Off the Forest Floor

It was not unlike Jesop to sneak out to do a scout run.  Normally that even brought him a bit of peace, but there was nothing typical about this time.  Kneeling he touched the smear of dragon blood on the deep soft turf of the forest floor.  He was getting closer.  They had to be only a day ahead of him now.  The fact that he had not found Kerik and Dart bothered him.  However, the reality that they were still moving was a good sign.  If Dart had been hurt too badly he would have sank into a state of hibernation by now.  If it had just been Jesop who was after the two he might have felt a bit better about it all, but he wasn’t.  The two were being hunted by something other than Jesop. Something big.

He had to get to them and get them off this mountain before they were taken down by whatever creature it was that was leaving tracks on top of the Scout’s and his Wing’s.  If only the council had let him leave as soon as Dart had gone down, he might have them already safely back at the Nest.  He should just left.  He might even have gotten back before anyone realized he had been absent.  He pushed his irritation at the council aside and looked up hoping to glimpse Cursk, but the canopy was just too high and dense to see so much as a sliver of sky let alone a dragon.

Shifting his lean pack on his back he set off at a jog again.  The ground was relatively level here and travel was fairly easy for a man to move over.  That was not going to be the same for a wounded dragon.  In the last three days Jesop had gained a week on the two who were lost and grounded in this old growth forest.  Jesop tried not to blame himself.  He should have pulled Kerik and Dart home months ago… no, years ago. The two had been out on patrol for far too long.  The worry had been the onset of Neglect, but now it was just trying to get them home alive.

Maybe it was better that Jesop be the one to find the Scout.  If Kerik had Neglect few would tolerate it.  They would most certainly react poorly and lash out.  Jesop knew the value of every scout, of every Arm, and every Wing; Kerik simply could not be replaced.  Not by a dozen cadets could he be replaced.  If the man turned out to be suffering, Jesop would find a way to help him.  He just had to know before they got into the company of anyone else.

His dark worries cut off when he caught a hint of a smell that was of something not forest and not dragon.  Slowing he focused on the stink and moved toward it. Maybe he could learn what was tracking Kerik and Dart.  Whatever it was, it was not orc and it was not goblin.  Jesop knew those smells well enough to be very aware this was different. Hopefully it was just some magic warped creature and nothing smarter than a dog.

Using the trees as cover he kept alert.  He opened his bond with Slang as much as he could.  Unlike all others he and Slang could not actually speak to each other, all they had were emotions and vague images.  It was a flaw they had learned to hide very well, and likely no one knew.  Cursk might suspect but he made no mention of it.  Hopefully Slang could pick up Jesop’s state of mind and emotions well enough to relay to the dragon who had brought Jesop out here, that something was close.

Along with that Jesop hoped Slang would tell Cursk how glad he was to have a dragon close at hand, even if they were separated by the ancient towering trees.  Slang knew to send no responce back to Jesop right now, it might end up being a distraction at the wrong moment. If he could pick up things from so far away it would be impressive but that was a stretch even for them.

Mixing with the smell of the creature he neared was the faint smell of fire.  That was not good. Either they had caught up to Kerik or the creature was smart enough to build fires.  Jesop hoped that was not the case.

Through the trees he began to see what was there.  Well before he could see clearly he knew there was more than one.  He was very glad he had chosen to leave his Whites at home and wear Scout Browns.  At least he had some sort of camouflage out here. In white and gold he would have stood out dangerously. He had argued with Teven about it a number to of times but the in some situations it really was best to drop rank.

Daring to get a little closer he moved up another tree to try and see what he was dealing with.  It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.  Even then he needed to get closer to confirm it so he had no doubt in his mind at all.  Kneeling by the closest tree he could risk, he let it really sink in what he was seeing.

This was bad, very bad, not only did he have to worry about Dart and Kerik, now he had to worry about getting himself off the mountain.  If things could not be any worse, there just had to be a creature not seen in the mountains for thousands of years.  Red Men.  There were at least ten of them, crouched around a small fire.

The Red Men had once been an enemy and a feared one, nearly as hated as the Worms.  After the last great war with them they had been driven far to the north and into nearly nothing but folklore.  No one was likely to believe him when he told them what he was seeing.  How in the hells was he supposed to get two men and a wounded dragon off the forest floor with Red Men on his heels.

Backing away carefully he set to the task of circling them to try and get between them and Kerik.  Doing his best he focused on relaying the emotions of urgency and escape, as well as the threat level to Slang.  Once he was sure his message was sent to the best of his ability, he simply focused on staying hidden and gaining ground.  He had just gotten back on the trial of his lost scouts when he had the impression that there was a mountain peak ahead of them.  There would be an exposed stretch where Cursk could pick up Dart; that Slang had sent a couple of scouts in at top speed to pick up the men, they just had to get in the open.

Jesop focused on the idea of the mountain to try and see the best path.  Since he and Slang had lost the ability to speak telepathically they had learned to absolutely trust the impression each other sent and made it through a war together without a single spoken word.  Jesop had no doubt he was accessing Slang’s ability to see his maps in his office, to look at the mountain.  With any luck he might just be ale to pull this off.

Jesop swore under his breathe when he heard the Red Men begin to move behind him.  They were remarkably quite for their size but whatever they had been up to was over and they were back in motion.  The sun was setting and if memory served him right the Red Men preferred the dark.  It was time to pick up the speed and hope he didn’t lose Kerik and Dart’s trial.

Slang sent him the impression that Cursk had caught the scent of Dart and was circling over him, a few miles to the northwest.  Jesop took advantage and sprinted all out.  At close to 20 feet tall a Red Man could easily overtake a man, and was known to be able to leap up and take all but the largest of dragons from the air.  To be as silent and fast as possible was all he worried about.  Running had been a skill he had learned young and still held to this day.  There were times he was almost grateful he had spent most of his early childhood running and hiding.  It was certainly a skill most men in his position never had to master.

Just about the time Jesop began to worry he had passed them in the night he caught the scent of wounded dragon.  If he could smell it the Red Men could as well.  The monsters were just toying with their prey, knowing there was no escape.  Jesop couldn’t hear them at the moment so they had to be coming in slowly, likely to not alert the dragon to their numbers or race.

Jesop raced up on the camp.  Kerik was asleep against Dart’s side, the dragon’s wings were limp and clearly broken.  His breathe was short with pain.  That would have to be dealt with as soon as they were clear.

“Kerik,” he breathed the scout’s name as he knelt and pulled off his pack. Kerik jerked awake.  “Time to go. How is Dart?” He asked as he dug in his pack for the three flask orbs that were tucked in near the bottom.

“He has a head injury, he can only speak to me with a great deal of pain.”

“Run,” Jesop told the dragon.  “As fast as you can, there is a clearing,” he pointed northwest, “you will be picked up.  Go.  Now!”

It was likely Dart would be able to smell the sort of rank Jesop held. There was an off chance he might even know exactly who had come to the rescue, but if not, Dart would certainly be able to smell the age of Cursk on Jesop and that would give him authority to get Dart to trust him and to move.  Dart tilted his head at him, almost as if he was trying to figure out who exactly Jesop was.

“Go!” Jesop assured him.  “Run as fast as you can.  They are almost here!”

“Go,” Kerik pleaded softly pushing at Dart’s arm.  Dart turned and ran, an awkward and gangly thing for a dragon.  It had to be terrible to do with broken wings.

“Stay as close to me as you can,” he told Kerik.  “Ready?” Jesop tossed the pack off to the side, it might distract one of them a moment.  That one moment might matter in the end.

“After you,” Kerik said.

Jesop followed Dart a few yards then cut due west.  If nothing else the Red Men would have to divide up. Jesop had to trust to Cursk to get Dart away, his immediate concern was to get Kerik off the mountain.

The ground began to climb steeply.  They had finally left the forested high plateau for the upper slopes.  Scrambling up the steep escarpment they left the trees for the boulder heights above the tree-line.  Veering northward they were able to sprint again. The massive boulders here were too large and too close for the Wings to pick them up but Jesop was trusting to the impression of the mountain he had gotten from Slang.

Below and behind them they heard the roar of the Red Men who had realized their prey was making a run for it.  Stalking was forsaken for a charge.  Their heavy breathing and thudding feet were heard almost at once as they began to close in.

“I hope you have a plan!” Kerik yelled just behind Jesop.

“I do,” Jesop called back.  The boulders suddenly opened up to the tundra slopes.  “That way!” He pointed for Kerik to go up hill. “Get high and fold in!”  He gave the last order but stayed on his path, he had a plan for his pursuit.   Behind him he heard the wind through a dragon’s wings as it swept in and snatched Kerik off the ground.  Hopefully the man heard him tell him to fold in his arms. If not he might well add broken arms to his injuries for this trip.  His mind off of Kerik he was able to focus on himself for the moment.  Whichever scout Slang had sent to retrieve him, he was certain it had not arrived yet.  He had to buy more time for his own rescue.

Rounding the north face of the mountain the vast expanse of the surrounding mountain range and the arch of the twilight sky came into view. To the east the stars were just coming out, while the sunset was glorious in lavenders and blues with pink touched clouds.

Not far ahead, he knew from Slang that there was a massive shale rock-slide that dropped off over a high cliff.  He aimed for it. The Red Men were so close begin him he could all but feel their breath on the back of his neck and the thud of their heavy feet against the ground.  Further down the slope he heard Dart roar in pain and anger.  For one moment Jesop’s heart nearly stopped in fear for Dart, but the Scout roared again but this time in defiance.  Dart was off the ground!  He might have taken a bit of a swipe but Cursk had once again proven himself.  Jesop loved that old Wing!

His feet hit the first of the shale.  For three strides nothing happened but that didn’t last.  The rocks began to slip under his weight. He had to slow.  With his left hand reached out to help balance and steady himself he worked to stay on top of the rocks and not set off an avalanche.  Looking back Jesop could see the hulking monsters staggering to a stop at the edge of the shifting shale.  They clearly knew the danger of it, but he was so close, barely out of reach.  He couldn’t help but laugh at them.

One roared in frustration and lunged towards him.  Jesop scrambled forward trying to cut horizontally across the rocks.  The massive weight of the Red Men was going to set the entire mountain into motion and that was Jesop’s hope, just not until he got off it. As luck had it once the first went after him the rest followed. Jesop fought his way out onto the slide as far as he dared but the little slide he started was rapidly consumed but the side the Red Men set off.   Jesop swore and changed his tactic as the entire expanse of loose stone let go and began to move.  Using what little magic would apply he raced straight down the river of stones.  If he could manage to keep his feet on top of the rocks and not get drug down too much, he might escape this.

The roar of the stone crashing like a waterfall over the cliff was deafening and dangerous.  Jesop felt his bad ankle twist but he never missed a step. Everything counted on that last step before an Arm launched into the air.  If you were too close, or were in the air wrong it made it very dangerous and difficult for a Wing to catch you.  While Jesop’s leap wasn’t going to be perfect he did his best and threw himself as hard and far as he could, tucking his arms against his chest.  There was that one moment of breathless exhilaration.  The dust of the falling rock nearly choking him then great hands closed around him.  The Wing had come in at a steep angle, diving to catch him, likely barely in time.  They rushed at the trees below but the dragon’s great wings opened, pulling them up with enough force any but an Arm would have blacked out by the sheer force.  They skimmed the canopy then shot upward at a steep angle.

“Roll back,” he told the scout.  The dragon obeyed, pivoting in a gentle sideways roll to sweep back at the rock slide where the Red Men struggled against it, roaring in rage at his escape.  They were fighting to hold each other against the rock slide and some might even have been able to escape but Jesop had other plans.  He hurled the Flash Orbs at them.

The Wing who held him circled back again so they could both see as the orbs hit the rocks.  The concussion was impressive.  The first one was well aimed and not only blew up a number of the Red Men but sent rock shards in all directions with deadly force.  With the explosion of the second two the entire mountain face was obliterated down to the solid bed rock.  Whatever was left of the Red Men would be buried under thousands of tons of rubble.

The dragon who held him roared in victory, palms flushing with warmth at the pride felt.

“Release,” Jesop said.  The dragon let go.  Jesop reached out his arm and caught the Wing’s front shoulder. With the ability that had put him in White he swung up onto the dragon neck.   “Didn’t even have time for a saddle, hmm,” he smiled and lay against the Wings neck, hidden from the wind by her skull ridge and ear flares.  “Thank you,” he smoothed his hands down the dragon’s neck.

Few Arms were ever allowed to ride or even touch a Wing he was not bonded to.  Jesop however, as Lord Marshall, was welcomed by most dragons. He was tolerated more than any other, Marshall or otherwise, he had ever heard of.  Maybe it was his level of empathy.  They could feel how he loved them all, how beautiful they were to him, how overwhelming proud he was of them.  It surely had to feed their ego’s a bit.  He smiled and rested his cheek on Banner’s neck.  All it had taken was to see a bit more of her and he knew exactly who she was and how hard she had to of flown to reach him.  He knew who her Arm was and their patrol route.  She had to have forced herself to a speed-level difficult for her young age.  She and Donna would be rewarded.  Maybe a new lair, higher up the Nest wall. Jesop would have to think about it later.  He would talk to Slang about it when he got him.  For now he needed to see to Dart’s broken wings and to Kerik’s mental stability.

“Take us to North Eerie 97,” he said and closed his eyes to trust her and savor her smell, her strength, and her warmth.

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