The Dragons of Arbor
Chapter 6: The Shores of Diminishing Returns

Copyright© 2011 by Sea-Life

The Gurmots were happy to have us, and very interested in meeting and getting to know Alianna. She knew in general that the knowledge of other facets and worlds was to be kept secret, but we reinforced it fairly strenuously before we left.

Master Jo decided that this wasn't a trip he needed to be on, and that if he was indeed going with us come spring, he needed to make arrangements with Dad and the other advanced students to continue his classes while he was away. He was also going to have to spend a little time getting used to riding a horse again, something he hadn't done since his youth on Temple, and which he hadn't picked back up now that he was living with a restored youth on Arbor. The snow free main road in the valley was going to have to be his training ground unless Mom, Dad, or Aunt Serenity took pity on him and jumped him somewhere more accommodating. Demira would have worked out nicely, but I think he was really trying to avoid being an appendage to the group of 'young people', as he saw us all.

Burr and Chalice Gurmot reacted to Alianna Parkin like a castaway to the sight of sails. They had no problem with her sharing Trunk's room, and her slightly foreign phrasing and attitude didn't seem to be an issue.

There are some beautiful beaches in Demira. Though by definition, any beach on which River Dambro stood, wearing her 'swim suit', was beautiful. If she happened to be coming out of the water in that suit, the beach was somewhere beyond beautiful.

Swimming, and being 'on the beach' weren't big leisure time activities for the Demirans, or for most Arborians. All but the wealthiest had little leisure time to begin with. Childhood was a shorter proposition on Arbor than it was on Earth, Taluat or Meadow. It was pretty short on Preci too - even after several decades of rebuilding, the People of Precipice were still repopulating their world. Despite the Legion of Light and the Guardian's best efforts, a great, great number had died during the effort to free the Preci from their Sh'kxu masters. Many of those who remained were as children themselves, even when the miracle of the Day of Grace is factored in.

So on Arbor, many children stopped being children at a young age, working hard and being responsible. The agrarian nature of the societies here meant most children lived close to the land. Their parents were farmers or ranchers or fishermen or hunters, loggers, or miners. There was little in the way of mechanization or industrialization. Most products were created by individual craftsmen, and most skills were learned under the aegis of a guild or craft hall.

This did not make Arbor 'backwards', though I'm sure someone like Alianna's ex-boyfriend Lewis would have seen it as such. But it did mean that leisure time and the activities that went with it were rare, and all the more precious because of it.

People were less body conscious on Arbor than they were on Earth, but not as free-thinking as the people of Taluat, and by extension the people of Meadow, who had borrowed most of the best things about Taluatan society and culture. Trunk's being a Gurmot meant a 'peerage' of the children of the wealthy families of Demira were soon investigating his new leisure activity of choice. When those young men saw Alianna and River in their swim wear, we suddenly had company on the beach and in the water.

There were some misunderstandings at first. A few young men saw their outfits as an invitation. Trunk disabused a couple of them of that notion, I did the same. Even River handed out a few educations.

Once the concept had been grasped, discussed and considered, girlfriends began accompanying the new beach goers, and Demiran clothing stores soon began a run on modified under clothing similar to River's. The fabric of Alianna's suit wasn't something that could be duplicated here on Arbor, so attempts to reverse engineer her outfit and produce replicas of it were met with mostly failure. A fabric, made from a modified version of the woven caper root fiber like the original liner River had removed from her suit, wound up coming pretty close, and some of the young women began appearing in suits made of it.

There were plenty of other things going on. We had Grinder, Spark and Sheer with us, and after finding Alianna and Hawk suitable horses at SpringTree, we spent many a morning riding the trails and roads around Demira. Alianna spent a good bit of time with Trunk's mom and his sister Fell.

Fell was suddenly willing to set aside her spoiled and shy nature when confronted with an actual, real and handsome Fenrim, right out of legend, and Hawk was friendly enough, but after a couple of weeks of Fell's 'me first' attitude and whining participation, he soon began avoiding her like the plague, as did we all.

"I'm sorry Trunk, but if this is what you were like before the Academy got a hold of you, we should all be wishing there was some academy to send Fell to." Hawk said. "She needs to have the rotten edges knocked off her a little, if you don't mind my saying so."

Twin sister or not, Trunk was of pretty much the same opinion.

"Too bad the Sisterhood doesn't have a program for young women like that." River said. "Their training and lifestyle would probably be the perfect remedy."

"So would a couple weeks in the Imhur, but that would be a lot more likely to be fatal." Hawk said.

"You say that like it would be a bad thing." Alianna said.

We all had our laugh over that, but the seed was planted. Alianna mentioned the Sisterhood idea to Chalice one evening when the two of them were off doing something together, shopping for dress material, I think.

"I think I had an immediate convert to the cause." She said later when we were all getting the horses settled in after a late afternoon ride. "She almost cut our shopping trip short, she was so eager to discuss the idea with Burr."

The hills to the west of Demira, and the mountains behind them, were beautiful riding country, and there was a good mix of both settled and wild areas to explore. Demira the city was definitely a coastal community, and focused very much on the sea, but Demira the Kingdom had three distinct cultures.

Their government and economy were dominated by the coastal settlers, while the plainsmen - ranchers and farmers of the interior - were a little less visible in government, but Demirans understood that they were the breadbasket of Demira, and it was their crops and herds that fueled the furnace of Demiras success on the larger scale.

The third group was the 'Hillers'. The Hillers were the least participatory of the people, preferring the isolation of the hills and mountains, with only a few small scattered communities. Most folks who called themselves Hillers lived in solitary homesteads far from the nearest village, and usually many miles from their nearest neighbor.

The Hillers might not have seemed essential or even necessary for the success of the Demiran society in any way to an outsider, but the people of Demira themselves considered the resourceful, independent and plain-spoken Hillers as the defining aspect of their culture. The traits that Demirans admired most were those of the Hillers. Strength, endurance, common sense and compassion.

Our riding trails into the hills and mountains behind the city of Demira took us then, into the heart of Hiller country. What small villages and hamlets that were here were in the low hills. Somewhat less formidable than the endless maze of hills and ravines in the Sparine peninsula, but rough enough to discourage cart and wagon traffic. The mountains beyond were even more remote seeming, and the people spread even more thinly. Small stone cottages could be seen here and there in or near the valleys that cut through the high slopes, but not many.

We took an extended ride, an excursion really, into the mountains. We had been in Demira for almost a month now, and had gotten comfortable with the lowland areas. Mountain riding was still something we needed to expose Alianna to, so it was decided we would take a trip up into the mountains towards Catayan Peak, one of the higher, more breathtakingly beautiful mountains in the region, distinctively beautiful due to its high, curving needle of a peek, visible from a long, long distance away.

Burr had wanted us escorted by a unit of mercenary guard, but we reminded him that we were better trained than those guard, we were in the company of a genuine Fenrim, and we also had some special skills of our own. He relented, but made us promise to watch out for Alianna, who he saw as a more or less normal person, in comparison to the rest of us. Trunk's honest and instant protestation that he would be dead before anyone or anything made it to Alianna was probably exactly what he had been fishing for anyway. Burr Gurmot was a subtle man, I had learned.

We had an uneventful trip through the hills between Demira and the slopes of Catayan Peak. We were on our third day of riding, and the trail we followed was well marked and relatively easy to navigate. We were forced to stop a little earlier in the day, and start a little later in the morning, just to make sure we had good light for riding. The footing was getting trickier, and even though we all had good horses, we were taking no chances.

We camped at the edges of a forest called 'the Catayan Thicket', a dark, dense wood that ran across the northern shoulder of Catayan Peak, and into the valley that sat below it on that side. We had crossed that valley earlier that morning, having to ford a narrow but fast running stream that worked its way, in a series of ugly rapids and rocky snarls, down the length of it.

We had eaten scrub hens for evening meal that River had bagged for us as we rode the switchbacks up the slope. We had roasted them, nothing fancy, and had some rolls with it, the last of what we'd packed. We'd have to start making camp biscuits the rest of the trip if we wanted bread. We'd sat around the fire as the sky darkened and the fire died, talking about the day's sights, River's excellent marksmanship and the pleasant warmth of the wine, an Arcastan White that was rich and clean-tasting at the same time.

Once it was too dark to keep talking across the fire without building it back up, we decided it was bed time, and we banked the fire, hoping to have a good bed of still hot coals buried within its heart in the morning. Hawk had so far refused the offer of a tent, and was sleeping all Fenrim'd up in a warm, furry bundle. Trunk and Alianna shared a tent, and River and I shared another. There had been only one night so far where we had taken advantage of the privacy, and I was pretty sure it was the same for Trunk and Alianna, and this night wasn't going to be the second. Too many ppotential dangers to risk the distraction from a good night's sleep.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, before false light was even a hint in the sky, potential became reality as I was jolted out of a sound sleep by the most horrendous snarling roar I'd ever heard. I heard Hawk yell, and then grunt. That had me out of the tent in nothing but my under clothes.

It was too damned dark! I let my senses remember some of the Light-boosted enhancements that Mom and Dad had insisted on, and suddenly I could see movement to my right and uphill from me. I grabbed my staff and moved in that direction, ignoring the feel of the ground on my bare feet.

"Hawk!" I yelled into the still too dark blurriness in front of me.

"Sid!" Came his reply. "Bear!" He said, just as his Fenrim form came flying past me, crashing through both tents and coming up hard against a tree.

Oh crap! A bear! My staff wasn't likely to do me much good against a bear. I had just managed to shift into my new big, black and very rocky form when A huge brown and white form slammed into me out of the darkness. I rolled back a good six feet before I was able to stop. Rolled! I braced myself and when the second rush came, I was able to remain standing, and with a heave, threw the bear back the way he had come. That might have been a mistake though, because it really pissed the bear off. I was probably the first thing he'd ever encountered that had been able to shove back.

In the brief space of time that followed, River appeared beside me.

"What do you want me to do?" She asked.

"Get back to Trunk and Alianna." I said. "Guard them, tell Alianna that Hawk is probably going to need whatever healing skills she has."

"Okay." River said without hesitation. I felt the briefest brush against my cheek as she went. Spirits but I loved that woman!

I moved downhill and to the south a little, moving my line away from where everyone else would be. I made sure I made plenty of noise doing it. It had still only been a matter of a few seconds since I'd thrown the bear back. That was all it had needed, and when it came this time, it was with tooth and claw. I bounced when it hit, and I felt an incredible pain as some piece of the rocky shoulder where it struck crunched and broke.

I screamed at the top of my stone lungs and punched with my remaining good arm, as hard as I could. I felt myself wanting to fall back into the rock. The healing, comforting rock, but I couldn't let myself. I was the only thing between the bear and my friends.

The bear came again, low this time, I must've hurt something, because it was slower. I managed to duck just as it struck and with a rolling lift threw it over me, down the hill and further south and away from the camp. I pulled a ragged breath in through my stone lips and into my stone lungs.

There had been another crunch, a lot lower this time. I set myself as good as I knew how, and I waited. In the strange stillness of the moment, I heard Coral's words echo back on me.

'Why aren't you doing what the figment said to?"

What had RJ told me to do? Seek the stone. I did, I had, I was! But that wasn't right, somehow. That was the thought I held as the bear hit me again. This time it stayed on top of me, pressing me into the ground, letting its size and weight do a lot of the work for it. I felt the scraping of its huge teeth against my stony stomach, and the skittering feeling of bear claw and muscle sent shivers through me.

Maybe it was the shiver that drew the thought out at last, or maybe it was the certainty of death looming. But suddenly it was clear in my head. I was supposed to be seeking the Dragonstone!

I screamed again at the top of my lungs, reaching as I did for the Dragonstone, and I found it, right where it had always been. Deep, deep inside of me.

Inside of me all along.

I pulled the Dragonstone out of me at the same time as I dove into the cool strength of it, and I exploded upwards with a surge of strength. I leapt to my feet and found a staff in my hand, but not my familiar moonstone staff. This was a staff of raw, red-streaked Dragonstone. I waved my new staff in the air a moment, just to get the feel of her, and grinned. On the inside at least. I stepped forward, on the attack for the first time and saw the bear coming my way. I spun my staff over my head, brought her low and around my body, spinning into the contact and channeled the Dragonstone through me and into the bear, screaming again as I did, though my injuries must have been effecting my hearing, because my scream sounded strange in my ears.

I drove the staff clean through the bear, and with a following swing of my off arm, dropped the already dead carcass to the ground at my feet. I stood there for a long second, staring at the dead animal. The magnificent, incredible and very dead animal. I screamed again, in that strange-sounding scream.

Then I fainted dead away.

<about time. Guess it makes sense that someone named Obsidian would have such a thick skull.> I fell, somewhere in the dark, and RJ's familiar voice came to me.

<You've found the true source now. You can worry about the why's and how's in your old age. Remember, the Dragon's are counting on you to make a decision when the time comes, and all they ask is that you make it as you.>

I came too with a damp rag on my forehead and a soft blanket over me. When my eyes opened, they met River's and the face around them broke into a beautiful smile.

"You're awake!"

"How's Hawk?" I asked.

"A broken collar bone and three broken ribs, but Alianna began working on it right away, and as soon as you had polished off the bear, she called in reinforcements." River said, glancing back over her shoulder.

I focused behind her, expecting to see mom or dad, but instead, I saw Grandma Ginny! That was heavyweight healing power!

I sat up, and discovered it wasn't the struggle I had thought it would be. I stood and flexed. Whatever else had happened, those broken bits I'd suffered during the battle were healed.

"Grandma, how's Hawk?" I asked, walking up behind her.

"He's fine now. I dumped a bunch of Light in there and forced the healing to completion. That Fenrim form of his was already doing a good job of accelerated healing before I got here." She said. "How are you?"

I feel great! Did you find anything to heal on me?"

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