Something prickled at the back of Artemis's mind; a sudden strange thought as uncomfortable as it was indescribable. She turned and looked at the black dragon's size again, watching his long, flat tail move up and down in the wind like a ripple atop the water. She took measure of his deadly spines, tilting and quivering with his movement. Lastly, she took a closer look at those scales of his, slowly lifting her right leg so that she wouldn't draw his attention.
Neat and orderly—perfectly lined even in flight. They folded together, shifted, and settled back into place as easily as anything.
Swallowing, she called out. "M-May I know your name?"
The dragon curled his head around to look at her from the side of his eye. “About time. Are all humans this impertinent?”
He thinks me the impertinent one? Artemis thought, shocked. The black dragon, chastising her about manners. Was any of this real?
“Hmph.” He turned forward again, dismissive. “It’s Ashent.”
Artemis sat back gently in thought. It didn't sound familiar. She was almost positive she knew most of the names of all the Great Ones, and their children. At least the immediate heirs.
The only children she had no knowledge of were Eques's – the Greatfather of the Black Dragons. No one had ever met or seen a child of his. There was no mention or records of it. And then he had perished in a cloak of his own flames near the end of the war. He'd hated humans so much that he couldn't bear the thought of making the partnership with humanity.
And without their Greatfather, the remaining black dragons were also unable to turn into humans, and were slowly picked off one by one like flies. Unable to hide amongst humans. Only scorched earth to return to in the West.
Artemis took some measure of comfort in the finality of it. If there had been an heir, surely they had revealed themselves, and then were killed. Their legacy extinguished before it had begun. That's why she knew nothing about it. His size had to be attributed to something else. Diet or exercise or lots of sleep.
A pungent, unpleasant smell hit her nose, drawing her out of her spiraling thoughts. Though she had never seen the sight that was laid out before and beyond her, she knew exactly what it was.
The ocean... she thought, gazing at the rippling, rolling mass in wonder, and feeling its weight in the air somehow.
It was more breathtaking than she ever could have imagined; as beautiful as a polished sapphire dragon scale. Even though the sky was a calm grey, the ocean persisted with the green-blue hue effortlessly. The water had crept through the sand for a fairly long distance on this dull day, and even when they passed over the line where the dry sand clashed with the damp, it was still many wing beats before they would hit the water's edge.
Artemis momentarily forgot herself, leaning down and breathing in the heavy air, let it twist and pull playfully at her long, black hair. It wasn't exactly a pleasant odor, but it was wonderful all the same. She would steal whatever happy moments she could, she decided then.
Below, she could see tiny tracks criss-crossing over one another – a small indecisive gull perhaps like the many that were calling overhead. There was wood too, she saw; many pieces of twisted, waterlogged wood that had been carried ashore. It was scary how intriguing this foreign area was—so far from home that it seemed untouched. Uncharted...
Artemis jerked upright in a flash. Ashent was headed straight for the water. Was he thinking of crossing?
"What are you doing?" she called frantically. "You can't cross the ocean!"
"Be quiet," he barked over his shoulder and his wings remained spread wide in a glide that was undaunted. Artemis looked down in horror and watched as the sand of the beach started to run out. They were moving so fast. So close to the ground, she could see how swift he really was. They were getting close to the water's edge. It wasn't so alluring now. She tried again.
"You're insane!" she screamed. "You'll kill us!"
The black dragon said nothing this time, but she knew there was no way that he couldn't have heard her. This was it, he had made up his mind – they were goners for sure. The ocean was death to any dragon. It was the mother of all bodies of water, which dragons despised. Its mist and wind would weigh him down eventually, causing exhaustion, and when its waves were close enough to grab him they would be pulled under. His spark would go out if he swallowed enough water – which he would – and then they would drown.
He's got to be mad! she realized with horrible, slow awe. She couldn't fight that sort of ludicrousness.
But there was one last thing she could do – try and overpower him. Lunging inward, she fished for the foreign bond she'd made with him, begging him to stop. Lane could do it with Razorit, so couldn't she do it too? They were pact partners now, as much as she wanted to reject any association with him.
Ashent's head reared back, as if she had yanked on some invisible reigns, causing his green eye to turn menacingly onto her. She stared back indignantly, shoulders hunched and muscles tense, but was ever so aware that his black wings were still fanned and carrying her towards the water.
"Nice try," he growled, pulling his head forward again. A strange feeling snapped in her chest like a rubber band, and she knew that sliver of control that she'd had for a fleeting moment was gone. She wasn't strong enough to stop him, and it looked like she would never be.
The last thing she wanted to do was try and rip control away from him when they were over the water.
But just as they were about the pass futilely over the shoreline, never to return, Ashent pulled up short, thrust his wings forward to brake, and halted in the air. Artemis righted herself from the forward pitch, confused, until he let out a loud, rumbling laugh.
"Naive little human," he chortled as he hovered in place over the shallow, sloshing waves below, the gusts from his wings pushing the water aside in a fine spray. "You thought I would really try and conquer the ocean? Who's mad now?"
As he turned casually to the right to follow the coast line, Artemis simply slumped against the spine, too relieved to be livid. He really was a cruel creature. Scaring her to near tears.
"That wasn't funny..." she mumbled.
"I think differently," he mused with a snort, another laugh catching him so that his whole body vibrated beneath her. "Your face was worth it."
A black dragon with a sick sense of humor... just great... she thought.
Her eyes felt tight and tired, and her stomach was growling so loudly that the black dragon could probably hear it. How much longer was this single flight going to take? Didn't he get tired? She felt like she could barely keep her eyes open. His meager attempt at humor was wasted on her.
But she had to stay alert. Not only did she not know where she was, where she was going or who might be after her, but without a saddle she couldn't sleep. Without a saddle she would fall and break her legs if she dosed off.
And if she broke her legs, he'd probably force her to ride while she healed.