There was something jarring, Tragger had always thought, about a barn made from fresh timbers.  In his mind, a barn was a weather-worn, slightly roughened structure of grayed planks, perhaps a few were warped out of place or patched over with other boards.  No doubt his new barn would look that way in a few seasons, for now it was a bright, new, and wrong structure sitting upon the few timbers that had survived the dragons’ fire that had burnt down the old one.  That had been a good barn, though not good enough to save his blummoxes.  He wondered if his new barn would do as well.

               It had been almost a year, he realized with some surprise, since the dragon attack.  Summer was beginning to draw to a close, and the harvest was approaching.  Soon, the autumn rains would be coming, and with them all the work involved with preparing the farm for the winter.  For now, though, it was a beautiful, hot, summer day, with the sun high overhead, and he had a forest to walk.  They would need plenty of firewood to see them through the winter, and it was better to cut it on a hot, sunny day than a wet, cold one.  Tragger ducked into his incongruously new barn to retrieve his axe.

               The blummoxes lowed at him as he entered, and he paused to rub their noses.  There were four of them, since he had replaced those snatched up by the dragons.  Blummox corpses had been found scattered all over the woods when the spring thaw came, as if to rub salt into the wound.  The unbalanced dragons hadn’t even been hunting for food, just leaving the dead beasts to rot in the forest, doing good to no one but filthy scavengers.  From the looks of those as had been found, few even of the scavengers cared to bother the flesh, as if the dragons had tainted it.  None of the farmers cared to find out for themselves.  But that was in the past, now, and there was no point in dwelling upon it.  Certainly Tragger had done well enough recovering from the attack.  Aside from the barn’s fresh timbers, few signs remained.

               Passing through the barn’s back door, Tragger wrenched the axe up from its perch in the old stump under the overhang, just before the main pasture.  It made a good, covered place to cut firewood when the weather wasn’t so fine as it was today.  Even as he thought it, a shadow passed over the sun, though he had not noted any clouds.  Then it was gone, and the day was as it had been.  He turned back walked back through the barn, pausing inside to inhale the deep scents of hay and blummox.  Some would call them a stench, and an unpleasant one, but not Tragger.  To him, they smelled as much like home as his wife’s bread.

               “Pa!” he heard his son, Sagger, shout from outside.  “Pa, I think you’d better get out here!”

               His reflections jarred aside by the urgency and fear in his son’s voice, Tragger hefted the axe and ran from the barn in the same instant as the blummoxes began to panic, tossing their heads and straining against their stalls, though the confines seemed to be holding for now, new as they were.  Panting slightly, Tragger found his son standing on a slight rise fifty paces from the barn, pointing up at the sky.

               “What is it?” Tragger asked, squinting against the sun’s glare.  “Are those clouds?”

               His son shook his head.  “Dragons,” his whispered.

               Dread flooded Tragger, but he let nothing of it show to his son.  “Impossible,” he retorted.  “Whatever happened last year, those dragons are gone.  The Prime himself sent messengers out telling us that Sub-Prime Kiluron had defeated the dragons.”  He only wished that he could convince himself.

               “Dragons,” his son insisted.

               Even with his hand held up before his eyes, Tragger could make out nothing more than dark smudges until the shapes began to move away from the sun.  Then he could make out bulky, ridged bodies and wide, flapping wings.  He paled beneath his deep tan, but he told himself the same thing he told his son.  “They must be way up there.  Just passing over, whatever they are.  Not bothering us.  See?”  Indeed, the creatures kept straight on, heading south towards the city.  His son seemed to accept his words, as if he were some kind of expert on draconic behavior, the way he knew how to read the signs of deer and wolves and bears in the forest.  Tragger wished he could have such confidence.  “Go find your siblings and get everybody inside, just in case,” he said.

               More excited by purpose than inspired by fear, the boy nodded and ran off across the farm to find his brothers.  Tragger let the axe’s head thump onto the hard soil, and leaned upon the handle.  Still squinting against the sun, he followed the flight of the beasts, trying to count them.  Two, three, another three…he stopped trying when he no longer had fingers enough to keep track, but he continued to watch them until they disappeared from view.  From such a distance, he could almost convince himself they were merely odd birds, or bats that had gotten confused about the difference between the sun and the moon, but he knew better.  At least they had, for now, showed no interest in his farm.  He did not know why, or how, or from where, but he did know one, terrifying truth.  Dragons had returned to Merolate.

               Watching Kiluron pace, Doil tried to assuage his fears.  “It was a saying in ancient times that nothing travels faster than a dragon in flight.  I guess we should count ourselves fortunate that rumors travel faster still?”  Even Doil could admit that it was a poor attempt at levity, and he regretted the remark almost as soon as he made it.

               From the flat look that Kiluron gave him, Doil supposed that the Prime felt the same.  “Right.  So we have plenty of time to go begging the Isle of Blood for help, yet again.  What will they demand this time?  That we order all of our citizens to become Blood Worshippers?”

               “I – “ Doil tried to search for some way to tell Kiluron that there were other options than going to the Isle of Blood, but he remembered as well as the Prime how ineffective their efforts had been against the dragons last year.  Even their mortal conjurers had been untouchable by conventional steel, and a full Blood Priest had died to bring down just three of the monsters.  “Herlglut made no demands upon us for his sacrifice.”

               “He was doing a favor for Marinae, who was doing a favor for Borivat, for reasons which I don’t fully comprehend, but I get that there’s a history there,” Kiluron replied.  “Besides, there were only three of them, then.  This time we have how many on our hands?  A flock?  What do you even call a flock of dragons?  I know your philosophers like to call everything by a different name.”

               Doil had to admit that he did not know the answer.  “Most serious scholars don’t even accept dragons as real,” he added.

               Kiluron banged his fist on the table.  “Well, they’d better start.”  As if he had expelled all of his frustrations and worries through that blow, his mood changed.  “Whatever we call it, I don’t think it should be called a flock.  Somehow, I can’t take a flock of dragons seriously.  Sounds like we’re talking about fluffy sheep or pesky seabirds, not bloodthirsty creatures out of the ancient world.”

               Against his own feelings of futility, Doil smiled at this.  “Very well, my lord.  I will put our best people on the matter immediately.”

               Returning a wry smile, Kiluron turned back to the reports.  “It would be nice if at least a few of these reports agreed on how many of them there might be.  Not that it will make much of a difference.”

               “It seems like we can reasonably expect there to be between half a dozen and two dozen dragons.  The numbers higher than that seem unlikely to me,” Doil supplied.  “I realize that is still a very large range upon which to base any decisions.  Especially since, by the origins of these reports, we can expect the dragons to reach Merolate in less than three days.”

               “That’s another question,” Kiluron said, sitting back down in his chair and leaning it back on two legs.  “Why Merolate?  They’re apparently flying straight south, with hardly a pause, right towards us.  Why?  The dragons last year didn’t do anything nearly that organized, just inflicted general chaos and destruction.”

               In silence, Doil thought for several moments, though it was already late enough to be dark despite it being summer, and he could tell that he was not thinking as well as he would after a night’s sleep.  “I don’t know, my lord.  Perhaps they are more firmly under the control of whomever summoned them.”

               Kiluron stood up.  “I’m going to go tell Vere to double the watch and prepare the guard, for all of the good that will do against dragons.  In the morning, you and I are going to go speak with High Priest Yorin.”  He paused, and after sounding so confident, hesitated.  “Unless you think there’s anything else we should be doing?”

               “I don’t think so, my lord,” Doil agreed.  “I will make preparations for a meeting with the High Priest immediately.”

               Those preparations were accomplished just before midnight, and Doil was able to eke out half a night’s sleep before he was obliged to join Kiluron at the docks to journey to the Isle of Blood.  The sun had not yet risen, but it was light enough to see, and the tide was good, so they set sail across the bay.  Admiral Ferl was personally commanding the Prime’s flagship, but did not use the role as an excuse to seek information from Kiluron and Doil, for which Doil was grateful.  There would be time enough after meeting with the High Priest to discuss the dragon matter with the ministers.

               Though the sun was still just risen, it was already hot when the flagship bumped against the Isle of Blood’s rotten docks.  Unlike when Doil had made his clandestine journeys there beneath cover of darkness, there was no mist to obscure the temple complex, and a delegation of priests in their red robes was waiting on the path up to the temple.  Admiral Ferl ensured the ship was properly secured, casting a disapproving eye over the state of the dock, and then saw the gangplank lowered.

               Kiluron glanced at Doil.  “It seemed we are expected,” he observed.  “One of these days, I would like to have dealings with the Blood Priests where it doesn’t seem like they always have the upper hand.”

               Together, they descended from the ship and stepped onto the Isle of Blood.  With some relief, Doil recognized Priestess Marinae amongst the delegation that had been sent to greet them, although none of the other priests were familiar.  Each priest offered a slight bow to Prime Kiluron, and then Priestess Marinae stepped forward.

               “Welcome to the Isle of Blood,” she said.  “High Priest Yorin has been alerted to your presence here.  Please, follow me.”

               Doil and Kiluron did as instructed after exchanging a glance.  Considering that the priests spent almost all of their time confined to the Isle, Doil always wondered how they seemed to know so much so quickly of events on the mainland.  At least in the daylight the temple was not as ominous as it appeared at night, or maybe Doil’s confidence was merely higher.  It helped that he was accompanying the Prime upon official business on behalf of Merolate.  Marinae led them directly to High Priest Yorin’s small audience chamber, and then left them, closing the door behind her.

               “Welcome, Prime Kiluron and Advisor Doil,” High Priest Yorin said.  He had stood up to greet them, but now gestured for them all to sit.  A small table had been set with plates and utensils for all three of them, and a platter of fruits, cheeses, and pastries had been provided.  “I hope that you have not yet had breakfast, or that you at least have the appetite for one of our custard tarts.  Our priests have developed a great deal of skill in the making of pastries, and I do believe this may be one of the pinnacles of their art form.”

               He waited until Doil and Kiluron had both taken their proffered seats; both Kiluron and Doil hesitated a moment before accepting the food, although some of Kiluron’s reluctance dissipated upon tasting the custard tarts to which Yorin had referred.  Only when they were settled did Yorin speak again.  “I must say, I am surprised that the morning brings you here,” he said.  “With what manner of business have you come?”

               “Dragons,” Kiluron answered without preamble.  “We need to know how to fight dragons, like Priest Herlglut did last year.”

               Doil wondered at the High Priest’s apparent surprise.  It seemed unlikely that Yorin had somehow not heard about the dragons coming down from the mountains.  There were only a few people on the frontiers to see them, but closer to Merolate the countryside was populous enough that talk of the incoming dragon flock was widespread.  “My priests have told me nothing of any demons in their Balancing efforts.”

               Kiluron appeared equally nonplussed.  “Then you might want to have your priests check again,” he countered.  “Something like a dozen dragons are reported making their way down from the northern mountains directly towards the city.”  He narrowed his eyes, and leaned forward.  “Not to mention this Isle.”

               His wording seemed blunt to Doil, but Yorin showed no signs of offense.  In fact, faint lines of what might have been humor were creasing into shadows all around his eyes, and when he replied to Kiluron there was amusement on his voice.  “Ah, I think that I see the confusion.  Yes, I am aware of the dragons, though I know no more of their intentions than you, I fear.  Yet if you are here because of your worries about the dragons, then why are you asking how to fight demons?”

               Sitting back in his chair, Kiluron looked to Doil for some insight, but Doil could only shake his head slightly; he knew no more what the High Priest was talking about than Kiluron did.  As far as he knew, dragons were demons.  As usual, Kiluron chose the direct approach.  “Aren’t dragons a kind of demon?  That’s what we learned in last year’s…incident.”

               “It is true that some demons take on very draconic manifestations, as in the case of the unfortunate events of about one year ago,” Yorin affirmed.  Doil waited for the exception, and he had not long to wait.  “However, the very oldest legends of this land speak plainly of dragons, as native to the physical plane as you and I, roaming the skies of Lufilna.  Until I witnessed them flying down from the mountains, I dismissed these legends as mere fantasy, as not even a rumor of a true dragon has been heard perhaps since the fall of Heart City.  So I know little more than what I have already told you, but I can tell you with certainty that you do not face demons, not this time.”

               “Huh.”  Kiluron did not spend nearly as much time mulling on this new information as Doil would have.  “Well, then I apologize for wasting your time and disturbing your morning,” he told High Priest Yorin.  With a respectful nod, he stood up, and motioned for Doil to do the same.  “If you could provide Doil with copies of whatever myths of legends you happen to possess that reference these ‘true dragons,’ as you call them, that would be appreciated, and we will be on our way.”

               High Priest Yorin returned these pleasantries, and a priest, not Priestess Marinae, showed them to their ship.  Another priest was already waiting near the gangplank, where Admiral Ferl was keeping a wary eye upon the man, although what danger he expected from a bald, robed hunchback carrying a stack of books and scrolls rising to his eyebrows, Doil could not have said.  Doil scooped the texts up from the man with a word of gratitude, and then followed Kiluron back onto the ship.

               “Was your conversation productive?” Admiral Ferl asked Prime Kiluron as they made their way back across the bay to Merolate.

               “Yes and no,” Kiluron answered.  “Give Doil a chance to read through that material, and maybe I’ll have a better answer for you.”

               That was already what Doil had begun to do, but if the first scroll he had opened was indicative of the quality of information contained in the others, he suspected that little would have been gained from their visit to the Isle of Blood beyond the plain knowledge that the dragons approaching Merolate were not demonic in nature.  While initially reassuring, Doil had quickly reminded himself that knowing the dragons were not demons did not make their intentions any clearer, or any less likely to be hostile to Merolate.  He barely noted the bump of the small ship against the docks when they reached Merolate again, and paused his reading only long enough to hurry back to the castle and pen a missive to the Prime’s ministers and to the city’s scholars.

               It was not that the texts the Blood Priests had provided were dull – they were not.  Academically and narratively, they were fascinating, and Doil wished several times while he was reading that these records could have been available for scholarship earlier.  Many of them spoke of dragons in the same breath with which they spoke of gods, and there were multiple references to some kind of long-running conflict between the gods and the dragons.  None of it, however, told him what he should expect from the very real dragons that were approaching Merolate, and it certainly gave no insight into what they might want.  He could not even be certain if they were truly intelligent, or if that was merely an impression delivered by myths a thousand years or more in age.  For all he knew, they were like geese, migrating south on instinct alone, driven by primal urges.

               His goal was to finish reading the material High Priest Yorin had provided by noon, so that he could present his findings to an emergency meeting of the ministers that Kiluron had authorized him to convene.  Whatever limited information he could provide would surely be of help in decision-making, although Doil could already anticipate what most of the ministers’ responses would be.  Borivat would advocate for a strong defense coupled with diplomacy under the assumption that the dragons were intelligent and that communication could be established.  Admiral Ferl would suggest a more offensive strategy, so that the dragons could be prevented from inflicting damage upon the city.  Inpernuth would say “lok,” and proceed to explain why he didn’t care what they did, so long as it wasn’t work for him, and the other ministers would be too busy debating whether the dragons were real or not to provide useful conclusions.

               Going through the list of ministers and their anticipated responses, Doil realized with some surprise that he was almost as cynical about the matter as Kiluron.  The council of ministers had always seemed a fine part of the governmental structure under Prime Wezzix, an august body of intelligent experts to advise the Prime.  Perhaps because he was now more intimately engaged with the members, Doil found them rather less admirable than they had appeared from a distance.

               Just as the sun reached its zenith and Doil frantically scribbled his last note on the texts from High Priest Yorin, a shadow passed over his window, and a servant burst through his door.

               “Advisor Doil, the dragons!  They’re here!”  There was a primal terror in the servant’s voice, and he seemed on the verge of becoming unable to function.

               Freezing in place, Doil ignored the initial surge of his own fear, and focused on his own intellect.  “Where?” he asked the servant, even as he wondered how the estimates of their rate of travel had been so erroneous.

               “Outside the main gates,” the servant replied.  “Prime Kiluron has gone to meet them.  A few of them flew over the city before settling there, right upon the road.  The Prime asked me to come tell you to hurry.”

               “Then tell the Prime that I’m on my way,” Doil answered.  He spared only the briefest of glances for his notes as the servant rushed out again, before he grabbed a cloak and hurried outside.

               There was something viscerally terrifying about dragons, Kiluron decided.  He was no longer so naïve as to consider himself a particularly brave man, but neither did he think he was especially cowardly.  Yet standing upon the battlement above Merolate’s main gate, looking out at a dragon crouched upon the road, he felt an instinctive desire to flee and hide bubbling up in his throat.  It took an effort of will to resist that urge as he wondered with the more rational part of his mind what he ought next to do.

               Perhaps it was because they were such large creatures.  Most of them were still aloft, soaring around in lazy circles high enough to almost be mistaken for nothing more than very large birds, but three were arrayed across the road just outside of the gates.  They sat there like wolves upon their haunches, with their knotty, scaled forelimbs supporting them in a partially upright attitude.  With the length of their necks, their heads, which were themselves almost twice as long as Kiluron was tall, wove through the air above Kiluron’s high perch.  Maybe it was the knowledge that something so large that its teeth were as long as Kiluron’s arm and its shoulders were too broad to fit through the gate could fly that made the guards standing next to him grip their spears in sweaty hands and mutter prayers to gods they had never thought of before.

               Despite their immense size and the drama of their arrival, the dragons had so far made no further moves, and other than the initial overflight of the city and their native predatory natures they had done nothing threatening.  They seemed content simply to regard Kiluron and the city in motionless silence, and Kiluron was unsure how he ought to break the impasse, or even if he should.  He still wasn’t certain if they were intelligent beings, although it was difficult to conceive of them as unthinking carnivores as they waited patiently at his gates.  There seemed a sense of majesty and pride about them to put any human, regardless of status and trappings, to shame.

               It was a relief to Kiluron when Doil arrived, breathless as he ran up the steps and came alongside the Prime.  Without taking his eyes from the dragons at his gates, Kiluron addressed his advisor.  “So, do you think this is about to be my third major disaster of my first year as Prime?  I don’t think Wezzix had this many disasters in his entire reign.”

               “I don’t know,” Doil admitted.  “My reading was inconclusive.  What have they done so far?”

               “Just sat there, really,” Kiluron answered, still without shifting his gaze.  “Do you think I should try to talk with them?  Can I even talk to them?”

               “I don’t know, my lord.”  Doil mimicked the Prime’s unchanging posture.  “They might be intelligent, but even if they are there is no guarantee that they could understand our words or our language, or even that they would consider us intelligent.  For all we know, they think of us like we think of dogs: more intelligent than cows, but still animals.”

               “Very reassuring.”  Kiluron grimaced.  “Well, I guess it’s worth a try.  What’s the worst that could happen, I atTragger their attention and get eaten first?”  He didn’t wait for Doil’s reply, but stepped a pace forward, to the very edge of the wall.  “Welcome to Merolate,” he announced outward to the dragons, projecting as best he could.  “I am Prime Kiluron, ruler of these lands.  With what purpose have you come to these parts?”

               No response was immediately forthcoming.  The dragons continued to sit impassively upon the road, giving no indication that they had understood or would respond to Kiluron’s words, but also not appearing provoked by them.  They just sat, and Kiluron and Doil, with the guards at the wall, also stood and waited with as much patience as they could muster.  It seemed the only thing that moved was the wind, gently stirring the cloaks and banners upon the wall in time with how it stirred the fringes of the dragons’ wings.

               Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” a voice boomed.  It seemed not to come from anywhere in particular, and it took Kiluron several moments to realize that the voice was sounding from within his own head.  He made to look at Doil to see if his advisor had received the telepathic message as well, but before he could the voice began to speak again.  “My name cannot be rendered in sounds or concepts which you would understand, but you may call me Eldar.  We have come here to request asylum within your borders.”

               This time, Kiluron did find the time to exchange a surprised glance with Doil.  Whatever Kiluron’s expectations for the dragons’ arrival had been, that they might have come to ask a favor of him had surely been at the very bottom of the list, if it had been considered at all.  The very nature of the exchange he had just had suggested the power of the dragons, which Merolate surely could not stand against, but here was this Eldar dragon asking for favors from Kiluron.  The follow-on thought, of course, was even more disturbing, that something would be frightful enough to drive such creatures to seek asylum, after being out of contact with humans for at least a millennium.

               After some consideration, Kiluron replied.  He spoke aloud, not knowing if they would be able to read his thoughts as easily as they projected their own, and neither knowing if he could assemble his thoughts in a sufficiently coherent way.  “Eldar, I hope that we will be able to find an accommodation.  Perhaps we could find a way to discuss this in more detail?”

               Doil nodded in apparent satisfaction at this, and Kiluron was relieved; he had been worried he was going to get this wrong as soon as it became a negotiation.  After another moment, Eldar replied.  “This is acceptable to us.  Let us convene, with your consent, a conference upon the hilltop to the northwest in two days’ time.”  An impression of the hilltop to which the dragon was referring was placed directly in Kiluron’s mind, and he shivered when the dragon’s presence receded.

               “I consent,” Kiluron agreed, not willing to press his apparent good fortune at not being eaten or precipitating a war Merolate could not hope to win.  “We shall be there in two days’ time.”

               A rumble arose from the three dragons before the gates, and in apparent response the dragons orbiting above changed their courses and winged off to the north.  The three dragons at the gates backed up several paces, so that they could turn around without slashing their pointed, whip-like tails against the city walls, and then, with six, lumbering steps, they launched themselves into the air, the blasting of their wings enough almost to blow Kiluron and the guards right off of the wall.  Before Kiluron had fully recovered his balance, they had faded into the sky.

               Doil was scrubbing dust out of his eyes.  “That was…”

               “Astonishingly successful?  Miraculously painless?” Kiluron suggested.  “I’m sure that all of the credit goes to my negotiating skills.”

               “I was going to say ‘fascinating,’ but yes, I agree that the encounter went much more smoothly than I could have anticipated,” Doil agreed.  “The implications of just that brief conversation…”

               Kiluron waved that comment away.  “I’ll let you ponder what a whole different intelligent species somehow hiding on this continent means,” he said.  “For now, could we focus on preparing for this conference we’re supposed to have in two days?  And we’re not going to be able to just go as the dragon flies, so we’ll probably need to be leaving by noon tomorrow to be there in time.”

               “Of course.”  If Doil was disappointed, he hid it well.  “We were already planning upon a meeting of the ministers this afternoon; I suggest we proceed with that meeting, albeit with an altered agenda.”

               With a nod, Kiluron agreed, and motioned for them to begin making their way back to the castle.  “What I don’t understand, though,” he mused as they walked, “is how an entire race of dragons could have stayed hidden without so much as a stray sighting or a rumor in all of these years.  I mean, they’re not exactly subtle, having just stood in front of one and been convinced it was going to snap me off the wall at any moment.”

               “Hm.”  Doil thought for a moment before answering.  “I’m not certain that there really were no rumors or sightings.  It’s just that dragons have been considered mythical for so long that any such information was dismissed as mere perpetuation of that myth.  Furthermore, the northern mountains of Lufilna are poorly explored and sparsely inhabited, even beyond the difficulties in accessing them through the Unclaimed Territories.  And we know nothing of what draconic requirements for life might be.  They appear to be enormous, apex carnivores that would require a sizable prey population in order to survive, but we don’t know that’s how they sustain themselves.  And the fact that they have at least some level of intelligence, enough to communicate with us, further confounds matters.”

               “I guess maybe that makes sense.”  Kiluron shrugged.  “I also guess that it’s kind of irrelevant now, since the facts are that dragons do exist, and that they want to negotiate with us.  For asylum?  It makes me think that maybe our biggest concern shouldn’t be dragons.  Maybe it should be whatever they’re running away from.”

               That ominous note kept both of them deep in thought for the remainder of their walk back to the castle, and it was only with difficulty that Kiluron put that concern to the side for his meeting with his ministers.  As soon as the ministers had assembled and Doil had called the meeting to order, Kiluron addressed the ministers.

               “I just want to begin by making sure that we all have the most current facts, because I’m sure that a flock of dragons – I still don’t like that term, Doil, please think of something else to call them – landing right in front of Merolate’s main gates did not go unnoticed or unremarked upon,” Kiluron noted, and received several nods of agreement.  “So here’s what we know so far.  A flock/pride/pack/gaggle/whatever of dragons was sighted bearing south and east out of the Unclaimed Territories some days ago.  They made more or less straight for Merolate.  Assuming they were demonic, like the dragons that we dealt with in Heart City last year, Doil and I visited the Isle of Blood, but were informed that these dragons were not demonic in nature, but were as corporeal and native to Lufilna as we are.  All they could provide were some old myths and legends that reference dragons.”  He paused.  “However, that’s a bit of a digression.  Getting back to the main point, three of the dragons landed just in front of the gates, where I made initial communication with a dragon named Eldar.  He requested asylum in Merolate, and we arranged and conference in two days’ time to discuss the matter in more detail.  And I think that about covers everything.”

               Not surprisingly, Adima spoke first, although she had been quieter since Kelina’s death in the plague.  “I don’t think we can trust this.  How do we know that these are real dragons, and not demons?  It could be a trick, and trap of some kind.  The Blood Priests are not exactly allies, however much this…ahem…however much recent events have encouraged an unusual level of compromise and alliance with them.  We can’t trust any of it.”

               It was a surprise when Admiral Ferl was next to speak.  “I agree with Minister Adima.  There is too much we do not know to trust these dragons and their intentions.  Furthermore, I am uncomfortable with the tactical positions involved.  Unless we can develop some reliable defense against these dragons, we have almost no choice but to capitulate in negotiations and hope that they don’t become hostile.”

               “Although I do not entirely share Admiral Ferl’s suspicion of the dragons – we simply do not have enough information – I am afraid that I must affirm his pessimistic estimate of our relative negotiating positions.  We do not know what the dragons might want, nor why they have decided they want it now.  We do not know what their weaknesses and strengths might be, or how they perceive us, and in terms of raw strength it seems likely that the dragons are our superiors.”  Borivat leaned forward.  “I do not see how good relations can be established on this basis.”

               Inpernuth had nothing to say, nor did the new Minister of Health and Sanitation, Olidryn, nor Regicio with Economics, Currency, and Trade.  Kiluron looked to Doil for a refutation; he had been up on the wall with Kiluron when the dragons spoke, so he must understand what Kiluron understood, that however terrifying the dragons might be, they were also majestic creatures.  Though Kiluron could not justify it even to himself, he had the sense that the dragons could be trusted.

               “I don’t see that we have a choice, but to negotiate,” Doil said.  It was far from the endorsement Kiluron had hoped for, but at least he wasn’t suggesting that the dragons could not be trusted.  “Until we know more about these dragons, we do not have the basis to make any other decision.  However the negotiations go in two days, we will at least learn more about the dragons and our current situation, and maybe we will then be able to make more informed decisions.”

               “I don’t suggest not negotiating,” Admiral Ferl replied.  “However, I do think that we need to make preparations in the event that the dragons are or become hostile.  Siege equipment, perhaps, could be modified to be effective, assuming they really are flesh-and-blood beasts.  I ask permission to work with Guardcaptain Vere to make such preparations.”

               Kiluron hesitated.  The idea of killing one of those creatures seemed somehow repugnant to him, a feeling that he would not have expected before confronting them.  “I – alright.”  The idea was too reasonable to deny entirely.  “Conduct some experiments, and train a small complement of guardsmen, just in case things go wrong.  However, this really will be only a last resort.  I don’t want us fighting these creatures unless we have no other choice.”

               There was minimal enthusiasm for this decision, but no one spoke further in argument, and the conversation turned then to detailed preparations for the coming negotiations.  It was a challenging process, with so little information.  When they were finished, Kiluron dismissed the ministers, and he and Doil went to another meeting with Guardcaptain Vere to plan the expedition to and from the hilltop upon which the negotiations were to take place.  Without knowing how long they might be there, Vere insisted on arranging a sizable caravan, and they determined to depart at dawn the next morning, leaving a day and a half to travel.

               It felt like Kiluron had barely laid down to sleep when he was rousing himself from the bed, belting on his sword, and walking out into the chilly predawn to join the caravan assembling in the courtyard.  He greeted Doil with a yawn, and then settled himself onto his horse.  As they rode out of the city, the horses jittered and pranced at the ground where the dragons had landed; Kiluron could see deep furrows dug into the soil by their claws, and wondered why he had been so reluctant to authorize defensive measures the previous day.  Then they were out onto the road, with the city diminishing behind them, and Kiluron was left to spend the day worrying about just what the dragons might really want.

               In the morning before the conference with the dragons was to take place, the delegation from Merolate approached the hilltop.  It was fortunate that for most of the journey they had been upwind of the place, for as soon as the horses scented the dragons they became almost uncontrollable.  Reluctantly, Vere ordered a halt.  While most of the guardsmen set about securing a camp, a few accompanied Vere, Kiluron, and Doil to the hilltop, as the sun neared its zenith.

               “Well, this is the place,” Kiluron affirmed, looking around at the trees and stones.  “It’s odd – I’ve never been here before, and yet I feel like I recognize it, as if it were familiar to me my whole life.”

               “I still don’t understand how you know that this is the hilltop to which Eldar was referring,” Doil remarked.  “All I heard was ‘the hilltop to the northwest.’”

               Kiluron nodded.  “It was like the essence of the place was sent directly into my mind.  I know this place, and in an odd way I even feel I recognize echoes of what it looked like long ago.”

               Frowning, Doil crossed his arms.  “Don’t you find it somewhat concerning that those dragons can have such a profound influence on you?  Communicating with them telepathically seems to do much more than just exchange words in a different fashion.  It’s like they convey a sense of their meaning directly into your head that goes right past your usual conscious defenses.  It seems like a dangerous level of power for them to have over our negotiator.”

               “I – “ Kiluron paused.  “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.  You really think they could have been manipulating me?”

               “Maybe not intentionally, but I do think it’s likely that, even inadvertently, you received more from them than just their words,” Doil answered.  “It’s at least something to be aware of, going into these negotiations.”

               Before Kiluron could reply, the dragons appeared.  There were a dozen of them, arrowing towards the hilltop in an aerial ellipsoid, and even from a distance Kiluron thought he could recognize the distinctive forms of the three dragons who had landed before Merolate’s gates.  He half expected them to arrive in a moment, they already appeared so large, but as they grew larger and alrger he was forced to remind himself just how enormous the creatures were.  With Doil’s warnings fresh in his mind, some of the initial, instinctive fear he had felt returned, but he pushed it down.  Then the dragons were landing on the opposite side of the hilltop, their huge wings blowing up grass leaves and even stones as their claws dug into the soil to halt them and their tails lashed the air behind them for balance.

               As at Merolate, only three of the dragons landed, the others assuming a wide, languorous orbit high above the hilltop.  Three of them was almost more than the hilltop could accommodate, and Kiluron was glad that the Merolate delegation had chosen to stand near the edge.  When the dragons seemed to have settled into their positions, Kiluron approached, swallowing against his nervousness.

               “Greetings again, Eldar,” he called, hoping that he wasn’t wrong in his identification of the lead dragon in the trio.  “I’m honored to speak with you again.”

               “Our greetings unto you, Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” the dragon rumbled in return.  “It is I who am honored to speak with you.  Truly remarkable it is what progress your people have made these past centuries.

               Kiluron fumbled for a response, not sure what to make of this comment.  It didn’t help that along with the words he had received an impression of such immense age that it left him reeling.  “Our progress?” he asked, not sure if he should have engaged, or pressed onto the main negotiations.

               Eldar dipped his head in a fair imitation of a human nod, odd as it looked with the massive head mounted upon the end of the long, sinuous neck.  “Yes, most remarkable.  When the Ipemavs ascended, we thought their humans would return to their natural state, but no, you have even developed your own civilization.”

               “I – “ Kiluron glanced at Doil, but received nothing but a look brimming with unasked questions.  “Thank you.”  He settled for that, not knowing what else to say.  He did not know to what Ipemavs the dragon was referring, or if he could believe the implication that Eldar might be more than a thousand years old.  “We have legends of your…people, but I never thought I would be speaking face to face with…with a dragon.”

               A noise that might have been a gentle growl left Kiluron quaking in his boots before Eldar replied.  “We call ourselves the Gruordvwrold,” he said.  “’Dragons’ is a term of the Ipemavs which you humans adopted, knowing no better.  So alike you are sometimes, it has caused concern amongst us.  It is why we have not revealed ourselves to you before.”  Again, Kiluron received that sense of more meaning behind these words, so that he somehow understood that not all of the dragons were comfortable with Eldar’s negotiations.  That was actually reassuring.  “Alas, the alternatives before us are rapidly dwindling, and so we have come to you for sanctuary.”

               There were so many questions Kiluron wanted to ask that he was beginning to feel like Doil.  The thought was enough to ground him, and he asked the most important one.  “What is threatening you, and how will helping you not merely bring the same danger down upon us?”

               What meaning the new sound Eldar produced might have possessed, Kiluron could not fathom.  “You may have accomplished much, but also you have forgotten much.  Or perhaps you never knew.  Your people are so short-lived that it is difficult to tell the difference; indeed, it is remarkable that you remember anything across your generations.  The Ipemavs do not care about you; they never did.  You were only ever a means unto an end, a mechanism by which they could further their power and achieve their aspirations.  The Gruordvwrold, though; we strove with them until the time of their ascension, and they have not forgotten.  Centuries mean even less to the ascended than they do to us, and they have now tracked us to our ancient homes.”

               “I have a hard time believing that whoever these Ipemavs are would not threaten us as surely as they threaten you, if only because we harbored you.”  A primal part of Kiluron was incredulous that he was arguing with a dragon, but he pressed on.  “Besides, how could we possibly defend you from these Ipemavs?  We’ve never even heard of them before this.  What would stop them from finding you in Merolate as easily as they found you before?”

               It could have been Kiluron’s imagination, but he thought he saw the three dragons exchanging glances.  “Perceptive are these questions for one who shall be dead of old age before he has truly left the cradle.  It is true that there is risk for you and your people in harboring us.  Yet this risk would be not yours alone, for this war between us and the Ipemavs is old, even by the standards of the Gruordvwrold, and wherever our conflict shall take place, nowhere in this world shall be safe.  But we acknowledge a debt unto you in this request we make, and we shall not shirk from fulfilling it.  This concept of citizenship you have is not one with which we have been long familiar, but we shall strive to be, as you would say, good citizens of your country.”

               In retrospect, Kiluron supposed that it should have been obvious, but somehow the thought of the dragons actually becoming a part of the Merolate Union, in the same way that the peoples of the different provinces had integrated, hadn’t occurred to him.  Even with it being expressed directly by Eldar, the concept failed to fit properly in his mind.  “What does that mean to you?  Since you say you aren’t familiar with the concept,” he asked.

               A difficult question to answer succinctly,” Eldar replied.  Our ways are ancient, and we have long sought to maintain a distance from the affairs of humans.  Too long we witnessed the destructiveness of the Ipemavs towards your kind, to brazenly embrace a close relationship.  Therefore, we would not seek an equal standing with your own people.  We do not ask your protection, and we will not involve ourselves in your economic affairs.  Aside from the land in which we would reside, we would not seek to use your lands’ lifebloods – that is not our way.  And in the event that a great danger threatens you, we would lend our aid.

               “And our land could sustain you, without interfering with the rest of the people?” Kiluron asked.  “Just how many of you are there?  How much space would you need?”

               The noise that Eldar now made Kiluron thought indicated amusement, perhaps with a twinge of sadness.  We do not live off of the land in the manner of your species,” he explained.  “Rather, we live of the land.  The Gruordvwrold are part of the bones of the world, not mere residents upon its surface.  Once, there were hundreds of us, but our numbers have dwindled.  There are now a mere three dozen of us, and such territory as we need would be more defined by the comfort of your people with us, than by our own needs.”

               “That’s a good thought, I hadn’t considered that,” Kiluron mused aloud.  “Alright.  I suggest that we call a recess, and finalize this matter tomorrow morning.”  In the peculiar suspension of the telepathic conversation, he had not previously noted how low in the sky the sun was getting.

               Eldar rumbled an agreement, and the three dragons turned upon the hilltop and launched themselves into the air, not so much flying as simply gliding down and skimming the tops of the trees.  Kiluron watched them go until they were almost out of sight, before turning back to Doil, Vere, and the other guardsmen and motion that they should make their way back to the camp.

               “Well?” Kiluron looked at Doil and Vere, but mostly at Doil.  “What do you think?”

               “I think that I would like to sit down with Eldar in a room – or, well, on a hilltop, since I don’t think there are rooms that would accommodate him, much less corridors that would allow him to get there – and plumb every corner of his knowledge about the ancient world.”  Doil sighed.  “However, more practically, it all sounds very reasonable on the surface, which is why I am somewhat suspicious of the whole affair.”

               Vere nodded to Doil’s latter point.  “I agree.  They want something more, something they’re not telling us.  Otherwise, why come to us?  There is plenty of territory on Nycheril, or even in the Unclaimed Territories, where they could have settled without involving themselves with our government.”

               Reaching the camp, Kiluron found a log and sat down on it before a fire that the guardsmen had already kindled.  He looked back and forth between Doil and Vere, and sighed.  “I guess you’re probably right.  I don’t want to believe anything but honor of these dragons, or gruordvwrold, but some of what they said today made me…uncomfortable.  All of their deliberateness about respecting us and our laws…it reminded me a little of those Pifechans, actually, with their insistence that we couldn’t handle their technologies.  Like they were doing us a favor by deigning to talk to us at all, rather than just swooping in – literally, in this case.”

               “So the question, to Vere’s intuition,” Doil observed, “is what we have that they want.”

               None of them had an answer to that question, and no answer was forthcoming in their discussions that evening before they determined to sleep.  When Kiluron awoke the next morning, he still didn’t know the answer, and he was no closer to a means of discovering it.  Despite that, he needed to give his decision to Eldar.

               The ancient creature was awaiting him, alone this time, upon the hilltop when Kiluron arrived with Doil and Vere.  With the sun rising behind Kiluron and glinting off Eldar’s scales, Kiluron was once again struck by the incredible majesty of such a being, a creation that seemed to defy the conventions by which other beasts were obliged to abide.  It made him more confident in his decision, and that sense was enough to set him to questioning again.  If the dragons were somehow influencing his thoughts and emotions, then his semblance of making a decision in the best interests of Merolate was just a delusion.  He almost turned back to Doil to ask the question, but it was too late; he needed to find his own certitude.

               “You have made then your decision, Prime Kiluron of the Merolate Union?” Eldar phrased it as a question, but he did not give them impression of asking it in that way.

               Swallowing his strange mixture of nervousness and awe, Kiluron cleared his throat.  “I have,” he answered.  “I have decided to offer you territory in the Merolate frontier.  There are mountains along the southwestern coast that are largely uninhabited; I think these will serve your purposes well.”  Pausing a moment, he looked for some reaction or response from Eldar, but could not read the dragon’s body language, and received no telepathic impressions.  “In return, I expect that you will keep your promise to respect our ways and not interfere with our people.”

               There was a long pause, or at least it felt long to Kiluron, before Eldar replied.  “This is accepted, Prime Kiluron.  The gratitude of the Gruordvwrold is yours.

               Without saying anything further, or awaiting another word from Kiluron, Eldar took two steps back, turned his massive, serpentine form around, and launched himself into the air, blasting air and dirt and twigs back at the Merolate delegation.  Then he was winging away, his flight a serene contrast to the chaos of the takeoff.  Kiluron followed him with his eyes as more dragons joined him, until the whole flock of them faded into the distance.

               Turning back and rejoining Doil and Vere, Kiluron sighed.  “Well, I hope we didn’t just make a giant mistake,” he said.  Neither of his companions had a word of reassurance for him.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E10: Older Than Stone. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode, and the beginning of the two part season finale, will go live on November 30th.

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