When Ata-noe climbed up on the boulder to get a better view of the mountainside, Tertiary was lying next to Sandyx grooming her ears and face with his tongue. Both tigers were mortally tired, but the young tigress was especially so. Rambler stood quietly by, half-heartedly nibbling some dry grass.
Tertiary watched Ata-noe gazing intently at the side of the mountain, and following her gaze, he too saw Vitrater emerge from behind a screen of brush. He scrambled to his feet and took a step toward the mountain. Sandyx remained lying down, and watched him as he moved forward. When Ata-noe looked back and beheld the dragon, Tertiary, seeing her reaction, spun about and then flattened himself to the ground. Tail lashing, eyes glowing, he snarled in fear and rage at the gigantic flying beast. Sandyx too was terrified and crouched low, almost seeming to sink into the ground.
Rambler reared and dashed uphill toward Ata-noe.
# # #
Ata-noe clung tightly to the panicked horse as they sped up the side of the mountain. The dragon passed and passed over the mountain slope below her and cast down fiery ruin before it. Clouds of choking smoke billowed across the narrow trail as the fire spread, and the wind from the oncoming storm drove it along. Rambler’s pace had begun to slacken. She was still terrified, but the steepness of the trail and her tired muscles began to slow her down. Her ears swiveled to listen to the voice of Ata-noe as she sought to calm the mare and guide her toward the spot she had last seen Zephyr.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ata-noe saw the leaping forms of the tigers as they ranged alongside Rambler. Sandyx ran as close to Tertiary as she could, her ears flattened in fear, and together they swept on. Burning fragments of wood began to fall around them as trees burst into flame. The whole mountainside seemed to be a roaring inferno, but there were many patches as yet free of the fire. It was in one of these that Ata-noe met with Zephyr. They nearly collided as Vitrater came galloping out of a roil of smoke. Both horses skidded and stumbled as they sought to pull up. Vitrater slipped and slid, nearly falling and Rambler wheeled, neighing piercingly and slid to a halt beside the stallion. The horses were panting with exertion and Zephyr shouted, “We must get down the mountain! The dragon has shattered the portal! All is in flames and the rocks are shattered!”
He paused, gasping at the thick smoke, and a shadow fell upon them. The dragon wheeled above, and a sheet of flame descended to where they stood. But the horses sprang away, the tigers before them, and they fled, feeling the scorching heat of the dragon’s flames, not yet stuck by the fire. An ear rending crash of thunder rent the smoky air as they ran. The storm had reached them. The white flash of lightning eclipsed the brilliance of the dragon-fire, and the dragon roared deafeningly in answer.
For a short way the riders plunged down the slope. With each stride the horses risked bone-shattering falls, and they struggled to stay upright, lathered coats gleaming orange and gold in the leaping firelight. Suddenly a wall of flames with no opening was before them. Tertiary roared in fury, and slewed about, avoiding the hooves of the horses as they staggered to a halt.
Lightning struck nearby and the thunder was like a hammer stroke. Sandyx leaped straight into the air in an agony of terror.
“We cannot get through!” shouted Zephyr. But Ata-noe shouted back, “There is another way! Come, let us fly!”
She seized Ramber’s mane at the crest of the mare’s trembling neck and leaned forward, pushing her head to one side and shouting in her ears. Rambler spun in the direction Ata-noe had turned her head, and sprang away into a rolling cloud of smoke. After an instant of hesitation as he saw the tigers follow the girl, Vitrater leaped after her.
For a moment they were blinded by smoke, but soon Zephyr saw that Rambler was in the clear, clambering up a steep defile with a stand of unburned fir trees at the summit. It was rugged and treacherous incline, choked with scree. The bay mare was struggling and Ata-noe slid from her back, urging her on from beside her straining forequarters. Zephyr too, leaped to the ground, and taking hold of Vitrater’s mane, he climbed beside the stallion. The talus slipped and rolled underfoot but they made steady, if maddeningly slow progress up. Large scattered drops of soot-blackened rain began to fall. The storm was beginning to lash the forest with a pelting rain. Zephyr looked ahead. Ata-noe and her exhausted horse were nearly at the top.
The tigers waited there already. They had made little of the shifting rubble and had sprung lightly up, compared to the heavy laboring of the horses. Looking over his shoulder, Zephyr saw the raging conflagration of fire and storm, and the dragon, still wheeling beneath the clouds. The noise was an indescribable numbing torrent. A great crescent of burning forest lay below them. Already the trees at the foot of the defile were roaring towers of flame. They were trapped on the mountainside, and the flames were moving hungrily up.
In a moment he reached the top where the others stood between the last green trees in sight. The company stood, gasping for breath, and watched the dragon, as it laid waste all below it. Lightning played about the sky, as they stood transfixed, gazing with awe at the scene of destruction. The rain began to fall more heavily.
The dragon swept toward them, and as they made to flee into the trees, they heard a dreadful crack, and a deafening shriek that veered up to an unbearable metallic pitch. Before their astonished eyes a huge, livid fork of lightning struck the dragon. For an instant the dreadful beast seemed to glow; its shape coruscated and wavered in the air. Then, with a furious roar, the huge body burst into thousands of black fragments.
Ata-noe shrank against Zephyr and uttered a sharp cry. Without taking his eyes from the scene before him, Zephyr pulled her close to his side. He felt hope rise within him. Was this the death of Callida? For he well knew that the dragon was in reality, the cruel shape-shifter.
Tertiary knew it too and he roared in delight and triumph. But his delight was short-lived and his triumph soon turned to alarm, for Callida was not so easily disposed of.
The dark mass of burned and tattered black fragments that had once been the dragon was not drifting quietly to earth. To be sure, some of the ragged shapes spun fluttering in the wind of the storm and fell into the burning trees below, but most did not. The greater portion remained aloft and began to revolve in a weaving, sinister dance with the rain and wind. They resembled a flock of birds. With a shock, the companions realized that the whirling black shapes were in fact a massive congregation of crows.
The birds flew about in a confused mass, and then they began to form into an ordered flock, wheeling and dipping much as the dragon had done. From time to time they would be nearly obscured by the slanting sheets of rainfall, but they were moving with a purpose. Ata-noe was the first to speak.
“They are seeking us,” she said. “We must go.”
Indeed the crows were moving over the side of the mountain, swooping low in the places where the dragon-fire was being quenched by the downpour, rising swiftly above the places where the flames still leaped. And the flock was approaching the place where the companions stood.
The noise was much less now. The dazzling bolt of lightning which had struck the dragon seemed to be the storm’s last. The thunder had dwindled to an occasional low mutter, and the rain fell steadily. Over the drumming of the raindrops could be heard the raucous squawking of the immense flock of crows. It was coming closer.
Zephyr turned to Ata-noe. “We can find no safety here,” he said. “The portal is destroyed, or at least the cave inside which it stands is blocked.”
“There is another way,” said Ata-noe. “The mountain holds many secrets. Come, let us go to the hidden gate.” She turned, and as the others followed her into the stand of trees, Zephyr asked, “Where does it lead?”
Ata-noe answered, “To the sea.”