To kneel before a god …
The journey to the Alps seemed to take three times as long as it had in the reverse direction, toward Kellogg. My mind was buzzing with incoherent worry. My eyes kept scanning behind me for fear that my vampire boy had somehow followed me, despite the intervention of his family. My heart was sick because I'd left him alone when he needed me there. My heart was fiercely stern because I knew that leaving him was the only way I could fight for his survival. And fight, I would. To the bitter end.
The sea passed beneath me as an unending field of rippling blue. The sunlight caught upon the crests of small waves, sending flickers of shimmering ultraviolet into my eyes. I had to avoid looking directly beneath myself to keep from being blinded by the incredible brightness. Out here, with no trees or clouds to provide anything resembling shade, the Mother Sun's power caught upon the ocean and upon my obsidian scales in her full, unadulterated glory. I basked in her mighty, blazing heat. The sun was my Mother. By her power and by the raging guts of the earth had my kind been born.
And my ancient grandmother had been the very first.
It had been in the early days of humanity that we had become. In that time, humans had still been small, frightened, and preyed upon. They had lived nomadically, traveling across the land searching for sustenance and safety. Agriculture had not been invented. Civilization had not existed. The Matriarch had cared for her wandering band in the forests of modern-day Denmark, reading the stars and hearkening to the breath of the earth.
Her gift of magic was the reason I had to confront her, first. She never made mistakes—I knew by now that she'd sent me to Kellogg on purpose. Whether it was because she'd wanted to test me or because she had wanted to teach me something, I didn't know. A tiny piece of me feared she'd still want me to finish off the Cullens, odd eye color notwithstanding. We had been born to kill vampires. It was the reason she had chosen to become the first of our kind. It was the reason she'd gone on to create us, her progeny. We were the world's best vampire slayers, destined from the beginning to destroy and burn.
I sent a jet of fire-nectar into the air in front of myself as I sped through the sky. It fell back upon my face and shoulders, burning furiously, glowing pale scarlet. It fell like flaming drops of lava into the sea. The water exploded where my personal napalm touched it. The ocean boiled savagely, belching massive clouds of steam into the atmosphere, unable to put out the magical flames. They'd peter out in a few minutes as the fire-nectar was consumed. All I felt from the ropes and drops of it on my body was a gentle tickling. Anything more flammable than a dragon would have been reduced to cinders in moments.
I was angry. I was worried. Most of all, I was afraid. This made me very upset. A dragon was not used to being afraid. We feared nothing. We were the great and the terrible. We were indestructible war machines! Our very purpose was to destroy, to conquer, to incinerate. Not a thing in the world could touch us. We feared nothing!
But I was afraid. For once, this was something I couldn't fix with fire and rage. Compared to the others, I was still young. I was small, I was inexperienced. I had been trained to kill vampires. I didn't know how to fight other dragons. If they came en masse to end the Cullens, there wouldn't be a thing in the world I could do to stop them. They'd fling me aside the way a cat flings a mouse. I'd die fighting. And it would not save the golden-eyed vampires.
I had to see the Matriarch. I'd grovel and beg and sob if that was what it took. I'd do anything. Crispin's life depended on it.
By the time I saw land again, the sun was setting. I watched the green of the earth pass below me, and I rose into the sky so I'd be the size of a housefly to the mortals below. I went for the clouds, trying to tuck my long, serpentine body behind them. I needed to stay out of sight. I also needed to avoid any airplanes. They were a recent intrusion on the skies, and one we dragons found extremely annoying. A young adult could easily cleave one out of the sky by accident upon colliding with one. Also, the witnesses. We really couldn't afford to have witnesses.
It was not long before I found the mountains. They came up below me like stony teeth. Soon they were so high they became white, covered in eternal snow. Then the snow was gone, bare stone exposed to the bitter chill, cracking under the biting cold. This was more like it. More like home. I took slight comfort from the familiar sights, the bare stone, the craggy peaks, the piercingly blue sky. Home. I knew this place. I'd flown over these mountains since I'd first learned to use my wings. I loved these peaks and those boulders. I knew them.
When I arrived at our inhospitable valleys, I saw the first of my people. Most obvious was Shehr'ragan, the old one. She was in the sky, for once, one of the first times I'd seen her in the air since last year. She was greater than an airliner in size. My entire form, including my ninety-foot tail, was only as long as her head and neck from nose to shoulder. She was over two-thousand years of age, one of the oldest in the Great Siege. Only the bowed elder from the Oceanic Siege was older, at four-thousand years. And neither had left their childhood in comparison to the Matriarch. She had existed since the 10,000's BCE, and was over twelve-thousand years of age. There were barely any surviving artifacts from the days of her genesis. Only the cave-paintings and the occasional stone bead remained.
Shehr'ragan's mossy-green scales were dull under the falling sunlight, as though covered in dust. She had not been born glossy, like me, and was dull-textured. I could see her old mate, curled around a mountain peak, watching her with yellow eyes, his head swaying on his short, flexible draconic neck to keep her in sight. The color of his scales had faded with age. Like all males, he was small compared to her, only two-thirds her weight. He was a gentle thing, mirthful and intelligent. We young ones thought him amusing. He'd told me stories when I'd been a hatchling.
Like the story of the golden-eyed vampires. My heart suddenly burned to hear the story again, in full, so I could remember it. Perhaps I'd ask him later … if I survived the upcoming encounter with the Dragon-Mother.
I wasn't surprised to see several of my younger comrades clinging to the steep sides of the mountain around him, shrieking and roaring, all trying to get his attention. The claws on the wrists of their wings and strong rear legs held them to the frozen stone so they wouldn't fall. They bothered the elderly male to no end, a clamoring of draconic voices all screaming and yammering away. Their scales flashed in the bright sunlight, blazing with the brilliant color of youth and strength. I recognized them, especially Veramyzanwil, my best friend, who we called Vera. I nervously checked for my younger sister's sapphire-blue scales among the crowd. I needed to avoid her until after my audience with the Matriarch.
Shehr'ragan decided to return at that point, swooping to the mountaintop to join her life-partner. The smaller young adults and juveniles fled like magpies scattering before a horse, trying to get out of the way of the powerful elder. I heard Shehr'ragan make contact with the mountain like a whole mansion dropping out of the sky. The massive boom shook snow from the surrounding peaks. My friends and peers spiraled around the enormous pair, squealing like starlings. Good thing there weren't any houses nearby. That landing would have shaken them off their foundations and sent them crashing down the slopes.
The young dragons noticed me. Vera's familiar shriek split the air, reaching me even from the great distance. Sera! You're back!
Oh, dear. I watched my friends all come zooming in my direction. I'd left my satchel-tent behind. It could not be more obvious that I was lacking a jar of purple ash. I couldn't think of something to say before they all reached me. I tried to keep flying for the Matriarch's headquarters, but they got in my way and forced me to pull up short, all screaming and thundering, excitedly. The dragon language was deafening. All the roars and wails combined into a senseless cacophony.
Oh, shut up! Vera thundered, and the other dragons became a little quieter. I pressed on, determinedly, and Vera took to flying beneath me, calling up to me as we raced through the skies. Her violet scales flashed amethyst-bright under the sun. Sera! Where is it? Where's the jar? We want to see!
We want to see! Let us see it! Where is it? The others added their voices to the noise. They wanted to see the jar of purple vampire-ash. The jar I most certainly didn't have with me. Thinking quickly, I screamed,
I hid it! It's a surprise. I wanted to show my parents first.
Aw, we want to see! Just a peek? Vera beat her wings faster, the membranes spreading tight between her thin wing-fingers as she picked up speed. She tried to get in my way to stop me or slow me down, but I retaliated swiftly. My wing-fingers flexed, I went higher, and we collided. I kicked her away with my feet, beating my wings swiftly to stay in the air, my long tail striking her around the left wing, throwing off her balance. I felt a little guilty. A dragon's wings were its most sensitive areas, the membranes loaded with nerve endings so we could detect the faintest shifts on the wind. A slap with a tail would sting, even if it did no damage.
Stop it! I roared. My voice descended into the deeper, stronger part of my range, beating like thunder in the ears of my friends. I have to report to the Matriarch before I do anything else! Get out of my way!
I probably should have been more friendly, but it was difficult when I was under so much pressure. They had no idea what was really going on. This was all fun and games to them. In their eyes, I was returning from my first mission, victorious, officially an adult, a vampire-killer. It was a time for celebration and excitement. They didn't understand the fear and worry I was going through. My words shocked them. They held back, slowing their flight. A couple of them braked abruptly in the air, holding themselves in place for a moment, hovering. Vera slowed a little, falling behind me again as I pressed forward. Sera? she wondered, worriedly, her voice ascending into a high keen.
Go away! I roared, and I didn't bother to elaborate. Vera finally slowed, letting me carry on ahead, turning gracefully away in the air, her serpentine body curving with the motion. I felt awful. I hated to chase her away like this, but she was just as much a threat to Crispin as my grandfather was. She had to stay away. I needed the Matriarch's protection before I'd dare speak a word about what I'd done during the past month.
The elders watched me go by as I raced for the Matriarch's Cavern. I ignored them, bent upon my mission, leaving my young friends behind. I couldn't stop. I couldn't say a word. I just had to hurry, before anyone else could question me.
The Matriarch's Cavern was hidden in the depths of a mountain. It had once been a lava chamber, which had drained and had been left cold, vast, and empty. It was the perfect home for the biggest living vertebrate on the planet. The only entrance to it had been carved out of the stone by the Matriarch, herself, when she'd been young. Once she'd gotten big enough, she'd stopped leaving the cave in her dragon form. She sometimes emerged from her deep slumber in her human form, usually accompanied by her mate, but it was an incredibly rare thing. It had only happened ten times in my lifetime, and I was nearly a hundred years old.
I found the dark entrance empty. There was no dragon within five miles of the area. A human might have thought it odd that the Matriarch wasn't being guarded, but we dragons knew better. After all, nothing could harm an indestructible creature the size of an oil tanker. I landed on the icicle-encrusted ledge leading into the black abyss. My stomach hurt. I was terrified. The gaping entrance to the cave yawned wide, the shimmering icicles stabbing down like school bus-sized teeth. Knowing what lay beyond, I was helplessly intimidated, a tiny child approaching a god.
Slowly, cautiously, I crept forward. Dragons were not designed for locomotion on the ground. On all fours, I walked on the folded wrists of my wings like a bat, my wrist-claws curled under to keep them from wearing down or snagging on the ground. My movements were ungainly, my tail slithering over the icy ground behind me. I was swallowed up by the blackness, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim light.
I stood on a ledge that extended out into the open air of the vast cave. The inside of the mountain was hollow, like an egg. Far below, somewhere in the depths beneath me, beyond the reach of my eagle eyes, the Matriarch was curled in sleep. Her serpentine body would be nestled around her mate's, her tail twined with his, her head on his shoulder. At least, that was what they said. I'd never seen it in person. But I could feel the great stirrings of her huge breaths. The air moved around me, alive with the power of her lungs.
I hadn't even reached the end of the ledge when I felt her move. The stone trembled beneath me. My glowing eyes widened, my heart lurching into my mouth, my fireheart kicking my temperature up several notches. I flattened my slim body to the ground, pulling my wings up tight, cowering, my tail curling around me. She was awake.
And up she came.
It was like the mountain had come alive. The ledge I perched on shook with her movements. It felt suddenly tiny and flimsy, about to be broken to pieces. I cowered back, shrinking toward the exit. My wedge-shaped head pressed to the ground, my chin dragging. My flight instinct had kicked in. I wanted to flee. I watched one of her folded wings come up wrist-first. Her wrist-claws had flexed out, exposed, so she could grip the cavern wall. The claws were thick as triple-decker busses. Chunks of stone like small cars broke from the wall, tumbling into the darkness with a great cacophony of crashing. Her head suddenly made its appearance, rising from the depths. I whimpered. My whole body was only half the length of her snout. I felt like an ant, like a beetle.
She pulled herself up, standing on her hind legs, moving into a vertical position so she could look down at me. Her other wing came up so she could grip the other side of the cavern for stability. Her wrist-claws hit the stone like a cargo aircraft slamming at full speed into the ground. Boulders like trucks cracked off and tumbled away. She rose to her full height, towering over me, a vast skyscraper of living, breathing power. I couldn't even see below her shoulders. Her huge eyes glowed white as twin suns, slit pupils like bottomless ravines. A great wind swept past me when she moved. It caught in my wing membranes. I scrabbled like a kitten at the ground, trying to stay back. Her vast, scaly chest expanded with a single massive breath. The rumble she emitted in greeting was meant to be soft, but it beat in my skull, shaking me to the core. My ears rang.
Sera, my child.
I shuddered, cowering, pressing flat to the little ledge I perched on. What had I been thinking?! Coming here, face-to-face with the dragon-mother, as though I could sway her opinions or tell her what she ought to do. I wasn't worthy to eat the stones that tumbled from her cavern walls. Who was I to come to her with my insignificant little problems? My life was a blink to her, a mere infinitesimal instant in time.
The Matriarch rarely spoke in the usual dragon language. She was simply too big. The terrible might of her voice would kill me, and anything else within miles. Her roar could crack mountains and had collapsed all the houses in the valleys several times in the past. Instead, she communicated with her mind, a form of telepathy. I cringed under the ancient voice in my head. My serpentine body pressed flat to the ground. I was tiny before her, an infant, an insect.
Grandmother, I whispered, a tiny whimper that only just escaped from my throat. I had come here angry, seething. Now I was just terrified. Who was I to approach this goddess in her lair, to disturb her from her rest? I was an underling, a little moth. Her huge breath rushed over my body like a hurricane. I tried to shrink into the rock beneath me as her vast, angular head lowered, bending to look at me. Her nostrils flared slightly, taking in my scent. She could undoubtedly smell my terror. Her jaws parted slightly, a forked black tongue as thick as a skyscraper flickering out.
It took you longer than expected to return, she said. I gulped. I couldn't make a sound. My voice wouldn't work. I just wheezed. The Matriarch blinked, her head lowering further. I could see my terrified little body reflected in her shining, moon-sized eye. You bring no remains, she observed. I am glad. I feared you might have killed them.
My head spun. She shifted slightly, or her tail had moved. The ground trembled, rumbling like an earthquake. I found my voice and whispered, you knew?
The Matriarch rumbled. Her huge head suddenly rushed upward as she tossed it, spitting a jet of fire-nectar into the air. It hit the ceiling. The stone exploded, deafeningly. Dust and chunks showered down. One boulder the size of a Volkswagen hit the top of her head, bouncing off like a tiny pebble. I covered myself with my wings. Of course I knew! The Matriarch cried, her mental voice ringing in my head. Her deep, amused rumble shook the earth. My scales clattered on the stone. I was desperately glad she hadn't uttered a draconic scream of laughter. The huge shock of changing air pressure from the sound would have burst my heart and killed me on the spot.
Of course I knew, she repeated, snorting a breath of air through her long snout that blasted me back several feet. Long have I waited for their arrival in this world. Long have I waited for the day of your hatching, child. Your destiny was bound to theirs from the beginning.
I stared up at my creator. I felt sick. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner. I hadn't figured it out until recently, but of course she'd known. How had I ever thought she might not? Her huge head lowered again, focusing on me, the tiny newborn hatchling. I shrank in terror before her might. Her nose reached the small stream of light that came from the exit. Her scales glistened like obsidian, sparks of rainbow color flashing on the mirror-smooth black surfaces. I had inherited those scales from her.
Sera, child, did you see them all? Are they as wonderful as I have dreamed?
I gulped. Then I retched. I hadn't eaten anything since assuming my dragon form a day ago, so nothing came up. All my distress and fear had come to a head. I was completely overwhelmed. I was terrified, and shocked. She'd known. It was going to be okay.
I was suddenly angry. All this time I'd been so frightened, thinking she'd sent me to kill or capture those golden-eyed vampires! I'd feared how she'd react to my refusal to kill them. I'd been desperate to prevent her from sending the horde after my new friends. And all for what? You should have warned me! I screamed up at her. Her black tongue flickered out again, the wind from its swift passage through the air sweeping over my head.
Perhaps I should have, she mused, the frills behind her horns spreading as she considered it. But not all things are so straightforward. Tell me about the youngest one, the one with the black hair.
She was referring to Crispin. My forked tongue poked out a little as I painfully swallowed. What had she seen about him? And why was she bringing him up first? Well, I couldn't lie, not to the Matriarch. I … I feel for him things that should not be felt by dragons for vampires.
To my astonishment, the mountainous dragon before me seemed disappointed. Her heavy head tilted, her moon-bright eyes squinting. Is that all?
I stared up at her in silence, confused and afraid. What did she want with Crispin? Then I started to see it. My stomach felt even worse. You set me up. You meant for me to fall in love with him.
This seemed to be an improvement. The Matriarch's vast head tossed in the air and she made a pleased pwuuurrrr! that pulsed in my ears and made my vision fuzzy. I clamped my wing wrists over my head, whimpering in pain. Any sound she made was unbearably deafening without her meaning for it to be. The Matriarch's head descended to look down at her mate, who was presumably still curled up drowsily on the distant floor of the great chamber. It happened! I told you she wouldn't kill him.
Her mate uttered a sleepy growl in response that shook the mountain. My scales clattered on the stone beneath me again. The Matriarch's long tongue flickered out once more as her head turned to face me again. Her transparent inner eyelids slid shut for a moment as she focused on the hatchling before her. I was furious to the point of tears. WHY DIDN'T YOU WARN ME? I shrieked, my voice rising out of control into the higher notes of my range.
The Matriarch let out a deep breath that almost blasted me off the stone ledge. I flipped my wrist-claws out to seize the stone just in time. Child, did you not see that I had sent you for a reason? I couldn't warn you. How would you have approached those creatures if you'd known what you were about to face?
I wanted to scream something angry back at her, but her words gave me pause. I cowered on the ledge beneath the glowing white gaze of my maker and understood. If I'd gone to Kellogg knowing what I would find, I would have approached the Cullens and Crispin with the emotionless logic of a dragon scientist out to collect samples. I wouldn't have been stunned into curiosity by Crispin's golden gaze. I wouldn't have tried to understand him in any way other than as a specimen. What I now had with him would never have existed. I pressed the underside of my head to the floor, flattening myself down before the Matriarch. As much as I hated it, I could see her wisdom. Curse psychics. Were they always so cryptic?
I love him, I confessed to my elder. I want to keep him safe. You can't let them kill him.
The Matriarch flared all her frills, her eyes squinting. She spat a tiny stream of her blindingly white fire-nectar, which fell into the abyss below. It probably landed on her mate, who likely wouldn't even wake up under the searing heat, which would not hurt him in the slightest. Kill him? Oh, my child. I forget how the throes of young love can blind the eyes. She snorted, shaking out all her frills, and lowered her head so her vast eyes were exactly level with me. I trembled. It was very scary, even though I knew she wouldn't hurt me in any way. The power radiating from her was overwhelming.
When my youngest son crafted the first of the vampires, he gave them bloodlust for mankind and stripped them of their empathy. It has taken these thousands of years for their consciousnesses to return. Long have I waited, child. Your golden-eyed ones are the first of their kind, and are precious to me. They banished of themselves the monster we have hunted for so long.
I stared into the glowing gaze of my elder, trembling all over. All dragons knew the story of her human sons' evil. It was another one of the tales we told our hatchlings, of how her sons created the werewolves and vampires to do battle with each other, of how the Matriarch had lost her husband and her only daughter to their prideful foolishness. It was because of their short-sighted misuse of their ancient magic that the two terrors of the Earth had been born, the vampires and the Children of the Moon. It was in an effort to stop the monstrous creations that the Matriarch had sacrificed her human life to become what she now was: born of the Mother Sun and the guts of the Earth. It had finally led to this? The Cullens?
My huge dragon heart banged itself against my ribs. This was it, then. This was where the other story came in, the children's tale about the golden-eyed vampires who had the endurance and will-strength of twelve. I could see it clearly. The little rhyme had been about the Cullens all along.
But I'm in love with a vampire, I said, weakly, my voice nothing more than a squeak. I had feelings for a vampire that were ludicrous and repulsive to the rest of my kind.
The Matriarch snorted, almost blasting me off the ledge again.I skittered against the stone like a mouse trying to hold on under the wind. By design, the Matriarch said. From the ashes of my son's evil has risen good. The old one will be a standard for his kind, the Father of a New Dawn. By his line, through you, will come the end to the monster we have loathed.
I felt dizzy and sick again. She was speaking prophetically, foretelling the future. … the old one … By his line, through you … She was talking about Carlisle's line, through me, via Crispin, his adopted son. Which meant … she'd just confirmed that Crispin was mine.
I couldn't decide if I was going to be sick again or not. The Matriarch's word was a binding one, and it had all happened so fast. I'd not considered a life with Crispin beyond the presumed end of his family through my people. And now, to have the Matriarch telling me we were meant to be … I was reeling. My brain couldn't catch up. My ancient grandmother lifted her head back up to a relaxed position, towering in the air high above me, lording over the earth. She breathed a sigh. I forgot how young love can confuse the mind and bend the understanding. My child, you have made me proud. You chose to see through the darkness and into the new light. You have heralded the New Dawn. Now, go back to your golden-eyed one. Bring them to me! I want to see!
I cowered before the dragon-mother, my heart pounding, my stomach feeling like a curdled dumpling. The command of the Matriarch pulsed in my soul and coursed through my veins, driving my burning fireheart back to the pine-forested mountains of North America. The urge to fly raged in my soul. I swallowed painfully again. Yes, Grandmother.
The Matriarch rumbled, gently, shaking the whole mountain. I pushed myself up on all fours again, trembling so violently it was hard to move. I backed out of the chamber, still cowering before the majesty and power of the ancient one. As I finally escaped her commanding presence, I saw her mate poke his head sleepily over the ledge, finally looking over to see who had come to visit. His keeled, mossy-green scales looked almost golden in the tiny stream of light from the cavern entrance. His head was only a third as long as the Matriarch's, but he was still inconceivably huge, a smaller mountain beside the tallest peak. I hurried to get out. It was too overwhelming to be face-to-face with them both at once.
Once I was back in the sunlight, I clung to the ice on the other side of the mountain from the entrance to the Matriarch's Cavern. I lay sprawled among the craggy rocks and boulders, panting, my eyes shut, for nearly forty minutes. My brain was whirling and I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to eat again the way my stomach was turning over. I had arrived in the Alps ready to fight for my vampire boy. Now, I was sworn to him for life, and we would usher in a new era for vampires together.
My return home from my ill-fated mission had been much more eventful than I could have dreamed.
*Another author's note:* How big is the Matriarch, you ask? Her exact length is just under 1,500 feet, or roughly 457 meters. That's more than three times longer than Godzilla (from Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is tall! See why Sera was so terrified? She was literally an ant before a god.