Originally published at: https://gemsofwar.com/lorekeeper-i-chapter-10-riders-on-the-storm/
Some say there is not enough wisdom to go around.
But I prefer to think of it as an oversupply of stupidity.
A problem that would be easily be solved if the heavens just distributed lightning more wisely.
--Penglong, Sage of the East Wind
Luther, Amira, and Brian stayed with Sifu Yuan for the next three days while they recovered. Any journey that starts with a shipwreck, progresses through hostile barbaric lands, and culminates in being lost in the mountains at the mercy of a psychotic rodent with a bow, needs a few days as allowance for you to get your head in order.
They saw little of Sifu Yuan during their time there. Every morning he would spread his wings and soar up to the peaks to do whatever it was that monastic ascetics do all day, most likely meditation, but Luther didn’t rule out the possibility that he might be hatching some diabolic plot for world veganism. Regardless, every evening, the Sifu would return to share a meal and politely discuss theoretical things, such as the nature of evil, the shape of the universe, and where the best turnips might be grown. Amira joined in his discussions, but Luther just grumbled and mostly kept to himself. He was mildly impressed that Amira could discuss such things though. As one of the Wildfolk who’d grown up in Darkstone, and who made a living by stabbing people, she conversed like a member of the royal court. Perhaps that helped when it came time for all the stabbing. Who could tell. Conversely, Brian - simple soul that he was - had sniffed out the Sifu’s rice wine stash, and happily drank himself into oblivion every afternoon, snoring the nights away in a happy stupor.
When the Sifu was away, the group talked mainly of travel plans. They needed to head east, but that left them a hard choice. It was too difficult to head directly through the mountains - it would take months of travel, which meant months of getting lost, and retracing paths. That left them three options. They could travel on the north side of the mountains, through the wild lands of the Tauros and the Centaurs - a dangerous journey, with many perilous river-crossings. They could travel south of the mountains - a hard trek across the edges of the Drifting Sands, where water was scarce. Or they could head backwards to the Leonis Empire and find a boat sailing into the east.
Luther was in favor of the latter. He felt the other options were just too arduous.
Amira, on the other hand, favored traveling through the desert. She argued that Khorvash was more likely to be found there, and secretly she had no desire to return to Leothasa and the Empire, where she was no longer welcome.
They talked in circles for days, unable to decide on a clear plan.
Then, on the morning of the fourth day, as the sun was coming up, they awoke to the sound of voices outside. That is to say Luther and Amira awoke; Brian would likely have slept through an Orcish invasion given the barrel of rice wine he had consumed the previous day. They went outside, and were surprised to find Sifu Yuan speaking with a large blue, serpentine Dragon. It had no wings, but its scales gleamed like warm metal in the morning light, sending little rainbows of color cascading all around.
Yuan and the Dragon both turned to face the incredulous travelers.
“I would like to introduce Penglong,” the winged Elf said, inclining his head towards the magnificent creature. “Penglong, I would like to introduce Lord Luther, and Lady Amira. They have a third companion. I suspect he is currently… indisposed?”
“The universe told me of these ones,” the Dragon rumbled in a deep, strangely melodic voice.
“The universe seems very chatty around here,” Luther scowled at the pair of them.
“Nevertheless,” Amira interrupted, stepping forward as she shot Luther a disapproving glance, “we are pleased to make your acquaintance, Penglong. We hope the universe had nice things to say about us.” She smiled.
“It’s the universe,” Penlong smiled back, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. “It never says anything nice about anyone these days.”
“In that case,” Amira bowed, “I hope we can teach it otherwise. Is there anything we may assist you with?”
“I told you she was the smart one,” Sifu Yuan said to the Dragon.
“Indeed you did,” Penglong looked at Amira, tilting his head. “What times we live in, when the children of beasts have grown more wise than the children of man.”
Luther’s scowl only deepened at that, but he held his tongue.
“But that is as the universe wills it,” the Dragon continued. “Nothing is permanent. All things change. One rises as another falls. Today, Amira and Luther, you will rise.”
“Rise?” Amira asked.
“Into the sky with me, if you wish. I’m certain Sifu Yuan has told you his Law of Threes?”
“That the universe speaks to us three times, and we must divine the truth from it?” Amira replied.
“Just so,” the Dragon nodded. “Well the universe tells me these three things. Firstly, that you need to travel east. Secondly, that you need to do so quickly. And thirdly, that I have nothing better to do than carry you there.”
“That seems an oddly specific set of things for the universe to say,” Amira said suspiciously.
“That’s because Sifu Yuan said them,” Penglong looked sideways at the winged Elf, his expression an unusual mix of fondness and annoyance, “but as we all serve the universe, who am I to question its choice of messenger.”--------- o ---------
A short time later, Luther, Amira, and Brian sat atop Penglong, gliding through the clouds. Unlike, the flying motions of winged Dragons, Penglong slid through the air smoothly and gracefully. They barely needed to hold on at all, which left Brian free to clasp his hands over his mouth; he’d been turning a familiar shade of green for the last half hour.
Penglong talked as they flew. His deep voice could be heard clearly over the wind rushing by.
“I will take you as far as Suncrest,” he told them. “I will not leave my mountains, nor will I intrude upon the lands of the Stryx.”
“Why is that?” Amira asked.
“It is good manners,” the Dragon replied. “Also… Stryx…”
“What do you mean?” Amira asked.
Penglong took some time to answer, as if in thought.
“You can teach a shy man to roar like a lion,” the Dragon answered. “You can teach an angry man to be as gentle and kind as a lamb. You can teach a lazy man to be a hero.”
He paused, then said. “You cannot teach a stupid man to be wise.”
“The Stryx are stupid?” Amira asked.
“Just as your kind were once foxes and wolves,” Penglong answered. “The Stryx were once birds. Their minds are small. They are violent, unpredictable creatures, prone to act on a whim, unable to be reasoned with. I give them wide berth.”
They flew on in silence for some time.--------- o ---------
The journey continued like that for 3 more days. They would fly while the sun was up, setting down two or three times per day, eventually finding a comfortable spot with water to rest for the night.
Sifu Yuan had provided them with wafers, and although they had little taste, they were gently sweet and very filling.
Overall, the journey was a pleasant one, with Penglong proving to be good company, and even Luther warming to the Dragon’s witty, and often irreverent, banter on the strange and unpredictably silly nature of the universe.
Finally though, they came in sight of a terrible storm. Penglong flew to the southern edge of the mountains, and set them down.
“I will leave you here,” he said. “I sense Taloca and his Stormsingers up ahead, and I have no desire to traffic with them.”
“Taloca?” Amira asked.
“A Lord of the Stryx,” the Dragon replied. “The Thunderbird, and his kin. Keep clear of the storm, travel east, and you will reach Port Thull in three or four days.”
They said their goodbyes, thanked Penglong, and then watched wistfully as their companion leapt into the air and headed back west.--------- o ---------
It was hot down here on the southern edge of the Spine of Maraj. The mountains ended abruptly, their sharp rocks giving way to a vast ocean of sand, stretching out to the south as far as the eye could see. The ground was a mottled mixture of rock and sand, better for traveling than actual sand, but still tricky, requiring close attention to avoid an injured ankle.
As the day wore on, the storm in the mountains began to descend towards the travelers. They could clearly see flashes of lightning, and hear the rumble of thunder grow closer. The sky became darker, and air grew humid. It soon became apparent that the storm could not be avoided. The best they could do was find a large rocky overhang for some shelter. They did so, and decided to wait things out. By nightfall, they could see lightning crashing around them, and hear thunder like a hungry Dragon’s roar overhead. There was no rain though, just the storm.
They slept fitfully, constantly awoken by the weather. They didn’t bother keeping watch, as they figured no sane creature would be out in weather like that.
And they really should have listened more closely to Penglong.
No sane creature was.
As light began to tinge the eastern sky, lightning struck a boulder only a stone’s throw away from their shelter, jarring Luther and Amira awake. As usual Brian didn’t stir. Mercifully this time, he wasn’t snoring.
In the dim light, they could make out a number of creatures nearby, watching them.
As they rubbed their tired eyes, they saw more clearly. The creatures were birds - Stryx to be exact. Their feathers were brown, and their faces had sharp raptor-like beaks. Electricity crackled around them. They wore little in the way of clothing, apart from one amongst them, whose feathers were white. He was adorned in golden armor, with soft blue pieces of cloth flapping in a breeze that seemed to stir unnaturally around him.
He stepped forward.
“Dragonriders!” he declared. And the storm outside suddenly died. It was chilling. All became eerily still as he continued in his raspy bird-voice. “What are you doing in the lands of the Stryx?”
Amira felt, more than saw, Luther reaching for his sword, and quickly answered.
“Lord Taloca?” she asked, jumping to her feet, not daring to get any closer.
“You know my name,” the Stryx puffed out its chest feathers. Amira felt Luther relax next to her, that meant he knew what she was up to.
“Of course,” Amira replied, straightening up. “I come from far, far to the north and even there we’ve heard tales of your power.”
“What do they say?” Taloca took a step towards her, the lightning intensified, as it crackled around him. The other Stryx behind him, all six of them, rustled their feathers expectantly.
“They tell a tale,” Amira began. “Of the time you defeated a mountain that offended you. You turned it to ash and cinders with a single bolt of lightning.”
“Is that so?” Taloca cooed.
“And another tale of time you defeated an ancient red Dragon, striking it from sky, slicing it clean in two”
“Indeed?” Taloca stepped closer.
“That is why our Dragon abandoned us,” she continued. “When he saw your storm, he was terrified. He barely threw us off before he turned tail and fled. I can hardly blame him. My people say even the Gods are scared of the great Taloca.”
“And what do you say, little fox?” Taloca asked, stepping closer again. Amira could almost feel his breath on her.
“I say they are right,” Amira fell to one knee, bowing her head. “And when I return to the north, and through every land I travel, I will be able to say that I once saw the great and mighty Lord Taloca, and he was even more fearsome than the stories tell.”
“Good,” Taloca cooed. “Good. I give you leave to travel though my lands then, little fox. Be on your way.”
WIth that, Taloca leapt into the air, spreading his wings. His companions, Penglong had called them ‘Stormsingers’, leapt after him. There was one mighty crash of thunder, and they were gone up into the sky.
Behind Amira and Luther, Brian woke up.
“What was that?” he asked, sleepily rubbing his eyes.
“Amira just saved our lives,” Luther replied.