I sit on the ground and laugh. Hysterically. I thought I’d never be hysterical, but now I guess I am.
Let’s recap. I’m sitting on the ground in the center of a cavern filled with magical treasures. The floor is smooth marble; magelight fills the room. Valuable treasures lie scattered around like afterthoughts, and a Dragon lies across one half of the cavern and eyes me uncertainly.
In short, exactly how I imagined all of this going down. I think I have tears in my eyes, but I can’t stop giggling like a loon to wipe them away.
Erin’s fine. Of course she’s fine. Why wouldn’t she be? I ran all this way, desperate, and she was fine the entire time. She’s talking happily with Octavia in the image Teriarch shows me, and by the looks of it they’re having a good time. Octavia seems animated, at least.
She met Octavia. In Celum. I don’t know how she got there, but Toren must have carried her that far. Somehow.
It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Now that I know she’s okay, it’s like a cloud lifted from my mind. I can think clearly—only to realize how stupid I’ve been.
Here be Dragons. Or at least, one. Teriarch. He stares at me with a perplexed expression on his huge face. It makes me laugh harder.
How did it get like this?
His deep voice is impossible to ignore, but even he has to raise it above my manic laughter. Teriarch frowns at me.
“No. Ryoka Griffin, isn’t it? Are you well?”
I’m not. All of a sudden the laughter wants to turn to tears, and I feel like throwing up.
I’ve made such a mess of my life, haven’t I? Just like the last world, I guess you can’t let go of who you are even with a second chance.
I’m just a bit tired, now. But when I look up, even the bleakness of my heart is relieved.
After all, I am staring at a Dragon.
He lies in his cave, shining like living gold. His scales are brilliant, and they reflect fragments of light onto the walls every time he moves. He is a Dragon. Teriarch is a Dragon.
He delicately clears his throat, and I scrub at my face. Okay, okay, I’m okay. I can’t waste this moment. Waste any more of this moment, that is.
“Sorry. I uh—I’m sorry about that.”
He waves a claw at me.
“I shall pay it no mind. I am relieved that you are so…lighthearted. I understand you were quite concerned for your friend.”
Is a polite way of saying that he’s glad I’m not insane? For a second, I’m tempted to play all of this off as some kind of mental disorder. I wonder how he’d even deal with that?
He’d probably just heal me. Can he heal the mind with magic? What if you were born with chemical imbalances in your brain, for example? Would a [Restore] spell be useless in that case?
There’s the quasi-scientist in me, asking all the questions. Teriarch is still staring at me, so I clear my throat.
“I’m sorry about that. It’s just been a rough couple of days.”
“I see. My condolences.”
He coughs. I scuff at the marble tiles with my foot.
Oh my god. Here I am, talking with a Dragon, and I’m having problems carrying the conversation. And so is he!
Remember, he’s a normal person. Remember that. He’s just a Dragon, an immortal being – not a mammal, not someone who grew up with any of my societal norms, moral standards, hell, we’re not even the same gender…
“Well, yeah, it’s been tough.”
Someone shoot me. But Teriarch just nods and casts his eye to the ceiling.
“I did notice those pests following you about. They have a habit of ruining anyone’s day for as long as they maintain interest.”
“Pests? You mean the Frost Faeries?”
“Yes. I was quite intrigued. How is it that you can see them? Their glamour is usually impenetrable to even the most accomplished mages, unless they know what to look for.”
Um. That’s a really good question. I was going to look into that, but I never got around to it. I hesitate.
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Ah. Of course. I see.”
He gives me a dismissive look. And when a Dragon does it, you really feel small*. He scratches at his jaw. He was interested when I was telling him riddles, but I guess he still thinks I’m an idiot.
*Seriously. He’s about the size of a passenger airliner. Not a 747—more like an Airbus A380. Hell, what would happen if he landed on one of them? He could take down planes just pushing them out of the sky.
I grit my teeth, and moderate my tone. Okay, Dragon or not, I still don’t like being underestimated.
“I was going to say, I’m not sure, but I think it’s probably because I come from another world. Something about the chemical balance in my head – or my diet and my origin from another planet – may help me pierce their illusion. It could be any number of factors.”
The Dragon pauses. He looks back at me.
“Well of course. Ah…well, your origins might be one explanation, but faerie magic accounts for more than one world. There must be another reason; usually their magics are broken by satisfying some rule.”
“Any idea what that might be?”
“Not as such. But I must congratulate you on your considered opinion. It is rare to meet a Human so…thoughtful.”
“You mean, it’s nice not to meet an idiot. And that wasn’t a ‘considered opinion’. That was a basic conclusion that took less effort to come up with than it took to say.”
In the resulting silence I suck my lips in. Shit. I did it again.
But instead of swallowing me in one gulp, Teriarch only stares at me. Then he nods.
“Indeed. Well, I must apologize. It is rare for me to meet any mortal beings worthy of my time. Of course, the gap between our levels of understanding is such that these misunderstandings must inevitably occur.”
Did I just get a Dragon to apologize to me? It was a backhanded apology, but—I’ll process that later. Right now, the intelligent part of my brain that seems to have been on vacation up till this point wakes up and taps my frontal lobe. I might have screwed up in coming here, and that riddle game, but I have an opportunity here, don’t I?
After all, I am talking to a Dragon. And suddenly, I’ve got questions. Millions of questions.
I cough delicately. Teriarch is just staring at me, frowning as if he’s trying to work out what to do with me. Time to get on his good side, or at least, get some solid answers out of him.
He looks down at me. I hesitate, and then bow stiffly. The Dragon looks nonplussed.
“Thank you for helping me locate my friend, even though you were the one who won the game of riddles.”
“Think nothing of it.”
The Dragon raises a claw and flicks it, almost like a Human would. He almost seems embarrassed—but then he perks up.
“Ah, yes, I did win, didn’t it? And now I will claim my prize. Tell me, Human. How did you evade my scrying for so long?”
He bends his head down eagerly towards me, and I take a step back involuntarily. I’d almost forgotten when I promised him. It seems too inconsequential, but—
“My name. When you tried to scry me, you weren’t using my proper name.”
He frowns at me.
“That should not be. I questioned you under a truth spell. It would have been impossible for you to lie about your name.”
“Yes, but my name—my true name is Ryoka Griffin. I didn’t lie to you. But ‘Ryoka’ is only a translation. I was originally named in another language.”
To my surprise, Teriarch looks offended by this revelation. He starts grumbling to himself as his head rises up.
“That’s it? That hardly constitutes—a minor technicality like that isn’t part of—inferior spell design. I should have used…another language? But all peoples now speak—ah. Of course. You are from another world, after all. I should have factored that into my calculations.”
Now that I think of it—Teriarch isn’t even blinking over the revelation that I’m from another world.
“You knew who I was before this, didn’t you? Lady Magnolia told you.”
Teriarch is still frowning at something in the air. He mutters to himself, and this time I don’t understand the words at all. His eyes seem to shine with light that isn’t there, and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Is he trying to alter his spell? Or scry me?
“How do you know her?”
“That is none of your business.”
Teriarch looks at me dismissively. I twitch a bit at that. I hate it when people say stuff like that to me.
“Oh really? I’d say scrying on me without my permission constitutes a violation of my privacy. And Magnolia sending [Assassins] after me and constantly interfering in my life? That also sounds like my business.”
A pause. The Dragon eyes me. And I feel a bit of trepidation as I realize who I’ve snapped at this time. But his voice is just quiet and calm, without a hint of anger.
“She will speak with you in due time. If you have questions, I would advise you to speak with her. I may render her the occasional assistance, but her affairs are her own. I will not divulge her secrets.”
His eyes flick away, and I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding in. Okay, somewhat kindly, yes. But…still a Dragon.
He looks back at the shimmering image in the air and I realize Erin and Octavia are still hovering in the air. It’s…well, it’s a bit disturbing to think that he can just watch anyone he wants. Big brother’s got nothing on a magical Dragon.
But Erin’s not going to the bathroom or doing anything else private. She’s still in Octavia’s shop, in one piece and not missing any limbs. I stare at my right hand. Hell, she’s not even injured.
She looks happy. I can’t tell what’s happened, but it seems like Octavia’s counting out some gold coins and Erin’s peering around and touching things. Damn it, did Octavia scam Erin out of a bunch of money? She’s a fast-talker and Erin’s not. If she’s trying to con Erin I’ll kick her stitched-up ass.
Teriarch indicates the image.
“I will teleport you to your friend—after erasing your memory of course.”
“What? You’re going to erase my memories?”
The talking Dragon has my full and undivided attention. He scratches at the side of his head as he replies, nonchalantly.
“Well, of course. I can’t have you remembering our encounter. Fear not; I am quite capable of erasing only certain memories. You will find yourself outside your friend’s shop with vague memories of arriving there.”
That doesn’t sound good. The free ride, maybe. But the rest? No.
Think. I spread my hands out in supplication. I’ve got to talk him out of this.
“Oh mighty Teriarch—”
I pause. Nah, I can’t do that.
“—Look, don’t erase my memory. I won’t tell anyone what I’ve seen.”
He raises one eyebrow at me. And yes, Dragons have eyebrows. It’s more like a bony spur on their heads, but it works just as well for purposes of skepticism.
“I have heard that claim from countless lips. Each time it always ends with me raining fire and destruction upon the armies that come to slay me.”
He fixes me with a stare any basilisk would be proud of.
“Why should I trust your word now?”
“Besides—I did figure out who you were before this. If I wanted to expose your secret I would have already told someone. And how do you know I haven’t left messages to myself in case you erase my memory?”
Note to self: do that next time. At least Klbkch knows.
But Teriarch doesn’t seem impressed.
“In that case, I will simply have to control you with a spell and have you erase all of your records and kill all those you have told before you slit your own throat. How does that sound?”
I fold my arms.
“Won’t work. Even if you could get me to erase all of my contingency plans, the faeries would just tell me again.”
The Dragon pauses. He looks towards his cave entrance, almost uncertainly.
“They wouldn’t do that. They don’t choose sides.”
“But they are annoying.”
And I’d just bet they’d love to do that – if it occurred to their tiny little minds to do it. But the argument seems to work. Teriarch frowns.
“I can simply cast a spell on you to force you never to divulge my secrets. Or to cease speaking altogether. Which I am considering at this moment.”
Aha. Don’t push the Dragon too hard, Ryoka.
Shut up, Ryoka. I just shrug at him.
“You can do that. But that strikes me as an exceptionally crude and simple solution for a Dragon.”
“Well, aren’t you a Dragon? A famed creature of legend and myth with intelligence and wisdom far beyond that of even the greatest of mortals?”
Teriarch smiles. Let’s see. Dragons are conceited, prideful, and not a little bit susceptible to flattery. I go on.
“Why wouldn’t you want everyone to know of your nature? I’ve heard Dragons once advised philosopher-kings of old. Why not spread word of your identity far and wide?”
“That tends to lead to noisy adventurers with swords tromping around my cave. And armies, eventually. I think not.”
“Well, what about a few people? Lady Magnolia clearly knows about you. Isn’t it beneficial to have a few beings to talk to—people who can help you out?”
“Perhaps…but I am seldom in need of assistance.”
“I just delivered a letter for you.”
“Slowly, and at great cost. You had to come back for directions.”
Teriarch harrumphs and the wind makes my hair ruffle. Smelling his breath is like sticking my head into a train engine and inhaling.
“If it were addressed to any other person, I would have no issue in using magic to facilitate any communication I needed. Moreover, I can fly.”
He spreads his wings, and I eye the thick membrane connecting the wings. Interesting. They’re definitely proportional to his body mass, but there must be some magic to them or else he’s never getting off the ground with just his muscular strength. I shrug and glance towards the image of Erin and Octavia again.
What are they doing now? Erin’s tossing stuff in a…pot? Yes, she’s got a pot over a stove and she’s pouring a potion into it, and a bunch of carrots. Octavia looks like she’s swallowed her thumb. What are they doing?
Focus on the annoyed Dragon.
“Uh, right. Well, even if that’s the case, what if you have to send another letter to Az’kerash? And my abilities aren’t just limited to running. I did know several riddles which intrigued you.”
He grunts and shifts his position awkwardly on the stone floor.
“You are hardly a font of endless knowledge. Or are you implying you know all the secrets of your world?”
“Not all of them, but I know quite a bit.”
The skepticism in his voice makes me frown at him.
“I have a good memory and I was considered to be an excellent student in my world. I know more about mathematics, biology, and the way my world works better than almost anyone else my age.”
That’s fairly accurate, although ‘excellent student’ is definitely stretching it. But Teriarch seems determined to be obstinate. He rolls his eyes to the ceiling and flicks out his tongue before he comes up with something.
“Ah, but Reinhart has acquired several children like you. They all hail from your world; what is to stop me from questioning them.”
This time I snort out loud. Teriarch looks more surprised than affronted.
“You think you can get any decent information out of a bunch of high schoolers? If they know a tenth of what I do, I’ll eat Magnolia’s maid.”
There it is again. I see him smile!
“You are prideful.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
He grins at my challenging tone.
“Pride is something which all thinking beings have. But it can be true or illusory. Is yours the kind that would shatter if put to the test?”
He flicks one wing dismissively.
“Regardless, your knowledge may be useful, but what use have I of it? I am no Elf or Gnome to be constantly intrigued by new discoveries and knowledge. I know the secrets of magic and the true nature of this world. I know the names of ancient secrets and treasures long buried. I command storms and flame. What do you have to offer than I don’t already have?”
The Dragon’s eyes bulge. I grin at him, wild and slightly-unhinged on my part. I can’t help it. He’s being competitive and I have to take him down a peg.
“You may be a high and mighty Dragon, but I have seen things just as amazing as you are. Tell me, how fast can you fly? Can you break the barrier of sound? How high can you fly? Can you fly to the moon? Humans have done both these things; if we can do it, doesn’t that make us better than you in some way?”
I’m smirking a bit at him, but to my surprise, Teriarch’s lips quirk and he gives me a smile of his own. It wipes mine clean off my face.
“I have not flown to the moon, but I can break the air into pieces. And you are not the only species to reach such heights. Both Gnomes and Elves have walked upon the twin moons in the sky.”
No way. But Teriarch is giving me another smug look. That’s impossible, but then—we did it, didn’t we? If you had the right knowhow and spells—
“Well, I suppose that just means Humans, Elves, and Gnomes are all better than Dragons in some way, aren’t we?”
This time Teriarch’s glare is accompanied by a wing flap. The gust of air makes me stumble. I regain my footing and see him smile.
“My apologies. But I believe this discussion has run its course. I do not engage in pointless debate that serves no higher purpose.”
“What was that?”
I eye Teriarch’s teeth as he bares them ever so slightly.
“Indeed. And our…argument arose from one point. You do not wish me to erase your memory. I wish to do so. And I am the one with the authority to decide.”
That’s it, isn’t it? I bite my lip, but I can’t really argue with that. Instead, I sigh.
“Well, you’re right about that.”
Teriarch pauses as he draws himself up, towering over me.
“That’s it? No pleading? No begging?”
“Not my thing. If you’ve made up your mind to do it, I can’t stop you. I just think it’s a shame, that’s all.”
“Well, all beings desire to know all they can. You will not lose much, Ryoka Griffin. Just a few moments.”
He speaks a word, and I feel my bones humming. I stare up at him. He stares down at me, like some kind of ancient god. And because I can’t ever let anyone have the last word, I speak.
“Nothing? Really? A few moments are worth more than that. A moment is enough time to die. A few can be…everything. More than that. ‘A world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.’”
I see a Dragon’s eyes widen. Yes, I’m not over it. He’s still a Dragon. So I say that too. A bit of honesty before oblivion.
“Today I met a Dragon. You. And it was amazing. Indescribable. I’m not a poet, and I can’t find the words to even describe the magnitude of what I’ve glimpsed. I just think it’s a shame that I will forget something as timeless as that. In truth, I almost can’t believe that any spell could wipe that kind of experience from my mind. So if you’re going to do it, go ahead. But if you can really take away that moment from me without changing who I am, go ahead.”
I stare up at him and wait, trying to memorize every detail of his face, every part of this moment. But Teriarch hesitates.
“Were those your words, Human?”
“No. A poet wrote them. A Human poet.”
“I see. But what you said about me—do you truly find me that magnificent?”
“Yes. Don’t they have stories about Dragons in your world? They do in mine. You—your people are one of the most iconic images in my world. When people think of fantasy—of swords and sorcery and adventures, they think of Dragons.”
Now two eyes are staring at me. I shudder. Why does it feel as though he can stare into my soul? Maybe it’s the difference in age between us.
But I’m not lying. For once, I’m telling the truth. Compliments and flattery are mixed in, yes, but this is the truth. I can remember reading of dragons as a girl. I can remember the awe of imagining one. And reality did not disappoint.
“I grew up reading stories of dragons hoarding their gold, or fighting knights in battle. A dragon. Terrifying, yes, dangerous, yes, but for every Human in my world, when we dream of magic, we think of your kind.”
It’s as if he’s hanging on my every word, suddenly. And I have a thought: maybe he’s just as eager to know he matters as I am.
I nod. My heart is pounding.
“We know of you, even if all we know are stories. Remember that, Teriarch.”
For a second, I think he’ll zap me anyways. But the Dragon doesn’t. He closes his eyes.
“Myths. Legends. That is what my kind has become. But if I left your memories intact—”
“If you do, I will tell no one else. I swear.”
Another look. Longer, this time. Then Teriarch turns back to the image of Octavia and Erin floating by his head. I focus on it and realize something’s happened. Both of them are running around and if I had audio, I’m sure I’d hear them screaming. A thick purple vapor pouring out of one pot seems to be the reason. Even as I watch, something melts through the pot as Octavia tosses a white potion into the pot and something explodes into a cloud of white powder.
“Neutralizing potion. At least the [Alchemist] knows to take proper safety precautions. They should have mixed the carrots with a cold agent – even ice would have worked – before mixing in the Corusdeer horns. Of course, they would need a stronger coating. Flour, perhaps.”
Teriarch mutters that as he somehow manipulates the image and sends it down closer to me. I stare at the pot.
“Did you notice all that while we were talking?”
“Of course. We Dragons are quite capable of such feats. Compared to flying and breathing flame while casting a spell, this is trivial.”
He smiles, and suddenly it seems like Teriarch is…tired. I look up at him and feel as if he’s suddenly ancient. Or acting ancient, rather.
“I will send you to your friend. With memory intact.”
I can’t believe it. I wouldn’t have changed my mind with my weak arguments. But Teriarch just nods. He looks so old, now. Was it something I said?
“I will send you back. Do not move, and the process will be smooth. I will be certain of the altitude this time.”
He smiles. And something about him makes me a bit annoyed. First he’s intimidating, and then he’s tired. I want—I have the urge to say something. Here I am in the center of a cave full of treasures.
I turn around and stare at the thousands of things on display. A literal Dragon’s hoard. And the Dragon himself, muttering in his deep voice high above me. I can’t let it end like this. I should do something. I—
Inspiration, crazy, Erin-level inspiration hits me. I look back at Teriarch.
“Ahem. Before I go, can I uh, interest you in an offer?”
He cracks one eye open and frowns at me.
“I am concentrating. Teleportation spells are not easy even for me. What offer?”
How would Erin pitch this? I try my best.
“Would you…consider donating one of your magical items to the uh, GRF?”
“The Gnollish Relief Fund.”
That sounds so stupid. It’s perfect. Exactly the kind of thing Erin would say! Teriarch just gives me a blank look.
“Let me explain. I uh, happen to be trying to help out a Gnoll tribe.”
I try to explain as best I can the mess that Erin and I got ourselves into. Krshia’s tribe, the Silverfang tribe, and how they lost all their spellbooks they were trying to bring to their all-important Gnoll summit. Teriarch nods as I finish.
“I am aware of Gnollish traditions. That is a fine one; of course, they used to meet only once every hundred years, and then every fifty years. Then it was twenty years, but I suppose the tribes need to stay connected in this day and age.”
He sniffs; he doesn’t like to alter tradition, I guess.
“But what does this have to do with me?”
“Well…you have a lot of magical items. Would you consider giving one to the Silverfang tribe? A spellbook, for instance?”
He just stares at me. Yup. Definitely an Erin idea. But she could pitch it in a plausible way. Me—
“Why would I even consider something so…ridiculous? Why would I ever give up my possessions for free?”
“Ah, but it wouldn’t be free.”
Yeah, go on, Ryoka. Tell him why it’s not free*.
*Shut up, me.
“Well, just consider the benefits. You would have a Gnoll tribe in your debt. It would be very clear that it’s you – the great [Archmage] Teriarch – they owe their great gift to.”
“A single Gnoll tribe could do little for me.”
“Yes…but your name would be venerated among their tribe. You would have a little bit of immortality among them. A bit more, should I say? You would be a patron of their tribe.”
Teriarch seems pleased by the idea of being honored. Then he frowns.
“Why a spellbook, though? I had no notion that the Gnolls were interested in magic as mages practice it. Their shamans use tribal magic quite well.”
“Well…I think it’s an experiment.”
When I explain the longstanding grudge the Gnolls have over learning magic at Wistram, Teriarch really looks confused.
“Why wouldn’t they be able to learn magic? The mages of Wistram are no fools—at least, they were not two hundred years ago. Why would they expel the apprentice sent to them?”
I stare at Teriarch. Did he just imply…?
“Wait—you’re saying Gnolls can learn magic? But the mages didn’t think it was possible.”
The Dragon shakes his head in exasperation.
“Of course the Gnolls can learn magic. Some races are more adept, but they are hardly mindless Antinium or magic nulls. Why would Wistram not…? That is very, very odd.”
Oh wow. Another secret for Krshia. My heart beats faster.
“Well, this is the Silverfang’s great gift to the other tribes. So if you gave them spellbooks—say, uh, fifty of them—”
Teriarch rears up. He stares at me.
“No. Absolutely not.”
I spread my hands, a bit outraged. I look around his cavern and point to a bookshelf.
“There! Aren’t those all magical tomes? You’ve got at least three bookcases in that one spot. Fifty spellbooks—hell, even ten would be—”
“No. That is unthinkable.”
“Because they are mine.”
Teriarch’s tone is as flat as the glare he gives me. His tail snakes out and curls around the bookshelves I pointed to, as if he’s afraid I might grab them and run off.
“Oh come on. Don’t be stingy.”
“This is mine. I will not just give away what I have collected for nothing.”
Great. The one thing all the stories had to get right was that Dragons are greedy and possessive as hell. I sigh and rake my hair.
“Then—what if you copied a spellbook? Can you do that? With magic, I mean?”
“Of course I can copy a spellbook. I can write however many I wish. But the process requires expensive ingredients and time which I will not waste.”
Teriarch shakes his head at me. But I’m still going for it.
“One spellbook, then. How about just one?”
I think Krshia needs at least one—probably ten. I could get another one if I used all the gold I just received, according to Ceria, but if I can get one—
“I have many spellbooks in my possession, some of which are indeed useful even to the most meager spellcasters. But I will not part with any of them.”
“Why not? You don’t need them. And you clearly have more wealth than you need. Why not give them away?”
“Because they are mine.”
The same response. Teriarch’s eyes glitter. His head snakes down towards me and I shiver when he stares at me with his heliotrope eye. Avarice. Okay, so he’s an old man who likes collecting things. Gotcha.
“The Gnolls need a spellbook, Teriarch. Don’t you have a bunch of—inferior copies you could part with?”
“None of the books in my collection are remotely inferior.”
“Damn. So they all have high-tier spells written in them?”
Teriarch looks confused.
“High-tier…? Oh, your little magical organizational system. No; on the contrary. Many of my books contain lower-class spells. But they are of a higher quality in terms of content and accessibility for those studying them.”
I only partly understand what he’s saying. Teriarch notices my blank look and sighs.
“I suppose Gnolls would know as little as you do. In truth, the Silverfang tribe’s gift would be problematic in any case. If they truly bought over forty spellbooks, I imagine they would have proven quite redundant given the commonality of low-level spells. Moreover if they were cheap enough that a single spell could destroy them, they were probably personal references rather than a proper instructional tome.”
If I had ears that could perk up like Mrsha’s…
“Tomes? You mean there are different kinds of spellbooks?”
Teriarch gives me an arch look as I try to look innocent. Play the idiot. Or maybe not the idiot, but the naïve pupil. He does seem to enjoy talking.
“Of course. Have you truly not heard…well, you are no mage. Not all spellbooks are simply repositories of spells. Some are written to teach magic to those who struggle. Let me show you an example.”
He turns and bends down to the bookcase his tail was wrapped around. I can’t tell how he reads the little letters as far away as his eyes are, but then a book floats out of the bookcase and flies at me.
It’s huge. I nearly flinch as a tome half as tall as I am and nearly as wide hovers before my face. It looks like the ancestor of all books, and the front is bound in red leather embossed with gold and what looks like melted gemstones that form words I can’t read.
“Behold. A first-edition tome of Rihal. Three hundred years old and in perfect condition.”
“How do you lift that thing? Were the people of Rihal giants?”
“Hardly. It is a magical tome. It can be lifted by a child if need be.”
All at once the tome drops out of the air. I grab at it and overbalance as I find that the massive book weighs less than a pebble. It sits in my hand, as I gape at it. Teriarch grins, and the book floats back up.
“This is a true book of magic. It is a teaching device, not simply a list. Observe.”
He flips the book open, and I find myself staring at a page full of strange symbols that seem to move or—or have more than two or three dimensions despite being written on the page.
It looks like Ceria’s spellbook, at least in that there’s written magic there. But unlike her spells, these symbols look different. They cover the page, and I get the distinct sense they’re connected. I flip through the pages, noting a certain continuity among the strange symbols.
They’re nothing I could translate to English or any language I know, but the little magic Ceria taught me means I can still read…something. Is it a spell on the book? No. It—it doesn’t look like the spell Ceria showed me. Instead, the shimmering not-words of magic look almost like an—
Of course, fire is a primal construct. Of course. Why did I not understand that? If heat and cold are a duality, then fire represents heat just as ice would cold. Science would say that fire is complex, but to nature, fire is a simple thing. It devours.
And so, unlike the [Light] spell in order to cast a flame spell, I need to offer fire a source. Light is so ethereal that it can be shaped easily by magic; but fire requires fuel. So concentrate mana in one finger, and ignite it. Let your will be the spark and then feed it constantly, let it grow larger and larger—
I blink. And then stare at the glowing flame dancing on my fingertip. I gasp, and it goes out in an instant. A wisp of smoke flies upwards and dissipates.
Teriarch laughs. I look up at him, amazed and moved.
“The book just explained to me how to cast—I learned that spell in an instant!”
I know how to cast that spell, now! No—more than that! I know how fire magic works, at least at the most basic level. The spell I cast wasn’t even a spell, just applied theory. If I used it in a real spell—
Teriarch looks smug as he regards my stupefaction.
“The art of magical teaching has been lost to many. I suspect formalized schools of education such as those in Wistram and those nations that have lasted longer than a few centuries – Terandria for example – might have comparable methods. But this book was a crystallization of the Rihal Imperium’s knowledge of six hundred years. This is merely a book the apprentices and novices would study, of course.”
I’m only half-listening to him. It was magical. It was magic. And that was one spell. I’d almost given up on ever learning magic like Ceria since it seemed to be so dependent on levels, but that—that was like learning science, or math. It was logical. It made sense in its own way.
“You learnt that spell fairly quickly. Some students take numerous tries before they can begin learning even the most simple of cantrips. But then, fire has always come easily to your kind, hasn’t it?”
An instructional spellbook. Not some mage’s personal notes or collection of spells, but a primer to spellcasting*.
*I want it. Can I take it and give the Gnolls something else? Or can I copy it with my iPhone—damn, that’s not going to work. I’ve got to read this first. I’ve got to have it. Somehow.
“Well. I’d say that spellbook would be an excellent gift for the Silverfang tribe. Why not giv—”
“I have told you once and now again: no.”
I grit my teeth. I need that book.
“Would you accept a trade? Knowledge for knowledge? Or something else?”
“You have nothing to offer me.”
The book floats back towards the bookshelf as Teriarch smiles again. He just wanted to show off his collection. But I’ve got—I reach into my pocket, reluctantly. Time to play a card.
“Would you accept this?”
Teriarch blinks at my iPhone.
“What is that? A piece of metal? No—there is some energy within it.”
I hit the power button on my iPhone and the screen lights up. Rather than recoil in surprise or gasp like I was hoping him to, Teriarch just stares at the iPhone and listens to my explanation.
“Ah. An information device. I have seen magical versions of this. They were always too small for me when the Gnomes made them, though.”
“Well, it’s a one-of-a-kind—it’s damn rare since only people from my world have it.”
“Hmm. But it has no magic in it.”
“Yeah. So? It’s still rarer than your spellbook.”
“Hmf. Metal wrought. That is all your little thing is.”
How can a Dragon be so intelligent and so dismissive all at once? It’s the arrogance thing again. I keep my voice level.
“It can do more than just light up. It plays music.”
When I hit the ‘shuffle’ button on my iPhone and it begins playing music, Teriarch’s eyes open wide. Not because of the ability to play music, as it transpires.
“I have never heard that song before.”
My iPhone is playing ‘Beethoven’s 5 Secrets’, a song I found on a Youtube channel I became addicted to a few years back. It’s a remastered version containing elements of four movements from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Not to go on too much, but it’s a complex melody using instruments in ways even a Dragon wouldn’t have heard before.
I grin. Music is one of the few things my world will never lose at. Genius is genius no matter where it goes. I wonder what the faeries would think of this song.
“Do you have more songs on this device?”
“I see. Then it is useful. I believe I shall study it.”
Before I can react, Teriarch reaches out. His claw is insanely quick for something so big. It takes a chunk out of my iPhone. I shout in shock as the screen goes dark and the music cuts off abruptly.
“You bastard! Why the hell did you—”
Teriarch ignores me. He taps the iPhone in my hands with his claw. Instantly, it’s whole once more. Then the Dragon coughs.
There it is again. I’m damn sure now that he doesn’t need to even say the spells out loud to use them. Does that mean it’s not necessary or that Dragon magic works differently from every other species’ magic?
Right now I’m still shocked. I touch my iPhone, and it powers up smoothly. Hell, it’s still on the same song! But I realize Teriarch is still holding the piece he tore away. He tosses it up in the air and speaks another word.
The piece of torn silicone and metal flies up into the air, and an iPhone falls down. Teriarch pauses it in the air right in front of me, and I stare at a second fully-functional iPhone 4 hovering in the air.
“My, that took quite a bit more energy than I expected. But as you can see, an object not made of magic can be easily replicated. So it is not so valuable as you think.”
The iPhone floats up and Teriarch inspects it.
“I shall have to use a Human form to investigate this. Ah, well, it may be worth the effort.”
“Give that back!”
I shout at the Dragon, and for the first time jump up and try to snatch it from his claw. He moves out of the way, eying me curiously.
“Stop shouting, young Griffin. You have your device fully intact, do you not? I will take this copy.”
“You can’t do that! That’s theft! It’s not legal!”
“Why not? It cost you neither time nor your possession. I simply copied it.”
He speaks over my splutters.
“Besides, there is no law here against such things. I am in the right regardless.”
Calm down, Ryoka. Ignore the desire to punch the D—
I kick Teriarch in the leg instead. Pivot, balance on one leg, side kick. I feel like I’ve just hit a wall. The Dragon frowns at me.
I glare up at him. Okay, violence isn’t going to work here. Instead, I go for a rationed response.
“You can’t just take my iPhone and not give me something in return. That would be theft.”
“As I have just said, I stole nothing. You have what you came in with.”
“But you stole information! Ideas! Data! Intellectual property! Theft is still theft even if you use magic to restore what was taken. Or are Dragons above the morality of we inferior beings?”
He frowns at me. But I can see I’ve struck a nerve. He glances sideways, and then his tone grows smoother.
“This little thing doesn’t have that much data on it. Surely—”
“It’s got 32 gigabytes of data on it! You could store over a hundred thousand books* on it!”
*Am I right? If you assume each book is…screw it, I’m right!
Teriarch blinks at me. Then he stares at my iPhone.
“So many? But the Gnomes could only get—ahem.”
“Well, I admit this device is interesting. So perhaps I will pay you a few hundred coins for it. How does that sound.”
I stare at him.
“Give me that book and we’ll call the debt even.”
“What? But that is a Rihal—”
“You copied my iPhone. You took my possession first, so if you want to keep it, you’ll give me the tome.”
Maybe it’s my tone of voice, but Teriarch gets mad. He looms over me, growling. His hot breath is like a blast furnace on my face.
“It was my magic that recreated it, girl. Do not try to negotiate—”
“Are you a thief, ‘oh great Dragon’? Or are you a bully and a thug who steals from people who can’t resist?”
“I never said—”
I’m shaking. I point at the tome.
“Give me that. Give me that and I’ll make sure the Silverfang tribe honors your name, and you can have an iPhone worth more than half of your crumbling books put together. But refuse and I’m walking out of here with two iPhones.”
“I do not suffer threats or extortion, brat. I could erase your memories, you know. Or blast you into ash.”
Teriarch opens his mouth and I see a hot glow from below. I try not to gulp as I meet his eyes.
“You could. But you and I would both know that you were a thief. Forever.”
For two long minutes he and I lock eyes. I feel sweat running down my back and some stings my eyes, but I don’t dare blink. Then he looks away.
He chuckles. All at once, the intensity of our confrontation fades away. I watch as the Dragon starts chuckling, and then laughs; a full-bodied sound that makes his scales ripple.
“You really are an interesting Human. I can see why Reinhart is so fascinated by you.”
Slowly, I breathe out. And find myself sitting down. Teriarch sees that and chuckles harder.
“Any more intensity and you might have wet yourself just like she did all that time ago. Or was that her maid? Ah, well.”
He keeps laughing. Me? I’m trying not to revert back into a babbling mess. To steady myself, I stare back at the image of Erin and Octavia. Oh? Now they’re trying to put out a fire. A black fire that seems to be shooting globs of molten fire around her shop. And now some potions have heated up and one’s exploded. Good, good.
“The arrogance and temerity of—but that is why I find myself so…how long has it been? Besides Reinhart, of course. But even she didn’t dare—except for that time…”
He’s mumbling to himself again. I rouse myself and stare at him.
That snaps him out of it. Teriarch stares at me for a long moment, and then sighs.
“Would you accept ten thousand gold pieces? Twenty thousand?”
Twenty th—no, wait, the Gnolls spent over fifty thousand, didn’t they? I eye Teriarch. Hell, I might be able to bargain him up to that, but…
Nah, I want to read that spellbook.
“The book, Teriarch. Take it or leave it.”
“I—hrgh. Very well.”
Teriarch seems to waver, and then he makes a snap decision. He makes the book fly out of the bookshelf and then dumps it in my arms.
“There. Take it. It is a deal. And I will keep this.”
He holds the iPhone in his claws like a prized possession. I grin, almost giddy. I did it!
Then I have another thought.
“How can I carry it?”
“Use the bag.”
Teriarch snaps at me as he delicately inspects the iPhone. He’s sniffing it, and even licking it with the tip of his tongue. It only takes me a second to realize he means the bag he gave me with all the gold coins. I open it, and somehow it opens wide or the tome grows small, because it suddenly fits in the bag.
“A bag of holding.”
“Well, of course. Did you think all those gold coins fit in there by chance?”
“Isn’t that ex—”
I bite my tongue just in time. Don’t look a gift bag in the mouth, Ryoka. Unless it’s to see whether I can fit inside it. Teriarch is too busy acquiring his latest possession anyways.
Huh. It was amazing how he could create a second iPhone just like that. Wait. If he can do that, could he—
“Teriarch, would you consider duplicating the iPhone? For my friend?”
What if we could call each other? Hell, if I could get more copies—
Teriarch pauses at my words. He stares down at me, and then turns his entire body. He brings his head down to eye-level and says one word.
It nearly blows my eardrums out of my head.
Okay, as it turns out, Dragons might be willing to part with a fraction of their treasury—very reluctantly—but they hate the idea that their possessions can be copied. That was what Teriarch explained to me after my ears stopped ringing.
Now it’s time to go. Teriarch is eying the magic pouch I stored the spellbook in, and he seems grumpy. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was tired, but it might just be that he gave away his book. At least he’s still teleporting me, anyways.
“Stand inside of the circle. There. Do not move.”
He instructs me as he fixes his eyes on the image with Octavia and Erin in it. It looks like the fire is out, but the shop is still smoky and the two girls seem to be engaged in a shouting match. Before that they were lying on the ground, covered in sweat and panting.
I hold still, although I want to move and whoop and shout for joy. I did it! I actually got—there’s so many things I want to say that I can barely contain myself.
There’s a lot more I want to ask Teriarch as well. But he definitely looked ticked as he mutters about non-exact coordinates and not putting my corporeal form though a wall. Ew. I think of splinching from Harry Potter and still my nervous movements.
Teriarch frowns at me.
“The spell is nearly complete. I would warn you to gear yourself better, but you clearly have some ability to have survived this far. What happened to your fingers?”
Only now does he notice? I glance at my right hand.
“I lost them on the delivery.”
The Dragon goes still above me. He stares at my hand, mid-way through his spell. I shrug, trying to ignore the feeling in my stomach.
“It was my fault. I—made a pact with the faeries. To save a life, I gave that up and a Gnoll tribe gave up their lives.”
“I see. I am sorry.”
Teriarch hesitates. He opens his massive maw a few times and closes his mouth, as if he wants to say something. His eyes flick left towards something, but he eventually remains silent. I half-grin.
“You know, I was prepared to give up my arm to save my friend, Erin. I didn’t know what I’d have to give up for your help.”
The Dragon shakes his head at me, utterly confused.
“An arm? What would I do with an arm?”
“I don’t know. I just thought—the faeries always demanded a sacrifice for their help, a big one. It never occurred to me to just ask for help or—trade.”
Teriarch snorts in derision, and waves one claw in front of his face. Why would a Dragon have such Human qualities? Maybe he learned it from observation? Or maybe—Humans learned it from him?
“You have been speaking too much with those pests. Their sense of duty and obligation—indeed, their price for intervention is far different from yours or even mine. I would advise avoiding their help unless completely necessary.”
See, this is why I shouldn’t go. I shift and stare up at Teriarch.
“Really? They’re that different? I thought since you and they were immortals you’d be the same.”
The Dragon goes for the bait. He snorts at me, and this time smoke makes me cough.
“Ah. My apologies. But your comparison is as humorous as it is insulting. I am a Dragon, not a being of nature. We are both immortal, true, but our roles are vastly different, as our capabilities. I take it that you are aware the faeries are not from this plane of existence?”
“They travel between worlds, and so they have different perceptions. In some places, or so I am told, the will of the world and fate can conspire against interference and punish those who would dare such folly. In the same way, Gods guard their demesnes jealously. Even the fae would not tempt the wrath of such beings lightly. Hence, their rules are kept and enforced among their kind.”
Oh. That makes a ton of sense. I try to give Teriarch my most engaged-student look. I’m bad at it. I never paid a lot of attention in class if I knew the material, but if Teriarch were my lecturer, I’d go to every class.
“Their superstitions and internal laws are meant to protect, but sometimes become redundant. In this world, for instance. The Gods are dead. They have more authority here, hence their control over the weather. But I suspect the fae dislike attachments and debt in any case, which is why they would refuse to help. Too, they love tradition, and would demand a gift for any great aid freely given.”
Gift? Was that my fingers? Or—no, that was an exchange. But could I get them a gift? An iPhone?
“But that is enough of faeries. Stay away from them, or not, but take my gift to the Gnolls. Tell them it is…for their future.”
I look back at Teriarch. Suddenly he looks tired again. He touches the teleportation circle at my feet and the symbols glow bright.
“I wish you the best of luck Ryoka Griffin, for the riddles as well as your device. It has been long since I have found this much enjoyment in mortal contact.”
Oh. It’s really over. I look up into those two magnificent eyes and feel a pang in my heart.
“Do I really have to go? So soon?”
“I am afraid so. I do not entertain mortal visitors for long. And this is too dangerous a place for casual visits in any case.”
I blink. Teriarch smiles at me. He’s right, of course, but even then, I disagree. I’d risk any peril to come back just to look at him. But can I return? Do I have permission to return? Did I have only this one chance?
“Do you think you’ll need a Runner in the future? For another delivery, perhaps?”
He laughs softly; the breeze ruffles my hair as he stares around his cavern, vast for me but barely adequate for him.
“I do not receive letters as you Humans do. If Reinhart has business with me, she will use mage spell. No; I am done with you. Rejoice, Ryoka Griffin. You have seen a Dragon and lived.”
He smiles at me, exposing rows of teeth that make me wonder what could ever challenge his kind. Not armies, not tanks—hell, a Tyrannosaurus Rex would roll over at the sight of those jaws. But he still looks far kinder than the mage I first met.
“Go. And tell no one of what you have seen. Hmm. Perhaps you will. But I would like to believe…yes, I would like to believe you can be trusted.”
“I swore I would not tell. You are only a…mage I met, once. I keep my promises, Teriarch.”
“Perhaps you do.”
He bows his head. And then he speaks a few last words as the light begins to shimmer around my feet.
“Huma—Ryoka. Even if it was mere flattery, I was glad to hear that your people still tell tales of my kind.”
I look him in the eye. Magic swirls around me. Do I have to go? I felt safe here. Safe and—
“I meant every word.”
One last smile. I have seen a Dragon smile.
“Farewell, Ryoka Griffin. We will not meet again.”
No. But before I open my mouth, I’m gone. The last thing I see is Teriarch’s smile. And then—
Octavia hurled a potion bottle at Erin. It was empty and so Erin only dodged splintering glass. But the other girl was searching for more ammunition, and Erin had already dodged a chair and a set of scales.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know it would do that!”
Erin danced and dodged as Octavia raised a log of firewood like a club. The stitch-girl was trying to hit Erin as they danced around the shop counter when they heard a sound like rushing wind.
Both young women looked around just in time to see Ryoka appear two feet off the ground. The girl was frozen in place for a second until the swirling magic light around her vanished. Then Ryoka blinked, tried to take a step, smacked her head on the ceiling and fell to earth.
She landed on the ground and crouched to distribute her weight. She did not fall over or stumble. Erin and Octavia looked impressed, before they remembered to gasp in shock.
“How did you—?”
Ryoka got up slowly. Her head was dizzy, and she felt vaguely like throwing up. She stared around the wrecked shop, with smoke clinging in the air and the smell of a thousand horrible things adding to the suffocating miasma. She stared at Erin, sheepish, wide-eyed, and Octavia, uncharacteristically upset. She nodded to herself and then pointed to the melted pot she’d seen earlier. The liquid was still bubbling in the ruined metal..
“Uh, try cooling down the carrots with something before you add in the Corusdeer horns. And use some flour as well.”
Both girls looked at each other, and then at Ryoka. Then Erin raised a hand.
“What kind of flour?”