The Dragon slept in his cave. It was not—unusual. Sleeping Dragons were part of myth and legend. It was only when they woke up that trouble started. Usually. Sleepwalking Dragons were their own set of problems.
Or they had been. The time of Dragons was over. Everyone, that elusive body of people who had so many opinions, everyone knew that Dragons still existed in this world.
Probably. Somewhere. But the time when Dragons could be found, if not commonly, then with some regularity, was gone. Yes, some lived.
But they had faded. Like the Dwarves, their blood running thinner. The Giants, vanishing, their descendants shrinking with each generation. The half-Elves remained constant by virtue of their natures—but they forgot and dwindled.
All things die. The time of Dragons was done. And none knew it more than the one who slept.
Teriarch. Time passed by for the Dragon in a blink as he slept. No phone’s alarm rung him. He had it on silent-mode. No intruders found his cave, though adventurers were hunting in the High Passes, searching for Wyverns.
He was alone. Sleeping and passing years by like other mortals saw days roll by. Occasionally he did wake.
But not for long. Why wake? Sleep, yes. Sleep. He was old, and had few obligations left. If there was anyone who might have roused him—
She had made a promise. And it was not fulfilled. She still sent him messages, of course. They hovered around his head, caught in a little net of magic. They were aggressive, worried, chatty, or just introspective.
Letters from one of the few people who knew he was alive. And someone who cared—rarer still.
Old man, you haven’t called upon me in a long time. One of my carriages has broken down and I will pay you to fix it. Come and have tea. Oh—incidentally, I’m in possession of a number of technical marvels like the one Miss Ryoka gave you. Would you care to inspect them?
Teriarch, I have a situation with the Assassin’s Guild. Some scrying spells would be appreciated. If, of course, you can spare the energy to cast a spell? Contact me.
I may be heading to Oteslia in a short while. If you wake up, some advice about Drakes would be helpful. Gifts and whatnot…
I sent Sacra to check on you. You must have camouflaged your cave because she was unable to locate it. Is everything well? What is this incident with the Wyverns? Do let me know.
Little messages. Not proper letters; the High Passes had a problem with runners. Even they didn’t deliver there. Except the crazy ones. But still—correspondence.
He hadn’t read any of them, even when he’d been awake. Nor, as the letters mentioned, could anyone short of Magnolia herself rouse him. Perhaps she might have.
But she had made a promise. And concerned as the tone of her writing may be, she was used to this. So the Dragon slumbered on.
If he was aware of anything—it was the adventurers, some Silver but mostly Gold-ranks. Even two Named Adventurers, combing the High Passes. Sometimes hundreds of miles from him, hunting Frost Wyverns. But he sensed them, in a way that a cat senses mice rustling about.
No—rats. Enough rats or big ones could kill a cat. Something to be wary of. And—what he was ultimately waiting for.
Not these adventurers, specifically. The Dragon snorted a bit of smoke out as his dreams turned to the past, as they so often did.
Which would it be? A [Knight], armed with ancient artifacts? An adventurer, or a team of them, willing to die for glory and treasure?
An army, who would die by the tens of thousands to scratch an immortal’s hide? Or perhaps a [Mage], wielding spells like the very ones that had created the High Passes?
Who would come to kill him? And would he have the strength to slay them, or flee? Yet—even dreaming, the Dragon knew his threats were less than they had been in days of yore.
No more Giant clans, brave enough to battle the other monarchs of this world. All but a few of the ancient Djinn and their children lost, their magic broken.
All dead. So the Dragon wept in his dreams, remembering. For a second. Then his dreams shifted again. And he slept. Waiting.
Waiting for eternity to end, or that visitor, whoever they were. Whomever came first.
Ryoka Griffin stood in the pelting rain, hands raised over her head. She tasted bile in her mouth. The smell of burning filled her nose.
The carriage was burning, the superheated wood steaming, but still burning in the rain. It had been filled with people. But there had been a flash. An explosion. And they had all died.
Just like that. A [Fireball] had done it. One Tier 3 spell. It didn’t seem right. People should not have that kind of power.
But there they were. Ryoka looked around as they appeared out of the storm. Some rode towards her on horses. Another just ran, moving as fast as the riders. One—no, a pair—were on a carpet.
One was flying. Ryoka Griffin saw dark clothing, masks. A bloody sigil on their clothing. She knew them.
The Bloodfeast Raiders. There were ███ of them. Ryoka Griffin blinked. There were…she counted.
███, ███, █████, ████…she lost track. How many was that? ███? Something was…wrong. She saw how many there were. But she was—unsure how many there were. Her brain was struggling with something.
They were mostly █████, but two were ██████. They stopped around her; two were aiming wands at her chest.
A merry voice rang out. Ryoka turned and saw one of the [Raiders]. ███ was laughing; the voice was distinctly ██████. But again, the knowledge faded from Ryoka’s head. The masked figure was waving at the others.
“Who changed the rally spot?”
Another demanded. The one on the carpet waved at the others. The voice was ████, authoritative.
“Me. Is this all of us?”
“I’d prefer the north. ████ couldn’t make it. Or █████. But I see some old faces.”
The ██████ █████ who had spoken first waved at the others. She was—grumpy. And holding a pair of enchanted blades. Ryoka stood, frozen, as she replied.
“I had to sneak away from ███████. My █████ was watching me like a hawk. So who’s this? You waited until she left before you hit the carriage. Nice shot.”
The carpet-rider had one of the wands that had cast the [Fireball] spell. ████ ██████, the same person Ryoka had seen in the scrying orb, turned to the others. Fierre knew her! She had pointed her out! It was ██████! The █████ from ███████!
The █████ grimaced and the others made laughing sounds behind their masks. They were all ██████, that Ryoka could tell. Instantly—before the knowledge faded from her head. Then they were masked strangers again. ██████. Laughing merrily.
“Let’s catch up afterwards. But the Bloodfeast has begun. No time for waiting around.”
The leader ordered as ██ pointed the wand at Ryoka. She held very still.
The Bloodfeast Raiders. They were Izril’s most feared [Raider] group. They struck north, south—it didn’t matter where. They had sacked Drake cities, turned entire Human towns to ash. There was no discernible pattern. No one knew who their members were and no Bloodfeast Raider had ever been caught alive.
They were also all high-level, armed with powerful artifacts. There were hundreds of thousands of gold pieces in bounties on them. And still, they had not been caught.
This group was also new—the Bloodtear Pirates had a standing objection to them taking their name. But then—the Bloodfeast Raiders could be said to have outstripped even that famed [Pirate] group.
Because when they attacked—people died. They didn’t just attack ships for profit. They killed for fun.
She had to run. But the wands were aimed at her and one of them had a flying carpet. One had █████! She’d never outrun them, let alone the one who had moved as fast as Hawk. ██ was carrying a spear.
Enchanted, too. Ryoka could practically sense the magic coming off them. She felt the wind blowing at her back. But she was too afraid to control it.
“What about her?”
The one with the spear pointed at Ryoka. She shivered as the [Raider] laughed.
“Do you like her? Is she going to be a [Slave] or do we have fun before the feast? Or see if she can dodge [Fireballs]?”
Ryoka froze. Her bag of holding was loaded with sand, caltrops. If it came to it, she’d ask the wind to blow it in their faces and run. They’d blow her apart before she got ten feet, especially in the rain. But—no.
“Not just yet. I told you, I called the change of locations. My Skill was tingling. She’s got something on her. Something valuable beyond compare. Can’t you…feel it? What about you, ██████?”
“Oh yes. Now that you mention it…”
The █████ drew closer. Sniffing. ███ grinned at Ryoka as the Human female tried to hold still, her skin crawling. A dagger poked at Ryoka’s side.
No. The electronics. Ryoka closed her eyes. Of course. [Thieves] could sense treasure! Why couldn’t a [Raider] do the same? Idiot! You idiot! The others were dead because of her, and she was going to—
The [Raider] reached around Ryoka and plucked something from her belt. Ryoka froze.
Her iPhone was in the little leather holding case she’d had commissioned for it. The ear buds caught on her belt loop and the Bloodfeast Raider untangled it. Puzzled, they offered it to the others.
“Now what’s this?”
The others clustered around. One pushed up ███ mask for a look. Someone growled and the █████ ██████ put it back down hurriedly. But the memory of what Ryoka had seen was gone in a moment.
“Huh. It’s not magical. Looks expensive, though. What material is this?”
She tapped the screen then jumped as it came to life. The others murmured. The leader looked thoughtful.
“Expensive indeed. Anything else?”
The one with daggers prowled around Ryoka. After a moment, they shook their heads.
“Nothing. Is that a bag of holding? Must be a crap one. City Runners. She’s got some weak potions on her belt, but I’m not interested.”
They prodded the bag of holding Ryoka had by her side suspiciously, but without any real interest. The leader nodded. Ryoka stared at the [Raiders].
Oh. Dead gods. They didn’t know she had the other electronics in there! Teriarch’s bag of holding he’d given her really was an artifact.
It made nothing better. The leader shook their head.
“We’re done, then.”
“What is this thing?”
The [Raider] who’d taken the iPhone waved it at the others. One pointed a spear at Ryoka’s chest.
“Let’s make her talk. What’s your name, City Runner?”
The young woman whispered it. The [Raider] tilted their head.
“I don’t know the name. Damn. I hoped this was a famous Courier or something. If we got one of them, it would be big news. Did any of you see that delivery with the three Couriers? That was fun.”
“Oh, I saw it! Loved that.”
The others chattered merrily. One reached for the iPhone, and the other swatted it away. Ryoka was just staring. They were so casual. Then the one with the iPhone blinked and tapped it. The glowing screen had a complicated lock on it.
“Huh. Password…? What is this?”
“Give it here! This yours, Miss Runner?”
Laughing, the one with two daggers stowed a blade and caught the iPhone. They wiggled it in front of Ryoka. She shivered.
“No—I was delivering it. I have no idea what it is.”
Lie. The [Raider] looked disappointed, but brightened.
“Well, that’s half the fun. Figuring out what it does. Say—who wants it?”
Half the group raised their hands. The one with the spear leaned on it and looked at Ryoka.
“I’ll forfeit the—whateverthatis—if I can have this one. I could use a [Slave]. Anyone got one of Roshal’s collars? It’d be hard to smuggle past ██ ██████, but I could send her to Roshal first.”
They laughed as they pointed at Ryoka. The leader shrugged. They had a bow and arrow; they’d put away the wand, and were busily stringing it.
“We’ve got a schedule to keep. The Bloodfeast is waiting. One hour. You want her? Knock her out or spell her and tie her up.”
The spear rose. Ryoka tensed. No. And the one with daggers raised ███ hand.
“Hold on. I say we let her go. What about this? Five minutes head start, then we follow her?”
The other [Raiders] looked at the one who’d spoken. The one with the spear was put out.
“Why? It’s more fun for me.”
“I like her. She’s a Runner. It’s amusing to see what she does. Hey. Miss Runner.”
The [Raider] came close. The mask leered at Ryoka, two painted golden dots for eyes revealing ███████ ██████. The [Raider] spoke.
“You can run away and we won’t follow. But we’re going towards that city. You know it?”
She pointed down the road. Ryoka shivered.
A grin behind the mask that Ryoka sensed rather than saw.
“That’s right! And we’re going to kill all of them unless someone brave warns them. And everyone on the road. What are you going to do? Boss?”
She looked at the leader. The [Raider] with the bow hesitated, and then waved a hand and laughed.
“I like it. Five minutes? Miss Runner. If we see you again—you die. Make your choice.”
The other [Raiders] agreed, chuckling with anticipation. They were so—casual. One of them peered up at the skies, pulled something out.
“Just enough time for me to get rid of that damned rain. Run along, little Runner.”
Ryoka lowered her hands. She looked around. The one with the spear was annoyed, but he brightened when someone whispered that he could catch her if she was too slow. The others just looked at her.
The [Raider] with the iPhone flipped it up, caught it. They peered at the password screen and then looked at Ryoka.
“You have four minutes and forty seconds. I like you, Ryoka. If you live—I’m going to remember your name.”
They were smiling. All of them. Ryoka Griffin looked around. And she saw.
What little monsters. Not even grand evil, like Az’kerash or Belavierr. What little—terribly mundane evil. Like people from her world. Not magnificent darkness. Just petty and terrible. They enjoyed killing. They wanted to see her run.
The carriage smelled of burnt flesh and ash as the fire finally went out. Ryoka looked around. This was evil from her world. The same petty madness as someone with a gun.
She whispered. The Bloodfeast Raiders looked at her, confused. Then Ryoka turned and ran. Ran as fast as she could. She heard them laughing behind her. And she feared them, feared death because they carried it with them. But she couldn’t help but think that thought over and over as she ran, her lungs bursting, moving too slowly as she put every bit of power into each step.
How terribly small.
She was about twenty minutes from Celum by carriage. But that was as the carriage moved in the downpour and it began to lessen even as Ryoka ran.
The wind howled at her back. Giving her fear wings. But her feet were just feet. She couldn’t fly, and each second passing was another one closer to death.
The roads were empty at first. The City Runner ran, sprinting fast as she could, terrified she’d slip. Then she saw the first caravan on the road.
A [Merchant] was headed north. He and his team of [Guards] saw the City Runner in the lessening rain and the mercenaries sighed in relief as the storm clouds began to part. They paid little attention to the City Runner, save to note how fast she was going. Some priority delivery?
They heard her shout as she spotted them.
“Turn around! Get back to Celum! [Raiders]! Bloodfeast Raiders!”
The words tore out of Ryoka’s mouth. The [Merchant] poked his head out of the wagon.
The [Head Guard] blinked. He saw the City Runner running at them. A long-legged young woman. Face pale behind her darker skin.
He and his escort checked their weapons. But then the last part of her words struck him. The [Guard] heard Ryoka’s terrified voice.
“Bloodfeast Raiders are behind me! Run! Run!”
The [Guards] froze. The [Merchant] turned pale.
“Not the—they struck six hundred miles north of here last time! It’s not—are you sure? Hello?”
He bellowed at the young woman. She just ran past him. There was a [Farmer] taking her wares to market. Not Wailant; the [Pirate]-[Farmer]’s absence had ironically enriched every other [Farmer] selling to Celum. The female [Farmer] heard Ryoka shouting.
She too froze. But Ryoka was running past her, ignoring the questions. She screamed it at a group of [Riders].
“Bloodfeast Raiders! Run!”
“Guard—take us around. Even if it’s normal [Raiders]—at all speed.”
The [Merchant] seized the reins, yanked the startled donkeys around. The [Guards] saw the caravan turning. They glanced up the road. Then—they saw the City Runner running for Celum.
It couldn’t be real. The Bloodfeast Raiders were a myth. Like the Goblin Lord. Or—not a myth, but a reality that didn’t happen to normal people. Not to them. For a moment, the people basked in that luxury of disbelief.
Then the panic set in. The [Farmer] unhitched her horses from her wagon. She slashed the leads—then leapt on the back of a horse. She didn’t turn her wagon. She booted the startled draft horse and raced off the road. Abandoning her wagon. The other horse, startled, followed her.
The [Riders] turned and began to race after the City Runner. The [Merchant] paled.
“—Dump the cargo! Dump the cargo! Everything but the valuables! Hurry!”
He screamed at his assistants and workers. They stared at him, and then at the people fleeing back towards Celum. The City Runnner was still running, screaming the alarm.
Bloodfeast. Supplies began falling out of the caravan as they were shoved out. But then—one of the [Guards] swore.
The escort’s leader, the [Head Guard]. He had made up his mind. The Runner could be wrong. But if she was right?
“Ride! Towards Celum!”
He screamed. The [Guards] hesitated. The covered wagons were moving too slowly, even divested of their cargo. The [Head Guard] pointed.
The escort fled, abandoning the wagon. The [Merchant] howled.
“Don’t you dare—”
Then he saw his people fleeing the caravan. Two jumped off and ran after the [Farmer]. Another hid in the grass. Half stayed with him, frantically tossing out everything to lighten their load. But his best assistant, a [Trader], took her wagon off-road, tossing everything out of it. The [Merchant] gaped around.
This wasn’t happening. He tried to lash the donkeys to make them move faster, but the stubborn animals refused to move faster—the [Merchant] looked back down the road.
“Faster. Faster—it’s just normal [Raiders].”
He tried to whisper to himself. He urged his wagon down the road as his trade goods, his life’s work, scattered behind him. Maybe it would slow—
The [Merchant] glanced back when he saw a group of four figures on the road. Riding towards him—no—one was running. His blood froze. He felt for a Wand of Light Arrows, hands shaking.
“They’re supposed to be dozens. Dozens! It’s not them. It’s just—”
An arrow passed through his forehead and straight through the other side. The [Archer] on the flying carpet crowed as the [Merchant] toppled off the wagon and the terrified donkeys slowed. The [Raider] raised their bow and shouted down at the others as they charged.
“That’s one for me!”
Then they shot forwards. The bow was raised and after firing another shot, they pulled out the Wand of [Fireballs] and shot another.
Three minutes ago.
They were indeed having fun. It was rare a Bloodfeast was called; after all, they were all infamous criminals. But—they reveled in their notoriety.
And as Ryoka had seen, their motives were basic. Simple. The [Raider] with the daggers was full of good ideas.
They laughed and clapped their hands together. The [Raider] looked around at the others.
“Whoever hits the most with projectiles. Wands only. Winner claims—their pick of the spoils or whatever-this-is. Agreed?”
They waved the iPhone at the others.
“I’ll use my bow and wand.”
Their leader immediately countered. The others grumbled. The one with the spear shook their head.
“I don’t use wands.”
“Oh, be that way. Then—just total kills. Agreed?”
“How do we keep count?”
“If we all see it, it counts. Otherwise—take heads.”
“I’m not carrying heads. But I want that thing! Agreed! Most kills wins! Anything goes!”
As they spoke, the [Raider] with the scroll unrolled it, grumbling.
“[Clear Weather]. So they can see us coming. It was hard getting two of these. I want a bigger share of the loot. Think we gave that City Runner a head start?”
“I hope so! I like her. What if—hear me out. What if she survives and gets away from us? Then—I’ll hire her to deliver something.”
“You would. How long does she get? If I find her, I’m capturing her.”
The others laughed, clearly taken by the idea. Another checked the skies.
“Might be five minutes. Or three. I don’t care. Let’s go!”
They shot forwards on their horse. The other [Raiders] shouted and followed, their little promise to Ryoka forgotten.
They flew or rode or ran, casting [Fireballs] that exploded as the rainfall ceased. The [Raider] with the bow fired an arrow as they rose higher on their carpet. One of the other Bloodfeast Raiders flew beside them, checking their magical daggers.
The arrow went through the [Merchant]’s head. The bow was magical as were the arrows. The leader crowed as they celebrated.
Two seconds later the wagon exploded as a pair of [Fireballs] hit it. The other [Raiders] groaned and passed by the screaming donkeys, now on fire.
“Damn, that girl took all our sport! I want to level again!”
One of the riding Bloodfeast Raiders groaned. They were high on excitement. The fear along the road, the sensation of holding other’s lives in their hands—
It was so much fun. You could take someone prisoner if you really wanted. It was a nuisance, but the Bloodfeast Raiders had connections to Roshal. No one would catch you; they had an hour to wreak havoc.
And they were high-level. The city never stood a chance. The [Raider] with the daggers swooped down and shouted encouragingly.
“That just means they’re all inside the city, idiot.”
“Right. Target practice!”
The [Raiders] brightened. Celum lay ahead. Someone was blowing an alarm. The Bloodfeast Raiders brightened. Then—one swore.
“That idiot made it on the walls. Looks like you won’t get a chance to hire her—”
The rest of their words were drowned out by a sudden howl in the air. Wind blasted the two airborne [Raiders] out of the sky. The ones on the ground saw the raider with the dagger slam into the ground.
“Gah! Dead gods!”
They screamed. The one on the carpet hung on for dear life as the winds tossed them, threatening to throw them to earth. The other [Raiders] felt sand blasting their masks. Bits of metal were flying through the air.
“That bitch. I’m going to cut out her eyes.”
One of them swore. The figure on the walls was pointing at them. But it was just wind, however much it threatened to toss them.
They were the Bloodfeast Raiders. A gust actually picked up the one with the spear, but they stabbed it into the ground, anchoring themselves. Even the fallen [Raider] with the daggers hadn’t been hurt. And the one with the bow took aim.
They loosed an arrow. It didn’t miss.
Ryoka experienced her run to Celum in bursts of reality amid the panic and fear. She didn’t remember clearing the road to Celum, only bursting through the gates, following a pair of frightened [Riders].
“The Bloodfeast Raiders are coming! Get to Liscor! Get to the door!”
She screamed at the [Guards]. They stared blankly at her.
“Get to the door! To The Wandering Inn! Then close it!”
It was so simple. They had to get as many people through as possible! Then—then shut the connection! Bring through Relc—bring through Gold-ranks! If they could fight the Bloodfeast Raiders. They could, right? Ryoka ran through the streets, shouting.
Few people were outdoors given the heavy rain of a few minutes ago. But it was too early for sleep. Ryoka ran, shouting around the stitch in her side.
“The Bloodfeast raiders are coming! Get to the magic door! Get to safety!”
People on the streets turned to look at Ryoka. Most were just shocked—stunned. That was a normal, Human reaction.
It was going to get them killed. But Ryoka ran down the familiar streets, screaming. And as shock wore off—panic set in.
People began to scream. Ryoka shouted at them to follow her and ran—
The door was barricaded. A sign said ‘closed permanently, moved to Liscor.’ Ryoka found herself hammering on it, slamming her shoulder into Octavia’s door.
But the shop was empty. Ryoka looked at the people around her. Someone was blowing a call to alarm. Screaming filled the air.
“Where did it go? Where’s the door?”
She was grabbing someone and shaking them. A [Mayor], his face white. He babbled.
“They took the door! It’s no longer here! Hasn’t been for weeks! It’s not the Bloodfeast Raiders is it? It’s…but we got rid of The Wandering Inn! We did!”
He looked at her. Pleadingly. Asking her to deny reality. Ryoka let go of him. She stumbled back.
“We’re all dead.”
That was all she said. She saw a family began to wail behind the [Mayor]. He was shouting for everyone to get indoors. As if that helped. The Raiders had [Fireball] wands.
Then she was on the walls. Ryoka Griffin stood with the frightened City Watch. Looking at the ███ approaching [Raiders]. So few. But they were throwing [Fireballs] at the city walls.
One detonated and blew a squad into pieces. Ryoka flinched. That was what was wrong with this world.
That was what was so glorious.
You could have monsters with levels that no one could beat. Who could just conjure [Fireballs]. A person shouldn’t have skin like steel, the ability to create explosions. That was like—superheroes among mortals.
But you could have heroes. You could have legends.
And monsters. Ryoka raised a trembling hand.
Not long ago she had been part of a [Witch]’s story. And she had felt helpless. Ryoka Griffin was a Runner in a story about heroes and demons. She couldn’t stop this.
But she had to try.
The wind blew hard, fighting against the [Clear Weather] spell. It fought Ryoka too; it didn’t always obey. But it had to.
The blast of air knocked two the Raiders out of the air. Ryoka poured the contents of her bag of holding into the wind, threw it into the Bloodfeast Raider’s faces. She saw the one on the carpet being flung around in the air.
“Fall. Break your neck! Die!”
Ryoka screamed at the wind. The one with █████ had hit the ground, but they were alive. But the one on the carpet was clinging to it. Ryoka willed the wind to dash them into pieces.
Kill them. Break them into pieces.
And yet—the wind fought her. Refused to hurl the [Raider] into the earth so hard they became paste. And Ryoka realized—she was fighting herself.
It was so hard to kill people. She wanted to. But it was still—hard. No—it was easy. All it took was a wand and the will to point it. But it was hard for her to do it, still.
She didn’t want it to ever be easy. She didn’t want to be—
The wind blew. But the [Raider] righted themselves. And the bow aimed at Ryoka. She saw a flicker.
The arrow went through her shoulder and out the other side without stopping. Ryoka felt a tug, spun around with the impact and stared at her arm. The hole in her body.
A gaping, jagged hole in her right shoulder. Her arm wouldn’t move. Ryoka saw a [Fireball] arcing towards the walls. Another detonated; hit the portcullis and blew a hole in part of it. All ███ were throwing [Fireballs] now. The [Guards] tried to return fire, but they were out of range. And the two who tried to use spell and bow—were killed in a moment.
High levels versus low. The [Guards] started to flee. Ryoka looked down.
“That’s a lot of blood.”
She vaguely reached for a healing potion. But it slipped out of her grip. Ryoka saw the [Raider] with the spear racing for the gates. She had to stop him.
But the wind—wouldn’t obey her. And she was so weak. Valceif? He could have done something. But she had killed him.
Even Erin would have done more. Ryoka felt that same, familiar feeling.
If only she had levels. She couldn’t remember why she’d ever refused them. Silly pride. A suspicion…Ryoka lay down. Or the floor rose up and caught her as gently as a bat hitting a baseball.
The Bloodfeast Raiders came through the gates. The first houses began to explode as they cast their spells. Ryoka Griffin muttered as she tried to stand.
She touched her shoulder. And her head went white. The young woman rolled over. She stared at the sky and thought she heard them laughing. Amid the cries of fear.
Celum. This was Celum. Ryoka was so glad…it wasn’t Liscor. Or Erin’s inn. She covered her eyes, as if this was a dream. The City Runner whispered.
“I’m back. Did you miss me?”
She tried to not to cry before the blackness and screaming became one.
She woke up covered in ash. Someone was shaking her.
The young woman looked up. Someone familiar was speaking to her. She looked up and saw—Fals.
He was covered in the same layer of black ash and soot that she was. For a moment—Ryoka couldn’t fathom why. Then she sat up and saw.
Celum was gone. The northern gates were torn open, the walls collapsed in seven places. Scorch marks littered the battlements. But that was nothing to what the city itself had endured.
Houses, wooden, fragile housing had gone up in smoke. The [Fireballs] had wiped out a third of the city by themselves and the flames—almost half. In the raid, no one had fought the fires.
Few had even fought the [Raiders]. Ryoka saw people wandering around. Bodies being dragged out over overturned houses. She was—lying among the ash.
Perhaps that was why the [Raiders] hadn’t found her. Fals had. The City Runner had a potion in one hand. He seemed shocked to see her.
“Is that you? Ryoka? They said someone called the alarm…your shoulder.”
Ryoka blinked at him. Then she felt at her shoulder. The potion had closed the wound—but it still hurt. Phantom pain. She looked at Fals, the dried blood on her clothes.
“I’m so sorry.”
He gave her an uncomprehending look. Ryoka tried to stand up. He caught her.
“Steady. You were hit. Ryoka—lie down. I’ll get a [Healer].”
“No. This is my fault. I have to—”
“You warned us. Erin’s been looking for you, Ryoka. Where have you been?”
The young woman shook her head. Fals was carrying her. He looked—burnt. She tried to ask what happened. He brushed it away.
“Pulling people out of the fires. We couldn’t stop them; the rains started after the [Raiders] left.”
He nodded, face blank. Even hatred wasn’t enough—so he was just cold.
“Three hours ago. They destroyed the city for nearly an hour, then just—left. Reinforcements arrived from Remendia, Wales, Ocre—after they were convinced the Bloodfeast Raiders had gone.”
He pointed at [Soldiers], militia from other cities helping bury the bodies. No one in Celum was doing much. They were just—walking around. Looking for something.
Ryoka Griffin let Fals take her down the street. Then she said something. He leaned over.
“Runner’s Guild. Or—or City Watch. I have to make a report.”
Worriedly, the City Runner checked Ryoka. She was healed, but—her face was white.
“Ryoka. We should get you to The Wandering Inn.”
“Door’s gone. So’s Octavia.”
“She’s in Liscor. Look—Wailant has a door. Just sit down. Help will be coming. I’ll send a [Message] to Wailant when I can, or run over. Just sit—”
“No. Runner’s Guild. I have to…”
Fals gave up. He steered Ryoka towards the Guild. It was as good a place as any to rest.
The Runner’s Guild was still intact. Incredibly. But it had been ransacked. The Bloodfeast Raiders had just walked in and taken all the packages, ripped open everything for delivery and taken what they liked. Then strolled out, as casual as you please.
It was the only reason it was still standing. Now, people were resting inside, many homeless. The staff was trying to help. But the woman at the desk was busy writing letters.
“Attacked. Bloodfeast Raiders…send [Healers], builders. Anyone that can be spared.”
The [Receptionist] stopped writing. She stamped it with a seal, shakily handed it to a dazed Street Runner.
“Take it to every village you can. [Headsman]—[Village Elder]—I don’t care. Tell them we need help. Start at Cimin—keep running. Go.”
She pushed at the Street Runner. The girl stumbled out of the guild. The [Receptionist] looked up. Her eyes widened.
“Fals? And is that—Ryoka Griffin?”
The young woman raised her head. She knew the [Receptionist]. But she had never learned her name.
“Ryoka has something to say. Ryoka—I have to keep looking around. Take care of her, will you? She’s injured.”
Fals let Ryoka lean on the counter and backed away. He ran, as the [Receptionist] nodded to him.
“Miss Ryoka. You need to lie down. We don’t have any beds, but—”
“I take full responsibility.”
Ryoka tried to raise her head. The [Receptionist] blinked at her. She looked at Ryoka.
“For what? Them?”
“Yes. I had an—a valuable—they took it. That’s why they came here. If I wasn’t here, they wouldn’t have come.”
Ryoka felt at her side. Then realized—her iPhone was gone. They’d taken it. She felt it’s loss. But she looked at the [Receptionist]. Slowly, Ryoka put her hands flat on the counter.
“It’s my fault.”
The woman looked at Ryoka. Exasperated at first. Then—sympathetically, as she saw how unfocused Ryoka’s eyes were. She spoke slowly.
“Miss Ryoka. No one is blaming you. Those were the Bloodfeast Raiders. They attack everyone. It was just chance they came here.”
The room flinched at the name. Ryoka blinked a few times.
“It is not your fault. Put your hands away, please. If you can move—lie down or help. But you did nothing wrong. Even if we wanted to arrest you—we couldn’t. The jails will be full of homeless people. Half the city is gone. We—may have to abandon Celum. The undead will rise within a day.”
The [Receptionist] was not unsympathetic. She just had no time for Ryoka. Slowly, the city Runner realized—she was being a fool. She put her hands down, had to lean on the counter.
“You’re in shock. Take a potion. The one at your belt.”
Ryoka’s head was swimming. The [Receptionist] helped her uncork the potion, swallow half of the stamina draught. Some of the blood loss began to fade from Ryoka’s head.
“If you are, I’ll take this. We need it. Can you spare anything? Potions? There are so many burned—and we need to count names. The Raiders—took some of our people.”
Ryoka saw there was a list being made on the counter. She fumbled for her potions.
“Here. Take it.”
The woman took the potions, called out. One of the Street Runners trotted over. She eyed Ryoka; the City Runner was holding onto the counter.
“You warned us. But for that it might have been worse, Miss Ryoka. More than a few families lived by hiding in the basements. More fled the city ahead of the Raiders. You should lie down now.”
“I…I…saw them. I need to make a report. I can tell you about them. Those bastards. They were talking in front of me. Blew up a carriage. But I saw them.”
The [Receptionist] froze. She reached for a quill slowly.
Ryoka fumbled for words. She remembered it all, hazily. Flashes of horror. But—she focused, trying to assemble a picture of them.
“They were—there were this many…I think one was—one—”
There had been ███ of them. But every time Ryoka tried to fix on the number—it slipped away. Something was wrong. She tried to count.
“O—on—there was at least one…”
“Miss Griffin. Miss Griffin, don’t force yourself.”
The [Receptionist] sighed, but kindly. Ryoka felt at her head.
“Amnesia spells. Or some kind of other identity Skill or artifact. Few can remember anything, Miss Ryoka. It’s how they keep evading capture.”
The woman shook her head. Ryoka put her head on the counter, despairing.
No. Not even this? She distinctly recalled. She had known something about one.
“Saw…her…before. I think. Not me?”
Someone saw her. The [Receptionist] was calling for someone to help find a place for Ryoka to lie down. But the City Runner gritted her teeth, forced back her shock.
Not again. She was so—helpless! This was like Riverfarm. Even the smell of burned flesh was the same.
Like Belavierr. But those little—shits—weren’t even like her. No. No.
Remember. Damn you, remember! You overcame a geas. Remember. Or you really are worthless.
Ryoka struggled against something in her head. She tried to hold onto one thing.
They had been—
One of them had been flying.
Two of them had been flying. Ryoka began to smack her forehead on the table. The [Receptionist] tried to make her stop. But Ryoka felt it. The wind was whispering. She had seen the fae. She could remember—
One of them had been flying with █████.
Ryoka bit her tongue. One of them had been flying with—
“One of them had been flying with…say it to me.”
She pleaded with the [Receptionist]. The woman repeated the words, hesitantly.
“Er. One of them had been flying with…?”
Yes! Ryoka’s eyes went wide. She focused on that one detail as something ate the rest of her memories. But she fought the Skill or spell for this tidbit.
One of them had been flying with █i█g█.
One of them had been flying with █ings.
One of them had been flying with rings? No, you idiot.
One of them had been flying with wings.
Ryoka’s eyes snapped open. She grabbed the [Receptionist], who was whispering with her colleague about head injuries.
“One…was flying. Without a carpet. They had wings. That means they were a…a…a…”
She shook the woman, trying to make the connection. The woman gave her a blank look.
It fit. Ryoka sagged in relief.
“Yes! One of them was a Drake!”
She felt triumphant. For half a moment. Then she sagged. She knew it was true. But that was the stupidest…one of them was a Drake? Great. That narrowed it down.
But the [Receptionist] looked impressed. She hurried off after asking Ryoka to wait and came back with something. She read through it—fast. Then looked up.
“That’s…not on our list. There are few of them that have ever been identified in any way. Species, skin color—Gold-ranks who survived encounters with them have identified six members as Human. But Drakes? Are you sure?”
“Yes. And that means it was an Oldblood Drake.”
The [Receptionist] inhaled.
“The Drake Cities have continually denied the possibility that this could have ever been anything other than a Human group of [Raiders]. And you’re sure, Miss Griffin?”
“Positive. I saw a Drake.”
It was more true the more Ryoka said it. She had pierced the veil—but the rest had slipped away.
Perhaps it was meaningless. But the [Receptionist] seemed to think it mattered.
“We’ll have to verify this, Miss Griffin. Via truth stone. Are you certain that was what you saw? Can you swear on truth stone unequivocally?”
“Yes. Test me. Please.”
She did. Ryoka found herself standing in the [Receptionist]’s guild when Fals came back. He was panting as she blearily listened in.
“Help’s coming. We got word to Wailant—Liscor and Esthelm are sending aid soonest. The door will arrive and they’ll put supplies through. Take as many people as they can. They’ve got housing—Liscor especially.”
A murmur went around the room. Ryoka raised her head slowly. And she heard a phrase.
“The Wandering Inn.”
It made her wake up a bit. The [Receptionist] was sagging with relief. Fals looked around, saw Ryoka.
“You need to lie down. A [Healer] should look at your shoulder. I’m not sure your arm’s moving properly.”
Ryoka just looked at Fals. She wiped at her eyes. The City runner blinked. But like the [Receptionist]—he didn’t have time to focus on Ryoka’s pain. Her pain was selfish. And Fals had been running across the city, looking for survivors. He briskly shook his head.
“It’s not your fault. This is just the way the world is.”
“It shouldn’t be this way.”
There was nothing to say to that. It might have been true. But ‘shouldn’t’ was an empty word. Fals patted Ryoka on the shoulder.
“If you can move—we could use some help. Otherwise—help will be there soon. I told Erin you were here.”
He had to go. Ryoka saw him jogging out the door, wearily. And she wondered.
“I thought he was an idiot. But he was always just a decent man.”
Someone passing by, another City Runner, gave her an odd look. Ryoka shook her head. It was strange, being blind and then able to see. She wondered if Laken understood her. She wondered if he could have stopped this. If so—points for him, not her.
But she was…Ryoka bowed her head. Then she got up.
Fals came back after twenty minutes. But by that time, of course—
Ryoka Griffin was gone.
The Bloodfeast Raiders celebrated their victory with sex. Drugs. Drinking. Or just the high of their murder. They had captives. They had loot.
One of them had the iPhone. ███ had won it after killing the most people. The others grumbled—but they were in this for the sport, the lust of their raids. And they had collected gold and trinkets aplenty.
“See you next time. Call the Bloodfeast!”
“We raid and vanish!”
The others laughed. The one with the iPhone stared at the screen, bemused. ███ had tried any number of codes—but the thing was fascinating. Magic, but not.
“See you later. Big success. We’re all going to be happy. The other raiders owe us big.”
“I’m just mad that damn Runner died. You had to shoot her?”
“I got her shoulder. Didn’t expect her to bleed out. You didn’t even find the body?”
The others teased the spear-wielder. They harrumphed.
“Scrying didn’t pick her up. She died.”
That was slightly disappointing to the [Raider] with the daggers. ██ had liked the City Runner. But then—it was only a passing like. The thought of someone knowing ███, ███ real nature was intoxicating. But then—the [Raider] was █████, like the others.
The █████, who was ████ ██████ of ███████, the very same person Ryoka had recognized however briefly, waved at the others. Then ██ pocketed the iPhone for later. A curio she’d find the worth of at her leisure. She flew off, laughing as the others split, turning invisible, hiding their tracks.
Oh, what fun! What glorious fun. And to a purpose. For—Ryoka Griffin was wrong. She had not summoned the Bloodfeast Raiders.
True, she had attracted them with her iPhone. But they had always been planning to meet here. Always been planning to sack Celum. For no reason involving Ryoka Griffin.
No—it had everything to do with ███ ███ █████ █████ █████ ██████. Just that. Funny how that happened. Hilarious. The Bloodfeast Raiders ghosted.
He woke up suddenly. Teriarch snorted and opened his eyes. It was rare for him to wake up from a nap unprompted. But—perhaps it hadn’t been entirely of his own volition.
He thought he’d heard someone crying. Only—not in the cave. On the wind? The cave was not airproof, for all it was so layered with magical protections that a Gold-rank team could sneeze on the entrance and not notice a thing.
“Captain Todi, we’ve run into three Eater Goat packs so far. We need to pull back. Our style is teleport-and-cast. But it doesn’t work if we teleport into the enemy!”
One of the Gold-rank adventurers on the mountain was speaking. Teriarch, muzzy from his dream, froze, listening.
They were right outside his cave. He heard a man’s voice, replying.
“We came here to hunt. We’re not backing down. We don’t go without making our mark. On me.”
They were here. Adventurers. They knew! The Dragon’s fuzzy mind snapped to alertness. Panic. Fear.
Teleport out! Go to the emergency cave, like when that Human had appeared despite his ward spells near Liscor! The Dragon prepared a mass-teleport spell.
And then stopped. He was still dreaming, caught in that state when the past and present and perhaps even the future blended together. And the Dragon remembered—how many times he had done this.
Flee. Or fight. The adventurers didn’t…seem too competent. But—they were here.
Which meant there were more. The brass Dragon rose taller. And suddenly—he was resolved.
“No flight. Very well.”
Let it be. Did they come at last? The Dragon rose slowly. Dozens. No—nearly a hundred, scattered. Muzzily, he counted, sending remote, moving pulses of magic that only expert [Mages] would be able to even detect, let alone trace.
Nearly a hundred in the High Passes. He felt a chill—which turned to fire in his chest. If they were all Gold-rank. That would do it. They were spread out across the mountain range. Prepared to strike at him if he flew.
The Dragon’s lip curled back, exposing teeth. He sensed no great power among them. But perhaps the true warriors were hidden. And ants could still kill.
Even so—part of him was disappointed. There was no bold challenger. This pitiful little team was clearly the sacrifice. They would die first. But there was no great champion who would challenge him outright. They had nearly snuck up on him in his sleep. You could respect that.
Still. Legendary heroes had assailed him once. And been broken, or forced him to flee. He had destroyed armies and leveled nations in his wrath, righteous or petty. It was a shame that this might be his death.
But few chose the manner in which they died. The Dragon rose, and dragonfire rose in his belly, still hot after endless aeons. But the Dragon was still proud. He roared a challenge as he called spells to level mountains to mind, summoned his arsenal of treasure to be spent for the most precious thing he had: his life.
“Let it be an end, mortals. Come. Challenge me and witness the last flight of Dragons in this world!”
The Dragon roared. His cave shook. He spread his wings to fly.
In that moment, Teriarch the Dragon did not recall that he had hired adventurers to hunt Wyverns for him. Waking from his sleep, he only had instinct. And that was—from experience—that no group of idiots would ever assail a Dragon without taking the measures to kill a Dragon. He was prepared for armies lying in hiding, Level 70 [Rogues] jumping out of teacups and so on—
And then a bit of magic triggered automatically. The Dragon blinked as, before his eyes, words flashed. At the same time, the same concepts began speaking in his head.
Magic. Rather like the iPhone’s ability to take notes. The Dragon’s eyes flickered.
“…Oh. The Wyverns.”
He shook his head. His temporary freak out faded. He exhaled a plume of fire, remembering. Relaxing. More information played.
The Dragon reviewed them grumpily. High Passes. Yes, yes, the High Passes, his second cave. He’d put up ward spells…talked with the Goblin. Oh? Yes, it had been fruitful. He should induce some dust into the Dragonthrone so he could clean it properly and give it that ‘lived-in vibe’.
More notes played in the Dragon’s head. He relaxed. Outside—the Gold-rank team of Todi’s Elites had the opposite reaction.
“My [Dangersense] is going insane. Abort! Abort!”
Todi screamed. The Gold-ranks fled, screaming and teleporting away in a panic. They had no idea what had caused their sudden sense of impending death, but one of the rules of adventuring was that you didn’t ask questions when you felt a [Dangersense] alarm. You just ran.
Inside the cave, Teriarch was still…processing. The Dragon harrumphed as the adventurers fled. He was half-tempted to intercept their teleport spell, bring them into the cave and squish one of them for waking him from his nap. It wouldn’t be much of a waste. They’d never kill the Wyvern Lord with little wands of [Fireball].
The Dragon snorted dismissively. Possibly Bronze-rank since it was just a team that relied on equipment. A good Adventurer’s Guild had to be discerning about Skill vs skill vs money.
That aside, the Dragon began to think as he looked around his cave. Absently, he wandered over and rummaged around in his hoard. Someone had organized it recently—him. But since he’d forgotten the standard to which he’d organized it—monetary value based on a calculation of raw magical value? Idiotic—he ended up tossing things around.
“I should just pile things up by category. But how do you categorize keyblades? Stupid smiths and their combination weapons. Not to mention transforming weapons. Where’s that spoon that transforms into a rapier? Hrm, hrm…”
Distracted by a thought, the Dragon hunted for the spoon. He amused himself by making it transform into the deadly sneak-attack weapon created by a true madman. Or madwoman, as the case had been.
Teriarch had notes. Mental, magical notes, and physical ones. After all, if you couldn’t remember every little detail of what made the Concealed Spoonblade forged by Maia Whitforgers of the Terminus Dynasty which had claimed fifty-eight lives until the [Assassin] killed themselves while eating soup—what was the point?
And his hoard was much like Teriarch, caught in the past. The Dragon flicked the Spoonblade over his shoulder after another second, instantly bored. He hunted around again.
He found an armoire of holding and shook it out. It was probably the wrong vessel to store food in, but Teriarch’s notes indicated there was about a thousand pounds of prime beef in it.
He licked his lips as the meat fell out of the armoire. The Dragon flicked his claws. Obviously, he wasn’t an uncivilized Dragon. He ate out of a bowl, delicately lifting morsels to his mouth and chewing.
“Ah, the breed of cow this beef comes from is extinct. For the last eight hundred years.”
Smugly, the Dragon savored his meal. The rarity only made it better. He didn’t need to eat, and it gave him dreadful indigestion sometimes. But treats were treats.
He couldn’t finish all thousand pounds of the beef—well, he could, but not without wasting a one-of-a-kind meal, so after about three hundred pounds, Teriarch put it back in the armoire and updated his notes.
It was only then that he realized he had a cluster of [Message] spells metaphorically hovering around his head. He snorted.
“What is this? ‘Confirmation of bounty regarding Wyverns…?’ I sent the payment! Do Adventurer’s Guilds not know how to give out gold these days? Disgraceful.”
The Dragon slapped his tail, shredding the [Message] spell. He frowned, reading another one.
“Invitation to Grand Magus Eldavin of…who? To attend a conference at Wistram?”
He blinked a few times. This one was fresh. The Dragon scratched at his metallic mane. Then a note flickered into his mind.
One of his fake personae. He’d made it and this one hadn’t expired due to natural causes yet. The Dragon grumpily filed this one away. He had no time for Wistram’s games. That damned Zelkyr probably just wanted more funding for his Golems. If he wanted to make money, he should make more Truestone Golems and sell them! As if three was all that great.
“When they were first invented, there was an army of a hundred. And weren’t they hard to smash? That puffed up little Drake with his female sculptures…”
The old Brass Dragon huffily ranted for a second. And then he remembered.
Zelkyr was dead.
The Dragon sat back. And instead of old, he was ancient. He blinked a few times. But—he didn’t dwell on it. He looked up.
Then he read Magnolia Reinhart’s messages to him. The Dragon’s eyes widened.
“That insane girl actually managed to—[Assassins]? Bah, a plague on them. And I’m not her [Enchanter] on house call! But she’s going to Oteslia? She’s just a girl! The Wall Lords will eat her. Perhaps literally.”
The Dragon got up and began to pace. And for the first time, a bit of anxiety entered his voice.
“What’s the date on the last [Message] spell? Hrm. Not too long ago. Perhaps I could fly out and—”
He paused at the entrance to his cave. A…thing stood outside his cave. Teriarch’s eyes crossed.
And Todi looked up at him. Or perhaps—not Todi. It had his face. But Todi’s arms were too long. His eyes unfocused. He swung around.
Teriarch stared at the creature of the High Passes. It backed up. The Dragon regarded it. It regarded him.
He inhaled. Todi leapt. It was gone before Teriarch could exhale. The Dragon blinked a few times. Backed up.
He redoubled his ward spells on the entrance of his cave. Then he paced back to his cave and sat down.
“…Perhaps a simulacra of me. Yes.”
He hesitated as he began to weave a representation of himself to go out into the world. And his concern for Magnolia Reinhart, genuine and urgent—turned to suspicion.
“Wait. Is this a prank to get me out of my cave?”
The Dragon narrowed his eyes. There was no way Magnolia Reinhart would have ever received an invitation to go to a Walled City. The Drakes would hop into bed with the Gnolls and marry Lizardfolk before they approached one of the Five Families.
The Brass Dragon murmured, closing his eyes. And he saw Magnolia Reinhart in his mind.
“Besides, that girl’s far too young to achieve that. Even if it were possible. Not as young as she is.”
Where was that little brat? Not sixteen years old and she thought she could trick—no. Wait. Was it thirty? Forty?
Teriarch froze. His notes began to play, but he cut them short with a wave of one claw. He tried to concentrate. It felt like he’d just spoken to her before having his nap. Let’s see—she had been here.
The Dragon tapped the floor. And bleeding? Had Ressa failed to guard her? She was forty—no—
“No. She was—is—sixteen. Always pestering. Her and that carriage and that uppity little [Maid]-[Assassin]. She wants to paint it pink?”
The Dragon concentrated on his latest memory. Clinging to it. He nodded, going back. That was Magnolia Reinhart. She was going to meet him in the Dawn Gazebo. The brat was late.
Teriarch opened one eye. Who had he been thinking of? He rose, unsteadily. Why was it so dark? It should be dawn. Was he late?
His notes chimed in his head, trying to tell him something. The Dragon brushed them away. No—that wasn’t right.
Of course. Ger. He must be in one of the mud palaces. Poor housing for a Dragon, but it was all they had. That was who he was meeting.
The Quarass of Germina? Yes—yes. They had arranged to meet in the flowering grasslands of Zeikhall since the rains had brought the blooms for the first time in three decades. What was he doing lazing around here?
The Dragon walked out of his cave. Looked around. Then his notes chimed again.
High Passes. The Dragon recoiled, hurried back inside his cave. He closed his eyes, murmuring a spell.
Magnolia…? How old was she?
And the answer was there. The Dragon’s face fell. And the image of the young woman, the uppity teenager—was replaced by a magical image of a woman full-grown. Her youth turned slightly bitter, but still—so willful.
“Forty two? So old. That is surely not…”
The Dragon wanted to deny what he saw. And part of him did. He closed his eyes, banishing the image. This was just a figment of his imagination. A mistake.
He would wake from the dream, and meet the [Empress].
The Quarass waited.
Magnolia Reinhart was playing a prank.
All of these things were true, and none. The Dragon was still waking. But now, he was afraid. Of no mortal thing. Not the little thing in the High Passes. Not his death, whenever it came, or armies.
But of this sense of unreality. Had he imagined her? Magnolia? Did she even exist to begin with?
The Dragon was afraid to consult his notes again. He just lay there, waiting for reality to reassert itself. But it never did. So—he debated sleeping again. Until it all made sense.
He closed his eyes.
And then heard a voice. It was real. So wonderfully real it snapped him back to reality.
“Hello? Will you let me in?”
It was coming from outside. His ward spells had caught the intruder—no—just held her back. She was running her hands across the stone, which was real and solid to her.
“I need to speak to you. Please. Let me in. Teriarch?”
“Ah, I knew it was a prank.”
The Dragon relaxed, and smiled. He murmured a spell and the visitor stumbled into his cavern. The Dragon drew himself upright, trying to be imposing.
“You have some nerve returning here, wretch. Be grateful I do not incinerate you on the spot.”
The intruder stopped. The Dragon saw with eyes keener than any hawk that it was a young woman. She raised her hands, babbling, distraught.
“Great Teriarch, I apologize for trespassing. But I have brought you gifts. If you’ll hear me out…”
He must have pulled off his imposing look well. Teriarch preened a bit.
Teriarch was relieved. It had been a dream. Magnolia looked older than sixteen, but he had been asleep for a while.
He would make it up to her. The Dragon looked down—paused.
All Humans looked alike. But he was fairly certain that this wasn’t Magnolia Reinhart. Or Ressa. The Dragon’s good nature turned into wrath at once.
“Who are you?”
He snarled. The Human backed up, wide-eyed.
“It’s me! I apologize for returning, Lord—er—great and terrible Teriarch, Lord of Flames, but I have brought you something.”
The Dragon blinked. He looked down at Ryoka. And his gaze was blank.
“Who are you?”
The Dragon loomed over Ryoka, and she felt the heat of his wrath. Ryoka held still. He didn’t know her?
“Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin your…eminence?”
What did Dragons prefer to be called? Ryoka had envisioned this meeting a thousand times. But never like this. The Dragon narrowed his eyes.
The City Runner was here. She had run through the High Passes unmolested for once; ironically, all the Gold-rank teams had cleared the usual density of monsters. And they had all been running scared for some reason just now.
She was tired. Weak. She had run away from Erin. Celum still smoldered.
But here was the Dragon. And yet—him not knowing her hurt.
In all of Ryoka’s simulations where she tried to outwit Teriarch, get what she wanted, what she needed, not one scenario had involved him not remembering her. He had brought her back when she’d died, gone a round with Az’kerash in his fury. How did he not remember?
For a moment, Teriarch loomed, suspicious, fiery—
A Dragon. So glorious and wonderful it hurt. Ryoka looked at him and knew magic was real, legends were true. If he incinerated her, it would be a good death.
…Sort of pathetic since they’d already met, but nothing to be ashamed of. Death by dragonfire. Very traditional. Got you lots of points in Knight-Heaven.
And just being in his presence reminded Ryoka that there was something else. A Dragon in his cave. She smiled wildly. Part of her—a crazy part of her wanted to spread her arms and say, oh—‘Try and burn me, you overgrown gecko. If you even can.’
…But that would be classic suicidal Ryoka, like insulting Teriarch to his face. Which she was resolved not to do—unless he provoked her.
To her relief the Dragon seemed to latch onto the name.
His eyes flickered. The Dragon’s expression cleared after a microsecond. He sat back, then just looked weary. And a bit annoyed.
“Ryoka Griffin. The Runner. And—ah. Yes. Az’kerash. Of course. Of course.”
“I apologize. You Humans look the same. I completely forgot about that minor incident. What are you doing here?”
Ryoka’s ego, not very large at the moment, promptly lit itself on fire and jumped out the window of her heart. She bowed slightly.
“I’m sorry for returning. I just—”
“Mortal. You have trespassed on my goodwill thrice now. Once, I called for you as a simple messenger. But your persistence displeases me. Did I not tell you to safeguard the secret of my existence with your life? You have gazed on a Dragon four times. Once is more than most mortals may dream of.”
The Dragon interrupted Ryoka, suddenly fully in a mood. He paced back towards his horde and curled up, looking dismissively at Ryoka. She followed.
It had been a long run. Well—walk. Run and walk and…Ryoka tried to remember her grand speech. Despite the strange opening, this was falling into simulation Route D with possible crossover with Routes B and E of her ‘Teriarch persuasion plan’.
“I know, Lord Teriarch. And I am exceedingly grateful for your generosity. I wouldn’t bother you at all, but I have brought you a—bargain. I carry a treasure with me.”
She almost said ‘gift’, but her internal notes on Route D told her to try bargaining first. And the Dragon’s eyes did light up a bit.
“Indeed? I recall the last time you offered me something, Ryoka Griffin. And your little device was amusing. For a while. But you have gall, to trespass here and dare to bargain.”
He rose, and a smirk of contempt and amusement, as the giant to the ant, ran across his face for a moment. Ryoka winced. This was like Route E. Shit.
She drew herself upright.
What was the next line? Teriarch blinked at her, and tapped one earhole.
“Speak. My patience wears thin.”
They killed all of them. My fault. Celum’s still on fire. What am I doing?
Ryoka pushed the thoughts away. The Dragon was enjoying this. Or so it seemed. He had an amazing poker face, but she knew he had an ego and liked being—a Dragon to mere mortals. She tried again.
“Apologies, Great Dragon. Perhaps I should say—I have a gift and a bargain to be struck. I would not intrude on your abode without making an offering. But the gift and treasure go together.”
“Hrm. Very fitting. But why would I wish for treasure that you could obtain? You waste my time with frivolities, girl. If this treasure is not to my liking—I may decide to incinerate you for the vexation alone.”
The Dragon paced back and forth, eying Ryoka up and down. His eyes glittered as they fixed on her bag of holding and his smile widened a tiny bit. He knew. Ryoka bowed, keeping her face straight.
“Not just any treasure, your—er—Lord of Flames. I am aware of my insignificance. My lack of worth…”
She trailed off. Gulped.
“…I can’t even stop an arrow. Or a bunch of [Raiders]. I’m not a [Guardsman], let alone an adventurer. I’m useless against most people. [Witches]—monsters. Even small ones…”
The Dragon blinked. This upsell was getting long. Ryoka knew it. She shook her head.
“…but this gift and treasure isn’t from this world. But from mine. It is unique. Valuable beyond compare, that even a Dragon might covet what is one-of-a-kind. For—even if the objects are similar, the knowledge within is vast and unique.”
Ryoka swore she saw the Dragon nod slightly, and another flicker-smile crossed his face. She spread her arms.
“You have used my iPhone, my treasure from another world. And what I have, Teriarch, are objects of equal worth or more. Just like this—”
Route D. The young woman reached for her side. Opened her little carrying case. And pulled out nothing.
Her iPhone was gone. Ryoka looked at her side.
“The—iPhone. Just like the one you have.”
She pointed at the iPhone hovering in front of Teriarch. The Dragon frowned.
“Have you…lost your device that you claim is worth so much?”
“No. It was stolen.”
Ryoka saw him blink. She felt a lump in her throat.
“It was [Raiders]. The Bloodfeast Raiders.”
Another brief pause. The Dragon sniffed dismissively.
“The—ah. That pestilential group. Well, it seems my possession has increased in value, would you not agree?”
He bared his teeth. Ryoka matched his smile.
“Yes, well, it was just this evening, actually. I just met them.”
“And you survived? Truly, even [Raiders] are not what they were. The most feared group in all of Izril indeed. Hah. I knew Reinhart was exaggerating.”
Teriarch snorted. Ryoka raised one finger.
“Actually…they were pretty good. They killed a bunch of people in Celum. I barely got away.”
The Dragon was only half-paying attention. He was nodding to himself.
“What was that old group that sacked Wistram? Sympathy’s Feathers? No, their name was actually quite elegant—hm? Well, you survived, didn’t you? Perhaps, insignificant as you were, even the [Raiders] paid no mind to you. Which leads me to ask if what you carry was of any worth.”
Ryoka tried to smile.
“No—I barely escaped. But I kept these—priceless devices—because of your bag of holding. Another gift, Great Teriarch. Thank you. I escaped with them. And my life. And they killed half of Celum and I ran away. I couldn’t do anything. And I tried this time. I really did.”
The Dragon was looking at her. The City Runner knew she was babbling. She tried to go on.
“But these gifts—are—”
Her throat was tight. The words felt like they were coming out, piece by piece. Ryoka inhaled and her breath was shuddering. The Dragon looked at her.
“Ryoka Griffin. You are crying.”
The young woman reached up and touched her cheeks.
“Oh no. Not now.”
She wiped at the water trickling down her face. Snotty nose too. Just great. Just—way to mess it up. She couldn’t stop from breaking down for another twenty minutes? She had been doing so well.
Something died in Ryoka’s head. Route D. And Route B, and E, and all the other projections. She hadn’t planned for this. And she had dreamed of this moment.
‘Twas a glorious scene. Tempting a Dragon with artifacts, knowledge, technology from another world. Tempting his ego and vanity and greed with a true game of wits. Calling on debts, if she had any.
It should have been wonderful. As magical as their riddle game should have been. He was Teriarch. This should be magical. Not—Ryoka wiped at her face with her shirt but only got soot in her eyes.
The Dragon was real. The journey was dangerous. Perhaps not as much as a journey far through the lands of evil to a mountain which was also a volcano while escorting a ring of dubious utility—
But dangerous all the same. She had been carrying the ring. And she’d brought the monsters to Celum.
…No. That was arrogance, believing it was all because of her. Perhaps it had just been bad luck. But even if she had nothing to do with the Bloodfeast Raiders—she wanted it not to have happened.
She wanted to have done something.
Ryoka Griffin’s voice was muffled as she tried to scrub at her face. The Brass Dragon looked down at the mortal. Ryoka lowered her hands. But the tears didn’t stop. She looked up helplessly, as the Dragon sat there, frozen.
“I’m messing this up. I’m sorry. I just—it’s been a really shitty day. Can I…sit here for a second? Please? Please?”
She was shaking. The Dragon found his tongue.
Ryoka Griffin collapsed onto the ground. Only now, did Teriarch look at her. See how her shoulder was half-healed, her right arm moving far less well than the left. Smell the soot and ash. Hear a suppressed, choking sob.
“I tried. But it didn’t do anything. I planned so much for this day but I was afraid to come here because I knew it would go wrong. And it did. I’m sorry—I should go—”
The Dragon blocked Ryoka with a tail as she tried to crawl out of his cave and let something eat her outside. He bent his head.
“Sit, child. Here. A chair.”
He found a throne, yanked it out of his treasure pile, eyed it, and found something actually comfortable to sit on. Ryoka kept sniffing, trying to suppress the tears. The Dragon cleared his throat. Awkwardly. Even his scales weren’t immune to this.
“You look—hurt. Allow me.”
He began parallel-casting a healing spell as he appraised her. And the Dragon looked around. He coughed, desperately.
“I think a handkerchief as well…stop using your shirt. Here. Cloth. And perhaps tea. I have a set of Drathian cups somewhere around here. Something to eat? Do you…like beef?”
Ryoka Griffin found herself blowing a nose on some incredibly expensive half-Elven sewn cloth probably worth more than your standard castle. And the Dragon rested on his claws, waiting for her to stop crying and tell him what had happened.
And that was the funny thing. Ryoka had tried, with plans and preparation to bargain with him, a dangerous task. Because Dragons were wise, or at least, old, and cunning. You couldn’t outwit a Dragon. You couldn’t even outclever them. But she had won her way in here by virtue of knowing a Dragon’s true weak spot. Or at least, this one’s.
He had a soft heart.
“Please help me.”
The Dragon sat in his cave. Listening to the young woman pleading with him. Making her case.
He could smell the ash and death on her. And it reminded him of battlefields he had roamed. He had left the very same stench on a thousand thousand warzones, drowned in it.
It was all too familiar. As was her face. Pleading, made wretched by grief.
But she did not just beg. She had a pride. Pride enough to be humble.
“It seems we always meet amid tears and grief, Ryoka Griffin.”
The Brass Dragon spoke. The young woman had to laugh at that. Her tears were dried, although the remnants of them lingered in her voice and in the air. She flexed her right arm. And felt—better.
Completely. She looked up at the Dragon. He had healed her with a touch. She exhaled.
“That power. You healed me in a moment.”
The Dragon looked amused.
“Of course. Even among the mortals of today, healing spells are still known. [Restoration] is a high-tier spell. But at least one [Mage] is capable of casting it. Naturally, my healing is more complete.”
“Naturally. But if you can use it…can’t you understand what I’m asking?”
“I understand your argument. I know the entirety of it, girl. It sways me not at all. But continue.”
Teriarch harrumphed. Hot air and smoke blew around Ryoka, making her cough. She had a little table—Beastkin hand-carved, from Baleros—and a chair that might have belonged to some royal family in another era. Porcelain teacup from Drath—
A pile of medium-rare beef, sliced onto a plate. Richer than Wagyu beef. It practically melted on the tongue and made you keep eating. Ryoka had stopped after her third helping. But only just.
Yet, she was focused on the Dragon. She was also embarrassed. But she felt better.
And Teriarch was speaking. He eyed the little pile of electronic devices. But for Ryoka’s iPhone, they were all there.
A laptop, a pair of smartphones, a tablet—the prize of the group of Earthers under Magnolia’s protection. Ryoka had paid dearly for them.
But they were here. So the young woman pleaded.
“If you can do that. Surely you can spare knowledge. Some aid…?”
His voice was flat. Not unkind. Unkind Dragons did not offer you tea. It was too sweet by far, ruining the delicate fragrance—but he had added sugar without thinking. Probably due to someone else’s influence.
“But why? You could catch them. Unless they’re too elusive for even a great Dragon to catch…?”
The flippant remark made Teriarch frown at her.
“I am not omnipotent, brat. Or can you find every ant that scurries through the grass? I could locate the Bloodfeast Raiders. And then what?”
“Um. Kill them?”
“And then what?”
“…There’s less monsters in the world?”
It was a simple argument. But Teriarch just sighed. Ryoka’s hair blew all around her crazily.
“Child. I’ve explained this to you again and again—”
He caught himself, eyed Ryoka, coughed into one claw.
“—That is to say, the argument is so tedious I have had it with every mortal who comes entreating me for aid. Kill the Bloodfat Raiders.”
Teriarch waved a claw.
“Even the name is too unoriginal. How many [Raider] groups do you think have existed over my lifetime? How many armies? The Black Judgment of Chandrar—phaw. Another insipid name. Sympathy’s Feathers or whatever they were called. And those are but [Bandits]. Say I hunt them down. Then what? What happens when the next group appears?”
Ryoka went silent. She could see ahead of this argument as well. And then he’d have to hunt down the next one, and the next. And become the eternal guardian.
They had had this conversation before. When she had pleaded with him for help against the Goblin Lord.
“I know you don’t take sides. But what about—evil?”
“They pillage and kill and rape. Is that evil?”
The Brass Dragon looked challengingly at Ryoka as if this was up for debate. Ryoka put down her teacup.
“I hope so. You can’t—philosophize that. Some things have to be evil, don’t they?”
“And yet, when an army does it to their enemy, it is just ‘war’. If I quibble at the actions of your raiders, why not stop it on a larger scale?”
It felt like Ryoka was arguing with herself. A younger, brattier self. But the Dragon seemed caught between amusement at playing Devil’s—or perhaps more accurately—Dragon’s Advocate. And a weary kind of sadness.
He had heard her argument before she even made it.
“But it’s still evil. Why not stop one evil if you can?”
“Because it is meaningless.”
The low rumble ran through the cave, tired, draining the energy out of the air. Like time, the Dragon whispered. He silenced Ryoka with a single look from a cerulean eye.
“Do not speak. I have heard it before. Why not save a single soul if I can spare the effort? Perhaps.”
He breathed. And the smoke whirled around Ryoka. She saw another city, like Celum, but different. Walls made of smoke, people moving about.
[Raiders] came. Riding on horses, shooting arrows. The Dragon squashed one of the smoke apparitions. The other [Raiders] fled and the smoke-people rejoiced.
“I save the city. Look how I change the world. See? He might have died. But for me—he becomes a [Mage].”
A little smoke-boy appears. He waves a wand and conjures a sparkling smoke-spell. Ryoka watched as he grew. The Dragon whispered on, his mismatched eyes glowing in the darkness.
“But for me, history changes. And this boy—becomes an Archmage.”
The young man became older, raising vast walls of stone, calling down fire—and creating magical wonders. The Dragon erased him as he stood on Wistram’s walls.
“Or—a monster worse than the [Raiders].”
The same boy walked around, casting [Fireballs], turning cities to ash. Like the Bloodfeast Raiders. Ryoka shivered as the illusion made of smoke vanished with another wave of the claw.
“Either could be true. By my actions, I could bring about great good. Or evil. Or nothing in particular. That is a Gnomish argument. If you can but see the future, what is the correct decision? Is it better to slay a warlord before he rises? Is it just?”
Ryoka nodded. She knew her world’s variations of that argument. The Dragon smiled, pleased.
“I do. But better to do something than not, isn’t it? Aren’t we culpable for—”
Gently, the Dragon froze Ryoka’s tongue in her mouth. The young woman froze. But she had a point! She was able to debate.
Then she looked in the Dragon’s eyes. And saw that he had heard her argument. The opposite argument. The insane argument that involved him burning down the city to spare the [Raiders] the effort.
He had heard it all. It wasn’t that she was wrong, or right, or poor at argument.
She was just too late to make it.
“I know all these things, girl. Good, evil. Morality. This is a Gnomish argument, something for those that love to argue and debate questions with no real answer. But there is an answer, one that is truest of all. Let me show you. This is the Dragon’s answer to your riddle of ethics.”
He waved a claw. And Ryoka saw the young man again. The [Archmage] stood on Wistram’s walls, creating beauty. The destroying monster leveled cities, creating an army of death with magic like his.
And then the [Archmage] grew older. The [Warlord] suffered a heart attack. His armies dispersed. They created evil empires.
The [Archmage]’s teachings became legend. His students used his spells. Ryoka watched two worlds hovering in the smoky illusions, flashing before her.
Vast empires of death and fear—that changed and became—just normal. Forgot their roots.
Wonders of magic that grew and rose higher, built upon one person’s genius.
And then—the empires began to crumble. The magic faded. Constructs were lost, the spells dissolved. The legacy of the [Archmage] was forgotten, only scraps remaining. The [Warlord] was gone, his name lost to time.
Nothing remained. Ryoka felt like shedding a tear for the wonders she’d seen. It had been too real, the images in the smoke. She had seen faces—marvels. Too realistic to be just illusions.
Perhaps Teriarch had seen them all, and called them from memory. Now, Ryoka saw something.
A group of settlers, building a few wooden walls. They weren’t Humans. But Gnolls. And after a small amount of time, they build a settlement. More began to move in.
And there was the city again. And here came the [Raiders]. Ryoka saw the same scene play out, only with different characters.
She understood. The smoke whirled around her, turning the air dark. It didn’t choke her lungs; it just was the world. A dark vortex of shadows mixed with light. She saw two glowing eyes looking down at her. Heliotrope and cerulean. A whisper, old as time.
“The Dragon’s answer is this: good, or evil. Effort or not. It never matters. All things end.”
The smoke vanished. Teriarch sat there again. Ryoka was standing on her feet. She looked around, disoriented. And the Dragon lay there, tired.
“Ryoka Griffin. You ask why I do not slay these enemies of yours. The answer is that I did. When you begged me ten thousand years ago on bended knee to take wing, I did. When you died on Rhir to humble me and move me to rage against the Crelers. I did.”
He looked at her. The Quarass stared up at him, solemnly. The Dragon sighed. Reality flickered.
“I battled my kin for you, girl. I created empires, fought to raise walls that would last forever. All turn to dust.”
He saw an [Empress] nervously perching on a chair. Sheta nibbled at some seeds as she listened. The Dragon spoke again.
“Why should I keep fighting for you? I have roused myself to destroy armies. Why another twenty, another thousand for your petty lives? I ask not out of malice.”
Magnolia Reinhart frowned, opening her lips. He silenced her again, ignoring Ressa as the [Maid] tried on a crown.
“Why should I rouse myself? You have nothing to offer me. Riches? I could buy your family a thousand times over, even Regis Reinhart. What have you left to show me? Wonders? Horrors? I have seen it all. Let me sleep.”
He blinked as Magnolia opened her mouth, a flash of determination in her eyes. And then—she was Ryoka Griffin. The Dragon saw the young woman fidget, look at her teacup.
All the same. He wondered if this was a dream, too. But here she stood. Arguing. Begging for aid against the Necromancer. For this city plagued by raiders. Her friends.
The Dragon was tired. But he was also—waiting. His heart began to beat. Because he was shackled by memory, bound by the chains of the past. But that was the thing. He could also remember…
The Quarass looked at him with immortal eyes.
Empress Sheta couldn’t contain her dismay.
The young [Lady] pursed her lips as she nibbled on a biscuit. Her maid flipped a dagger over, bored with the debate.
Ryoka Griffin spoke.
The Quarass looked at him with immortal eyes. The Dragon waited. He and she spoke in Zeikhal, the Great Desert.
Yet, there was not the endless oblivion of sand now. It was flowering. The rains had come, pouring down for the first time in a decade. And the desert had bloomed.
Brilliant flowers and plants filled the lands. The sun was bright, harsh, even. But the Dragon felt none of its heat. And the Quarass, her skin dark, was used to it.
She had lived three lifetimes under the sun already. And, barefoot, wearing a young woman’s face, she walked with the Dragon. For every hundred steps he would take a single stride.
“You are right, Dragon.”
That was the first thing the Quarass of Germina said after his lesson about time. She looked up at him.
Fierce. Unafraid. She had killed his kin. Won freedom from the tyranny of Dragons. She did not fear him.
Nor did he fear her. The Dragon stalked slowly across the lands, unafraid. He had slain every monster in Zeikhal. His scales still healed from wounds he had taken killing another Dragonlord. But he was triumphant. Undefeatable.
Still old. He listened as the Quarass went on, stepping around a plant that grew like thorns. Her bare feet crunched over something and she paused just for a moment.
“It is true. Your aid means little in the entirety of time. But you gave it to my people. Before I give my answer: why did you do it?”
“I felt like it.”
The Dragon smirked. The Quarass gave him a flat-eyed look. They were not friends. He had agreed to this meeting and she had taken it out a kind of wary respect. But she would rather kill him, and he lay Germina to waste. That they worked together was only out of necessity; the Dragonwars of Chandrar would continue, everyone knew. And he courted Germina as an ally—or at least for a pact of non-aggression ere the wars begin again.
“Why did you agree to meet with me, one of your sworn foes? You, who pledged to slay every Dragon in existence now beseeches one for help. Are you so craven after three lifetimes? Answer me that, Quarass.”
The Dragon countered her with a question. The Ruler of Germina’s eyes flashed. And her hand stole to a dagger coated with a toxin that could slay even Dragons. The Brass Dragon’s eyes narrowed and he tensed. But the Quarass lowered her hand. She spoke stiffly.
“That my people may live—I would do anything. Compromise my values, change what I am. Die—I have done so thrice already. Better to be cruel that we may live, Dragonlord of Flame. I speak with you to learn; I entreat that we may never see such depravities as before. We are no one’s toys.”
Teriarch considered this.
“Well said. But then—what of my words. Why should I help you?”
The young woman, who was already centuries old, tilted her head thoughtfully.
“You claim this matters not. But you and your people fought your own kind. You saw the depravities of Dragonkind and even now, Dragons splinter into factions. Surely, then, you are troubled by the plight of us. Ants we may be. But I gave my life for Germina. And I will again and again. And you—I think you are a liar, Dragon.”
She pointed up at the Dragon. And he listened, smiling, the greatest predator. The Quarass turned to him.
“I believe you care. Even for ants. And you will teach me. For if you do not—you are the same monsters my poison has consumed. Morality separates you from a beast. So even if time makes our achievements worthless—you will save Germina’s people today because it matters to you.”
A fine answer. The Dragon still laughed. The Quarass looked up at him, affronted, wary.
And he spoke.
“Ah, how little you know, Quarass. Believe what you will. Power is something I strived for, though I was given it. But I am Dragonlord, unmatched even among my peers. I share my power with none.”
The sun shone down on Zeikhal. Beautiful, fleeting. The desert bloomed. The Dragon inclined his head to her, a [Dragonslayer]. An enemy, but a worthy one. And one who had given her soul to immortality for her people. Yes, for her, he bowed his head and spoke.
“I fought my kin because of disgust, not morality. And I offer you my wisdom out of respect. I am no one’s savior. If you would be Germina’s—what will you sacrifice?”
For answer, the Quarass just opened her arms. And Teriarch roared with laughter. The Quarass laughed too.
She spread her arms wide and he and she laughed as they walked through the endless flowers. They spoke, and he gave her knowledge. They swore a pact, in that moment of bloom.
Blood from the Quarass’ bare feet ran onto the dusty soil where the new growths pricked her. But she never said a word.
Empress Sheta couldn’t contain her dismay. She paced back and forth, hunched, in the Dawn Gazebo, as the two spoke in her palace. Teriarch was perched on the cliff, his head level with the young [Empress]. At last, she had a reply, which she voiced tremulously.
“Honor, your High Eminence?”
The Dragon’s smile made the girl flinch. She fluttered her wings slightly. The Royal Harpy girl pecked at the bowl of seeds in front of her, nervously. But her words were dignified as she ruffled her wings.
“Yes, High Eminence. Honor, duty—forgive me. I am not skilled with words, as a [Diplomat].”
The Dragon waved it away.
“Speak. And why do you address me so?”
He was pleased by the appellation, but curious. The Harpy girl ducked her head slightly.
“They told me to address you as High Eminence Teriarch, the Starfire Dragon of Iltanus and Ward-Regent of Voltail. And your other titles.”
“Er—yes. To be expected, even from the [Empress] of Iltanus. But you may go on with less…pomp.”
The Dragon coughed, embarrassed. He had insisted on proper respect, but it was something to be called it so sincerely by the little girl fluttering her wings and staring at him in awe. Sheta spoke carefully—and she could not have been more than fourteen, yet to grow her adult wing-feathers.
“I know it may be fruitless, sire. But if it is—why did we ever stop making nests on cliffs? Why do we strive, if not for this temporary today?”
The child’s words astonished the Dragon. He blinked one eye at her. His radiant clothing—Dragonclothes, which were more decorative than anything, flickered in the winds whipping the high citadel of Iltanus, crown jewel of Izril, in the very center, along the High Passes. The Empire, which ruled over Terandria and Izril, lay below them. Vast lands filled with the Walled Cities—who alone did not kneel to the Harpies, yet who still maintained a wary peace.
For Teriarch was sworn to defend Iltanus. And his distant children, the Drakes, were wary of his might. And Iltanus’. Now, Sheta, First-Wingdaughter of Iltanus, looked earnestly up at the Dragon and pleaded with him to stay another generation. He had sworn to leave after her father died. But she asked nonetheless.
“Shouldn’t we do all that we can to make the Empire as plentiful as we can? That is why I was born. To rule. I must do it well.”
“And what happens when that conviction fades? Or you cannot answer their every complaint? What happens to your children should you bear them, Empress?”
The Dragon whispered at her. The same question that he had—no—would ask the Quarass. Had asked her father. Why strive against forever?
The Harpy girl bridled her wings and looked at him defiantly.
“I do not know. But I hope you will judge me and all those. I trust you, Lord Teriarch. I know I am not as intelligent as my father. Or as brave. Perhaps I am flawed. Perhaps, as you say, none of this matters. But you still fly with us. So, I must believe this.”
She touched her breast with one wing.
“If I do not matter, if Iltanus does not—if we are but dust in ages to come, he who is immortal and eternal will remember us. And if he remembers us well, we will surely not die.”
She closed her eyes as she said that last. Sheta nervously cracked one eye open and saw the Dragon gaping at her.
“Um. Was that a good answer?”
Weakly, the Dragon replied. A fledgling had said that to him. And he was caught again. Another generation. Because he had to know—what kind of ruler she might be. The Dragon bowed his head. And unasked, he began to recite an oath of loyalty for the third generation of Iltanus’ rulers, that it might endure a moment longer.
The young [Lady] pursed her lips as she nibbled on a biscuit. Her maid flipped a dagger over, bored with the debate. Magnolia Reinhart looked around the cave, so close to Liscor.
In the shadow of Iltanus’ capital. Sometimes, Teriarch dreamed of flying higher, of sitting where Sheta and he had spoken.
But the capital had been lost so long ago, few even remembered the name of Iltanus. Even Dragons, what few remained. Now, only monsters prowled the High Passes. And they were dangerous, even to him.
He seldom left the cave. But this young, upstart of a [Lady] was determined to drag him out. Magnolia Reinhart, who was chewing on a biscuit she’d brought him, looked up at Teriarch and swallowed before replying.
“You may tire of it. But I do not. So no peace endures? No kingdom lasts? But we did it. It can be done. And isn’t that worth the effort, to bring peace to the entire world?”
The old Dragon snorted, wearily. But he had to correct her.
“Not Humans. Well—once. In ages past—half-Elves earned the dubious distinction of ‘world peace’ twice. True peace, yes. But never without fault. Always with sacrifice, sometimes terrible sacrifice for ‘peace’. Is that worth it?”
“Is it better than doing nothing, old man?”
The girl scornfully corrected Teriarch. The Dragon exhaled a plume of flame at her and Magnolia ducked with a squeak. Ressa just laughed; Teriarch wouldn’t harm her.
“Don’t get uppity with me, girl. And stop calling me that!”
“I’ll call you what I want. You’re just old. And tired.”
Grumbling, Magnolia got to her feet. She crammed another ultra-sweet biscuit into her mouth. It was amazing she could eat as much as she did and not grow fat. But she was young, sixteen, and vibrated with energy.
Or maybe that was the sugar-high. The [Lady] stalked back and forth; she had plans. Visions of the future.
“We can do it. Drakes and Humans can work together.”
“You stole their lands. I remember when all of Izril was occupied by Drakes and Gnolls. And Harpies. The Nagas even had a settlement—ah, but those were bitter wars between Drakes and Lizardfolk. They still remember.”
Ressa rolled her eyes. Teriarch saw her climbing up towards a throne made of jade. Sitting there would confer unto her the power of an ancient empire until her death. He flicked her off and the [Maid] somersaulted through the air and grumpily went off to look at his books. He sighed and pulled the shelves of cursed books out of the way.
“I can do it. The past is the past, Teriarch. And I can unify Izril. I don’t have to be a tyrant. I don’t want to be one. If we can stop fighting—we can bring peace to Izril. To Baleros, and Chandrar. That stupid King of Destruction can’t beat everyone. Izril needs to unite and fight him. And if we can beat him? We can make this world better. And I promise you—it won’t be like all the other times.”
“You couldn’t bring peace to a pair of squirrels fighting over an acorn.”
The Dragon snorted at her. Magnolia strode up to him and poked him in the snout, hard. He went cross-eyed. She spoke, seriously.
“Let me try. I can do it. Just watch, old man. I can unify the north and south. Stop my family from playing their twisted games. And when I do—I want you to leave this cave and come with me.”
“But what will you show me that I have not already seen?”
The Dragon sighed, suddenly tired of this debate. Magnolia Reinhart smiled, and her eyes sparkled with mischief and courage.
“I don’t know. But neither do you. Isn’t it worth finding out what the future holds?”
Something flickered in his eyes. The Dragon half-rose. But he offered her no vows of loyalty. No great wisdom. They were just companions. He had taught her the past, and she was resolved. Some small bits of aid, that was all. She would do it herself. And when she did—he looked out of his cave.
“I will think about it.”
Magnolia hugged him, impulsively. The Dragon eyed the young [Lady] who laughed as she hugged his snout. Then he blew her off with a snort. But he smiled.
Then and now. The Dragon sat in his cave and refused to budge. An army couldn’t change a Dragon’s mind. He had defended his lair against Wyverns and he would die fighting rather than give up his treasures to another Dragon. They had scales as hard as mithril, egos as stubborn as Dwarves.
But hearts as soft as silk and cotton. The old man looked at another little girl. And there were so many he had met. Even if they were not so much girlish or little.
Now, another one had come. Or had she already been here and was this another memory? The Dragon didn’t know. But he lay there, more tired than he had been in any of his memories, even with Magnolia Reinhart. That probably made this reality.
Was it all just a dream? He closed his eyes and if he did—he could imagine all those countless aeons of struggle had just been a dream. For what was left? Only memory.
And even the memory of Dragons faded before infinity.
“But what a pleasant dream.”
The Dragon rose, stretching his wings out. The young woman jumped. The Dragon stopped resting. He stretched, rising higher, a titan of shining scales. Teriarch looked down at Ryoka. And he asked the question, a variation of the one that had come before. Because she was like the others.
“In two hundred years, you will be gone from this world, Ryoka Griffin. And I will think of you only as a figment of my imagination. A fantasy, however bitter or sweet. Why should I rouse myself for the visions which flit before my eyes? Give me an answer better than all the ghosts who stood where you now do.”
Like the others. Different in form, but the same in nature. Why bother? Perhaps—because the dreams were so brilliant.
Perhaps because he had been waiting for this. The Dragon waited, his heart pounding harder. Like the fae, he longed for it.
A challenger. One with magical arms to hunt his life. Or—this. He looked down at the young woman, expectant. Hoping.
Show me brilliance. Challenge me with that which I have not seen in my existence. Wield words like a sword forged of arcane metal and sorcery and craft.
Ryoka Griffin spoke.
“I know you’ve seen it all, Lord of Flame. I…understand that. No—wait.”
His face fell as she scratched her head. Not exactly a good start. But then—Ryoka closed her eyes. Her expression firmed, and when she opened them, her voice was confident again.
“I understand that I cannot comprehend your perspective. I am not immortal. My worldview is limited. The ant cannot see from the giant’s eyes. But perhaps—I have seen things even you have not. Because I have been to another world. And no Dragons have ever flown on Earth.”
The Dragon saw the young woman pace back and forth. She turned, and pointed at the tiny technological devices from her world.
“Now there are two worlds. And mine—dreams of Dragons. We long for magic. Because a world without it is just painful. We need heroes. Legends. But this world has magic and still, there’s so much cruelty. Darkness.”
She pointed at Teriarch, through the haze of the illusory smoke that still hung in the air.
“Perhaps you do not need the world. But we need you. It doesn’t matter? Two worlds are colliding! I believe even you will not have seen what comes next. I look around with an ant’s eyes—but even I can feel it.”
She raised one hand, and he saw the missing stumps of two fingers. Ryoka stared at them, shuddering. She had refused his offer to heal them again. He had forgotten he had offered the first time.
“A God sleeps on Rhir. Things even the Fae fear stalk my dreams. The Stitch Witch crawls across Izril. The King of Destruction is awake! My world is coming. And we have conquered all of Earth. Do you think our armies won’t march on this one? No Dragon has witnessed a war of the worlds. But it is coming. And you think you can sleep in this cave and pass it by?”
She looked at him, scornfully. The Dragon narrowed his eyes. But Ryoka Griffin wasn’t done. She pointed at him.
“I have a riddle for you, Teriarch, Lord of Flames. If a Dragon sleeps in a cave, unknown to everyone in this world and does nothing—does he even matter?”
A snort of fury rolled through the cave. Ryoka hesitated. But the irritation was in itself a new emotion. The Dragon felt drowsiness leaving him. He debated teleporting her ten miles up in the air. But he listened as Ryoka Griffin backed up. She touched the little devices of plastic and metal. Quietly now, she looked at him.
“I don’t have much to offer you, I know. Curiosity. Trinkets. I came here because…I’m lost, Teriarch. I keep trying to move forwards. But every time I do, it feels like I fuck everything up. If the world is dust to you—it feels fragile to me. Like glass. I know what that’s like.”
She gazed up at him. Slowly, Ryoka sat down on the ground, bowed her head.
“It’s so hard to be…better. But you have to try. Or you’re stuck in the same place forever. And I’m so tired of being that person. But the world keeps kicking you when you’re down. It’s so hard to change.”
Empires fell to dust. The Dragon looked at Ryoka, and understood her completely. Only, he saw the inverse.
It was impossible to stop change. He had tried to hold onto Iltanus. Defended it until the last city fell. He had tried to forget.
But they always stood before him, just so. Ryoka Griffin looked around. At the treasures of the past. And she pointed out of his cave. Urgently, looking at him.
“Show me there’s hope out there. Or show me what a monster is. You’re supposed to be the most powerful being in this world. Don’t sleep. Please. I want to believe in something. Show me—there’s a way out of the darkness. I need to see the light. And what better radiance than Dragonfire?”
She stopped then, panting. Hoping. The Dragon looked at her. And felt her words tugging at him. He closed his eyes, thinking.
“…Fifty seven points.”
Ryoka Griffin blinked. She looked up at Teriarch. The Dragon elaborated, cracking one eye open.
“Out of a hundred. The point about multiple worlds was well-made. Rather typical, calling upon my status as a being of myth and legend. Bringing up Rhir and the fae—good. This [Witch]—no. Not the same league of threat to me. Just a busybody. I have no idea who this King of Destruction is. A rather insulting riddle, but I will allow a touching finish.”
The young woman just stared, flummoxed. Fifty seven? That was a failing grade no matter how you sliced it. The Dragon continued.
“And you are wrong about one thing. Rhir. That is not a—your understanding is incomplete. No. I take points off for that. Well done, nonetheless. For the attempt.”
He folded his claws and looked at her. Ryoka looked at him and felt a sinking sensation in her chest.
“…What? You won’t do anything?”
The Dragon’s voice was level.
“A moment ago, Magnolia Reinhart stood in front of me. I’d give her sixty-two points. And I did not stir for her. Make no mistake, Ryoka Griffin. Your plea moved me. If you had made it ten thousand years ago, let alone in my youth—I would have agreed. But not today. Do not curse yourself. Curse only the countless numbers of your kind who have beseeched me with the same grand speeches.”
Ryoka felt the energy draining out of her. She had to catch herself before she fell backwards on the ground. She struggled to sit up.
“I am tired.”
That was all the Dragon said. Desperately, Ryoka got to her feet. She hurried over to the pile of devices.
“But what about this? At least—if I give you one as a gift—won’t you help me?”
She had begged him for his aid to make the world right. Which was Route G, a long-shot even in her eyes. At least though…Ryoka held up the laptop.
Teriarch eyed it wearily.
“A curio. But I have seen your other device.”
“It’s nothing like the iPhone. I will trade them for help. I told you. Ivolethe is alive.”
“I know. Fae do not die easily. She shattered her mortal form. She lives. But the Faerie King is wrothful with her. And his ire is not one you should provoke. Take comfort that your friend lives, Ryoka Griffin. You do not wish to make matters worse? Believe me. Offending the Fae is the surest way to invite calamity.”
She knew it was true. But—Ryoka helplessly gripped at something in her belt pouch. She felt freezing cold, lifted the little statue up. Teriarch focused on Ivolethe’s form. He paused, looking at Ryoka.
“I know. But she’s my friend. My first true friend. I’d do anything to see her again. Even take a [Witch]’s bargain.”
“Do not do that. That busybody is not to be trusted. She always takes more than she gives.”
The Dragon whispered. An old man cautioning a girl. Ryoka knew he was right.
“But…please? Won’t you take anything for this? Anything? One of the things I asked for. A protection artifact for Mrsha. A cure for Fierre. Anything at all?”
She offered the small pile of objects. The Dragon hesitated.
“Would you have me give her a Ring of Greater Health? Or a Necklace of Protection? Would you take a panacea for your Vampire friend? Artifacts of such power I have. But that too is interference. And is what you possess worth that? Are they unique, truly?”
Ryoka’s face fell. She lifted a smartphone, looked at it. The copy of her iPhone hovered in the air. And the Dragon could just—copy the other devices.
Kindly, but sternly, the Dragon flicked a claw at the pile of devices.
“I will offer you a trade, Ryoka Griffin. A small favor for a copy of each. Trinkets. Knowledge. Then we will part again. I cannot solve your woes. I tried to, once. It just made men smaller, petty. That is the flaw of paradise, of Khelt. A Dragon cannot solve anything. I am a Lord of Flame. But not almighty. Close, yes, but…”
Ryoka half-smiled. Teriarch chuckled. Then he looked seriously at her.
“But I cannot fly into Rhir’s hell and live. I cannot dive into the lair of Krakens and hope to emerge unscathed. My people were laid low by mortals. I do not underestimate them.”
The young woman wiped at her eyes. But she wasn’t crying. She’d just expected—everything.
“Okay. Thank you.”
The Dragon seemed vaguely surprised as the fight went out of Ryoka.
“You are satisfied with that?”
She just looked up. And nodded.
“Yeah. I was just—pinning my hopes on an impossible dream. One even a Dragon couldn’t fulfill. That’s classic me. I should have been realistic. I should have stayed at Reizmelt. Fixed my problems myself.”
“There is wisdom in that. We cannot rely on others for everything. Knowing your limitations is also part of wisdom, girl. Some things are unchangeable.”
The Dragon unhelpfully added. Ryoka sat down. She looked at the pile of electronics. And closed her eyes.
“Can you…help me see Ivolethe again? However unwise?”
“I will not quarrel with the fae. But I do know something of their laws. There are…chances. More than that, I cannot offer. Is that your wish, then?”
“Yes. Thank you. Will you help me with Fierre? Mrsha?”
The Dragon hesitated. He pursed his lips and looked at the girl curling up on herself.
“One. I will give you one gift.”
Ryoka closed her eyes. One was safe. The other one was…sick. The Dragon nodded. He closed his eyes. Whispered.
“I think—yes. This may help her.”
A little chest opened. A single vial glowing like starlight flew towards Ryoka. She reached for it.
Magic. Just like that. She grabbed the cure, cradled it. And looked up at a wish-granting Dragon.
“Please? Can’t you make it three? Three’s…an auspicious number. A trinity. A—isn’t it traditional?”
“But it’s so easy for you. This—this will cure Fierre? Of her sickness?”
The Dragon hesitated.
“The symptoms, at least. But of course. The sickness is just a symptom of—”
He paused. Too late. Ryoka leapt to her feet.
“Of what? Blood? A plague?”
“Nothing. I know nothing I care to share, mortal.”
The Dragon turned his head, trying to pretend innocence. Ryoka strode up to him.
“Tell me! They’re sick! Dying!”
“Perhaps that is well. Vampires ruled over Izril during their time. Interference—”
Ryoka kicked him. She jumped forwards and kicked the Dragon on the hind leg. It was like a mad Chihuahua charging an elephant. Teriarch looked affronted as Ryoka punched him.
“You. Have. To. Help! Why won’t you just do it? Lift one claw? You could make it all better! I don’t understand why—”
He lifted a claw. And gently smushed her. Ryoka was pinned under one claw. She tried to move, struggled, cursed—then just lay there, panting.
“I told you. I am done with interfering. I could tell you. But then I would begin the Nights of Blood again. [Vampire Hunters] would come from Terandria. Izril would lie in fear. I am tired. Every time I interfere, I cause ripples. A Dragon cannot lightly change history. We are too powerful.”
The City Runner panted.
“It’s not fair.”
The Dragon sighed. Both lay there, powerless for different reasons. At last, Ryoka sat up.
“You’re really not going to help me. Even if I beg?”
“Not in the way you wish. Not with earthshattering might or artifacts that will change destiny. If I gave you a ring, it would eventually come back to me. And the people of this world still remember how to slay Dragons. Girl. Why do you think I hide?”
The Dragon informed her sternly. Ryoka sighed. Round and round they went. If only—
“Fine. Get off me. Please.”
The Dragon raised one claw. Ryoka rolled over. And rolled over again. She bumped into the table without bothering to get up. The Dragon eyed the young woman pillbugging across the cave. She really was depressed. But he knew he was right. He tried to justify himself—just because.
“It is not personal, Ryoka Griffin. If I gave you a magical sword—I wouldn’t make you a hero. That creates monsters, more than great [Kings]. It is not good to give mortals everything, you see. You rely on the artifact or my help. It is not…good for you. You understand?”
Ryoka’s hair hung around her face. She pulled the laptop off the table, hit the power button. It still had power. She’d had it charged. She sat with her back to him. The Dragon went on, edging around to glance at her face, but it was bowed too low.
“In the same way, I do not leave my cave. I am a prisoner as well. It is too risky. Hence, my isolation and slumber. I understand your grief. No one is without shackles.”
The screen was on. Ryoka keyed in Kevin’s passcode. It was his computer. She just sat there as the Dragon went on, pontificating about ethics. It wasn’t easy for him. He felt for her—was she listening? He poked her back.
“I hear you. Shut up.”
The young woman sat there. So the Dragon wouldn’t do anything for her. Fine. Fine.
Fine. No, this is fine. She would have preferred to be incinerated. But at least this.
Route Z. Ryoka looked up at the Dragon. And she had to say it, as Kevin’s stupid computer loaded. Processing power of 2.2 GHz, 6 GB RAM.
Worthless. A junk computer compared to newer models. She looked up at the Dragon. And after all the bargaining, pleading, speeches on ethics and so on—she had to say it.
“I know I come to you a lot for help.”
“That is true. You have a habit of pleading for my assistance. And I have given it three times already. My point exactly.”
The Dragon looked taken aback at the admission. He tapped one claw against the floor, cleared his throat.
“…Not that I hold a grudge. I understand that I am a miraculous existence for you. But you must understand my position.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
Ryoka watched as the desktop—with Kevin on a skateboard doing a trick—appeared. It was a communal computer now; the others had shown Ryoka what was on it.
Videogames. Even the basic stuff like Solitaire was a good amount of entertainment since this was the only laptop. Not many good games, though. But Kevin had decent amount of pirated stuff.
Even some DVD’s in the carrying case. Ryoka opened the disc tray—the laptop was old enough to have one unlike some models. But that had actually been amazingly good; it meant Kevin had movies. Music tracks. He’d pirated a lot.
Also—porn. Ryoka had nearly deleted the folder, but Joseph, Kevin, Leon, and Troy had all sworn eternal vengeance if she did. She sighed as she sat there. The Dragon craned his head.
“We do meet in times of distress, Ryoka Griffin.”
The young woman didn’t move. Teriarch heard her reply, faintly, as she clicked with some tiny object and the light changed around her. He couldn’t see what she was doing.
“I know. And I do know that I ask for a lot. It’s just—well, it is like meeting a Genie in a bottle.”
She glanced back at him.
“Yeah. But I never really say…‘thank you’, do I? I always run over, we talk, I cry, and run away. I do that a lot. Just run away from my problems.”
The Dragon blinked. Ryoka met his eyes and he shuffled uncomfortably.
“I am used to it. Believe me, I understand your greed. Not even greed; your desires. And as I recall—the last time we met, your heart exploded.”
“Yeah. Good times. But you brought me back. I…have a lot of immortal friends. Ivolethe…Fierre…”
“Do not lump me in with a faerie and Vampire.”
The Dragon huffed. Ryoka saw a screen flicker up. She clicked furiously. No! Not the default video software! Damn it, Kevin! Don’t you have one that’s—she sighed. Still loading.
“Yeah. Sorry. But you’ve been—kind.”
The Dragon uncomfortably turned his head. What was she doing? Ryoka sat there. No great and glorious gifts. But she would not leave here empty-handed. She closed her eyes.
“I will meet Ivolethe again. Please tell me how. And I’ll help Fierre. Even if that potion doesn’t cure her underlying problems.”
She glanced back at the Dragon. He winced. Reinhart was going to kill him if Vampires returned. But then he saw Ryoka press a button. And a voice spoke.
From the computer. The Dragon frowned. Ryoka looked at him as the opening scene played. The Dragon was distracted, trying to glance around her, but she blocked the screen.
“You can have your electronics. Copy them. But before that—can I sit here for a while? I want to show you something.”
“You want to stay here? Absolutely not. This is my cave. I am a busy Dragon—er—I have important things to do! What is that? Who’s speaking?”
The Dragon glared at Ryoka. She smiled.
“Call it the third wish. It’s just a little gift. And I insist. I have to stop running away. So—for my third wish—”
“I’m not giving you a magical ring.”
He snapped at her. The young woman laughed. She stood up, backed off as the movie began to play. The Dragon saw the screen showing a vivid movie screen. He blinked. Ryoka had no movies on her iPhone.
“For my third wish, I want you to watch this.”
“What is this?”
For answer, Ryoka just sat down. The Dragon hesitated, but edged closer. Someone was speaking. He blinked.
“Are those…Dwarves? They look nothing like…well, that one doesn’t. Too much Human blood. Inbreeding between species.”
“Shush. This is a movie.”
“A what? Is this like one of the podcasts?”
“No. Shush. It’s a story.”
Ryoka saw the Dragon narrow his eyes. He was eying her backside, about to eject her from his cave. But then—his head snapped up.
And then, there was one. On the screen. Teriarch gaped. Ryoka laughed at his expression.
“This is a story about Dragons?”
Damn Kevin. He had a lot of pirated movies—he hadn’t paid for a single one. And he hadn’t even the decency to pirate the original Lord of the Rings movies. But here was a new one.
The Hobbit began playing as Ryoka sat back. Teriarch was stunned as screaming Dwarves filled the screen.
“I thought you said this world didn’t have Dragons. Are those—that armor is completely unrealistic. That’s not a Dragon. Look at those scales! Does he have some kind of plague? Or is he just dirty?”
He pointed at the fleshy-scales, not at all like his shining metallic scales. Ryoka shushed him.
“It’s a movie. The creators never saw Dragons. They came up with this story based on a book. It’s famous.”
“It’s inaccurate. Not pillaging a Dwarven city. We did that all the time. Although only a fool would go to Deríthal-vel. Other Dwarven kingdoms in the past—yes. But I wouldn’t battle the Dwarves inside…”
Ryoka saw the Dragon focus on the first action scene she’d skipped ahead to. He blinked.
“Are those Elves?”
“Are they realistic?”
Ryoka glanced up at him swiftly. The Dragon blinked. Harrumphed.
“How should I know? They were before my time; most of them. Only a few survived the—although—they might be half-Elves. Rather ugly. Wait. Wait. What is that?”
A Hobbit appeared on the screen. Ryoka smiled as the music began playing. And the Dragon’s protestations faded. She sat back as the Brass Dragon edged forwards. She was smiling. Then—she saw his face crumple.
Ryoka saw his eyes glistening. She looked up at him. But the Dragon’s sadness was only for a moment. He watched, spellbound, as the movie continued.
“And Humans made this?”
“Oh, yes. I…saw this only once.”
She’d been very upset too, especially about Radagast. But Ryoka couldn’t remember why she’d been so upset. The movie was…beautiful. Something not of this world. The young woman cleared her throat, nervous beyond anything else.
“Do you want to watch? I thought—we could watch it. Route Z. I mean—if I’m bothering you, I’ll go.”
“No. Keep it playing. It’s so small.”
“Sorry. The screen’s small. If we had a projector, we could make it—”
The Dragon snapped his claws. A replica of the screen appeared in front of them. Perfectly magnified. Ryoka gaped. The shimmering window in the air began playing.
And the two sat there. Ryoka glanced up at the Dragon. Then sat back against one claw. He started. Looked down at her. But then grunted.
“Go find something else to lie on. I am not your pillow.”
He flicked her off. Ryoka swore, but then—she found a pillow stuffed with unicorn hair or some shit in his pile and walked back over.
“You know, you eat food with movies.”
“Like what? Also—be silent.”
The Dragon was distracted. Ryoka sat down on the pillow.
“Oh, popcorn. Or something. Got more of that beef?”
It was just a little thing. Not groundbreaking. But as Ryoka and the Dragon watched the movie, occasionally commentating on it, eating extinct magical cow beef—she got one little wish. Which was to sit next to a Dragon. Who was grumpy. Aloof. Who refused to interfere with this world time and time again.
But who could be—possibly—a friend. And that made Ryoka most scared, and it was one of the things she wanted more than anything.
Night was falling. The Dragon and young woman sat there. Watching the first movie from start to finish. Kevin didn’t have the second or third parts, but he had other movies. And even a few games. Ryoka wondered how Teriarch would take Shrek.
“I see the devices are worth something after all.”
The Dragon said as she sat there. Wistfully, Ryoka looked up at him. But she didn’t try to haggle. She bit her lip. Looked towards the darkening landscape.
“I’d like to watch more. With you. But I do have to go. I must go.”
There was one more thing to do. The Dragon nodded.
“Perhaps…you could return. I will send you where you need to be.”
Ryoka felt sniffy again.
“I will. If you’ll let me. I wish we could just—talk. I’m sorry I just came here to bargain. But you’re so far from everything.”
“By design. Few mortals are worthy of my time. If you wish—you should show me—what is that thing? A mutated…slime? Eugh. It’s hideous.”
Teriarch squinted at Shrek’s face. Ryoka laughed. She wanted to stay! Impulsively, she reached out. Touched Teriarch’s scales.
They were hot. The Dragon recoiled.
“Stop that. You’ll get dirt on my scales.”
He shooed her off. But he looked wistful too. Ryoka shook her head.
“Couldn’t you leave your cave? Just once? For a little bit?”
Teriarch looked at the opening to his cave. He hesitated.
“I told you, Ryoka Griffin. How many times must I tell you? A Dragon cannot enter the world without being prepared to change it. And when I act—it is all or nothing.”
The young woman sighed. She looked up at him. And then she had a thought.
“…But hear me out. What if you tried, for once, being halfhearted about uh, changing the world? Give it minimal effort? You know, roll out of the cave, mess around a bit, and don’t commit to being a savior?”
The Dragon eyed her incredulously. Ryoka looked up at the glittering Brass Dragon, one of the last Dragons in the world. She was asking him to halfheartedly…
He began to laugh. The Dragon’s laughter was deep, and it shook the cave. But there was something pleasant about it, as large as he was. He laughed and laughed at the idiotic request. For the first time in…
When he looked down, the young woman was laughing too. Not because it was funny, but because of all that had happened today. Laughing because it was better than crying.
They both understood that. The Dragon laughed, and looked wistfully down at Ryoka.
She had to go. He sent her by magic, and she vanished. Without falling from the skies, which was a relief; there weren’t many roofs to land on anymore. The Dragon sat in his cave, looking at the copies of the electronics added to his hoard.
And for the first time in a while, he wanted to leave his cave. The Dragon closed his eyes. He couldn’t do that. Some people could see through even his best concealment spells. A Dragon shouldn’t fly without being prepared to die.
He exhaled, slowly. And more [Message] spells appeared, waiting for him. He felt old, and…tired?
No. For once, he longed to watch the second movie. The little computer screen glowed in front of him. The Dragon eyed…the mutated slime-thing. That was apparently a Troll.
But what was the fun of watching a movie alone? Some fun. But that had been…pleasant. He sat there, the Dragon. And realized something.
He had never seen a movie before. Brilliant plays, yes, and dramas, magical wonders. But that had been new.
“One hundred and two points. Minus eighty points for the false Dragon.”
The Dragon murmured. He closed his eyes. And then slowly opened them. Something was peculiar.
He was…awake. He had woken up. The Dragon blinked a few times. And sighed.
Those little girls. This one had been something. He closed his eyes. And realized something else.
“…I forgot to tell her how to appease the Fae.”
Route J. In which Ryoka Griffin teleports out of Teriarch’s cave. Without getting her reward.
The first wagon rumbled into Celum. Carrying a door. Wailant had his horses moving fast. And Erin Solstice, bumping around, just…stared at Celum.
It was destroyed. The [Innkeeper] slowly got down from the wagon.
“Back it up! Any [Raiders] about?”
The former [Pirate] was nervous as he looked around. Garia and Viceria weren’t at the farm. Erin slowly swung the door open. Two figures jumped down, warily.
Relc and Pisces. They’d come with the wagon. Embria was riding with some of 4th Company. And as Erin wrestled with the magic door—Relc pulled it out of the wagon and set it up with one claw.
“4th Company! Secure the area! Watch for invisible or concealed targets! Or traps!”
Embria bellowed. The wary Drakes spread around. Erin just stared as the door opened and Viceria gasped. The inn was full of people.
“Dead fucking gods. I’ve sacked ports, but we took the loot, not torched…”
Wailant muttered. Erin was shouting through the door.
“Bring them through! Hurry!”
Yvlon stepped through the door and stopped. She just stared around. The Halfseekers followed her, nearly running her over. Jelaqua swore.
“Bloodfeast bastards. They struck again.”
“Who—who are you?”
A nervous [Commander] from Remendia stared at Erin and the magical door. She looked at him.
Humans were here. Several hundred; trying to find survivors. But it was uncoordinated. They hadn’t brought supplies.
And Celum’s people were shell shocked. It was night, and there were too many hands, not enough organization. Erin Solstice heard voices.
“I’m Erin Solstice. [Innkeeper]. We’re with Liscor. Esthelm.”
“Liscor? But that’s a Drake city.”
The man stared blankly at her. Then he focused.
“Wait. The Wandering Inn? Aren’t you—”
He broke off as someone marched through the door. Watch Captain Zevara saluted as the Human [Commander] recoiled.
“Watch Captain Zevara of Liscor. As a neighboring city, Liscor’s Council has voted with majority to support Celum in its time of need. As well as investigate claims of a Drake among the Bloodfeast Raiders. I am representing the Drake cities in this, sir.”
The [Commander] saluted. Erin nodded. The vote had been 6-2. Even Lism had done the right thing.
But perhaps that was because of the [Strategist] who marched through after Zevara.
“Strategist Olesm of Liscor. We’ll be assisting the recovery effort. What’s the situation, Commander…?”
“Uh—we’ve been pulling bodies out of the wreckage. But we don’t know how many are wounded or…I’ve never seen a city like this. Even when we had Gargoyle attacks, it wasn’t like this.”
The man looked around helplessly. Olesm looked at Zevara.
“We’re going to need recovery teams. People looking for the wounded. I’ll organize the relief efforts from this end.”
“Noted, Strategist Olesm. I’ll coordinate from my side. Watch for the Bloodfeast Raiders. They should be out of the area. But stay wary.”
Zevara stepped through the doorway. Olesm briskly turned to the stunned Human [Commander].
“Sir. We need to work together. I will take command. If that’s alright? Esthelm is ready to assist as well. We have to coordinate through the magical doorway. How many people are under your command?”
A Drake. The [Commander] looked uncertain on whether or not he should be drawing his sword or asking for help. Erin narrowed her eyes. She saw people staring at them, pointing. She heard the inn’s name on their lips.
History ran deep between Liscor and Human cities. They had no time for this, though. Erin rounded on the [Commander].
“Hey, buddy. Listen up—”
She raised a fist. But before she could, someone strode through the magical door and poked the [Commander] in the chest plate. He recoiled.
A [Lady] strode through the doorway, ablaze with passion. She looked around.
She snapped. The man straightened to attention, instinctively.
“Yes, Miss? Wait—who are you?”
Maviola’s orange eyes narrowed.
“I am a [Lady] of Izril. And you are being an idiot. Shut up and listen. These Drakes are working with me. Under my authority, you will assist them. Take command of your men. Bring me all your officers. Now.”
Olesm and Erin both watched as the [Commander] listened to the voice of authority. Erin glanced at Maviola. The [Lady] winked at her.
“I outrank him. Olesm, I’ll take charge of the Humans.”
She swept past him. And through the door came more adventurers. Bevussa took wing, [Laborers] with handcarts pushed through boxes of weak healing potions.
“Uh, okay! Adventurers! Spread out! Wings of Pallass, do a reconnaissance at high altitude! Watch for flying [Raiders] hidden in the skies! Anyone sees anything, blow the horn twice!”
Olesm began giving furious orders. Erin backed away. She looked at the inn, debating on whether to help from that end. But more supplies were coming through and Zevara and Lyonette were both giving orders.
Erin looked around. The city folk of Celum looked up as relief arrived. Something was lighting a spark in them, snapping them out of their delirium. Erin felt it.
That was Maviola. Olesm too, by deed as much as the [Lady]’s aura. Erin closed her eyes. Then she opened them and began to help.
“This way! We’ll set up a tent over here. Anyone who’s hurt, come over here! We have healing potions!”
In the chaos of the night, Erin found herself giving orders—but only a few. Watching as Olesm and Maviola organized with efficiency she lacked. The [Innkeeper] was out of her depth. What she was good at was leading smaller posses, like the groups going through the city, looking for people in need.
Most weren’t badly hurt. Celum had healing potions, after all. But people were homeless—lost. Erin gave them a purpose. They followed her, joining teams excavating ash and rubble.
Somewhere in the night, Erin found herself face to face with the [Mayor] of the city. He was wandering around, looking lost. When he saw her, he just stared.
“You! You—you weren’t here! The door wasn’t here! Now you’re here?”
Cetris Duiland gabbled. His hair was covered in soot. He was hurt. An arrow had taken a chunk out of his leg and the healing potion had only healed some of it. Erin backed up as he advanced on her.
“I’m sorry. When we heard—”
“This is your fault! They had bets! Bets! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! You were supposed to go and we were safe! You took your door!”
The man was babbling. Erin saw the people around her restraining the [Mayor]. She didn’t know what to say.
“He’s distraught. Pay him no mind. This wasn’t your fault.”
A voice spoke wearily from the side. Erin turned and jumped.
She threw her arms around him. The City Runner staggered. He looked relieved to see Erin and sagged in her arms.
“Erin Solstice. You came.”
“Of course. As soon as I heard. Are you okay? Where’s Ryoka?”
“She left. I’m sorry. She was hurt.”
Erin had known. She closed her eyes. Why had Ryoka been here? But there was no time to ask questions. With the help arriving, Fals looked ready to collapse. Erin looked at him.
“You need to rest. Come on. Back to the inn.”
“I can still move.”
“No. We have it. You did so well, Fals. Rest.”
The City Runner’s energy went out of him at Erin’s words. He dropped and Erin had to get someone else to help her half-carry Fals. Someone else led Cetris away.
This was her night. Working in Celum. It was insane. Erin couldn’t believe this burned-out city was the same place she’d been fighting with.
Hours later, closer to midnight, The Wandering Inn was bustling. The door kept opening and closing and people filled the hallways. Drassi admitted a line of people from Esthelm, ready to help, and pointed.
“Wait in the hallways. Or common room. We’re letting through people from Celum. Make room, please! Left side!”
The [Builders] nodded, moving left while the right-hand traffic of frightened Humans, some with only the burned clothing on their backs, sat, waiting to be let into Esthelm or Liscor. Many were crying, or just too numb for words.
It was a familiar look. As they sat there, a little figure crept past them. Mrsha carefully poked a woman holding her sons. They jumped in terror, looked at her.
Solemnly, Mrsha offered them a cup of goat’s milk. She was passing out refreshments.
“Oh…for us? Thank you.”
The little Gnoll nodded. She looked at the two boys and they stared at the Gnoll. Mrsha carefully handed them two more mugs off her little tray and yawned.
“Is that you, Mrsha? Thank you for helping. But you must rest. Time for bed.”
A figure appeared behind Mrsha. The Humans froze, slopping the milk out of their mugs. Pawn saw the little Gnoll shake her head, blearily going back for more drinks.
“Be at peace. I am Pawn. I will help heal anyone who needs it. I have sustenance. Potions. Do not be alarmed. What is your name?”
The frightened mother hesitated. Something about the Antinium was…soothing. Perhaps it was the gently smoking censer he held, or his…nature. She untensed.
“Lila. I—we’re fine, sir.”
The Antinium opened his mandibles and raised them. The Humans flinched, but his voice was soft. He knelt, looking at them.
“You are not. But you will be safe.”
Something about his voice made them feel he was genuine. The family nodded slowly. The [Priest] walked down the line of Humans, introducing himself.
This was disaster. Tragedy. The door flickered to Liscor and Drassi waved at the others.
“Through here! We have beds—Pawn, please take them.”
“Yes, Drassi. Everyone, follow me. You will be safe. There is room for all.”
The [Priest] led the frightened people away. Drassi leaned on the door.
She opened the door, tired. She’d been doing this for hours. But it wasn’t even hard work. No one could rest with the destruction.
Let alone…Drassi saw Olesm appear in the doorway. He was relieving Bevussa, who’d scoured the area with her team. No Bloodfeast Raiders. They’d left.
The Drake looked around.
“In the city. We’re mostly done finding the…bodies. Yellow Splatters has excavated the houses. It’s just finding everyone a bed. Erin’s still out there. I’ll send someone to bring her back.”
Drassi nodded. She looked out into the city, waiting until Erin Solstice came back.
But she didn’t. The people kept coming in, directed here by the [Innkeeper]. Mrsha eventually fell asleep in the kitchen and Ishkr put her in her bed. But the adults kept working, some passing out for lack of sleep.
Invrisil wanted to help too, but the door couldn’t support all the magical influx. Nevertheless, Wesle and Jasi insisted on coming, and they were also—beacons.
They shone brightly, as the sun began to rise. Before Drassi knew it, it was morning. She woke up on a table, and realized she’d fallen asleep.
“I’m sorry! I’ll go do the door—”
She looked around. But Lyonette, serving breakfast, shook her head.
“You worked hard, Drassi. Rest. Most of the transfers are done.”
“Still in Celum. She’s been awake all night. She’s just—there. I tried to make her come back. But she, Maviola, Olesm—they were up all night.”
As if the [Princess] hadn’t been keeping pace with them. Lyonette yawned. She was ready to drop.
But for a bit longer…the inn’s resting Skill had kept the people inside it up long past normal people’s endurance.
So, in Celum, Erin Solstice stood in the morning sunlight. She looked around, staggering.
“You okay? You have somewhere to sleep?”
She looked around. The [Carpenter] nodded. His shop was converted into a living space for his extended family. She had known him. He’d made the baseball bats. His name was…Erin wavered. The [Carpenter] had to steady her.
“We’re okay, Miss. You should rest.”
“I’m fine. This isn’t anything. You have room? We can put people up in Liscor or Esthelm if it’s too crowded.”
She smiled at him. The man looked around.
“Not yet, Miss. We’ll…see. We might figure it out today. The [Builders] were talking about putting up houses. But there’s graves to be dug first, bodies to be burned.”
Erin’s smile vanished.
She looked around. Celum was…burnt. Thousands were out of homes. The door hadn’t been able to transport them all, but it would begin transporting more today to Esthelm or Liscor.
At least, this would not be another Esthelm. Esthelm had been very insistent on making sure the undead would not rise. But rebuilding would be…
People were walking around. Many aimlessly, just looking around, exclaiming over the damage, looking for friends and family.
Trying to wake up from the dream. And realizing it was reality, which was far worse. Erin turned. She saw a lost man sitting on the ground. Timbor Parthian, the [Innkeeper] with the big beard sat in front of his inn. It was gone.
“I’ll go to sleep in a bit.”
Erin walked over towards him. The man looked up as if he’d seen a ghost. His eyes were full of tears. They had been enemies a day ago. But Erin just sat next to him. She could relate to his pain. And there was no magic for him. But—there might be. The Antinium were her friends.
That was the [Innkeeper]’s power. Not as fiery as Maviola, who had taken command, or Olesm—but just as strong in her way. Erin hugged Timbor as he broke down.
After a while, Erin made Timbor come with her. She took him to the magic door, helped get him through the line.
“Put him in a bed, Lyonette. I’ll go to sleep after…another hour. I just have to keep helping. I have to.”
The [Princess] didn’t object. She just nodded. And gently took Timbor’s arm and led him away.
And Erin Solstice walked back into Celum. Feeling helpless, but doing her best. Which was what you had to do.
She stopped when she heard the laughter. It was unfamiliar, amid the crushing silence. No one had laughed—except with hysterical relief.
Even the Earthers had been silent, not flippant, just helping load supplies. Imani herself had been struck by the desolation. But they had pulled their weight. For once.
Erin was too tired to think about them. She followed the sound of the laughter. It was…strange.
Young voices. Erin turned the corner, and felt a breeze. She saw a street, not broken by magic. And a bunch of children.
They were flying about, pushed by the wind. Little bits of cloth carried them around. Some of them looked—uncertain. Shocked. But the wind was catching playfully at their clothes. And they were flying.
A girl went skidding across the ground. And for a moment, she could forget about the death and destruction. In that way—she was more resilient than adults. She started giggling as the wind tugged her up. The little parachute made her scream in delight.
Some of the adults watching flinched at the sound. But the other children laughed. And a boy who had been sobbing forgot his woes for a moment.
Was that cruelty? No—kindness. Forgetting was a kindness. Distraction was necessary. It did not heal their wounds or bring back the dead.
But it was all one person could do. Not Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared at the weather phenomenon in the street. Then she heard a voice.
“Wind Runner! Wind Runner! I want to fly!”
“Really? Then—up you go. Hold on tight.”
Carefully, a young woman tossed a child into the air. And the wind made her hover and flail, laughing, as she slowly fell to earth. Erin Solstice froze.
She knew that voice. Disbelieving, Erin stared ahead. She saw dark skin, black hair. Torn, sooty clothing. An awkward smile.
Erin leaned against a wall. Fals had seen her run. The [Guards] had too. It couldn’t be.
She always ran away. That was her nature. City Runner. She had told Erin once that she ran from her problems. Like so many times. But for once—
She had come back.
Ryoka Griffin was tired from working through the night. It was all she could do to keep on her feet. But the wind blew. And the children—like those in Reizmelt, laughed.
A small thing. But she had come back. And that was the hardest thing to do. Harder than running away.
At the same time—so much easier than running away. This was right. Even if it wasn’t her fault. She had to be here. Ryoka gently bent over. A boy was sobbing.
“Hey. It’ll be okay. It’s going to be okay. Alright?”
She picked him up. Held him, awkwardly as she hugged him. But that was enough. He clung to her, and after a moment, his sister came by.
“Thank you, Miss.”
Ryoka handed the boy to her. She tried to smile. And as she looked around—she saw someone standing in the middle of the street, looking at her.
The wind faltered. Ryoka Griffin froze. Erin Solstice looked at her.
The City Runner jerked. She looked around. Then—she squatted down. She tried to hide behind one of the toddlers tying a parachute around his waist. Then gave up. Ryoka Griffin stood.
The two looked at each other. Erin slowly walked forwards. Ryoka hesitated. Then approached. They were silent for a moment. Then the City Runner spoke.
Erin looked at her friend. It wasn’t a denial. Just asking—what, specifically Ryoka was sorry about. The young Asian woman looked around. Then at Erin.
So many things to say. All she could say though was…
“For not coming back sooner.”
They looked at each other. Ryoka lowered her eyes—then forced herself to meet Erin’s eyes. She opened her mouth. And Erin ran forwards and hugged her.
“You idiot! We missed you.”
That was all Ryoka could think to say. She hugged Erin back fiercely. And then she took a deep breath. She was so exhausted.
But more tired of running away. It was time to go back. Ryoka was afraid. But it had to be done.
One little step at a time. For those better days. She hoped Lupp would smile when she told him.
“…I should have brought some corn.”
They were the smallest of things. A meeting in a city amid all that devastation. A lone traveller walking through Celum, shaking his head at the desolation.
But they mattered. Heads turned as the man—no—half-Elf walked through the gates. He was tall. Statuesque, really. Perfect, even as half-Elves went.
He was also a [Mage]. Or you could guess by his robes. His eyes were mismatched. One heliotrope, the other cerulean.
“Halfhearted. Well, I suppose this identity is good for something. What a mess. Why hasn’t Reinhart done anything about this? This…”
The man looked around. Dismayed by the suffering. This was why he didn’t come outside. But this was only…
A shadow. A passing fancy. Just to talk to that annoying Runner who didn’t even have the courtesy of collecting her side of the bargain. The stranger helpfully omitted the fact that he’d forgotten too.
“Just for a small break. She also has to show me more functions. Yes—yes. Her side of the bargain is unfulfilled. So this is completely necessary.”
He harrumphed. And followed the trail of magic leading him towards Ryoka Griffin. If you accounted for the variance in her name, it was easy to find her. Elementary.
He walked towards Ryoka Griffin and a young woman he thought he recognized from somewhere, hugging in the street. The grumpy old man wanted to ask why a farting Ogre was frozen on the laptop screen.
It was just a little thing. But it changed the world. As Ryoka looked up from Erin’s embrace, her eyes went round. She saw the figure smiling at her. She knew his name.
He was a Dragon.
Author’s Notes: And I am done. This was a hard chapter, and one long-coming. It kicked my butt. The first part was completely cursed. My keyboard tray lost a screw, bugs attacked me…
But the chapter was done. As always. This chapter was experimental. I get only one chance, for every single chapter. Unless I rewrite them.
I haven’t yet, really. I hope you liked this. Up and down and sideways. That’s all from me. I’m going to leave you with some art. See you next time.
Today’s art is by Anito, who did an amazing Toren and Ijvani and Erin. ExtraordinaryBasic who did a Ryoka, extremely topical and wonderful for the chapter and AuspiciousOctopi, who’s done Maviola, Mrsha and Apista and other great art already! Thanks so much to them all!
Erin, Fire, and Skeletons by Anito
Ryoka by ExtraordinaryBasic
Maviola, Numbtongue, and Mrsha and Apista by Auspicious Octopi