There was something new and unexpected in every world they came to, if only for the reason that they'd come from such different backgrounds that nothing could possibly seem normal to all of them. And perhaps, given this world's abundance of casual magic, medieval fortresses and unusual beasts, it wasn't as out-of-place as it could have been. And all other things being equal, the scorched and blackened state of the countryside surrounding them ought to have been a clue.
Still, it was always a shock to step into a cave and come face to face with an honest-to-God dragon.
Fortunately the dragon had been almost surprised to see them as they were to see him, and that had given them a few precious seconds. Kurogane had recovered first, and unleashed a furious attack on the dragon. To his chagrin, it bounced back without making a dent, but at least it had bought them enough time to get out of the cave and take cover. Retreat was out of the question, however; not only was the dragon now soaring about the hills around them, great black wings flapping like shrouds of night blocking out the sun... but he had the feather.
"Come on out, tasty mortals!" the terrible voice roared from overhead. "Your bones will make fine ornaments to my den!"
"Stupid overgrown lizard," Kurogane hissed quietly, craning his neck to try to spot the wings overhead without exposing their position. "He's no bigger than some of the oni I fought in Nihon. If he didn't have that damn feather protecting him, I'd soon cut him down to size!"
"Kuro-bloodthirsty really doesn't like finding something he can't beat, huh?" Fai whispered with laughter in his voice, and Kurogane glared at him.
"It's not funny, mage! He's going to toast us all the minute we step out there, and he's got the feather, so we can't run!"
"Maybe we should try to get back to the village," Sakura suggested in a whisper. "If nothing else, we could try to get some help."
"Or long-range weapons," Syaoran added. "Fai-san knows how to use a bow, right?"
The wizard shrugged. "I don't know how much good that's going to do against..."
"Did you hope to make yourselves heroes by hunting me, foolhardy mortals?" the black dragon boomed, cutting over their conversation. "That will never be; I, Beltharion of the Black Dragonflight, am invincible!"
"What did he say?" Fai's head came up, and he stared at the sky.
"Some usual villain bluster, who cares?" Kurogane said irritably. "Look, maybe some grappling hooks..."
"With the power of this feather to strengthen us, no force can stand in our way!" the dragon was still monologuing. "Soon, the Black Dragonflight will overrun this world, and our flames will sear all lesser beings into ashes!"
"All right, this has gone far enough," Fai said firmly; he stood up and dusted cinders off his pants.
His companions stared at him in shock. "Fai-san," Sakura whispered disbelievingly, "what are you doing?"
He sighed. "Something I hoped I'd never have to," he said.
When he stepped out from behind the sheltering rock, the black dragon immediately turned in mid-air and swooped down towards him. "How eagerly you rush to embrace your doom, mortal!" he roared.
"Beltharion!" Fai's voice rang out over the scorched ground. "That feather is not yours, and you have no right to use it! I now reclaim it from you!"
The dragon crashed to the earth in front of Fai, threw back its head, and roared in laughter; thick choking smoke and sullen orange fire belched from his mouth. "You?" he sneered. "And what army, puny weakling? Whose authority backs your feeble claim?"
"On the authority of the Blue Dragonflight, Guardians of Magic on this world and any other!" Fai shouted. He raised his hands, and his companions watched in disbelief as blue light began to gather around him -
And he turned into a dragon.
The form of the slender young man they knew glowed brightly, then melted into the glow; the white light flared upwards and expanded, and bright blue scales the same color as the wizard's eyes flowed smoothly into place. The new dragon had a slender, sinuous look, but there was still something of Fai's cheerful humor about the tilt of his head on his long, serpentine neck, and his claws were glittering fluorite.
"Yûigosa!" the black dragon gasped, and scrabbled backwards, his huge claws tearing up the scorched earth. "How did you come to be here?"
"I seek those feathers, Beltharion!" Fai called out. His voice was still the same, but now it rang out like trumpets, audible for a mile around. "They are far too powerful to be left in the hands of the likes of you and the rest of your wretched kind!"
The black dragon seemed to recover his composure soon enough. "Threaten and throw insults while you may," he sneered. "You are still only one, and the pitiful blue dragons have never been a match for the mighty power of the Black. I will kill you and wear your wings as a cape!"
"This is just getting ridiculous," Kurogane said. He stood up, and with a deep reluctance, handed Souhi to Syaoran. "Take care of this," he grumbled, and walked out into the open.
Fai was intent on his opponent, and it took him a moment to register the small figure that had joined his side. At least until a red glow started up beside him, and he whipped his head around on his long slender neck to gawk as the thrashing coils of a ruby-scaled dragon resolved themselves beside him.
"Kuro-dra - dragon?" Fai gasped in disbelief.
"Kurostrasz, actually" Kurogane replied, his voice now a bass rumble that made the air shake. "Don't look so shocked. You could have just said something, you know."
"I notice you never mentioned it, either!"
Kurogane ignored him. "Not so brave now, are you, twerp?" he sneered at the black dragon. "Not when you face the Red Dragonflight as well as the Blue."
"Red Dragonflight?" Fai stared at Kurogane in astonishment. "The Guardians of Life? But you used to kill people all the time! You told me so!"
"I never said I was any good at it," Kurogane groused. "Why do you think Tomostrasza sent me away in the first place?"
"Worst red dragon ever!" Fai proclaimed.
"Shut up!" Kurogane roared, and a jet of scarlet flame shot from between his jaws. It washed over the black rock; even as the flames died out, glimmers of green began to grow over the black scar, until the area was covered with vivacious colors. "As if a blue dragon who refuses to use magic has any right to talk!"
Fai hooted in laughter, rearing up on his back legs and fanning his wings to keep his balance. "Kuro-scaly's breath makes flowers grow!" he cried. "So scary!"
"Come over here and we'll see how well flowers grow on YOU," Kurogane snarled, smoke curling from his nostrils.
"It is no matter!" the black dragon proclaimed grandly, although his confidence seemed somewhat shaken. "Alone, I would be more than a match for you two pathetic weaklings. Bolstered by the power of the feather, I can still best you!"
"You know, he's got a point," Fai said thoughtfully. "We really can't take him on just by ourselves."
"Think so?" Kurogane said.
Both serpentine heads, red and blue, snaked around to stare steadily at Syaoran. The boy squirmed under their steady, reptilian gazes.
"What are you looking at me like that for?" he said. "I'm not... I mean... there isn't... oh, well," he sighed. He gave Sakura a sorrowful look from behind his ragged bangs, and handed her the swords. She took them with a faintly stunned look, and stood with her mouth open as if ready to protest as Syaoran's form twisted and flared upwards.
This dragon's scales were a dusky tan tinted with gold, and his eyes were the same brown as the boy they knew. "Shaormu of the Bronze Dragonflight, Guardians of Time," he explained. "You wouldn't believe the mess Fei Wang Reed has made of the timelines - they sent me to make sure that history happens as it should. Um. Please don't get too upset at my past self, he's going to be going through a very hard time just then."
"I don't believe all this!" Sakura cried, scrambling to her feet and still clutching Souhi and Hien. "We - we've been traveling together all this time...? And you never said anything!"
"Well, you didn't say anything either, did you?" Kurogane returned.
"W-what are you talking about?" Sakura stammered.
"Oh, come on!" Fai crowed. "You talk to flowers and whirlwinds - all growing things obey you. You slip in and out of the Emerald Dream at a moment's notice. You didn't even bother to change your name!"
Sakura blushed, and the hint of shimmering color seemed to sweep down from her face into her whole body until a small, elegant dragon with iridescent green scales sat in her place, two claws hooked delicately around the swords that seemed like child's toys in her grip.
"Well, all right," she admitted. "But the Green Dragonflight didn't send me to do anything! None of this would have happened in the first place if my memory scales hadn't been scattered. It was so long before I even got enough of my powers back to return to my original shape. I didn't think any of you would believe me."
"We know," Kurogane said. "There would be no reason for a Guardian of Nature to come so far abroad otherwise. I mean, mostly you guys just sit in the Emerald Dream and don't do anything useful at all."
"Kuro-toothy! Don't be mean," Fai admonished. "We all have our reasons for being here, whether the Aspects specifically sent us or not. Even Mokona isn't here by accident, now are you, Moko-chan?"
"Mokona isn't a dragon," the small critter whined, long ears laying flat against its head as it craned to look upwards at the suddenly huge forms of its companions. "Mokona is Mokona!"
"No one said you were, Moko-chan," Sakura soothed.
"Mokona has sometimes wondered about Yuuko, though!"
"That damned witch!" Kurogane cursed. "I knew it! If she isn't working with the Black in up to her ears, I'll eat my tail! Next time I see her, I'll..."
"Excuse me," Syaoran interrupted. "We could stand around and argue inter-flight politics all day, but don't you think we should be recovering the Princess's feather?"
Four lambent gazes turned on the black dragon, who seemed to have lost a good deal of his bluster, pinned down under the lambent gazes of his brood's four worst enemies.
"Oh," he said, showing unusual foresight for a black dragon, "crap."
With the memory feather - or scale - recovered, it was time to move on to the next world.
"So..." Sakura said uncertainly, gossamer-translucent wings fluttering over her back.
"Um," Syaoran said, looking distinctly ill at ease in his draconic form.
Kurogane lowered his neck, eyes half-slitted as smoke steamed from his nostrils, "I vote we go back to our human forms and never mention this again," he said.
"Okay!" Fai chirped agreement.
And they never did.