“Orc, three, Sorceress, two.” Sapphire grinned as Ondernifam hopped around, trying to destroy the snow golem that she had conjured out of the frozen water they were walking through. It was a tiny creature, less than a foot tall, that barely resembled a human at all. That said, it was fast, and was giving Ondernifam quite the chase as he fought to stomp it into the ground.
“You two are going to kill us yet.” Garnisic muttered and ducked as the creature jumped up and over the dwarf’s head. “Would you stop it?”
“I’m trying!” Ondernifam roared. His massive hand finally made contact with the tiny creature, and the golem exploded back into the snow it had been drawn from. He turned and growled at Sapphire, and she grinned.
“Enough fun now.” Hesione walked past them and held up her hand. “Up over that hill, we come into view of Isogodriir. I don’t want any of you making the city guards nervous before we ever even get there.”
“That’s no fun.” Ondernifam growled. “I want to destroy them! I will…”
“You’re not attacking the city.” Hesione crossed her arms. “And that’s final.” She glanced up at the clouds, and Sapphire chuckled. She could practically see the smoke coming out of Hesione’s ears. “Malah! Get down!”
The angel swooped down, then twisted at the last minute and brushed up against a tree branch that hung over the path. Snow showered down on Hesione as Malah shot back up into the sky, and laughter trickled down from the air.
“Malah!” Hesione thrust her hand up into the air. “This isn’t funny!”
“Yes it is!” Ondernifam howled. “Your face!”
Sapphire smiled as Hesione turned and stuck her finger in Ondernifam’s face. After a few moments, Sapphire raised her staff and fired a burst of green magic up into the air. It wouldn’t actually do anything, at least in theory, but it was the signal that she and Malah had agreed upon. A few seconds passed, and Malah swooped back down to the ground and landed next to Sapphire.
Sapphire grinned and pulled out Malah’s shawl, which the girl reluctantly draped over her shoulders. Part of Sapphire felt bad about forcing her to hide her wings, but with the angel attacks, it couldn’t hurt to be careful. If they encountered someone who had seen an angel and didn’t realize that Malah wasn’t one of them, there could easily be consequences.
“Thank you.” Hesione’s voice was sarcastic enough that Sapphire was fairly certain she didn’t actually mean it. “We’ll be in town in a few hours. No use making them angry at us before we even get there.”
“Right.” Garnisic held up a finger. “Because we’re headed into elf territory, and elves don’t play well with others.”
“We’re cautious.” Hesione sighed. “Besides, I haven’t been there in years. Keep that in mind, okay?”
“Okay.” Garnisic muttered. “Remind me again why we’re still headed that way? Your boyfriend didn’t exactly seem to want us.”
“Because we need to head somewhere, and I’m sick of hearing you complain about the hill dwarves.” Hesione cocked an eyebrow. “Or is that not reason enough?”
“Hill dwarves. Elves. Why don’t we just head back to Tornor?” Garnisic muttered. “That would be nice.”
“You’re the one who got thrown out.” Hesione cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t go blaming us that you’re not allowed back in the country.”
“We could at least go to Sintison. Neutral territory.”
“We’ll head there next.” Hesione patted Garnisic on the head and kept walking. “We just need to…”
Sapphire fell back slightly as the dwarf and the elf continued to bicker. She glanced down at Malah, who wore a small frown. Sapphire put a hand on her shoulder and held up her free hand.
“I don’t know.” Malah shrugged. “This rug is uncomfortable.”
“It’s a shawl.” Sapphire shrugged and transformed back into her ordinary dress. “Not a rug, and it’s to keep you safe.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be safe.” Malah crossed her arms. “I came back from the dead once before!”
“And it took you a long time to do it.” Sapphire held up a finger. “You also killed a lot of people and almost wiped out an entire species.”
“True.” Malah sighed. “I hate not flying.”
“Well, with luck, we’ll figure out a way to make peace with your race.” Sapphire smiled down at the girl. “They’ll integrate into society, and you can fly all the time!”
“Or they’ll just destroy us.” Malah sighed. “That’s a possibility.”
Sapphire shook her head. “You’re awfully pessimistic.”
“You’re awfully protective.” Malah glared up at Sapphire, then grinned. “I hope we get peace.”
Sapphire took a deep breath. “Me, too.”
Off to their right, something loud cracked through the trees. There was a moment of silence, followed by a massive crash. Something long, blue, and distinctly reptilian exploded out of the trees in front of them, stopped to glance at them, then turned and ran into the trees on the other side.
The group drew to a stop. Slowly, they all turned to look at each other.
“Was that a dragon?” Garnisic took a deep breath. “Tell me that wasn’t a dragon?”
“That was a dragon.” Hesione nodded in shock. “In Dirnor. Yep, it had to be.”
Sapphire bit her lip as the group wavered. Dragons were only found in the Scorched Lands. Sure, they ventured out to attack every now and again, but that one was way too far north. And it wasn’t flying.
“Do we need to go check this out?” Hesione turned to the rest of the group. “I’m fine if no one wants to, but…”
“We need to go!” Ondernifam roared.
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “You almost got defeated by a snow golem. I don’t know if you’re up to taking on a dragon.”
Ondernifam shook his head. “I don’t want to fight the dragon.”
Sapphire paused. “Then what do you want to…”
“It was running.” Ondernifam grinned, then went back to frowning as blood trickled down his cheeks. “It was running.” He turned and frowned across the trees. “And I want to defeat whatever a dragon is afraid of.”
“Right.” Sapphire pulled her pendant out of her pocket and transformed back into a sorceress. “Remind me again why we aren’t running the other way?”
“Because of the glory of battle!” Ondernifam roared.
Hesione sighed and shrugged. “He’s not wrong. If that dragon was running from something, we should probably figure out what.” She frowned in thought. “It wasn’t flying, which either means that it can’t or that it’s afraid to.”
“A dragon afraid to fly?” Garnisic frowned. “Dragons can destroy entire cities. Why would it be afraid?”
Sapphire shrugged and pointed her staff at the trees. Idly, she sent out soft pulses of magic, trying to find anything in the thick growth. Dragons were creatures of immense magic, an ancient art long since lost to any other race. They could command the elements like none other, cast illusions, conjure familiars, perform feats that made other races seem like insects.
“Dragons have long been contained to the Scorched Lands.” Sapphire shrugged. “If one got lost and wound up this far north, it might be afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Garnisic protested.
“Think.” Sapphire almost tapped the dwarf on the head with her staff, but paused at the last second. She didn’t particularly want to be responsible for him suddenly shrinking. Or transforming into a cat. Or really anything else. “Is there any other species that can unite everyone in an effort to defend themselves? Dragons are the only threats that have historically caused elves, dwarves, humans, aqahartis, and everyone else to bond together to take them down.”
“And giants.” Garnisic held up a finger.
“And orcs!” Ondernifam roared.
“Also city-eating zombies, excessively large apparitions spawned by magical storms, vampires, werewolves, and the occasional sea monster.” Hesione shrugged. “But… I get your point.”
“So what do we do?” Garnisic shook his head. “And by that, I mean that we have a city right there. My vote is that we should head for safety, get behind walls, and warn everyone that there’s a problem. And not go after the dragon.”
“You’re outvoted.” Ondernifam leapt forward, jumping into the trees and racing across the snow-covered ground. “Come on!”
Sapphire thrust out her staff and formed the image of snow in her mind. A wall of the substance exploded out of the ground, blocking the orc’s headlong dive. Her intention had been to try and slow him down using a substance that wouldn’t kill him if the spell misfired. Instead, Ondernifam simply tore through the barricade and plowed forward.
“Great.” Sapphire sighed and ran forward. “Come on.”
Hesione nodded and ran after her while Malah and Garnisic followed a bit slower.
“Any particular reason why you’re in a hurry?” Hesione caught up to her and matched her speed. “Do you know much about dragons?”
Sapphire sighed and tried to keep a bead on Ondernifam. “I know a bit. They’re a subject of particular interest at the academy. The only thing is that they’re not of my particular interest.”
Hesione snorted. “Was there anything of your particular interest at that academy? Seems every time we talk I hear more of the things you didn’t pay attention to.”
Sapphire shrugged. “See, there was this guy who always sat in front of me that practiced blood magic. Trust me, you did not want to see him wearing a shirt.”
Hesione frowned. “Why’s that?”
“Because then you had to use your imagination.” Sapphire chuckled. “And when he had that shirt off, there wasn’t much to imagine.”
Hesione scoffed, and Sapphire laughed. He had also wound up permanently altering his body’s structure and turning himself into a half-human, half-beast creature, but… Prior to the transformation, he had been a hunk.
She turned her mind back to the present as they raced towards the dragon. She cast a quick spell on her ears, allowing herself to pick up more distant sounds. The noise of crashing trees echoed through the air, and she let the spell fade. It was still running, which meant that it had a massive head start.
“How are we even going to be able to track this thing?” Hesione’s breath was starting to come in faster gasps. “Can you trace it with that staff of yours?”
Sapphire pointed at Ondernifam. “Do we even need to? Seems like he’s on top of things.” After a few moments, she shrugged. “Besides, it’s a dragon. The thing’s got to be leaving a trail of broken trees like none other.”
Hesione chuckled. “True.”
Sapphire took a deep breath and continued to charge forward. Ondernifam was pulling away, and she suspected that if he simply ran up to the dragon, it was likely to eat him and not bat an eye. Either that or keep running, neither of which were fantastic options.
She continued to send out pulses of magic, trying to sense where the creature was. It would slow, then speed up, stop, then move. She was beginning to wonder if it truly had been worth the trip when it finally drew to a stop for longer than ten minutes.
Ahead, Ondernifam drew to a stop as well. He sniffed the air as Hesione and Sapphire jogged up to him, and growled low in his throat.
“Half a mile ahead.” He pointed into the distance. “He’s stopped. We should sneak up on it carefully if we want to take it by surprise.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “I thought you wanted to fight whatever was chasing it.”
“Right.” Ondernifam took a deep breath. “We could fight both!”
“Or we could help the dragon defeat whatever it’s running from, then go from there.” Sapphire shook her head and flashed Hesione an exasperated grin. She then turned back to the orc and squared her shoulders. “Alright, let’s keep moving. Does anyone know where Garnisic and Malah are?”
Slowly, the trio turned around. Wherever the angel and the dwarf were, they were nowhere to be seen. Sapphire sighed and held out her staff. There was a spell she knew, a connection spell. Instantly, a line of light formed in the air, winding through the trees. After a few moments to solidify the magic, she took a deep breath and nodded.
“Good. Now they’ll be able to find us.” Sapphire nodded. “Shall we go find a dragon?”
In unison, they moved forward, sweeping through the trees carefully and purposefully. The ground began to grow more and more hilly, though they were far from the mountain ranges. Sapphire found herself holding her breath as they stepped down into a small ravine that ran through the rolling mounds.
“He’s close.” Ondernifam sniffed the air one more time. “She. She’s close.”
“It’s a girl dragon.” Sapphire frowned as they walked down the bottom of the gully. Trees grew out above them, nearly obscuring the sky. “Interesting.”
“No more so than a boy dragon.” Ondernifam growled. “We just need to…”
In front of them, the air rippled. Cracks appeared in the sky itself, and Sapphire lowered her staff as an illusion in front of them dissolved. In a mere instant, the dragon appeared in the middle of the ravine, head raised, eyes wide. It growled low in its throat and sent several sparks out of its mouth.
Sapphire took a moment to try and wrap her head around the creature in front of them. It was blue, covered in green highlights, and was perhaps fifty feet long from nose to tail. It flapped its wings, sending wind exploding down the gorge. Sapphire had to brace herself against the onslaught, and she coughed as dust filled her lungs.
A moment later, lines lit up across the dragon’s wings. It was an intricate image, more complex than anything Sapphire had ever seen before. In front of them, an image formed out of midair, a softly glowing humaniod specter that was, undoubtedly, the dragon. It was more or less the same height as Hesione, and had massive reptilian eyes that shone forth from the hazy, almost immaterial body.
“Why have you been following me?” The dragon cocked its head to the side as the image spoke. “Do you seek to kill me as well?”
“No!” Sapphire held up her hands. Ondernifam and Hesione both glanced at her, and she took a deep breath. She had spoken with dragons before, at the academy. Well, one dragon. Sort of. She was certain that she had the most experience with the creatures out of any of them, which made her the perfect person to handle the negotiations. “We saw you running. We thought you might need help.”
The image snorted. “I’m a dragon. What can you do that I can’t?”
“For one, we can enter nearby cities without alerting the guards to an imminent attack.” Sapphire held up a finger. “For two… Actually, that’s pretty much it.” She narrowed her eyes. “You were running from something, which means you’re scared. Let us help.”
“Believe me, you could no more help me than you could walk the Scorched Lands without perishing.” The dragon rumbled in its chest as the image spoke. “I fight against an enemy far worse than you could ever imagine.”
“Try us.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “We’ve faced some pretty nasty creatures before.”
“Not like this.” The dragon actually shuddered. “Not like what you’re going to see if you stay here.”
“Mommy!” Malah’s voice rose in the air, and Sapphire turned to see Malah swooping down through the trees. Garnisic trailed behind her, grumbling under his breath like always. The angel landed next to the sorceress, and Sapphire turned back to the dragon.
Of course, that was when she saw the beast cringing backwards. Its jaw was open, and fire brewed within. And, with that, understanding dawned in Sapphire’s mind.
“You’re afraid of the angels.” Sapphire held up a hand. “It’s okay!”
“You’re saying that these creatures aren’t dangerous?” The dragon growled.
“No. They’re very dangerous.” Sapphire held out her hand. “This is Malah. She’s different, not like the others.”
The dragon growled. “You know how to fight these beings?”
Sapphire nodded, though she was fairly certain that the dragon would quickly realize the truth the moment that the nearly invincible beings actually showed their faces. “Yeah, we do.”
“Then perhaps we can work together after all.” The dragon dipped her head. “Talk. Quickly.”
Malah closed her eyes and bowed her head as Sapphire began rattling off information about the angels. She did her best to block out the words, did the best to destroy the memories.
For so long, she had lived in darkness. She remembered her death well, it was one of the few things that remained in her mind. The man who did it, his beady eyes, his black wings. The three-pronged trident that smashed through her chest, finally ending her life. It had been a moment of peace. An instant of perfection.
She didn’t know how she had arrived at that point, what led up to that fight. She didn’t know who the man was, she didn’t know if he was a member of her species or not. All she knew, the only thing she knew, was that death had been a welcome change.
Of course, she hadn’t actually died. It didn’t take long to realize that fact. She had been trapped, lost in an endless abyss. Her early memories of that place were muddled as well. One by one, more and more members of her kind had arrived. They learned to communicate, learned to talk even through the pain and the mist. And, as the centuries passed, she had come up with a plan.
She had forced herself back to the surface, back to life. Back to the light, away from the mist and the dark. It had taken her three tries before she succeeded even once. She had been a mere ghost, barely able to view the world, but it had been something. She had known it was possible.
Slowly, surely, she had made attempt after attempt. She was going to unlock the gates of the underworld! She was going to free her people, she was going to draw them back into the light! Take them out of whatever hell they were trapped in, whatever realm they had been placed in.
In the end, it had taken Sapphire’s magic to fully bring her back. For the first time in countless years, endless millennia, her mind was clear. It was like waking up from a dream. None of her time in the underworld made any sense, and it was even less so the longer she was out of it. Even weeks before, she wouldn’t have hesitated to kill someone on a whim. Now, it seemed cruel to even think of such a thing. She was changing, and she wasn’t certain she liked it.
And now… Now, the dragon was staring at her. The great, majestic beast. The monster that could eat her in a single bite, the glorious creature that could incinerate her with a single breath. It was familiar, in a way. She didn’t know exactly how, but she knew of dragons. Had she seen them in her previous life? It was impossible to know.
“So, trust us.” Sapphire concluded. “She’s not harmful.”
The dragon cocked its head to the side. It was a simple move, but a well-enough understood one. It was eyeing her, sizing her up. Trying to figure out if she was truly a threat or not.
Malah sighed and lowered her head. It was the same everywhere they went. She had to cover up, she had to hide her wings. It was even worse now that people were starting to hear stories of the angels. They had came upon a trader’s camp only the day before, and the men of the camp had ran screaming. The lone woman with them had attacked and tried to run her through with a sword, though Sapphire had stopped her in time.
Malah closed her eyes. When that had happened… She had been afraid. She had actually been scared of dying, terrified of whatever the sword would have done to her. Was she changed that much? She actually feared death yet again?
“I will allow her life to continue.” The dragon finally lowered it head to the ground, though it kept an eye trained on her. An actual eye, not one of the weird eyes in the illusion. “You say you know how to fight them?”
“I think we need some answers from you, first.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “How did you wind up this far north? You’re a long ways away from the Scorched Lands.”
“Perhaps that was by design.” The dragon held the look for several more seconds before sighing and flapping its wings. “The angels invaded the Scorched Lands. We flew out to fight them, but they are impervious to flame or frost, ground or air. They began to cast illusions, more powerful than any I’ve ever seen before.”
“They asked you to come with them, and you agreed.” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “That what happened?”
The dragon growled low in its throat before nodding. “It took my projection’s hand. I think that is what caused the mistake. A hole opened up, and I was pulled through. I found myself here. More appeared around me, and I ran.”
Sapphire frowned. “Have you seen any other dragons? Were others taken?”
“Many were stolen away, yes.” The image nodded. “I have not seen any others. Many offered their own claws, they did not use illusions. I suspect that the issue lies in that.”
“Interesting.” Hesione cut in. “What about…”
Malah quit paying attention, and let her mind wander. The dragons, the Scorched Lands… It all sounded so familiar, and yet, she couldn’t place it. Any of it. After a few more seconds, she quit trying, and just glanced around the area.
The trees, the snow, it all just seemed so serene. The plants were just there, just growing. They weren’t trying to attack anyone, they were just living. Ignoring everyone around them, regrowing if they got cut down. And they were so beautiful. Why couldn’t the angels be like that? Why were they so angry? Why were they so intent on killing people?
A twig snapped in the trees, and Malah spun to see a small woodland creature bounding through the frosty forest. It glanced at her, waved a furry paw, and vanished. She cracked a smile, then sighed. There was nothing for her to do but look pretty and try to look innocent so people didn’t try to kill her. Why couldn’t she just…
Something flickered in her vision. It was like a ghost, the briefest of images. A soldier, standing in the middle of the trees. He was crouching down, peering at something. Like that, he was gone, and Malah blinked. A ghost? What was a ghost doing out there?
In reality, there were a number of fantastic reasons for why a ghost soldier might have been wandering through the woods. Maybe he had been killed trying to track down a bandit. If he had been strong enough, his ghost would forever wander the woods, ever seeking his prey.
The angel sighed and gave her wings a flap. She reached up and tugged on Sapphire’s dress. The sorceress glanced down at the girl, and Malah did her best to look cute.
“Can I go fly around?” She tapped the ground with her foot. “I won’t go too high.”
Sapphire sighed and nodded. “Just don’t go very far. I don’t want the city seeing you. And if anyone else does see you, don’t come straight back here. Weave…”
“Weave through the trees, make sure they think you’re heading somewhere else.” Malah groaned. Sapphire was always talking tactics like that. “I’ve got it!”
“Good.” Sapphire nodded as Hesione continued to talk. “Go, have fun.”
Malah nodded and stretched her wings out as far as they could go. It was a nice feeling as the breeze ruffled her feathers. After a moment, she flexed her muscles as hard as she could, slamming the wings down onto the ground. With a blast, she was thrown up into the air, and soon shot out above the treetops.
Flying was so much better than walking. It took her moments to travel the same distance that would have taken her hours to travel on the ground. The trees blurred past underneath of her, the sky stretched out forever.
After a few moments, she drew herself into a tight spiral. At the same time, she flapped her wings as hard as she could, rising higher and higher into the sky. She knew that she had told Sapphire she wouldn’t fly very high, but she wanted to! The ground fell away below her, growing ever more distant.
A tingling sensation, the feeling of nervousness, formed in Malah’s stomach. She grinned as pure excitement exploded through her whole body. Sure, she flew almost every day, but it never got old. To see the ground from so high above, to look down on the ground, there truly was no other experience.
Below, she could see the dragon, hiding in her ravine. Only a few short miles away, she could see the slight bend in the air, the reflection caused by the magical barrier that prevented dwarves from simply wandering across the border into Elsinor. She chuckled for a moment. Elves were funny, they were so private.
In the distance, she could see the grand border city of Isogodriir. Its walls were tall and proud, a fortress in the wilderness. Marching out of the city…
Malah’s eyes went wide. Hundreds of soldiers were marching out of the city and down the road, towards them. She frowned and began to fly in that direction, though she stayed high enough that, with luck, they would just think she was a bird. Sure enough, an entire legion was stomping into the forest, armed with swords, bows, and even larger military crossbow weapons that could likely have shot her from the sky.
Carefully, she looked ahead. What were they marching towards? The trees simply stretched out, revealing nothing in the snowy expanse. There weren’t even any angels, nothing but…
Her eyes opened wide as she caught a glimpse of a man standing leading the front of the column. He was dressed in bright orange armor, and seemed to be commanding the entire force. If Malah was correct, he was an human, which made it even more curious that he was marching into a dwarven country.
After a few more seconds of observation, she folded her wings and dropped back towards the ground. The air whirred around her, and she grinned. The trees drew closer, reaching upwards with pointed, sharpened branches. Malah whipped her wings open at the last second, allowing them to carry her across the treetops at a speed she never could have managed otherwise. A few seconds later, she folded them completely and dropped back through the trees.
She hit the ground, hard, and rolled until she stood up against Sapphire. Sapphire glared down at her as she climbed back to her feet.
“Did you see something?” Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “You came back awfully quick.”
Malah nodded quickly. “There’s some soldiers coming.” She frowned as she tried to picture the man leading the charge. “And I think they have a dragon hunter.”
“A dragon hunter?” Sapphire frowned down at Malah. How did the girl even know what a dragon hunter was? “What makes you say that?”
Malah shrugged. “He’s wearing orange armor and is leading a bunch of soldiers towards the path the dragon made. I just figured…”
Sapphire bit her lip as the girl’s voice trailed off. Behind her, the dragon scuffed his claws against the ground.
“So staying low didn’t work.” The image snarled. “They’re tracking me anyway.”
“Why do you have to stay low?” Malah piped up. “You could just fly back to the Scorched Lands! You’re way faster than they are!”
The dragon chuckled, and Sapphire groaned. They had just asked her that question, and had gotten an earful in response.
“Look at how big I am! Flying like that takes magic, and a lot of it. I could go for awhile, but I would have to set down and rest after time. With certain mages being skilled with extreme endurance, or even being able to send familiars ahead to warn nearby cities, it would be almost impossible to fly back and not wind up alerting someone.” The beast sighed. “And now, it seems that the best of the best are coming after me.”
Ondernifam roared. “We will defeat them!”
Hesione groaned. “No, you won’t.”
Ondernifam smashed a fist into his palm. “Why not?”
“Because dragon hunters, if that’s truly what he is, are some of the fiercest beings on the planet.” Sapphire sighed. “They have to study at each of the five major academies across the world. Once they’ve received certifications from all of them, they become recognized as official dragon hunters.”
“I will destroy those academies!” Ondernifam roared.
“You would flunk out of all of them.” Sapphire turned to Hesione. “We need to get her out of here. If there’s a hunter coming…”
“They’ll kill all of us just to get to her.” Hesione nodded. “I know.” The elf turned back to the dragon. “Where were you trying to head?”
“The mountains.” The dragon had its head up, peering through the trees. “If I can reach terrain more difficult for humanoids to travel across, perhaps I can have a chance at survival. Travel down the mountain range to Sournous, then wing through the jungle with relative ease. I can be back in the Scorched Lands in a few weeks.”
Hesione nodded. “How can we help?”
“I’m not fighting all those soldiers.” Garnisic finally broke into the conversation. “Or this hunter guy.”
“I think you would all be slaughtered anyway.” The image wavered, as if the dragon was losing focus as it tried to keep watch. “The hunters are powerful beings, indeed. There is no running from them, no hiding.”
Sapphire turned to Malah and tapped her chin. “How far had they gotten when you saw them?”
Malah shrugged. “Just outside the city. Why?”
Sapphire shrugged. “That means we still have time.” She shrugged. “Maybe we can’t defeat him or run from him. But, just maybe…” She flashed a grin. “Maybe we can outsmart him.”
Sapphire waved her staff through the air, muttering incantations under her breath. Magic flowed up and out of the staff, mingling with the elements, slowly drawing the illusion across the gorge. Beside her, Garnisic and Ondernifam watched, snorting softly.
“I give it three minutes.” Ondernifam growled. “Maybe four.”
“I don’t take sucker bets.” Garnisic frowned. “The real bet is what happens when it breaks.”
“All life in the world dies!” Ondernifam roared. He paused, and snorted. “No. If I win, I’m dead. If I live, I lose. Umm… Explosion. Fifty feet.”
Garnisic nodded. “I’ll take that. I think it creates a storm. Lightning, fire…”
“You know, the more you talk, the less I concentrate.” Sapphire turned to glare at them. “The less I concentrate, the more likely it is that you two wind up dead.”
Both of them clamped their mouths shut, and Sapphire continued to work on the illusion. The dragon’s magic was probably stronger than her own, all things considered, but the hunter was going to be expecting that much. Maybe, if she was lucky, the hunter wouldn’t detect the spell at all. Or at least wouldn’t give it any mind.
“So, what are the odds…”
“Stop it!” Sapphire gave her staff one final flick, completing the illusion. In the small depression in the ground, all that could be seen were trees and rocks. She would have been able to detect the spell if she had been looking for it, but the average person would have walked straight past without knowing that a thing was amiss.
“Now for the rest of the plan.” Sapphire flicked her staff at a spot in the ground. Fire blazed out of the crystal, turning a small pile of wood into a campfire. With a second flick of her staff, she conjured three large rocks, the perfect seats for a short time. “Shall we?”
Garnisic snorted something about catching his beard on fire, and stomped over to the small campsite and sat down on the rock. Ondernifam happily sat down, probably because battle was coming, and Sapphire joined him. She allowed herself to revert back into her standard dress, though she kept her pendant at the ready. The small leaf dangled from the short chain, twitching in a magical wind. She smiled thinly, then wrapped the chain around her hand. She needed to be ready at an instant’s notice.
“I don’t get why we’re doing this.” Garnisic muttered. “It’s just a dragon.”
“It’s a creature that needs our help.” Sapphire held up a finger. “That’s reason enough.”
“No.” Garnisic shook his head. “Reason enough would be…”
Ondernifam sniffed the air and flashed a grin. “They’re coming. They’ll be here in just a few minutes.”
A flutter of nervousness shot through Sapphire’s stomach. Showtime. With luck, her plan would work. If not… Well, if not, things were going to get interesting.
The hunters were always legendary at the wizarding academy. Only a few had come through during her short stay, and they had been quite the beings. One of them, the only human she had seen, had excelled at the magical arts despite being a warrior prior to joining. Another, one of the fiercest dwarves she’d ever seen, had simply learned how to combat various forms of human magic since he couldn’t wield it himself. They were beings of power, not because they’d been born with it, but because they had forged themselves with it.
It didn’t take long before the sound of armored footsteps filled the air. Sapphire did her best to look confused as the armored warriors swept into the ravine. Garnisic did a quite convincing job of looking annoyed, though Ondernifam was a bit rusty. In retrospect, Sapphire realized that she shouldn’t have told him to look surprised, since orcs never really did that.
“You’re an odd group.” The orange-armored warrior, now identifiable as a human, stepped out of the trees and walked towards them. Up close, Sapphire could see that his armor wasn’t simply orange. Flames had been etched into the metal plates itself and infused with small gemstones to simulate fire. It was by far the flashiest armor she’d ever seen, and spoke of an ego that was certainly inflated far beyond what it should have been.
“We make do.” Sapphire shrugged.
“I bet you do.” The warrior stepped forward and flashed a grin. Unlike the other soldiers, he didn’t wear a helmet, allowing his rugged features to shine through. With a start, Sapphire realized that he was young, probably not yet twenty. Brown hair sat atop a face that looked like it had seen the entire world in his few short years. “You care to tell me what you’re doing here?”
Sapphire gestured at the valley. “We’re down out of the wind. It’s been a long few days, we’re just trying to get back to civilization.” She frowned. “How close is the nearest town?”
“Isogodriir.” The warrior gestured back over his shoulder. “Oh, a couple hours’ walk. Not a terrible jaunt, if you ask me.”
Sapphire smiled at him. “Thanks.” She yawned. “It’s starting to get dark, we’ll probably head out in the morning.”
“Of course.” The warrior bowed slightly. “You need your rest, of course. Casting an illusion that powerful must take a great deal of energy.”
Sapphire’s eyes narrowed, and Garnisic and Ondernifam climbed to their feet. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been expecting him to figure it out, but she had been hoping for a few more minutes of conversation.
“You can sense that?” Sapphire gestured over her shoulder. “You’re good.”
“I’m a dragon hunter. I could have detected that pathetic illusion in my sleep.” The warrior chuckled. “But… That’s not how I knew. I recognized you.”
Sapphire’s eyes opened wide. “You recognized me? How…” She frowned at him. “You studied at the wizarding academy, of course. You were there when I was there? I don’t… Wait.”
The dragon hunter grinned. “Coming back you you?”
Sapphire’s eyes narrowed. There was a single memory of a boy, a squire, that had gotten painfully lucky during a game of spellsockets and beaten her.
“Franclin.” Sapphire frowned. “You were a dweeb back then!”
“I was exactly what I needed to be to avoid detection.” Franclin chuckled. “Oh, you should have seen your face when that spell misfired! And you still probably think that was an accident.”
Sapphire ground her teeth together. “It wasn’t the first time a spell misfired. You can’t tell me that was you.”
“Oh, actually, I can.” Franclin smirked. “Now, are we going to start dealing with the issue at hand, or are we going to keep reminiscing?”
Garnisic held up a hand. “I’d like to keep hearing old stories.”
Sapphire turned and glared down at the dwarf. “I’m not that bad!”
“Are you kidding me?” The warrior laughed. “You were the only sorceress to come through that place in a hundred years. Everyone knew who you were, and knew that if you sneezed while casting a spell, you could potentially destroy the entire academy.”
Sapphire crossed her arms. “I had a few accidents.”
“You blew up the Crystal Lake!” The warrior continued to laugh. “Students train there because it cancels spells, and you managed to overcome it.”
“Yeah, and I got thrown out for that mistake.” Sapphire snapped back. “Are you going to do anything productive here?”
Franclin sighed and walked over to the camp. Garnisic and Ondernifam both eyed him cautiously, but said nothing as he held out his hand.
“I know you know this, but my name is Franclin. It’s good to finally meet you.” He flashed a small grin. “My aptitude for magic isn’t exactly high. It’s cool to know that someone like you exists.”
Sapphire shook his hand. Something passed through her… A flutter? Maybe this guy wasn’t so bad after all. “Sapphire.”
“I know.” Franclin dipped his head, then sighed. “Now, down to business.”
Sapphire nodded slowly. “The dragon.”
Franclin crossed his arms. “I’ve been tasked with hunting him down. Since I did go to school for it, and I’m being paid more than some entire cities earn, I need to take him down.”
Sapphire shook her head. “It got brought here by accident.”
“Accident?” Franclin raised an eyebrow, then frowned. “The angels.”
Sapphire nodded. “You’ve heard of them?”
“They’re striking across Tornor. We’ve received reports from every major city and some minor settlements.” Franclin bit his lip. “No one knows anything about them.”
Sapphire shrugged. “I wish I could help you out.”
“Me, too.” Franclin shrugged. “No matter, though. Even if the angels brought it here, it’s still here. I have to slay it. It’s too much of a risk, you know that.”
“It just wants to go home.” Sapphire protested. “It just wants to live in peace.”
“For now.” Franclin nodded. “At least until it gets hungry. What’s a dragon do when it’s hungry?”
Sapphire frowned. “It hunts?”
“It takes what it needs.” Franclin raised an eyebrow. “Most cities have herds of sheep and cattle outside their walls. Easy pickings for dragons. They take what they want and leave. Even if they don’t kill any people, starvation sets in a few weeks, maybe a month, later, as food supply diminishes.”
“True.” Sapphire nodded slowly. “Don’t you think you could just give it a chance?”
“One life versus hundreds?” Franclin drew his sword. “No deal. Now step aside, and let’s see what’s behind this illusion of yours.”
“Not a chance.” Sapphire allowed the pendant to unwind from her fingers. Blue light blazed as it transformed into a staff, and she leveled the crystal at the hunter. As her dress turned blue, Garnisic and Ondernifam scrambled away.
Franclin chuckled deeply. “They’ve seen your magic, and they’re as afraid of it as your professors.”
Sapphire raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you should be too.”
“Perhaps.” Franclin brought his left arm up in front of him, as if in defense. Small lights lit up across the surface as the gems began to glow, and Sapphire got the distinct impression that she was in for the fight of her life. “Then again, perhaps you should be afraid of me.”
Sapphire snarled and let magic explode down the staff. She formed the image of snow in her mind, a maelstrom of the substance. The magic exploded through the crystal, unleashing a torrent of snow. In an instant, the ravine became a blizzard as winds erupted past her, blasting into the lone warrior. The other soldiers scrambled backwards, falling away against the freezing blast. Franclin, rather unsurprisingly, stayed put.
“Not bad.” Franclin spoke, his voice projected over the storm. “Still leaves something to be desired, though. I’ve faced worse.”
The gemstones on his armor lit up, and in an instant, the blizzard turned around and reflected back on her staff. Sapphire was blown backwards, flipping end over end through the air. She called upon her magic, and it caused her to land upright, a few feet back. Franclin rushed forward, sword raised.
Sapphire snarled and slammed her staff into the ground. Tree roots exploded up from the ground, tossing the knight to the side. Franclin snarled and started hacking through the roots while Sapphire twirled her staff over her head.
Flames fell from the sky, boiling the snow and burning away the trees themselves. Franclin seemed unaffected, and his gemstones began to glow again. Wary of him reflecting her attack back on her again, she spun and changed her attack yet again.
Though she wasn’t sure how it would work, she called upon the stone, the ground. Rocks erupted up out of the soil, tearing in his direction. He had a moment to look surprised before they formed a perfect sphere around him, sealing him in. The last rock settled in place, and Sapphire took a deep breath. A few loud clanks sounded from inside the prison, and she smiled.
“I think that’ll take care of him.” She walked up and patted the stone. “We’re good now!”
Garnisic and Ondernifam slowly poked their heads out from behind the trees that they had been hiding behind. Slowly, carefully, they walked back down into the valley. Around them, soldiers began to come into view, raising crossbows and drawing swords.
“You took him down.” Garnisic gestured vaguely at the assembled legion. “Got any plans to deal with them?”
“We fight!” Ondernifam roared. “We will…”
A fist smashed through the wall of the prison, and Sapphire spun in that direction to see the warrior tearing through the stone with a ferocity unmatched by anything she’d ever seen before. Franclin exploded from the prison, eyes blazing red. He drew his sword, and the gemstones on his armor flashed.
“Guys?” Sapphire took a deep breath. “Run.”
“I will never…”
Ondernifam’s voice cut off as Franclin leapt forward, clearing the distance in the blink of an eye. He slammed a fist into the orc’s chest, and fire exploded across the green skin. Ondernifam was thrown backwards, up and out of the ravine. Garnisic turned and ran before Franclin had a chance to strike him, and Sapphire brought up her staff.
She barely had time to conjure a basic ward spell, a small protective shield, when Franclin struck her with his left fist. Her spell shattered, and she was thrown across the gap. She brought up her staff, only to find the knight on the offensive.
Sapphire found herself unable to focus enough to cast a spell as the hunter advanced. He began twirling his sword, launching fireball after fireball in her direction. She caught the first one on the tip of her staff, causing the magical projectile to ricochet off into the trees. She was barely able to block the second one, and was soon forced to retreat as he advanced, launching spell after spell.
“And here we find your weakness.” Franclin taunted. “You’ve got power, but no control. You can attack, but lack the ability to defend. No wonder you were thrown out.”
With a twirl, he changed attacks, and simply thrust out his sword. Lightning exploded off the blade and leapt across the gap. Without any input from herself, the staff lit up, drawing the lightning to its crystal. Sapphire climbed to her feet and smiled as the staff absorbed the energy.
Franclin smiled as well, and launched a series of magical pulses from his left hand. Since the staff was already countering the lightning. Sapphire found herself defenseless as the small green orbs zipped past her staff and struck her in the chest.
It was like every ounce of energy was sucked from her body. Her limbs quit working, even as she screamed at them to move. She collapsed on the forest floor, landing in the snow and muck. Exposed, lightning exploded across her body, wracking every part of her with pain.
After a few seconds, Franclin let up. He walked over to her and grinned.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” He held out his hand. “Now, why don’t we…”
Sapphire snarled and poured every ounce of magic she had into her staff. The weapon lit up with a blue glow, and Franclin took a step back. A storm cloud formed just above the level of the trees, and a bolt of green magic exploded down, striking the warrior in the chest. Franclin screamed and flashed backwards, slamming into the far side of the ravine. Sapphire climbed back to her feet, gasping with the effort. The storm cloud dissipated as she did so, and the knight climbed back up as well.
They both just stood there, heaving and gasping. Sapphire leveled her staff, and Franclin slowly brought up his sword. Neither one of them moved, they just stood there, staring at each other.
“I’ll win in the end.” Franclin spoke softly. “I promise I will.”
“You might.” Sapphire took a deep breath. “That doesn’t mean I’m going down without a fight.”
“You’re powerful.” Franclin shook his head. “Don’t make me injure you. It would be too great a loss. You need to…”
“Sir!” One of the soldiers called across the decimated gully. “The illusion is down!”
Franclin slowly turned and glanced down the small valley. Sure enough, the magical storm that Sapphire had conjured had shattered the illusion. Instead of seeing an open gap, now… Now, they could see an open gap with a large hole in the snow where the dragon had once sat.
“It was a trick!” Franclin snarled, then flashed a small smile and nodded slowly. “It was a trick. You cast an illusion, only to hide the fact that you weren’t hiding anything. Clever.”
“I thought so.” Sapphire took a deep breath. “You’re not getting that dragon.”
“Oh, I think I am.” Franclin held up a hand. “Warriors? If she moves again, kill the dwarf and the orc. If she stays still, leave them alone.”
Metal clanked, and Franclin moved down the ravine, studying the tracks. He knelt down, frowning at the prints, before standing up and moving away again. Sapphire sighed and sat down as the soldiers led Garnisic and Ondernifam over to her. Five of them formed a ring, pointing weapons at the two non-sorcerers.
As the soldiers wandered through, Garnisic turned to Sapphire.
“Do you think we gave them enough time?”
Sapphire took a deep breath and glanced out across the trees. Somewhere, Malah and Hesione were fleeing with the beast, trying to get it to safety.
“I hope so.” She shuddered, thinking of what the soldiers would do to Malah if they got their hands on her. “I desperately hope so.”
“Still clear!” Malah swooped down and landed on the dragon’s back. “Something just exploded, though. I think mommy just misfired.”
Hesione cocked an eyebrow and snorted. “Well, the world hasn’t been consumed in fire, so I’d say we’re good for the moment.”
Malah laughed, then spread her wings and shot back up into the air. They were miles away from the soldiers now, far enough ahead that they would certainly escape!
Below, the dragon plodded through the forest, doing its best to not break anything. It wasn’t easy, but Malah thought that they were doing a good job of not leaving a trail. Meanwhile, Hesione was conjuring more snow, covering the dragon’s footsteps.
Ahead, Malah found the cave that they were angling for. It was still empty, which was good. Or at least as empty as it could be. There was a solid chance that there were monsters deep within, but nothing had come in or out, which at least meant no immediate threats.
Carefully, she spun back and stared back towards the city. The magic fight seemed to have calmed down, which meant that the soldiers would likely be on their way soon enough. She knew that if they saw her, they would zero in on the location even faster, and Malah dropped back down, just above the treetops.
Slowly, she began to just fly back and forth, above the level of the treetops. The wind brought by her wings blew the snow off the upper branches, and she laughed.
Flying was just… Freeing. She wished that she would never have to touch the ground, that she could just live in a floating city. It was a silly dream, but she longed for it.
In that instant, an image rose in her mind. A city, suspended a hundred miles above the ground. Her and all the other angels, living in their own society, flying back and forth in an endless dance. It was a wonderful thought. If only…
If only all the other angels weren’t trying to kill them. Or take them away, or whatever it was that the creatures were doing. Why were they doing it? What was happening? What…
Malah sighed and swooped back towards the dragon. She hoped the dragon made it home. At least it had a family, had somewhere to go. She didn’t have any of that. She didn’t even know where she came from.
A few minutes later, she landed on the dragon’s back again.
“They’re on the move.” Malah shrugged. “Still a ways off, though.”
The dragon snorted, but couldn’t answer since it wasn’t casting an illusion at the time. Hesione patted it and sighed. “We’ll get you to safety. Don’t worry.”
The dragon snarled in a manner that Malah was certain was mocking, and she laughed. Hesione continued to spray snow as they went, and, slowly, they moved through the trees.
It took nearly another hour to reach the cave. Malah flew up a few more times, only to find that the soldiers were advancing rapidly. By the time they got there, she was certain that they had only half an hour before their arrival.
“Quick, inside.” Malah swooped down and landed in the cave entrance. “They’re coming!”
“I’m moving.” The misty illusion appeared again, snapping as the dragon slipped inside. “Have you stopped to think about what might happen if the soldiers decide to actually step inside the cave?”
Malah paused, and turned to Hesione.
“Yes, we have.” Hesione nodded and knelt down in the snow. “Malah, get inside.”
Malah nodded slowly and stepped into the cave. She glanced into the darkness, noting that it went a long ways back. After a few moments of contemplating what monsters might lie back there, she turned to the front of the cave again.
Hesione’s eyes were closed. As Malah watched, snow erupted from her hands, covering the ground. The elf slowly stood up, never letting up on the blast. Malah grinned as snow filled the entrance, gradually obscuring the opening.
Finally, after almost ten minutes, Hesione took a step back. The cave entrance was completely covered, filling the cave with darkness. Malah couldn’t even see her own hands, and she scooted closer to the dragon.
“And now, we wait.” Hesione’s voice came out of the darkness, far closer than Malah had realized that the elf was standing. “I suggest not talking, breathing heavily, anything that might allow someone to sense that we’re here.” Malah nodded, and Hesione snorted softly. “Stupid power. I showed him.”
Malah chuckled softly, then froze. If the warrior found them, it was all over, all for naught.
Slowly, the sound of armored feet rose in the air. The entire cave shook as they came ever closer, ever nearer. It was impossible to tell when they actually started walking past the cave, but once it started, it was obvious. The ground rumbled, as if awaking from an ancient slumber, and the snow shifted. Malah held her wings over her mouth, trying not to scream. Or breathe. If she had still been undead, not breathing would have been much easier.
The rumbling from the footsteps finally started to fade after far too long. Malah sighed in relief as the last tremors faded. Hesione cast a small ball of light and climbed to her feet, and even the dragon seemed to crack a smile. They were safe. They were…
An orange-armored fist smashed through the snow bank, and the dragon hunter tore through the snow. He had a smile on his face, and brandished his sword wildly.
“Oh, you should see your faces!” He howled. “Priceless!”
Hesione glared at him. “You…”
“I had them stand around the cave entrance and march in place.” The soldier shrugged. “Thought it would be funny. Did you really think that would work?” He turned to the dragon and readied his sword. “Now, beast, prepare to die.”
The dragon spread its wings, causing rivers of light to flow across the leathery membranes. The ghostly figure appeared in front of the warrior, and bowed low.
“Please.” It spoke softly. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“And yet, you’re here.” The warrior crossed his arms and sheathed his sword. “I fail to see how…”
With a blast of blue light, Sapphire, Ondernifam, and Garn appeared in the entrance, next to the warrior. Sapphire ran to stand in front of the dragon, staff at the ready. The warrior chuckled and sighed.
“I need to fire some of my guards, don’t I?”
“You’re not getting to her.” Sapphire’s voice was quiet. “She was brought here against her will.”
“So you say.” The warrior inclined his head. “And yet, you’re traveling with one of the angels. Seems a bit suspect, if you ask me.”
“Wait.” Malah stepped forward, putting herself between Sapphire’s staff and the warrior. She spread her wings and took a deep breath, even as she heard Sapphire gasping in surprise. “You can’t hurt the dragon.”
“Oh?” The hunter knelt down on one knee and held out his hand. “And why is that, young one?”
“I’m older than you.” Malah spat, then sighed. “You can’t hate something just because it looks scary.”
“Really?” The hunter raised an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”
Malah flapped her wings. “My race is trying to kill everyone. I don’t know why, I just…” She bowed her head. Something welled up inside her, and she felt liquid dripping down her face. Tears? Was she… Crying? “I want to be normal. I want to fly without fear. I don’t know what they’re doing, but I don’t want any part of it.” She balled her fists. “And I don’t think this dragon does, either.”
The hunter sighed and crossed his arms. “You think that he should go free simply because he doesn’t want to be here.”
“She.” Malah nodded. “And yes. She was brought here by the angels. It wasn’t her fault!”
“Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t.” The hunter shrugged. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have to agree to go with the angels, yes?”
Malah sighed. “Yes.”
“Right.” The hunter nodded and tapped his chin. “So what would you have me do? It’s my job to watch for dragons and keep them from attacking. If I Iet this one go, and it hurts anyone, that’s on me. That’s my responsibility to prevent those deaths.”
Malah nodded slowly. In a way, she could understand. If someone found a way to kill angels, killing one might save more lives in the future. But… “Perhaps we can come to a compromise.” The hunter climbed back to his feet and addressed the image. “In all honesty, I don’t want to fight you. You could kill dozens of my men before I took you down, of that I have no doubt. And, if you truly are lost, I have no desire to prematurely end your life if other forces were at work.”
“Then what would you have me do?” The dragon shifted. “I just want to go home.”
“Of that, I have no doubt.” The hunter shrugged. “Perhaps you’d be willing to come with us? The combined forces of Isogodriir have been building a dragon prison for some time. Submit to captivity, prove that you mean no harm, and perhaps we can let you go by the time summer comes around.”
The dragon snorted, but sighed. “I suppose I won’t get a better deal anywhere else.”
“The other cities of the world don’t possess the resources to attempt such a thing.” The hunter held up his hands. “A city on the border of elven and dwarven territories has a wealth of opportunities that other cities simply don’t have.”
The dragon shook for a few moments, then nodded slowly. “Agreed.”
“Good.” The hunter bowed his head. “By my honor, I will keep you safe. I swear it.”
The dragon nodded and slowly walked forward. The rest of the team stepped to the side as it moved out into the open air. For a few moments, it just stood there, swaying in the breeze. Finally, it turned around and activated its image again.
“Thank you.” It bowed to the group. “I appreciate your help. More than I can express.”
With that, it turned and began to creep back down the mountain, in the company of the soldiers. The hunter stayed for a few moments, an odd smile on his face.
“It really was nice meeting you.” He dipped his head in Sapphire’s direction. “I hope we meet again.”
“I don’t.” Sapphire spat. “You’re despicable.”
The hunter sighed. “From a certain point of view, perhaps.” He flashed a grin and winked at her. “That said, I’m not sure that everyone at that academy would necessarily consider you the purest soul, either.”
With that, he turned and swept out of the cave. Sapphire stood in the entrance, jaw agape, and Malah ran over to her side. She grabbed Sapphire’s arm, and the sorceress slowly pulled her close.
Malah felt a flicker of happiness as they watched the beast stomping off into the trees. “We did it!”
Sapphire glanced at Malah. Malah looked up at her mother, watching a tear slide down the sorceress’s face.
“What?” Malah held up her hands and turned to look at Garn. Even the dwarf seemed morose. “What’s wrong?”
“That was a failure.” Hesione sounded close to tears. “There is no such thing as a dragon prison.”
Malah turned to look up at her as the elf’s voice tremored.
“It’s a lie told to any dragons captured inside elven borders. They offer a compromise, and lead them into a slaughter.” Hesione shook her head. “I had no idea the dwarves had adopted the idea. We played straight into his hands.”
Malah turned to run, but Hesione caught her sleeve. Malah batted at the elf with her wings, flapping for the entrance.
“We need to warn her!”
Hesione just shook her head. “They’ll kill her before she can escape. She has more time if she doesn’t know.” The elf shook. “It’s better that way.”
Malah slowly stepped up to the cave entrance. Below, the dragon moved through the trees, unaware of its fate. Malah took a deep breath and crossed her arms.
She was like the dragon in so many ways. Out of her home, feared needlessly. The moment she set foot in any civilization, she was certain that people would try to kill her.
In that moment, though, she made up her mind. She wasn’t going to go quietly. She set her jaw and turned to Sapphire, who looked like she was ready to collapse.
She was going to figure out what her species was doing, why they were taking people. And she was going to find a way to stop them.
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