The Bonding

by

Richard R. Morrison

 

Prologue

 

The Dark Star sailed the cosmic ocean for untold millennia, from galaxy to galaxy, through seas of darkness and the brilliant explosion of a starburst galaxy.

From the recesses of space, the entity passed between two moons that circled a shadow-filled world. The planet reached out and pulled, sucking it in. The Dark Star entered the atmosphere with a tremendous boom, streaking fire across the sky, then cut a path into stormy clouds, emerging over a wasted, cold land covered in ash. Below, battles raged between armies of creatures bent on destruction and hate.

Emotions of dread, terror, misery, loss, and despair rode the wind. A hunger welled up for these new things, an urge to stop and consume them. Become one with them.

Gravity drew a path between rocky mountain peaks where a battle raged between two creatures, one flying and one on the ground. Fire spewed from the flying creature, and bolts of lightning arced from the other.

There was something different there. The smaller mortal carried something all-encompassing, something strong.

Hope.

Leaving them behind, the fireball blazed a trail through the haze of battle and continued to a wasteland of ice and snow until finally, the dragging force of the planet won out. The Dark Star smote the earth with a ferocity that rocked the entire region, piercing the ice, cutting a path deep into the cobalt-blue cold.

Bitter, morbid thoughts swept back out over the frost and the mountains, in search of the two who battled at the top of the world. The one called Raigar radiated energy. His mind was an open portal.

The man carried a great force within his spirit; a life force pulled from the heart of the planet, fused to his soul, forming something new and powerful.

He fought with desperation.

The dragon, Kalfira, raked its claws across Raigar’s chest. He fell under the monster’s weight. Blood spurted from the tears in his body. Pinned to the rock, at its mercy, he looked up at the creature. Burning saliva dripped between the jagged teeth of a gaping maw.

Kalfira lunged, but Raigar pushed forth the ethereal force within him that carried his essence bathed in the powers of the earth. The magic exploded, enveloping the dragon’s soul, breaking down the barriers that had stopped him from understanding his enemy for so long.

Their hearts became as one, their spirit as one. Dragon and man became one.

The Dark Star was pushed out to its prison in the ice, repulsed by the power of this new union.

Thus was the Bonding forged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

When Dragons Fly

 

 

She flew over the treetops, racing for the edge of a distant cliff; the lush green leaves of a jungle canopy a blurry highway beneath her. The world fell away. Wet, salty air moved over the curves of her body. She shot out over the precipice, a thousand feet over the ocean, the emerald water a placid mirror reflecting the expanse of the crescent red moon that gleamed on the horizon.

An urge to fly lower, to feel the cool touch of the ocean, and then she was plummeting out of control. The wind roared in her ears. The sea rose up to meet her. A scream of terror and exhilaration exploded from out of her thundering chest. At the last second, the world leveled out and she was skimming the surface.

Looking down, she could see a reflection. It wasn’t hers but rather something wonderful and frightening at the same time. It looked like a small dragon. Its body wasn’t long and thin as might be expected but rather short and chubby, with a stubby tail. The thin leathery wings were wide. On the rear legs, sharp, jagged claws swayed to and fro with its wing movements. The arms were shorter, with sharp claws at the end of four thick fingers. A mouth opened, revealing jagged teeth on each side of a long snout. Two nostrils flared with each wing stroke. The muzzle was rounded. Smooth ridges ran up the centre to the top of a curved head. Its magical greenish-blue color shimmered off the surface of the water. Intelligent, huge hazel-green eyes stared back at her, through her.

“Hello,” it said.

Sasha sat bolt upright in bed, breathing heavily. Her nightshirt clung to her back. The blankets hung over the side of the bed. She looked around the room, half-expecting to see the dragon’s eyes staring back at her.

It was quiet. A slight breeze rustled the curtains. The cool air swept over her moist skin, raising goose bumps. She pulled up the covers and lay back down. Her breathing quieted.

The dragon had spoken to her. Those amazing eyes seemed to reach into her soul, to a part of her she never knew existed. It felt so real. Not like most dreams that seem real but tend to evade you more the longer you stay awake. She could still remember every second, still feel her heart jump in her chest when she dove for the water, and the wonder when she looked into those eyes. The creature had been so close, so real. She could have reached out and touched it.

Sasha could remember all the dreams of flying she had been having lately. Sometimes over forests, sometimes over the great Rocky Mountains, but this was the first time she had flown over water and seen the dragon.

All this time, she had thought she was flying, but now she knew that she was looking through the eyes of the dragon. It spoke to her. It seemed to know she was there. It felt so real. She couldn’t wait to tell Amy on the way to school in the morning.

*****

Emm woke with a start and a sense of excitement. She had finally made contact with the visitor, the one with whom she had been sharing her dreams. And the one who yearned to fly as much as she did. She felt her excitement when they dove for the water, and the shock when she looked into her eyes and touched a part of her, made a connection that she knew would last. They had been flying together for weeks now.

All this time, she had thought she felt something, someone, watching her. She had not been able to make the connection. Not until she looked into her own eyes through the reflection in the water did she really come to realize that someone was there, looking back at her.

Now she knew. She knew it was time to stop dreaming of flying. Dreams of flying the skies of Calasia were a common thing, for dragons of fourteen years were not able to fly. Their bodies were not yet fully developed. It was time to join the other young dragons, to start her training. Soon, she would attempt the Fall.

Mother was not rushing her as some did. Others, who had been rushed, had failed in the Fall. Some died, some were crippled, few recovered. Mother had said that she would know when the time was right.

Emm lifted her head from her foreclaws, raised her haunches, and stretched her arms out in front of her, grunting as several ligaments popped into place. Ah, growing pains. She extended her leathery wings to their full width and thrust twice, raising dust that quickly settled back to the stone floor. She pulled them in and shook the sleep out of her head.

A few feet away, her mother’s brilliant emerald-green scales sparkled under the light of the two full moons that graced the skies of Calasia. Stretched out in their alcove, nose tip to tail, she was well over forty feet long. Her neck was craned at an angle as she slept; the folds of her wings wrapped about her like a blanket.

“Mother,” Emm whispered.

Her mother, Jewel, opened one sleepy eye. “Yes, dear?”

“Mother, I was dreaming of flying again,” Emm said.

“Good, dear. How was it?” she asked, closing her eye again.

“It was wonderful, but—”

“But what, dear?”

“But I think there was someone else there,” Emm said.

“Someone else where, dear?”

“In my head, watching.”

Both of Jewel’s yellow eyes snapped wide open. Her wings spread wide, thrusting down, raising her from her bed of sawgrass. She towered over Emm.

“Watching?” Jewel drew near. A puff of smoke escaped her nostrils. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“I could feel someone looking through my eyes, as if they were a part of me. I felt what she felt. I could tell what she wanted me to do. It is hard to find the words, but I feel like she is a part of me,” Emm said.

“How do you know that it is a she?”

“I do not know how, but I do know. I can feel her. Can dreams be that real, Mother?”

“They can certainly feel real, Emm. But this may be something else.”

“What do you mean?”

A crystal tear rolled down the side of Jewel’s snout. Her eyes half-closed. “My dear sweet Emm,” she began, nuzzling Emm. “Is this the first time you have felt the Bonding?”

“The Bonding!” Emm said, jumping back, her claws skidding on the stone. “You think this has something to do with the Bonding?”

“Your father described the same thing to me when he first experienced the Bonding with his Rider. He was much older than you are, though,” Jewel said, looking puzzled.

“No!” Emm cried. She paced back and forth. Her tail traced wide circles in the dust. “It cannot be the Bonding. It was only a dream.”

“I thought you would be pleased,” Jewel said, reaching out to her.

“No. The Bonding is what took Father from us,” Emm shouted. She wanted to spit fire but couldn’t.

“It was the Far Ones that killed your father.”

“He is not dead!”

“He would be here if he were alive. Nothing on Calasia would stop your father from getting to us.”

“I cannot even remember him anymore,” Emm sobbed. All she had now were fleeting memories of greeting her father when he returned from away missions. “I miss him.”

“I miss him too, Emm. He would be so proud that the Bonding has come to you. He would want you to embrace it as he did. It is what made him who he was.”

“Is,” Emm spun around. “What if it is the Bonding? How can I be sure?”

“The next time you dream, and she is there, you must speak to her, to the one you feel is looking through your eyes.”

“I did that, and she left. I could tell she was surprised and frightened.”

“You must convince her, Emm. Tell her of the Bonding.” Jewel snaked down closer to Emm’s face. “If she refuses to believe, the Bonding may be fractured. You may both be lost!”

“Lost?” Emm stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“I can only tell you what your father told me. He once knew of a dragon that refused the Bonding and lost all desire to live. He wandered aimlessly through his life, alone and with no desire to succeed at anything. One day, he left the Hold. He never returned. The same darkness fell to the Rider.”

“That does not mean it will happen to me.” Emm pouted.

“Emm,” Jewel said, looking deep into Emm’s eyes. “If a dragon or a Rider refuses the Bonding, then contact between the two may be severed, and a great sorrow will weigh on their souls. They will feel an emptiness in a part of who they are. They may never be whole again.”

As a youngling, Emm had wanted to be just like her father, a Keeper of the Peace, someone who looked out for the weak and always strove to do what was right. She revered her father as a hero and could only dream of being his equal one day. But in the years that followed his disappearance, she had grown to loathe the Bonding. It was the reason she had lost him, lost so many years of knowing him, of having him in her life.

“You must tell the Rider of the Bonding, Emm.”

“I do not know what to say about it.”

“You know why it was created. You know of the Hundred Year War. So many dragons died. If not for the Bonding, Calasia would be a wasteland. You should be honored.”

“It is not fair!” Emm whirled, stamping her feet. “Why do I have to be one of the Blessed?”

“Your father devoted most of his life to keeping the peace,” Jewel said. “If the Bonding has come to you, and it appears that it has, you must accept it. You must bond with your Rider at all costs.”

Jewel sat up straight. Her eyes stared hard at Emm.

“It is the way of the dragon, Emm.”

The way of the dragon was unyielding. Dragon lore was rich in tradition, honor, and fealty. Passed down for generations, the ancient ways dictated the life of a dragon. Steeped in rituals and family legacies, a dragon must follow the customs laid down by their ancestors, lest their family be disgraced. So she was taught.

It was all nonsense. Why should the family be disgraced if she chose another path?

Emm twisted around. She moved toward the exit leading onto the cliffside deck. The world opened before her. Crashing surf and the cries of seagulls greeted her. Salt air filled her lungs. The ocean stretched out to the horizon, pushing the rising sun off the water.

Dragons stepped off their rock-face homes. Great wings spread and caught the natural thermals rising from the water below. They shot upward at astonishing speeds.

Emm had bid her father farewell from this very spot, on a morning just like this one. And she had waited for his return, as usual. She waited for hours at first, and then days, and then weeks for him to appear on the horizon.

He had followed his dreams.

He never came back.

The Bonding had meant everything to her father, and now it was falling on her, as tradition dictated. What would it mean to those who would come after her? She too would one day have younglings of her own. The line must continue.

Emm looked to her mother. A tear snaked its way down the slight crags of Emm’s snout and fell to the floor.

The way of the dragon.

“Mother,” Emm said, facing Jewel. “What will the Bonding do to me?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, will I feel different? Will it change me?” Emm asked, stretching her wings.

“Why, yes; if your Rider accepts the Bonding, you will begin to feel her presence, and eventually the magic that is the Bonding will awaken within you both.”

“And I will grow stronger? We will grow stronger?” Emm said, the beginning of an idea forming in her mind. “Like the other Blessed, like Father and Darrion?”

“Yes, of course. The magic will make you more than you are. More than you otherwise would be.”

The Bonding was what had taken her father away. Maybe she could use it to bring him back. If it did indeed make her stronger, then she could use this new strength to find him. She felt the call of the Bonding, or at least she thought it was the Bonding. Something was calling her. Whether it was the desire to save her father or something else, she did not know. But of one thing she suddenly became certain.

It was time to go.

“I will do this,” Emm said. She turned once more and looked out to the sea. She watched dragons fly toward the sun and disappear on the horizon, as he had. “I will do it for Father.”

“He would be proud,” Jewel said, nodding her approval. “You must begin your training at once. Soon you will fly with wingmates of your own. You will be ready to take the Fall in a few weeks.”

“Tell me more of the Bonding, Mother.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Chapter 2

Whiteout

 

 

(Eighteen months before)

Darmot shifted in his saddle, ducking down in hopes of avoiding the biting cold wind that almost ripped him from his horgon’s back. A powerful crosswind of blowing snow nearly overturned them. His half-dragon, half-horse mount, Reaper, screeched again as they lost sight of the others.

Reaper’s wings trembled when it banked back left into the blast, temporarily blinding them with stinging ice pellets. From out of the white void ahead, another eerie call answered, and Darmot saw the spectral light that his master had summoned as the storm closed in on them. Two more shrieks came from the other horgons, bearing Riders and slaves behind them. Reaper answered once more. The snow wall cleared for a moment. Eight horgons and their Dark Riders came into view. One had been lost. The remainder quickly fell back into formation before being hit with another sweeping squall.

Darmot leaned forward, urging Reaper to move closer to the lead Rider, Brannin, the Master.

“We must land!” Darmot screamed, but his voice was ripped from his throat by another blast of wind. He waved his arms and pointed below, though he did not know whether there was ice or water. A dizzying blanket of moving snow hid the sea from view.

Brannin might have seen him but spurred his mount forward and pulled ahead once more. The group stayed as close together as possible. Darmot had to duck more than once to avoid being swatted by the dragon tail of the horgon in front of him as it swung about wildly to keep its balance. If not for the wind, he could have walked from one mount to the next, they flew so close.

Brannin was possessed with a madness that had been driving them all forward over the mostly frozen North Sea for the last six days. On more than one occasion, Darmot thought that they would fall into the icy waters before reaching whatever destination Brannin had in mind for them, but always, Brannin’s strength was there to aid the horgons. They had been lucky enough to spy ice floes where they could spend the nights huddled together in their quickly erected tents.

Brannin had forbidden them from using their magic to stay warm but insisted that they band together to share their power and replenish the strength of their mounts. Created during the dragon wars, the horgons were powerful beasts spawned through the powers of the dark wizards, abominations of dragon and the mythical Silverthane horses melded together to serve them as mounts. They had the ferociousness of dragons, with wings to carry them aloft, and the front legs and torso of a horse to quickly cover ground, but nevertheless, they were vulnerable to weather and exhaustion like anything else.

But even now as the horgons strove to stay in formation, Darmot feared the worst: that he would die there without knowing what drove his master.

Then, as if a grand curtain had been opened, they exited the storm. The snow and stormy clouds quickly disappeared behind them. Stars filled the night sky. The Blood Moon reflected off the broken ice of the roiling sea below. They were mere feet above the water, never having realized it for the blowing snow.

“Climb!” Brannin screamed, kicking his horgon in the ribs.

The horgons started to rise, a straggling line of weary creatures burdened with Dark Riders, slaves, and supplies. All but one was quick enough to respond. Chunks of ice flew into the air as a soul-piercing shriek erupted from the gaping maw of a sea serpent exploding from the depths of the black water. Horgon, Dark Rider, and slave disappeared into a mass of teeth and gullet, and burst into a gush of bloody mist that floated down to the water after the tail of the serpent vanished into the frothing waves.

Darmot looked back over his shoulder. His mount needed no urging to rise quickly from the dangers of the sea. Immediately up ahead, there seemed to be another wall of snow blowing in from the side. Brannin waved them forward. The rest of the group followed reluctantly. Brannin must be possessed indeed to urge them into another storm.

Darmot asked himself for what seemed like the twentieth time what force on Calasia could be strong enough to possess Brannin, perhaps the most powerful wizard of Calasia. Whatever it was, it was something to be feared.

And then it became apparent why his master was leading them head-on into the mouth of another storm, for behind this curtain of blowing snow was a wall; the wall of an iceberg. It was massive; the top of it disappeared into the storm clouds that drove it.

Darmot followed his master’s dimming light into the blowing snow, around to the far side of the berg. The wind immediately died down. He led them to a natural cave in the side of the ice wall. One after another, the horgons crash-landed into exhausted heaps of wings, Riders and slaves. They all lay on the ice, panting in exhaustion for several moments.

One of the slaves got up first and pulled some wood from the saddlebags of supplies. He laid the bigger pieces down to form a small bed on which to build a fire. Then another one of the slaves jumped to assist him by getting some of the small feather pieces, dry tinder that had been pre-shredded into little strips.

He stacked them crossways against each other on the bed of wood. His hands shook so bad, he had to attempt the feat several times before succeeding. He retrieved a vial of oil and poured a little over the dry shreds.

Brannin started a fire from the light of his staff. His light quickly dimmed and went out as the flame leapt to life. He slumped and collapsed. He had used a great deal of strength in holding his light firm during their harrowing flight. And it was Brannin’s force that had been keeping the horgons strong enough to continue for most of the day.

The slaves built two more fires to form a small triangle. The temperature in the room started to rise. The firelight cast phantom shadows of the horgons upon the walls and ceiling, playing havoc in the crystal depths of the ice cave. It seemed there were creatures trapped in the smooth clear walls.

The wind howled. The cold of the floor pierced the tarps that had been hastily strewn about the cave. No matter how close to the fire he sat, Darmot could not shake the chill from his bones.

They had set out from Black Rock with seven slaves, nine horgons, and nine Dark Riders, the most powerful sorcerers of the Dark Order, including himself and Brannin. They had lost a horgon, Rider, and slave to the sea serpent, and another set to the storm, gone astray, unless they had fallen into the sea from fatigue.

Darmot looked upon his master now covered in a blanket, sitting by the fire. He appeared to be lost in thought, staring off into nothing. Brannin had taken him in as a child, ragged, starving, and sick, to apprentice him. Darmot had worshipped him as his savior. He would have done anything for the Master. But Brannin had changed in the last months, driven by a madness to go north. He had not explained what they were looking for and became violent when Darmot pressed him for answers as to why they needed to bring so many slaves.

The other sorcerers sat huddled in a circle about the fire, looking out from cowls and hoods. These were the last of the great necromancers of the Order. All gathered in one place in homage—or more likely fear—of Brannin, the Master.

To Darmot’s left was Jarril, next in line to take Darmot’s place at Brannin’s side. Jarril stirred the fire with the butt end of his steel-capped staff. The scar that stretched through his left eye down, across his cheek, and through his split lip to the base of a square chin, glowed purple in the firelight. His one black orb stared daggers at Darmot as their gazes met.

Darmot always kept a wary eye on Jarril, as he had moved up the ranks of the Order almost as quickly as Darmot had himself. There was a long line of dark ones that had disappeared in Jarril’s wake. One of which he had raised from the dead as his personal golem, which was more than likely to mock Darmot than anything else, since the golem was useful only when told what to do.

Beside Jarril were the Sill brothers, tall and lanky with angular features and long black hair. The twins were exchanging looks as they communicated telepathically, an ability that made them quite formidable, as each had a different set of magical abilities. As one never knew which twin was which, you never knew what to expect from them. They usually attacked their foes simultaneously.

Next to the twins, shivering in her blanket, Silvarra kept her gaze on the Master, as though she were trying to read his thoughts, to anticipate his next move. Though petite, she was as deadly as any of the others. Quite beautiful with long black hair and fair skin, she wore tight-fitting clothes and thigh-high boots sheathing several daggers, amongst other things. She was fond of snakes and always had several on her person. Indeed, she could strike as fast as any snake, and her blades were always dipped in some venom or another, depending on her needs.

Instructing the slaves, Bertrum, an elderly man of no great height, was the master of elixirs, as was the proof in his age. He was the sorcerer who had turned the war of the dragons in mankind’s favor, more than three hundred years before. The dragons were stricken with a plague and fell by the thousands.

They had all removed their headgear, gloves, and riding cloaks, and set them aside to dry. It was clear that everyone wanted answers, but none would dare ask why they were risking their lives, and what their final destination was.

The slaves seemed more disturbed than the rest of them, arguing amongst themselves in hushed, frantic voices as they sorted out the remaining supplies. They nervously bustled around the camp, laying out tarps and blankets. One of them was removing the saddles when Brannin’s horgon snapped at him. Though the horgon had the torso and head of a horse, it was scaled and possessed the jaws and teeth of a dragon. One bite could take the arm off a man.

Brannin looked up then, his dark eyes scrutinizing the man. “Where is the food?” He stood up slowly and approached the trembling man. “Why have you not fed the horgons?”

The slave looked to his brethren around the camp, nervously. “Master,” he pleaded, stepping back.

“Where is the food?” Brannin asked again. His voice was calm, his demeanor cold.

“The food was lost, Master, taken by the serpent,” the man answered, his eyes wild. He looked to the others and back to Brannin, pleadingly, nodding his head in a half-bow.

Brannin raised his arm and pointed at the terrified slave. He closed his hand into a fist, raised his arm, and shouted. “Serem!”

The slave screamed and flailed his arms about wildly as was he lifted off the floor of the cave. He was held several feet above the floor for a moment, kicking and thrashing.

“Feed!” Brannin screamed, waving his arm toward the surrounding horgons. The slave was whipped across the chamber to fall in the circle of horgons. The beasts set upon him with teeth and claws before he had a chance to hit the floor. He managed a half-gurgled scream while he was ripped to pieces.

The others gasped and backed away. The remaining slaves cowered together, shaking, staring at Brannin until he slowly returned to his fire.

“I was rather fond of that one,” Bertrum said, shaking his head.

Darmot looked upon his master in a new light. He was indeed possessed with a cruelty that far exceeded his usual strong hand. Darmot was accustomed to killing; after all; it was the way of the Order. What bothered him was that something had been driving his master. In all the years that he followed Brannin, never had he seen him yield to anyone or anything.

Darmot now understood why Brannin had brought so many slaves.

 

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