Nathanial stepped onto the blasted rocks of the Elemental Plane of Darkness and used his ESP to look around. It was as bare and empty as usual, other than fifteen members of his pack. In his arms, the Mastiff Grimoire seemed to...relax, almost the way someone would after returning home after an unexpectedly long trip. He motioned for Geoff to follow him through the portal and then adjusted his tie. Perhaps he should have changed out of his school uniform before going on an adventure.
Geoff, in his manifested state, walked through and stopped a few paces away from the portal to look around, his expression an odd mix of appreciation and disgust. "I have no idea why, but I find this place to be rather pretty. There's absolutely nothing about it that I'd consider attractive anywhere else."
Nathanial looked around as well, noting the barren, rocky terrain and the oddly soothing mix of greys and blacks it contained. Even the 'sky' above was a smudge of graphite-grey, like someone had drawn the entire plane with a pencil. As for Geoff, he looked happier, as he seemed to the first time Nathanial brought him here, but he still held himself...um, submissively.
Snow padded up as Nathanial closed the portal. *We should move quickly. The Dark One smells delicious, and we cannot keep the others away as we do when you visit us, Alpha. We knew you'd want to find the forest, so we sent four of us out to scout. Climb on, and hold on tightly. We will run.*
Nathanial climbed onto the back of the second largest Mastiff and mentally told Geoff, *Climb onto Snow's back. We'll have company soon.* Geoff looked around nervously, probably remembering his last visit here, when a small Shadow Mastiff nearly killed him. The Wolf complied, and the pack leapt forward; there was a very brief blast of darkness and cold before they reappeared in a different area near four smaller and lither Mastiffs. These looked almost like border collies rather than Tibetan mastiffs like Snow.
Geoff climbed off Snow's back. *That was interesting.* He leaned against a large rock, probably to steady himself after the discombobulating trip, or to have a solid -- protective -- surface at his back.
The scenery had changed a little; there were more large water-worn boulders strewn around and a number of empty riverbeds. Here and there were small clumps of rough, stiff, black grass that looked capable of slicing through the pads on their hindpaws. The broad blades were half a metre long, a good bit thicker than lawn grass, and the edges were jagged and saw-like. There were no signs of trees, not even stumps or logs in the dry furrows of the riverbeds. There were also no other signs of life, as usual, but he just chalked that up to Snow keeping everything else away while he could. Nathanial put his paw on Snow's broad, muscular back. *Is it much farther?*
Snow turned his head to look into Nathanial's eyes. *Yes. We spent a lot of time travelling through the blade-grass prairie from the umbral forests. We are close to the black fire swamps, though, if you want to go that way. We don't think you would like either route, and we don't like the idea of going back into the prairie. It is very slow going. The razor grass is very sharp, and wading through it hurts us, but there are only the two ways to go. We cannot avoid the grass if we go in the prairie.*
Nathanial and Snow perked up and looked aside at the same time. A herd of stocky, iron-plated beasts were stampeding toward them. He could "see" them clearly, though they were still a little over a kilometre away; they looked a lot like rhinos or some sort of short-legged stegosaurs. Actually, Nathanial thought they looked like a Pokémon called, um, Aggron -- no, the second stage, Lairon, maybe. Built like a rhino, with a ridge similar to a stegosaurus, but also with thick plates covering the head and back. Whatever they looked like or were called, they were dangerous. Geoff was basking in the shadowy atmosphere of the plane, but Nathanial had to interrupt him. *Geoff, we have company incoming, but both routes to--*
Geoff interrupted him. *I heard. You still had the telepathy spell going. We can fly, right? I'll make a bat for you and Snow; that way he can leave most of his pack here where they're more comfortable, while we fly over the prairie. Or better yet...* Geoff trailed off. Nathanial wasn't left guessing for long, however. That dragon-shape Geoff used in the duel with Nick reappeared, and the Elemental phased into it. Geoff placed his dragon-head on the ground in front of Nathanial. *Hop on. I'll lift you to my back.* The beasts charging them stopped where they were, shaken by the sudden appearance of a huge predator.
The dragon was about fifteen metres long, seven of which were tail, and it was a modern Western fantasy design. It was fairly serpentine, but it had a defined body, unlike the Eastern dragons. When Nathanial climbed on, Geoff raised his head and carried the Akita back to a spot just above the wings where a saddle was attached to the ebony scales; there was even an area in front of Nathanial's seat for Snow to lay and a saddlebag for the grimoire. Nathanial sat down, stowed his grimoire away, and strapped himself in, and then Snow, too, when the Mastiff appeared. Geoff leapt into the air and began to beat his wings heavily, slowly lifting them higher and higher.
Nathanial looked around with his ESP to get a better handle on where they were. Beneath them, the rest of the pack loped swiftly toward their familiar hunting grounds in the blasted plains, which lay directly behind them and stretched as far as Nathanial could see. Ahead and to the right was an area of dense mist, twisted trees, and faint, flickering lights, which almost looked like will-o'-wisps. The broad-leafed trees -- he couldn't really guess what type of tree or trees these sooty things were; they were too far away for even his ESP to examine clearly -- created a deep carpet broken by the deep pools of fog-enshrouded water, ribbons of streams, and a few wide boulevards of rivers. None of the water spilt out into the plains or the prairie. In front of them and to the left was the full spread of the blade-grass prairie, which was dominated by the tough grass that Snow seemed to have named them after, but there were spots where tall patches of dense, nasty-looking brambles choked out the grass. The dark, thorny masses looked like something out of a fairy tale -- Sleeping Beauty came to mind right away. The steel-plated Lairon things were returning to the prairie and formed a single line to force their way through the two metre-high vegetation. Farther, much, much farther ahead, the grey, so-called "light" that permeated the plane seemed to dim. Geoff seemed to be as high as he wanted to get and began flying toward the darkness. Or the darker darkness, anyway. After a few trips into the plane, Nathanial found it a little odd to see any variation in the sky, even if it was just a different hue of grey in one direction.
Geoff started humming happily as the kilometres vanished beneath them, and Nathanial could feel the vibrations of the deep rumble under the saddle; Micah would be jealous if he knew that his older brother had ridden a humming dragon, even if it was Geoff underneath. Nathanial didn't need to ask if the plane was helping his boyfriend feel better, but he was feeling less enthused the farther they flew. He swallowed his sudden discontent and tried to focus on the alternate dimension they were visiting. He was really curious as to what lay beyond the plains in the other direction now that he knew the entire Plane of Darkness wasn't uniform.
Snow caught his silent musing. *We don't know. We went that way once, but the other inhabitants become much stronger the farther one goes. It also lives that way.*
Geoff asked the obvious question. *What's 'it?'*
*We don't know. There is something so powerful that it consumes anything that even goes near it. We find the closest comparison would be a...forest fire. Or something that lives in a forest fire. The inferno is an invisible area around this thing that steals the life of anything that gets close and feeds the creature that lives in the middle. Everything flees when it appears, ignoring even the tastiest of prey.*
The Elemental hunched his neck up in an approximation of a shrug, sending ripples along his back and jostling his passengers -- not that dragon-flight was the smoothest of rides. *Well, I much prefer the way it feels the farther we go this way, so I don't really care. I'm feeling a lot better.*
Nathanial idly picked at a black scale and asked, *So, what did you think of Liam's offer?*
Geoff hesitated, and Nathanial wasn't really sure what to make of it. *Um...what offer?* Nathanial knew perfectly well that Geoff knew what he meant. *Oh, the, uh, the sex thing. You and him.*
*And you and Faelen.*
A deep growl rumbled through the large body between Nathanial's legs. Holy shit. If he'd liked the way it felt when Wolf-Geoff growled, heh, well there was no comparison to straddling Dragon-Geoff like this. *Why is everyone so fixated on that part? It's not like Liam hasn't been trying to get his dick up your ass from day one. He wanted to date you and not Faelen. If anyone should be jealous and protective, it's me.*
Nathanial couldn't keep the dryness out of his mental voice. *You are. That's why Liam and I haven't had sex yet. The thing is, neither of us have had a crush on the other; we just have a mutual attraction. We respect the boundaries put in place and haven't violated them -- well, other than when Liam forgot who we were when Yoishi woke up and he kissed me. A kiss doesn't really compare to Faelen tying with you.*
*I said I was sorry, and I meant it! Aphrodite spare me, Nathanial, what more do you want? I'll do it.*
*Nothing. I forgave you. I said it, and I meant it. I still love those roses; they're absolutely beautiful, and they mean even more to me because they're from you.*
*Then what do you want me to say? No matter how I answer, I lose. If I say I'd go along with it, then you'll get mad at me for wanting to have sex with Faelen; if I don't, then you'll get mad at me for being all jealous and possessive.*
Nathanial dropped his head and stared at his paws. He studied the way they looked wrapped around the edge of the saddle Geoff made. Geoff was probably right; it was an unfair question. Was there any sort of right answer? *I... I know how you must feel today. Scared. Vulnerable. Alone. I get like that a lot, so I understand the need for someone big and strong, but mostly someone safe. I, um, I know I'm none of those things. If... If this trip doesn't help you, you can...um, Faelen can help you. Help you feel better.* Nathanial couldn't believe he was giving Geoff away like that, but what Geoff must've been feeling would be horrible. He couldn't deny the Wolf he loved a 'cure' when it was right there.
He sensed Geoff phasing out of the construct to appear behind him. Those strong arms wrapped around Nathanial's stomach and pulled him close to his shining prince. Geoff chuckled and nibbled on his neck. *I'm not very shiny, you know.* One of Geoff's paws slid down to cup Nathanial's groin, and at the same time he humped against Nathanial's rump. *I have all the cure I need right here.*
Oh, gods. Nathanial felt like he was ten degrees hotter; he didn't know Geoff would hear that. *Oh, um, um, well... Black knight?*
Geoff laughed out loud and nibbled on Nathanial's neck some more, though his errant paw drifted back up to hold onto the Akita more securely. *So I'm not a prince anymore? You don't want to be my 'princess'?*
*I want to be yours. Whatever that is.*
Geoff rested his head against Nathanial's and just held him close. "You are. You and you alone." The wind whistling past them almost swept the whispered words away, but they still reached Nathanial's heart.
The sudden absence of scents and sound made Faelen open his eyes in confusion to diffused light; it was clear and fairly bright, like the sunlight he'd seen from high in the mountains but without a visible origin. Really, the utter lack of smell was creeping him out; he couldn't even smell himself...though he could hear his heartbeat and breathing. At least he wasn't dead...as far as he knew, anyway. Faelen had been sitting with Liam on the mats in the gym -- Micah's room stank too much -- while his boyfriend meditated, but now he was...well, he had no idea where he was. Dirk's lessons from his childhood came to mind. 'When you find yourself in a strange situation or place, you have a very obvious list of priorities. First, look for immediate threats to your charge. Second, look for immediate threats to yourself; you're of no use to him if you're dead or injured. Third, look for potential threats. Fourth, look for potential escape routes or sources of future threats. And last, only then seek to understand where you are and what's going on. When you're used to your duties, you should be able to do all of that with a single glance around you. And remember you're earlier lessons: always look calm and composed; you'd be surprised how many hostile situations can be avoided merely by looking competent.'
In the split second it took for that memory to flash across his mind's eye, Faelen looked around him, taking in every detail. There were no immediate or potential threats in evidence, though Faelen was disconcerted by being somewhere strange without Geoff. He was in a large circular area, which reminded him of the space under a cupola of a government or public building, but there was nothing else common to such places. There was no hum or scent from air ducts or florescent lights, no murmur of distant conversations or the smell of the Furs talking, and no buzz from computers or the acrid smell electronics put out. The walls were white marble, with black and blue striations the same shade as Liam's Soul Fire. Marble tiles covered the floor, black and striated with gold and more of that same eerie blue. Nine double doors, flanked by statues, were evenly spaced around the walls, with an obscured tenth door or perhaps a hallway placed directly across from him on the other side of a five metre tall statue of a naked male Canid. The giant statue was carved from solid black marble, and it was facing him. The breadth of the Canid's features were reminiscent of a Mastiff -- like the Chow statue he saw nearby -- but the muzzle looked more like a Wolf's or Kai's. The ruff was also very thick, thicker than a Wolf's but not as thick as the Chow's, and the muscles were similar in size to Da, even. A pair of very large statues -- mostly life-sized Furs -- stood on plinths half a metre to a full metre high, and flanked every door. Heavy chains crisscrossed every entryway but one: the one Faelen stood in front of. It was wide open and led into a spotlessly clean, if sparse, library.
A sudden pounding echoed deafeningly in the silence, shaking the stone walls and floor. It sounded like a monster was trying to bring the entire building down. Faelen took a few quick steps to the side to put a wall behind him rather than an open door. Now he could see around the statue. It was another double door over there, though it was hard to see under all the fortifications holding it shut, and Liam stood in front of it, frantic to keep it closed, if his body language was any indication. Coupling the statues with the utter lack of smell and natural sound led Faelen to believe he was inside Liam's mind somehow, or maybe his soul. That meant Liam stood in front of the 'life' he wanted to keep locked up. The pounding resumed, and Liam's paws raced over the chains sealing the doors as he worked on them, so Faelen silently padded toward his boyfriend to help.
The Spirit quickly fixed the images of each door and pair of statues in his mind while he cautiously moved to Liam, starting from the open door and going counter-clockwise. The open doors were almost the same as the one at the kwoon -- a pair of large wooden slabs with a sinuous Chinese dragon carved into them covering most of their surface, and the door pulls were 'held' by the dragon's claws -- but these doors were doubled up, and the dragons were gilded with silver. The statue on the right of the door was of Liam, and the left was a rather mortifying statue of Faelen. Its grey stone body was carved wearing the clothes he'd worn on their first date, though that was fine; the embarrassing feature was the statue's face -- it looked rather ridiculous with a hopelessly smitten expression that Faelen was all but certain he'd never, ever worn himself.
Next was the door on his house in Ireland, also converted into double doors but lacking any sort of gilding. Just ordinary solid oak varnished to a deep golden brown. Unlike at home, chains held these doors shut, but the chains were haphazardly repaired, and it looked like they'd been broken recently and often. The door bore other signs of recent use as well. The statues were of Lowell -- in his mid-fifties and carrying a cane and one of his journals -- and the flanking one was of Lowell's family, though that statue was small enough to fit the whole family on the plinth, and for the most part appeared to be taken from when Poppy Aedan was about twenty or so, but in the foreground, as the focus of the piece, was a four-year-old Poppy Faeden, though Faeden wouldn't have been born until Aedan was thirty-six There was one other thing out of place, as well: the paintbrush Liam had tried to give Aunt Muireann. It was in colour and life-sized, unlike the statue, and it lay before the figure of Aunt Muireann like an offering at a grave.
Beyond the O'Conall statues stood a pair of metal doors, heavily ornamented with Chinese designs. Very few chains and locks sealed them, and the amount of dust and cobwebs over the door showed why: this life rarely caused trouble. Faelen knew Song Xun was the life before Lowell; otherwise he'd have no hope of recognizing the statue of the Songshi Quan, or Chow Dog. Xun held Liam's sword in one paw and a smith's hammer in the other. The Dog's muscles were well suited for a smith, but the statue showed the same grace Faelen saw in many of the masters at the kwoon. Only a bloody idiot would risk pissing this guy off. The other statue was a model of a mountain fortress, likely his monastery, built on a bluff into the mountain itself. The detail of the carving was unbelievable, every leaf on each tree painstakingly rendered to scale. Just from the carving, Faelen could tell that it must be absolutely gorgeous there.
The next pair of statues displayed the forms of Takahashi Yoishi and Ohtori Kaoru: a shinobi Kai Inu and a younger Otter wearing a lord's kimono. Faelen would have liked to take time to study these, especially since he thought he saw the runnel of tears coursing down Yoishi's cheek. The plain, weathered wooden doors were set into the same type of arch he'd seen near Shinto shrines, the handles simple wrought-iron rings, and the doors themselves each emblazoned with a different character. Somehow he knew they were 'Duty' and 'Honour.' The chains on the gates looked like they'd been broken often very recently, but they had almost no old damage.
Further back, before Yoishi, came...Song Li. These doors were Chinese, too, but made out of stone, with a taijitu emblazoned in the middle of each. The doors were spotlessly clean, and the locks and chains seemed to be made more out of repairs than original material. A Foo Dog statue stood to the right -- a very old Foo Dog, at that. He wore simple robes and carried Liam's cane and a set of scales. His eyes looked to be full of kindness and laughter. The left-paw statue's plinth displayed dozens -- if not hundreds -- of tiny dolls; each bore the face of a different person, and all of them held something up as an offering, but couldn't see what the offerings were from this far away.
Then came the doors Liam worked so frantically on. Made of yellow desert stone and splattered with old blood, dozens upon dozens of chains crisscrossed them, with three large stone pillars barricading them shut, with two more braced against the floor to further prevent them from opening. The doors shook violently with the deep, echoing thuds reverberating around the room, as the monster continued battering the other side. Even with the doors blockaded more ardently than anything Faelen had ever seen before, cracks riddled the chains and sealing stones -- cracks that Liam was desperately trying to repair while he sought to soothe whatever lay behind those doors. The 'life' statue was a Jackal, but one that looked to have some Hyena heritage. Faelen saw hints of a Hyena's spots on the grey stone and a thin mane on the back of his neck. His ears were cropped and his tail docked. The cackling Canid carried a bloody linen bag in one paw and several severed stubs of previously docked tails in his other one. The plinth flanking the door supported a statue of an ancient Middle Eastern city; the buildings roared with silent flames, blood ran through the streets, and tiny Furs ran about in a panic, frozen in stone. Two burning crosses adorned the apex of the city; a Star of David and a Christian fish were crucified on them. Faelen knew Liam held Christianity in...disdain, at best, but this?
Yet even as part of his mind recoiled at the sight of his boyfriend's presumed past, his training kept his eyes moving to encompass the remainder of the room. People were often surprised by the amount of detail he could remember after a quick glance at something, but it really came down to training and attention. Even after looking at five of the doors -- at a distance, granted -- he was only a few steps away from where he started.
The next doors were Chinese, too, which meant they must belong to Tai Lung. The simple wooden doors looked like they belonged to a cabin or small house. The only indications that they were Chinese were the out-of-place carvings of jade dragons set into the middle of each door. A few chains held them closed, and thick dust and cobwebs covered them and everything around them. A statue of a large Chongqing Dog stood to the right -- large in both musculature and stature. There was something very regal about him, despite his simple robes, but he didn't seem haughty or commanding. He just radiated confidence and...well, the only ways Faelen could describe him were 'holy' or 'sacred.' If this was the life the monks worshipped, Faelen could easily understand it. Oddly, Lung's paws held nothing but a plain walking staff. Lung appeared to be travelling and searching for something, or possibly someone. The other statue was of an older male Snow Leopard. He also wore simple clothes and held the grace of a martial artist, and even though his face looked happy, his eyes held deep remorse.
A Border Collie statue stood beside the next doors. These were wooden doors, too, decorated with Celtic knot-work drawn in with blue paint. These doors had quite a few chains, with noticeable signs of repair, but nowhere near the amount found on Li's or Lowell's doors. Even Yoishi's had more damage, but these looked like they spanned a larger time frame, whereas Yoishi's looked to be almost entirely recent activity. Quinn was middle aged, fairly strong in a wiry sort of way, and he looked very weathered, like someone who spent his entire time outdoors. He held a set of panpipes in his left paw and a heavily damaged Roman helm in his right. Three feral canines stood on the opposing pedestal: a large boarhound and two wolves.
Next came a pair of large, bronze doors, gilded in gold and encrusted with precious stones of all sorts, which formed an intricate pattern similar to those Faelen had seen in the chapters on Greece in his ancient history textbooks. But even with the wealth and craftsmanship displayed on the doors themselves, the most arresting features were the door pulls set dead-centre between, shaped into the three watchful heads of Cerberus, the guardian and symbol of Hades. This area definitely belonged to Timeus. The doors were cleaner than every preceding door until Li's, but that wasn't saying a whole lot. The chains were about as numerous as Quinn's and had similar amounts of damage on them, but the area in front of the door showed far more use -- as if the door was opened from this side. Presumably, Liam could open the doors without breaking the chains. As for the past life himself, Faelen could only marvel at just how big Timeus was. His statue easily dwarfed the other nine, and only Xun's had larger muscles. This statue stood proudly, carved out of black stone that clearly separated it from all the others, its build solid and broad like a Rottweiler's, its jaw every bit as thick and heavy as the rest of it. Poppy Aedan had often told Faelen and Geoff bedtime stories from the eras of the Romans and the Greeks, and if Faelen wasn't mistaken, this type of Dog was a Greco-Roman Molossus, a now-extinct breed frequently used as labourer slaves and gladiators in ancient times. Sadly, only a very few depictions of them in art had survived. Timeus wore a white toga and a black sash; the clasp holding the sash up matched the door pulls: the three heads of Cerberus. Fire sheathed Timeus's left paw, and his right held a Mycenaean short sword. Only Lung's presence rivalled Timeus's, but this statue inspired fear more than reverence, though it didn't look particularly cruel. Timeus had definitely been powerful, and he certainly didn't look the part of someone who'd tolerate a fool. The second statue plinth held a replica of the doors it stood by, which left Faelen feeling lost as to what it could mean.
Faelen looked to the last place where a set of doors should be, but all he could see was a mass of dust and cobwebs and the faint indication that something hid under the grime. It'd take a lot of cleaning to even find the door before you could try to open it.
Faelen stepped up behind Liam, but Liam's sarcastic voice stopped him before he could say anything. "First Nathanial and now you. I may as well start issuing tickets for tours of my soul at this rate. I would quite appreciate it if you would not poke about; I do value my privacy."
The doors in front of them shook violently. Behind them someone cackled wildly like a Hyena, his deep voice hysterical. "Waahaahaahahaha!!! Faelen! Such a beautiful tail you have, Faelen!" A heavy body slammed into the door, and a cascade of sand fell from the slabs of stone holding the door shut. The person launched himself again, and cracks appeared in the door itself. "Hahaha!! I want it! I want your tail, pretty Wolf!"
Liam spread his paws on the doors and braced himself. Blue-green streams of energy flowed into the stone and began to repair the cracks. His voice dropped into a soothing drone. "Sleep. Sleep, now. Sands of the desert / Flowing winds -- Djinns' lullaby / Oasis nurs'ry."
Lullaby? Was Liam trying to lull his past life to sleep? Faelen remembered how his Da used to sing for Geoff and him, and later Gwen, when they couldn't sleep. He reached over Liam and gently covered the small black and tan paws with his own. He leant against the small Rottie and began to sing Hestia's Cradle, his favourite lullaby. The version he grew up hearing was in Irish Gaelic, so he didn't actually know what the words in that version meant, though most of the adult members of the Clan spoke both Gaelic and English. He meant to learn the language at some point.
As he sang, he felt the muscles in Liam's back relax. Tendrils of fog began drifting across the floor and lapped against the yellow limestone. The noise on the other side of the door slowly faded into silence. Faelen drew some of the fog up their legs and coiled the streamers around their arms; Liam took it, mixed it with his energy, and patched up the damaged barrier.
Faelen continued to sing for several more minutes until he saw Liam's head begin to bob. He gently scooped up the drowsy Ancient One into his arms and carried him over to Tai Lung's door -- he considered Song Li's, which was also next to the Jackal's, but that life might rouse and emerge -- and sat down, cradled him in his lap, and continued to sing.
Liam smiled and struggled to keep his eyes open. "Fuck you, my love. I am not a child."
Faelen just dipped his head to nuzzle one of Liam's ears and sang quietly until Liam drifted off to sleep. His sight went dark for a moment and he blinked under the suddenly bright lights of Nathanial's gym. Liam lay in his arms, breathing deeply in sleep.
Nathanial estimated it took another forty minutes or so to reach the edge of the prairie. Snow was extremely surprised to see the trees appear before them. *We didn't realize we were moving so fast. We are impressed.*
Their sudden appearance surprised Nathanial and Geoff, too, but for a different reason: the trees did appear, quite suddenly in fact. They were flying along, not a tree in sight, then a few trees appeared below them, and *Poof!* a huge wall of trees were just...there, a couple of kilometres away. Oaks, elms, willows, chestnuts, and dozens of other trees Nathanial didn't recognise stretched over fifty metres high, with huge canopies spreading over the smaller trees beneath. The stately towering plants looked like normal trees, but instead of greens and browns, they'd been stripped of all colour -- like a black and white movie Nathanial had seen back when he was a pup -- but otherwise most of them looked like oversized examples of regular deciduous trees. Some of the outlandish ones, ones he was sure would never appear on Earth, were pretty funky and curled around like some sort of waterslide or seemed to be made up of several trees intertwined so much they became one organism.
Geoff, once again phased into the dragon, slowed his flight before cupping his wings more on each beat to hover vertically in place near the edge of the forest. Snow really didn't like this and teleported to the ground beneath an elm. Geoff pondered for a moment longer. *I'm going to try to make tight circles to lose altitude, but it's going to be difficult to land in amongst the trees.* Neither of them considered landing in the sharp grass. *I'm not very good at flying yet.*
Nathanial looked down at the sharp vegetation. *Could you wait until we get down a bit and then make a...pillow, maybe, to land on? Shrink as you descend, too, so it isn't as hard to land safely. Once we're down, you can make a bridge like you did between the barges in the harbour.*
Geoff's huge reptilian head nodded in understanding, and he began circling down in a diminishing spiral. Nathanial noticed that the dragon shrank roughly ten percent on each loop. About seven metres above the ground, Geoff's solidified shadow-stuff made a gigantic pillow which flattened all the grass beneath it before he tried to hover again. This time, however, Geoff's inexperience in flying overcame what little experience he'd gained, and he failed to angle his wings properly for a controlled descent. The pocket of air that should have been cupped under the thin membranes of his wings spilt out the front, and he slipped backward, flipping upside down. He tried to catch himself, but he must have immediately realized he was too close to the ground to have any chance of recovering. The Elemental dismissed the dragon and reappeared next to the terrified Mage.
Nathanial's heart felt frozen in his chest, but he telekinetically grabbed his grimoire and boyfriend to slow their fall. That left him, alone, plummeting to the ground, but even before he could recover enough to scream, he hit the pillow. He bounced up, limbs flailing, and landed again. He began to laugh. This was fun! He saw Geoff grinning at him as he slowly floated down, so Nathanial let a malicious smile split his muzzle and dropped the cheeky bugger.
Geoff yelped in shock, and his limbs windmilled for a moment before he somehow flipped over to land on his back. His laughter rang out and mixed with Nathanial's. The Akita climbed to his hindpaws, certainly not an easy feat, and tried to jump over to his Wolf, but each time Geoff hit the pillow it'd knock him onto his ass. Once Geoff stopped bouncing, Nathanial managed to get a bit closer. The Wolf struggled upright and began jumping toward him, too. Half the time when one of them landed, it'd knock the other over, so it soon turned into a game.
Geoff jumped as high as he could and landed heavily. Nathanial flew into the air, laughing, and sent a bolt of telekinetic energy downward in revenge. Geoff's purple eyes widened in shock as he flew back up into the sky, well past Nathanial, who waved at him as he bounced back onto the pillow. It only took an instant to realize that once his boyfriend landed, he'd be the one catching air.
Yup. Several seconds later, Geoff landed with a loud *floomph,* and Nathanial felt the world spin around him as the pillow flung him away. Snow and three of his largest pack members appeared over the mat and dropped in a wide circle around Geoff, sending him upwards, too, howling with laughter.
The two bipeds landed at the same time, and all four, um, Snows bounced up, yelping. They vanished and appeared at the edge of the trees, obviously out of sorts. They really didn't like uncertain footing. Geoff and Nathanial laughed so hard they couldn't control themselves and eventually came to a rest. The Spirit crawled over and flopped on top of the Mage, panting.
Nathanial wrapped his arms around the muscular Wolf. "Hey."
Geoff chuckled and pressed his shadow-shrouded nose against Nathanial's. "Hey yourself." He tilted his head a bit and pressed his lips against Nathanial's, then slipped his tongue into the Akita's more-than-willing muzzle when it opened.
They kissed for a few minutes, getting more and more passionate as the darkness enflamed their desire, before Nathanial caught himself. "We'd better get into the forest if we want to see it. We only have a few minutes before our time's up. If we want to come back here, it'd be best to make sure Faelen doesn't worry."
Geoff kissed him once more before nodding. The pillow shifted into a slide that brought them down to the moss-covered forest floor by Snow. "Good point." The Wolf's tail wagged happily. "This is great!" He bounded a few metres farther in and spun around, arms wide. "Gods! It's like taking my favourite things about the forest back home and adding everything I love about the darkness."
Nathanial trotted over, senses peeled, and brought his grimoire over to float behind him as he studied the landscape around him. The forest had three distinct layers: the canopy far above them, forming an impenetrable ceiling of leaves, branches, spider webs, and vines; the understorey layer, barely three metres above their heads, the trees that comprised it scattered about randomly as far as Nathanial could see; and the final layer -- the floor they walked on -- full of mosses, mushrooms, ferns, barely visible rocks, and small streams. Spiders looked to be the dominant predators farther in, their webs primarily scattered throughout the canopy to start with, but at the edge of his senses, Nathanial could detect a few in the understorey. Many of the spiders looked to be the size of large housecats, too. Gross. From here, he couldn't see any other threats.
Just as he was about to stop scanning, he noticed a black metal sword impaled halfway to the hilt in the dirt at the bottom of a huge tree, along with a heavily dented black metal shield. Scanning further, he realized the web strung up in the tree contained a Fur-sized cocoon. He forced his senses into the thick mass of silk and probed inside. Whoever it used to be, the poor person was long dead; he couldn't get much detail because of the webbing and distance, but he managed to push through it enough to realize it contained a desiccated skeleton -- complete with armour that matched the sword and shield below. What caught his attention the most, however, was the round, silver medallion hanging out through a gap in the webbing, graven with the image of a cypress tree. The discovery piqued Nathanial's curiosity, but it'd take thirty minutes or more just to wend their way around the ravine between them and the base of the tree, let alone scale up into the canopy. He debated telling Geoff about it, but then they'd have to head that way so Geoff could see it for himself. If they wanted to return home when they'd promised, they didn't have the time. Maybe they'd check it out next time. It would make for an interesting adventure then, at least.
The Mage looked toward Snow, deciding to gather a bit more information while he could. *Do you know what sort of dangers are here?*
*We ate many things and hid from many things. We don't remember clearly, but the things you call 'bugs' grow very large here. Spiders are among the worst, and they use tricks to hide the webs. We, when we were more than one, even found some that can prevent our shadow-jumping. If we were singular we would have been killed, but as we are now, only our alpha can block us from going to one of ours. No spider can stop us from going to another of us.*
That sounded a lot safer than it could've been. Nathanial thought back to the sarlacc-thing he'd nearly fed Garret to and found himself glad it wasn't here. He took Geoff's paw in his own, looking up at his black prince shyly. "S-So, let's take a boo at this place, eh?" Geoff continued to stare into Nathanial's eyes, entranced. The Akita hunched his shoulders and dropped his gaze to the moss beneath his hindpaws. He turned half away and snuck a peek at Geoff, only to find the Wolf right in his face. He squeaked and laughed as he was smothered in playful nips and kisses. "G-Geoff! Eek! C'mon, Geoff! S-Stop it!" Nathanial sent his book to rest on Snow's back as he let his boyfriend's paw go and darted farther into the forest, chased by the frisky Spirit. Snow and the other three members of his pack that were there ran in a loose box around them; they were far enough away to be out of the way, but close enough that nothing could easily get by them to threaten the couple.
Geoff was obviously just playing with him -- there was no way he could outrun the far superior athlete -- so they ran for a few minutes dodging around tree trunks large and small along with other forest hazards. The oddly beautiful forest gloom deepened as they ran in, and the size of the various bits of undergrowth grew. Mushrooms soon reached waist-height, with caps as wide as Nathanial was tall, ferns towered over them and replaced the trees of the understorey, and there were pitfalls where even the moss grew so thick that Nathanial knew it could engulf him entirely if he fell into it, even though the surface looked smooth and level. Thankfully, the lush carpet was only half a paw thick over most of the floor, but that made the pits all the more treacherous, like a plant version of quicksand.
Suddenly, Geoff pounced and grabbed his pup around the waist. They fell and tumbled over the pillow-like moss before stopping with the Wolf half on the Akita. Geoff panted, grinning, in Nathanial's face. "Hey, Pup. Gotcha. We should go."
Nathanial nodded. "Yeah. Let me drop a Mage Sigil on a stone so we can get back here without spending an hour flying. I don't want to ask Snow to keep some of his pack here; that wouldn't be fair." A bat flew over and dropped a fist-sized stone nearby. "Thanks, Geoff."
The Wolf looked surprised. "That wasn't me."
The bat chirped and circled overhead. Nathanial studied it. "Um, it's definitely yours. It's identical to the ones you make. That can't be a coincidence." Nathanial levitated the rock to his paw and cast the spell on it. He lifted it up, and the bat swooped down to carry it into a small hole in a tree. The Canids watched it curiously. Nathanial nodded. "Yeah, it has to be yours."
Geoff didn't look convinced. "I didn't make anything after the pillow and slide. I can't summon -- I only shape the darkness -- so this can't be one of the ones I made when I was practicing."
Snow chimed in. *We haven't seen these before. They may have come from farther toward the darkest part of the plane. Not everything is a predator in the forest, and we believe the farther we go the more prey we will find. We find non-predator prey is less filling, so we ignore them. We went the way we did to find more satisfying food.*
Nathanial nodded slowly. It was possible this was just a randomly helpful bat, but that stretched coincidence pretty far. Regardless, time was up. He pushed at Geoff's shoulders. "Up. Time to leave." Geoff stood and took Nathanial's paw to help him up. Nathanial opened a portal, and they left the forest behind. But just as the portal winked shut, Nathanial could have sworn he saw the spectral form of an armoured, female creature that looked almost Elven, except with blunt, round ears and a much thicker frame, standing where he and Geoff had lain. He tried to put the disquieting vision out of his mind and did his best to hold onto the happiness he'd felt during his time with Geoff.
***This chapter was edited by Lycanthromancer*** The four friends have returned home early from school because classes were cancelled. The day had been eventful already. Liam had dealt with the Chans, and in doing so resolved the mystery around the unauthorized access of Hao Chan's computer. Garret made his way to Taipei with Nathanial's help, and the eldest Marks son repaired Jon Drake's car before talking to Counsellor Ryhorski. To Geoff, the most noteworthy event was finally figuring out what was wrong with him. Faelen found himself exchanging worries: Nathanial actually talked to someone who could help him, and Geoff's strange behaviour was temporary and perfectly natural, but Liam... The way the Ancient One had 'dealt' with Betty really disturbed him, the anger the Mist Spirit felt was inexplicably overwhelming, and a strange and damned frightening voice echoed from the depths of the Rottie's soul. Now, at least, Liam and Faelen are going to meditate in hopes of quieting it, while Nathanial and Geoff visit the Plane of Darkness.