Winse just stared in shock. He wanted to say, to believe, that he didn’t understand what he was seeing. But he did understand. He knew. And he was ashamed because of it.
Zone watched him with narrowed red eyes. Winse wanted to sink into the earth, let the Earthshaker swallow him up. That would be better than this, than facing this reality.
“I told you to stay away from there, Winse. I thought you were more responsible than this.”
The apology, the words, they echoed hollowly in his chest. The young grey Guardian kept his head down, trying not to look at the red liquid that slowly leaked into his field of vision. Safe’s sobs stabbed into his ears, increasing the shame tenfold.
“I told you no when I caught you yesterday,” Zone said lowly.
“Then why did I find them out there today?!”
“We were in the Training Fields yesterday! I don’t know why they went to Woodland Path today!” Winse protested.
“You started this.”
“I said I’m sorry!”
“Sorry won’t fix this!”
Safe’s shrill cry silenced the Guardians. Zone backed away as she approached, tears streaking down her dark head as she nosed the bodies. Sobs hitched as her snout brushed against blood-red scales, coral-pink scales, and bloodied white and black fur. She turned to Winse and the Guardian wanted to cry, explain, defend himself but in the gaze of those defeated red eyes, he saw nothing but confusion and misery.
Why? they said. Why would you do this? You were warned and you did not listen. Why?
“I…” Winse choked, trying to force the words out. “I… We…didn’t mean it.”
“Then what did you mean, Winse? What was going out there going to accomplish?” Zone demanded. “What was…fighting monsters…going to earn for you?”
“…I thought…if we got strong enough…maybe the plague couldn’t hurt us anymore,” Winse explained weakly.
It sounded poor, pathetic, but it was all he had. It was his only explanation. Their only explanation. They had all agreed to it that night before they all grew up on the sixth day of their lives. It had been a better way than hiding out in the lair all day, scavenging for scraps in other territories, searching for wayward hatchlings that might not be out in the Wandering Contagion to be found, waiting for the breeding cool-down to end so that their adoptive parents could make another nest. It was the brave, noble, adventurous way to solve things.
But now, looking at the fallen bodies of dragons that he’d grown up with, he wondered what in the world he’d been thinking to suggest such an idea. Such a stupid, reckless idea. An idea that had killed his friends.
“Well, the plague sure didn’t hurt us today,” Zone rumbled. “But you sure did, Winse. Think about that.”
Winse had been thinking about it since that afternoon when Bola, Malihini, and Pizzicato hadn’t come back. He had stayed behind to give Pizzicato a chance to prove himself. The larger dragon didn’t want to take all of the fun, after all. It had been so easy to beat up moths and mice.
But they had gone further than he did, fighting chargers and owls and cockatrice. He had told them to go to Training Fields again. Bola–or maybe Malihini–had chosen to go further.
It had cost the three their lives.
Winse was going to have to live with that knowledge now, for the rest of his life.
Maybe the rest of my life will end tomorrow, Winse thought. Like theirs did today.
The three ruined bodies were buried outside of the lair, near where Safe and Zone’s first clutch was buried. Safe sobbed as Zone pushed dirt over Bola. The Mirror was heartbroken over the loss of her near-identical child.
Winse watched as Zone covered Malihini and Pizzicato’s bodies. He’d grown up with those two. They had all been together since they found each other in the Wandering Contagion, since Zone found them under the bone pile, since they were brought to this lair to live. They’d wrestled and played and shared stories together. They’d had their meals and slept together.
He wished they had done more. They were practically siblings, him and them. Even Bola, born in the lair, found minutes before them as an egg in Wind territory. They four had been of one clutch, in their minds.
Now it was just him. Him and Lymph and Leth, a baby Spiral that Zone found today in the Wandering Contagion. She was so tiny compared to him. It frightened him. Had he been that small? Had Lymph?
The graves were covered and bone markers set in place. Zone led Safe away into the den. Lymph picked up baby Leth and wandered after them. Winse stayed at the graves, unmoving.
He wished it would rain so nobody could see him crying. But it didn’t. The Stormcatcher was against him. Fine. He could play that game too. He didn’t need rain to hide his tears.
He simply wouldn’t cry at all.