The rays of a red morning sun, filtering through the forest leaves, danced off the silver flute. Leander was perched on a rock in the clearing outside his house, admiring his finished handiwork. This is the most beautiful thing I've ever created, he thought.
"Congratulations." came a voice.
Leander whipped his head around, and saw Graytorin, standing between the tall trees, silhouetted in the sunlight. However, now his hood was up, his skin was exposed. Graytorin took a few steps into the sunlight and Leander flinched, as it was a mixture of stone, wood and earth.
Leander, overcoming his shock at the man's appearance, stood up briskly, and held out both of his hands, with the flute lying across.
"I finished," he stated, "and by morning too"
Graytorin smiled and approached Leander. He was barefoot beneath his dark robe, but the thorns and splinters sank into the earth before his foot was even placed, every step. He really was Graytorin - the land, Leander mused.
"That is well" replied Graytorin, in turn holding out his hands and gently taking the flute from Leander, before turning it over and examining it. Leander stood, watching the creature's eyes as they poured over every nook and cranny of the instrument he had created. He half held his breath in expectation.
Eventually, Graytorin faced him and said. "Elf. This flute is a thing of beauty. When I present this to the gods, I believe they will forget the wrongs done by your people. Your grace has saved them, temporarily.
Leander sighed out, relieved. Albeit predominantly because his work of art was well recieved, rather than because he had saved his kinsman.
"However," continued Graytorin darkly, "I can not account for what the gods will think later. Of course I am only their pawn. A thinking pawn, but a pawn nonetheless"
"I will not disturb the gods by any interference" Leander replied carefully.
Graytorin paused, looking at the flute. Suddenly, he brought his eyes up to Leanders'. Both were deep and wise, but while one was brown, the other was green - and the result was immediately haunting.
"Leander listen to me. The elves are arrogant, pompous yes. But they are also good - or have buried goodness. The gods are blind, Leander, and losing control."
Leander faced the floor, surprised and reflective.
"Do you know why I asked you to craft the flute?"
Leander faced the creature again. "To save my people...?" he replied hesitantly.
Graytorin was silent for a moment or two, before placing his hand on Leander's shoulder. "Leander, we have much to discuss. Concerning the flute, the elves, the gods and the future. You must know all that I know - for I am afraid something terrible will happen soon."
"I don't understand..."
"You will soon. Come, follow me through the forest."
* * *
Finn winced, gripping tighter to the dragon's skin. Night air whipped past him, and his hair and clothes were flailing behind him in wake of its sheer force. Beneath him, a sprawling dark forest was half-glowing in the cloudy moonlight, and rising up ahead were the mountains of Obodin's Range.
He was shivering from cold and fear, for the dragon Bel'ator'i was still gliding, and gaining speed. The two shadows behind were also gliding – swift as arrows across the night sky. Finn faced desperately behind him, before turning round and yelling to the great green dragon through the wind “They're gaining! How are they going faster than we are!?”
“They are Shaliken, pure shadows grown and infused with black magic by necromancers. They do not follow the rules that we follow” Bel'ator'i rumbled back, “Now quiet! I must concentrate”
The air quaked and crashed by the power of Bel'ator'i's increase in speed, though it was still not enough to out run the Shaliken – for they sliced through the wind with sharp noses. Finn kept his head down flat on the dragon's spine, to avoid having to face a wind travelling fast against them.
Suddenly, Finn felt a shadow pass over his face from his left. Looking up, he saw a Shaliken, flying directly alongside them, still silent, it raised a long, silhouetted claw.
“Drop!” Finn yelled instantly, and Bel'ator'i dropped, just as a claw as cold as ice and swift as a dagger passed a foot over their heads. Meanwhile, the other Shaliken passed over beneath them, and held its pointed nose upwards. Realising this, Bel'ator'i rolled.
For a moment, Finn felt like he was being crushed and pulled at the same time, and it was all he could do to grab fast onto the dragon, dig his fingernails into its skin and tighten his eyes. Bel'ator'i had deftly dodged the nose from beneath by spinning to the side, when, in a moment, he shifted his rolling energy into his arm and swiped at the above, larger Shaliken. It barely had time to move, and the dragon's claw passed straight through it. Although the shadow flinched and swept to the left, completely unharmed.
“What was that!?” called out Finn, recovering from the shock of the roll, “are they real shadows? Can they not be harmed by anything physical?”
“Of course not! While their attacks can pass through our physical presence and attack our souls, they have none.” replied Bel'ator'i, “I was merely giving us time to recover from their attacks, and plan my next move”
“But nothing can harm them, then!”
Bel'ator'i simply chuckled. “Think my boy, what can slay a shadow?”
Finn realised. Bel'ator'i began breathing in. The two shadows shot in from the right, claws outstretched, noses open.
Bel'ator'i continued to inhale. Suddenly, the first Shaliken dropped in the sky, passing underneath the dragon towards its belly while the second and smallest swooped up overhead, flapped through the wind, and began preparing to aim its blow. Finn immediately noticed that Bel'ator'i would have no time to dodge, and he began to think desperately of what he could possibly do, if anything. It was then that suddenly the flute came loose from his belt loop.
His hand, somehow instinctively, immediately reached out and grabbed the flute as it whipped out behind him. Instantly he noticed how it was shining in the crescent moonlight – shining like the night he found it, he recalled.
The present returned, and the two shadows descended like black lightning.
Finn and Bel'ator'i's responses were perfect and precise. Bel'ator'i released a thin jet of fire, an intense spray of heat and light on the shadow beneath him, extinguishing it. Meanwhile, on a subconscious level, Finn felt himself hold up the flute, still holding onto it with his left hand, while his right was just about clinging to the dragon's spine. The Shaliken had no time to pre-empt his attack. The glowing flute pierced it, found its heart – the shadow it grew from, and the it died, the force of its momentum through the air exploding it into a black powdery smoke, which, for a split second engulfed Finn, before fading.
There was a pause, before both Finn and Bel'ator'i let out great smiles, and praised each other's strikes. The strikes that had meant they had just saved each other's lives. They were drawing closer to the mountain range that belonged to Obodin – a mad old hermit, and a necromancer, and Finn was still wondering why the dragon was taking him there, of all places.