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Ruins and Explorations

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Songs of Summerset and Midwinter". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Sharshall was a city of wonders before the Fall. Many of those wonders remain - but these days even simple sightseeing can be dangerous ...

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Games > Dungeons and DragonspythiaFR131945,468189735,5377 Feb 0926 May 09Yes

Chapter Two - Part Nineteen

Disclaimers in part one

It was an … interesting way to describe it, but Willow’s words somehow managed to capture the essence of his transformation in a surprisingly succinct way.  He did, indeed, get ‘all dragony’ again – self and self awareness unfolding from the compact certainty of who he’d been as a man, into the comfortable surety of what he was now … a reach of serpentine flesh from nose to tail tip, and out, into the flex of powerful, confident wings.  It was like sliding out of a poorly fitting suit; escaping the restricting confines of hot and heavy tweed, or doffing the cumbersome weight of equally confining combat padding.  Not that donning his old shape had been … unpleasant in any way.  It had felt familiar.  Comforting.  And entirely right for most of the day.  But his awareness of what he was – what he’d become – had stayed coiled inside him the entire time, tensioned and waiting.  Poised, taut and watchful, like a cat, preparing to pounce.  An arrow, notched on a drawn back bow string.  A jack-in-the box, ready to be unleashed …

Weight and height and reach and length and breadth adjusted, muscles and bones shifting and shaping and becoming in a flowing, fluid stretch of relief.  He unfolded up, he unfolded out – and barely managed to halt his impulse to rear back and flex everything in a moment of joyous and impetuous pleasure.  He’d spent years becoming accustomed to the slow and inevitable decline of his body.  He’d abused it as a young man, with too little sleep, too many questionable substances and far more magic than he could sensibly handle.  He’d fought to regain his fitness and had had to go on fighting for it, needing to work hard to keep fit and limber, at first in determination to keep his edge – and later, just to keep up with his slayer.  The demands of an unrelenting and endless campaign – the observance of his oath in the defence of the world – had taken its toll; torture and torment, trouble and toil had worn him down and worn him out.  Too many bangs, bruises, batterings and breakages; knocks on his head, spears in his side, and wounds to his heart.  He’d become wasted and weary before his time, determined not to give in, and yet still forced into retreat, inch by painful inch.  He could barely remember when he’d last been able to wake in the morning without his joints protesting every move, or to settle into sleep at night without having to count every penalty of the day.  Nothing serious, nothing really worth complaining about – but each year he’d been feeling a little older, a little slower, and a little less alive …

Nothing hurt.  Nothing protested.  His limbs were lithe, his muscles fluid, and his body practically sang with energy.  He might have acquired a little extra bulk - along with added reach and equivalent weight - but it had come with matching strength, agile reflexes and a range of fluid motion that laughingly belied words like ponderous or cumbersome.   Given free reign – which would require a far safer place than this probably was – he’d have kept his forefeet off the ground, reared up to his full height and bellowed his delight at the sky.  He’d have shaken his shoulders and shaken out his wings, fast and furiously, in a flurry of muscles and metal and leather … but doing so would stir up a small gale, undoubtedly extinguish the small but vital fire his companions were nurturing, and probably bring down the roof on their heads. 

Which would be a really bad way to repay their kindness and their company – not to mention the look of total reproach Willow would give him for acting so foolishly. 

There would be time, and room, somewhere in this new world, for him to stretch himself the way he really wanted – to skitter and skirl, to play and to pounce, exercising length and limbs, and finding out exactly what he was capable of.  On the ground.  Under water.  In the air …

“Oh good lord,” he murmured to himself, suddenly realising just how different his life had become.  A revelation almost as staggering as the one Willow had faced earlier that afternoon.  We live here, she’d realised, wide eyed and staggered by a dizzying perception of the freedom that came with their new responsibilities.  A whole new world – and here he was, adding his own perspective to that particular recognition. 

Not simply reshaped – but truly remade

Physically, at least.  Flux had told him he was young for a dragon, and he could believe it, could evidence it in that almost breathless energy and the way it was tempted by the dance of wing and muscle and bone – but inside, he still carried the legacy of the man he’d been, the hard lessons he’d learned, and the understanding he’d gained.  He used those lessons to centre himself now, to calm the eager challenge of what he was and anchor it deep in the heart of who he was. 

And being of a generally dignified mien, Rupert Giles neither skittered, nor skirled, nor pounced, however tempting the thought might be.  He chose to stretch with languid slowness instead, extending his talons and his forelimbs along the ground, dipping his spine and arching his back, like a cat awaking from an afternoon nap – except, of course, that cats don’t have wings to unfurl with equally deliberated attention, couldn’t curve them up into quivering tension … or settle them back down with a lazy shake, skin and bone and scales moving with a deep and satisfying sound, like the snap and fold of heavy, canvas sails.

“Wow,” Willow said softly; an awed breath, painted with genuine wonder.  Giles ruffled his fins, sat back on his haunches, and turned to smile at her, his nostrils widening to pull in her scent, the taste of her presence settling on his tongue.  She was standing at the edge of the ruined doorway, watching him with wide eyes. 

“I forgot,” she said, staring up at hm.  “Just how … “

“Large, I am?”  He’d forgotten it himself, if only for a moment or two.  The shift of his perspective – his resumption of his true height and the way everything else had changed in relative scale – was going to take some getting used to.    

“I was going to say amazing, but … yeah.  That too.”

“I was the giant great and still, that sits upon the pillow-hill - and sees before him, dale and plain, the pleasant land of counterpane  …”  Giles laughed, feeling the sound of it rumble through his ribcage and down, so that it echoed in soft reverberation through the stone.  Willow blinked, glancing down at the flagstones, and then up again with wide eyes.  “Size is … a matter of relativity, I suppose.  Flux tells me I’m – small.  As Dragons go.”

Her expression spoke volumes – most of which was conveyed with a roll of the eyes and could be summed up in an entirely Californian reaction of riiiiight “Most of them – kinda went,” she pointed out.  “You’re the last.  Or possibly the first.  But not the First, which would be creepy and not at all you – which, by the way, I can totally touch, so not, and anyway, we kicked his ass … if an insubstantial entity can have one of those, which I guess it did, because we did kick it, and … he’s here, isn’t he.  Or a version of him.  It.  Whatever.”

It was Giles’ turn to blink.  That wasn’t quite where he’d thought that sentence was going – but he could see why it arrived where it did.  Darkness lay over the ruins of Sharshall like a cobwebbed shroud – and not just because night had fallen.  It was soaked into the stone, tainting everything it touched and turning each gaping door and empty window into a hungry mouth, into menacing eyes and promises of empty, endless despair … 

“I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully.  “I don’t know enough about the mythology of the … Shadow, or the history of the Fall to be sure of the comparision.  But … there is more to this world than a struggle between good and evil.  There is something … something about balance … sitting at the heart of everything here.”  He looked up, above the wounded weight of the city – and found a sudden, unexpected beauty in the sky.  The night air was turning winter-crisp and the clouds that had smothered the sunlight during the day were slowly dissipating into wisps of  crystal nothingness.  Above them, sweet and certain, the stars were coming out.  “Light and dark,” he murmured, caught in the sweep of majesty above him.  “Life and death, good and evil … order and chaos … all part of an intricate pattern.”  There were faint ribbons of light twisting among the gathering constellations; rivers of celestial glory, dotted with diamonds and strewn across the sky.  “Tensions that inspire growth and change and … purpose.   Even blight and decay have a place in the natural order of things.  But this – shadow – seems to stand in defiance of all of that.  It despises life, defies death, denies change.  It is empty of purpose, devoid of meaning, merely a hunger that cannot be satisfied, lurking at … the edges of … an eternal … feast …”

His voice faded with astonishment, attention and thought caught by the spectacle that was unfolding above him.  The night sky he was familiar with was a spread of black velvet in which the faint glimmer of starlight challenged the eye to connect the dots and so determine the shape of the heavens.  Here, the sky was filled with a bright shimmer of jewels, spilled across the night with almost wild abandon, too many to count, almost too crowded to distinguish one from another.  Rivers of stars and ribbons of light; patterns that danced and twisted and resolved themselves into a stately, celestial pavane.

Then the clouds shifted, and the moon was there, a stately orb much larger than the one he might have expected.  It blazed with brilliant, silver light – and around it, encircling it and trailing in its majestic wake, a drifting drape of glimmering jet and onyx, the shattered remnants of its sister moon …

Good Lord …” Tales and testimonies were one thing – but here was the truth of the Fall, painted in stark majesty across a wounded sky.  The silvered moon was marred by deep and disturbing cracks, evidence of forces almost too immense to contemplate.  The ribbon of debris spilled out behind it, caught in a delicate balance of gravity and attraction, a tensioned dance between the silent moon and the living world that held it in thrall.  No wonder shards still fell in echo of that first, terrifying rain of agony.  They would be falling for centuries to come.

Ohhhkay,” Willow breathed from somewhere down by his left shoulder.  “Now I know we’re not in Kansas anymore …”

Giles tore his eyes from the heavens with difficulty and looked down at her instead.  “We never were,” he said, avoiding the obvious comment about Dorothy and her return to Oz, since – with Willow, mentioning Oz had somewhat different connotations, and would probably derail the conversation entirely.  “Unless you really think that life in Sunnydale was a rural idyll where nothing exciting or different ever happened.”

Willow grinned.  “Hey,” she protested, balling her fist and giving him an affectionate punch.  One that would probably have knocked Cullie off her feet.  She really didn’t know her own strength as yet.  “That’s my home town you’re talking about, mister.  Good old SunnyD.  Home of truth, justice and the American Hellmouth.  For me that was Kansas.  My normal life.  Then you and Buffy came along and … the rest is history.  As they say.  This is different.  This is … “

“Over the rainbow?” he suggested, since she’d started that particular line of thought.  “Second star to the right and straight on until morning?”  He stood up and paced his way back to the foyer of the hotel, curling himself round and past her with a fluid undulation that made her blink.  “At the back of the north wind, or … just somewhere at the back of a wardrobe?”

She turned as he turned, watching as he curled and coiled and settled down, shifting until he found a comfortable spot on the slightly uneven floor.  The flexibility of his new form was impressive, although it was going to take him a while to get used to having a tail …

“I don’t think – you’d fit in a wardrobe,” she said after a moment, recovering her place in the conversation with a little start and a shake.  Her distraction wasn’t that surprising.  He suspected it was going to take her a little while to get used to him.  “Not even the walk-in one Buffy has up at the castle … I don’t know.  This isn’t someone’s idea of a fantasy, is it.  This is a very real world.  A post apocolypty one, with mutant monsters and a fallen civilisation, and – politics and power struggles, and gods who actually seem to care.  And it’s our world now.”  Her eyes darted skywards, seeking another glimpse of the wounded moon.  “Look at it,” she said, her voice touched with wonder.  “We never had skies like that in California.”

“I sincerely hope not.”  He could still see part of the moon and its attendant drape of debris from where he’d chosen to sit.  He’d have been very worried if he’d ever seen anything like that over Sunnydale.  Or anywhere else on Earth for that matter …  “It is somewhat – spectacular, though.  For a monument to hubris.  Although … maybe it’s a memorial for the souls that tried saved this world.  A reminder that they didn’t entirely fail …”

“Beats a deep and dusty hole in the desert.”  Willow took one final look and then walked back to join him, a thoughtful look on her face.  “Or the sea filled crater it turned into, after the harbour walls gave way.  At least all we lost was a town.  And it wasn’t that much of a loss …”

“Do you miss Sunnydale?” Giles asked, a little warily.  He’d never dared before, only too conscious of the minefield of memories such a question might raise.  But things were different now.  They were different now – and those memories would be precious, things only the two of them could truly share. 

Willow paused to slide Cullie’s boots from her feet, freeing copper tinted toes.  “Not really,” she decided, carefully placing both boots on the top of a nearby broken pillar.  “Bits of it, perhaps.  The old library.  Your apartment.  That always felt – safe to me.  Cosy.  More home than home.  The Magic Box, sometimes.  That … spot in the park, where Tara sang to me …  But – no.  Too many bad memories – and not many good ones.  It’s the people I miss.  Not the places.  But – hey,” she grinned.  “At least I’m getting to hang out at the Bronze again …”

“Very funny,” Giles growled, folding back the relevant wing so she had room to clamber back onto his shoulder.  She tried to be both careful and gentle, which brought a twist of amusement to his lips.  To him, she felt as light as a child, her upward scramble on hands and feet barely making an imprint on his armoured hide. “I hardly think my sharing a few sips from a flask allow you to equate me with a seedy establishment infested with cockroaches and vampires, and reeking of vomit and alcohol …”

He froze for a moment, fighting down a sudden shiver of reaction as bare feet momentarily found purchase on the spars of his front left fin.  His hide was armoured, solid and tough, and unimpressed by solid contact, but his fins were apparently sensitive to gentle pressures, reacting – not to the weight of Willow’s foot – but to the way her toes had briefly brushed across glimmering skin …

 “Well, no,” Willow admitted, settling into place.  “You’re way classier than that.  But you do do the music thing – at least … you could before …  Do dragons sing?”

He let his momentary tension quiver away unseen in a shimmer of dorsal and tail fins that helped qualify that brief and unsettling experience.   His fins were sensitive; sensitive to the shift and swirl pressures in the air – and probably currents in water too, he realised, pausing to catalogue the sensation and realise the advantage it would give him in flight, a creature of air and water, capable of reading the wind and the waters as they swirled around him.

“Giles?”  Willow was waiting for an answer to her question and he had to blink and take a moment before he remembered what it was. 

“Oh – umm … probably.  At least – I would imagine so.  Singing’s not that different from speaking, you know …”  He drew in a deep breath, amused at the way she eeped and had to dig her toes in as his flanks rose in response.  “Half the trick is in the breath,” he observed, letting her down again with a gentle expellation.  “And I appear to have an excellent set of lungs.”

She giggled and squirmed herself down into a comfortable knot somewhere between his shoulder and his wing joint.  “Your voice is kinda – reverberry – already,” she said sleepily, tucking her borrowed cloak around herself.  “It’s got this – Dragon thing.  All shivers down the spine stuff.  Which is cool because – well, you being a Dragon and everything … and you always did have this … sexy singing voice, so – I’m thinking, put the two together, and …”

“Are you fishing for a lullaby?” he enquired mildly, looming close enough for his breath to puff up the edges of her cloak and set her hair dancing.  Willow stared up at him, biting a little at her lower lip as she did so.  He knew she trusted him – but even so, she’d tensed at his sudden closeness.  Bright gleaming teeth, and eyes the size of dinner plates … He could swallow her up in two quick bites.  Maybe just one if he snatched and gulped fast enough.

“Nah,” she decided a little shakily.  “N-not tonight.  It wouldn’t be safe. Would it.”

“Probably not.”  He took pity on her and pulled back a little.  It wasn’t fair to tease her like that.  Fun – at least until she’d had time to get used to their new world and accustom herself to his change in countenance – but not fair.  Not fair at all.

“But – some night?” she asked quickly, before she lost all her courage. 

He made a point of thinking it over. “We’ll see,” he said.  His words offered no promises – but his mind was busy flicking through his mental song book, looking for something suitable.  He wondered if Flux knew where he could lay his hands on a guitar …  “Good night, Willow.”

“Night, Giles.”  She sighed and closed her eyes, her breath and her body relaxing as she slid into sleep.  He watched her for a while, waiting until he was sure she was deep and dreaming before he returned his attention to the star strewn sky.  He knew the earthly constellations well, of course – he, like many a Watcher before him, had studied their ancient dances, learnt their alignments and their influences, understood their place in the patterns of prediction and prophecy.  But here – here he could amuse himself with a moment of total ignorance, could play connect the dots and construct his own constellations out of the chaos of the unnamed stars.  There was the Slayer stake in hand, and a cloud of stardust haloing its point.  There, the Scythe, forged by ancient powers to reap the harvest of evil and drive the darkness from the sky … and there, a swirl of dragons, bronze and silver, copper and gold …

He dropped his chin to the floor and sighed – a deep expression of breath that set the dust dancing across the floor – taking a moment or two to wonder what the gods had been thinking of, taking a war weary Watcher and offering him an entire world to watch over?   To guard.  To guide.  To protect and defend …  And what had he been thinking of, to say yes to such a preposterous idea?  Because there had been a choice.  He knew that, even if he couldn’t exactly remember making it. 

It would have helped, he decided, with the kind of inner irritation that only idle thoughts in the very early hours of the morning can bring, if they’d given me a better instruction manual than a star-struck dwarf and a few time scrambled tales and legends …

He had no idea what he was doing.  It had been almost too easy to retreat back into being a man, because that was what he was used to – but it wasn’t what he was anymore.  He was a Dragon – with wings he had no idea how to use, a tail that hadn’t got in the way yet, but probably would at some point or other, an aura of personal terror that terrified him – and a slowly growing appetite that he didn’t know how to assuage, because the only thing he knew he was supposed to eat was squid.  Which he was hardly going to stumble over in the middle of a land-locked, ruined city, miles from any sea.

He should never have eaten that slice of pie.  All it had done was set his taste buds dancing –although topping it off with that whisper of chutney and a few swallows of dwarven whiskey probably hadn’t helped much …

Something scuttled across the forecourt, a sudden flurry of movement that he caught from the corner of his eye.

Something with too many legs and too much sense of purpose. 

Something was hunting, creeping in from out of the dark.  Probably following the scent of smoke and the hint of warmth offered by the softly glowing embers of the fire. 

He swung his eyes briefly in that direction, seeing Cullie sitting with her back to the fire and her sword laid across her knees.  Sensible.  She had the glow behind her, and dark adjusted eyes to scan for any hint of danger, advancing from the dark.

She also had a Dragon, lying between her and whatever it was that was advancing.  It was doing it slowly now, a measured creep on long, angular legs, its body fat, bulbous and low to the ground …

Arachnida Anelosimus ethologus, he assessed, recognising its similiarity to a species of Arachnid demons that could be found lurking in Venezuela, mimicking a less mystical species.  They were social creatures usually, living in colonies that could reach uncomfortable numbers – up to a 1000 or more.  Fortunately, those creatures were never more than two or three inches across.  This one was at least a foot wide – with legs a good yard long. 

Ah, his mind processed, remembering some of the conversations earlier in the day.  Webspires.  Spider colonies …

Flux had mentioned something about the chance of there being a few spiders somewhere underneath them.  Giles hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.  Now he understood why Cullie might have been concerned at the idea.  The thing was big enough for its bite to cause serious damage – and en masse, more than capable of overwhelming even a well equipped and well prepared party.  He glanced out into the dark, checking that the thing was hunting alone.  There was no sign of any others, although that didn’t mean anything.  There could well be more, lurking in the arches underneath the hotel. 

He lifted his head slowly, measuring the spider’s approach.  It was feeling its way, almost as if tasting a trail left on the ground.  Perhaps it was.  Hunting fresh footsteps made in layers of dust that hadn’t been disturbed by anything but spiders for days.  Months.  Years.

Centuries …

He glanced at Willow, still safely curled into his warmth, then across to Cullie, alert but unaware in the dark.  The scope of his acquired vision was impressive; it gave him an almost panaromic view of the scene – and allowed him to watch, still as a statue, as the creature crept forward, step by careful step.

Giles breathed in slowly, calculating reach and distance.  If he stood up, he’d tip Willow straight into the thing’s path – and she wouldn’t be happy about that, for all sorts of reasons.  A breath of lightning might fry the thing – if he wanted to wake everyone up by bringing the roof down on top of them.   But he had teeth now, and the potential to make use of them.  If it crept close enough, he could snatch at one of those long legs with a snap of his jaws.  Snatch and grab and toss – and the thing would go flying, out into the square before anyone knew it was there.

He leaned forward with infinite slowness, steeling himself for the moment, trying not to imagine the wriggle of those long legs scrabbling at his face, or to think of those dripping mandibles snapping close to his eyes.  One snap, and the thing would be gone. Willow and the others would be safe …

The night breeze shifted, sharpening his awareness of the space around him; it painted seductive messages across his slowly unfurling fins, and carried with it a strange scent – musky and rich, like an over-brewed coffee.  Like vertivert and oakmoss and the dark earthy taste of a freshly dug truffle.  He paused, his eyes and nostrils widening as he registered that tantalising, unexpected aroma. 

And the spider crept cautiously forward, getting closer and closer …

Here ended Chapter Two of the Songs of Summerset and Midwinter.

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