The two traveling druids landed outside of the rim of unseasonable warmth far to the north of their commune. They’d soared far, but this next part, they knew, had to be taken on foot, for the Ur dragon would be the only thing that could lead them towards what they sought. Lily’s hand naturally found its way into Gux’s paw, her heart determined, but trembling. They’d seen so much that they had never thought they could, traveled so far together… Gux smiled. “Hey, we finish this, we see world after?”
Lily nodded. “Yeah… I think we could spend some time while we wait for the family to arrive.” She giggled, kissing his fuzzy cheek, then began down the winding path into the jungle below. Trees stretched out in a ring around a strange mountain, storms brewing around it from the heat of the jungle mixing with the cold arctic frost… What kept this area so different from everything else was a magical enigma, but Lily was glad to be in the warmth and out of the frozen arctic air, quickly stripping from her snow gear down to her normal clothes.
Gux swapped his clothes out quickly, and even so was panting, naturally stripping down until he had on just underwear, the heat of the jungle clutching to his fur and making him pant. He looked over, seeing the sweat glistening on Lily’s body, and let out a small whine. Never had he been envious of her ability to sweat, but now he truly was. And the fact it made her so beautiful at the same time was just icing on the cake.
Sharp thorns and ferns snagged at Lily’s dress and scraped at her skin, the plants here ignoring her magical call to clear her path. Above, birds called out in voices she’d never heard, singing ancient songs that thrummed with their own magical energies… This valley was a wild, deeply powerful place, and she looked at Gux, stripped down and scouting ahead, the foliage causing his fur no troubles, and she pouted a little. She’d never thought she’d want to be the fuzzy one, but for a moment… just a few seconds, really…
She shook off her thoughts, traveling deeper into the jungle, until they arrived at a natural pool of lava, bubbling away as though the trees around it being not on fire was the most normal thing in the world. Both kept their distance, the heat burning as soon as they could see it, but at least it explained the heat down here.
Gux looked amongst the mud around the lava, and there he found what he’d been searching for: tracks for the Ur dragon. At least, he assumed anything so large simply had to be the dragon in question. He saw the direction they went, motioning for Lily to follow. She, however, was rather focused on something growling near her: a cat with incredibly large fangs, sharp as swords. “We mean you no harm,” he heard her say in the cat’s own tongue. “We simply wish to explore.”
“Territory mine… Food all in it!” The cat growled, leaping forward at Lily. Lily screamed, starting to mutter a spell, but Gux leaped into action as well, his stick growing into a staff that he used to knock the cat on the head, slamming it into the mud. Another strike had the cat whimpering, looking up at him. “No fight back… mistake…”
Gux glared at the beast. “Warn others… we travel. Not want hurt, but will defend self.” The cat slunk off, and Gux watched it go before he turned to Lily. “Are you alright?” he checked her for injuries from where she’d slipped in the mud, but she brushed his paw away. “I’m fine,” she said with a huff, cleaning herself off with her magic. “Just a little startled…” We can’t all be trained hunters like you, she thought angrily. She didn’t know why the jungle had her feeling so bitter, but it was a thought that stuck.
Gux shrugged off his wife’s annoyance, considering it had to be the heat and embarrassment of the mud. He then took the lead once more, following the tracks of the dragon through the jungle bed. Broken ferns, smashed roots… It was not a small nor delicate beast they were tracking, and while it wasn’t too hard, it was a long trek. Lily slowly seemed to get back into the excitement of the hunt, following along and paying attention to the tracks herself, as though she wanted to learn.
Around a corner they came into a clearing beneath a waterfall, steam rising up from the water at the base. It appeared to be a hot spring, and dipping a toe into the soothing water had her realizing that it was. Before moments could pass, both were relaxing in it, feeling their muscles unwind and the grime slip off of them. They still had no idea where to go, but at least, as they snuggled together in the water, they knew they’d be able to get there together.
A few seconds later Gux started awake, only then realizing he’d slipped into a nap… odd for him, considering his normal alertness. A little ways away, he saw Lily speaking with a beautiful rainbow bird unlike any he’d ever seen. In copying its voice, both of them were singing beautiful, lilting refrains to each other that made him shudder to hear them. He started to focus, wishing he had his wife’s ability to slide into those languages easily, but just as the song formed words, he watched her shift into a bird matching the other and take off into the air, leaving Gux in the warm water alone.
His mouth curled into a growl as he watched her disappear above the treetops… Able to just become those animals, and with all of her advanced magics… He’d give anything to have gotten a background like that. He loved his own abilities, true, but… To be able to be one with nature like that was something he truly envied… He felt that thought lodge in his head, almost sinking in like a spike, and he held a paw to it, the headache making him sink back into the water to clear it.
About an hour later that colorful bird landed, transforming into Lily, who quickly grabbed her things and put on her clothes. “Gux! I know exactly where to find the Ur dragon! The birds of paradise here were willing to-”
Gux snorted in the water. “Yes, all you bird friends… So glad you fly off.” He climbed out of the water, shaking it off of his fur. “Lead the way.”
Lily was stunned for a moment. “Gux, did you just snap at me? You never-.”
Gux shook his head. “And never want to… But annoyed. Something in air… want to move forward. You snap at me earlier.”
Lily started to feel defensive, though she thought about it… and it was true, she had. And she’d felt… odd since getting here. “Maybe I did, but that doesn’t make it right for either of us… Apologize on three? One. Two. Three.”
“I’m sorry,” they said in unison, smiling to each other and giving a kiss. Both, for a moment, felt almost a lessening of the pressure on their minds, and they chuckled as they ran off into the jungle in the direction Lily had pointed out. It turned out that the tracks of the dragon quickly disappeared into a river of lava, but Lily’s friend had told her a way over the lava that would take her straight to the dragon’s lair… and also something about being prepared for a test, or maybe a trial? It was a little confusing, the bird’s language was always so flowery, but she was ready for anything. Even fighting the dragon if she had to.
Both Gux and Lily came to a crossing over the lava, where vines and branches had made a natural bridge to the other side. Gux started to climb, his claws giving him purchase in the trees, but Lily felt that digging pressure in her brain. “Oh, so you’re just going to climb up and leave me here. I see how it is for the solitary hunter.”
Gux felt his hackles raise, looking at her with the same pressure in his mind. “Why not fly over? Or get more friends to help! Magic your problem away.”
“Maybe I will,” Lily said, turning into a bird once more and flying just out of Gux’s reach, sticking out her tongue as she did. He quickly leaped from one branch to the other side, wanting to get there first, but slipped, his paw wrapping in a vine while he dangled over the lava. Immediately he looked at Lily, who had a mean expression on her birdy face for just a second, then zipped into action, snapping the vine at the far end of the branch. Gux’s heart plummeted as he did, but a moment later, as he was swinging over the lava and catching the side of the tree, he saw how clever a solution his wife had come up with. But instead of praising her for it, he felt another thorny thought take hold. Always so smart… Always knowing more than me… started off as teacher… am I any better than a cub to her?
He climbed down into the mud, pushing forward along the tracks, and she flew above him, her wings beating and the sour look returning to her face. Served him right for thinking he’s better than me. So wise and wild and free… doesn’t even know how much I learned to get here… She felt the claws wrapping around her mind, but it only made her more focused to finish this all and get out of here.
The couple stood in front of the cave, looking into the huge opening. They could hear the breathing, and see collected in there crystals of every type, glimmering in the light that bled in from outside. Gux began to step forward, before a voice spoke in both their minds.
TRAVELERS FROM AFAR THAT SEEK THE UR,
FINDING ME NOW HERE, AT REST,
FIGHTING OVER SKIN AND FUR,
YOU PRETEND TO BE AT YOUR BEST.
Both of them could feel, almost like a physical pressure, ancient claws wrapping around their minds, closing in. They looked at each other, seeing the fear, and embraced as the voice continued.
JEALOUSY HAD LED YOU HERE
AND WANTING WHAT YOU CANNOT HAVE
BUT WHAT IT IS YOU TRULY FEAR
IS STANDING ON ANOTHER PATH.
They looked into the cave, feeling the rumbling footsteps as the dragon stepped outward, his form shadowing the crystals behind him. They couldn’t see it in the shadows, apart from two piercing eyes, glowing and flickering like rainbow lights that saw straight into their hearts. “I love you, Lily,” said Gux, holding her close.
“And I you, Gux. Forever.” She kissed him gently, their passion flowing as the voice continued.
A TRIAL THEN IS WHAT AWAITS,
TO SEE IF YOU DESERVE YOUR PARTS.
TAKE SOME TIME IN EACH OTHER’S GAITS
AND SEE THE PAIN INSIDE YOUR HEARTS.
IF IT IS TRUE WHAT YOU HAVE SAID,
YOUR WISH SHALL I GLADLY GRANT.
BUT THE JOURNEY HERE WILL LEAVE YOU DEAD
IF ALL WAS WORDS WITH MEANING SCANT.
The pair felt the claws close around their minds, then darkness fall around them.
A furred form ran through the forest, from much more important than to to the mind that housed the rapidly beating heart. Paws broke branches and animals ran in fear, but onward they ran at full speed, unable to escape the image in their mind. Every instinct told them to pounce on the animals, to bite, to snarl, and eat them whole… To savor their tasty meat, but the furred form refused, running until they were exhausted, panting painfully and breath heaving as they stumbled into a clearing.
Here was a little hut, entirely made out of vines and flowers with little berries growing off of the side, a small babbling brook beside it, and from the hut could be heard a throaty, playful song. The furred form was afraid to approach, knowing how people usually reacted… or, rather, how their people usually reacted to strangers… but it made an exception, hunger and curiosity in equal parts winning out. It moved up to the walls of the hut, reaching up for the berries… it knew some creatures ate them happily, not other creatures… maybe it could try them.
As a paw nearly reached the berries, a head popped from the side. A tan male with tousled greyish brown hair and piercing green-gold eyes. “Hello out here. You seem a curious creature… are you lost?”
The furred form jumped back, growling, the reddish fur over her body peppered with the markings of a hyena, while her own brown eyes looked deep into the one in front of her. Her fur was matted and smelled rank, but he didn’t seem to mind… and his fangs being shown appeared to be a smile, not a threat. Slowly she rose. “I… Not bother. I go.” She turned to move, but was stopped by his voice.
“At least tell me your name before you go? I’m Giles.” He hopped out of the house, clothed in a beautiful robe made of vines and flowers, and offered a hand.
She looked at his hand, sniffing it suspiciously, then nudging it once with her nose as a sign of trust. “Lux.” She then backed off. “I not want hurt or bother… I hungry, just… leaving.”
Giles shook his head. “If you want a berry to fulfill your hunger, take one… I’d like to chat, if you have the time.” He seemed rather fascinated by her, and while she hadn’t learned to ever trust strangers… She took one of the berries, eating it. The sweet flavor bursting over her mouth made the hunger fade entirely apart from one little, growling pang in the back of her mind, like a talon stuck deep in there… Ignoring it, she moved closer to Giles.
“I… have time?” She entered the house, not knowing where this could lead, but feeling she could trust this friendly face.