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Devouring Angel: Book Two of the Elixir Trilogy
Chapter Three
As far as the audience was concerned, Gabrielle Gilson had the first real speech.
         Of course, everyone expected Secretary General Ganoville Santagora to open the ceremony.  After all, he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces of the Free Nations of Haloken.  He had been there six years ago at the Siege of Kesalzhin, when he had been Grand Marshal of the Sentinel.  However, his choices at the time had been gravely limited.  His most consequential action had been to co-ordinate the final evacuation of his forces. 
         Nonetheless, his speech did not fail to captivate the audience.  Tonight, he had the look and sound of a man haunted.  He was one of the few mortals alive to have spoken personally to Mayhara Herself.  When the Elixir had finally been exposed, he had been only a few dozen kilometres from the epicentre of the Reality disturbance.  And when Dahal Savithar demonstrated his newly acquired godlike power, murdering a thousand brave Dragons, Santagora had witnessed the atrocity.
         Next onstage was Lieutenant General Jerikau Karlonen of the Varantuan Army.  Six years earlier, he had been a Major General and head of the Emergency Coastal Defence Division.  He, too, had his hands tied on that fateful day.  He, too, had spoken to the benign goddess of the sea, and witnessed the deeds of the malign god of madness.  He had one haunting message for all – he had felt more comfortable, more secure, when he had been agnostic.
         The third speaker was Skymarshal Mirithaka of the Skywatch.  Humans loved to watch Dragons speak.  They were big, colourful, and rarely ever needed crystal amplification.  Mirithaka was a renowned orator even among Dragons, and her grasp of Varantuan was flawless.  Her poise was stately and majestic, and she did not look a day over two hundred.  Her glinting, deep blue and green scales contrasted vibrantly around her five thick, gold neckbands.
         Mirithaka had been one of the highest-ranking Dragons to evacuate the sea around Kesalzhin Island six years ago.  She had personally carried twenty-one Humans to safety, and cared nothing for their rank, only their lives.  Sometimes, she wished she could have died alongside Skymarshal Banthonotrax, but then she would remember the lives she saved, and thus regretted nothing.
         She spoke fondly of Banthonotrax, having known him well since her early days in joining the Skywatch.  He had always been a principled soul, having respect for the lowliest recruit as he had for any of his superior officers, and valued the lives of Humans as much as his own kind.  This principle had triggered his infamous altercation with the former General Bysamathark, who had lost an eye and gained a legion of Human-hating sympathists.  Banthonotrax had also been something of a prankster in his youth, and was very popular with the lady Dragons – although Mirithaka wisely did not elaborate on this latter detail.
         All three speeches had made their impressions on the audience, and none overstayed their welcome.  However, for all the cheers and applause they earned, the night’s true great attractions were yet to come.
         When Gabrielle Gilson stepped onto the stage, the cheering took a while to settle down.
         Here was the miracle that walked among them.  A woman who had slept for twenty-one thousand years and remained young.  A woman who was friends with Mayhara Herself.  A woman who had touched the Elixir twice, transformed into a goddess, and returned from the dead as a mortal Human once again.  A woman with the memories and knowledge of a vast and ancient civilization that – until recently – had only been the stuff of myth and legends.
         She was living proof that legends were real.
         “Well, hello!” she said, grinning rather awkwardly – not what one would have expected of a living legend, but what many had come to expect of her personally. 
         “HELLOOOOOO!” shouted the blue Baby Dragon, perched atop his mother’s head like some sort of novelty hat.
         The crowd immediately erupted into laughter.  Even the Dragons rumbled in merriment, none more amused than the Baby Dragon’s own proud mother.
         Gabrielle giggled in delight and wiggled her fingers in greeting.  “Hello cutie!” she said.
         “HELLOOOOOO!” the Baby Dragon repeated, sparking more laughter from the audience.
         Gabrielle took a while to stop chuckling.  But when she was finally ready to speak again, her smile had faded.
         “There are some things that just cannot be described in words,” she said, “and there are some things that shouldn’t.  I know that … many of you are here to gain more insight into my … unique experience, but right now, I can only give you the perspective of a mortal.  Because, right now, that’s all I am.  I don’t want any of you to forget that.
         “I have two things to tell you.  The first is this – be proud.  All of you.  Humans, Dragons, all nations.  Be proud as a civilization, for you have come a long way.  I know that many of you think that my world so long ago is the stuff of legend, and in a way you’d be right.  But I could say the same of your world.  You are what we used to dream of.  I’m serious.  You’ve harnessed the power of your minds.  Dragons are your friends.  And they let you ride them.  What could be more awesome than that?  You guys are awesome!  All of you!  Be proud!”
         Everyone cheered and applauded.
         “And you’re not just what we used to dream of.  In a way, you are what we once were.  My own ancestors on Earth, eight or nine hundred years before I was born – yeah, that’s a really long time ago!”
         There were chuckles throughout the audience.
         “We were going through a lot of what you are going through right now.  We were trying to come together as one world of so many nations, so many cultures.  And it wasn’t easy.  You should know what that’s like.  But persevere.  Because we made it.  We flew to the stars.  And so will you.  Strive on!”
         More applause followed.
         “And my second point of the night, and the one I’m sure is on everyone’s minds right now, because no-one would stop talking about it for six years … if you are worried about what’s out there, if you’re like General Karlonen and felt better off not believing, I’m here to tell you that it’s OK.  It’s all OK.  Because there is a God, there is an afterlife, and in the end, the good will be rewarded.  Especially the heroes.”
         This elicited the loudest applause to date.  The Dragons roared their approval.
         “And heroes are who we are here to celebrate.  I know it’s a cliché these days, but … personally, I don’t see myself as one.  I certainly wasn’t a hero when I met my new friends, who are here with me tonight – three in body, one in spirit.”
         Gabrielle seemed to sigh with relief as the audience applauded, this time more conservatively.  It was clear that she needed the time to breathe, to gather her thoughts and feelings.
         “I remember the moment we needed to leave SwanSword behind.  And … the friend of us all, the one watching over us tonight, the bravest Dragon who ever lived … he said … after how I had treated him and his friends … he said …”
         Gabrielle paused and rubbed her eye.
         “He said that he wanted me to die a better person.  Well, I’ve died twice in my life.  But I still have time left.  And I’m still working on it.  Really, that’s the best any of us can do.  We’re mortal.  The clock’s ticking for all of us.  Make every tick count.  Don’t waste a single moment.”
         The applause, the cheering of Humans and Dragons, was deafening.  It filled the air even as Gabrielle went backstage.
         Tilanna hugged her instantly.  “You were marvellous!” she said. 
         “I tried my best,” Gabrielle said with a modest grin, wiping another tear from her eye.
         “You’re a hard act to follow, that’s for sure,” said Vithan, who gave her a hug.
         From the stage came the amplified voice of Professor Averlon Valkrimmar – bestselling author, renowned historian, former advisor to President Chalivon, designated Chancellor of New Kesalzhin College and tonight’s Master of Ceremonies.
         “For those of you who are just here for the entertainment – don’t lie, I know you’re out there –“
         The crowd chuckled.
         “– we  have a treat for you.  All the way from Lythinia …”
         Vithan, being Lythinian himself, spotted them on the way to the stage door.
         “Pleased to meet you, guys,” he said.  “I’m a big fan.”
         Jothan Harolox, lead singer and guitarist for the thunderfolk band Crown of Defiance, who might have passed for Vithan’s taller, lankier cousin, grinned and stopped to shake Vithan’s hand.
         “I’m a fan of you!” he said.  “It’s a privilege!  I’ll see you after the act.”
         The other four bandmembers grinned and nodded at Vithan, Tilanna and Gabrielle as they carried their instruments onto the stage.
         Crown of Defiance performed their greatest hit, and one of the most popular songs of the past decade – “Never Again”.  It was a song almost symphonic in its instrumental complexity, its rhythm and volume like the crashing of mighty waves on jagged rocks, its melody at once sweet and mournful for the passing of ages and lives.  Its lyrics were filled with longing and cautious hope for a world that would never again feel the cold touch of cataclysm.  The audience joined in the well-known anthemic chorus, Human and Dragon alike.  For tonight, all were one.
         As the crowd roared and cheered, Vithan turned to Tilanna with a mischievous grin.
         “It’s your turn after this,” he said.
         “Then let them keep cheering,” she said.  “I could wait.”
         “Or maybe you could break the tension and just get it over with,” said Vithan.
         “He’s right,” said Gabrielle.  “You’ll feel better once it’s over.”
         Tilanna sighed and rolled her eyes.
         Just then, the band stepped down from the stage.
         “Guys,” said Vithan, “you were fantastic.”
         “Thanks Vithan,” said Jothan.  “By the way, we heard about what happened, with that dickhead and his tattoo.  What was that all about?”
         Vithan briefly described Sabilikon’s confrontation with the suicidally foolish Savithar devotee.  The band members listened in rapt attention, their expressions fixed somewhere between amusement and disgust.  One could imagine they were gathering material for a new song. 
         Tilanna was also listening to Vithan’s recounting of the incident – an incident that was all too stark and recent in her memory.  She knew that Sabilikon had already received a dressing down from one of her senior officers.  Threatening a Human civilian in public – even the most offensive, idiotic Human imaginable – was never to be taken lightly.  Tilanna hoped that Sabilikon would stay in the Skywatch.
         Besides, listening to Vithan took her mind off what the Master of Ceremonies was speaking to the crowd.  She didn’t want to be introduced as a hero.  That was setting her up to disappoint the world.  She was just a first hand witness to historical events.  Events she had little say in.  Until the end … And that is when she cursed herself for buying into the hero myth just like everyone who hadn’t been there when it all happened.
         “… masterclass scanner and Sentinel Captain, Tilanna Tionomes!”
         The crowd erupted at the Chancellor’s mention of her name.  Vithan, Gabrielle and all five members of Crown of Defiance were grinning at her with what they must have thought was encouragement.  Vithan nodded.
         I think this is your cue, he mindspoke.
         I think this is your turn to shut up, Tilanna replied.
         The two of them chuckled at the silent joke as Tilanna stepped onto the stage.
~  ~  ~
“We’re here!”
         The Dragon’s cheerful announcement snapped Elani out of her drowsy trance.  She perked up on Latharixa’s neck, watching the moonlit ocean rushing below them … and the cliffs of pure ice rushing towards them.  Latharixa was soaring straight for the face of the cliff.
         “Lathy, don’t,” Elani demanded, as the ice cliff grew huge before her.  “Seriously, don’t!  I’m not joking!  LATHY!”
         The Dragon laughed as she soared straight upwards and over the edge of the cliff.  Below, there was nothing but ice, speeding past below, within cutting distance of Latharixa’s claws.
         “You’re worse that Domison,” said Latharixa.
         “And you’re worse than … never mind.”
         “You were about to say Bysamathark, weren’t you?” said Latharixa.
         “No!” said Elani, almost in shock.  “I would never –“
         “Just joking,” said Latharixa.  “Relax.”
         “Did you say ten kilometres inland?” said Elani.  She could feel the Dragon slowing down.  Far to her right, Tyraxica was also decelerating.  Jensi was hunched over on his neck, half asleep.
         “That’s right,” said Latharixa.  “And we’re down to five kilometres.”
         The Dragons continued to decelerate, the wind all around them whistling softly, biting cold on Elani’s exposed face.
         “Four kilometres,” said Latharixa.  “Once you set up camp, you can go back to sleep.”
         “I’m going back into the pouch,” said Elani.
         Both Dragons swept around in vast arcs, beginning to spiral.
         “Only Paxola stays in the pouch tonight.  Unless there’s a blizzard.”
         “You like him, don’t you?”
         “Don’t you start.”
~  ~  ~
Tilanna paused, frozen on the podium.
         She had said everything that she wanted to say.  But now she had come to the difficult part of the speech.  The important part.  The necessary part.  The part she would never forgive herself for omitting.
         She stared into the thousands of gazes fixed on her.  It took her no effort, no intrusion, to know what they were all feeling.  She had earned their attention.  In a way, that made things worse.  They expected more from her.  They expected so much from her.  And she had to deliver. 
         But she could not simply tell them what they wanted to hear.
         “I killed on that day.”
         She glanced around the amphitheatre, at the thousands of Humans, the dozens of Dragons.  She saw Sabilikon just outside the Amphitheatre, near the upper edge.  Did she nod?
         Yes, came her mindvoice.  It is all right to tell.
         “I know I’m stating the obvious,” she added.  “It was a violent conflict.  I had to defend myself.  And I have no regrets.  I had to kill, otherwise I would not be standing here talking to you tonight.
         “But on the day I killed, I learned something.  The first Dragon that I killed had memories, had a life, had a daughter.  And he threw it all away.  He followed the worst possible path.  It was his fault he got himself killed.  There was no doubt of that.  But when I killed him … it was not fun.  A few minutes before I killed him, I thought that victory was going to be fun. But after ... I just wasn’t a girl anymore.  Sometimes the things that have to be done are the things that are not fun, not even pleasant.  I know that many of you gathered here tonight have seen combat, and you know exactly what I am talking about.”
         There were a few faint nods among the Dragons.
         “You might think ‘heroes’ are better people than you, but they are people just like you.  They just try to do the right thing.  Sometimes they succeed.  And what about the ones that knowingly avoid doing the right thing?  Are you better than them?  Of course you are.  But just how different are you?  Would revenge drive you to murder?  Would anger make killing feel good?  It is a very thin wall that separates us from the bad guys.
         “That is why, as you look around at the monuments that adorn this island, I urge you not to look up to these likenesses of the fallen and think of them as gods beyond your reach.  They are us.  They are you.  They were Humans and Dragons, just like you, who chose the path that they believed would lead to a better world.
         “And what about the villains we fear?  Are they monsters to be reviled?  Perhaps.  But … I know that some of you might not want to hear this, but some of them were also once like you.  They had parents.  They had loved ones.  Some of them even had children.  And, in some sort of twisted way, many of them thought they were on a path that led to a better world.
         “So our purpose in this life is not to worship the good guys, or deal with the bad guys only by fighting.  Our purpose is to learn from both.  From the example set by the heroes.  From the mistakes and bad choices made by the villains.  And to know – for a fact, and without shame or hubris – that either one could have been us.  It is all down to the choices we make.  The paths we walk.
         “So all I ask of you … is to go out into the world, and not to go out looking for evil to fight every single day, but to just follow the right path.  The path you know is right.  That is all.”
         For one terrible moment, Tilanna thought she had lost her audience.  There was nothing but silence.  She could easily have done a sweep scan of the crowd to monitor their true feelings, but she was afraid to look.
         Then the applause erupted, and Tilanna’s breath exploded with relief.
         Thank you, came the mindvoice of Sabilikon.  We all needed to hear that.  Myself most of all.
         The applause still filled the air when Tilanna stepped offstage into Vithan’s waiting arms.
         “I’m not going to top that one,” said Vithan.
         “You could try,” said Tilanna.
         “Have you ever seen me exert more effort than I needed just to get the job done?”
         “Not for a few years.”
         “We need to make that into a song,” said Jothan Harolox.  “No, seriously, that’s going to be our next project.  And we’ll give you credit.”
         The other band members faintly nodded in agreement.
         “It would be an honour,” said Tilanna.
         “The honour is ours,” said Jothan.
         “Has anyone seen Alathaka?” said Vithan.
         “Sabby said she’s going to keep her distance until it’s her turn,” said Tilanna.  “I’m sure she was listening, although … Sabby’s outburst must have reminded her …”
         Vithan sighed.  “Let’s hope she’s ready.”
         “… the man voted Sexiest Male Officer in the Sentinel …” blared the amplified voice of Chancellor Vikrimmar.  Hundreds of voices cheered, most of them female, most of them Human.
         “Oh come on!” said Vithan.  “They’re still going on with that populist twaddle?”
         “Are you doubting my good taste?” said Tilanna.
         “Yes!” said Vithan.  “I’ve always doubted whatever passes for your taste.”
         “… Vithan Varox!” said Chancellor Vikrimmar.
         Everyone cheered.
         “I think that’s your cue,” said Tilanna.
         “All right all right!” said Vithan, stomping onto the stage to face the roaring crowd.
         “HELLOOOOO!” Vithan shouted in imitation of the Baby Dragon, who was still perched atop his mother’s head.
         “HELLOOOOOOO!” replied the Baby Dragon, sounding something like an echo.
         The crowd laughed.
         “We heard you the first tiiiiiime!” said Vithan, eliciting more laughter.  “Our future Skymarshal, ladies and gentlemen,” he added.  This earned even more laughs, especially from Skymarshal Mirithaka.
         “Seriously,” said Vithan, “did you all believe that horse crap?  About me being the sexiest man in the Sentinel?”
         Dozens of women and a few men responded with a collective “Yeees!”
         “Seriously?” said Vithan.  “Is this what turns you on, ladies?”  He rolled up his leather sleeve, exposing a perfectly ordinary pale arm.  “This?”
         Some women in the audience cheered and whistled.
         “Do you see any muscles?” said Vithan.  “Do you?  Right now you’re seeing a lot more veins than muscles.  Seriously, ladies, raise your standards!”
         More laughter.
         “You all know what they say about men with the strongest mindpowers, don’t you?  It’s all about compensating.  Or is that it, ladies?  Does all the sparks and lightning make up for it?”
         More female cheers.
         “Perverts!” shouted Vithan.
         He only seemed to encourage them.
         “Shock me darling!” said a loud female voice – definitely a Dragon.
         Vithan froze and gave the best shocked expression he could muster, which got some of the biggest laughs of the night.
         “And you’re the biggest pervert of the lot!” he shouted in mock outrage at the female Dragon on the edge of the Amphitheatre.  “Literally!”
         He shook his head as the crowd roared with laughter.  “And she’s in the Skywatch too!”  He stared straight at Skymarshal Mirithaka.  “Do you know about this, Skymarshal?  Do you?”
         The Skymarshal gave a playful nod.
         “Unbelievable!” said Vithan, shaking his head.  “That’s just … urgh!  That would be like me going for shaven mice or something.”
         Even Sabilikon laughed at that one.  Vithan felt a spark of relief.  After what she had put up with earlier that night, it was a good sign.
         “You watch yourself, Missy!” said Vithan, wagging his finger at the young Skywatch Dragon.  “You’re gonna lose those bands.  We know what you get up to.  What do you think my job is?  Hey?  Hey?”
         The young Dragoness cocked her head as the audience laughed.
         “We’ve got a list this long!” said Vithan.  “We have all the recordings!  You watch yourself.  Your secret’s going to be out any time soon.”
         “It’s an open secret!” said the Dragoness.
         Vithan raised one of his angular eyebrows.  “Really?” he said.  “If it’s an open secret, would you like to come down here and talk about it?”
         “Yes!” said the Dragoness.
         “Then come on stage!  Come on!”
         The audience clapped and cheered as the zebra-striped Dragoness – wearing two thin gold neckbands – walked around the edge of the Amphitheatre, then walked down the ramp and onto the stage.  Vithan backed toward the left of the stage to give her some room.  Of course, the stage was built for Dragons, so there was plenty of room for both.  The Dragon officer turned to the cheering audience and bowed her head, then turned to the left and bowed again.
         “And what is your name, Missy?” said Vithan as the crowd died down.
         The Dragoness turned to the crowd and gave her best sultry voice: “Patrol Officer Siraloxi.” 
         Some of the Dragons growled softly in approval.  Siraloxi winked at them and wiggled her big rump.
         “Officer Siraloxi,” said Vithan, “do you have a boyfriend?”
         “I have many,” said Siraloxi, winking at the audience again.  The audience laughed as more Dragons growled.
         Vithan turned to the audience with a blank expression and shook his head, gaining more laughter.  “Honestly …” he said.  “Do your boyfriends know of your perverted unnatural activities?”
         “They take part in every one of them,” said Siraloxi, cracking her tail like a whip. 
         Humans and Dragons laughed and cheered.
         Vithan turned to the audience once again.  “Ooh-hoo,” he said, shaking his head.  He turned back to Siraloxi.  “Do your superior officers know of your activities?”
         “Who do you think organizes them?” said Siraloxi.  This got a lot of good laughs from the Dragons.
         Vithan looked directly at Skymarshal Mirithaka.  “Is this true?” he said.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka grinned and rolled her head, which was Dragon body language for “I don’t know, maybe, maybe not.”
         Vithan put on his best shocked face again and faced the audience.  “Corruption to the core,” he said.  He turned back to Siraloxi.  “So, what is it about certain Human males that you admire so much?”
         “It’s the lightning!” she said.  Throughout the audience, females of both species cheered.
         “Really?” said Vithan.  “The lightning thing can be done by an elite minority of men and an elite minority of women.  A lot of them are in the Sentinel.”
         “Yes, but I like it best when men do it,” said Siraloxi.
         “Would it make you happy if you watched me do the lightning thing right now?” said Vithan.
         Everyone seemed to cheer this time.
         “Ooh, it would make me so much more than happy,” said Siraloxi.  “It would give me tingles in every place that matters!”  She shook her rump again as the crowd cheered.
         Vithan pretended to sigh.  “Very well then,” he said.  “But please, try to control yourself.  Promise?”
         “I promise,” said Siraloxi, sitting on her haunches.  “I’ll be a good girl.”  She winked at the tittering audience.
         Vithan held out his arms to the audience, his hands facing each other a metre apart.  Suddenly, piercingly bright lighting crackled between them, popping like a hailstorm on a steel roof. 
         The cheers of the crowd roared to a crescendo.
         Siraloxi thrust her head towards Vithan’s hands and snapped her jaws like a hungry crocodile.
         The crowd laughed as Vithan jumped back and the lightning disappeared.  He held out his arms in a classic defence pose, eliciting cheers from many in the crowd.
Siraloxi snapped again.  “Shock me darling!” she said.
         “No!” said Vithan, wagging a finger.  “Bad girl!  Get back to your seat!”
         Siraloxi turned to the audience, bowing multiple times to one and all as one and all cheered and applauded her.  She turned to stage right, wiggled her rump and climbed back up the ramp to the Dragon seats.
         “Go on!” said Vithan, waving his arms as if shooing away an errant dog.  “Get out of here!  Go back to your … God only knows what.  Honestly, Dragons these days!”
         The audience was still clapping and cheering when Siraloxi returned to her seat, exchanging playful looks and Draconic chatter with her fellow Dragon officers.
         “At least we know what villains to watch out for,” said Vithan, getting a few more laughs.  “Now where was I?” he added.  “What was I here for?  Oh, yes.  The memorial speech.  That thing that happened six years ago.  I forgot all about it.  Completely slipped my mind.”
         Vithan was surprised that this got plenty of laughs.  He felt relieved.
         “This is what we want,” said Vithan.  “Humans and Dragons, young and old, defenders and civilians, all together, all sharing a laugh.  Because if we can’t have that, then what the hell are we defending?”
         Sincere cheers and applause followed.
         “I had a speech prepared,” said Vithan.  “I had it all memorized.  Until … Miss Naughty Snappy Jaws ruined everything.”
         The crowd went back to laughing.  Siraloxi winked at Vithan.
         “The truth is, you don’t have to fight bad guys to save the world,” he said.  “You only have to … be a good friend.”
         Vithan paused, raising his gaze above the audience, above the Dragons on the edge of the Amphitheatre, above the campus buildings that towered above them, to the stars in the sky.
         I won’t cry, he silently told himself.  Perhaps another joke would hold back the tears.
         He caught familiar lamp-lit colours on the edge of his vision.  He turned slightly to his right.  Alathaka was seated out on the edge of the Amphitheatre, her stare soft and sincere.
         “Many of us lost so many friends and loved ones on that day,” said Vithan.  “But I don’t think any one of them would want us to cry.  I think they would only want us to be happy.  I know … I know he would.  Thank you all.”
         The crowd cheered its loudest to date as he walked off the stage.
         He descended into Tilanna’s tender embrace.  Finally, he was able to cry.
The second musical performance of the night was provided by Trinity – a vocal trio of three female Dragons.  They sang an elaborate rendition of a traditional Dragon requiem for the fallen and lost loved ones.  Their throats produced richly resonant sounds and notes no Human throat could hope to match, no hand-crafted instruments could hope to reproduce.  No Human words, no translations were necessary to convey the sheer sense of love, joy and sorrow their notes produced.  Thousands of Humans wiped tears from their faces, knowing that all gathered under the night’s stars shared these same emotions.  As the song came to its end and the beautiful notes faded as if into an immense cosmic distance, the final impression was not one of fear or grief, but of a gentle, peaceful good-bye.
         The audience was slow to applaud, stunned as they were by the spell cast by the three beautiful Dragon does.  But applaud they did, and all stood up out of their seats to give the third loudest and third longest cheer of the night.  The three does bowed their heads as one to the audience as the cheers rose to a triumphant roar.
         “That was beautiful,” said Tilanna, sitting just offstage.
         “It truly was,” said Vithan, watching the three Dragons exiting the stage and climbing back up the ramp.  He felt Tilanna wiping tears from his cheekbone.  “I can wipe away my own tears, thank you very much,” he said.
         “Not all of them,” said Tilanna.  “You’ve got way too much tonight.  Too much for one man to handle.”
         “You don’t need to help me cry,” said Vithan.  “You make me cry sometimes.  Except then it’s more of a … you know … I-got-my-balls-caught-between-two-gears kind of cry.”
         Tilanna giggled and kissed him on the cheek.  “Alathaka is up next,” she said.
         “Do you think she’s all right for it?” said Vithan.
         “On the surface, she seems fine,” said Tilanna.  “But there’s a lot of pain there, buried deep.  I think the requiem might have soothed her, for now.”
         “… and has frequently been rated as one of the most powerful Dragons in the Skywatch today,” announced Professor Vilkrimmar, “give a fiery warm welcome to Squadron Leader Alathaka!”
         The crowd cheered and roared as Alathaka made her entrance.  She was the biggest Dragon to appear on stage that night, and made no attempt to hide it.  She outspread her wings, filling the stage from end to end.  Her veins lit up her wings like leaves of fire.  She raised her head, reared up on her massive hind legs, and roared in pride and triumph, roared louder than any other Dragon present.  The cheers rose, near-deafening yet unable to match her, taking a long time to settle down.
         The stage was built to take two hundred tons.  Fortunately, Alathaka only weighed thirty-six – and could reduce her gravity weight down to nothing if needed.
         “Olokuvon would have loved this,” said Alathaka as she settled onto all fours.  “He would have loved you all.”
         Everyone cheered in agreement.
         “And I know he does,” she added, “because I know he’s here.  Forever watching.”
         She turned her head and looked up at the statue of her lover that towered over everyone and everything.  Once again, the cheering rose.
         “I used to be an actress,” she said.  “I was in the campus drama group.  Did any of you know that?”
         There were some enthusiastic cheers among the Humans.
         “It seems we have some former Kesalzhin students here tonight,” she said, looking around the Amphitheatre.  “Do you like what they have done with the place?”
         Dozens of Humans shouted “Yes!”
         “Have any of you seen my statue?”
         Half the audience cheered in affirmation.
         “Would you not love to have a statue as beautiful as mine?”
         The cheers continued.
         “Shalyn Hythax did such a masterful job, did he not?  He got my eyes right, my nose, my ears, my wings, my tail, my hips, all the parts you boys like to look at.  Am I right?”
         Thousands of males cheered.
         “I can see Mister Hythax in the audience tonight.  Shalyn, could you stand up please?  Don’t be shy.”
         A dark-skinned Ixthillion man in his twenties stood up only a few rows from the stage.  An illusory light-haze appeared above him, highlighting him for all to see.  He turned to the bulk of the audience, grinning coyly as he bowed.
         “This man is truly a superlative artist, do you not agree?” said Alathaka.
         Everyone cheered in agreement.
         “On the day of the Siege, when Gabrielle’s bomb exploded underground and the Assembly Hall’s roof window shattered, he took two shards and moulded them into a perfect likeness of me the size of a housecat.  He achieved that within minutes.  It was to thank me for protecting my fellow hostages from the falling shards.”
         More cheers.
         “But it seems that he could not thank me enough,” Alathaka continued.  “He would not rest until he moulded a statue of me that was twice my size!  Because if there is one thing that I have learned in my young life, it is that no-one could ever get enough of me!”
         Everyone laughed and cheered.
         “No, it is not enough to have me in tiny little bite-sized portions.  You must have me in MOUNTAIN sized portions!”
         Once again, she spread her wings to fill the stage, and the cheers rose to a full roar.
         “Thank you, Shalyn.  I shall see you after the show.”  She winked.
         Shalyn shook his head and wagged his finger as he sat down, making some nearby audience members chuckle.
         “Did I mention that Patrol Officer Siraloxi is a member of my squadron?”
         The crowd laughed.  On the edge of the Amphitheatre, Siraloxi nodded with a smile.
         “Ah, yes,” said Alathaka.  “It is all coming clear now, is it not?”
         More laughter.
         “Fortunately for your delicate sensibilities,” she continued, “this is not the subject I am here to talk about.  After all, everyone who knows me knows that I am a meek and modest little girl.”
         Almost everyone roared with laughter.
         “Oh yes,” she said.  “So modest that I have no desire to remind you once again that I used to be an actress in this island college years before it was rebuilt.”
         The laughter continued. 
“Sometimes I was the stage itself.  My neck would be the bench where the Human actors would sit.  My claws, the Emporer’s throne.  My tail, the walled border of the palace.  My pouch, the private quarters where certain characters would emerge or disappear.  My wings, the curtains to open and close each act.  And that is why I bring you good news on this otherwise mournful night.  For this very place, the newly constructed Amphitheatre upon which so many rumps both massive and miniscule are now seated, shall henceforth be named the Alathaka Amphitheatre!”
         Once again, Alathaka spread her wings mightily as the crowd roared its collective praise.
         “As pleasing as it may be to I and all, this is not the greatest news I have to bear.  Oh no.  For in honour of the sheer courage, loyalty and relentless fighting spirit displayed by my fallen beloved, the island under your feet shall henceforth be named Olokuvon Island!”
         A hundred Dragons and ten thousand Humans rose to their feet, as the skies erupted with the second loudest and second longest cheer of the night.
         When the roars of adulation finally began to subside, Alathaka continued.  “And I welcome one and all to the newly opened Olokuvon Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted!”
         The cheering continued as if it had never stopped.  Alathaka outspread her wings, levitated above the roaring throng, and soared upward into the night sky.  She landed gently on the huge head of Olokuvon’s statue, filled her wing-veins with the fiery latticework of her blood, and exhaled a blinding stream of golden-white fire, splitting the night sky, dimming the stars and moons with its hot radiance.  Humans and Dragons alike gazed up in wonder, the world around them lit up as if the Sun was rising so gloriously early.
         Still atop his mother’s head, the Baby Dragon looked up to the heavens and gave his own shrill cheer.  He was loving the spectacle, which was just about all he could understand.
         Eventually, even this thunderous praise had to fade.  Alathaka stepped off the head of the most beloved statue and – her wings fixed in a V-shape – began to slowly, daintily float down the stage, as light as a feather.  When her claws finally touched the stage floor, she folded her wings.
         “I am such a meek and modest girl,” she said.
         The laughter seemed almost anticlimactic after such a powerful cheer.  It was almost as if everyone was still catching their breaths.  Even the Dragons.
         “But on the subject of the Enemy, I refuse to be modest.”         For this line, there was no cheer, only silence.  After all that had passed, it was a great time for all to hold breaths.  All knew that they had to prepare for what was to come.  All could feel it in the air.  
         Now it’s beginning to show, Tilanna mindspoke.
         Vithan could only nod, knowing exactly what Tilanna referred to.        Six years could not heal everything.
         “You all know what the enemy is,” said Alathaka.  She began to prowl from one end of the stage to the other, like a tigress waiting to be fed, never leaving her burning emerald gaze from her captive audience.  “The powerful and heartless terrorizing the weak and innocent.”
         A collective “Yes!” could be heard like a distant crashing wave.
         “Dragons striking fear into the hearts of Humans and Dragons alike, giving my race, my clan, my family and loved ones, a filthy reputation they do not deserve!”
         The cries of “Yeees!” grew louder, like a wave crashing ever closer.
         “I tell you now, I tell you all, we will not give in to fear!  We will not give in to their hate!  We will not let them divide us and turn our world into the desolate hell they want to live in!”
         All cheered, even the Skymarshal. 
         Sounds good so far, Vithan mindspoke.
         So far, Tilanna cautiously agreed.
         “I have seen the face of the Enemy,” snarled Alathaka, still prowling the stage.  “I have gazed into the eyes of pure evil.  Do you know what I saw?  Not courage.  Not confidence.  Not love.  Not empathy.  But fear!  Nothing but cowardice and fear!”
         The crowd roared as one beast.
         “I say, let them be afraid!  For it is us they must fear more than anything!  For it is we who want to make a better world, a world with no place for the vermin who seek to divide us!”
         The crowd-beast roared louder, but not all were joining in.
         “Yes, let them be afraid!  Let them flutter away and hide like the filthy little pigeons they are!  For we will know where to find them!”
         The crowd roared “YEEES!”
         “We will track them down, we will corner them and watch them tremble, and then we will BURN THEM!”
         She outspread her wings once more, her veins aglow with bloodfire, and the crowd roared its bloodlust.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka sat there motionless, her expression stiff and stern as she glared at this younger, louder Skywatch officer.
         Once again, she exhaled a golden stream of fire high above the crowd, filling the sky with the light of her passion and the heat of her rage, and the crowd roared to match her.     
         Skymarshal Mirithaka continued to stare, unmoved, unimpressed.
         The Baby Dragon was no longer visible, having sought refuge in his mother’s pouch.  His mother simply glanced around at the cheering throng, concerned.
         She’s lost it, Vithan mindspoke, equally concerned.
         I was afraid this might happen, Tilanna mindspoke.
         Millions of Humans around the world are watching this right now, said Vithan.  And thousands of Dragons.
         Unfortunately, too many are going to love it, said Tilanna.
         Do you know what the scariest thing is?
         I sort of agree with her.
         Tilanna gave Vithan a sly side-glance.  Then you need to be disciplined too.
         It was only a joke, but not a happy one.
         Once again, Alathaka levitated above the cheering throng, wings vast and glowing.  The cheers continued as she flew away into the night sky, disappearing on the other side of the trees and buildings and lights.
         Skymarshal Mirithaka and two other senior Skywatch officers had been watching her trajectory.  They got to their feet and walked towards the area where Alathaka had disappeared.
         “Let’s hope she keeps all her bands,” Vithan said out aloud.
         “It sounds like Sabilikon’s losing one,” said Tilanna.  “If we have two demotions in one night …”
         “Then the message is clear,” said Vithan.  “For some, the battle doesn’t end.  And what better way to remind the public?”
         “I’m not being callous.  If Alathaka loses a neckband, the whole world will know why, just as they’d know why she got a bit emotional during her speech.”
         “A bit emotional?”
         “I’m saying that – regardless of whether they agree with her or not, or whether they think Sabby was justified in threatening to fry that Savithar-loving tattoo dickhead – everyone will know what Dragons like her go through.”
         “Everyone will know?” Tilanna’s stare was incredulous.  “We now have a Memorial Day just for this occasion.  The first day of Sakatoth is now a day of mourning, and will be for at least another thousand years.  I think people already know.”
         “Not most of them,” Vithan corrected.  “Not until now.  Now they know for a fact that Dragons grieve and suffer trauma just like Humans.  There are a lot of people out there that could really benefit from learning that.”
         Tilanna sighed heavily through her nostrils as she gazed ahead, trying to lose herself in the crystal lights that drowned the stars.  “Somehow,” she said, “I don’t think that’s the message they got.”
~  ~  ~

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RE: Devouring Angel: Book Two of the Elixir Trilogy - by DarrenRyding - 05-05-2021, 01:36 PM

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