CHAPTER ONE-HUNDRED AND THIRTY-TWO: SUNLIGHT
Valerius had never felt so cold in his life. Even when he had been mortal the first time and slogged through the mountains in a blinding blizzard he swore he had never been so cold. And he had to admit to himself that he was a little less used to experiencing extreme temperatures, or any temperatures really. Raziel had always kept him warm. The furnace inside of the Black Dragon made it so he could have run naked in Antarctica without discomfort. But no longer.
The hours of flying--naked--in Iolaire’s claws had drained all of the warmth from him down to his bones. It wasn’t just the cold of the upper air, but Iolaire’s scales as well. Unsurprisingly for an Ice Dragon, Iolaire radiated cold just like Raziel radiated heat. So though he was tucked as fully and tightly as he could be against Iolaire’s palm, out of the wind, the scales sucked up whatever reflected heat his body generated that wasn’t whipped away by the chill atmosphere.
I’ll know Raziel is back the moment my teeth stop chattering, he groused.
He tried not to think about how long that would be. Surely, the Dragons would be done fighting the Behemoth soon. And he didn’t have to be in the throne room by the mirror to have Raziel rejoin with him. All Raziel needed to do was return to the lair and then boom! They would be together again and his lips would no longer be blue. He was pretty sure that was true. Pretty sure. No, no, definitely sure. Definitely.
Raziel will be with me soon. I’m certain of it. Raziel and the other Dragons will defeat the Behemoth and then we will save Chione and all will be as it should be!
Yet those felt like empty words at the moment. He hadn’t heard a word from Chione--not a moan or cry--in hours or so it seemed. If he was cold, she would likely be ice with the loss of blood and poison. He turned his head so that he could peer between two claws over at Iolaire’s other hand.
The silvery blanket flapped around her. Her hair flowed back from her head. Her eyes appeared closed. Her tawny skin was pale. But it had been pale before they started flying. She likely had her eyes closed because she was resting. And the fact that she wasn’t reacting at all to the chill because perhaps the Sphinx Spirit kept her just as warm as Raziel would have kept him if Raziel had been there. Valerius blue air on his dead-feeling hands and rubbed them frantically together. He drew his knees up tighter to his chest. Maybe that would make him a little warmer. If nothing else, he needed to keep out of the wind. He looked over at Chione again. Other than the wind, she wasn’t moving at all. Was she still alive?
She has to be. Things cannot end this way!
And yet it had ended this way for countless people on the bridge and in the square that night. While he and the other Dragon Shifters had hid in the throne room, others had fought and died bravely. The Behemoth had taken at least its pound of flesh.
There were some like Anwar’s lover who might never return to their bodies and, worse, not return to the Wheel to be reborn again. They would be lost forever. Now that was a far harsher sentence than anything the Behemoth would receive from the Dragons in return for its evil.
Is there just punishment enough for what it has done? Valerius wondered as he blew on his hands once more and rubbed them brutally. And Jasper… What will I do with him? If Chione dies, too, then there will be no quarter for him. No mercy! And…
He stopped. She would absolutely hate if he used her death to hurt someone--no matter how deserving--because she would want him to do something constructive, not destructive.
“Use it as a touchpoint. Make my death mean something good, Valerius. Don’t create more darkness with it,” he imagined her saying and smiling at him.
His chest grew tight and his eyes burned as he thought of her. He pictured her in the throne room. The doors were thrown open to the courtyard and sunlight was streaming in. She wore one of her golden wrap dresses that had elaborate stitching at the hems of palm trees. There were diamonds sewn all over the dress so that it sparkled in the sunlight. She’d be barefoot. A single gold chain would be around her right ankle and another around her left wrist. Gifts he had given her. Of course, she’d have one of her tablets held against her chest as she looked at him with such hope, such belief and such love.
“Make use of my death. Make it into something to help people,” she urged.
“I don’t want to make something bright out of your death! You should be by my side! Making good things happen!” he imagined saying back to her. “I need you, Chione. You’ve always been there to steer me in the right direction.”
He imagined her holding her tablet to her chest and her smile gentling. “You’re wrong, Valerius. You did those things all on your own. I just said the words already in your heart and so you couldn’t deny me.”
“You always gave me too much credit,” he imagined telling her as tears fell down his cheeks. “I would have gone back to my mountain if I hadn’t known you’d have come and dragged me back down.”
“Now who is giving whom too much credit?” She shook her head in amusement. “You have always done what you wanted to do in the end, Valerius. I haven’t been playing queen through you. You’ve always been the one and only ruler.”
He shivered as they coursed down his bare front. He was so cold and imagining her in a summer frock with no shoes was not making him warmer. Yet try as he might to put her in a long fur coat with huge boots and fuzzy mittens in his mind, she remained in the gauzy, diamond-studded dress with bare toes against the marble floor of the throne room.
“Raziel chose me because I am just as big a cuss as it is,” Valerius growled. “Both of us are bad tempered and misanthropic.”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. Because I haven’t seen hide nor hair of that Valerius or Raziel since Caden and Iolaire arrived.” Her eyes sparkled.
“Well, they are… our mates.” He shrugged and then pulled his arms around his knees.
“Just like in the stories. Only better,” she sighed.
He snorted. “You must live to help us put on a ridiculous wedding, Chione. Would you really want to miss that?”
Her eyes widened and her lips parted. “I…”
“Caden thought we could model it after one of that horrible Werewolf movies--”
“Oh…” She looked like she might pass out at the thought. “Oh, really?”
“So if you die then you can’t help plan it,” he pointed out.
She looked stricken and then shook herself. “That’s not important!”
“My wedding is not important to you? Caden’s happiness is not important to you? Come now! I will realize that this is just my imagination and not real if you say that!” Valerius challenged her. “So I--I won’t listen to anything you say about making your death a touchstone or whatever ridiculous thing you’re telling me!”
Of course, this was his imagination. She was still and silent and unmoving.
She blinked. “Valerius, I assure you that you and Caden, Raziel and Iolaire are all the most important to me.”
She put a hand over her heart and he felt the pressure of anguish building inside of him.
“Then you cannot leave,” he said. “You cannot leave if that is true.”
Her head hung down for a moment like a too big blossom on a too slender stem. “I know you think that Raziel chose you because you wanted revenge for your brother’s death--”
“Revenge for all I lost. My family. My friends. My life!” he snarled and wiped tears away. “The whole purpose of my life was gone when they killed my brother just as I found him! Right in front of me! They… they took him. And I could do nothing…”
Just like I can do nothing for you, Chione, Valerius added silently.
“Yes, yes, exactly. I think Raziel chose you because you understand loss,” she said, nodding as she began to pace the throne room. “You understand the cost of war and strife. How much loss will result. So it’s always made you careful with the powers Raziel gave to you. It’s caused you to use them only when necessary. And that’s made you a great king.”
“A great king?” He snorted in derision. “I resented every moment of being king until Caden arrived. I did not wish to be bothered. Everyone and everything annoyed me. I did not see it as a blessing, but a burden,” he reminded her. “You had to constantly cajole me to do the minimum.”
She paused, one bare foot outstretched, and shook her head. “All the power you have and all you wanted was--”
“To be left alone.” Valerius grimaced.
“To have the world not need you. To have people behave as they should. For there to be peace and justice and--”
“The world is not like that!” He hunched his shoulders. “You make me sound like a romantic fool.”
“No, just a noble man--a noble king--who wants what is best for his people,” she corrected.
“If I am here or gone, what will you do?” she asked.
He imagined he felt the warmth of her against his back. She would have to be on her tiptoes to look over his shoulder at him as he imagined her doing.
“I will keep everyone safe,” he answered.
“Yes, and what else?” she wheedled.
“Is that not enough?!” he cried. “If I had been more concerned with enemies, I would have known the Behemoth was at our gates! I would have stopped Anwar’s lover from being taken out of the Wheel of Life! I would have saved you… I will still save you”
“Looking for enemies would have not helped you in discovering the Behemoth any faster than you did,” she reminded him. “Looking for solutions to the unrest, the people’s unhappiness, was the only thing that would have led you right. Don’t you see?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “I see. And I intend to do things differently from now on. No Dragon is on their own. We are together. United. We will figure out…”
She was nodding and smiling. She no longer had her tablet and his heart seized in his chest. They were no longer in the throne room, but a golden field of wheat and was that--was that the Nile behind her?
“You’re going to be fine--no, you’re going to be better than that--with or without me,” she said.
“You’re wrong. I--”
But she was shaking her head. He saw a boat slowly floating down the Nile. He caught glimpses of people reaping wheat. The pyramids rose, beautiful and new, in the far distance. It was peaceful here.
“Chione,” he whispered.
She had turned her head to look at the boat. She was farther away from him.
“Chione,” he repeated.
She turned back, her head cocked to the side.
“Chione, please stay and be a part of this. See it through with me. Please,” he begged.
There was a sudden jerk and Valerius was jostled out of his imagination. He was almost glad of it. That had been… painful. Too painful. And it hadn’t been real, of course. Chione was going to live. That was it.
But what had caused him to be so violently jostled? They’d dropped. By about ten feet as if Iolaire’s flying had been interrupted. He quickly glanced around, but everything seemed all right. Without Raziel in the lair, he could not hear either Caden or Iolaire’s thoughts, but he had seen them looking down at him with concern every half hour or so. He’d smiled up at them, giving a thumb’s up sign, because the wind whipped away his voice and he didn’t want to distract them from flying.
They had never flown so far or fast before. Valerius didn’t know how much strength Iolaire had built up in the Spirit Realm, if any, to fly like this. But every time they had opened their hand to look at him, he noticed they had been flying more slowly and strain had shown up in Iolaire’s sweet face. He could tell now that the swift, sleek movements Iolaire usually made were now ragged and jerky.
They’re tired. At the end of their strength. And I do not think we are at the sun yet.
He managed to lift his head and peek out between two of the claws to see ahead of them. The sky appeared as velvety dark as when they had left Reach. Maybe there was a slight lightening in the east, but that just might be his imagination. But they were definitely going much slower and gliding a lot more. They were flying ever lower too.
It had been his and Raziel’s intention to strengthen Iolaire and Caden’s flying skills. To have them go for longer and longer flights to increase their stamina. If he were honest, he and Raziel had not been too worried about it, because they would be there. They would carry Iolaire and Caden if they had to. But now, the littlest--if fiercest--Dragon had to do everything on its own. Valerius was merely a burden, not a help.
Caden, can you hear me?
Caden, you’re doing so well. Being so brave. I am so very proud of you. I will tell you this again and again when I am able, Valerius sent.
There was another jolt and Iolaire’s wings faltered. Valerius’ heart was in his throat as he clutched at the weakening claws around him. He caught sight of not forests or fields, but single family homes below them. They had entered a town or city or suburb. There was no place to safely land.
Iolaire let out a desperate cry as its wings gave out again and they started to fall like a stone. They were going to crash into the homes below. They would crush the people sleeping in those houses! Unless Caden shifted back into human form. But if he did that… Valerius and Chione would die. Caden wouldn’t be able to brace them from the impact of such a fall. Kill helpless people in their beds or kill Valerius and Chione. That was the choice right now if they didn’t find somewhere to land.
He saw Iolaire straining those wings, but it just couldn’t keep on. It was looking frantically for landing space. A wide enough road, a big enough lawn, an empty lot… but there was nothing! Iolaire let out a thin cry of anguish. Valerius opened his mouth to call out to Iolaire. He wasn’t sure what he was going to tell the White Dragon. But the thought was lost.
Because that was when he realized his teeth were no longer chattering.
He wasn’t cold at all.
And it wasn’t because fear had stolen that sense from him.
It was because…
VALERIUS! Raziel roared in delight.
RAZIEL! Valerius cried back.
There were no words--nothing could truly represent his feelings--about hearing that beloved voice and feeling that having his Spirit back brought. Such joy, such happiness, was so piercing that he was weeping and laughing and screaming all at once.
Valerius saw Raziel in his chest. Warmth and strength and immortality flowed through him to the very tips of his fingers and toes. The strength of the Black Dragon was his again! Actually, there was more strength than before though he didn’t have time to really contemplate why that was or how it could be possible. There were more important things going on right now.
Iolaire and Caden are exhausted! They are failing! Valerius sent Raziel that and all the information about Chione, the town below them and what they needed to do.
Shift! I will carry all of us to the sunlight! We will not lose our beloved Councillor! Raziel promised him and Valerius had never felt such gratitude.
Thank you, Raziel.
Thanking me?! There is no need! You are… everything to me, Raziel told him.
Valerius teared up. And you are the same to me.
Bah, no more tears or thanks! Shift! I am here for you! Raziel proclaimed.
Iolaire dropped precipitously at that moment. Valerius easily crawled out of the closed fist, moving Iolaire’s claws out of the way with draconid strength. Iolaire looked down at him in confusion even as its wings flapped erratically.
We are here, Iolaire! Let us go! Raziel will carry you and Chione! Valerius said.
Valerius? Raziel? Oh, thank the gods! We’re out of--oh! We’re out of strength! Caden cried.
And they dropped like a stone, but Valerius leaped out of his hand and shifted directly underneath them. The White Dragon landed on top of Raziel’s broad back. There was only a little impact and Raziel lost about five feet of air, but the mighty Black Dragon could hold them all perfectly well.
Caden shifted then as he was able to keep a hold of Chione on Raziel’s back now. Valerius felt Caden press his body over Chione’s and dig his knees into Raziel’s spine with seeming ease.
Have you ridden on Raziel’s back before Caden? Valerius asked suspiciously.
NO! NO ONE HAS EVER RIDDEN ON MY BACK! Raziel stormed, but Valerius thought he heard a smile in the Black Dragon’s voice.
You heard Raziel, Valerius, Caden chuckled. We’re not even on Raziel’s back now! There was a pause as Caden was shifting Chione and then he said in a very different voice, We’re… oh… guys, we need--we need to get to the sun. I don’t think… I don’t think…
Valerius imagined he saw Chione standing by the Nile’s edge, about to board that boat.
Raziel, get us to the sun! NOW! Valerius cried.
YES! Raziel answered his command.
The Black Dragon had never flown so fast. Later, people would claim that a meteor, brimming with fire, had screamed over their towns and villages and cities. That windows had cracked and crockery had fallen from shelves as it had passed above them. That homes had seemed to jump from their foundations and then settle back down again once it was gone. People woke up in confusion thinking that an earthquake had occurred.
The horizon was no longer black, but a line of red and gold. Raziel aimed for that rip in the night to the day. And in seemingly seconds they passed from dark to gray to bright sunlight.
That sunlight flowed over Raziel’s head and rolled over its broad back. It covered Caden and then Chione. Valerius felt as much as heard Caden praying over the Sphinx Shifter.
C’mon, Chione! We’re in the sunlight now! We’re here! We made it! Caden begged. Please come back. Please come back! Please…
Caden ripped the metallic blanket off her and it flew away. He was trying to make sure that every inch of her was exposed to the life-giving sunlight.
Valerius… I don’t think… I don’t think… Caden’s voice was clogged with tears.
Valerius let out a sob inside of Raziel. He felt the Black Dragon curl around him.
Please, Chione, come back to us, Caden continued. We weren’t fast enough, Raziel. Iolaire and I weren’t strong enough--
No, little dragon, you did all that could be done, Raziel assured Caden with a tenderness that Valerius would not have thought the Black Dragon capable of before.
Iolaire twittered softly and slumped in the lair. It thought that they had failed too.
Chione, Valerius said quietly and he thought he saw her pause on the deck of the boat. Chione, we will love you always. I will make you proud. I promise.
We weren’t enough, Caden sobbed. But then Caden let out a cry. What the Hell?! Oh, my god! She’s on fire! She’s on fire!
Caden?! Valerius cried.
What was happening to his mate? Raziel craned their head around but it could not see what was happening on its back. It felt no warmth from this supposed fire. Not that the Black Dragon would, but--
She’s--she’s burned up! Valerius… She's gone! All of her… ashes are floating away, Caden gasped. I don’t understand. The fire wasn’t hot at all. But she’s totally gone.
In front of them, a slender, dark-skinned figure appeared in mid air. Her long hair flowed around her head. Her eyes were closed. Her arms were stretched to her sides. She only opened her eyes as she started to fall.
CHIONE! Valerius cried.
Raziel plunged and grabbed her in mid-air. She gasped and blinked rapidly up at them.
“Oh, that was--was quite something. I haven’t reincarnated like that in ages!” she said.
Chione? Valerius asked, uncertain if it was her though it looked, sounded and smelled like her.
“Why are you smelling me, Raziel? Stop that!” Chione pushed the dragon snout away.
Is that Chione, Valerius? Caden asked.
“You thought you lost me, did you?” Chione cocked her head to the side and smiled. “I considered moving on. I really did. But then… Well, you did promise me a wedding, didn’t you? A big Dragon wedding! I couldn’t miss out on that.”
It is her, Caden, Valerius laughed, filled with more joy than he could handle. We’re all safe.
And having a wedding? Caden goggled.
I did promise her. You don’t mind, do you? Valerius asked. We did talk about it in Valinor.
We did and I… I don’t mind at all, Caden laughed, thrilled and ecstatic. My parents are going to love this. Not to mention Tilly! Oh, you’ve got to ask Illarion to be your best man and--
Yes, anything you want. Valerius smiled.
I just want you, Caden sighed. We did it, Valerius. We did it. All of us.
Yes, we did.
Raziel banked towards home.