As Erin Solstice sat with the [Alchemist] named Octavia in a warm room in the city of Celum, another girl ran through the snow far to the south. She had been running for a long time—before Erin had even woke up, in truth, but she ran on with wild abandon.
Most runners conserved their energy; measured their pace and thought of distances to traverse, and of caution and prudence. They treated their bodies as finite resources. But Ryoka Griffin ran as though there would not be another ten minutes, let alone a tomorrow. She didn’t think beyond each step; her bloody feet churned through the snow as she ran the icy road from Liscor north.
She had known pain before. She had felt it in her heart, in her fragile limbs and from a thousand races and competitions and injuries. But now the agony of her heart was making even the urgent, biting thunder in her legs and chest grow silent. She had to keep running. She had to get there in time.
She ran north, gasping for air. She ignored the group of Goblins who spotted her and chased after her for a few paces. She ignored the people on the road; merchants and even groups of adventurers who called out. She ran with only one purpose in mind.
To avoid being too late.
Never again. I swear it. Never again, I swore.
Time and time again I’ve said the same things, made the same promises. My broken oaths litter my past, and the dead claw at my heels. I feel like I walk in circles; repeating the same story towards infinity.
I can’t break free. I can’t stop it. I make friends and lose them. No; until this point I didn’t have friends. It was just me driving the nail into my skin, waiting for my skin to fester and rot. I would throw myself into challenges and cast everything to the wind because there was nothing worth clinging to.
At least, in my mind. But when I finally looked up and saw what was worth holding onto, it slipped from my fingers like starlight in the harsh light of the truth.
I ran for my friends and found only blood and bones before my eyes. Piles of bloodied rags in the darkness. Memory in shadow. It hardly seems like they’re gone. The lack of any goodbye haunts me.
I fell down and the Stone Spearstribe lifted me out of the cold. They offered me a hand—a paw—and lit a fire to ward away the cold. They died to destiny and monsters, fighting alone against a horde led by the Goblin with empty eyes.
And one last time, yes, one last time I run. Onwards, to save a friend who made a place to live in a world filled with monsters and magic. She built a place to keep my heart, and I brought death to her doorstep.
Is that my fate? Is that the price I pay? The cruelest of fates would be that. If destiny could read my mind, it would know that punishing others for my transgressions would hurt me most. If that is the case, why shouldn’t I run far away, far away and find a place where I will be alone forever?
I tried that once. But people who loved me found me. I tried it twice, and they still brought me back. Was it truly love, or just the need to fulfill their duties as parents and guardians in a society that judged?
I should have asked, even if it meant listening to lies.
I have one last card to play. My deck is nearly empty. I thought I had a full hand of cards, but each one has flown away into a sky full of regrets. Some nights I stand on a hill full of yellow bones and wonder who will bury me in the dark earth when I die.
I have nightmares about that. Not of dying; I never did. But now I fear I will outlive everyone around me.
My fingers hurt. My lungs hurt. My feet—
At some point I think I decided the boots I was using were slowing me down too much. I threw away the coat and hat and everything else with it around the same time. I run through the snow. My feet burn with the cold; a terrible prickling pain trending towards numbness. Frostbite awaits, a dark little creature holding oblivion in one claw.
I don’t care. I run on, as fast as I can. I don’t even remember how long it’s been. I knew I had to get to Teriarch right away; but it will take at least a day of running straight out to get there.
Too slow. I might die before I reach him. So many things could happen. But I have to run as fast as I can.
If Erin is dead, then I really am lost.
How do I know she’s even in trouble? I can’t tell. She could have wandered off and simply not come back.
She could be dead.
It could be a thousand and one things or none of them. But as I was thinking, the terror of it came over me. When did I—? I’ve never been this afraid. Not of anything. But the thought of losing someone else makes me run even faster than I do now.
Running alone through the snow, blurring past people on the road who stare at me in surprise. Running, running.
But they follow me even so. So I guess I’m not alone.
“Is she trying to run fast?”
“I think she is! But she is so slow, isn’t she sisters?”
“Yes, so slow! Slow like dripping sap and ice melt.”
I grit my teeth. But they’re with me, as always. I look left and see a faerie lazily flying by my side. She laughs at me.
“Huffing and puffing away. Do you think it will help?”
“Where. Is. Erin?”
The faerie stares at me. I stare back. For once, this is a contest I can’t win. After a few seconds I stare back at the road, just in time to dodge past a large stone.
“Human. Have ye not heard us the last hundred times we’ve said it? We do not interfere in mortal affairs.”
The faerie flips over and stares at me.
“Mm. True. But we do not break our oaths that easily.”
“You broke them once for me and Mrsha. Just tell me if Erin’s okay.”
“And why would we do that?”
Don’t snap at them. Don’t yell. I breathe in and taste the blood as the cold air rushes into my lungs.
“Don’t you care? She made you food. She likes you.”
“She is still mortal. She is one among countless many. Why does she matter more?”
“She matters to me.”
It’s too much. I stop in the snow, slowing down and trying not to tumble as I start to skid. I stare at my feet in the snow and only notice now that I’ve left a trail. I lift one foot and see pink, red flesh. Blood begins to drip out of the white-red gashes on my feet, but slowly. The cold makes even losing blood hard.
“Ooh, she bleeds!”
Some of the faeries flying around me fly closer. I wave them away, but they just fly around my leg, pulling faces at me. I stare at them.
“Help me. If you won’t help me find Erin, help me reach my destination quicker. I know you can.”
I still remember the rushing air around me, the coldness in my bones, and the feeling—of flying. The night I ran through the Goblin Army to safety with the faeries—how far did I go? Each step felt like I was running into forever. The world felt still around me and I felt like I understood running like I never had before.
I need the same thing now. Erin could be injured, betrayed by her damn skeleton. Or maybe it failed her and a monster got her. Or if she crashed the sledge—
Erin lies on the ground. The blood from her head stains the snow. She’s looking around, calling out for her skeleton. I hear a growl, and then a Carn Wolf pads over to her. It sniffs at her and then bites, engulfing her head in its huge mouth. Muffled as it is, I hear a scream—
I shudder. My dreams were like this last night. I keep seeing—
I have to run faster. I look at the faeries. They’re hovering around me, giving me skeptical and incredulous looks. One of them floats nearer to my face.
“You beg a favor with naught to offer? Nay, you beg to alter destiny? Have you no shame?”
I meet her eyes squarely. The faerie shakes her head at me.
“Nothing is free. We are not gods! This fate you fear is your duty to change, mortal.”
“My name is Ryoka Griffin.”
She gives me an old look.
“She fed you. She built her inn out of copper to please you! She’s the only damn person in this world worth saving! Don’t you care!?”
I scream at them. The faeries hover in the cold air, and I feel it grow colder. My feet don’t really feel like anything anymore. But I don’t look away from them.
This time, the high-pitched voice is gone. The voice that comes out of the glittering diamond of a body is lower, and it echoes. Something else is speaking. Or perhaps it’s the true form of the faerie that even Erin and I can’t see.
“We care. Watch your tongue, mortal. We care. We care like pouring rain and a new shoot’s blossom. We care for fires’ burn and for scurrying things caught by flood and fang. We care for the fading earth and the sigh of a dying breeze. We care.”
“So stop asking!”
A snowball hits me in the face. This one has shards which cut and burn. I wipe away the snow and feel myself bleeding. Around me, the fey are hovering. Watching.
“I know there are rules. I know destiny exacts casualty for every action. But if that is the nature of this world, why not cheat? Why not—break the rules and act without consequence? I bet you can.”
Scornful looks. One of the faeries flies closer. I think I know her. I think I’ve been talking to her most of the time. She looks like the others, but—
She taps me on the nose and everything freezes for a second. I stumble backwards and clap my hands to my face. She shakes her head.
“You really know nothing, do you? Did ye ever think that even we have enemies? Did you not think that the rules exist for a reason? You could not even dream of those who would call the fair folk their enemy.”
The faerie blinks at me. I swing at her and she lazily flips over my hand. She doesn’t look offended. I breathe heavily out of my mouth; my nose feels numb.
“What’s the point of rules if you can’t do anything? If—if your version of morality doesn’t consider Humans important, it’s broken. If that’s what you believe, you can all go to hell.”
I raise my middle finger and flip all the faeries off. They stare at me.
“It matters. Now matters. If we’re so insignificant and you can’t do anything, why are you following me?”
The faeries exchange a glance. And then four more fly down with the first faerie. They speak right on top of each other.
“Because we are bored.”
“Because you defy the fates.”
“Because of a grain of sand.”
“Because you would challenge Gods.”
“Because we can.”
I look at them.
“Then help. You can’t just watch. There’s a cost, even for the audience.”
One of the faeries blinks. The others scratch at their heads.
My heart beats again. I hear it, but my mind is racing. I grasp for straws.
“Of course there is. The audience is never silent. They gasp and encourage or boo the actors. And sometimes they help. Sometimes they change the story.”
“Mm. True. She speaks the truth!”
One of the faeries says that. The other smacks her, eliciting a cry of pain. The second faerie glares at me.
“You have asked much already. Too much! If we do all for you, what purpose do you serve?”
She’s right. I stare at her. I have been asking for their help. I should have been taking care of everything myself.
Without a word I keep running. Something in my body screams, and I swear, it feels like things are breaking—snapping apart in my legs. But I keep running nevertheless.
Faster. I have to run—
A faerie flies by my side. The same one as before. She looks at me.
“Ye really are slow, you know.”
I close my eyes. It was the only thing I was proud of. But it’s true.
A bit faster. I pump my arms, and my foot pushes off the ground. I can’t really feel them. But who cares?
This might be my last chance.
Erin backs away from a skeleton with a sword. It grins at her, empty sockets flashing with purple life. She raises her arms, but it runs her through. Blood bubbles out of her mouth and she grasps at the skeleton. It yanks the sword back and pieces of her come with it. It slowly raises the dripping blade and—
Faster. I gasp and cry and run. Just once, please. Please God, or anyone who’s listening. Just let me save one more person.
I did it once. Mrsha. I paid a price. I’ll do it again. No matter what I have to give up. Faeries and Dragons. Immortals. I’ll offer whatever it takes.
But how? I know who might find her. But how can I convince him to help me?
It’s like part of me is screaming at once, running with a thousand emotions in my heart. But another side of me sits in silence, listening to the rushing wind. That other Ryoka in me is thinking. Even if I get to Teriarch in time, how do I convince him?
He’s proud. He’s a Dragon. I’m nothing. He might erase my mind or kill me in an instant. What could I offer him?
Think. Dragons. Old. Immortals. Timeless. Pride?
No. Greed? Wisdom? The desire of immortals is…what does a Dragon want? Virgins on stakes? Cow steaks? Money? Magical items?
It’s impossible. But I have to think of something. Something that would tempt even a Dragon?
The oldest kind. The oldest games. Something timeless. Pride. Challenge the Dragon. Sacrifice and risk. A magic sword.
I—old. He’s old. And he’s prideful? Yes. Something’s there.
Hold on. Pride. Magic sword. Magic? Magic…the oldest games?
I think I know what I have to do. If I can ask him that—how did it go? Red house. Owning cats? Fish?
Try to remember. Cryptology club. Middle school. So long ago. I can reconstruct it. Think of it.
My mind is fuzzy. I’m so tired. How long have I been running? Where did my shoes go? I feel numb. It’s a bad sign. But I’m still running. It feels like it’s been over a day. Or maybe it’s been a few hours?
It doesn’t matter. I can feel the cold wind touching my half-healed stumps. I’ve already lost something. I’ve not lost enough. I would give away the rest if it means I’m not too late for once.
I have to be there in time.
It’s so cold.
High above the girl, the faeries fly in the cold sky. They stare down at her and consider what she’s said. They debate in words no Human could ever understand, and think of what might happen and might be.
A faint wind blows. It pushes the girl, though she doesn’t feel it. It is not a wind that touches the skin. It makes her run across the ground, though the snow, and yet, somehow, her path is shorter than before. She runs the same distance the same way, and yet the wind makes her arrive a bit faster than she would have otherwise. That’s all.
The faeries fly after her, savoring the breeze. Then they fly up, and one speaks. She declaims to the world, to the others, her voice high and carrying.
“‘Tis so often we see on high that it is like rain.
The thing that kings dream of and heroes possess;
An end or beginning of such tales, which mortals call doom.
The birthright of tragedy; a speck of hope in despair.
As blades of grass are crushed ‘neath heedless foot
So too shall the skein of woven fate
Crumble and break
Upon this earth.
Yet for this one, the star shines brightest now,
At fire’s waning and the moment hammer strikes.
‘Twill spell her fate, the wretched child
Who would dice upon the table of worlds with Gods.
But quick, we fly on!
To bear witness for friendship burgeoning.
And let the oldest stories rise again.
Lo! We declare such immortal words.”
The other faeries looked at each other. One spoke.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
They flew off after Ryoka. And in moments, hours, in due time, she reached the High Passes.
The girl screamed. The Dragon watched with magic, one eye cracked the tiniest fraction of the way open. His spells had woken him from his slumber, and now he stared at the girl running through the deathly path between the mountains.
He’d thought she was at least partly intelligent. Didn’t she know what shouting would bring? She wasn’t even using that foul potion this time. Already the wolves were following, and the goats had begun to descend. A few more steps and she would wake darker things with her noise.
He sighed. He didn’t feel like dealing with Humans today. Already he’d been pestered by Reinhart’s messages. He just wanted to sleep. But he had sent something with her, hadn’t he? Something important?
Oh yes, the letter. He’d thought about it for a while. Had it arrived? Teriarch thought of Perril Chandler. Yes, the mage was a nuisance, but the letter was the important thing. He had to know if it had arrived safely.
The Dragon grumbled, but the girl was stumbling. And there were those blasted fae with her as well. But it couldn’t be helped.
He stirred himself, spoke a word. A man appeared in the room; standing with an irritated expression on his face. Teriarch focused, and the man walked back a few paces. There. He looked normal, didn’t he? Teriarch had a thought and glanced at the cave wall.
Right. Shadow. He flicked his tail and his shadow vanished. That should do it.
He looked back at his image of the high passes. He couldn’t focus on the girl; her blasted name still didn’t work. But he could still see her from high overhead. He spoke another word. The girl in the magic spell vanished, and she was standing before him.
She stumbled; stared around in shock. The fae were already chattering to him in tinny voices that hurt his ears. Teriarch grumbled and spoke another word. The flitting immortals didn’t freeze, but the girl did. That was something.
Teriarch cleared his throat. Below him, the magical copy did the same. He saw the Human representation of himself raise his hand to cast the next spell.
All he had to do was say a few words. Teriarch didn’t know what the spell would be called with the magic system Humans used. [Greater Geas] was probably close enough; he doubted the girl would ever meet a mage capable of casting the same.
The Dragon took a breath. He only had to say those words. Then he could ask her all the questions he wanted. She wouldn’t be able to throw off his magic if he used more force. He only had to do that.
But then the Dragon smelled the blood. It was such a faint odor at first, almost masked by the scent of the fae and snow and sweat and ice. And he was used to smelling blood from the things in the High Passes. But this blood was fresh, and close.
Teriarch stared at the girl. Blood was pooling around her feet, running in the warmth of his cave. It ran from her feet, but he couldn’t see any wounds on her body. He stared at her feet.
Two words. He only had to say them. But Teriarch hesitated, and that made all the difference. It was such a small thing. But it meant…
I stare at the old man, unable to move. I throw myself against the spell that holds me, trying to move any muscle in my body. Hell, I’d release my bowel control if it meant getting his attention. But the full-body paralyze spell freezes even those muscles.
I can’t let him send me away. I have to resist whatever he does. I have to resist. Don’t lose focus. Don’t give in. Don’t—
“What happened to your feet?”
I blink at him. I can move again. I stare down at my feet and see the blood.
There’s a lot of it. It stains the perfect, lovely marble floor. I raise my foot and slowly stare at it.
Ruined. Flesh is torn. I stare at the bottom of my feet and try to remember what they’re supposed to look like. My feet always had calluses, and Mom used to say that they looked awful. But now—
It’s not quite a laugh. I just stare at what used to be my soles and shrug. I look at Teriarch. The old man is staring at my feet. His haughty look is gone.
“It doesn’t matter.”
He looks at me, surprised. I just stare back. They really don’t matter. Not right now. But he shakes his head.
He points at my feet, and I feel a shock that goes through my core. It feels like something bright flashes through me. If bright could be a feeling—
Suddenly, the terrible numbness in my feet and my legs fades. I feel pain, and then not even that. I wiggle my toes, able to wiggle them after that feeling vanished.
Blink. Blink. My toes waggle in the blood around my feet. Teriarch speaks again, and then the blood begins to flow away.
I turn around and see the blood flowing away, back towards the cavern entrance. One of the faeries laughs and chases after it.
“There. Kindly do not track—kindly do not bleed in my domain again.”
This time, I look at Teriarch and realize how frozen and tired I’d been before. Now my mind feels like it’s racing at its peak. No—I feel better than I have in years. What magic was that?
No. Focus. Standing before me is a Dragon. Remember that.
But now that I’m in front of him, the old man seems far realer than my belief in Dragons. Just looking at him erodes my confidence in my memories. I remember them clearly but he looks—
He looks good, okay? Like, really good*.
*Like the kind of person we wish we could be. Like a model, something to strive for. Even if it’s an illusion, it’s art in its own way. He makes me remember my imperfections.
But I have to focus. Erin.
The thought of her is the shock I need. I blink and grit my teeth so hard my gums hurt. Teriarch stares at me in silence for a few moments. What should I say first?
“Well, I must congratulate you for punctuality, I suppose. You took longer than I had hoped, but you are clearly dedicated to your duties.”
I stare at him. What? What’s he—
Oh. Oh right. The letter. I’d barely remembered that.
Human Teriarch sighs. He waves a hand and a bag appears and gold coins appear out of the air and drop into it. A lot of coins for such a small bag*.
*A bag of holding? No—focus. Why do I feel so—so distracted? I was—was I depressed? Did that spell actually normalize my brain chemistry or something? Focus, Ryoka*.
**But I want to smile. I want to laugh. What the—I feel so good. What is this? I’ll take it, whatever it is. I can do this.
The old man waves the bag and it drifts towards me. He looks me in the eye, his heterochromic eyes hypnotizing.
“Speak the truth…messenger.”
Did he just forget my name? Teriarch clears his throat.
“I assume that you fulfilled my request and delivered both ring and letter to Perril Chandler?”
“Was there any response? I doubt it, but the man might surprise me.”
“No. He…read the letter and said it was an appropriate gift.”
While he was making a horrific monstrosity over my head. Don’t mention that part! Just speak the truth. But half-truths. Yeah.
Teriarch looks vaguely pleased. He nods, but then flicks his fingers.
“Well, it took a bit of thought. And with that, I should be fine for another hundred…blast, what about Reinhart? Hmm…”
Unless Magnolia’s older than I thought, Teriarch believes in thinking ahead a lot more than a Human. And he’s pretty damn optimistic too, unless Humans live longer than they do in our world.
But then the old man pretending to be a mage looks back at me, and my spine stiffens. It’s not a spell; I’m just tense. I have to speak. I open my mouth, but then the bag flies towards me. I catch it instinctively.
“There. Eight hundred gold pieces, as agreed. I believe it should serve you well. Now, I will send you back to your city or hovel or wherever you please.”
He waves a hand and then hesitates.
“Ah. [Open Portal]?”
Did he just cast magic without using a spell? The shimmering magic of golden motes that begins to swirl around me started before he said those words. But that’s not important.
He looks irritated.
“What is it this time? I will not renegotiate—”
Is now the time for it? No, no time to hesitate. I point at Teriarch, straight at his chest.
“You…you are a Dragon, aren’t you.”
He freezes. The air freezes. For a moment the world goes s—
“Ooh! She said it!”
That came from overhead. I barely process the voices, though. Neither, seemingly, does Teriarch. He stares at me. At last, he clears his throat.
“Dragon? What? You must be…I’m not a Dragon. Hah. You must be mistaken.”
Oh my—he sucks at acting! I stare at Teriarch. He stares back.
“Don’t lie to me. I know you’re a Dragon.”
“I’m not a Dragon. You’re mistaken. I’m uh, an [Archmage]. You must have confused my noble disposition with a Dragon’s…somehow.”
“I know you cast some kind of memory spell on me. I broke it and remembered. You. Are. A. Dragon.”
The white brows of the old man draw together.
“That’s impossible! No Human could—wait a second. Did Magnolia interfere? Is this one of her…pranks?”
“A Courier had a powerful charm. It broke the enchantment on me.”
“A Courier? One of them had—but my spells—was it a directly applied magic, or some kind of non-renewable sealed spell? I suppose my magic might have been compromised by a interwoven spell…”
The old man begins to mumble. Again, I’m a bit taken aback. He sounds grouchy, now, not like a Dragon. But after a few more seconds the old man looks at me. Shit. He’s going to—
“Anyways, you are mistaken. I am not a Dragon. I am just a—”
Teriarch’s eyes widen and then my fist crunches as it meets his perfect nose. It was a good punch; I stepped in and hit him with my best shot. With my left hand. My right one is still missing those fingers even after the spell.
I’ve gotta admit, even though part of me feels bad for hitting someone who looks like he’s four times my age, I enjoy that immensely. Add that to my gravestone*.
*Ryoka Griffin, 1995 – 2017. “Never knew when to shut up. Also, punched a Dragon.”
The old man stumbles backwards. I blink. What? He raises a hand to his nose and looks at the blood gushing from one nostril.
Oh no. Oh shit. I didn’t—he’s human? But I thought—
“Hmf. Humans are so violent.”
And then the old man in front of me wavers, and vanishes. The blood, the odor of his body, even the presence of him, the faint sense that something is there all vanishes in an instant.
And then I see the Dragon.
There are no words. It’s a Dragon. What else can I say? And yet, and yet…how insufficient the word is for him.
A Dragon. A wyrm. A being of scales and fire. An immortal creature or at least an ancient one in most mythoi. Ostensibly a large lizard with wings when you get right down to it. But the reality of one is different.
The Dragon lounges in the cavernous cave, the place that could hold a military aircraft hangar with ease, and makes the room feel cramped. He stretches out, serpentine tail coiling around some of the magical artifacts piled up in his room. He’s not sleeping on a pile of gold a la Smaug—rather, he’s just lying on the ground, using his claws as a pillow.
Yes, he looks more like a dragon depicted in Western culture than an Oriental dragon. But instead of horns on his head he has a mane that looks like someone’s taken molten bronze and turned it into some kind of living hair.
Oh yeah. His scales are bronze. A deep bronze—and let me be clear, when I mean bronze, I don’t mean the color people think of as bronze. I mean bronze as it truly looks when it’s worked properly:
The light. Oh, the light. Even the sun doesn’t look as beautiful as this color. The faint light in the cavern reflects off his scales and turns the entire cavern a slightly odd shade. He glows in the light, and his mane is luminous as the rest of him.
And now the Dragon—Teriarch raises his head. When I first saw him he looked almost as if he was sleeping, but now he sits up, and spreads his wings slightly. I step back and stare up, up, up, into two mismatched eyes that pierce me to the core.
This is a Dragon. This is Teriarch’s true nature, in front of me at last. He still defies words. We have so many, but what could really describe what I’m seeing?
Serpent. Wyrm. Drake. Arach. Naga. Ormr. Tann—
Wait a second, I’ve done this before.
I break out of the spell. I’ve done this before. Yes, I’ve seen Teriarch before. And I could stare at him forever, but I don’t have time for that. I clear my throat.
The word makes my bones vibrate. Teriarch’s voice—his true voice shakes me to the core. Remember that bowel movement I talked about? I’m one second away from actually making good on that threat.
Teriarch lowers his massive head and suddenly he’s only twenty feet away from me. Twenty feet, but his head—I’m fixed in place, like a mouse staring at a cat. Or a mouse staring at a jumbo jet that smells like brimstone. When his mouth opens I can smell fire.
“So. You have uncovered my true form. I suppose I should congratulate you. But know this: your error was not in bringing this secret to your grave. Whatever paltry treasure you have imagined obtaining, know that I will not part with a single fraction of my wealth. If you are wise, you will—”
“I don’t want any treasure.”
He pauses. The sight of a puzzled Dragon is something I’ll take to my grave.
“I don’t want any treasure. I’m not here to try and extort something out of you. I don’t have any desire to tell anyone that you’re a Dragon.”
Pause. The huge eyes sweep over me like spotlights.
Blink. Even that’s scary on a face as huge and terrifying as his.
“Then why are you here?”
Stay calm. Be cool. He might be a Dragon, but he’s still Hu—he’s only mort—he’s uh, he probably has the same emotional wavelength as I do. He’s acted like that so far, anyways.
I clear my throat nervously.
One eye stares at me. My mouth is dry as the Sahara in a heat wave, but I speak anyways.
“My friend is missing. I need you to help me find her. I need your magic. I ask—humbly—for your aid.”
Stare. The Dragon’s just staring at me. I mean, Teriarch’s just staring at me. Is this a lizard thing? My back is already sweaty, but then he turns his gaze away. Teriarch stares at the ceiling and starts talking to himself.
“First Reinhart, and now a random Courier. Do I look like I enjoy entertaining such…?”
It’s a mumble, but coming from a Dragon, it’s quite audible. Teriarch seems to realize this, because he shuts up and fixes me with another glare.
He looks…grumpy. The massive Dragon exhales a plume of smoke as he stares at me.
“Why should I use my vast powers for you?”
Okay. Time for reasoned arguments. That I didn’t prepare. With a Dragon.
“Magnolia Reinhart knows my friend. If Erin Solstice dies, she will be upset.”
I can only tell the truth. Or maybe he can sense it? Did he cast that spell on me this time? But it’s sort of true, right? Erin did mention that. It’s not a lie, not a lie, not a lie…
Teriarch eyes me.
“So? Humans are always upset.”
Is that a bluff? Call it.
I try to smile at Teriarch, but my lips barely work. I feel like I made a really stupid face, but I press on.
“That’s an interesting perspective. Would you like to talk to Magnolia Reinhart and explain how you knew Erin was about to die and you let her? I’m sure she’d love to hear that.”
He twitches. I’m on the mark, or close to it.
“Reinhart doesn’t have the power to order me about.”
Now he really does sound like he’s grumpy! I take a deep breath. Flatter. Dragons. Pride. All that.
“I don’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I really care about my friend, and I know she’s important to…Magnolia Reinhart. I need your help. I’ll do anything for it.”
“Huh. What would I need from you?”
Teriarch draws back and stares over my head. He looks at something on the ceiling. I look up too.
Oh shit. The Frost Faeries are flying around the ceiling, laughing and then shrieking as Teriarch stares at them. They don’t look intimidated at all, but the Dragon looks pissed.
“Hrm. Let me see. You come here, bringing these pestilent beings with you, bleed in my cave twice, inflict that foul potion upon my senses, extort me for more money than your services are worth, and then you demand my help after insinuating that Reinhart may order me about?”
Uh oh. When he puts it like that…yeah, maybe I should have reconsidered.
And to make matters worse, the faeries seem to have understood his reference to them. Some of them fly around Teriarch’s face, shouting shrilly.
“Pests! We aren’t the pests, you bag of scales, you!”
“We do not fear you, old fool!”
“Indeed! Just the other day we slaughtered a score of bees!”
It’s only a word, but it sends the faeries flying away in a panic. Okay, local chain of authority established. I gulp, as Teriarch looks down at me.
“I know it’s presumptuous, but—”
The word rocks me on my feet. But I hold my ground. Not for my own dignity; I think I did pee a bit there. But Erin—
“Fine. No favor. But I still need your help.”
Now he’s mad. Teriarch stands up for the first time and holy crap is he huge. He takes one step towards me and I flinch. His head lowers further until I can stare down his nostrils. They’re like the muzzle of a cannon.
“And what will stop me from erasing your small mind and sending you out of my cave to be torn apart, Human?”
Yeah, he’s mad. I gulp, but I’m out of saliva.
“I—I challenge you, Teriarch. I challenge you to a game of riddles.”
He blinks. Overhead, the faeries blink. I can practically see his brain working.
This was a stupid idea. This was the kind of stupid idea I could only have while running through the snow at freezing temperature and high velocity. But it’s all I’ve got.
“You heard me. I said I challenge you. To a game. Of riddles. It’s customary, isn’t it?”
“The game! She challenges him to the old game!”
Overhead one of the faeries shouts jubilantly. Both Teriarch and I look up.
“Haven’t—haven’t you heard of that? Uh, riddles? You don’t—don’t do that?”
Teriarch looks miffed.
“Well, I suppose I have enjoyed a riddle or two. But are you implying some play this game as a way to win…favors?”
I really shouldn’t base all my ideas on The Hobbit. Teriarch just stares at me for a while. I try to explain.
“Uh, well, I thought it was considered a sacred game that not even the most horrific of monsters would dare to violate. You could—uh, use it to wager things like life, magic rings—it’s a contest—”
“I am familiar with how games work.”
I shut up. Teriarch stares at me, and then flicks his eyes to the faeries above. Then he sits back.
“Riddles? A game? How…intriguing.”
Oh, be still my beating heart. Seriously, be still. I think I might be as close to a heart attack as I’ve ever come. But then Teriarch looks at me, and I don’t need to worry about that heart attack. It’s already happened.
“But why would I want to waste my time playing a game I know I would win?”
Good question. Excellent one. Do I have an answer? I scramble.
“Well…because it’s a challenge.”
He looks nonplussed. And then I get a bit annoyed. My mouth opens, and it takes charge instead of my fumbling brain.
“So? Are you a Dragon or a lizard that likes to hide under rocks? It’s a challenge, idiot. What part of that don’t you get?”
Teriarch gapes at me. The faeries gape at me. My mouth continues as it shoves my brain into the backseat.
“Are you really as stupid as you look? A challenge isn’t meant to give you something. It’s an attack on your authority! If you think it’s so easy to beat me, why not prove it rather than act like a coward and stall? Bring it!”
I’m pointing at Teriarch. His eyes fix on my finger. Above me I hear cheering. I see massive teeth draw back into a snarl, and then I hear the voices, at the edge of my hearing.
“She dares! She dares!”
“Let havoc cry and slip loose dogs!”
“‘Tis the moment! It is upon us!”
I hear something, or…feel something from overhead? Even Teriarch looks up.
Then something hits me, and I feel…different. But I can’t wonder what I’ve done. Something about faeries? But Teriarch is staring back at me, full of rage.
I meet the Dragon’s eyes, and bow my head. I need to say this right. I’ve only one shot.
“Know now I only seek to make things right!
Oh temper’d Dragon take heed of my request.
Put back your ire as in my hour of plight,
I do beseech thee at one other’s behest.”
Wait, what did I just say?
Oh fair readers let us set the stage and bring you sighs and words unseen. For this cavern where Dragon waits and Human does set the fates, the faeries dance and laugh and dream above. Nothing but such words and plots will inflame few thoughts.
And so they gather closely and listen well; is this Ryoka’s triumph or her death knell?
The Dragon laughs and breathes brimstone’s glare. Sure to sizzle the Human fair. He mocks and talks; she stands firm. Determined to trick this ancient wyrm.
“Your riddle game insults my name.
I am Teriarch; by what dare you to my time lay claim?”
“I dare for friendship and pride and all these things;
I challenge you to an ancient game played for things like magic rings.
It’s fun and daring; a game of skill.
Unless you fear you lack the will?”
The Dragon blinks and the faeries cheer. It has been too long since they have seen a mortal without fear.
“Hm. Well I suppose I could indulge your request
—understand it is not at your bequest.
But any game must wager meet.
If I would win, what will I keep?
You have nothing to offer—you there in bare feet.”
She speaks before him brash and bold; she does not fear to not grow old.
“I offer my life to serve until I am old and lame.”
“A spell will do the same.”
“What need have I for souls, I, a Dragon, the lord of flame?”
She thinks then, and ponders long, knowing her next answer must not be wrong.
“Then I offer what you do not know, the secret of my name;
the one thing I offer that you have to gain.”
A moment’s pause and the faeries wait. To see what will be decided of this amusing Human’s fate.
Then the maw opens and a deep voice speaks. The words of one neither small nor meek.
“Very well I accept your bet. But beware—would you lot stop that?”
I see Teriarch raise his head up towards the ceiling, and my body throws me to the floor a second before he spits fire. I hear screams and then the faeries are flying around in a panic. Are they dead? No—just on fire. Literally.
The Dragon harrumphs as the smoke and water cascade from the ceiling around me. I get up, shaking a bit as the faeries hide in a corner of the cavern behind some valuable-looking objects, shouting insults.
“Foul breath! Stupid snake-with-legs!”
“Fat old one!”
Teriarch bellows and the faeries scatter again. He snorts and glares at them as they decide to hide behind me.
I stagger. And put a hand to my head. And hold my stomach so I don’t vomit. What happened?
“What the hell—”
Was I rhyming? Why did I say—it seemed so natural—
“They have an odd sense of drama.”
Teriarch glares at the faeries as countless icy pinpricks freeze my shirt to my back. But his tone is more conversational.
“They alter the sense of—well, I suppose you would call it your perception of reality. It gets quite tiresome after a while. Still, it is rare to see them do that.”
My knees are weak. Teriarch blinks a few times at me. His anger is—gone. He’s just looking at me now.
“Curious. This has been an odd day.”
You’re telling me? I knew I was going to be facing down a dragon at some point, but this—
“Well, I have accepted your game one way or another, so let us begin.”
Hold on, just like that? But Teriarch is moving. Is he…sitting? No; he can’t really do that, or if he could it would be really awkward. He lies back down like a cat, pointing his head at me.
“A game of riddles, is it? I still have doubts about your intellect. You clearly cannot be that intelligent if you believe you have a chance of succeeding.”
“And you don’t seem that intelligent since you keep claiming you’ll win without any evidence. Would you just shut up and ask me a question? Or I’ll go first and—”
My hand cuts off my incredibly suicidal mouth and muffles the rest. I can hear the faeries laughing and exclaiming on my back.
For a long minute Teriarch stares at me and I imagine what would happen if he breathed even a bit of the fire he hit the faeries with. Let’s see. Death would be instantaneous unless the flame wasn’t that hot, in which case my eyes would melt and I would die in painful agony as every part of my body literally caught fire or just evaporated—
“Fine. As you wish.”
The Dragon snorts and smoke makes me cough. He frowns at me and then rolls his huge eyes and stares at the sky.
“Then, here is a question half of you Humans get wrong. Answer me in ten seconds or I will erase your memory.”
Shit. I think I pissed him off.
Teriarch pauses. Wait a second, does he not have a riddle ready? His mouth moves as if he’s thinking to himself. Is he really—?
“I am that which grinds down mountains and fells even the greatest of structures. Kings cannot ignore me, and yet all things will eat of me until I devour them in t—”
The Dragon pauses. He fixes one eye on me.
I’m shaking, but again, my mouth is moving faster than my brain. I’m all instinct right now, and I blurted the answer.
“The answer is time.”
First he doesn’t know about the riddle game, then he pulls one right out of The Hobbit? Holy crap, I’m glad I watched the movie this summer. But is that really a normal riddle? It’s so…easy.
Teriarch looks put out. He harrumphs, and the wind nearly makes me lose my balance.
“I see this riddle has been told to you before. Well; it is a simple one. Ask your riddle, then.”
“Ooh! Is she going to ask her riddle?”
“That last riddle was awful.”
Okay, ignore the peanut gallery that’s perching on my shoulders and head. Teriarch is glaring at them or me, I can’t tell which. I gulp. This is all moving very fast. But it’s time. He wants a riddle? I’ve got one for him. Albert Einstein, don’t fail me now.
“Ahem. Uh, in a village there are five houses. Each one is painted a different color, and in each one lives a different species. The five people who live in each house each eat a different kind of food, practice a different kind of magic, and own a different kind of pet.”
Silence on my shoulders. I am conscious of many little eyes staring at me, and two big ones. Teriarch clears his throat.
“Is this riddle going—?”
“The Drake lives in a magenta house.
The half-Elf keeps Shield Spiders as pets.
The Human practices Cryomancy.
The purple house is next to, and on the left of the puce house.
The owner of the purple house uses Necromancy.
The person who eats souls rears Griffins.
The owner of the fulvous house eats bees.
The person living in the center house practices Chronomancy.
The Antinium lives in the first house.
The person who eats grass lives next to the one who keeps Carn Wolves.
The house owner who raises talking mushrooms lives next to the being who eats bees.
The being who eats pancakes studies Pyromancy.
The Gnoll eats bagels.
The Antinium lives next to the ebony house.
The grass-eater lives next to the one who casts Aeromancy.
The question is this: Who owns the Crypt Worm?”
And when I’ve finished my desperate riff on an unfair classic question, only now do I realize how stupid it sounds. This isn’t a fair riddle. He just asked me one about time, for goodness sake! Why did I think—?
I’m—I’m going to die now.
I look over to my right. The faeries are—all of them—giving me the fish-eye. I can hear them whispering.
“Is that a Human riddle?”
“I don’t get it.”
“What Crypt Worm? She never mentioned one!”
I chance a peek at Teriarch. It might be the last thing I ever see, after all. He’s just staring at me. Is he considering how to bake me alive? Or is he actually thinking of the answer? No; he can’t. It’s not that simple. He’d have to have a pencil and paper. Hell, it took me ages when I figured—
“Hmm. The…Gnoll. Yes, the Gnoll.”
I feel my heart stop in my chest. Yes, for one second, my heart literally stops beating. The shock that hits me is like a real thing. How—
Teriarch grins at me. His teeth are like my tombstones.
“That was quite an intriguing question. Was it your best?”
The faeries’ tiny little mouths fall open as one. Me? I’m starting to panic.
Oh no. He’s smart. Not just smart; he’s a genius. He has to be. Teriarch raises a claw; now his eyes seem brighter, and he seems more animated.
“Well, it appears we have both answered one question correctly. And you seem to know some interesting riddles I have not heard of. Now, what should my next one be? Hmm. Hmm…naturally I know quite a lot of riddles, but if you know the answers, I should ask…let me see…”
And: shit. He’s competitive as well.
I take a few breaths as Teriarch mumbles to himself like a jet engine preparing to take off. Calm down.
Pep talk. I need a pep talk. Okay, I imagine my brain is giving me advice, because I need it.
Breathe slowly. Focus. You didn’t expect him to get that, but you’ve got more questions you can toss at him. All you have to do is concentrate. You have one advantage Ryoka. And that’s that while this world might have incredible magic, ancient Dragons, and people who can attain power beyond mortal limits—their riddles are still crap.
“Hmm. I have it!”
All my nerves are on fire at the sound of Teriarch’s voice. He raises his head and stares at me triumphantly.
“Human, here is a riddle that stumped your kind for over a century when your people were young. You stand at a crossroads on your journeys, but before you lie two guardians, one for each road.”
What? No. He’s not going to ask—really? I hold my breath as Teriarch goes on.
“The enchantment upon you is thus: you cannot tell either road apart, and yet one leads to safety, and the other danger. Once you have started down a road you cannot turn back. The two guardians will answer one question, but you may only ask it of one of them. And one will always tell truth and the other only falsehood. What question do you ask to take the safe route?”
Okay, riddles in this world officially suck. Or maybe it’s just the time. Or just the Dragon. Did he say that question stumped Humanity for a hundred years? Well, if these were the first riddles…
Teriarch grins at me, triumphant. The faeries are murmuring amongst themselves, clearly impressed.
“I will allow you some time to ponder your answer.”
“I don’t need it.”
“What? But—ah, then what would you ask one of the guardians whom you cannot tell apart?”
“I’d punch the one on the left and ask them if it hurt.”
More silence. Then I hear one of the faeries titter. They all start laughing and Teriarch glares at me.
“That is not a proper answer.”
“You want a proper one? Fine.”
“My question to the guardian would be this: ‘Which path would the other guardian point to that would lead me to safety?’ And then, I’d take the opposite road the guardian points to.”
“How did you know that?”
And I already solved that puzzle back in middle school. It stumped me back then, but hey, no one needs to know that. Teriarch stares at me.
“Well, I see that you have some intelligence after all.”
“Good to know you aren’t blind. My turn.”
As the Dragon splutters, I think fast. Okay, Einstein doesn’t work? That’s okay, I’ve got…
I don’t have time to make up another riddle! And I don’t remember many! They were not my thing in school. I was only in that club for two months! I really thought Einstein would get him, but, hold on, what about the blue foreheads one?
I look at Teriarch.
“Pay attention. A hundred—no, ten thousand people are locked in a room. Each person has a color painted on their head, but there are no mirrors and no one is allowed to speak due to an enchantment. Every day, the door will open and anyone who has a blue-colored forehead will be allowed to leave.”
I pause. Teriarch is frowning and his lips are moving. The faeries are giving me a glassy-eyed look.
“The magic on these ten thousand people prevents them from leaving unless they are absolutely certain they have a blue forehead. In this room, there are 2,459 people with blue on their foreheads, 98 people with red on their forehead, 12 with white foreheads, 4,421 people with no paint on their heads at all, and finally 3,010 people with viridian-colored foreheads. Fifteen people have no noses, and one person suffers from bladder incontinence. At least one person has a blue forehead. On what day does the last person with blue on their forehead leave?”
Again, I just hear silence. But this time Teriarch looks intrigued. He turns his head and begins muttering. Meanwhile my heart is pounding. I jump as someone slaps me on the ear.
The faerie glares at me.
“These aren’t proper riddles! What trickery is this?”
“They are riddles! They’re logical riddles!”
All the faeries begin chattering their agreement. I swat at them and then one bites me. I’m trying not to shout in agony when Teriarch looks back at me.
“All of the people with blue foreheads will leave on the two thousandth four hundred and fifty ninth day.”
I do sit down, then. Teriarch watches me slowly fold up onto the ground with a smug look. He looks almost like a grinning cat; like Garfield. But I’m just filled with despair. He doesn’t even seem to notice. His tail twitches, knocking over something that shatters as he speaks out loud.
“My turn I suppose. Hrmf. Well, what shall I ask? All of the truly difficult riddles are unpronounceable in your tongue. You wouldn’t happen to speak the language of magic, would you?”
He ponders as I stare at my hands. What was I thinking?
“Ah. Well, here is a simple question, Human. I have…five thousand eight hundred and eleven pears in my possession. I ah, I need to pay for them, but each pear is worth eight silver coins. How much are—”
“Forty six thousand four hundred and eighty eight silver coins.”
I know they’re staring at me, but I don’t care. Okay, so I answer that question, but what can I ask that he can’t answer? Think. I don’t have that many riddles, and he seems to know all the old ones. An unfair one? The Mad Hatters’s—but no, he’ll ask for the answer!
I need a question even someone as smart as he is can’t answer. A question that defies logic or—or—
What about…it’s my last shot.
Teriarch is staring at me. I look up, and realize I actually missed his question.
“How did you know the answer to that? That was no riddle.”
“It was just math.”
One of the faeries on my shoulders flies up. She glares at both of us.
“This is no fair game! Ye two are both cheating! We demand another game! We want—”
Teriarch breathes out. It’s the equivalent of me blowing gently, but it nearly blows me backwards and it sends the faeries flying off me. He shakes his head.
“Enough of that. Now, ask me another riddle. And make it a good one!”
He seems happy. But my heart is sunken into my chest. Time to cheat. This is all I’ve got.
I look at him. Why does he have to be powerful and smart? It’s almost unfair. But a part of me has to admire him. He solved Einstein’s riddle in a heartbeat, and the blue foreheads puzzle nearly as quickly. He’s—
He’s not like what I expected. And maybe he thinks that of me, because Teriarch is waiting for my question. Too bad I have to win.
“Here is my riddle. This statement is false. Was what I said just now correct or incorrect?”
The Dragon eyes me. I wait for him to declare me a cheater, and I hear someone shouting indignantly from the other end of the cave. And then—he laughs.
“Hah! That old paradox? That’s easy. The answer is—”
My ears ring when he says the next word. I clap my ears to them. Teriarch blinks at me.
“Ah. I forgot Humans can’t understand that language. My apologies.”
“What was that?”
He smiles at me. A Dragon’s smile.
“The answer to your question. That which is made false by being true unto infinity. The Elves came up with the word; it stumped all of them back in the day.”
Of course. I close my eyes. It’s not the earth that falls out from under me; no, this is different. I just feel tired. Tired and frustrated and helpless.
Above me the Dragon is eagerly speaking, faster than before, his deep thundering voice now replaced by a conversational tone.
“Well, I suppose that makes it my turn. How intriguing. I…hmm. What was that old riddle about sand? Ah, I think I have it—”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I sit back. Teriarch’s face looks puzzled in my blurred vision. I raise my voice, trying not to choke.
“I give up. I lose.”
“This is wrong! WRONG!”
“Where are the riddles! The games of cunning and skill?”
“This should not be! Did we—”
“Out of my cave!”
I see shapes darting away, flying out of the cave. And I hear whispers. I barely pay attention.
“That game was stupid! It wasn’t true or right! It—did we waste our time?”
“Is she wrong? Did we…?”
Even they think I’ve failed. The faeries leave and I can’t see anymore. Everything is swimming.
I’m crying. I’m actually crying. I sit on the floor and try to wipe my eyes. I was so sure. No—I wasn’t sure, but I thought this was stupid and it was the only thing I could think of.
“I can’t beat you. I can’t even try. ”
No matter what I riddle I throw at him, he’s going to solve it. He knows the answer to a paradox. What chance do I have?
I tried to use my brain. I should have just begged. I bend over and bow to Teriarch. He’s staring at me in silence.
“I can’t win. Just—please. I have a friend. I don’t know where she is. I’ll do anything, but please, please help her.”
That’s all I had left. My pride. I give it up at last. I thought I had so much. Once upon a time, I thought I was better. But I’m not.
I’m not stronger than anyone. Calruz and Gerial and the Horns of Hammerad humbled me. I’m not faster either; Val outran me easily. I’m not braver than Erin, or smarter than Teriarch. I’m just…
Weak. And normal. And very small.
I lie on the ground, crying like a kid. And I wait for it to be over. I wait to be squashed like a bug into a smear or to be mind-wiped and sent somewhere else to die. But none of those things happen.
I hear the air moving, and a hurricane that sounds like a sigh. And then I feel something touching me.
A massive claw pushes me up gently. I find myself sitting back, and then a massive head snakes down to my level. A voice speaks.
“Sit up. Wipe your face. What did you say your friend’s name was?”
My eyes widen. But the eye that looks into mine is not angry, and the voice is soft. I stare up, and Teriarch blows a plume of smoke upwards.
“I…suppose I could spare my time for a spell. Scrying is not difficult, and a teleportation spell is quite easy if need be. I just need her name.”
“Erin. Erin Solstice.”
I breathe the words. Teriarch mumbles the name, and then he traces something in the air. I see something shimmering in the air, and he sniffs at it. He stares at something that flickers. His eye widens.
He stares at me. I look back at him, heart pounding. But then the Dragon shrugs. He looks at me oddly, and then speaks.
“The spell will take a while to activate. But it will find your friend unless she is as peculiar as you are. I grant you the hospitality of my home, Ryoka Griffin. You may wait here until it is finished. And maybe you can tell me a riddle in the meantime.”
I stare at him. He’s a Dragon, a thing of immortal years. But as he lowers his head, he looks a bit more Human, or a bit more like me. There’s something in his eyes that makes me think he’s ancient beyond years, and unknowable. But then I see a bit of kindness.
Like an old man wiping away a kid’s tears. I breathe in, and out.
And then I sit up.
“Well. I do know more riddles.”
“Excellent. Tell me one.”
“Have you heard of an enigma?”
His eyes shimmer.
“I know many codes.”
“Then figure this one out. The riddle goes like this:
The noblest name in Allegory’s page,
The hand that traced inexorable rage…”
And I see a Dragon smile.
I smile too.