The Dreamwalker


 

Chapter 1: The Dreamwalker

The frontier keeps getting smaller every year. Contracts through the Guild are less extraordinary and more mundane than they used to be. But on that frontier, on the borders of civilization where the descendants of Godsreach have little sway, there is much adventure to behold if you are willing to carry a good sword, bow, or musket.

Duchess Calyn Eddinbough, Guildmaster, Rightful Guild of Adventurers and Explorers

Paul Underhill took six arrows in the back to save a boy he had known for only six hours. The halfling boy, Fedor, was amazed at the tales of adventure, bravery, and excitement Paul’s companions had told him—and curious as to why a drakon would have a name like “Paul Underhill.”

His companions stories were the same that convinced Paul—a young draconian man, fresh out of the Academy—to join their adventuring company, the same type of stories that Paul and his friends would listen to as children themselves while daydreaming of knights in shining armor slaying evil dragons.

Paul didn’t see what happened to Fedor, or to his companions. All he could feel were hands holding onto him, carrying him away from the danger. The scents around him changed from the smell of wet grass after a spring rain to something musty. He wasn’t in the forest outside Peitzen anymore, but instead he was in a darkened room, lying on an uncomfortable cot close to the ground as he felt the claws from his left hand graze against the floor.

Claws?

Paul painfully pulled his arm up and onto his chest. Every muscle in his body ached, as if they had been bound tight for days and were finally released. He felt his hands, the twisted, gnarled pale blue scales hurting with each touch. His nails had fully grown back out to sharp claws. How long would that have taken for a drakon like himself? Two weeks?

He felt something tug at his scalp, thin fingers running through the long feather-like hair on the back of his head. Paul had always trimmed it short. He had to been unconscious for some time, much longer than a few weeks.

“Hello,” Paul tried to say as he struggled to arch his head back. Only a dry cough came out from his mouth.

The figure looming over him didn’t react. Its form was covered in dark green robes, but Paul recognized the mottled grey skin, the long leaf-shaped ears, and high cheek bones. They were a dark elf.

“Coldscar?” Paul asked softly. “Did I save that boy?”

The dark elf subtly shifted and then turned and looked down upon Paul, their emerald eyes barely visible in the darkness. The elf’s face was feminine like Coldscar’s, but the contours, eye color, and hair were different.

“Who is Coldscar?” the dark elf whispered.

Paul gulped. “My travelling companion. She is a—” Paul closed his eyes and struggled to find the correct elvish word. “A dokkar, a dark elf.”

The dark elf smiled and chuckled, eliciting the positive sort of response Paul wanted from the stranger. Unfortunately, they replied in Elvish, far too quickly for Paul to even begin to parse the words.

“I only know the Common tongue, ma’am,” Paul replied. “And a bit of Draconic.”

“I was saying that Coldscar is a very peculiar name for a dokkar.” The dark elf raised an eyebrow. “It seems you assume much of me, too.”

Paul thought for a moment. “Sir?”

“The dokkar don’t have a word exactly to describe me,” they said, “and I haven’t spoken to enough lossars to know what word they would say either. But the words I use to describe myself is Vacht’sha Ta’fur. You can call me Vacht.”

“I apologize, Vacht,” Paul said. “I meant no offense.”

“None taken.” There was a pause, an expectance of reciprocity. They wanted to know who Paul was.

“There’s power in a name,” Paul said. “I learned you shouldn’t share it with just any stranger you meet.”

“Indeed,” Vacht said, “that’s why I so freely shared mine. I’m no longer a stranger.”

Vacht somehow rescued him from the Blackthorns, they couldn’t be all bad, could they?

“Paul Underhill,” he said. “I’m a paladin of Pela, the Hearth Mother.”

Vacht let out a piercing laugh, and then snorted, slapping Paul lightly on the chest. They kept their hand there, rubbing lightly through the material of his shirt in rhythm to the pulling of the hair on his head.

“Yes, I know that’s what people call you,” they said. “But what do you call yourself?”

“Paul Underhill,” he repeated. “I’m adopted. My parents are halflings.”

“And you’re a paladin of the halfling goddess? A hieron?” Vacht asked. They pulled harder on Paul’s hair, eliciting a yelp from him. “Sorry, didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers… hair?”

Capaux; but we usually just call it hair,” Paul said. “And the Hearth Mother has dominion over a lot more things than just halflings.”

Paul could feel Vacht’s other hand leave his head. With a snap of their fingers dim candlelight suddenly filled what little of the room Paul could see. The light revealed that Vacht certainly didn’t look like Coldscar, and that they had short deer-like antlers protruding from their head. Wrapped among them were strands of their dark hair—dangling like vines on a tree—with various charms of spirits and gods that even Paul didn’t recognize.

Vacht slinked a hand up one antler and stopped at a small silver charm on a chain, a symbol of a hearth within a shield, that of Pela. Paul’s mouth felt dryer as he looked at the antlers.

“You’re a druid?” Paul asked.

Vacht smiled wryly at him. “Oh? These clued you in?”

“Do all members of your order have antlers?”

“I have no order, at least not the kind you would recognize,” Vacht said as they plucked the charm from their antlers. They inspected the back of it, staring intensely at the necklace. “It says, ‘The Academy of—"

“Saint Arianna,” Paul finished. “I’m not a hedge paladin. I trained there for four years, and it was given to me as a gift by the Headmaster.”

“And I’m not a ‘hedge druid,’” Vacht said. “Although, if you draw magic from the natural world you tend to spend a lot of time in actual hedges.” Vacht laid the necklace on Paul’s chest, placing his weary hands over it, intertwining his fingers with the silver chain the talisman hung by. “I’ve seen paladins before. You focus your power, the Light of the gods, through symbols of your faith to help cast spells, right?” They smiled warmly, enough to make Paul worry. “Let’s call this a test to see if you are being truthful to me.”

“Truthful?” Paul said. He knew what sort of spell to cast to prove that.

Paul breathed in sharply and out slowly as he felt a tremble of magic within his heart. The vibrations traveled upward to his head, tugging at the threads of magic in his mind, unravelling the truth spell gifted to him by the Hearth Mother. Without thinking he shifted his hands, painfully making gestures with them.

“Speak truth to me,” Paul finally said as the spell was cast, his mind concentrating on the vibrating thread of magic to keep the spell active. He felt a wave of warmth wash over him and then a coolness which made him shiver. Vacht shuddered slightly as the spell affected them too.

“Oh, one of those spells, eh?” Vacht said.

“No, it’s one of those spells used for toasting bread,”Paul tried to say sarcastically, but instead he only replied with an affirmative, “Yes.”

Vacht stood up fully from their position at the head of the cot and strode down the length of the bed, running their long nails from one hand down Paul’s side, continuing until just above his ankles. “I think I have a pair of boots that would fit you downstairs in the store,” they said, tapping his leg.

Paul’s eyes had followed the hand moving down his body, the unwelcome overtures from the dark elf making his chest tighten with apprehension. “What are you doing?”

Vacht smiled and turned their head, the charms on their antlers jingling slightly at the gesture. “I’m trying to be friendly. I rarely get guests, much less drakons as unique as you.” The dark elf walked around a corner, out of sight.

“If you want to be friendly you could tell me why I’m here,” Paul called out to them.

“Is water fine?” Vacht said. They sounded distant. The truth spell was centered on him, and there was no way it could affect someone that far away.

“Yes.”

Paul struggled to get up as much as he could before the dark elf returned. He stifled a grunt and sat upright on the cot, quickly slipping his necklace on. His eyes scanned the small room, looking for anything that could be of use. A small stool was at the head of the cot, an open book lying on the ground next to it with notes scribbled inside, small boxes and crates stacked atop each other on the far wall, nothing that could be used as a weapon if the situation turned against him.

Vacht returned with a tall glass filled to the brim with water. Paul looked at them silently, and the dark elf smiled. "I assume you’re parched. I promise it’s not poison.”

“Really?” Paul growled at Vacht.

“Oh, sorry.” Vacht took several steps forward, ensuring they were for certain within the effect of the spell, and handed over the glass. “It’s not poison. Trust me.”

Paul took the glass and gulped the water as fast as he could. It was cool and soothed his throat. “How long have I been out?”

“Five days,” the dark elf said, walking past him and returning to sit on the stool. “I found you at my grove outside of town. You were caked in mud and talking to a tree, which, by the way, seemed a bit offended. You probably would have died from exposure out there.”

“My companions didn’t bring me here?”

“No, whatever stupor you were in finally broke today. I had assumed some sort of fae must’ve had their way with you and dumped you there.” Vacht clicked their teeth. “You poor thing. You could barely speak and didn’t understand anything going on around you. I had tried dreamwalking with you when I first found you, to try to find out where you came from, but I couldn’t until a few hours ago. Your mind was all jumbled.”

“Dreamwalking?” Paul asked. “I’ve heard of spells that allow people to enter and manipulate a person’s dreams.”

“What I do is a bit more nuanced than that,” Vacht said. “I can control dreams, but I can make you relive your memories—although as I said, they were scattered all about in your head. I’ve done this many times over the years, but you’re the most peculiar one.” They pressed a finger to Paul’s forehead and tapped lightly. “Must be a lot going on up in here.”

Paul was too tired and too sore to make a friendly smile like a person raised by halflings. Instead, he did so as a drakon raised in Zornea would, a toothy smile that looked like a grimace. “Thanks,” he hissed.

“Now, my dear dragon,” Vacht cooed. “What do you remember?”

“I was in the forest, outside of Peitzen. I was trying to save a boy, Fedor, who helped me and my friends. I was shot…”

Vacht leaned forward, the charms on their antlers jingling lightly. “Six arrows, straight into your back. You have six scars from that. Not entirely sure about how you got the ones on your hands though.” Paul’s hands almost reflexively ached at the mention. “Or those on your thigh. Accident?”

Yes,” Paul wanted to say, but his spell compelled him to shake his head. “No.”

“Someone do it to you?”

“I’m not here to be interrogated by you,” Paul said. “What happened to me?”

“I don’t know. I believe you being shot was the last thing you remember. The fae usually leave some vestige, a jumble of memories of what they’ve done to a person. Yours seems completely blank though.”

Paul rubbed the sides of his head. He breathed inward deeply through his mouth, held it, and slowly let it out through his mouth. “Why would one of the Fair Folk have done something to me? Did the Blackthorns have one working with them? Is there a faerie crossing near Peitzen?”

“I don’t think any company of brigands would have a fae amongst them,” Vacht said. “Also, you’re nowhere near Peitzen. That’s nearly five hundred miles from here. You’re at my home, well, the second floor here is my home, in Greenfield.”

Greenfield was a city that Paul had passed through only a few days journey from his hometown of Wavemeet. His head felt like it was spinning. “What—what day is it?”

“The fourth of Harvestreach,” Vacht replied.

“Of 1797?”

They nodded. “Yes. I saw in that memory that you were in—”

“Spring,” Paul finished. “I lost six months of my life.”

“Do you remember anything about your companions?”

Paul closed his eyes. “There was Coldscar. She… I know that wasn’t her real name. She looked like…” He tried focusing on her face, but he couldn’t visualize it. “But there was also…”

“Also, who?” Vacht asked.

“I can’t remember. I left Wavemeet a few months before ending up in Peitzen. I passed through this very city on my way up north. My time after leaving home though… it’s all so blurry.”

Vacht rose and sat next to Paul on the cot. “Don’t worry,” they said and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m your friend, and we will get through this together.”

Friend? Paul could still feel the warmth of the truth spell radiating through the small room. It would last a few more minutes, but he needed his concentration to think about what to do next.

“I need to get washed up,” he said and willed the string of magic keeping the spell alive to snap, dissipating it back into the aether.

Paul gritted his teeth as he forced himself off the bed. The dark elf quickly stood, taking Paul’s arm as the drakon quickly towered over them. The charms on Vacht’s antlers jingled as they looked at him, their eyes barely reaching up to his chest. Although the stranger was trying to make him feel welcome, Paul couldn’t help but find more rising tension in his chest as he felt he had to avoid the druid, even for a short while.

“Here, follow me. Luckily, I bought some new fire elemental crystals so the hot water should be working. I know you’re probably not used to indoor plumbing—”

“Wavemeet is a large city. I’m not some country bumpkin who doesn’t know what plumbing is,” Paul said.

Vacht took Paul’s arm and gently pulled him along around the corner they walked earlier to fetch the water. “I can tell from that bit of a twang in your voice that you’re not quite city folk. At least your accent isn’t as strong as Mason’s.”

“It’s how my parents speak, along with many of my kin,” he huffed. “The halfling community is in the farmlands just outside of the city.”

The main room of the druid’s home, if it could be called that, was a mess. Strange plants and alchemical contraptions littered a large desk flanked by windows covered in thick black curtains, forcing Paul to strain his eyes to see with what little light the few candles gave. The walls were lined with bookshelves, filled with countless tomes with well-worn spines, their titles revealing a breadth of topics from "A History of Mushrooms" to "Dragon Dung: A Prospectors Guide." The most notable thing Paul noticed in the dark room was a large four-poster bed sitting by a door with innumerable locks on it. If he had to guess, that was likely the exit down to the first floor.

Paul turned his head to continue looking at the bed as Vacht led him to the other end of the room, towards another door with something written on it in elvish script. “For your dreamwalking?” he asked aloud and nodded his head towards the bed.

“I didn’t want to frighten you by having you wake up underneath satin sheets. Now- here we are!” they said and opened the door, revealing a washroom. It was small, at least for Paul’s height. “You can open the curtain to see better, the glass is frosted. The cabinet has some towels and toiletries. The bathtub has a shower, just fiddle around with the valves to get it working. You pull the chain here to flush—”

Paul patted Vacht on the shoulder, quieting them from the contact. “I know how.”

“I’ll get you boots and some other clothes. We can go get some breakfast afterwards. The Alabaster Inn has quite a delectable menu for your kind—”

“I’m a vegetarian,” Paul said.

“Our kind!” Vacht shouted with glee. “By the way, how much Draconic do you speak? I only know drakonwhich is Draconic for… well… Dragon-folk. Although I’ve heard people call your folk draconians before, but aren’t all creatures that are dragon-like called dragonians? It seems very confusing. Now, most people just simply say dark elf instead of dokkar, however—”

Vacht either didn’t realize that Paul needed to be alone, or they thought continued conversation would somehow help him. Paul held his scarred hands in front of him. “Can you find some sort of cloth to wrap my hands in? It tends to hurt less if they’re wrapped up tight.”

Vacht leaned forward, carefully inspecting Paul’s hands. “What happened to you to cause that?”

“Old training injury,” Paul lied. “Magic never really healed it fully.” Paul felt as if though his holy symbol suddenly became very heavy for a moment. The Hearth Mother was alright with lying to protect oneself, but did Vacht really pose a danger to him?

“Of course,” Vacht said. “I’ll be back in a bit. If you need anything just shout.”

Paul entered the washroom and closed the door behind him. He quickly pulled open the curtains, threw off his clothes, and leaned over the sink, breathing heavily as he looked at his thin reflection in the clouded mirror. He was still tall and lean like most drakons, but he was missing some of his muscle tone.

“Hadn’t eaten or worked out in those missing six months, eh?” Paul said to himself. “Never met a vegetarian drakon before… probably for good reason.”

Paul fumbled through the drawers and cabinets, finding towels, soaps, and finally a long metal nail file. He felt the weight in his chest again as he set the toiletries aside and turned around, trying to see his back. Six small round scars arched along his back, four over his spine and two over his right shoulder blade.

You were careless and useless,a little familiar voice told Paul.

Maybe that boy is dead now because of you? Going to Peitzen was your first big adventure after graduating from the Academy. A boy died and your supposed friends dragged your comatose body and left it out in the woods for wolves to eat.

He felt his hair jutting out of the back of his head, much darker than the light blue most of the scales on his body were. It was past his shoulders, longer than he usually kept it, especially since he normally wore a helmet while fighting. The nail file wouldn’t cut his hair and given the length of Vacht’s hair it seemed unlikely they’d keep scissors in the washroom.

Paul felt the weight grow heavier, his muscles tensed as the pressure built, feeling as if he could erupt at any moment. He focused on using the file on his nails, wearing them back to a respectable shape as he turned the water on in the bath, waiting for it to run hot.

“C’mon Paul,” he muttered to himself. “Calm down. Remember what you learned at the Academy. Besides prayers, and classes, and—” his voice began to waver. “You’re taught to be an exemplar…”

The hot water of the shower soothed his aching hands, the jagged scars becoming less of a reminder of his past. He washed himself as thoroughly and quickly as he could, his hands eventually stopping on the outside of his left thigh. His fingers ran across familiar crisscrossed scars.

You know what would really ease your anxieties,the little voice told Paul.

He ignored it and continued washing. Paul muttered to himself a prayer that he told himself time and time again. “Pela, Hearth Mother, Creator of all the Hidden-folk, please grant me serenity. Though I may wander from your guiding path, and test the oaths I have made, know that I use the gifts you have granted me to fight for your cause; to protect the unseen, to listen to the unheard, to give comfort to the ignored, and to punish those who use their strength against the weak.”

The towels were unusually soft, quickly piling after rubbing against the rougher parts of Paul’s body. Maybe Vacht liked to go out on weekends and preferred to look clean and smell like lavender instead of being oily and musty? He quickly wrapped one of the towels around his waist, grabbed his clothing, and stepped out of the steamy washroom to find Vacht standing at the door.

“How long have you been waiting there?” Paul asked.

Vacht smiled and held up a large pair of brown boots, a violet cloak, and several long strips of cloth. “Not long. Sorry I couldn’t find socks that I would think fit you,” they said, handing over the clothing.

Paul sat on the bed, sinking down several inches into it, as he began wrapping his hands and feet. “Thank you for getting me these. You run a store in this town?”

“Yes,” Vacht replied. “The Dreamwalker’s Den, downstairs, as I said. It’s an outfitter store, although Greenfield rarely gets adventurers given how calm it is here, so it’s usually just caravans resupplying or people traveling elsewhere. I’m also an herbalist and alchemist,” they said, gesturing to the desk cluttered with alchemical apparatuses. “A healer for those who can afford to pay for healing spells, potions, and poultices; and occasionally a mortician, which I was worried about with you. It’s quite a coincidence that you wandered into my grove exactly when I was there. No one in town had heard of a drakon roaming the forest until I told them.”

Paul stood up and grabbed at his towel. “Do you mind?”

“Mind what?” Vacht asked.

“I’m naked,” Paul said.

Vacht nodded and turned around. “As I was saying, it’s quite a coincidence I found you.”

Paul put on the rest of his clothes and slipped the boots on. They were obviously made for a human or dwarf given their shape, but they didn’t feel like they would rub too much. “I don’t believe in coincidences. You can turn back around.”

“I know,” Vacht chuckled and reached into their robe. “I figured halfling paladins would be the same about providence and the like. Here,” they said and presented a sheathed dagger with a silvery handle. “I also found this on you.”

Paul pinned his cloak on and then took the dagger and pulled it out of its sheath. It had a dull grey blade, wide, ending in a fine point. He smiled. “My mother gave it to me as a gift when I left home to go to the Academy. Thank you for keeping it.”

Vacht’s smile turned to a subtle frown. “Will you be okay… having it?”

Paul tilted his head. “What do you mean?” Vacht pointed to their thigh. Paul huffed and stuck the dagger into his boot. “You shouldn’t be concerned about me.”

“But of course, I should,” Vacht said.

“Why?”

They smiled. “Because you’re my guest for breakfast. I haven’t had a gentleman like you to dine with in such a long time. And I know you must be starving.”

“I just want answers,” Paul replied.

“And you’ll get them, over breakfast.”

Chapter 2: The Usual

There are two traits that unify all members of the class Dragonia: their elemental affinity exemplified in the organs called “elementums,” and the emotional state the true dragons call the “drakir.” All dragonians have “elementums,” although they are most well known in true dragons in which every cell of their bodies is infused with elemental energy, and all dragonians experience the “drakir,” which accounts for how difficult it is to display dragonian animals in menageries. Only true dragons and the Dragon-folk, the drakons, have been able to fully control their “drakirs.”

Sir Edward von Blakosin,

Zornea: Land of Dragons

“Watch your step!” Vacht called out as they locked the door behind them both.

The steep and narrow staircase was difficult to navigate given Paul’s broad shoulders, even more-so with new ill-fitting boots. The stairs led down to the first floor, a large and dusty store. It was much brighter than Vacht’s suite with large windows letting in the still red light of the morning sun. Preserved food, rope, lanterns, cloaks, boots, just about everything a traveler on a long journey might need.

A girl, a very young human woman with dark tan skin and bountiful curly black hair, was behind the counter reading through a large book. “Morning boss. I already swept—” as the girl turned to look at Paul she suddenly gasped. “Oh, s-s-sorry, sir.”

Paul cleared his throat. “No apologies needed ma’am,” he replied, pulling the corners of his mouth up into a smile, trying not to expose his teeth to her.

Vacht strode down the steps, squinting from the bright light in the shop. “Oh, this is Paul Underhill, apparently he’s a halfling paladin,” they said. “Paul, this is Jeaneth.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Jeaneth said, bowing slightly. She raised her arms and fluttered her hands, “Welcome to the Dreamwalker’s Den! The premiere store for any passing adventurer, caravan guard, mercenary—”

Vacht rolled their eyes, “You don’t have to go over the whole bit. He’s not a customer, he’s a guest.” They reached into their robe and pulled out a pair of glasses, the lenses almost an opaque black. They slipped them on and raised an elaborately sewn hood on their robe over and through their antlers, obscuring their face.

“Sorry boss,” Jeaneth said. She smiled at Paul, “You know they can’t stop talking about you whenever they’re down here.”

Paul turned and looked down at Vacht. “’Oh really?’”

Vacht pulled their hood down a bit more over their face. “Shouldn’t you be studying?” they hissed at Jeaneth. “You have your schooling, and I told you that you should be meditating under that big hemlock tree outside of town after reading that book I lent you.”

Jeaneth sighed. “I know, boss, but I don’t feel like I’m learning anything new by reading about how many names gnomes use to describe roses. I can cast spells—”

“Just because you can light a candle doesn’t mean you know about the natural world and the magic which flows through it,” Vacht said. “There’s more to the Path than just sniffing flowers and pressing leaves between pages. It’s an appreciation, finding a deeper meaning in the creations of the gods.”

Paul stepped up to the counter and examined Jeaneth’s book. “Druids learn how to control magic through studying?”

“You don’t?” the girl asked him.

Vacht chuckled and turned to Jeaneth. “You see, my apprentice, hierons like Paul here, the bearers of the might and faith of the gods, gain their magic from the creators. The gods bless a hieron’s mind with the ability to cast spells and infuse their hearts with their divine Light. Druids like myself, and you, gain their magic from the creation of their work, we have to study the natural world to shape our magic into spells that both control and compliment it.”

Jeaneth tilted her head. “What’s it like using magic for you?” she asked Paul.

He shrugged. “I don’t really know how to describe it well. For me… I feel a warmth in my chest. I first felt it when I received my Revelation from the Hearth Mother, and I feel it whenever I use magic. I know to most people who use magic that it feels like strings vibrating, especially when you weave them into a spell, but for me it’s like feeling my heart tremble, and then it passes into my head.”

She smiled. “For me, it’s like the kind of feeling you get when your bare feet crunch on dry leaves in autumn. It tingles all throughout my body.”

Paul and Jeaneth both looked at Vacht. They huffed and crossed their arms. “I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like for me. But eventually, my apprentice, you’ll know what it’s like.”

Jeaneth crossed her arms. “So, when can I shoot fireballs?”

“What?” Paul asked. “How is shooting fireballs supposed to help the natural world?”

She laughed. “A lot of the pine forests need fire as a part of their cycle of growth. I could go on and on about trees, if you like.”

“I bet you could—” Paul began to say, until he was quickly interrupted by Jeaneth.

“Like, the other day, I was at Rimsor’s Bluff with my friends, and because it was foggy they were all pissed—”

“Language,” Vacht warned the girl.

“Sorry,” she said. “Anyway, my friends were… peeved, that they couldn’t see a view of the valley from there. But they didn’t even bother thinking about how the weather made the trees look even more vibrant. Or, how the rain made the firs smell so wonderful!”

“I used to live down south near the coast,” Paul said to Jeaneth, “so I’m a bit more familiar with the trees down there than up here on the mountains.”

“What’s your favorite tree?” she asked him.

Jeaneth’s gaze felt like it was penetrating straight through Paul. “I… um…" Come on, don't sound stupid. This is an easy question."I like… big… trees.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Vacht said with a wide grin on their face. “At least that’s what that tree told me, the one you were speaking to out in the forest? He mentioned something about how you complemented his branches, that they reminded you of—”

Vacht could speak with trees? They think you're an idiot. Paul’s face felt like it was on fire. “Hey, can we go get breakfast now?”

“C’mon, Vacht is just razzing you," Jeanette said. "You two are heading out to breakfast? I thought you normally go before sunrise?”

“It’s a special occasion and I want to show my guest the Alabaster Inn,” Vacht said to Jeaneth. “Be sure the potions in the back are still good before you open. Do you want anything while I’m there?”

“Maybe some of those little halfling pastries? The little buns with currants in them.”

Paul’s stomach growled. How long had it been since he ate anything? “They have teacakes?”

“I’ll get you some, my dear,” Vacht said, smiling at the girl. “Come, breakfast awaits.” They intertwined their thin arms with one of Paul’s and practically dragged him out the front door of the store.

Paul didn’t recall much about Greenfield when he passed through it months ago. The city had cobblestone streets and aethertech lamp posts which had crystal lights that could be lit with a flint, unusual for a city with only about ten thousand people living in it. With it also having running water and a sewage system it brought up a lot of questions of how well connected the city’s alderman was.

“Is this Alderman Mason a rich man?” Paul asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Vacht said. “Well connected? Perhaps. I know he’s a veteran of the war, a trained battlemage. You impressed with all the wonders of Greenfield?”

“Wavemeet had just switched from gas lamps to aethertech lamps before I went to the Academy. Lamplighters burn themselves less, although I don’t have a clue how the mechanisms inside make light. My uncle Ibarin didn’t teach me much about aethertechnology while growing up.”

“Ibarin’s a strange name for a halfling.”

Paul chuckled. “He’s a wizard from Tulwan, an orc. He was a companion of my dad back when he was an adventurer.”

“I don’t hear of many wizards from Tulwan, or really anybody from there at all given how far away it is. There’s a Tulwani orc that runs a food stand at the market, although I don’t think he’s actually from Tulwan.”

Paul smiled. “Well, I know where I’m having lunch then.”

His thoughts quickly returned to Vacht as he could feel something poking his arm. Vacht had leaned close towards Paul, pressing their antlers into him as a human man with a tall top hat was walking up the sidewalk towards them both. Maybe Vacht was cold? Paul could see his everyone’s breath puffing into the morning air.

“Good morning,” Paul said to the man and nodded towards him.

The man looked at them both and chuckled to himself, walking past them without any other comment. Despite passing dozens of people going about their daily lives, none seemed to acknowledge the drakon and the dark elf.

“Have they never seen Dragon-folk before?” Paul asked.

Vacht gripped his arm tighter. Paul was used to light elves being clingy while walking with friends, even more-so than halflings were, but he had never expected a dark elf to be that way. All people were different, maybe those few dokkar he had known in the capital were the exception?

“Pay them no mind,” Vacht hissed. “They are walking to work, delivering goods to the market, heading to schoolhouses… They don’t care about us.”

Vacht’s demeanor had completely changed from earlier.

“Not enough to even say hi?” Paul asked.

“Not even enough to—Ow!” Vacht shouted in pain. They let go of Paul and grabbed their shin. A small boy’s ball had struck them.

“Sorry mister!” the boy called out as he ran to the pair. Bouncing on the child’s back was a heavily laden book bag.

Paul picked up the ball and handed it back to the boy, ruffling his bright red hair playfully. “You need to be careful. You don’t want to hurt anybody by tossing this thing around.”

“Thanks sir!” the boy said. “Are you getting rid of him?” he asked, pointing at Vacht.

“Get rid of?” Vacht asked.

“Mommy and Daddy say you eat the livers of bad little boys and girls,” the child said.

Vacht bared their teeth and pointed a finger at the kid. “Listen here you little—”

Paul quickly grabbed Vacht’s hand and spun around behind them, holding their arms tightly against their own chest in what to a passerby looked like a hug. The dark elf’s body tensed at suddenly being restrained.

“Well, you have nothing to fear because you’re not a bad little boy, are you?” Paul asked the child. He didn’t want to have a confrontation, not after all that had just happened to himself.

“No sir!”

“And Vacht’sha here is a vegetarian, they don’t eat meat,” Paul said. Vacht finally stopped resisting Paul’s efforts to restrain them. “So even if you were a bad boy you’d have nothing to fear from them, right?”

“No,” Vacht growled through clenched teeth. “I’m a perfectly pleasant person and have no idea why anybody would ever think that of me. I assure you any rumors are pure conjecture or slander.”

The boy tilted his head. “Huh?”

Paul smiled at him. “Run along to school now. You don’t want to be late.”

“Sure thing mister! Sorry I thought you might eat my liver!” he shouted and then ran off down the street.

Vacht shook their shoulders quickly, causing Paul to let go of them. “There,” Vacht said, pointing to a three-story building, its wooden walls whitewashed, standing between two branching streets. “The Alabaster Inn.”

“You were going to yell at that child,” Paul said.

“The boy deserved it for harassing me,” Vacht hissed.

“Is this why Jeaneth meant by you going to breakfast before sunrise? Does this happen all the time? I know that after the war that it must be hard for dark elves—”

“No, you don’t know what it’s like for me,” Vacht hissed. “These people are only okay if I’m slinking around at night like a hag hoping to steal their children.”

“Is it just because you’re a dokkar?” Vacht was silent. Paul snarled and took Vacht’s face by the chin, forcing them to look eye to eye. “Terrorizing children isn’t a way to get rid of people’s prejudices of you. All it does is feed into their fears of what they think you are.”

Vacht bared their teeth, imitating Paul. “Why do you care?”

Paul let go of Vacht’s chin. “I care because I owe you for saving my life, and you’re right, I don’t know what you or other dark elves have to deal with. But I’ve lived with people who would judge me just because of the way I look. I might not know your specific pain, but I’ve shared in something similar before.”

Vacht pointed back to the inn. “Let’s just get breakfast before my appetite is spoiled.”

They were deflecting. It was understandable given that they had essentially just met each other. “I assume you’re paying?” Paul asked, getting an affirmative grunt from the druid.

The pair crossed the street, dodging carts and horses, and stepped through the double doors of the bright white building, revealing its much darker interior as a bell attached to the door chimed.

“Hallo!” cried out a server with her arms full of trays of foods and drinks. “Welcome to the Alabaster Inn!”

The inn was busy, most of the tables occupied, servers bustling to and fro, serving food and drink to patrons, and a bard in all black was serenading guests at the bar with a silver inlaid guitar. A large spiral staircase wound upward through the ceiling, likely where the guest quarters were at.

A rotund, balding man with hair as white as the walls on the outside was standing behind the bar, counting coins as he noticed the pair walk in. He smiled widely and laughed, his deep voice echoing through the large room.

“Vacht, my dear, it’s surprising to see you here so late!”

“I’ve been busy,” Vacht said, as they took off their glasses and pulled back their hood. Some of the patrons turned to look at the two of them but quickly went back to eating.

“Come! Come! The usual seat for you and your—" the man paused as he stepped away from the counter.

“Friend,” Paul said before Vacht could offer a reply. “My name is Paul Underhill, I’m a paladin of—"

“Of course! The drakon paladin of the halfling goddess!” the man gleefully said. “Your reputation precedes you. I am Cayden Voils, proprietor of this establishment,” he said and bowed deeply. He led them to a corner of the inn, far away from the few guests in the large dining room.

“I didn’t realize I had any sort of reputation,” Paul said. “Although, I guess somebody I know must’ve passed through here before.”

“I’ll have the usual,” Vacht said and took a seat.

“Which would be?” Paul asked as he sat down, unpinning his cloak, and draping it across the back of his chair. He sniffed the air, there was a faint odor of cinnamon. It smelt warm, inviting, and familiar.

Cayden snapped his fingers. “A three-egg omelet with cheese, mushrooms, and herbs, three three-berry tarts, and mint tea.”

Paul smiled. “I’ll have the same, but make it six eggs, coffee with cream and sugar, and two of whatever that is that smells like cinnamon.”

Cayden sucked air in through his teeth. “Sorry, it must be a whiff of our cinnamon apple tarts still in the air from yesterday. If you come tomorrow however, I assure you they will be on the menu.”

Paul sniffed the air again. Whatever that cinnamon scent was, it was gone now. “I’ll have six teacakes then.”

Cayden bowed deeply. “Of course, my good sirs. Coming right up.”

Vacht eyed Cayden until he disappeared back behind the bar and through a door to the kitchen. Paul cleared his throat, trying to regain the dark elf’s attention. “I assume you’re not from here?”

“Correct,” Vacht said. “I moved here, long before the war, over fifty years ago now.”

The mass migration of thousands of dark elf refugees to the surface was a sore subject to many. While most action during the war happened in the Hollow World, hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides.

“What brought you to Greenfield?” Paul asked.

“There used to be an opening to the Hollow World in the old mine outside of town and I came here through it, from the city of Cocorosefheim. The Empire collapsed it about fifteen years ago when the war first started.”

Paul flinched at the mention of Cocorosefheim. “I’m sorry about what happened there. Did you—"

“Yes, people who used to be my family lived there. And no, I don’t care about what happened to them.”

They were cool, calm, unflinching. It was unnerving. Thousands of people who looked just like them died, some who they called family.

If as many drakons died as dark elves that day, would you care?Paul pushed that thought aside. It was something better left to discuss with an alienist, or a priest.

“How did you know what I was going to ask you?” Paul said.

“You’re a paladin of the goddess of hearth and home. Of course, you’d ask about them, Paul.”

“You lived here for half a century?” Paul asked.

“Yes.”

“If you lived here for so long then why do they act this way around you?” Paul asked. “You own a business here, and people shop there often, right?”

“Yes.” They sighed. “Well, not nearly as often as they used to. Mainly travelers passing through Greenfield these days.”

“It’s more than just people not being used to seeing you during the day.”

Vacht paused for a moment and gestured with their hand. “So… we’re a lot alike, you and I,” they said, completely avoiding the question. Vacht nervously touched two crystalline shakers on the table, one with black pepper, the other with salt.

“What do you mean?”

The dark elf paused as a server came with coffee and tea for them, pouring out the respective hot drinks and setting out small bowls with cream and sugar. Paul thanked the young man as Vacht rolled their eyes.

“Well, as I mentioned,” Vacht said as the server left, “I’m a dreamwalker. I can use magic to not just enter a person’s dreams, but I can pull memories out and have people relive them in a sort of way. I always ask for permission to do it because it’s a very… intimate thing to do,” they said, the charms in their antlers jangling as they fiddled with their hair. “And it can be very frightening sometimes.”

“You only did this to find out what happened to me, right?”

They nodded. “Yes, of course. Your mind was such a mess, you were slipping in and out of consciousness all the time. The only complete memory, the only one that was more than a few moments, was when you were shot.”

Paul added sugar and cream to his coffee, stirring it gently with his spoon. “What did you see?”

“I can show you better tonight, directly.”

Paul lowered his voice to a growl. “I’d prefer now.”

“Fine,” Vacht said. “I saw several things. Firstly, I saw you as a child. You were a sickly drakon boy with crutches, crying, while another boy, a human infernian you called Liam, comforted you.”

“He was a childhood friend,” Paul said. “Nothing more.” Another lie. The symbol of the Hearth Mother around his neck weighed heavily again. “How does this make you and me similar to each other?”

“I also saw you and a fire drakon at that school for hierons, the Academy of that forever sleeping saint. You two were arguing about what it means to be a ‘true drakon.’” Vacht looked away as a server was hurriedly carrying over their plates of food.

“St. Arianna was her name, and that drakon’s name was Sulbor. He was a fourth-year apprentice, while I was a first. He was the first drakon I ever spoke to, straight from the homeland of Zornea.” Paul took the plate from the server and shook out generous portions of salt and pepper from the crystal shakers. He said a quick word of thanks to Pela and began cutting the omelet apart.

Paul continued. “He was training as a paladin of Aquillon, the patron god of the Republic of Zornea. Most of the hierons from Zornea train as what we could call a cleric or a paladin over there, so it was quite rare to find one training here in the Empire.”

Vacht sipped their tea carefully. “Are all the gods really that different? They allegedly want us all to live happy lives.”

Paul remembered the full conversation he had with Sulbor that day. He shook his head. “Sulbor told me about how in Zornea that everyone served the Seven Virtues, how any deviancy from their laws and mores would be—”

“Punished?” Vacht interrupted.

“Too harsh a word,” Paul corrected. “’Strongly discouraged’ would be the better term.”

Sulbor told him that because of the rumors he had heard about Paul, rumors of late night rendezvouses with other apprentices; men, women, and others. Apprentices at the Academy were forbidden to question each other’s beliefs or to convince them to break their oaths, like Sulbor’s own to uphold the Virtues. The red scaled drakon had tried to subtly tell Paul that he wanted him to make the first move. It would be “acceptable” if Sulbor gave into an advance from Paul.

“Dark elf society is much harsher, at least how it was back in Cocorosefheim after Jhaartal came to power within the Kingdoms,” Vacht said. “If you don’t follow their norms you’re tortured, imprisoned, or executed. My caste dictated I was supposed to be an entertainer, specifically a dancer. When I told my mother that I didn’t want to do that she struck me with a fire iron. She shattered my eye socket and nearly blinded me.” They took a bite out of one of their tarts, seemingly unaffected by bringing up such a violent memory.

“Underking Jhaartal is gone now, thankfully,” Paul said. “Dark elves who still live in the Hollow World are free to live their lives how they want to.”

“I assume Sulbor tried to explain to you that Zornea is better because if you don’t comply with their ways, they just brand you and take away your rights,” Vacht said. “I know halflings are all about freedom and not having others tell them what to do. Zornea and the Shimmering Kingdom would be both terrible places for you to live, well… whatever is left of the Shimmering Kingdom.”

Paul remembered Sulbor telling him about Zornea as the larger drakon touched his face. He spoke of what would’ve happened if he were found out: he wouldn't be able to hold office in the Republic, he'd be expelled from the Order of the Heliotrope, he'd be declared a “protected second-class citizen,” what they simply called being a Deviant.

“We had some… arguments,” Paul said.

“I assume they were short, given your views?” Vacht said and took a bite of their omelet.

The holy symbol around Paul’s neck weighed heavily again. “They were,” he lied.

You liked it,the little voice in Paul’s head told him.

Admit to the dokkar, you loved crawling into the bed of that big, red, muscular draconian.

“See, we are alike in that way at least,” Vacht said, and finished eating the rest of their omelet. “We are both disappointments to our cultures.”

“My culture is that of the halflings, the Hidden-folk, not of Zornea,” Paul said. “And besides, there are a lot of dark elves living on the surface now. I’m sure they would be more accepting of you than those who still live within the Hollow World.”

“Really?” Vacht scoffed. They pointed to their antlers. “With these?” They shoved another tart in their mouth. “So, what happened to this Sulbor?”

“We rarely spoke after that.” Paul pulled at his necklace, it felt tight and heavier than ever from such a lie. “It would just lead to more arguments.”

He got angry over you tempting him all the time, the little voice told him. You deserved everything he did to you before he left.

Paul felt a pang of anxiety in his chest from that thought. A tension that wouldn’t go away. “So, how exactly are we alike? That can’t be the real thing that made you think that.”

Vacht drank the rest of their tea in one gulp. “It was the last memory I saw. It was one that kept repeating over and over in your head. There was a teenage infernian, he looked like the one from when you were little.”

The dokkar knows you’re a monster, the little voice practically yelled at Paul. They always knew.The pressure in Paul’s chest grew bigger.

“What of it?” he whispered.

“You two couldn’t have been older than maybe fifteen, sixteen perhaps?” Vacht dabbed their mouth with a napkin. “You two were arguing about something. Your hands had blood on them, and he was yelling at you that you couldn’t control yourself, that you never could and that you two being out in public was a mistake.”

“They were bullies, drunk sailors from the port.” Paul growled. “Liam… he and I were leaving a theater where he performed at. It was a play for the school we were in. I was holding his hand and they accosted us. I told them to stop, and they wouldn’t, so I broke one of their noses.”

“Violence doesn’t solve everything,” Vacht said.

It helped get rid of the pain, the anger, the fear, and the anxiety, was what Paul almost said to Vacht. Paul’s face felt unbearably hot. The world seemed to be closing in. “I didn’t know that back then, and he didn’t either. We had a love, a type of young love that neither of us were mature enough for, that was as bright as a flame, and it burnt us both.” Paul paused as he felt a lump in his throat. “I…” He coughed to try to get the words out.

Go ahead, the voice said, go ahead and tell Vacht that you wanted to snap those men's necks, but you didn't have the balls to do it. You’re weak, pathetic, and-

“I hate bullies,” Paul finally was able to say. “Since I was little, I hated it when the strong would hurt the weak, and that’s why I struck that man. I wanted to do more, but I knew doing that would've been wrong. I never was deeply religious growing up, but I always believed in what the Hearth Mother taught about helping those who couldn’t help themselves. I dedicated myself to helping others, even if it wasn’t until recently I had the strength to stand up for myself.”

Paul’s breathing was labored, everything was getting hotter and hotter. The voice, his drakir, the self-doubt that clawed at his mind. It was like he was being attacked. It was a sensation he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Does it involve your Revelation in some way?” Vacht asked. “I know for hierons that they’re deeply personal experiences.”

“A bit,” Paul wheezed. “The Hearth Mother opened the door for me, but I had to step through on my own.”

“Is that why you intervened with that child earlier? Why you shown a sudden interest in what the people of Greenfield think of me?”

Paul closed his eyes and nodded. He felt dizzy.

“Are you okay? You’re panting,” Vacht said.

Paul’s wrapped hands began to shake. He had to try to control his breathing. “I appreciate all that you did for me, but—"

“I’m sorry about what I had to do with your memories, but I had to be sure. I needed to be sure that—”

“Thank you for breakfast,” Paul said, quickly scarfing down the rest of the omelet and two of the teacakes. He picked up the remaining pastries and placed them on the table in front of Vacht. “For your employee, Jeaneth. I have to go.”

“No, wait, Paul,” Vacht said and placed a hand on Paul’s before he could pull it away. “I know what it’s like to fall in love with someone who harbors a secret, someone who lives a lie and ends up hurting you because of it. And I believed you when you said you didn’t think all of this was a coincidence. My master, the one who taught me, told me I would meet you. I want to help—"

“Oh, so that’s what this is all about!” Paul shouted at Vacht. It wasn’t appropriate, but it let the pressure out of his body. He wasn’t angry at the dark elf, he was angry at himself, angry at letting himself get angry. “What do you want from me!?”

“I want you to show me the truth about—"

Vacht was interrupted as a muscular human man with a shaved head and dirt covered clothes stomped up to them. “Oi! You ash-skinned, knife-ear witch!”

Vacht slowly let go out Paul’s hand, pulling them back to their lap. Their face, their posture, everything reverted to how Vacht was on the streets of Greenfield.

“My name is—"

“Shut up!” the man spat. “I lost a lot of mates over in Ontson during the war, and they didn’t die to have a damned ash-skinner walking around the middle of the day with her scaly boyfriend!”

There were four total now. Cayden was trying to dissuade the angry group from causing any more trouble. Vacht had become bottled up again, only letting the four humans see what they wanted to.

Paul pushed the storm in his mind away, visualizing it going into a little box and being left behind in a dark corner. The pressure in his chest released as his full attention was on the four men.

“Gentlemen,” he said and swallowed the rest of his coffee with one gulp. “I know it’s early, but how about we buy you a drink? Something for the long road ahead?”

“I agree!” cried out the musician from the bar as he bound towards them all. He was wearing all black with silver jewelry. Paul noticed a thin sword concealed underneath his long cloak. “How about a fine light ale to quench—"

“Shut up lizardman! And the same goes to you, bard,” the shortest of the four said. He had a small knife in his belt and his hands were covered in small healed over cuts. He was probably lousy at wielding it, or had recently taken up knife throwing, given the slender and irregular shape of the handle.

“Well, firstly, I’m a drakon. Scarathans have tails and all of their teeth are sharp, like a crocodile.” The human closest to them, the bald one, had drops of sweat beading up and falling over his eyes. Paul subtly brought his hand to the saltshaker and began unscrewing its lid, the substance would easily stick to his face and eyes.

“We don’t give two shits about you, boy,” said one of the others. He, along with the last of the caravan guards had small noticeable bruises on their cheekbones and scrapes bruises on their knuckles. They likely practiced fisticuffs with each other often, and favored striking high up on the cheek. Not a remarkably effective place for a human, certainly not effective for a drakon.

The bard raised his guitar. “Can I at least play you all a tune to help soothe your moods?”

The last of them sneered. “Our problem is with the ash-skinner! Don’t try any of your magic shit here!” In addition to the bruises on his cheeks he had a noticeable callous on his forehead. Headbutting wasn't something you'd practice on friends if you wanted to keep them, and trees didn't headbutt back. The man was also wearing a thick duster over his clothing, sturdy enough to withstand having him dragged by his collar without tearing.

All the pieces of the puzzle were set, and all Paul had to do was solve it.

Cayden took a few steps back from the throng of men. “Gentlemen, if you don’t leave, I will call the constable.”

Paul raised his free hand. “It’s alright Mr. Voils, and you mister...”

“Joe!” said the bard. “Just Joe.”

“Gentlemen, I’m a paladin of Pela, the Hearth Mother. I’ve made an oath to protect the weak, and because of that I’m obligated to warn you that I will be forced to harm you to make you leave.”

The bald man sneered. “You calling us weak, you scaleback fuck? I oughta cut your dick off for having such a smart mouth.”

Paul’s muscles had atrophied somewhat in the six months he had lost, but he still felt agile. Paladins were trained to focus their magic to enhance their strength, stamina, and senses. He didn’t want to hurt them seriously, just enough to force them to leave him and Vacht alone.

Paul smiled. "If you want to touch my cock, all you had to do was ask. It’ll only cost you breakfast for my friend and I."

All four of the men laughed to each other. "Look at this guy," the bald one laughed. "He's a real joker!"

Vacht mouthed voiceless words to Paul. “Please, don’t.” They knew what Paul was about to do.

Paul began laughing with the humans as he fully unscrewed the cap of the saltshaker. Having been raised by halflings, Paul knew that fighting “fair” was always a poor choice. Pela’s teachings were for her children to avoid conflict, hiding amongst the other folk of the world. But when danger couldn’t be avoided, danger that was always at least twice as large as you, you had to use anything and everything you could to stop that danger.

Paul threw the salt in a cloud at the face of the bald caravan guard, the salt burning his eyes, causing him to shout in pain. He clawed in vain at his face to get the salt off as Paul quickly leaped to his feet, grabbed the man’s head with one hand, and pulled it down as he encircled a muscled arm around his head and across his throat. The man was shorter than Paul, leaving little movement required to begin choking him as Paul brought his two hands together and pulled upward, collapsing his windpipe and the delicate blood vessels in his neck.

Get him!” the second guard, the boxer, shouted as he swung a wild punch at Paul’s face. Paul simply angled his head, taking the punch as hard as he could into the thick bones of his cheeks. A loud crack echoed through Paul’s head as the man’s hand broke.

The boxer shouted in pain and stumbled forward. The bald man’s body quickly went limp and Paul let go, dropping the unconscious man on the ground with a thud. Paul stepped over the bald one and set his feet firmly in the ground, swinging with his entire body an uppercut to the boxer’s jaw, sending him flying over an empty table and onto the floor.

The headbutter was next. He threw several uncoordinated punches at Paul’s face which were easily blocked. Finally, he predictably brought his head back and Paul lowered his own in return. The sound of the guard’s boots stomping the ground with his headbutt were not nearly as loud as the sound of the man’s nose breaking while striking the flat of Paul’s forehead.

Paul grabbed the end of the sleeve of his duster with one hand and reached far up towards the man’s neck to grab his collar, swinging the man towards his knife-wielding compatriot, blocking his aim. Paul growled and vibrated his elementum, something his species had in common with true dragons, and forced the elemental lightning within it into his lungs. A familiar crackle of electricity stung his mouth and nostrils, just enough to stun the would-be knife thrower.

“Stand still!” the man shouted, fidgeting with his knife as Paul continually forced the now bleeding headbutter to walk along with him, controlling his movements through the vice-like grip on his collar and sleeve. Paul quickly sprung up to his full height and opened his mouth, a bolt of lightning crackled through the air and struck the man before he could throw his knife. He fell backward, breaking a chair as his body tensed from the jolt of energy.

Paul flung the headbutter by his duster, throwing him off balance as Paul brought a leg behind the man’s, sweeping them out from under him as Paul slammed him into the ground hard.

Paul stood up, his fists raised as he surveyed the four ruffians. The bald one, coughing and sputtering on the floor, the boxer, crying in pain while holding his broken hand, the headbutter, bleeding profusely from his nose and his eyes still glazed over from the slam, and the knife thrower, struggling to even sit upright.

No more threat, no more violence, until Paul felt a chair smash into his back. A fifth person, a man with an eyepatch, had snuck up on him. As Paul spun around though he heard a twang of a guitar, and a soft melody ringing through the air. He felt his ears tingle. The bard had cast a spell with the instrument.

“Now my dear sir,” Joe the bard said, his voice resonating with his guitar as it glowed. “How about you and your compatriots decide to leave before this drakon fellow decides to make even more of a mess of you?”

The four on the floor seemed entranced by the bard’s spell. They gathered themselves up groggily and stumbled out of the inn.

“Come on lads,” the bald man said to his friends, his eyes still watering. “We shan’t be having any more messes today!” he coughed as the lot of them stumbled out of the inn.

“Hey! Wait!” the man with the eyepatch shouted at them. “It’s just some magic bullshit! Come back!”

Joe sighed and lowered his guitar. “Guess you’re either too smart or too stupid to be affected by that spell.”

The eyepatched man froze in place after turning around as Joe pulled out a silver-plated wheelgun from behind his back and pressed it against the man’s stomach. Joe was close enough to him that the crowd couldn’t see the gun now threatening him.

“You have until I count to ten otherwise Mr. Voils here is going to have to mop your guts off the floor.”

The eyepatched man blinked. “W-w-wait a minute. This is ill- “

Joe pulled the hammer back on the wheelgun. “One, two—”

“Fine! I’m leaving!” he shouted and ran out the door, after his friends.

Paul inhaled deeply through his mouth and out slowly through his nose. “I’m sorry about the mess, sir.”

The entire dining hall was quiet as they looked at Paul. He felt a familiar tug on his sleeve from Vacht, now standing at his side. “I think we should go,” they said softly. “I thought things might have been different with you here. I was wrong.”

Paul truly realized the people weren’t looking at him, none of the people of Greenfield had really been paying attention to him. It was Vacht, the dokkar, the reclusive druid, the bizarre creature that never shown its face during the day out of fear. If they had come before dawn, before anyone was here, this encounter probably wouldn’t have happened.

“Go on! Get back to eating!” Cayden shouted at the audience. They returned to eating their breakfasts, whispering amongst themselves over what they saw. “Please, I’m so sorry my dear friend and my new most favorite customer. Both your meals are on the house. Mr. Underhill, if you ever wish to be a bouncer here at my fine establishment—”

Paul raised a hand. “No thank you, I probably should get going.” As he turned to look down at Vacht the dark elf quickly turned away and pocketed the remaining teacakes.

“And you, Joe!” Cayden shouted at the bard. He moved close to the bard and whispered loudly through clenched teeth. “How dare you pull a gun out in my fine establishment! All my patrons are to keep their weapons sheathed while out of their rooms.”

“I apologize profusely,” Joe said. He uncocked his wheelgun and quickly hid it again behind his back. “I only meant it as a tool to persuade the man to leave so your drakon patron wouldn’t spill anymore blood.”

“To battle lads!” a man shouted as they ran down the spiral staircase from the upper floors. He was short, thickly built man, wearing metal armor and swinging a two-handed war hammer over his head. He stopped as he reached the bottom, looking quickly in all directions before sighing.

“Damnit, I’m late again,” he mumbled. He was a dwarf with short wiry red hair and a long beard, tucked into an enormous belt around his waist.

“Ah, Duncar,” Joe said, “wonderful timing as always.”

The dwarf looked familiar. “It couldn’t be… Uncle Duncar?” Paul asked aloud. “Is that you?”

The dwarf turned to look at Paul. His stern face suddenly broke to one of joy. “Little Paulie!” He dropped his hammer and ran up to Paul, grabbed him by the waist and lifted him off his feet in an embrace. “It’s been too long my boy!”

Paul patted him on the top of his head. “It’s good to see you too, Duncar.”

Chapter 3: Reunion

Since the founding of the Rightful Guild of Adventurers and Explorers ten years ago—known colloquially as the Adventuring Guild, or simply among adventurers, the Guild—there has been a nearly eight-fold decrease in the number of fatalities of adventurers. Prime Minister Nemeth has been quoted as saying, “With the institution of the Guild to protect not just the people of the Empire from charlatans, and poorly trained or amateur adventurers from themselves, we can focus the Empire’s resources to more pressing matters which will help all our citizens. Matters such as workforce programs, expanded aethertech research, modernization of the military, and affordable education for all.”

The Ontson Inquirer, Summertide 10, 1721 AF

Duncar sniffled loudly. “Oh lad, it’s so good to see you with my own eyes after so long!”

“Uncle, you’re embarrassing me,” Paul whispered to him.

Duncar looked around, noticing everyone staring at him holding his drakon nephew by the waist, his feet dangling off the ground. He sat Paul down and gave him a gentle slap on his thigh. “My! You grow any since I last saw you? I remember back when you were a wee lad,” he gestured down to the top of Paul’s boots, “barely reaching up to my belly when your daddy and mommy took you in. By the way, you need to eat more boy, so damned skinny.” Duncar patted Paul on the stomach for emphasis before retrieving his hammer and sliding it into a holder onto his back.

Vacht looked up at Paul and smiled. At least Duncar could still lighten the mood no matter the situation. Before Vacht could comment Paul raised a finger towards them. “Don’t even start.”

“So, lad,” Duncar said, “what was that commotion? I see specks of blood on the floor.” He pointed at a small blood stain which one of Cayden’s employees was hurriedly scrubbing away. “Broken furniture!” The dwarf kicked a fallen-over table. “Did you kill anyone, perchance?”

Cayden directed several more of his employees to tidy up the mess caused by the brief fight. “Thankfully not! Your nephew kicked some overly boisterous guests out after they harassed Vacht.”

Joe crossed his arms. “Well… I helped some too.”

Duncar laughed. “Of course you did. And Paulie, I’m surprised you had a big fight here! You were always a big softie growing up. I remember that time when Ibarin said he was going to polymorph that human boy who was picking on you in school into a horned beetle. You begged him not to do it because you didn’t want to create a scene.”

Paul sighed. “It’s not our way to make people take notice of us. It’s why we’re called the Hidden-folk.”

Joe took off his hat and brushed a few stray strands of his dark hair from his face. “Wait, you’re a half—"

“So,” Duncar interjected, “me and Ibarin decided that while the kids were all having their lunch, just as they were about to go back into the schoolhouse—” He began bellowing with laughter. “Ibarin cast a polymorph spell just as the boy stepped through the doorway. The moment he stepped through that opening he hopped onto the other side as a little white bunny rabbit. He hopped all the way back to his desk before realizing what happened!”

Paul rubbed his temples. “Vacht’sha, this fellow is my sworn uncle, Duncar Ironbeard. He and my father used to be in an adventuring company together.”

The dwarf bowed deeply. “Pleased to meet you.” He looked up at the dark elf, expecting a response but received none. “So,” Duncar said. There was a long pause as he waggled his eyebrows and nudged Paul with his elbow. “How long have you two—"

“Well, I have to go!” Vacht said and hurriedly gathered the leftover teacakes and put them into a pocket sewn into their robes.

“Vacht, I’ll be back by your place later, we really need to talk. I have to speak with Duncar first though,” Paul said. “Are you sure though that you don’t need an escort back? Going out in the day may not be the safest idea anymore.”

“Don’t worry, white knight,” Vacht replied. “I’m a druid, we have our ways.” They pushed their way past Cayden and the busy employees and through a doorway into the kitchen. Cayden followed, shouting for them to wait as they both disappeared behind the doors.

“Eh, sorry lad if I scared your girlfriend.”

“You didn’t scare them.”

Duncar laughed. “Well then, why did she leave?”

Theyare not my girlfriend, I just met

themtoday,” Paul replied, emphasizing his words as much as he could.

Duncar furrowed his brows, deep in thought. “Eh, what?”

The bard leaned towards Duncar and whispered, “They don’t use he or she to identify themself.”

“Oh… oh! My apologies!” Duncar bowed to Paul. “I didn’t mean to offend them. I met a few light elves that way, not a dark elf though. Although, most dark elves I’ve met was during the war and they weren’t up for conversation. So, my boy, what brings you to this little city? You on some sort of adventure?”

“Are you actually a halfling?” Joe asked. He swung his guitar back around and moved close to Paul. “I might know a spell to revert you back to your true form.”

“Oh! Joe! This is Paul Underhill, he’s my sworn nephew and a paladin of the halfling goddess Pela,” Duncar said. “You know, the one I told you about!”

“I’m adopted,” Paul said. He blinked a few times as Joe continued to stare at him. “I’m actually a drakon… not a halfling.” He started to feel anxious again. “Yup, just a drakon.”

Joe swung his guitar behind his back again and leaned in closer to Paul. He smelt faintly of lavender perfume. “That much is obvious.” He smiled, flashing bright white teeth. “Duncar, you never told me he was this handsome.”

Paul’s face felt hot. “I… uh… who are you?”

Joe stepped back and made a deep bow, flourishing with his hat and crossing it over his heart. “My name is Joe. I am a renowned adventurer, artist, heartbreaker—"

“And bounty hunter,” Duncar added.

“Yes,” Joe said and slipped his hat back on. “And I do bounty hunting… well… I make most of my money bounty hunting. Not too much in the way of brigands or monsters in this part of the Empire.”

“So, lad, what brings you to Greenfield?”

Paul explained to Duncar all that had happened to him since he graduated from the Academy and left Wavemeet for the last time. He told him of what little he could remember of the adventuring company he joined, the bandits he fought in Peitzen, and then the missing six months of his life and reappearance in Greenfield.

“Aye, that’s an interesting tale indeed. I wish I could thank whoever healed you and brought you here, and I’ll have to thank your friend Vacht for finding you next time I see them.” Duncar stroked his beard and harrumphed. “Well, myself, I was on my way south before winter comes. I was going to surprise your parents by visiting them in Wavemeet for Year’s End before heading across the Arcoft Sea to my cousin’s place in Sephelher.”

Joe patted Paul on the shoulder. “It’s quite a coincidence to meet your dear uncle here, isn’t it?”

“It… it is… isn’t it?” Paul said.

You failed to protect that boy, that familiar little voice told Paul. The Hearth Mother knows you failed. You’re good at nothing except sweeping the floors of a temple.

Paul swallowed hard as he felt a lump form in his throat. “So… D-D-Duncar… you leaving for Wavemeet soon?”

“Ha! Not yet lad!” He reached into a pocket and unfolded a piece of parchment, filled from end to end with printed text, barely legible even from up close. “It really is quite a coincidence that you found yourself here, because I found out that there’s a dragon eating some poor farmer’s cows a few miles east, just outside the city limits! I hired Joe here to help me, and I could most certainly use your help. Now, come! I need to get this contract signed by the alderman before I can continue.”

“A storm dragon?” Paul asked.

“Aye, a tartarean storm dragon from what Joe and I could gather from a gnome farmer who only spoke broken dwarvish. Not a very big one methinks, probably no bigger than a draft horse.”

It was warm outside and still only late morning. Paul threw his cloak over his shoulder. “I thought the empyrean dragons usually keep the tartarean dragons away from civilized places?”

A pair of human women walked past Duncar, Joe, and Paul, and they both nodded curtly as they passed by. Paul recognized them from before. They didn't even acknowledge his presence with Vacht in tow.

“Morning ladies,” Joe said and tipped his hat. “You are right Paul, those sorts of dragons stay away from civilization. It’s very odd for one to be so close to the city.”

Duncar laughed. “What dragons do never makes any sense. I think the larger conflicts between the dragons of good and evil are a bit beyond our understanding.”

Joe scoffed. “That’s an understatement, elves may live to be over a thousand years but I’ve no idea how long a dragon can live. Their kind goes all the way back to the Dawn of Creation, before our ancestors even dreamt of leaving Godsreach. You know, I specifically took a class on the history of dragons when I went to the Bardic College of Duzanford and I was the only person who passed.”

“The only?” Paul asked.

“Because by the end of the semester I was the only student left in the class.”

The dwarf stopped as he looked around at several thatched roof buildings. “Hmm… I think it’s a left up ahead,” he mumbled to himself and continued onward.

“And let me guess, you want me to help you slay it?” Paul asked. “I’m a storm drakon so I’d be resistant to its lightning breath.”

Duncar laughed. “Indeed! That’s why it’s a coincidence you’re here!”

Eventually the two came upon a squat brick building with a small sign near the front door with “City Hall” scrawled upon it. Out front, underneath a canopy, was a large oak desk piled in papers. Sitting behind it was a woman with dark red skin and prominent horns jutting from her forehead, curling back and over her head, like those of a ram, and accentuating her greying topknot of hair. She was an infernian, likely of human heritage.

Gathered all around were dozens of people, all heavily armed and well equipped. They called themselves by many names, especially depending on what sort of work they preferred doing or what cause they believed in: explorers, pioneers, monster hunters, bounty hunters, crusaders, rangers, the terms were almost limitless.

But the one thing they all would call themselves was “adventurer.”

“Good morning to ya, Constable Razzo!” Duncar shouted above the rabble of the other adventurers. He handed his parchment to the woman. “I filled everything out for you, as promised.”

She quickly scanned Duncar’s parchment with her yellow eyes and smiled, stamped it with ink, and added it to the pile of paperwork at her desk. “The Alderman is currently away on a business-related trip,” she said, looking up and down at Paul. He noticed intricate rings set through her horns, not too dissimilar from the charms on Vacht’s antlers. He wondered if they were an affectation or if they held some greater meaning to her. “Since I am the Deputy Alderman, I, under the authority granted to me by Alderman Refroe Mason, hereby approve–” She stopped and scowled at Paul. “Excuse me, will you stop staring? I can’t possibly be the first infernian you’ve ever seen.”

Paul gulped. “Sorry ma’am,” he said and looked down. He insulted one of the leaders of the town. He had to act naturally, like he really was an experienced adventurer. “I was just… admiring your… horns.”

Real smooth…

The Constable sighed. “Anyway, I approve this hunt. Just remember that if it is somehow an empyrean dragon to give it verbal warning of violating the–”

Accordo Draconis, this ain’t my first time slaying a belligerent dragon, as I mentioned yesterday.” He pulled his war hammer out from his back. It had intricate designs of dragons inlaid within the black metal. The head of the hammer was even designed to look like a dragon, the tail forming an armor piercing spike opposite the flat of the head. “With Drak FutoI will end this dragon’s life.”

Paul snorted, along with Joe. “Is that really the name of your hammer?” Paul asked.

“Aye? What of it?” Duncar said. “Ibarin helped me name it. It means ‘dragon slayer’ in Draconic, doesn’t it?”

Paul sucked his teeth. “Well,” he said and tapped the head of the hammer. Given that it made no sound, and the hammer’s black appearance, it was likely made from adamant. “It’s just that…”

Joe smiled. “With a name like Drak Futo, and its size and shape I’m sure it’d live up to its name. Depending on where you use it at on the dragon.” He winked at the dwarf.

Duncar’s face turned bright red. “Damnit Ibarin, I’ll have a word with him next time I see him,” he muttered, returning the war hammer to his back.

The Constable raised an eyebrow. “Is he your partner?” she hissed, a forked tongue briefly passing between her lips as she motioned towards Paul. “Along with our resident lecherous bard.”

Joe frowned. “I take great offense at that ma’am. I prefer to think of myself as a bounty hunter, first and foremost.”

“You don’t use the term ‘man hunter?’” Paul asked. The smell of Joe’s lavender perfume was heavenly.

Joe flashed his perfectly straight teeth at Paul. “Well, if you wish for me to be a ‘man hunter’ you can either skip out on bail, or ask me out to dinner.”

Constable Razzo growled. “Stop flirting.” She thrust a finger towards Paul. “You, drakon, who are you?”

Paul straightened himself out and raised his head.“Paul Underhill ma’am. I’m a paladin of Pela, the Hearth Mother.”

“Do all paladins of Her dress this way?” She smirked. “Because, I’ve seen halfling barbers better equipped for adventure than you.”

With only the simple clothes he was wearing, and the dagger stuck in his boot, Paul would most certainly need proper weapons and armor. “Are there any smiths here?”

The Constable shook her head. “Unless you’re a horse in need of shoes or a farmer in need of new tools, our only blacksmith shop won’t be able to help you. I know they have some old mining implements as keepsakes, but those are nearly a century old now, from back when the old orichalcum mine was open. I don’t think a pickaxe would penetrate the hide of a dragon. The Dreamwalker’s Den has some weapons and armor, last time I checked; its owner is a bit… eccentric though.”

Paul nodded. “I’ve met them.”

“Other than that, I can offer you no additional help. If you would excuse me, I’m very busy with all this paperwork. Have a good day gentlemen.”

Paul, Duncar, and Joe took their leave and went back towards the inn. Duncar untied a pouch from his thick belt, opened it, checked its contents, and then handed it over to his nephew. “Here lad, about a hundred-and-fifteen ducats. Go buy yourself some equipment from your friend. Also, see if they want to join this hunt. We could most certainly use a druid in our company, and I owe them for helping you. The contract is seven-hundred-and-fifty ducats for each of us if we split it four ways, plus a ten percent share of all profits from the harvest of the dragon, and any unclaimed property we might find. I’m sure I can convince the right people to give your friend first look at some of the prime parts of it.”

Paul sighed. “Duncar, I’m not really sure how much I can help. Sure, Vacht probably has a lot of magical power, but I failed at keeping just one person safe. I told you two that the last time I tried this I was nearly killed and then abandoned by my companions.”

“Lad, I’m sure that kid is just fine. And besides, your memory is all confuddled. From all you know they probably saved the boy, and you got lost after getting bonked on the head.” The dwarf stroked his beard. “Paulie, you can’t let one failure get to you.”

“I know Duncar but–”

Joe raised a hand. “Duncar, Paul, I believe this is a conversation between you two. I must attend to some things before we go dragon hunting tomorrow.” He leaned close to Paul and whispered, “Come by the Alabaster Inn this evening around six. I’d love to get to know you better over some drinks.”

Before Paul could reply the bard patted him on the shoulder and strode off, jingling his spurs loudly as he walked.

“Duncar, how’d you meet this man?”

“It’s a long story,” Duncar said. “He’s a bit flirty, but he’s reliable, albeit greedy for coin. Granted, I don’t know how being flirty will help with a dragon, but at least he’s good with his magic and that wheelgun of his.”

“He seems very confident. If I was that confident, then I would’ve succeeded. Do you think—"

“No lad.” Duncar stopped Paul and motioned downward. “Get on a knee, I need to put my hands on your shoulders.” Paul smiled meekly and did as he was told. The dwarf put his hands on Paul’s shoulders, angling him so he could look over Paul’s muzzle and into his eyes. “Not every adventurer succeeds at every quest. Not everybody sees every adventure to the end for some reason or another. You were fortunate in that you came back out of that alive. I’ve heard of countless people your age going off to gods’-know-where and never coming back alive.”

Your uncle thinks you’re a failure, the little voice told Paul.

“Duncar, I have no idea what happened to me, or that boy. For all I know that boy could be dead.” Tears started to blur Paul’s vision.

“You’re alive here, right here,” he said, tapping Paul’s chest. “That’s all that you know and all that matters.”

“Maybe I’m not cut out for this, Duncar. Maybe I was brought here to go with you back home.”

“Bah! You were miserable working on that farm. Sure, you may have had a green thumb lad, but you were never happy.” The dwarf embraced his nephew. “And trust me when I say you can do a lot more out here than waiting at that little temple in Wavemeet.”

“Yeah, but, working in a field, I wouldn’t have to worry about others getting hurt.” Paul began to sob and Duncar hugged him harder. Paul couldn’t remember the last time he cried, at least like this.

“Lad, they taught you about forgiveness at that school, right? I know that saint who founded it believed in forgiving just about everybody. Is it that hard to forgive yourself?”

Paul nodded. “When I last went to Wavemeet, after graduating, I saw Liam.”

Duncar pulled back to look at him again. “Oh? How’d it go? Is he still doing well?”

Paul’s face felt wet. “He was planning on joining a theater company.” Paul inhaled sharply and exhaled, his breath coming out in shudders. “He’s happy. He said he forgave me for what happened, that he was proud I graduated and that I decided to leave and become an adventurer, and that he still loved me.”

Duncar smiled at his nephew. “You said he was proud you became an adventurer?”

Paul nodded. “Yes.”

“You always wanted to be an adventurer, lad. When your father Gerald, myself, Callia, and Ibarin found you as a little boy in that cave all those years ago we swore an oath to the gods.” He raised a hand up to the clear sky for emphasis. “We swore we’d help your parents as much as we could and help you fulfill whatever destiny the gods chose for you. And by the gods I will ensure you’re the best damned adventurer on all Edra. Besides, I carved the oath in stone, which means it’s pretty serious to us dwarves.”

Paul laughed and wiped his eyes. “I missed you so much Duncar.”

“Aye lad, I missed you too.”

“I wish that I still had my copy of the Scriptures of Vedic the Wise. I used to read it when… well… you know.” Paul sniffled. “You think Vacht might have a copy to sell in their store?”

Duncar snapped his fingers. “I saw that there’s a tiny little temple here. The priest there might be willing to let you borrow it. I’m sure they’d let a paladin borrow one for free, especially a paladin who graduated from the Academy.”

“Last in my class,” Paul said.

“You still graduated!”

“They don’t kick you out for bad grades.”

“You didn’t quit!”

Paul sighed. “I guess…”

“Come boy, let’s go. Being in a house of the gods will cheer you up.”

Paul wiped a finger across the altar. “It’s a bit dusty, to say the least.”

The small temple of Suros was still tended to by lay members of the community, but, at least according to the few people who had gathered to pray at noon, there had not been a trained priest of the gods who worked there in nearly a century.

“Nobody around alive today remembers him,” an old man who was busy reading in a pew in the back told Paul and Duncar.

“It shows,” Paul later told his uncle. “At least they keep the stained windows clean.” The idols of the gods, besides a large one of Suros which sat upon the altar, were equally covered in dust.

Duncar picked up a small statute from an open cabinet of a squat bearded figure holding two hammers above his head. “Looks like not many dwarves come through here. Poor Karaz-mogh, bless Him.”

“Is there still stuff in the office?” Paul asked the small gathering of worshippers.

“We kept his books,” the old man said. “I thought paladins were more about swords than preaching, though?”

“Oh, I’ve lost my personal books I’m not–"

“You’re here to give a sermon!?” a young woman who was kneeling before a stained-glass portrait of St. Arianna shouted. “We haven’t had a sermon given by a hieron in ages! Or really, by anyone for that matter.”

Paul looked at his uncle, who shrugged at him, and then at the image of St. Arianna. She was depicted, as most Chosen of the gods were, with a halo of light around her head and glowing eyes. She was wearing plate armor, depicting her path of following the ways of St. Palladas, carrying a book of the Mysteries of Magic by St. Lucianos in one hand, and a glowing sword in the other. In her day she wielded magical power not seen before, or since. She weaved spells even the greatest of wizards and clerics still debated on how she crafted to this day, and focused her magic to perform physical feats that no paladin, Chosen or not, could ever hope to accomplish. She fought until she finally put down her sword to teach, and when her first class graduated from her school, her mission given to her by the gods, her mythos, was fulfilled. She fell into a slumber that had lasted for centuries, waiting for the time when the gods would call her back.

Paul had seen her in person at the Academy that bore her name, and even acted as a custodian in her domicile while she eternally slept. He knew she would have wanted Paul to at least spend a little bit of time with these folks.

“I can preach if you wish, but I’m not trained much in sharing the wisdom of the gods.”

“It’s alright, boy,” the old man said. “You go look in there while I go get the others!”

He entered the old office and spent time sorting through the long-since gone priest’s things. The priest’s small oak desk was barren, and the stove tucked into a corner had rusted from years of disuse. Few books remained on the shelves in the office, but Paul did eventually find a well-worn copy of the Scriptures of Vedic.

When Paul returned to the main room of the temple there were now several dozen people gathered, sitting all the way in the frontmost pews. Duncar was with them, with a sheepish grin on his face.

“I… I didn’t expect there to be this many,” Paul muttered to himself as he stepped up to the small wooden pulpit. He thumbed through several pages of the book, trying to figure out what to talk about. What would they want to even hear? How did Surosites begin sermons? Halflings rarely had any sort of formal worship. Would he somehow offend them if he were too casual?

He looked upward. Embedded in the ceiling was a stained-glass window depicting the sun, Suros. Even indoors he could feel the eyes of Suros watching him.

You have no idea what you’re doing, the little voice told Paul.

His eyes moved back to Duncar. Say your name, Duncar mouthed.

Paul cleared his throat. “Hello… umm… blessings upon you all. My name is Paul Underhill. I’m a hieron who follows in the footsteps of St. Palladas, on the path that Pela, the Hearth Mother, laid out before me.”

“Blessings to you, too,” they replied in unison.

Paul shifted through more pages of the Scriptures of Vedic. Where should he start? Didn’t most priests have this prepared beforehand? He had to say something.

“I went to the Academy of St. Arianna,” Paul said.

“You saw the Sleeping Saint in person?” a woman asked, the same who was praying in front of Arianna’s portrait.

“Yes,” Paul said. Maybe it was simplest to start from the very beginning. “I remember hearing a story about how she spoke once to St. Davish, who was a Chosen of Kyorn, the All-Knowing. He was blessed, some might even say cursed, with knowing all that the god of knowledge granted him. He saw the beginning, the time before the gods, the time of the Progenitors.

“The two Progenitors had no names for themselves. But the dragons gave them names after the two kingdoms they formed: Empyrean and Tartarus. The Progenitors created Edra in which we stand upon, the sun from which Suros watches us all from, and the moon who holds him and the stars company. The first living beings they made here were the draksthai, the dragons. Their bodies were formed from the same elements that they used to create Edra, but the dragons’ minds couldn’t handle the raw elemental energy that coursed through their veins. They suffered from the drakir, something which all dragonians suffer from, even a drakon like me.”

Your drakir makes you weak, the little voice told him. A real drakon raised by real drakons would have no problem at all dealing with it

Paul inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly through his mouth. He wouldn’t let that voice control him, at least not now.

“Eventually the dragons tried to destroy each other in their rage, and when the Progenitors tried to stop them, the dragons formed into two factions, each believing a respective Progenitor was more powerful than the other. That Which Was Called Tartarus destroyed itself in grief, its body descending past Edra and creating the Infernal Realm from which demons are born. That Which Was Called Empyrean, distraught at the loss of its companion, created the gods as we know them. They weren’t mortal creatures created of a sole element, or the combination of two, but they made from aether, the lifeblood of the Progenitors. Its body ascended above Edra, becoming the Divine Realm from which the gods gather their power, from which all souls are born and return to after death; and after the end of the Age of Myth it is where they reside behind Empyrean’s Arch.”

Paul thumbed through several pages of the book. There had to be an illustration somewhere. Finally, after a few moments he came across a familiar drawing of a massive crystalline arch. He held the book next to his head and raised a hand. The magical thread of Light within his heart reverberated, sending a familiar warmth and a brilliant aura to his free hand. The congregation sat in awe at his display.

“The hierons are blessed with being able to draw the magic of the gods, the Light that they wield from within the Divine Realm,” he said. “One day we’ll all pass through the Arch,” he said and looked over at the illustration. “One day we’ll…” he paused for a moment and squinted. “I… We…”

Paul smelt cinnamon in the air as everything became fuzzy. He gasped and his hands shook. He felt a warmth over him, like fire licking at the sides of his face. He was being burned by something touching him, holding him, embracing him, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

“Empyrean’s Arch… we… I…”

“Paul, are you okay?” It was Duncar, standing next to him.

Paul felt his body finally relax. He looked around the temple and everyone was gone, save for them. “What happened?” he asked and sat down the book. It was creased terribly at the top. He had nearly crushed it with his bare hand. “Where’s everybody at?”

“You were talking about Empyrean’s Arch and doing the glowy hand thing,” Duncar said. “It went from white to… I don’t know… shimmering? I’m not good with describing stuff, lad. And then you were just standing there.”

“They all left?”

“I ushered them out, I didn’t know what else to do.” Duncar furrowed his brow. “Paulie, you’ve been that way for nearly half-an-hour.”

Paul’s heart began to beat faster. “It felt like only a moment to me. There’s something wrong... something happened in Peitzen, and it’s still happening to me.”

“What do we do?” Duncar asked.

“I don’t know.”

Paul gathered the Light within his hand again. The warmth returned and his hand glowed. Everything seemed normal.

“Maybe… umm… maybe you had it going on too long?” Duncar asked. “Maybe it’s like a spigot? There’s a lot about magic we don’t understand! Maybe the spigot got stuck open and it messed up your brain!”

“I’ve never heard of that,” Paul said. “And I’ve never heard of a hieron’s magic working that way. I need to see Vacht, now.”

“We don’t need to go after dragons if you’re sick, lad.”

“I’m not…” Paul growled. “I’m not broken, okay? We can do this. I’ll speak with Vacht to see if they know more about what happened to me, see if they’ll help with the dragon, and then meet up with you tomorrow morning to go deal with it.”

“Good! I’ll have a plan formulated by then.” He nodded and then smacked his lips. “I assume you’ll be having lunch at the dark elf’s place?”

“Yes, and your partner, Joe, invited me for food this evening too.”

“Well… have fun with that then,” Duncar said. “Too bad your first ever sermon didn’t turn out okay. I know your Auntie Callia would be proud of you though.”

“Thanks, Duncar.” Paul placed a hand on his uncle’s shoulder, but the hand wasn’t his own. It was burning, charred, and skeletal. Paul nearly gasped, but he closed his eyes and opened them again. His hand had returned to normal.

I’m not going crazy, Paul thought to himself. There has to be an explanation for this.

Chapter 4: The Oath Beneath the Oak

“I know it’s taboo to mention it, but I knew what it was the moment it happened to me. I was always faithful to the Pyre Starter, but the day I was trapped in the stables when that fire happened… I was able to get the horses out, but then a beam fell on top of me. I was scared, and I prayed that Amand would give me a painless death. But then, I felt someone touch me, telling me it was going to be alright, but only if I would open my heart to Him. And then I felt something warm in my chest, and I prayed, harder than I ever had before. I woke up that morning covered in ash, completely unburnt. The Pyre Starter spared me, and I made a Covenant with Him, bringing His Light within my heart, swearing that I would bring the warmth of His fire wherever I went for the rest of my life.”

Professor Celine Dogel, Academy of St. Arianna

Jeaneth was attending to a small group of dwarvish customers who were trying to haggle on the price of lantern oil. The stoutest of them, with her long blonde sideburns tied under her chin, seemed to be the leader from how loudly she was arguing.

“This oil isn’t worth nearly this much!” she bellowed. “In Ontson I could get it for half this price.”

Jeaneth sighed and rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want something that’s either watered down or will burn your eyes with acrid smoke I can give you the names of some other stores in town, but, we here at the Dreamwalker’s Den only have the finest supplies.”

The dwarves continued haggling. Jeaneth, too busy for real conversation, told Paul that Vacht was “in the garden in the back,” and casually waved to a door that led to a back area of the store.

Paul went through the door into a large storage room with yet another door, leading to the outside. Metal sconces in the walls shined a bright, twinkling white light, probably enchanted by the druid. Lining the walls were racks with swords, axes, maces, and various suits of armor.

Sitting away from the weapons was a shelf with bottles of various sizes and shapes filled with different magical potions. Paul instantly recognized several potions of healing, the glimmering red liquid inside the bottles could quickly mend many wounds on ingestion, a yellow liquid with swirling streaks of black which allowed its drinker to move at incredible speed, and an orange liquid that flickered as smoke seemed to boil at the top of its container, which allowed its drinker to expel flame like a fire dragon.

The door had only a simple lock on it, although a closer look at the door frame revealed runes carved into the wood. Paul remembered his uncle, Ibarin, having all the doors and windows going into and out of his home with similar runes. Whatever power the enchantments held, nothing short of a battering ram could break through those doors or windows unless they were unlocked. They seemed too arcane for a druid to do on their own. They might have had another friend who was a wizard, or at least had enough money to hire one.

The door lead back outside, behind the store in a large fenced off plot of land. The fence was tall, affording Vacht privacy. The lot was dwarfed by a garden: Flowers, trees, and all sorts of vegetables growing, far more than a single person would need to survive on their own.

Birds chirped happily, resting in the trees whose leaves had well begun their change to the warm tones of autumn. As Paul approached the garden beds with squash, corn, beans, and countless other vegetables, he noticed several small green bushes shuffling about, moving on their own.

“Hello!” Paul called out to them.

The shrubs stopped moving. Then, they all quickly skittered in place and turned to face Paul. They had small, spindly, woody legs sticking out from their leafy bodies, and equally small arms sticking out the sides. Dim orange glowing eyes radiated from the darkness of their leafy interiors. They waved at the paladin.

“Do you know where Vacht is?” No response. “Vacht’sha Ta’fur? They’re an elf, with antlers, kind of like the branches of a tree. I assume they’re your master?”

The shrubs reached into their bodies and pulled out small pruning shears. They ignored Paul’s questions and wandered off to work in the garden, pulling off ripe fruits and vegetables, and moving them over to a large cart where they carefully placed the produce.

Paladins weren’t like clerics, who were highly trained in the way of weaving powerful magical spells. Where Paul couldn’t win through physical prowess, he would have to make it up with intelligence.

Paul reached into his pouch and produced five gold coins. “I have several ducats I’m willing to give you, if you tell me where your master is,” he said and bounced the coins in his hand.

The shrubs ignored him.

“Please? I’ll water you! Or give you fertilizer… or something?” He sighed. “What in the world would an awakened plant want anyway?”

From the largest of the trees, an evergreen oak in the center of the garden, a loud uproarious squawking rang out from its canopy. There was a large raven up on a branch that looked like it had doubled over from laughter. “By the gods!” it squawked. “You actually tried bribing them!?” Its voice was shrill but sounded familiar.

“Vacht?” Paul said. “I don’t find this funny.”

The raven squawked and landed on the ground, in the shadow of the canopy of the tree. It covered its face with its wings as it sat down, growing larger as its body shifted, its wings morphing into the familiar green robes of Vacht as the rest of the bird’s body twisted and contorted, turning into the familiar form of the dark elf.

Vacht laughed. “I saw a bard once who wandered back here try to charm them once with magic! I ended up turning into a bear to scare him off! I assume it’d take something a bit larger than that to scare you off, though.”

“I’ve heard of druids who could morph themselves into the forms of animals, but I’ve never seen it up close,” Paul said. “Every part of you, from your hair to your clothes was a bird! How does it feel?”

“Freeing,” Vacht said. They sat down and leaned against the tree, careful to stay in the shade. “One of the first things I learned from my teacher, my master, was to change into animals. I was so scared the first time I tried it. I was focusing so hard, sitting by a pond in the forest, maybe twenty or so miles from here, trying to feel the natural world flow through me. Eventually he told me, ‘My dear, stop trying so damn hard and just let it happen.’ So, I just closed my eyes and… breathed.”

Paul walked over and sat down next to them. A breeze blew through the garden. Vacht put their arms out to their sides as their robe billowed from the wind, the charms on their antlers jingling from the rush of air. They looked over at him and smiled, the bright light of midday forcing the pupils of their eyes to pinpoints even in the shade. Paul tried to adjust himself to block as much light from hitting Vacht as he could.

They continued. “When I woke up, I felt different. I gazed into a pond, at my reflection in the water, and instead of this face, I saw a beautiful red deer. I was a doe, but I had these… wondrous antlers.” Their eyes watered as their hands reached up to touch their antlers, jingling the charms intertwined within them. “It was like, for the first time in my life I looked like how I felt. I ran all over the forest for what must’ve been hours. Eventually I grew tired and took a nap, and when I woke up, I was back to being a dokkar. I realized I was in the sun so I scurried underneath a tree and tried pulling my hood back on, but I couldn’t. I still had these antlers. Had to cut a lot of holes in my hoods thanks to this.”

Paul smiled at them, enough to expose all his teeth. “I wish everybody were able to experience something like that.” His smile faded as he looked into the eyes of Vacht. “You said your master told you about me, was he this Dreamwalker you spoke of?”

Vacht nodded. “He never told me his name, at least the one he had before he called himself the Dreamwalker. I only knew that he was old, older than any elf I had ever met. After he taught me everything he knew, he left. Before that he told me that one day, I would find somebody who would love me for what I was, but that an arrow, as emerald as the mountains in spring, would strike us both and take my beloved, but not me. That I would only find out the truth when I met a dragon as blue as the sky in autumn, fallen beside a willow tree. The dragon would point the way towards this archer and bring them to justice.”

Paul scratched his face. That was a lot to process. “Let me guess, the tree that I was talking to in your grove outside of town was a willow?” Vacht nodded. “I know that coincidences are rarely just that, but I think that prophecies can be interpreted a lot of different ways.”

Vacht turned away from Paul and hugged their knees. “I lost someone special to me, about five years ago now. Her name was Robyn… Robyn Pembroke, she used to be the alderman of the town. Things were different back then, people liked me, even if they found me odd. Even after the war happened everyone knew I wasn’t like those dark elf soldiers you’d read about in the broadsheets. We spent as much time as we could together during the day, and we would chase dreams together at night. I usually used a tincture made from moonflowers, to help us have more vivid dreams.”

“That’s a very powerful poison,” Paul said. He didn’t recall the flowers or petals looking like arrows though, if that was what the Dreamwalker’s prophecy was foretelling.

Vacht squeezed their eyes shut. “So, one day I decided to make a tincture with five times the normal amount.” They continued speaking through clenched teeth, “I wanted her and me to be together, forever, not just in life, but in death. But, from me using so much moonflower tincture over the years, I survived. I cried so hard, holding her lifeless body, knowing I’d never be with her again.” They turned to look at Paul, their face expressionless, just like on the streets of the city, just like at the inn when those men harassed them. But there was something else behind those green eyes of theirs.

“What are you telling me?” Paul whispered.

“What are you going to do, paladin?” they asked, practically spitting the final word. “I’m a murderer.”

Paul’s mouth felt dry. “You’re lying. That was what you wanted them to think. What you wished had really happened, right?”

Vacht closed their eyes again and nodded. “I made it like normal, just like every night I spent with her. The constable found Robyn’s journal, she had written about how she heard voices in her mind, how she hurt inside, how she wanted us both to die so we could be together for all eternity. Constable Razzo…” They opened their eyes and held back a sob. “Sophia… she told me Robyn probably slipped extra moonflowers into my alembic, hoping that we would both die in our sleep. Sophia and the rest of the town blamed me for driving Robyn to suicide. I couldn’t believe my Robyn would do that. She would never do that! She loved me, and I loved her! I told them I murdered her, to lock me away, to do anything just so they wouldn’t remember her that way, so I wouldn’t remember her that way.”

Vacht embraced Paul, jabbing him in the chin with their antlers. Unsure of what to do he returned the embrace. “I don’t know how much money you had, but did you try using magic to return her from the dead? It rarely works… but…”

“It was the first thing I did,” they replied. “An old friend of mine, a cleric of Suros, came to cast the spells for the ritual. I spent almost every coin I had earned since moving to the surface world to pay for all those arcane reagents. We dug up her corpse, performed the ritual, and after an hour nothing happened.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Paul said, feeling the dark elf squeeze tighter. His shirt was wet from their tears. “The time we spend walking towards Empyrean’s Arch can vary, and few of those who have seen the Arch ever return, and those who have passed through it never come back. There’s a very small window to which you can try to bring a person back, it’s no fault of your own.”

“I just wished my love were enough to have made it work,” they said.

“Love has nothing to do with it,” Paul said to them. “She’s with the gods now, in an eternal paradise where she will always feel their love and your love for her.”

“It doesn’t change how much I miss her,” Vacht sobbed.

“Was your cleric able to cast a spell to speak to her body? Her soul may have gone, but magic can grant an animus to her remains which could have answered what she saw just before she died.”

Vacht shuddered. “Sophia caught us shortly after we tried bringing her back and had her body cremated shortly after. She said we were doing nothing but chasing shadows, that it was a suicide and happens all the time in Edra to people who ‘are seduced by ash-skinner trash,’ that I was lucky I wasn’t thrown in jail for desecrating the remains of the ‘leader of the community,’ and that I should be ‘ashamed for bringing madness not just to Robyn’s life but to the town.’ I don’t know how to make the people of Greenfield think differently about me. I ruined their memory of her, and I can’t change it. That friend of mine thought I was mad and left me. And now all I have left of Robyn are my memories, and I can’t even trust them.”

Paul pulled Vacht back. “Do you think she was murdered?”

Vacht shook their head. “She had to, but she didn’t have any enemies. Everyone loved her.”

“Sometimes we keep secrets from those we love because we’re afraid that if they know, they’ll leave us.” Paul wiped the tears from Vacht’s face, using the bandages tightly wrapped around his hands. From all the crying between the two of them Paul would most certainly have to get new handwraps soon. “Maybe she had an enemy that she didn’t want you to know about?”

“I don’t know!” they shouted, causing Paul to withdraw his hand. The shrubs tending to the plants suddenly stopped and stared at the two. With a wave of Vacht’s hand the shrubs resumed their duty. “Somebody killed her and tried to kill me too. Nobody believed me, they all think I’m a liar. Please… please, you have to believe me.”

Paul remembered five years ago how he was in the same position, crying in front of a holy man, begging for anyone to believe him.

“You’re telling the truth?” Paul asked them.

“Yes.”

“Five years ago, something terrible happened to me too. You caught a glimpse of it when looking in my head.”

“Only a sliver. I’m sorry about looking at your memories, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“It’s alright. I just…” Paul swallowed hard. “From what you told me of Robyn, I wish I had a love that would’ve endeared so strongly. Things… didn’t work out. And… I hurt myself, very badly.” He held up his bandaged hands. “The priests at the temple of Pela in Wavemeet didn’t expect me to survive from the infection that had settled in my hands. Medicine didn’t work, and the nearest healer that could’ve fixed it was over a week away. But one night I heard a voice in the fireplace by my bed.”

“A voice?” Their eyes widened. “Paul, if this is about your Revelation, I’m not the sort of person you would want to share it or any other secret with.”

“It’s not like I’m sharing my Hidden Name with you,” Paul said.

“I know you didn’t tell me the truth about your hands for a good reason. You really shouldn’t –"

“It’s alright. Almost all hierons experience their Revelation through intense prayer, meditation, fasting… I did none of that. I was never very religious growing up, and I most certainly never dreamed of –or even wanted to be— a hieron. I had every little boy’s dream of being a knight or some such nonsense… but then I tried to take my own life, and everything changed.”

“Paul,” Vacht whispered. “You don’t have to—"

“I cried out to the Hearth Mother to let me die, because it hurt too much to keep going on. And then, I heard a whisper from the fireplace, and everything faded away. I woke up next to the flame, and when the priests rushed in and pulled me away and checked my bandages… I was healed. I still had scars, and they hurt, but the wounds were closed, and the infection gone.”

“It was a miracle?” Vacht asked.

“They thought so.” He rubbed his hands idly. They were aching again. “I knew it was the Hearth Mother that I heard in the fireplace. I told them that I felt different inside,” he said and pressed a finger to his chest. “There was a warmth… a light… Her Light that was in me. Nobody in the temple believed me, that a drakon would somehow be blessed by the Hearth Mother, except one. He was a young acolyte named Frederick who came from Procya. He was the only one who believed me. And when he did, I felt a tremor in my heart that I thought was my elementum,but it grew into a warmth that traveled into my hands, manifesting into magical light. All it took was for him to believe me, and with that nobody could deny it.”

“Why do you believe me then?” Vacht said.

“Us meeting can’t be a coincidence, and whatever brought me here might be related too. I wouldn’t be on this path if not for a good reason,” Paul said. “I want to help you in any way that I can, for both our sakes.”

“Thank you!” Vacht quickly embraced him again, causing him to yelp in pain as their antlers jabbed his neck. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Paul groaned. “With what’s going on, about a prophecy involving you finding me… I’ve started seeing and experiencing strange things.”

“Like what?”

“Since this morning I kept smelling cinnamon in the air. And I’ve seen…” Paul stopped for a moment as his heart began to race. “When I was young, I used to have nightmares about a creature, a specter of sorts, that was on fire. It would chase me, trying to burn me like it was.”

“You still have these nightmares?” Vacht asked. “I couldn’t see them in your mind before.”

“I worry that I’m seeing it while I’m awake. I went to the temple of Suros and began preaching, I summoned the Light of Pela like I was going to lay hands upon a person and then… everything went blank. I thought I had seen that specter and only a moment had passed, but my uncle told me I stood still for nearly half-an-hour. I think whatever made me lose six months of my life is doing this to me.”

Vacht shook their head. “I don’t know what could have done this.”

“You’re a druid. You’re in touch with the natural world and those that lay claim to it. What about the Fair Folk? Could they have done this to me?”

“The fae can do a great many things to people,” they said. “They could have spirited you away and taken your memories, but you wouldn’t see visions like this.”

Paul snapped his fingers. “What about aetherstorms? Duncar said that the glowing of my hand appeared odd. I know that where aether both rains down from the Divine Realm and bubbles up from the Infernal Realm that storms can occur. For those of us who use magic it can wreak havoc on our bodies.”

“There have been rather strong auroras in the sky the past few nights, but the most I’ve gotten is a tingling in my teeth when I change forms.” They shook their head. “Besides, I’ve never heard of aetherstorms here; and one being centered directly in the temple you were in, this time of year, and at this latitude? It seems impossible.”

Paul rested his hands on Vacht’s shoulders, rubbing his thumbs idly on them. “I just… I don’t know… I don’t have the answers. I don’t have any answers. But I believe in you, and I want to help you find the answers about what happened to Robyn.”

Vacht placed their hands on Paul’s, they were so small compared to his. “Thank you for believing me.”

Paul let go of Vacht and grabbed his necklace, squeezing the symbol of the Hearth Mother tight. “I swear—”

“Oh gods, you’re actually going go to do that paladin thing.”

Paul placed a finger to Vacht’s lips to shush them. “I swear an oath to you this day. I swear that I will make this city see you for who you truly are, to make them listen to your story and ignore your pain no longer, and to bring to justice that person who took Robyn from you.”

Vacht pushed Paul’s hand aside and frowned. “You don’t have to swear an oath to the gods for me.”

Paul shrugged. “It’s sort of my thing. I’ve never been very faithful, of the gods or of myself, but I know that for some reason the Hearth Mother has faith in me. I never felt like I deserved this, and some might say I didn’t, but my family—“ Paul slapped his forehead. “Damnit! I forgot about Duncar.”

“Your uncle, the dwarf? What about him?”

Paul explained the situation with the dragon to Vacht. “He was hoping you could help with it, and I told him I’d help kill it or drive it off. I need to help him with that before I can help you.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it. Although I don’t usually go out to the farms east of here often, and I’ve been busy with you for a while, so I haven’t kept up much with news.”

Paul sighed. “I’m so sorry, I totally forgot about it.” He gripped his holy symbol tightly. “I’ll have to tell Duncar that—“

“No, it’s okay,” Vacht said and wrapped their hands around his. Even through the bandages around his hand he could feel their warmth. “I can wait another day or two. I’m just happy that I have someone here who is on my side.”

“Really?” Paul asked.

They nodded, jingling the charms on their antlers, and smiled. “Yes, really. Well… someone who isn’t Jeaneth. So, tell me about this dragon.”

“It’s supposedly a storm dragon. Their scales are usually grey or blue in color,” Paul said, pointing to his blue scaled self for emphasis. “I’m curious if it’s somehow tied into that prophecy your master told you. Although, my dad always said that all prophecy is true, because we make it true in the end.”

Vacht snapped their fingers, summoning a shrub over which proceeded to pull a canteen out of its round leafy body and handed it to the druid. They uncorked the top and took a sip from it.

“The Dreamwalker was always right in some way.” They leaned back against the tree and sighed wistfully. “I did ask an old friend once about it, who supposedly is a soothsayer herself. She said that she knew that a ‘hart of a thousand faces’ and a ‘dragon with burning eyes’ would mean bad luck, or some such nonsense.”

Paul chuckled. “I’ll be sure to not get bloodshot eyes then.”

“And I’ll be sure to stop learning how to change into animals when I reach nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine,” Vacht said. They chuckled, and then stopped and chewed their lip nervously. “You wouldn’t happen to be able to do that lightshow thing I see hierons do to your eyes instead of your hands?”

“No. I can direct it to my hands, and it manifests physically, and then I can heal a person with a touch instead of having to weave a magical spell. As a paladin I’m trained to use that magic to also enhance my senses and my physical abilities, but it doesn’t make my eyes appear to glow or look like they’re on fire or anything.”

Vacht took a drink and handed the canteen to Paul. “Have you ever fought a dragon?”

“No,” Paul replied. He sniffed the mouth of the canteen. It smelt sweet and flowery. “Duncar has slain quite a few tartarean dragons though.”

“It’s mead,” Vacht said. Paul took a swig from the canteen, confirming it. “Of the produce I grow that I don’t need, I sell to the Alabaster Inn or give to Jeaneth and her family. Cayden pays me for the produce, and he gives me some free casks of mead from the honey my bees make.”

Paul handed the canteen back to Vacht, who corked it and stuck it back inside the shrub. It hurried back off to help its partners tend to the garden. “Have you fought anything before that is big and flies?”

Vacht bit their lip again. “Well, I fought a very aggressive griffon once a long time ago, with the help of the Dreamwalker. I turned myself into a horse so it would be lured to me to feed, and then I changed back to this form and cast a spell to entangle it in vines so it wouldn’t fly away. Dragons are bigger and stronger, but I’ve improved a lot in my magic since then.”

Paul smiled. “I think my uncle had a similar idea when he wanted me to ask you for help. Maybe by stopping the dragon the people of Greenfield will think you’re trying to make the town better? The people here might be more willing to share what they know about Robyn if they think you and I are working together.” Paul couldn’t really begin to imagine where to start after the dragon was dealt with. On the surface it seemed like Vacht’s relationship with the people of Greenfield was irreparably damaged.

“Maybe.” Vacht sighed. “I hate that I must have you help me. I wish I could have made them listen to me in the first place.”

“When I’m done, they will listen to you, even if it’s the last thing I have to do.”

Vacht chuckled. “That’s a bit morbid. You don’t have to die just to help me.”

“It’s part of being a paladin,” Paul said.

They smiled wryly at Paul. “If you made an oath to cook the most perfect poached eggs in the land, would you keep trying until you died?”

“I wouldn’t die, because I can already cook poached eggs quite well.” He winked at Vacht as they erupted in laughter.

“Oh gods, I’m really glad I found you.”

“Me too,” Paul said. His heart felt like it was fluttering. They seemed very nice. Were they flirting with each other? Was he flirting with them? Should he try? “And… you know, that and because I probably would’ve died if you didn’t find me.”

Real smooth, Paul thought to himself. Most people sleep with you because you’re a good listener. If you were a good talker they would actually try getting to know you.

Vacht chuckled, “Very cute. Here, take this.” They reached into their robes and pulled out a key ring with over a dozen keys attached to it and handed it to Paul.

“To your quarters upstairs?”

Vacht nodded. “I’m a dark elf so I usually rest during the day. If it’s warm, I like doing it in the sun.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” Paul asked. “The light elves I’ve known liked moonbathing in the nude—" Paul stopped as Vacht smiled sheepishly. “Oh…”

“It’s one of the reasons for the big fence around here. I like my privacy, and I don’t want to make you feel more awkward than I’ve probably made you feel today.” They pulled out a small jar filled with a thick, white cream. “I cover my body with this. Keeps me from getting horrifically sunburnt. I still feel the warmth though.” They squinted and looked up through the tree’s canopy. “People here on the surface really take having a big burning ball of fire in the sky for granted. Or… just having a sky in general.”

Paul looked up at the sky with them. “People take a lot of things for granted until they lose them.”

Chapter 5: White Knight

Orichalcum is quickly becoming the metal of choice, both in warfare and in domestic life. It’s lightweight compared to other steel alloys, extremely durable and strong, and easily enchantable. Since the rediscovery of gunpowder made steel plate armor obsolete for most purposes, the hunt for new sources of aetherite to create orichalcum with has fueled many political decisions within and between the Republic of Zornea and Empire of Soreth.

Snargrat Woldarm,

Metallurgy for Dwarflings (And Curious Humans)

Vacht was happy to give Paul some food and herbs from the garden, and free reign of the small kitchen on the first floor of the Dreamwalker’s Den. Paul had spent as much time watching his mother prepare meals in their small home as he did working in the fields with his father and cousins. It was difficult to replicate many of her recipes without meat, though. At the Academy, Paul had spent too much time in classes to bother to learn how to prepare the light elvish food that vegetarians, either by a vow or because of personal preference, consumed in the cafeteria.

Paul preferred most of his food warm, unlike light elves who preferred nearly all their fruits and vegetables raw. The cherry tomatoes from the garden would go well sautéed with the green beans, with some oil and marjoram. The scallions Paul would eat raw. Dried lentils in a cabinet could be easily boiled. Some sort of berry pie, already sliced into, would serve as dessert.

“Hey, Big Guy,” Jeaneth said as she entered the kitchen. She grunted and sat down at the small table in the kitchen. “What you making?”

“Lunch,” Paul said.

“Elf food? Boss said you’re a grass muncher like them.”

“It’s all cooked, if that’s your question. And shouldn’t you be running the counter?”

She shrugged. “I have a couple of bushes running the front. Vacht doesn’t mind.”

“You want some?” Paul asked her, to which she nodded. “And how do animated plants run a store?”

“Pretty well, since they’ll attack anyone who doesn’t pay, and they’re taught to not haggle.”

Paul prepared plates for them both and sat down with her.

“Not gonna cook the onions?” she asked, gently chewing on the green of the scallion.

“I can sauté them if you want me to. I can’t taste onions very well unless they’re very strong.” He took a large bite out of one and chewed loudly. “I like the texture though.”

Jeaneth giggled. “I’ve never seen a drakon eat like that.”

“Like what?” Paul snickered. “Eating crunchy veggies?”

“No, just… eating all vegetables. It’s weird.” She pushed her food around with a fork. “You’d have to eat a lot just to survive, wouldn’t you?”

Paul exhaled sharply. “Yeah.”

“Why?” she asked.

“The vegetables?” Jeaneth nodded. “I really do like meat; the texture, the coppery flavor when it’s extra rare. And it’s a lot easier to just eat meat then having to stuff my belly full of beans.” That didn’t answer her question. Paul felt the anxiety start to build in his chest. “I… umm… how old are you? I’m twenty-two.”

“Seventeen,” she said. Her face was scrunched, she looked worried.

“Have you ever… done something stupid? Or something you regret? And something you used to like a lot got associated with that thing?”

“I think so,” she said.

“That’s how it is with me. It’s that taste… of blood. It takes me back to a place I’d rather not think about. I can eat really well-cooked meat, but I’m always so anxious about it.”

She stuffed her mouth with green beans and nodded at him. “This involve the scars on your hands and thigh?”

Paul’s hands suddenly ached. “Does everybody know everything about me in this place?”

“Sorry, the Boss had me help drag you upstairs. I saw some scars on you when I helped them change your clothes.” She chuckled. “You’re a gay, anxious, vegetarian drakon. I must be lucky to meet somebody like you.”

Paul flared his nostrils and glared at her.

“Sorry, bad joke.”

“It’s alright. And I’ve been with women before, I don’t just look at people as being a man or a woman or however else they identify. I just look at them as people.” Paul’s instincts in judging people hadn’t been the best though. The pressure in his chest was building again. “The anxiety part I’m working on… always working on.”

“The boss has a thing for collecting broken people, I think.”

Paul felt a shock run through his head. A thought in the back of his mind that had been put away for quite some time. You’re broken.“I’m not broken,” Paul growled.

“Sorry, I meant that… I don’t know. Like… I’m working here instead of being in school because I gotta work. My dad can’t hold a job anymore after he came back from the war, and my mom can’t make enough waiting tables.”

“What happened to your father?” Paul asked.

She shook her head. “He doesn’t talk about it. I was really young when he went, and when he came back… he was alright for a while, but it just got worse.”

“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “The Hearth Mother may have created the halflings, but She holds dominion over all homes and families. I can pray for- “

“I’ve prayed enough already.”

They continued to eat in silence, until they both finished their food. Before Paul could clear their plates Jeaneth stood up, walked towards Paul and stuck out her hand. “Jeaneth Blythara.”

Paul took her hand and shook it. It was so small compared to his own. Blythara was an elvish name. Was she part elf?“Are you okay?”

“I just wanted to start over. I… I don’t get to do that often.” She withdrew her hand and looked at the ground. “I’m sorry, it’s just… hard talking to people sometimes. Especially about my family.”

“It’s okay,” Paul said. “Hey, do you mind helping me with something?”

“Sure? What do you need?”

“Shit, this place stinks!” Jeaneth groaned.

They both kept slathering the plate armor with the black pitch. “It’ll help with the storm dragon though.”

“What makes you think that?”

Paul coughed a bit as he dipped his brush in the jar of pitch. “When I was in the capital, I met an artificer who used tar to protect things from elemental lightning he was experimenting with. My body is naturally resistant to lightning because of the energy from my elementum, but if I’m going to fight that storm dragon I want to have as much of an advantage as I can get.”

Jeaneth smiled. “You know, you’re pretty smart.”

Paul chuckled. “You should’ve told that to my instructors at the academy. Most of them thought I was dumb, even if they never said it out loud.”

“I never was that great in school, but after I stopped going to work here Vacht kept up with teaching me. It’s why I want to be a druid like them, being in touch with nature, finding my true self.” Jeaneth put the brush down and picked up the piece of armor she was working on, inspecting it for any unpainted areas. “They’re… kinda like a weird aunt that I never had. Are all adults weird?”

“I’m not that much older than you,” Paul told her.

“I know, it’s just that you were in a big city. Greenfield is so small compared to Vailan.”

Paul shrugged. “Everybody is weird regardless of age. C’mon, let’s put these outside to dry. Can the shrubs watch them?”

“Sure.”

With old rags they carefully carried the pieces of the armor suit out of the storage room and back into the front of the store. A human man was busy counting money to buy horse tack. A shrub behind the counter, standing on a stool, watched carefully as he counted out the coins from his pouch.

Jeaneth kicked open the front door and helped Paul set the armor outside on the porch. “Hey guys, watch this for us till it dries, okay?” she said to several bushes sitting out in front of the store. They didn’t seem to be animated.

“Are all the plants here alive?” Paul asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Paul, all plants are alive.”

He thought for a moment and then huffed. “That’s not what I meant!”

They went back into the storage room and Paul picked up a poorly balanced, but very heavy great sword from a rack. “Here, I need you to hold this with the end on the table.”

Jeaneth shouted in surprise as she took it from Paul, nearly causing it to smash into several bottles on a shelf. “How strong are you? You must eat a hell of a lot of lentils to get like that.”

“Magic and exercise. Now, place it right here.” She laid the sword as instructed. “Hold it nice and tight while I sharpen it.”

The sword was dull, but it didn’t have any apparent damage to it.

“So… Paul… what made you be an adventurer?” Jeaneth asked, wincing as Paul wore down several large metal burrs with a stone, the sound almost unbearably loud. “I know not all paladins go around slaying dragons.”

“I had thought about being a temple guard in my hometown of Wavemeet, but there’s not exactly much action there,” Paul said. “That and I didn’t see myself being a city guard.”

“So, you just left?”

Paul felt a pang of anxiety again. “I… had an ex-boyfriend who lived there. It was a bit too much sometimes.”

“Sounds a hell of a lot less dangerous than what happened to you,” she said. “Vacht said you were nearly shot to death, and you don’t have any memory of what happened to you?”

Paul sighed. “I didn’t say being an adventurer wasn’t dangerous. Turn the sword a little more to the left.”

“Like this?” she asked, rotating the sword slightly.

“Perfect,” he said and rubbed the stone down the length of the sword again. “My dad was an adventurer. He and my mom weren’t okay with me going off into the world like that, but I figured it was better than living on a farm the rest of my life, and they were supportive even if they didn’t fully approve.”

“Maybe I’ll be an adventurer once I’m done learning. I’ve always dreamed of it.” Jeaneth smiled. “I can beat the shit out of loggers, break the kneecap of strip miners, stab poachers- “

“It’s not all

about violence,” Paul said. “At least… I’d like to think it’s not. Pela is a goddess of hearth and home. Sure, there’s lots of external threats that you can fight, but there’s a lot that is internal.”

“So, you want to go around and offer advice to at-risk youth like me?”

Paul nearly dropped the sharpening stone.

“That was a joke,” Jeaneth chuckled. “I don’t think I’m… like… in danger or anything. I’m pretty happy, all things considered.”

Maybe she was onto something. Paul could barely function on his own sometimes. What made him think that he could help solve other’s problems? Was he foolish taking up Vacht’s cause? Was he just hoping that Vacht would just forget it after the contract to kill the dragon?

The anxiety was building again. Paul had to change the subject. Something that hurt a little less.

“You know, my ex-boyfriend, Liam, when we were little, he and all my friends used to play a game we called Dragons and Knights.”

Jeaneth raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess, you were always the dragon?”

“Yeah. It was like hide-and-seek, except that two kids have to hide together. The dragon steals the prince or princess and hides somewhere and the rest of the kids, the knights, have to rescue them.”

“That’s cute.”

Paul remembered having to wear glued paper wings during those games. He was massive compared to his friends as a child, halfling or human, and always worried about hurting them as he carried along the boy or girl.

“I guess it seemed cute from the outside. I got to spend time with Liam when he was the prince and I had to hide with him.”

“You said he was your ex-boyfriend?”

Paul nodded.

“The same one you said was ‘too much’ to be around anymore?”

The holy symbol of Pela at the end of Paul’s necklace felt heavy. His hands began to hurt again. “I think the sword is sharp now. Should cut through a dragon easily. Well.. a small one like Duncar said.”

Paul put down the sharpening stone and took the sword from Jeaneth. She looked at Paul, half with concern, and half with sadness. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. You look like you’re carrying so much around.”

“This sword is pretty heavy,” Paul said.

You’re avoiding the question.

“I meant about this Liam,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t really have that many people our age to talk to that like… aren’t people I know… you know?”

Paul shook his head. “You don’t have many friends?”

“No. I’m just… really weird,” she said. “At least, people think I’m weird… know I’m weird.”

“You’re not weird.”

“How?” Jeaneth asked. “I talk to walking plants all day, read dusty books written by elves so old they probably saw the world get created, draw every little animal I find in my sketchbook, and I know the names of every single tree within a mile of my home.”

Paul smiled at her. “What’s so wrong about learning? It’s good that Vacht is teaching you all this. Being able to identify trees is important.”

“I already knew that before I met Vacht. I mean that I know the names of the trees, what they call themselves.”

Paul blinked several times, unsure of how to react. “Oh… oh… uh… I suppose that’s weird to some. But there’s nothing wrong about it. I talk to the Hearth Mother a lot, probably not as often as I should.” He huffed. “Okay, not nearly as much as other paladins I know.”

“Does She talk back?”

“The gods are only so direct with their Chosen. I’m nowhere near that special,” he said.

“You don’t have a high opinion of yourself.”

“Back in the Academy some people used to call me the Meek Knight,” Paul said.

“You’re weird,” she teased. “But, I guess being weird isn’t so bad.” She stretched and looked around the room. “Anything else left to do?”

Paul looked over the sword again. “Well, we sharpened this sword, fixed the armor... I say that’s a good day’s work done. Thanks for your help.”

“No problem. I probably should get back to the counter, don’t want the shrubs stabbing anybody again.”

Paul gulped. “You sure you don’t need any help? I’m heading back to the Alabaster Inn for a bit, I don’t mind returning the favor.”

“It’s alright.” She smiled. “So… you always played the dragon in that game?”

Paul nodded.

“But you always wanted to be the knight, right?”

Paul chuckled. “I guess that’s the truth. Lots of boys dream of it, plenty of girls too. There’s something romantic about those old days.”

“We painted that armor black. Aren’t good guys supposed to be in white?”

“Something like that,” Paul said. “Hey, how about if me and Vacht slay ourselves an evil dragon tomorrow we paint the armor white?”

Jeaneth laughed. “Maybe I’ll call you the White Knight then, better than being called ‘meek.’”

“Meekness isn’t a problem so long as you still have conviction,” Paul said. “There’s been a lot of people who would claim to be righteous- “

“Who are total assholes,” Jeaneth completed.

“Not the word I’d use, but yeah. I encountered a couple of those at the Academy. They tend to not stay long, or get it worked out of them.”

Jeaneth gave Paul a hug, causing him to grunt in surprise. “I wish more guys were like you.”

“Big and scaly?” he asked.

“No, just weird and accepting of it.”

Paul wished that was entirely true.

Chapter 6: The Man They Call Joe

Buy from L’evonelle’s Lavender, the best lavender in all the Cerulean Coast and the number one exporter of lavender and fine flowers in all Soreth!

—Broadsheet advertisement in New Arakesh, capital of the Zornean Republic

It was nearly six o’clock when Paul arrived at the Alabaster Inn to meet with Joe. The inn was much busier and louder in the evening: caravan companies, adventurers, and travelers were all busy eating hearty meals and strong drinks before continuing their way early tomorrow morning.

“Paul! Over here!” Joe was strumming on his guitar, his large black hat lying on the bar counter. Gathered around him at the bar were several young women and men fawning over him, occasionally tossing coins into his hat.

Paul looked sheepishly at the group. “Hey Joe. Who are your friends?”

“Friends? Oh, an audience is what they are!” He strummed several chords, causing them to laugh. “This, my dear listeners, is the Dragon of Wavemeet!”

Paul bit his lip. “I don’t know if I’d say I’m deserving of any sort of nickname yet.”

Joe’s audience laughed at Paul. The bard picked up a tankard of beer and took a large swig. “You will be after tomorrow! Now you if you all will excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.”

Joe emptied out his hat of coins and then put both it, and his guitar, into a large pouch on his hip, all seeming to disappear through the opening into a space that shouldn’t exist.

“You know, I used to have a displacer bag too,” Paul said.

“Lost it in those missing six months, or did you grow curious as to what would happen if you put one inside another?” Joe asked. He accepted the thanks of the audience and whisked Paul away to a round booth in a quieter corner of the inn.

“The former. I didn’t have anything too important in it though.” Paul smiled. “Well… I did have a joke of sorts in it.”

“Oh?” Joe asked. He quickly took the attention of a waitress. “Ma’am, another ale for me. And for… umm. You don’t have any sort of oath of temperance, do you?”

“I haven’t,” Paul said to Joe. He looked up at the waitress. “One cider for me please.”

“Oh, and we need food! Don’t worry love, I’m paying. I’ll have one of those wonderful meat pies I’ve been seeing all the folk around here eating.”

Paul spoke softly to the waitress, too low for her to hear. “Sorry sir, you’ll have to speak up, it’s a bit hard to hear over everybody.”

“I said, ‘Do you all make any lifrat?’”

“Those elvish bread wrap things?”

Paul nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“We do. There’s no meat though. I can add- “

Paul raised a hand and shook his head. “I’ll have it without meat please.”

The waitress took their order and left.

Joe smiled and leaned back. He was practically sparkling in the dim light. “So, what was this joke in your displacer bag?”

Paul continued. “Well, the adventuring company I was with up North, one of our members was a burglar. He was a katarian that grew up there, so we hired him up near a goblin town… called – “ Paul scrunched his forehead and huffed. “Damn, I can’t remember.”

“Goblin words always sound the same to me,” Joe said.

“Anyway, I know he liked rifling through our bags at night when Coldscar wasn’t watching.”

Joe’s attention seemed to briefly taken by a young man walking past them. He quickly turned back and tilted his head. “Who’s Coldscar?”

“A dark elf who was in our company too. She told me her real name was too difficult to pronounce,” Paul said. “So, the inside of my displacer bag kept getting rearranged after he joined us, so I knew he had been going through it while I slept. One day we were trouncing through a ruined tower at the top of a hill, and I found a small chest, just large enough to hold a few trinkets in. When I picked it up a tentacle reached out from it and tried to grab me.”

“A mimic!” Joe shouted and then laughed. He leaned a little closer to Paul. He smelt both flowery and spicy. “If that was a wizard’s tower then they could’ve been breeding the things.”

Paul nodded. “Yes. It was small, only a little baby. But I remembered my dad telling me that my uncle Ibarin kept one as a pet. He had trained it to take the appearance of an amulet.”

Joe’s eyes widened. He knew where Paul’s story was going. “Oh… oh no.”

“So, I kept it and fed it for a few weeks, and I gave it to Coldscar at night because I knew he’d never try going through her things. Eventually, when he was around, I bought several chests to put them all in, nested together, the biggest just barely being able to fit through the opening of my bag.

“I pretended I was asleep that night and, of course, he pulls the chest out. He unlocks the first, then unlocked the second, and then unlocked the third, and when he picked up the fourth one, I hear a shout as my pet mimic bit him on the finger.” Paul laughed. “Oh… he was so angry about it. But, he learned to stop being such a miscreant.”

Joe grinned wide. His teeth were white and as straight as a board. “What was this fellow’s name? I’d like to meet him some day.”

“His name was…” Paul paused. What was his name? “Well, there was Coldscar. And…” Paul couldn’t remember. He had spent several months with them. “The person who started the company his name was… I…”

“It’s alright, I’m sure your memories will come back eventually.”

“It’s one thing to forget most of their names or faces,” Paul growled, “but I lost six months of my life, and the time between that and when I left Wavemeet isn’t much better. I was nearly killed in Peitzen, and six months later I was abandoned in a forest. Vacht said I could’ve died out there all alone.”

Joe finished his drink. “You’re lucky then that the dark elf found you, and lucky that you survived whatever fate almost befell you six months ago. In some circles the Hearth Mother is considered a goddess of luck, given how lucky halflings are. I guess she’s watching over you.”

The food and drinks had arrived, and Paul didn’t want to talk about himself anymore. All it did was make him even more anxious.

“What about you? You’re a bounty hunter?”

Joe dug into his meat pie and took a huge bite. “Well… I’m many things, but collecting bounties is what I do best.” Another bite. “No prayer before you eat?”

Paul looked at his sandwich. It was assorted vegetables and fruit wrapped in bread. It tasted okay, although the sauce was bland. At least the cider was refreshing.

“Not always,” Paul said. “If a halfling prayed every time they ate, they’d spend half their life praying.”

Joe laughed, sending some of his meat pie flying out. “That’s quite right!” Paul’s face felt warm. Joe was handsome, and he seemed to like his humor, although Paul usually didn’t find himself attracted to men so quickly, at least not since he was with Sulbor.

That’s a lie, the little voice told him.

“So Joe, how did you and Duncar meet? He didn’t tell me much about you.”

Joe laughed. “Your uncle wouldn’t shut up about you when I first him last winter. And us first meeting, it actually was in a tavern quite like this.”

“Really?”

They made small talk for what felt like an hour. With every terrible joke Paul made, Joe laughed heartily. He would edge every little bit closer, the scent of him getting stronger.

Paul quickly gulped the rest of his food. “I… um… sorry. Your perfume is lavender.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “I am quite aware of that. It’s my favorite fragrance. I hear Dragon-folk are quite fond of it. It’s a bit like catnip, no?”

Paul sniffed again and panted. His perfect teeth, his pointy chin, his dark hair, everything was making it hard to concentrate. Focusing on the bard caused his anxiety to change into something else, something much more manageable.

“In plant form, yes,” Paul said. “I used to hang out by the lavender fields over in Wavemeet a lot, just sniffing the air. It’s pleasant to my kind, but in a fragrance like that though… it’s a bit more.”

“A bit more what?” Joe purred.

“M-m-more of an aphrodisiac,” Paul stammered.

Joe’s smile widened. He reached down and rubbed Paul’s thigh. “You don’t seem to mind. You like it?”

His hand was moving close to Paul’s groin.

“You haven’t drank much of your cider,” Joe said.

“I drink slowly.”

“What for?”

Paul swallowed hard, trying to focus his thoughts. “Don’t want to get inebriated. Don’t want to lose control.”

Joe chuckled and leaned up to Paul’s face, kissing him on the cheek. He sat Paul’s hands on his waist and he ran his own hand up and down Paul’s thigh.

“Raised by halflings, or those in Zornea, I guess all drakons are the same in not wanting to lose control. You’re so wound up though, I can see the tension in your shoulders and in your jaw. You must have something to relieve that stress, some sort of hobby… or a vice,” he whispered. “I know your goddess isn’t restrictive when it comes to personal happiness. Maybe you should lose control, even if it’s just a little bit.”

This feeling wasn’t simply anxiety anymore. It was arousal, tinged with a feeling of guilt.

“Here?” Paul whispered back. “What if people see?” Before he could say anything else, Joe loosened Paul’s belt and slipped his hand inside Paul’s pants.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Me stroking you off here, spilling your seed all over the floor.” With a mere twist of his thumb Paul nearly shouted. “Nobody would know, just you and me. I have a room upstairs too. Far away from Duncar so we won’t interrupt his planning or sleep.”

Paul came out as a husky whisper. “Can we just talk more, first?”

Joe smiled wider, showing off his perfect teeth. “Of course. Woman!” he called and snapped his fingers at the waitress. “More drinks for us!”

One or two more drinks wouldn’t hurt, Paul thought, as that quickly turned into much more over the next hour. Joe was charming, handsome, warm, and he smelt good enough for Paul to eat.

Paul’s head was swimming. Joe didn’t have to do much to get any sort of reaction from him at this point, even over the loudness of the inn. Joe was practically sitting on Paul’s lap, whispering in his ear, and slowly stroking him. He had ordered them a bowl of fruit with whipped cream on the side. Joe picked up a strawberry, dipped it in the cream, and then brought it to Paul’s mouth.

You’re an idiot, the little voice told Paul, barely audible over the alcohol. A drunk, horny, idiot.

“Shut up,” Paul mumbled to himself. Drakon lips were thin and barely noticeable, so he had to be inventive. He was too drunk to realize what he tried to say to Joe, except that he winked and then he had swallowed the strawberry and was licking the sweet juice and cream from Joe’s finger.

“I’m a bit drunk,” Paul slurred around Joe’s finger. He slowly pulled the bard’s finger out and gave a gentle kiss to the tip. “You… you are… really tasty…”

“I can tell,” Joe replied. He leaned in close and kissed Paul, forced his mouth open, and lewdly sucked on his tongue.Joe's hand stroked Paul faster.

Paul pulled away. “You know… drakons usually just nuzzle or lick, especially with humans.” He licked his mouth. “Kissing is kind of weird with the shape of our mouths and our tongues.” All that he could taste was berries, booze, lavender, and cream.

"Are all male drakons so wet when aroused?" Joe asked. "You're going to stain the seat."

"It's why I wear dark pants," Paul huffed. "And usually don't do handjobs out in public. Mouth is much better… tongue…" he moaned.

“I love that tongue of yours,” Joe cooed. “I want to experience more of it.” He leaned forward and whispered into Paul’s ear. “My room, now." He punctuated it with a wet finger sliding all the way down Paul's length, settling his hand on one of his testicles. "Before I make you lick your cum off the floor.”

 

Paul kept following Joe’s instructions to pleasure him, sucking him, licking him, and occasionally nipping him.

"Less teeth and more tongue," Joe ordered. “And don’t get anything on my clothes.”

“How many ciders did I have?” Paul said.

“Five, last I counted,” Joe said. “You a bit of a lightweight, boy?”

“I weigh,” Paul stopped and thought for a moment. “Eighteen stone… maybe? I used to… I’m a bit skinnier now.”

“You still seem a bit tense,” Joe said and roughly pushed Paul’s head back down. Before Joe could say anything else he groaned and finished. Paul was normally okay with the flavor—swallowing was less messy, and, man or woman, it felt more intimate to taste his partner—but being with the bard didn’t feel intimate at all.

“Fuck… you’re good at what you do,” Joe said. “How about we relax a bit more while I recover?” Joe produced two tiny, corked vials filled with a glimmering powder from his pocket. “Something for us both?”

“Dust?” Paul said. He looked over at the covered window to the bedroom. Despite the heavy, black curtains, he could see the iridescent glow of an aurora outside. “Is taking shimmer-dust safe while it’s all like that outside?”

“It’ll just burn your nose a bit more, honey,” Joe cooed.

“I’m a hieron,” Paul slurred. “Is it even… Safe for me?”

“Will it fuck you up? Of course!” He waved a vial underneath Paul’s nose. “It’s unpredictable at times: to hieron, mage, or just some bloke who has enough coin and wants to feel the strings of magic vibrating in their noggin.”

“I don’t—" Paul thought for a moment. He didn’t use drugs, but wasn’t alcohol like that? The incident in the temple though, was it caused by the aurora? Shimmer-dust might make it worse.

“Don’t do what, my dear?” Joe asked.

Paul’s body ached. He didn’t want to spend the entire night with Joe. He could easily get rid of the drunkenness, and hopefully everything else, by laying hands upon his head—although it was highly unpleasant. He could just leave and go back to Vacht’s and stay there, alone.

An intrusive thought wormed its way into Paul’s head, through the drunken, erotic haze that clouded his mind. This is much better than feeling nothing at all.

“Give it to me,” Paul said.

“First time?”

Paul nodded, and Joe uncorked a vial and held it underneath his nose.

“It’ll be alright. You’re bigger than me, so it won’t be too bad. Just inhale deeply and—"

Everything was dark. No matter how hard Paul tried to open his eyes, nothing happened. Wherever he was at was cold and musty, and he was lying on a dirty, wet floor.

He tried calling out for help, but no words came out. He tried yelling, screaming, crying, anything, but he could make no noise. Eventually something splashed on his face and all over his body. The smell was familiar and frightened Paul to his core; It was lantern oil.

No! Please don’t! Paul tried to plead, but the words only came out as gargled noise.

Paul’s body felt hot, and something was shaking him.

“Paul! Wake up! Please, gods damnit, don’t die!”

Paul lunged upward and grabbed this person by the throat. He finally forced his eyes open and saw Joe, nude, holding a candle in front of his face.

“You!” Paul screamed. “You were going to burn me!”

“Please… calm down,” Joe gasped. “You had a bad reaction.”

Paul’s heart felt like it was about to burst. He looked down and saw he was nude too, but not covered in any oil. He let go of Joe and summoned the Light into his hands and pressed his fingers up to his temples, forcing all his magic into his head, forcing the effects of the alcohol out of his mind. He screamed in pain as it felt as if though his insides were being burned out, his clarity returning in nearly an instant.

“What the hell did you do to me?”

Joe rubbed his neck. “I didn’t do anything! You were purring like a kitten, and then suddenly you fell onto the floor and started shaking. I thought you were going to choke, and then you suddenly attacked me.”

“I was still wearing clothes when I snorted that shit! There was something in that—”

“No there wasn’t!” Joe yelled at him. “There was something in you, already. You have many vices, my friend, enough to get you killed. Duncar said you were a good boy, but I’ve met plenty of boys like you who act all high and mighty but stick themselves full of stuff far worse than shimmer-dust.”

“Me?” Paul growled. “All I did was the shit you kept shoving into me!” Paul’s breathing was speeding up again. “What if I wanted to say no?”

“Honey, why would you want to say ‘no’ to me?” he said and waved his hands at himself.

Paul bared his teeth. Just like a monster would, the little voice told him, loud and clear again.

“I’m leaving!”

“I… wait, what?” Joe tried to touch Paul’s shoulder. “Paul, I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “Stay a while, we can—”

Paul recoiled. “Don’t touch me!” he shouted. He pulled his pants and boots back on and fumbled with his tunic and cloak.

“Paul, I’m sorry.” Before Paul could get to the door, he slipped in front of him. “Come on, just a few more minutes?”

A good drakon wouldn’t hurt him. A good drakon raised in Zornea wouldn’t use their gods given powers against a fool like him.

Paul flexed his elementum, sending the familiar feeling of lightning through his lungs and into his mouth. He bared his teeth again and huffed slivers of the energy through his nose. “Either get out of my way, or you’re going through the door,” he hissed, his teeth clenched.

Things were getting too warm, with his mind clearer the anxiety was returning. It was quickly getting harder to breathe, especially with the lightning trapped within his mouth. His fingers and toes tingled as his breathing raced even faster.

“Fine!” Joe moved out of the way and pulled open the door. Before he could say anything else, Paul was gone. A half-naked drakon stumbling out of the inn had to be a sight for the people downstairs, gasping for air like he was a fish out of water.

Paul left through a side door and ducked into an alley, struggling to put the rest of his clothes on. He felt like he was burning despite the chill of the autumn night, the last few rays of the sun falling away behind the mountains, letting the bright aurora overhead and the moon to fill the valley with their light.

Paul hadn’t had an attack like this in years. He was an idiot to try to go out with Joe. He was so stupid to let Joe touch him, to seduce him, to drug him. At least Joe didn’t do anything while he was completely unconscious. He wretched at the thought, forcing the lightning trapped in his mouth out as a spray of crackling energy, along with his food, onto the ground.

You’re pathetic, the little voice in his head told him. You swore to help a person when you can’t help yourself.

Paul tried to focus, to try to stop himself from spiraling even further.

“My name is Paul Underhill,” he said to himself.

He placed his shaking hands on the brick wall of the building next to the Alabaster Inn. “Rough. They’re rough bricks.”

Paul closed his eyes and listened. “People are talking inside. They’re having a good time. Probably a bit shocked from seeing me, though.”

He sniffed the air. “Cinnamon. Is it pastries?” Paul began to sob. “Oh gods… is it something else?”

He stumbled to a faucet sticking out from the side of the inn and turned it on, placing his head underneath the stream of water. He stuck out his tongue and let it flow all around his mouth. “Fresh… cool.”

Paul sighed. His breathing steadied; it was starting to pass as he focused on simply listening to his heart. Most of the stress was gone, but he needed something to relax, to sit and think for a bit.

The temple would be a natural place to go, but most temples of Suros were naturally lit, and it didn’t look like there was much in the way of candles or lanterns inside while he was there earlier in the day. There was another inn that he had passed while walking around with Duncar, the Ravishing Rarukul. Maybe some tea there would calm his nerves.

Paul looked up at the aurora. The cascade of lights from it danced across the night skies. “Pela, Hearth Mother, I’m so sorry about how stupid I am,” he prayed out loud. “Okay… okay, I’m not stupid. I just think I’m stupid...” He gathered some more water in his hand and drank. “I have no idea what happened to me, what’s actively happening to me, or what I’m supposed to do. When you see auroras like this, the Messengers of the gods are supposed to be among us, right? I just want a sign… something… anything?”


Chapter 7: Speak of the Dead

The public baths are a place for apprentices at the Academy of St. Arianna to relax and cleanse themselves— not for tomfoolery. Any instances of horseplay, fornication, consumption of food, alcohol or other substances, and damage to the Academy’s facilities will not be tolerated and will be punished accordingly.

Headmaster Loren

More like Headmaster Lame-en!

—Defaced notice after the Feast of St. Po’fos, Chosen of Thalas, the Tidebringer

Paul flickered the Light at the tip of his finger on and off—over and over—as he waited for his tea to finish steeping. The Ravishing Rarukul was much quieter than the Alabaster Inn. Most of the patrons, from what Paul could gather from their hushed conversations, were adventurers after the dragon, planning on their courses of action in trying to find out where it was at and how to stop it.

“You hung-over, Paul?” the barkeep asked. Paul hadn’t paid much attention to her except for ordering the tea.

“How’d you know my name?” Paul rubbed his eyes and looked at the woman harder.

“Jeaneth told me about you,” she said and smiled. The resemblance was uncanny. Her skin was much darker than her daughter’s, and her hair was pulled back tight, but they both shared the same mischievous grin and bright eyes. It was just his luck for him to step into the exact place she happened to work at. “Name’s Nadia,” she said and extended a hand.

“Paul Underhill,” he said and shook it. Her hands were rough, catching on the fabric of his handwraps. “And yeah, you could say that.”

“Jenny told me you had a hot date with a bard?” she asked.

Paul shuddered and poured out his tea. “I’m just trying to relax now. You know what time it is?”

“A little past eight, last time I checked the clock in the back. I assume it’s accurate, but we don’t have an airship port or train station here, so not much use in keeping it so.”

Paul took a sip. The tea was warm, strong, and citrusy. He still had some time to kill before bed, and Nadia would be as good of person as any to talk to about the city, specifically involving Vacht. Paul would uphold his oath to them and find the truth about what happened to Robyn.

He reached into his pouch, pulled out some coins, and placed them on the table. “I was wondering what—”

“I don’t know anything about the dragon,” Nadia said, crossing her arms.

“I was actually wondering what you know about Vacht.”

“You don’t have to pay me for that kind of information,” she said and slid the coins back. “Jenny had to quit school to help provide for us… especially with how Allowin’s been… since the war.” She shook her head and leaned on the bar. “I don’t know the whole story, but Jenny’s always loved drawing. She told me year before last she was drawing a deer in the forest, and it turned out to actually be Vacht. I guess they took a liking to her and offered her a job. Better than working here…” She winked. “Don’t tell the boss I said that.”

“My lips are sealed,” Paul said. “You like Vacht?”

“They care about her–help teach her better than the folks at school. I hope that she’s able to get out of here soon, not much of a future for a girl like her.”

“You want her to be an adventurer?” Paul asked.

“That’s a pretty broad brush of a job title,” Nadia said. “Dragon slayer? Demon hunter? Mercenary? No… I can’t imagine my little Jenny doing stuff like that.”

“Pathfinding is pretty safe.” Paul sipped his tea again. “Lots of naturalists do work that is under jurisdiction of the Guild, at least here in the Empire.”

“Me and Allowin really want her to go to the Imperial College of Art in Ontson. Can’t afford it though.”

Nadia grew quiet. Paul had to change the subject.

“You like Vacht, what about the rest of town? What do they think of them?”

Nadia gave Paul a half-smile. “This about Robyn?” He nodded. “She was a good person. I don’t believe that she killed herself, but that’s what it looked like. Some think that Vacht outright murdered her. I know that’s what Vacht wanted them to think.”

“How’d that go?”

Nadia idly wiped the bar counter with a cloth. Her brow furrowed. “Nobody believed them. I remember that the Constable beat Vacht, right in the city square, calling them all sorts of slurs while she did it. She took her club and started wailing at Vacht, broke off one of their antlers doing it. She probably would’ve killed them if Renfroe Mason didn’t stop her.”

“The current alderman?”

She nodded. “He and his parents are from here—his great-grandfather used to own the old mine. Mason moved away a long time ago and became a big-damn war hero. The governor knew him and called him in to be the interim alderman, and then he decided to stay and got voted in the next election.”

It didn’t answer much, except that Vacht at one point had a death wish. They seemed to resent their birth family, and the family that they did find was taken away from them. Maybe Vacht found some purpose in teaching Jeaneth, or at least had something to take their mind off of the pain of the loss of Robyn.

Nadia looked past Paul. “You come back down for another drink?”

Paul turned and saw a woman: Tall, lean, wrapped in dripping clothing, and wearing many charms and holy symbols representing Thalas, the Tide Bringer. She wore an elaborate wooden mask covered in intricate white markings, concealing her entire face save for her golden eyes. She was a k’thexif, one of the silent Marsh-folk, and Paul could sense waves of confusion emanating from her. She didn’t recognize Paul, but he recognized her.

“To’ka!” Paul yelled and shot out of his seat. He picked her up and squeezed her tight, causing her clothes to make a gross squelch as water left it. “Thank the gods and the Ancestors! I prayed for a sign, for somebody to help me and they sent you!”

She looked down at Paul. The horizontal pupils of her golden eyes widened.

“You… you are To’ka… right?” Paul asked. The markings on her mask were right, and she wore the symbols of a cleric of Thalas. “It’s me… Paul.”

Paul felt something in his head, a gentle buzz as the k’thexif’s thoughts pushed into his mind.

Yes, she was To’ka, but who was he?

“Well, I ask myself that a lot, especially today,” he said.

She glared at Paul.

“It’s me! Paul Underhill!” Paul bounced her up and down a bit. “Remember?”

She knew who he was, what she really wanted to know was what he was doing there.

Paul sat her down and ran his fingers through her wet, stringy, dark blonde hair. “Well… I… that’s a complicated story. Can we go up to your room? I’d prefer to talk about it up there.”

To’ka sat next to Paul a pushed another thought into his head. She was in town to fulfill a contract to hunt a tartarean dragon, and absolutely nothing else of note.That last thought seemed unusually specific.

“I’m kinda here about the dragon… well… not really.” Paul sat down and explained his journey after graduating from the Academy: Staying in Wavemeet, leaving to be an adventurer, going to Peitzen—

As Paul mentioned Peitzen he felt a shock through his mind. To’ka was surprised. She tapped her claws idly on the bar and flicked her hair behind one of her long leaf-shaped ears. She was trying to exude a feeling that nothing was wrong, but clearly it was.

“Did something happen there?” Paul asked. “I don’t remember much after Wavemeet, and I got hurt in Peitzen, and then everything after that is completely blank until a dark elf here in town found me.”

There was no response from her, and she was avoiding eye contact. Paul felt her thoughts flitting about at the edges of his mind, causing his eyes to water. She only did that when she was nervous.

To’ka snapped her fingers and leapt to her feet. She grabbed Paul by the collar of his tunic and pulled him close.

“You okay?”

Thoughts rippled through his mind of the times they spent together at the Zornean bathhouse in the capital, sitting in a far corner and growling at any drakon who would dare to bother them.

Maybe he should go inside the room she rented, the room which she herself specifically rented, and by the laws of the land was her room and personal abode until–

“You want me to take a bath with you?” She nodded. “Look… To’ka, I really appreciate it but I had a really rough night. You’re my best friend and–” Paul looked at Nadia, who was grinning. He sighed. “I just want to talk in private, okay To’ka?”

She ran one of her fingers over his collar bone and winked at him.

They were good friends, close friends, very close friends. He found her attractive, and she found him attractive too. All he had to do was just go inside, by himself, inside of her room that she rented solely for singular occupation for herself–

“What the hell is wrong with you?” You’re being very weird and this is making me really uncomfortable.”

To’ka’s eyes shown she was panicked, something Paul had never seen before.

She had teacakes in her room. However, she was unable to enter the room under her own power and that Paul shouldn’t retrieve the teacakes and bring them outside because he was not invited in any sort of way to enter the room.

Paul slowly tilted his head. “To’ka… are you okay?”

She nodded.

“You want me to break into your room?”

She nodded again.

“Is this a joke?”

There was another long pause, and a cacophony of thoughts that Paul couldn’t understand. She was trying to convey some sort of idea about her room upstairs, but it was so jumbled that it made no sense. She looked worried when Paul didn’t reply, she knew he didn’t understand.

“You want me to come upstairs, or not?”

She slowly nodded.

“Then lead the fucking way!”

Paul tried to hand Nadia a coin for the tea, but she shook her head.

“On the house.”

“To’ka, are you sure you’re okay?” Paul asked.

To’ka nodded and pressed a clawed finger to Paul’s mouth. She wanted him to wait outside while she went into the room and prepared.

“Prepare?” She nodded at him. “Prepare for what!?”

She wanted to change clothes.

“You’re just going to be wet,” Paul said as she fumbled with a key, unlocked the door, and then slammed it shut behind herself after she ran inside.

“Gods damnit!” Paul shouted and slammed a fist into the door.

Calm down, he thought to himself, before that little voice could answer his outburst now that To’ka’s thoughts were out of his mind. You’re not a monster, you’re not an out-of-control drakon letting his drakir control him.

After a few minutes Paul knocked on the door. “You done?” He pushed open the door and felt something drag on his foot—a small line of white powder. Standing on the far side of the room was To’ka. Paul’s eyes widened as he realized what she was about to do. To’ka crossed her arms over her chest, and the holy symbols around her neck glowed as guttural noises echoed from beneath her mask. She was casting a spell.

“No! Wait!” Paul shouted as red glowing runic symbols appeared on the floor around him, erupting in energy and forming a cylinder of red light that surrounded him all the way up to the ceiling. The door slammed shut behind him. He was trapped.

“Who are you?” To’ka asked. Her voice was muffled underneath her mask.

“What the hell are you talking about!?” Paul shouted.

“I’ll ask you once more, who, or what are you?” To’ka hissed.

“I’m Paul! Paul Underhill!”

“You are not,” she said. A k’thexif would speak with their mask on for two reasons: they were with a friend and didn’t have time to take it off, or they were about kill that person.

“Why don’t you believe me? What the hell do you think I am?” The spell she cast was designed to keep demons imprisoned. “If you would take two seconds—”

Paul was cut short by To’ka grabbing a wheelgun from a table by the bed. Her eyes shimmered. “I sense you are not a demon, or undead. But you are still in the guise of my friend.” She aimed the gun at Paul. “Now, tell me why are you here? Why do you look like my dead friend?”

“Dead?” A chill overcame Paul. “What the fuck do you mean!?”

“I found out Paul Underhill was travelling to Peitzen. When I arrived two months ago, all I found was a grave filled with the body of my best friend.”

“How’d I come back?” Paul said. Tok’a didn’t answer. “I’ve been back for what then, a couple of weeks? Magic can’t bring a person like that back. My soul would’ve passed through Empyrean’s Arch.”

“Either you’re an imposter, or a miracle that even the gods aren’t capable of doing has happened.”

“I can prove to you that I’m me… that I’m real.”

“How?”

“The first time we met you bit me and—”

To’ka growled. “There were at least ten witnesses to what happened that day. Tell me something only you and I would know, something only my Paul would tell me.”

You’re a failure to her as always, the little voice told him.

“I lied to you about me still taking my medicine.”

“When?”

“I had stopped taking it, right before I beat the shit out of Sulbor. I thought that I didn’t need it anymore, and with how… he…”

“Paul… it’s okay.”

“I just want to get it off my chest. I know that Sulbor quit, and he said it was a training accident, and he deserved more than a broken jaw for what he did to me, but still… I lied to you.”

To’ka lowered her wheelgun. “Suddenly stopping whisperweed could’ve done more than make you have a violent outburst.”

“I started taking it again right after. I didn’t want to end up hurting you too.”

“You wouldn’t have hurt me, Paul Underhill. An herb isn’t the thing stopping you from not controlling your anger, and you aren’t the first drakon who has problems with their drakir. You are my Paul,” she said and waved a hand, causing the pillar of light surrounding him to disappear. “Only my Paul would care more about other people than himself.”

“It’s how I got into this situation,” he said. “That halfing boy–Fedor–is he okay? This whole thing happened because I tried to save him.”

“He is alright. The boy was the one who led me to your grave. He was quite amazed at me; apparently I’m the only k’thexif he’s ever seen.”

“And my grave wasn’t empty?”

“That was several months ago.”

Is it still filled?

“You’re certain than I am… me? How do I know that I’m me, I mean, that…”

Paul was stopped by To’ka placing a finger to his lips. “I know of one way to figure that out.”

“To’ka Mos’pora Ta’coran Po’zek, it’s good to see your face again,” Paul said. He hurriedly told her all that happened today, minus the temple, and most of what happened with Joe besides the shimmer-dust. He didn't expect her to them demand he get naked so she could examine him.

She smiled widely, exposing her impossibly sharp teeth. “You are not dead, and you are not undead. You are also not a demon, nor are you a fae in disguise. Do you have any memory of what happened to you?”

“No,” Paul said. “I was found in a forest. I had been catatonic for a couple of days, and then I woke up today.”

To’ka pulled out a large magnifying glass from her bag. One of her fingers glowed with the same sort of magical Light that Paul used, and she touched it to the magnifying glass, causing it to glow.

“I’ll examine you with this. It should easily tell me what you are."

Paul felt cold suddenly. “You think I might…“

“I’ve never heard of what happened to you ever happening to anybody,” she hissed. “There’re only two possibilities. The gods somehow brought you back for some purpose, a miracle even among miracles, or someone…”

“Someone what?” Paul asked.

“Being a cleric of the Tide Bringer, praise be unto Them, I’ve studied much in the greater mysteries of the gods and of magic of the divine.” She stepped towards Paul and took his hand, bringing him closer to a stove in the corner of the room.

“And?”

“And, Paul Underhill, I know that as the gods created people, people create many things too, either with magic of the gods or magic of the arcane.”

“You think I might be some sort of golem?” He shook his head. “I’m flesh and blood. I’m not made of stone, or metal, or quintessence, or anything else.”

She placed a hand on his cheek. “I just want to make sure.”

“What if I am?” Paul asked. “What if I’m some sort of thing that somebody made that think’s it’s me? What if – “

To’ka clamped his mouth shut with her hand. “You worry far too much. Now, time for me to use the interoscope. Hold your arms out to your side.”

“Where’d you buy that thing at?”

“Off a merchant in Zenerford,” she said.

“How can you afford that and the wheelgun?”

“A lot has changed since we last saw each other. Adventuring has been good to me.”

The interoscope’s lens turned opaque as she forced Paul’s arms back forward. The glow of its light turned blue as she peered through it and at Paul’s hands. She adjusted a ring around the edge of the lens, looked through the lens again, and repeated it a few more times.

“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.

“You have an exceptionally strong aura of magic around you, I’m having to turn it down so it can actually see through you,” To’ka said.

“Is that bad?”

“Resurrection magic is extremely powerful. I had met a person once who had just been brought back and examined him with an aethertech device like this. It leaves a residual aura around you that is very strong, but eventually dissipates.”

Paul gulped. “How strong is mine?”

“Very. I’m guessing… two weeks ago this happened? Assuming someone used a resurrection spell on you, or the work of the gods has a similar effect. It infuses every ounce of your body with strong regenerative magic, even healing old wounds and causing your hair and nails to grow out.”

Paul smiled weakly. “I guess that explains why my hair and claws grew out.”

“You shouldn’t take shimmer-dust, especially in this condition. That drug disrupts your connection to the Aethereal Realm, through which all magic flows in the cosmos. It normally is not an issue, even with extremely powerful—or foolish—hierons,” she added, glaring at Paul, “but with how much magic is still in your body your heart could’ve exploded from it.”

Paul had told her about Joe, he might as well mention the temple. “What about the auroras? I saw a vision of the burning specter when I tried using the Light of the gods earlier.”

“That specter from your dreams?”

“Yeah, hadn’t seen it in a while, and never saw it while awake.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It shouldn’t cause your magic to flare, like how shimmer-dust can.”

The exam was becoming unnerving. It was less the loving touch of someone he cared deeply for, and more the touch of a healer examining a patient with a disease she had never experienced before. To’ka said she wanted to make sure every scar of his was in the same place, although he didn’t recall her—or anyone—leaving a mark that close to his groin.

She peered back up at Paul. “Would you be more comfortable with me doing this while also naked, Paul?”

“You remember how we first met?” To’ka asked.

“I don’t remember what you said,” Paul said. “I never met a k’thexif before so I couldn’t even begin to comprehend whatever you were projecting. All I knew was that you thought I was a small scarathan, you liked the color blue, and then you bit me hard enough on the throat that I thought you killed me!”

“It wasn’t that bad. I can’t bite well with my mask on. It’s against my custom to raise it more than just enough to get a sip of water.” She waved the interoscope around. “Besides… it’s how scarathans say hello. I never met a drakon before, I assumed your two species were related and your cultures were similar.”

“I know a lot about a lot of cultures of a lot of species and countries and I’m pretty sure trying to rip out a stranger’s throat because you thought they were cute is not one of them.”

“How do you know it’s not a Zornean drakon custom? You never bothered learning anything about them,” To’ka said. She paused and then sighed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. I know that it’s–“

“No, it’s alright, To’ka. I’ve always been a coward and not want to learn about drakons, or Zornea, or really anything about me.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Running away from a past I don’t remember? Maybe if I learn too much then the loss of my birth parents will hurt too much. I don’t remember anything about them. It’s all… sort of hollow I guess.”

“You’re afraid of yourself,” To’ka said, in the same way a fish would say that water was wet. “It’s one of your two flaws.”

Paul laughed. “I only have two? Last time I spoke with an alienist I had probably a dozen or so personal problems.”

“The other is you sacrificing your health and happiness for others.”

Paul rolled his eyes “Could you hurry up? How do my arms look?” Before Paul could say anything else, To’ka bit his left bicep hard, not enough to draw blood, but certainly enough for him to feel it. “What the hell!?”

To’ka smiled and licked her lips. “Well, you still taste the same.”

“I’m glad my pain gives you pleasure,” Paul muttered.

She looked back through the interoscope. “See? Sacrificing your health and happiness for me—it’s going to be the death of you, well… again.” She lightly touched both his arms, slowly working down to his hands. “Your scars are exactly the same.”

“Eidetic memory?” Paul asked. “I knew you never had to take notes, but I didn’t realize it extended to how I look.”

“I observe everything,” she said. “How far up did you hurt your arms, when…” To’ka looked back up at Paul. “You know…”

“About halfway up my forearms. Crushed every bone in my hands, nearly severed them at the wrist. Forearms broke too, not sure where at exactly.”

She turned another ring around the lens of the interoscope and peered through it. “I know you have pain sometimes, but do you ever have any loss of feeling or numbness?” she asked, hissing the last word excessively.

“No, I wouldn’t be able to hold a sword if I did.”

To’ka clicked her teeth several times. “I see where the injuries happened, very noticeable marks left on the bones.” She continued poking and prodding Paul, moving up his arms to his shoulders, across his chest and to his back.

“From where you were shot?” she asked, tapping the scars on his back with a claw.

“Yeah, six points.”

“If that’s what killed you then they should’ve healed. A resurrection spell should’ve removed them.” She sighed. “You didn’t have the arrows still stuck in you when you were buried. This makes no sense.”

Paul rubbed his left collar bone, the scales there were shaped slightly differently from the rest of those on his chest. “Maybe they were really bad wounds? Calia used a powerful regeneration spell on me when I was young, still left a scar.”

“You said you were near death when your family found you.”

“I barely survived, even after Aunt Callia healed me.” Paul’s hands began to hurt again. He rubbed them together. “She said I was lucky to only have a few messed up scales from all that. My entire body was burnt. The spells she cast took a long time to fully heal me though. I was blind for several months, it took even longer to walk again.”

“You’re blessed by the Hearth Mother,” To’ka said. She stepped back around Paul and waved the interoscope over his head.

“If this is being blessed by Her I’d hate to ever be cursed.”

“You seem—" To’ka paused.

“What?”

“There’s a small mark inside your skull, on your brain,” she said. “You have no memory of before your father found you?”

Paul shook his head. “No. Could it be related to that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe? Maybe not. Your uncle, the wizard, he tried recovering your memories?”

“Yeah, it didn’t work. Closest thing is…” Paul paused for a moment. “Those nightmares… the spectre.”

“This is probably just a scar from that. You have all your faculties, I don’t think it’d affect anything.”

“Could it explain why I am… you know… the way I am?” Paul asked.

She lowered the interoscope and turned her head. “Anxious?”

“Well—"

“Stupid?”

“I was—"

“Queer?”

Paul sighed. “To’ka, I’m being serious.”

She picked up Paul’s clothes and threw them at him. “And I am being serious too. Paul Underhill, you were made the way you were, and you were made that way because the gods wanted it that way. There is not some sort of magical ‘cure’ for who you are, you must learn to love yourself for who you are.”

“I know,” Paul said. “You’ve been – “

“Telling you that ever since we met.” To’ka smiled. “You’re much better than then, much better than when you were first made.”

“So… who made me?”

To’ka took Paul’s face in her hands and kissed him on his nose. “Your mother and father did,” she said. “You're my Paul Underhill.”

“Are you certain?” Paul asked.

“Nothing in life is certain, but I am certain that you’re my friend.”

“Thanks, To’ka,” Paul said. He breathed in and out sharply. “What brought me back?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think the gods brought you back. You being alive here is a miracle.”

The oath that Paul took for Vacht and the prophecy they told him about—could they be related? He explained both to To’ka. She listened intently, her devotion to the gods shining through with every nod.

“Pela brought you back to help them, I’m sure of it,” To’ka said.

“I’m starting to think that too,” Paul said. “The Hearth Mother has some sort of plan for me, like she – “

“Chose you,” To’ka whispered. Her eyes seemed to glow as she said that.

“Woah! Don’t use the big C-word, okay? I haven’t had anything happen to me yet like that, right?” Paul thought back to his classes. The ones involving history, particularly of the Chosen of the gods, were a bit fuzzy. “Have I?”

To’ka picked up her mask and walked towards the door. “Don’t pay it any mind. I think we should celebrate.”

“Celebrate?”

“Yes, for once, you know why Pela healed your hands and allowed you to survive.” She smoothed her hair out and began to pull her mask back over her face. “Also, I don’t have to tell your parents that you’re dead.”

“How do you propose we celebrate?”

The familiar buzzing started again behind Paul’s eyes as To’ka began pushing thoughts into his mind. They would celebrate like she used to with her fellow acolytes of the Tide Bringer; libations to Thalas in the pool late at night when the proctors weren’t awake. She would go get some drinks for them both. Something strong for her, and tea for Paul.

“I have to go to bed so I can get up early to go kill a dragon tomorrow and collect that reward,” Paul said.

He could stay the night in To’ka’s room.

“No, I think it’d be best I stay at Vacht’s. Thank you though.”

She told him to open the curtain so they can admire the aurora while sitting on the bed once she got back.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Paul said.

“Don’t worry,” To’ka mumbled from underneath her mask. “You probably would’ve died back at the Academy.”

To’ka and Paul leaned back on the pillows as they watched the dancing lights of the aurora outside. She kept some distance from him, much more than Paul was used to with her. He wanted her closer, but she could sense Paul’s anxiety.

“The angels must be out in force tonight,” To’ka said. The light of the aurora reflected in her eyes.

“It’s beautiful,” Paul said. “I’ve never seen them like this before.”

“’Not as beautiful as you,’” she said, lowering her voice to a deep gravel to try to sound more like Paul. “That is what you’re supposed to say in a situation like this, Paul.”

Paul laughed. He had missed being with To’ka. She was flirtatious and fun. But, unlike Joe, she wasn’t insistent, knew boundaries when they were set, and wouldn’t try exploiting Paul. She was safe, a calm area in the storm of Paul’s life.

“Giving me dating advice again?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Do you know of what has happened since you’ve been dead?”

“Well, the Empire is still around.” He took a sip of his tea which was almost cold.

“The Emperor died,” To’ka said.

Paul spat the tea out. “What!?”

“You got tea all over my bed!” To’ka hissed.

“Oh please, it’s already moist from you rolling your dripping self all over it! “Emperor Gerogio is dead?”

“Yup,” she said and sipped her drink. It was something bubbly and sweet smelling. “Sailing accident. Didn’t find much left after the boiler exploded.”

“Francone is the new Emperor?” Paul asked.

“No, his daughter, Isabelle L’Eorgio. He refused to rejoin the royal family, so she’s forced to be Empress.”

“She’s forced to? The law says that?”

“Yes.”

“Shit, why wouldn’t he? The monarchy doesn’t actually do anything, hasn’t in centuries.”

To’ka shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t want to go to all those formal functions? I hate having to dress up for such things.”

Paul laughed. “It didn’t stop you from wearing that dress for me at the Year’s End Ball at the Academy.”

She glared at Paul and hissed. “I wore it for you!”

“I know,” Paul said. He reached over and punched her on the arm lightly. “You were very cute in it.”

Her smile returned, exposing her sharp teeth again. “I did make you wear that dress afterwards when we went out drinking the following week.”

“I know,” Paul repeated. “And I had a pretty fun night after you left.”

“Wait…” Her brow furrowed. “You didn’t… did you?”

He nodded and held up two fingers. “Both of them. That lady who was giggling at us, and her boyfriend. Apparently, they had a thing for very awkward drakons in frilly dresses. Personally, I think it was the shoes you made me wear, it made my ass look nice.”

They both laughed and snorted, hard enough to where they nearly cried.

“I missed you,” Paul said.

“I missed you too,” she said back. She pointed to Paul’s lap. “May I? If you’re okay with it?”

“You’re just going to get my lap wet.”

“I’ve learned how to control moisture with magic a lot more effectively, especially after spending time up in the mountains.” She rubbed her bare arms. “My skin would be all cracked from this dry air a long time ago without it. I can just dry off your pants before you go.”

Paul tilted his head, signaling her to change positions. With a loud thump she spun around and planted her head on his lap as hard as she could. “Watch it!” Paul shouted at her. “I want to have children one day!”

To’ka flashed her teeth at Paul and then turned back to look out the window. “I’m going to get that dragon.”

“Not if I get it first,” Paul said.

“Oh?” To’ka turned back towards him. “How do you expect to do that?”

“I don’t – “

“’Kiss and tell,’” To’ka finished. “Paul Underhill, you’ve been doing that all the time since I first met you. You are terrible at keeping secrets, especially from me.”

“Duncar hasn’t told me anything about his plans, if that’s what you want.”

Her eyes narrowed and her voice lowered. “How do I know you’re telling me the truth? Especially if it involves this uncle you’ve told me so much about over the years?”

“I would never lie to you,” Paul said.

“I know,” she hissed. A sly grin came to her face. “You going to tell me tomorrow?”

Paul crossed his arms. “Isn’t there some sort of Guild rule about this?”

“Can’t you do something nice for me because I was going to deliver sad news to your parents?”

“How about I share some of the bounty with you?”

To’ka smiled widely, showing all her razor-sharp teeth, and then laughed. “I’m joking.”

Paul ran a hand across her face. “I know.” He sat there, with her head in his lap, hand on her cheek, staring into her eyes, completely silent except for a gentle rumble from his throat.

If only things were a bit different, Paul thought.

“You’re giving me the look,” To’ka whispered. Her ears twitched slightly as she leaned her head into Paul’s hand. “And you’re making that weird noise, whether you know it or not.”

Paul’s face felt hot. He brought his hand back. “Sorry. I didn’t – “

“Stop apologizing! You told me once tonight that you’re not feeling okay, I’m looking out for you.” She took his hand back and bit it playfully. Paul could barely feel it through his handwraps. “Just promise me something.”

“What?”

“Promise me that if you find that dragon before me, that you’ll come back alive.” She looked up again at Paul with those golden eyes. “I don’t want to lose you again.”

“Gladly.”

 

Paul carefully unlocked the door to the Dreamwalker’s Den. It had long since closed, and thankfully there were no shrubs in sight. He quietly walked up the steps to Vacht’s suite, unlocked it, and entered.

Paul had expected Vacht to be sitting at the desk, reading a book, or outside at their grove, wherever that was. But instead, they were lying under the covers of their bed.

“Hello,” Vacht said softly to Paul. “Thanks for coming back.”

“Sorry if I woke you,” Paul said. That was something he never expected to say to an elf. “And of course, I came back.”

“I wasn’t asleep. I haven’t been able to meditate any since you got here,” they said. “I tried napping earlier, after you left, but I guess my lack of rest has caught up to me. A good night’s sleep should do me good.”

The dim light from outside cast through a small hole in the curtains, illuminating Vacht’s face. Their eyes were watery and bloodshot.

“Have you been crying?” Paul asked them.

Vacht wiped their eyes and pulled the bedsheets farther up. “Maybe…”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

Vacht sniffed loudly and then smiled. It seemed forced. “You coming back is all the help I need. Did you have a good evening?”

They didn’t have to know about all that happened. “Yeah,” Paul said. “I met up with an old friend, turns out she’s here for the dragon too.”

“How good of a friend is she?” Vacht asked. They were expecting a particular answer.

“From my time at the Academy,” Paul said. “She’s a cleric of the Tide Bringer. We shared a few drinks and talked. She helped give me some clarity about why I’m here.”

“Oh? Which would be?”

They certainly didn’t need to know about Paul having died and come back to life. When everything else was through he’d tell them. All it would do is just cause them to worry. “The Hearth Mother sent me here to help you.”

Vacht sighed and closed their eyes. “Thank you, Paul. I need my rest. I hope you have pleasant dreams tonight.”

“Me too.”

 

 

Chapter 8: Black Knight

—I will fight to protect the innocent, to empower the helpless, and to right any wrong. I swear this day to the gods that I will fight until I cannot anymore, and will continue my struggle until I die. And when I die, my soul will sing of my brothers and sisters who live on.—

—Excerpt, Confirmatory Oath of the Order of the Heliotrope

Paul startled awake. It was morning. The burning specter had visited him again in his dreams. Paul was covered in oil and the creature wanted to touch him. It spoke to him in that dream, that it wanted to know why Paul kept running from it.

In the dream, Paul could see the charred blue scales over the specter’s body, its razor-sharp teeth and claws, its burning hate-filled eyes.

“I’m not you!” Paul yelled at it. “I’ll never be a monster like you!”

Before the specter could respond, Paul had awoken, left crying on the uncomfortable cot. The smell of the oil was gone, replaced by the lingering scent of cinnamon. Paul wiped his eyes and sniffed deeply. The smell had disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Vacht was already awake, busy fastening a scabbard to their belt, having already dressed in dull red leather armor.

“Sleep well?” they asked. “I didn’t sense you dreaming last night.”

Paul nodded, sat up, and swung his legs onto the floor. “Best in a long time,” he lied.

“I’ve already packed the bag with your armor and sword, and some other things. I figured you’d not want to wear plate armor before we need to.” They sighed wistfully. “It was odd seeing people walking around in full plate even when I was young.”

Vacht picked up a slender, curved sword with a black blade and equally black hilt. They held the saber out and said, “Ild,” causing the blade of the sword to erupt into smokeless fire. They said the word again, causing the sword to extinguish.

Paul slipped his clothes off, too tired to bother with any sense of decency in front of the dark elf and searched for fresh clothes in a dusty dresser. Vacht quickly looked away, busy tying their hair up into a top knot and putting a garland of small violet flowers on their head.

“Top drawer,” they said. “I put some clothing in there that should fit you.”

“Thanks,” Paul said as he began to dress himself. “What’s with the garlands?

“They’re alyssum flowers. Don’t halflings wear them for special occasions? I was reading about it last night before you came in.”

“I’m mostly dressed now,” Paul said, signaling the unusually polite dark elf to spin back around to face him. “We do wear garlands, but I wouldn’t call going off to slay a dragon is that special of an occasion.”

Vacht wrapped a hooded cloak around their body, pinning it tightly together, and slipped on their dark glasses. “Do you mind if I hide in your pocket? I could be a mouse or a hamster while we go to the Alabaster Inn to meet your uncle and Joe.”

“I don’t want you having to hide while you’re out during the day.”

“It’s what I’ve lived with for years now and what I’ll have to live with for a while longer, at least.” They picked up an ornate leather satchel and tossed it at Paul. “Your stuff’s in there.”

Paul opened the satchel and peered into its dark interior. With the dim light in the room the bottom of it couldn’t be seen, but it was far deeper than the outside would indicate. It was a displacer bag.

Paul put his hand in the opening and thought, armor. A quiet rustling came from the interior of the bag, and he felt the helmet of his plate armor against his hand as the contents rearranged themselves.

“I have an idea,” Paul said, as he continued pulling out the suit of armor piece by piece.

“What?”

Paul smiled and waved at Vacht to come over. “I need you to help me put this on, I can’t get the straps tight enough on my own.”

Vacht suddenly grew very quiet. “Isn’t this uncomfortable though?” they whispered. “I don’t want you to do this for me.”

“I want you to be able to walk the streets with me as your bodyguard. No one will harass you if I’m dressed up in armor,” Paul said. “Besides, this is more comfortable than you being stuck in my pocket.”

Paul had to get on his knees for Vacht to help him buckle and adjust the parts of his armor that attached around his neck and shoulders. Vacht seemed reluctant at first, but they grew more comfortable as Paul instructed them in how to cinch the armor on tight and how to tie parts of it to his gambeson.

Vacht held Paul’s face after buckling his gorget on to protect his throat. “Mother always told me that I was her special princess. Didn’t realize I’d end up having a knight kneeling at my feet though.”

Paul’s face felt like it was on fire. “I-I never really dreamed of myself as being a knight growing up.”

Vacht winked at Paul. “I know, Jeaneth told me. You were always the dragon while playing games as a child.”

Paul tried to think of what to say, but instead just huffed.

“Feeling a bit apprehensive about actually having to kill one?” Vacht asked. “Tartarean dragons are the epitome of evil, I’m told. They’re the reason why the Imperium Draconiswent away thousands of years ago.” Vacht handed Paul a leather cord. “To tie up your hair, even if I like it all wild.”

“I liked to imagine that I was an empyrean dragon, and that the prince really hated royal life, so I’d fly away with him to rescue him from the knights.”

Paul yelped as Vacht quickly tapped his nose with a long fingernail. “I suppose Greenfield is sort of like a castle. I don’t see myself as royalty, but I wouldn’t mind a dragon taking me somewhere nice.” They pulled up Paul up to their feet. “I bet you were cute as a kid,” they cooed.

“I bet you were cute too—" Paul clamped his mouth shut as he realized what he said out loud. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t—"

Vacht waved a hand dismissively. “No apologies. How about we talk more about each other when this dragon business is over? I’ve shared a lot about me—I’m curious about you.”

This dark elf was certainly an enigma. Paul had tried to keep the details of his life secret from most people ever since he first left home years ago. Maybe everything that had been happening really was a sign from the Hearth Mother? His only close family members outside of his parents were his sworn family, and his only real friendship that had lasted was with To’ka. Maybe Paul could open up more to others?

Paul smiled. “I’d like that.” He reached a hand into his bag and thought, sword. He felt the grip of his sword enter his hand and he pulled the six-foot long weapon out of the small bag. “Shall we go?” he asked, giving the bag back to Vacht as he slipped the tight full-face helmet over his head.

Jeaneth was working the store again, downstairs. Several shrubs were organizing shelves, one of them seemingly supervising the others while writing down in a notebook. She waved at Paul and held out to him a cup with a steaming drink in it.

“Thirsty, Big Guy?” she said.

The cup was filled with tea. She winked.

“I…” Paul sighed. “Oh… your mother. Look, we didn’t—"

“It’s alright,” Jeaneth said. “Can you introduce me to your Marsh-folk girlfriend? I’ve never met one before.”

“She’s not my girlfriend—"

“After the dragon,” Vacht said and took Paul by the arm. “Come now, my dragon-knight.”

The journey to the Alabaster Inn still attracted stares from the people in the city as they walked down the street, Vacht once again having intertwined their arm around Paul’s own. Instead of being repelled in fear or distaste, the people instead stared at the pair with wide eyes. Talks of a “black swordsman,” a “golem under the control of the witch,” and a “dead-eyed juggernaut” were not exactly what Paul was hoping for. However, Vacht hummed happily to themself as they made their way to the inn.

Paul had to lower his sword as Vacht opened the door for him, still bumping the top of the doorframe with its cloth-wrapped tip as he crouched. The patrons inside the main dining room stopped talking as the two walked in, but quickly resumed as Paul, with some effort, slipped the helmet off his head.

In a corner of the dining room sat Duncar and Joe.

“Morning lads! Get your arses over here!” Duncar bellowed with a laugh.

All four ordered breakfast for themselves. Paul and Vacht, the same as yesterday along with a cinnamon roll for each, while Duncar ordered something involving a great amount of potatoes and sausages. Joe ordered yogurt, with berries, and a generous helping of biscuits.

As the four of them began eating, Joe looked at Paul and mouthed, “Sorry.”

Paul ignored him, said a quick prayer of thanks to the Hearth Mother, and then began eating. “Duncar, what’s your plan exactly, now that Vacht is with us?”

“I’m curious myself.”

“So, lads,” Duncar, said, “there is a field, east of town, at the Gambesh family farm—"

“I know of the Gambeshes,” Vacht interjected. “They hate me, especially the husband, Victor.” They took off their glasses and rolled their eyes for emphasis. “Came to me about… two months ago, complaining I sent some sort of monster to eat one of his cows or something. I threw him out, got a complaint from the Constable about it, but haven’t heard anything since. Now that this whole dragon business is going on I suppose that’s what attacked their animals?”

Duncar laughed. “Aye. I’ve been asking around and I believe our dragon friend is going to be striking those Gambeshes again. Every three days a cow gets eaten up at a nearby farm, most of the meat all swallowed up, but the entrails left behind, minus the liver.”

Joe nearly spat out his coffee. “That sounds like a cockatrice! Those feathered flying lizards can supposedly kill with a gaze and love eating the livers of bovines. I don’t have anything to keep something from staring me to death!”

“Don’t worry, my boy!”

“Joe’s right,” Vacht said. “True dragons aren’t known for being so specific with what they eat.”

“Aye, that’s true, however a cockatrice looks nothing like a dragon. Cockatrices are less like a true dragon than Paulie here is to one.”

Paul huffed. Vacht patted him on the shoulder and then pinched his cheek. “Don’t worry, you’ll always be my dragon.”

Duncar laughed and slapped his knee. “Oh, lad! I don’t have to be a dokkar to be able to tell you’re blushing from that!”

“Uncle,” he whined.

“You see,” Duncar continued, “the dragon is rotating around the different farms in the region in the same exact order, something no other dragonoid would do. I spoke with an old gnome named Poligo who told me he saw the dragon in person! From what he told me of its appearance, I thought, storm dragon!”

Vacht sighed. “I’m surprised old Poligo saw anything that wasn’t at the bottom of a pint glass.”

“So, what’s the plan to get the dragon?” Joe asked.

“Vee,” Duncar said, nearly spitting out a potato he had just put in his mouth. “Do you mind if I call you Vee?”

They shook their head. “My name is—"

“Vee, you can turn into any animal you see, correct?”

Vacht rolled their eyes and nodded. “Of course! It’s a bit more complicated than just seeing an animal, but it was one of the first things I learned when I began to follow the Path of the Wilds.”

Duncar leaned forward in his chair. His eyes widened. “Can you turn into the most beautiful and delicious looking cow the continent has ever seen?”

Vacht leaned away from him. “Yes… Why?”

“As bait!” Duncar bellowed. “There’s a nice little raised hill over at that farm with a few trees on it and some scrub. You appear as a pretty cow, ripe for the picking of the dragon, while Paul, Joe, and me lie in wait. From how the valley is shaped there shouldn’t be much worry about the wind blowing our scent over.”

“And then I get eaten?”

“From what Poligo said it’s not very big, can’t be much longer than a wagon, so it can’t eat you whole,” Duncar said. “So, when the dragon comes in, you cast a magic spell to wrap it in vines or something, Joe uses a bit of magic too and his six-shooters, Paul goes in with that big old sword of his and whacks its neck while I leap at it and hammer the stahbanout of its head with- Er… Paul, what’s a better name for my hammer?”

Paul thought briefly. “Perhaps… drak occis? It means ‘dragon slayer,’ more or less.”

“Nah lad, I like ‘dragon fucker’ better! Because that’s what I’m gonna do to that beastie!” The dwarf slammed his fist on the table, nearly causing all their drinks to fall over.

Vacht erupted in laughter from Duncar’s outburst. “Paul, I like your uncle. I hope the rest of your family is like this!”

Breakfast continued as Duncar took Vacht’s approval of him to mean that he should begin sharing every embarrassing story he could imagine involving Paul as a child. Like the time Paul had tried to find out if orcs shed their skin like drakons, or the time Paul thought he was becoming a werewolf after being bitten by a neighbor's small dog, and then the one time where Paul was curious about Liam’s fangs.

Paul could feel the familiar pangs of anxiety in his chest. “Can we just get going and kill this dragon?”

Joe smiled. “Oh? I’d like to hear more about this ‘fang incident,’ Duncar.”

Paul whined again, sounding like a puppy that had been kicked. “Uncle,” he pleaded.

Vacht lightly rapped their knuckles on the back of Paul’s hand. “Why? Afraid it’ll slay the wrong dragon through embarrassment?” They winked, eliciting more laughter from Duncar.

“Paulie’s right,” Duncar said. “We should get going. From my estimates it should be there by midafternoon.”

As Duncar paid for the food they gathered their things and went out front as the dwarf and the bard disappeared behind the building. After a few moments Duncar came back with a sturdy pony, perfectly sized for a dwarf. He mounted the horse and raised a brow at Paul. “Eh, either of you have a horse to ride on? Bogin can only fit me.”

Paul had bought a horse after he had left Wavemeet. He couldn’t remember its name, or even really what it looked like, but he had left it behind in Peitzen just before he died. He hoped it was okay.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to get a horse of my own since coming here.” Paul looked down at Vacht and smiled. Now it was time to get a bit of revenge against the druid. “Well, Vacht?”

Vacht looked up at Paul and furrowed their brow. “What?”

“I can’t exactly walk all the way out of town with these ill-fitting boots you found me. That and this armor isn’t built for me to walk such long distances.”

Vacht put their hands on their hips. Even with their dark glasses Paul could feel them glare at him. “I’m not turning into a horse for you to ride on.”

Vahct spread their arms out and their form shifted, the leather armor sprouting black feathers as Vacht transformed into a raven. They fluttered about and landed on Paul’s shoulder, their claws pattering on his metal armor.

“Look!” they squawked, with Vacht’s elvish voice copied through the ravens. “I’m riding a dragon!”

Duncar laughed as people coming and leaving the inn tried to ignore the trio. Vacht returned Duncar’s laughter in his own voice.

Joe finally appeared on his mount, an enormous black warhorse with a long mane adorned in equally black tack with silver.

The bard grinned. “You can always ride with me. Plenty of room on Castle for the both of us.”

Paul sighed. Walking on foot was out of the question.

“Fine,” he growled.

Vacht fluttered over to Duncar and landed on his pony. Joe offered Paul a hand which Paul swatted away as he pulled himself up onto the saddle, behind the bard.

“How long does it take to reach this farm?” Paul asked. He sniffed the air, thankfully Joe wasn’t wearing lavender.

“A few hours,” Joe said. “Can we talk about last night?”

“No,” Paul hissed.

They all began on their way to the outskirts of the city. Paul held onto Joe’s hips to steady himself upon the massive horse. He could feel the tension in the man’s body.

“Paul, I want to apologize for last night.”

“You want to apologize for loading me up with drugs last night?” Paul spat at him. “Before I blacked out, I was still wearing my pants. Did I somehow misplace them?”

“You seemed to like it, and you kept saying you wanted more after snorting all that dust. I suggested we kept going on, and you were gleefully stripping the rest of your clothes off. I figured that– “

Paul wrapped a hand around Joe’s slim neck.Kill the bard

, the little voice told him. “If I were from Zornea I would’ve snapped your neck for doing that to me,” Paul whispered through clenched teeth. “You’re lucky that I was taught to not waste my time on fools like yourself, who think that just because someone can’t say ‘no’ that doing anything you please to them is okay.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it would upset you,” Joe said, suddenly gasping as Paul tightened his grip. “Y-y-you were lucky to be raised by halflings, yes? I assume they were very loving parents, much more so than those who abandoned you.” Paul’s vision began to go red from that. “I didn’t have such luxuries growing up on the streets in Ontson.“

“You don’t get to explain yourself,” Paul growled.

It would be easy to crush his throat, the little voice said. No one would blame you.

Instead, Paul snaked his other hand from Joe’s hip to his groin. “I was raised by halflings, and they raised me to know the difference between right and wrong. And unless you want me to turn you into a half-man,” he said, tightly squeezing Joe’s groin, “you’ll shut your filthy mouth. After this contract is finished, we are done. If I wanted to, I could bring you to the constable, and I’m willing to bet she’d believe me over you, so consider this a mercy.”

“Thank you,” Joe said as Paul released him.

“You can thank me by never coming near me again.”

It took only a few hours to get out to the farmlands. With the buildings and trees out of the way it was easier to see the gently sloped mountains surrounding Greenfield. The road leading to Wavemeet branched off to the south, heading past the Evergreen Mountains and off to the more temperate coast, passing several other cities bordering the Arcoft Sea before finally reaching Wavemeet.

The farms outside of Greenfield, heading eastward towards the farm of the Gambeshes, were busy with people working the fields, trying to collect the harvest before the first large frost of the year. It was cool, much more so than yesterday, and the farmhands appreciated it as they toiled.

“So, Paul,” Vacht squawked, as they landed on Paul’s shoulder, “your parents are halfings. I assume you worked on a farm?”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “My parents own a little plot of land, but the big farms outside of Wavemeet are just like the ones here.”

“Aye, Vee,” Duncar interjected. “How do you think Paulie got to be such a tall boy? Drakons grow tall and fast, and working hard makes it happen even faster!” Duncar patted his pony and leaned forward, handing a small sugar cube to his mount, which happily lapped it up. “Why, you were only fourteen years old and about the same height you are now, right?”

Paul nodded. “It was pretty difficult growing out of my clothes so quickly.”

“Well that explains–“ Joe began as Paul smacked him in the back of his head, knocking his hat onto his lap. “I was just going to say you’re a very muscular young man!”

Vacht made a loud clacking sound, and then spoke again. “How old were you when you were adopted?”

Duncar was silent, waiting to see what his sworn nephew was going to say. Paul thought for a moment and then reached over with his free hand and patted Vacht on the head. “How about I tell you after we defeat the dragon?”

They eventually left the road, heading out to a freshly cut field. In the center of it, like a tiny island, was a small hill, the spot where the three of them would ambush the dragon. They dismounted and climbed to the top of the hill and surveyed the land. A forest led to the east, running up into the mountains. To the west was the Gambeshes’ home.

“Thank the gods and the Ancestors those assholes aren’t out here,” Vacht squawked. They landed on the ground and shifted back into their elvish form. “If I had to deal with that family yelling at me again, I’d pull my feathers out. “

“Duncar,” Joe said, “What do we do now? You, me, and Paul hide under some of the cut grass and Vacht waits on the hill?”

“That’s the plan lad, should only be a few hours. Maybe we can get a nap in or something?”

Vacht sighed. “Guess I should start figuring out what sort of cow I should look like.”

Paul smiled and closed his eyes. He could feel the wind blowing gently up against his face. He sat his sword on the ground and sighed. “I almost hate that we have to fight against a dragon. It sure is a lovely day.”

“It is,” Duncar said.

Paul opened his eyes and looked down. Vacht was looking up at him, smiling widely, their green eyes peeking out from the top of their darkened glasses.

“What is it?” Paul asked.

“You seem peaceful here,” they said.

“I like the outdoors,” he said. “I’d always spend my time at school daydreaming being outside.”

Vacht nodded. They rose up on the tips of their boots, towards Paul, and whispered, “And you don’t have to ride with Joe anymore. Ravens have surprisingly good hearing compared to dwarves.”

Paul’s face grew hot. “Oh… sorry. I… I didn’t mean to lose control with him.”

“Don’t apologize,” Vacht whispered. “He isn’t deserving of any kindness, and there is no shame in anger over someone who has wronged you. It doesn’t make you a monster, or a bad man, it simply means you’re a person with feelings. When this is over, I’ll turn into a horse and you can me back to town.”

I don’t think I deserve your kindness, was what the little voice in his head wanted him to say. “Thanks,” was what Paul said instead.

Paul’s outburst at the inn yesterday morning, his breakdown in front of Duncar, the previous night with Joe… Everything seemed to be spiraling around, faster than Paul could think.

It’s the stress of a near-death experience, the little voice said. You nearly got that child killed in Peitzen. Can you risk Vacht dying too?

“Are you okay?” Vacht asked.

Paul nodded. “I’m just nervous.”

“No need to worry Paulie,” Duncar bellowed. He walked up to his nephew and slapped him on the back, causing his armor to ring. “Wow, this really doesn’t fit right.”

Male drakons usually had much wider shoulders and longer arms than humans, as the fit of the armor reminded him. The cuirass was far too narrow in order to fit all the mismatched pieces of armor. Thinking about his ill-fitting boots and armor made Paul think less about the dragon, and all the ways he could fail Duncar and Vacht.

Paul forced a smile onto his face. “Maybe I can buy something nice with the money from this job?”

Paul turned his head as he heard a ratcheting sound. Joe was inspecting his wheelgun. The ornate, silvered weapon shone brightly in the midday sun.

“Assuming that we actually make any,” Joe said. “Duncar, I was thinking... if we can reason with the dragon and tell it to bugger off to where it came, what proof do we have that we even met it? We don’t have any witnesses, and you said it isn’t a very big dragon so nobody may see it out here. I know paladins swear themselves to tell the truth, but we’ll need proof.”

Vacht nodded. “Most dragons have horns. If it agrees to leave, we can force it to let us have one as proof.”

“I agree,” Paul said. “We could –“ he stopped. The wind had gusted suddenly, then died back down. A sudden chill ran up his spine as he noticed his breath appear in a cloud of white in front of his face. “It’s here, early!” It had become frighteningly cold, impossible for a storm dragon.

Paul looked out to the forest; a thick fog was rolling in, but the sky above them was clear. There wouldn’t be any way fog would come in during the middle of the day. Paul grabbed his sword, pulled out his helmet from his magic bag and slipped it over his head. “Uncle… what did that gnome tell you the dragon looked like? A storm dragon can’t do this.”

Duncar quickly readied his war hammer. “Uh… it was… whiteish blue. That’s a storm dragon, right lad?”

Vacht turned to face the forest as the fog drew closer. They pulled out their sword and held it at ready. “Did he tell you it in Common, Dwarvish, or Gnomish? Because the word ordering is different with how adjectives are arranged.”

“I don’t need a language lesson, Vee!” Duncar shouted. “This thing must’ve saw us coming!”

“A little baby dragon wouldn’t be able to do this. Vacht! Tell the horses to leave!” Joe shouted. “This thing is a frost dragon. It has to be big!”

Vacht chittered and nickered loudly at the horses at the base of the hill, causing them both to gallop away as fast as they could. Vacht’s antlers glowed with previously hidden runes, focusing their magical power, and they waved their free arm in front of them. Their voice became resonant, echoing. “Stor vind!Reveal our foe!”

Paul felt a blast of air as the wind returned, pushing back at the fog as Vacht cast the spell. As the fog rolled back, Paul could see why it stopped. Swooping from beneath the line of gold and red leaved trees was an enormous dragon. It had a rider atop it, a mountain of a man in glistening, silvery armor. Plates of armor also adorned the icy white and blue scaled dragon, going from its snout and back over thirty feet to the tip of its tail.

The dragon landed at the foot of the hill and raised up on its hind limbs, bringing its rider and its upper body more towards the level of those on the hill.

“Greetings little ones,” the dragon growled. A blast of cold fog came out from its mouth as it spoke. “What brings you here this fair day?”

The dragon had smooth, rounded scales and short feathers running across the top of its icy, horned head and down its thick neck to where its rider sat on a saddle between its wings. It was an empyrean frost dragon.

“You two are heliotrope knights, right? Paul asked. “The flowers embossed on your armor, and the violet tabard…”

The knight atop the dragon turned their head to look at Paul.

“Correct,” the man said, his voice amplified and rumbling beneath the dragon shaped helmet as Vacht’s magical wind died down. The helmet’s mouth was articulated, and large metallic wings attached to the back of his armor flexed outward. “We are with the Order of the Heliotrope.”

A long metal cylinder, the color of bronze, lay across the lap of the armored man, one of his armored taloned hands tapping it. Paul had seen a weapon like it before; it was a rifle, big enough to kill a man from farther way than a person could see with their eyes alone.

Duncar smiled at his fellow adventurers and spoke softly to them. “Ah, looks like that old gnome was as blind or drunk as you said Vee. I’ve dealt with these knights before, everyone just lower your weapons now.”

As Paul and his companions followed Duncar’s lead, the voice of the dragon boomed loudly as a rush of cold air jetted through them all.

“I can hear you quite clearly, master dwarf,” it growled. “Let us introduce ourselves, for we are –“

The dragon suddenly stopped and coughed violently, nearly shaking its rider off. Spittle and drool fell from the dragon’s mouth, crystalizing into ice as it splattered on the ground.

The rider patted the dragon’s neck and turned towards the party. “As my companion was saying, let’s introduce each other,” he hissed. “There’s no need to be strangers.”

Judging from his accent the rider was a drakon. The dragon shaped helm was shaped for his head, not just as a decoration.

“I am Duncar Ironbeard, of Dunfejordan.”

The dragon coughed again and laughed. “Ah, a hill dwarf.”

Paul bowed. “I’m Paul Underhill, of Wavemeet.”

The rider chuckled. “An amusing name. A hill dwarf on top of a hill, and a drakon with a halfling name on top of it.”

Great, Paul thought, for once I’d like to have a good interaction with a drakon where they don’t think I’m a joke or a freak.

“I’m Joe,” the bard said. “Just Joe.”

Vacht paused for a moment. Paul could barely make out their eyes from underneath their glasses, but they were transfixed on the drakon knight.

“My name is Saidlo,” Vacht said.

Saidlo? That was the dwarvish word for saddle, one of the few Paul ever bothered to remember. Duncar seemed confused as he turned to look at Vacht and then looked back at the dragon and his rider.

The dragon cleared its throat. “I am Sir Zazex.”

He had hissed the last part of his name to where a spray of ice crystals fell to the ground in front of Paul.

The rider nodded. “And I am Sir Sivonarang. What brings you here this day?”

Duncar snorted loudly. “I would be asking the same of you, Zazex and Sivon. We are here to face against a tartarean dragon that has been rampaging across the countryside eating the livestock of the fine folk of this community.”

Paul gazed at the saddle that Sivon sat on. Even from the distance between them he could see four large pieces of reddish-brown flesh attached to hooks strapped to the rigging. They were livers. Vacht noticed them and lied about their name to warn them about the saddle. Paul hoped that Joe had noticed at this point.

Zazex chortled and then wheezed. “Oh, Master Duncar. Is it not obvious that I am born of the Progenitor of Light?”

Paul stepped forward. “Are you two on some sort of quest?”

The dragon’s eyes shimmered in the light, the large icy horns on its head refracting the sun. His body was elemental ice made into flesh, every bit of his body was coursing with energy from his elementum.

“Sir Zazex? Sir Sivon?” Paul called. “What are you two doing here? Surely you’re not attacking these farms, right?”

They should have answered immediately. Empyrean dragons were paragons of good and virtue, and the Order of the Heliotrope was founded on those same principles. But neither of them was speaking.

“What are they doing?” Joe whispered to Paul.

“I don’t –“

Paul noticed that Zazex’s mouth was moving slightly, and the mouthpiece of Sivon’s helmet seemed to judder. He remembered how once he saw To’ka speaking with her mind, while not wearing her mask. Her lips moved slightly, as if she were forming the words and patterns being projected into Paul’s head.

Sivon’s arms tensed and the metal wings on his armor contracted. Zazex’s eyes narrowed, and his nostrils flared.

Before Paul could warn Duncar and the others the dragon inhaled sharply and blasted a torrent of white energy out of its mouth. Everyone leaped out of the way, including Paul, trailing behind with his great sword as the far half of the blade was covered in ice.

“Give up!” Sivon yelled at them. “If you lay down your arms, we promise to give you a swift death!”

 

 

Chapter 9: Heliotrope

Any and all dragon-kind who follow the ways of the False Progenitor, That Which Was Called Tartarus, must stay within their lands, as included wherein. And any and all who do not follow these must submit themselves to death, either from those dragon-kind who follow the ways of the True Progenitor, That Which Was Called Empyrean, or the creations of the Progenitor’s creations.

—Article 17, theAccordo Draconis

A straight line, nearly ten feet wide, from one end of the small hill to the other was frozen.

Zazex had lowered himself back down to walk on all fours, sinking back down below the edge of the hill. He easily climbed up to the hill as his rider, Sivon, leaped off the dragon. Membranes of red energy glowed within the metal wings attached to his armor as he sailed through the air, rifle in one hand, and a gleaming longsword in the other.

“Vacht!” Paul shouted as he readied his frozen sword. “Vines! Now!”

“It’s too big!” Vacht yelled back at him. “I can’t!”

“Do it!” Paul yelled as Sivon landed in front of him.

No witnesses,” Sivon growled in Draconic.

“I believe in you!” Paul shouted at Vacht.

A knight of the Order’s armor, an aegis, was a highly enchanted piece of aethertechnology, far beyond anything Paul had to deal with in the past. His great sword was designed for cutting something much less resilient than the orichalcum plates of an aegis. A strong hit to the head was the same for anybody though, no matter how well padded their helmet was.

Paul swung his sword, but missed as the knight deftly turned his head away at the last moment. Paul pirouetted, spinning around and striking Sivon firmly in the side of the head as he passed beside him.

The knight grunted in pain, but the blow was blunted. Paul had hit him with the far frozen half of the sword, the weak part. With a loud bang the frozen end of the sword shattered into pieces.

Paul cursed and blocked several quick slashes from the knight. Sivon’s metallic wings flared and with no effort he was able to leap up and over Paul, landing behind him.

Paul switched his hands, grabbing the broken end of the sword with his left and the sharpened end just under the cross guard with his right. Half-swording was going to be his next plan – it usually didn’t involve a literal half-sword – but using the pommel and cross guard as an improvised war hammer was the only option.

Paul could hear more fighting away from himself. Joe was firing his wheelgun at the dragon, and Duncar was slamming his hammer into the beast’s armored shoulder.

“Damnit, lad! This hammer doesn’t work against such a big boy!” Duncar shouted between his rapid dodging of bites from the dragon.

“I can see that, quite clearly!” Joe yelled back as he holstered his gun. He swung his guitar back around and ran towards Vacht.

Wind started to beat outward across the hilltop. The dragon was flapping his wings, getting ready to fly.

“Vee! Now!” Duncar shouted. “You can do it!”

Vacht raised their arms above their head, and then swung downwards towards the ground as they antlers glowed again. “Vriden vinstok!” they shouted,

and as they raised their hands back up slowly, enormous black vines erupted from the ground and wrapped around the dragon’s wings and neck. The runes on their antlers continued to glow as they concentrated on keeping the vines in place around the enormous dragon.

Zazex cursed in Draconic and began inhaling sharply as he rose his head. Blueish-white light glowed beneath the scales of his chest that were visible beneath his armor. He was ready to exhale another blast of his frost breath.

“Ice, right?” Joe asked as he began rapidly strumming on his guitar.

“Yes! Ice!” Paul yelled at him as Sivon swung his sword, catching Paul on his right shoulder. Paul yelped in pain as the armor dented inward sharply, cutting through his gambeson.

Sivon coughed loudly, gasping for air as he fell to a knee. Red lights flickered from inlaid lines etched into his aegis.

Paul focused on a vibrating thread of magic within his mind, one that shone brightly with the Light that the Hearth Mother granted him to strike down his enemies. He forced that Light into the hilt of his sword, causing it to glow white, and swung it at Sivon’s head. Like the sound of a bell, the energy discharged with Paul’s blow, sending Sivon over onto his back. Paul readied his sword again, this time with the broken tip out, and stabbed downward towards one of the eyeholes of Sivon’s helmet.

Paul shouted, half in surprise and half in pain, as the broken end of the sword struck against a translucent lens on the eyehole. The sharp pain in his scarred hands, from the sudden stopping of the sword, caused him to drop it. Before he could recover, Sivon had stabbed at Paul’s throat, the edge of his sword grazing Paul’s neck as his metal gorget deflected most of the attack.

Joe had ran in front of Vacht, strumming fast on his guitar as he cast a spell. A roaring wall of fire erupted in front of them both, protecting them from the dragon’s icy breath, which turned to a cloud of hot steam as it met the flame.

“Vee! Pull its head down!” Duncar shouted. “Its head isn’t as protected!”

Vacht grunted and pulled downward with their arms as their antlers glowed brighter. The dragon struggled even more, trying to keep its body upright.

Sivon had let go of his sword and rifle and grabbed Paul by an ankle, sweeping him off his feet. The heavier knight mounted Paul, straddling his chest. He opened his mouth, the articulated jaws of his helmet opening along with it. Paul could see part of his face more clearly now. He had deep red scales, and waves of heat rolling out of his mouth. He was a fire drakon.

Paul wasn’t prepared for any of this. His body had weakened, and his thoughts were becoming too scattered to focus the Light through his body to boost his strength and stamina any farther.

You’re going to die. You’re going to burn to death just like in your nightmares.

Paul brought his forearms up to cover his face as a torrent of fire streamed from Sivon’s mouth, scorching his arms, and causing him to scream in pain. Thankfully, it didn’t last long, but as Paul lowered his arms he was struck in the face with a heavy gauntlet.

Sivon was stronger, either naturally or because of his aegis. He ripped Paul’s helmet off and battered him again and again with his fists.

Sivon!” Zazex roared. “There are more coming! I see them in the distance We must leave! We have more than enough for the old woman! Kill the dark elf and free me!”

Paul spit blood out of his mouth as Sivon rose off him. “One moment,” Sivon growled, and he quickly gathered his rifle.

“Not yet!” Joe yelled. He reached behind his back and pulled out another wheelgun, black in color and with a shorter barrel than the other.

One shot seemed to hit Sivon, harmlessly deflecting off his armor. The bard lowered the wheelgun to his hip, using his other hand to rapidly slam back on the hammer as he pulled the trigger.

Sivon raised his hand, his wings glowed red, and a shimmering field of red light appeared in front of himself. The last five bullets stopped in front of the knight and then fell harmlessly to the ground. The glowing stopped as Sivon raised his rifle upward.

Vacht is going to die. You’re going to fail them.

Paul clenched his chest, feeling his elementumpulsate and flow its energies into his lungs and out through his maw. His mouth numbed as a bolt of lightning shot from his mouth and struck Sivon just as he fired his rifle.

Sivon flinched, sending his shot whizzing over Vacht’s head, causing the dark elf to shout in surprise. Paul could see the bullet the rifle had fired was a brilliant sphere of red light. As it flew out towards the trees it exploded, as if he had cast a fireball spell by simply pulling a trigger.

Vacht’s antlers ceased to glow. The thread of magic they were concentrating on had broken from the shock of nearly being shot. The vines around the dragon loosened.

Let’s go!” Sivon yelled as he unshouldered his rifle and grabbed his sword off the ground.

Paul got up and ran at Sivon as the knight’s wings extended, and he began to fly upward. Paul grabbed his legs and was pulled aloft.

“Wait!” Duncar shouted. He was holding onto the dragon’s head, ready to swing his hammer as it bucked him off, finally tearing free of the enchanted vines.

The dragon was flying, along with Sivon, and now Paul himself as was dangling from the legs of the armored knight. In the distance Paul could see what looked to be at least a dozen riders on horses coming from the city as fast as they could. At least some of the other adventurers in town had realized what had been happening from all the noise.

The hill, the ground, everything was getting much smaller as he was being pulled up. The dragon though was getting closer as Sivon landed on his back. A swift kick to the face sent Paul sliding down, away from the saddle.

Paul desperately grabbed at part of the harnessing for Zazex’s armor, stopping his slide.

“Stop this!” Paul shouted. “You’re nothing more than common thugs!”

Spin!”Sivon yelled at the dragon.

Dizzy,”Zazex replied. “

Getting very dizzy. Can only fly straight. Shoot him! No witnesses! Have to make it to the old woman!

They were high, too high for Paul to ever hope to survive a fall. They were flying towards the city. There had to be some way to stop it, to put it down without causing the dragon to crash into a building.

“No witnesses,” Sivon said in Common as he reached to a holster on the saddle.

Paul growled and forced himself up, unsteadily running across the back of the dragon and tackling Sivon as he drew a single-shot hand cannon, larger than both of Joe’s wheelguns put together. Paul grabbed Sivon’s arms, trying with all his might to stop him.

Sivon was able to reach to his belt and pulled out an enormous shell, the same size as what his rifle used, and stuffed it into the breech of the gun. The shell had writing on it in Draconic, annihilate.

Paul inhaled deeply and forced another blast of lightning at Sivon as he cocked the hand cannon. He forced more and more of his lightning into his lungs, straining his elementumas he shocked the knight continuously, making Sivon scream in pain as he fought to aim the gun at Paul.

Let go of me!”Sivon yelled as he struggled against Paul to free his arm.

The knight’s arms weakened from the pain as the torrent of lightning began to flicker, spots of blood spraying onto Sivon’s chest as Paul felt something tear deep within his own. He screamed in pain and felt a warmth gather in his heart, the Light of the Hearth Mother, surging through his veins, magnifying his strength. Finally, with a pop and a shout of pain Sivon’s arm dislocated at the elbow. Paul forced the gun, still in Sivon’s hand, to aim back towards Zazex. He slid a finger onto the trigger and pulled it. A beam of black energy shot out from the gun, passing with no effort through the back of the dragon’s head.

Zazex made no shout of pain, no noise at all. Paul could feel the dragon underneath him relax as blood sprayed from the perfectly circular hole through Zazex’s head. They both fell from the back of the dragon and Zazex spun slowly towards the ground.

However, Paul was still grappled with Sivon.

“Let go!” Sivon screamed. “You killed him! I wanted to save him!”

Paul swung wildly at Sivon’s chin, forcing all the magical energy left within him into his arm. With a snap Paul felt his right hand break and Sivon grew limp.

Paul yelled in pain and then in fright as the metallic wings on Sivon’s aegis went dark and retracted. They were falling. Sivon couldn’t be held aloft if he was unconscious.

“Fuck!” Paul shouted as he felt a sharp pain in his elementum. He spat blood out as he held onto Sivon tightly. “Wake up!”

Paul could lay hands upon Sivon to heal him, hopefully waking him up, but he needed at least one good hand to hold onto the falling knight. Trees were rapidly approaching.

“Wake up you stupid – “

Sivon’s armor shuddered, and the sensation of falling suddenly lessened. The armor must’ve been designed to have the same effect as a slow falling spell if its wearer’s wings didn’t work.

Paul, however, wasn’t prepared for the sudden deceleration.

A tall oak tree was what greeted him as he lost his grip. One branch knocked the wind out of him, another nearly ripped his right arm out of its socket, another clipped a leg and sent him spinning, and finally the ground embraced him in darkness.

Paul felt warm.

“You have to wake up Paul.”

It felt like he was floating in water, moving upwards through a moonless night sky.

“Where am I?” Paul asked.

“You can’t come home just yet.”

He sighed. It was so relaxing floating amongst the stars. All his worries melted away, left behind at wherever he floated from. No pain, no anxiety, no anger… nothing.

“Where’s home at?”

As Paul floated upwards, he saw a reflection. He had been floating up through the water and had reached the surface. The figure reflected wasn’t Paul, at least he couldn’t recognize the face. The reflection was immolated, burning violently. The drakon’s features were burnt away, revealing charred flesh and bone underneath. It was the burning specter that haunted Paul’s dreams in his youth.

The specter reached through the surface of the water with its burning hand, the fire still raging despite being immersed.

“You must remember, Paul.”

Paul opened his eyes and gasped. A spicy scent, cinnamon, and the familiar coppery smell of blood filled his nose.

Everything hurt. The world spun as Paul rolled to his right side, a loud click issuing from his shoulder as he felt it move around loosely in its socket. Trying to adjust himself with his legs caused them both to give out.

He had fallen deep in a forest, luckily outside of town. Sivon was out of sight. He was alone.

Paul cleared his throat and spat a blood clot on the ground. Small arcs of energy crackled around it. His elementumwas torn. He strained it far too much trying to stop Sivon.

Paul gathered the Light of the Hearth Mother in his left hand, causing it to glow with a soft golden light.

“Pela, please grant me–“

His prayer was cut short as he laid his hand on his shoulder. The searing heat of the magic mending his shoulder and spreading outward, touching his broken hand, scorched forearms, bruised ribs, cut neck, and twisted leg, caused him to scream in pain.

You almost died again, the little voice in Paul’s head told him. You’re useless. You’re a liability to yourself and your friends.

A familiar grip of anxiety began to deaden Paul’s pain. He rolled over onto his stomach and unsteadily rose on his hands and knees.

“I killed a dragon,” he said. He closed his eyes and took in an unsteady breath. “I killed a drakon and a dragon. I killed two knights of the Order of the Heliotrope because they were damned cow thieves.” He sighed. “Hell of a day for me.”

Paul saw stars again—not from a dream—but from the boot of Sivon striking him in the side of the head, sending him rolling onto his back.

“You killed Zazex,” Sivon growled. He was gasping as blood was pouring down the mouth of his helmet, staining his scorched violet tabard.

“You’re a thief,” Paul gurgled at him, spitting more blood on the ground. “You are supposed to stand for something. What the hell happened with you?”

“No witnesses,” Sivon mumbled as he grabbed Paul by the neck and lifted him up.

The claws on his gauntlets dug into Paul’s neck as the weaker drakon struggled to hold onto Sivon’s arms to steady himself.

“Why are you doing this?” Paul gasped.

“No—” Sivon began to cough and sputter, more blood coming out of his mouth.

He dropped Paul and took a step back, ripping off his helmet as he gasped more. Blood was trickling from his eyes and nose. With a metallic whir and a wet squelch, the spine-like apparatus attached to Sivon’s back which his metallic wings were mounted to, fell to the ground with a thud.

Sivon’s helmet sealed over his gorget, but with it off both his head and his neck were vulnerable. Paul still had his dagger in his boot. He only had one chance.

Paul grabbed one of Sivon’s wrists and reached behind the knight’s waist. He rotated his body to bump his hips against Sivon’s body, trying to get low to knock the knight off balance so he could toss him over his hips.

Sivon resisted. He was still too strong.

Paul straightened himself back out. With a yell he pulled with all his strength to drag Sivon towards him. The knight resisted, as expected, pulling back towards himself with equal force. As Sivon widened his stance Paul quickly tipped the knight’s upper body slightly and kicked him in the ankle on his farthest leg, causing Sivon to fall backwards and pulling Paul on top of himself.

Paul moved himself over top of Sivon, his hips over the knight’s, straddling him. He punched Sivon in the face, stunning him long enough for Paul to pull out his dagger and move it to Sivon’s throat.

The knight grabbed Paul by the wrist, struggling to keep him from bringing it to his throat.

“You’ll die!” Sivon growled.

“Yield!” Paul shouted at him.

There was a look in the knight’s bloodshot eyes. There was a look of unbridled hatred, and something else, regret.

“Kill me, if you can,” Sivon said. He opened his mouth. Waves of heat started to roll out as a light as red as his scales started to glow from within.

Paul screamed and leaned forward, forcing all his weight downward, breaking through Sivon’s grip and plunging the dagger into his neck, just above his gorget.

Blood poured from the wound, sizzling with embers of fire. The flames licked over his neck and out of his mouth and nose as he groaned in pain. Paul pulled out the dagger and stabbed again.

He continued, again and again. Sivon’s face was stained different shades of red, smoke lolled out of his mouth and nose. Paul threw away his dagger and stood up.

Sivon was dead.

Paul had killed several people before; they were bandits with the Blackthorns. Although he never learned their names, he remembered their faces. Two human men, one with light skin the other with tanned skin. One halfling, a woman. And a light elf, also a woman.

Why could he remember those faces but not those of his former companions?

There was a disconnect between what he did then and how he felt. They were ruthless bandits who preyed on the weak. Sivon was a knight who swore to never do any of that.

Sivon was a drakon. Paul had killed a person who looked like him.

Paul wretched and stumbled away from Sivon’s corpse.

Everything was too bright. The forest was spinning and wouldn’t stop.

You murdered him,the voice said.

He looked like Sulbor, didn’t he? You couldn’t kill Sulbor that day, so this one was just as good, right?

There was a ringing in Paul’s head. He couldn’t get it to stop. Paul closed his eyes and breathed in and out as he gripped the sides of his head. He had to center himself.

What did he hear? Nothing.

What did he feel? Warm liquid pouring out of the sides of his head.

What did he taste? Blood.

Something was holding his arms, shaking him.

He opened his eyes. It was Vacht.

“Paul, are you alright?” they asked.

The sound of their voice was muffled, like they were underwater.

“Paul you’re bleeding out of your nose and ears,” Vacht said. “One of your eyes is dilated—" Paul’s legs gave out. With a grunt Vacht grabbed Paul and eased him onto the ground.

“It’s alright, I have you,” Vacht said and caressed his face. “I’ve always had you, ever since we first met.”

Paul tried to say something, anything, but could only whimper.

“You’ll be okay,” Vacht said. “I can heal you with magic. I can make you better.” Vacht sniffled as they held Paul close. “I can save you.” The sun shining through the trees above was blocked by the dark elf, forming a halo of light around them.

“I won’t let go Paul, I’ll never let go. I promise.”

Paul’s vision blurred. He could see three figures. One in shadow and two formed by the fuzzy halo.

“We never let go of you then. We will always be with you.”

Chapter 10: The Prince and the Dragon

“Paul Underhill needs time off, now. From what he told me of what happened with himself by the criminal known as the Verdant, his experiences that led to his Revelation with the Hearth Mother, I’m surprised that he lasted his first year here. I’ll remind you, Headmaster, that drakons experience emotions much more acutely than us humans; and Paul wasn’t afforded the education as a child to deal with it. His wounds today may have been superficial, but if the scars on his hands and his thigh are any indication, then it won’t be the last. I know an alienist in town, and I want Paul seeing her three times a week, and I’m recommending he be dropped from the demonology class, at least for this semester. It’s dangerous to have students near demons, especially if they are not one-hundred precent ready mentally.”

—Else Tausch, Assistant Headmaster, The Academy of St. Arianna

“It’s time to wake up Paul.”

Paul rolled over on his side. His entire body felt warm with the fresh smelling grass beneath him, and the bright sun above.

“Just a few more minutes,” Paul lazily yawned. “I haven’t slept this well in so long.” He opened his eyes to see Vacht’s green eyes looking back at him.

“Hello there, my drowsy little dragon,” Vacht said. Paul was lying on the ground in the forest, his head in Vacht’s lap.

“Good… morning?” Paul furrowed his brow. “How long was I out?”

Vacht smiled. “You still are.”

Paul startled awake. To’ka was over top of him, adorned in armor, her interoscope humming softly as she waved it over his head. Paul opened his mouth to speak but coughed and sputtered, his head bouncing painfully off something warm and furry.

He groaned as a buzzing sensation gathered behind his eyes.

Vacht had healed him with magic, with the help of her interoscope to guide their spells. His elementum was still badly injured, but it should heal naturally on its own.

“How long have I been out?” Paul asked.

Three hours.

“Where’s Duncar?”

Outside the forest with the authorities, and the adventurers who had come to gawk at the Constable’s men trying to load up the corpse of the dragon.

The buzzing in Paul’s head stopped as To’ka grunted at him and embraced him. She was afraid, less than before he woke up, but still, very afraid.

Paul smiled weakly. “I love you too. I’m sorry I scared you.”

Her eyes moved to something to Paul’s left. Before he could turn his head something warm and wet brushed against his cheek; a tongue. It belonged to a large red deer lying on the ground, Paul’s head resting on its stomach. The deer had familiar charms and trinkets entangled within its antlers.

“Vacht?” Paul asked.

The deer huffed and nodded. To’ka helped Paul to sit upright as the deer glowed and changed back to the form of his dark elf companion.

“Sorry about invading your dreams. I had to be sure your head injury didn’t result in you going into yet another catatonic state,” Vacht said. “I’m a bit tired myself from all those healing spells I had to cast. Your friend told me that if I hadn’t arrived when I did you probably would’ve died.”

Paul blinked rapidly. “Your garland is gone.”

“I lost it while running after you when you flew off with the dragon. Now… what’s this about you seeing Paul dead again?””

“That’s twice I owe you for saving my life,” Paul said before To’ka could say anything.

“Once actually,” Vacht said. “You saved me from having that man blasting me into a million pieces with his gun. So, the tally is me being one ahead when it comes to saving.”

Sivon’s body was gone, although the area he was at looked different from where he had fallen. To’ka explained that they tried carrying him out of the forest, but he began seizing, and everyone was afraid to move him before healing magic took full effect on him.

Paul noticed he was only wearing his blood-stained gambeson and pants.He tried turning his head around but gasped and quickly grabbed it with his sore hands. Everything was spinning slightly.

To’ka placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder.

“I’m fine, just dizzy.”

“Magic isn’t that great at replacing blood, as you may know,” Vacht said. “I have some potions back home that might help with that, at least a bit.”

A rustle came from the nearby bushes as Duncar came barreling through.

“Oi lad!” he shouted, causing Paul’s to wince from the sudden loud noise. “Oh—” he paused. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you three. I can go back and—”

Paul shook his head as his ears began to ring again. “No, it’s alright uncle. To’ka, Vacht, can you help me up?”

They both took Paul’s hands and pulled upward. As Paul stood everything spun again. He closed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth.

“I was going to tell you before you got up,” Vacht said, “That tool your friend has said you have a serious concussion still.”

“Head hurts,” Paul groaned. He opened his eyes, and thankfully the world had stopped spinning. He had a sharp pain in his right hand, shoulder, and legs. They were healed, but the nerves were still raw from the injuries he had sustained earlier.

Duncar bounded over to Paul and smacked him on the back, causing his nephew to yelp in pain. “Don’t worry my boy! Every adventurer gets their bell rung at least once! It’s why I always wear a helmet! That and not falling from great heights, like you did. Dwarves like being firmly planted on the ground. It’s why I always first aim for the wings on dragons.”

Things felt fuzzy. Paul remembered fighting the knight on the back of the dragon and waking up on the ground next to a tree, then fighting the knight again and killing him. He must not have realized he had such a serious head injury. Paul coughed, feeling the inside of his chest ache and his head throb.

“I fell from the dragon? I barely remember anything after shooting Zazex and then finding myself on the ground.”

To’ka nodded. With the noise of the fight with the dragon every adventurer in the city mounted their horses and rode off to find out what was happening. One of her companions had a spyglass and saw Paul and the knight both fall from the dragon. To’ka had screamed at the sight and had assumed Paul was killed.

“I’m okay,” Paul said. “Honest.” He turned to Vacht. “The armor I borrowed from you is broken?” Paul asked Vacht. They nodded. “I’m so sorry—"

“You’re okay, and that’s all that matters,” they said, taking one of Paul’s hands. “It’s not easy replacing a person, especially one as important as you.”

“I’ve already died once,” Paul said, “I think a second time might be too much.”

“Died once?” Duncar asked. “I… err… what do you mean?”

“To’ka said she saw my dead body up in Phelkin. Apparently, I’ve been dead for several months, and I was somehow sent back.”

“By a cleric?” Vacht asked.

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “It explains why I can’t remember the past six months. Wish it would explain my missing equipment though.”

“Aye lad,” Duncar said, almost whispering. “It’s… it’s good that you’re still with us. I… I don’t know what your parents would do if they lost you.”

“I expect you’d be in a whole lot of trouble if I got eaten by that dragon.”

Duncar nodded. “Speaking of trouble, we have a bit of a problem. The contract was to kill a rogue dragon, not two members of the Order of the Heliotrope. Constable Razzo is back in the clearing with Joe and she needs a statement from you two.”

Paul took a step forward and stumbled. To’ka and Vacht quickly rushed forward and caught him before he met the ground.

“I’m alright, just that the ground keeps wanting to move.” Paul shuddered. “What are the symptoms of a concussion?”

To’ka explained: Dizziness, headaches, loss of consciousness, memory loss —

“Hallucinations?”

Vacht’s tone of voice changed. They were worried. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Paul said. Duncar, To’ka, and Vacht all looked worried. “I’m fine! Okay!?”

Vacht and To’ka helped Paul walk out of the forest, one step at a time until they reached the clearing. The setting sun to the west lit the sky a brilliant gold, the mountains tinged with violet and blue hues as the sun began to dip below the ridgeline.

The field outside of the forest was alight with activity. Groups of people were busy trying to drag the corpse of the immense dragon onto a sled, a team of half-a-dozen horses which would be lucky to get it most of the way back to the city center. Joe was standing next to Constable Razzo, and several deputies were also nearby, writing notes into books.

Groups of onlookers, adventurers in full kit, gawked at the site of the dragon, but kept their distance. One, a gnome with a brightly colored pointed hat, was holding a large metal box and yelling at the workers trying to load the dragon. He probably wanted a picture and needed them to keep still so it wouldn’t come out blurry.

“Ah, Constable—" Duncar began to say, as he was quickly interrupted by Razzo as she shouted at her subordinates.

“I said cut the damned armor off the dragon! Most of the weight is in all its equipment! Tag them and put them on the wagon with the drakon’s corpse!”

Razzo sighed and then turned towards Duncar and the others. “Mr. Ironbeard, good for you to return with your… nephew. And I am glad, Vacht'sha, that you actually decided to be a shining pillar of the community for once.” The corners of her mouth raised, baring her fangs, a mixture of a grimace and a smile. She looked tired.

Paul noticed Vacht's face hardening, their public mask returned. “Ma’am,” he said, “I assume you want some sort of statement from me?”

Her deputies changed their attention from Joe to Paul. The bard scoffed. “I don’t know what else he can tell. Duncar and I were quite thorough.”

“Yes, however things are a bit complicated. You all will still get your reward for finishing this job, seven-hundred-fifty ducats each, totaling three-thousand ducats in all. But, we didn’t realize the dragon would be a member of the Order of the Heliotrope.” She sighed and walked up to Paul. “Do you know that man, the person who called himself –“ She looked to one of her deputies. “Mr. Shimoda, what was the man’s name?

The deputy quickly flipped through his notebook. “Sivonarang, ma’am!”

“No,” Paul said as he shrugged off To’ka’s and Vacht’s grip on his hands. “I never met him before.”

“You were left with no choice but to kill him and the dragon?”

Paul nodded. “They were well equipped and highly aggressive. I was able to wrestle Sivon’s hand cannon away from him and shot the dragon with it. It was loaded with magical ammunition and fired a beam of energy. I didn’t realize it’d kill it instantly.”

“And you still couldn’t stop this Sivon?”

“His armor was enchanted, some sort of aethertech device. I was able to get the advantage and I had to kill him. It was the only choice I was left with.”

Paul coughed, softly at first and then nearly wretched as he felt something sticky in his mouth with the taste of copper. He spat it onto the ground, sending a large blood clot tinged with blue streaks onto the ground. Small arcs of energy fizzed around it briefly before it went quiet.

“By the gods, lad! Are you okay?” Duncar said, his voice quivering.

“I injured my elementum during our fight,” Paul wheezed. His chest was hurting.

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Are you in any danger?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ve strained it pretty bad before, not quite like this though,” Paul said. He tried clearing his throat and swallowed. The pain deep in his chest subsided, for now.

Vacht rubbed Paul’s back. “Sorry, I didn’t realize it was so bad, otherwise I would’ve tried directing my healing spell more towards that than your head.”

The Constable chuckled. “So, Mr. Underhill, was there anything those two said when they attacked you? Your companions said they yelled a lot in Draconic. You understand it?”

“Yes, I do.”

Paul felt odd. Zazex had mentioned something about an “old woman.” Was that who they were gathering the livers for? Sivon acted like he didn’t want to fight, he even apologized. And the dragon, Zazex, seemed ill.

Over the smell of dried blood in Paul’s nose he faintly smelt cinnamon. His thoughts wandered from the dragon to Constable Razzo herself. He imagined her, screaming at Vacht as she beat them with her cudgel, the dark elf’s blood coating their bruised face.

“Did they say anything that might explain what they were doing?” Razzo asked.

Without thinking Paul answered, “No ma’am.” He didn’t owe her an answer, at least not until he gathered all the facts on his own. The last thing he wanted to do was somehow direct her to implicate Vacht in anything else.

“Tell me Mr. Underhill, how did you kill this man so easily?”

Paul shrugged. “I wouldn’t call it easy. I tricked him to open himself up. I stabbed him in the throat as he was trying to use his elemental breath on me.”

“A bit of halfling luck?” Razzo asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Joe rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t quite call it luck. His throat and face were burnt away. Can’t get a cleric to make his corpse talk if he can’t speak. Assuming he’d even want to, you can’t force them with magic.”

A spell like that also wouldn’t work on dragons, so it was useless to even try with Zazex.

“Vacht’sha,” Razzo said, “if you wish to continue helping the good people of Greenfield you will perform an autopsy upon this man, first thing in the morning.”

“Of course,” Vacht said and bowed deeply. The charms on their antlers jingled with the movement.

“I’ve already contacted Alderman Mason and he told me he will be teleporting back into town tonight. This is likely going to be a diplomatic incident with Zornea.”

Duncar shook his head. “Diplomatic incident? He wasn’t some sort of emissary.”

Razzo hissed, a forked tongue escaping her lips. “The Knights of the Heliotrope have special diplomatic status to where they can operate in Soreth outside of the normal requirements of Guild rules or national laws. The Order of the Heliotrope will likely suspect foul play is involved. Since they’re based out of Zornea, they’ll probably get their government involved.”

Duncar sighed. “I assume we don’t get to keep their possessions as loot then?”

“Normally, with a criminal under my jurisdiction, I’d confiscate the goods instead of letting adventurers pick the bodies clean like vultures. I’d give an exception for you four stopping such dangerous criminals in this instance, but if the Order wants their members’ possessions back then I have no choice,” she scoffed. “This also means you, nor the city will receive any money from the selling of the dragon’s body parts. I was hoping to compensate the losses of the farmers’ cows with it.”

Paul coughed, feeling more pain creeping into his chest. “I sincerely doubt they care about these two. From what I know, the Order doesn’t care for those who break their rules like this. They’re probably as good as dead the moment they chose this life.”

“Perhaps,” Razzo said. “If I need anything else from you four, I will contact you, and whatever you do, don’t leave town. The money will be given to you Mr. Ironbeard by the end of the day tomorrow. One of my deputies will disburse the money to you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Have a pleasant evening.”

As the dragon was carted off the gathered adventurers left. To’ka hugged Paul tightly and told him to meet her first thing in the morning. Her companions were planning on leaving sometime tomorrow, and she wanted to tell him something, but she needed to research it first.

Paul embraced her and pressed his forehead to hers.

“You can let go now,” Paul whispered.

She knew. To’ka just wanted to make sure he was still alive.

Paul couldn’t make it all the way back to the Dreamwalker’s Den on foot, but Vacht was kind enough to offer a ride on their back. Paul, a paladin, trained in the art of mounted warfare, rode back to the city on an enormous elk.

Duncar laughed, causing Bogin the pony to rear slightly at the sound of the loud dwarf. “Ha! Now that’s a sight! Paulie, you look like some elvish prince fresh out of a faerie ball!”

“Quite interesting,” Joe said.

Vacht grunted at Duncar as they trotted forward, much faster than the pony. Paul shrugged at the dwarf. “Guess I’ll see you two tomorrow.”

Joe shook his head. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. The call of adventure is one I must always take. Also, I find bounty hunting a much safer profession. Duncar, you know where to forward my share of the prize to.”

“Aye Joe, and you rest up my boy. You deserve it.”

Duncar was quickly left behind as Vacht picked up their pace.

Paul wasn’t sure how to ride on an elk. He had ridden plenty of horses, and even a few gryphons, but not a person who had turned into an animal. Paul scratched Vacht’s neck and then suddenly stopped. Would a sign of affection towards a pet or a mount be misconstrued by a druid?

“So, you don’t give rides often?” Paul asked.

Vacht grunted and shook their head from side to side. They must only be able to speak in forms that have some natural ability to speak.

“Is there anybody else you ever let ride you around?”

Vacht’s pace slowed slightly, no reply from the elk.

“Robyn?” Paul asked.

After a few moments, Vacht nodded. Paul patted the elk’s neck, drawing a light grunt from them.

“Tomorrow I’m going to start asking around. I’ll find the truth in all of this. I am curious about Sivon and Zazex though. I didn’t tell the Constable what I heard them say.”

Vacht turned their head to look back at Paul and aimed their ears at him. They wanted to know.

“Sivon didn’t seem to want to fight me in the end, he apologized. And Zazex seemed sick, and he was desperate to kill us and leave no witnesses. He also mentioned an old woman.”

Vacht flicked their ears and grunted.

“I have no idea what they meant, but I know there’s something else going on here. It’ll have to wait though until I’m done helping you with Robyn.”

The sky grew dimmer as they made their way back to town. Thankfully most of the people seemed to have been staying in for the night. Occasionally a speechless person would gawk at them on their way to Vacht’s place. Paul would just happily wave at them and wish them a good evening.

Vacht’s business had closed for the night. They kneeled as Paul swung his leg over the elk and hopped off. The rustling of grass behind the drakon being the only sound as Vacht morphed back into their elven form.

“Thanks,” Paul said, turning back to look at them. “I really appreciate it.”

“I should thank you,” Vacht said, smiling, as they unlocked the door. “I’ve haven’t had that much excitement in a while. I just wish I could’ve protected you better. I was worried so much that you were dead when I saw you fall off that dragon.”

As they entered inside and climbed up the stairs to Vacht’s suite Paul felt a tension in his chest. “It’s alright. I’m just glad you’re safe.”

Vacht unlocked the door to their suite and with a flick of their fingers all the candles within lit themselves.

“And thank you, thank you so much for believing me.” They threw their satchel on the bed and began pulling off bits of their armor. “It means so much to me.”

“I never really expected to hear a dark elf be so thankful. I’m used to light elves being cheerful, affectionate, thoughtful –“

“I’ve never been a good dokkar,at least from what people think one should act like,” Vacht said. “Its been decades since I’ve ever even seen another of my kind. When you woke up you mistook me for someone else?”

Paul nodded as he began unwrapping his hands. The pressure was building in his chest again. Anxiety.

“Yeah. Her name was Coldscar. She kept to herself, didn’t really talk much. Had a real mysterious air about her.” Paul laughed nervously. “She was pretty though.”

“Oh? I thought you were only into men?”

Paul’s chest tightened. What was Vacht getting at?

“No, I’m... well…” Truthfully, Paul hadn’t thought much about it. “I just… like people who like me. Or at least, seem to like me. It doesn’t matter who or what they look like. Coldscar didn’t really seem interested in me, or anybody really. I don’t think she’d be your type.”

Vacht chuckled as they sat in a chair and took their boots off. “I have similar views as yours, when it comes to attraction. You said that she’s not my type?”

Paul felt the anxiety rise even more from hearing that.

“I meant in that she seemed to have a rather positive experience living in the Hollow World,” Paul said. He sat down on the bed and began pulling off his boots. “But… it’s nice to know we have that in common.” He held his breath as he looked at Vacht, trying to gauge their reaction.

Vacht smiled at him, again, relaxing Paul slightly. “We seem to have a lot in common.” Vacht chewed their lip, causing Paul to react with the same. “Well, at least some dark elf living up here had a good time down there. Although I had everything going against me from birth.”

Paul noticed something about the dark elf’s right leg. Their foot didn’t touch down flat on the ground, and the boot they took off that foot had a higher heel than the other.

Paul nodded towards Vacht’s right leg. “You were born with that?”

Vacht rubbed their leg. “It only became obvious as I grew older, so they didn’t toss me into a pit when I was born. I made a hell of a dancer with this leg. Even with special shoes I’d be left crying in pain by the end of the day, and limping even worse than I normally do, shoes or not.” They sighed. “Things were worse once I reached puberty.”

“Coldscar told me about how brutal dark elf culture could be in the Shimmering Kingdom,” Paul said. “I heard things got really bad leading up to the war: losing rights, the caste system being reinstated, organized killings...”

“It is brutal,” they said, slipping off the last of their armor. Vacht let down their hair and started pulling the charms off their antlers. “Tell me more about your family. Halfling culture always sounded so interesting to me, so accepting compared to most dark elf cultures.”

“Yeah. My parents adopted me. They couldn’t have kids of their own, and my dad was still off doing adventures with Duncar and the guys. They found me when I was only a few years old, in a hidden den run by the Jade Tips.”

“The criminal cartel?” Vacht asked. “Wait, is Duncar that Dwarvish Devil I heard stories about? The one who took them down?”

“Duncar’s Devils is what he used to call his adventuring company,” Paul said. “They’d been hunting their leader, the Verdant, for a while. He used to be based on the edges of the Evergreen Mountains.”

“They found him?” Vacht asked.

Paul shook his head. “No. They found out about Duncar and my dad closing in on them. So, they destroyed all the evidence and ran away. They burnt everything, the drugs, the stolen wares,” he paused. “And the people they were wanting to sell as slaves across the Antrovan Sea.”

Vacht’s face went from one of concern then to horror. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…”

Paul nodded. “Duncar never figured out who the people were, all the ledgers were destroyed, assuming they cared enough to keep track of who they enslaved. I don’t remember any of it, or anything before, but dad told me I was the only one they found alive. I was burnt badly, but my aunt Callia is a cleric of Suros, she was able to heal it all up.”

“They never caught the Verdant in the end?”

“No… no,” Paul said. His hands ached. “They caught or killed pretty much everybody with the Jade Tips, but they never caught anybody who knew who I was or where I was from.” Paul sniffed hard. “It’s… weird. If Dad had come there a few minutes later I probably wouldn’t have made it. I’d probably be with my mother and father, wherever Empyrean’s Arch would’ve led us.”

“You don’t remember your birth parents at all?” Vacht asked.

“No. Sometimes I wonder what they were like, but I like to think that they’d be happy that my mom and dad took me in.”

Vacht smiled. “Your parents raised a good person.” They hobbled to the bed and sat down next to Paul. “I… I didn’t realize that my master’s prophecy would come true one day.”

Paul’s mouth felt dry, he didn’t want to ask them, especially not now, but it was as good of time as any. “Vacht, I can’t be the only blue-scaled drakon you’ve come across over the past five years, right?”

Vacht’s eyes widened, and then moved down. They shook their head. “I… You…”

Paul rested a hand on their shoulder. They felt so small. “It’s alright. I believe you, it’s just that I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”

“I dreamed about you,” Vacht said, their voice barely a whisper. “I dreamed about you for years before Robyn died, and afterwards. I never saw your face though. The others… those who came before you.” They shuddered. “I looked past the flaws in them, how they didn’t quite match up with my master’s prophecy, how they didn’t quite look like what I saw in my dreams. They left me, or lied to me, or used me. But you… when I saw you, I knew you were the one. You were my blue dragon, the one who would help me. I know that I can be wrong, of course I could be wrong, but I pray I’m not.”

Paul took Vacht’s hands into his and kissed them. “When I went to see To’ka today she told me she had saw me, buried in a grave. My last memory, of saving that boy, was that because I died saving him. The Hearth Mother somehow found a way to send me back, and She sent me here to help you.”

“Are you sure?” Vacht asked. “Am I even worthy of that?”

“Of course, you are,” Paul said. “And I won’t leave you. Even if I didn’t swear an oath, even if Pela didn’t want me to follow this path, I would still stay here and help you.”

Vacht smiled and then tapped a finger on Paul’s nose. “You should get washed up. I’ll scrounge you up some fresh clothes and some food from downstairs. I should have a potion that can help with all the blood that got beaten out of you too.”

Paul was covered in grime, dried blood, and other leftovers from battle. He let go of Vacht and headed into the washroom, discarding his clothes in a pile for the animated shrubs to clean tomorrow.

The warmth of the shower soothed the pain in his body, but it didn’t slow down the thoughts in his mind. Investigating tomorrow, searching for any clues throughout the city, probably having to speak to the constable again, and the alderman if he arrives. The one thought that he kept going back to though was Vacht.

You should pray for them, he thought.

The shower was warm, he didn’t want to leave it, unless he could hold something else that was warm.

You should pray with them, it’s what a good paladin would do.

“It’s what any good hieron would do,” Paul whispered to himself. “What any good person would do.”

Another thought crossed his mind, that little intrusive voice in his head. You’re getting too close. Remember your training, an adventurer working a contract like this shouldn’t get emotionally invested in their client.

Vacht wasn’t a client; they were a victim, one who managed to survive loss and adversity for years. Paul didn’t think that he could’ve lived through what Vacht had to endure, his own scarred hands and thigh were a testament to that.

Paul turned off the water, gathered one of Vacht’s too soft towels to wrap around his waist, and stepped out of the steamy washroom. Vacht had gathered a plate with cheeses and fruits, a bottle of wine with a label written in an Elvish language, and fresh clothes.

Paul wasn’t prepared for Vacht to be nude, their hair untied and draped over their shoulders, numerous tattoos of flowers adoring their body. They nervously stepped between each foot.

“You want me to eat dinner off of you?”

Before Paul could say anything else, Vacht walked up to him, grabbed his face with their hands, and pulled him down into a kiss. It was warm, soft, yielding, the opposite of what he experienced from Joe the night before. Kissing a drakon was awkward, but Vacht made it seem effortless.

Vacht pulled back. Their eyes seemed to glow in the candlelight. “I don’t want you to stay on that cot, alone, tonight. But… you can say ‘no,’ if you wish.”

“Why would I?” Paul whispered.

“Because I don’t know what I want,” Vacht said. “I… I want this,” they said, moving a hand down to Paul’s bare chest. They inched close to Paul's waist. “But you’re trying to help Robyn. I still love her so much. I barely know you… but I’ve known of you even before we met. Hell, I’ve known about you before you were even born! I feel… I feel strange, like I’m sullying my memory of her.”

Paul’s face felt warm. He wasn’t used to someone sharing their thoughts on him like this. He took their hand into his, intertwining both their fingers. “She’s more than just a memory. The Hearth Mother teaches us that people enter and leave our lives all the time; from feelings changing, the passage of time, illness, or violence. That memory, that love, doesn’t diminish. You deserve happiness.” He kissed them. "You can say 'no' too."

Vacht led Paul to the bed and pulled him over top of them. Paul was gentle, enough to where Vacht complained loudly about it, causing Paul to give a muffled apology with his tongue buried inside of them—and then another complaint that Paul shouldn’t apologize and just keep going.

Vacht was nervous, even as they both laughed at the idea of eating food off each other. Paul couldn’t remember the last time he had this much fun exploring each other’s bodies, learning about each other.

It was more than just sex, more than just—

“I love you,” Vacht moaned. Their eyes widened. “I… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.”

“I waited for you for so long,” they said. “You wouldn’t imagine how long.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11: The Chosen

Amalia: Can you love me, even after all that I have done in the name of the Merciful Lord?

Gregory: Of course. When I swore myself to you, I meant it. No matter what, we would be together, forever.

[Amalia reaches through the bars of the cage and touches Gregory’s hand.]

Amalia: I killed them all though.

Gregory: You saved them from the demonic taint, and by killing them you freed their souls to be with the gods once again. Nobody will blame you; nobody will convict you. Soon you’ll be released, and we can be together once more.

Amalia: Gregory, my love, I need you to help me do something.

—Vitor O’Cahlloh, The Chosen of Thodar, Act IV, Scene 3

Paul didn’t dream of the burning specter that haunted his youth, or even of the knights of old like Paul wished to be when he grew up. His dreams were filled with the anxiety filled nightmares he suffered at the Academy.

Paul was a tartarean storm dragon, a monstrous creature that exacted bloody violence on everyone and everything around it. And when there was nobody left to harm, he would turn towards himself. The nightmare was coldly familiar, a magnification of the darkest moments he felt in his waking hours by himself in the dormitory at the Academy.

It was guilt as his alienist explained it: for biting Liam's arm, for breaking Sulbor's jaw, and now for killing Sivon. His alienist said he was blameless, that Liam had goaded him for months and slapped him, that Sivon had abused him for nearly a year, and now Paul had killed a fellow drakon.

The alienist would say Sivon's death was self-defense just like with Liam and Sulbor, but it still didn't get rid of the anxiety–the guilt of losing control of his emotions, his anger, his drakir.

Paul the dragon–the monster– tried to apologize to his victims, but with each word he tried to say, he only tasted blood bubbling from his mouth.

Paul screamed and opened his eyes. Vacht was lying next to him, their hand on his bare shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

Paul breathed in and out slowly, centering himself. “Just another nightmare.”

“I could sense it,” Vacht said. They reached out and caressed his face. “You can tell me about it. It’s safe here.”

“I'd rather not,” Paul said. “How long have you been up?”

“I’m an elf, so I don’t actually have to sleep much,” Vacht said. The reached towards a small book on the nightstand and shown it to Paul. “I’ve been reading while you weren’t busy holding onto me, a bit of drakon anatomy to refresh my memory for work. The shrubs got you some breakfast,” Vacht said and pointed towards a steaming bowl of porridge sitting on the bare nightstand.

“What time is it?” Paul asked.

“Just before dawn.” Vacht’s said and rubbed Paul’s shoulder. “You didn’t dream about that specter again, did you?”

“No… something I’ve had nightmares about before, but more recent.”

“Is it based on a memory?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Vacht leaned in towards Paul. “Are you afraid of fire?”

“Why are you curious?”

“You seemed to react negatively when Sulbor used his flame breath. Maybe it’s something to do with that burning spectre?”

“No, I’m not, I don’t think so. Pela exists as a calm flame within a fireplace. At the Academy I was around a lot of adherents of Amand, the Pyre Starter. They just love burning stuff for every ritual involving Him. That and the adherents of Karaz-mogh, the Eternal Forge, love making things that need fire. Never bothered me then.”

“That specter could be the remnant of a memory from before you were adopted,” Vacht said, “a piece of something your mind has been trying to put together for years. You have absolutely no memory from before you were adopted?”

“Snow,” Paul said. “Until I moved to the capital to go to the Academy I never saw snow. It hadn’t ever snowed during my time in Wavemeet. But when I first saw it… I remembered something.” Paul closed his eyes and breathed in and out deeply. “I was very small, and very cold. And there was snow, and windmills. I felt happy.”

“A memory from before?”

“I think so,” Paul said.

Vacht wanted to say something, Paul could feel it. But they seemed afraid to ask. Paul cleared his throat. “So, with your power of dreamwalking, you can make a person relive their memories in their sleep?”

“Yes,” Vacht whispered. “And I can make people dream of other things too.”

“Could you, once this is over, try to help me remember?”

“I could just do it tonight when you sleep. But —”

Paul shook his head. “No, I don’t want to be distracted. I just…”

“What would you hope to find out?”

“Someone… anyone from my birth family who might still be around and knew me. I just want to tell them what happened to me, and that I’m still alive.” Vacht was quiet. “Could you do that for me?”

“I can… but, since you can’t remember anything from before, it may not work. Some people forget because of a trauma, from an injury, or by choice, whether they know it or not. Sometimes something is so traumatic that there’s not really a way for a person to deal with those memories, either understanding them or compartmentalizing them.”

“What do you mean?” Paul asked.

“I don’t want to help you remember something that will hurt you.”

“I’m not fragile.”

“I know. If I had suffered half of what you’ve been through, mentally or physically, I don’t think I’d be where you are today.” They reached up and ran their hands through his hair. “You’re very special to me, and, you know, it takes a very special sort of drakon to hit every branch on a tree when falling from the sky.” They ran their fingernails on Paul’s scalp, lightly scratching him.

Paul laughed and shook. “Stop! That tickles!”

Vacht nodded and brought their hand back. “So… my blue dragon, what are your plans today?”

“I need to go see To’ka before she leaves, and I’m going to begin investigating what happened to Robyn. Any idea where I should start?”

“No. I’d recommend Constable Razzo but she’s likely to be too busy trying to sort out what happened yesterday, and you already know what she thinks of me. Most people in Greenfield have lived here for a long time, so probably everybody would have something to say about Robyn. I even knew a lot of them when they were children.”

“Really? Even the Constable?” Paul asked.

“I used to give Sophia candy when her parents weren’t looking.” Vacht smiled and then frowned. “She changed a lot after what happened. A lot of people did.”

“We passed by several homes dug into hills while heading out to the Gambesh family farm. Are there any halflings in Greenfield? I haven’t seen any while looking around town.”

Vacht nodded. “There are a few, not nearly as many as there used to be when I first moved here. Mainly gnomes live there now. I know there is one family, the Lightfoots, in town. He’s a cobbler that makes speciality footwear. He’s the one who made my boots.”

“He has a booth at the market?” Paul asked.

“Maybe. I usually just go straight to his home.”

Paul slid off the bed, pulled back on his pants, and walked towards one of the covered windows, peeling back its curtain slightly. Rainy outside, and cold judging from the moisture accumulating on the inside of the window. The cold wooden floor chilled Paul’s bare feet. He shivered slightly.

“Chilly out today,” he thought aloud. “Guess the market is a good of place as any to start.”

“The clothes I chose for you last night should help keep you warm, I can give you a rainproof cloak too,” Vacht said. “You know… you’ll need a guide around here. How about Jeaneth?”

Bursts of hot breath came from people on the streets below. There was something calming about people milling about, living their lives.

“Really?” Paul asked.

“She’s always fancied being an adventurer, I’m sure she’d have a lot of fun. She doesn’t get nearly enough fun at home. Besides, the shrubs can run the store for the day.” Vacht rose from the bed and moved to a mirror standing up against a wall. They fussed with their hair, scowling at their reflection in the mirror. “When this is over, I’ll help you. I promise.”

Paul walked up behind them, wrapping his arms around Vacht’s nude body and rested his head atop the dark elf’s antlers. “Enough talk about me, how are you?”

“What do you mean?” they asked, wrapping several strands of hair up across the lower points of their antlers.

“How do you feel after last night?”

“I’ve been thinking about dyeing my hair pink this winter, when my antlers shed,” they said, ignoring his question. Paul groaned in response. “Fine! I feel… weird, okay? I just… I don’t know… I had a wonderful time. I’m having a wonderful time,” they said. “It’s just a lot. Should I feel this way?”

Paul scratched his chin on Vacht’s antlers. “I think it’d be stranger to not feel weird.”

Vacht looked up, pushing their antlers out of the way. They touched Paul’s face and kissed him. “Jeaneth says that I like to ‘collect weird people.’”

“I’m glad to be collected,” Paul chuckled.

Vacht was looking into Paul’s eyes. “They’re like sapphires…”

“Pardon?”

“Don’t ruin the moment,” Vacht said. “Stay here, just a few more minutes.”

“Adventure!” Jeaneth shouted.

“You’ve been yelling that out loud every five minutes since we left,” Paul said. “I’m pretty sure everyone here knows you’re on an adventure now.”

“I’ve never been on a real big adventure before, or to the Ravishing Rarukul without my mom! And I’m really excited about finally seeing a k’thexif! I want to make a good first impression.”

Jeaneth was practically vibrating as they finally reached the door to To’ka’s room. She adjusted her wide brimmed hat and held up her wood staff. “Do I look presentable?” She smiled widely.

“I… I guess?” Paul cleared his throat. “She’s not anyone famous. You’re acting like you’re going out on a date with her.”

“Is she single?” Jeaneth asked. Paul sighed. “Geeze! I’m joking.”

Paul knocked on To’ka’s door. “I’m here! I brought a friend so be sure your mask is on… and your clothes.” He could feel her through the door. She was busy readying herself for them.

“She’s naked?”

Paul nodded. “Probably.”

“What for?”

“K’thexif thing I guess… that and when she eats, she doesn’t like to get blood all over her clothes. They’re messy eaters.”

Jeaneth gulped. “Well… I’m an adult, and the boss said this would be a pretty good learning experience for me. I think I’m willing to risk seeing a naked, blood-covered, masked, goddess of a woman.”

Paul rolled his eyes. “Trust me, she’s not your type.”

“How do you know?”

He laughed. “Your skin is too thin. She’d bite through you like a ripe tomato. Besides, how old are you again?” Paul asked jokingly. “Just because you’re old enough to drink doesn’t mean your parents would appreciate you coming home covered in bite marks.”

“I’m old enough to not set myself on fire with that,” she retorted, pointing to Vacht’s slender, curved sword tied to Paul’s belt.

Vacht had lent it to him in case he faced any trouble, and apparently its command word, ild, worked even if it was sheathed. As Jeaneth and Paul left the Dreamwalker’s Den, the shrubs were still trying to fan all the smoke out through the store’s windows.

“Fair enough,” Paul conceded.

After a few moments Paul could feel a warmth through the door, tickling at his mind. It was safe for them to enter. To’ka was standing in the middle of the room, dripping on a rug from her wet clothes and hair. She bowed deeply, greeting them both.

Jeaneth’s nose scrunched. “Did… did she just say something?”

“She projects her thoughts into your mind. Her clan only speaks aloud if they absolutely must, or among close friends and family.”

To’ka introduced herself to the girl, causing Jeaneth to turn her head. “Uh… I don’t think I can pronounce that.”

“I just call her To’ka. You have to tell her your name, it’s a greeting thing between k’thexives.”

“Hi, I’m Jeaneth,” she said, smiling and waving at the much taller k’thexif.

“Your whole name.”

Jeaneth smile turned to a frown. “Is this a fae thing? Vacht told me I shouldn’t tell my whole name to faeries. You’re… you’re not a hag, right? I’ve heard of hags that live in bogs and are always wet and disguise themselves as other people.”

To’ka promised she wasn’t a hag. Her people shared their full names with each other and spoke using that name to ensure they would always understand each other.

“Jeaneth Blythara,” she said. To’ka, like Paul first noticed, realized it was an elvish name. Jeaneth nodded. “Yeah. My dad’s a half-elf, light elf, from Sojaheim. I don’t really look elvish, so I don’t mention it if it never comes up. All I have are the ears, and my hair covers that.”

To’ka was curious as to why she would hide it.

“I don’t!” Jeaneth said. “It’s just that… if people learn that I’m part elf then they kinda think I’m a certain way.”

“I understand the feeling,” Paul said. “People assume I’m like Zornean drakons, which I’m most certainly not.”

To’ka reminded him that not all in the Republic of Zornea shared the same beliefs, much like how not all humans in the Empire of Soreth was that way. However, she was always confused as to why all folk, besides her own, judged people by their appearances.

“I’ve even seen it among some halflings too,” Paul added. “In Wavemeet I could be working in a corn field, barefoot and in overalls, and still get an odd look from one of the Hidden-folk.”

“I guess,” Jeaneth said. “A lot of people just suck, you know?”

To’ka agreed.

“So, To’ka, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

She pointed to a dusty book open on a table as Jeaneth began interrogating her about every aspect of life as a k’thexif she could think of. The book was open to a particular page, one that Paul remembered from his time at the Academy.

Oh, blessed are the Chosen of the gods; for the god which beseeches upon them the Light of Empyrean, the Progenitor, the source of their divine power, gives unto them a mission for which none may stop them from accomplishing.

Paul’s heart sank. “Jeaneth, can you wait outside in the hallway?”

“But, Paul!” she pleaded, “she was going to tell me how she chews bones!”

“This is something private. Okay?”

Jeaneth rolled her eyes, huffed, and slammed the door on her way out.

“Sorry,” Paul said to To’ka.

She knew Paul didn’t have to apologize for Jeaneth. She was only curious about meeting one of To’ka’s kind.

“This book,” Paul lifted it off the table, “it’s one of the works of Saint Davish.”

To’ka was silent.

“You think I’m a Chosen? I remember Davish’s works at the Academy. They’re the ravings of a madman!”

Still no answer from To’ka. Paul stepped up to her.

“He was a Chosen of Kyorn, the All-knowing. She drove him insane with the knowledge She gave him. He died right after finishing this book.” Paul waved it in front of her. “He was practically a skeleton because he didn’t eat or drink during that whole time.”

To’ka pulled off her mask and stared into Paul’s eyes, her own narrowing. “Paul Underhill, I know you are a Chosen of Pela.”

Paul felt a familiar pang of anxiety in his chest. “How?”

“You have visions of that burning figure,” she said. “Angels, the gods’ Messengers, speak to us in visions like you’re having.”

Paul shook his head. “Why is it so terrifying then? I’ve had them before, was that the angel too?” Paul sat on To’ka’s bed, elicitinga squelch of moisture from the fabric. “I… I’ve seen people in the past about it.” Paul gritted his teeth. “They’ve thought that it was some remnant of what happened to me, my jumbled memories from before I was adopted.”

“Is it different now than from before?”

“When I was little it tried to chase me, tried to hurt me. Now it wants me… like it’s a long-forgotten friend or something. I’ve seen it while I was awake!”

To’ka sat next to Paul and turned over several pages of the book. She pointed to an illustration of a woman in lustrous armor, her eyes glowing. Above her was the sun, Suros, the Ever Radiant. Paul recognized the woman; Empress Paladas, the Warrior Saint, the First Paladin.

“The gods test their Chosen before they Exalt them with the Light of their Creator, That Which Was Called Empyrean,” To’ka said. “Pela sent an angel to you, in the form of that specter which terrorized you as a child, to test you.”

“St. Paladas was nearly killed by an angel of Suros during her trial,” Paul said.

“He doubted her resolve to fight against the demonic armies of Balingnor, so He sent an angel to test her.”

“That angel threw her into a mountain!” Paul growled. “I’m just having nightmares. There’s no comparison!”

“Some people’s struggles are visible, some aren’t. Besides, you’ve experienced at least two bona fide miracles in your life. The Revelation that led you to become a paladin, and the miracle that sent you back through Empyrean’s Arch.”

Paul shook his head. “This… this is too much. To me, I was just a paladin, a follower of the Hearth Mother who was blessed with magic by Her. Now I’m a Chosen sent on a holy mission by her? To an old mining town? To help a dokkar find the person who killed their wife? It’s one thing to be guided by the gods in one’s life, it’s another thing entirely to be forced down a narrow road as one of their Chosen.”

“Have you seen yourself today?” To’ka asked. She led Paul over to a mirror on the wall and pressed his face up to it. “’The Light of Empyrean shines from within.’”

Paul stared at himself. “Umm… what am I looking at?”

To’ka sighed and shook his head. “Your eyes!”

“They’re blue. You know that dark elf, Vacht, complemented me on them.”

“They’re different.”

Paul looked carefully at his eyes. There was a tinge around the edges of his irises, a slight glow. “My eyes glow when I use magic,” he said.

“Are you using magic now? Are you casting a spell?” To’ka asked him. Before Paul could answer she spun him around to look him eye to eye. “Yesterday when I used my interoscope you were lit up like an aurora-filled night sky, even more than when I first examined you with it. You are close—so close to becoming Exalted, even if you don’t realize it.”

“Why me? I wasn’t faithful before being gifted with magic by Her, now She wants to give me even more power and expects me to complete a quest on Her behalf?” Paul said. “My entire life I’ve had people take choice away from me. If I’m Pela’s Chosen, then I don’t have any choice left anymore.”

To’ka took Paul’s face and pressed her nose up to his, timing her breathing with his. “You always have a choice. The Chosen who have been well enough known to be recorded in history were intensely devout, and many of them were given mythoithat, if not followed, would bring the world to ruin.”

“Why me, though? There’s never been a Chosen of the Hearth Mother. Why would She choose me? I’m a drakon, not a halfling!”

To’ka kissed Paul on the nose. “She sees in you what I’ve seen in you for years. You’re a good person, who’s willing to sacrifice everything to make others happy.” She suddenly frowned slightly and sniffed Paul.

“Is something wrong?” Paul asked.

“No… it’s just…” She ran her tongue across Paul’s mouth, causing him to nearly yelp.

“Hey, can you not right now!?”

“Why do you taste like citrus?” She snorted loudly. “You smell and taste strongly of it. Did you get into a fight with an orange last night? I thought you hated oranges?”

“No, I just don’t get anything out of them. I can barely taste or smell–“ His eyes widened. Vacht had many toiletries in their washroom, including several perfumes. Most of them had pleasant smelling floral scents, in particular one with lavender and rosemary, but one of them smelt like nothing. He couldn’t read the elvish labels, but now he knew what it was filled with.

To’ka grinned, flashing her sharp teeth. “Trying new foods? That Dreamwalker seemed like a delicious morsel for you.”

Paul’s face felt hot. “I didn’t notice…”

She patted Paul on the shoulder and kissed him again on the nose. “Remember, Paul Underhill, even if your mythosdoes involve them, which I am sure it does, to not let any feelings for them to cloud the path that the gods have set for you.”

“Are you really so certain about this?”

“Yes, I wish that you’d have as much faith in the gods and in yourself as they do for you.” She handed Paul her book and clasped his hands with hers. “Your love is like a fire, while the Hearth Mother may be used to such heat, along with myself, I don’t want you to burn yourself or the Dreamwalker. I’ll pray for you, Paul. I know you will face many trials, but I want you to read through this and pray as hard as you can for guidance.”

“If I see that specter again… what should I do?”

“Embrace it,” she said. “It represents what you fear the most.”

“Myself?”

To’ka laughed. “I was going to say it in a more profound way, but I think that’s true. You’ve been running away from being a drakon your whole life. You know what it’s like being… what do drakons call humans, halflings, elves, and the like?”

“Same as the Lizard-folk call them,” Paul said, “’Smooth-skins.’ Although it sounds a bit like a slur, in my opinion.”

“Well, you’ve learned to how to live like them your whole life. It’s time you learn about Dragon-folk. There’s more to them than just those in Zornea, and the more you learn the more you’ll learn about yourself.”

“Thanks, To’ka,” Paul said, and hugged her.

“And?” she whispered into his ear.

“And I love you,” Paul growled.

“I love you too. Let me know how things work out with the Dreamwalker,” she said and winked at him. “And, please don’t get killed.”

“If I really am a Chosen, I don’t think that’ll happen until I complete my mythos,” Paul said. “Besides, I’ll probably be made a saint if I did die in the process. Maybe I’ll have a library or a temple named after me.”

They hugged and kissed once more. To’ka had to pack up her things to leave town, and Paul promised to stay in touch with her. He didn’t want to leave his best friend, especially after seeing each other for the first time in nearly a year now, but fate seemed to pull them apart again, even if only temporarily.

Paul left To’ka’s room to see Jeaneth just outside, grinning ear to ear.

“Holy shit! You’re a Cho—”

Paul quickly covered Jeaneth’s mouth.

“Were you listening!?” She pointed to the sides of her head. Of course, she could hear him, most elves had excellent hearing. “I oughta pin you to the wall by those ears!” Paul hissed at her. “Do you realize how taboo it is for someone to be eavesdropping on a k’thexif in private?”

She shook her head and mumbled through Paul’s hand, “Sorry.”

“You have to promise me you won’t tell anybody you heard her, okay?”

Jeaneth nodded and Paul took his hand off her mouth, it looked like she was about to burst from the excitement. “This is so awesome!” she whispered as loudly as she could. “We’re just like Amalia and Gregory from The Chosen of Thodar!”

“Don’t talk so loudly. People here probably think I’m weird enough. And you know Amalia killed herself in the end, right?”

“Okay, maybe not entirely.”

“Gregory also was killed by Amalia near the end after he got possessed by a demon.”

“Maybe not really anything like it. But I’m totally your page. Follower? Knave? Disciple?”

Paul placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s just go.”

“And you slept with Vacht!?” she shouted as they walked down the hall.

“I didn’t say anything about that!” he hissed.

“You implied it. And I heard smooching. You’re one of those kinds of guys, eh?” she said, elbowing him.

Paul huffed. “I’m a very complicated man.”

“I can see, Mr. Chosen.”

 


Chapter 12: The Deviant

The “elementum” of a drakon is believed to have a strong influence on a developing fetus, eventually giving the born drakon its elemental alignment. While a drakon may be born with one of the five prime elements: earth, air, fire, water, and—most rarely—aether; a drakon, like a true dragon, may exhibit a combination of two elements derived from their parents. Like true dragons, a drakon’s appearance is based upon their “elementum’s” influence, although on some occasions they may have an appearance different from their “elementum.” For example: a fire drakon who breathes ice, or a storm drakon that breathes fire.

— Dr. Reginald Black, Comparative Physiology of Dragonians, third edition

It was nearly noon. Luckily the rain had been slowing down, and the temperature was rising, but asking the people in the large open-air market in the center of town proved fruitless. He started with the one question he had wondered ever since he first spoke to Vacht about their dead spouse:

What do you think of Robyn Pembroke, the late former alderman?

“She was the best thing this city ever had,” a farmer said.

“She always thought of us small folk!” said a tanner, a tall orc with a barrel chest who was manning a booth, selling leather goods. “Well, I mean, small folk as in the common people. I’m sure she thought of small folk like gnomes and halflings a lot too… no offense.”

“I’ve been travelling here from Ontson on and off for years, and she treated everyone fairly,” an infernian merchant told Paul. His cloven hooved feet had heavy metal shoes which clopped on the ground. “After a cleric, not much older than yourself, exorcised the demon which had possessed me, I was worried about continuing my work. But Ms. Pembroke helped me feel right at home whenever she visited the market.”

“Her smile always brightened my day,” muttered a rain-soaked gnome, her tall, tan, conical hat crumpled over from the moisture. “Hey, boy, isn’t Underhill a skryte-ludename?”

“Yes ma’am,” Paul replied.

News spread quickly in Greenfield, and many had heard of what happened yesterday with the dragon. They thanked Paul and wanted to send their regards to his companions. When Paul brought up that one of those was Vacht, most people scoffed that Vacht would even bother trying to help anybody in the city if it didn’t benefit them monetarily. And Paul didn’t get very good responses to his second question:

What do you think of Vacht’sha Ta’fur?

“Damn that witch for killing Robyn!” the farmer yelled, spitting on the ground.

“The dark elf bitch should’ve been the one that died,” the tanner growled to Paul.

The infernian merchant cursed in elvish, speaking Vacht’s name. “Damn him for what he did to Ms. Pembroke.”

The gnome blinked several times. “Wait, there’s a dokkar living in town? Has anyone told the Constable about this so she can arrest her?”

Seemingly everyone loved Robyn and hated Vacht. At best, people were ambivalent about Vacht before Robyn died. Paul and Jeaneth regrouped after a few hours near several food vendors to eat and discuss what they had found.

“Nothing is pointing to someone here wanting Robyn dead,” Paul said. “If anything, people want Vacht dead.”

“I could’ve told you that, and then I wouldn’t have had to wander around here,” Jeaneth said. “They’re only okay when the boss keeps their head down.”

“Or it gets beat down,” Paul said. “Your mother told me about Razzo nearly killing Vacht out in front of everyone.”

Jeaneth seemed to shrink at the mention of it. “I was there, it was the first time I really ever noticed Vacht. They kept egging the constable on, wanting her to run them through with their sword. I don’t like thinking about it.”

“I don’t trust Constable Razzo.”

“I never really spoke to her before,” Jeaneth said. “She’s… harsh. I know that she and Robyn were close, really close before she and Vacht got together.”

“A scorned lover?”

“I don’t know.” The girl shook her head. “Could Constable Razzo be involved with this?”

Paul led Jeaneth to a Tulwani food booth and sat down. “If she loved Robyn then I don’t think the Constable would’ve killed her and made it look like a suicide. It would’ve made more sense to outright make it look like Vacht murdered her.”

The cook at the booth huffed. “What you all talking about?” Paul asked him about Robyn. “Never heard of her. I moved here about three years ago.” He then asked him about Vacht. “So long as they don’t try killing me in my sleep, then they’re alright with me. Although, that’s my thoughts about everybody, not just dark elves.”

“Fair enough,” Paul said. “I want a bowl of fire noodles for me, extra spicy, and some peppers on the side, please.”

“Fire noodles for me too, mild though,” Jeaneth said.

After a short while, the cook finished their dishes. Paul thanked him, paid him, and put his hands together in prayer.

“What do you pray about?” Jeaneth asked, her mouth already full of the saucy noodles.

“That She will guide me along my path. And, if I’m a Chosen, that She will ensure my friends and loved ones stay safe.”

“Are Chosen dangerous or something?”

“No, but they tend to be put into dangerous situations. If you’re wanting to be an adventurer, and if I really am a Chosen, then you really picked a terrible time to tag along with me.”

Jeaneth punched Paul lightly on the arm. “It beats studying a book about flowers all day– or dealing with asshole customers.”

Paul chuckled and started eating his noodles, taking care to crunch on the fresh peppers slowly to savor the flavor. “You’ve known Vacht for a while?”

“Only a few years. They’re a lot older than anybody else in Greenfield, and most who remember when Vacht first moved here must be old folks now.”

“Vacht’s is the only business that makes potions, right? They’re the only person here in town that does that?”

“Yup, for almost as long as they lived here.”

Paul slurped up some noodles, splashing some of the sauce on the tip of his nose. “Anybody used to be in the same line of business when they first came here?”

“Fifty years is a long time, big guy, your guess is as good as mine if somebody was an alchemist or herbalist here before them,” Jeaneth said in between bites. She yelped and gulped down some water. “Wow, these are hot!”

“Sorry,” Paul said. “My uncle is a Tulwani orc, so he’d make them all the time when he visited my parents. That and drakons don’t taste spicy things very well.”

“I wonder if she’d like them?” Jeaneth pointed over her shoulder. Past the crowd was a booth, one that Paul had walked by, but had avoided drawing close. It was a shoe vendor, not a halfling like he had hoped, but one run by a forest drakon. She had deep green scales, twisted, giving the appearance of vines or roots strung across the parts of her body visible underneath her heavy clothing.

The woman had noticed Paul had turned to look in her direction. She pulled back her lips to expose her teeth, the drakon version of a smile, and waved. Paul nodded and turned back. “What of her?”

Jeaneth slammed her hands on the table. “You two are the only drakons here!”

“And?”

“I saw you giving her side-eye while we were walking around, and she was giving you the same.”

Paul huffed. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

You’re avoiding the girl’s question, the little voice said. You’re afraid of that drakon woman, just like you’re afraid of yourself.

Jeaneth rolled her eyes. “Whatever. All I’m saying that you got some girl and boy issues that make me look normal.”

“I never exactly had a good experience with another drakon,” Paul said. “I’m considered a Deviant by those who live in their homeland of Zornea. And judging from her clothes, and that symbol of Aquillon around her neck, I assume that’s where she’s from.”

“I just thought she was a paladin like you, or a cleric like your friend To’ka. You use it to help focus your magic, like a wand or a staff, right?”

Paul pulled at the chain on his neck and held up the symbol of the Hearth Mother. “Most paladins have the symbol of their patron god across a shield, like this. Clerics are across a scroll.” He shown the reverse side, inscribed with Draconic numbers and letters in a circle. “If you’re like me and you went to a school to train, then you can use it instead of a guild token when accepting contracted work. It has my name and my guild number inscribed on the back. I got it when I graduated.” He sighed and let go of the necklace. “I kept my old one as a memento, but it’s one of the things I lost in my missing six months.”

“Sorry,” Jeaneth said.

“And you have ‘boy and girl issues’ too?” Paul asked her.

“Yeah – no! I mean, well, I don’t know what your issues are specifically. I just… gods I’m really terrible at this.” She chewed her lip. “I like a guy and I don’t know if he likes me. I’m sorry, that’s nothing like what happened with you, is it? Does it involve To’ka?”

“No,” Paul said. “She’s probably the reason why I’m still here. Like you guessed the other day, I really hurt myself bad because of a guy, and…”

Don’t tell her. She’ll use it against you.

Paul clicked his tongue several times. He might as well share something about him, maybe it’d put her at ease, and if she knew anything else about Vacht she’d be open to sharing it. “When I was in the Academy, I met a drakon who was from Zornea, and he was like me, and I was attracted to him. But he…”

Don’t make excuses for his behavior.

“He hated himself for what he was, and he used that anger against me because he knew I was vulnerable. When he finally left, I didn’t know how to keep going without him, and To’ka helped me. Gods would’ve known what I’d have done without her. I’ve…”

Been afraid of drakons ever since. Sulbor was a mirror for you. Every time you look at them you can feel his hands wrapped around your neck, and you’re afraid you’ll do the same.

“I’ve been reluctant,” Paul said, pronouncing the word carefully. “Reluctant to speak to any drakons since then.”

“Shit,” Jeaneth whispered. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It’s alright,” Paul said. “That was a long time ago now.”

“Your friend said that maybe you should try talking to a drakon, right?”

Paul sighed. “Yeah…” He grumbled and muttered under his breath. “My dear beloved friend always knows best.”

“Beloved friend,” Jeaneth repeated. She said it several more times and then snapped her fingers. “I remember something! Vacht learned about potion making from this old lady, well… a fairy, who was their best friend a long time ago.”

“A fae that looks like an old woman?” Paul asked. “Damnit! Vacht didn’t…” He growled to himself. “She’s a hag, isn’t she?”

Jeaneth nodded and gulped more water. “All I know is her name is Eleanor Ironteeth, which, looking back at it, does sound like a name a hag would choose for herself.”

“They’re dangerous people,” Paul said. “They love manipulating others for their amusement at best, or for dark plans only they understand at the worst.”

“Boss didn’t mention her?”

“No,” Paul replied. “No, they didn’t…”

Maybe they were afraid you’d kill them for consorting with an evil fae creature?

“What… does Vacht still speak with her?”

“I don’t think so. The few times they mentioned her it just made them really mad. All I know is that they were really close until about five years ago.”

“Robyn,” Paul whispered. “That dragon and the knight who rode him, there was something wrong with them, and they mentioned an old woman who could help them. A hag would love to make a bargain with members of the Order of the Heliotrope, to force them to do depraved things because she cursed or diseased them.”

“You think she forced those two to do what they did? And… you think she killed Vacht’s wife?”

“I don’t know. But I think there’s more going on than Vacht is wanting to share with me, assuming they even realize it.” Paul finished the rest of his bowl and chugged down the rest of his water. “Where does Eleanor Ironteeth live?”

“She lives out at Rimsor’s Bluff. I’ve been there a bunch of times but never saw her… well… up close?”

“You’ve seen her?”

“I heard her… singing… I think?” Jeaneth cocked her head and scrunched her face. “And there was a shadow of a woman, enormous, even taller than you. Is it even smart trying to fight one?”

Paul shook his head. “Hags aren’t exactly known for being forgiving creatures, and they’re insanely jealous. If Eleanor is involved with this, Vacht… maybe even the entire city might be in danger. I have to go see Vacht, now.”

As Paul stood up, he grunted in pain, nearly falling down as his numbed feet touched the ground.

“You okay big guy?”

“Those boots Vacht gave me really don’t fit well. My feet are sore from them. Think they’re finally starting to catch up on me.”

Jeaneth laughed. “You fell from way up in the sky and all that hurts is your feet?”

“Vacht’s a good healer, and besides, hierons recover very quickly from injuries.”

“I bet I know somebody who might have boots for drakons,” Jeaneth said with a wink. “I’m sure there’s plenty of time for you to go say hi to that drakon lady, and then we go find Vacht, okay?”

Paul huffed. “Fine.”

The drakon woman’s clothes were highly angular, and her way of moving really shown that she either didn’t interact with non-drakons much, or never bothered to pick up on their mannerisms. Her hands idly touched the symbol of Aquillon around her neck, a dragon’s head with six radiating spokes. Also attached to its chain were two interlocked rings.

Hello friend!” she said to Paul in Draconic. She pulled back her thin lips and exposed her teeth, smiling warmly at Paul and Jeaneth, much differently from how Paul did.

Her accent was thick, and she spoke fast, too fast for Paul to understand. The only parts he understood was her name, Chesonorak, something about not seeing many drakons here in the province of Eklein, and asking his name.

Paul replied to her in Draconic, choosing to try to speak formally to her. “Hello milady, my name is Paul Underhill.”

She clicked her tongue rapidly, something Paul remembered drakons doing when they were thinking. “An interesting short-name for the smooth-skins. What is your real name?” she asked, pointing a sharpened claw at his chest.

Paul cleared his throat. “Paul Underhill is my real name, ma’am.Can we speak in Common? It is difficult for me to understand when speaking quickly.

Chesonorak laughed, making a sound halfway between a growl and a screech. “Really? Such a funny joke!” Paul frowned as she snorted. “You even make faces like them!”

Paul started to feel a familiar sensation, of being the other, the outsider. Some rain soaked customers nearby stared at the two while others just passed by. “I was raised by halflings, ma’am. I’m an orphan.”

She clicked several times, thinking, before Paul finally said the word in Draconic to her. She suddenly stopped and bowed deeply. “I apologize, friend. I meant no transgression to you or your daughter. It is very kind of a man who was adopted to adopt a child himself.”

Jeaneth laughed loudly. “Wow! Oh man! She thinks… ah… oh…” She cleared her throat. “I am in fact a druid and an adventurer, Paul here is my companion.”

“Aww! She’s very cute!” Chesonorak said. She smiled and patted Jeaneth on the top of her hat. “One day you’ll grow up to be big just like your friend.”

“I’m seventeen —“

Paul shushed Jeaneth. “You don’t have to apologize, ma’am. I only came to find new boots.” He lifted his cloak and pointed down at his feet. “A friend I’m staying with gave them to me. They’re very uncomfortable.”

“Smooth-skin feet are shaped much different from drakons. Come behind here,” she said, tapping the table at the front of her booth. “I’ll find boots that fit.”

Paul followed her command and sat at a stool inside her booth. Paul nearly jumped as he felt her claws rake against his legs as she slid off his boots. “A-a-are you from around here?” he asked nervously.

“No, from Ontson,” Chesonorak growled as she fumbled through some boxes.

Paul could see that her eyes seemed deeper than his own, with finer lines around her face than his. Chesonorak was older than him, but Paul didn’t know enough about drakons to reliably guess by how much. Maybe twenty or thirty years?

“Moved there three years ago to start a shoe business,” she said with a few sharp clicks. “I come here once a month to buy special shoes from Mortimer, Mortimer Lightfoot, to sell in Ontson. Makes the best shoes for problem-feet.”

“‘Problem-feet?’” Paul repeated to her.

“Yes, like… high instep, or bunions, or missing toes, or uneven legs,” she said, clicking between every other word.

“Do you know of Vacht’sha, ma’am? They’re a dark elf that runs an outfitting store for adventurers.”

Chesonorak shook her head, causing her long, voluminous hair to gather over her shoulders. “No,” she said, pulling out a pair of black boots, much wider than his previous pair. “Please, you do not have to call me ma’am.”

Paul shrugged as she began sliding the boots on his feet. “Of course, Miss Cheso… onar…” Paul fumbled trying to pronounce her name as she bellowed another laugh and Jeaneth smacked her forehead.

“If you need me, I’m going to be looking over there,” Jeaneth said and left the two alone.

“Please, call me Chess.” She smiled again, exposing her sharp teeth. “Drakon names are difficult for smooth-skins to pronounce, no?”

Paul nodded. “I was adopted very young and didn’t start learning Draconic until I was an adult.”

Chess slipped the boots on Paul’s feet. "How do these fit, Mr. Underhill?"

Paul flexed his toes inside the boots. "Much better, thank you. And please, call me Paul."

“You’re welcome, Paul. The pair will be three ducats.” Paul pulled several coins out from his pouch and handed them to her. Chess took the coins and bit them gently, testing their authenticity. “So, Paul,” she began, placing the coins into a small box on a desk, “what brings you here? You’re one of the few drakons I’ve seen in Greenfield.”

Paul smiled at her, not revealing his teeth in the way she did. “It’s a really long story, and to be honest, I’m trying to figure out exactly why I’m here too. You?”

She stood up and looked down at him. “It is a long story too.” She paused for a moment and clicked her tongue softly. “Are you busy this evening? My wagon is at the Lightfoot’s home and business at the north end of town. If you are not busy I wouldn’t mind having a fellow drakon

to speak to. Halflings can be… how to say it?“

“A bit too excitable?” Paul said.

“Yes,” Chess purred. “He has seven children, and insists on having me for meals when I am in town. However, I prefer to sleep in my wagon, much quieter at night instead of having tiny feet padding around in the dark. I have three children myself, but they were— are more well behaved.”

“I don’t think I can,” Paul replied. “I’m busy investigating a murder that happened here five years ago. The former alderman for this town was murdered, and I’m trying to find out who did it.”

“Murder?” Chess growled. She repeated it several times to herself. “Killed, yes?”

Paul nodded. “People seem to think she killed herself, but I think someone might have wanted to kill her. I’ve sworn an oath to the gods that I would find out who murdered her and bring them to justice.”

Chess looked at Paul’s holy symbol around his neck and back to his face. “You are a paladin?”

“Yes, of Pela, the Hearth Mother, the creator of the halflings.” Paul said.

Chess clicked several times. “Very interesting. I have heard of many drakons worshipping other gods. Most back home only worship Aquillon, the Ascendant.”

“I know,” Paul said. “It must be odd for a drakon’s personal god to be one associated with halflings, and even odder that he is a paladin of Her.”

“Yes, it is. I find you quite odd and interesting,” Chess said.

Paul felt both more at ease and slightly anxious. The look on her face seemed almost predatory, like a wolf stalking its prey. Paul remembered Sulbor having a similar look on his face whenever they spoke to each other. Given Sulbor’s behavior towards him, Paul wasn’t exactly sure if it had the same meaning.

Paul coughed nervously. “Thank you, ma’am. Err… Chess.”

“Do you know many drakons?” she asked.

Paul shook his head. “Where I’m from, Wavemeet, doesn’t have any drakons living there. Some would come through, either in caravans or through the port, but they were only just passing by. I went to a school in Vailan for those who want to be trained to be a cleric or a paladin of the gods in a formal setting. A drakon named Sulborikrel was the only other apprentice there that was one of us.”

“You spoke much?”

“No,” Paul said. “He… he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a real boyfriend or not. Things were really complicated, to say the least.”

Chess turned her head and a trill issued from her throat. “Boyfriend?”

Paul’s eyes grew wide. He was a man. Relations with another man was deviancy in Zornea. He had no idea how she would react. He couldn’t lie. He wouldn’t lie. “Yes. Although I don’t think ‘boyfriend’ really describes what our relationship was like.”

“You are a homosexual?”

He wasn’t sure how exactly to describe what he was to somebody who didn’t speak Common all that well. “I… I am attracted to people, whether they’re male, or female, or whatever they identify themselves as.” He huffed loudly. “I’m… attracted to what’s inside a person’s heart.”

Chess clicked several times. “I apologize for any offense, but… you are considered different from others sexually?”

Paul glared at her. “I’m considered a Deviant according to the Republic, if that’s your question.”

She’s just like all the others,the little voice told Paul.

Strike her, yell at her, put her in her place.This woman wasn’t Sulbor, not all drakons were like him. Paul breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly.

“I don’t know the Draconic word for that, in case you don’t understand.”

She reached down and picked up Paul’s gloved hands. “I understand. I… want to tell you something.”

“I’m not looking for pity. If you’re hoping to pray for me that I might—"

She leaned in closely and whispered to Paul something that no drakon from Zornea would ever tell another. “I’m a Deviant too.”

“Why would you tell me this?”

“So you will know you’re not alone.”

Chapter 13: Arcana

“Zornea, for centuries, has promoted democracy and freedom across the known world. With the Six Virtues, given to us by Aquillon and the blessed Messengers who counseled Him, we have brought our ideals to thousands of peoples. And for those who were either ignorant or unaccepting of the Virtues, they were quickly educated as to its benefits.”

— Chancellor Sosharas Il’duuz, Republic of Zornea

“So, how’d it go, Paul?” Jeaneth asked as they continued their way through the market.

“You couldn’t hear us talking?”

“Not over the rain,” Jeaneth said, “that and I was busy looking at art supplies.”

“She’s a very interesting woman, for a drakon at least. We actually have something in common.”

“Which would be?” Jeaneth asked.

“She said she was a Deviant, I assume branded too if she’s from Zornea—but I don’t know where.”

Jeaneth didn’t seem to understand what he meant by a “Deviant.” Before Paul could further explain, two members of the city watch approached them. Both wore steel breastplates and heavy helmets, and had cudgels attached to their belts. They were human men, their large mustaches dripping with the cold rain still falling from the grey sky. The taller of the two cleared his throat. He wore a star over the shield shaped badge affixed to his breastplate, indicating his rank of captain.

“Pardon the interruption, sir. My name is Captain Uxbridge, and this is Deputy Shimoda. Alderman Mason wishes to speak to you.”

“The Alderman is back?” Paul asked.

“Yes sir,” the captain replied. “The Alderman and the Constable are with the Zornean emissary at the town hall.”

Jeaneth pushed out her chest and straightened her shoulders. “What’s the name of this emissary?”

“Consul Mocshath is his name,” Shimoda replied. “He has another draconian knight with him though.”

Captain Uxbridge laughed. “Should be an interesting day for all of us.”

A large raven suddenly landed on Paul’s shoulder. It pecked at the hood of Paul’s cloak and squawked loudly, rubbing its head against him. Even without the twinkle in its eyes, Paul knew that it was Vacht.

The captain looked at the raven suspiciously. “Is that your familiar?”

“You could say that.” Paul patted the raven on the head and then whispered to it, “We need to talk later.”

The four of them, and the raven, made their way together to the town hall. The inside of the building was sparse given the size of the city, the incident with the dragon probably being the biggest event since the death of the former alderman. Uxbridge and Shimoda stepped ahead of Paul, leading them past a dwarvish woman sitting at a desk and to a pair of heavy wooden doors. They knocked twice and then led them inside, and then took Paul and Jeaneth’s cloaks and hung them on a stand near the entrance. They saluted the gathered party and left out the doors.

The room was large for someone who was the alderman of such a small city. At the back of the room was a large desk with several chairs in front for visitors. Shelves in the office were filled with dusty old books involving art and magic. A prominent standing mirror sat next to a small fireplace and an immense window with its curtains open sat opposite it. A set of plate armor was on display by the window, carrying an ornamental great sword.

Clustered in front of the large desk was Constable Razzo, a frazzled looking middle-aged human—the Alderman—and a finely dressed drakon man with white scales. Standing next to them was a tall drakon, completely covered in plate armor from head to toe with emblems of flowers adorned on it, like the knight Paul had fought yesterday. This knight’s armor almost seemed to glow, pulses of red light radiating from the chest and across its surface like a heart beating, pumping magical energy that radiated through every seam and crevice of the suit. The armor’s wings remained folded tight against their back. At the knight’s hip was a sheathed longsword with a blue crystal pommel.

Razzo snapped her fingers at Paul and motioned for him to approach. “Alderman, the paladin is here that led the party that killed Sir Zazex and Sir Sivonarang.”

Paul bowed at them. “Paul Underhill, sir. This is my companion, Jeaneth Blytharia.”

The Alderman clapped his hands together and smiled. His right hand was a prosthesis, made of bronze colored metal. It looked almost like a drakon’s hand, with its long fingers and small claws.

“Good to see you, Mr. Underhill, and you too Miss Blytharia!” he drawled. His accent was much different from others in the town, sounding very similar to Paul’s own. “I’m Renfroe Mason, alderman of this little city. This is — “

The finely dressed drakon spun around, clicking the heels of his boots together as he did so, to face Paul, and nodded at him, the barbels growing from his chin pressing up against the high angular collar of his jacket. “Consul Mocshath d’Averatso, the Third, good sir. It is a pleasure and an honor to meet another fine citizen of the Empire. Over there is Sir Gullfelak the Red, of the Order of the Heliotrope.” His speech was painfully eloquent. If Paul closed his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to even tell it was a drakon speaking.

Paul cleared his throat. “Consul d’Averatso, I assume you and Sir Gullfelak are here about the —”

“Yes, sir. On behalf of the Zornenan Republic I offer to you and your companions, and to the people of the Empire, our humblest apologies.”

Sir Gullfelak stepped forward. As they spoke, Paul realized the knight was a woman. “We have stricken their names from the records of the Order. Sivonarang’s family is being informed of his death. And the dragons have been notified already that Zazex defied the will of Empyrean.” Her voice seemed to resonate as she spoke with her helm still on, the articulated mouth to her armor moved with her own.

Jeaneth shook her head. “It’s that simple? You’re not going to investigate this?”

Gullfelak clicked her teeth and tongue at Jeaneth. “Mr. Underhill and a dwarf, a different human, and a dark elf were hired to kill a dragon that had been terrorizing farmers by eating their cattle. It turned out they were knights from the Order of the Heliotrope who had resorted to being bandits.” She turned to look at Paul and huffed loudly, small blasts of steam shooting through the nostrils of her helmet. “You killed them in self-defense, right?”

Paul nodded. “Yes, but, I didn’t find out from Sivon why he and Zazex resorted to that. Jeaneth’s right, you need to investigate this.”

Razzo crossed her arms. “I am curious myself. My own investigation isn’t complete unless I know the motive. This is highly suspicious. Doesn’t the Order have a strong vetting process?”

Gullfelak huffed again. “An investigation won’t be necessary. What’s done is done. We will review our practices, but this is considered an internal matter now.”

Paul walked to Gullfelak and stuck a finger at her chest, tapping against the breastplate of her armor. “Aren’t members of your order supposed to stand for justice? For honor? Why would someone turn against that?”

Gullfelak’s golden eyes, visible through the sockets of her helmet, didn’t even move down to look at Paul pointing at her. “Not every member who joins us is properly… filtered out through the selection process. In fact, I personally dismissed a member of the Order around this time last year.”

Paul retracted his hand. “What do you mean?”

“Sulborikrel Potaran, a paladin of Aquillon, the Ascendant,” she said.

Paul’s heart skipped. Sulbor? He had been banished from the Order of the Heliotrope? It was the only real thing that mattered to him, and he was kicked out of it.

“He went to the Academy of St. Arianna in Vailan, I assume he began his aberrant behavior there.” Her eyes lowered, not to look at Paul’s hand, but to his necklace, the one that shown he went to the Academy. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t have to.

The consul rolled his eyes and snarled. “Oh please, everyone has experimented once or twice while in a school of higher learning. It’s not enough to bring about the wrath of the Ascendant, much less being sent before an Inquiry of Deviancy.”

As he mentioned the epithet of Aquillon, the consul lightly tapped his chest in six places. Once in the direction of each of his limbs, once towards his head, and the last over his heart. Paul remembered Sulbor making such a gesture with his symbol of Aquillon.

Gullfelak turned to look at Consul d’Averatso. She opened her mouth wide, the armored front of her helmet retracting backwards with a loud clink, exposing her face. The red scaled drakon huffed smoke out of her nose. “Sulborikrel confessed to being a sexual deviant and was unrepentant! That is in clear violation of the Six Virtues and the honor code of the Order!”

Paul interrupted her. “Can we stop talking about this Sulborikrel?” The raven on his shoulder, Vacht, curled up close to Paul, running its beak through his hair.

Mason, who been silently listening to them gestured in their direction. “I agree with Mr. Underhill. We are all very busy people and I hate to waste his time, especially since you two have already spoken to Mr. Ironbeard.”

Gullfelak turned back to Paul. “I know that Sulborikrel was trained by Sivon,” she said with a trill. “And he graduated from this Academy to join the Order and corrupted Sivonarang to break the law and had his companion, Zazex, to join him.”

Paul’s jaw dropped. “What? What the hell sort of conclusion is that supposed to be?”

Razzo nodded. “I agree. This doesn’t make any sense. I’ve met members of the Order in the past, and their beliefs didn’t seem to be so flimsy as to turn to banditry because they spoke with someone who had sex in the wrong position.”

“It’s obvious to a true drakon,” she said. “Deviance breeds deviance. You are a warrior who has made a Covenant with the gods to wield their might. Even if it is the power of the Hearth Mother, She wanted you —”

Paul interrupted her. “Don’t pretend to act like you know what She wants of Her people. I made an oath to Her to protect the innocent, to give a voice to the voiceless. She doesn’t want me going around killing people just because they don’t share the same values as others.”

Mason smiled and nodded. “You’re a very commendable person, Mr. Underhill.”

Gullfelak sighed and rolled her eyes, causing Paul to growl at her. “I am sorry you feel that way, Mr. Underhill, I know that you were not raised among your people.” Paul’s blood began to feel hot. “If you were raised by your real parents —“

Paul growled louder and bared his teeth. “How much do you think you fucking know about me?”

The consul stepped forward, putting himself between Gullfelak and Paul. “Quite a bit thanks to Sir Gullfelak. As an arcane knight she focuses her drakirto Wisdom, one of the loftier of the Six Virtues. We know you’re one of only a few paladins of Pela, one of even fewer that isn’t a halfling, and the only one that is a drakon. You also trained at the Academy for a short time while Sulbor was there.”

Jeaneth was tugging on Paul’s sleeve. He jerked his arm, causing her to let go.

“You think that because I’m a drakon that we share the same values? That I give a damn about what you two think of me? Who’s to say that Sulbor didn’t corrupt me?”

“It is unlikely,” Gullfelak trilled. “Sivonarang spent several years training Sulbor intensively. You were lucky in that you didn’t follow the call of the Ascendant and spent much less time around him.”

The consul placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder and patted him. If he didn’t want it to not feel condescending, it wasn’t working. “It has shown time and time again that chaos breeds chaos, deviancy leads to further deviancy. The Order has assured me they will not make such a mistake again.” He turned back towards Alderman Mason. “So long as the Order of the Heliotrope operates within the borders of the Republic, we will do our duty to ensure they treat all their members fairly.”

Mason scoffed. “Fairly? I know that some Imperial citizens are in the Order. There’s a lot of non-drakons in it, not just those who live in Zornea. And are you going to screen dragons too?”

Gullfelak approached Mason and bowed. “The Order will re-screen all its members to ensure they live up to the ideals we live by. Those who do not will be made to leave. Those who are citizens of the Republic will be marked as deviants if their lives don’t conform, and they will all receive stigmas.”

“Consul,” Mason said, “I trust that the Empire’s ambassador to Zornea has been briefed about all of this?”

“Of course, sir,” Consul d’Averatso replied. “Now, onto reparations for this whole mess. I have been told by the empyrean dragons during lunch that they will honor the Accordo Draconis, so Zazex’s remains are yours to do as you please.” He turned back towards Paul and clicked his tongue slowly. “As for you and your companions, we will allow you to take Zazex and Sivonarang’s equipment as…” He forced a smile, careful to not show his teeth. “Loot, as defined under the bylaws of the Rightful Guild of Adventurers and Explorers for having lawfully killed an armed belligerent. Although I’d much rather call it ‘recompense.’”

“We only ask that you remove all of the sigils related to the Order on their belongings,” Gullfelak added.

“And with that, our business is concluded.” D’Averatso adjusted his clothes and stepped beside Gullfelak. “Constable, please have your deputies bring Sivonarang’s corpse to the front. Sir Gullfelak, please be sure to recover the body once you return me to the consulate.”

The raven on Paul’s shoulder began squawking loudly as Razzo turned back to look at the consul. “What do you mean?” She looked at the raven as it grew silent. “We are still performing an investigation. We were hoping to find a way to speak to his corpse, a highly trained cleric might be able to get something out of him even with the damage to his mouth, assuming he’s willing to speak.”

Gullfelak’s voice lowered to a growl. “He is dead, both in body and in spirit. His motives are meaningless because his crime is meaningless. We will return his body to the Citadel and turn it to ash, and then spread it to the winds so nobody may attempt to ever return him to this life.”

The consul put his hand on Gullfelak’s shoulder. “Let us go now.”

“Sir Gullfelak, a question before you leave,” Paul said.

“What?”

“This Sir Sulbor… he made a Covenant with the Ascendant to receive the magic that he wielded. I’ve been taught that if us hierons don’t uphold our end of the Covenant, upholding the ideals of our god, that they can take that power away from us.”

D’Averatso huffed. “Your point?”

“Does Sulbor still have his magic?”

The knight unsheathed her sword and brought it, tip pointed downward, towards her face. In a brilliant glow of light the sword change to a long metal staff with the same blue crystal that was the pommel, now on the tip of the staff.

Till vala!” Gullfelak shouted.

The crystal glowed with a nearly blinding light as she tapped it on the floor three times and with a flash of blue light and a loud bang the two had vanished. Several papers on the desk fluttered as air rushed in to fill the space they once occupied.

Of course, Paul wouldn’t get an answer, not from her, and probably from no one else in the Order. At least she didn’t seem to know, or at least pretended she didn’t know, about Sulbor and himself.

“Damn, that went well Sophia,” Mason said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He waved his metallic hand at the papers on the ground. A violet crystal in his palm glowed along with the papers, and they leapt through the air and back onto his desk.

“As well as any of this bullshit could ever be,” the Constable replied. She nodded at the raven. “You can change back now, Vacht.”

The raven hopped off Paul’s shoulders and landed on the ground next to Jeaneth. Its form shifted quickly back into the familiar dark elf.

Mason smiled. “Vacht, I want to thank you for finishing the examination of —”

“We are going to let them take that dead knight’s body away!?” Vacht shouted.

Mason raised his hands. “Vacht’sha, please… don’t get so emotional. I’d stop them but I’d risk a diplomatic incident over a dead criminal. Now tell me, what did you find when checking that dead knight?”

Vacht reached into their robes and pulled out Paul’s sheathed dagger. “The obvious, he died from being stabbed over and over with this,” they hissed and handed it back to Paul. “It’s okay, I cleaned it for you. He probably would’ve died in a few days anyway though.”

Paul grunted. “What? He seemed healthy enough to nearly kill me yesterday.”

Vacht shook their head. “His organs were ruined. His entrails and muscles had atrophied, his heart was enlarged, his brain tissue was swollen, his adrenal glands were half the size they should have been, and the attachment points for that wing harness he was wearing were badly infected too.”

The Constable raised an eyebrow. “He was sick with a disease?” She looked at Paul with an accusatory glare. “Is this something that happens to drakons? It’s not contagious, is it?”

“I don’t think so,” Vacht said. “I tried checking his blood to see if there was anything in it that could explain what happened, but I don’t have the tools or equipment to figure that out.”

“There’s a lot of potions that may not show up in the blood when ingested,” Paul said. “The two of them were stealing cow livers. Maybe they were trying to figure out a cure to whatever was wrong with him?”

“You think that might be the whole reason why they were doing that?” Vacht asked. “You wouldn’t need the livers of something the size of a cow for that.”

Paul nodded. “The dragon didn’t seem to be in very good shape when I was riding on its back. He was complaining about dizziness… maybe he was afflicted too?”

Mason walked towards a painting, one of several in his office. “Did they say anything else?”

“They didn’t want witnesses to what they were doing,” Paul said.

“That the only thing?” Razzo asked.

“Yes,” Paul lied. He couldn’t bring up their talk of an “old woman.” If Vacht was connected to the hag, and the rogue knights were connected to the hag too, it could implicate Vacht in some way. If he was going to connect these leads together, he had to figure out how they were connected before getting the authorities involved.

“What about you, Vacht?” Mason asked. “You didn’t happen to overhear anything or find anything else?”

They shook their head. “No. I don’t speak Draconic.” Vacht seemed uncomfortable, fidgeting in place. Jeaneth looked at her employer, her mentor, with worry.

“Duncar doesn’t either,” Paul added.

“I know, he wasn’t very helpful during his interview earlier this morning,” Razzo said.

“It was good sharing old war stories,” Mason said. “Apparently we fought in the same unit at the Battle of Svartenheim. Same place where I lost this.” He gestured with his hand and then tapped the side of his face, next to his right eye. “This too.”

“Am I still needed?” Vacht asked. Their voice was monotone, their face expressionless.

“No, of course you’re not needed,” Razzo hissed.

Mason rolled his eyes. “Sophia, please be nice to Vacht.”

Vacht huffed, spun on their heels, and went out the door, dragging Jeaneth along.

“Vacht, I’ll meet you outside—” Paul called as they slammed the door behind them.

“Good. They’re useless. If it weren’t for the taxes they pay I would’ve run them out of town years ago.“

“What’s your problem with them?” Paul asked her.

“My problem?” Razzo hissed. “My problem is that thing doesn’t respect authority, it thinks it can — “

“Vacht is a person, not a thing,” Paul said.

“Maybe that thing should’ve —“

“Sophia, that’s enough,” Mason said.

“Sir, this boy needs to learn respect, something that Vacht never learned.”

“Oh? I need to learn respect?” Paul asked. “What are you going to do? Beat me half-to-death out in public for everyone to see?”

Razzo barred her fangs, her voice deepened, far more than Paul ever heard with an infernian before. “I think you’ve earned yourself some time in the jail to cool down a bit.“

“That’s enough!” Mason shouted at Razzo. “Sophia, leave, now.”

“Actually, I have a few questions for you both,” Paul said. “It’s about former Alderman Robyn— “

“Don’t even fucking speak her name,” Razzo hissed at Paul. She lowered her head, her eyes barely visible below the ridge of her horns jutting out from her forehead. “I knew the minute a storm drakon shown up in town that Vacht would get their filthy hands on you.”

“I already know about Vacht’s desperation to find someone to help them.”

“Vacht killed Robyn,” the Constable hissed. “They just can’t accept it.”

“They didn’t kill her,” Paul said.

Mason sighed and sat down at his desk. “Son, all the signs pointed to Alderman Pembroke killing herself, and trying to kill Vacht in the process. Sophia, I know you loved her, but you shouldn’t —“

“How many dark elves did you kill in the war?” she asked him.

“More than I can count,” Mason said. “But Vacht isn’t one of them, and they all weren’t just emotionless killers.”

“But —“

“Drop it,” Mason said. “Sophia, I think you’re needed elsewhere.”

Razzo growled and walked past Paul, shoving him out of the way, and left, slamming the door even harder than Vacht did.

“I apologize, Mr. Underhill. Robyn meant a lot to her,” Mason said. “She meant a lot to many people.”

“I understand. I just wish that I could somehow help Vacht in all this.”

“You think that Robyn was murdered?” Mason asked. “I’ll admit, it was odd when I first came here, but by all accounts it seemed to be a suicide.”

Paul nodded. “I think it was murder. But…” he sighed, “I don’t know. I’ve never tried doing this before.”

“Well, you’re a paladin, son, that means you have the gods on your side. I’m sure you’ll”

“That’s what I’m always told,” Paul said.

Mason sighed and leaned back in his chair. “The governor appointed me as alderman after Robyn died because it was supposed to be a simple place to help run. Now it’s just one mystery after another. I don’t know if you’ll find anything about Robyn or not, but I wish you the best of luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” Paul scratched his head, tapping his fingers up and down the back of his neck. “I’m a bit curious about the Order too.”

Mason smiled warmly at Paul. “Me too, son. If you find anything else about those two knights in the Order of the Heliotrope, let me know. Something’s going on with that consul, I’m sure of it.”

It took Paul a while to find Vacht, who had wandered into a side alley near City Hall with Jeaneth in tow. It wasn’t difficult to eventually find them though, who had left a trail of people complaining over them shouting a great number of expletives.

“What the fuck do you want!?” Vacht yelled at Paul as he approached them. “I… I’m sorry, I just…”

“Boss, please calm down,” Jeaneth pleaded. “Razzo likes upsetting you.”

“We need to talk,” Paul said.

“About what? About how I can’t do anything right for that insufferable bitch?“

“Who’s Eleanor Ironteeth?”

Vacht winced. “Who told you that name?”

Paul looked at Jeaneth. Vacht turned their head to their apprentice, who waved sheepishly at them. “Sorry, boss.”

“I told you about her in confidence.”

“Who is she?” Paul asked again.

“She… she was one of the first people I met when I came to the surface world. The Dreamwalker shown me how beautiful the world was, and she shown me how ugly it could be.”

“Jeaneth and I spent all morning trying to find someone, anyone, who would’ve wanted Robyn dead. Jeaneth told me about Eleanor –”

Vacht bared their teeth. “Stop saying her name out loud. She doesn’t like that.”

Paul raised his hands. “She taught you potion making. You’re the only person who makes potions in this city, right?”

“Yes, she used to live closer to Greenfield. but after I opened my store, she moved farther up Rimsor’s Bluff.”

“When was the last time you spoke with her?” Paul asked.

“She…” Vacht narrowed their eyes, to where their pupils were barely visible from the shadow from the hood of their cloak. “You think she killed Robyn, don’t you?”

“When did you last speak with her?” he asked again.

“Five years ago,” Vacht said.

“Before Robyn died?”Vacht looked towards the ground and nodded.“Did she stop talking to you because of Robyn?”

Vacht didn’t answer. Jeaneth tugged on their sleeve. “Please, boss,” she pleaded, “tell him the truth.”

They nodded. “Yes… Granny hated her. She told me short-lived folk couldn’t be trusted, that I was foolish for falling in love with one, that I needed to learn to live my life alone… just like her.”

“Did you speak to her after Robyn died?”

“I tried, but she wouldn’t speak to me anymore.”

Paul gently placed his hands on Vacht’s cheeks and raised their face. “Vacht, I need you to tell me the truth about everything. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”

“I have told you the truth, I’ve just… omitted some things, things that weren’t important.”

“Vacht, I told you I believed you, but keeping things from me prevents me from helping you.”

Their eyes looked wet. “You still believe me?”

“I spoke with To’ka, she thinks I was brought here for a reason and that the dreams— the visions— I’ve been having… that it means I’m a Chosen of the gods. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I know that I’m supposed to help you.”

“Do you consider me a liar?”

Paul shook his head. “No, I don’t. If anybody is a liar, it’s me.”

Jeaneth raised an eyebrow. “I thought paladins weren’t supposed to lie?”

“I didn’t tell the constable that I heard something yesterday when we fought Sivon and Zazex. They mentioned something about an old woman.”

“To Granny?” Vacht said.

“What’s this about a granny?” They all turned towards the opening of the alley. Standing there was a very wet dwarf, Duncar.

Paul let go of Vacht’s face. “How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to hear about you being a naughty boy and lying,” he said with a laugh. “Although you’re not the only one who fibbed.”

“In what way?” Jeaneth asked.

Duncar huddled close to them and pulled out a scroll. “This thing right here. I may have… riffled through Sir Sivon’s things before the city guard came. And, I may not have mentioned it to the Constable, at least until I’ve had an opportunity to study it.”

Duncar unfurled the scroll. It was a map of the valley that Greenfield was within, with locations labeled in Draconic. Several of them were circled with notes.

“I recognize some of these places,” Vacht said. “That’s my grove there, circled. The old quarry near the abandoned mine is circled too.”

“What do they mean?” Jeaneth asked.

“There’s notes here,” Paul said. “The one at your grove says, ‘Found circle, can’t enter. Found drakon in circle, from Faerie? Couldn’t risk being noticed, left him.’”

“Is it about you?” Duncar asked.

Vacht sighed. “I have no idea when this was written. I found you quite some distance from the only faerie circle out there. I assumed you didn’t pass through it… but…”

“But what?” Paul asked.

“Time and distances in Faerie work differently than here. If you’re not native to there, and if you don’t know to properly cross between our realm and theirs, things can happen to you.”

“Do you… do you think my memory loss might be from that instead of just from being brought back from the dead?” Paul shook his head. “There are things, details I’m missing that go back months before I was killed.”

“Maybe… I don’t know.”

“What’s this?” Jeaneth asked. “That’s Rimsor’s Bluff, it looks like a little drawing of a house. I’ve never seen a house there though.”

Paul gulped. “It says, ‘She knows more than she lets on. She has to help us…’” Paul looked at Vacht. “’We have to save them all, from him.’”

Duncar stroked his beard. “Umm… who’s ‘she?’”

Vacht whispered softly. “Granny, I think? I don’t know anymore…”

“Who’s ‘him?’” Jeaneth asked.

Paul rolled the scroll back up and handed it to Duncar. “That’s what we are going to find out.”
 

Chapter 14: A Thread of Truth

It is said that Faerie lies closer to the Divine Realm of Empyrean, or even the Infernal Realm of Tartarus, than we here on Edra do. It’s not necessarily that Faerie is closer to one Realm or another, or even our own, but that it lies in a place next to where Edra is and has a more unobstructed view of the cosmos. Empyrean lies above us, far beyond Suros and the stars above, and Tartarus below us, deeper than the darkest place one can ever imagine. And indeed, in the sky of Faerie off on one horizon you can see the Light of Empyrean, and opposite it one can see the Darkness of Tartarus, with a twilit sky in between them.

— Mathilda Leichter, A Brief History of the Twilight Realm of Faerie

The evening sun was slowly starting to shine through the clouds, prompting Vacht to pull their hood back over their head and wear their glasses again. Luckily the Alabaster Inn wasn’t too far from the alley.

Duncar pulled out the key to his room as the four of them gathered next to him. “So, lad, who’s this granny that Vacht has? The one who owns this house out of town?”

“She’s a hag,” Jeaneth said, dryly.

“A hag!?” Duncar shouted, nearly dropping his keys. Several people in the hallway turned to look at them before going back to their own business.

Paul patted his uncle on the back reassuringly, as they opened the unlocked door and entered. Inside, strewn all about were bits of armor plates, aethertech components, several swords, a lance, an enormous rifle, and equally large handcannon. Lying on the bed sat a set of metallic wings attached to a thin curved frame in the shape of a spine. They were the accoutrements of the now dead Sir Sivon.

“A deputy dropped them off before I went off to find you, along with the share of the money for the contract, seven-hundred-fifty ducats each! Speaking of which—" He reached deep into his displacer bag and pulled out two pouches of coins and handed them to Paul and Vacht. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Paul’s jaw tightened. “Is Joe still here?”

“No, he already left as far as I know. I gave his share to his guy who knows a guy who knows how to send it to him. Constable Razzo is supposed to be handling the selling of the dragon’s equipment and body parts, so we won’t hear about that for a while.”

Jeaneth bound over to the armor and picked up the chest piece. Its surface was stained a dull blue in places. She smiled. “Wow, it’s so light.”

Duncar nodded. “Aye, lass! It’s fancy aethertech stuff with gears, and gizmos, and fibers, and whatnots inside. Made from orichalcum, so it’s nice and lightweight and strong.”

Paul picked up the armored helmet. “I remember Sulbor told me about these things. They call it an ‘aegis.’ That apparatus with the wings attached has spikes hidden inside, they’re supposed to drill into a drakon’s back and draw energy straight from their elementum to power the armor, so you don’t need to use aetherite crystals. It can supposedly make you strong, even stronger than a hieron like I can be by focusing all of my Light.”

“Sulbor?” Jeaneth asked. “That guy those two said you went to school with?”

“Yes, I didn’t tell them but we… had a history.” Paul handed the helmet to Duncar. “They said that Sulbor was kicked out of the Order.”

“Serves him right, Paulie, for what he did to you,” Duncar said.

“They seemed to think that he somehow influenced Sivon and Zazex to do all this,” Vacht said.

Paul shook his head. “They were either lying to try to cover up what those two were actually doing, or they had no idea. I don’t know if they knew our entire history, but they probably hoped mentioning Sulbor was enough to make me lose interest.”

“None of this makes sense,” Duncar said. “Maybe he was being blackmailed? Infected with something only your granny could help him with? And that map mentioned he was looking for someone else, a man?”

“I don’t know,” Vacht said.

“There is one thing I do know,” Paul said, “it’s that we have to go find your granny.”

“The hag?” Duncar asked.

“Yes, we—"

Duncar clapped his hands together. “Whelp! I’m out. Now, let me just get this rifle—"

“Come on Duncar!” Paul patted the dwarf on the back. “You love going on adventures!”

“Are you going to kill her?”

Vacht’s eyes narrowed. “No, she’s a friend of mine. We are simply going to talk to her, right?”

Duncar raised an eyebrow at his nephew. “Last time I tried ‘talking’ to a hag I walked out with her having turned my beard into a wig. And besides, what if she doesn’t want to talk?”

“She will,” Vacht said.

“He has a point. Are you sure that she will?” Paul asked. “You haven’t spoke to her in years. You two weren’t on the best of terms back then either.”

“Pointing a sword, or a wand, or a gun at her won’t make her talk either. She responds to threats by killing those who dare make them,” Vacht said.

Paul snapped his fingers. “Duncar, you still have your Stone of Farspeech, right? The one you and the rest of the Devils have?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Remember when Aunt Callia said that she was able to find a hag’s First Name? An old druid taught her how to brew a particular potion, that when she consumed, and then spoke an incantation that she’d be able to take control of her?”

“A First Name?” Jeaneth asked.

Vacht turned their head, causing the charms on their antlers to jangle loudly. “Hags are made, birthed from children they steal and change into their own. You…” their eyes narrowed, “you think I know her First Name, don’t you?”

“They share their First Name with their children, don’t they?” Paul asked. “How close were you too? You call her your granny, right? You wouldn’t do that if you were just her apprentice.”

“I…”

“Vacht, please,” Paul pleaded. “Whatever is going on here, it’s more than just Robyn now. It might involve this entire city. If for some reason she wasn’t willing to help the Order of the Heliotrope then she certainly won’t help me.”

Vacht shook their head and closed their eyes. After a few moments they opened them. “I do know her First Name.”

“What is it?” Paul asked.

“I… I can’t… I won’t tell you here. I don’t want her hurt. If you make this potion then I’ll use it. I’ll be the one to use it as a last resort.”

“Okay,” Paul said.

“I… I need some fresh air. I’ll be back in a moment,” they said.

Vacht left, taking all the air out of the room with them.

“They get kinda upset easily when it comes to Robyn… or Eleanor… or anybody really,” Jeaneth said. “I’m pretty good at potion making. I can help, especially when the boss feels better! They’re an expert at potions.”

“I like this girl,” Duncar said. “Well, I think the ingredients aren’t too rare, I think it’s just hard to mix them all up. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours if memory serves.”

“Duncar, could you remove the insignia of the Order of the Heliotrope off that armor and those weapons without damaging them? That knight today said we could use them, it might be helpful in case things turn sour.”

“Should be easy lad,” he said. “I’m still a bit wary of going to meet this hag though. I was thinking that maybe we split up? You and Vee go to see the hag and I investigate where the dragon and the drakon looked at before?”

“We shouldn’t split ourselves up,” Paul said. “I’d like for the three of us to be there just in case.”

“Oh! I want to go!” Jeaneth shouted at them. “I know Rimsor’s Bluff like the back of my hand! I can help you and Vacht around there while Duncar goes off and plays with faeries or whatever.”

Paul’s thoughts wandered to Fedor, the halfling boy who he died saving. Her enthusiasm was just like that of him. She was much older than Fedor, and she claimed at least some understanding of magic.

She’ll die, the little voice told him. She’ll die and they’ll blame you for it.

Paul spoke softly. “If Vacht and your parents think it’s okay for you to come, then you can.”

Jeaneth embraced Paul and squeezed him tight. “Oh man, this is going to be a real adventure!” She let go of Paul and smiled at him widely. “I’m going to go talk to Vacht and get my alembic. I’ll be back in a bit guys.”

She bound through the door as Duncar chuckled. “Girl has a lot of spunk.”

Paul yawned loudly and smacked his lips. “Gods I’m exhausted. I never imagined all of this would be happening.”

“Well lad, maybe you should head back to Vacht’s place and call it a night. We can get everything ready for tomorrow ourselves,” Duncar said. He paused for a moment. “Although… when was the last time you spoke to your mom and dad?”

“When I left Wavemeet for the last time. So, a few months shy of a year now. Before then I hadn’t seen them since I went to the Academy.”

“Paulie,” Duncar groaned, “you need to talk to them. Your dad still has his stone, I can contact him, and you and your folks can catch up.”

Paul’s heart started to race. “No… I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Halflings, the few that go off and journey, when they get home or get into contact with their family again… they always have big tales to tell. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet to warrant that.”

“You came back from the dead!” Duncar shouted. “And you killed a dragon and a Heliotrope Knight! I think that warrants a song or two from a bard.”

“There’s still so many questions I have about everything. And besides, if I tell Mom that I got killed once and nearly died another time then she’d smack Dad so hard for even suggesting I become an adventurer. “

“So hard that I’d probably feel it,” Duncar said. He nodded knowingly and stroked his beard. “I understand, lad. Tomorrow we will hopefully have more answers. Me and Vee and Jeaneth will get everything ready. You go get some rest.”

Vacht was standing at the stables behind the Alabaster Inn. They were running a hand through the mane of Duncar’s pony Bogin, whispering to the animal. Jeaneth was already gone. As Paul approached, Bogin raised his head to look at Paul, prompting the dark elf to turn around.

“Come to spy on me?”

“I’m off to get some rest for the night,” Paul said. “I’ll need all the rest I can get for tomorrow, you should too. What are you and ol’ Bogin up to?”

“Thinking,” Vacht said. They turned back around and continued stroking the horse.

“About Eleanor Ironteeth?”

Vacht lowered their head. “Please don’t speak her name. And, yes… that and…”

“About Robyn?”

“She was in her fifties. I don’t remember the exact age, except that her hair was grey. And… when she would smile her eyes would crease a bit on the edges.” Paul could hear Vacht sniff loudly. “I’m worried,” they said. “I’m so worried I’ll forget her.”

Paul walked up to them, petting Bogin, moving his hand next to Vacht’s. “You won’t. So long as she lives in your heart, you’ll never truly forget her.”

“What if she was somehow involved in something—something that involves Granny and those two knights? I remember Robyn as being so kind, and so loving, and her smile… and everything. What if… what if Granny tells me the truth? Faeries aren’t supposed to lie to us folk.”

“A lie of omission is well within their power,” Paul said.

“Maybe she was trying to protect me from something? Or maybe she murdered Robyn and corrupted the minds of Sivon and Zazex?”

“I’ve seen magic that can influence men’s minds, but not to that extent, and certainly nothing that can affect a dragon.” Paul placed his hand on Vacht’s. “We will get to the bottom of this, I swear to you.”

“I promised so much to you,” Vacht said. “I promised to help you… so you can help me…”

Paul’s heart felt heavy. “I know… helping me with this can’t be easy. A name, especially for the fae, is a powerful thing to share.”

“Is it really mine to give? I trust you so much… but… I knew her for so long,” Vacht said.

“How about a secret for a secret then?” He took Vacht by the shoulders and slowly turned them around. “I’m going to tell you something special, something important. My dad told me that thieves used to exchange secrets with each other, so if one got caught they wouldn’t ever rat out their comrade, lest their secret be revealed.”

“What are you going on about?” Vacht asked.

“Pelacru Dunfry,” he said. “That’s my Hidden Name, my name in the halfling tongue, in the language we don’t speak to anyone except our own.”

Vacht winced and closed their eyes. “I… I really wish you didn’t do that.”

“Why? A secret is—”

“I do… I just… Damnit!” they practically screamed at Paul. “I want you to leave! I want you to abandon this quest. I… free you from this? How am I supposed to word this?”

“You’re giving up?” Paul asked.

“Run back to Wavemeet along with Duncar and take Jeaneth with you.”

“Vacht, you’re scared.”

“Go!” Vacht snarled, futilely shoving the much larger Paul. “Run you idiot! She’ll kill you, then she’ll kill your stupid uncle, and then she’ll kill Jeaneth!”

They’re lying about something.

Paul tugged at a string of magic within his mind, causing it to vibrate. He touched his symbol of Pela around his neck and cast a spell. The familiar warmth of a truth spell washed over them both.

“Speak truth to me, Vacht. What scares you?”

“If…” Vacht began to sob. “If she took away Robyn from me, then she’ll take away Jeaneth. She’ll take away you. I… I loved Robyn so much, and I love Jeaneth, and I love you. I loved you before I even met you, before you were even born! She’s taken everything I loved away from me before and she’ll do it again to you all!”

“She won’t,” Paul said. “I’ll protect her with my life. I don’t know what the gods may have in store for me, or what the Hearth Mother wants me to do, but I know She won’t allow a hag to best me.”

“Granny is old,” Vacht said. “She’s so old you couldn’t even begin to imagine. She might know how to undo whatever brought you back.”

“She won’t,” Paul cooed. “I swear that –"

“Go! Away!” Vacht screamed.

They swung upward at Paul’s face, punching his cheek. He stumbled slightly, lowering his head as Vacht reached up and grabbed him by his hair, yanking him downward.

“Vacht I’m not going to–"

“I know what you’re afraid of!” Vacht yelled as they kicked Paul in the leg.

He fell to his knee and blocked more punches from the dark elf. As Vacht paused briefly, Paul grabbed the dark elf by the collar of their cloak and swept their legs with his own, sending them crashing onto the ground.

Paul straddled Vacht’s hips, putting all his weight on them. “Stop it! I’m not going to abandon you, and I’m not going to fight you!” Paul growled.

As Paul leaned down, Vacht grabbed at Paul’s face, eventually sticking their forearm into his mouth. With their free arm they tried pushing on Paul’s lower jaw, forcing his mouth shut.

“Do it,” Vacht hissed. “Do it you filthy scaleback! I looked into your nightmares last night! I know what you fear the most! Sink your teeth in me like when Liam slapped you too hard because you weren’t a good little bitch for him! Break my jaw like you did to Sulbor when he wouldn’t stop touching you! I know that late at night you still call yourself a monster because you’re afraid one day you’ll finally lose it, that you’ll end up actually killing yourself or someone you love just because you can’t be loved, because you don’t deserve love. Right?”

They’re right, the little voice in his head said. You bit Liam, you drew blood from his hand as he kept hitting you over and over. You had a hammer lifted over your head before To’ka stopped you from killing Sulbor.

Paul’s chest hurt. He mumbled through the arm stuck through his mouth. “You don’t mean it.”

“I…” Vacht sniffled. They tried to speak, but the words couldn’t come out. Half choked from sobs, and half from the truth spell, Vacht finally said, “I don’t want you to die for me. Everyone and everything I love dies.”

They pulled their arm out of Paul’s mouth. He gasped as he felt the soft material of their tunic pass over his teeth. The sudden feeling caused the vibrating string of magic he was concentrating on to fade away, ending the truth spell.

“Can I live for you?” he asked.

“What does that even mean?”

“I…” Paul shifted his weight off Vacht, sitting on his haunches next to the prone elf, “I feel so broken sometimes. I’m better than I was, but I felt sohopelessly broken then, and at times I still do. I know you feel broken too, maybe when this is over, we could learn from each other, find out how the broken edges of our lives fit together.”

“How did you get better?”

“I’m not. I don’t know what to do with my life, or how to keep going on. I pray that Pela will reveal to me how my life is supposed to go.” Paul sighed. “Every day to me is a miracle. Not just the days after I came back to life, or the days after you found me in the forest. Every single day is.”

Vacht sniffled. “Granny always told me the world is a terrible impermanent place, that everything good in it eventually fades away.”

“Forget her!” Paul growled. He stood up and pulled Vacht back up onto their feet. “Things live, things die. Even elves eventually grow old and fade away. But new things come. Every sunset leads to a sunrise. This world is wonderful because it changes.”

 

 

 

Chapter 17: The Hart of the Matter

Much aethertechnology over the past century has been reverse engineered from the great ruins of Godsreach. Even through extensive research, much of the replications of such technology functions nowhere near as well as what few working specimens can be found. In particular are the beings known as the Custodians. Their “brains,” intricate mechanisms made from highly refined aetherite, formed the basis of the arithmetic machine: the modern miracle which can perform over a dozen calculations per second.

—The Ontson Inquirer, Harvestreach 18, 1795 AF

Paul found himself in Vacht’s bed yet again. The night ended with Vacht kissing Paul, then forcefully pulling his clothes off as they made their way back to the Dreamwalker’s Den. Vacht was rough, nowhere near as gentle as the prior night.

“I want to smell of you,” they cooed. “I want to taste of you. I want to bear your mark, so everyone knows that I'm yours, and you are mine.”

Paul protested. He was willing to scratch their body with his claws enough to leave marks, but biting their neck…

“You can’t hurt me, even if you wanted to.”

He left deep bite marks where their neck met their shoulders, one on each side, illicting deep moans from Vacht with each. On their right side, the first, he left a relatively shallow bite. But on their left side Vacht forced Paul’s full mouth down, running his teeth down part of their back and chest.

“I love you Paul, I always will.”

Paul had hoped to share dreams that night with Vacht. However, he had dreamt of a metal sphere, the size of his fist. He was holding it, but he handed it to someone whose face he couldn’t see. He wanted to ask Vacht the meaning of the dream, but they were already gone when he awoke. Vacht had left a note to meet at the Alabaster Inn for breakfast. He skipped taking a shower—preferring Vacht’s lingering scent to stay on his body—and made his way to the Inn where Duncar, Jeaneth, and Vacht already had a table.

“So, Boss,” Jeaneth said, “you ready for going out to Rimsor’s Bluff?”

Vacht moved their food around with a fork. They had barely eaten anything. “I suppose.” They looked at Paul, over top their darkened glasses. They wore a high collared shit as a part of their ensemble, covering whatever bruises, scratches, and bitemarks Paul had left on them.

“Paulie says that the hag is pretty close to you, eh?” Duncar asked, spitting out several pieces of potato. “I really don’t like hags, no offense, but if you don’t want to go I can… try to go with Paul and Jeaneth. You can go to the mine and Kyron-only-knows where that faerie circle goes.”

“No,” Vacht said. “I have to go do this.”

Paul stuffed a teacake in his mouth. “Duncar, I have confidence in Vacht. And I trust them.”

No, you don’t, the little voice told him. They barely even look at you. Perhaps you were just a pity fuck?

Vacht raised an eyebrow and scoffed at Duncar. “Do you doubt my trustworthiness? Or do all dwervfiars think so lowly of the dokkar?”

Duncar raised his hands. “I meant no offense, Vee.”

“None taken.” Vacht’s voice began to waiver. “And when the time comes, I’ll use the name I promised to never say…”

Paul reached out and took their hand. “Hey, it’s going to be alright. With any luck she’ll listen to you.”

“I hope so,” Vacht said.

“Paulie, I was able to fix up that armor and the longsword, taking off all insignias of the Order on them,” Duncar said. He smiled and leaned in closer to Paul. “Also, I think I figured out that rifle and hand cannon.

If you want to maybe bring a bit of extra firepower with you to Rimsor’s Bluff—"

Paul shook his head. “Uncle, I don’t think that bringing a rifle nearly as long as I am tall would be best. I don’t want to appear too threatening to the hag. I want to talk to her, not blow up her house from a mile away.”

Jeaneth pointed her fork at Duncar. “I dunno, I could use a big gun. Firearms are so expensive—well, the ammo is.”

“Fine! All I’m saying is that Vee should talk to the hag, and you can hide in a tree in wait, and then, if she tries harming a hair on pretty Vee’s head…” Duncar brought his arms up as if he had the rifle shouldered. He closed one eye and brought the imaginary weapon towards Vacht “Then, pow!” he said, recoiling from his shot and laughed.

Vacht scowled and dug into their food.

Paul was amazed at how quickly Duncar had repaired, cleaned, and refinished the magical aegis in his small room at the inn. The flowery marks and filigree that shown it belonged to a member of the Order of the Heliotrope were barely visible.

As Paul slipped the pieces of armor over his clothes it magically conformed itself to his body. Hidden latches, straps, and gears underneath the plates tightened themselves to fit Paul like it was meant for him. “Vacht,” Paul said, “you said that the wings were attached inside of that knight?”

“Yes.”

The armor wouldn’t work fully without the wings. But the thought of having something embedding spikes and tendrils deep inside of Paul’s body, especially into his already injured elementum, didn’t sound pleasant.

Paul slipped the helmet over his head, like the rest of the aegis it sealed and conformed itself. He felt a slight pressure around his face, and when he opened and closed his mouth, the jaw of the helm articulated in time with his mouth movement.

“How do I retract it?” Paul asked. He opened and closed his mouth wide several times, but the helmet stayed in place.

“Beats me,” Duncar said. “I tried putting the helmet on last night and couldn’t make it do any of that.”

Paul took off the helmet and put it into his displacer bag. It had a lot more stuff in it than he had expected. “Vacht, did you put camping supplies in here?”

They nodded. “Rimsor’s Bluff isn’t too far away, but the journey into the woods near it could be harrowing. Even with Jeaneth helping us we may have to spend the night out there.”

“You don’t need to sleep,” Duncar noted.

“The lafarrsdo not need to sleep unlike

dragke and dwervfiars, but they still must rest.”

“What about you, Jeaneth?” Paul asked.

She shrugged. “My dad used to do that meditation thing elves do, but I’ve never really tried it, not even sure if I can. I can probably see better than you at night though. Not as good as Vacht, of course.”

Paul looked at himself in a mirror on the wall. The silvery armor was streaked with blue, almost the same color as Paul’s scales. He turned and smiled at Vacht. “Guess I’m a blue knight instead of a white knight now.”

Vacht turned their gaze down to the floor. “I suppose.” His attempt at humor didn’t seem to change their mood at all.

Paul took the firebrand sword that Vacht had lent him and handed it back to the dark elf. “Here you go, I won’t need it while using the longsword the knight had.” Vacht quietly took the sword and thanked him, barely loud enough for Paul to hear.

Duncar handed Paul a small narrow bottle with a pale red liquid inside. It seemed thick, like honey. “Here lad, the potion we made last night.” He handed a piece of parchment with instructions scribbled across it. “I wrote all the directions down on how to use it. Now, your auntie Callia said to say those words exactly with the name of the hag right after swallowing the potion.”

“What if I don’t say them exactly?” Paul asked.

“Best not to think of such things,” Vacht said. “Magical rituals are specific for a reason. So long as you complete this ritual there is nothing to fear.”

It was cool and foggy as Paul and Vacht made their way outside of town to the south. Vacht decided against wearing their tinted glasses since the sun wasn’t visible from the fog. The way towards Rimsor’s Bluff was rocky and wooded as they told Paul, far too difficult to try and ride horses.

Jeaneth was dressed like Vacht was, with long dark robes, a thick cloak, and an assortment of small pouches and bags filled with gods-know-what. Unlike Vacht, she didn’t carry a sword on her belt, instead she carried a displacer bag full of art supplies and a heavy oak staff with a green gemstone on top.

“Did I do something wrong?” Paul whispered to Vacht. They don’t even smell of you even more.

“No,” Vacht replied coolly.

“I had a dream last night. A metal sphere that—"

“I don’t give a shit about what dreams you have. I only care about what we are doing now.”

Paul whispered through clenched teeth. “Look, I know that this is—"

“I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“There’s so many beautiful things here in the valley,” Jeaneth said out loud, either sensing the tension rising between her teacher and Paul, or just her natural fascination with the forest. “How long has it been around?”

“A very long time. Long before me,” Vacht said. “Granny has lived near Greenfield only recently; however, she has lived here amongst the Evergreen Mountains much longer. Her whole life I reckon.”

A small swallow landed on a rotting log, catching Jeaneth’s eye. She pulled out a booklet and a pencil and carefully approached the bird to sketch it.

Paul asked, “How old is your granny, exactly?”

“Very old.”

Vacht walked towards Jeaneth, who was busy drawing the bird and chittering at it softly. When Vacht drew nearer, the bird turned towards the dark elf, screeched at them, and flew off.

“Damnit! Well… maybe we’ll see some more as we get near the hag’s place,” Jeaneth said. “Although, could you call it back to us? Birds always listen to you.” She thumbed through her sketch book and shown Paul a page of a raven. “See? I sketched this last week after Vacht called it over!”

The adjacent page wasn’t of a plant or an animal. It was of Paul, lying in bed, his face twisted in pain, and body contorted. He was nude, lying on his side with bed sheets tossed all around him. But sitting next to him was Vacht, their hands caressing Paul’s face. Jeaneth noticed Paul looking at her sketch of him and apologized.

“It’s alright,” Paul said. “I was bad off, wasn’t I?”

“We didn’t think you’d make it more than a day,” Jeaneth said. “I can erase the picture if you want.”

Paul smiled at Jeaneth. “No, really, it’s alright. Just… maybe you could draw me after this is over? Now that I’m healthy.”

Vacht spat on the ground. “So long as you’re still healthy once this is over.”

“We’re going to be okay after all of this,” Paul said.

“How can you be so sure? Because you’re a Chosen?” Vacht asked.

“Because we have each other,” Paul said.

“What if she threatens to kill me? What if she tries to kill me?”

“She won’t. She loves you too much.”

“You assume a lot of her,” Vacht growled.

“Love makes us do things, dumb things sometimes, but we do them because we think they’re right.”

Vacht crossed their arms. “Well, I think you’re an idiot for coming out here. Does that mean you love me, Pelacru?”

Paul’s heart quickened suddenly. He asked Vacht to not use his hidden name like that. It was supposed to be a secret.

“Who?” Jeaneth asked. “What are you—”

“Yes,” Paul said quickly. “I… love you, if such a word should be used like that. You took me in and saved my life. I owe you and Jeaneth both more than I could ever repay.”

“Is that really all?” Vacht asked.

“I think we’re a lot more alike than you think,” Paul said. He felt warm all over. Was it anxiety? “We’ve both been through a lot. We could’ve given up in the end, but we kept going.”

“We have, haven’t we?” Vacht smiled. “Come, let us get going then.”

Vacht turned and proceeded deeper into the woods at a fast pace, practically skipping. Jeaneth looked at Vacht and then eyed Paul. He shook his head at her.

Paul had no idea what was wrong, but a sense of dread washedover him.

 

Chapter 18: Rimsor’s Bluff

When wandering in the forest alone remember the three essentials: Never pick up any candy you find, never stand in a circle of mushrooms for longer than the count of three, and whatever you do, don’t ever go at night.

—Folkloric Warning to Halfling Children

The canopy of the forest grew thicker, blotting out what little sunlight Paul could see through the fog. As they trudged deeper, he noticed that the forest grew quieter. Birds couldn’t be heard or seen, chipmunks were absent, and every footfall they made echoed through the grey expanse.

“There should be all sorts of animals out here,” Jeaneth said. “There’s a clan of kobolds who live deeper in the mountains. Usually, I see at least one of them out here foraging, but there’s nothing.”

“Is this unusual?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know,” Vacht replied, “I’ve never journeyed here during the day.”

“It feels like we’re going in circles,” Jeaneth groaned.

“Can you try calling a bird?” Paul asked Vacht. “Or a deer? Something to ask them what’s going on?”

Vacht scowled at Paul. “Do I look like a damned relay service?”

Paul furrowed his brow. Why were they acting this way to him? “I know this is rough on you, but we have to work together in this.”

Vacht cursed in Elvish and walked ahead of them. Their behavior could be explained by what was going on: finding their “blue dragon” after years of waiting, the incident with an actual dragon, and the revelation involving Eleanor Ironteeth. If Paul were them, he imagined he’d be in a sour mood too. But there was one thing about Vacht that couldn’t be explained.

They weren’t walking with a limp anymore. The dark elf’s shorter right leg, even with special boots, gave them a distinctive gait. Paul’s blood chilled as he realized what was going on. He had to remember his training, and he had to make sure Jeaneth stayed safe. “Are we close?” Paul asked out loud.

“No,” Vacht replied, “but we are getting nearer.”

“Is this the most direct route?”

“Yes—why are you questioning me so much?”

Paul walked up to Jeaneth and put a hand on her shoulder. “How about you scout ahead a little bit? I need to talk to Vacht, privately.”

Vacht’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure we should separate? It’s dangerous out here, especially if we don’t stay together.” There was a short pause. “One of you might get hurt if we separate.”

Jeaneth nodded. “Yeah, I don’t know where—”

“Vacht, point out to us which your granny’s hut is at.”

They raised a finger, pointing out towards the thickening fog.

“Will she be safe if she goes alone?” Paul asked.

Vacht nodded.

“Do you swear?”

They nodded again.

“Boss, I—”

Paul shushed Jeaneth. “Don’t worry. We’ll be alright. Just go out there, and don’t look back. Okay?”

Jeaneth nodded. She puffed her chest out, trying to look bigger, although her face shown how afraid she was, and then marched out into the fog, disappearing out of sight until finally her footsteps joined the silence of the forest.

Paul focused the Light within himself to his head, sharpening his senses. He felt a tingle of sulfur on his tongue, a buzzing ring in his ears, a sickening sweet smell of flowers, and around Vacht were scintillating shadows.

Vacht tilted their head to the side and smiled. “Do you really need magic to find out what I am, boy?”

“Eleanor Ironteeth,” Paul growled, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The woman in Vacht’s form smiled. “Smart one, aren’t we?” she asked mockingly. Her voice was that of Vacht’s, but the timbre and tone was all wrong. “Perhaps you should’ve tried using the gifts the gods gave ya sooner? It would’ve saved you all this time walking out here.”

“You know that I trust Vacht,” Paul said. “I wouldn’t have tried magically sensing your presence unless I knew you were near.”

“So, what gave it away then?” She clicked her tongue and looked down. “Ah… the leg, was it? You know I offered them the chance to have two perfectly shaped legs. But no, of course they’d refuse. ‘Granny, I need to remember where I came from, even if I’d prefer to forget.’ Bunch of bullshit, that is.”

Paul’s eyes moved down to the sword still tied to her waist. “Take out the weapon slowly and lay it on the ground.”

“Or what?” Eleanor asked. “You going to hurt me, boy?”

“I don’t want to, but I will. Now put down the weapon and tell me where Vacht is. What did you do to them?”

“They are quite safe. They came in the middle of the night, afraid that their friends would get hurt. I suppose they thought they were sparing any harm from befalling you, guess they thought wrong!”

“I said, drop the sword, now!”

She pointed towards a tree stump. “You know, I think you should sit down.”

Paul put a hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. “I just want to talk to you. But I don’t feel safe with you—"

“Pelacru Dunfry,” the hag hissed, “Sit down over there, now.”

Paul could feel his blood pounding through his head. With his hand still on the hilt of his sword he walked to the stump and sat on it.

Eleanor laughed. “Oh… that is just precious.”

Paul tried to rise from the stump, but every time he even thought of it his head throbbed. The sound was nearly deafening.

“My name,” Paul gasped. “You know my hidden name. Damnit, you placed a hex on the town, didn’t you? Anytime someone mentions your name you know what they’re speaking about, right?”

“Aye, yes, foolish boy, you shouldn’t be sharing your secrets freely, especially with those who whisper sweet words into your ear like, ‘my beautiful blue dragon.’ There is much power in a name, especially the ones that you weefolk like to hide from outsiders.” She clicked her tongue. “Honestly, I’m surprised it worked on a drakon of all people, I thought they were immune to the magic of names?”

Paul tried struggling to stand again. The pain was overwhelming. “I swear, if you hurt Vacht to get them to tell you—"

“Of course, they didn’t tell me, and don’t you worry about Vacht, I’ve dealt with them for now and they are quite safe.” She grinned widely. “What exactly did my apprentice do to make you give up your hidden name so easily?”

“Go to hell!” Paul spat.

“Pelacru Dunfry, why did you give up your hidden name to Vacht?”

Paul tried forcing his hand free, to pull out his sword but it was like every muscle in his body were trapped in a vice. Words came out of his mouth, no matter how hard he tried to resist saying them. “They said they loved me, and I wanted to do anything I could to help them, even if it hurt me, even if it compromised me.”

“Oh!” Eleanor began laughing. “That’s so precious! All a person has to do is use the L-word and give you a reach-around?”

“Are you going to kill me?” Paul asked. “Because if you’re just going to stand there and keep insulting me, I’d rather you just stick a knife through my throat.”

“Oh no, that would be too easy.” She grinned even wider, the edges of her mouth going from ear to ear, exposing blackened metal teeth. “Tell me, boy, are you afraid?”

Paul shook his head. “You’ll have to try a lot harder than using onomancy on me.”

“Oh, you think just because you’re a Chosen that you’re some tough guy?” she hissed. “I’ve met Chosen before, and they weren’t nearly as stupid as you.”

“It’s not ‘stupid’ to help Vacht find out who murdered their lover. My cause is righteous and—"

“Bullshit!” Eleanor hissed. “If you were righteous, you wouldn’t be wearing the arms and armor of a man you murdered! And your pockets wouldn’t be lined with the money from killing him and the dragon.”

“They attacked first,” Paul said. “It was self-defense.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened. They were dark, as pitch black as her teeth. “Oh! So just because someone attacked you first it justifies murder?” she cackled.

“What do you know about Sivon? He had a map that listed your home. Did he know you?”

“Enough about dead draconians and dragons. I couldn’t help them in the end, thanks to you, so now I’ll have to deal with you all alone. Especially now that I clearly see those gorgeous eyes of yours.”

Eleanor slinked towards Paul and straddled his lap. She brought a hand up to his face, the nails on her hand were like claws, made of metal just like her teeth.

“You find this form pleasing, don’t you?” Eleanor growled. She pressed her nails harder into Paul’s face. “The glow in those peepers of yours… you truly are a Chosen of the gods. I can see a glimmer of Empyrean down in there. I could… maybe…”

“Maybe what?” Paul hissed through clenched teeth.

“When the Hart of a Thousand Faces meets the Dragon with Burning Eyes their suffering will come to an end.”

“So, you’re that friend Vacht mentioned who’s a soothsayer,” Paul said. “They told me you said it was bad luck or something.”

“I see the threads of fate, boy,” she said, “and they are tied all about you. You’re going to be the death of my dear Vacht.”

“Threads?” Paul asked. He smiled at her, mockingly. “Maybe you can weave me a tapestry? How about we just go to your hut, we talk to Vacht, and you tell me more about what the Dreamwalker told Vacht about archers while you knit.”

Eleanor’s dark eyes widened. She cackled and patted Paul on his shoulders as she pushed herself back off him. “Vacht didn’t tell you?”

“What? That an old man who taught them how to be a druid gave them a vague prophecy, and an equally old woman also gave them an equally vague prophecy too?”

“You don’t speak Old Elvish, do you?”

Paul’s heart began to sink. “I… no…”

“Vacht’sha Ta’fur. It roughly means ‘Dreamwalker’ in the Common tongue.”

“Of course, Vacht’sha wouldn’t be their name,” he grumbled. “It’s a title they inherited from their master?”

“You are a complete idiot!” Eleanor screamed. “You are cute, but so incredibly stupid. They are not a dreamwalker, they are theDreamwalker! It was my friend before it took my beloved apprentice from me. It has worn many faces over the years, and it took my apprentice from me as its next victim.”

“Wait… what?” Paul’s heart quickened. Vacht knew things about Paul, entered his mind while he was comatose, kept secrets from him. And the antlers, they were like horns, right? Other druids grew antlers, or adorned themselves with them, but… “Demon,” Paul whispered. “Is Vacht a demon? Is this Dreamwalker a spirit that has possessed them?”

“That’s highly reductive, my dear little dragon,” Eleanor hissed. “I suppose that’s why Vacht never told a paladin such as you. This creature has a soul of its own, which a true demon doesn’t have, but it does corrupt things, like my beloved little Vacht. It’s more precisely a fae spirit that I’ve known since I was a little girl.” As she spoke her form elongated. She grew taller and more hunched over, her skin taking a sickly bruised pallor as her antlers burnt away in green fire. “It was my friend once, and then it decided to leave, to find others to experience the mortal world with. It would come back every now and then, wearing a different face, with a different name, living a different life. It would always change, but I would always be the same.”

That was yet another subject to add to the long list of things to talk to Vacht about. They didn’t have to lie to him about everything, he would’ve understood. “People change, Eleanor,” Paul said. “If you lived long enough, you’d—”

“Quiet!” she screamed. “It was mine! It was mine first! And Vacht was mine first! The Dreamwalker took them away from me!”

“Is that what this is about? You can’t own people,” Paul said. “Whether it’s a person or… whatever the Dreamwalker is. People change, things don’t last forever, that’s what makes them precious. Even an ageless being like yourself will fade away in time, it’s what you do with your time that matters the most. If the Dreamwalker wanders between people—with their consent—and does no harm to them, then you have no right to control it.” He bared his teeth at Eleanor and growled. “You're nothing more than an abusive mother, just like the one that Vacht escaped from.”

The hag’s voice changed to a whiny growl as she pointed a bony finger at Paul. She had fully reverted into her true form. “Pelacru Dunfry,” she hissed, “stab yourself in the neck with your knife until you are dead.”

“No! Stop!” Paul shouted as his body moved of its own accord. He reached to his boot and grabbed his dagger and brought it to his neck. Paul grunted, straining every part of his body as he kept the knife at bay.

“I know what you fear the most, boy!” The hag snarled and laughed. “All I had to do was ask Vacht about what they saw in you! Loss of control is what you fear! Let me guess: you’re afraid of drinking too much, eating too much, loving too much, pretty much everything too much!

Oh? What’s that? Tongue tied?

Struck a nerve, perhaps? How dare you even think about insulting me! How dare you tell me what’s best for my beautiful, lovely, Vacht!” She bared her teeth at Paul and raised her voice, loud enough to echo through the forest. “How dare you tell me what’s best for my friends!”

Paul tried to say something, but all the effort to keep the knife at baywas too much to let through. He clenched his jaw and was finally able to growl something out. “Just shut up and kill me… if you really want to…”

“I want you to shut up. It takes every ounce of energy to keep you from doing that, I know that you fear hurting yourself.” She clicked her teeth together. “Afraid you’ll not make it to where all the little buggers end up if you die by your own hand?”

“Fuck you,” Paul spat. “You want me dead.”

“No, I don’t,” she said. “Well… partially. I swore to my dear, beloved Vacht that I wouldn’t harm a single hair on the head of anyone they love, and that means you and little Jeaneth. Well… unless you attack first, I suppose. Do your… feathers… scales… whatever those are… do they count as hair?”

“Robyn!” Paul gasped. Eleanor’s smile turned to a frown. “Did she attack you?” Paul grunted. “Did she threaten you!?”

“You little shit! I love my apprentice, and I love the spirit that resides within them! At least I did…” Her eyes widened. “I used to love it, but then, it left me, and I loved Vacht, even before they chose that name. And when they chose that name, the Dreamwalker took them away from me.”

“She was—" Paul gasped as he felt the tip of his knife poke his neck. “Robyn took Vacht away, right? Just like… the Dreamwalker did.”

“I never would have harmed her!” Eleanor yelled.

“A promise is a promise to the fae,” Paul said. “Your kind can’t knowingly lie, and you keep any promise you make. But you can break a promise if someone is a threat, right? If you’re pushed far enough, anyone can snap.”

“You’re treading dangerous territory, boy.” She grinned. “You know… that Light that’s inside of you… I bet I could pull it out of you. Use it for something more… worthwhile.” Eleanor lifted Paul’s chin up to look into her dark eyes. “I’ve met one of your kind before. He was less stupid, more foolish, but I didn’t hesitate to kill him. You though, you’re different.”

“You don’t want to kill me?”

She nodded. “If I killed you, it would break my beloved Vacht’s heart. I’d never do that.”

The knife started to press into Paul’s neck. Do it, the little voice said. There’s only one way out of this. You can’t resist her. Just give in. The voice was right. He was trapped, and there

was only one way out.

“You don’t want to kill me?” Paul asked again.

“Are you deaf or just stupid!? Of course, I want to kill you! But, I promised my dear Vacht that I wouldn’t, at least until I can convince them otherwise. I don’t mind you suffering a bit though, until I figure out what to do to you. Maybe if I could convince Vacht to give you up… maybe I could have some fun with you.” Her smile grew wider. “I promise you wouldn’t suffer much before you perish, Chosen. I’ll make them realize the error of their ways. I’ll make them realize that they were fools to continue living down there with all those stupid people in that stupid town! And I’ll make them realize, and regret, loving you.”

Do it.

“You get off on this, don’t you?” Paul growled. “You like controlling people. You like taking choice away from them.”

You’re a coward.

“Some people are too stupid to think for themselves,” Eleanor retorted. “Vacht may be an old soul, but they’re still young.”

Just let it happen.

“All my life people have been taking control away from me. Using me without my consent.”

Eleanor laughed. “Oh! Is this about how Vacht lied to you or that you can’t get off unless somebody chokes you or beats you? Arousing you wasn’t my intention.”

Stop resisting.

“You’re telling me the truth,” Paul said. “You promised Vacht that you won’t kill me.”

“Are you a fucking parrot or something?”

It’s time.

“Just making sure I understand everything, before I do this,” Paul said. He closed his eyes, breathed out slowly, and relaxed. The knife effortlessly sank into his neck. It felt cold, less painful than he imagined. Hot blood ran down his neck and across his chest, underneath his armor.

“No!” Eleanor screamed. “No, you idiot!”

Paul’s body felt light as he fell over onto the ground. The hag kneeled next to him and whispered words of power as she pulled the dagger out from his neck. She waved her hands across Paul as she cast a spell of healing, dropping the dagger next to his head.

Paul felt a familiar heat on his neck as the wound closed. The light headedness went away. “Are you alright?” Eleanor asked. Her screechy voice sounded different, there was a tinge of concern. “Please be alright.”

Paul quickly reached up and grabbed the back of her head, bringing it down, chin first, into his forehead. Two sounds echoed from Eleanor’s mouth, the clanging of metal teeth, and a squelch of blood. The hag rose to her feet and screamed, spitting blood all over the ground. Paul grabbed his dagger and leapt back up.

“You little shit!” Eleanor screamed. “My fucking tongue! I could’ve bit the damn thing off!”

Paul reached into his bag and pulled out his helmet. He quickly donned it and readied his sword. “I don’t want to have to hurt you anymore! Bring me to Vacht and—"

“Bullshit!” the hag yelled back. “Next time you see Vacht it’s going to be minus a few limbs!”

Eleanor snapped her fingers, producing a small flame that hovered over them. She inhaled sharply and exhaled onto the flame, sending a raging blast of fire towards Paul. He narrowly dodged it. A tree that was behind him exploded into splinters from the force of it.

“Stand still, Pelacru Dunfry!” Eleanor yelled.

Paul felt Eleanor’s onomancy spell taking hold. It was like a fog, as thick as the one in the forest, clouding his mind. He felt something in his head though, burning like the sun through that fog. It was anger, hatred towards Eleanor Ironteeth.

She hurt Vacht,the little voice told Paul.

She deserves to be hurt in return.

He held onto that intrusive thought, letting it build inside of him, burning through the fog in his mind. “You don’t have control over me, Eleanor!” he screamed, nearly roaring. His

drakirwasn’t a weakness, it was a strength, something he had neglected his whole life.

“Oh really?” Eleanor suddenly lunged at Paul, swiping her claws almost too fast for him to block with his sword. They scraped against his armor, nearly deafening Paul from the screeching of metal against metal. “You’re learning, boy! You’re not some little halfling, you’re a mighty dragon! Fight me like one!”

Paul focused his Light into his sword and swung it at her shoulder. It wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but enough to hopefully make her stop. She was knocked backward, the sword had cut into her robe but barely even left a scratch.

“That actually hurt a bit!” Eleanor cackled. “It’s been a long time since I met a Chosen! The Light of Empyrean is indeed much more powerful than whatever the gods gift their lowly hierons, but you’ll have to try much harder than that!”

Before Paul could bring his sword up for another strike the hag grabbed ahold of him. With a sudden rush of air Paul found himself, along with Eleanor, high in the branches of a tree, above the fog. Paul swung his Light infused sword again, aiming for her head. If her skin was hard enough to not be cut, then at least he could knock her unconscious with the percussive force of the sword. But, despite her great size, she deftly dodged Paul’s swings, eventually causing his sword to land on a branch, cutting it in two like it were paper.

“Like playing with swords?” Eleanor hissed. She pulled out Vacht’s magic sword and with the phrase “Ild,” she ignited it.

“Any other things you’ve stolen from Vacht?” Paul asked. “Maybe you could throw one of their shrubs at me?”

“Stolen!? I gave them this sword as a gift. It matches my own,” she said and pulled out another sword, hidden within her robe. It looked remarkably like Vacht’s own. “Iss!”she shouted and blue flames erupted from the blade, white mist pouring down from it.

Eleanor swung both swords downward, knocking Paul off balance as he blocked, the fire and steam preventing him from seeing her wind up a leg and swiftly kick him out of the tree. As he fell down, back through the fog, he suddenly felt light, and the sensation of falling lessened. He twisted in midair and softly landed on his feet.

“Paul!” It was Jeaneth he had landed next to. “You can fly!?”

“With this aegis I can fall pretty well. Need the wings for the flying part.”

Jeaneth was out of breath. “Thank the gods and the Ancestors, I found you! I think the hag disguised herself as Vacht!”

There was a loud thud from behind Paul. It was Eleanor. Paul sucked air in through his teeth. “I’m already ahead of you.”

“So, Paul Underhill… I suppose I can fight a man and a child.” She grinned and brought up her two swords. “Fire for you, boy, and ice for her. You see, sweetie, freezing is much less painful than burning. It dulls the pain. A much more merciful death for such a young child.”

“We’re almost the same age,” Paul growled as he pulled at a thread of magic within his mind. “Luciens Spada!” His sword began to glow, differently than with his Light, with a rainbow of light emitting from the edges.

“Wait I’ve seen this before—” Eleanor began to say, and then screamed as Paul swiped her in the face, discharging the blinding spell in a bright flash of light. “You little shit! I’ll get you!” she howled, rubbing her eyes.

Paul grabbed Jeaneth by the hand and ran deeper into the forest, farther into the fog. “What sort of magic do you know?” Paul asked.

“A bit of this and that!” She was panting. “I’m not really built for running!”

“Anything that can stop a hag?”

“I don’t—wait!” she shouted. Jeaneth jerked on Paul’s arm as they broke through the fog and stopped at a sheer cliff, nearly running off of it into even more fog below.

“Where are we?”

“Rimsor’s Bluff, well… the bluff proper.”

Paul leaned forward, careful to keep his weight over his back foot. “Long way down?”

“Yeah, it’s about—”

They both heard a roar from the forest behind them. Emerging fromthe fog, running with both swords swinging through the air, was Eleanor. “Granny’s gonna get you!”

Paul readied his sword and blocked overhead as the much taller hag swung both the swords downward. He felt pain in his entire body as his arms nearly gave in from the force of the blow.

Scintilla!”Jeaneth shouted as the tip of her staff glowed. She pointed a finger at Eleanor and a spray of brilliant fiery sparks shot out at the face of the hag.

She screeched and stumbled back. “You part-elf mongrel! Both of you stop with all the glowing bullshit!”

Eleanor was incredibly strong, and surprisingly fast. Paul and Jeaneth were both pushed up against the cliff with nowhere else to go. A straightforward fight wouldn’t work.

Paul tugged at a powerful thread of magic within his mind, quickly gathering a great deal of aether and forcing it with his free hand onto the ground. He felt the energy gather within his hand and he shouted, “Fyrn circul!”Glowing symbols appeared within a circle around Jeaneth and Paul as the spell was cast.

Eleanor charged forward and swung her swords as both of them. The swords stopped though, bouncing off a field of light emanating from the circle on the ground.

“Clever, clever, boy!” Eleanor laughed. She sheathed her swords and clacked her teeth. “Gonna keep me out? I could just toss you off my beloved bluff. Gods only know how many people I’ve thrown down there over the years.”

“What’d you do?” Jeaneth asked.

“It’s a divine circle spell,” Paul said. “I can’t hold it very long. Don’t put your hand out through it, she can still drag you out.”

“Exactly, boy.” Eleanor clacked her metal teeth together. “How about we talk, woman to man? Fae to… dragonoid? Is that the term for the type of creature you are?”

“You’re stalling for time,” Paul said. “You’re just waiting for the spell to end.”

“And you’re stalling until to figure out what to do next. How long does this last? An hour at best?”

Paul looked back. He couldn’t see the bottom through the fog. But his armor… it protected him from a fall before. Jeaneth couldn’t weigh that much, could she?

“Jeaneth, are you afraid of heights?” he

“I don’t— No, no, no!” Jeaneth shrieked as Paul grabbed her and leaped off the cliff. As they fell Jeaneth said something, inaudible against the rush of air, she quickly pulled away from Paul, drifting into the fog.

“Fuck!” Paul shouted. He was slowing down, but not fast enough. He flailed and dropped his sword. Before he could think of what to do next, he heard a loud bang and a crunch as he slammed into the ground.

Paul felt lucky that he didn’t hurt as much as he did when he fell off the dragon, Zazex. He was still very sore, and there was an incredible pain in his right flank.

“Paul!”

It was Jeaneth slowly floating down from the fog above, tightly clutching her staff.

“Slow fall spell?” Paul groaned.

“Of course!” she said. Her robes billowed outward as she gracefully landed on the ground. “I can do it even without a magical focus, like my staff. It was the first spell I learned.”

“My armor can too…” Paul groaned in pain. “Damn, I guess it has to recharge or something between uses.”

“I learned from watching baby birds learning to fly for weeks. Little guys never hurt themselves when falling out of the nest.” She looked upward. “Think we’re safe now?”

Paul sat up and grabbed his side. There was a large dent in his armor. Behind him was a pile of bones and rusted armor. Mingled in it was his sword, nearly bent in half. “I guess if I were just wearing regular steel I would’ve been impaled,” Paul said. “Damnit, where are we now? There’s bones… skeletons all about.”

“People call it the Barrows,” Jeaneth said. “Folks say there was a huge battle here a long, long time ago. No one ever comes here.” She crossed her arms and looked down. “People say it’s cursed.”

Paul grunted in pain as he stood. He opened his mouth wide and with a hiss the front of his helmet retracted, exposing his face.

“Looks more like it’s a graveyard of people who’ve crossed the hag over the years.” He picked up his bent sword and focused his senses. “I don’t sense any undead, or any fae for that matter. I don’t think we’ll find any surprises here.”

Jeaneth spoke uneasily. “We… we aren’t going to end up… like them… are we?”

“No, no we’re not.” Paul breathed out heavily, making a small white cloud in the air from the cold. “Do you have any other weapons? All I brought was my sword.” She shook her head. “Damn! Are you okay with looking for stuff around here? There might be something here we can use.”

She shook her head again. “I… I didn’t…”

Paul walked to Jeaneth and hugged her. “Everything is going to be alright. We’ll find Vacht. I’ll protect you.”

No, you can’t, the little voice told him.

I don’t need protection!

You’re not my mom or dad,” she said. Her eyes turned towards the ground. “But… I…” She was shaking.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” Paul said. “I’m afraid too.”

“I just wanted to learn about nature. To use magic, to show people how wonderful the natural world is. I thought maybe I could make some money doing this… adventuring… instead of art.”

Paul

crouched in front of Jeanethand brought his hand to her cheek. “Personally, I think you’re a

muchbetter artist than I am at being an adventurer.”

She sniffled and smiled. “You’re a liar.”

Chapter 19: Razor

The Evergreen Mountains is where my mother, and my mother’s mother, were born. Many things have lived out here in these mountains from before the time the gods returned to Empyrean’s Embrace. Over the years trees have been cut down, aetherite has been dug out of the ground, and farms have started in the deep valleys, but the mountains will always remain.

—Albert Grunfeld, The Home of My Mother: A Memoir

The remains of twenty-eight people lay in the Barrows, in the misty shadow of Rimsor’s Bluff. Paul couldn’t tell how long ago the people were killed, but judging from all of them being skeletons, and nearly everything else on them being rusted or decayed, the corpses had been there for decades, at least.

They were mostly humans, some orcs, two drakons, a kobold in the rusted remains of full plate armor, a k’thexif, and what was likely a katarian, given the long muzzle and tail. Their bones were horribly broken from their fall from the bluff. Paul said prayers for each one, hoping that their souls found peace after whatever they did to draw the ire of Eleanor Ironteeth. What few possessions that remained gave little indication to what personal god they prayed to.

“Find anything?” Jeaneth asked. She was waiting at the edge of the fog, just outside of the view of the bodies.

“Rusted swords and guns. I found a ring though,” Paul said and raised the small silver ring to show her. “Looks magical, judging from the jewel on it– can’t figure it out though. You think Vacht would like it?”

Jeaneth looked down. “I… I think so.” Her voice was wavering. Neither of them wanted to spend any more time in Eleanor’s personal graveyard. “No weapons?”

“Nothing usable.”

She tugged at her robes and bit her lip. “I… think there might be something. I know it’s not rusted.”

Jeaneth held out her hand for Paul to take. He pocketed the ring and followed her lead, farther into the fog. They traveled for several minutes, past several large holes pock marking the ground. “This isn’t just a graveyard for Eleanor, the Barrows really are the remains of a battlefield,” Paul said.

“Don’t know from when, just that it was a long time ago. The kobolds up in the mountains don’t venture down here. This particular place… I’ve only been here a few times. Here we are, this is what I wanted to show you.” She let go of Paul’s hand and walked to what at first seemed to be a man wearing thick metal armor standing in the mists. “Meet Rimsor.”

It was a humanoid figure, made of metal and covered in moss, its feet bolted onto a stone base. To an untrained eye it looked like an elaborate metal statue of an armored soldier, its face completely covered under the visor of its helmet. Its hands gripped a glaive tightly.

“Rimsor?” Paul asked.

“That’s what I call it, I dunno if it has a name.”

“It’s not a statue,” Paul said. “I’ve seen this before, in person and…” He approached it and touched its face. It was cold to the touch. “It’s one of the Steel Custodians of Godsreach.”

Jeaneth approached the Custodian and looked carefully at it. “It’s not a statue?”

“I’ve seen them before in person when I went to Godsreach on a trip sponsored by the Academy. These things are all over Mt. Trichon, where the gods left Edra to reside in the Divine Realm just before Godsreach fell.”

Paul traced his hands over its armored body. The flowing lines etched into its body matched the ones he had seen up close, well, as close as he could stand near without it shoving him away or attacking him outright. The aegis he was wearing was probably derived from a broken Custodian, along with countless other types of aethertech.

“How’d it get here then? Somebody brought it?”

“It’s not damaged. They usually recover members of their kind that break down.” Paul groaned and held his side. He had laid hands over the dent in his armor, passing the healing energies through to his body, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

“But it’s dead?”

“I know they run off of aetherite crystals, it must’ve run out ages ago,” Paul said. The glaive the Custodian was holding wasn’t rusted, it had to be magical. He gripped the glaive and pulled. “It won’t budge. The things joints must be stuck.” He focused his Light to magnify his strength and pulled again. With a loud grunt the arms squeaked a bit, but the glaive still wouldn’t free itself.

“Oh shit, its eyes glowed!”

Paul let go and looked at the Custodian’s featureless face. “It glowed?” Paul chewed his lip. “They’re magically powered, and the Light of Empyrean is magic derived directly from the Progenitor, it’s a lot stronger than the magic the gods grant their hierons.”

I guess you really are a Chosen! Can youturn it back on?” Jeaneth asked.

“Enough to where it might loosen its grip. Or… maybe it can tell us how it got here. They don’t talk, but we might be able to convince it to write something down. Get out your sketchbook for it.”

Jeaneth pulled out art supplies while Paul wrapped his hands around the Custodian’s armored head. He focused the Light, as if hewere about to lay hands upon it, creating a brilliant glow. The eye sockets flickered with a white light.

“Can you understand me?” Paul asked it. “Let go of your weapon.”

A loud screeching echoed from the Custodian. From all the noise it was making, Paul could make out a voice. “Chosen.”

“What?”

“Chosen.”

“Holy shit it’s talking!” Jeaneth yelled. “What is it saying!?”

“Yes, I’m a Chosen,” Paul told the Custodian. “My name is Paul Underhill. Pela, the—”

“Chosen,” the Custodian repeated. Its voice sounded like sand pouring. “Objective. Power. Razor. Danger. Green. Razor.”

“What is it saying?” Jeaneth asked.

Paul turned to look at her. “Just random words. Razor. Danger. I have no idea.”

“You understand it?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asked her. Jeaneth paused. She was hesitating. “I know you and Vacht have been keeping secrets from me. Why can’t you understand it, but I can?”

“It sounds like when me and Vacht first found you,” Jeaneth finally said. “You were speaking gibberish just like that thing.”

Paul shook his head and turned his attention back to the Custodian. “Please, tell me, what happened to you? How did you get here?”

“Razor. Objective. Blue. Complete,” the Custodian finally said, and its eyes grew dim. Paul tried focusing again, but there was no response from it.

“Damnit! Please!” Paul pleaded. “What are—”

The hands of the Custodian relaxed finally and dropped the glaive at Paul’s feet.

“Is it dead?” Jeaneth asked.

“I think so,” Paul said. He picked up the glaive. It seemed to be made entirely out of orichalcum, blade and handle, and there were intricate designs etched all throughout it, not unlike what was on the Custodian.

“You recognize it?”

“No,” Paul said, “but I think I’ve seen something similar in that book To’ka gave me. I don’t have time to research it now, we need to get moving. We passed by a river on our way up to the bluff, do you think we can make it back thereby nightfall?”

“I think so. Follow me.”

Paul took one last look at the Custodian as they left. “Thank you,” he said to it. “I don’t know who you are, or what sent you, but thanks.”

The pain was becoming unbearable.

“Are you sure this is the quickest way to get to the river?” Paul asked Jeaneth. “We only have a few hours of good light left.”

“Yeah, I can hear the water.” She pushed up against Paul’s hand. “Are you okay?”

Paul had laid hands upon his side again while Jeaneth was distracted telling Paul about a pair of small bugs that had landed on a tree they found earlier. A broken rib and a bruised kidney weren’t like an elementum, they could easily be healed with magic. What was wrong? Was he cursed by Eleanor?

Paul collapsed when they finally reached the river. Jeaneth fumbled with his aegis, finally unlatching and disconnecting the parts over his upper body. When her hands touched his blood-soaked tunic, she gasped.

“Long story,” Paul groaned. “Had to almost kill myself to escape Eleanor using my hidden name. Onomancy.”

She slipped the tunic over his head. “Has anyone ever told you you’re self-destructive?”

“Pretty much everybody, including myself.”

“You have a really big bruise here.”

“Broken rib, I think,” Paul said.

Jeaneth gingerly touched Paul’s side, causing him to nearly scream in pain.

“Sorry!” Jeaneth shouted. “I’m so sorry. You need a healing potion—”

“No, you might need it if something bad happens. And we need to check to see if they’ve been poisoned by the hag.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were this hurt?”

Because you’re a coward, the little voice told him.

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

Jeaneth sighed. “I know how to cast a healing spell. You could’ve asked.”

“I work best when in pain.”

You work terribly regardless of how you feel.

“Bullshit,” Jeaneth said. She whispered magical words and placed her hands on Paul’s side. His skin felt warm from her touch. The heat gradually passed deeper through him. “Tell me when I reach the right spot.”

“I will—" Paul stopped and gasped as he felt a searing pain as the heat passed farther in. “Okay… right there!”

“You don’t have to suffer just to help other people though.”

“It’s not the first time,” Paul said. He shook his head and groaned. “I’m so stupid. Vacht tried confronting the hag last night and got themself captured. They were probably afraid we’d get hurt… that I’d get hurt.”

“No, you’re not. If anybody is stupid, it’s Vacht for running out and confronting her all alone. By the way, you did use your glowy hand thing on this wound, right?”

“Of course, I did,” Paul said, and then rolled his eyes. “I was wearing my armor. It’s made from orichalcum so it’s resistant to magic. I really am stupid.”

“You’re not! Well… Vacht might think that of you,” Jeaneth said with a laugh. “They told me, ‘He’s not very bright but he has a heart of gold.’”

“Why’d they think that of me?”

“From your memories.”

“You two have been keeping a lot from me,” Paul said. “I thought Vacht only saw bits and pieces of my memory.”

There was a long pause. “I… uh… well… Vacht didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable with how much they saw.”

“The hag told me what Vacht really was,” Paul growled. “Why didn’t they tell me?”

The pain was gone now in Paul’s side. He laid on his side to face her. Her eyes turned down. “Hey… I… look, Vacht explained it to me a while ago, and I didn’t really understand it back then either. They’re a dark elf, but inside of them is a spirit from Faerie. It can only live here when it’s sharing the body of a person.”

“Vacht knew about me for how long?”

“I don’t know, a couple decades?”

“What about the Dreamwalker?”

Jeaneth sighed. “I have no idea. Centuries? Millenia? Vacht became obsessed after Robyn died. That prophecy from the Dreamwalker seemed to be about them and you. They were really worried about telling you the truth about the Dreamwalker.”

“What for? Because I’m a paladin and they’d think that I’d smite them, thinking they’re a demon?”

Jeaneth helped Paul up to his feet. “If a dokkar came up to you and said that a magical creature that shares their body with them told them that you’d help them find who killed their dead wife, and that this creature knew about this for centuries and all of this somehow fit together perfectly, what would you do?”

“I…” Paul chuffed and clicked his tongue. “Okay… I imagine that most people wouldn’t believe it. Knowing that Vacht knew about it before I was born was one thing, but from even before they were born themself seems a bit farfetched.”

“Vacht told all the others the same thing, the ones who didn’t fit their prophecy completely, and they all left. They didn’t want to risk it.”

“I would’ve believed them,” Paul said.

“They didn’t think you would.” Jeaneth shook her head. “Vacht’sin danger because of you. They were safe before you came here. They could die because they love you.” She walked away from Paul and sat on a rock and pulled out her art supplies.

You messed up again Paul—

“Quiet!” Paul screamed out loud. Jeaneth flinched. “Sorry, I… my drakir, I… damnit.” He sat down next to Jeaneth. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”

“I’m sorry, I know it’s not your fault. I’m not mad at you,” she said as she turned back several pages in her artbook. “I’m mad at myself. I should’ve known something was up, I should’ve realized sooner that wasn’t Vacht who was with us.”

“It’s also not your fault.”

“I know,” Jeaneth sighed. “I love Vacht. They were there for me when my parents weren’t. I just wish I were there for them now.”

“We are here for them, and we’ll find a way to save them.” Jeaneth had turned to a page with a drawing of Paul. He looked like he was covered in fire, his eyes aglow. “When was that?”

“Vacht said you looked like this when they first found you. Sounded kinda neat from how they described it to me.”

You’re the man on fire. It’s not a nightmare, but a vision from the Hearthmother, from her Messenger to you.

“You’re really good at drawing,” Paul said.

Jeanethsniffled and wiped her face. “I’ve always loved

doing it. I see all these wonderful and beautiful things and I want to share them with others. My drawings are actually how I met Vacht.”

“You did a portrait of them?”

“Sort of. I thought I found a really beautiful red deer in the forest.” She smiled. “Turned out it was just a really weird druid.”

Paul chuckled. “They took a liking to you immediately?”

“They loved my drawings. And when I told them I was just a poor kid, having to work cleaning out stables to help my folks, they hired me and started teaching me how to be a druid too. Vacht told me afterwards that they wanted to leave something positive in the world, that doing stuff like that gives you a three-fold return.”

“I’ve heard that somewhere before.”

“It’s a fae thing,” Jeaneth said. “You do something good, you get something better in return. You do something bad, you get something even worse back.”

Eleanor saved Paul’s life when he nearly killed himself. And then when he attacked her, she retaliated, three-fold. Paul groaned and covered his face. “Damnit, I really am an idiot.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I attacked Eleanor first.”

Jeaneth’s eyes widened. “Shouldn’t you not say her name?”

“She knows where we are, don’t you!?” Paul called out to the forest. “You’re still watching us! Right!?” The only reply was the babbling of water running over stones in the shallow river.

“She attacked us though.”

Paul shook his head. “Only after I attacked her after escaping, by… you know… stabbing myself to escape from her.”

“Why exactly did you do that? Onomancy? She knew your hidden name or something? Is that why she said Pelacru—” Paul hissed loudly at Jeaneth “Sorry!”

“Eleanor sent the demon last night to test me; figure out how I think, how I act. Eleanor was just continuing that test with me, at least I think so.”

Jeaneth turned her head. “So… what do we do? How can we save Vacht and figure out if she’s got anything to do with that dragon and that knight and Robyn?”

“I think I’m going to have to apologize to Vacht’s granny.”

“Apologizing to her will help us get Vacht, how?”

“A three-fold return,” Paul said. “If I’m not a threat, at all, and am as nice as can be to her, then I know we’ll succeed.”

Jeaneth shook her head. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“I couldn’t hurt her with my sword, but this glaive, if it’s what I think it is, then I could kill her. But I don’t want to resort to that.”

Setting up camp was easy, after they overcame the fear of what was stored within their displacer bags. Nothing seemed to be sabotaged—in fact, most of the food packed reminded him of the finest chefs Paul sampled from in the capital

“She probably expected all three of us to camp here for the night,” Paul said. “Keep us here with her while she tests us.”

“With fresh apples,” Jeaneth said and took a bite out of one. “Are hags supposed to not make any sense with what they do?”

“I’m sure they make sense to themselves.”

They finished setting up camp and starting a small fire to keep warm. Jeaneth took Paul’s book by St. Davish and his glaive to study both while he bathed in the river to try to get all the blood off. Eleanor had packed soap, a scrubbing stone for smoothing dried scales, and even a brush on a long handle to reach his back.

“I didn’t realize hags were so into toiletries,” Paul muttered.

“What’s that?” Jeaneth asked. She was huddled next to the fire, facing away from Paul.

“My time at the Academy didn’t really prepare me for how eccentric fae like Eleanor are,” Paul said, louder.

“What exactly did you all do there?”

“Studying, training,” Paul sniffed the soap. It smelt faintly of oranges, likely much stronger to someone who wasn’t a drakon. “Lots of praying too. But a lot of studying.”

“Fun!” she said sarcastically. “I hope you all did more than that when you weren’t studying.”

Paul laughed. “You wanting to enroll? You must be a hieron to join. I’m sure a wizard school might take you, but they take magic a lot more scientifically than you or I.”

“Hierons are immune to most diseases because of the Light of the gods, and most of you all are pretty religious, right?”

Paul was an exception when it came to unwavering faith. “Why you ask?”

“From what I hear how uptight most y’all are, a bunch of teenagers and young adults hanging out, first time away from home, and little-to-no consequences…” She snickered.

“We’re not infertile,” Paul huffed.

“I haven’t seen any half-drakons around!” She flipped through several pages of the book and sighed. “Or half-k’thexives.”

“Me and To’ka aren’t like that,” Paul said. “Well… we… it’s complicated.” Paul stepped out of the water, toweled himself off, and sat next to Jeaneth by the fire on a blanket. “She’s my best friend, and I love her, and…”

“And?” Jeaneth said, nudging him gently with an elbow.

“Vacht’s really nice to me, and I feel…”

Like an idiot.

“You can share with me,” Jeaneth said.

“People share a lot with me, but I don’t with them,” Paul growled. “I’ve always felt… ugly, unimportant, like a burden.”

“Your ol’ Uncle said you were popular with the boys and girls back at the school.”

“Like you said, there aren’t any half-drakons. I’d listen a lot, and then they get comfortable, then they get close, hearts start to flutter…”

“You tried actually dating people though?”

Paul nodded. “Yeah, but I never felt good enough, I’d feel insecure, then it’d get to be too much for me, and we’d break things off.”

“You ever try dating several at the same time? I have three grandmothers and two grandfathers on my dad’s side. Seems to work for some light elves.”

Paul let out a long sigh. “I tried once with three elvish students. Just made things three times worse for me.”

“Vacht makes me feel important,” Jeaneth said. “I know my mom and dad love me, but Vacht was the one who really saw my potential. It’s why I want to study to be a real druid, to where I can shapeshift into an animal, gain powerful magic, and go off on adventures.”

“They… they make me feel important too,” Paul said softly. He stared into the fire, watching the flames dance along with the shadows. “Even though I feel different than I was just a few years ago, hell, just a few days ago, I never felt that important. I thought it was the Hearth Mother that would give me purpose, give me this feeling, but I didn’t realize it’d be…”

“A weird deer-elf?” Jeaneth asked. She laughed and hugged Paul. “You’re really important, and you’re not ugly.”

“Oh?” Paul winked at Jeaneth. “Trying to butter me up?”

“I’m not going to sleep with you,” Jeaneth snickered. “Although Vacht said you’re really warm, so I’m going to take advantage of that tonight.”

They sat and watched the fire together, occasionally looking at the book by St. Davish. Paul knew of powerful weapons created by a Chosen, from the time of Godsreach, but the book had nothing specifically about it. The glaive may have been from that time, given the markings on it, or made by a master smith who had studied such works; but the book had nothing to say of it.

“That Custodian kept saying the word ‘razor,’ over and over in that language, the kind that only I could understand,” Paul said. “I think it spoke in the same language the angel I saw spoke in. It had to be the Celestial Speech, the language of the gods. It must’ve known I’d somehow understand it.”

“I’m kinda disappointed that you don’t have really bright glowing eyes, and a halo, and big wings,” Jeaneth said.

“The wings and halo are the angel standing behind the Chosen in that book,” Paul said. “Old art shows us that way—a representation of our power from the gods and their creator, that our power is their will, and we wield our weapons in their names.” He chuckled. “That and wings are cool.”

Jeaneth flipped through several more pages of the book. “Rimsor’s Razor,” she said. “It’s a bit alliterative of a name.”

“A name for what?”

“Your glaive. It’s got to have a name.”

“They only have a name when they have a story to them,” Paul said. “Although… I think just calling it Razor would be nice.”

They put aside the book of St. Davish, and Jeaneth pulled back out her sketchbook and shown Paul some of her drawings. They were of many different subjects: trees, flowers, insects, birds, and a very familiar looking red deer holding a vase with a flower with its forelegs, sitting on its haunches on a bed. It looked unusually stern for a deer.

“That’s Vacht, in case you couldn’t tell,” Jeaneth said sheepishly. “I wanted them to pose for me, and I was like, ‘Hey, can you do it nude? It’s not weird because I’m an artist and I’m really shit at doing clothes.’”

She shown more drawings, several more of Vacht, this time in their dark elf form, another of a young infernian human man, an elvish-looking woman with gossamer wings, and an enormous man, much larger than Paul and covered in fur with a bull-like head.

“How did you get a minotaur to—”

“He owed my mom money,” Jeaneth said dryly. “So… what you think?”

“Your nature drawings are impressive,” Paul said. “And your figure drawings are…” Jeaneth’s eyebrows raised; she was interested in his critique on that. “They’re… umm… why are they all on a bed, holding a vase, in the same pose, with the same look on their face?”

Jeaneth sighed. “I’m not very good at directing subjects. I tried asking the goldfinch near the beginning of my book to get into the same pose, but it just chirped at me and flew away.”

“The minotaur’s face looks more detailed than the others.”

“I’m not good at humanoid faces. Vacht’s is the only one I can do good. And I kinda find it hard to look at anybody in the eye if they’re… you know. If they look like me or my parents.”

She’s calling you an animal, the little voice told him. Paul dismissed it. “Well, I find it hard to talk to people whose face looks like mine, thankfully for me there’s a lot more people who look like you than me in the Empire!” He laughed nervously. Jeaneth smiled.

“I like your laugh,” she said. “And your smile. Can I…”

“What?”

“You know…” She pulled out a pencil. “Only if you don’t mind. I never had the opportunity to ask you before.”

“Naked?”

“Only if you want. Your clothing is kinda frumpy so it’ll probably come out bad.”

Paul quickly slipped his clothing off and sat back down. “How you want me?”

“Just… maybe, sit back down and lean back? With your arms propped up and you looking into the fire.” She muttered to herself several times as she drew, Paul finally catching her saying something about his shoulder muscles.

“Sorry I’m not as large as a minotaur,” Paul replied. “I’ve always been pretty lean, never could get really bulky.”

“Well, there’s one thing you got that’s bigger than that minotaur,” Jeaneth said.

Paul turned his head. “I… what?”

“Your fat-ass,” Jeaneth laughed. Paul broke into laughter too, enough to where his belly hurt. “That’s the look I want, that smile and laugh.”

They spent the rest of their time chatting, trying different poses, laughing, anything to take their mind off of the danger they likely were in. Being with Jeaneth kept his drakirquiet– kept the intrusive thoughts at bay. Their conversation eventually turned to Duncar after Paul

dressed, while Jeaneth concentrated on casting a spell to alert them of any intruders at their camp while they slept.

"He's a crafty guy," Paul told her. "He's been to Faerie before, and fought things a hell of a lot more dangerous than hags."

"So you're not worried about him?"

"He's probably not even worried about himself!"

Jeaneth finished casting her spell. The area around the camp glowed a dim yellow, and then returned to normal. "I'm still worried though," Jeaneth said softly.

They gathered in the tent together. Paul laid out several blankets and then plopped down. "Don't worry, I'll protect you, and we'll save Vacht tomorrow. Think of me as your guard dragon."

Jeaneth laid next to him and snuggled close. "Gods, you're warm."

"One advantage of being a storm drakon–one of my two elements is fire, so my body temperature is a bit higher than humans."

Paul rolled onto his side and embraced her. She sighed happily and rolled away from him. "Little spoon," she murmured.

"You sure?" Paul asked.

She nodded. "One time me and Vacht went camping and they turned into a brown bear to keep me warm. They held me just like this."

"Yeah, but… I'm… you know." He rested his chin on top of her head, and then chuffed. "You know."

"What?" She snickered. "I know you're a guy. Is that what you're worried about? It doesn't bother me."

Paul brought a clawed finger up to her nose and tapped it lightly. "I'm not cozy and furry like a bear, or small and soft like a halfling."

“You may be big and hard on the outside but you're small and soft on the inside."

Paul's face felt hot. "I… um… w-w-well if I'm too—”

Jeaneth playfully butted her head on Paul's chin. "Just relax, okay? And hold me close. I can feel it's going to get cold tonight." Paul grunted affirmatively and held her tight. She sighed happily. "Sweet dreams, big guy."

I promise I'll protect you, Paul silently prayed. I'll protect you and make sure we see Vacht again.

No matter how hard Paul tried to force himself to sleep, he couldn’t. His mind kept wandering to the plan for tomorrow: How could he be nice to Eleanor? If she didn’t follow the Rule of Three regarding that, he might have to fight her, and might have to kill her. Would Vacht forgive him? Would he not be able to find out the truth of what happened to Robyn?

Jeaneth groaned softly in her sleep. Paul held her tighter and nuzzled the back of her head. It’d be something they’d worry about tomorrow, together.

 


 

Chapter 20: Hunter

Wands, staves, baubles, jewels—magical foci take on a wide range of appearances for mages. Those who can weave magical energy, aether, into spells must use these for all but the least complicated of spells. The exception of course are magical creatures, such as the fey; although physical examination on their bodies shows extremely high levels of residual aether, suggesting either something inherent in their biology, or their origin from the magical realm of Faerie, has something to do with it. It has been suggested that hierons may have some inherentdifference in their biology that accounts for the phenomenon they call “the Light,” although making a scientific explanation for the gods is controversial, at best.

—A comparison of foci, The New Journal of Aether-biology, Vol. 7

 

Paul sighed and slowly opened his eyes. Jeaneth had tossed and turned in her sleep all night—at first stealing the blankets from Paul, then smacking him in the face while rolling about, until finally Paul found a position where she couldn’t move, and he could get some sleep of his own—even if they were filled with anxiety fueled nightmares.

Breakfast between them was quiet, especially as Paul focused all his efforts to keep from having an anxiety attack. Paul took it upon himself to cook the food. Jeaneth had mentioned howher parents wanted her to not be an adventurer, but instead continuing her education at the Imperial College of Art in Ontson.

Before Paul could reply, he had sliced his thumb while cutting the potatoes. “Damn!”

“You okay?”

“It’s not bad,” Paul replied and sucked on his thumb. His anxiety seemed to lessen as he focused on the pain of his cut, and the taste of blood in his mouth. It was different from that of another person, right? It was much different than the blood of a human, a dark elf, or an infernian.

But, then a much more familiar feeling crept upon him:Maybe, just maybe, if he cut himself again the anxiety would lessen more. Jeaneth wouldn’t notice, she was busy packing up the tent, how would she know he had simply cut himself more than he let on?

You're sick, wanting to subject Jeaneth to what you did, the little voice said.You haven't hurt yourself like that in how long? You want to start again now?

"I’ve been thinking about moving to a big city, like Ontson” Paul said, trying to take his mind off his anxieties. “There's a lot of work for adventurers there. You have to apprentice for four years under a full member of the Guild before you get your token. I'd be willing to have you work with me if you go to the University at Ontson; you should be able to get more than enough contracts under your belt to finish it by the time you're done with school. There's plenty of naturalist and pathfinding jobs, and plenty of druids who maintain the city's parks."

Jeaneth's face brightened. "Really!? You'd do that for me?"

"It's the least I can do for you and Vacht finding me. I might be able to get all of what we are doing here to count as a contract if it actually leads us to finding who killed Robyn."

Jeaneth embraced Paul and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you!”

You want to keep her close, the little voice told Paul. But in the end, it won’t be enough to save her.

Jeaneth led Paul up the river to a small waterfall that cascaded over the bluff. It was from where they fell off the bluff, over in the Barrows, but Paul figured it would’ve been better to be flung into a plunge pool than onto hard land.

“I think the river starts in the mountains,” Jeaneth noted. “At least that’s what a kobold told me once.”

“You’re friends with kobolds?”

“They’re pretty weird, and they chitter a lot in their language to themselves, but those I’ve talked to have been kind to me.”

Paul chuckled. “I don’t doubt they’d consider you a friend—it’s just that those who live outside of cities are very xenophobic for good reason. They have the same rights as anyone else, but few respect them, and many are treated like second-class citizens.”

“The Goldscale clan trades a lot with caravans that pass-through Greenfield, heading out west,” Jeaneth said. “They’re used to people treating them like shit, so I guess they were happy that they finally met somebody who didn’t. There’s one, Gali-chim, who’s a pretty good friend. She taught me all the hidden paths up and down from the bluff. There’s one near here, very steep, but a lot quicker than taking any other trail.”

Jeaneth was right, it was steep and wet, enough for Paul to have to get on all fours, otherwise risk losing his footing and falling either onto the ground, or the plunge pool formed by the waterfall. The smaller and more agile Jeaneth had it easier, although Paul kept a close eye on her, especially as they passed through the fog. He didn’t doubt her magic, or his armor to be able to stop their falling—but it was best to not tempt fate, and watching her kept his anxiety at bay.

“What’s the plan?” Jeaneth asked as they finally reached the bluff.

“We call her,” Paul said. The forest and riverbank were shrouded in fog, although most of it was a thick layer that hung far down the way they came. The waterfall seemed to spill out into the white nothingness below them. Boulders and large stones were gathered near the water. Paul pulled his glaive out of his displacer bag and threw it on the ground.

“Eleanor Ironteeth!” he shouted, “I’ve come to talk to you! You know what this weapon is, and you know I can use it to kill you! I lay it here to show you that I only wish to talk and listen!”

Nothing but silence.

Great job mentoring her. Maybe next time you can try yelling at an air elemental, they’re much more talkative than just the wind.

Jeaneth waved her staff around. “Maybe you have to say her name three times to get her to come? The fae love the number three.”

“Eleanor Ironteeth, Eleanor Ironteeth, Eleanor Ironteeth,” Paul chanted. He waited three seconds, and then three minutes. Still no hag. Paul kicked the dirt and growled. “Well… there’s one of her. Vacht makes two. Hags like to make covens of three.”

“Vacht never mentioned there ever being a third person,” Jeaneth said. “You did take a class about faeries at that Academy, right?”

You only had to take it once because you were sleeping with the professor’s assistant, the little voice chided. A young, handsome, leggy, well-hung satyr with a nice ass, a mischievous smile, soft wool, and horns you can just grab and—

“She’s playing with us,” Paul hissed. “I just want to talk!”

“Maybe she considers your knife to be a weapon. You said you did stab yourself—" Jeaneth paused. “Wait… I hear something. A horse.”

Soon Paul heard it too, a horse, very large, coming through the mists in the forest. It was a very familiar looking black horse, with a very familiar rider clad in black with a very punchable face.

“Joe, you son of a bitch!”

“Greetings Paul!” Joe shouted as he brought his horse to a stop and dismounted. “It’s good I found you. Oh, and your little friend.”

Paul growled. “What the hell are you doing here? We’re both very busy and the last thing I want is—"

Joe raised a hand. “Look, I know we didn’t leave on the best of terms.”

“’Not on the best of terms!?’” Paul yelled at the bard. His blood felt like it was boiling. “You drugged me you bastard! I told you what I’d do if you ever come near me again!”

“Look, I—”

“You did what to him!?” Jeaneth shouted.

“It was a misunderstanding after a long night of drinking on both of our parts,” Joe said and clasped his hands together. “I already apologized over how I misinterpreted your advances and—”

“Misinterpret!?” Paul roared. “I was unconscious, naked, with you looming over me—and I didn’t remember a damn thing you did to me or what you were going to do to me! I want you gone, now, before I rip your arms out of their sockets!”

Jeaneth scowled at Joe. She tapped her staff sharply on the ground, creating a sound like that of thunder. “You really should leave, asshole.”

“I’m just trying to find Duncar!” Joe waved his hands innocently. “He’s in danger!”

“Danger?” Paul asked. “What sort? And how the hell did you even find us?”

“Technically, all of you are in danger, including Vacht, but especially your beloved Uncle.” Joe flashed a smile and tipped his hat. “And, finding people is my job, I’m just surprised how much effort I’ve made and only found two of you.

Jeaneth rolled her eyes. “Well, Duncar’s probably in Faerie, and Vacht’s probably tied up in a hag’s basement. Well, assuming she has a basement.”

“I—“ Joe paused and blinked several times. “What? Faerie? A hag?”

Paul sighed. “It’s a long story. We’re investigating some stuff about the dragon, and it led us here. Now, if you would—“

He was interrupted, not by Joe, but someone standing behind him. Eleanor Ironteeth. “You know, he is right about you all being in danger, child,” she hissed.

“Eleanor, I’m just here to talk with you.”

“Of course, you are,” she said and smiled, exposing her sharp metal teeth. “I overheard you last night, and—"

Before Eleanor could say anything else, Joe billowed his cloak out, revealing a large weapon that looked like a massive crossbow. He shouldered it and fired at Eleanor. The crossbow bolt exploded before striking the hag, enveloping her in a metal armature that constricted around her body, forcing her onto her knees and extending her head up and arms outward.

“Oh! Oh my! You didn’t even buy me dinner first!” Eleanor laughed.

Jeaneth gingerly walked towards the hag, careful to keep her distance. “Wow, didn’t realize it’d be that easy to capture her.”

“I wasn’t trying to capture her!” Paul shouted at Joe. “Look, I am so, so sorry. I know you’re mad at me over the whole headbutting you, and trying to stab you, and yelling at you.”

“Oh, no apologies needed, my boy,” Eleanor chuckled. “You have indeed passed my tests, and I am willing to—wow this is tight. Well, I’m willing to speak with you and Vacht and—” Eleanor’s body tensed and the armature shook. Her smile turned to a frown. “Shit, I’m actually stuck. Got tighter when trying to shapeshift.”

“You stupid bitch!” Joe yelled at Eleanor. “That was my last magebound bolt! Do you realize how expensive those things are!?”

Eleanor clucked her tongue at Joe. “Such a filthy mouth for such a pretty boy. Paul, kill him, it’ll make your granny happy!”

“Despite how much I want to hurt Joe, I’m not killing him. Joe, release Eleanor. We have business with her.”

Joe circled around Paul and slipped his crossbow into his displacer bag. “I will once I’m finished. So, as I was saying. You all are in danger.”

“Danger that doesn’t involve a hag that’s now tied up like a bull?” Jeaneth asked.

“Oh! So, a cow I am?”

“No,” Joe said. “You all found a map on that draconian knight, Sivon?”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “It’s what led us out here. And it’s why Duncar is out hopefully having a fun time with some of the Fair Folk. How do you know about it?”

“Someone is after that map,” Joe said. “Someone very dangerous.”

Paul’s eyes moved to Joe’s hands, they were resting at his sides, but his right hand, the one next to his holstered wheelgun, was instinctively flexing.

“It’s good that I have it then,” Paul lied. “You wouldn’t happen to know who is looking for it?”

Joe had moved himself between where Paul was standing, and where he had thrown the glaive on the ground. Someone was after the map—and it was Joe.

“I don’t know, but I know they’re getting paid well,” Joe said.

“Is it somebody we know?” Jeaneth asked.

Joe’s eyes moved from Paul, to Jeaneth, and back. He smiled, flashing his bright, white teeth. “I like you,” he spoke softly, barely loud enough for Paul to hear. “Just hand the map to me, and nobody will get hurt.”

He’s going to kill Jeaneth, he’s going to kill Jeaneth and he’s going to keep you alive so he can finish what he started at the inn.

“Who hired you?” Paul asked. “How much did they pay you?”

“Enough to not ask questions,” Joe said. “And enough to never have to owe anyone anything, ever again. Now, just—"

Paul forced his elementumto flex, causing an intense burning pain in his chest as he inhaled and shot a bolt of lightning out of his mouth and at Joe. The bard ducked, causing his hat to be hit by the blast as Paul doubled over in pain. His

elementumwas still too injured to work properly.

As Paul spat blood on the ground, he willed his helmet to come back over his face. Jeaneth was shouting at Joe’s horse, trying to calm it down from the sudden noise. The horse bolted back towards the forest, disappearing into the mists.

Joe drew his wheelgun and aimed at Jeaneth. Paul ran and grabbed her, shielding her from the gunshots. Loud pings echoed in Paul’s ears as Joe fired six shots into Paul’s back, the bullets harmlessly striking against his aegis.

“Guess armor piercing bullets are for steel, not orichalcum!” Joe yelled.

“Jeaneth, you need to find cover!”

“But, I can help!” she pleaded.

“No! You’ll get yourself—" Paul stopped as something hit his back and fell to the ground and began making a wet fizzing noise. It was a small metal sphere with sparks coming out of it, a grenade.

Without even thinking, Paul shoved Jeaneth away and fell onto the explosive, covering it up as much as he could with his body. Paul’s ears rang and he grunted loudly as the grenade exploded underneath him. His armor wasn’t penetrated by the blast, but it felt like someone took a battering ram to his chest and stomach.

Paul rolled onto his side, just soon enough to see a long chain fly overhead and strike Jeaneth as she tried to run away. The chain magically wrapped itself around her body and constricted, causing her to fall to the ground.

“Paul!” she screamed.

Paul stumbled to his feet, acrid smoke rolling off his armor as he went to Jeaneth and tried tugging on the chain. Her staff was pinned against her body, the chain constricting tighter until her staff broke against her body.

“Don’t move!” Paul yelled. “I know what this is. There’s a token Joe has that can uncoil it.”

“I don’t want to have to kill you, Paul!” Joe shouted. “Just give me the map!”

Paul looked around and saw Joe ducking behind a boulder near the water. He had left Paul’s glaive by itself, along with Eleanor, still trapped in the armature.

“Well, shit,” the hag said, “I was hoping someone would’ve died in all this. Would’ve been a fun story to tell Vacht. ‘Your boytoy drakon and quarterling died fighting a gunslinger!’ Wait… is ‘quarterling’ racist? Halfling isn’t… right? What are hafllings half of? Is it just height?”

Paul took several steps back towards the glaive, but then stopped. He picked up a small stone and threw it at the fallen weapon. The stone passed through it and a previously invisible foot-hold trap triggered, snapping large metal jaws upward.

“Illusory magic won’t work against me, and I don’t need that glaive to beat you! Now tell me, before I snap your neck, who’s paying you!?” Paul shouted. He unsheathed his knife and held it at the ready. Whoever hired Joe was involved with all of this. He had to find out the truth. Information first, then he could kill Joe.

“The kind of work I do on the side doesn’t involve names,” Joe called out from behind the boulder.

Paul cautiously walked towards the sound of Joe’s voice. “The job is just to get the map?”

“No, to kill you, Duncar, the girl, and Vacht, and then get the map. Your hag friend is an interesting complication,” Joe said. “But, to be honest, I’ve grown fond of the dwarf, and you’re a good lay. So, if you give me the map I’ll let the rest of this slide, whatever penalty I must pay for not fulfilling the whole contract doesn’t matter with how much the reward is.”

Joe started whistling a song, casting a spell with music. Paul rushed behind the boulder, but nobody was there. Paul didn’t hear anything, like the familiar bang of a teleportation spell. Joe couldn’t have moved fast enough to move behind another rock or fallen tree to reach cover, at least without making noise, much louder than the ringing in Paul’s ears from the grenade.

He's invisible.

Paul looked all around, for a footprint, a blade of grass, a wisp of mist, anything. One thing Paul didn’t notice was his glaive anywhere, the bard must’ve slipped it into his displacer bag.

He smiled, Joe had something of his that Paul was very familiar with.

Paul placed a hand on his holy symbol and focused on a thread of magic. “Quarum objet!” he shouted and casted a searching spell, holding both the spell and the image of the glaive within his mind. The thread of magic vibrated, sweeping all around him, searching for the glaive. Paul felt the thread pass through him, and then directly behind him.

Paul twirled about, just as Joe appeared, lunging with his rapier towards Paul’s legs. The bard missed and Paul kicked at his free arm, wielding only a small copper colored metal shield.

Paul had to know who hired the bard to get the map, he had to take him alive. Paul squared himself off as Joe rose back up, tightened his grip on his knife and punched at Joe’s face. Joe blocked with the shield, causing Paul to yelp in pain, even from the protection of his armored gauntlets, and dropped his knife to the ground.

Paul wasn’t used to fighting hand-to-hand wearing heavy armor. Even though the aegis that he wore allowed Paul to move better than in any other suit of armor he had worn before, he was nowhere near fast enough to outmaneuver the bard, especially if he didn’t want to kill him.

Joe continually feinted attacking, either unable to find a spot to plunge the tip of his rapier, or simply trying to get Paul to make the first move. Paul obliged him and quickly moved in, too close for Joe to use the rapier, and punched at his face. Joe dodged the blows and brought his arms in. Paul pushed both of Joe’s arms outward, forcing him to drop his sword and shield, and grappled Joe tightly by the waist. He held him close, lifted him up, and slammed him into the ground.

As Paul brought his fist up to punch the bard again in the face, Joe shouted, “Shield! Up!” Joe’s discarded buckler flew and hovered in front of his face, glowing with green sigils as Paul’s fist slammed into it. He howled in pain again and stumbled backwards.

Joe slipped metal knuckles over his hands, leapt to his feet, and punched Paul ineffectively several times in the abdomen and face. Paul pushed his hands away and uppercutted Joe in the stomach, knocking all his breath out.

"Even if I weren't one of the gods Chosen, I'm at least twice as strong as you," Paul growled.

"A Chosen?" Joe gasped. "I thought you were just a submissive, whiny, paladin bitch!"

The bard leapt awayand threw several small

glass balls at Paul, which shattered on his armor, spreading thick black smoke around him. Then something else struck him in the head, through the smoke, a heavy glass bottle that shattered. Liquid spread over his helmet and his breastplate, thick choking fumes rolling off it.

Paul gasped and stumbled out of the black cloud, grasping at his helmet, willing it to loosen so he could take it off. As he finally slid it off and dropped it, Joe flew out through the smoke, striking Paul’s snout with a knee.

Paul fell backwards and rolled back to standing, his arms up.

“That all you got?” Paul spat at Joe.

“Paul! I got out!”Jeaneth yelled

. Paul had nearly forgotten her.Her broken staff must’ve prevented the chain from tightening too much around her and she was able to wiggle free.

“Jeaneth! Run!”

She ran towards the cliff, back to the path theytook near the waterfall. But Paul’s ears rang again as Joe fired his wheelgun. The bullet whizzed past Paul’s head and struck Jeaneth, causing her to tumble and fall off the cliff.

He killed her, the little voice hissed at Paul. He killed her and you could've prevented it if you just tried to kill Joe.It was loud, angry.

Paul yelled and tried to turn as the bard slipped a rope around his neck. Joe pulled Paul onto the ground along with himself. Something small and sharp pierced Paul’s neck as Joe wrapped his legs around Paul’s waist from behind.

“Just relax, it’ll take you soon,” Joe said as he pulled tighter on the rope. “The water of sleep is much more peaceful than the alternatives.”

Paul had to take him alive.

You don’t have to! the little voice screamed.

He had to figure out who Joe was working for. Why all of this happened.

He killed her. You promised to protect her. You were her guardian, you held her all night to protect her from the monsters that wander the dark, but thereal monster was the handsome man who wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

Everyone deserves second chances. Paul did, even though he was a monster himself. No, no he wasn't a monster. Those thoughts were bad. Drakons weren't monsters, he just had to control his drakir.

“Relax!” Joe shouted as he let go of the rope. He wrapped his arms around Paul’s head, holding him in place.

You’re not a monster, the voice whispered to Paul. But, if you give in, if you unleash the fury that is your birthright, you’ll make him pay for what he did.

Joe’s arm was close to Paul’s mouth. He could… but he shouldn’t. He promised himself not to.

It’s easy. Just let go.

Joe killed Jeaneth, and he was going to kill Vacht, and then Duncar.

Everything in Paul’s vision went red.

Paul roared and sank his teeth into Joe’s forearm, biting with as much force as he could muster. Blood filled his mouth as Joe screamed, as pain flared through his jaws, and finally Paul felt a crack as a bone snapped in Joe’s arm.

Joe loosened his grip, allowing Paul to spin around, pinning the bard to the ground. He pounded his fists into Joe’s face, again and again, his face and mouth felt as if though they were on fire.

Paul wasn’t going to capture Joe—he wasn’t going to interrogate him. He was going to crush his face, rip out his throatwith his teeth, cause him to choke on his own blood.

Paul was going to kill Joe, and even if Paul wanted to stop, he knew he couldn't.

Joetried to shield his face with his hands as Paul rained blow after blow down on him, until suddenly the world started to grow more distant, the sound of Paul’s labored breaths grew quieter.

“Shield—” Joe tried to say as Paul stuck his fingers into the bard’s mouth.

Paul didn’t want Joe to sing again, or to say another single word. He pulled and pulled, trying to rip Joe’s jaw off. That was the only thing Paul could think of as everything slowly grew darker. He was feeling tired, too tired to move, too tired to think anymore.

You have to kill him. He deserves it.

Paul couldn’t go on. He was too tired. Whatever Joe stuck in his neck.

You’re pathetic. You’re useless.

Everything left in Paul’s vision faded to black.

Paul gasped and opened his eyes. He was cold, shivering, and half-naked, lying next to where Eleanor kneeled, still entrapped in the armature. They were on the bluff still, near the waterfall overlooking the foggy valley below, but he was wrapped in chains, his arms and legs pulled painfully backwards.

Paul screamed as he felt something smash into his left forearm, shattering it.

“Wake up you scaleback piece-of-shit!” It was Joe, the bard, the murderer. His face was bruised, and his arm was wrapped tightly in cloth. “That’s for breaking my fucking arm! I had to chug down all those potions of healing you had to fix it, and it’s still sore.”

The beating continued. The kicks, knees, and punches to his face and body were nothing like the searing pain in Paul’s left forearm. He tried rolling over onto his side to protect it, only earning a rope tied around his neck and pulled taught, with Joe’s knee pushing into his back.

“Where’s the map!?”

“Jeaneth,” Paul growled. That earned the rope loosening, and then his head being stomped into the ground.

Eleanor cackled. “Oh! This is quite precious!”

“Shut up, bitch!” Joe spat at her. “I know that girl didn’t have it. Duncar does! Now Paul, tell me, how do I find him?”

“You’re a murder,” Paul wheezed.

“I tried to give the girl a fair chance! But she decided she’d get up and run off.” He rolled Paul over onto his back, forcing his weight onto the broken arm. “Now… you said that Duncar is in Faerie. How do I get there?”

“I have nothing to say to you.” Paul tried breathing lightning, but his elementum spasmed and sent him into a coughing fit. He felt blood gather in his mouth, which he spat on Joe’s face.

“Oh, you’re paying for that!” Joe hissed. He spun Paul back over and pulled on the rope, strangling Paul.

“I know how to get to Faerie, I could even lead you!” Eleanor cackled.

“Oh? I’d only trust you if I could get that damned mind control potion to work,” Joe said. He must not have suspected that Eleanor had tainted the potion. “I don’t know your First Name… unless…” Joe dragged Paul over to a boulder, threw the rope over it and yanked on the rope, forcing Paul upwards, strangling him more. “What’s her name!?”

“I don’t know it! And if I did, why the hell would I tell you!?”

“Does Vacht know!? Of course, that elf bitch would know! Where are they!?” Joe pulled harder on the rope, causing Paul’s vision to fade. “I swear I’ll pop your damn head off!”

Paul gurgled and wheezed, and just before Joe’s yelling turned to a soft ringing, Paul was dropped again, the rope loosened. He gasped and coughed, trying to catch his breath.

“You’re a coward,” Paul spat. “You’re a murderous, rapist, coward.”

“Oh please, I only kill for money. I’m not a thrill killer like those in the Dok Shandar. I gained no pleasure from putting a bullet through the back of Braeneth.”

“Jeaneth!” Paul screamed. “Her name was Jeaneth you—" Paul took a punch to the face for that.

Thoughts ran through Paul’s head. He wanted to kill Joe for what he did. But Paul had let Jeaneth down. The little voice, Paul’s drakir, kept whispering to him how he was a failure, how it was he who should’ve died, how—

“Playtime is over, honey,” Joe said. He reached into his bag and pulled out a metal flask. He uncorked it and poured its contents all over Paul. “I need answers. Now.”

Paul felta chill run up his spine. Joe had covered him with lantern oil.

Eleanor laughed loudly, rattling the armature she was trapped within. “Oh, you little pussy—you’re not going to burn him up.”

Joe pulled out a match from a pocket in his coat. “Unfortunately, I’m out of tobacco, so I can’t—”

Paul felt something inside of him suddenly snap. Words came out from his mouth, but they didn’t feel like his own. They were from his drakir, bubbling all the way out to the surface.

“Do it you coward! Kill me! Do what I’ve been too fucking afraid to do my whole life!”

“Wait,” Eleanor said. “Wait a moment. Paul, stop!”

Paul strained against the chains binding him, but he couldn’t feel the pain in his broken arm anymore. “Do it! Burn me! Put a bullet in my head! Kill me like you killed her!”

“Stop!” Eleanor screamed. “Vacht is at my home! I can give you directions there!”

Joe turned to Eleanor and scoffed. “Why the hell would you tell me that?”

“Because I made a promise to them, that I wouldn’t let him die within my domain.”

Joe chuckled and put the match away. “Oh, by the gods! A hag with a heart! I know your kind can’t lie, so I guess it must be true.”

“Yes, yes!” Eleanor said and nodded as quickly as she could. “I’ll tell you where my home is! Just please, don’t kill him!”

Joe kneeled down and patted Paul gentlyon the cheek. “I think I might need you later when I bring back the ashskinner. Now, night-night, sweetheart.”

Joe stood again and the last thing Paul saw was his boot striking him in the temple.

 

 

Chapter 21: White Lie

"Don't kill a mark unless you are left with no other choice, they're usually worth more alive. And if you must kill, use swords, knives, and arrows. Don't use a firearm unless you really have to, and only if you're sure it'd pierce their armor: bullets are cheap, but gunpowder is expensive."

—Yolanda Merwin, professional bounty hunter

“Can you hear me?” Eleanor asked Paul again. She wasn’t that far away from where Paul laid, bound in chains, shivering in the cold—but she sounded more distant each time she asked.

“My Chosen, you shall rise, fall, and rise again. This is my Covenant that I have sworn to you.”

“Why do others have to suffer because of my mistakes?”

“Because you’re a pathetic idiot!” Eleanor cackled.

“Do not despair, Chosen.”Paul felt warm arms wrap around his body. The cold and the pain throughout his body melted away, replaced by a comforting numbness.

“Paul… Paul? You stopped shivering.”

“Why do you keep letting this happen to me?” Paul asked. “You’ve watched me my whole life, but you kept letting this happen to me?”

“Who the hell are you talking to?” Eleanor asked. She turned her head all around, as far as the armature allowed her to.

“I’m talking to Pela.”

“Shit, I think you’re going into shock. You’ve stopped shivering, your eyes are glazed over, hallucinating—”

“I’m not hallucinating!” Paul screamed. “I’m Her Chosen! I’m not crazy, unlike you, you insufferable wench! You betrayed Vacht to Joe, just like how you betrayed them before when you murdered Robyn!”

“I didn’t betray them!” Eleanor sneered. “I poisoned that enchanting potion, and Vacht isn’t in a condition to be giving him my First Name—which they don’t even know anyway.”

“Of course.”

“That bounty hunter will bring Vacht to us, they’ll lie about my name, then he’ll say the magic words, chug the potion, and we’ll see if I added enough wolfsbane or not!”

“You danced entirely around the subject of Robyn.”

“As I said before, I didn’t kill her. But…” She grew silent.

“But what? Robyn is dead, and so is Jeaneth. So, you might as well tell me before I die, then at least one person Vacht cares about knows the truth before—”

“The Verdant,” Eleanor said.

The warmth surrounding Paul suddenly vanished. He was shivering again, enveloped by pain, his broken arm throbbing.

“What?”

“He is a—”

“I know who he is,” Paul whispered.

“I didn’t know who he was five years ago. All I knewwas that he was a masked human with a silly pseudonym who wanted to purchase some of my moonflowers. He had an air of magic about him—I

thoughthe was a secretive alchemist, especially for coming to purchase something from me of all people! When I found out that Robyn died, and my beloved Vacht nearly did too, I realized that he had done it… I couldn’t look at Vacht anymore.” She ground her metal teeth, sending sparks into the air. “The shame of it

I couldn’t even think of them without feeling sick. So, I’d just wait for Vacht to die from old age, even if they lived to be a millennium old!”

“Did you ever find the Verdant?” Paul asked.

“Why does a human criminal like him concern you, child? Do you wish to avenge my apprentice’s late wife?”

“He killed my birth parents, dozens of others, and left me for dead,” Paul said. “My dad and my sworn family have searched for him for years.” He felt a swelling inside his chest. “My mythos, the reason why the Hearth Mother sent me back… he’s here. He’s here, isn’t he!?”

“Aye. Not long ago, a drakon named Sivon and a dragon named Zazex both came to my home, with a map. They were quested to find a weapon from the war with the dark elves, and it was somewhere in the valley. The next time I saw them they had been changed, controlled by something they described as a gold magical rod, wielded by a man with a green mask. Before you killed them, I was able to manipulate them to collect components to create a potion to counteract the effects of this rod on them.”

‘’The Verdant was here in Greenfield the whole time?” Paul asked her.

“I thinkhe’s

lived here for years.”

“Did they know what he looked like?”

“Don’t think so, he always wore a mask.”

Paul shuddered. “The Hearth Mother brought me here, not just to help Vacht, but to find that man who killed those who we loved.”

An intrusive thought entered Paul’s mind. Why did the Hearth Mother let Jeaneth die, then?

Paul quietly prayed as Eleanor was busy struggling with the armature, occasionally gnashing her metal teeth, and sending sparks flying. “Pela, Hearth Mother, please forgive me for not being able to save –”

Paul stopped as a brown squirrel leaptonto his chest. It stood on its hind legs and stared at him; its dark eyes glazed. “Paul!” it said. “Paul, is that you? How does this work again?” The squirrel was speaking with Jeaneth’s voice.

“Oh great,” Paul sighed. “I really am hallucinating.”

“You’re not!” Eleanor yelled. “That thing sounds like your friend!”

"Jeaneth!?" Paul cried out to the squirrel. "Is that you?"

"Paul, if this squirrel is talking, that means it found you, and that bird was right about seeing you all tied up on the bluff," the squirrel said. "I'm trying to climb up, but I have a hole in me so it's slow and it hurts despite downing a healing potion."

"Of course, her slow fall spell," Paul said.

"I'll be up there as quick as I can," the squirrel said. "Just hold on! Uh…" the squirrel scratched its head. "How do I stop this—”

The squirrel suddenly blinked, shook its head, bit Paul's nose, and then skittered off into the woods.

Eleanor clicked her tongue. "So, boy, does getting shot, falling off a cliff, and surviving count as being lucky? Because I certainly as hell don't want whatever luck your Hearth Mother is giving you!"

“What are you doing?” Eleanor asked.

Paul opened his eyes. “I’m meditating. It helps with the pain and keep me centered.”

“Centered from what?”

Paul sighed. “I know you’re testing me again. Can’t you do something else to entertain yourself?”

Eleanor frowned. “At least you’re not stuck in this contraption. I wish that girl would drag her carcass up here faster.”

A loud bang echoed from the forest.

“One of my landmine!" Eleanor laughed. "And soon my redcap servants will drag his smoking corpse back to—"

Five softer noises soon followed. Gunshots.

“Well, I guess Joe survived,” Paul said.

“But I have six of my redcaps stationed near my—"

A sixth gunshot.

Eleanor snarled. “Well… shit.”

They were soon interrupted again by a more welcome noise, the padding of soft boots on the ground. Paul turned his head to see Jeaneth, limping from the edge of the cliff.

“Sorry it took me so long,” Jeaneth said.

“Are you okay?” Paul asked.

Her right arm was held close to her body, her hand twisted at an unnatural angle. Paul couldn’t see her legs through her robe, but she was favoring the right one. There was a large stain of red covered by blood-stained moss on her right shoulder.

“I’ve had worse,” she said, weakly smiling. “At least I’ll have a cool scar.” She sniffled and then sobbed. “How am I going to explain this to my parents?”

“Don’t worry, child,” Eleanor cooed. “You’ll be safe. You can trust your granny.”

“Is… umm… is she… good? With us?”

“I think so,” Paul said.

Eleanor grinned from ear to ear. “Oh yes, I am very much good with you two. I promise I will not try to suck the Light of Empyrean out of your body and use it to figure out how to use the power of the gods so Vacht and the Dreamwalker and I can be together, forever.”

"Oh yeah," Jeaneth said and nodded. "That's totally normal shit to say."

“Look,” Paul said, “we all have our issues. How about we just figure out what we have to help us escape?”

“I don’t have much,” Jeaneth said. “My pack fell off and rolled into the water when I hit the ground.”

“Your boytoy took my flamebrand and icebrand swords,” Eleanor said. “I didn’t have anything else useful in my pockets.”

Jeaneth stumbled behind Paul and yanked on his chains. Paul growled in pain as they pulled on his broken arm.

“Sorry!" Jeaneth said.

"Just tell me what you see."

"These chains aren’t attached to anything. They’re almost tied like rope. And your wrists are bound together with handcuffs.”

Paul turned his wrists inward and tried feeling with his long fingers. “Is there anything written on them or the chains?”

“Something in Draconic… I can’t read it.”

“How many letters is it?”

“Four. Every six links on the chain, and it’s inscribed into the handcuffs.”

“It’s a

gnomish restraint," Paul said. "The chains are enchanted with the cuffs. You wrap the guy up and then lock in the cuffs. The chains tighten and won’t let go unless the cuffs are unlocked.”

“Made by the same people who made that chain that roped me up?”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “You ever pick a lock before?”

“You sound like you know more about this stuff than I do, big guy.”

Paul sighed wistfully. His father would be amused by the situation he was in. “My dad was a… ‘security expert’ when he was adventuring with Duncar. He could pick locks like this blindfolded, but I can’t. And I don’t think I can move my hands enough in this position to do it myself. It hurts too much to pull on the cuffs,” he said, wincing as he tried. "Explains why he broke my forearm."

“What’s a ‘security expert’ supposed to be?”

Eleanor laughed. “His daddy was a burglar, a thief, a rogue, whatever he liked to explain to the Adventuring Guild.”

“What am I supposed to pick it with?” Jeaneth asked.

“You have a hairpin, or something like that?”

“I do!” Eleanor said. “He didn’t mess with my hair. Something about it being too greasy or something…”

The harm that befell Jeaneth wasn’t his fault. He knew that, but it still hurt to see what happened to her.

“Hey, big guy,” Jeaneth said after she retrieved the hairpin. She had kneeled in front of Paul, her twisted hand was near his face. “You okay?”

Paul smiled weakly. “Better than you, I think.”

Jeaneth smiled back at him. “At least I’m still wearing clothes.”

“I promise this isn’t usually how things end up for me or my friends.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jeaneth said and kissed Paul on the cheek, and then stepped over and crouched behind him, fumbling with the cuffs and the hairpin. “Fuck!” she screamed and then sucked air in through clenched teeth.

“Are you okay?” Paul asked.

“My hand… oh gods… my hand hurts so bad. I can’t do this with my left.”

“I can’t heal you. I need my hands free to do that,” Paul said.

“It stopped hurting a while ago while climbing, it’s worse than before,” she hissed.

“Granny can kiss it to make it better for you, dearie!”

“Can you shut it? I’m trying to concentrate,” Jeaneth hissed. “I have to get Paul out and then you.”

“I’m well on my well escaping this contraption,” Eleanor said. “So, Paul, if Vacht rejects you, I propose you become my pet dragon. I’ll dress you up in cute clothing, I think pink would complement your blue scales."

"’Reject’ me? This whole thing started because of them, why would—"

"Wait," Eleanor said, "I hear the bard coming. What’s our plan?”

“I can’t unlock this,” Jeaneth said.

“Give it to me,” Paul said. “I might be able to get it done. Eleanor, you said you can escape from that thing?”

“Yes, but it’ll be a while still.”

“What about me?” Jeaneth asked.

“You can take my other hairpin!” the hag cackled. “Hide in a bush, and while he’s distracted, stab him right in the cock with it!”

“I… I don’t think I can really run. I wish you all still had your stuff, and my stuff too. Guess I’ll have to get another sketchbook.”

“That bard tied our bags onto his stupid horse,” Eleanor said.

“I know what you can do, Jeaneth!" Paul said. "Go hide in the bushes. When Joe comes, you sneak up to his horse and take our bags off. Even if I break out before Eleanor, I don’t think I can take him on in a fight without a weapon. But with that glaive I know I can beat him, even with one good arm.”

“Great,” Jeaneth said, “These are great ideas, but… these all might take a lot of time.”

“I agree,” Eleanor said. “Unless we coordinate everything perfectly, we’ll all end up dead. Well, you two probably will, I’m not convinced he has anything that can kill me.”

Paul smiled. “It’s easy. We get him to drink that potion. All Vacht has to do is to lie to him about your First Name. He drinks the potion, and he gets… sick? What exactly did you do to the potion? I know the normal potion is supposed to make you ill if you don't use it right.”

There was a long pause from Eleanor. Paul couldn’t see her face well from the ground, but she looked panicked.

"What exactly did you do to it?” he asked.

“I might have… umm… Well, I assumed this would’ve ended up with you getting to my house and using the potion. So… well, I think it’ll work on a human.”

“It’s just poison now?” Jeaneth asked.

“Oh… oh dearie, no! It’s… well… something much more amusing to me.”

“It’s bad if he drinks it either way, right?”

She nodded. “Yup! Of course! One-hundred-percent a bad idea!”

“Despite all my fears, the time I spent walking into the light of dawn,

I know that you’ll always be there waiting for me, just around the corner.”

The familiar strumming of Joe’s guitar echoed from the misty forest. Paul rolled on the cold ground to face towards the noise, careful to conceal his hands with the hairpin.

“Well, the hand of fate keeps us apart, but into the light I look on,

One day I will find you, no matter how long I must wander.”

The bard was dancing and playing his guitar in front of Vacht, leading them along with a glowing metal collar tied by a chain to his belt. Their face was covered by a hood. Joe’s horse was entranced by the song, following the duo.

“No longer disillusioned, I’ll keep—"

Joe suddenly struck a dissonant chord, sending a wave of light from the strings of his guitar. Vacht shouted in panic and tried to run, striking the horse and stumbling backwards.

“Nope! Not again!” Joe yelled, yanking hard on the chain and sending the elf to the ground.

Paul growled. “If you harm a hair on their head—”

“Oh? A hair?” Joe laughed. “Come, see for yourself!”

The bard dragged Vacht over closer to Paul and Eleanor. He pulled off their hood, showing that Vacht’s long greasy black hair had been replaced by black and white feathers. Their face was contorted and elongated. They looked like they were half-elf and half-magpie, along with antlers. Vacht squawked at Paul loudly.

“What the hell did you to them?” Paul hissed.

Joe pulled out his wheelgun and aimed it at Eleanor. “Exactly my question: What did you do to them?”

“Oh, like that’ll fucking kill me!” Eleanor shouted. Joe swung the gun around and aimed at Paul’s head. “You think I care about him that much?

Joe sighed and aimed it at Vacht’s head. “Tell me what you did to the elf, or I swear Mr. Beaky here is going to be dinner for the buzzards.”

“Fine!” Eleanor shouted. “So… me and my dear little Vacht were having a conversation about loverboy here, and then we got into an argument after they said that they were getting feelings for him.”

Paul’s heart skipped a beat. “Wait… Vacht has feelings for me?” They said they loved him before. Now he knew it wasn’t just from the throes of passion after all.

Eleanor cleared her throat. “I would say it’s more like how a person loves a puppy, a very stupid, but cute, puppy! Now where was… oh, of course. So, we got into an argument because for years I’ve been telling Vacht that nobody is good enough for them, that most people are trouble, especially men, and—”

Joe pulled the hammer back on his wheelgun. “Get to the point, we’re burning through daylight.”

“So, we had an argument, and they were shapechanging to fly away and I kinda used a curse on them!”

“Kinda!?” yelled Paul. “You call that ‘kinda!?’”

Joe lowered the gun. “What sort of curse?”

“Well… I was wanting to test the boy here, so I used one of those really old curses that parents tell their children in fairytales. The one where a lovely princess’ true love must kiss them to wake them from an eternal slumber!”

Joe waved with his gun. “Scaleback, stick your tongue out; you’re going to make out with the bird-elf.”

Vacht squawked loudly and tried flapping their arms.

Paul turned his head to look at Eleanor. “Is this sickening test to see if Vacht really loved me? Because your curse seems to not work right, Vacht’s awake and is a bird!”

Eleanor clicked her teeth. “Tsk tsk, you dumb little boy. I never tried using that curse before on an elf, or a druid shapechanging into an animal, or both at the same time. Vacht’s mind is asleep, only the bird is left. And the curse is about the kisser, not the kisssee. A person who feels true genuine love for that who is cursed need only confess their love in front of them.”

Paul felt his chest tighten with anxiety. He hadn’t known Vacht for long, and their relationship was highly complicated.

They came out here alone because they thought Eleanor would kill you.

Did Paul love them? Vacht trusted him, cared about him enough to risk their own safety. But the prophecy, the expectations of him, all of it weighed so heavily between them.

You don't deserve them.

What Paul did deserve was an uncomplicated life, one where if he wanted to fall in love with an elf he wouldn't have centuries of expectations hanging over his head. But fate had planned otherwise for him; not just with Vacht, but with the Hearth Mother.

Paul was fumbling with the hairpin. Joe’s horse had gained interest in the bush that Jaeneth was hiding in. He hoped that everything was going to work out okay in the end.

Joe aimed his gun at Paul again. “Go ahead. Tell the dark elf you love them. I want to get back to town by lunchtime.”

Paul closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, back out slowly, and then opened his eyes. “Vacht—”

“Vacht!” they squawked back.

“Vacht, people say I fall in love easily, that I wear my heart on my sleeve. You saved my life when you found me. It wasn’t just because I would have died out in the forest by myself, but you helped me find something in my life I was missing.” Paul’s eyes started to feel wet. “I didn’t know what to do with my life after I left Wavemeet for the last time. I didn’t want to be an adventurer wandering the world. I wanted a home, a family, kids, someone to protect. When I took your cause to help Robyn I did it because I wished I could have felt the love you felt for her.”

Vacht’s eyes focused on Paul. “Robyn?” they rasped.

“Fate threw us together, and the stress caused by it has been tremendous, and you've lied to me a lot. But I know that you've done it because you've been hurt so much in the past. I love you...” Paul shook his head. "No, I want to love you. But, I still can't love myself enough to where I feel safe with another in the way you deserve. I wish above all else that we could've met under better circumstances, unburdened by what the gods have planned for us."

Vacht’s form slowly shifted back to their original form. Their face reshaped itself, their feathers returned to hair, and their eyes shifted back to their brilliant green.

Eleanor gasped. "Holy shit. I really messed up that curse if self-realization of all things broke it."

Vacht smiled but then frowned as their eyes met Joe. “Why have you bound me!?”

Joe holstered his gun, and pulled out his rapier. He placed the tip to Vacht’s throat.

“Don’t hurt them!” Paul yelled.

Joe grinned. “Oh, don’t worry. I need some information from you.”

Vacht shouted in pain as the collar around their neck glowed a sickening green. They fell to the ground with a thud.

“By the way, don’t try shifting while wearing that thing. Might leave a mark.”

Joe unhooked Vacht’s chain and muttered words of power, causing it to grow as stiff as a rod and darting upwards. Vacht gagged as they were pulled up to their knees by the collar and chain.

Paul bared his teeth and growled as Joe reached into his bag and pulled out a piece of parchment.

“Well, Vacht,” Joe said, unrolling the parchment out completely. “Tell me the hag’s real name. If you don’t, I’ll hurt your boyfriend.”

Vacht grimaced. “Rebecca Lawry… that’s her name.”

Joe read the parchment, in a language Paul didn’t understand. Runes seemed to float off it, and his eyes glowed as he read the words. Paul realized what it was, a magical scroll with a spell’s threads woven into it.

As the bard finished, the scroll harmlessly burned away to ash. Paul felt a familiar warmth wash over him. It was a truth spell, just like the kind he could cast. That would complicate their plan.

Joe sucked his teeth. “So now, I haven’t really cast one of these spells before, but let’s give it a try.” He pointed a finger at Paul. “What’s his name?”

“Paul Underhill,” Vacht said. They looked surprised.

Joe smiled. “Good. Now… tell me something that’s the truth. I’m curious about what you feel about ol’ scaleback here,” he said, waving his rapier at Paul.

“I won’t give you the satisfaction—”

Joe pulled out his wheelgun again and aimed it at Paul. “If you don’t tell me how you feel about him to the count of three, I’m going to fill his pretty face with enough lead to where his ancestors feel it.”

Paul looked at Vacht and mouthed wordlessly. “Don’t.”

“One,” Joe said.

Paul closed his eyes and steadied his breathing. He didn’t know where dark elves ended up exactly in the afterlife, but he hoped that he’d find Vacht there one day.

Paul heard Eleanor rustle beside him. “Hey, boytoy… he’s actually going to kill you.”

“Two,” Joe continued. Paul heard the familiar ratcheting of the hammer of his wheelgun being pulled back.

“Pela, please watch over—”

“Three!”

“Stop!” Vacht yelled. “I’ll tell you! Just stop!”

Paul heard Joe release the hammer of his wheelgun. A twirl and then the sound of it being holstered. He opened his eyes. Joe leaned down towards Vacht. “Tell him, now.”

“Paul, I would never want you to compromise your happiness because of me. I want you to find someone who can make you happy, no compromises.”

“Vacht, you deserve happiness too,” Paul said. “Everyone does. We’ll make it through this, trust me.”

“You do make me happy Paul.” Vacht smiled. “You just deserve more than what I can give you.”

Joe slowly clapped his hands together. “Very touching you two. Now, for the real question. I know that this potion that will allow me to control the blubbering bitch over there needs me to recite her true name as part of the incantation written down. Now, tell me. What is her name?”

Vacht didn’t respond. There was no way they could lie. There had to be some way to distract him long enough to implement whatever plan Eleanor had to get out.

Paul looked at the bushes where Jeaneth was hiding. He could barely make out Jeaneth fumbling through the horse’s bags.

“Tell me, damnit!” Joe yelled.

The truth spell was one of the first Paul learned how to cast. Joe said he never cast it before. He wouldn’t know the loopholes people could exploit, the kind of loopholes that creatures like the fae exploited all the time since they naturally had to tell the truth.

Paul raised his voice. “Vacht! Tell him. Tell him the name you promised to me that you would never say to anyone, the one that you swore you’d only tell in the presence of the gods.”

Vacht’s eyes widened. “But… Paul—”

Paul nodded at them as he felt the hairpin suddenly catch, all he needed to do was press it in a little farther and it would unlock the cuffs and free him from the chains.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’ll be okay.”

Vacht licked their lips and nodded. “I’m so sorry.” They closed their eyes. “Pelacru Dunfry. That’s the name.”

Joe gave a whoop and snapped their fingers. The potion bottle and a folded piece of paper shot out of his bag. He sheathed his weapons and grabbed both items.

“Man, that was easy!” He popped the cork off the bottle, drank the liquid with one gulp, and tossed the empty bottle over the cliff. “Hmm… a bit savory tasting.”

From the bushes Paul saw Jeaneth’s face and a glint of metal next to it. She had found the glaive.

“I’m sorry Paul,” Vacht said. “I didn’t want to.”

“Why are you apologizing to him?” Joe asked. He pulled his guitar out from his bag and began tuning it. “Hmm… what key should I play this in?”

“I promised I’d never say it in front of others,” Vacht said.

“Let’s see,” Joe said, strumming his guitar a few times. “Alright, let’s go!”

He danced towards the hag, clinking his spurs on the ground with each step.

Now I have you in my control,

Oh, wicked crone of this hill.

Now your power will be one with me,

Oh, mighty hag, Pelacru Dunfry.

Paul shouted in pain as Joe kicked him in the face as he danced over top of him towards Eleanor. At least he didn't use the spurrs on his boots.

Now do as I command,

Oh, ancient lady of this hill.

For under my sway, you are,

Forever.

Joe paused for a moment. “Shouldn’t… shouldn’t there be some sort of effect—" He lurched in pain suddenly. Paul felt the warmth of the truth spell fade away as the bard’s concentration was broken. “Oh… oh dear. Wait—"

Eleanor cackled. “Did you really think that was my name?”

Paul pressed the hairpin into his handcuff’s lock hard. With a click he was freed.

“Jeaneth! Now!” he shouted.

Paul shrugged off the chains, ran up to Joe, and struck him in the face.

Jeaneth peaked out from the bush and threw the glaive towards him. It didn’t go far.

“Sorry!” she called out.

“It’s okay!” Paul shouted, twirling, and kicking the bard in the liver. “Just stay out of this! Eleanor, I could use some help."

“Enough of this shit,” Joe groaned. “Once I can tell which one of you is the real Paul, I’ll get you!”

He drew his sword, but completely missed lunging at Paul. With a snap of his fingers the chain attached to Vacht’s collar rose upward, sending the elf up to the tip of their toes, strangling them.

Paul rolled away from Joe and grabbed the glaive, and held it at the ready. He felt a warmth grow in his heart, and extend through his hands, as if though he were magically laying his hands upon a person to heal them. The Light flowed through Paul's hands, through the handle of the glaive, and accumulated in the blade. Its edge grew white hot. The aching in his broken arm faded away.

“Let Vacht go, now,” Paul said. “If you don’t, I can’t guarantee you’ll make it out of this alive.”

“Over my dead body,” Joe said. “You’re just a job, nothing more.”

Joe’s movements were sluggish, his attacks uncoordinated. Although Paul was less experienced with polearms, fighting without armor made him more than agile enough to beat him.

Paul rushed Joe and swung the glaive forward, knocking the bard’s hat off as he tried to duck.

Several loud popping sounds came from Eleanor. She cackled loudly as her head suddenly fell off from her shoulders and rolled across the ground. Her robes deflated as her body dismembered itself, like a doll pulled apart by a rowdy child. The armature fell apart along with its prisoner.

“Is that normal?” Paul asked as he blocked a lunge from Joe.

Joe wretched and missed again, sticking his rapier into the ground. Paul forced more of the Light into his glaive, twirled, and swung the glowing edge of the weapon against the sword, shattering the blade. Paul wrapped an arm around Joe’s neck and twirled behind him.

“Let Vacht go, now!” he growled.

Eleanor laughed as more pops could be heard from her pile of parts. Her limbs had reconnected themselves to her body.

“Over here!” she shouted at her body as she reached down, picked up her head, and with a loud crunch reattached it to her neck.

“What did you do to me!?” Joe screamed. His voice was hoarse, almost a growl.

Eleanor sauntered over to Vacht, and with ease, broke the collar around their neck with her enormous hands, sending the choking dark elf onto the ground. The suspended chain fell lifeless on the ground.

“Good!” Paul said and twirled Joe around, throttling him. “I know the Verdant hired you! Who is he!? What does he look like!?”

“I don’t know,” Joe gasped. “These kinds of jobs don’t have a name, or a face attached. But it paid a hell of a lot of money.”

Paul released Joe quickly as the bard pulled Paul’s own knife, hidden somewhere on his belt. Paul dropped his glaive, knocked the knife out of Joe’s hand, and elbowed him in the head. He threw him onto the ground and mounted him, pressing a knee into his neck.

“You bitch!” Joe growled. His eyes suddenly changed, they were golden in color now.

Paul unbuckled Joe’s belt and threw it away from them. “That’s mine. Now, tell me before I have to hurt you more!”

“I don’t—" Joe said and then yelled in pain. “What did you do to me?”

“Oh! Let me see!” Eleanor said as she walked over to them. “Oh dear. It does work on humans after all!”

“What does?”

“Uh oh,” Eleanor said. “Quick question: They taught you a lot of things about how to kill monsters at that Academy, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“Does a fall from a great height kill a werewolf?” she asked.

“I think so—but," Paul's eyes widened. "No, you didn’t!”

Before Paul could say anything else, Eleanor had shoved him out of the way, picked up Joe by the neck, and flung him. He sailed, like a spear being chucked through the air, over the cliff.

“That’s for hurting my beloved, Vacht!” Eleanor yelled.

“No! No no no!” Paul shouted as he ran over to the edge. There was thick fog below. All that Paul heard was a scream, the rage of the nearby waterfall, and a great splash of water.

“He could’ve known something valuable!” Paul shouted at Eleanor. “And what the hell did you do with that potion!?”

“Oh, I was just curious what you’d look like with fur. Guess we won’t see that now.”

“That’s a simple curse!” Paul pleaded. “I could’ve removed it from him!”

“Paul, I’m sorry,” Vacht groaned. Jeaneth had left her hiding spot and was tending to the dark elf. “I didn’t want to say your hidden name out loud.”

Eleanor cackled and leaned downward towards Paul. “Oh, don’t worry, one more time didn’t hurt you, did it sweetie?”

Luckily, Joe didn’t seem to steal anything, at least nothing noteworthy. Paul’s armor was undamaged, and so were his clothes. The only thing that was missing was Joe’s body.

“Could monsters have taken him?” Jeaneth asked. She rubbed her hand. Thankfully Paul laying hands upon her healed all her wounds, although her broken hand would probably still be sore for a few days. His own arm was easily healed too, the dull ache the only reminder Joe had broken it.

“No,” Eleanor said. “There’s no blood trail, no signs of a struggle. He is quick with his tongue, and with his hands. He might’ve cast a teleportation spell after falling, or he might simply have fallen into the water and was washed farther down the river.” She reached into her robe and handed Jeaneth a dripping bag. “By the way, found this on the riverbank. You’re welcome.”

Jeaneth took the bag. “Oh… thanks… umm… Granny?”

Eleanor smiled, showing her sharp teeth. “Anything for the apprentice of my dear Vacht.”

Jeaneth investigated the bag and sighed. “Aww man, it’s full of water.” She turned the bag over and water began pouring out, and kept pouring out, sending gallons of water onto the ground. “I'm surprised it didn’t burst.”

Paul sighed. “Seems we’ve made enemies with a werewolf bard.”

Vacht took Paul’s hand. “I doubt we’ll see him again. From what you all told me though, I worry about Duncar. We need to go to Faerie and try to find him. Whoever that person was who hired Joe may try to hire more people to retrieve Sivon’s map.”

Eleanor smiled. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”

She retrieved a bag from Joe’s horse and pulled out a wide assortment of trinkets, presumably hers, which she stuffed into the many pockets of her robe. One of them was a doll, a fetish of some sort, in the appearance of a dwarf with bright red hair.

Paul’s jaw dropped. “You… what? Duncar!?”

“Oh! Well, long story, but when you and Jeaneth were camping out in my woods, I pulled the same trick with Duncar.” She held the doll up in front of her face and danced it about, mimicking Duncar’s voice. “Oi! I’m bad at knowing I’m in mortal danger after having a few drinks with friendly satyrs!”

Vacht scowled at Eleanor. “Change him back.”

“But—”

“Now!”

Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Fine!”

Eleanor ripped the doll in half. In a puff of smoke, standing in front of them all, was Duncar Ironbeard.

“Oh my!” Duncar said. “What are all of ya doing here in Faerie?” He pointed a finger at Jeaneth. “And why are fishes falling out of your bag?”

“Fish?” Jeaneth's eyes widened. “Oh no! Come on little guys, let me put you upstream so you don’t go over the waterfall!”

Duncar finally turned about and noticed Eleanor. “Hag!” he shouted, and then grabbed his beard. “I’ve been- Oh… well… Paul, what's going on?”

Paul and Vacht explained to Duncar what had happened as Jeaneth frantically tried to find a safe place to put the fishes that had escaped from her bag.

“So, let me get this straight,” Duncar said. “Joe is—”

“A werewolf, I think,” Eleanor said.

Paul growled at Eleanor. “You know that if he kills a person in the form of the beast it is effectively permanent? Pela may have gifted me with great power, but it’s infinitely more complicated to remove the curse after that.”

“But he’d look cute while doing it!” Eleanor cackled. “His little teeth and fuzzy ears. It’d be delightful!”

Duncar pointed at Eleanor. “And she’s a friend?”

“That’s debatable,” Vacht said. “Granny, your behavior is inexcusable.”

“Inexcusable?” The hag strode towards Vacht and gently placed a hand on their shoulder. “My beloved apprentice, this encounter allowed you two to grow closer together!”

Vacht scowled at Eleanor. "Tell me about Robyn."

"How about we have some snacks and tea first?"

"Tell me, Granny, now."

Eleanor shrank and motioned for Vacht to follow her away from the group. They followed, standing under a tree together. They spoke for a while, too quiet for Paul to hear, but their body language told him enough. Eventually, they returned. Vacht held their head low, their eyes were bloodshot.

"I want to go home."

"Vacht," Paul said and held their hand. “We have to—”

"I'm sorry I brought you out here. I'm sorry I nearly got you and Jeaneth killed by that bastard, Joe, and that you were... harassed by Eleanor. You can leave back for Wavemeet. I'll help pay for a carriage."

"The person who did this is still out there. I have to find him. I have to find the Verdant."

“The Verdant?” Jeaneth asked.

Duncar gasped. "The Verdant? He's alive!?”

“This man was very much alive five years ago,” Eleanor said. “And according to Sivon and Zazex, he's still here, working on something dangerous. And he has a magical rod that can control the minds of dragons and drakons alike.”

Vacht’s voice wavered. “Robyn’s killer has been here all along. They’ve lived in Greenfield this whole time. I probably see him every day and never realized it.”

Paul stood back up. “Pela brought me here for a reason. Nothing is a coincidence. I know this is related to my mythos, and I know I have to stop him.”

“Paul,” Duncar said, “your dad and us swore to bring to justice the person who did this to you, your family, and all those others who died that day.”

“I know, Uncle,” Paul said. “To be able to control a person’s actions would require a great deal of magic. And I’ve never even heard of anything that could control a dragon’s mind.”

"Are you at risk?" Jeaneth asked.

"I don't know. Being a hieron—a Chosen—I’m highly resistant to magic that affects my mind. But if it can control a dragon…"

“Indeed,” Eleanor said. “And it was slowly killing them. The Verdant didn’t seem to fully understand how to use that artifact. I was able to make two potions, one for each of them, that should counteract the effects of that rod, but they’re dead now so it doesn’t matter.”

“Did Sivon and Zazex say why they came to the valley in the first place?” Paul asked.

“Something about a weapon. Zornea had heard something about weapons from the war against the dokkarthat was hidden in the mine.”

“I checked the mine,” Duncar said. “It’s completely abandoned. By the way, I had to bribe the guards a fair chunk of change to have them let me inside. And I owe those satyrs in Faerie some money too, I think.”

“Sivon and Zazex said it was moved,” Eleanor said. “Or hidden. But the Verdant found the weapon and the rod there. They didn’t say what the weapon was though.”

Paul shook his head. “Why wouldn’t Zornea just ask the Empire to find this weapon?”

“I dunno, lad. It could be so dangerous that they worried that someone here might’ve tried stealing it for themselves. Maybe they thought only two people wouldn’t attract attention?”

“What?” Jeaneth asked. “Having a dragon going around eating livestock didn’t attract attention?”

“Maybe it was all they could do?” Paul asked. “Trying to make themselves known to the authorities would attract a lot of attention. That might’ve been all they had the ability to do anymore. They let themselves be killed so we’d find out what happened to them.”

“We can’t let their deaths go in vain,” Duncar said.

“No… we can’t. Eleanor, we need those potions. If we find the Verdant he may try to use that rod on me. I can’t be certain it won’t have some sort of effect on me.”

Eleanor clacked her teeth. “Are you certain you want to keep going on with this?”

“I can’t turn back,” Paul said.

“Why?”

“The gods will it.”

“What if the gods didn’t will it?” she asked.

“At the very least I want to look into the Verdant’s eyes and ask him why he did this. Why he killed my mother and father, why he killed all those others he was going to sell into slavery, and why he left me for dead. Why did he leave me as the only survivor?”

“I can show you,” Vacht whispered. “With the moonflowers I could dreamwalk far enough to where we would be able to see your memories of that day. You still grow them, don’t you, Granny?”

“Do you really wish to come back to my home?”

Vacht shook their head. “No. Granny… Eleanor, I don’t think I can forgive you for what you did to me and to Robyn. I understand your reasoning for not telling me, and I may forgive you one day, but not today.”

“Even if we go back into my memories, it wouldn’t show anything," Paul said. "The Verdant wears a mask. Nobody ever lived who saw his face.”

“You didn’t,” Duncar said.

“He has a point,” Jeaneth said.

“No, I meant you didn’t live,” Duncar said. “Lad… you didn’t survive that day.”

Paul’s heart sank. “What?”

“When you told me you died in Peitzen, that wasn’t the first time. It was the second.”

“Why didn’t mom and dad tell me?”

“I can’t say.”

“Why won’t you tell me?”

“I can’t! It’s not my place—"

Paul suddenly felt his heart quicken. “Tell me!”

“Here,” Duncar said. He pulled a small stone from his pocket and tossed it at Paul. It had a Dwarvish rune carved into it. “Call your parents on that. I can’t… I won’t do what’s their place to say.”

“Please, Uncle, you never kept secrets from me—"

“I’m going,” Duncar said as he picked up his hammer. “I’ll meet you back in town.”

“Duncar, wait!” Jeaneth said. “You’ll get lost.”

“It’s pretty easy to get to the bottom of a valley, especially for a dwarf.”

Paul picked up the stone and rubbed his thumb over its surface. “Let’s get going. And Duncar, you should go straight to the Constable about all of this. And please be safe.”

“You too lad. And… I’m sorry.”

Chapter 22: Family

"Long ago, the first of the Ancestors landed upon the shores of Nor'vos, seeking refuge from the Upheaval that led to the fall of the Holy Land, Godsreach. They bore great machines and enormous ships. But the memory of Godsreach eventually faded from the memory of the Ancestors, and their technology eventually failed, leading to a nearly millennium long dark age that only ended when Balingnor fell."

—Visarius Mahar, Lord Historian, Imperial Cathedral of Suros

“This can’t be the way Joe took,” Paul said.

They had been travelingfor nearly an hour through the fog filled forest, what Eleanor described as a “shortcut.” Jeaneth had taken the liberty of befriending Joe’s horse, Castle, and was riding him with the bard’s belt, including his wheelgun, slung around her waist loosely.

“I don’t mind!” Jeaneth said. “Boss, you think I can twirl this gun around?”

Vacht sighed. “Please be careful.”

“Yeah, this can’t be the way,” Paul said.

“It isn’t,” Vacht said. “Eleanor, where are you leading us?”

“The house I locked you in was my old place. After you left me, I moved to a much more depressing home, along with my old roommate.”

Jeaneth laughed nervously. “Oh? I assume it’s going to have a big cauldron and weird little mementos of the adventurers you’ve killed over the years?”

“No, of course not,” Eleanor said. “I just toss them off my bluff.”

“In the spot where you threw me and Paul?”

“Remember sweetie, it was Paul who grabbed you and jumped. I tried to prevent you two from falling.”

Paul harrumphed. “Were you really so concerned about us?”

“Yes, that and so you wouldn’t get that blasted thing,” she hissed, pointing at Paul’s glaive.

“What’s the story behind the steel custodian that held this?” Paul asked.

“I know not what that machine was,” Eleanor said, waving her hands about. “It was from the time when the Empire of Balingnor

was around. There were two big armies that fought just outside my bluff. You pried that glaive out of the machine’s hands?”

“No, it gave it to me.” Paul didn’t trust her enough to tell her about what the custodian had said.

Eleanor sucked her teeth. “Well… that was a bit unexpected. You find anything else down there from all the other dumbasses who tried to fight me over the years?”

Paul pulled from his bag the ring he found and showed it to the hag. “Yes, this. Know what it is?”

She plucked it from Paul’s hand and bit it. “Spell storing ring. You cast a spell on it, and it stores it for later.” She flicked it back at Paul.

“Does it have a spell stored in it?”

“Seems to,” Eleanor said. “I recognize the design because I cut the hand off the wizard that used to belong to, then threw the rest of him off the bluff.”

Paul handed the ring to Vacht. “Here, a gift, for luck.”

Vacht slipped the ring on a finger and looked at it. “Hopefully better luck than its previous owner. I can’t sense what spell is stored inside of it.”

Jeaneth shrugged. “Maybe it’s some ancient spell long forgotten in the mists of time!”

“It’s not that old,” Eleanor said. “Ah! Here we are!”

She waved her arms in front of her and the fog in the forest parted, revealing a clearing ahead. There was a small cottage, quite fancy, and very non-threatening. It sat next to a small pond covered in lily pads, and beside that pond was a beautiful garden with various herbs and flowers growing despite it being the middle of autumn.

Vacht pulled on Paul’s arm and reached out and stopped Jeaneth on her horse. “Word of warning to you two. Don’t eat anything, don’t drink anything unless I tell you it is okay, and whatever you do, if you see an animal that tries to talk to you, don’t listen to it. And especially don’t talk to anything that is a plant.”

Jeaneth nodded quickly. “What’s wrong with talking to plants and animals? You taught me that all of the natural things of this world are friends.”

“Trust me, they’re not really animals.” Vacht furrowed their brow for a moment in thought. “The plants are plants though, unless they’re not.”

Jeaneth and Paul nodded and followed Vacht’s lead.

“Damnit!” Eleanor yelled. “You moved my wheelbarrow!” She put her hands to the side of her mouth and shouted. “Morgelyn! Morgelyn, did you move it again!?”

A nearby tree, an elm with golden leaves, shook. An enormous figure, a woman, at least twenty feet tall, pulled herself out from the body of the tree as though both it and her were one. Her body was brown and rough, like bark, and her hair was as golden as the leaves of the tree she stepped out from.

“Yes, milady,” she said with the tone of a whisper, but with enough volume to drown out most men. Her woody body almost appeared like she was wearing plate armor out of bark. “I have asked you to keep this grove clear for five years now.”

Paul whispered to Vacht, “Is she a plant or an animal?”

The giant kneeled in front of them and leaned down, staring intensely with amber eyes at Paul. “Neither, Chosen. I am Sir Morgelyn, and I am a spyrjon.”

Paul walked in front of Jeaneth, putting himself between the two. “You’re a fae, just like dryads, right?”

The spyrjon laughed. “Fellow knight, I am as much like a dryad as you are like a dragon.”

Eleanor groaned. “Morgelyn, stop harassing my guests!”

“I’m not a knight,” Paul said. “And how do you know I’m a Chosen?”

“I apologize, Paul,” the spyrjon rumbled. “I had assumed you too were a knight in the Order of the Heliotrope.”

Paul blinked several times. “I… that didn’t answer my question. How the hell do you know my name?”

Vacht walked up to Paul. “Well, remember how I said you were talking to a tree when I found you? I meant that more… metaphorically. There are a few members of her kind that live in the Evergreen Mountains. They’re very old, very wise, and very insightful.”

Eleanor chattered her teeth. “I just wish she’d stop moving all of my shit around.”

“Do you know how I came to be here?” Paul asked Morgelyn.

Morgelyn shook her head, sending leaves falling to the ground below. “I assume from the womb of a drakon woman? I know little of your kind, your species is much newer than many others.”

“I mean this valley, the town below. How did I get there?”

“I do not know that Paul,” the knight said. “My cousin, Bryhok, told me the other day that he was admiring the moon one night, for the last time before he sleeps for the winter, when an amorous drakon came to him. He told me he wanted to… what was it? ‘Grab them horns?’ I assume that was you. My cousin, like all spyrjon, has no horns. Although his branches on the front of his head do stick out quite prominently.”

Paul’s face felt warm. “Oh… well... I’m sorry for harassing your cousin. I was in a bit of a bad place.”

“Do not worry, he was not offended.”

Vacht smiled at Paul. “So, are horns a thing for you?” They jingled the charms on their antlers with a bat of their hand.

Jeaneth dismounted Castle and patted Paul on the back. “Should I worry if I end up getting antlers, like Vacht, once I learn how to transform into an animal?”

“My first boyfriend had horns,” Paul said. “And… I think they’re nice.”

Morgelyn gently nodded her head towards Paul. “Whatever your companions may think of your aesthetic choices, I am pleased to see that you are feeling better.”

Eleanor stuck a finger in her mouth and made a gagging sound. “Will you all stop before I puke? Last thing I need to think about is him sleeping with every infernian he can find. I bet he flings demons at people just so they’ll grow horns.” She reached for the knob on the door and turned it. The door groaned and then fell over. “Of course, nothing works right when I have guests over.”

The hag led them into a cozy kitchen, one that reminded Paul of a place his grandparents on his mother’s side would have. If Eleanor were disguised as an old human woman nobody would ever suspect the cottage belonged to a hag.

Paul walked over to the small kitchen table. Sitting on it were two diminutive men wearing fine clothes, both were small enough to fit in a pocket, and each had a pair of gossamer wings. They were sipping a warm liquid out of equally tiny teacups.

Paul laughed at the sight. “Fine illusion you have here, especially with the two pixies.”

They both frowned at Paul. “Pardon you! We are quite real!” one of them shouted in between sips.

“We came in for a spot of tea after we saw you left the window open! We took the opportunity to pour our own, and to tidy up a bit,” the other said. “Biscuit, Mr. Drakon?” he asked, offering a cookie.

Eleanor pulled on her hair and ground her teeth so hard sparks flew out of her mouth. “Get the fuck out of my house!”

She smashed them with her hands onto the table, picked them up, and stomped over to the door. “Get out of my house!” she screamed at the pixies and threw them out the door. “And don’t come back unless I invite you!”

Vacht looked all around the kitchen and through a doorway into another room. “Eleanor, I thought you said this place was terrible?”

“I know! It’s horrid, isn’t it!?”

Paul opened a cabinet. No vials of poisons, preserved organs, hexing dolls, bones of humanoid creatures, or anything that indicated it was the home of a hag. “I thought you supposedly hated people coming to see you? It’s cozy for a recluse.”

Jeaneth stepped towards Vacht and peered through the opening. “Wow, that’s a nice couch!”

Jeaneth ran forward, clinking her boots on the hardwood floor. Eleanor hissed at the girl. “Take off your damn shoes! I just had this waxed!”

Paul followed Jeaneth into the small living room. She had already plopped herself onto a large plush couch sitting in front of a small stove. “Very comfy,” she sighed.

“Eleanor, where are these potions you spoke of?” Vacht asked. They were studying a large, framed painting of a thatched hut in a dreary swamp. It was what Paul imagined most hags living in.

“Just a moment,” Eleanor growled, “I don’t have stuff like that stored in here.”

She shoved Vacht out of the way and stuck a leg through the painting, crouching down, and stepped through the frame and into it. The figure of Eleanor inside the painting walked away from them and entered the hut.

Paul leaned down and whispered in Vacht’s ear. “I was told in the Academy to expect hags to be unusual. I wasn’t quite expecting this.”

“She’s old,” Vacht replied. “Much older than anything I’ve ever encountered before, or could even imagine.”

“As old as the Dreamwalker?” Paul asked.

“Perhaps. What did she tell you about him?”

“Both her and Jeaneth. And when you say ‘him,’ I assume you’re speaking of yourself.”

There was a long pause from Vacht. “It’s difficult to explain.”

“We can talk in private later,” Paul said.

“I’d rather—"

“We need to talk about this,” Paul growled. “The Hearth Mother may have sent me on a path that goes to the Verdant, but that doesn’t excuse you lying or omitting the truth from me. I know you think you’re protecting me, but I don’t need protecting. I believe you and I trust you.”

“Fine,” they huffed.

After a few minutes Eleanor came back out through the hut, strode towards what Paul could barely comprehend as being the front of the painting, and stepped back through the frame with two small blue bottles in her hands.

“Shouldn’t one be bigger than the other if one is intended for a dragon?” Paul asked.

Eleanor handed one to Paul. “It only affects the brain, so the dosage is the same for both.”

Paul uncorked the bottle and sniffed it. It smelt faintly sweet and the liquid inside the bottle glowed faintly. It certainly didn’t look like it was derived from cow livers. “Wait… I’m pretty sure a dragon has a much larger brain.”

“Don’t question my work!”

“Oh shit!” Jeaneth gasped. “Sorry, fell asleep.”

Paul took a sip of the potion. “A bit sweet, almost of licorice, and salty. I’ve had saltier beverages though.”

“I bet you have, sweetie,” Eleanor said and winked.

Paul rolled his eyes and downed the rest of the potion. “How will I know it works?”

“When that man uses that rod on you and it doesn’t work,” Eleanor said. She handed the other potion to Vacht. “Keep it in a cool place when you get back home. I can lead you three off the bluff and back to Greenfield after I gather some moonflowers, much quicker than the way you got here.”

“I need to talk to my dad first,” Paul said. “Do you have a room that’s private where I can do it?”

“Of course, my bedroom is around the corner.”

Paul motioned to Vacht. “Come, we can talk in there too.”

Eleanor whistled at him. “Oh, well, you know I have some lovely lubri—"

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Paul snapped at her.

“How the hell can she sleep in here?” Paul asked as he bounced up and down on the bed. “She can’t fit in this.”

“She’s quite adept at shapeshifting,” Vacht said, taking a seat next to him on the bed. “Maybe she sleeps in here in a smaller form?”

Paul breathed in and out slowly. They were just wasting time.

“You lied to me,” he said.

“I did it to protect you. Eleanor could have killed you!”

“You didn’t know that. From all that you know she was the one who could’ve killed you. You told me that night that instead of dying for someone, I should try living for someone instead. You hurt me a lot that night, trying to force me to fight you, to… You know from my memories how much that would hurt me.”

Vacht turned their head away from Paul. “I’m sorry,” they said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I only wanted what I thought was best for you. I made up for it that night.”

“It doesn’t—fuck! Look at me,” Paul said. He grabbed Vacht’s chin with the tips of his claws and moved their face towards him. “I’m grateful for you saving my life, but it doesn’t mean we both have to live or die for another person.” He bared his teeth at Vacht and growled. “I’ve hurt myself so much over the years for others and because of others. I made an oath to the Hearth Mother to uphold Her ideals, and to defend them, even with my life. You haven’t made an oath like that, and I would never expect it of you. Promise me you won’t throw your life away because of me.”

“Paul,” they whispered.

“You have your health, people that love you, and so many years left to live.” He smiled at Vacht and let go of them. “Jeaneth said you… the Dreamwalker, have known about me for a very long time. I’m not worth that much despite what either of you may think. Don’t throw it all away just to save some young, dumb, boy like me.”

Vacht sighed and smiled back. “You’re not that young, are you?”

Paul chuckled. “Twenty-two is barely an adult by halfling standards. In Zornea a drakon is an adult at sixteen.”

“Don’t tell Jeaneth that,” Vacht said. “I worry she’s growing too fast.”

“If she wants to be an adventurer, I think she’s more than proven herself. I told her I wouldn’t mind mentoring her if she wants to pursue membership in the Guild.”

“I don’t think her parents would approve of her adventuring. They barely tolerate me teaching her how to be a druid,” Vacht said.

“How about to be a dreamwalker?” Vacht didn’t respond. “What’s a dreamwalker? What are you exactly? Are you even a dark elf?”

“It’s… very complicated,” Vacht said. “I am a dokkar, but inside of me is something else.”

“Jeaneth explained that it wasn’t a demon.”

Vacht sighed and shook their head. “I was worried you’d think that if I told you.”

Paul reached up and tapped Vacht’s antlers, causing their charms to jingle. “I know many druids keep aspects of their favored animal form, but I have seen demons and infernians with deer-like antlers before.”

“It’s not a demon,” Vacht said. “I… it, it’s so old. I think it’s from Faerie, at least I assume that because it lives where dreams are.”

“We dream in the realm of the fae?”

“Our spirits travel there when we sleep. If you look up at the night sky here, beyond any sort of auroras, you see twinkling stars. In the twilit realm of Faerie, at that dark border where you can see the night sky, the lights in the sky there are where we dream.”

“Cosmology was never a strong subject for me in school,” Paul said.

“Faerie lies closer to the Celestial Realm than here, and the land where dreams dwell lie closest to it. I think the Dreamwalker used to live in that land. It fell here, to Edra, a long time ago, during the Age of Myth, when the gods still roamed the world, creating the peoples and lands we have today. Eleanor found it when she was a little girl, and she befriended it, but she was taken by the fae, changed, and when she was returned, she was different.”

“Her hag mother?” Paul asked.

Vacht nodded. “She never spoke of her, but the Dreamwalker found Eleanor’s dreams so dark after she changed. She blamed it for changing, but I think she was the one who changed too much for it. It’s so strange, I don’t have memories of the people that carried the Dreamwalker before, at least… they’re not as strong as my own. But… I can feel them. It’s like finding a journal from a long-forgotten friend, except that there are dozens of them.”

“It could be similar to a demon in that regard,” Paul said. “Demons don’t have memories of the past people they’ve possessed. The demons I’ve encountered don’t seem to have any sort of special knowledge about the Infernal Realm. They just simply exist, latch onto a person, and corrupt them. Once you exorcise them from their victim, they have no personality. They’re hollow.”

“The Dreamwalker has a personality. It has a… curiosity? It’s why it passes onto different people, to experience things when people are awake, not just when they’re dreaming.” Vacht chewed their lip. “Paul… do angels act like this?”

“They’re Messengers of the gods. The gods created them to act on their behalf, to speak with their voice. As far as I know they can’t act by themselves.”

Vacht raised an eyebrow. “So, with you being a Chosen, you’re not ‘possessed’ by an angel?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t even think it’s inside me. Sometimes I feel something, a smell, a warm touch. I know it follows me, and maybe the angel is the way the Light of Empyrean is channeled inside of me? Hierons receive a Revelation from their patron god, and they then swear an oath that gives them divine magic, but I don’t think an angel follows us around just for that.” Paul chuckled. “There’d be a lot of angels wandering around the world if that were true.”

Vacht took Paul’s hand and squeezed it tight. “Paul… I have a request of you.”

“What?”

“This business, concerning the Verdant. He’s probably very powerful, right?”

He nodded. “Yes. Uncle Ibarin was very worried if they ever had to confront him in person. He wasn’t sure if his skills in wizardry would be a match.”

“We could die fighting him.”

“I’m not planning on it. I’ll make him face justice,” Paul said. “If I can’t take him in alive, then I’ll have to bring justice to him.”

“Kill him?” Vacht asked.

“Yes,” Paul said and swallowed hard. “If that’s what it takes.”

“When we finally find him… either he dies, or I do,” Vacht said.

Vacht’s eyes were cold. The person who nearly destroyed their life was so close to being found, it had to be maddening. The source of all the hate in their life over the past five years, and nothing Paul could do would stop them.

“I’m here for you,” Paul said. “I always am, always will be.”

“I know,” Vacht said. “I’ve waited for you since before I was born. But… there’s something you must do.”

Paul pulled the stone out from a pocket. “I need to talk to my parents.”

“I can leave if—"

“No, stay, please,” Paul said.

“It’s very private though.”

“You’re going to see part of it tonight when we dreamwalk,” Paul said. “You don’t have to listen in to their end, you have to hold the televox stone to hear it anyway. Just… hold my hand, okay? It’ll make me feel better… it’ll give me strength.”

Vacht smiled, the coldness in their eyes melted away. They took Paul’s hand. “Gladly.”

Paul placed his thumb on the rune engraved on the stone and said out loud, “Gerald Underhill.”

After a few moments Paul heard a voice within his mind, the familiar diminutive voice of his father. “Hello Duncar! Can we talk later? I’m kinda in the middle of shoeing a pony.”

“Hey Dad? It’s me, Paul.”

“Paul! Paul it’s so good to hear from you! Is Duncar there?”

“No,” Paul said, smiling. “He let me borrow his stone. Is Mom there?”

“She’s off with some of her friends, doing knitting or gods knows what,” Gerald said. There was the sound of something being moved around in the background. “How have you been?”

“I’m… I’m doing good,” Paul said. “I don’t have much time, but I want you to know I’m doing okay. Me and Duncar are going back to Wavemeet for Year’s End, we’re spending some time in Greenfield right now.”

“Great! We’ll be sure to have a feast ready for you all!You’ll have to tell us about all your adventures!”

“Yeah… about that…” Paul felt Vacht squeeze their hand tight. “Dad… me and Duncar, we’re kinda doing a job right now. Well… we did a job that led to something else.”

“Lead to what?”

Paul’s throat felt dry. “The Verdant. We think he’s here in Greenfield.”

“What?”

“Hell, he might even be from here. It’d explain his name, and the Jade Tips.”

There was a long silence that hung between them. “We need to get everybody together- shit,” Gerald said. “Ibarin is over in Quibath. That’s farther than any of our four stones can reach… farther than his teleportation spells can go in one jump.”

“Dad, me and Duncar can deal with him. I need to know something though. About me… about him. I met a person who can show me my memories, even the ones I forgot. Duncar said I might know what the Verdant’s face looks like. If I remember his face, then we can find him here in town easily.”

“Paul—"

“You and Mom said that I was the only survivor that day in the cave. Forty-seven people died that day, but I survived. But Duncar said I didn’t. He said that the Verdant killed me because I saw his face.”

Vacht rested their head on Paul’s shoulder. His father didn’t reply. The rune was still glowing, so the paired televox stones were still connected.

“Dad? Please… I understand you were trying to protect me from the pain of not knowing. I love you and Mom, I love all of you. I just want to know why.”

Paul heard loud sniffing on the other end. His father was crying.

“Paul… I… that day. When I think back to that day all I remember is how small you were then. We thought we’d get there in time to stop the Verdant. We didn’t realize he’d kill everybody.”

“Dad, it’s not your fault.”

“Your Auntie Callia, she had just enough material components to cast a resurrection spell when we got there. It was in case while we were adventuring… in case something happened to one of us.”

Paul sniffled. “Callia is always prepared for everything.”

“We all got into an argument though. Duncar was the leader, so we always followed him. We needed to find out anything we could about the Verdant, so he wanted to bring back one of those prisoners. Those resurrection spells are so finicky, but…”

There was more sobbing from Gerald.

“Dad. I’m here for you. I’m always here for you.”

“Your mom and I, we had been trying for years to have a child. We’d even decided on names. Paul if it was a boy, Paula if a girl… I know, not very inventive. So, Duncar wanted one of the adults brought back. But… looking at you, you were so small. And your mother and father, they held you, Paul. They wanted to save you but they couldn’t,” he sobbed. “They couldn’t! I begged Duncar, I pleaded with him that we should try bringing you back.”

“But he didn’t,” Paul said. He breathed in and out slowly. “I don’t blame him. I would’ve made that same call.”

“I fought him. Dwarves are bigger and tougher than our folk, but we Underhills don’t fight fair, do we? He said terrible things, such horrible things about me, about you, about how we were wasting time. Ibarin didn’t do anything, and Callia was pleading with us to stop until I finally conked Duncar on the head with a rock.

“I picked you up,” Gerald sobbed. “You were so small… I was afraid I’d break what was left of you. I carried you outside with Callia and I held you while she cast the spell. And it didn’t work. Duncar came out and he spit on me, called me a sentimental fool, that I didn’t see the big picture in stopping the Verdant. He said that more children like you would die.”

“Dad, don’t blame yourself,” Paul said.

“The rest left to go bury the bodies. And I prayed… I prayed so hard. Callia said that she never heard of that spell working on someone so young, especially if nobody was around who knew them. I didn’t know your name, but I just knew you were an innocent little boy. So, I prayed to the Hearth Mother that she would bring me back my little Paul.”

“What happened?”

“You came back! I told them that the spell ended up working. I didn’t tell them what I saw though. There was a light, and these two things… they were angels. I thought they were Messengers of Pela, but they were drakons. They had these enormous wings, and they had halos of light around their heads, around their entire bodies.”

Angels from the Hearth Mother. Their true appearances were only known to the Chosen of the gods, Paul had seen that himself.

“What did they look like?” Paul asked.

“They were so bright, I couldn’t make it out. One was a woman, I think, the other a man. They both spoke at the same time, with one voice to me. I knew in my soul that it was the Hearth Mother’s! They said that your mom and I had to take care of you now. They said you were special to them, and that now you were special to us. And they said—"

“That I shall rise, fall, and rise again,” Paul said. “Dad… I hadn’t talked to you or mom in a while because I’ve been dead. I died while saving a child during the spring, and I somehow found myself in city of Greenfield. I’m a Chosen of the Hearth Mother, and her Messenger is—" Paul choked and sobbed. “Messengers are my birth parents. They’ve been watching me this whole time.”

“We all thought it was a miracle then Paul,” Gerald said. “And it’s a miracle now. Please Paul, forgive Duncar. He loves you so much. It shamed him with how he acted that day.”

“Of course, Dad.”

“Paul?”

“Yeah Dad?”

“Your mom and I are so proud of you,” Gerald said. “You go find that Verdant and you show him to never mess with the Underhills ever again, you hear?”

Paul nodded. “Of course. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Paul took his thumb off the rune, severing the connection. Vacht rubbed Paul’s shoulder.

“Are you okay?” they asked.

“We need to get going.”

Eleanor was able to the trio back to Greenfield before nightfall. Paul left Jeaneth and Vacht at the Dreamwalker’s Den and went to the Alabaster Inn to find Duncar. The dwarf was sitting alone at the bar, slowly drinking a tankard of beer.

Paul sat next to him. He handed Duncar back his stone and then embraced him.

“Paul, I’m sorry—" Duncar began to say.

“It’s okay,” Paul said. “I love you. I always will.”

“I love you too, lad.”

 

Chapter 23: Paul Underhill

“All who live must die. And all who die must stand before the Arch of Empyrean, the way to the home of the gods, where They live within the Eternal Light of Their Progenitor. I have cheated death hundreds of times, but when my “mythos” is complete, Lady Ventus will call me back home.”

—St. Marisa Frez, Chosen of Ventus, the Stormborn

Vacht searched through their bookshelves, touching the spine of each book. “She… she reorganized everything! They're not supposed to be arranged by subject!”

Paul ran a finger across Vacht’s desk. “Eleanor even dusted, along with removing some clutter.”

“I always told you that you need to clean the place up,” Jeaneth said.

One of Vacht’s shrubs walked in through the main door of the suite. Vacht gasped. “She trimmed you!”

The shrub was much rounder, looking less like a wild hedge and more like a topiary. The shrub’s small glowing eyes peered up at Vacht. It lifted its spindly arms at its master, expecting a hug.

Paul patted the shrub on the top of its body. “Did she trim all of your kin?” he asked.

It nodded at Paul and waved its arms at Vacht again. They embraced the animated plant and buried their face in it. “It’s good to see you.”

Paul sat on Vacht’s bed. The mattress felt much softer than he remembered. Did Eleanor fluff it? “I told Duncar that we’d meet him tomorrow morning.”

Vacht ran their hands through the leaves of the shrub. “Paul, do you think we could somehow bring back Sivon and Zazex through magic?”

“No… Zazex is already being butchered for parts. And Sir Gullfelak said they were going to burn Sivon’s corpse. It’s difficult to bring a person back without an intact body, much less one that’s been turned to ash.”

“We murdered them,” Vacht whispered.

“No,” Jeaneth said. “The Verdant killed them. He used you guys like a tool.”

There was silence between them as Vacht ran their hands through the leaves of their shrub. Paul didn’t know what else he could say to them to make things better. He pulled off the greaves to his armor and threw them on the floor.

“We should start now,” Paul said. “Where is that moonflower tincture at?”

Paul heard Vacht from above him. But their voice was different; it seemed so far, and yet so close. “You took it about two hours ago, Paul Underhill.”

He looked up and gasped. It wasn’t a dark elf looming over him. Standing behind Paul, and arched over his head, was a cloaked figure wearing Vacht’s clothing, but its face was like that of a deer. Various charms dangled from its antlers. Its ears, much longer than any deer Paul had ever seen, flicked. It smiled at him.

“Vacht?”

The deer nodded. “Is that what I am to you?” They chuckled. “You know, it’s much easier to hug you when I’m taller than you.”

Vacht was over a foot taller than Paul in that form. Long sinewy hands reached around Paul’s chest and embraced him from behind, and their sharp claws gently pressed into him.

Paul’s face felt warm. “You… you’re big. Is this your true form?”

“Is this your true form?” they asked back. Looking into Vacht’s eyes Paul could see what seemed like an endless sea of stars.

Paul felt light, as if he were floating. They both were sailing through the star filled autumn sky together. “You’re the Dreamwalker,” Paul gasped as Vacht flew over him.

They stopped, upside-down, before him. “You are so sure of what I am. But are you so sure of yourself?”

Paul turned his head, looking inward. He saw himself, covered in bloody armor, plunging a sword through the heart of Sivon. “I’m a paladin of the Hearth Mother,” the bloody Paul said. “I have sworn an oath to Her to protect the unseen, to listen to the unheard, to give comfort to the ignored, and to punish those who use their strength against the weak.” He took off his helmet and looked at Paul with crazed eyes. “You know why you’re here.”

Paul shook his head. “I should’ve stopped and thought why Sivon and Zazex were doing what they did. I could’ve prevented all of this if I kept calm and tried to understand what they were doing. There’s more to being a paladin than just destroying every problem. All I saw that day was Sulbor, and how he hurt me. I thought all drakons were that way, and deep down… I thought all drakons deserved death.”

Paul saw himself again, as a teenager, nude, holding a knife with a trembling hand to his scarred thigh. Liam was waiting with bated breath for Paul to drag the knife across. “I always ruin everything. I can’t control myself,” the teenaged Paul said. “Liam found out how I hurt myself when the pain is too great. He couldn’t convince me to stop, so he offered to watch, to make sure I don’t hurt myself too much. I love him, but this isn’t how you show love for a person, is it?” The teenaged Paul looked at himself with frightful eyes. “You know why you’re here.”

Paul’s eyes felt misty. “I didn’t want to worry my parents. They were so scared for me when I was little. This anxiety, this self-doubt, my drakir… it grew stronger every day. It made me so angry inside, and I worried that I’d hurt those I loved, so I hurt myself instead, and with every little cut I felt like I was setting myself free. The love Liam and I had was unhealthy for both of us. I was too young and stupid to realize it then.”

Paul saw himself again, slightly older. He was in a storage room, his clothes thrown in a pile atop another’s, Sulbor’s. The larger fire drakon had his enormous hands around Paul’s throat, squeezing it tight as he licked Paul’s cheek. “I knew this wouldn’t work,” that Paul said. “I saw the warning signs. But when I was with him, I wasn’t responsible for my actions, I was a monster just like him, just like all drakons.” He smiled. “You know why you’re here.”

“I could’ve left whenever I wanted, but I stayed. I tried to rationalize that I was better with him than with myself. He hated himself just as much as I did. I thought all drakons were that way, but they’re not.”

Paul saw himself within a cave, as a man on fire. The burning Paul stared through himself with fiery eyes. “I’m neither a drakon nor a halfling. I am Paul Underhill, the Chosen of Pela. But you don’t know why you’re here, and you don’t know what you are when your mythosis complete. Will you die? Will you go back to being a monster? Or will you become something else?”

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “My future has always been so uncertain, but now… I have no idea where I’ll go once I’m done here.”

He yelped in surprise as he began falling again, through a sea of stars with Vacht holding onto his face. “You have to try to remember how you got here, Paul,” Vacht said. “You have to remember back, seventeen years. So long as I have you, you will be safe. I’ll protect you here. You have nothing to fear.”

Paul growled at Vacht. “I don’t know! I can’t—“ He sniffed the air. “Cinnamon. I remember it… this smell.”

Vacht’s form shifted around Paul within the darkness. They were behind him now, the fur of their neck pressed up against Paul, their mouth next to his ear. “Try to remember. Where is it from?”

“Someone smelled like this,” Paul said. He opened his eyes. Everything was dark, but there was a small point of light in the distance.

Vacht’s mouth grazed against Paul’s cheek. “You’re so close Paul.”

There was a female drakon, close to Chess' age. She was beautiful, with dark, iridescent scales. Paul recognized that color; she was an aether drakon, so incredibly rare to ever be born.

“Mother… she wore cinnamon perfume,” Paul said. “Father liked it.”

"You're remembering. Focus more. Where are you?"

They were in a cave. There were other people, several dozen, trapped behind iron bars, but Paul had to focus. He saw a drakon man, about the same age, with dark blue scales. His smile was warm, along with the woman’s. They both caressed the cheek of a sleepy looking drakon boy lying on a cot. It was Paul. He looked so much like his parents.

Come on Cyanis,” Paul’s father said to the little boy in Draconic. “I think they’re going to move us.”

“My name was Cyanis.”

“We all go by many names,” Vacht whispered. “I’ve had many over the years, and have worn just as many faces. You are in good company.”

Both of Paul’s parents were hugging the child, and all three of them had glowing collars around their necks, different from what the other prisoners inside the cave wore.

Paul’s father kissed his mother, a gentle nip on the neck, and spoke to her in Common. The boy didn’t understand what he said, but Paul knew. “Altress, do you think they’re moving us? Maybe we’ll be sold?”

She shook her head. “I won’t let them separate us. Aquillon blessed us with him, Unox. I won’t lose him; we can’t lose him. It was a miracle he’s here.”

“My parents were Altress and Unox,” Paul said. “Aether drakons are infertile, they’re born by random chance from other drakons. She couldn’t have given birth to me; she only could through a miracle. Did Pela do this?”

Paul noticed there were heavily armed men on the other side of the metal bars. They were speaking with a man in black robes. He wore a featureless, wooden, green mask. Through it, only the man’s green eyes were visible. “The Verdant,” Paul whispered.

“Try to remember Paul,” Vacht whispered. “What did they say? Back then you could only hear a whisper; but, with my power, now you can hear them clearly. As a boy you didn’t understand their language, but as a man, now you can.”

Paul reached out to Altress and Unox. “I want to hold them. I want to ask them—"

“They are already gone,” Vacht replied. “They’re memories now, dreams from a time long since passed. But you can prevent this from happening again. The Verdant has a weapon that can hurt anyone, not just a family like you used to have. If he learns how to use that weapon, then he could create an army of dragons and bring a terror to this world I haven’t seen since the Dawn of Creation.”

Paul tried to turn towards Vacht, but their arms prevented him from facing them. “How old are you?”

“I’m from the time the first dreams were born,” Vacht said. “Long ago I realized who I am, and you’re so close to realizing who you are too.”

Paul walked towards the bars and passed through them. The armed men left the masked man, but one remained. He was an older human, well past middle age. He spoke with a gruff voice, and an air of familiarity with the Verdant.

“You know that boy can’t be much younger than her,” he said.

“I know, Father,” the Verdant replied. His voice was sing-songy and unnaturally resonant, disguised by magic.

“That man is familiar,” Vacht said. “Have we seen his face before?”

“Duncar’s Devils are coming for us,” the man said. “He’s going to ruin everything I made for us, what I left for you,” the man said. He crossed his arms. “We can’t let Duncar get the goods.”

“They're just goods to you?” the Verdant asked.

“They’re goods to us,” the man corrected him. “We have several barrels of oil. We can tie up all the loose ends. It’d keep their cleric from speaking with their bodies with her magic.”

“Must we keep doing this?” the Verdant asked. “There has to be another way.”

“There isn’t, my son,” the man said. “I left behind this business for you and your family. All that schooling I paid for you, the wonderful home, the life that I didn’t get to have, I did it for you. If anybody were to find out who you were all that would be ruined.”

Paul looked at the Verdant, whose gaze shifted to the dimly lit ground. “You’ve seen that older man before, Vacht?”

“Perhaps, a long time ago. The son looks like the father, all will be revealed soon.”

After a few moments the Verdant called back the guards. He pointed at the Paul’s parents. “Bring me the boy,” he told them.

“No!” Altress shouted. “Don’t take him!” She opened her mouth and growled loudly at one the guards entering the cell and shouted in pain as the collar she wore glowed brightly. She was struck in the face with a truncheon, along with Unox.

The boy hissed in fright as the guards carried the squirming child in front the Verdant. “Don’t despair,” the Verdant said to Paul’s parents as the guards locked the cell door again. “I’m going to show him mercy. More than my family ever shown me,” he said, looking towards the old man.

He crouched and looked at young Paul who was crying. “Boy, do you understand me?”

The boy didn’t respond, only sobbing. Paul felt his heart begin to race. “Vacht, I’m scared.”

“It’s alright,” Vacht said. “You have to move closer to him, to see his face.”

Paul closed his eyes. “He’ll hurt me.”

“He is only a memory. Memories can’t truly hurt us,” they said. “Please move closer. We have to see him.”

Paul opened his eyes and nodded. He approached the two.

“I promise you boy, this will be quick. You’ll feel no pain,” the Verdant said as he leaned forward. “You’re young, small, weak. The death spell will be painless for you, only a simple word and it’s eternal sleep.”

The man scoffed. “You’d waste all that damn magic, one of the most powerful spells mankind has weaved, just to show mercy to a child? A bullet behind the ear would be just as painless, and not leave you with a splitting headache afterward.”

The child hissed and lunged at the Verdant, biting a hand and clawing at his face. His mask was torn into, blood spilling from his eye socket as the mask was ripped away. Paul realized who the Verdant truly was.

“No,” Vacht whispered into Paul’s other ear. Their voice sounded much more familiar, like that of Vacht the dark elf, not of the creature embracing him. “Renfroe Mason? It was you all along? You killed Robyn so you could become the new Alderman? Why!?”

Mason fell to the ground and quickly put his mask back on. “He saw the Verdant’s face!” the old man shouted. “And you took his eye. An eye for an eye, boy!”

Paul screamed as he saw the old man raise his truncheon and strike the boy in the face with all his might. He closed his eyes and heard a sickening gurgle and the sound of the boy hitting the ground.

“It’s alright Paul, I’m here,” Vacht said. “I’ll never let you go.”

Paul’s parents screamed, but they sounded so distant now.

The old man sneered. “The little shit is still alive. No one sees the Verdant and lives to tell about it!” He grabbed another weapon from his belt, a gold plated wheelgun, and aimed it at the child.

Paul felt pain in his chest. His scars where the six arrows pierced his back burnt as he heard six gunshots echo through the cave. The gathered prisoners screamed in fright. Paul turned his head away and opened his eyes to see Mason stand up.

Mason's remaining eye glowed as he said one word in a language Paul didn’t understand. He heard a gasp and then the clatter of the wheelgun hitting the ground. Mason's father had fallen over, dead. Mason killed him, his own father, with a single magical word.

“Sir, you killed him,” one of the guards said.

Everything was going dark, everything sounded so distant. Paul could barely hear anything over the wailing of his parents and of the others. He curled into a ball on the ground, feeling Vacht’s body wrap around him.

“Only I give the orders here. Strip his body of anything useful and leave him here. Toss the boy back into the cage. Burn everything. We're running out of time.”

Everything was getting so dark, so cold. The blackness was coming back.

“I’m here Paul,” Vacht said.

We love you,” Altress said. He felt a distant embrace.

We always will,”Unox said. Another embrace.

Eventually they both faded away. Their warmth, their sobs, everything. Paul was in a sea of darkness.

“It’s so dark Vacht,” Paul whispered. “I can’t feel anything.”

“I still have you Paul,” Vacht said. “I won’t let you go. I won’t let the darkness take you away.”

Eventually Paul could see a light, and again he was in a sea of stars. Gravity finally took ahold of them, and they landed on top of water, reflecting the night sky above them.

“I’ve been here before,” Paul said.

Vacht let go of him, and he stumbled forward. In the distance he could see three figures. His parents, Unox and Altress, and little Paul. They were walking towards an enormous archway, made of crystals. A blinding light emanated from the center of the arch, clouds endlessly pouring out from work within. Paul had walked through it before, he had been to the place where it led.

Paul tried calling out to his parents, but they couldn’t hear him. They kneeled and hugged their son and stepped through the arch.

“No!” Paul screamed as he finally caught up to them. “Vacht… Vacht I've been here before!”

Vacht strode over to Paul and placed a clawed hand on his shoulder. “This is Empyrean’s Arch. Beyond it lies the Celestial Realm, where all pass to when they perish, where the gods live.”

“I’ve been through the Arch,” Paul said. He looked at himself, as a little boy. He was crying for his parents. “I remember stepping through it. After I died in Peitzen. I can’t…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I can’t remember what’s on the other side!”

“The halflings call it the Last Home,” Vacht said. “All who pass from the world of the living will eventually go there, and all who pass through the Arch can never return. Not even the gods themselves may pass through it, they can only send their Messengers.”

“My parents passed back through, right?” Paul asked. “I can feel them. Damnit Vacht, they were sent back to watch over me. I was sent back myself! I was dead long enough to have passed through on my own!”

“We don’t understand how it can be,” Vacht said, “but it did happen.”

“I need to walk through,” Paul said. “Maybe I can remember then.”

As Paul tried to step towards the Arch, Vacht hand grew tighter on his shoulder.

“When your kind dream your souls pass into a world you cannot understand. I used to live there before I came to Edra,” Vacht said. “Few who return to life remember the Arch, and none remember what lies beyond, for they never return.”

“I have to try.”

“You will die,” Vacht said. “Whatever brought you back may not work a second time.”

“But—”

Paul heard another voice. It was that of a woman, his Aunt Callia, a cleric of Suros. “I don’t know how to make it work. We don’t even know the boy’s name. I’m so sorry, Gerald.”

There was now crying. It was his father. “Damn that Duncar. There has to be something… please… please come back.”

“There’s nothing showing who he was… everything is burnt away.”

The boy suddenly turned away from Empyrean’s Arch as he heard Gerald cry out, “Paul… Please… your name is Paul… please come back. Paul! Paul!"

Paul woke up in Vacht’s bed. The morning sun was peeking through the thick dark curtains of their bedroom. They were shaking next to him, their hand intertwined with Paul's, squeezing as hard as they could.

“Vacht, are you alright?”

“No… that man, he’s the Alderman, Mason. He murdered Robyn, he murdered your parents, he forced us to kill those two innocent people,” they hissed.

Paul felt a yearning, a desire that felt like homesickness. Instead of his thoughts being on Wavemeet and his mom and dad, they were centered on the Arch.

“We need to get Duncar and Jeaneth,” Paul said. “And, thank you. If you didn’t stop me, I might’ve walked through.”

“I can’t lose you,” Vacht said. “I can’t lose you like how I lost Robyn.”

“You won’t lose me,” Paul said and took their hand. “I have you, and Jeaneth, and Duncar. Together we can’t lose.” He rubbed a thumb over the magical spell storing ring he gave them.

“I’m so scared, Paul.” Vacht began to sob. “I’m sorry, you’re Cyanis, right?”

“My name is Paul, Paul Underhill,” he replied. “And I’m going to make sure that Mason remembers it.”


Chapter 24: The Verdant

The First City was less the first, and more, the last. When the first of their ships arrived from Godsreach, their old home had already been destroyed. From what few records exist from the first century, they could see the destruction over the horizon just after stepping foot upon the shores of Nor’vos; the colony they founded was the last civilized land they knew of. Ships, by sea and by air, slowly came across the ocean and then eventually, one day, the great calamity that destroyed their old home overtook them. Their knowledge and their memories were lost at Year’s End, but they all swore to the gods that they lost that they would find a way to survive.

—Albrecht Naren, The Story of the First Year’s End

 

Paul knelt before Vacht on the floor of their bedroom. Even with the aegis he was wearing, he could feel a chill through the air. Vacht was worried, as they should be: they were carrying the wing harness that Sivon wore, the last piece of the aegis.

“Paul, is this wise?” Vacht asked. “I have no idea how this works except that it attaches onto your spine and drills into your elementum.”

“I agree,” Duncar said. “I want to get the Verdant as much as everyone else, but I haven’t a clue if this thing even works.”

“It’s supposed to take years to learn how to use it properly," Paul said. "If I must fight Mason, I’ll need any advantage I can get.”

“Is your elementumeven healed?” Jeaeneth asked. “If it stabs into it then it might mess you up bad.”

Vacht nodded. "I think we should reconsider this."

“Put it on!” Paul growled at Vacht. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you.”

Vacht sighed and walked behind Paul. “It’s alright, Paul. This is difficult for all of us.” They reached over his head and dangled a stick in front of his face. “Put this in your mouth. I don’t know how much it’ll hurt. I don’t want you biting off that tongue of yours.”

“Armor can’t protect you against a man who can kill with a magical word,” Duncar said. “It takes incredible stamina and constitution to withstand magic like that.”

“I know the Hearth Mother will protect me.”

“Are you sure?” Vacht asked.

Paul shook his head. “I’m certain that She sent me here to stop him.” He put the stick in his mouth. “Do it.”

“I guess I just press it up against the indentation in the back of the armor?” Vacht asked aloud. Paul heard the scraping of metal as the harness was brought to the back plate of his armor. Suddenly a loud whir echoed from inside his aegis, and Paul felt spikes pierce through his back.

Paul grunted in pain as the feeling of the spikes moving farther inside his body. He felt his elementumwithin his chest convulse. “I’m going to vomit!” he yelled after spitting out the stick.

“Please, not on the rug,” Vacht said.

Paul could hear arcs of lightning emanate from his back. He stood up and looked at his arm, blue arcs of energy travelled up his arms and to his fingertips, leaving behind a pulsating glow that Paul felt was in time with his heartbeat.

“Are you okay?” Vacht said as Paul turned around.

“I feel lighter, and very warm,” Paul said. Vacht reached out to take his hand, but Paul quickly pulled his own back. “Don’t touch me! I might burn you!”

“It’s alright Paul,” they said. They slowly reached out and ran a finger over Paul’s armored hand. “It’s cool. See?”

“Impressive glowyness from your armor, lad,” Duncar said. "You sure you're alright?"

Paul felt an ache in his chest. His elementumhad another spasm. “It hurts a bit. You said it was drilled into Sivon’s bones?”

“Yes,” Vacht said. “You’re… very impressive. Your armor looks like it fitted even closer than before.”

Paul blinked several times. He didn't feel pain, but the uncomfortableness of the wing harness was indescribable. He didn't, couldn't, cry in front of them.

"Your eyes okay, big guy?" Jeaneth asked.

Change the subject.

Paul flexed his arms. The smooth metal plates of the armor became segmented and conformed even tighter to his body. “Wow, this is really weird.”

Vacht sighed, “Also, you’re not going to make it out of my doorway like that.”

“What? I can move just fine. I feel even more dexterous now.”

“No,” they said. The dark elf pointed up, past Paul’s head. He turned his head to see the wings with blue glowing arcs of energy forming membranes between the spines. The wings gave off a soft hum, like that of a cicada in mid-summer.

Paul smiled. “You think I can fly?”

Vacht rolled their eyes. “Take it from a person who can polymorph themself into an animal; Flying is a lot more difficult than birds and dragons and bats make it seem to be. Besides, you’re wearing a set of aethertech armor and wings. You’d be propelled magically, not just from flapping of your wings.”

“The aegis protected Jeaneth and I from a fall,” Paul said.

Jeaneth crossed her arms and smirked. "Oh, you mean when you fell and smashed yourself on your own sword hard enough to lacerate a kidney?"

"It stopped me from falling just a few moments before."

Duncar slapped Paul on the thigh and laughed. "You really need to stop falling from high places! If the gods intended you to fly, you've been born with wings!"

Paul sighed and clicked his tongue. “Vacht, what else do you think it can do while it’s fully powered?”

“I don’t know,” they said. “Only way to find out is to try. At least try retracting the wings, you can’t fit through the door that way. I’ll get you a cloak to fit over top of them.”

Paul tried to control his breathing, trying to feel the wings. It felt strange, like having woken up from a long sleep in an odd position and both of your arms were numb. The wings retracted, pulling more towards Paul’s body, and lowered slightly. It felt like they were at least at the same height as his head.

“Here,” Vacht said, handing him a cloak. “It’s a bit big, but should cover your wings up.”

“I guess it would attract less attention,” Paul said. He took the cloak and wrapped it around himself. It bunched up in the back, but at least it looked like he was wearing a large backpack underneath it.

“You want to carry all of Sivon’s weapons?” Duncar asked.

“Just the hand cannon and the rifle. I already have the glaive I found at Rimsor's Bluff,” Paul said.

“Oh! You’ll be just like me!” Jeaneth said as she shown her gun belt. “I can’t wait to shoot that son-of-a-bitch in the face—”

“Language,” Vacht said.

Duncar chuckled. “I like her spunk!”

We should get going.” He stepped towards the door and grabbed the handle. With a loud snap the handle broke off. “Guess that explains why I feel so light.”

“I’ve heard of giants using magical belts to enhance their already formidable strength,” Duncar said. “I suppose this aegis has a similar effect when fully powered. Have you ever used one?”

“No, being a hieron already makes me very strong, given my focus on martial skills instead of spellcasting. Being a Chosen would make me even stronger. Guess the aegis is the tipping point for this,” Paul said. He gave the handle to Vacht. “Sorry.”

“Just don’t go around expecting to slam giants into the ground,” Vacht said with a smile. Their brow slowly furrowed. “But… can we win? Can we stop him?”

“Don’t worry,” Paul said. “We have the gods on our side.”

Paul, Jeaneth, Vacht, and Duncar stood at the familiar heavy oak doors to the office of the alderman. They had warned the few people working there that early in the morning to leave, and to find Constable Razzo and have her come as quickly as she could.

“Let’s go over the plan one more time,” Paul said. “We talk to him, find out what his plan is, hold him up, handcuff him, and take him in. I want him alive.”

"Why is it so important that we spare him?" Duncar asked.

"He didn't choose his life," Paul said. "His father wore that mask before him."

"He still chose to kill your family and all the others," Vacht replied coolly. "He may have thought that if he were caught, that his wife and daughter would suffer for his crimes. Nothing justifies what he did to your family, or to mine."

Everyone deserves to be heard, right? the little voice told Paul. Even if they're murderers? Even if they're slavers? He walked away from that life, and he might never have been caught, but he chose to murder Robyn. He deserves to die.

"It doesn't," Paul said. "But we deserve an answer, the families of those he killed deserve answers. And he will answer for all the crimes he committed."

Duncar chewed his lip. He had been wanting to catch the Verdant for years. Now, he only a short walk away. "What if he's too dangerous to capture alive?"

“His arm is likely a magical focus,” Vacht added. “He won’t have to reach for a wand or staff to strike us.”

“My glaive should be able to sever it if I move quickly enough. "

“Pull back hammer, both eyes open, squeeze trigger,” Jeaneth said. She had been repeating that mantra to herself ever since the left the Dreamwalker’s Den.

“What about a wand?” Duncar asked her.

“I got that too,” she said. “I’m a gunslinger and wandslinger now!”

“You didn’t answer my question, lad. What if we can’t take him in alive?” Duncar asked Paul. “When I told the Constable about Joe, I did mention that the Verdant was allegedly in town. He may be prepared for us.”

“We kill him,” Paul said. “He’s wanted still. Dead or alive.”

Paul opened the doors to the office and strode inside. However, Mason wasn’t alone. Gullfelak, the mage-knight from the Order of the Heliotrope was there, fully armed, and armored.

“Howdy!” Mason said. “What a pleasant surprise, I was actually telling Gully about you and Mr. Ironbeard here!”

“Sorry to interrupt you, sir,” Paul said. “We didn’t realize you were having a meeting.”

Gullfelak looked at Paul. They were glassy, the same as Sivon’s and Zazex’s.

“I’m pleased to see you learned to use Sivon’s aegis,” she said.

Paul nodded at her. “It’s not easy, and I’m still learning it.”

Mason smiled at Paul. He seemed relaxed. “So, what brings you here this morning? Sophia told me last night that she’s personally investigating the case involving um… Joe… what’s his full name again?”

“Just Joe,” Paul said. He tried to study Mason face. He looked warm and inviting. It was as difficult to see through as the green mask he wore seventeen years ago. Paul needed a reason to get inside his office.

Mason snapped the fingers of his metal hand. “Ah yes, he never gave a last name, did he? That and the whole situation involving a man calling himself the Verdant?”

“He’s a wanted criminal,” Duncar said.

The ceiling was high in the office, enough to give him room to properly use his glaive, if he had to. He could kill Mason easily; one downward swipe, with him not wearing any armor, would easily cut him in two. Gullfelak was another problem, though. Laying hands upon a person’s head usually wouldn’t break mind controlling magic, especially from something as powerful as Mason’s rod. However, Paul wielded the power of the Progenitor, the Light of Empyrean. He wasn’t a mere hieron anymore. He was a Chosen, and he’d be able to stop Mason and save Gullfelak.

“I see,” Mason said. He sat back down at his desk and leaned back in his chair. “I was actually speaking to Gully about the Verdant. He supposedly has a powerful weapon?”

“Yes,” Paul said.

“You fought in the war, right Mr. Ironbeard?”

Duncar nodded slowly. He was growing impatient. “Aye.”

“You fought in the Battle of Cocorosefheim?” Mason asked.

“No. But I wouldn’t call it a battle, more like a slaughter.”

Vacht was from there.

“That’s right,” Mason said. “I was a battlemage there. Siege lasted a long, long time. Until one day, our Zornean allies used what they called the White Death.”

“It was a necessary evil,” Gullfelak said.

Mason laughed. “To annihilate an entire population? How many husbands, wives, sons, and daughters died in that? What if my beloved Talya was there? Or Sirena? She was only a toddler back then. Would that be necessary?”

Duncar shook his head. “I fought many a dark elvish soldier. Many of them may not have fought honorably by dwarvish standards, but they fought for what they believed in, even if their king fought an unjust war. They didn’t deserve to all be murdered.”

He found the White Death in that mine. He has a weapon that could burn the city to the ground.

He’s going to burn everyone just like how he burnt you.

Gullfelak clicked the heels of her boots together as she turned to face Duncar. “General Tideroch was strictly forbidden to use it after tests concluded how dangerous it was, but he still used it. He was publicly executed for what he did.”

Vacht growled. “Does one Dragon-folk life equal three hundred thousand dokkar?”

Gullfelak didn’t answer. Her face twitched, but either Mason’s hold over her, or her own conviction, stopped her.

“Come on Gully, answer the dark elf,” Mason said. “Tell them how you really feel.”

Gullfelak’s neck strained. Her eyes reddened. “No,” she said through clenched teeth. “One drakon life is worth more than all your kind.”

“Tell me Gully, would Zornea have used a weapon like that on the surface?” he asked. As he leaned back forward in his chair, he pulled out a two-foot-long golden colored rod, with glowing red symbols etched into its body.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It was never supposed to be used in the first place.”

“Let her go!” Paul said to Mason. “You know why we’re here.”

Mason scoffed. “For what?”

“For murder!” Vacht hissed.

“The White Death,” Paul said, “you didn’t just witness it being used, you stole some, didn’t you? You hid it during the chaos of the war.”

“How astute of you,” Mason said. “Gully, pull out your sword.”

Gullfelak obeyed his command. Paul drew his hand cannon and aimed it at Mason. “Let her go, now.”

“How old are you?” Mason asked. He pointed his metal hand at Jeaneth, who had also pulled out her own gun and aimed at him. “You’re older than her? I’m guessing from your name that old Gerald Underhill got all weepy about the three dead drakons I left in the cave at Umberhold and decided to adopt one.”

Paul growled. “You keep my father’s name out of your mouth.”

“Mason,” Duncar said. “I’ve been hunting you and your father for nearly two decades now. You’re going to pay for what you did.”

“My father was a much more ruthless man than me,” Mason said. “I never wanted any of this. He pressured me into running his criminal empire right when I graduated from the University. I ran it for a few years, but I disbanded the whole organization after that day in the cave.”

“You think that makes up for what you did?” Paul asked. “You killed your father with a single word. If you had the power to do that then you could’ve told him no. You liked running the Jade Tips! You like controlling people, manipulating them, like you’ve done to this city.”

“I didn’t like it!” Mason said. “Have you ever tried pushing against your fate, your upbringing, and only had your hands stained in blood as you fought against it!? My father was born and raised here. He left this dusty old mining town to create a real empire, a real business, and I was the inheritor of it. If only he knew the mine would have the real key to power,” he said as he caressed the rod. “This is the key to saving my wife, my daughter, everyone.”

“How would you save them?” Jeaneth asked. “Murdering an innocent woman and trying to frame her partner?”

“I’m so sorry for what I had to do, Vacht,” Mason said. “I needed access to the mine, the sort that only being the alderman would bring. I knew the right people to get me appointed, but I had to get rid of Robyn. You were supposed to die too, peacefully, in your sleep.”

Mason stood up from his desk. Paul extended the wings of his armor, tearing off his cloak as Vacht drew their flamesword, bringing it to Mason’s neck. He smirked. “You want to kill me? You think it’ll bring Robyn back?”

“Killing you wouldn’t bring her back,” Vacht said. “But it would make me happy.”

“You know you’re a pariah to those who still live down there. And you Mr. Underhill, with what I heard from one of Sophia’s deputies about you being friendly with Mr. Joe, I think that Zornea wouldn’t find you in very high regard too. They do that whole… reeducation thing with your kind, right?”

“Is this what it was all about?” Paul asked. “You found a magical rod that allowed you to control dragons and drakons, and you want to use it against them because you think they’re all evil? The dark elves—”

“Were a hell of a lot worse in their old kingdom,” Mason finished. “I know that Vacht’sha would’ve been executed for even thinking about transitioning. Duncar, we beat the dark elves and brought their people justice. My daughter doesn’t have to worry about them imposing their values on her anymore. Zornea though, I know the Empire can’t beat them. They won’t be our friends forever. But with this, I can make them.”

Duncar readied his hammer. “You killed all those people because you were a coward. You killed the former alderman because you’re a madman, trying to justify slavery and murder with saving your own family from a phantom.”

Mason shook his head. “You think I enjoyed it, don’t you? Forty-eight; that was how many people that was in that cave that we were going to sell off. Even though I burnt the ledgers to make sure nobody would ever trace it back to me, I memorized every name, every single face—all burnt into my mind just like all those people in Cocorosefheim who I watched them murder! I couldn’t save them! I couldn’t save any of them!”

“You’re wrong,” Paul said. “Look at my face.”

“What the—” Mason’s eyes widened. “What? What are you… talking about?”

Paul bared his teeth. “My name was Cyanis. You killed my father, Unox, and my mother, Altress, and forty-five other people that day. The Hearthmother, Pela, brought me back so I would one day find you and bring you to justice.”

“How… I… your eyes,” Mason whispered. “You’re a Chosen—I know it now. The gods sent you to take the sphere back, the Archive.”

The Archive?

“My mythosis to stop you. I only care about bringing you to justice.”

“I fight for a cause, boy,” Mason said. “I know that one day we are going to go to war with Zornea. I’m going to stop it before it ever even starts. I’m so close to figuring out fully how the rod works, and once I unlock the Archive, I’ll be able to solve it all.” The rod glowed brighter slightly but then faded. “Why… why didn’t it work?”

“You tested in on Zazex and Sivon, they tried to resist it, tried to find a way to counteract it, and in the end, they let themselves die rather than continue serving you,” Paul said.

“The hag helped you?” he asked.

Vacht hissed. “She sends her regards.”

Pull the trigger. Kill him.

Paul tightened his grip on his hand cannon. “Put your hands on the desk, slowly.”

Mason obeyed, his metal hand still clutching the rod. “You’re arresting me?”

“You’re the Verdant,” Paul growled. “You’re a murderer, a slaver, and now a terrorist.”

“You just want the rod and the sphere, don’t you?”

“No,” Paul said. “I’m going to destroy both.”

“You can’t,” Mason said. “They’re from the time of Godsreach. Our Ancestors brought here them generations ago, buried them in the mine so their enemies wouldn’t find it after the gods abandoned them.”

“Drakons didn’t come from Godsreach; the Ancestors are yours, not mine,” Paul growled. “Now, place your hands together and interlock your fingers.”

“Of course,” Mason said. “You know, I wouldn’t give up even if you were the last paladin on Edra.” His eyes darkened, and he spoke one word to Paul. “Moroch.”

Paul fell backwards as all the air in his lungs escaped, his heart trembled and stopped for a moment. Duncar and Vacht quickly turned to help him. Paul coughed, sputtered, and then finally rose back up. He pounded his chest. His heart fluttered, but he was still alive.

“Guess you’re more resilient than you look. Gully, kill them!” Mason shouted as he raised his metal arm.

Duncar pointed at Mason. “Girl! Shoot him!”

A jewel in Mason’s palm glowed, and Jeaneth’s wheelgun glowed red hot. She screamed in pain and dropped the gun which shot a bullet into the ceiling. Then, with a snap of his fingers, he vanished in a flash of light and a rush of air.

“He teleported—" Paul began to say as Gullfelak charged him, striking him, shoulder first, and knocking him into a bookcase.

Gullfelak deployed her helmet and roared. “Die, fools!”

Duncar swung his hammer at her, and she leapt backwards, twisting in the air, sweeping the dwarf off his feet with her wings. After she landed, she swung her sword at Vacht who grunted in pain as they parried against significantly stronger woman.

“Hold her!” Paul yelled. “We can’t kill her! She might be able to help!” He put away the handcannon and gripped his glaive tightly.

Duncar tried grabbing her by her legs but got a swift kick to the face for his effort. “What the hell do you propose we do!?”

Paul lunged forward and swiped with his glaive at Gullfelak’s hand which was wielding her sword. She deftly parried, sending arcs of energy flying from both their weapons. “Grab her and get her helmet off!” Paul yelled.

Gullfelak raised her sword and shouted, “Repel flux!” The jewel on the pommel of her sword glowed as she cast a repulsion spell, sending Paul flying back towards the heavy door. He spun around in midair and the wings on his aegis flexed. He landed feet-first on the door and, unsteadily, landed on his feet on the ground as the blast wave blew open the door behind him.

“What do I do?” Jeaneth asked.

“Shoot sparks or something!” Vacht yelled at her. They then shifted their form, not to a deer or a raven as Paul had grown familiar with, but to an enormous brown bear. Vacht grappled Gullfelak, who retaliated with a torrent of fiery breath in their face.

Paul spun his glaive and advanced, striking Gullfelak on the top of the head with the blunt weighted end of the weapon. Paul grabbed her head and pulled back.

“Her helmet! Get it off!” Paul shouted.

Duncar leapt on her back, fighting against the wings of her armor, and grabbed the top of her helmet.

“Let go of me!” Gullfelak yelled. “I’ll kill you!””

“It as tight on her face as yours is!” Duncar said. “I can’t get a hold of it!”

Paul grabbed her by the mouth of her helmet, digging his gauntlets behind the metal teeth and pulled as hard as he could. With the word, Scintilla, Jeaneth sprayed a shower of multi-colored sparks at Gullfelak’s face, trying to force her down onto her knees.

“Stop!” Paul yelled. “I’m trying to help you!”

“Bullshit!” Gullfelak screamed and hit Vacht with the pommel of her sword, sending the bear-druid tumbling off her. She spun forward and rolled. With a yelp of surprise, Duncar was flung off, smashing into the wall. Paul held on though and rolled onto her back. He pressed a knee in and pulled with all of his might on her helmet. With a snap the top of it snapped off, leaving the lower jaw of it in place, still attached to her face.

He gathered the Light from his heart into his hand and laid it upon Gullfelak’s head. “By the Light of the Progenitor, be free from this madness!”

Her eyes glowed along with Paul’s hand, and then they both faded. “What… What happened? Why is there a bear here?”

Paul let go of her and patted her on the shoulder. “We were hoping you could tell us what happened. Well, minus the bear. That’s my friend, Vacht.” They roared and snuffed in return. “You already met Duncar—”

“My back!” Duncar groaned and slowly rose back to his feet. “Getting too old for this.” He shut the door to the office and cracked his back. “Oh, I’m going to be feeling that for a week.”

“And this is my friend, Jeaneth.”

Jeaneth waved sheepishly and picked up her wheelgun. “Thanks for not killing us!”

“What did…” Gullfelak pulled off the remains of her helmet. “Mason… he—”

The door to the office burst open as Constable Razzo rushed inside, along with a dozen of her deputies.

“Everyone! Halt!” she shouted at them. “What the hell is going on?”

Jeaneth picked up her wheelgun and holstered it. “The alderman tried to fuc—frigging kill us. He’s the Verdant.”

Razzo motioned for her deputies to spread throughout the room. “Turn back, Vacht.”

Vacht returned to their elvish form and stepped towards Razzo. “Sophia, he killed Robyn!”

“How?” Razzo asked. “Why would he—"

Vacht swung wildly at Razzo, striking her square in the mouth. Paul and Duncar pulled Vacht back as they screamed at her. “He murdered her! He wanted me to die too! If you were in his way you would’ve been next!”

“You ash-skinner bitch!” Razzo spat. “Take this thing away to the jail!”

Duncar harrumphed and stamped his boot. “They’re speaking the truth! Mason admitted it to us too, and then sent the lady knight here to kill us!”

“He’s right,” Gullfelak said. “I came here yesterday, after learning from the Citadel that Zazex and Sivon were sent here to investigate twelve missing cylinders of a weapon called the White Death. They’re tagged in a way where the Republic could track them within several miles. I was asking Mason about it when he shown me a magical device, a gold rod. Everything after that is a blur.”

“White Death?” Razzo said. She motioned for her deputies to stop. “Mason brought weapons that can level an entire city, here!?”

“It’s somewhere in the valley,” Gullfelak said. “They were trying to pinpoint where it was brought. It shown up within the past month or so. It may have been underground, shielded in some way. We have to stop him; he can kill thousands with them.”

“I believe you,” Constable Razzo said. “The old mine is the only place I can think of that’s large and underground. We can look there.”

“The mine was empty when I checked,” Duncar said. “He must’ve moved it out if your government had found out where they were.”

“Do you remember anything about where Mason said he was bringing it to?” Paul asked.

“He made me sign something,” Gullfelak said. “It was in his office but… there were paintings. They were different than the ones in here.”

She waved her sword and in a flash of light it turned into the same metal staff she had when Paul first met her.

“A hidden room?” Jeaneth asked.

“We all need to look,” Paul said. “Sir Gullfelak, can you use your magic to detect—"

“Wait a minute, kid,” Razzo said, “if Renfroe Mason is the Verdant then I’m in charge as the acting alderman of Greenfield. I’m not going to take orders from someone like you. What we need—"

“Shut up!” Vacht yelled. “Don’t you talk to him like you talk to me! And you, Gullfelak, how dare you speak about my kind like that! Not everyone in the Hollow World are heartless bastards who deserve death! I should—"

“Vacht!” Paul yelled back at them. “That’s enough! We have to work together, okay?”

“Fine!” they hissed.

“Good,” Razzo said. “Now there has to be something here. If he has a hidden office that’s in here, then there’s probably a switch or latch somewhere. We need to find it.”

Everyone began searching, Razzo and her deputies spending much of their time sorting through notebooks and other documents in Mason’s desk. As Paul was checking along one of the walls he noticed something odd—the tall mirror mounted to the wall had something embedded in it.

He picked at it with the claws attached to his gauntlets and was finally able to pull it off. It was a flattened bullet, the very one shot by Jeaneth’s gun when she dropped it. It hadn’t left a single mark on the mirror.

“Jeaneth, when your gun went off after Mason cast that spell to heat it up, did any other round fire?”

She pulled out her wheelgun, fumbling with its hammer and unsteadily turning the cylinder. “Nope. Only the one. I think it ricocheted off the ceiling.”

“It would’ve had enough momentum to shatter the mirror,” Paul said. “Gullfelak, can you check this?”

The knight brought her staff to the mirror. Its blue gem glowed. “I detect a great deal of magic. This mirror is enchanted.”

Paul felt around its frame and finally found a switch at the base. He pressed it and the mirror loosened. He was able to rotate it around its base, finally turning the mirror upside down. With a click the mirror locked back in place and the reflection in it changed. It still shown the office, but there were no more people visible. Paul gingerly reached out with his hand, and it passed through where the surface of the mirror should have been.

“Great job, lad!” Duncar said.

Paul retracted the wings of his armor and put a leg through. “Just don’t turn it back off before we’re through.”

“The air’s stale in here,” Vacht said.

The room was an exact, mirrored copy of Mason’s office down to the threads of the rugs on the floor. Paul and his companions, Gullfelak, and Razzo were the only people who stepped through the mirror. Razzo’s deputies could be seen through the hidden office’s mirror, busily boxing things and sifting through paperwork.

“My uncle Ibarin used to have a roommate who was also a wizard,” Paul said. “His room was a broom closet. But if you jiggled the handle in a particular way it led to a palatial mansion.” He looked behind the curtain. The world beyond the covered window was a bright white void, devoid of anything.

Jeaneth turned the handle of the door to the office. “Won’t budge. I guess this room is the only thing that exists here.”

“You think he’d at least make it look different,” Razzo said. She moved to one of the small paintings on the wall. “I knew Refroe was a painter, but I’ve never seen anything like these though. Who are these people?”

“Look,” Vacht said. “The books here are different too.”

Paul followed Vacht to a bookshelf, but a smell suddenly entered his nose. Coffee, bacon, scones, jam. Mason must’ve eaten inside the room, the still air trapping the scent inside. His stomach gurgled. “Vacht, you have anything to eat? I’m feeling a bit peckish.”

They reached into a pouch attached to their leather armor and pulled out five berries. “Here take—" Paul hungrily snatched the berries and devoured them. “Take one!” Vacht shouted. “I cast a spell to enchant those! One of them can feed an adult for a day!”

Paul’s stomach felt pleasantly full. “Sorry.”

Gullfelak chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “Your aegis continually draws energy from your elementumthrough the spine your wings are attached to.”

“You eat a lot of food?” Paul asked.

She nodded. “Yes, we eat a lot of food. I also took many naps when I was first training.”

Vacht frowned. “Just don’t complain if you get a stomach-ache, Paul.” They pulled a book off the shelf. “The Origin of the Tethyian Empire, by Alistair Carter,” Vacht said, reading the title. “What’s the Tethyian Empire?”

“Tethyias was the first recorded human civilization, after the Ancestors decided upon parting ways after Year’s End” Paul said. “They had a quite a thing for obelisks.”

Razzo picked up a painting off the floor and squinted at it. “These paintings have name plates at the bottom, and the name of a city and a province for each one. Vacht, did you find anything?”

“No,” they replied. “He has an eclectic choice of books. Archaeology, history, human studies—" They paused and flipped through several pages. “Paul, you took history classes at that Academy of yours, right?”

Paul nodded. “Yes, why?”

“I’ve always been told that the elves were the first of the First Folk, those who were born in Godsreach. Aldenfjar, the World Tree, descended from the heavens and planted itself on Edra. From its branches grew the first of the lossar, and from its roots grew the first of the dokkar.”

Razzo harrumphed. “Humans are the youngest,” she said. “Well, I suppose infernians are the youngest, but we aren’t exactly our own species.”

“The gods are mysterious,” Gullfelak said. “They don’t reveal themselves to all, and after the first Year’s End, many may have been lost to history. Unless a god does something to make themselves known, like Exalt someone to be a Chosen, there’s not much we can do to know who they are.”

Jeaneth nodded. “Yeah, nobody knows who created gnomes, or drakons, or k’thexives.”

Vacht put the book they looked at back on the shelf. “These books have insane theories about ancient human societies, all from the time before the gods left.”

“The notebooks have ramblings about excavations,” Razzo said. “Seems he was a bit of an amateur archaeologist.”

“Paul… Paul come see this,” Duncar said. “I know what the paintings are.”

When Paul looked over Duncar’s shoulder, he realized what his uncle was looking at. Paul fell to his knees as looked at the painting. There were three people on it, a drakon man with dark blue scales, a drakon woman with dark iridescent scales, and a drakon boy with powder blue scales. Beneath it was written “Cyanisolon Vaandur, male, age six; Uno’naxach Vaandur, male, age thirty-seven; Altressvofur Vaandur, female, age thirty. From Valdebore, Ozbin, Empire of Soreth.”

“It’s your family,” Vacht said. “These are the people who died there in that cave. He remembered them all. Their faces, their names, where they were from.”

“Ozbin is far to the north,” Razzo said.

“I’ve passed through Valdebore on my way to Peitzen,” Paul said. “I think it was a woman.” Paul closed his eyes and tried to think. “I… I saw a drakon woman. Oh gods… she had very light-colored scales… they shimmered, I think. I didn’t bother talking to her or getting near her.”

“Paul, you didn’t know,” they said.

“Oh gods… Vacht, if I had been brave enough to speak to drakons back then. She might’ve recognized my face!”

Duncar hugged Paul tight. “You don’t know that, but we now know your full name and where you are from! When this is over, we will find your family. And…” He sniffled.

Paul returned the hug. “Uncle, you, mom, dad, Ibarin, Callia, you all are my family.”

“I know, don’t mind me, boy,” Duncar said and squeezed him tighter. “I’m just an emotional old dwarf.”

“I found something,” Razzo said from Mason’s desk. “Letters.”

Paul stood and followed his uncle and Vacht over to the desk.

“This letter is dated for today,” Duncar said, examining a piece of parchment. “It’s from the Minister of War’s office, from the capital? It’s a request to some Zornean general at Fort Vex to send troops to stop an insurgency of Zornean extremists? He wants an airship sent to a quarry far to the west of the city, where they are based. It’s signed by Minister Farqath, Mason, and you Gullfelak!”

Gullfelak passed her staff over the letter. Several runes at the bottom began to glow.

“Damn,” she said. “This was transmitted yesterday. There are no marks on who exactly it was sent to.” She panted. “I… it’s hot in here.”

Razzo looked at the parchment. “The letter’s not in Mason’s handwriting.”

Paul pulled several drawers out from the desk and found quill pens, all with different names written on them. Two stood out, however. One was labeled Farqath, another was labeled Pembroke. Robyn Pembroke. Vacht’s dead wife.

He sat at the desk and took the pen labeled Farqath and dipped it in an inkwell on the desk. He took a blank parchment and began writing on it. The lazy boy sleeps all day. It wasn’t in his own handwriting, but it was identical to the Minister of War’s.

“They’re magical forgery pens,” Paul said. “My dad used to use them when he went out adventuring with you, right Duncar?”

“Aye. You leave them with a mark and their handwriting style imprints on it,” he said.

“Robyn,” Vacht whispered as they picked up the pen with her name. “He… he forged her journal. He told me it looked like she was unhappy with me, like she wanted both of us to die.”

Razzo’s face hardened. “He tricked us. All this time he made layer after layer of lies to make it seem like Robyn killed herself. He… he knew the governor. He was appointed after Robyn died. That’s why he wanted her dead! If he was the alderman then he’d easily be able to access the mine, to get past my deputies, move patrols around so I wouldn’t know what was going on. He did this right under my nose.”

“Sophia, he killed her and tried to kill me! He looked me in the eye and told me he was sorry for what happened!”

Raazo clenched her teeth. “I’m sorry Vacht. I don’t know what to say.”

“He wants an airship?” Paul asked.

“The rock quarry is big and flat,” Jeaneth said. “It’d be perfect to land an airship at.”

Duncar gasped. “With that magic rod how many could he control? All those on a military airship?”

“If it’s from Fort Vex then it’s probably a Zobedak-class transport airship,” Gullfelak said. “They can hold over a hundred passengers, not including the crew.” She began to pant harder.

The last thing Paul found was a small, folded map. It was of the capital of the Republic of Zornea, New Arakesh. There were twelve red X’s drawn in different parts of city. “One for each cylinder of the White Death that he has,” Paul whispered. “Oh my gods, he’s going to bomb the New Arakesh!”

“A dozen would kill everyone in the city,” Gullfelak groaned. She muttered to herself in draconic, too low for Paul to understand.

“Gullfelak, you have to contact the Zornean military and have them stop that airship!”

“I don’t…” she gasped and fell to her knees. “I don’t know who I would even cast a sending spell to.” With a groan, she collapsed on the ground.

Jeaneth rushed to her and cradled her head. “Paul, she’s burning up.”

“No,” Paul said. “The Light of Empyrean wasn’t enough to completely counteract the rod’s influence. Vacht, Duncar, Jeaneth, you three get her back to the Dreamwalker’s Den and give her the other potion Eleanor made. Constable, gather every deputy you have and send them to the quarry!”

“What are you going to do?” Razzo asked.

“Get me a horse, I’ll ride to the quarry as fast as it’ll take me!”

“The White Death,” Gullfelak gasped, “it’s unstable. You could easily detonate it while fighting him.”

You know what you have to do,the little voice told Paul.

“In a place like a quarry… if it were to be released. What would happen?”

She shook her head. “It’d ignite on contact with the air. It likely wouldn’t spread far depending on how deep the quarry is.”

“What are the cylinders made of?”

“Adamantine, I think.”

Gunshot from handcannon at close range, or the glaive.

Paul bit his lip and pounded his fist on the desk. “Guys… you get Gullfelak to safety.”

“Wait,” Duncar said. “Lad! Wait! Paul! Godsdamnit Paul, I’m not losing you again!”

You knew from when you first received the Revelation from the Hearth Mother, after you nearly killed yourself, that this is how it would really end.

Paul ran through the mirror, back into the alderman’s office, and outside where Creampuff was waiting, hitched to a post. He untied the hippogriff and started to mount it when someone grabbed his shoulder. Vacht.

If those twelve cylinders were to be cracked open, it might be contained within the quarry. Nobody would have to die, except…

“Vacht, I—”

“You’re not going to die!” they yelled at Paul.

“He won’t kill me,” Paul said.

Dying by your own hand is cheating.

“I’m going with you!” Vacht yelled.

“You’re the best healer in town, you need to make sure she—"

“I don’t give a damn about her! She thinks—"

“That you’re a monster,” Paul said. “Prove her wrong.”

Vacht’s eyes grew wet. Paul leaned down and kissed them deeply. They both shuddered from the contact.

You two only kiss when one of you doesn’t expect to make it back alive.

“Please don’t cry,” Paul said.

“You can’t die,” Vacht said. “You’re supposed to live. This is all supposed to get better, and I’m supposed to be happy! I’m supposed to be sitting in your lap, holding your face, looking into your eyes, and telling you that I’m so happy I found you after all these years. Am I selfish for not wanting you to go?”

“Wanting to be happy isn’t selfish,” Paul said. “I’m… I’m really terrible at goodbyes.”

“Then don’t,” Vacht said.

A deputy handed Paul the reigns of a horse. He mounted it and took one final look at Vacht. “I swear to you, as a paladin of the Hearth Mother, as Her Chosen—" His voice began to break. “If I see Robyn, I’ll tell her that you love her more than anything in the world.”

 

Chapter 25: The Last Paladin

“St. Davish saw a lot of weird shit thanks to Kyorn: an empty throne the size of the world, singing wheels, a talking deer riding a dragon, an old man made of metal, just to name a few. Personally, I wouldn’t give any of the numerous books written by him any real credit. None of it makes sense, and what does could easily be interpreted to mean anything!”

Alistair Carter, lecture at the Imperial Academy of History

The horse was exhausted from galloping as fast as it could to the quarry. Paul took his rifle from his back and shouldered it. “Go on! Get!” Paul shouted at the horse and slapped its flank. He didn’t want it to get hurt with what was about to happen.

He opened the rifle’s its chamber, reached into his displacer bag and pulled out four shells. “That’s all?” Paul said out loud. Two of them had nothing written on the casings, a third had armorwritten in draconic, and the fourth was labeled

fireball. His hand cannon was already loaded with one of the unmarked shells. He loaded the fireball shell into the rifle.

A metal cylinder, originally flush with the barrel and stock of the rifle, popped out as Paul shouldered the rifle. A violet crystal protruded from the end of the cylinder, facing the end of the barrel, and glowed softly. The right lens of his visor darkened, and an image of the sky appeared within it.

Paul moved the rifle around, causing the image on the visor to shift. It was magnified from what he saw with his natural vision.

“Guess this was how Sivon said he could shoot us from so far away—” Paul stopped for a moment. “Wait, I can hit him from up here, I think.”

He swung the rifle forward and aimed it down into the quarry. The image magnified more as he felt his arms steady themselves on their own. Although it was hard to make out, he saw what looked like Mason holding a small metal cylinder with sunlight shining off its end.

A spyglass!

A red cross formed on the image within his visor, along with a series of numbers and lines. None of it made sense to Paul. He only had a few days of using firearms at the academy, and with how expensive firearms were, using a bow was much more effective. The cross turned green as Paul moved it near Mason and back to red when it was farther away.

It had to somehow know the radius of the blast. He aimed it towards the edge of where it was green and pulled the trigger. Paul felt a swift kick in his shoulder and a loud bang as a red sphere of light shot out at incredible speed. Paul saw it fly through the sight in his visor until it finally exploded in a storm of fire.

Mason stumbled and then stood up, wielding a bow. A red light shone from the bow as he nocked the arrow. Within the blink of an eye the arrow shot out in a straight line, whizzing past Paul’s head with a loud bang.

The last thing he needed was a fight between a rifle and an enchanted bow. Paul ejected the spent round and loaded another one of the regular rounds inside the rifle.

He aimed again at Mason, towards his chest. The cross in his visor glowed green and he pulled the trigger again. Another kick of recoil and another miss as the shot hit the dirt in front of Mason.

Another magical arrow shot out, striking Paul’s right wing, sending bits of metal and arcs of lighting flying outward. Paul quickly reloaded the rifle with a third round. As he closed the chamber, he heard a loud bang. One of Mason’s arrows struck the rifle in its chamber. The barrel split and exploded, sending shards of metal everywhere. The unsteady ground at his feet gave out and he tumbled downward. The wings hummed and extended, smashing against rocks until finally Paul landed at the bottom of the quarry. He threw away his broken rifle and readied his glaive.

He felt dizzy, and a few coughs into his hand left behind a trickle of blood. Paul was overexerting himself. Through the connections the wings had made to his body, the armor was slowly draining him, and his damaged elementumcouldn’t take much more. If he tried using his elemental breath, he’d risk rupturing the organ. He’d choke to death on his own blood.

“This isn’t your fight, boy!” Mason called. An arrow whizzed past Paul’s head and embedded itself halfway up the shaft into a rock.

Paul looked around. The walls were high up at the quarry. Some small foot paths scattered around to escape, but nothing that wouldn’t go unnoticed by either of them. They were both stuck there.

“I know what you’re going to do!” Paul shouted back. “You called for the Zornean military to send an airship! You’re going to take control of the soldiers on board, get them to load up the weapons you found, and use it to destroy New Arakesh!”

“I didn’t want to have to do this, but I know what they’re capable of!” Mason yelled back. “You can walk away!”

Paul couldn’t see the cylinders with the White Death anywhere. Maybe he could talk his way out of it?

“I saw the paintings you made, and I saw what happened in the cave that day! You thought you had no choice all those years ago, and maybe you didn’t, but you had a choice when you decided to murder Robyn! You witnessed a lot of a death, more than any person should, but now you have one last choice to make! Lay down your arms and surrender!”

“I’ll make it to where Zornea will never be able to kill my family, where nobody will ever hurt them! Infernos!” Mason yelled.

Paul saw a mote of shimmering orange light pass by him, a fireball spell. Paul jumped upwards, suddenly feeling light as the fireball detonated from behind. The wings of his aegis unfurled, and he sailed forward, towards the surprised Mason. Paul landed in front of him and swung his glaive, arcs of red-hot energy scattering as his blow was deflected by an invisible shield around Mason.

Mason hit Paul in the face with his bow, ringing his ears despite the protection of his helmet. Mason snapped the fingers of his metal hand and summoned a glowing violet sword. He swung at Paul who deftly parried it, locking the blade in place between them.

“Give up!” Paul growled. “You can’t win!”

Mason stepped back and shouted, "Culta tempest," waving his left hand which had the bow as his right arm glowed. Dozens of small, spectral daggers suddenly appeared in a swarm around him and sailed at Paul, causing him to stumble backwards from the daggers exploding into metal shards after striking his armor.

“Over my dead body!” Mason yelled. He waved his metal arm and cast another spell. Four identical copies of himself appeared, and all five of them attacked Paul at once. He twirled his glaive around and deflected their attacks. He then swung the glaive wide, clipping two of the Masons and causing them to shatter like glass and vanish.

“This rod and the Archive are mine,” the three Masons said in unison. “When I fully unlock the Archive then Zornea will know the truth.”

“What the hell are you talking about!?” Paul asked.

Paul and the Masons exchanged blows again. His glaive passed through the head of one of Mason’s mirror images, shattering it. Paul spun around again and caught another one in the arm, sending its sword into his chest and destroying it too.

“It goes back before the gods,” Mason spat. “We owned this world before the dragons came. We existed before the dragons made you, we existed before the so-called gods cursed this planet! The dragons thought they could kill my ancestors with weapons like the White Death, they thought they could control a legion—”

“Listen to yourself!” Paul yelled. “I can help you! I know you’re sick! You’ve seen things that nobody should ever have seen, your father forced you to do things you didn’t want to do!”

Mason let go of his sword which flew towards Paul. He parried it, sending it flying back into the air. However, Mason’s right eye glowed red and fired a beam of energy at Paul’s chest. It was like being hit by a battering ram, sending him flying backward and through a mound of dirt, eventually coming to rest in mud.

“Fuck!” Paul screamed. Each breath in was like a knife being driven into his lungs. If his ribs weren’t broken, they were certainly rearranged.

Mason sailed over the mound and landed away from Paul.

“Ready to give up?” Mason said. He unsummoned his sword and readied his bow again. “I haven’t had a good fight like this in a long time.”

Far to the right of Mason was something flapping in the wind. It was a tarp, colored to look like the ground. Part of it had become unanchored, revealing large silvery metal cylinders underneath.

Paul drew out his hand cannon and struggled to get up, instead falling to his knees.

“Oh, what’s wrong? You can barely even hold that iron up,” Mason said. He waved his metal arm and a shimmering field of violet light formed in front of him and vanished. "You think a hand cannon can hurt me?

Paul raised the gun, aimed it at Mason, and pulled back its hammer.

“I’ll remind you that Sivon didn’t have any spellbreaker rounds,” Mason said.

“Duly noted,” Paul said. "I'll still kill you with this though."

“Really? Who the hell do you think you are thinking you can beat me?”

Paul’s helmet sealed itself tight, closing his mouth off.

“The last paladin you'll ever see.”

Paul aimed the hand cannon at the cylinders of White Death. He couldn't hear what Mason shouted as he closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

Paul woke up and gasped. Through his helmet all he could see was rising smoke. He was choking and his entire body felt like it was on fire. Paul ripped off his helmet and dropped it on the ground. The air was hot, but breathable. He couldn’t see anything underneath his armor, but he knew it had heated from the fiery blast and severely burnt him. Every bit of skin on his body hurt.

He saw a small crater, filled with fire. The entire quarry was filled with small pockets of bright red flames. Paul rose unsteadily to his feet, laughed, and then cried. It was over… until he heard the familiar bang of someone teleporting next to him, Mason.

Mason stabbed Paul with his violet sword, piercing straight through the aegis and into his stomach. Paul grabbed Mason and headbutted him, sending him backward, along with the sword.

Paul fell back and clutched his stomach. Blood was pouring out; the blade had gone through like his armor was made of paper.

“You son of a bitch,” Mason growled as he stood up. He walked to Paul and kicked him in the face. “Not so tough without your fucking spear, eh? You might have ruined part of my plans, but I still have this,” he said as he unhooked from his belt the rod. “I can’t control you with it, but I can kill you with it.”

Mason beat Paul in the head with the rod. Again and again, he rained down blows until Paul reached up and grabbed his arms. He was too weak to try to kick him up and flip him over his head, so he did the only thing he could think of. He strained his damaged elementumand forced a bolt of lightning breath out of his mouth.

Mason was flung backwards by the bolt, but Paul couldn’t feel himself able to breathe anymore. He struggled to his feet and raised his arms. “That all you got?” he gasped.

In the distance Paul could barely make out through the smoke the outline of a deer with something on its back. It had to be Vacht taking the foot paths down through the quarry.

“No, but it’s all you got,” Mason said as he readied his bow. He whistled and six arrows flew from his quiver and into his hand. He nocked them all. “Goodbye, Mr. Underhill.”

Paul raised his right hand as Mason let the arrows fly. His armor seemed to vibrate, and the arrows stopped in front of his hand, striking a pearlescent barrier of light that formed for just an instant. They then fell harmlessly to the ground.

“How!?” Mason screamed. "How did some little shit like you do that!? Why won't you just die!?”

Paul fell to his knees and vomited. Bloody foam. He couldn’t breathe at all. He was dying. "Way… way ahead of you," he wheezed.

Mason nocked another arrow and fired. Paul raised his hand, and nothing happened. Paul felt an intense pressure in his right eye, and then everything faded to black.

 

Chapter 26: Empyrean

Paul Underhill was seven years old, and he hated his crutches. He was lucky that he could walk at all, and he was proud that he was able to help his mom and dad with chores as much as he could. Every morning he would walk with his best friend to school. He loved that boy so much.

Paul felt someone shake his chest. “Please… please, Paul, get up!”

"Vee! How the hell does a dragon's breath potion work again!?"

Paul Underhill was seventeen years old, and he was in love again. He had met a fire drakon named Sulbor at the Academy. The apprentices there were encouraged to form friendships, romantic or platonic, with each other so long as it was safe. Sulbor shown that pain was love, and that hatred was the strongest form of love a person could feel.

Paul felt the shaking again. There was more shouting.

“Oh gods! Vacht! No! Paul! Get up!”

Cyanis Vaandur was five years old. He and his mother and father were sitting on a hill at night, gazing at the moonless, star filled sky. He loved his mother and father so much. They told him about how Aquillon blessed them with a beautiful son. Five men in masks came to them that same night. They tied all three of them up and put hoods over their heads. They said his father was strong and was worth a lot of money, and that his mother was beautiful and would be worth just as much. They didn’t know what to do with Cyanis though.

“Vacht, please! Please, you have to move! Oh gods… oh gods…”

Paul Underhill would’ve been eighty-seven years old if he had lived a peaceful life, like how his parents had originally planned for him. He would’ve been wrapped up in a chair by the fire, surrounded by his parents, his children, and his grandchildren, as he closed his eyes for the last time. He never would’ve found out what happened to his birth parents. He never would've met Vacht. He never would've met the Dreamwalker.

“rest, my Chosen.”

Paul was floating through water, slowly rising to the surface. As he floated upwards, the water on his white glowing body was left behind him. He stood on an endless ocean, an island of water in a sea of stars. In the distance was a massive gateway, an archway made of glowing crystal. Spilling from it were clouds that led to a land filled with infinite light.

“The Arch of Empyrean,” Paul said. “I’ve finally made it to the Last Home.”

Paul waited for an intrusive thought, for a sliver of self-doubt to worm its way into his head, but it didn't. He felt calm, relaxed; everything here was clear. Everything was in focus, except for what, for a moment, sounded like somebody calling him from far away.

“Please wake up Paul. We need you,” that woman said.

Jeaneth, Paul thought, and just as quickly he thought of her, that name escaped him.

People began rising from the water Paul stood on. Most were humans, although there were others, even some from species that Paul had never seen before. But all of them were fixated upon the Arch.

“I just walk up there?” Paul asked those walking past him. They didn’t reply. All they cared for was the Arch.

Paul could hear that woman’s voice again. Jeaneth? Was that her name? She sounded scared. “Oh gods, I’m going to die!”

Paul followed them to the Arch. Each one slowly walked up the steps to the Arch and passed away into the clouds that obscured the light filled gateway, forever.

“I guess this is it,” he said to himself. He turned his back to the Arch, facing the star filled sky. “I suppose I finished my mythos?”

“No, my Chosen. For you have not even received what your mythosis.”

Paul stepped away from the Arch as a being of light passed through. It was the Messenger of Pela, the angel that had followed him his entire life.

“I have to return?” Paul said.

“You shall rise, fall, and rise again. That is my Covenant with you,”it said.

The spirits of those walking towards the Arch seemed to not see the angel, or at least had not the willpower to gaze upon it. The angel took Paul’s hand and led him away from the Arch.

“Hearth Mother, I have so many questions. Like—” Paul stopped as he noticed one of the spirits walking towards him, towards the Arch. It was a dark elf wearing tattered clothes. Paul suddenly remembered: Vacht, Jeaneth, Duncar, Mason. “Vacht!” Paul shouted. “Oh gods!”

“Paul,” Vacht said. “I’m sorry.”

Paul let go of the angel’s hand and ran to them. “Vacht, no… no!” He embraced them. “No, you can’t be—”

“I’m sorry I didn’t make it,” Vacht said. “I said it was going to be me or him. Guess I was right.” They turned their gaze to the angel. As its brilliant light was cast upon Vacht, a shadow formed around them, in the shape of the being that Paul saw last night, the Dreamwalker.

“No, Vacht you weren’t supposed to die,” Paul said. He dug his claws into their robe and pulled. “No! Pela, please… bring Vacht back. They didn’t deserve this just because I wasn’t strong enough, just because I was weak.”

“My Covenant is with you, not with the Vessel of the Dreamwalker. If their time is now, then it has already been foretold.”

Paul growled and let go of Vacht. He stuck a finger in the chest of the angel. “I don’t care! I know a Chosen has fought one of you in the past. I’m already dead, you can’t kill me here! Bring Vacht back!”

“You have not the power to do that.”

Paul felt a set of arms wrap around his waist from behind him, and a familiar set of antlers pressed into his back. “Paul… please… keep living.”

Paul took their hands and cried. “You deserve better.”

“We all deserve better, Paul,” they said. Another set of arms cast in shadow wrapped around his chest, that of the Dreamwalker, an amorphous being made of darkness. “We all do. But we can’t die for others, right?”

“Vacht, please don’t—”

Vacht turned Paul around, raised upward on the tips of their toes, and kissed him. Paul hugged them back. He didn’t want to let go, but he had to.

“Keep living, Paul Underhill,” Vacht said. “Take the Dreamwalker. When Jeaneth is old enough, when she’s ready, pass it onto her. You’ll know when.”

Vacht walked towards the Arch, Paul’s hand slipping down their arm until finally their fingers were intertwined.

“I’ll keep living Vacht. Not for you, or anyone else, but for myself. I love you.”

“I love you too,” they said. “I’ll—”

Suddenly, the ring that Paul had gifted them glowed. They raised it up to their face and smiled, tears running down their face. “So that was the spell stored in the ring? Your halfling luck rubbed off on me. I guess I’ll see Robyn some other day.”

And then, in a brilliant flash of light they vanished along with the shadowy form of the Dreamwalker.

“Hearth Mother… you… you knew this, didn’t you?” Paul asked the angel. “You knew that Vacht wasn’t going to die today.”

“Your last trial is complete, my Chosen. Your last lesson has been learned.”

“It was a test?”

The angel nodded. “Yes,”it said. Its voice sounded different.

“Who are you?” Paul asked the angel. “Who are you really?”

“We have known you your entire life,”the angel said.

“From the moment we held you in our arms until the moment you let out your last breath. The gods blessed us with you when we least expected it, and it was with the gods we returned you to the Underhills. You have suffered much from doubt, from pain, both of yourself and from others. We offer you peace eternal.”

Paul raised his hand to touch the angel’s featureless face. “You’re Altress and Unox, my mother and father.”

The angel split down the middle, floating outwards into two smaller, drakon sized angels. One was made of white crystal, the other from blue. They stood beside Paul and placed their hands on his shoulders. Their faces changed, shifting to that of his birth parents.

“We haven’t heard those names in so long, Paul,” Altress said.

“Things are so different here,” Unox said.

“Mother, father,” Paul sobbed. “I’ve missed you so much. I never knew you, but I could still feel you.”

“We are so proud of you Paul,” Altress said. She embraced Paul. Despite her body being made of crystal she felt soft and warm.

“Even if I feel like I’m not worthy it?” Paul asked.

“We always will be proud of you,” Unox said and also embraced him. “You’re always our little boy.”

“The Hearth Mother will return you to the Mortal Realm, as she has always planned, as she has tested your heart in this place, her Chosen,” Altress said, running her fingers through Paul’s hair. “But… you may not be able to see us again for some time.”

“I won’t be able to see you again?” Paul asked. He felt the Dreamwalker hold onto him more tightly. “Wait! Whatever passes through the Arch can’t return. Not even the gods themselves can pass through. They send their Messengers, those who they fill with their power and speak with their voice. You…” Paul’s heart sank. “You’re not really my parents, are you?”

Unox smiled and caressed Paul’s face. “No, we aren’t, at least with how you would think of it to be. Our love for you was so strong that it transcended beyond the arch, where we could fill the messengers with it. We are waiting for you on the other side, but our love for you exists even out here.”

“Aether drakons are infertile,” Altress said. “The gods blessed us with you, and in their time of need they blessed the Underhills with you. We've watched you ever since. We've shared in your happiness, and in your sorrows.”

“I love you all so much,” Paul cried. “I passed through the Arch before. I held you all with my own hands. How did that happen?”

“We don’t know how,” Unox said. “But we do know that we love you, and that there are others who love you back on Edra.”

“We’ll always love you,” Altress said.

“Wait… I’m supposed to receive a Revelation—a vision of my mythos. What is—"

Paul opened his eye. He felt different, lighter, all the pain was gone despite the terrible injuries inflicted upon him.

“Paul!” Jeaneth shouted. She was on top of him. Behind her was Mason. Paul reached out, grabbed her wheelgun, and threw her off himself. He fired it once at Mason, striking him in the shoulder, causing him to stumble backward.

Paul struggled to his feet and grabbed the arrow in his face and pulled, a sickening squelch of blood poured out as the arrow was finally free.

“You tried to kill us twice,” Paul said.

Far off was Duncar, face down in the mud. “Lad, you okay?” he mumbled.

“I am, Duncar,” Paul said. "You?"

"Don't mix speed and dragon's breath potions!"

“Why won’t you just die!?” Mason yelled.

Near where Jeaneth landed was Vacht. They had a huge gash on their chest, and an arrow that entered through their back, the tip sticking out of their chest, right next to their heart. Their eyes were unsteady and they were clutching Paul’s glaive. “So… guess only a Chosen can wield this thing,” they said, barely audible. “Felt like trying to swing an elephant when I tried it.”

Paul walked to them and held out his right hand. The glaive rose from the ground, out of Vacht’s grasp, and into his hand. Its blade glowed white.

“You’re so bright Paul, so beautiful,” Vacht whispered.

Paul tucked the wheelgun into his belt and walked towards Mason. “You can’t win,” he said. “You can’t defeat us.”

“Us?” Mason said. “All I see is a stupid glowing scaleback.”

“I wield the power of the Hearth Mother and Her creator—Empyrean, the Progenitor. You cannot stop me, or Her.”

Mason summoned his sword again and readied it. Paul gripped his glaive with both hands. They ran at each other and then passed with one swipe each. Mason’s metal arm flew off in a shower of sparks as his sword vanished, and Paul’s own right arm and his glaive went flying away with a spray of blood.

Mason screamed in pain, and then laughed as he grabbed the rod attached to his belt. “Guess we have something in common now,” he said and spun around. “I still can use this to focus my magic.”

“We have a lot in common,” Paul said. He wasn’t in pain. All he felt was a warmth rolling down his arm.

“What are you?” Mason asked.

"Give up," Paul said. "You can't hurt anyone anymore. You know you can't beat me."

Mason dropped the rod on the ground. "Kill me then."

"No, you're going to face justice. You're going to pay for the crimes you committed."

"No… no… they can't know. I won't let them know."

"Your family?" Paul asked. "You should've thought of the pain you'd cause them when you did this. You could've lived a life of obscurity; nobody would have ever found out you were the Verdant."

“They’ll kill me if they take me. Might as well do it now,” Mason said.

“I’ll leave it to the courts to decide. I understand somewhat, why you did it all. I don’t empathize with you or feel sympathy for your cause. I can offer you forgiveness for what you’ve done to me and my parents, but I can’t offer absolution for all the others you killed, especially Robyn.” Paul felt a hatred fill within him after mentioning that name. “I pity you Renfroe Mason. If anything, I’ll plead to the Empress herself for you to serve life in prison. You’ll live in shame for what you’ve done until the day you die.”

“My family will have to live with shame seeing me in prison?” Mason reached into his coat and pulled out a small vial. He uncorked it with his teeth and spat it at Paul. "They'll never have to deal with it."

Paul didn't stop Mason from drinking the vial. Duncar had already gotten back up and rushed to Mason, but he was too late. Paul could've tried stopping him, but he didn't. Mason's eyes closed as Duncar shook him, and then he fell limp. In the end, Mason died by his own hand, more peaceful than those he killed in that lonely cave.

Paul walked over to Mason and picked up the rod. It was surprisingly heavy, despite feeling like it was hollow.

“By the gods, Paul, what are you?" Duncar asked. "Your eyes… your arm…”

Paul squeezed the rod with his gauntled hand, bending it, and finally snapping it. Its inlaid sigils flickered and went dark.

"Check Mason's pockets. He said he had a sphere."

Duncar searched Mason and pulled out the sphere and handed it to Paul. It was black, its surface constantly moving as Paul rotated his shimmering hand.

“What is it?” Jeaneth asked. She was tending to Vacht. She had pulled out the arrow and was casting healing spells on them.

Paul felt something. Images flashed through his mind: A machine in the form of a man, the Empress, a red-scaled dragon, a desert, an angel whose god was lost to time, and Jeaneth. She was the most important thing of all.

Paul collapsed.

People were touching him, the color in the world was fading away.

“Lad! Wait! That’s the airship! Down here! We’re down here!”

All their voices began to grow distant.

“Paul, please don’t leave me. I can’t lose you!”

“He’s bleeding so much. I can’t use my belt on his arm, the armor is in the way!”

His vision was getting narrower.

“I love you, Paul."

Chapter 27: Threshold

My Chosen, you shall rise, fall, and rise again. This is my Covenant that I have sworn to you.

Paul woke up in an unfamiliar bed. He wasn't in Vacht's room, no, the familiar musty smell of their loft wasn't around. There was a smell of grain alcohol and phenol. Wherever he was, it was very clean.

He was nude and covered in bandages. Opening his eyes revealed little. His face was heavily bandaged, over his missing right eye and partly over his left one. The walls of the room were white, and he was lying on his side. Nestled between him and his heavily bandaged right arm was Vacht, sleeping.

Paul could barely see the tips of his fingers through the bandages. He had to be in a hospital, a very good one with very highly trained clerics if his arm was saved. Vacht’s thin arms were curled around his bandaged one. Paul tried to move his arm, but he felt a dull, numbing pain as he tried.

"Vacht," Paul tried to say, but only a faint whimper came out. His throat felt hoarse and too dry to say anything. All he could do to wake the sleeping dark elf was to nuzzle them lightly on the cheek.

"Paul," Vacht groaned and turned over. Their brilliant green eyes met his. "You're awake."

"Water," Paul whispered.

Vacht rose from the bed on unsteady legs. Paul could barely see anything with the bandages, and he was far too sore to change positions to follow them with his head. He could see that the room was white, the curtains were pulled, and the parts of his body that weren't covered in bandages were raw, his scales scorched and peeling off.

Paul felt Vacht's hands touch him, guiding him to sit upright in the bed. "You remember me?" they asked. Paul could barely see them guide a glass with water towards his mouth. They carefully tilted the glass, allowing Paul to slowly drink it.

"Yes," Paul rasped. "Why?"

"You nearly died." They sat the empty glass down and began playing with their hair. The charms on their antlers were gone. "You stopped breathing. If the Zorneans didn't come…"

"You too."

"You remember it?" Vacht asked.

Paul could clearly see that they were wearing a clean, white gown. He learned back against the bed's headboard and grunted in pain. "Arch, couldn't let you go through."

Vacht chuckled. "Well, the captain… damn, what was his name? They started transfusing my blood into you when they realized your blood was different. That and my injuries… anyway, we didn't go through the Bragelberg Arch. He had them land the airship right next to the hospital."

That wasn't what he meant. At least he now knew he was at the Paladine Imperial Hospital in Vailan. Given the numerous injuries he sustained at the Academy, he was very familiar with it.

"Empyrean's Arch," Paul whispered.

"Don't worry, you won't be seeing it in person anytime soon," Vacht cooed. They didn't remember what happened to them.

"You a patient?"

"Yes, still sore despite all the magic and medicine from the hospitalists. I have my own room, but they don't check on me during the day. You've been asleep for four days."

"Duncar and Jeaneth?" An image flashed through Paul’s mind of Jeaneth. She was older, smiling at him. He had to protect her, but why?

"Jeaneth is back home. I made her stay behind. Duncar's liver apparently isn't as good as he likes to think, and I think imbibing two highly dissimilar potions so close to each other gave him a gallstone. The hospitalists believe he'll be better in another day or two. He's down the hall."

Vacht crawled onto Paul's lap. They were close enough to where he had to turn his head to see them through the small sliver of vision in his remaining eye.

"What's wrong?" Vacht asked.

Paul growled, clearing his throat. "Bandage covering my eye."

"You… you don't." Vacht caressed Paul's face. "I'm so sorry. They told me the arrow went deep, they weren't even sure if you'd wake up, they were just shocked your arm didn't rot off after replanting it."

"How bad?" Paul asked. "Can't see through the right side, only have about half my vision in this eye."

"An arrow went six inches into your head, through your eye socket. They said if you woke up, you'd probably not be right."

Paul chortled, and then cried out in pain. It felt like every fiber of his being was jingling about. "Fuck me," Paul gasped. "I wasn't right before all this anyway."

Vacht ran their hands up and down Paul's chest. "They split you from neck to your groin to stop all the bleeding. They're good, I can barely tell where they cut you."

"If I weren't a hieron, I'd probably be dead," Paul wheezed. "Would probably hurt less. Mason? Do the dead tell anything?"

"Of course not. They returned his body to his wife. I don't know what to say to her when I get back home." Vacht moved closer, outside of Paul's limited field of view, and kissed him. "Sir Gullfelak told me that Sivon is alive. A cleric of Aquillon was able to revive him, and apparently the empyrean dragons are going to try doing the same with Zazex."

"Good."

"Sophia said we can keep the money from that job too, for 'our troubles.'"

Paul harrumphed. "That her form of an apology to you?"

Vacht shrank at that comment. "I suppose. This is all over now, thanks to you."

"Not just thanks to me."

Vacht flicked Paul on the nose. "If you're going to say something about the Hearth Mother, and providence, and being a Chosen, I'm going to hit you."

Paul leaned forward and kissed them. "I meant you. I couldn't have done this without you, Jeaneth, Duncar, everybody."

Vacht smiled, then frowned, and then sobbed. Paul held them as close as he could with his barely functional arm. "I love you," he whispered.

"You don't mean it," Vacht said in between sobs. "It's okay not to. I'm used to being unloved. Robyn was the only one I needed in my life, and they're gone and I'm never going to get her back."

"I care about you," Paul said. "I don't care about fate, destiny, prophecies, or a mythos. I want you to be happy."

"I really do wish we didn't have to meet under these circumstances. I'm sorry about the Dreamwalker, about how I lied to you, about you getting hurt because of me, I'm so sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for." Paul let go of Vacht and leaned them back. He ran his good hand up Vacht's side, and took both of their hands into his. "Hello, my name is Paul Underhill."

Vacht stopped crying and sniffled loudly. "What?"

"I know, Paul is kind of a weird name for a drakon. I'm adopted."

"Are…" they titled their head. "Are you alright?"

Paul laughed. "Well, I was blown up a few days ago, and I was shot through the head with an arrow too, so I guess that I'm doing alright, all things considered."

Vacht smiled. They were struggling, but it seemed genuine. "What a coincidence. I was shot through the back with an arrow."

"What a small world! We should go out for tea sometime."

Vacht laughed. "Tea? We just met."

"I like taking things slow," Paul retorted.

"Taking a stranger out for tea is going slow?"

Paul flashed his teeth. "It's slow for me when the stranger is as cute as you," he trilled.

Vacht quickly flicked Paul on the nose again. "How about I just sit here on your lap until a hospitalist comes in?"

"Sounds a bit safer," Paul said.

Vacht lowered the pitch of their voice, mimicking Paul's. "'And there's a lot you can do in my lap.'"

"I wasn't going to say that."

"No, but from looking into your dreams I know you're that flirty."

Paul chuffed. "You're in my dreams? But we just met!"

Vacht leaned in close and kissed Paul again. "Just shut up. And Paul…"

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

The Minister of Justice shook Paul’s left hand awkwardly. Three days of magic, three days of healing, three days of rehabilitation, and he still couldn’t use his right hand.

“We’ll just mirror it for print!” the obscuographer told them as she set up her camera. “Can you uncover your spear?”

“I’d prefer not to,” Paul said. He awkwardly pulled on the collar of his shirt. The clothes the Ministry purchased for him didn’t have the same softness as the clothes Vacht provided for him back in Greenfield. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Vacht and Duncar snickering at him.

“Come on, sonny,” the Minister said. “It’ll look good for the paper. You’re a hero, show the people how you brought that bastard to justice.”

Paul turned his half-blind eye to the Minister. “Like how I killed him?” Paul asked. “He died by his own hand in the end.”

“Please?” the Minister asked.

Paul growled and motioned for Vacht and Duncar to help. He awkwardly held his glaive down and the two unwrapped the violet cloth around the blade. It shone lightly in the sun, brighter than what it should naturally reflect. Paul tucked the glaive again in his arm and rested its head against his shoulder.

The obscuographer put the cloth hood for her camera over her head. “Great! Do you think you can turn the light down on that thing? It’ll probably overexpose.”

“Ma’am, I haven’t the slightest clue how to turn it off.”

“Where exactly did you get it?” the Minister asked.

“At an old wizard’s tower, with my old adventuring company,” Paul lied.

You lied about being a Chosen to him and the rest of the Ministry of Justice and the reporter, and you liked about not finding the sphere that bastard called “the Archive,” or all the other weird shit he said, and how a hag helped you, and how you’re actually not a monster—

Paul bit his lip and smiled as the obscuographer opened the shutter of her camera. He held his pose, holding the hand of the Minister, his glaive tucked awkwardly against his body, and smiling widely.

He was a hero, but he looked stupid, and with the bitter white pills he had been taking every morning for the pain, he felt stupid. Eventually the picture was finished, Paul bade farewell to the Minister, and he left with Vacht and Duncar.

“So, lad, off to the aerodrome?” Duncar asked. “That flight the Ministry got us tickets for leaves at 2 o’clock.”

“Yes,” Paul said.

“Not going to show me around the city?” Vacht asked. “I’ve never been to Vailan before, and the charted airship to Greenfield doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning.”

There was an expectancy to Vacht’s question. They wanted to spend more time with Paul. They took a horse-drawn omnibus to the aerodrome, with Vacht excitedly looking all about as Paul pointed out several parks he and To’ka used to visit during his time at the Academy, a café he had fought an elf criminal in one time—

“Look lad, that was a vampire you fought!” Duncar interrupted. “Old Rutherford at the Guild Hall told me exactly how everything happened!”

Vacht smiled at Paul. “Vampires? Are those even real?”

“They are,” Paul said and glared at his uncle. “And that wasn’t a vampire!”

“Yes he was! He was pale—”

“He was a dark elf. They rarely leave their part of the city during the day.”

“He drank blood! Hot and frothy, right from the neck of his victims!”

Paul sighed. “The café serves lingonberry tea. When he wouldn’t come quietly it ended up spilling all over the place. It was frothy because he had scalded milk in it.”

Duncar wriggled in his seat, mumbling to himself. “But… but what about how he tried to charm you with his vampire magic? You going to say he’s just a mage?”

Vacht leaned into Paul, pressing up against his side. “Oh, do tell me, how did this dark elf charm you?”

“He…” Paul’s face felt hot. “Well, he had very high cheek bones. And, he… well—”

Duncar huffed. “He was an attractive man who flirted with you to try to get away, didn’t he?”

Vacht laughed. “Oh, and I thought it was my antlers you were attracted to the whole time!”

“Wait,” Duncar said. “I thought you were just attracted to elves in general?”

“I’m attracted to anybody who’s nice to me,” Paul admitted. “Okay? It’s something I need to work on.”

Duncar’s eyes narrowed. “Did you even catch that guy?”

“Well… To’ka was there, and—”

Ducar stuck his tongue out at Paul and blew. “Bah! And I was bragging to everybody I knew about you slaying a vampire while still at the Academy. Let me know when you exorcise a succubus.”

“What? So I can sleep with it?” Paul scoffed. “I’m pretty sure charming magic wouldn’t work on me.”

Vacht rolled their eyes. “Oh, but all she would have to do is say you have a strong chin and luxuriant hair.” They embraced Paul and laughed. “I wish this day wouldn’t end.”

Unfortunately, it had to. They finally arrived at the aerodrome. Paul asked Duncar to go ahead to the airship so he could have a moment to speak with Vacht, alone. There were hundreds of people, some waiting, others arriving and leaving as the massive steel and wood framed airships sat on platforms overlooking the city below.

“This is goodbye, isn’t it?” Vacht asked Paul.

He took their hands into his. “Yes.” It was too painful to lean down to speak to Vacht, so he took a seat and looked up at them instead. “It’s better than last time I said goodbye.”

“You’re probably not going to be almost killed again,” Vacht said. “It’s been nice knowing you, though.”

“I’m going to see you again.”

“No, no you won’t,” Vacht said. “I know you have a destiny about you; your mythos and that strange bauble. But, it was great being with you. You helped me, even when you didn’t have to.”

“Vacht, I want to see you again,” Paul said. “I want to take things slow, but I really do want to see you again.”

“Where will your life bring you?” Vacht asked. “I have to stay in Greenfield. Jeaneth needs me—”

“She’s going to be going to school in Ontson, right?”

“Yes,” Vacht said. “And she wants to be an adventurer too.”

“I’ve already spoken with the Guild here, and they’re going to make sure what Jeaneth did to help us counts towards her apprenticeship there. By the time she’s done at school she can get naturalism contracts easily through the Guild.”

Vacht chewed on their lip. They were looking for any excuse to make for Paul to leave them. “But… my shrubs need me. And my business.”

“I know. I’m not asking you to live with me, or go running off to the ends of Edra if that’s where life leads me. I just want you to know that I care about you, and I want to keep seeing you, and I don’t want to be without you. Whether it’s providence, destiny, or prophecy, us finding each other isn’t just some strange coincidence.”

Vacht reached out and touched the bandaged half of Paul’s face. “What do you really want? What does a paladin of the Hearth Mother, a boy raised by halflings truly want?”

Paul’s heart started to race. “I want adventure.” That’s a lie.

“You mulled going home, ran away from it, and are now going back. Do you really want that, my dragon?”

“I want children, and a home to come back to.” Another lie. You want that, but it’s negotiable.

“Even if we were the same species, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, have children,” Vacht said. “I wouldn’t even want to adopt. I know you respect me too much to even try to convince me otherwise.”

“Vacht…”

They kissed Paul. “We’re too different from each other. I’m damaged, so damaged that it took me longer than you’ve been alive to find a person who could learn to live with me.”

“We can make it work.”

“I’m sorry, but—”

Paul tugged at a thread of magic in his mind. It hurt, particularly right behind his empty right eye socket. But the spell was cast, and a familiar shiver of warmth flowed over him.

“I’ll tell the truth, Vacht. We are both messed up, really messed up, and we both think we’re broken to where we can never be fixed, but we did a hell of a lot together. It may not work out, hell, it probably won’t. But I want to try, to give it a chance. Because, if I don’t then I can’t live with myself knowing that I never tried. And believe me, if my mythostakes me a while, I could live a lot longer than a drakon has any right to.”

Vacht laughed and kissed Paul again. “Fine, let’s try then. But, I know you need a lot of attention, so… if you ever want to find someone else—”

“I don’t, okay?”

They raised a hand. “I’m used to being alone. You’re not. I may not, probably won’t, be able to leave Greenfield for some time. So, if you wish, you have my permission.”

Paul huffed. “If you insist.” He nuzzled Vacht’s face and buried his own face into their chest. “You want me to keep my options open, in case you and I don’t work out, right?”

“I’m worried about your k’thexif friend not having you to bite anymore,” Vacht cooed.

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“I’ve learned a bit about how to get around truth spells,” Vacht laughed.

Paul sniffed Vacht. Even without the perfumed soaps of their home back in Greenfield, they smelt wonderful. “I want you to come to Wavemeet for Year’s End.”

“Are you sure?”

“My parents would love to see you. Besides, Duncar is going to tell them weird stories about you, so you’ll need to be there in person to refute them.”

Vacht laughed. “Your uncle certainly has a thing for tall tales.”

“I’ll be sure to write you often, in the meantime.”

Vacht slipped from their antlers one of their many charms. It was a mall silver amulet, shaped vaguely like a deer, on a leather cord. They slipped it over Paul’s neck and tucked it underneath Paul’s shirt.

“A memento?” Paul asked.

“Something to help your dreams at night,” Vacht said. “It’s difficult to find a single person dreaming when you’re not next to them. But my old master gave me that charm when I first started training under him. I know it well, and I can find you in your dreams while you wear it. I promise to visit you as often as I can, if you’re willing.”

Paul kissed Vacht. “I can take a nap on the airship!”

“I have to be asleep too,” Vacht laughed. “I usually sleep during the day, so I promise I’ll dedicate some time to sleep tonight, for you.”

They kissed again. Paul held Vacht tightly with his good arm. “Am I still dreaming? Am I still lying on that cot in your home?”

“Does it really matter?” Vacht asked.

“No,” Paul said. “If I am, I just hope I don’t wake up.”

Epilogue

“Five hundred pounds!” Callia shouted at Paul as he held the weighted bar above his head. “Just five more seconds.”

Paul cursed, yelled, and then finally dropped the bar onto the ground. Paul coughed and huffed loudly. “Was that five seconds, Auntie?”

“Close enough,” Callia said. She helped Paul to his feet. “How do you feel?”

“I used to be able to do that with ease,” Paul groaned. “I thought that I could do more since I’m a Chosen.”

“Paul, it hasn’t even been two months since you were nearly killed.” She rolled her eyes, and, with a bit of effort, lifted the bar and placed it back on the makeshift rack next to the shed. “Gods and Ancestors be praised that you can even move. If what happened to you happened to me instead, I’d be lucky to even stand.”

Paul still felt hot, even without his shirt on. Callia was bound up tight in her winter robes. Wavemeet didn’t get too cold during the winter, rarely ever snowing, but the temples of Suros she worked at were always warm.

“I want to be stronger though,” Paul said.

“So you can complete your mythos, whatever that is?”

“Well, yeah, and—”

Callia smirked. “This is about your druid friend, Vacht, the one you talk about all the time?”

Paul winced. Of course, his aunt could see through him. He looked stronger than he was in Greenfield, but his right arm was atrophied, twisted looking outside of the elaborate aethertech brace he had fitted for it. Although part of his vision returned in his right eye, his arm had been making even slower progress.

They’ll think you’re twisted, broken on the inside and out, the little voice told him. That was a lie. Paul had been with Vacht in his dreams, they didn’t care about what he looked like.

“I just want to look nice for Vacht.”

“From what you’ve told me and Ibarin of them, I don’t think they’re so vain.”

“I know, but—”

“No ‘buts,’ my little nephew,” Callia said. “Now, enough training. We promised to help your parents with making dinner tonight.”

“Of course,” Paul said. He gathered his shirt and slipped it back on. “I was—” A raven suddenly landed next to him on the ground. “Vacht?” Paul asked it.

The raven squawked several times at Paul and ruffled its feathers.

“This is your friend?” Callia asked.

“Yes! You can change back now, Vacht.”

“What?” Standing behind Paul was a very surprised looking Vacht, their hood pulled low over their face. “I’m fine just as I am.”

“But you—” Paul pointed at the raven. “But…”

“Why would I fly here? I took a carriage!” Vacht frowned, and then smiled. They ran forward and embraced Paul. “I missed you.”

Paul returned the hug. They were different from last time he saw them in person. Their antlers were gone, and wrapped around their neck were the charms they had normally on their antlers. Paul pulled back Vacht’s hood and kissed them. Their hair was cut short and dyed bright pink.

“What happened?”

“It’s winter,” Vacht said. “My antlers shed last week, and I usually trim my hair and try something different until they grow back.”

“I’m glad you’re here no matter how you look.”

“Me too.”

Callia smiled at them both. “See? I told you that your friend would be okay with how you look.”

“You do seem firmer though,” Vacht said and squeezed Paul’s chest. “And you are less skinny.”

“I’ve been working out,” Paul said. “And eating better. I’ve actually stared eating meat again.”

“Normally I’d encourage you to have a meat-free diet, but given how hard it is for drakons to be vegetarians, I’m happy for you.”

“Granted, it’s practically burnt, but it’s better than nothing,” Callia said. She thrust a gloved hand out to Vacht. “Callia Firorian, humble servant of Suros, the Sun Father.”

“Vacht’sha Ta’fur,” they replied and shook her hand. “Small business owner.”

The three of them left to return back to the Underhill home, a small halfling home dug into one of the many idyllic hillsides just outside of the city of Wavemeet. Most folk were in their homes, preparing for the Year’s End Eve dinner with their families, so the streets and fields were empty.

The door to the Underhill’s was larger than most halfling homes, thankfully, although Paul still had to crouch to enter, unlike Callia and Vacht. Paul was sure to tell Vacht to take off their boots as they entered, just as his parents both rushed them and nearly knocked them over with hugs.

“Hullo! Glad to meet you!” Paul’s father, Gerald practically yelled.

“Pleasure to meet you finally,” Paul’s mother, Roslyn, said.

“Thank you,” Vacht said and hugged them back.

Ibarin was standing over in the corner, his head between two trusses supporting the ceiling. The orc was still staring at the Archive, weaving spell after spell, studying it, as Duncar stared at it too. He waved nonchalantly at Vacht. “Salutations. I would come over but I’m busy pondering over this orb of Paul’s. By the way, eyeballing it like that isn’t helping, Duncar.”

“How many hours has it been?” Duncar asked.

“Four, and I haven’t identified a single thing about it yet. It seems almost like the arthrithmatic machines inside of the heads of the Custodians, but it’s infinitely more complicated.”

Roslyn sighed. “Will it be finished by supper?”

“I think so!”

Gerald handed Paul an envelope. It was addressed from the Adventuring Guild. “Came in for you while you and Cally were busy slamming weights outside.”

“Guild dues?” Paul asked. “I’m pretty sure I don’t have to since I actually got paid for the contract in Wavemeet.”

“Your guess is as good as mine!”

Paul sat down on the couch, the one reserved for big-folk, and tore open the envelope. It wasn’t from the Guild itself, but was a forwarded letter, addressed to Paul Cyanisolon Underhill.

Vacht sat next to Paul on the couch. “Added yourself a middle name?”

“Seemed fitting,” Paul said. “Oh, speaking of fitting, did you bring the eye?”

“Yes, but I’d recommend trying it tomorrow. Supposedly it can cause some nasty headaches the first time you try it, and you shouldn’t take it back out for a full day at least.”

Paul began reading the letter to himself, until he realized who it was from. A woman from Valdebore, named Sestra Josef. Sestra was a common name for women from Zornea.

Paul gasped. “My aunt.”

“Who?” Callia asked.

“The drakon woman in Valdebore. I asked one of dad’s friends to check in on it, and… Sestra…” Paul’s hands began to shake. Vacht leaned into Paul. “I-I-I can’t read it.”

Duncar strode over to Paul and slapped him on the back. “What’s the matter? You were going to try to find out about your birth family after you move to Ontson next week.”

“I wanted time to prepare,” Paul said. “What if…”

“Just read it,” Roslyn told Paul. “Everything will be okay. Paulie, we all love you so much. We’ll always be here for you.”

Paul breathed in and out sharply. He read the letter out loud.

 

Dearest Paul,

I write to you, briefly, as I have read of your journey in the city of Wavemeet. The picture of you that I’ve seen in the broadsheet, and the name given, are unmistakable. My name is Sestra Josef, née Vaandur. I am the sister of your mother, Altress. I came to Valdebore over a decade ago when I heard of you and your parents disappearance, and I’ve mourned ever since. Although I have a family of my own now, I prayed to the gods every night that I would find out what happened to all, and it has given me tears of joys and sorrow now that I know what has happened.

I know that you live far to the south, and are raised by many who I know love you as much as myself and your parents did. If you wish to live your life on your own path, I understand and will not blame you. Know that I love you, and I always will.

Yours truly,

Sestra Josef

 

Paul sat the letter on the small table in front of the couch. “I… well…”

“It’s alright, Paul,” Gerald said. “We’re here for you.”

“I guess after I get settled in Ontson, my first trip is going to be to Valdebore,” Paul said. He nuzzled Vacht. “This is all so much.”

Ibarin smiled. “It’s alright. When you’re with people you—holy shit.”

“What?” Paul asked.

Ibarin turned the orb over in his hand. “Umm… this Archive… there’s something… wrong with it.”

“What’s wrong?” Paul asked. “Did you unlock it?”

“No, it’s talking? I think? Here.”

Ibarin handed the orb over to Paul. As he held it, he heard whispers, barely audible.

“I don’t understand the language,” Ibarin said.

“Wait… quiet everybody!” Paul closed his eye and focused. “It’s rhythmic, chanting.”

“Why can’t I understand it?” Ibarin muttered to himself. “I cast a polyglot spell. I should be able to understand it.”

Paul realized what the faint murmurs from the orb were, being pushed directly into his mind. “It’s the Celestial language. The speech of the gods and angels. I’ve heard this before. My parents, my guardian angels… they spoke in this same way to me.” He ran his fingers over the sphere. There was a warmth from inside it, a faint, and familiar glow. The angels, inside of their bodies was a core, a crystalline heart. “Oh my gods, this is part of an angel.”

Callia blinked. “A part!?”

“What is it saying!?” Duncar shouted.

“It’s singing… It’s saying… ‘O’ Creator of Creators, Lord Empyrean, your kingdom they created in your name, their downfall led you and your kin to sorrow. Edra which you have created, Edra to which I serve.’”

“Empyrean? Kingdom?” Vacht said. “Long before the Ancestors came here the dragons called this continent home. Is it speaking of that?”

“It’s singing about the Progenitor,” Callia said. “I know what that is. It serves Edra? The world?”

“What?”

“St. Davish saw a vision of the Divine Realm. He said he saw a throne of crystal, empty, and standing at each corner of that throne were four living beings, angels. They weren’t Messengers, they were…” Callia rubbed her temples. “Damn, what word did he use? Mourners? They were beings composed of spinning wheels of eyes, with an eye of fire at the center that sang a song about how the Progenitor died when creating the gods. The gods created the Mourners as a tribute to Empyrean, that one day if its spirit may return that it would sit beside its creations. That the gods would sit in the land of its body, the Divine Realm, and bask in the presence of its spirit, which would reside on the Eternal Throne.”

Ibarin scoffed. “The works of that loon are really far open to interpretation.”

“That’s what I told To’ka,” Paul said. “And look at me now.”

“Exactly!” Duncar said. “You’re going to run out of body parts to lose if this keeps up, boy!”

“This sphere, this part of an angel, of a Mourner,” Paul said and sat the sphere down on the table. “If its heart is here, then its body must reside somewhere else. This is what the Hearth Mother wanted me to find.” How did Jeaneth factor into it though? And the Mourner served Edra? It spoke like Edra wasn’t just the world, but a god. Was the world named after a forgotten god? Was Jeaneth…

“It’s Chosen,” Paul whispered.

“What?” Ibarin asked.

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud.”

Ibarin crossed his arms. “Duncar is right, if this is part of an angel then someone or something must’ve separated it. I know of nothing that can harm angels. They’re immortal, inseparable. Whatever did this is more powerful than what I could ever imagine.”

Vacht squeezed Paul’s hand tight. “It’s a good thing you have all of us then.”

Paul smiled at them. “You’re right, with you all, I’ll never lose.”

Dinner went well. There was drinking, and merriment, and thoughts of the sphere, the remnant of the Mourner, faded into the background as Callia led them in nightly prayers to the Ancestors, thanking them for coming to Nor’vos.

Eventually Paul retreated to sleep in his old bedroom. Thankfully Vacht was small enough to fit on the bed with him, curled up tightly next to him.

“Vacht?”

“Yes.”

“What if I wake up?”

Vacht sighed. “Paul, you’re not dreaming, I promise.”

Paul huffed. “Well, better question then: What if I’m expunged from the Last Home?”

“Expunged? What?”

“The afterlife is supposed to be a paradise, well… being here next to you.” He sniffed Vacht’s hair. They smelt faintly of lavender. “What if I’m in the Last Home, and this is my paradise?”

Vacht laughed. “Go to sleep, I think you’ve drank a bit too much.”

Paul squeezed them tighter. He did feel unusually groggy. “Maybe. Just… I love you. And no matter what life brings us, I’ll always protect you.”

“How about next time I protect you?” Vacht asked. “You’ve sacrificed a lot on my part.” There was a long pause. “If I told you that you were still in my bed, lost eternally in a dream… would you want me to wake you up?””

Paul nipped Vacht lightly on the ear. “No. I’d much rather have this. Why do you ask?”

“Just anxiety… and paranoia. Now, you get some rest.” They turned around and kissed Paul on the tip of his nose. “Sweet dreams, my dragon.”

“Always.”

The End