A great majority of the inhabitants of Caroon lived as close as possible to the centre of the mazes. Those who belonged to Tomari’s village lived closest to the gates, but even they lived as far into the maze as was allowed a distance between an elder and her people by the laws of the snakekin.
Due to her role, Tomari and her family lived as close as the gates as they dared, and yet their series of chambers were so deep into the mazes that no human had ever been so far in. The humans always wanted to keep the gates and the light shining through in their sights even though all of the tunnels were lit up with torches. They knew that they could have never found their way into the heart of the mazes and back to the gates again.
The mysterious markings on the walls scared them and sometimes they glowed in the darkness creating an eerie feel to the endless darkness they thought the underground city was engulfed in.
To the Dratoans, those markings worked as road signs helping them navigate through the mazes if they ever got lost. This was a rare occurrence as living in the inhabited parts of Caroon prepared one with excellent skills of direction and recognition of small signs of difference in the tunnels that to the humans seemed all the same.
Nobody knew what hid in the unknown parts of the mazes, not even the snakekin, who dared not explore there. The legends spoke of monsters, spirits and immeasurable treasures the ancient Dratoans had hidden in their dungeons.
But there were always those who were curious and went exploring. The humans had always assumed that the mazes only reached to the area under the old ruins, but in reality they reached to every direction under the ground. Some of the oldest tunnels led all the way to the catacombs of Ferengeti. Most of the snakekin did live under the ruins or nearby as it gave them a sense of communion with their great history.
There were four gates of Caroon: in the north, south, east and west. The east gates were known to the humans as they faced the great human capital of Ferengeti. The others had been hidden and forgotten by the flow of time, but the snakekin of Caroon used those to actively traverse into the world of outside.
Each gate had its guardian, but Tomari was the keeper of all the gates, to whom all the other guardians answered. The keeper of the gates lived traditionally near the east gate, but there was a separate guardian for it.
The east gate was the most dangerous of all of the entrances due to the constant attacks by the humans and so it was used more rarely.
Tomari led Gav and Ranadin to the northern gate as the Dratoan mountain range was situated in that direction. If one travelled through the skies straight north, one would come to the first Dratoan capital Ferngard which was near the holy mountain.
The darkness outside of Caroon was different. It was not complete but shone as if to promise a new sunrise. The world was vast. It stretched endlessly to all directions as it was not limited by any visible walls. Their eyes could see all the way to the far horizon.
The land was covered with rich fields of wheat, corn and barley that fed the great kingdom of Deles and even those who lived in Caroon. The earth was full of form, it travelled up and down, and it was filled with different plants of more colours they had ever imagined.
There were groups of trees here and there forming forests where animals, birds and other dwellers found safety. Now the world was quiet, as many of the creatures of the aboveground where sleeping as they lived during the sunlight hours. Only a few prowled the world searching for food.
Gav had seen a lot of this before when he had gone for the scavenging hunts. He had also seen the glimpse of a beautiful morning that had not been hindered by the gates of the city. But it had been too close to the hateful humans and their bountiful food sources. It had been his first trip outside of the light of torches where he had seen the world of free creatures unburdened by fear, pride or tradition. No worry about manmade structures and their integrity, only the sky above their heads.
Ranadin was brave, but when she saw the world the first time, as we all have once first gazed upon it, she was amazed by the greatness and vastness of it all, the realm of the free. The mountains that were their destination could not be seen because the gentle roof of clouds protected the night sky and stopped the rock giants from coming and conquering the lowlands.
There was a hole in the mountains revealing a bright and dark sky. The canvas of the sky was filled with small orbs of light that shone their fire from far far away. They were the great friends of the dragons, the legendary stars. They welcomed Ranadin to the world under the free sky and she could feel her father watching down at her through their all seeing eyes. She knew she could never again live without their light.
”Shall we?” Gav asked at the gates of Caroon and Ranadin turned to look at them filled with a new excitement. She hugged Tomari whose cheek glistened with a lonely tear, the only tear she had ever shed during her long life. She let the tear go and fly to the stars to deliver her wish of protection for the Skylion, the Lionstar, the hope or destruction of their people.
The sand under her pale feet felt amazing. It felt vastly different to the cold, hard ground of the mazes. This earth gave away under her feet and felt soft. It made it feel wonderful to walk in the fresh air.
Instead of traditional white garb, they were clothed in deep black garments that helped the darkness hide them from human eyes. Gav glanced at his cousin who breathed deeply in the wonderful air and walked with the enthusiasm of a five year old. Her body vibrated with excitement every step she took and her artfully braided hair framed her face like a halo of an angel. Her golden eyes were restless as they took in the new world in front of her.
She knew so much, yet she knew nothing. Gav knew now that this had always been Ranadin’s goal, which she had trained for this all her life. The soul of a wanderer had been freed from its prison.
Ranadin sensed the approaching sunrise before Gav did. Its warmth crept into the world and a new, fresh scent filled the air. They were a short trip from a large woodland that reached across the surface of the land from north to east.
”This must be the Great Forest marked in the ancient maps”, Ranadin said remembering the map she had brought with her. She had observed the map so many times during her life thinking of her father’s words and planning her journey that she did not need to consult it directly any longer.
Gav nodded and they sped their pace to a run. They could not be met on the roads of Deles as during the days the militia of Ferengeti patrolled the roads frequently.
Like its name suggested the Great Forest was indeed very great and thick. Ranadin and Gav did not need to run far into the forest to lose complete sight of the road. They continued their way deeper into the old wood in hopes of better protection. The stopped only after they had come to a small opening that was surrounded with poison ivy which affected humans negatively. The plant was named by humans, but the snakekin knew it by the name of blood ivy due to the colour of the liquid it secreted.
They fell asleep unafraid and calm, not knowing to fear the animals of the forest. In fact the spirit of dragons that was carried by all of snakekin kept even the bravest of beasts away. Their rest was calm and untroubled.
Ranadin’s peaceful sleep was disturbed by the smell of fire. Thinking Gav had made a camp fire, she opened her eyes only to be greeted with a most unusual sight. Her cousin was already awake and seemed to be as surprised as she was.
The opening was filled with lizard like men, women and children who were covered in dirt and rags.
”Who are you?” Ranadin asked in the Dratoan tongue, but the beings that seemed very much like them did not react or seem to understand her words.
”Rana, I think they are Draacs that have escaped the human cities”, Gav whispered to her. She nodded and cleared her throat to speak again in the human tongue of Delesian, a language she had studied but was greatly unpractised in.
”I am Nadine, and this is my brother Varn. May I inquire to who you are?”
The Draacs seemed startled and they gathered into a tight group of knotted hair to seemingly negotiate an answer. The leader of the group turned to the outsiders.
”Wuh forst thowt yee weor humans, but nar na man hez sich colourful eyes. Wuh knar yee hev othor names, yas lyin.”
”How do we know you can be trusted? We are Dratoans and we are on our way to the mountains.”
”Wuh wud betra othor slaves. The’ are comrades”, the leader reassured.
The two young snakekin exchanged glances. Gav stood up and addressed the leader who observed him with mixed yellow eyes.
”What is your name, Draac?”
”Ung”, was the leader’s answer.
”Gav”, Ranadin heard her cousin counter pointing at himself, then he offered his hand to the leader of the Draacs. Ung seemed to be a bit dubious at first, but mimicked Gav’s actions. Her cousin pressed their hands together and bowed in greeting as was custom amongst the snakekin. Ung followed suit and then pulled his hand away quickly to make sure he was uninjured. Gav smiled then and Ung answered with a tentative one of his own.
”And you?” Gav asked in snaketongue from Ranadin. He gave her an imploring smile making her sigh. Yet she did not move to follow his request. Their gazes locked and a battle of wills commenced. Ung lifted his eyebrow in questioning confusion as he followed the unspoken communication. After a while she turned away and moved to greet Ung.
”I am Din.”
She refused to grant full victory to Gav by revealing her full name. Ung nodded and they were asked to follow the group to the Draac camp. When they came to what was Ung’s home a fairly beautiful woman came out followed by a small child of about the age of five.
”Me missus Fane an’ wor daugthor Daralan. She wes named a neeble lady iv yor kin”, the Draac leader introduced them with pride in his voice. Ranadin who had fallen into a sort of bored frost woke up as she heard the name of her mother. She surged forward with all the strength of a desperate snakewoman and stepped in front of Ung.
”Where is she? Where is Daralan, the lady of our kin?” she asked with a hopeful and desperate gleam in her eyes. Ung backed away startled, but Ranadin would not back down.
”Is she still alive?”
Ung’s wife Fane stepped forward despite the protestations of her husband.
”She wes alive when wuh left three months ago.”
Ranadin straightened to her full height, lifted her pack and battlestaff from the ground where she had left and began walking, but was stopped as Gav grabbed her arm.
”Where do you think you are going?” he asked with barely restrained anger.
”To Ferengeti. I need to try to save her”, Ranadin insisted with a faraway look in her eyes.
”And forget Dirro’s words, your destiny, Lionstar?” Gav asked speaking her name in dragontongue.
”Would she not have a better chance of being rescued if we first went to the homeland and gather others of our kin to help us? You forget, that my mother is there too, and the mother of many others!”
”You cannot afford to be selfish. If this is where you falter then we might as well return to Caroon and you can take upon you the guardianship of the gates as was meant to be.”
Gav would not let go of her arm. They’re gazes interlocked once more with equal stubbornness. Ranadin relaxed the muscles in her arm. After a little time Gav relaxed his grip on her arm and let go. As soon as this happened Ranadin grabbed her battlestaff and attacked her cousin with a furiousness she had not displayed before. Gav was forced to duck her attacks and answered her blows sweat flowing down from his brow. The Draacs observed the fierce fight in horror.
As she realised the dance of staffs did not have the wished disabling effect on her cousin, she changed to sword fighting. Gav mirrored the moves of the snakewoman and the woods rang with the unholy noise of metal on metal. The Draacs retreated in the blood ivy just in case the noises created by the two furious Dratoans had been heard by humans.
They fought for what seemed like hours. Eventually they tired and their swords met interlocking as did their gazes with golden and red lightning thundering in their eyes. They had come to an impasse.
Ranadin had given too much of her will to her cousin that day. So she concentrated on the last of her strength and pushed Gav to the ground with his sword flying through the sky in a perfect arc. She then took her supplies and ran into the forest. Away from the Draacs, away from Gav, and away from the horrible humans. She was fast and soon was far away.
Gav sat up. He was hurting everywhere and he knew he would be black and blue for a good while afterwards. Ranadin had never beat him so thoroughly. The Draacs observed him carefully from amongst the ivy. Ung was the one to creep to him and speak.
”Let hor gan. Cum wi’ wor. It be safe in wor hidin place”, he suggested and set his hand on the snakeman’s shoulder. But Gav shook off Ung’s hand, stood up and gathered his pack.
”I have raised her from the day the humans took her mother Daralan, and killed her father Dirro.”
With these words he left Ung’s Draacs and began running at a quick, yet steady pace into the same direction had disappeared only a moment earlier.
Ranadin ran until darkness fell over the world as it did every night. She stopped exhausted to find herself a place to sleep. She studied the age old trees around her and jumped deftly on one of the lower branches of the biggest trees there. She swung herself on the next one and began climbing until she had come to a branch that was high enough to protect her, yet wide enough to accommodate her comfortably.
She sat down in the curving branch and wrapped her legs around it. From the high tree she had a breath-taking view over treetops. Ranadin smiled and relaxed wandering on the edge of sleep and awareness. Suddenly she heard a branch crack and she looked down.
A dark figure was scanning the ground and quite surprisingly the figure looked directly up towards her perch. It jumped into the tree nimbly and began climbing with alarming speed. It crouched onto the branch next to her gazing her with its piercing white eyes. Neither dared to move.
”I sleep here. Find yourself another tree”, Ranadin boldly spoke breaking the silence. The figure still did not move from its uncomfortable crouch. She waited for an answer and got in the form of nod. The figure grabbed a vine that was hanging right next to her head. It then quickly climbed up the vine and disappeared into the top of the trees.
Curious as ever Ranadin quickly secured her battlestaff to her pack so she could follow the mysterious figure up the vine that beginning to be pulled up. But she grabbed it and climbed up the tree with great effort.
When she had gotten to the top, she landed on something flat that turned out to be a surface built onto the very highest branches of the tree. And on the platform there was a small cottage. The white eyed figure was observing her from the doorway. It then shook its head and motioned her to come in. Ranadin stepped from the cold night air into the home that was warmed by a cosy fireplace. The figure was still standing in the doorway, but it had taken the hood down baring a head of pure golden hair.
”Why have you broken my peace?” the figure asked and his ability to speak startled Ranadin. She soon recovered and answered.
”I am on my way to the north. I will be on my way again as soon as there is enough light in the world to see.
He turned to look at her revealing his face that was austere and pale.
”Golden eyes…” the man whispered suddenly seeing Ranadin’s eyes and turned away seemingly frightened. He began murmuring to himself. Deeming the man a lost cause, Ranadin turned to leave, but was stopped by his next words:
”Do not leave. Please stay the night. It seems as if you could use some good rest.”
”I thank you for your kind offer, but I must decline. I do not trust you though I sense you are kin. I know not of you”, she answered hesitant.
”And yet you followed me”, he stated. She could not argue with that. Instead she tried another tactic.
”Perhaps if I knew your name and you would know mine, I could stay.”
The man straightened his stance.
When the sun had set Gav had stopped for the night. Ranadin was already far away and he knew he would not be able to find her during that day. The forest was vast. A young snakewoman could be anywhere.
”Stubborn, irritating….” he cursed as he prepared himself for the night. When the sun rose he knew it was like searching a needle from a haystack.
”You are on your way to the mountains? Where do you come from?” Avagan inquired.
”Caroon”, Ranadin answered. Avagan who was chewing a piece of meat almost choked on his food.
”You must be joking with me! That is impossible. No one comes from Caroon, it is a dead city, a heap of ruins. Completely destroyed and disappeared from the modern maps”, he exclaimed in disbelief.
”Only from aboveground. We live in the mazes under the mountain city”, she told him. Avagan’s wonder turned into seriousness. He turned away and looked to the moon that was shining over the forest.
”Why are you travelling to the mountains?”
”Our people have been held captive in the ruined cities and as slaves in the kingdoms of men. Snakewomen like mother are captured to act as broodmares for Draacs. They are no better than whores. I am fulfilling my father’s last wish.”
Avagan turned to her with an air of gravity around him.
”You are starting a war”, he stated.
”I only hope for freedom for our people and the chance to return to the skies, but if it is war that it takes, then so be it”, she answered without hesitation to his silent challenge.
”I shall go with you”, the snakeman then said with determination.
”I don’t really know. I don’t think Gav would like company.”
”Who is he?”
”He is my cousin”, she answered and laughed. Then she remembered that she had left him behind and stood abruptly.
”What is it?” Avagan wondered when a look of slight panic descended upon his house guest.
”Gav. I almost forgot about him. I was upset and left him behind. I must find him!” she said, grabbed her staff and rushed to the cottage tree and climbed quickly down the tree. Avagan barely had time to grab his own weapons and follow after her. Ranadin was young and she had always been quicker than other Dratoans.
Reaching the ground Ranadin dashed off into the direction she knew she had come from. She quickly left the older snakeman behind her. She soon came to an opening where she could find the signs of a fight and the remnants of Gav’s pack.
To his surprise he soon reached Ranadin who had stopped unexpectedly in the middle of an open bit of land. She fell her to knees and bowed her head in sorrow. There between her legs was Gav’s amulet, a piece of jewellery she had made for him not ten years ago. He had never taken it off after that. She lifted it gently and pressed it against her chest beginning to wail silently.
Avagan inspected the opening carefully finding no signs of blood or any other indication of dead. The night was silent around them as the snakeman returned to Ranadin’s side and put his hands on her shoulders. By now she had become completely silent.
When she returned to the world her sensitive ears picked up a slight unusual rustle of leaves. She got up and began carefully creeping towards the source of the sound that had become behind a bush of blood ivy.
”Avagan”, she hissed, but he was already there like a ghost of the wood. They had found a young human male who was tied up and was showing symptoms of ivy poisoning though he was unconscious. The snakeman took out a wooden cup and filled it with some water from his flagon and then added a powder from a pouch in his belt. He then massaged the man’s throat encouraging him to drink the potion that countered the effects of the blood ivy
”Why are you helping him?” Ranadin asked in a voice filled with disgust and hate. Avagan calmly finished what he was doing and took the man into his arms.
”He might be able to tell us what happened here and whether or not your cousin is alive”, he explained as they began travelling back to his home. Ranadin could not argue with his reasoning, so she stayed silent.
They transported the human to Avagan’s cottage and set him on the only bed in the small house. Avagan applied a topical cure on the young man’s cuts that had come in contact with the vile plant. He told that the cure was made of the roots of the ivy, and could be made into a paste or a potion depending on the portion of water to the powder.
They repeated this process three more times throughout the night before there was a marked improvement in the young man. His fever fell and he began breathing evenly. Ranadin had no patience to wait for the human to wake up to know of her cousin’s fate, but Avagan cautioned her about it. By noon the youth woke up.
”How are you today?” Avagan asked politely with a friendly countenance. The youth was unable to speak, but kept looking at the unnaturally white eyes of the man before him.
”What is your name?” Ranadin asked trying to mimic Avagan’s tone. The youth seemed to relax as he saw that there was a woman in the room.
”Avagan, do you have some cure for speechlessness?” Ranadin wondered dryly. The human tensed once more with her words. Avagan got up from his bedside seat and took out a green, fresh smelling powder that he mixed with some more water. Then he returned to the bed.
”This is mint, human. It will help you if you have a sore throat”, he offered kindly. The young man shrunk as small as he could on the bed. Ranadin tried to give the boy the cup, but he continued to be stubborn.
”It would be nice to know your name”, Avagan said and sat back on the chair causing the human to try to get even farther away from him.
”I will tell you whatever you want just as long as you don’t force me to drink your poisons”, the youth finally said.
Avagan barked out a short bit of laughter.
”If by poisons you mean medicines, you have already consumed them. We saved you from blood ivy. If we truly wanted you dead, we would have left you to the mercy of the forest. Do not be foolish, dear boy”, the snakeman reassured the boy in a calm, but amused tone.
”Well if you did save me, the least I can do is to give you my name. I am Ell of Adanor”, the young man spoke in a more reasonable tone.
”Adanor? You are far away from home. What are you doing in the Great Forest?”
”I am a squire. I live on my uncle’s farm by the creek. A week ago a band of men attacked me and have kept me as their prisoner ever since”, he told them and carefully took the cup of mintwater from the bedside table.
”And when did you came in contact with the blood ivy?” Avagan continued his soft interrogation.
”I was intending to act dead so they would abandon me. My plans to change as the men arrived to an opening where they intended to camp when they found one like you there. I could care less if it was friendly or not. I called for help and it woke up attacking the men like a huge predator cat. Tied as I was, I could be of no help, so I hid. And apparently ended up in the blood ivy”, he told them.
”Is he still alive, the one of our kin?” Avagan asked.
”I don’t know. I wish I did, I owe him, and you my life. I hid as you remember. Who was he?” Ell wondered.
”My cousin Gav”, Ranadin answered and Ell’s smile disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
”I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. Had I just become a merchant like father… the youth cursed. Silence descended as Ell continued to blame himself. Ranadin soon grew tired of his self-flagellation and interrupted him.
”No, it was a sum of many consequences.”
She heard herself say the words and was surprised to find that it was not that easy to blame him for what had happened, even if he was human.