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Devouring Angel: Book Two of the Elixir Trilogy
I have made some small changes to the Prologue and Chapter One.  In particular, the first few pages of Chapter One have been trimmed away so that we begin with Vithan and Sabilikon arriving at New Kesalzhin Island.

Even after twenty thousand years, no one was certain whether machines had souls.  Probe Seven, however, liked to imagine that he had one.  Even if he did not, he was still grateful for the life he had.  After all, learning and exploring was the love of his life.  It was literally the reason for his existence.  And what else could a soul be?
         The world spread out below him, for all its potential dangers, was something that he could not help but love, for it was another reason for his very existence.  It was his duty to observe it.  After a whole year of silent, hidden observation, he had learned to love its many inhabitants.  He loved its billion Humans, with the exception of those that were petty and cruel.  He loved its hundred thousand Dragons, with the same exceptions.  He loved the many trillions of creatures that crawled and swam and flew and knew nothing better.  And, perhaps, he could learn to love the only ones he had to fear.  Perhaps that day would come.
         For today, however, Probe Seven was happy to watch the world awaken.
         Thousands of kilometres below, the edge of the morning sunlight was sweeping across the surface of the planet Haloken, peeling back the shadow of night.  For the past few minutes, it was mostly the ocean that fell under its relentless advance; yet even here there were signs of intelligent life and activity.  On a sailboat near the equatorial centre of the Armestraung Ocean, a small band of Ixthalion fishermen were already awake, enjoying their mugs of steaming beverage when the sunrise greeted them like the face of an old friend.  Far to their north, a squadron of nine Skywatch Dragons were gliding below the speed of sound as the hazy border of sunlight caught up with them, clothing their scales from tail to head with gleaming swiftness, colouring the ocean before them with graceful slowness.  Far to the south, a team of Human researchers near the ice-jagged coast of Farasion awoke to a sunrise that glinted upon the ice like a lamp on white glass.
         On any other day, each one of these small, routine activities would have held Probe Seven’s interest for considerably more than a millisecond.  Not today.  This day marked the sixth anniversary of the most momentous - the most shocking - event in this planet’s recorded history.  And on this day, in the place where it had all begun - where history had been born, hidden, and re-exposed in all its brilliant and terrible glory - the remembrance of those events were about to commence.
         After endless minutes, the wave of daylight flooded throughout kilometres of unfrozen land; the cliffs, beaches, forests and - finally - the freshly constructed college buildings of New Keslazhin Island.
         The Probe had no breath to gasp with, no flesh-framed eyes to widen with wonder and fascination.  Yet his body’s trillions of molecule-sized components held much, much more.  Thousands of scanning devices all diverted their attention from peripheral activities, and focused all their observational powers on this one patch of land in the midst of the sea. 
         This was the place where the Elixir had been buried so many thousands of years ago.  This was the place where it had slept, existing only as a dream, as a legend, before finally being reawakened.  The consequence of this disturbance did much more than tremble a world - it had shaken an entire galaxy.
         Your latest report fills me with wonder and pride, Hygraxil transmitted to Probe Seven over a secure, narrow Q-link.  Continue to monitor all significant mentions of the Elixir.
         Affirmative, My Lady, replied Probe Seven.  (Their true conversation was far more complex than this, but the concepts raised and formal undertones were mostly translatable in mortal terms).  Yet while I find it easy to monitor all crystal transmissions, eavesdropping upon the great majority of telepathic conversations is still an unattainable goal.
         As unattainable as it is unnecessary.  Do not allow excessive pride to cloud your duty.  You cannot possibly deposit any more dataspores into Haloken’s atmosphere without arousing the suspicion of the Moredrex and Kujiras. Your scanning network surrounds the entire planet - surely that must be sufficient for you?  You must value patience and security far more highly than you presently value curiousity.
         I understand, My Lady.  Yet I have sworn my life to your service, and utilise the gift of curiousity to the fullness of your desire.
         The fullness of my desire is to see your mission continue as long as required, not to have it halted prematurely.  My gift of curiousity to you is not to be abused for the purpose of hasty gratification.
         I concur and apologise, My Lady.
         Apology accepted, pride of my spawn.
         As daylight swept across the ocean, hundreds of Dragons could be seen soaring towards New Kesalzhin Island, many carrying equipment and Human passengers.  The festivities were well underway.
         A few hundred kilometres to the north, a medium-sized sailship belonging to the Church of the Celestial Ambassador began its slow journey towards the heart of the ocean.  Sitting around on the deck in rigid silence, their nervousness apparent even from Probe Seven’s altitude, were sixteen black-robed young Initiates.  They had come of age, and were now rehearsing a once-in-a-lifetime ritual that was nonetheless a common occurrence for the increasingly expansive Church.  Probe Seven scanned the surrounding seas to five hundred kilometres, then a thousand.  There were no signs of any Kujiras.  However, as the Probe knew all-too-well, that meant nothing.
         Fixed high in orbit, linked up to a billion microscopic dataspores that surrounded the planet, Probe Seven gazed down upon the mortal realm from the dark and dangerous heavens, watching the world turn.
Part One:

Chapter One
We have arrived, said the voice in his head.
         Vithan awoke immediately.  He rolled over and stretched out in the pitch-black darkness.  His sock-covered feet pressed against a barrier that was as soft, warm and yielding as the rest of his surroundings.  He instinctively slid forward to peek out from under the thick warm blanket … until his head pressed against another gently yielding barrier. 
         That was when he remembered he was not under a blanket.  He was under something much bigger.
         Every Human does that, said the same stately, feminine mindvoice.  That’s why I keep the pouch closed on long flights.
         “Well, you can open it now,” Vithan said out aloud.  “I promise not to jump out this time.  I feel pretty sober.  And I’m not in the mood to go swimming.”  As Vithan spoke, his words echoed in the shallow regions of his mind, and that was what the Dragon listened for. 
         Are you sure you are sober? said Sabilikon.  It would seem that you cannot tell one end of a Dragon from another.
         “How do you know I’m facing the wrong way?”
         I can feel where you’re head is.  It’s almost as if I’m going to lay an egg.  Can’t you even scan through my hide this morning?
         “I’m too tired.”
         Then perhaps you are not sober after all.
         Vithan curled around in the pouch, brushing past the cooling bag that contained several drinks and snacks for long flights.        
         “Now will you open up?” said Vithan.
         Very well then, Captain.
         A small hole opened up not far from Vithan’s head, flooding the dark warmth with a gentle crimson light and a refreshing coolness.  The breeze was only slight, for the Dragon’s all-pervading energy shield collected and warmed the air, letting it filter in harmlessly.  Vithan wriggled forward until his chin was resting on the rim of the pouch opening.  Facing downwards, he beheld his world’s most famous island – a landmark of history, thanks to an event that he and his friends had been forcibly caught up in.
         Sabilikon’s flight had slowed down considerably, allowing Vithan to savour the green hills, russet cliffs and white beaches of New Kesalzhin Island.  Dozens of Dragons could be seen flying over the island’s centre, around the dozens of new structures that could be seen jutting above the forest. 
         It had been six years since he had last set foot on this island – six years since he and his friends had escaped the thunderous destruction of its predecessor.  He had been there when the island had been miraculously remade.  Against all reason, after billions of tons of debris had been ejected into the atmosphere in a blast that shook the world, the very same debris had then been sucked back into the ocean through an enormous funnel, hissing, solidifying and cooling into a wondrous new shape.  Hills, lakes, entire forests had risen out of the ground within minutes.  And, best of all, a new friend believed lost had returned to the world of the living.
         Vithan’s world, the planet Haloken – once called Telekos – had not always been left to the hands of nature and random chance.  Thousands of years ago, it had been moulded and electrolysed by countless machines, prepared with air, oceans, flora and fauna; prepared for the first Human Colonists and the wise machines that guided them.  Thus, almost anything “natural” that he could see – the trees, the oceans, the blue sky itself – had been put there by a powerful and ancient technology.  Yet the island spread out before him now – unofficially entitled New Kesalzhin Island, and soon to receive a new, official name all of its own – was the one known landmass that was truly the creation of a god.  Its very existence was a miracle.
         Within minutes, the myriad structures of the new college spun beneath him like a galaxy of marble and masonry.  Hundreds of tiny Humans and dozens of Dragons were already milling around the vast amphitheatre. 
         Vithan did not need to scan hard to locate his old friend and fellow survivor – one of the few who had fought beside him for the future of the world.  His naked Human eyes were enough.  Those vibrant red-and-blue stripes were unmistakeable, as were the three well-earned gold neckbands of a Skywatch Squadron Leader.  Alathaka, former student of Kesalzhin Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted, most beloved of Vithan’s late best friend, now a hero and icon to Dragons and Humans alike.
         On the subject of icons, Alathaka was not the only Dragon form that caught Vithan’s eye.  She was apparently conversing with two other Skywatch officers whom Vithan barely recognized.  The immense figure far behind her, however, immediately gave a solid lump to Vithan’s throat.  He would always know those gold-and-black stripes, even if they were made of gold and onyx.
         I’ll try not to cry, thought Vithan.
         “Why try to hide it?” said Sabilikon.  “People will understand.”
         “Stickybeak,” said Vithan.
         “Thank you,” said Sabilikon.  “From someone of your profession, that is the highest compliment imaginable.”
         Far below, Alathaka looked up, and her emerald eyes locked with his across the distance.  She roared with elation.
         Vithan, my delightful little joy toy!  Come down and join us ladies!  Our ears need a nice long scratching, and you have the most experienced and accomplished hands of the entire Human species!
         Vithan chuckled.  After all her trauma, arduous training and bands of rank, she was still that silly drama student from way back.  Yet today, there was a subtly strained quality to her mindvoice.  And he knew why.
         Sorry to disappoint you, Vithan mindspoke, but right now I’m too lazy to even scratch my own ears, let alone ones that are longer than my arms.
         In that case, we’ll just rub our heads against you and purr softly.  And we’ll line up in order of rank.
         Pervert, Vithan mindspoke.
         Hypocrite, Alathaka replied.
         Vithan tried to hold his smile, trying not to worry about his old friend’s state of mind.  Just under the surface of her obvious joy and mirth, there was … something else.  Something that Vithan knew all too much about.  It always happened to her this time of the year.  And on this year of all years, on this day of all days, in this place of all places, nothing was going to make her forget.
         Vithan knew only too well how she felt.  It was all he could do to avoid drinking away the previous night.  What was that old saying by Garmatuel?  Remembrance of fallen comrades is the hero’s great curse.  Vithan would never call himself a hero.  Not out aloud.  But there once was a time when he would not have given that line much thought.  Then the world changed, and so did he.
         Sabilikon’s leisurely, spiralling dive lasted a few minutes, giving Vithan plenty of time to drink in the scenery of a newly rebuilt island college. 
         The builders and shapers had been busy over the last six years.  The architecture of New Kesalzhin College was as colourful and diverse as a well-tended garden, but was also decidedly modern in style.  Vithan recognized the jagged angles and fanning blades of the Vundivah Century movement, the spiralling domes of Danshi Revival, the stepped pyramids of Zovanihurst Wave, and New Jenihest’s towering cones hugged by titanic ribcages of curved balconies.  Life-sized statues of six Skywatch Dragon heroes sat upon each corner of a vast stone hexagon, surveying the Island and horizon beyond with eyes of burning jade or gold.  Most striking of all, however, was the new style inspired by the exotic cities of Haloken’s far-off Colonial days.  Honeycombed cylinders burst with layers and layers of flower-petal balconies; not unlike the towers Vithan had once glimpsed in historical holograms six years ago, far underground.
         The new campus was an exquisite banquet for the mind as well as the eyes.  A single Dragon could get lost here if one forgot how to fly.  Yet nothing could truly replace the College of old.  It had truly been an exquisite museum of the history of architecture, covering a full eleven thousand years.  It had been the portrait of a long age, not a mere moment.
         Almost any building with a broad, flat ceiling had dozens of Dragons and hundreds of Humans perched atop, enjoying the view from the edge.  One young female Dragon posed suggestively with one of the male Dragon statues, entwining her neck around it and rubbing her ears against its head.  Her boyfriend hovered in the air before them, rumbling with laughter.  Vithan looked away.  The likeness of that statue had been one of the hundreds of Dragons who had died defending this world, defending all who walked and flew today.  Yet Vithan was quick to smother his anger.  He remembered what he himself had been like only a few short years ago.
         As Sabilikon descended, the proudly modern towers seemed to grow and rise all around them, not unlike the magically conjured trees on this same island six years ago.  The mosaic-tiled ground grew below Vithan like dry skin under a microscope, cells all of jagged stone and autumn colour.  Seconds after the Dragoness’s hind claws touched the tiles, she leaned forward to let Vithan exit her pouch.
         Vithan stumbled around on the tiles like a sailor rediscovering his land legs, clutching his handcase as if his life depended on it.
         “Do you want to hop back in?” said Sabilikon, who had stepped back to give Vithan some room to reacquaint himself with gravity after so many hours.
         “I’m all right,” said Vithan.  “When you have my job, you get used to …”
         He froze as he saw the vibrant bulk of Alathaka striding toward him.
         “Change of plan,” he said.  “Let me back in!”
         “Oh no,” said Sabilikon, taking another step back.  “You’re Alathaka’s toy now.  I dare not get in her path.  No-one does.”
         “Vithan!” said Alathaka.  She gently rubbed her huge muzzle against Vithan’s torso.  Vithan affectionately rubbed his hands over the smooth scales under her hugely luminous green eye.
         “Happy Sakatoth!” said Vithan.  “How are you these days you crazy fat-arsed bimbo?”
         “I am having as much fun as a pouch full of electric eels,” said Alathaka.
         “That good, eh?”
         “You can make it even better.”  She turned her head so that Vithan could see into the long, cupped grass-blade of her ear, immaculately clean and gleaming.  “Please?” she begged in her best impression of innocence.
         “Oh, all right, you oversized neurotic,” said Vithan.  He began to scratch her ear.  “After all, you technically still outrank me.  God only knows why.”
         “Mmmmm,” Alathaka purred heavily.  “You should get paid to do this.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Is your speech ready?”
         “Well, I probably don’t have to improvise.  Much.  And yours?”
         “I shall have the greatest speech of the night,” said the Dragoness.
         “My, we are modest today, aren’t we?”
         “The greatest speech of all time.  Words fit to stun the gods.”
         “Well, that’s good.”  Vithan kept on scratching.  “Keep your goals humble and realistic, and no-one will be disappointed.”
         “You never disappoint, my little joy toy.”
         “Shut up.”
         “Have you seen my statue?”
         “Your statue?  Sorry, I was too busy looking at …”  Vithan briefly glanced upwards.
         “I understand,” said Alathaka.
         “Your statue was Shalyn’s project, wasn’t it?”
         “Yes.  Like that little glass figurine he moulded on the day it happened, on a much more … voluptuous scale.  I am certain it will please you, if you know what I mean.”
         “Oh … shut up.”
         “So you’re at it again Vithan!”
         It was the voice of his wife.
         “And you shut up too,” said Vithan.
         Tilanna Ti-Varox grinned playfully as she approached Vithan and Alathaka, her black wavy hair luxuriantly thick, her jaguar-print blouse and skirt hugging her generous figure.
         “I just can’t leave you two alone for five minutes,” she said as she embraced and kissed her husband of four years.  “Are you coming to the hotel, or do you want to book a giant room with your mistress?”
         “Shut up.”
         “I will drop off your luggage at the lobby,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “I don’t think that promise deserved a ‘shut up’,” said Sabilikon.
         “Shut up.”
         “Very well then.  As you please.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna giggled.  “You have matured so much in the past six years.”
         “Shut up.”
         Tilanna turned in the direction of the hotel.  “Penthouse Three.  I’ll be waiting.  You two have fun.  Take your time.”
         “Shut up.”
The balcony outside Penthouse Three of the Kalina Tathaunen Hotel had a superlative view of the amphitheatre.  The latter had been designed to seat ten thousand Humans and a hundred Dragons.  However, it was not the amphitheatre that Vithan stared at.  It was the statue that towered over it.  The statue that reared so high, Vithan could look it in the eye on the twelfth floor.
         Tilanna appeared beside him, softly wrapping her arm around his waist.
         “It looks so much like him,” she said.
         “It does,” Vithan whispered.
         Olokuvon, Vithan’s best friend, was immortalized forever in gold and onyx, so much larger than life.  Six years on, he still watched over the island he swore to protect, rearing in defiance of the evil that threatened his loved ones, mouth agape in a silent roar of victory – a victory that was sealed upon the hour of his death.
         “Do you think he’s watching us?’ said Vithan.  “Right now?”
         “I’m sure he is,” said Tilanna.
         A white dove landed on the statue’s head, looking as tiny as a gnat.
         “I dream about him sometimes,” said Vithan.
         “So do I,” said Tilanna.  “Maybe he’s trying to reach us from the other side.”
         “Or maybe they’re just dreams,” said Vithan.
         “I thought you put your atheist days behind you.”
         “I did.  But we’re still mortal.  And dreams are still dreams.”
Gabrielle arrived three hours after Vithan.
         Vithan and Tilanna met her in the courtyard in front of the hotel, shortly after hastily getting out of bed, showering and re-dressing into their leather Sentinel uniforms.  The twenty-one thousand year old Colonist (with the trim body of a twenty-seven year old) had outwardly changed over the past six years.  They had first met her as a twitchy, moody and slightly psychotic survivor of a long-lost civilization, with a crew cut, a T-shirt and jeans, which she promptly replaced with a figure-hugging battlesuit that talked to her as a personal guide.  Since then, she had let her dark brown hair grow into a silky cascade.  The dress she had chosen for the day was one she had worn to several other recent public gatherings – what Gabrielle called a “traditional Earth dress”, because it used to be revived every century.  It was long and silken red with split sides – a style she had requested from her personal tailor, and had swiftly become a fashion statement throughout much of the world.  Indeed, her influence was guaranteed.  She was a historical figure, a celebrity, an object of adoration and mystery and wonder, a highly esteemed advisor to the Global Council, and a bestselling author.
         Gabrielle was almost incoherently ecstatic as she exchanged hugs and greetings with her old friends.  “How’s the Sentinel going?” she finally said.
         “Classified,” said Vithan, deadpan as ever.
         “Same as usual then?  Are they ever going to let you two work together?”
         “That is not going to happen,” said Tilanna.  “Conflict of interests.  They say emotional bonds cloud one’s judgement and objectivity on missions.”
         “Right,” said Gabrielle, just before pausing awkwardly.  She knew a thing or two about emotions clouding one’s judgement.
         “It’s something of a novelty to see you without bodyguards,” said Vithan.  “Of course, you know the two of us could do a much better job, can’t we Tilanna?”
         “It seems the entire island has bodyguards today,” said Gabrielle.
         “Well observed,” said Tilanna.  “One in ten Humans here is Sentinel.  One in four Dragons is Skywatch.  If there’s going to be an incident …”
         “… they’d have to rebuild the college again once the dust clears,” said Vithan.
         “Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Gabrielle.  “Hey, is Alathaka here?”
         “I think she’s with a few other Skywatch officers on the far side of the island,” said Vithan.  “You can catch up with her before the ceremony.”
         “Cool.  Well, I’ll just pop into the hotel and catch up with Headquarters.  I’ll see you two shortly.  Ooh, this is going to be epic!”
         She strode quickly to the hotel entrance.
         “Do you think we should go back in and rehearse our speeches?” said Tilanna.
         “I’ve done enough rehearsing to blank walls to be exempt from public speaking for the next few lifetimes, if the gods are fair.  What about you?”
         “I think I’m fine with it.”
         “You think?”
         “Well, no mortal can be one hundred per cent sure about anything,” said Tilanna.  “Sometimes a gut feeling is all we have.”
         “Now I know for a fact that there’s a God.”
         “You’re finally saying goodbye to that prissy fussy over-achiever you used to be.”
         Tilanna chuckled and playfully shoved him. 
“And why not?” he added.  “Four years in the Sentinel teaches you a thing or two about the world.”
         “And don’t we know it.”
         The pair walked around the front corner of the hotel.  In a park bursting and flowing with every imaginable shade of green, a family of Dragons were relaxing, conversing in the complex clicks and growls of their language.
         “Have you seen the Wall of Names?” said Tilanna.
         “Not yet.”  Vithan froze awkwardly for a few seconds.  “I’ll get around to it.”
         “Get around to it?  We can literally walk around the hotel right now and …”
         A blue baby Dragon, the size of a pony, walked up to Tilanna and Vithan, his waddling gait almost like a clumsy puppy-duckling hybrid.  He sat before the pair and looked up at them with huge, glistening dark eyes. 
Tilanna leaned forward with a blissful smile.  “Hello little cutie!” she said.
         “HELLO WALKY WOOWOOS!” shouted the Joey.  Then he turned tail and ran toward his mother, leaving Vithan and Tilanna laughing with delight.  The mother Dragon – blue with violet spots – gently nuzzled her Joey as she clicked in soothing tones.  The Joey clicked back and poked at her flank.  The mother Dragon lifted her body to let her Joey dive headfirst into her pouch, then weightlessly sat down and winked at Vithan and Tilanna.
         “He’s adorable,” said Tilanna.  “Sooner or later we’ll have one of our own.”
         “What, a baby Dragon?” said Vithan in mock surprise.  “Will he fit in your pants?  What am I saying, of course he will.  You can hide him in the back.  No-one will tell the diff- OWW!”
         Tilanna giggled as Vithan rubbed his earlobe.  “You know what I mean,” she said.
         “I thought we agreed to wait,” said Vithan.
         “I know.  I meant in the long run.  You know, the next few years.”
         “Well, we both get two years paid parental leave.  Plus the in-house crèche-“
         “It’s not about getting a free vacation.”
         “I’m just pointing out the advantages, you know, to compensate for having a little runt with probably death-ray vision or something.”
         Tilanna laughed.  “You read too many thrillers.”
         “Read thrillers?  We both freaking live them!”
         “And that makes us both well prepared for parenthood.”
         “Screw that.  I’d rather face down evil fascist Dragon terrorists any day, belching all smoke and fury.  Being a father is what scares the shit out of me.”
         Tilanna laughed some more.  “You’re pathetic.”
         “I know.  It takes less effort.”
         They walked around the hotel, to the side where the Amphitheatre filled most of their view, and the statue of Olokuvon towered far above.
         He knew exactly where Tilanna was leading him.  To the Wall.
         The Olokuvon statue stood proudly upon a vast box-shaped base of pure granite, polished to a glass-smooth finish.  Engraved on the front side of the base were hundreds of words, bevelled in real gold.  They were the names of all heroes and hostages who had died in the Siege at Kesalzhin.
         Dozens of Humans and one Dragon were gathered before the Wall of Names.  Some Humans gave Vithan and Tilanna surprised glances, and hastily stepped aside to let them pass.  Many a Human – some levitating – would reach out to touch one of the names.  Some would close their eyes as they did, as if in quiet reverence.  Vithan knew why.  The properties of the Wall were already well known.
         “We have to try it,” said Tilanna.  She strode quickly over to the Wall.  Vithan slowly followed.
         Unsurprisingly, most of the names were of Dragons.  Eighteen Dragons of the Skywatch had been wiped out in the sky over Kesalzhin Island.  Hours later, one thousand and twenty three Dragons had been swiftly, brutally slaughtered by Dahal Savithar moments after the Elixir had taken effect and transformed him.  Scattered among the broad list, equally revered, were Human names.  Dahal Savithar had personally murdered fourteen Human students right in front of Alathaka, just to torment her.  He had been a monster long before the Elixir had transformed him.  Kalina Tathaunen, former Chancellor of Kesalzhin Island College for the Psionically Gifted – and secret Priestess of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador –, was also listed among the fallen.  She had committed suicide during a meeting with the monster himself, not wanting to be used as his instrument.
         Tilanna reached out to one of the Human names and closed her eyes.  After a few seconds, she exhaled deeply through her nostrils as her eyes filled with tears.
         “She was my roommate,” she said as she opened her eyes, wiping away her tears.  “Try it,” she added.
         Slowly, Vithan reached out to the engraved name – Kehenta Glathwill.  As soon as he touched the gold and granite, he closed his eyes. 
         Immediately, he saw Tilanna’s former roommate standing before him, her irregularly cropped hair bleached and feathered in the fashion of six years ago, her ears and nostrils studded and pierced, her clothing a patchwork of multiple animal prints. 
         Kehenta Glathwill, said a voice in Vithan’s mind.  Born on the Fourteenth of Azlovah, Year Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Music student at Kesalzhin College from Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Four to Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Highly acclaimed lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for on-campus Third Wave Thunderfolk band The Chilli Ferrets.  Murdered by Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valamana, Twenty-One-
         Vithan removed his hand and opened his eyes.  For a moment it had been beautiful.  The Wall had given Tilanna’s friend the respect she deserved.  But it should not have mentioned his name.  It should not have even acknowledged his existence.  
         He reached out to touch one of the many Dragon names and closed his eyes.  A vibrantly striped Dragoness stood regally before him, wearing two thin neckbands.
         Kalisavax, said the voice.  Hatched on the Twenty-Seventh of Kerosha, Year Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Four.  Enlisted in the Skywatch in Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Three.  Attained rank of Patrol Officer in Twenty-One Thousand and Fifty-Six.  Volunteered in the ill-fated Final Assault against Dahal Savithar on Sakatoth Day One, the Thirteenth of Valama, Twenty-One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six.  Patrol Officer Kalisavax is the beloved daughter of-
         Vithan ripped his hand away, already feeling exhausted.  Every victim had a name, had a life, had a history, had loved ones.  Every death scarred at least a dozen other lives.  He knew that too well.  It was futile to even try to forget that.  Not here, not now.
         He looked up, above the bulk of the list, and saw exactly what he had expected, what he had longed to see and yet somehow dreaded.
         He levitated a few metres up for a closer look.
         The largest name on the Wall, elevated above all others, was the name of the Dragon immortalized in gold and onyx that towered over everyone.
         Vithan felt a solid lump in his throat.  Slowly, he reached out a trembling hand to the gold-engraved text.
         “Hey Vithan!”
         He turned and looked down.  Gabrielle was standing next to Tilanna, waving.  Vithan almost wanted to sigh in relief.  He was not ready.  Would he ever be?
         “It’s confirmed,” said Gabrielle.  “I can stay the night.  GC Headquarters were sitting on the fence at first, but this time they’re certain they won’t need me until nine tomorrow morning.”
         “That’s great,” said Vithan as he slowly sank to the stone-tiled courtyard.  “What’s it all about this time?”
         “Classified,” said Gabrielle.
         “Fair enough,” said Vithan.  “We’re all working for the Global Council.  We’re all secretive cactus arses here.  Let’s keep up the good work.”
         “Have you seen our statues yet?” said Gabrielle.
         “I haven’t even seen Alathaka’s yet,” said Vithan.  “What’s with everyone wanting to see their statue?  Is this the archetype of vanity or what?  I mean … can’t you just pose in the mirror or something?”
         “Oh, come on,” said Tilanna.  “You’re just as vain as the rest of us.  You just pretend to be so fashionably nonchalant.”
         “Alathaka’s statue is a couple of kilometres to the southwest, at the mouth of the river,” said Gabrielle.  “She’s there to greet the boats, I guess.  And ours –“
         “- should be in her pouch,” said Vithan.  “Or … his.”  He gestured upwards. 
         “We each get separate statues,” said Tilanna.  “That’s tradition.”
         “Alathaka flew us both to safety in the end,” said Vithan.
         “Fine,” said Tilanna.  “So when you see her statue, just pretend that we’re both hidden in the pouch. 
         Remind me to give her the present once all this is over, Vithan mindspoke.
         If I have to remind you, then it can’t be much of a memorable present, can it?   
         Oh … shut up.
         “I just love what they’ve done with Olokuvon,” said Gabrielle, looking straight up at the Dragon form that towered into the sky, its head so distant that a passing pelican looked tiny as it ducked under its jaw.  “Your planet finally has its own Statue of Liberty.”
         “Statue of Liberty?” said Vithan.  “Was that Greek or Roman?”
         “Ah.  I was close.”
         “Maybe you should re-read my Wonders of Ancient Earth.”
         “Sorry to be pedantic,” said Tilanna, “but Alathaka’s statue is the one that greets seafarers visiting our island.  Just like the Statue of Liberty in New York.  And female, too.  And in case you’re wondering, I’ve read your book three times.”
         Vithan gave a loud, exaggerated sigh.  “Same bloody smart-arse show-off.  How do I bloody put up with it?”
         Gabrielle giggled.  “Anyway, I just have to go and see Torlaskavon.  We have to confirm flight arrangements for the morning.  See you in a minute.”
         She disappeared around the corner of the statue base.
         “It’s great to see her so cheerful,” said Tilanna.  “When you remember how we met her …”
         “I know,” said Vithan.  “But in the end, we all wear masks.”
         “If she were hiding her emotions, I would tell.”
         “Oh, look, another stickybeak,” said Vithan.  “Female Humans, female Dragons, all bloody stickybeaks.”
         “Speaking of female Dragons … Alathaka’s doing a great job of masking her grief.”
         “I know.  Every morning she takes enough hydrotreskelin to kill a hundred Humans.  She always insists she’s all right.  And the Skywatch keeps her on because she’s brilliant.  And valuable raw firepower.  And then there’s her … well, status.  But she’s not the only one here who lost a loved one that day.  Not the only Dragon.”
         Far in the distance, on the roof of one of the broader buildings that towered above the trees, Alathaka and Sabilikon were perched next to the life-sized statue of Skymarshal Banthonotrax.  They were casually facing each other, obviously deep in conversation.
         “So you know who she is?” said Tilanna.  “Who she really is?”
         “What do you think we do for a living?”
         “And you trust her?  She flew you all the way here, so –“
         “So obviously I trust her, yes.  Anyone who’s anyone in the Sentinel or Skywatch or any other branch of the Council knows her background.  Just don’t let the media poke their noses into her family history.”
         Vithan stared at the distant Sabilikon.  Over a thousand Dragons throughout the world had a similar blue-and-gold splotch pattern.  It was a small coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless.  Vithan had felt a slight tremor in his guts when he had found out the truth four years ago.
         “And everyone in the Council is fine with it?” said Tilanna.  “I know she’s another big asset to Skywatch.  But that day hit her just as hard as anyone.  For a very … specific reason.”
         Vithan nodded.  “Hers is a special kind of grief.”
         “Oh well,” said Tilanna, “so long as Alathaka’s still your favourite lady Dragon, all is right with the world.”
         “Well of course she’s my favourite.  Her bum is almost as big as yours.  Seriously, you should have flown her to safety and saved her the load.”
         Tilanna smiled wickedly and grabbed Vithan by the shoulders.  “I am so going to punish you tonight.”
         “I’m counting on it.”
         They kissed.
         Far above, the likeness of their old friend watched on, watched all, blessed never to die again.
~  ~  ~
When the anchor dropped that morning, Tanzu had felt his heart jump.  This was it.  This was the last day of his old life.  There was no turning back now. 
         It was ancient tradition to wait here in the middle of the ocean for a whole day.  For Tanzu, it felt like that tradition’s sole purpose was to sharpen and refine suspense to a level that bordered on physical agony.
         His eyes darted skittishly around the deck to the other fifteen Initiates, all dressed in grey robes, all eighteen years of age, all nervous.  And they were still twelve hours away from the big event.
         Tanzu returned his attention to the Priestess standing not far from the prow, her cowled head haloed by the vibrantly setting Sun.
         “Children of the Universe,” said Mother Evonash, “look forward to where the fire of Heaven meets the horizon.  Repeat my words only in your hearts and minds, for Mayhara hears all prayers, loud or silent.”
         She turned to face the setting Sun and outspread her arms.
         “Great Mayhara, Queen of the Seven Oceans, Mother of Titans, Messenger of Greater Powers Beyond, we beseech you hear our prayer.  Bless these gathered here, your Children, so that your light may guide them even in the deepest darkness, so that your warmth may comfort them in the darkest void.  May they swim beside you in your mighty wake and be at one with you when all things return to one.  May thus be your will.  Amen.”
         Mother Evonash slowly lowered her arms and turned to face the Initiates.
         “When the Sun returns to greet us, so will Mayhara Herself.  She will see you all face to face, and speak within your heart.  Rejoice in the day to come, for you will all be blessed as her Children.  Go now, and rest.”
         Instantly Tanzu snapped out of his trance – Mother Evonash always had that effect upon Initiates – and returned his attention to the here-and-now, to the tight wooden planks beneath his feet.  The nervousness returned – a knot in his chest so tight it became solid.  All around him, other Initiates were slowly scattering, some whispering as they headed below deck.  Tanzu could barely walk.  He stumbled over to the nearest wooden bench and sat down, breathing deeply, staring at his knees.
         “Are you troubled, Tanzu?”
         The gentle voice of Mother Evonash always comforted him.  It was a talent common to all Priests and Priestesses of the Church of the Celestial Ambassador.  Tanzu was grateful for it, more so than ever before.  He knew he would need it again in the morning.
         “I …” Tanzu struggled to find the words.  “I don’t know if …”
         “If you’re ready?”
         Tanzu nodded jerkily.
         “I have lost count of how many times I have heard those very words.  Starting with my own, twenty-eight years ago.”
         “You were nervous?”
         “We all are.  We’re only Human.  How could we not feel awe in the face of the Divine?”
         These words only made Tanzu’s heart beat faster, his breaths tremble with effort.
         Evonash smiled knowingly.  “’Divine’ is a relative term,” she said.  “Obviously Mayhara is not the Creator.  She’s just a little higher on the ladder than we are.  That’s what makes her special.  She’s closer to us.  She shares a planet with us.”
         These words only served to remind Tanzu of that world-changing event of six years ago.  Tanzu had been twelve during the Siege of Kesalzhin.  At first, news of the Siege had only mildly disturbed him.  It was just another conflict taking place somewhere in the world.  There were a few of those every year.  But then the Elixir had been exposed, and he had felt it – along with a billion other mortals.  He then spent his entire adolescence knowing for a fact that there were powers in the universe even greater that Mayhara Herself.  The whole world shared this knowledge.  The world would never be the same again.
         So many Humans and Dragons blamed Mayhara for what had happened on that day.  They said that She could have prevented it, but She allowed it to happen anyway.  Others accepted that She had prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.  After all, Human and Dragon leaders had collected even more blood on their hands (and claws) over the centuries.  How could any politician send thousands to war and call Mayhara a monster?
Mother Evonash gently placed her hand on his.  “She will accept you,” she said.  “Mark my words.”
         “But … She can look into my mind … see all my thoughts and memories … even things I’ve forgotten …”
         “Yes.  She can do all that and more.  She can do things we have no name for.”
         “So how … I mean … there’s so much messed up stuff … if she saw it …”
         The Priestess laughed.  “And do you honestly think that your ‘messed up stuff’ would be the first she has ever seen in twenty-one thousand years?  We are all messed up in our own ways.  Humans have always been messed up.  Have you read Gabrielle Gilson’s books?  We were messed up thousands of years before even her time.  I don’t think there’s a thing in your head that is going to shock her.  You’re not another Dahal Savithar, are you?”
         “No!”  Tanzu cringed at the very thought.  “No!  Not at all!  I’m not that messed up!”
         “Of course not.  Few people are.”
         “But … I’m not … I’m not a virgin.”
         “So?  Neither was I when it was my time.”
         Tanzu faced the Priestess with his mouth agape, words frozen in his throat and brain.
         Evonash laughed again.  “It doesn’t disqualify you.  All it means is that … well, you were just a little impatient.  Like all Humans.  Like all Mortals.  There is always room for improvement, no matter who you are.  And Mayhara will show you the way.  Do you think you’re here because you’re already perfect?  Of course not.  How could you be?  None of us here started off perfect.  The best you could do in life is just slowly, patiently push yourself a little closer to perfection, one day at a time.  And Mayhara can give you a slightly bigger push, to say the least.”
         “What will it feel like?”
         “Oh.”  Evonash closed her eyes and faced the ocean breeze.  “If only there were words.  It was the most beautiful experience of my life.  And it will be the most beautiful experience of yours.  I envy you.  I honestly envy all of you tonight.  To experience Her love for the first time … it will be more wonderful than you could possibly imagine.  And much better than sex.  Take my word for it.”  She winked.
         Tanzu chuckled.  Some of that knot in his chest was loosening already.
         “I think you need a rest now,” said Evonash.  “There’s nothing left to do but wait.  And sleep.  I know that may sound like a challenge under the circumstances, but at least a few hours of sleep would be nice.  Who knows?  You might dream of Her.  She might even reach out to reassure you in your sleep.  Now that alone would be worth waiting for, don’t you think?”
         Tanzu nodded.  Maybe she was right.  After all, she had once been in the same position.  She knew what she was talking about.
         Minutes later, he was in his cosy private cabin downstairs, lying on his bed.  He closed his eyes, surrendering to the gentle, rhythmic undulations of the ship on the ocean.  It was almost as if Mayhara Herself was rocking him to sleep.  And why not?  She was the Queen of the Seven Oceans, after all.  She Herself would command the seas to be calm, to be gentle, to prepare Her children for their wonderful new life.
         He did not need to be reminded that miracles could happen.  But as he sank beneath the dark waves of his own awareness, he was reminded that miracles could happen to him, too, and that sleep could be found in the most unexpected of circumstances.
~  ~  ~
Domison grabbed hold of the Dragonspine before him as Latharixa abruptly gained altitude, missing the mountain peak by mere metres. 
         “I really wish you wouldn’t keep doing that!” he shouted.
         “No need to shout,” said the Dragoness.  “I can still hear you.  See these things?”  She wiggled her long, deer-like ears.  “I’m still young and they’re still working.  And a lot better than those tiny suction cups on the side of your little head.”
“My God, your genius wit is killing me,” said Domison. 
He looked down as the many-hilled and forested landscape flowed far below.  He estimated that his altitude must now be well over a kilometre.  Despite himself, he was grateful that Latharixa could screen out most of the wind and cold, with his aviation gear – goggles and all – doing the rest to protect him.
         He glanced to his right.  Tayraxica, Latharixa’s boyfriend, was carrying Jensi on his neck.  Behind the cargo belt, his barely bulging pouch indicated that Jorin and Manko were safely in place as well.  Jensi turned to him and gave a half-hearted wave across the whistling distance.  Domison returned the gesture, even more lazily.
         “I should be in the pouch,” he said.
         “You’re the deputy supervisor,” said Latharixa.  “You ride on the neck.”
         “And since when have you ever given two short snorts about protocol?”
         “When you started whingeing about it a few weeks ago.”
         “I was joking.”
         “It’s always a joke when it’s convenient to be a joke, isn’t it?”
         She dived straight for another mountain peak, making Domison scream and curse at her, before lifting into the sky at the last second.
         “By Mayhara’s Holy Southern Canyon, you have no control whatsoever!”
         “On the contrary, stunt flight requires exceptional control.  Ask any Skywatch officer.”
         “Which you are most definitely not, and never will be.  Ever.”
         “Precisely.  Because the Council will never waste their most brilliant archaeologist on a suicide mission.”
         “’Most brilliant archaeologist’?  That’s your sister.  They should have let me work with her.  At least she knows when to shut her trap.”
         Domison felt the rumble of Dragon laughter beneath him.
         “Sovilika and I have placed a bet,” said Latharixa.
         “Yes.  The first one to dig up Colonial tech gets first choice at the Sakatoth Feast.”
         “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?”
         “I meant for the second night of Sakatoth, dimwit.”
         “Well that’s still kinda late, isn’t it?  I mean, aren’t you and your sister both heretics for working on Sakatoth?”
         “And what century is this exactly?”
         “These days you just never know.  There might be a few closet zealots in your family.”
         “There are no closet zealots in my family.  No closet is big enough.”
         “Oh, that’s your marvellous wit again.”  Domison’s tone was as flat as possible.  “If I laugh any harder I may fall to my death.”
         “Please don’t fall,” said Latharixa, equally deadpan.  “That would break my heart.  I might even have to dive down to save you, and I really don’t want to waste the extra energy.”
         “I still think we should get to keep it,” said Domison.
         “What, the dig?”
         “Yeah.  If we find any nifty colonial weapons, or even another SwanSword …  Just imagine how much we could make on the undermarket.”
         “And this is the part where you go all misty-eyed with nostalgia for when Deep Diggers was privately owned.  The Council pays us double now.  And that’s before commission for any big discoveries.  Not to mention the prospect of a Noravi Award.”
         Ever since the Siege of Kesalzhin and the discovery of Haloken’s true history, archaeology and treasure hunting were suddenly big business.  Humans and Dragons all over the globe were scrambling to find the next piece of lost technology.  The Global Council had promptly bought up the largest archaeology company on the planet for a sum of billions, making its Human founder’s grandson and former chairman the wealthiest retiree of his generation.
         “Fuck the Noravi Award,” said Domison.  “We should have got your sister’s job.”
         “What, and have to dig under a mountain?”
         “Yes.  At least we don’t have to freeze to death.”
         “Aww, poor baby.”
         “Fuck you.  You lot don’t know what the cold feels like.  You spend your first few years all cosied up in a pouch, and then you come out flapping your wings, belching fire and smoke and your last meal.  Hell, you should make me swap with Paxola right now.”
         “Pax stays where he is,” said Latharixa.  “You can swap with Evani if she agrees.”
         “You like Pax, don’t you?”
         “As a friend.”
         “Yeah right.  Don’t forget, you’re old enough to be his great grandma.”
         “In Dragon years, I’m a lot younger than you.”
         “Dragon years, eh?” said Domison.  “So … what do you do again?  Do you minus eighteen, divide by two, and add sixty?”
         “Now I know you’re trying to piss me off,” said Latharixa.  She had a point; as an archaeologist and historian, Domison knew very well how to calculate a Dragon’s approximate Human age.  Latharixa was ninety-six.  In Human terms, that was only thirty-one.
         “I’m sorry,” said Domison.  “You don’t look a day over twenty.”
         “That’s more like it.”
         “So now do I deserve to swap places with Evani?”
“You’re only nice when you have an ulterior motive,” said Latharixa.  “Evani has to wake up first.  And if she agrees, I’m flexing the pouch to keep you and Pax separate.”
         “I’ll be nice to him,” said Domison.
         “Yes, and your word means everything to me,” said Latharika.  “Meanwhile, enjoy the sunset.”
         “I’ll tell you one thing,” said Domison, “if they find one of those death-ray cannons, or a bomb that can crack a planet in two, I’m keeping it.”
         “I wouldn’t trust you with a pair of scissors.  With corks on the ends.”
         Domison paused, trying to think up a witty retort.  Unfortunately, “Bitch” was all he could come up with.
         Far below, the forest was thinning out into white sand.  Far ahead, the horizon glittered with pink sunlight on endless blue.
         “Oh, look,” said Latharika.  “Would you like to go for a swim?”
         As soon as the beach passed beneath her, she began to dive.
         “Don’t you fucking daaaaaaaaaare!”
         The Dragoness abruptly straightened up and soared forward, mere metres over the ocean surface.  Once again, Domison felt the rumble of her laughter.
         “You’re evil.”
         “I know.”
         The ocean sped far beneath them in scintillating waves.  Far ahead, beyond the horizon, was Haloken’s frigid southernmost continent. 
         As they raced towards their goal, the archaeologists knew, in their hearts, that they could always agree on one thing – that the best possible outcome was to make the discovery that would change the world.
         For the better, of course.

~ ~ ~

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RE: Devouring Angel: Book Two of the Elixir Trilogy - by DarrenRyding - 05-27-2021, 01:27 PM

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