Voices clashed in a battle between hope and doubt, faith and fear. Lost in a sea of endless darkness, Seraphine despaired of ever seeing the light again. The war in her mind was not of her own making; she was but a silent spectator as the voices fought for control of her will.
A doubt slithered in with its sharp-edged words— You were not strong enough to save them. Another, close on its heels— You abandoned Torthai to the hunters.
An opposing voice wrestled the others into submission—
You carried the hunters away from her and she will be safe.
Three poison arrows shot down the hope instantly—
Torthai cannot escape.
Torthai knows not the art of flying.
Torthai has been recaptured by the resilient hunters, who have no weakness.
A desperate strike from the other side—
They will fall one day. They are not invincible.
The accusing voice continued keenly— But Torthai, who looked to you for protection, is lost forever.
Not forever! There is hope!
Where is hope? Can anything live in a land of shadows?
A spark of truth blazed forth to silence the lie—
The Aether lives.
The Aether? This was the voice of Seraphine's own heart, now thawing from its frozen apathy.
The Aether is weak.
The Aether is strong.
What is the Aether? Seraphine wondered. Silence answered her, and she gradually returned to the land of the living. Her head swam sickeningly as she opened her outer eyelids and tried to focus. Every scale on her body radiated intense pain. Her wings were stiff. She raised her head, but collapsed back with a long groan.
"Easy, little one," a female dragon's voice murmured. "You took quite a fall, and the waters nearly drowned you."
"Did they break me, too?" Seraphine whimpered. "I feel as though every scale of my body has been ripped off."
"They only marred your scales. I'm very sorry—they must have been beautiful."
Your vanity is your weakness. No more will you rejoice in your golden raiment.
Frightened, Seraphine struggled to her feet and twisted to look, but could see little in the darkness. "What has been done? What has been done?!"
"Look into the water, little one." A dragoness with iridescent, blue-green scales emerged from a circular pool of water, near where Seraphine lay on a slimy stone floor. "Look at your reflection."
With dread, Seraphine crept to the edge of the pool, which was lit faintly by glowing green algae. An ugly dragon with dull, cracked scales stared back at her. Some flaked off like ash from her skin, creating a mottled pattern of sky-blue and earth-brown.
Hard clumps of rock encased part of her wings, and some stuck almost comically to her chipped horns. "What have I done?" Seraphine whispered, repulsed by the thing in the water and yet drawn to it with a grim sort of fascination. In a way, it was fitting. It reflected who she often she felt she was inside herself.
"It isn't so bad," the aquamarine dragon said brightly. "Your scales will regrow."
You deserve this, a slithery voice accused. You brought this on yourself. It's only fair.
"What will they think of me?" Seraphine asked.
They will be disgusted.
The aquamarine dragon's next words chased away the dark voice. "I'm sure they'll look at the heart, not the vessel that contains it."
And they'll see how filthy you are, inside and out.
"Who are you?" Seraphine asked, trying to silence the battle in her mind.
"Anastasia, daughter of Una. Call me Nessa."
Seraphine had never heard of this dragon before. "Where am I?"
"In a cavern beneath the lake. You may stay here as long as you wish."
But your friends will be worried.
"Perhaps long enough for your scales to heal and regrow, if you are still distressed."
But they will search for you.
You don't want them to find you.
Seraphine huffed, confused by the whirlwind of conflicting voices. She painfully arched her neck so that she could reach the magma on her wings. With a few bites, the rock crumbled away. Seraphine spat out a few bitter shards and faced Nessa. "I will stay only long enough for the pain to lessen. Then I will go to the surface."
Hide yourself from them.
How can I? Seraphine asked in her mind.
Stay until you are beautiful again.
Stay lest you taint them with your darkness.
No—bear your shame and their scorn. Let them drive you away when they see what you have tried to hide. It will prove what you have known all along.
What? Seraphine asked.
That Abraxas was right. If one dragon is capable of treachery, all of them are.
They would not betray you, another voice interjected.
You betrayed them first.
How? Seraphine and the second voice demanded together.
You thought of leaving them. You abandoned Torthai. You left your friends to die. The voice spoke slyly. You lost your restraint and betrayed your father's wisdom by your flight of vengeance.
Seraphine let out an anguished cry. She deserved every pain, every scar, every crack upon her scales for what she had done. She had never been beautiful of heart—it was all just a lie. A ruse of golden scales and noble words.
What will they think of you? the voice asked, almost pityingly. What will they say to the poor orphan whose thoughtless rampage made all humans turn against countless innocent dragons?
Tell me, little one, what they will do once they know?
"They will drive me out," Seraphine whispered aloud, tears brimming in her eyes.
Weak, and barely audible—
You can seek pardon.
You would corrupt them.
"Never!" Seraphine vowed fiercely. She flexed her claws and scraped her horns against the ground, trying to appease the voices. "Never will I cause them harm!" She drew her wings tightly around her body, her wail of anguish shaking the earth and causing ripples in the water. The pain of the movement nearly overwhelmed her, yet she welcomed it as her deserved punishment.
The voices swelled louder even than the roar, and despair laughed loudest of all.