March 31st, 2014 (07:11 PM).
Spirits of Legend
Shadows crept along the walls and ground of the alley as they prepared to close in on their prey, their icy presence seeming to suck the very warmth from the air. Their target knew she was in danger, her instincts told her that much; but what the danger was, she did not know. All she could see was that the alley was getting steadily darker despite the lamp that hung above the door directly behind her. The musty light of the lamp was enough to cast a soft glow on the golden brown hair and thin frame of the young woman standing warily in the drab alley, though she wasn't all that it revealed. On the edge of its light, a wall of thick, unnatural darkness came steadily closer. The 17-year-old girl would have run if she could have, but unfortunately for the prey she was trapped by the blind alley. All she could do no was hope that this was nothing more than some terrible dream or an illusion her tired mind had decided to terrify her with.
"Rose, simply tap into my powers and you shall be able to escape from this predicament." Right. She'd nearly forgotten about her mental tenant in her panic. The voice that had been in her head since that morning wasn't helping to settle her nerves in the least. It kept going on about being the spirit of a Dragon or some such and that it needed her help to bring down the Darkness. Rose, of course, chose to completely ignore it; or at least, she tried to. The Dragon had now decided to intrude on her thoughts again and attempt to offer its advice on the current situation.
"And how am I supposed to do that?" she snapped aloud, in her irritation forgetting that she could speak to the Dragon with her thoughts. From how close the shadows now were, Rose could tell for certain that they were most definitely not normal. It was more like a wall of black fog, with something equally as dark but more solid flashing within.
"Imagine you feel heat traveling through your hand and to the tip of your fingers, then throw it."
Well, it wasn't like she had many other options at this moment, so she may as well give it a try. She raised her hand up high then did as the Dragon instructed. As she envisioned the heat reaching her fingertips, she slashed her hand downwards in a throwing motion. To her surprise, flames sprung from her hand in a thin stream, and the shadows retreated from their burning touch with shrill screeches. Recovering quickly from her shock, a grin stretched across Rose's face; if her hand could produce flames, then perhaps...
Lifting her leg, she this time imagined the heat rippling along it; then, she kicked. Her leg erupted into flames that leaped outwards, towards the shadows that were now scurrying out of the alley. The flames tore through the shadows closest to her; with shrieks of pain, some of the shadows dissipated and what had been the solid black ice of their physical bodies fell to the ground in dark puddles. The surviving shadows were gone within moments, leaving Rose in what now seemed to be a rather bright, moonlit alley.
"Perhaps now you'll believe more of what I've been telling you," the Dragon said, a small trace of amusement in its tone as it observed the thoughts of amazement running through Rose's mind.
"Right, would you mind going over that again? I was a bit busy trying to make sure I wasn't going crazy to listen earlier." Rose remembered to speak with her thoughts this time as she emerged from the back street onto the more brilliantly lit roadside. Cars sped by at frequent intervals but none seemed to notice or care for the girl standing on the sidewalk.
"In a moment," the Dragon replied distractedly. "I sense another Spirit nearby. We should meet with them."
"There's more of you?!" she sputtered incredulously.
"Not dragons, but yes, there are other Spirits," the Dragon chuckled, its laughter reverberating within her head. "I will explain more when we meet with its host. They have probably sensed us as well."
Though reluctantly, Rose followed the directions the Dragon passed on to her. After only a few minutes of walking, it told her to stop beneath a street light. "They are here."
Sure enough, a woman perhaps a few years older than Rose was approaching them. At first, the night hid her features from Rose's view and all she could see was that this person was slightly plump. Soon, however, she came into the circle of light the light provided. Black curls cascaded down the newcomer's back while twinkling blue eyes stared into Rose's own stormy blue-grey ones. A soft smile graced her face as she approached Rose and held out her hand.
"Hello. You must be the one hosting the Spirit that the Griffin sensed. My name is Carly Milthropton. It's a pleasure to meet you." Carly looked expectantly at Rose as if waiting for a reply, her hand still held out.
"Rose Avery," Rose replied shortly as she stiffly shook the woman's hand. "Dragon, you promised you'd explain things to me once we met the other host. Well, we've met her, now explain." The Dragon, however, did not reply, causing Rose to let out a frustrated growl. Carly gave her a quizzical look, but it was ignored as Rose continued to attempt to get the Dragon's attention.
"Apologies, Rose Avery. I was greeting the Griffin within Carly Milthropton. It has been many millennia since we have last spoken," came the Spirit's voice at long last. "I will now tell you the story of how the Darkness came to be."
"We will tell you the story," came another voice within her mind. "Greetings, Rose Avery. I am the Griffin that resides within Carly. At such close range, you both shall be able to hear me. Unlike the Dragon, however, I will not be able to read your thoughts, as you are not my host."
Rose cursed under her breath; great, another disembodied voice for her to deal with. "Well, get on with it then," she snapped, speaking out loud for the sake of the Griffin and Carly. The two spirits were happy enough to oblige.
"Thousands of years ago," the Dragon began, "we roamed the earth in physical bodies of our own and lived peacefully with mankind. We helped them in their times of need, and in return they did the same for us. It was a perfect world, without war or needless suffering.
This peace was not to last, however. Unbeknownst to us, there was a Darkness growing in the frozen northern reaches of the world, fed over the centuries by the negative emotions that erupted within the human mind. It was only when it reached a truly terrifying strength that it revealed itself. By then, it was too powerful for any one of us to defeat it, and mankind was much too weak for such a battle. The Darkness spread across the land without hindrance, destroying any life it came upon. The end of the world seemed near at hand, and there was little we alone could do to stop it."
The Dragon stopped here, and the Griffin picked up where it had left off. "Though alone we could do nothing against the Darkness, we did discover a way to overcome this evil. We are magical creatures by nature, and by using magic we were able to combine our might into the power of one and split the Darkness in half. One half we sealed within what you call the South Pole, and the other half we returned to its place of origin in the North.
This victory did not come without a terrible price, though. While we had saved our human friends, we ourselves were sealed away as well. While there had been many of each kind when we were sealed, each spirit came together to form one. This is why there is now only one Dragon and one Griffin; we are all of our brethren combined.
We thought then that the Darkness was sealed forever; however, we have now discovered that we were wrong. The seal we placed is loosening, and the Darkness is beginning to seep out of its prison; those shadows which the Dragon tells me attacked you earlier, Rose, were its minions. The only light within this predicament is that spirits of magical creatures such as ourselves were able to escape. While we no longer have our bodies, we are able to find humans to be our hosts and wield our power."
"We have chosen you both to be our hosts, because you hold something which we treasure. We now require your help to seal the Darkness once again, before it wreaks havoc in this time as well. No, Rose, we cannot leave our hosts once we have become bound to them," the Dragon added the last sentence as Rose opened her mouth to ask that very question. Carly, on the other hand, looked positively delighted at the end of their retelling.
The Spirits became quiet for a moment, until the Dragon cried out, "I sense another! Three Spirits within one city! Come, Rose, we must find this host. I believe they are the last within this San Francisco place." Rose was left no time for protests or questions as the Dragon goaded her to follow after Carly, who was already leaving to find the third host. Rose followed along with grudging assent, though she couldn't hide her minuscule curiosity from the Dragon.
The search for this new host took considerably longer than the search for the Griffin's host. The place their seeking took them was a small apartment in a large complex. The door was locked, as they probably should have expected since it was an hour past midnight. Rose and Carly waited at the door while the Dragon and the Griffin communicated with whatever Spirit had taken the person within as their host.
"No, no, no, no, NO!" a sudden raised voice came from beyond the door. "How many times do I have to say I don't want anything to do with this?!"
After a moment, another unrecognizable voice sounded with Rose's head. "My apologies, the host I have chosen is not very welcoming of my presence it seems. He seems to be under the impression that he has gone mad. Perhaps you can do something to convince him otherwise, hosts of the Dragon and Griffin?"
So now they expected her to convince someone else that the voice they heard in their head was not a sign of insanity, when she herself wasn't even certain? Well, she supposed the fire she had created was a good enough sign that she hadn't gone crazy... "Very well. Tell them I agree to help this once, Dragon."
A moment later, the voice came again. "I thank you, Rose Avery; and you, Carly Milthropton. I have discovered within my host's thoughts that there is a key hidden in a nook above the door. You may use it to enter."
Carly, though taller than Rose, could still just barely reach the key the as-of-yet-unknown Spirit had spoken of. The two girls unlocked the door and entered into the catastrophe beyond.
They came first into a cramped living room, made all the smaller by the abundant clutter. Nearest them was a small coffee table littered with the burnt attempts of home cooking and the wrappers from fast food restaurants that also spilled onto the floor all around. The addition of a dusty armchair left just enough space for walking around on the equally filthy carpet.
"What the- I didn't say you could invite them in!" The frustrated scream they had heard before came from beyond a door opposite the one they had just entered through. Something crashed to the floor with the sound of shattering glass and a loud curse followed after it before the door was thrown open.
The state of the apartment's tall tenant matched that of the apartment itself. Dark brown hair, nearly as grimy as Rose's, lay in disarray atop his head. His hazel eyes were concealed behind the glint of glasses, and his skin was so pale it looked as if it had never felt the touch of the sun's warm light. "Get out!" he snapped. "I don't need other crazy people with voices in their heads convincing me that I'm not crazy. It's not normal!"
"What, you think I enjoy having a fire breathing lizard in my head?" Rose snarled in reply, disregarding the Dragon's protest that it was not a lizard. "Let's just get this over with."
"Rose, don't!" the Dragon warned sharply. Rose paid it no attention as flames flickered to life in her hands.
It was Carly who put a halt to the agitated girl's plans to burn down the entire complex by putting a calming hand on her shoulder. Rose glanced back at the older girl in annoyance, but Carly simply shook her head. "I have a better idea," she said soothingly as her gaze went to the man. He was now standing with his back right up against the wall, his eyes wide as he stared at the fire in Rose's hands. When it disappeared, he let out a relieved sigh. When everyone seemed to have settled down again, Carly backed away from Rose; then, both Rose's and the man's eyes widened as she began to grow in size and change in shape.
First, feathery black wings rimmed with white sprouted from her back; small at first, but rapidly growing in size. At the same time, she sprouted a white lion's tail, which was quickly followed by white fur from the waist down. Black feathers were spreading across her upper body, her head included. Her mouth and nose mutated and grew outwards until they were in the form of a beak. Her ears shifted upwards until they were top of her head and molded until they were in the shape of two pointed flaps. Finally, she fell to all fours as her arms became the legs and feet of an eagle's, while her hind legs became a lion's. When the conversion was completed, a black and white griffin six feet in height stood before them. At least, it tried to stand; the apartment was built to hold giant mythical beasts so it ended up crouched down and half curled around the armchair.
Rose and the man stared at Carly's new form in wonder. After giving them a few moments to admire her appearance, the griffin spoke. "Is this enough to convince you, sir?" she questioned the man, a light trill adding itself to her mild voice. Her gulped nervously then nodded. Carly smiled as well as she could with a peak and lowered her head down to seem at least a little less threatening. "Good. My name is Carly, and this is Rose. What is yours?"
"Ron. Um, Ronald Sivers," he replied without hesitation, his apprehensive gaze on Carly.
Rose meanwhile was staring at Carly with a large grin. "So, does this mean I can turn into a dragon?" Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. The fiery display had gotten her interested, but now she was hooked.
"Yes, though I wouldn't advise doing so here. Dragons are considerably larger than griffins," came the Dragon's reply.
After Carly had downsized back to her human form, they informed Ronald of their quest to defeat the Darkness. At least, Carly and the Spirits did; Rose was busy fantasizing over the idea of being a dragon. She only returned to the conversation when Carly tapped her on the shoulder. "Come on, you're staying at my place," she said. "We'll meet up with Ron at the San Bruno State Park tomorrow, to work on controlling the Spirits' abilities."
Rose recoiled from Carly's touch and fixed a heated glare on her. "What makes you think I'd want to stay at your place?" she retorted.
Carly's gaze softened as she said, "The Dragon told me you have no home."
That did it. "I don't remember giving you permission to tell everyone my life story!" she shouted inwardly.
"I didn't. I only informed Carly that you would need somewhere to stay," the Dragon replied stoutly. "I thought you might like to sleep in a proper bed for once. I can't imagine that sheet you were sleeping in when I first came upon you is very comfortable."
Rose had to admit it did have a point there. Besides, it couldn't hurt to take advantage of Carly's kindness just this once... "Fine, let’s go," she grumped and allowed the dark haired woman to drag her out the door.
The next day, the bright sun shone down on a red minivan rolled down the dirt road of the San Bruno State Park. Rose, riding with Carly, was decidedly uncomfortable sitting in the plush clean interior, and the brand new clothes she had been forced to change into before they left didn't help. Clean just wasn't something she was accustomed to.
The rumbling of the car's engine came to a stop; the screeching of tires behind them signaled that Ronald, riding in his faded green pickup truck behind them, had stopped as well. Flinging herself from the car like a bird escaping from its cage at long last, Rose gazed into the trees thick before her. Birds twittered in the docile spring air, calling out in alarm at the arrival of humans.
"This seems as good a place as any," Carly bubbled cheerfully next to her. The dark haired woman looked for all the world as if she were on a field trip. Rose couldn't really say she blamed her; the teenager was equally as excited to begin to learn how to wield the Dragon's abilities. "I think it would be best if we transformed here. There's not anyone around to see, and it would save the trouble of walking all the way out into the hills."
Ronald stumbled as he exited his car, righted himself, then glared at Carly. "And what am I supposed to do, hmm?" he challenged. "Qilins don't have wings, so I'd lose you two in no time."
Carly considered him for a moment, then said, "You can ride on my back."
"I- That's a terrible idea!" his voice wavered and cracked even as he raised it. "What if I fall off?!"
"I'd catch you. Or Rose would. Wouldn't you, Rose?" Lively blue eyes and nervous brown eyes locked onto Rose. She looked between the two of them then shrugged indifferently.
"Maybe," she replied with a lazy grin. Ronald's face paled even more. Rose smirked and turned away, addressing the Dragon, "So, how do we do this?"
"This is a little more complicated than creating fire, but it shouldn't be too difficult. Visualize the transformation in your mind; imagine the changes your body must undergo." Rose took a deep breath and closed her eyes, her brows furrowing in concentration. After a few minutes of waiting, she felt nothing. She lashed her tail in frustration as her eyes opened, and then she froze.
Turning her head on a neck that was now much longer than it had been, she looked over her body in delight. Crimson red scales encased her newly elongated body like armor. Her belly, rippling with muscles as she turned, was covered in thick, leathery, dark orange skin that was nearly the same color as her scales. Jet black, bat-like wings lay folded at her sides. Her tail, nearly as long as her body, lay limply on the ground. Taking a step forward, she nearly tripped as she forgot to move her forelegs; she managed to save herself the embarrassment as she stuck her hands - or whatever they were called now - in front of her. Now she just looked the slightest bit awkward, but at least she hadn't face planted into the ground. Now moving a little more gingerly, she walked over to the cars and lowered her head to look at her reflection in the windows. Her same stormy eyes, though now holding slitted pupils, stared back at her from a leathery, sparsely scaled serpentine head. From the back of her head protruded four black horns: two larger ones above and behind her eyes, and two smaller ones behind her jaws.
The corners of her mouth curled upwards in a draconic grin as she turned to Carly and Ronald. Even though Carly was now in her griffin form, Rose was still a few feet taller than even her. She rather liked being the taller one for once.
Carly seemed amused by Rose's glee, though it was difficult to tell just what she was thinking when she had a beak for a mouth. The girl-turned-griffin nudged Ronald - who was still staring at Rose apprehensively - with her head to get his attention. "Climb on," she said, lowering her body to the ground to make it easier for him to mount her. Ronald gulped but climbed gingerly onto her feathered back in front of her wings. Carly gave him a moment to get comfortable before rising back to her full height. "Did I mention I've never flown before?" she called over her shoulder. Ronald's face completely drained of color. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead a terrified scream escaped him as Carly leaped into the air with Rose right behind her.
For the first few minutes of inexperienced flight, they tumbled about in the air with Ronald clutching to Carly's feathers for dear life the entire time. Eventually, with the Dragon and Griffin giving them tips and with their own instincts, they were able to level out and fly smoothly with nary a fumble. Ronald, who had flattened himself against Carly's back, finally gathered enough courage to sit up and look around - and down. He immediately regretted it and buried his face in the feathers of her neck again, his eyes shut tight.
Rose chortled at Ronald's actions then swiveled her eyes around to face forwards. Now that she had escaped the risk of dropping from the sky, she was quite enjoying flight. She was almost irritated when her euphoria was cut short as they came upon a suitable clearing in the midst of the forest. Carly and Rose circled lower and lower, gradually coming to a nearly-soft perfect landing on the grass - at least, they didn't fall over. Ronald, however, tumbled from Carly's back the moment she set down.
"I am never doing that again!" he declared stoutly.
"Just change your form already. We don't have time for this." There was an edge to the Dragon's voice that surprised Rose. In the short time she had been the beast's host, it had always remained calm and understanding. She shrugged her broad shoulders and turned to watch as Ronald transformed. Rose had never heard of qilins before meeting Ronald, so she had to admit she was quite curious about what they looked liked.
At first, Rose was disappointed as he appeared to be turning into nothing more than a large horse; that is, until the golden scales spread across his body. His shape was indeed that of a horse, but with a number of very obvious differences. Golden yellow scales, of course, were not found on your typical horse. Horses also did not normally have a draconic tail, with aquatic blue hair growing along the bottom of it. His mane was also of the same blue color, and wisps of hair curled down from his mouth as well. White, antler-like horns protruded from his head; his hooves were a white to match, with two small claws just above them and on the backs of his legs.
"Happy now?" he snapped. After a short pause, he growled, "I don't care if I can speak to you in my mind. I'll talk out loud if I please." His fierce voice turned to a squeak as Rose lowered her head to get a closer look at his new form. "Ca- Can we save the bodily studying for after we've learned what we've come here to learn?"
"Ronald is right. We don't have much time," the Griffin said within all of their minds. "Carly senses it as well; the Darkness is already making its move. We must learn all we can in the short time we have."
The next few hours were spent in a variety of activities, from practicing swift transformations to dodging projectiles both in the air and on the ground. Despite the urging of the Spirits to work together, Rose stayed away from the other two as much as possible. She'd been on her own for years, after all, so why bother teaming up now? Despite her misgivings about the little group she had gotten herself stuck with, she caught herself watching Carly and Ronald multiple times throughout the day.
Carly she learned had some kind of light ability. Her body kept flashing brightly, and even in the daylight it was blinding to look at. Rose wasn't really sure how light was supposed to help them, and her misgivings grew.
Ronald at least seemed to have a useful power. When he stomped his hoof against the ground, a small tremor would shoot through it; with each try, the quaking became stronger and stronger until it was enough to force Carly and Rose into the air. Something else he could do, and seemed to be having a little more trouble with, was lift large clumps of earth and stone without evening having to touch them.
All of this Rose learned between stolen glances as she stayed to her own side of the clearing. There were burnt patches of ground all around her, though she'd managed not to cause any major fires. As she put out yet another log she had set ablaze, the Dragon berated her. "You must concentrate! It is important that you are able to control your flames."
"What's the point of learning how to not burn things with fire?" Rose muttered.
"If you don't learn this, you may risk burning something precious to you. Now, again. Imagine the log is someone you care dearly for, someone you would never want to hurt." Rose stared stupidly at the log. How was that supposed to help her? Taking a deep breath, she let out in a stream of flames towards another log. Once again, the wood caught fire and she was forced to extinguish it.
"We're out of time." The Qilin's voice was solemn. "We've been found. Look."
The three Hosts looked to the sky. The sun was now gone, hidden behind dark clouds - clouds which were now falling down towards them. As the "clouds" approached, Rose recognized the shadowy beings she had fought against the night before and let out a growl. "Get to the others! You stand a better chance together." Rose ignored the Dragon's cries and launched into the sky to meet the shadows, her flames preceding her. Those shadows at the front of the charge fell from the sky in melted puddles even as the rest continued onwards.
Rose slashed and burned mercilessly even as the shadows surrounded and battered her. Her scales protected her from most of the physical damage, but wherever the shadows managed to grab hold of her dark ice would crawl across her body. Even as she struck shadows from the sky, she could feel the ice weighing her down. Before long, her movements were leaden and stiff.
Then, as she opened her mouth to let loose another stream of flames, a multitude of the creatures went down her throat. She gagged and thrashed as more shadows took advantage of the opening and poured into her open mouth and nostrils. Rose could feel as they filled her entire body, invading every pore and every cell, and she struggled all the more, panic taking over as she fell from the sky. When she crashed to the ground the shadows stream out of her body; finally, she could breathe again. She wheezed there on the ground, limp and unguarded and with pain shooting through her body. She peered upwards, expecting to see the shadows bearing down on her; instead, she saw the last of the cloud of black fog as it disappeared into the distance.
The sound of footsteps drew her attention to Carly and Ronald, both now in their human forms and hurrying towards her. Before they could reach her, Rose got to her feet and glowered down at them. She grimaced as her limbs protested the movement, fresh pain coursing through her. "I'm fine," she growled. Ronald, coward that he was, flinched back at her tone. Carly still came towards her though, and even dared to place a hand on her side. Rose's eyes flashed and she leaped back from the touch. "I SAID I'M FINE!" she roared, rage and something else in her voice. Her body disagreed with her words and sent her to the ground again.
Carly's eyes softened as she caught what was hidden behind the words Rose spoke. "You don't need to be afraid," she said quietly. "We're not going to let you get hurt."
Ronald stared at Carly in bemusement. "But... she's already-"
"I meant her heart," Carly cut him off, though her tone was still as calm as ever and her eyes were locked with Rose's.
Rose was currently staring down at the woman in contemplation, a spark of hope lighting her eyes. It was gone within a moment, however, as she turned her head away with a huff. "I'm not scared of anything."
Carly smiled gently. "Of course you aren't," she replied. "Can we help you now?" Rose paused a moment to contemplate the offer then bowed her head in compliance. Her form reverted to that of the young girl she really was, and Carly hurried over to support her as she wobbled on her feet. Rose appeared uncomfortable with the close contact, but she didn't resist or push Carly away. She let Carly lead her to the edge of a clearing and sit her down under a tree. Only when Carly reached down to place her hands on her head did Rose grow suspicious.
"What are you doing?" she questioned tensely.
"I can sense darkness," Carly replied as her hands began to glow faintly. "I'm making sure there is none left in you from the fight." She seemed to be satisfied after a few minutes and removed her hands from Rose's head. "Dragon, do you sense anything I may have missed?"
The only greeting to her question was silence within all of their minds. "Dragon?" Rose called. There was no reply.
"I cannot reach it either," the Griffin said. "It's as if the Dragon is simply... gone. But that isn't possible. Besides that we cannot separate from our hosts, its power is still there."
"We should go elsewhere before we investigate this any further, unless you would rather be attacked by the Darkness again," said the Qilin. No one wanted that, so they prepared for flight once again. This time, Rose rode with Ronald on Carly's back, since she had not yet recovered from her fall.
As Carly circled upwards, she called back over the gusting winds, "Where are we going?"
"I would suggest heading north," the Qilin said. "We will have to go that way eventually to reach the North Pole so we may as well begin now."
"Why the North Pole? I thought part of the Darkness was in the South Pole too?" Rose queried.
"Because the shadows that attacked us came from the north," Ronald answered. He seemed calmer now and his voice was steady, but he was still clinging to Carly with deadly force. "Not just a few of them, but all of them came from the north. The Darkness must be concentrating its power there."
"The North Pole it is then!" Carly declared.
Hours later, after traveling through the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening, exhaustion forced Carly to land. She alighted outside a small town as Ronald had insisted that they needed to stop and get food and warmer clothes. Once on the ground, Carly reverted back to human form and let out a weary sigh.
"So, who has money?" Ronald inquired. "I'm broke." The girls both turned to stare at him. He looked between in confusion a few times. "What?"
"You went on and on about us needing supplies... And you don't even have money to buy them?" Rose deadpanned.
Carly let out another sigh. "I have some change with me, but not anywhere near enough for everything we're going to need."
Rose stretched languidly, her muscles aching slightly at the movement but she had recovered for the most part. Recovered enough, in fact, to do what she did best. "You take care of the food, I'll get the rest," she said with a sly grin. They seemed suspicious of her plans, but nevertheless agreed upon a course of action. Carly would wait for them in a small grove of trees nearby where she would rest, since they couldn't afford a hotel. Ronald would use the money Carly had with her to buy them as much food as he could; Rose, meanwhile, would obtain warmer clothing and baggage of some sort, if possible.
When Rose returned an hour later carrying three backpacks stuffed full of coats, boots, scarves, and every other article of clothing needed for a winter expedition, Ronald and Carly were already eating hamburgers in the dim light of a cheap flashlight. Rose dropped her luggage to the ground and sat down on the dirt to eat her own meal.
"How did you manage to get all that stuff without any money?" Ronald asked.
Rose picked up a burger and took a bit out of it before saying nonchalantly, "I have my ways."
There was a silence for a moment as they each took another bite, both too hungry to ignore the food in front in favor of conversation for long. "You stole them, didn't you?" he said after he had swallowed.
Rose waved a hand offhandedly. "Nah, the clothes are paid for. Can't say the same about the money used, though." At the looks Carly and Ronald gave her, she rolled her eyes. "Really, we're on our way to save the world. I think we can be excused from a couple of measly laws if it's going to make our way easier." Neither of them seemed to like the idea of stealing to get by, Ronald least of all, but they grudgingly let it go and spent the rest of the night in silence. Despite their misgivings, when it came time to sleep they were willing enough to use the sleeping bags Rose had brought.
They woke early the next day and had a quick breakfast of beef jerky, cheese, and bread with powdered milk to wash it down. Rose was able to fly on her own again, so Ronald was once again riding Carly alone.
Soon after they were in the air and set on a northern course, a voice sounded weakly in Rose's head, its words to quiet to make out. "Dragon? Is that you?" Rose called inwardly, trying to hide the relief in her thoughts.
"Yes, it is I," came the voice again, louder this time but still strained. "I apologize for my absence. I have been trying to contact you but something has been preventing me from doing so."
"Probably nothing to worry about," Rose said dismissively. "You're still new to this whole host thing, after all. Maybe it's not easy as you thought."
"I hope that is all it was," the Dragon replied, though its tone was skeptical.
They flew through most of the day, stopping only occasionally to rest and eat. The Spirits urged them to move as quickly as possible, saying that the sooner they reached the Darkness the easier it would be to defeat. This pattern continued over the next few days, with them flying hundreds of miles a day. Soon after leaving the boundaries of California, they had taken to wearing the winter clothes; with the biting cold, they weren't quite so willing to argue about the questionable way in which they had been obtained.
On the morning of the fourth day, they crossed over into Canada. Since they had nearly finished off their store of food and they had no money left, Ronald and Carly had no choice to employ Rose to get them some more. Rose was more than willing to do the familiar task and that night they feasted on the booty of pizza and soda.
"So how did you end up on the streets?" Carly asked as they all sat back with satisfied sighs and full stomachs.
"I didn't like my dad is all," Rose replied evasively. Carly didn't seem entirely happy with the answer but seemed to understand that Rose didn't want to talk about it and let the subject drop.
"What about your mom?" Ronald inquired, not quite as willing to let the matter slide.
"She's dead," Rose replied shortly.
Ronald either didn't notice her growing irritation or was choosing to ignore it as he said, "But wouldn't your dad need y-"
"Look, it's none of your business, alright?!" Rose snapped, flames flickering over her skin and threatening to spark into a more deadly blaze. Ronald flinched and clamped his mouth shut, finally getting the message.
"We only want to help, Rose," Carly said quietly.
"I don't need any help," Rose growled in reply. She rolled over in her sleeping bag and not another word was said.
Things were tense the next morning, and all throughout the day and into the next evening. Rose avoided the others as much as possible and even shut out the Dragon's voice. Ronald and Carly didn't let this bother them too much and had their own conversations, but Rose often caught Carly giving her worried looks. She couldn't ignore them forever, though, and after a few days she began to interact with them as she had before.
As they moved further north, they began to encounter shadows more frequently. At first they had some trouble with them, but they were quickly growing accustomed to their abilities. Soon enough, they could handle the amount of shadows from their first encounter back in San Francisco with relative ease. While Ronald and even Rose were growing weary of constantly having to be on guard both day and night, Carly managed to find some brightness in the fights. It had, after all, forced Rose to learn to work together with them as a team. Rose was just glad that, as of yet, none of the shadows had tried to suffocate her again.
It took nearly two weeks for them to traverse Canada and reach the edge of Greenland, the place they had decided would be best to leave from if they were to reach the North Pole. Along the way, Rose had once again extracted some warmer, thermal clothing from a city they passed over. The small group had grown closer as a team, Ronald and Carly especially so. Rose, though easier to converse with now, still shied away from any kind of close friendship. It wasn't until they camped down for what was likely to be their last peaceful night that she finally broke.
Rose had taken the first shift, to watch out for shadows in the night, and was crouching next to the small fire they had made. The sound of feet crunching snow startled her into alertness and she looked up to see Ronald standing behind her. "Couldn't sleep," he mumbled, putting his hands out over the flames to warm them. They sat in companionable silence for a time, before Ronald said in a small whisper, "Are you scared?"
Rose gave him a quizzical look then shrugged. "I dunno. I guess knowing that we might not make it through this is a bit frightening, but dying doesn't really scare me as much."
Ronald looked at her in bewilderment. "Why wouldn't dying scare you? Don't you have anything, anyone you want to live for?"
Rose let out a bitter bark of laughter. "I was living on the streets when we met. What do you think I could possibly have?"
"Well, us for one." Ronald and Rose both started at the voice and turned their heads to see Carly coming out of the tent with a yawn. "Sorry, couldn't help listening in. But really, Rose. We do care."
Rose stared at them both for a moment. Hesitantly, she mumbled, "I... I guess after my mom died I just... didn't want to get close to anyone." Her cheeks flushed as she spoke and she turned her gaze away uncomfortably. "I was really close to my mom, ya know. She was the only thing that kept my dad and me from getting physical in our fights. After she died, I just... didn't want to risk losing someone like that again." Rose's eyes fixated on the flames as she waited for them to laugh, to call her a baby for worrying about something so foolish. Instead, she felt arms wrap around her from behind. She looked up in surprise to see Carly smiling down at her.
"It's ok. We're not going anywhere," she said gently to the younger girl.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of. There're worse things," Ronald added. A blush spread across his face as he twiddled his thumbs nervously. "Remember back in San Francisco, when that huge horde of shadows attacked? I didn't do anything. I just huddled on the ground the entire time. Even if you're not really good with talking to people, at least... At least you're brave enough to fight."
Rose couldn't stop the small smile from spreading across her face. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, fumbling with the words, before finally choking out, "Thanks."
Carly chuckled as she released Rose from her embrace. "How about we get some sleep, hmm? Ronald can take over the watch. He'll be able to sleep while we fly anyways." Ronald uttered a few shouts of protest, but he was ignored as the girls retreated to the tent to sleep.
After what had been quite a cheerful night, they woke the next morning to dark skies and a heavy feeling in the air. They didn't talk much before setting off, as if each of them knew that today was the day that this venture came to an end.
There was no rest for either Carly or Rose as they crossed the Arctic Ocean, and none of them bothered to waste their breath speaking out loud. If something urgent needed to be said, such as a warning about turbulent air, the Spirits relayed the information. When they came upon the giant sheet of ice that covered the North Pole, it wasn't difficult to figure out where they needed to go. Lines of dark shadow pulsed within the ice, all going in the same direction they were; no doubt they were a product of the Darkness.
They were resting on the frozen ground when a shrill neigh echoed out above them. All eyes went to the sky in time to see a white pegasus fly overhead. Somehow, this sight didn't shock any of them; the Spirits had told them that they would probably come across other hosts the closer they got to the Darkness. It was comforting to know that they wouldn't be alone in this fight.
Rose had been preparing to bite into an ice cold sandwich when the pegasus went by, but she dropped it to the ground when the Dragon's voice sounded sharply in her head. "The Pegasus says the Darkness is beginning to spread. It must have sensed that its foes are near. We must hurry! The battle begins now!"
Packs and food were abandoned as an air of seriousness fell over the three hosts. They all transformed, even Ronald; he would not be flying with anyone this time. Straddling Ronald's back like a saddle was a bag filled with large stones; he had realized before hand that the Arctic wouldn't have any earth for him to control, so he had brought his own. Rose and Carly flew above while keeping pace with the qilin galloping below, and with their advantage of height they saw the battlefield long before he did.
Dozens of mythical creatures, many of which Rose did not recognize, struggled against a wave of shadows that seemed to never end. That wasn't what stopped their hearts, though. In the midst of the shadows was something far worse than anything they had ever faced. Like the shadows, it was wreathed in a dark fog and seemed to be made of the same dark ice; but it was the eyes that struck fear in them. Its eyes glowed in the midst of the gloom, bright red and malicious, watching its shadows wage war with glee.
Then those eyes looked straight up at Rose, and the Darkness laughed. "Come, Dragon! Come and become the doom of your brethren!" Its voice boomed loud and deep over the icy expansion, the ground rumbling with its vibrations.
"Dragon, what is it talking about?" Rose queried.
"Ignore it," the Dragon replied grimly. "It is the way of the Darkness to plant doubt in its foes. Do not pay it any mind."
Rose was left with no more time to contemplate the Darkness' greeting as shadows swarmed the trio. Carly's body glowed brightly, warning Rose and Ronald to look away, then let out a flash of brilliant light. The shadows shrieked and some fell, but more took their place and the mass fell upon them. Rose shot fire blindly into the shadows, unable to see where the others were and unable to do anything about it. "Just keep your promise and don't leave me," she begged in her mind, though she knew they could not hear her.
Rose had just turned another shadow into an inky puddle when a loud roar of pain resounded within her mind. "Dragon?! What happened?!" she cried out in a panic.
"Dragon's not home," a voice chuckled in her mind, a dark distortion of the Dragon's voice. Rose's eyes widened as she instantly recognize what was mixed into the familiar voice of the Dragon and she slowly turned her head to look before her. In her frantic fight for survival against the shadows, she had ended up right before the Darkness itself. "I've been awaiting this moment ever since I first planted one of my shadows within you." Rose turned to fly away, to flee, to just get away, but giant hand of ice closed in on her before she could get very far and drew her into the dark cloud surrounding the Darkness. It leaned over to inspect her, the only light in the gloom its glowing red eyes. "Do you remember, Rose Avery? I suspect you do. The shadows nearly killed you when they entered your body, after all." She knew what it was talking about, of course. The only time the shadows had infiltrated her was at the very beginning of their journey. "You see, like the Spirits I am much stronger with a host. All I had to do was to wait for the Dragon to unknowingly bring me the host I had prepared." The Darkness laughed again, out loud this time, the laugh of one who knows they have won. It lowered rose to the ground and released her, but before Rose could even attempt to escape, shackles of ice rose up and held her down. She watched in dread as the Darkness became a single swirling mass, drawing all of the shadows around it. For just a moment, she could see the light again; then the Darkness was bearing down towards her, intent on possessing her completely.
Rose closed her eyes tight in preparation, not sure what to expect when it struck; but it never came. Tentatively, she opened her eyes, then spread them even wider at what she saw before her.
Carly, in her black and white griffin form, lay curled on the ground. Unbearable pain was clear on her features even as she trembled from it. It was only when the Darkness spoke again that Rose realized what had happened. "Foolish Griffin, you should know this will only stop me temporarily!" it cried, its voice melded with Carly's and coming from her beak. "This host was not prepared to hold me; it will die quickly."
Rose stiffened at that. Carly was going to die, all because she had leaped in to protect Rose? Not if she could help it. Her previous fear melted away as she took a deep breath, recalling the Dragon's words from their first day of training. "Imagine the log is someone you care dearly for, someone you would never want to hurt." Well, Carly was most definitely not a log, but she was someone Rose didn't want to hurt. "Please let this work," she thought desperately, then breathed a stream of flames onto the writhing griffin.
The other hosts gathered to watch her work, their faces awed. The fire covered Carly like a blanket, but did not burn her. Rather, shadows poured out of her body with cries of pain, each being destroyed by the flames the moment they emerged. Rose kept the fire flowing for as long as she could, only relenting when no more shadows came out and their screams had died. There was silence then, until a welcome voice entered Rose's mind. "Rose... you have destroyed it," the Dragon said in awe, its voice free of any trace of the Darkness. "The Darkness is completely gone."
The joyful clamor of the Spirits then resonated within the minds of all present, the beasts celebrating their long-awaited victory alongside their hosts. Tears of relief threatened to spill over as Rose threw herself towards Carly, hugging her tightly. She'd done it; Carly hadn't been hurt. She hadn't lost anyone. They'd done it.
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