Author's Notes: This was one of only two pieces of Rose Dragon Garden fan fiction to be posted on the site before it went down, and the only one to be completed. Now that the site's long gone, it seems a shame to let this languish on my hard drive, especially since it's still the closest I've gotten to accurately getting Ekaira down on paper and since the story stands alone pretty well.
RDG was not mine by any stretch of the imagination, though I did contribute a couple creature descriptions and a little bit of site lore, and is the property of Medusa/Anubis/whatever else she's calling herself now.
Ekaira leaned back on the garden bench with a sigh. Even this far removed from the center of the Gardens, she could still clearly hear the sounds of the Halloween festivities. Ekaira supposed she should put in an appearance at some point, perhaps once it got fully dark, as everyone would be expecting one of her traditional Halloween tales, but she couldn't help feeling she'd had enough of crowds for one day. There had been an unusually large influx of new tenders that year, and she missed the calm of her early days at the Gardens.
A twig snapped, and Ekaira looked over to see a young blond-haired man making his way toward her. She suspected he was one of the crop of new tenders who'd arrived earlier that autumn, though not one she remembered seeing. How times had changed. Once, she'd have known the life history of every single new arrival, but now Ekaira couldn't even be certain whether the brown tabby cat who twined around the man's ankles was an ordinary garden cat or a new tender in her own right.
The man looked slightly bewildered, and that, at least, Ekaira could help with. "Lost, are you? I don't blame you - the Gardens are a bit mazelike until you get used to them. Well, all of the activity is back that way." Ekaira gestured in the appropriate direction. "Or, if you're like me, and you've had enough of crowds for one day, you're welcome to find a bench and listen to the wind through the rose bushes."
The young man brushed off a nearby bench and sat down, his cat jumping up to curl up beside him. "I'm looking for ghosts, actually." Ekaira looked at him, not sure he was being entirely serious. "A place this old must have a spirit or three around somewhere," he continued, looking slightly sheepish, "and it makes sense that they'd prefer to be where people weren't."
"You'd be surprised," Ekaira muttered. Halloween was the one night of the year when spirits and the like could pass for human, and all the ones she'd known had liked to make the most of the opportunity. "Anyway, the Gardens are relatively ghost-free - Aurora doesn't really hold with that sort of thing." Except for the one who'd been organizing Garden events since before even Ekaira's time, but that was a story in itself. "I assure you I'm perfectly corporeal, despite appearances." Not strictly mortal, true, but undeniably flesh and blood. "I do know a story or three, though, appropriate for a night such as this, if you have the time to spare to listen to the ramblings of an elder." Not especially good stories, she suspected, but people had always seemed to appreciate them, even if nobody really believed them anymore.
The man grinned. "I'd like that, and my cat friend always appreciates a good story." Ekaira was normally quite fond of cats, but this one unnerved her - something about her intent, almost unblinking, green-eyed stare. "We'd normally be taking notes, so as to immortalize your story for future generations, but she left her clipboard in another reality." Ekaira didn't even know how to begin to respond to this, so she instead instructed Magus, one of her flock of magic rose dragons, to conjure up a campfire - for ambiance as much as for light, though not for heat, since the autumn night was warm.
"Everything has a beginning and an end, even the Gardens," she began. "I wasn't here for the former, but there have been times I thought I might witness the latter. I've been here since it was almost possible to count the number of tenders on both hands, back when we were still figuring out how this was all going to work - and by "we," I mean everyone except Aurora, of course. If she ever had doubts, we were never aware of them, and I doubt she ever did - she seems incapable of making a bad decision.
"Now, people will tell you that one tender or another was a bad choice on Aurora's part." Ekaira chuckled dryly. "You should hear what they said about me - but I digress. What the nay-sayers tend to forget is that people change, and that foreseeing the future is an inexact magic, even for one of Aurora's power. Every individual who's stumbled through that run-down cottage has been more than worthy of assuming their part in the grand plan, but once they venture forth into the wider world, they don't always stay worthy." Ekaira paused, knowing she was rambling, but both members of her audience seemed fully involved in the story, gazing intently at her. She made a note to ask the young man's name when she'd finished her tale - she hadn't had this appreciative an audience in years.
"Picture, if you will, a garden home to only a handful of tenders, back when those of us with enough expertise to teach our knowledge to others were spread very thin - so thin, in fact, that at last we sent out a plea for aid to some of those who'd completed their training already and gone on to other cities in other lands. Among those who answered our call, there were three magic-users - Arien, who had studied healing, Fenrith, who had decided to learn advanced plant magic, and Rynon, who had focused his attention on researching all sorts of advanced magic, instead of choosing a specialty. All had changed, of course, as was only natural in the years they'd been away, but Rynon had changed the most of all. He'd grown quiet and withdrawn in his time away, reluctant to talk to even those who had been his closest friends before." Ekaira paused to shift to a more comfortable position, as well as to let the suspense build.
"Now, we all had our concerns about Rynon, but there wasn't anything obviously wrong about him - except perhaps his continuing inexplicable fondness for gallow's captor rose dragons, but that was nothing new - so we just decided to have a couple of black rose dragons keep a discreet eye on him. It was nearly autumn, after all, and there was much to do to get the Gardens ready for winter.
"Life proceeded as usual for a time, more or less, but there was a tension in the air that hadn't been present before Rynon and the others showed up. Tempers were short, and fights broke out at the smallest provocation, but we all just assumed it was just the returned tenders trying to take up their old places that was causing the friction. Then, as the weeks passed, even that began to die down, as the return of the autumn rose dragons heralded the start of fall colors and the season changed.
"I'd almost forgotten my concerns about Rynon when Arien came to me one day looking concerned. He held what looked to be a dead rose dragon egg, but was, to my relief, merely a rosebud. Now, I wasn't terribly worried. This might be a magic garden, but the natural order still holds - things grow and die in their season, and even the Gardens fall prey to the occasional bout of parasites or disease. To have one dead rosebud on an otherwise healthy bush is mildly unusual, as Arien claimed this rosebud had been, but I still wasn't overly concerned. Arien might have suspected dark forces at work, but I was more cautious. When more cropped up, though, I began to wonder once again about Rynon and what exactly he'd been studying while he'd been away. The black rose dragons who'd been watching him reported nothing out of the ordinary, but I didn't have the rapport with them yet to determine whether they were actually telling the truth.
"Then, just before Halloween, rose dragons began to disappear. A few scattered disappearances could have been passed off as the work of a hungry venus trap dragon or other predator, but then Fenrith's own strawberry rose dragon vanished - on Halloween, no less. Vowing not to rest until I found out just what Rynon was up to, I enlisted Bane's help in tracking down our errant magician - nothing like a venus trap dragon for finding someone." Ekaira paused, as if deciding how best to proceed. Her audience, man and cat alike, still seemed deeply invested in the tale.
"Rynon was, needless to say, nowhere to be found. After several hours of searching, Bane and I finally tracked him down at the very outskirts of the Gardens. He was crouched over something, and when we got closer, I saw that it was the body of a gallow's captor rose hatchling, which, though obviously dead, was twitching violently. Rynon looked up as we approached, seeming shocked to see us, as well he might be. Necromancy is one of the darkest of dark magics, and it's one of the few branches of magic to be absolutely forbidden within the Gardens - for good reason, needless to say.
"As we drew closer, I saw that Rynon was crying. Now, despite what he'd done, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him. He'd probably had no idea what he was really getting into, and, well, it's not as though I've always been on the side of goodness and light myself, so I made a bargain with him. If he returned the rose dragons he'd taken, I'd put in a good word for him when it came time to face Aurora. Rynon looked at me in shock, and I explained again that yes, I'd be willing to take his side as long as at least Fenrith's rose dragon remained unharmed. Shaking his head, he finally managed to choke out that it wasn't him - it couldn't have been him. Given that he'd been practically caught red-handed, I wasn't inclined to believe him.
"Then, Bane started to growl. I looked up, cursing my carelessness in not keeping an eye out for traps. Oh, Rynon might have started small - a dead rose here, an undead rose dragon there - but he'd clearly found the time for more ambitious projects. A pack of clearly undead venus trap dragons - I won't go into how I knew this, as I don't want to turn your stomach - had emerged from the tall grass nearby, where they'd apparently been waiting for a fool like me to show up, and soon had Bane and myself surrounded. With two of us and seven of them (not counting Rynon in either case), I knew we didn't stand a chance - there was no way Rynon would let us escape back to the Gardens.
"I began preparing my best attack spell, in hopes of taking at least a couple of the zombie dragons with us, and then noticed to my surprise that Rynon was doing the same. I looked to see what had him so concerned - they were his undead army, after all - and then noticed the dragons weren't alone. All magics can be corrupted, after all, and necromancy could easily be considered the dark mirror of healing. Arien had been quite busy in his time away, it seemed.
"At eight against three (plus one largely ineffectual zombie hatchling), there was no doubt in my mind as to the outcome of the fight, but we'd managed to account for two undead dragons between us before a lucky bolt of magic on my part sent Arien staggering. Now, the thing about zombies of any species is that they don't have much left beyond a few basic instincts - fighting and eating, mostly. If you're going to use them as any sort of effective fighting force at all, you either need a few hundred (to account for attrition) or a way of mentally controlling the few you've got - which, needless to say, requires an incredible amount of concentration for even a skilled mage. With Arien's concentration broken, he quickly lost control over the undead dragons, and, well, let's just say instinct took over.
"After Arien was emphatically and permanently out of the picture, it was a reasonably simple matter to dispose of the remaining zombie venus trap dragons. We then returned to the Gardens and reported our findings to Aurora. Rynon, needless to say, was cleared of all blame, but the matter wasn't over with yet. Besides the gallow's captor hatchling, which had vanished at some point during the fight, there was Arien's own yellow rose dragon unaccounted for, plus Fenrith's strawberry rose dragon and the other missing rose dragons. Bane and I tried for years to track down the zombie rose dragons, but never found anything beyond rumors. It's probable time took care of them, but who can say?" At this point, Trickster usually rustled around in the bushes, chuckling gleefully at anyone who jumped or flinched, but the black rose dragon was off about her own business that evening.
After a quick glance to determine that yes, Trickster truly wasn't present, Ekaira glanced back at her audience, only to find that they had inexplicably vanished during the few seconds her attention had been elsewhere. If she'd been prone to such things, she'd have thought she dreamed the whole encounter. As it was, she had to laugh - imagine falling for a Halloween prank at her age. With a chuckle, Ekaira extinguished the illusory campfire with a wave of her hand and went to join the celebration. After all these years, she finally had a new story to share, and one with more truth than most.