After having flown to Tumennoord, at the prompting of Rentik, Mar meets with Irikshan.
It scared Mar how big and empty the college felt. Even with staff and researchers still present, it lacked the buzz that crowds of students milling about brought. In the absence of other students, Mar was certain he was the smallest dragon around. Looking at an older dragon that passed, Mar wondered of the day that would come when he realized these halls no longer looked so vast and cavernous. Where would he be when that day came? What would he be doing? Who would he be?
While he thought, he entered one of the elevators and pressed the button for the second floor. He didn’t feel like climbing the stairs now and would enjoy the elevators while he still could. It wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t easily fit in them.
Upon exiting to the second floor and turning towards Irikshan’s office, he spotted two dragons he recognised, each in black cloaks that covered their bodies but not their wings. One, upon sighting Mar, began marching towards him. Mar walked forward, but didn’t even make it halfway down the passage before they met.
“Good morning, young Sterkvleuel.” The bulky black and blue Ebonscale towered over Mar, likely close to three centuries of age. Bulges from his plated scales were visible even from under the cloak. “The Elder asked me to take you to the mountain arenas.”
“He wants to do training?” Mar had already flown up to Tumennoord before he realized that Irikshan wouldn’t be expecting to see Mar at all, and would probably be too busy for Mar to just appear at his office. Yesterday he had emailed Irikshan to book an appointment and, although the elder hadn’t known what to make of Rentik’s emails, they had decided to meet anyway.
“One would presume so.” The dragon walked past Mar, towards the stairwell. Mar hurried to follow.
As Mar watched the bodyguard from behind, he felt a familiar embarrassment well up inside of him and resolved to settle it for once. No more excuses. “Sir,” He stopped, waiting while the other dragon came to a halt just before the stairs and turned around. “I’m sure you know about me because that’s part of your job… and we’ve talked a few times… But I’ve never properly introduced myself to you. Mar Sterkvleuel.” He bowed his head and gently reached out his mind in greeting.
“Kabelo Kariuki.” Kabelo reciprocated the gesture. When their minds briefly met, Mar sensed only amusement. Evidently noticing Mar’s ensuing confusion, Kabelo spoke again. “Others are always so intimidated by us. It is intentional, but I find it amusing nonetheless. You have no idea how many of Irikshan’s past students never even asked my name. He used to force them to meet the whole team, but I asked him to stop.” He began his descent of the stairs. Mar followed but resolved to himself that he’d be more friendly and polite to Irikshan’s guards. To treat them like actual draqui. As a start, he could continue to speak to Kabelo now. When the opportunity presented itself, he would introduce himself to the others.
“You are head of Irikshan’s guard, sir? How long have you been in that position? And how long have you been in the secret service?”
“I have been head of his guard for almost three decades. In his team for over five. In the council protective service for nine.”
“I see. That means you would have gone with him on the missions in Shahji, Thelos, Zibuka and Krontho?”
“What were they like?”
“War is bad, no matter what you fight for.”
“But, sir, you fight to bring unjust wars to swift ends. To ultimately save many lives on both sides. From what I’ve read, it seems Irikshan and his strike teams redefined wartime assassinations and captures. You’ve brought despots to justice, toppled command structures of the corrupt, and saved the lives of millions.”
“Do not glamorize war. We do what we must. You live in probably the most peaceful time in history. Do not take that for granted.”
“Yes, sir.” Mar was silent for the final few stairs before another question popped into his mind. “If we live in such a peaceful time, and Irikshan is such a good combatant, why does he need a full complement of guards?”
“There are always threats that don’t involve direct combat or involve combat against greater quantities of foes. Even in peacetime, it is good to maintain standards of security.”
“Oh, of course.” Mar stopped walking for just long enough to slap himself in the face.
“What was that?”
“I socialize with humans too much,” Mar moved his wings in a shrugging motion.
“It appears so.” Kabelo gave a bemused snort as he exited the building. While he distanced himself from the building, he spread his wings. His wingspan was not quite so impressive as a Tumenzarian’s, but each wing was a little longer than Mar from snout to tail-tip. “Let us depart.”
Mar followed, and they quickly flew over the college and its thundering waterfall, towards the arenas carved into the mountains just behind the college. The college buildings, positioned against the cliffs as they were, did provide walking access. Yet, flying was so much faster.
The mountains were formed from a grey quartz-rich sandstone. A stripe of brown-tinged mountain water, bordered by lush green foliage, painted a winding path through them. The slopes were speckled with tough green shrubbery in most areas, but were unnaturally flat and clear in others.
From above, Mar spotted Irikshan at the centre of one of the large ellipses, talking to one of his guards. They separated, however, as Mar and Kabelo approached. Kabelo joined the other guard, while Mar drifted down to land before the great elder, folding away his wings as he took a few more steps closer.
“Good morning, Mar. How are you?” The two bowed to one another. Irikshan’s motion was not much more than a nod, while Mar made certain to bend to a far deeper angle.
“Good morning, Master Kennissoeker. I am well, thanks. And you?” Despite the fact that Irikshan was likely more dangerous than Kabelo, and far senior in rank, Mar had grown comfortable with the Elder’s presence. He’d certainly been scared of the elder at first, but the elder’s more casual attitude to him had quickly worn away at this. Mar was never certain if Irikshan behaved so intentionally.
“Rentik still hasn’t responded?”
“No, she hasn’t. But it is not uncommon for her to ignore all communication while she’s on leave. That’s not what’s frustrating me. It’s politics.”
“Oh. I’m not sure how much I can help with that.”
“Well, I guess Rentik was right that there is something you can help me with.”
“What is that, sir?”
“I could do with some stress relief. And you could do with some more practice manipulating your dreams under pressure. Sparring within your illusions would benefit both of us. You wanted to meet, but don’t seem to have anything to meet about. Unless you do have something specific you want to discuss, why don’t we put this time to use?”
“Sure, if Rentik’s not a problem and there’s nothing specific – within my skill set – that you need help with. I guess I can fly back home this evening. I’m assuming that, since you want to spar within my dreams, we will be fighting rough? Shall we begin now?”
“I see no reason to delay.”
Mar curled up and lay down, covering his head with his left wing to block some of the bright sunlight. Closing his eyes, he pictured a location he’d visited many times before in his dreams. Dry hills stretched off into the distance. Dense trees filled small valleys, while the hilltops were only sparsely vegetated by shrubbery. Towering mountains stood as a backdrop to all of this. He reached out to the elder’s mind and brought a feeling of drowsiness to them both. As they drifted to sleep, Mar mused how well the elder guarded his mind, allowing Mar just enough influence to put him to sleep, while hiding even his current thoughts.
The world shifted and warped as he fell from reality into the world that was his own domain. The texture of smooth stone beneath his chestplates was replaced by that of grass and dirt. Folding his wing back and standing up, he found Irikshan already standing patiently in front of him.
“What will we be practising in our duel today, sir?”
“Everything. I want you to come at me with everything you’ve got. I shan’t manipulate the dream itself so long as you don’t, but you are welcome to. In fact, I may refrain from manipulating it even if you do. Depends on how well you fight.”
“Are you shattered?”
“Learning how to do that is in my curriculum for next year, right?”
“It is. Only the very basics, however. Even with centuries of practice, and there will still be room to improve at anything – we cannot attain perfection.”
Mar nodded and slowly paced down the hill, taking the time to plan how he might approach this. Even with only a portion of his power, there was no doubt that Irikshan would block and counter any conventional attack Mar tried.
The point of their duels had never been for Mar to overpower Irikshan’s defences, but for him to be lectured and tested on his techniques while Irikshan blocked everything or launched attacks for Mar to counter. Although, them duelling in the dream world meant Mar could attempt the impossible – to beat the elder – it usually acted as a safety net for when Mar failed to block Irikshan’s suitably less cautious attacks. Perhaps he’d warm up with a few lighter attacks first before doing something drastic that might surprise the elder.
He stopped walking and turned to face Irikshan. All of a sudden, Mar sensed a great buildup of energy at the elder’s head. The moments Mar had to react could never have been enough for him to break Irikshan’s control over the bolt of lightning that arced from his mouth to Mar. It hit Mar square in the chest, a million joules entering his body in moments.
But now that it was within his own body, however, the energy was his to control. Not stopping to think, he immediately ejected it into the ground beneath his feet, directing and shaping it to return to the surface beneath Irikshan. A metre from the surface, he released it. The ground buckled, broke and Irikshan was enveloped by a cloud of rock, dirt and dust.
“So you want a proper fight,” he asked the dust cloud. The amount of energy Irikshan had discharged would have overloaded Mar’s heart-crystal, causing it to explode within his chest, instantly killing Mar. He’d have awoken in the real world, the abhorrent memory fresh in his mind. Even having redirected it to the best of his ability, he felt sore and numb inside. Nerve damage at best. Organ failure too, at worst. Taking a moment to concentrate, he reset his body to the state it was in when the dream began and was relieved when feeling returned. This was going to get rough.
Irikshan’s silhouette was becoming more visible in the settling dust. “Decent reaction time, your control could use improvement.” Mar bared his teeth at the shadowy form, his heart pumping and energy dancing at his fingertips. He knew he stood no chance in a fair fight. He was going to have to cheat more and more until he managed to make Irikshan cheat. Then he could call that a win.
He materialized a heap of rocks in front of himself. Irikshan didn’t react, merely standing and watching Mar. Tugging at the workings of the dream, rather than drawing the energy within himself, the velocity of the rocks changed in an instant – hurtling towards Irikshan. Most began to rapidly lose their velocity, falling to the ground, while others curved away.
Mar did not wait for Irikshan to counterattack, materializing a metal cage around the elder. The bars were solid metal, each half a metre in diameter. “Now you get out the cage.”
“As you wish.” A series of pulses of energy, refined to incredibly small areas, cut through the bottoms of each bar and then the tops. Mar had not known it was possible to look so smug until Irikshan lifted his hand and pushed the bars out, one by one. Irikshan didn’t launch them but directed them to roll downhill towards Mar while he coolly exited the cage. Mar leapt to the air, the great metal cylinders rolling beneath him before he dematerialised all the metal. He was not in the sky for long before Irikshan forced him to the ground. Mar didn’t bother to fight Irikshan’s control, turning his attention to his next move.
Mar’s growing shadow was not only a product of his descent. When he crashed to the ground, he was almost as big as Irikshan himself. He struggled to his feet, unused to the new bulk. The world around him seemed to have grown so much smaller.
“Oh, ready for close-quarters combat with me? Good.” Irikshan sounded pleased. Too pleased.
He leapt at Mar, who sidestepped as swiftly as he could. He managed to dodge the leap, only to be met with a tail swipe at his legs. The elder’s tail blade cut deep gashes into both of Mar’s forelegs. Irikshan gave Mar no time to recover. Moving faster than his muscles alone would have allowed, he barreled into Mar from the side, knocking him over and pinning him on his side.
Any attempt of Mar’s to wriggle free, push Irikshan off, or even move his wing to a less painful position, was met with claws pressing harder against his throat. If it had been an actual fight, Irikshan could have ended Mar then and there, but he seemed to be waiting for Mar to make his move.
Realizing he now had an energy reserve orders of magnitude greater than what he had had before, he thought back to the bolt of energy Irikshan had launched at him. The idea was quickly dismissed. Irikshan would be able to safely absorb the energy and deflect any extra that Mar created. Attempting to push Irikshan off would get nowhere either, as the elder would counter any force Mar applied. Mar’s energy reserves may have increased, but his skill and mental capacity would not miraculously change within a dream.
Mar blinked, and the pressure on his throat vanished. He scrambled to his feet and looked to his bleeding arms, blinking again. The wounds had vanished. He turned his attention to the skies, where he’d relocated Irikshan. Irikshan was diving towards Mar, wings folded almost completely to his sides. He was falling too slow to have reached terminal velocity, but neither was he accelerating.
Standing in a ready stance, Mar waited. When Irikshan was seconds from impact, Mar instantly relocated himself to the top of the hill. Irikshan made a graceful landing, but Mar was nonetheless knocked down the moment the elder touched the ground. Irikshan turned and nonchalantly began to stroll up towards Mar, who wriggled and struggled against the force of his will.
Mar created a massive boulder, almost as big as the both of them, above Irikshan and let it drop. Yet, it did not fall onto him: instead, cracks appeared across its surface. It fractured and crumbled into smaller pieces that floated gently sideways and downwards. However, it had drawn most of Irikshan’s attention away, allowing Mar to break his hold. When Irikshan casually continued to approach Mar, the latter was on his feet again.
Mar raised one foot and held it in the air for a moment, Irikshan stopping to see what Mar would do. He stomped, and the ground beneath them began to tremble and quake. Irikshan took a ready stance, but that did not help him when the entire hill began to rocket into the sky. Mar relished the look of surprise that Irikshan wore.
Both paused their battle for a few moments to look around. The skies were now filled with islands; huge chunks of land that had been torn up from the ground below. It was beautiful. Bits and pieces of forest, hills, and mountains floated haphazardly about. A surreal sight not possible in real life.
Inevitably, however, the duelists’ attention returned to one another. Before Irikshan could act, Mar relocated himself to a relatively distant floating hill. Mar took the moment to try to rest a little and to calm himself. He was beginning to feel mentally tired from the exertion of the fight.
Sensing a mass of energy rapidly approaching, Mar looked up to see Irikshan. Before the elder even touched the ground, sharp chunks of rock began to be torn up from the island. Irikshan landed in the midst of the floating stone, while more rose from the ground.
The elder let loose a roar and launched the barrage of stone at Mar, who took cover behind his wings and willed them to be impossibly tough. There was a heavy pitter-patter of rock bouncing off wing membrane, then clattering to the ground below.
Once the hail of stone had subsided, Mar again stomped on the ground. This time the entire island began to tilt further and further, until both dragons slid off the side and were forced to fly. Mar again found himself being forced to the ground, nevermind that the ground was now above him. He disintegrated the island, relocated himself further away from Irikshan, and then fled as the elder gave chase.
There was a violent crash as two nearby islands drifted into one another. This gave Mar an idea, but as he turned his head to see where Irikshan was – he found that the elder had come to a halt, landing on an island that spontaneously appeared. Concerned, Mar teleported to the island. “Why’d you stop?”
“We are needed in the real world.” Mar felt Irikshan tugging at the strings of the world. The dream began to crack and crumble around them before fading into darkness.
Mar awoke, curled up as he had been on the ground. He lifted his wing, stood, and stretched cat-like. Phantom pain from the fight still lingered, but Mar couldn’t deny that in the wake of the fight, he felt relieved of a certain measure of stress. He was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to try to crush Irikshan in between two islands, but maybe he could do that another time.
Irikshan, once again towering over Mar, turned to face a dragon that had entered the arena. “Agent Steyn, how may I help the CDI today?”
“Sir, you’re urgently needed in the command room.”
“Surely you weren’t sent all the way here just to tell me that?”
“No, sir. I’m also here to arrest him.” The agent motioned to Mar, who quickly stopped stretching and involuntarily tensed in panic, his wings ready for flight.
“And why might that be? Is the reason related to why I am needed in the command room?” Suddenly, Kabelo was beside Mar. However, his stance was a defensive one and his attention was on Agent Steyn.
“I do not think he should-”
“Answer directly agent, you’re wasting valuable time.”
“All members of the magitech project are wanted for questioning due to a data breach by Rentik.”
Irikshan visibly flinched. “Rentik?” Was that disbelief in the Elder’s voice?
“Yes, sir. Our agents were able to stop her from transmitting project data over the web, but now she is physically fleeing the country. We suspect she carries the data with her. Interception is being mobilised, but you are needed in the command room.”
“Then I depart immediately.” The Elder’s tone was now curt. “Young Sterkvleuel stays with me. Kabelo can keep an eye on him. I have my own questions for him.”
“To be clear, sir, you are ordering me not to take Mar Sterkvleuel in for questioning?”
“That is an order.” Irikshan was already spreading his wings. Mar, Kabelo, and the other guard followed suit. The CDI agent remained on the ground for a bit longer, before following at a distance.
Mar’s mind was racing as they soared over the mountains to where the command centre bunker lay. These were not the circumstances under which he wanted to see the command centre for the first time, even if there would otherwise not have been a first time. Mar knew where it was, but had never been close before – on account of it being a non-civilian zone.
A feeling of indistinct dread filled him, but staying near Irikshan was where he would feel the safest. He could only hope that whatever was going on could be resolved swiftly.