“Mother?” Rubio called from another part of the complex. Pandora took the opportunity to turn away from Greg and leave the den. She was glad for the reprieve. She did not want to hurt his feelings.
“Yes?” she asked.
He peeked his head out of the room. His hair was spiky and red with a bit of orange and yellow. Greg hand talked him into the color and the style. It was one that Greg adopted when he had the products. “Mother! Did you find anything?”
“No, dear,” she said and kneeled down and held her arms out for him. He ran into them and she hugged him tightly. “What have you been up to?”
“Oh, I’ve been reading,” he said. “Do you think that you could trade with Grizzle for some chickens?”
Pandora frowned. “What do you want chickens for?” she asked.
He pouted and she quickly changed her expression. He smiled at her and said, “I want to try and make another dish, but it requires a lot of eggs and chickens. Do you think we can start raising chickens?”
“You know that we can’t afford to keep anything domesticated,” she said. “Greg says we have to have corn and grains and other things to feed them. We would have to keep them somewhere and we can’t keep them near our home. It will attract trouble.”
He pouted again. “But Mother… I really want some chickens.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry, dear, but I can’t promise anything. I’ll talk to Momma when she gets back and we’ll discuss it then. This is too big of a decision for me to make on my own.”
“But you’re not alone,” he said. “Greg is here and so am I.”
Pandora shook her head. “Chickens is a serious decision. All three of us need to be involved. Momma would be very upset with us.”
He pouted and tried to give her the puppy dog eyes that worked so well with Topaz, but red eyes were disconcerting no matter how long you looked at them. The children only had their secondary forms for a couple of months.
“I’m sorry,” she said and stood up. “I need to talk to Topaz. Can you put this back into my room?” She handed him the vial and he nodded excitedly. He darted around her and she turned to watch him disappear around the corner in the hall.
Her boots echoed as she walked down the hall. Since Topaz had decided that he could better serve the family as a dog they had to rethink how to form the door. He could not open anything with a complicated latch. They simply decided on a crudely enchanted cloth that would block out most of the sound. She pushed it to the side and stepped in.
Topaz was curled up in the corner of the room with his nose pointed into his body and his tail covering his head. His ear twitched when he heard her approach, but he did not look up at her.
“Greg says it was his fault that you bit him,” Pandora said. “Aren’t you happy to see me, Topaz?” she asked.
He raised his head and looked over at her with dark brown eyes. His gray, wiry eyebrows were incredibly expressive and he did a good job of looking pitiful. “I’m sorry, Mother,” he said and then buried his face again.
“What is wrong, Topaz?” she asked.
“He didn’t step on my tail,” he admitted. “I… I was having a nightmare during my nap. He came in… and I… I’m sorry. He isn’t mad?”
“No, he isn’t,” she assured him. “do you want to tell me what you were dreaming?”
“You and Momma were in trouble and there were the dark elves… and… the dragons.” He snarled despite himself. “They were trying to kill you and then they… they tried to take Emmy.”
“Ah, darling,” she said and sunk down next to him. “Did you tell Greg about this?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean to bite him. Is he all right?”
“Yes, he is,” she promised. “Now, why don’t you stop hiding here and we can all go out for a little bit for a walk.”
“Really?” he asked hopefully.
She nodded. “Yes, we can.”
“Mother, when is Momma coming back?”
Pandora shrugged. “She’ll be back before we know it. The more you fret over it the longer it is going to take. Come on, I know you want to go for a run.”
He scrambled to his feet and stretched. He was a large hound that was the about the size of Greg when he was on his hide legs. Serene had brought a book back home with dog breeds in it. Royal hunting hounds were his favorite and had chosen them for his secondary form.
No one knew until he turned up as one.
He licked Pandora’s hand with his spotted tongue. “When is Momma coming back?”
“When she usually comes back,” Pandora said.
“What did she leave for?”
Pandora suppressed a sigh. She hated it when Serene was gone. She hoped that her cousin had to go through this nagging as well. “She needed to get you more books as well as get some other nice supplies.”
“Why can’t any of us go with her?” Topaz asked.
“Because, dear,” she said as they exited the room, “You are not trained in the ways of Shadow Magic and you lack subtlety.” She patted him on the head. “You’ll learn though with some practice.”
“Do you think so?”
“You only have eternity to learn,” she told him. “For now you have to learn here, and you have been doing an excellent job.”
“When is Master Tokyo going to visit us again?” Topaz asked.
“I don’t know, dear. Only you and Emmy can talk to him.” Pandora kept her hand on Topaz’s back. “I still don’t understand the stones as well.”
“But you can turn yourself into it,” he said. “Momma can’t do that.”
“That’s because Momma is more of a flashy mage and I’m more of a prudent fighter. I can use what magic keeps me alive and easily melds into what I already know. I can mold my body because I have better control over what it does than Momma does. She works outside of herself and I work from within.”
They entered the living room where Greg was sitting and looking miserable. When he noticed that they were there he smiled at them and then called Topaz to him. Topaz went hesitantly and Greg rubbed him down hard. One thing led to another and they were wrestling on the stone floor.
“Still want to run?” Pandora asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said and Greg and the dragon disengaged. “Do you want to go, Greg?”
Greg chuckled and ruffled the top of his head. “Well, I guess. I’ll go round up the others. There was plenty of room in the den, but he still managed to brush against Pandora as he entered the hallway that led to the private chambers.
“He likes you, Mother,” Topaz said.
“Of course he does, dear. We’re friends.”
One of his eyebrows and ears perked up and he tilted his head to the side. “Mother… for someone so… you… you are naïve.”
Pandora sighed. She knew what Topaz was talking about, but had hoped to dissuade him of his belief. Sometimes children were far too observant. “Don’t let it concern you, dear. I am too engrossed in you four to be of any use to anyone else.”
“Mother, can we get in dragon form and do some flying?” Rubio asked as he entered the room.
“Of course, dear,” Pandora said. “Are your sisters on their way?”
He nodded and bounded across the den at her. He flung his arms around her middle and squeezed as tight as he could. “Ok, ok,” she said, adopting Greg’s common word. “You’re going to kill me if you keep that up.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said and beamed at her. “I’m just so excited that we get to go flying. I can’t wait until we get our scales too.”
“Oh, don’t grow up too fast on me,” Pandora said with a warm smile. “You’ll out grow our caves here faster than Topaz can shape them up.”
Rubio eyed Topaz and then shrugged. “I don’t care. I just want to fly!” He grabbed a hold of Pandora’s hand and dragged her to the exit of the complex.
“We have to wait for the others, Rube,” she said and planted her feet. He tugged and then jerked back. They were strong for children their age, but they were still no match for their “Mother”.
He huffed and went to the stone couch and sat down hard on it. The cushion hissed as air was forced out faster than usual.
“You’re going to rip the seams if you treat it like that,” Pandora said. “We have to work very hard for everything here. I wish you would appreciate it more.”
He looked away from Pandora and Topaz sat down and let his spotted tongue loll out of his mouth. His long hairy tail swept across the floor.
“No,” Pandora heard Greg say, “Put your shoes on. We’re going outside.”
“But Greg, I don’t want to,” Star said. “Can’t we just stay here and play games.”
“Mother is going to let us fly,” Rubio shouted.
“Really?” Star shouted back.
“Yes,” Pandora and Rubio said together, but Pandora continued alone, “Now hurry up and get out here so that we can leave. Emmy? What are you doing?”
“I’m getting my bag, Mother,” she yelled, but was in the den before Star and Greg were. “We’ll need some place to put our clothes when we get to transform.”
Pandora nodded and touched the little dragon’s head affectionately. “You’re very right,” she said.
“I’m glad I’m a hound,” Topaz said. “I don’t have to wear clothes.”
“Well, aren’t you lucky,” Star sneered as she entered the room with Greg following behind her. He already looked exhausted from fighting with her about leaving. “But you don’t get to look as pretty as us either.”
“Please don’t antagonize him,” Pandora said.
“Come on, kids,” Greg said and clapped his hands together with false enthusiasm. “Let’s get this party started.”
The kids whooped and sidled through the tunnel. Topaz waited outside and widened it a little so that Greg and Pandora did not have to do the same, but it was still too narrow for them to go side by side.
When they were outside, Topaz sealed it shut. There was a constant fear from all of them that they would be discovered while they were out.
“So, who is making dinner tonight?” Greg asked as they slid and hopped down the path that led to a small meadow. It was surrounded by trees on all sides, but for some reason it was simply a field of grass and flowers.
“I might,” Rubio said. “I’m the fastest at it, after all.”
“Do you think we could have tea, Mother?” Emerald asked. “I do love your blend.”
Pandora smiled fondly at her. “I don’t know. We might not have anymore sweetener left.”
“We don’t need any if you just use a few more sweet berries,” Greg offered. “I think we might have some stored still.”
“That changes the flavor though,” Topaz said and shook his wiry head vigorously. “It does not need sweetener anyway.”
Greg frowned at his back but did not respond. The young man reached back and pulled his hair off of the nape of his neck. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Pandora jerked him back before he could walk into a low hanging branch and he gave her a shy smile. She simply nodded to him and looked away.
When they reached the meadow Greg took Rubio to get undressed and Pandora took the girls for modesty’s sake. The girls handed Pandora their clothes for her to fold and put into the bag that Emerald had provided.
It did not take them long to change back into dragons, but they did take time to test their wings and stretch them. Pandora sauntered over to her usual spot under the largest tree in the line to fold the clothes and watch the dragons fly. Greg joined her shortly with Rubio’s outfit.
“They are impossible sometimes,” Greg said as he watched Star take off, “But they are beautiful in their true form.”
“They’re beautiful no matter what form they take,” Pandora said as she smoothed out the fabric of Star’s dress.
“So, how do you think their training is going?” he asked and leaned back to watch her.
Pandora turned her gaze onto her children and then shrugged. “It is hard to say, but I think that by the time Serene dies that they will be ready to take on anything. They are raised by humans and near humans, not dragons or elves. They should be able to adapt better than anyone else of their race.”
“Do you think so?” he asked. “I mean, the dragons I’ve met other than them aren’t that great, but they’re pretty scary.”
“We haven’t fought dragons yet,” Pandora said, “Only other Speakers and mages.” She paused and reviewed the sentence in her head, “Only Mages and other Speakers,” she said and then nodded, pleased.
“Do you think we’ll have to?” Greg asked.
“We’ve fought everything else so far,” Pandora said, “Dragons are only a matter of time. I imagine that Serene and I will find a way to kill them should the time come.”
“Yeah, but what if Serene isn’t around. She hasn’t been around a lot lately. She’s always running off.” He looked away from Pandora with his head bowed and brow creased. “I know you worry about her every moment she is gone.”
“Of course,” Pandora agreed. “She is my cousin, and I love her dearly. I have faith in her though. She is a very determined half elf. They have all the great things humans and elves have to offer. Only another half elf speaker who has the use of Shadow magic and Fire and Ice could possibly hope to defeat her.
“What if the Emperor finds her? He’s after you two.”
Pandora frowned and wished that he had never gone with Serene into the cities to gather news. He knew more than either of them wanted him to worry about. “He will not harm her, or I will kill him. I might simply kill him on principle.”
“When do you intend to do that?” Greg asked.
Pandora bit her bottom lip and shook her head. “I don’t know yet, but when I find out… I’ll let you know.” Maybe, she thought, but knew that the thought and words were a lie. Serene and Pandora were already formulating a plan to not only kill the Emperor, but to destroy him as well.