Prologue story: Gathering the Flock

Yucca followed Tagetes from a respectable distance. More than once the older man had told the teenager that he didn't want an apprentice and that he wasn't performing anymore. Though he was still hunting and Yucca would not mind entering an apprenticeship with the man in that field either. Others had told him to let the man grieve but it had been two years. Yucca couldn't wait much longer to start training. He guessed he could always stay home and learn the fishing or farming trade from his parents. He knew the work and it wouldn't be bad. Yucca just loved the open road and the space between the mountains where he could see for miles. That and his music. He'd been playing for five years and performing for the last two. If he was honest, he really wanted Tagetes to pick up storytelling again. 
"Are you going to keep following me?" 
Yucca was pulled from his musings and realised Tagetes had at one point stopped walking and had waited for him.
"Yes." Yucca said, knowing that Tagetes would ask him to go back.
"Go home." Tagetes said.
"No, I want to learn from you."
"You're not suited for this. You were lost in thoughts and if I hadn't stopped you'd walked right through this nest of vipers."
Tagetes pointed to a spot just a few yards away where grass and rocks obscured the resting eggs. He shook his head and hoped Yucca would come to his senses and return home. He'd be far more suited to be a farmer than a hunter. Tagetes could understand the young man was restless and dreamed of adventure and fame. But hunting was not that different from farming. You had to put in hard work and wait for your efforts to bear fruit. Though even on farming lands you shouldn't let your mind wander. Predators sometimes ventured close to the village and a stray mind could cost you your life if you weren't careful. 
"You could teach me." Yucca insisted.
"I'm not good company." Tagetes replied, "And I won't go easy on you."
Feeling that the older man was caving, Yucca pushed on: "I don't ask kindness or company. Just a chance to learn."
"First lesson: keep your eyes on your surroundings and stay alert."
Yucca nodded and waited for Tagetes to continue but the hunter just turned around and started walking again. He had said he wouldn't be good company. But that didn't matter. Feeling elated and happy, Yucca started to whistle a tune he'd been working on. Tagetes shot him a glare and motioned to be quiet.
"Lesson Two: Sound scares away prey. You should know this."
"There aren't any animals around." Yucca shrugged, "I can see that much."
"And there won't be if you keep whistling." 
But Tagetes had to agree with the younger man. There were no animals around. Weather was turning a bit chilly but not enough to assume that they'd taken shelter lower on the mountain. There was still plenty of grass and shrubs too. 
"I have a few traps set up in the area. I'm just going to check them and see if we need to relocate." Tagetes announced and started walking again, not waiting for Yucca to give a reply.
If anything he hoped the younger man would tire of following him and would just go home. Maybe that would be safer. A heavy feeling settled in his stomach. Tagetes had never been a superstitious man. But something wasn't right. Maybe he'd know more if he checked his traps. He thought he knew what he'd find but when he reached the first of his traps and saw the carnage there, he was still taken back.
Yucca, who'd been right behind Tagetes, swallowed to keep his breakfast down and turned away from the gruesome sight of maimed flesh, torn limbs and oozing entrails that were strewn about.
"This isn't just one animal." Tagetes said calmly, "You were right about there not being any animals around. They were killed."
"A jaguar maybe?"
"No, this was done by something smarter. Something that knew we'd return here. We need to leave."
Yucca startled as Tagetes grabbed his arm and drew him away. In the corner of his eye he noticed a dark shadowy blur that jumped. Maybe it was a jaguar after all, but when the creature turned later it looked like nothing he'd seen before. with an elongated black head, eyes that shone a faint red and a mouth full of teeth. It's body reflected the light and looked like that of a bug with a plated body and a lot of long and nimble limbs. Yucca didn't wait to count but turned and started running in earnest. Whatever that creature was, it was big enough to think that humans would make a fine addition to it's diet. Running for his life, it took a while for Yucca to realise they weren't headed for the town. 
"Where are we going?" he panted.
"I need to check on my mother. I would send you home but I don't know who of us that monster would chase."
"It's chasing us? I don't hear anything."
"It sure is. It's toying with us." Tagetes had felt the creature's eyes upon them.
The monster was probably a lot faster than them. Tagetes believed it was intelligent and malicious from the way it had arranged the scene at his trap. He didn't want to lead it straight to the village. Leading it to his mother's house wasn't the ideal scenario either but she should still be at the mountain pastures with her flock of Chentuu. They could take shelter in her cabin and use whatever she had to try and incapacitate the dark insectoid without endangering other people. He just hoped they could alert the townspeople some way. If they could postpone the creature's advance they could maybe make it to one of the other villages and take a stand. Tagetes doubted half a dozen warriors would be enough to kill it. Inwardly he cursed that he'd allowed Yucca to tag along this time, he'd probably put the youth in grave danger which only served as a reminder that he was touched by death. 
Yucca kept up with Tagetes and followed the path the older man took, knowing that one misstep could cause him to fall and sprain or break a bone and then he'd be done for. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and heightened all his senses. Yucca was certain he could hear scuttling behind them and a high shrieking noise that sounded like laughter. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him but he wasn't about to turn around and check. All he could do was follow Tagetes and hope he knew something to get them out of this.

--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--

Argemone looked up at the sky, the smoke from her pipe forming a wavering line that connected her breath to the greater volume of air around her. Lying down on her back, she found the world to seem quite simple and pretty. There was blue, grey, white and a bit of green and so much variation in texture and temperature. The rock below her was cold and hard, the clouds looked soft and comforting and the mountains cut sharp into the vastness of the sky, adding a border of sorts. Argemone didn't like borders, but she loved the mountains so she'd forgive them. Plus, they'd helped her get away from the town where the women were supposed to be cleaning and preparing for some upcoming event. Argemone could clean, but she really didn't like it. And it was unfair that none of the men had to join. She was just as good in the other jobs they were supposed to be doing. But now she wasn't doing anything. Hopefully she wouldn't be missed. 
The sound of running footsteps alerted her that something was up. Getting up she saw two men running, they were going too fast to just be hurrying. A broken leg could be lethal at this altitude and if they felt this speed was necessary then something had happened. 
"Hello?" she called.
It was the eldest of the two that spotted her. The youngest kept looking over his shoulder and seemed severely rattled. The eldest she now recognised as Tagetes, looked calmer but he urgently gestured for her to come down.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"You need to get down..." Tagetes started but he was interrupted by Yucca who said: "There's a monster coming. Black and so very fast. It's laughing, playing with us..."
Tagetes quieted the younger boy down and said: "I'm going to check on my mother. Do you think you can head back to the village and warn them? I think it will keep following us."
At that point in time, a scuttling sound echoed from close by. Argemone shuddered as she heard the alien sounds. She wasn't armed. If the monster followed her she'd not get close to the town. She was certain of that.
"I'm staying with you. There is strength in numbers."
Tagetes nodded, Yucca was already moving, following the directions he'd gotten from Tagetes a little earlier.
"Do you have an extra weapon?" Argemone asked.
"A dagger is about all I can give you."
"I'll take it."
At least she'd have something to defend herself with. Not allowing herself to look toward the disturbing sounds, she quickly fell in line behind the two men. Thinking, she remembered that she had seen some people on her way toward her favourite resting place. There'd been a few travellers, but they'd already be at the town by now. The few hunters she seen in the distance might have been Tagetes and Yucca. But Laelia had been checking on her family's remote fields. The young woman was liked by everyone for being not just a beauty but also friendly and caring. She'd no doubt still be doing her job. 
"Laelia was out on the fields." she told Tagetes, but it was Yucca who turned around.
"We have to warn her."
Like most young men, Yucca had dreamed of a romantic relationship with the village's darling. The danger that was following them now also threatened her. And that thought made the youth more courageous.
"I know where her fields are. I'll run toward her and have her follow me back to you."
"You'd probably be better of leading her back to the village." Tagetes told him, hoping the two of them could warn the townspeople of the danger.
At that point in time to scuttling sounds started again. 
"It is playing with us." Argemone noticed, "I doubt it'd let you two get to the village."
"We have to try to get the message to them sometime." Tagetes argued.
"I feel safer with you." Yucca argued, believing Tagetes could pull off just about anything.
Dejected, Tagetes agreed and Yucca ran away, speeding to the Orchidaceae fields that were at the edge of the plateau. They were hidden from sight by boulders and shrubs and maybe those would keep the young woman safe, but neither of the three had wanted to risk it. The monster in their tracks did seem to understand them and was leading them relentlessly to the solitary cabin. Tagetes worried about what he'd find there. 
Yucca ran as fast as he could without a full on sprint, because he'd need to be able to run back with Laelia. He kept his eyes on the road, but his ears were straining to pick up sounds outside of the thudding of his feet and the panting of his breath. And then he saw her.
Laelia had been checking her family's fields, weeding and supporting the young plants where they seemed to be having trouble. Laelia enjoyed the farm life and loved caring for the plants. If she'd had to choose she'd want to be here every day. But of course the plants didn't need such constant care. She had more than ample time to stay at home, mend clothes, care for the animals. Those chores weren't so bad either. It was going out to town that she could do without. Young men followed her, matrons tried to match her to their sons, nephews or even grandsons. None of the boys or young men that had been suggested to her or had proclaimed an interest in her, had made her heart flutter. Sometimes she wondered if there was something wrong with her. 
Laelia was pulled from her thoughts by Yucca calling her name. She looked up and wondered what the young man wanted from her. He was about two years younger than she was and she hadn't talked with him before. She'd heard him play in the town square once but other than that she drew a blank on him. As the young man approached she noticed that something was clearly wrong. The expression on his face was worried and strained and he hardly waited to catch his breath before he started talking.
"Monster.... Need to follow... me. Come.... Quickly."
As if to emphasize his words tapping and rattling sounded close. Not the menacing sounds of a rattle snake. These sounds almost sounded like laughter. Sneaky and sinister they goaded them to hurry. Yucca grabbed her hand and started pulling her toward the edge of the field.
"The road to the village is on the opposite side." Laelia tried.
"It doesn't want us to go there... We need to get back to the others. Hurry."
Laelia started to run and followed but wondered if doing what the creature, whatever it was, wanted might not be a smart idea. It could only follow one group of them. As long as one of them reached the town, they could warn the villagers to take a stand. But when she tried to veer to the side and turn toward the village, a dark shadow appeared in the edge of her field of vision. She couldn't make out the details but it was huge, almost the size of a hut and seemed to have eyes that glowed red. In fact that was the only thing that got through before her mind refused to process the rest.
"Faster." she cried and followed Yucca as he made his way back from whence he came. 

--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--

Ipomoea sat on the bench in front of Tithonia's house and waited. Maybe it had been foolish to expect the woman to be there when the weather was still relatively warm. But she'd found the harder of the Chentuu there before during this time. The Chentuu basically kept to the meadows in the vicinity and Tithonia returned to harvest vegetables, dye and spin wool and every now and then she ventured into town to sell her wears. Her wool and fabric was the best, soft and supple and would be Ipomoea's choice for any garment she made. And she'd missed Tithonia by a single day, coming back to the town after she'd ventured to a nearby village to advertise her skills and virtues. A few men had shown interest, but they'd been small farmers and wouldn't have provided better for her family and herself. So she'd returned home, making plans about her next trip. Maybe she needed to go a bit further to find a suitable husband. 
The wind picked up and as Ipomoea turned around to tuck her hair back behind her ears, she saw the flock of Chentuu appear in the distance. Relief flooded through her since this meant that Tithonia was returning and she'd be able to buy what she needed. With winter approaching she really needed to make some winter clothes for her younger siblings. And if she had enough fabric left she could make herself a fancy coat. She got up and waited for Tithonia to get closer.
"I was worried I wouldn't find you here." Ipomoea admitted, "I missed you in town."
The older woman nodded and said cryptically: "I felt like I might be getting visitors." 
Ipomoea ignored the floaty words as she wasn't superstitious at all. The world was what could be seen and nothing more. If she started to believe otherwise, she'd be too scared to travel about. 
"Come in child, the wind is getting cold." Tithonia offered and immediately put a pot of water on the stove. Tithonia stoked the embers and warmth spread as the fire sprang to life.
The older woman felt like the wrongness she'd sensed earlier was still closing in and that Ipomoea wasn't the visitor she'd foreseen. Her Chentuu were out in the pasture next to her gardens and Gladioli would warn her if something dark crept close. They were very adept at guarding, often scaring predators away by their cries and kicks. So Tithonia wasn't overly worried. She did feel like she needed to urge Ipomoea to leave quickly.
"I'd say you better hurry before the storm hits." Tithonia thus said, hoping a reference to the weather might help the young woman move on.
"I was hoping to look at some wool and fabrics." Ipomoea said, "I want to make something for the winter."
Tithonia nodded and brought out the fabrics she'd made over the past months. She knew just the one Ipomoea would like and brought it out first. Ipomoea gasped as she saw the right purple colour. It was perfect. But not for her siblings. Asking to see more, an hour seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye and outside the Chentuu grew restless. Tithonia tensed and felt like whatever safe window there had been was now gone. She left the young woman inside and went to check. Opening the door she could see four people headed toward her house and recognised her son in the front. Worried she went toward him and noticed that Gladioli and the other Chentuu had breeched their pasture and where standing close to the house. Normally she'd be worried about her vegetables but the closeness of her flock now gave her a sense of safety and she let them be. 
Tagetes saw his mother open the door and was relieved to see that she was unharmed. Almost immediately after, he worried again because now he had led the danger straight through his only living family member. 
"Get back inside." he called to his mother and he gestured to Yucca, Argemone and Laelia to follow.
The inside of Tithonia's hut was crowded with the six people occupying it. Tithonia had hastily handed out tea and some snacks as the weary group took a few minutes to relax. 
"I think I better go home." Ipomoea started, only to be barred from leaving.
"It's too dangerous." Tagetes said while Laelia pulled the woman back. 
Tithonia hushed the mumbles and whispers and looked at her son: "Tell me everything." she said.
After he'd summarised their plight, Tithonia sighed and Ipomoea looked downright frightened. It didn't help that the Chentuu were sounding more alarmed. Their time was running out.
"We need to alert the town." Tagetes said, "But I wanted to make sure you were alright and it wouldn't let us go back."
"We are pretty stuck here." Tithonia confessed, "Not counting the road you came on, there's only a steep climb or a deep drop away from this plateau."
Ipomoea slumped, on the verge of tears, Laelia clutching the other woman like that would help. Yucca nervously glanced out of the window every few seconds and Tagetes seemed to have retreated in the silent brooded Tithonia had come to expect from him during the past few years. Tithonia moved her gaze toward Argemone who seemed to be thinking. 
"Do you have an idea?" she asked the young adult.
"I might." Argemone said, "But I don't know if it will work."
"Try us." Tagetes said, a small flicker of hope returning to his eyes.
"Your Chentuu have gliding sails, right? Do you think they could get safely down the mountain side? And would they let us ride them?"
Tithonia considered it, "Chentuu usually use their gliding when in danger but I think that condition is met."
"Will they let us ride them?" Yucca asked.
"I have a couple that are more used to humans. I believe they might but we'll have to try."
"No time like the present." Argemone nodded and strode toward the door.

--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--|&|--

Tagetes helped Ipomoea on Gladioli, the dominant male of the Chentuu flock and climbed up behind her. Ipomoea had confessed to not know how to ride. Laelia, being the lightest would be carried by Salvia Miniata and Argemone had taken to Salvia Elegance, the darker of the two twin Chentuu. Tithonia hoped the two neuters would allow her and Yucca on their backs. They had always seemed calm and steadfast animals to her and she'd just have to trust her instinct on this. 
Scuttling, creaking and high wheezing noises had echoed around them from the moment they'd left the hut and the Chentuu were growing increasingly nervous. Tithonia had told Gladioli their plan and hoped the Chentuu would guide them through the danger. No matter what, they needed to get down the mountain and warn the villages in the valleys below. Tagetes said a prayer and with a loud cry, launched Gladioli toward the edge of the plateau. 
The Chentuu was all too eager to get going and without he hitch, the brown-white animal sped over the edge and spread his wingsails. Still the fall down was far faster than Tagetes or any of the others would have thought. Wind lashed into their faces and tore at their clothes. Ipomoea felt as if her heart had stayed on top of the plateau and screamed. Laelia burrowed herself into Miniata's fur and tried to stay as close to the Chentuu's body as possible. Argemone watched in wonder as the sky was all around her, feeling the need to laugh like a maniac at all the sudden impressions. Yucca held on for dear life, his gaze fixed on those before him, somehow encouraged because he and Tithonia had waited for the rest of the flock to dive down before they followed. He had a clear view of the others and of the ground closing in but tried not to think about how hard the impact could be.
Just before they hit the ground, Gladioli angled his wingsails and slowed their descent enough to land reasonably comfortable. The entire trip down had only taken a minute or two, but it had felt like much longer. From above them, a loud, piercing and very frustrated cry rang against the mountain walls. The Chentuu didn't stop running after they'd hit the ground and chased across the terrain, leaping and gliding and just putting more distance between them and the monster that the humans had brought to them. Neither the humans nor the Chentuu doubted that the monster would still chase them. It was not something to give up. But it's cry had alerted others of it's presence.
The flock of Chentuu headed down a different path and Tagetes swallowed hard as they suddenly came to a stop and stood eye to eye with a creature that looked about as bad as the monster they'd been running from.
"How rude." a voice sounded in his head, "I'll let you know I wouldn't hurt humans nor their lifestock unless I'm allowed to."
A man stepped forward and grinned, "I don't think that's very reassuring."
The man, dressed in leather and other sturdy materials then turned back to the humans and said: "Let us take care of the... thing." he said, "And then we'll have a chat."
The initial blue creature, or dragon as it reminded Tagetes, had been joined by a green, a brown and a black one. The four of them were similar but not completely alike, as if they were variants of the same species. And Tagetes guessed they were. The dragons and the humans that came with them didn't seem frightened of the monster and maybe they weren't. There were four of them after all and they were larger than the black, leggy monster. Just a few minutes later, the piercing cry sounded again and more followed along with other sounds that indicated battle. When the four dragons and thier riders returned, they showed some signs of wounds and abrasions, but they seemed content with the outcome and dragged a black corpse behind them. 
"Now that that's taken care off, " the first rider continued, "We have a proposition to make."
The rider explained about the existence of dragons and many more creatures of legend. About the monster that had found refuge on their world and about the possibility of others like it. And that they needed to learn to protect themselves. And then the offer came, a chance to find allies of their own that would help them keep their place safe.
"Will you come with us?" the dragonrider asked.
"Of course!" Yucca called, excited by the prospect of adventure and glory.
"I guess we don't have a choice." Tagetes nodded though he was reluctant to leave his homeland for an extended period.
"Don't worry." Tithonia said, "I can't leave my herd, I'll keep watch and warn the towns."
"I would like to go." Laelia suddenly said, "But I want to go somewhere with lots of plants."
The young farmer already thinking ahead about what she could take back from a trip to another world and the good it could bring.
"I'll go too." Ipomoea said, suddenly making up her mind. Finding a strong man to help protect her family had moved up on her list of needs for a future husband. And who knows, she might be able to find a world where she could provide for her family herself.
"I'm not about to be left out of this." Argemone added, understanding by the presence of a woman among the riders that gender equality seemed to be evident on some of these worlds at least.
"Then let us not waste time and head back." the dragonrider said and gestured for his fellow riders to break up camp and get ready to depart. They gathered here to observe the populace and to maybe set up an agreement with the locals as more people of this planet had started to find their way to dragon agencies across the nexus. But with the events as they had been, they might as well go ahead to the next stage and recruit a few people. The dragons had been able to converse with them so they showed promise. And when they returned, the path to more people being searched and found lay open and an trade agreement could be made. This meeting hadn't been a bad idea after all.