|Art by Rebecca Hunt|
Jon nodded to the acolyte that took the reins of his lexital. His robes were gray from the dust of travel and his hair unkempt. It was not this that drew the eyes of everyone in the stable yard, it was the little black dragon curled tightly around his neck. The thin whip of a tail looked more like a choker tight against the mage’s throat.
He looked around in amazement. He knew of this temple, all death mages did. But, this was more than he had imagined. It was fashioned similarly to the tiers, the levels though were not as distinct and black spires rose up here and there. Where Silverport was built of white glistening stone, the temple was represented in black. Where he stood now was in a courtyard outside the main wall of the temple.
The death mage’s eyes traveled up to see cave openings lining the far off cliff walls. How many dragons had the High Priestess managed to gather? If they were all full, it was a concern he would have to relay to Alador. He cast a clean spell absently as he continued to take in the breath-taking view.
His eyes caught the far off movement of three dragons flying together. They looped in and out of one another before making some far off diving run. As they dropped down, he lost sight of them. Their choreography in flight had been amazing. He stroked Nightmare’s small muzzle bringing a soft sigh from the hatchling.
As they left the stable yard, they joined the line of those making a pilgrimage to the temple. Nightmare looked about with the same curiosity as Jon. The little dragon hissed at any that dared draw to close. The crowd parted as the black robed mage made his way towards the main gate to the temple that rose above them.
The guards stopped him warily at the gate. “What business have you in the temple?” demanded the man who appeared to be in charge. His hand was on the hilt of the sword.
Jon looked at the man who spoke with amusement. “Either you are blind or inept. I bring this small hatchling for the High Priestess’ flight.
The man actually looked at the small dragon unimpressed. “Is the High Priestess expecting you?”
Jon tipped his head, his eyes narrowing as he looked at the guardsman. “Obviously not, or you would not be standing there asking inane questions. I do not know how much more tolerance this wee one has before it starts spitting acid at people.” Those that were close behind him took several steps back.
“ I suggest you send me through so that we can get him settled.”
The man speaking eyed Jon over then nodded. He motioned over a guard. “Take this mage to a private parlor and then let the High Priestess know that a dragon has come in.”
The guard who had approached, saluted and then turned to Jon. “If you will follow me, M’lord.” He turned and led the way through the narrowed gate.
Jon was content to be led wherever it was that he needed to go. Everywhere he looked he saw black robed acolytes. They were tending the pathway gardens, weeding the side paths and sweeping the wide walkway - really a road- to the main building. He knew they were no more than simple attendants of the temple for their robes were of common cloth with no embellishments.
He was so absorbed in taking in the magnificence surrounding him that he almost ran into an acolyte sweeping. There was a peace inside the wall that amazed him. Those that were speaking here and there, seemed hushed and equally aware of the strange calm.
Jon followed the guard up the stairs and into the main receiving hall. Here there was a bit more noise. People had ill family members with them on stretchers and hand carts. This was not a temple of healing, but a place of passage. For a substantial donation, one could buy a space in the crypt.
However, the people that he saw seemed far too common for the most part to be here for that. It made him curious, but now was not the time for questions.
He was placed in a simple room. It had a small table with a decanter of wine and two glasses, framed by three chairs. There was a large black fireplace that crackled merrily. He moved to the fire to warm both himself and the small fledgling.
Nightmare had buried under his cloak for the flight, the air had a bitter bite even when flying just over the treetops. He turned his back to the fire, the warmth drew the small dragon and it hung by its tail to be closer to the flames. Fortunately, it did not weigh much yet so the tight constriction of the tail to his throat was only slightly uncomfortable.
He had expected to wait for some time where Lady Morana was not expecting him so he was surprised when the door opened only a short while later. Nightmare sprung up at the sound of the door, to curl back around the safety of Jon’s shoulders.
Jon was caught completely off guard despite Alador’s warning that the woman on the wall was not his goddess but her priestess. Her long hair was coiled in ringlets, most piled from the top of her head and cascading down. Her lips had to be painted for that red was more like blood first exposed to the air. Her gown was built in layers of voluminous black material, the bottom a series of cascades of silken material trimmed in gold threading. A corset was set over the top of the gown, laced with gold thread and decorated with gentle loops of black braids. The corset pushed her breasts up to perfect mounds that swelled just above the tight fabric. The sleeves were sheer and only closed at her elbow and her wrist, giving almost a winged appearance. It took him a moment to realize he was staring before he descended to one knee. “My Lady,” he acknowledged.
“Rise mage.” Her voice was in contrast to her beauty. It had a rasp that one could not miss, despite her confident tones.
She looked him over, her eyes settling on Nightmare as she approached him. “What is your name and where did you get the dragon.”
“I come from the bloodmine. It was assaulted. The dragons you sent to protect it fell under the onslaught of other flights.” Jon gave a flat factual report. “This is the only one of the fledglings I could save.” He paused and gave a slight bow. “I am known merely as Jon.”
She put her hand up to the fledgling without even hesitating. Even more to Jon’s surprise, Nightmare did not hiss or protest. The little hatchling purred as she rubbed between its eyes. It did not hiss till she attempted to remove it from Jon’s shoulder.
Jon winced as Nightmare’s talons dug into his flesh. The little dragon drew back and let out a growl of warning. It was really more of a whimpered effect due to its small size. “I fear, my lady, he has bonded with me during the trip to bring him to you.”
“Do you need to return to the bloodmine?” Lady Morana asked, withdrawing her hand to calm the small beast.
“It fell completely. There is nothing to return to.” Jon stated. “My loyalty is more to Dethara than to Silverport and the minister at any rate. I would prefer to stay with the hatchling.” Jon knew that not all death mages were also priests. He knew that not all those seeking priesthood were mages; to be both would automatically place him in higher rank than the acolytes he had passed on his way into the temple.
“May I point out that I am also trained in blade use within the Blackguard,” he offered at the last moment. It was possible he could get closer to her if over time, she believed he could protect her.
“I will have a cave assigned to your use. Each dragon’s cave has a small quarter for its keeper. I think you will find it a pleasant enough space.” Lady Morana seemed to be barely noticing Jon. Her eyes only flitted to his face on occasion, the greed within her gaze rested on Nightmare.
“I am sure that it will more than suffice.” Jon answered politely. “He has not eaten.” He caressed the small head that pressed into his hands.
“I will have a keeper sent to you to show you where the supplies are kept for those that live in the caverns above the temple.” She eyed Jon fully, her eyes moved from top to bottom. “You will wait here till someone is sent to escort you. You said your name is Jon?”
“Yes, my lady, that is correct.” He gave a slight bow once more. “We will do as you have bid.”
“Welcome home, Jon.” Morana’s voice held a strange silken edge and Jon felt a shiver go up his spine.
Though her words of welcome were proper, he felt as if a cage door had just swung shut behind him. Nightmare’s weight was suddenly apparent as was the tail about his throat. For a brief moment, he realized he felt much like a fly must feel in the spider’s web. His eyes followed her as she turned and swept from the room. He took a settling breath as the door closed. He was in the temple as he had planned, and for a brief moment, he wondered if he should flee while he could.