Dragonlore

BY : angelofinnocence
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 866
Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VIII, nor any of the characters from the game. I make no profit from the writing of this work of fiction.

Chapter Three: Best Kept Secrets

It didn't take long for Squall to find the dragons and the other rider, making his way through the foliage with the speed of one who had grown up in such terrain. He pulled Seifer away from the loosened grip of Ifrit’s talons and propped the blond head against the remnants of a bedroll before quickly looking over Ifrit for any wounds, finding none, he moved swiftly to heal his own dragon before he could look Seifer over fully. Shiva's damaged wings and ragged back were a horrid sight and he was afraid she'd never fly again if they were left the way they were for any longer. He swallowed as tears slid over his cheeks unnoticed while he touched the battered and bloodied appendages, removing small bits of debris and stones from the wounds. He knelt and placed palms against the earth, calling the water below and pulling it up to bubble between his hands. It took great effort to hold the large amount of water between his hands and he almost lost control of it several times before finally being able to pour it over the wounds, cleaning them with the soothing liquid.

Squall cried as he worked, unable to staunch the flow of tears as he set to healing the worst of the wounds, hands moving with a soft glow and even softer words as magic stitched the torn flesh back together and mended delicate bones and tiny veins until her wings and back were nearly back to their previous beauty, though there would no doubt be scars later.

When he had finished healing her, the brunette made his way over to the other two, repeating the process on both, healing their many light wounds that had not been deemed pressing previously, none of which explained their loss of consciousness. He swayed on his knees as he ran hands over the left side of Seifer's chest, a wave of nausea crashing over him. The darkness that assaulted him there nearly made him pass out. It was a dark magic that had been tied to the blonde rider’s heart, one that Squall was not capable of expelling in his current state, not that he even knew how to perform such a procedure. He'd never finished that part of his education in the Elven lands, too young for it yet. He'd have to ask Seifer about it when he woke later.

With that thought in mind, the elf gave in to fatigue and slid down next to the other man, curling close to his side as he lost his own consciousness, bruised, dirty and covered in the rusty smudges of everyone else’s, but for his own blood.

Ifrit woke first, much to his own regret. One amber eye opened, pupil narrowing to a slit as he took in the surrounding; they were somewhere rocky with trees not too far off around them. Shiva was in a bad way, though it seemed that the worst of it had been healed. More worrisome than the appearance of the beautiful snowy dragon was the absence of Seifer’s presence inside his mind. He knew their hearts had stopped; for a brief moment he had thought they’d died. But no, there was far too much pain for them to be lost in the great ether. Shiva had managed to land them.

 He wished he could have done something more, taken the brunt of the damage instead of her, but there was nothing for it; there would be scars, but she would heal. He laid his head back down tiredly. The metallic tang of blood lingered in his mouth, though he knew he had not been wounded during the skirmish; it was the product of a cursed wound that his rider carried with him and in turn it echoed within him through their shared bond. He hesitated in his musings; Squall and Shiva would want to know what had happened, what had caused them to faint so suddenly when they’d only received minor wounds from the small battle. He sighed inwardly. It was an old war wound; the use of magic aggravated it. He had naught the desire to tell the too-trusting pair that it had been given to them by the Dragonskeep. The old hag of an elder had laid the curse upon them, a small price to pay in exchange for their lives.

Ifrit attempted to stand, but his limbs were still too weak, heavy with lethargy and the lingering ache from the curse. The dark scaled dragon shuddered before simply laying back down, unable to muster the energy needed to move. He concentrated on his rider, feeling the tendril of Seifer’s consciousness dimly beyond the haze of pain that he had not felt upon waking. His rider was still alive at least. For now, just that was enough.

Seifer woke suddenly; his body felt as though Ifrit had rolled over him in the night. He was not sure the time of day, nor exactly where they were. He opened a hazy emerald eye warily, looking down at himself as best he could without moving too much, noting first and foremost that the effeminate elf boy was sleeping curled next to him, pressed warmly against his side. The bolt he’d taken to his shoulder was now just a bandage spotted with remnants of blood and surprisingly very little pain radiating from it hat should have been a much worse sting than the dull ache that remained, but aside from that one wound, there was little else to cause discomfort. The damage was a product of the curse he bore. He swore he could feel it sitting in his chest, waiting and watching. If he imagined prodding it, he could almost feel it shifting, tightening its grip on his heart defensively.

Bruised, but far from broken, he sat up briskly, fighting back a groan as the swift movement made his head swim. In a better way than the dragons, he eased himself away from Squall, standing and wincing, but refusing to give in to the tiresome pain. Uneasily, he staggered towards the pale dragon, inspecting the damage. She had taken the brunt of the fall, but it was clear that the elf had healed the worst of it, remarkable, it seemed Squall had healed them all before succumbing to his own fatigue. Even with the healing, it would be at least a week before any of them were ready to fly. He gave a mental wince, a pang of guilt reminding him that he had been the cause of this mess. Moving on slowly, Seifer walked back over to his own dragon. Ifrit was awake, though he barely cracked one eye upon the tall blonde’s approach. He placed a dirty hand on the huge reptile’s side. Neither of them spoke, Ifrit projecting a distinct air of silence as the dark amber of that one eye bore into his rider.

There were no words that would be adequate for any sort of apology and even if there were, it was years too late. Seifer gave a bare nod and turned away, limping towards the tattered gear bags near the dragon’s backside. With the slowness of an old man, he pulled what little remaining supplies they had out from the torn packs. They would need to eat once they’d all woken and since he was awake, he might as well get something prepared with what meager rations they still had. Maybe once he ate, he’d be able to help with any more healing. He crouched down next to the gear, leaning heavily against Ifrit’s side, and with the gear only half removed, he fell asleep before he could protest against his fatigue.

Squall woke with a start from a nightmare he couldn't recall upon waking. He was immediately aware of the other rider's disappearance from his side. He sat up with a soft groan as pain throbbed in his head and body. A magic hangover... He'd used so much of his magic the day before, he doubted he’d be able to do anything more than lift a pebble for a few days. He rubbed his eyes with the fingers of one hand, running a hand through his no longer bound hair, the bandana long gone in the skirmish the day before. He sighed heavily before forcing himself to stand, body protesting every movement he made vehemently. He checked on his still slumbering dragon before doing anything else, rubbing his palms over the soft scales of her nose as he sang a soft lullaby in elven to her in her dreaming mind, keeping her dreams pure and her slumber from being restless as her body recuperated.

After he had checked the albino dragon over, Squall made his way to the other, finding Seifer slumped there, propped up against Ifrit’s dark hide, bags half unpacked. The brunette smiled in spite of himself; the sight was too ridiculous. The other man was stubborn and had obviously been trying to do more than his body would allow before he'd simply nodded off, unable to finish unpacking. He shook his head, not waking Seifer before he went in search of wood suitable to build a fire.

Half an hour passed before he returned with decent wood and began preparing a fire that they could cook on. He hummed quietly to himself as he worked to light the mostly dried wood.

The soft sounds of the crackling fire woke Seifer once more. He gave himself a shake, urging himself into wakefulness before picking up the meager supplies he’d been attempting to retrieve before his impromptu nap. They would have to hunt and hunt enough to feed two dragons at that. He slumped down in tired defeat before rallying himself together once more, dragging the supplies he needed to make some poor excuse for soup over to the warm flames. Ifrit continued to remain silent, all but ignoring the tall blonde. Seifer gave a soft sigh, pulling out a soot caked pot and throwing a few cubes of stew stock into it that would maket eventual soup bitter and unpalatable, but good enough to feed an army.

 

"I-is there any water?" he managed to choke out, feeling as though his throat had been sanded raw.

Squall had yet to say anything to the other rider even after Seifer had come to sit at the fire and begin preparing some soup. At the other man's question, he jolted as if he had been in some kind of trance prior to hearing Seifer's voice. He'd been lost in his thoughts, many connections being made and questions forming in the aftermath of his discoveries the day before. He picked up one of the surviving canteens from where it sat on the ground next to him, having filled it in a stream he'd come across when searching for the wood and handed the nearly full container of water to the other man. He hesitated to ask about the strange magic residing inside of the older rider, curious and concerned, but apprehensive about what the others reaction might be.

"I will set traps for rabbits. Stay here," Squall stated brusquely, standing gingerly, his voice tired, "Please," he added as an afterthought, feeling odd about ordering the older rider to do anything. He didn't want Seifer to strain himself any more than he already had. The elf was exhausted and sore, but he could manage setting some traps and perhaps catching some fish in a net from the stream. They’d need more than soup to feed themselves and their dragons.

The softly spoken order gave Seifer pause, surprised that the boy had given him a command in the first place. He hid a small smile behind one large tanned hand, feigning rubbing his stubble covered chin and sitting down to tend to the fire, giving a bare nod of acknowledgement. "We'll need bigger game for them," he spoke in quiet tones, almost too quiet to be audible as if he were speaking to himself and not Squall. The last time they’d been this bad off, he’d had to spend a majority of his time just hunting for his companion and the rest he’d spent bringing it back to camp. He didn’t think that he’d be of much help to the young elf in his current state. He shook his head, finding it hard to concentrate. Murky green eyes drifted to the flames as he poured the water into the pot mechanically. It was a shame they had not made it to the Dragonskeep; they had a fully stocked pen of beasts for the dragons at the keep and warm beds for recovering too. Feeling drowsy, he shook himself, forcing himself to stay awake in spite of his consuming exhaustion, still struggling to concentrate.

Squall just nodded in response to the blonde’s words and once he was certain that the other man wasn't going to fall head first into the fire, he set off into the forest, making traps for small game from several young saplings and setting a net from his satchel in the stream to catch the fish. While at the river, he collected several small stones and kept them in his palm as he began the long, arduous process of finding larger game for their dragons. He tracked a group of deer to the other side of the foliage and carefully used the smallest threads of magic he could to lift the stones and shoot them with enough force to down the deer, the tiny pebbles lodged within their heads. He swayed, a wave of dizziness threatening to knock him off his feet as the nausea produced from overusing his magic swept over him. Now the tricky part; bringing the meat back. He had to think for several moments, steadying himself on an elderly oak tree as he came up with a way to carry the deer back to the camp.

It took nearly two hours before he’d managed to drag the two smallish deer back to camp on a makeshift stretcher, looking entirely worn. He did not say anything as he left them in between the two dragons and seated himself across from Seifer, slate eyes staring into the flames blankly, too tired to do much else. His body was numb with exhaustion. Perhaps he had been mostly uninjured, but dealing with the others' injuries was taking its toll.

Seifer felt like he should be saying something, as if words were needed somehow; he just wasn’t certain which words he should be saying. He heaved a heavy sigh, carefully rolling his still tender shoulder as his foggy mind tried to piece together something to say to the younger man.

"We’re going to have to spend a week at the least just recovering," he stated finally, unable to endure the silence any longer. He knew that the words were unlikely to be the ones the elf wanted or needed to hear, but it was the best he could muster. He ladled a bowl full of the thickened broth seasoned with herbs and oats and passed it to Squall; clearly the boy would need to recover from the backlash of his magic. Seifer poured himself a bowl of the mixture as well, not bothering with a spoon, instead drinking it straight from the bowl.

The elf took the bowl from the other male gratefully and sipped at the hot broth, undeterred by the bitterness of it, barely tasting it at all as he nodded to Seifer’s statement; it was unnecessary to voice in the first place. There was no way that Squall would make his dragon push herself after she’d sustained such terrible wounds. She had not even regained consciousness yet; there would be no talk of leaving until she was awake and recovered. Ifrit was in no condition for flight either and barely able to stand, Seifer wasn't much better.

There was the lingering feeling in his gut that told Seifer that he should be saying something more to the brunette and fell into an awkward silence for several long moments before he could work out something else to say. "Thank you… For healing us."

Squall looked at the other rider oddly when he expressed his thanks, "You're not," he paused for a moment, debating with himself, "Healed, that is. I couldn't take it out."  His soft voice was weighed down heavily by guilt as he spoke in reference to the darkness still lingering in Seifer's heart.

The warrior was taken aback by the elf’s words, obviously surprised by Squall’s knowledge of his curse. "Oh… No, I suppose you wouldn't be able to," he stated absently, a scarred hand lifting to his chest to rub over the old wound beneath his armour unconsciously. The curse was still there, still wound ever so tightly around his heart, slowly choking the precious organ. "Far as I know, there's only one who can take it out," he shrugged lightly with hollow nonchalance, "Came with the wound. Don't worry about it. So long as I don’t use magic too much, it doesn't usually affect me so badly," he lied.

Though he didn't deny the idea of his own worry verbally, Squall did recoil inwardly. He was worried about it, about Seifer. The consuming darkness that had nearly made him ill was certainly much more powerful than Seifer was trying to make it seem, he knew; He’d felt it crawl through his skin when he’d touched the other man. "I could take it out someday, with the right training. I read about those kinds of curses when I was learning, but it's very advanced. Why? Why do you have it?" pointed ears twitched as Squall spoke, his bowl laying forgotten next to him as he watched the other rider with avid grey-blue eyes.

‘Don't tell them the truth,’ came Ifrit's booming voice across the link Seifer shared with the massive dragon, the intensity behind the words shaking him. Emerald glanced over to the midnight dragon, finding the deep honeyed gaze trained back on him. Seifer cringed inwardly; he had gotten himself into this mess and had dragged Ifrit in along with him. He swallowed roughly, pretending to clear his throat as he considered how to word his reply to the innocent inquiry from the elf.

"I was captured, held in chains; the witch was pissed off at me. The story doesn't go well for me from that point. I don’t remember much of it really," it wasn’t a complete lie, but it wasn’t nearly enough of the truth either. He let his gaze fall, unable to meet Ifrit's intense scrutiny any longer, nor could he bring himself to look at Squall, certain that the boy would see through the poorly veiled words.

The elf stared hard at the other rider even as Seifer refused to meet his eyes. The answer wasn’t nearly good enough and the look the taller man had exchanged with Ifrit was far too suspicious to make Seifer’s words believable. Something about what'd he'd said was off, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly not a full truth. Squall said nothing in reply, deciding not to press it for the moment. The other pair would tell in due time, he was sure. He sighed heavily, turning his gaze back to the fire idly, easily himself to his thoughts once more. Soon enough, Squall was drifting off, slumped down with his back to the log he had been propped against, wisps of white breath appearing and disappearing before his parted lips as sleep overtook him in the cool dusk.

‘They're going to find out sooner or later. They aren't that naïve,’ Seifer spoke brusquely, narrowed gaze shifting to his dragon again now that the elven boy had been taken by his exhaustion.

I would rather later that they find out what we've done,’ Ifrit retorted quickly, oval pupils dilating in the dying light.

‘What I've done. You didn't have a choice,” Seifer corrected, not for the first time.

Semantics. They'll find out eventually, but I would rather they didn’t.’

‘We've already been called by our known title. Squall must know that name, even if he was raised cut off in the elf lands. There’s a bounty on our heads the size of a small kingdom,’ Seifer scoffed with a grim smile. Their king had not taken kindly to their betrayal.

I know,’ Ifrit snapped, but his anger faded as quickly as it’d come, ‘I just... I don't want them to find out, not now. Just keep what we’ve done to yourself for a while longer.’

The dark dragon shifted on the cool earth; it was not comfortable, not nearly warm enough for his tastes, but he was too weak to spit anything let alone flames. Inwardly, he admitted to liking the young ice dragon. She was the only other unbonded he’d ever come across and that knowledge had given birth to a tiny flame of hope within him. He and Seifer had been alone so long, nothing but their curse tying them to life. He dashed away the hopeful musings, lest he be disappointed when the other pair left them in disgust.

I'm sorry,’ Seifer spoke after a long pause, stinging guilt making his throat feel tight. He sat tending the fire and staring into the bright flames as if the dancing light could give him any advice.

What?’ Ifrit’s confusion was clear in his tone. It had been a long time since his rider had last given such a heartfelt apology and the dragon was bewildered as to why Seifer felt the need to voice one now.

I'm the one that keeps dragging you into this shit. It’s never been your choice. It was all my romantic dreams of knighthood that brought this curse upon our heads. You should have-‘

‘Yes. Why is it that I still let you ride me? I should have bitten your legs off when I had the chance,’ Ifrit cut off Seifer’s self-deprecating monologue before it could get too far. The past was the past and nothing could be done to change it. No matter how much they wished for absolution, there was none to be received.

Because I happened to be the only one left, bottom of the barrel mate and you just so happened to be the last egg to hatch. With any luck, might be a new barrel soon,’ Seifer’s tone was steadier when he responded in kind to his dragon’s sarcasm. With the discovery of the white dragon and her rider, there was hope for future riders to be born, perhaps they already were, just waiting to be found and with a new generation of riders, they might just be able to over throw the dark king.

 

Maybe she'll take the curse off now, since we’ve done as she asked. I mean, Shiva- she spits ice. You know the tales,’ Ifrit suggested, his mental voice no more than a hushed whisper.

I know, but I doubt it. She'd rather watch me burn. If it weren't for you, I would have.’ Seifer didn’t want to crush Ifrit’s meager hope for freedom, but he had no delusions about the sorceress who’d cursed their very existence. She would never remove the damned darkness from his heart. No, she’d let it fester and consume him until he was no longer of any use to her or the keep and then, then he’d burn for his sins.

‘Enough. Just go to sleep, we both need it,’ Ifrit chided, laying his head down tiredly on the cold ground, having no desire to listen Seifer’s depressing thoughts on the witch that’d cursed them. Squall had mentioned possibly learning how to remove it himself, perhaps if they could keep the young pair with them for just a while longer, they could be free of it. Without another word, Seifer followed suit, leaning against the dark dragon and slowly closing his eyes, praying for dreamless slumber.

Late into the night, crimson eyes opened and met stormy slate across a feebly smoking bed of coals. The elf had woken abruptly, eyes immediately drawn to his dragon and she was awake. A heavy wave of relief rolled through Squall and he stood on numb legs, stumbling towards Shiva’s prone form awkwardly, his willowy limbs still thick with the remembrance of slumber. He threw his arms around her pale neck as soon as he was close enough and buried his face against cool scales, tears sliding unbidden down his own pale cheeks as he hugged her.

They didn't say anything to one another, merely collecting the comfort they shared in the knowledge that they were both safe. In the morning light, Squall slept tucked against his white dragon's side, Shiva’s head resting in his lap, regardless of how heavy it might be, his hand resting on her forehead, reassured that they were alive.

----

It felt like an eternity that they were stuck on that mountain. It had been a week and a half before they were able to take flight again. The hunting had been unusually good, supply packs filled with hare and venison, smoked fish and wild oats. The riders and dragons finally made their way to the home of their kin, wary of patrols that seemed to travel ever further southward.

 

----

 

"When we get there, just keep quiet, only speak when spoken too. You'll be a legend among the others, but they’ll have to wait. I'll present you to the Elders first thing when we get there," Seifer shouted over the rush of the winds. He had cleaned and polished his armor during the long hours of boredom on the mountain, leaving the leather and metal looking vastly cleaner and much more appropriate for a rider of old; he had even managed to shave. Seifer was almost smiling, glad for the prospect of a cozy bed, warm bath, clean clothes, and hot food. "Just wait ‘til you see the beds," he called to the elf with a roguish grin.

The time spent in the mountains had been both taxing and relaxing for Squall. When he thought about the darkness in the other rider, he became tense and concerned and if he did not think about it, it was easy to fall into the simplicity of the days spent in the scenery and relative serenity of the valley. By the time they left the mountain, he had been more than ready for it, unable to control the restlessness of his mind any longer. Grey-blues turned to Seifer when the broad man called to him over the wind.

"Alright, I'll keep that in mind," the elf replied quietly, voice hardly discernable over the whipping of air, returning the other rider's grin with a small sad smile of his own. He was nervous and apprehensive, depressed at the prospect of leaving the other pair after they had been together for what seemed such a long time. He could feel Shiva’s reluctance to leave their companions as well and it was not helping his resolve in the least. He wasn't sure he even wanted to stay at the keep if Seifer weren’t there. What could they possibly teach him that the other could not? And from what Seifer had just said, wouldn't it be a nuisance for Shiva and himself when all the other riders were bothering them with curiosity rather than teaching them. He’d never asked for fame.

Ifrit glanced towards his snowy counterpart. ‘I…’ he began, apprehensive and nervous, ‘I wanted to thank you. You saved my life and risked losing your wings. I just wanted to tell you that. I don't know if we'll see you again after you begin training.’ There was a hint of sadness in his tone; he had come to enjoy the company of another dragon.

The pale dragon's scarlet gaze settled on Ifrit brightly. ‘There is no need for such thanks. It was well worth it. I could not have left you or yours for dead. Squall would never have forgiven me or himself,’ Shiva paused for a moment, thinking on his other words, an acute sadness filling her before she forced it away instead pushing herself to remain calm, ‘No, we will meet again, I'm sure of it...’ she finished, determination in her words.

Ifrit gave a small almost timid grin in response to her words, hiding the elation he felt upon hearing that she did, in fact, want to see him again. He forced himself to hide the emotions from Seifer as well. A dwarf was less stubborn than his burly rider.

Ifrit arched an eye ridge as he sniffed the air, large nostrils flaring. He caught a whiff of something acrid. It was lost on the breeze as soon as quickly as he scented it. He turned his attention back to his pale counterpart, ‘I certainly hope we do, although, maybe under better circumstances.’ He tried to sound charming, but the abrupt return of the all too familiar scent dragged his attention away from Shiva once more. Something was wrong. His senses screamed a warning in response to the odour on the air, but it was too elusive for him to figure out what it was, so faint upon the breeze. He closed his eyes briefly, concentrating on the smell, pressing his mind to be forthcoming with the answer to what it was, why it was so familiar.

 

Burning.

Dragon burning.

War…

 

His eyes shot open; a sense of dread washed through the bond between him and Seifer.

 

‘The wind, do you smell it?’ the large dragon questioned his rider, a sense of urgency in his voice, the cottony clouds beneath them blocking his vision. Seifer did not respond, but Ifrit could feel his distressed agreement through their link.

 

Seifer and Ifrit spoke at the same time, the order echoing through the minds of their companions, ‘Stay here.’

 

With nary a glance at the other dragon and her rider, they descended beneath the cloud cover, skimming along the bottom in solemn silence. The sight that greeted them chilled the dragon and rider to the bone.

---

 

Seifer's heart stopped beating for several seconds as emerald took in the sight beneath them. The countryside to the east was scorched black in evidence of fires. He could see the war path the army had traveled, leading straight to Dragonskeep. His eyes were wide, jaw clenched so tightly, it ached. A mix of fear and angry resentment boiled inside of him. It was days old; they’d arrived too late. All he could think of was the curse, his curse; it would stay with him forever. A tall pillar of thick, oily smoke curled into the sky in the south east; Dragonskeep. The army's path was long since turned cold, nothing, but dead earth left in its wake. ‘Up’ he whispered towards his dragon, bile rising on the back of his tongue as that one word shifted through their bond.

---

 

Ifrit slowly rose back into the cloud bank next to Shiva and Squall. "This is not good. I think Dragonskeep is under siege," Seifer stated bleakly over the breeze, voice strained; even as he said the words, he knew that they were not true. They were too late. He prayed the keep was just under siege and had not already succumbed to the attacks, but he knew in the twisting of his gut that his prayers were futile. He motioned forward nonetheless and Ifrit flew onward at a quickened pace.

The white dragon and rider hovered in confusion, unsure of what had triggered such a startling response from their companions. Upon hearing the news of the siege on the Dragonskeep, they followed the other two without question. Squall's eyes burned with unshed tears as he looked down upon the ruins and Shiva let out a melancholy trill as they scanned the area below, the smoking remnants of what had once been the great Dragonskeep.

 

‘Do you see any survivors?’ the albino dragon asked Ifrit, following behind him at a slower pace, scarlet gaze scanning the scorched ground intently.

The land was blackened and barren. There were no moving bodies to be seen, only the scorched ruins of stone and the bones of their brethren. ‘It must have been the horde for there to be so much damage and likely several of the cursed king’s riders. Maybe some of ours got away, but if they stayed here...’ Ifrit’s voice was rough with anger and disgust, an underlying tone of hopelessness in his trailing words as he swooped down, landing quickly on the burned, ash-covered earth.

---

 

Seifer dismounted, stilling on his feet in shock and disbelief, still praying that the scene before them and around them was a vivid nightmare. He stood before the still smoldering, crumbled entrance arch, the only remaining piece of the Dragonskeep architecture still remaining mostly standing. He was no longer sure where to go, where to bring his charge, where he might obtain release from the dark magic strangling his heart. He sat down abruptly, slumping onto his knees on the ground. What point was there? There might be survivors, but they would not be able to fight back any longer, their numbers halved at least by the siege.

Shiva had followed after Ifrit, landing next to him on the stained earth. ‘Where would the survivors flee if they escaped?’ she inquired quietly, crimson eyes shifting from the carnage to the dark dragon next to her as Squall dismounted and moved to kneel near Seifer.

‘Anywhere not human. The fall back has always been to flee to the dwarves or the elves, if ever there was a siege and the keep were to fall,’ Ifrit murmured, shuddering as he tried not to think about how many of their allied riders had died. ‘Not many would have escaped,’ he closed his eyes, unable to watch his forlorn rider in the midst of his ruined hope. ‘Maybe we can travel to the other lands, find the survivors.’ It was false hope. He knew in his heart, just as his rider did that they were out of hope, the last of it washed away with the smoke of the destroyed keep, but he could not bring himself to say so to the hopeful dragoness beside him.

 

---

"I'm sorry Seifer," Squall said sincerely, resting a soft, white hand on the other rider's forearm, trying to give the other man some comfort no matter how small. His heart ached seeing the scarred rider's pained expression, the desolateness in it making fresh tears collect in his stormy eyes, but he held them back. It was almost as if he could feel the pain emanating from the other man as he knelt close beside him, waves of echoing through him.

Seifer flinched slightly as the hand touched his forearm, but he did not pull away from the comforting touch of the pale fingers. There weren't even corpses to bury, nothing but ash and blackened bones scattered and already turning to dust. It was just gone, everything was gone. His freedom was gone. The fragile hope to be free of his curse that he had carried for the better part of a century was gone. No matter what happened now, he would die and he would bring Ifrit to hell with him, not on his terms, not even in the glory of battle, but because of some vengeance caused curse and a thrice damned sorceress. Glassy emerald stared blankly at the ashes, running them between his fingers unconsciously for several moments. Slowly, the warmth of those soft, pale fingers wrapped around his forearm brought him back to his senses.

"We need to leave," he stated, but could not find the strength to stand, his body numb. What else was there to do? Where was there to go when any survivors there might have been did not leave a trace to be followed? The mad king had won. Seifer was hated by both sides. There was no more war for him to fight, no reason for him to carry on; nothing was left and he felt empty.

Seeing and feeling the hollowness in the other man's eyes terrified Squall in a way he had never known. "Hey, everything is not ruined. There's still you and I and there are probably some survivors, perhaps scattered on the wind, but still alive. You can't give up here or all those who have died will have done so in vain. All is not lost. The dread king is not invincible and I have a dragon the likes of which he's never seen. You must help me. Seifer please," the elf said seriously, eyes determined and bright with conviction as his grip tightened ever so slightly on Seifer’s arm. He needed the other rider, could not continue without him. He needed the guidance, the training as a rider for both himself and Shiva if they were to have any hope of challenging the king in the future.

---

 

Shiva nodded absently to Ifrit’s words. ‘As long as there are still riders to fight against the tyrant king, there is hope,’ she spoke very softly, her voice solemn and serious, filled with conviction. When she had been born to the elven rider, that hope for a better future had been her belief, had been ingrained her as she had become fond of him, proud of him and protected him and he protected her, had healed her grave wounds at his own expense and she would never give up on him, on the hope that they could win this war. ‘You must've have believed that once...’

Ifrit laid down on the ashen ground, suddenly too tired to remain upright, drained by the roiling emotions flowing within his bond with his rider. Listening to her words struck a chord deep within him. He had believed in hope once, but that was before… He wanted to tell her the truth now, but he knew how she would react. The knowledge he could provide her would shatter whatever bond had been steadily growing between the pair of them. To tell her of the years he and Seifer had spent fighting for the wrong side, following the dark king’s bidding, becoming the Obsidian Knight, ruthless mercenary for hire, employed by the mad king and given the title for his deeds, before being captured by the Rebels and suddenly working for them; it would not be hard for her to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He shook his head. ‘Maybe… Three hundred years is a long time to believe in something so intangible. A lot of time to collect regret, a lot of funerals,’ he spoke softly, wishing he could go back and change what had happened. ‘I'm sorry.’ He looked away, unable to look her in the eyes. ‘I don't know if I am capable of hope anymore.’ Silently, he wished he did not feel he had to lie.

 

‘If you wish for death, then death will come, but doesn't hope make the future a little less bleak. I know you have been alone all this time. I know there are some things you are keeping hidden. I am aware of this, yet I still place my trust in you and your rider. I have staked my own life for you, my wings. I have staked the sky for you and he. If you two become cowards here then lay down and die here in the ashes of the fallen. I was obviously mistaken in whom I thought you to be... Do not waste time on apologies and questions you do not have the answers to. Stop wallowing in your past. It can't be changed, but the future can...’ The albino's crimson eyes sparked with electricity as she spoke her words, almost angry as she said them to the male dragon, fed up with him and his rider's indecision and their helpless whining. It would get them nowhere. ‘You make up your minds here. I won't have him hurt by betrayal. You travel with us or I take my rider and leave you two here. Make the choice...’

She may have been young, but this was a world at war and they were soldiers now. There were no others to take up the fight. Her kin had given her to the elf, had entrusted him for this and they could not fail.

---

 

"Maybe," Seifer spoke softly, voice barely audible even in the desolate quiet. There were still other races, other nations. Maybe they would rally against the Hamar legion. Dwarves cared little for humans, cared little for anything outside of their world of stone and the Elves, lost in their purity and forests; what hope did they have? What choice did they have? He shook his head. "You're right, what choice do we have?" Only his death lay in the direction of this mad hope; at least he could still make that choice.

"There is always a choice Seifer. You don't have to help me, but I feel that if you don't, I will surely fail. What other allies do we have? Let us find them now and rally against the tyrant king," the brunette elf said with a disarming smile, stormy eyes shimmering as he spoke to the other man.

"Look kid, again, my choice boils down to die here or die there. Your path just seems more interesting. So yes, I'll train you. Hell, I'll even fight." Seifer’s words were harder, more confident in the face of Squall’s earnestness. The boy's desperate optimism would get annoying. Still, he may as well take the youth on his quest, more likely another facet of the never-ending war. War he understood; war was simple. It had had been his life for more years than he cared to count, the life of a mercenary, filled with war after war, what was one more battle in the face of the many he’d already seen.

---

The dark dragon could not hide his smirk as Shiva almost growled her words at him. His smirk grew to a grin, before growing further into a hissing laughter. The laughter grew to a loud roar before Ifrit managed to silence himself long enough to speak.

 

‘You're right, young one,’ he managed to respond through his sudden mirth. He was not even sure why he was laughing. He shook his head, trying to regain some semblance of composure.

 

‘Gods it's been so long...’ Ifrit gave a lopsided smile towards Shiva. ‘I've never known one so young to be so... Firey, especially for one who breathes ice,’ he paused briefly, ‘And I do not wallow, I flounder.’ Distantly he felt the roiling anguish and despair settling in Seifer, turning instead to cold resignation and he shook his great head.

The pale dragoness gave Ifrit a toothy grin of her own, dark amusement colouring her own response, ‘There's no difference in my opinion, floundering, wallowing; it's moot. You must stop looking back and turn your gaze forward lest you trip over your own feet. Now if we could only convince your stubborn rider to change his melancholy ways...’ she trailed off, looking at the two riders and sighing. Her own rider was too optimistic for the obstinate man he spoke with, but perhaps someday the warmth of Squall’s hopeful nature would rub off on Seifer, though as he was, it seemed doubtful.

 ‘Three hundred long years of practice makes it hard to change old habits,’ the indigo dragon added, still shaking his head at the sight of his rider accompanied by the stone-like chill that had settled within the tall blond. ‘I’m not sure if he even remembers how to care.’ There was a brief sombreness in Ifrit’s voice before he once again steeled himself; if Seifer could not care than his dragon would just have to care enough for the both of them. Rallying the nations against the mad king under the new leadership of the first rider to be born in three centuries, a terribly young and naïve pair, filled with bright hope and faith, especially faith in he and Seifer; the others would follow, he knew, after all if the boy could convince the dreaded Obsidian Knight to fight for them, surely he could convince the entire world. Shiva would follow her rider, her partner, her faith was not blind, but strong with her hopeful conviction and the knowledge of her own powerful magic. He found he could not let her travel alone, could not bring himself to abandon her, that tiny flame that had ignited upon meeting the newest pair, the innate attraction he had forced to the deepest corners of his mind flared to life once more and even if she never returned the sentiments, he could no longer deny what he longed for from she and her elf, what he would be willing to lose in order to make her dreams for the future a reality. ‘Seifer will fight if I do. I suppose that's good enough for now...’ He gave a curious half-hearted smile; perhaps Seifer would come to care in time. Ifrit knew that buried somewhere within his rider, that same flame, that same attraction was aflame, just carefully hidden away lest it be extinguished entirely; perhaps if they could show him that there was hope yet, he would let himself believe in that little flame. ‘This is going to be a longer ride. We'll have to avoid any lingering Legion Soldiers.’

‘I suppose that's acceptable for now. He has no conviction of his own, but perhaps in time...’ she trailed off quietly almost as if she were speaking to herself and not the dark dragon. She seemed lost in her own thoughts for a time before coming back to herself, belatedly responding to Ifrit’s final words. ‘Hmm, no matter the distance, I will endure. My wings are good as new thanks to Squall's strong healing magic. We can leave immediately,’ she stated before stepping towards her rider with clear purpose, determination swirling in the crimson depths of her eyes.

---

 

"Which direction should we go in?" Squall asked curiously, looking around them in each direction, trying to discern anything on the landscape, though there was nothing of consequence to be seen. He chose not to comment further on the morbidity of Seifer's view of himself and his own fate. It was futile to argue with the other man at this point. He would just have to try and bring out the more tender side of the other rider while they traveled and trained, that is if Seifer even had a tender side...

Seifer motioned vaguely towards the northeast. "Druids would be closest, then we'll find out from there," he intoned idly, distaste evident in his voice.

 

‘She might have escaped, knowing that woman, she likely did,’ Ifrit’s voice whispered in his ear.

 

‘Of course she did. Lady Rinoa would sell her first born to save her own skin, cowardly witch that she is,’ he responded viciously. He might run across her again; he had to believe that she was still alive and would one day remove the damned curse she’d hexed him with from his heart; return him his freedom. And one of them was going to die; it would be her. Seifer would not be caught unawares again. He walked with long strides towards Ifrit, mounting the large dragon’s back swiftly, settling into the well-worn saddle with ease.

Squall nodded his approval of the other man's decision. The druids would be as good an ally as any other, their knowledge of the land and their ability to hear the trees' voices would be an asset. As Shiva came to him, he placed a shaking hand against her nose, a habit he hadn't realized he'd developed to reassure himself. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling his resolve. When he opened his eyes again, his hand no longer shook and his slate eyes held the fire of determination to match that of his pale dragon’s. He mounted the albino dragoness and looked to the other pair to lead the way. "Do you know where to find them?" he questioned idly. Knowing his cousins, they were well hidden away from the human scum and it was doubtful that Seifer knew their exact whereabouts.

"Stand in a forest kickin' trees ‘til one of them hits back," the tall blonde muttered. He held an immense dislike for the druids. They were so wrapped up in their precious nature, oblivious to the plight of the nations around them. "Once we get there, I’m sure they'll find us," he finished. He had met them once before and it had been more than enough for him not to wish a repeat visit. That diplomatic mission had not ended well to say the least. He cracked his neck idly with a soft grunt, shifting the straps and harness of the saddle.

 

"Let's fly," he ordered, giving Ifrit a thump on one scarred shoulder with a large hand. He very much doubted he would be welcomed with open arms from the druids simply because he was human, shudder to think what they might do if they realized just which human he was.

---

 

The indigo dragon stretched his wings wide, shifting on the ashen earth. The down stroke caused a wall of ash to erupt behind him as he pulled himself into the air. Then he was off, taking to the air, circling and heading towards the northeast before climbing up higher into the soot stained clouds. Ifrit dreaded the flight, if only because there would be nowhere to land in the green ocean of the Drudaic forests upon their arrival; he was perhaps as fond of them as his rider.

The Elven youth shook his head, smiling slightly at the obvious contempt Seifer had for his cousins of the north, not that they had any pleasant feelings towards the likes of Seifer himself. It was bound to be a rather interesting affair once they reached the north eastern forests where his distant kin resided. As Shiva took off after the dark dragon and rider, Squall twisted in his seated position a little, shuffling in his newly mended packs, finding that his flute was still tucked into the satchel, safely stored between extra tunics and leather strappings. He smiled to himself, knowing that the slim instrument would certainly come in handy once they arrived in the forests of his kin. Once they were in the Druid village, he would be able to get a new bow and pick up a few other useful items he knew to be there, herbs and the like for cooking and medicinal purposes. He wondered idly if the other rider was aware of the elves' relation to the Druids. It was unlikely considering the secretiveness of both races, the elves and their druid cousins, both of which wanted little to do with the humans in recent centuries.

 

He leaned down, pressing himself flat against Shiva’s broadening back as she increased her speed, following the other pair. She had grown again in the past few weeks, making her a little more than half Ifrit's size. She had told him that she would not grow much passed her current size, though her wingspan might increase several more feet, but it was of no concern, female dragons were not known for their general size, the males more commonly being at least twice the size of an average female or larger. It mattered little to either of them as Shiva was more than capable of holding Squall’s slight weight, his lithe frame easily fitting atop her back.

***Three days into their journey…***

 

Ifrit’s intimidating roar ripped through the skies in response to a number of growling caws sounding in the distance. Seifer watched as three shadows appeared in the clouds around them.

 

‘Dragons are not welcome here and riders even less so,’ one beast cawed as it rose out of the grey clouds, revealing a regal looking eagle head with a horse's body, wings spread wide upon the current of air. ‘We seek none of the wars that follow you.’

 

Seifer spoke first, voice carrying over the soft rush of wind, "We are not dark riders. We bare no ill will."

 

‘We are aware of just whom you are,’ another of the griffins spat derisively, disdain dripping from the simple words.

 

‘It is not you we worry over knight, but the other. The king hunts for you,’ the third great creature spoke, his words directed at Shiva. ‘The white dragon is the one he seeks.’

 

‘The bounty is very high, fit for a small kingdom,’ there was malicious laughter in the voices now, ‘Many are hunting you. Again, you are not welcome here. Go back.’

Shiva hung in the air, listening acutely, curiosity piqued as the griffins spoke harsh words of warning. When they had finished addressing her and Squall, she spoke in return, ‘We mean only to pass through. Will you allow us passage?’

 

There was an audible snort of derision. ‘To what gain?’ the first of the large birdlike creatures asked gruffly, golden eyes trained on the pale dragon as she hovered before them.

 

"The knowledge that when we win this war, you and yours will no longer have need to hide from the dread king's poachers," it was the elf who spoke from his dragon's back in response.

 

The griffins hissed angrily. ‘We do not fear the king!’ they spoke in unison, their synced voices irate with heated denial.

 

‘Is that why the king possesses all the hatchlings and the eggs snatched right from your mountain nesting grounds?’ Shiva asked idly, tone bored as though commenting on the weather. Squall wasn't sure how she had come by such information, but he did not doubt its truth. The king had made it a point to take all things for himself and crush any who refused him.

 

The trio tossed their heads with restless annoyance, unable to deny the opal dragon’s words. ‘Pass then and do not return!’ they commanded, turning away from the group and retreating a ways higher into the cloud cover.

 

Shiva hardly spared the angry beings more than a curt nod of acknowledgement before she jerked her head in the direction their party had been heading before they had been interrupted, her mind churning over the information they had gleaned from the winged creatures. So word had spread to the king about the new rider and his snowy dragon of the ice.

 

TBC…

A/N: Soooo there we have it, the second half of what was original one gigantic chapter now more easily read as two. Hope you all enjoyed it. As always, reviews are welcome.

Until next time,

Xander

 

 



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