Three weeks ago (sorry about that) readers voted that Shirrin and her new command should explore the coastline together. The story continues…
“We will explore the coastline. Together,” says Shirrin. Roshin glowers. Dellerin is calm, accepting her orders. Shirrin resists the desire to shake her head. Roshin and Pylstra showed no fear in battle and it took considerable strength of will to pull themselves out of the sea before the maelstrom could swallow them up. Why is it that the strongest fighter has to the be one who is most displeased with being under her command?
The night passes quickly, for everyone is exhausted. The sun is already well above the horizon when Karista wakes her up, flicking his tail into her face. Shirrin is startled. For a moment she cannot remember where she is. It seems like she is back on Delruth, surrounded by dragons and other riders, but didn’t Delruth fall? Then it comes back to her and shame colours her face a deep red, burning her up from the inside.
“I did what I had to do,” she mutters.
“Indeed,” says Dellerin, a few feet away, poking at a small fire with a stick. A small animal is suspended above it on a spit. Dellerin turns the spit before speaking again. “Roshin also agrees. But she had a… good relationship with your father.”
Ah. That explains a lot.
Roshin enters the cave and drops a bundle of dry wood to one side.
“Oh, you’re awake.” She looks pointedly at the sun. “Are you ill?”
Shirrin considers challenging her on her insolence, but she’s hungry. Fighting on an empty stomach is never a good idea, no matter how important the battle.
“No. But I am hungry. Why don’t you eat something? I’m always grumpy before I eat.” She turns to see Dellerin lifting the spit away from the fire, carving strips off it and holding them out to her. She can feel Roshin’s eyes boring into the side of her head, wanting to say something, but unable to find the right words. Shirrin allows herself a small smile.
They are only a short flight from the coastline and they stay high. Shirrin tells Roshin and Dellerin that this is to avoid enemy archers, but in reality she wants to see this weed for herself. It is soon visible, much sooner than Shirrin expected, a great green bruise, mottled and broken in places, but soon deepening to an even green, the colour of spring grass. It seems like an age since she last saw grass and she wonders briefly if she ever will again.
They cross the entire area of weed, passing high over Jalrath. It doesn’t appear near the city. The docks are clear for a few hundred yards in every direction. But beyond those few hundred yards, the weed coats the sea. Karista drops low at one point, out of sight of the city, and spikes his tail down through the weed.
“It’s as deep as you are tall,” he comments, rising again. There are no fish.
They land in the late afternoon, gliding in to a patch of desert out of sight of Jalrath or the next city state, just visible from the air but hazy in the distance. Even Roshin is downcast.
“I had no idea,” she says. “I mean, it’s everywhere. For miles around Jalrath. And no fish. The sea slugs, er… Sea People, were right..”
“But not immediately around the city,” points out Dellerin. “There’s a clear patch there. They must be doing something to stop it from growing. It’s too thick at the edge to be a natural end to the growth.”
“I saw no one place where it was thickest,” she says. “Nowhere that I could imagine it had started. It is impossible to tell how thick it is without testing it as Karista did, and doing that would take days. We can’t test that wide an area. Not with just the three of us.”
“Maybe there isn’t just one starting point,” says Dellerin slowly, as though he is thinking the thought as it comes to him. “It was thickest in an arc around Jalrath, only clear around the city itself. Maybe…”
They all look at each other and leap onto their dragons.
As they fly back along the coastline, Shirrin can see that Dellerin is right. Leading way on either side of the city are trails through the desert. North and south, a trail breaks free of the main one and curves down to the coast before disappearing suddenly, as though cut away by a knife. Shirrin gestures with her hand and Karista spirals down, the other dragons following suit.
The trail does not end. It runs beneath a creamy-yellow cloth the exact same colour as the desert. The dragons land quietly and their riders creep towards the cloth. Boxes are piled up underneath, all with three interlocking triangles painted on the side. Shirrin shivers. It is the mark of the Dark One, he who brings corruption and greed and evil to the world. A mark of early and unnatural death. A warning.
“You were right,” she whispers to Dellerin.
“It gives me no pleasure,” he assures her.
There are hundreds of boxes. As the riders near the edge of the cliffs, Roshin gives a low whistle. A gentle incline leads to the cliff edge. It’s burnt black, as though seared by a dragon. Weed chokes the sea below. It’s a windy day, but the sea moves sluggishly, bound together by the plant life growing uncontrollably within it. They move back to safer ground, eyeing the boxes.
“Problem located,” says Dellerin. “It must need to be combined with water, otherwise it only burns the soil.”
“I bet there’s another site like this on the other side of Jalrath, where the other trail disappeared,” says Roshin.
There’s a soft sound. She freezes, then pitches forward, an arrow protruding from her ches. Dellerin and Shirrin throw themselves sideways as more arrows whistle past. A furious roar erupts, the sound morphing into a shriek.
They’ve found the dragons. We’re trapped.
What do we do?
Excellent question. You decide!
1/ Jump into the sea
2/ Tell the dragons to attack
3/ Tell the dragons to fetch help from the Sea People
Voting continues through midnight, Saturday 9th July, US Pacific Coast time.