The Emerald Dragon by Solitaire Parke
CHAPTER TEN -
This must be the week for meetings. First time I sleep in, and I’m awakened to the sound of dragon music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful and if nothing else, it’s loud. I found out later that it’s a new practice for the mountain at nine o’clock in the morning and nine o’clock at night. The one in the morning is called Morning Song and, you guessed it, the one at night is called Night Song. It’s done on a volunteer basis, and the dragons figure out the song pretty quick and then chime in at devastating volumes. Before the song is even finished, Demi tells me we have to go to a Section Leader meeting and if I get up now, we’ll have just enough time to go bathe first.
I really need to figure out how to get a coffee maker to work in here. I hear bells in my head, and clearly see a burrito stuffed into a coffee mug.
“Not that kind of bean, Demi.”
My little Emerald is developing a sense of humor and I still want a cup of coffee.
One hour later we’re clean, and heading for the Castle at the top of the mountain. We headed out to the Wheel, took a place in one of the sections and waited our turn to fly. Even though technically there’s more than enough room in the cone that leads to the Castle for two dragons, it’s considered a no-no to do that. Hence, we all line up and wait to fly up solo. I’m told that not all the dragons have flown the cone, and that practice will soon become part of the training imposed on all the dragons. Demi loves the exercise, and I find it to be quite exhilarating. On the way up you can actually feel the down-drop in between wing pulls. When the wings pull down there’s a surge up, and when the wings pull up there’s a momentary weightless feel as you lose forward momentum and drop down. From the floor at Commons to the Castle it’s approximately one mile, so the exertion level for any of the dragons is considered intense. It might actually be beyond the level of possibility for some of the larger ones, but it should be exciting to watch. I’ve tentatively planned on being in one of the Alcoves the next time one of the big ones try.
Demi’s name is called, and she crouches down prior to springing straight up. We angle over to one side and circle before making the run on the cone. The new saddle makes all the difference in the world. The light drops considerably as we enter and the temperature is at least ten degrees cooler. Just slightly over a minute later, we clear the top lip and settle a few yards to one side of the Veranda. As soon as I had dismounted, Demi headed for the area designated for the dragons while I headed for the Veranda Conference Room.
Young kids were bringing in bowls of fruit, baskets of pastries and several kinds of drink. I recognized one of them as Alexandra, daughter to a close friend of ours. At fifteen years old, she’s cute as a button and intellectually advanced beyond her years. She spotted me as I neared the table and came over to greet me. We did that whole side of the head air kiss thing, and she told me that they, the Dragos, had picked her for today’s meeting. There were several others but I didn’t recognize them. All the kids were to serve food and drinks. Anytime something was needed, they would provide it or clear things away. When they were done they would be taken to one of the nurseries, given a tour and ultimately allowed to play with the infants. They seemed to be having a good morning, and the time spent for the meeting would be minimal. The Ariella’s plan was to involve as many people from all the different factions around the mountain as possible. She also instituted an exchange student program that has become very popular. Alexandra has been in that program for several weeks now.
Looks like everyone that was invited has gotten here. The lineup today is the most complete I’ve seen so far. Every section leader is present and accounted for; I’ve supplied a list to keep it all straight. The first names are, of course, the riders; the second names are the dragons and the third listings are the grottos.
The Ariella – Basiliskos – Invectum – Castle
Ariel – Arraness – Gold Grotto
Elfred – Big Red – Red Grotto
Thomas – Casseil – Blue Grotto
Gypsy – Calypso – Harlequin Grotto
Tanis – Demi – Emerald Grotto
Nina – Tier – Brown Grotto
Rebecca – Bear – Green Grotto
Famill – Tani – Grey Grotto
Xan – Brill – The Down Below
Caleb – Seven – The Down Below
Theodore – Clan Leader – Drago City
The Ariella walked into the Veranda area and greeted everyone.
“Good Morning, how is everyone this morning?”
She took her customary seat at the head of the table, and began spreading her paperwork in neat little piles.
“We’ve got a lot to cover this morning, so listen up people. The first order of business is the adolescent hound who last night discovered a cavern we weren’t previously aware of. The boy’s name is Tarin, and his parents are Targ and Essa. Hopefully you all have met them; they’re the extended family of Malachai. The Corps. of Engineers are setting the charges to open the passage even as we speak. In a couple of hours we will begin sending teams in to find out what there is to know. In a few weeks the hounds will begin showing up, and when they do we’re hoping the new cavern will be what the doctor orders. The alternatives are from varying degrees of bad to worse; so we will try to remain positive. In our own defense, we never anticipated an influx the size of the one about to happen. Maybe this will act as a wake up call. If there are any questions concerning the hounds, now is the time…No? Okay, that means the dragons in every grotto got you guys up to speed on that. That’s good.”
The meeting went on for about an hour, and the looks on their faces when she explained the Chosen were hilarious. Well, if worry can be funny. She explained the state of the second mountain, what was about to happen concerning work crews and the safety of said crews after the Chosen moved in. Most of us there felt the same way. Send the maximum number of people to get the most amount done before the Chosen got there, because once there, she would have a hard time getting volunteers. The only other glitch was how the hounds were supposed to feed themselves. The Ariella pointed out that they had been doing that very thing now for months, and that the hounds had assured her it would be no different here. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it too. She saved the best for last, and everyone rallied on it. Raids on the Provinces – yeah, you heard me. The Demons in the Down Below had given the Ariella every site they had learned about concerning the Aguiva Warbirds. Turns out, the one site our newcomers came from wasn’t the only site; the Ariella was a girl on a mission. If there were dragons still left on the Provinces, then she wanted them here and was not to be denied. That got a cheer out of everyone and at least for the moment, the vampires, oops I mean the Chosen were forgotten.
I volunteered to go into the new cavern, and after a brief pause the Ariella agreed. Sending me is a no brainer; advanced technology…lights, camera, action, and we can do it in record time. Demi and I were third to go down the cone, and we made the drop and headed for the cavern immediately. I could see the smoke and rock dust in the air before we even got to the cavern entrance. It was billowing out into Commons and the engineers were already setting up the industrial fans. I got a better look at the fans this time and I have to change my mind about them. The long and short of it is this; they suck instead of blow. There’s enormous bags mounted onto the apparatus and it works in a similar fashion to a vacuum cleaner. So, in essence, they aren’t moving the dust particles from one point to another, they’re encapsulating them to be removed all together. It won’t be healthy for Demi to enter the cavern yet and she didn’t argue, that should tell you how bad it was. It has virtually no effect on the suit, so I dismounted and headed in.
After the first hundred feet or so, the air cleared up enough for me to see with the aid of filters and high powered lights. My lights weren’t strong enough to see the other side. It doesn’t seem possible. Just by rough estimation, that makes this cavern larger than Commons and that didn’t seem likely. I did some mental calculations, and if the Emerald Grotto was over three miles behind me, then it would be over three to the far wall; well, if they were the same. I told Walter to activate the radar sweep and give me a distance to the ping. There was a pause, and then a screen popped up in my helmet showing me the far wall at over five miles distant. The cavern itself is pock-marked with tunnels, and there is a natural downward dip in the middle that ends up being a squeak over a hundred feet lower than the rest of the floor. Like a big bowl. From here I can’t gauge how far the tunnels run, but there are several hundred of them. Walter ran sweeps at nearly every frequency possible and came up with exactly zip. The distance that the sweeps cast out tells us that there are no animals in the cavern, small, large or otherwise. The ceiling appears to be around two hundred feet up and riddled with stalactites in varying sizes. I don’t see any vertical wells opening from the ceiling or opening on the floor. On the up side, there is a breeze coming from most of the tunnels in the left area of the cavern. That means fresh air, and we’ll have to track it to see where it comes from. Fresh air is good, but alternative methods for leaving the mountain are bad. Well, at least bad for the mountain’s security. Two and a half miles in and on the right side, I found condensation. Not much of a discovery really, but it indicates a higher probability of water which is the single most important issue concerning this new cavern. No water means the Corps. of Engineers will have to find a way to bring the water in. Not easy and certainly not quick. Following the condensation brought me to a section along the far east wall that was wet. The wet wall lead me to a shear drop-off where I saw the river. This was definitely not the place to access this river, but the size of it was impressive. At this juncture it was probably twice the size of the river on the other side of the mountain. I backtracked until I found a wider, certainly more accessible tunnel to the shore of the torrential waterway. The sound of the water was just short of deafening, and the tumbling effect was causing white water. That explains the constant droning noise you hear throughout the entire cavern. Backtracking again, I headed for the tunnels on the distant side. So far I had not registered any life signs other than my own. They apparently went on for miles; certainly farther than we had time for on the first visit. The entire area was a maze of honeycombs with smaller caves dotted randomly, and could quite literally take years to explore.
Walter and I recorded as much as we could during the time we were given, but when it was time to go well…I could have stayed in here for days, but it isn’t what the Ariella wanted. She wanted answers, and she wanted them tonight. When I got to the main area in the new cavern, I saw the Drago troops down in the depression securing samples and taking readings. I noticed the air quality had improved drastically since I came in. Let’s hear it for industrial fans.
The Ariella and the Section Leaders were waiting a short distance outside the recently excavated entrance and had expectant looks on their faces. I took my helmet down and removed my shroud.
“Fresh air…fresh water. No critters. I’d say you’re in business.”
To say the Ariella was pleased would have been an understatement. She bent over slightly and pumped her arms back and forth with this intense look on her face, as everyone laughed. She calls it her happy washing machine dance, and only does it when things really work out. I have to admit that lately I haven’t seen it very often, but then again things have been a little tough since I showed up.
More reports came in over the next few days from the Dragos, and they corroborated my initial report. I found out too, the Ariella has officially named the new cavern, “Tarin’s Gallery.”
As previously mentioned, Demi is not old enough to fly missions, and I hear about it every day. I feel bad for her but I also feel protective, and flying missions on the Provinces is dangerous. I have mixed emotions about her ever flying on the Provinces, but for the next six to seven months it’s out of my hands, so it has become a moot point. The first roster has been published and the date for flight set, so emotions are high around the mountain. As predicted, it’ll be the Section Leaders, although not all of them. Here’s where a rift is forming; although nobody’s said anything, you can feel it rising like a wave. Over a thousand years ago it was the Green’s and Brown’s. Then it was the Gold’s right after I got here. I never would have believed that prejudice could exist in the world of dragons, but like every other species of sentient creature, competition, avarice and greed become concepts the first time two of them want the same thing. It always comes with the price tag of superiority and inevitably ends badly. One more example of learning from history or becoming a victim of it. In this case, any dragon without wings has become an unspoken second class citizen. I wasn’t paying attention when they were referred to as nursemaids and nannies. The situation was overshadowed by the young ones making noise about being unable to go. I see a bad moon rising.
For the first time since I’ve been here we have multiple events happening and an enormous number of people involved. If that wasn’t bad enough, all of them seem to have unrealistic time constraints when compared to the amount of things needed to complete said event. Perhaps the sheer volume of things to do will keep down dissent, and sabotage the negative vibes. Yeah, and I’m a Chinese Jet Pilot.
So, not surprising that the Greens and Browns are left out, right? If you can’t fly, then you’re automatically counted out for productivity on either side of the river. I can’t personally agree to that, but I’m also the new guy and it would sound, even to my own ears, like nonsensical lobbying as a result of Demi not being able to go. Where do you draw the line, and why is it okay to draw them here but not there? Damn, I’m giving myself a headache.
Demi and I were assigned to help the Corps. of Engineers at Mt Femmes in France, so in about an hour we’ll be going through the gate to go blow holes in the walls. Not exactly my finest hour, but a needed job, and we’re quicker than the engineers. Not to mention, I can cause the explosions from a distance and with a great deal higher level of accuracy. I’m concerned too, about how to change the direction of the underground river to make it more usable without damaging the flow. It needs to enter the mountain, become diverted and become a useful tool. More importantly, it needs to leave in the same shape as when it came in.
For the next five hours they showed me where and explained how far; at which time Walter and I blew holes in solid rock. I’ve got to admit, secretly of course, that it was actually a lot of fun. Every hour or so they would bring out the fans, giving Walter and I a chance to take a break. There was so much rock debris and dust in the air that it looked like smog. In the end, we had dug out the same amount that the engineers would have in a week. Everyone there smiled at me, but I knew why. Nobody wanted to be there the night the Chosen showed up. I mean, can you blame them?
We went through the gate at the appropriate time and stepped across with the other volunteers; the air was absolutely pristine by comparison. I took the suit down because I had been in the thing for hours, and the difference between the two sets of breathable gases was so stark, it made me dizzy. The air in the mountain was oxygen rich compared to the ozone tainted air inside the suit.
I met Demi at the river, where we spent a good thirty minutes washing the dust off of me and the suit. It felt heavenly to be clean. Not even the noise or the smell in the Green Grotto would be a deterrent against sleep tonight.
The next morning, Demi told me of the noon town meeting in Commons.
“Is this meeting so that everyone can get the skinny on what’s happened in the last few days?”
She cocked her head sideways and I heard bells. So, she thought that was funny.
“This one is for the children…all the children. The Ariella said she was going to read a story to all the children in the mountain.”
Now it was my turn to do the head cock thing.
“She’s taking time out of an incredibly busy day to read a story to a bunch of kids. Why would she do that?”
Demi lowered her head down to my level.
“You’ll see, Tanis.”
I concentrated on the communal hubbub that was everywhere and got exactly…nothing. I couldn’t hear anything coming out of Demi either. Time for breakfast.
When we left the Green Grotto, I could see the Drago’s laying out mats to sit on and setting up a public address system. There was a high-backed wicker chair sitting on a carpet directly in the center of the Wheel; which I assume is where she will tell the story. Next to the chair was a small table with a lamp standing on it, making the ensemble look like it should have been in someone’s den. There were hundreds of mats, so this portended itself to be huge. My curiosity was beginning to get the better of me and I couldn’t figure out what she was up to. Demi took me to the pub, and I sat there mulling over in my head the events of the last few days. It wouldn’t be too many more before our new guests would be invading the mountain, and I wondered if that in part was aimed at this meeting. We headed for the Wheel after I finished, you know maybe somebody would slip with a tidbit. I’m not generally nosy but it would be awhile before she started.
When we got to the Wheel, the Ariella was nowhere to be found and nobody was willing to talk about the up and coming Town Meeting. An hour later, people began to show. Dribs and drabs at first, then droves of them. Each family took their kids and deposited them in the rows directly in front of the wicker chair until there was approximately fifty of them. The parents took positions behind them, and the back began to fill until there were literally hundreds of people (Multiple Species) in a kind of impromptu theater. The Ariella finally walked over to the wicker chair and sat down. She looked over the people, slowly and methodically, before reaching sideways to turn on the table lamp. It gave a soft glow around her that created an ambiance of light heartedness and compassion, which was overlaid to the Ariella. It was a nice touch and made everyone relax. One of the Drago’s quietly moved and rotated a boom stand with a microphone on the end, until it unobtrusively perched over the top of her head. It had only been there for a second when she spoke.
“I would like to thank everyone for coming today. I know there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think we can all stop for an hour and do something together. Something meaningful, something for the children.”
The Ariella had been holding a book to her chest and she pulled it down and flipped it over. She took a deep breath and opened to the first page.
“Many years ago, during the middle of summer in a land not too far away, there was a duck who built a warm nest. She spent all day, every day sitting on six eggs, five of which were very pretty. The sixth egg was larger and an ugly grey color. The mother duck wondered about that egg and she looked at it every day, wondering why it was so different from the others.”
The Ariella looked around for effect, in a full circle that extended far beyond where the children sat, and then brought her vision back to the kids sitting in the first row.
“Now I know all of you have been to the Nursery and seen the eggs, right? Good, because some of them are brown and some of them are yellow with spots and look funny. They do, don’t they…yeah? Well I’m sure that’s how the mother duck felt too…just like that. So, one day she felt a stirring and she got up and looked again at the eggs. Two of them had cracks and were shaking back and forth. A minute later three more began to do the same thing. Pretty soon there were holes on the sides, and little yellow heads poked through. It didn’t take them too much time at all to break free. What happens here in the mountain when a dragonette breaks free from the egg?”
One little boy in the front row raised his hand, while he bobbed up and down eagerly. The Ariella smiled and pointed to the youngster.
“They eat the egg and it’s called first meal.”
The Ariella nodded vigorously and clapped her hands.
“That’s right! But did you know that ducks don’t do that? All species are unique and different. The fact is, only dragons and species closely related to them eat their eggs as first meal…Now, the mother duck looked again at the sixth egg and wondered why it hadn’t hatched. But like a good mother, she was patient. Several days later it finally started to vibrate and the egg cracked. And guess what peeked out?”
The same little boy’s hand popped up and the girl sitting next to him elbowed him, bringing his hand down. As his hand went down, hers came up. The Ariella pointed to her.
“A big ugly duckling!”
The Ariella smiled like she had a secret.
“That’s right. But the mother duck decided she wouldn’t look at him that way, so she saw him as large and strong. She took them all to go swim and they all did fine. They could all flex their wings and swim perfectly, but the five thought the big duck was ugly. The mother duck, like all good mother ducks, took her brood to go see the Queen Mother and get her approval. After the Queen Mother looked at each and every one, she sat and smiled, very pleased with the new babies, but the other ducks who lived there called the ugly duckling names. One of them even tried to bite him. Queen Mother became very angry and asked the other ducks if the ugly duckling could swim and they said yes, they heard he could. Then Queen Mother asked if the ugly duckling could spread his wings and the other ducks had already seen that he could. Then she asked if it was because he looked different that made him unworthy and the other ducks said yes. So, kids…do you believe you’re unworthy because you look different, because all of you look different from each other and the Aguiva look different from the Wyverns.”
The Ariella slowly allowed her eyes to drift from one child to another.
“No, I guess not…but I don’t think so either. The ugly duckling felt ashamed and quietly backed out of the room when no one was looking, and decided to go off by himself. He thought it would be better for everyone if he fended for himself, took care of himself and got his own food. So that’s what he did, and for over a year he stayed out of sight and tried to live alone.”
The Ariella stopped and took a deep breath. She let her gaze wander around the area within her sight and visually selected certain people, although she never called anyone by name. Finally, she centered on one little boy in the second row and pointed to him.
“Can you imagine running away, staying completely away from everyone and trying to live all by yourself for a year? Finding your own food and taking care of yourself without anyone to help you?”
The little boy shook his head no, and then glanced around at the other children there before looking back to the Ariella. She was shaking her head no as well.
“It had to have been awful. To think no one cared and no one loved him. Then one day, he was down by a river and he saw several birds swimming. He had never seen birds like these before, and he thought they were the most beautiful birds he had ever laid his eyes on. He was drawn to them and knew he had to go into the river with them. So, that’s exactly what he did. Without even slowing down he swam over to them, and before he could get halfway, they began to yell at him to come swim with them. They seemed very excited and eagerly crowded around him. He was very self conscious about his appearance, even though they didn’t seem to notice. He lowered his head the way he always did and saw the reflection in the water. The ugly duckling looked just like them. Sometime during the year he was alone, the ugly duckling had grown into the swan that he actually was. The little swan was very happy, and he knew that if he had not gone through the hardships and persecution, he would not have known what it was like to be truly happy. The hardships we all go through every day and the level of persecution may not be as bad as the ugly duckling, but it feels that way to us. Perhaps if we were more forgiving and more accepting, the ugly ducklings wouldn’t feel so ugly. They wouldn’t feel like they should go off to be alone. Down deep where it counts, we are all the same. We are all beautiful swans.”
There was a momentary hush from the people, and then a swell of applause. The swell increased as the crowd stood up and pressed forward toward the wicker chair. Since coming here, I have defined this place in a variety of ways. Some good – some bad, but tonight I’ve seen something that was unexpected and quite spontaneous. It was unity.
It took almost an hour for the crowd to disperse, and the Ariella looked exhausted. Demi and I had listened very carefully and found the similarities, I mean you would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to catch that one.