zeck Liotis was tempted to lay there forever. There was a strange comfort in the obliviousness, a comfort that was gradually dispelling the longer he was conscious.

Finally, a passing chicken, sections of feather burnt clear off, clucked apathetically in Zeck's ear, dispelling his inner peace.. It was wrong. What was? Everything. He attempted to move then, and got about halfway before searing pain, both physical and mental, slammed him back down into the mire. Mire, his traitor mind informed him, like a weaselly acquaintance telling you things you really didn't want to know, that had once been wood flooring. Wooden planks and tools dug painfully into him, and he both smelled and tasted blood. Zeck didn't need to have proper schooling to know that it was his own.

Still mostly detached from the events around him, Zeck lay a moment longer, before his sheer will forced him into action. He rolled onto his stomach and tried to push himself up. His eyes stared with disbelief at the puddle of mud, splinters and vermilion he was laying in. More pain raced through him, and he now saw why. Splinters jutted from his bare arms and rivulets of crimson ran from these wounds and joined the muck below. Other, larger splinters had pierced his calf, shoulder and stomach. The largest of these was almost 8 inches long, and some were burnt.

Zeck payed them attention for only a second. His eyes studied the cuts and then rested upon the bright silver of a nail, jutting at an awkward angle from his bicep. This simple tool seemed to drain what blood remained in Zeck's face, and instead of falling down from this apparent shock, Zeck stood convulsively. Bits and pieces were returning. "Taisha!?" He screamed. A hideous and broken sound, that was not entirely expecting a response. He staggered between smoking beams and a broken pillar that may have once been a chimney before realizing that this clearing of ruin had once been his home. Where he had regained consciousness had been his woodshed.

Only two of the chickens still strutted about the yard. Both hens. Useless for anything but food now, but miraculous in their survival. Not that they noticed. They moved about, clucking lowly and pecking the ground as they had always done. Despite their stupidity, Zeck didn't think he would kill these chickens. If the dragon hadn't been able to do it, he doubted it was yet their time. He realized then how swiftly his own mind was negating his surroundings. With a low moan, Zeck again began to move forward, and not even tripping over a foundation and shredding his shin kept him down this time.

His shoes began to fill up with blood, and the front of his pants was soon matted. Another deep wound must have been inflicted upon him somewhere, but Zeck did not notice. He noticed the things which were strewn about the ground. Things he once knew well that now only served the purpose of burning and crackling at his feet. Here was a night-table he had received from the men at the docks... Only one of it's drawers remained partially intact. Here was their bed, (Mercifully free of Taisha) a beam crushing it and both burning furiously. The bed where he had lain awake with her so many nights, even before they had left Port City and came to the quiet Aeth countryside. Her knitting lay beside it.

Zeck had loved teasing her about her hobby. "You were a housewife before I even married you." Zeck whispered into her hair the night of their union, as they both lay spent and barely conscious. He had been swatted, but was satisfied with his remark and did not fail to use it again whenever possible. He lurched dangerously from blood-loss, but the farmer did not notice, he simply stared around in bewilderment. There was his wagon... In flames and mostly gone. His breath hitched and his eyes watered as he saw his single horse, Dawnstar, laying with his intestines pooled around him and his flesh seared and mangled.

What in the God's names had happened here? All the facts and stories about dragons that had been told to him on the knee of his dead father seemed meaningless now. Hadn't the sight of a dragon's shimmering body in the sky been a sign of fortune since the dawn of civilization? Were not dragons beings of peace, wisdom and nobility? Yet still that creature had descended and rained death from above! Zeck decided it was time to find some help. He turned and began to limp towards the road, when the site of a small pack caught his eyes.

But a pack of what? Judging from the crimson spatter, it did not appear to be tools. He remembered a trip into town not days ago. He had bought an irrigation system for the garden and Taisha had bought groceries, clothes, and a new bonnet. Money was tight, but they were young, and felt the need to treat themselves. He saw the same designs on the horrible little bundle that had been on that bonnet. Green vine on white (And now vermilion) cloth. Even as the thoughts began to enter his brain, Zeck stumbled on. He already knew what he would find before he dropped to his knees and turned it over.

The severed head of his only love stared back at him; her sea-green eyes dull and filled with rainwater, and her beautiful, cascading brown hair slimed with mud and gore. Her face had been left perfectly recognizable and untouched, and this was the hardest blow of all. She seemed almost to be sleeping, had the rest of her body not been absent. He half whirled, half fell away, and the vomit he had been keeping down the entire time jumped from his throat and spattered the sodden ground, and his retching was a gurgling cry. The thunder that boomed over the hills could not even come close to drowning out the anguished and heartbroken screams of the young farmer, and premature widower in a marriage that had only come into existence two weeks ago.

He tossed himself in the muck, his screams never ceasing and his weakened state forgotten. His fists bashed the earth, ignoring rocks and splinters even as they split his knuckles. All he knew was his loss, his sorrow... And his rage. And in the grip of this frenzy, Zeck's fist pounded against something that was not earth, and nor was it a rock or a splinter. The cold steel was so alien to his hands that he did notice it's touch, if not the damage it had inflicted to his phalanges.

Through eyes clouded by rain and tears, Zeck made out the revolver. It had been a gift not from Taisha's rich father, but from his mother, now so taken by Memory-Rot that she scarcely knew her own name. But when he had visited her before his wedding day, she had known him. Her usually absent eyes had found his the second Zeck had entered the room, and his shock at seeing her lucid stopped him and his greeting in their tracks. He had intended to assume the identity of a message carrier who had bumbled into the wrong room. It was usually the only way he could strike up a conversation with her.

But the facade never took form."My little boy." She had cooed, her eyes glittering not only with love but with something even more crucial. Recognition. Every time in the last two years he had visited the asylum in Port City, she had been disjointed. Sometimes thinking him an attendant, other times becoming afraid and calling for one.

"Mere." He had managed, and he was at her side. She was not old. Only forty three summers had she seen, but the Mind-Rot could be cruel. It's hold was useless that day though.

"For once." She laughed. "What brings you to this horrible place, Zeck? Surely not to visit the likes of me."

"Of course that's why I'm here, Mere." He said, and hugged her tightly. "And it is not so horrible. I envy you, in fact. How long since we have set foot in a room like this one? Never mind lived in it."

She laughed hollowly. "Too true, son. And I guess it is not entirely bad, if you tune out the lunatics and the smug attendants." She exhaled in frustration. "I swear some of them only are present here to assure themselves of their superiority over us ailed." She eyed him and his radiant smile. "Why so cheerful Zeck? Surely your Mere cannot bring you such joy."

"Of course you do Mere!" Zeck scoffed, but her raised eyebrows told him that she knew better. Nothing escaped her, so he came out with it. "I am to be married tomorrow. To Taisha."

"Dorian's girl?" Aless Liotis smiled radiantly and clapped her hands together, remembering not just her son, but the radiant girl she had known through her frequenting of Dorian Melad's stall in the market. Information Zeck had never expected her to know. "She's beautiful, Zeck. Whatever world he inhabits now, Ziam is proud of you."

"A thousand thanks, Mere. I was worried..."

"Rightfully so." Aless said, with more bitterness in her voice than Zeck had ever heard her use. "I am cursed Zeck. Not for the disease but for the moments when it leaves me, and I am aware of it's existence. Though this is certainly a splendid one of those moments." She stood, and made her way with a confident stride to her wardrobe, locked tight by the attendants so that she could not injure herself with it's contents. She withdrew a small clip from her hair and picked the lock in seconds. From it's depths she withdrew a box; painstakingly carved from ek.

She returned it to the dumbfounded Zeck. Not in years had she been this present. Even previous lucid moments, witnessed by the Keepers and attendants, had only lasted seconds or minutes. "What is it, Mere?"

"The gift your father would have given you." Aless spoke and returned to her seat. She stared longingly out the window, and whether she was yearning the fresh air or her husband, Zeck did not claim to know. He opened it and gaped. The magnificent revolver was probably worth more than his farm. "It was one of the first made, but by far the most unique. It's handle is darkwood. I'm not sure if you know, Zeck, but darkwood trees are the arboreal equivalent of a Shaded. They contain Magirust, and are sacred trees. This gun was forged by Shaded, the only one to be done so. Your father got it from Mt. Shade."

"Pere was on Mt. Shade? But I thought he was a fisherman?" Zeck held the gun in his hands, and found he could see his face in it's cylinder.

"What are you asking me for?" Aless whirled on him, her gray eyes mistrustful, and with a broken heart Zeck knew the Memory-Rot was back. "I don't know your Pere! Whoever he is, he most certainly wouldn't want you threatening me with that weapon! Get out!"

Zeck nodded, feeling very heavy. "You are beloved to me Mere. Live well." He had whispered, and received a vicious scratch for his quick attempt to kiss her head. That had been the worst pain Zeck had felt in his life. Until this day. And now, robbed of not only his father and mother but his beloved Taisha... These thoughts ripped into him at once as he held the gun... A memoir of all three of them now. Clutching the revolver, Zeck curled up beside the last shred of his beloved and screamed himself into oblivion.

Jerod Ambrose had not known what to expect at the Liotis farm, but it was not the heart-wrenching sight that greeted him. It had been hours since anyone could gather up the courage to leave their homes, but finally Jared had gone. If there was a chance his younger neighbors were alive, he was willing to risk the dragon's wrath to save them. It took more persuading to rally his father to this cause, but it was done. Both would rather have endured the flames than see what he saw.

Zeck lay shaking and sobbing, running his hands through his wife's hair and clutching an amazingly crafted revolver a little too close to his head for Jerod to be comfortable with. Struck with both pity and horror at the scene, Jerod stood for a few minutes before looking back at his father, totally at a loss on how to continue.

"Well get the poor wretch, boy!" Danyul Ambrose crowed from the safety of the dirt road. Persuaded to go as far he had, there was no way the old man was going on that property. Zeck made no indication of noticing either of them, even as Jerod obeyed his father and knelt beside him, his gut clenching at his proximity to the severed head of a woman they had met and dined with not days ago.

"You'll want to come back now, Zeck." Jerod said softly and slowly, as he always spoke. He held words in high regard, like his garden, and he believed they must be carefully considered and tended before use. "You can't be out here any longer."

"I only want her." Zeck whispered, his vocal chords raw from his constant screams. "Please go."

Jerod was not a stupid man, and he knew that leaving Zeck out here with only death as his company was unhealthy. "Very well Zeck. I will go." Zeck nodded to him and had already begun to forget he existed when the larger man gently took hold of his wrists and removed his hands from the head. Zeck had only time to cast him a baleful glance before Jerod tugged him to his feet and tossed him over his shoulders. "However, you will go with me."

Zeck made as if to resist, but instead, with all the energy and will drained from him, he drifted into darkness, but the dreams that came to him offered no comfort. Because they were not dreams, but memories.

Zeck slipped out of bed silently. In only the three weeks that he he had been sharing Taisha's bed, he thought he had become quite good at this. She was a light sleeper, so his slightest movements momentarily roused her, and she would groan in distress and Zeck would feel like a world champion ass. He would smile shamefacedly at her as she turned her groggy eyes to him, and she would smirk, and either just turn around, or swat him playfully and then turn around to drift back into angelic sleep.

Now he didn't even stir her. He gazed lovingly at the soft and pale skin of her back before turning to find some clothes in the early morning darkness. Zeck had gotten pretty good at completing this task quietly, as well. It was done in minutes. Some work trousers and an older shirt served him well for the day. The chickens may have some eggs for him, and depending on whether or not Taisha's garden was ready, a wagon ride might be in order, and some income might flow into their hands.

Quality produce fetched a high price at the Aeth market, where it could not only be sold there, but packaged and shipped to Port City, Zeideroth, Malstriask, and even Goblazea. Farming had always been an integral part of the Terran economy, and Zeck felt quite good about abandoning life as a dock-worker in Port City. The city had it's merits, but the rolling hills and endless skyline of northern Terras were more than he could have ever asked for. His own small farm sat on the plateau of a particularly large rise in the land, and he could see the farms and buildings splayed about the countryside for miles. In the evening, he and Taisha would sit upon their front gate and watch the lights of Aeth twinkle on the horizon.

This morning, with the darkness of early dawn obscuring most of his vision, he could see neither of these things, merely the road that connected his farm to the Aeth Way. He believed this road had a name, but he could not recall it. Some sort of tree name, he supposed. Weren't they all? Zeck made his way to the garden first, to check the vegetables that Taisha had painstakingly weeded and tended for the time they had been there. The tomatoes looked to be coming along, but none of the produce was ready yet. He supposed it took quite a bit longer than a couple weeks to grow, but Zeck was new at this. It was Taisha who was the garden expert. Zeck's specialty was the animals.

Zeck knew his share of human evil. His father had been taken from him by a mugger in the dangerous streets of nocturnal Port City, not blocks away from his childhood home. He had been beaten by other children for his poor upbringing. People were cruel, selfish and unpredictable. There was a gentleness and innocence in animals that Zeck had always treasured. A chicken would not cut your throat for a meager satchel of shards. Horses would not stand in a circle around you and laugh as dirt was rubbed in your face. Zeck bonded easily with the animals he had purchased with Taisha's dowry, and it was for this reason that he tended them after the other chores were completed, so that he could spend the extra time pretending to be working while he sat and talked to his charges.

With hope in his mind, he set out towards the small crick that ran at the base of the hill, to bathe and turn on the irrigation. The birds were beginning their songs, and on cue his single rooster strode bravely from the coop and crowed triumphantly to the sky, causing Zeck to tip the bird a wave and a smile. The bird cocked it's head at him questioningly before pecking at the dirt and ignoring the farmer. Zeck shook his head and commenced the day's routine.

Last summer had been dry, according to his neighbors, so Zeck had used his limited, but growing knowledge to rig the system that connected to the stream just past the wood behind the hill. It hadn't been easy, and the project had just been completed days ago. Even after the effort spent, it still wasn't entirely reliable. It only worked twice out of the five times he had tried to use it. The pump by the river was not an expensive one, and as a result it strangely seemed to think that it didn't need to function properly. Most of the time Zeck was forced to beat the pump until either it submitted with a metallic clank or he was forced to bring the water up in pails and feed the plants manually.

The sun had begun to rise as he made his way through the trail he had cut through the wood with his scythe, following the piping, Zeck prayed to Medleose, Goddess of Time, Life and Love that this would not be one of the pumps bad days. He knelt beside the pump, letting the gurgling of the stream quell any frustration before it could form, and turned the faucet. It began to clank rebelliously, and Zeck waited, tense, for the machine to either cooperate or give up the ghost. Then, the hiss of water through the pipes brought a smile to his lips and he pumped his fist in the air. First try. Perhaps the dragoness Medleose had heard him.

He returned to the yard after washing in the crick and was unsurprised to find Taisha seated in the window and looking at the rainbow that now spread over the garden. He had always known when she would be waiting for him. She saw him mount the slope and raised an eyebrow at him, wearing the smile he himself wore, though his was feeble in comparison. Taisha made many things feeble in comparison. "There's something new!" She called to him, swinging her legs coyly. "Not ten minutes you were down there today."

"Yes." Zeck grinned like a child. "Perhaps it's figured out who it's boss is!" She laughed at this, and Zeck felt quite proud.

"Well, hurry and finish up the rest. Bring me some eggs after so I can start your breakfast!" She called and retreated into the window, and he nodded in cheerful acknowledgement. He hadn't noticed how hungry he was, caught up in the chores. He supposed he liked farm work so much because it was the only thing he was good at. He could not do math or manage a business. He could not wield a sword and join the human armies of Malstriask. Him doing magic was a laughable concept, and the idea of being a politician was even more so. What he could do was build, garden, and raise animals, even if his animals were only chickens and a pony as of yet.

Zeck hummed a tune he remembered from Port City, The Ballad of Otharg, supposedly the first dragon man who had ended the Compass Wars by avenging his dead mother with the slaying of Krimsoth, his own father. Zeck didn't quite believe all the glorified battles, and the supposed holy magic of the hero, but he adored the song's tune. It was moving and rhythmic, as well as being lamentive and simultaneously joyous. As he fed, brushed and spoke to Dawnstar, a small but powerful brown pony who drove his wagon for him, he bitterly noticed clouds on the horizon. Of course the pump would work when rain was coming.

He was headed for the chicken coop when the sun blinked. He did not see this, but the light faltered for a moment, and Zeck looked up in confusion. All was as it should be in the sky. He turned his attention back to the coop when it came again, and this time, the shadow stayed. He wheeled and saw a terrible cloud descending on him. Terrible because the glint of the sunlight on silver scales told him that it was no cloud. Ice blue eyes 'neath ridged brows glared with psychotic hate toward the farmer it had never seen before.

Zeck did not know how he could feel the things rage, but he remembered stories of how dragon emotions could manifest in others if the feelings were strong enough. He accepted this as fact now, and he knew the beast meant to murder him. The emotional sharing was the only thing he knew about dragons which proved true in this moment. He had met a few dragons in Port City, and it was worldwide knowledge that dragons were intellectual, calm creatures, with intelligence far surpassing a humans. He saw nothing calm in the crazed eyes of the silver here. Zeck pressed up against the chicken coop door, and the rippling screech of the great winged beast drove him to his knees.

He barely had time to dive to the side as the jaws of the dragon snapped toward him. It bowled through the chicken coop, an explosion of wood and poultry in it's wake. It was not slowed, and pulled out of it's dive-bomb and shot into the air to renew it's assault. Zeck avoided the frantic birds and jumped to his feet, the scream of rage from the dragon meaning it was coming back. He sprinted to the tool-shed, knowing exactly what it was he would grab. He didn't know if it would work or not, but he didn't care. Anything to defend him and Taisha from this winged death.

He heard a sound that chilled his blood as he reached the shed's door; the sound of a door opening behind him. He stopped dead and whirled, his treacherous mind already telling him what was happening. Taisha stood in the dooryard as the light was once again blotted from the sky, her crossbow leveled upwards. Her hair and clothes whipped about as the dragon's wings filled the farm with unnatural wind. Zeck stood dumbfounded, even as the dragon returned toward him, ignorant of Taisha. For now. He only moved when she screamed at him. "Get the damned gun, Zeck! What are you waiting for?!"

His heart aflame with love for his brave beloved, Zeck needed no more encouraging. He tore into the wooden structure and toward the shelves on the west side of the shack. He threw open the ornate ek box and he closed his hands around the smooth grip of the weapon. It was as he turned around that the shed exploded, and he flew backward. He saw silver scales... Cruel, curved talons... Heard it's victory cry, and still airborne, squeezed the trigger. The dragon's scream of pain followed him as the world went black.

Or, more accurately...