Mighty Tips - The best betting tips #1,068,157 - StatShow
Mighty Tips - Betting Predictions (mightytips) on Pinterest
Dragonstone - Chapter 24
Chapter 23 Prae I stand before the Hearttree. My mother stands to one side, my brother to the other. My mother is one of the most respected former Primes, revered might be more appropriate. Gathered around us are the Emerald. All of them. They crowd into the clearing around the tree, they gather at the edge of the forest where there is no space, they stand in silence and look up. “I, Prasinius Feram, son of Caelia Filios, have broken ancient traditions of our kind.” I begin, my voice carrying through the gathering, they remain silent. “I brought a human to a sacred Hearttree. I sang to the Emerald while he stood here. I called upon all Emerald to aid in war, that which we have sought to avoid.” They grumble among themselves, sounds that resonate in their chests and fill the space. “These actions were taken willingly, knowingly, and with full awareness of the consequences. I, therefore, am stripped of the status of Prime. Is this accepted?” There is no hesitation among the gathered Emerald. “It is.” They rumble, as one voice. I lower my head to them and step back to the Hearttree. We are a unique breed, the position of Prime is not coveted as it is among other dragons. Citrine plot to seek leadership, Onyx fight, Sapphire covet wisdom and knowledge, Rubies their vast hoards. We do not. Those among the Emerald may now step forward to offer candidates they feel would bear the burden of leadership with honor, as they once did for me. There is a long stretch of silence where it is contemplated among the Emerald, there was little warning and they must consider carefully who they might select. Then, from the back, a young Emerald comes. While the elder Emerald gathered to the front, the young are welcome to speak but must come forward to do so. They part, each Emerald showing their throats in respect of the moment. I smell a nervous but determined scent to this child, only a few hundred years old. At the bottom of the hill, this youngling shows her throat to us, then takes a deep breath and turns to face the gathering. “I, Rosaceae Audensius, would speak. Would you hear?” “We will hear.” The gathered say as one. We have many traditions. I know that in our history one such gathering lasted for nearly two months, impassioned speeches made to the cause of various Emeralds. My mother earned the honor then, before I was hatched. I listen, the young have much to teach us just as we have much to teach them. This is the Emerald way. “I am young.” She begins. “Some here have lived my lifetime a dozen times. Some have watched the humans grow, some have helped, some have hindered. Forests have grown, lakes have dried, mountains themselves have been laid low in your lives. Thousands of years of tradition have been laid before today and in a single day, with a single choice, a Prime has shattered that tradition.” There are murmurs of discontent, and agreement, but they fall silent. It is her right to speak whether they approve the words or not. “Prasinius Feram has been Prime for my lifetime. I remember no other. But I have heard the stories. I have heard of how the great Caelia broke tradition to save a single human life. My father told me of Narcissia, she that broke tradition and sang a song of war to drive the humans from a path of destruction.” I do not know where this youngling is going but she speaks with growing passion, rapturous enough that even the eldest among us listens in earnest. “I humbly suggest that the Emerald stand on tradition as a shield. Tradition protects us from decisions that we do not wish to make, from changes in this world that we may not wish to face. Tradition is the barrier between our discomfort of difficult decisions and the comfort of a life lived in the trees, lakes, dunes, or ice. I humbly suggest that traditions are meant to be shattered, new ones forged from the remnants. I suggest that the humans are no longer creatures we must live in proximity to but beings we must coexist with.” The murmurs begin again, this time with more fervor. Rosaceae continues, ignoring it. “Times are not changing, they have already done so! Prasinius Feram has bonded with a human, the rumors are no longer simply whispers in the shadows from the trees, they are true! Do we not owe it to all living things to seek the light instead of cowering in the dark?” There is an uproar among the Emerald. Elder dragons begin to shout, forgetting themselves. My mother watches, amused. She always did find the traditions stifling, some of the elders too resistant to seeking life outside their caverns and trees. She is just too practiced in the politics of our kind to speak this openly. Rosaceae plunges ahead, voice rising over the gathered. “We should not hide our heads and ignore what is happening! We must change too! The continent will descend into war and destruction if we do not!” “We cannot bring peace by spilling blood!” One of the elders roars, others agree. “The human conflict is not ours, no matter how heartfelt Prasinius’ feelings are! What are two human lives?” “You speak of peace but you truly desire cowardice and ignorance! It is my right to speak, elder! If the young can hold their tongues so should you!” Rosaceae roars, baring her teeth. My mother smiles again, watching an elder Emerald shrink from the words for the barest of moments. And with that, he is silenced, shamed. “Traditions are meant to change, they can be remembered but they should not define every moment, they were born of a time that is not this one! Emerald, I put to you that we should shatter tradition fully.” They erupt as one, two sides immediately defined. She is not finished though. She speaks above the din and her words are followed by a deafening silence. “To that end, I vote Prasinius Feram as Prime among Emerald and I choose to follow him to war!” They all look at me. I cannot contain my surprise at this. Tradition dictates that a Prime can not be nominated again, such is the price of their choices. This is not law, though. “Can she do that?” I hear from the Emerald. “Weren’t you listening?” The voice is shouted down. Young dragons from the trees begin to shout, shortly joined by some of the elders. I hear their words but I cannot process them. They are confusing to me. “I vote Prasinius Feram as Prime among Emerald!” They shout, a dozen, two, three, four. I stand in confusion when my mother leans closer to me. She reeks of amusement now. “I like her.” She whispers. Then she straightens and casts her vote. My brother does the same. It is for me. In the end, there is silence among the Emerald. Two others come forward, nominating candidates. One is the elder that shouted down Rosaceae, Sentius. Another is a young Emerald, Cedran, who seems uncomfortable with the idea. This is good, an Emerald should not desire Prime. Then the voting must take place in the proper way. Those who are nominated may not vote. I must stay silent while Emerald come to the Hearttree and whisper to it, their heads placed against the mighty trunk of the living world itself. Then they will pluck a single leaf from the lowest branches and place it under a stone, of which three have been placed beneath the tree. Then Cor, the eldest of us, will lift the stones. One by one, hours pass us by and we remain, watching. The youngest is the last to vote, a hatchling of no more than fifty years. All Emerald have the opportunity to vote, it is our way. Then it is over. Cor speaks. “Come forward.” I step to the Hearttree, Cedran and Sentius with me. We stand in the shade of the leaves and listen to the wind, it sings to us of our nature and the world that we care for. Of change. I close my eyes and listen, feeling myself swept away in the moment. A beating heart of the continent, connected to all life. It is wondrous. The whispers of the wind stop. I open my eyes and Cor looks at me. They all look at me. Cor has lifted the stones. I was placed in the center, Cedran to my left and Sentius to my right. Cor holds the leaves in place with a single claw, pierced through their center. It is unanimous. “Emeralds have chosen!” Cor raises his voice. “Prasinius Feram, by the new traditions of our people, you are Prime among Emerald.” Cor’s eyes spark with green fire when he speaks and then he shows me his throat. Cedran follows, so too Sentius. They will accept the will of the Emerald. They rejoin the gathering around the Hearttree. One by one, the gathered Emerald accept this. Of course they do, they voted for it. I cannot help but feel a trembling chill run down my spine. Someone begins to sing. Rosaceae. It is my song. Others join. Soon the clearing is filled with the sound once more. And so, the Emerald have chosen. “Brother.” Aquilos stands near to me, solemn and whispering into my ears. “Your army awaits.” “I just wanted to keep them safe.” I say. “That time has passed.” He says, chuckling in his chest, a wry noise. “Now is the time to give them an empire.” Epilogue I hate the cold. I pull my cloak tighter, shuffle my feet inside the fur lined boots, wiggle my fingers inside thick leather gloves. My breath frosts in the air before me, my beard decorated with ice. Wood docks creak with the waves, icy water lapping up at the supports and heaving the tenders against their ropes. A frozen wind whips in from the ocean and across the city, crashing into the thick stone walls and into the multitude of wooden shutters. These people are hard as the ice, a life in the cold and on the sea makes them so. While they embrace the warmth of a hearth and a roaring fire, they are as comfortable in this weather as I am uncomfortable in it. Only the richest quarters have the steam vents that keep the streets almost tropical even in the dead of winter. This is not a rich quarter. I wait in the darkness of an alley, concealed perfectly from any passers by. It helps that they’re all stinking drunk on imported beer and local spirits that may well be made from the seething rage remaining in a dead northman’s bones. I lean against the stone wall until the cold seeps through my layers, my many, many layers, then I shift. I watch for the night watchmen with their lit torches and thick, short spears and rounded shields. Broad swords hang from their waists and chainmail drapes their bodies, which is why I wish to avoid them. Any fool wearing metal in this is more dangerous than I’d like to consider. I’ve kept watch for what must be three days, or maybe three hours, when finally my target exits the tavern’s back door. Light spills out from the open door, music with it and the sounds of off-key singing and calls for a brawl. I’ve been told that a good night in a northern tavern involves at least one broken chair and the chairs are made from the same sturdy timbers as their ships and docks and sometimes their walls. So that’s impressive. I watch, my target warily eying the streets. I sink back into the shadows even further, I cannot risk being spotted now. Satisfied, he pulls his own cloak up and paces off into the street, his cloak billowing behind him in a delightfully theatrical way. Mine does not billow as I follow, carefully, watching his turns and stops to see if he is being followed. It is simple tradecraft but he is no spy, no assassin. He’s trying his best but I needn’t have worried, his best wouldn’t have passed my first classes. He takes a right turn and I wait the requisite fifteen seconds to ensure he has walked far enough that I don’t risk stumbling into him, flitting to a darkened doorway and looking down the street that he should be on. Except he isn’t. Oh, sneaky bastard. I curse, under my breath. I take a few steps into the open street and look but he is nowhere. Not in a doorway, there are no alleys to hide in here, just a stone street leading up towards the governor’s palatial estate atop the hill that overlooks this whole forsaken city of cold, ice, and stone. Damn it. Damn it! I hear voices from behind me. The glow of a torch, three, maybe four. Guards. Damn it, again! Where could he have gone? Where did he disappear to? Where? Where?! Then my eyes find it. The small, rounded metal disc that seals off the city sewers from the street. It isn’t askew but it must be the answer, it can be the only answer. I pry at it but my gloves make the work impossible. I use my teeth to pull them off, tucking them into a pocket and working furiously while my fingers nearly fall off in the frigid air. The guards come closer, their boots thudding on the stone. Another thirty seconds and I will be in their light, I will have to explain myself and that is precious time. I work more furiously and then…finally! It lifts, I tilt the cover and slip my feet down, hoping I find the metal ladder rungs that should lead down into the tunnels. What luck! I find them. I close the grate as quietly as I can, and as quickly. I hold my breath, hands pressed to the metal and I listen. I hear the muffled voices come closer, closer, closer, further, further, further. I let out the breath. In the darkness I feel with my feet until I find the next rung, and again and again until my foot finds a stone floor beneath it. I think that half my palm skin came free in the descent, stuck to the cold metal, and I curse this place once more. I fish my gloves out and tug them back on, grumbling. I hate the cold. Let it never be said in hushed circles that Ashur Rama, Spymaster by default, let the cold stop him from his duty. But, I really, really hate the cold. I only have the faintest glow of light to follow through the winding tunnels beneath the city. I stop to listen for the telltale sound of footsteps in the dark or heavy breathing, even as my eyes adjust to the darkness I can’t see more than a few feet through the moonlight that finds its way through the grates above. There are no torches or lanterns down here. Only criminals sulk down here in the dark. I have heard that every year there is a purge of these tunnels. All for show, I assume. I’m sure the criminal element under the streets pays their dues to the guard and the governor, theater is always important though. It makes the people feel better. And what is the guard and governor for if not to make people feel better? I hurry and am remotely thankful that the tunnels keep out the wind, though the stench is something to be less than grateful for. What I wouldn’t give for a hot bath, warm meal, and to be a thousand miles from this stupid land of ice and angry, bearded men. I hear voices ahead and slow my steps. I can walk as silent as the whispering wind should the need arise, and the need has arisen. Aroused? Arisen, probably. I creep forward, pressing my back against the stone. “-they know?” This is a man’s voice, thick and gravelly. “How could they, Dunkan?” A woman. I do so enjoy when conspirators use their names. It makes my job so much easier. “Don’t say my name, Bella.” Dunkan hisses. “Then why would you say mine?” She whines. Surely, I am up against the greatest criminal minds that have ever been seen. “Stop it, both of you!” Another woman, this one does not whine, she has presence. Dunkan and Bella fall silent, but I hear the sound of someone being slapped. Children, I have been tasked with hunting a criminal ring of children. “They couldn’t know.” My target speaks, I have heard his voice before, since I followed him from that doomed city. Last I heard a flood washed the entire thing away, a Sapphire wrought flood. Damnedest thing I ever did hear. “All these years and no one has ever suspected anything. Our plan is secure.” “Was it the plan to destroy my town?” Dunkan says, raising his voice. Ah. That Dunkan. Suspected slaver and retired Legionnaire turned bandit, ferrying slaves from the eastern coast to ships that carried them away to unknown fates. Six spies had infiltrated the corridor, six spies had never reported back. We suspected Dunkan hid out near Watersford, which would seem to be confirmed. “Yes, Dunkan, the plan was to destroy the hub of our trade and cripple the routes that we use. Exactly the plan.” Bella says, “Then it was a bad plan.” Dunkan announces, to silence. I can almost hear the slow blinks from here. “It wasn’t the plan! You great hulking moron!” This is another voice. That makes five, at least, conspirators. “Don’t call me a moron, Niles!” Ah. Niles. Captain Niles von Krescher. Trader to distant, mysterious lands. Explorer. Slaver. “Enough!” My target speaks harshly. Governor Wolff, guardian of the Northern Provinces, does not have time to waste on this nonsense. He certainly has time to sulk off into taverns and alleys, disappear down sewers though. A governor, a bandit, a ship’s captain, someone named Bella, and a woman that has not slipped her name into conversation yet. “Enough.” The Governor controls himself. “They cannot know that one of them is turned. Watersford was unexpected but the Emperor’s movements were unexpected. Marching legions over the mountains?” “Insanity.” Bella says. “Is it crazy if it works?” Niles says. “Shut up, both of you.” Governor Wolff continues on. “This was not the plan but the plan is adaptable for that reason. We knew that it was impossible to predict anything, a dragon harboring the children?! Nonsense. We adapt. Our friends will arrive on schedule, the Emperor fights a civil war, our man with this Knight Gardiner keeps us appraised of their movements. By the time they realize what has happened, it will be too late.” Interesting. This is about more than slaves. “What about the one that was captured?” Niles speaks again. “You will take the captive on your ship, he may be useful to us yet.” Governor Wolff says. “Silence.” The woman with presence says. Her voice drops to a harsh whisper. No one speaks, there is a crushing silence. “Someone is listening.” That’s bad. That is so, so very bad. I move on my heels, as slowly and carefully as I can so as not to make a single, solitary, lonesome sound. My heart pounds. “You caught me.” The speaker is a man, older. I let out a breath that I did not know I was holding. My hands tremble in my gloves and not just from the cold. “It’s rude to eavesdrop.” The woman with presence says. “It’s rude to forgo the invitation to your benefactor, Soph.” The man says and I hear the sinister smile in his voice. It sends chills down my spine. He sounds like an accented snake, an accent I cannot recognize and I have traveled the entire continent at least three times and perfected a half dozen languages and accents. “I have to ensure that none of you are finding this…difficult.” He says, his voice moving around whatever room they are standing in. I find it hard to take them seriously standing at the intersection of a sewer but I am beginning to take them seriously nonetheless. “They hang slavers here. Traitors too. We are not finding this difficult.” Soph, the woman with presence, says. Her voice is clipped now, she does not like this man. I do not like this man and I have yet to see him. “They do, they do. Though they often perform, extraneous punishments prior to the hanging, for traitors.” This is true, I can attest to that. I have been witness to and in some cases performed those punishments. “Ask the Imperial spy listening in.” Shit. I do not try to move slowly this time. I whirl and sprint. I hear a great roaring shout and something metal strikes the stone, I feel the wind from the weapon brush against my neck. It might have even shaved a few neck hairs off. I drop to a knee and slide on the stone, turning my body and throwing two small orbs of a glossy white at a man who, I assume, is Dunkan. That’s an educated guess just from the size of him. I shield my eyes with my forearm immediately and open my mouth wide. The orbs explode in a brilliant white that fills the tunnel with a sudden shock of light. They burst with a concussive force that stuns the ears, unless one offsets the sudden pressure change, as I did. It still causes a hell of a ringing in them. I take off running again, leaving Dunkan behind screaming and pawing at his eyes. I chance a look over my shoulder and suck in a breath at the sight of the woman that is following me. Bella, of course. Former Knight Bella Dyanna. Not good, not good. I don’t have any more tricks. Wait, I’m a spy, I have a lot more tricks. I take a hard left, hoping that somewhere down this path will be another ladder up to the street level. It’s a sewer, seems a safe bet. Always have a secondary escape plan, mine is to run like the fires below are after me and get lucky. After the turn I fish out a small, swirling green orb and drop it behind me. It does not burst loudly or with a brilliant white flash, instead if explodes and instantly packs the tunnel with a thick green cloud of particulates and smoke. Former Knight Bella Dyanna skids to a stop, coughing and choking in breaths and sparing what little air she gets for curses hurled at my back. I make another hard turn, this time to the right, and slip on the wet stone. Something whips over my head as I slip, my gloves skidding on the stone as I try to right myself. It hisses angrily and turns in midair, which things should not be able to do. I find myself eye to eye with a dragon. A dragon? No, yellows are the smallest and they aren’t this small, I’ve never heard of one this size. It’s dog-sized. Impossible. Not to mention the fact that the damn thing isn’t covered in yellow scales. I scramble to my feet and feel a claw pull at my cloak. I throw an elbow and it lands, feels like slamming my elbow into a sheet of metal or a wall. The thing lets out a tinny scream as it’s tossed to the ground and I keep running. “Run, run and tell your story!” A loud voice booms behind me, echoing in the tunnels. It is followed by a laugh, a laugh at my expense. “Tell them the Brass Lord comes!” In my panic, in the dark, flailing, I find a cold metal rung. I ascend with speed I did not know my arms or legs possessed and throw my shoulder into the round metal cover of the sewer. I find myself under a dark sky, on a city street, with a cold wind whipping past and a dusting of snow falling down. I breathe hard and it mists above me, each gasping breath a reminder of how much I hate the cold. Then I am bathed in a warm, flickering, yellow light. Torches and faces appear over me. Watchmen. “Look lads.” One of them speaks, his thick beard coated in ice crystals and his grin a few teeth short of full. “Sewer rats are getting bigger.” “I can explain.” I say. “Arrest that thief!” I hear the voice from ahead in the street. Governor Wolff throws back his fur lined hood and points a thick finger at me. His beard is grander than any of these men and gone mostly gray. I can only hope that I look so healthy in my seventies. If I make it to them. I am on one knee when the swords are drawn and pointed at me. I hold up my hands slowly, watching the Governor approach. He will have me hanged, beheaded, anything that he wishes and no one will know his role in…whatever this conspiracy is. I need more information. “Make a move.” The one with more teeth than brains, and not so much of either, says, the tip of his sword resting on my shoulder. “If you insist.” I say. I have one trick left. Well, I have lots of tricks but I only have one that will work in this situation. In my hand I hold a single, matte black orb. I open my palm and drop it, preemptively wincing. Someone shouts to ‘catch it’, I do not recommend that but I also don’t offer that advice. Instead I steadily suck in breath until there is no space left in my lungs. The orb bursts and immediately my world turns to fire. Small particulates fill the air and where they touch skin it feels as if that skin is aflame with the fire of a thousand dragons. I keep my eyes closed tight and run, a mental picture of the watchmen in my head. They will have gasped in pain at the first touch, sucking in the particles and setting their lungs on fire. I avoid this, by being educated and instructed in the methods of the use of these spy tricks. I cannot open my eyes so I move, away from where Governor Wolff was. I hold my breath as long as I can and I sprint away, feeling the cold stones under my boots just as clearly as I feel the fire across my face. I count out the steps and hope, wish, pray that when I make my turn I don’t run face first into a wall. There. I make the turn and…I don’t hit a wall. I open my eyes and gasp cold air down, then regret that almost as surely as I would have regretted breathing in Dragon Dust. I keep running, hearing the shouts behind me, fading slowly. I weave into alleys, across streets, and I stop. A brightly lit tavern stands ahead, music and laughter still filtering out into the street. I am in a richer part of town, where the shops have glass windows to display their goods. There will be more watchmen here, they will come soon. Especially with the Governor on the case. Bells begin to ring from the great stone churches across the city, where the northerners pray to the ocean gods, gods of wind and stone and ice. Superstitious bastards. The bells wake the city to a threat, a spy in their midst. To me. They will shut the gates and they will board every ship, including mine that waits in the harbor with a crew of southern sailors, traders that ply their wares up and down the vast oceans. Not good. I stare at myself in one of the glass shops and sigh. It’s a sigh of relief. I was tired of being a northern man, not being myself. I miss my face. I blink and the face is gone. Gone is the light colored beard of a northerner, gone is the broad nose and wrinkled brow, the blue eyes. In that blink it is replaced with my own face, a dark black beard kept short and dark brown eyes. I must move quickly for the docks and reach my ship, I have names now and I have a target. I also have questions. Like who is the Brass Lord? And who do I tell that he is coming? It's all very ominous. I don’t like ominous, not in my line of work. Only one thing matters now, finding answers. That means it is time to go to work. It’s time to sail. I pull my cloak tighter. I hate the cold.
Chapter 25 The camp is alive with activity. Space has been cleared for dragons now that we have become as much part of this army as the soldiers themselves. Heavy bolts stand ready to fill the sky from rebuilt towers, walls have expanded, defenses constructed and strengthened. Emeralds assisted where they could. Rosacea led the younger Emeralds in this, encouraging them to the manual labor. Together, we dug deeper trenches and piled higher earthworks, dragged larger trees for the walls and sunk them deeper into the earth. Honestly, to call it a camp demeans what it has become. It has become something more, not a town but also not a camp. Widened streets to make space for dragons to walk beside humans, open areas for dragons to land and take off from without collapsing tents as happened the first few times. Large shelters where dragons can rest, with water or food, side by side with soldiers. It is the first place where dragons live side by side with humans. I find Mahz lounging with Sergeant Dunstan. They are practically inseparable now, the two of them. Well liked among the soldiers, so I hear. Alcina too, in a twist. She has become obsessed with learning about humans from the source and they seem to find it equally fascinating to learn about dragons from the source. I imagine there has not been such a knowledge exchange ever before in history. I should not make statements on the inseparability of anyone. Not when I walk the camp with Knight Gardiner at my side, not when we take almost daily flights. “Prae.” Mahz says. “I hear you were voted back in. Not sure why you gave up the title if you were just going to get it back but I never understood Emeralds anyway. All seems very Citrine of you.” “You should travel more.” I say. “Open your mind.” “I think I am the third dragon to take a human rider.” Mahz says with a smoky snort. “My mind is open enough.” “Oh, sir.” Sergeant Dunstan says, snapping his fingers as he recalls something. “Quartermaster wanted to see us, said it was urgent.” “He say what about?” Knight Gardiner asks. “No.” Knight Gardiner looks at me and I have nothing more pressing at the moment. Boy hasn’t left Girl’s side and she hasn’t left Sergeant Allisten. I cannot help them and I cannot even fit into the tent they occupy. I would be a distraction. It would be best if I were distracted. So we go to the Quartermaster. The Quartermaster is a seasoned veteran of the legions that understands the needs of the men, how many barrels of water they need to keep on their feet, how many sacks of flour. The Quartermaster is the wheel, vital and often under appreciated. Until the wheel breaks. This Quartermaster is a young man thrust into the position after the former was killed by the lightning strike. He is a capable young man that has taken on too much work. He meets us outside his tent, at a low wooden table, where the logistics and supply personnel stream in and out with constant work assignments. “Marlow, you need to sleep.” Sergeant Dunstan says. Mahz bobs his head in agreement. “Look like shit.” Mahz adds. “Thank you, both of you. Never expected I would meet a dragon and live, but I think the most disappointing thing is how much of an ass the dragon is.” Marlow says, rubbing his eyes. “I have something for all of you, mostly for you two.” He means Knight Gardiner and Sergeant Dunstan. “But, if you two-” He motions to Mahz, then to me. “-want it, well, I have something for you two too.” He leads us to a tent nearby and throws the flap open. Inside are neatly organized weapons and armor. Gleaming steel weapons that stand on racks or in barrels, plate armor draped over wooden supports, leather armor and cloth padding. “I figured if you’re going to be flying and fighting, you should do it properly. A dragon isn’t a horse.” “What?!” Mahz shouts, feigning surprise. “Why did you not tell me, Prae?” Marlow doesn’t laugh, and Sergeant Dunstan rolls his yellow flecked eyes but there is a smirk on his face when he does. There is always a smirk, the two of them are perfect for one another. “Funny. Look, you can’t fight from a dragon with a sword. You can, and you did, but I’ve had the smiths make some lighter halberds. They’ll give you reach and enough punch to get through scales. Dunstan, you prefer the bow, so I made some armor piercing arrows for you.” “Thank you, Marlow, this will help.” Knight Gardiner tests the weight of a halberd in his hands. “This is standard.” Marlow says, waving off Knight Gardiner. “Useful, but this is where things get interesting.” He pulls a cloth off a rack, revealing armor that is not made for humans. It is fashioned to fit the head, forearms, belly and chest of a dragon. Many parts lay in this pile, fashioned for us. We look at it. We have never considered this before, to become armored like a human knight. “We were born with armor.” Mahz says. I agree with him. “You were.”Marlow tests the tip of one of the armor piercing arrows with his thumb, pressing and drawing a welling drop of blood. “Then we figured out how to punch through it. You can bet that somewhere out there, Adamicz has his own smiths doing the same thing. Your armor is not good enough.” “Is that for the comment about how you look?” Mahz asks. I nudge him, to silence him. If that is possible. “We will consider it. It could affect our ability to fly.” I say. It is additional weight, it could restrict movement. Though I do have several new scars that speak to the ineffectual nature of my own natural armor in certain situations. “Understood.” Marlow says. “If either of you are willing to be a test subject, or the Sapphire, we can work out any complications.” “Thanks, Marlow.” Knight Gardiner says. “We appreciate it.” “No, we do. The smiths worked on this on their own time and they don’t have much of that. The dragons saved us. It’s selfish anyway, the stronger they are the more our chances of winning improve.” Marlow says. “Working with dragons? Imagine that. War makes for strange bedfellows.” “Get some sleep, Marlow. I think we have a long way to go yet.” Knight Gardiner says. “Thank you, Quartermaster.” I say, tilting my head to him. It is thoughtful, if possibly impractical. We will find out. He returns the gesture and I am surprised. These humans have taken surprisingly well to our presence. We leave, Mahz and Sergeant Dunstan taking their leave to find some trouble to get into. I expect to find Mahz wearing armor in short order, I can sense the vicious delight that lies in him at being the first Citrine with armor. A warrior dragon. Even with all that has happened, it is good to feel this way. A sort of belonging. And I realize that I once made a mistake with Boy and Girl. They were apart from the world, living on the edge of it. Like Emeralds, like me. Now they must find their way to belonging. “Come on.” Knight Gardiner says. “Before you get melancholy. I laugh. He is right and that should bother me more than it does. Yet it does not. I have become comfortable with this, the sharing between us. For all the emotions that I do not wish to share, there are moments like this. A flash of excitement that infects me. He wishes to fly. I soar. Above the mountains and fields and forests of the world, there is peace. A stolen moment, this far from the pressing matters of humans and dragons. Away from the civil war that envelops the human nations, from the same that tears at the fabric of the dragons. The skies are clear and have been each day of the last two weeks that we have remained here, recovering from wounds. Emeralds have begun missions of ranging, our natural abilities at blending into nature make us perfect for these tasks of scouting. Fact finding, free of subterfuge. They bring back word of infighting and newly forged alliances, plotting and war. Sapphire councils meet to debate the magic found in humans and what this means for them. Rubies remain elusive and unconcerned in the depths of their holds. There is much askew in the world and much to make right. Things that I am partially or entirely responsible for. So I soar. Knight Gardiner is ecstatic, as usual. I have begun to think that the novelty of flight will never wear off for him. I enjoy this. While I may find my mind wandering to the troubles that remain for us it always returns to that stolen moment of peace. The Western Provinces are large, broad, and largely unpopulated. We soar over a patchwork of fields on the edge of enormous forests dotted with lakes. Cobblestone roads weave through the trees to the mountains to the south, a spiderweb of maintained routes for trade or military mobility. This is the might of the humans. Dragons can apply brute force quite well. We are large, armored, breathe fire. Some can use magic. I can commune with nature and sometimes nature gifts me its reply. There is much that is powerful or intimidating about dragons but we cannot build like humans. We cannot tame such vast swathes of land while so much still remains untouched. I can see the movement of humans on the roads with horses and wagons or simply on foot. If I turn my gaze to the north and west I can see the distant cities that rise up with mighty walls and towering stone buildings. To the south, I see the great mountains and the roads that wind into them, and the enormous black stone walls that rise up to protect the three passes. This is the wealth of the Western Provinces on display. Above all this, it is stunningly beautiful. Rolling treetops that spread out like a green blanket over the land, soon they will become a riotous display of red and orange and yellow as autumn comes with cool winds and warm days. In these trees live the great black and brown bears that fish in the rivers for their dinner, the deer that grow fat off the richness of the land, the foxes that hunt through the burrows, the rabbits and squirrels and all the living creatures besides. Great trees that stretch up to the sun, creaking and groaning in the wind while their branches rustle against one another in the ever moving and living canopy. Rivers of crystal clear water flow with precious life, rapids of white water crashing against rocks and riverbanks while the life below find their way to ancient spawning grounds. Even the fields of golden wheat that ripple with each change in the wind are beautiful, humans working to see the sum of their work grow ever taller to feed the multitudes. It is a great, beautiful place that will be torn by war. It has already begun. Emperor Adamicz has fewer men than he would have expected but they have begun a campaign of destruction. Black smoke rises thick in the air throughout the Wildlands and to the south, where Emeralds have reported that the three fortresses have been besieged and holds that watch the Wildlands have been burned. While his legions suffered a devastating blow, the Emperor was willing to split his forces into smaller groups that sow chaos and confusion and must be rooted out and hunted. They are a distraction, meant to delay while the bulk of his other forces arrive. We had but a brief reprieve of several days while the Emperor and his remaining legions retrieved bodies and laid them to rest in pyres fed by dragon fire, lights that burned for three nights and reminded us of the losses we most dearly felt. It was short lived, then his men began to raid the west. Aquilos himself tracked the Emperor, who returned south with a personal guard. He leads the besieging legions. They will break through the mountains soon, within a matter of weeks, if nothing changes. “Dire situation, isn’t it?” Knight Gardiner says. He has become more attuned to my thoughts in these passing days, as I have to his. “It would seem so. Beset on all sides by foes.” I say, banking toward the mountains and the fires that burn in the distance. Even with the vastness of this place and the many humans that inhabit it, we are surrounded and outnumbered. We have not seen the might of the Onyx brought to bear yet, nor the Citrine. Whispers, there are only whispers. “We have come this far.” Knight Gardiner says. “We can finish this.” I think of Boy and Girl, in the camp. Boy has become sullen but works tirelessly to support the camp, attending the meetings of what little remains of the command staff of the legion and reforming the devastated cohorts. We are left with a single legion’s worth of troops and two thirds of the knights that had accompanied them. It is a terrible loss. And Sergeant Allisten, an emerging leader cut down in the night, clinging to life. She may be dead for all I know, which is the unavoidable truth. “We can finish it, but death is as much an end as victory.” I tell Knight Gardiner. I continue my flight, over the stretching land, watching the mountains. I have questions for Knight Gardiner but not ones that can be answered in flight. Not with the rushing wind. I bank again, doing a slow circle that takes us around to view the north. Where there is movement on the roads. A lot of movement. “Do you see that?” I ask. I feel it before he answers, I know he does. I feel the tension in his legs and arms. “They’re moving towards the camp.” “They are.” The tension has drained from his body, he is relieved. He is focused on this column of men that covers the road entirely, he does not see what I am more concerned about. “So are those dragons.” I say. The tension returns, his eyes drawn to the movement in the sky. The same movement I see, am focused on. There are shapes coming from the mountains, shapes in the sky. I cannot see more than their gleaming yellow scales, they are Citrine. Not entirely though. One of them is not yellow. “Is that…?” Knight Gardiner’s voice trails off. He knows what it is, he can feel it through me as much as he can see with his own eyes. “A Moonstone.” I say, giving voice to that which he knows. “That, Knight Gardiner, is a Moonstone.”
That reminds me of a story. Yeah, Es and I are still in Dubai. We’re still going slowly out of our minds. It’s gotten so bad that I actually leave our suite now and again to wander the hotel (too bloody hot to go outside) actually looking around to see if there’s anything to alleviate this tedium. Maybe, even find someone to talk with… Yes. Gad. I’m that bored. Sure, I’m writing about 10-15 very technical pages a day, rounding up my references, bashing out bibliographies and other such scholarly shenanigans for the articles I’ve been asked to publish on my way to my next degree. But, c’mon, man. I need a fucking break now and again. And to focus on something greater than 20” away from the tip of my nose. And there’s nothing here that immediately looks like it needs demolition. Not a blasting cap super-booster or keg of dynamite in sight. I’d wager you couldn’t rustle up a single kilo of C-4 if your life depended upon it. “Klytus. I’m bored.” And “Forward: Drink!” sort of go together. So, once again I’m sitting in the Seeker’s Lounge in the Gold Market Bar of the JW Marriott Hotel, in the air-conditioned patio section of course, drinking cold potato juice and citrus cocktails, with lime wheels, of course. Wild Turkey 101 Rye on the side, and full-pint Little Kings Cream Ale beer chasers, hiding from the brutish realities of this increasingly intensely foul year, two thousand and twenty, CE. The bar is almost empty, save for the bartender and one or two unidentifiable expats growling about the lack of flights, and the ridiculous stringency the airport has saddled travelers with in this age of Pandemic Phobia and COVID Craziness. I’m smoking my usual double Churchill cigar, having a sip or eleven, lazily looking around the drinking establishment and out over the next-door hotel pool. The pool is fucking huge. It extends from the inside, under a half-wall, to the outside of the 29th floor. I’ve been in it on occasion, but venturing outside, nearly 300 feet in the air in a glass-bottomed puddle, sort of overwhelms my inner ear. And my desire to continue metabolizing. It really does get me all vexed and vertiginous. So, I reserve my laps for the Jacuzzi in our suite. That’s a joke, by the way. It’s not that large. Close. But not quite. Anyways. There’s a family outside on the pool veranda. A very handsome African family with the obligatory couple of kids running around, screaming and generally confirming my desire to stay inside where it’s air-conditioned and the drinks are cold and close. Well, kids will be kids. One is approximately 15 or 16 and the other is 8 or 9. I spoke briefly with Workneh Chernebereck, the patriarch of the family. He was looking rather lost after he wandered into the bar in his flip-flops, bathing attire, and robe. Pool service here is abysmal with the lockdown and overall 15% hotel occupancy in Dubai right now. He slowly shuffled in. Since I was the first one he saw, he came over and asked if I thought he could get a couple of cold drinks for him and his family. “I guarantee it”, I said and gave Shabdiz, the redoubtable Pakistani bartender, the high sign. Shabdiz came over and with a thumb over the shoulder, I said to give this guy what he wants and put it on my tab. I’m very gregarious when someone else is paying the bills. He orders a selection of soft drinks for his family and I tell him that it’s OK here if you want a beer or something stronger by the pool. “Yeah, it’s a Muslim country, but when there are dollars involved, they tend to look the other way.” I smiled. “You have any proscriptions against drinking alcohol?” “No, sir. None. ”, he replied. “Good. Well first, cut out that “sir” shit. Call me Rock.” I smiled and extended my non-cybertronic hand. ‘Work’, as he liked to be called, beamed a dazzlingly-white smile as we shook hands and I offered him a cigar. Work was amazing. Very, very dark; and muscled like a pile of boulders stacked one atop the other. But soft-spoken and evidently educated. He smiled and accepted my hand. He also grinned canyon-widely when I ordered him a quick beer. “The wife will never know”, I said in an otiose conspiratorial manner. Work was from Ethiopia originally but was now in Dubai with his family as he was just hired to be a department manager or something like that for some global telecommunications concern. “First time an ex-pat?” I asked. “Oh, yes, sir...umm…Rock”, He said, “I have to admit, it is somewhat disorientating.” “Schooled in the UK, were we?” I grinned. “Yes. How did you know?” he asked and sipped his beer while Shab went to get the soft drinks. “Most normal people would say ‘disoriented’. Brits always add a few extra syllables when words aren’t long enough, evidently.” I say. “You are correct. Manchester.” Work replies. “I won’t hold that against you”, I chuckled and wondered where the hell Shab got off to. My glass was all dry and empty. We laughed and chatted while Shabdiz scouted up some plastic tumblers with lids for the kids out by the pool. Work was a very interesting sort of character. Evidently, Ethiopia has much more in its history than just producing exquisite coffee. I ask him how long they’ll be at the hotel and explain a bit of what Esme and I are up to. I’m sure Es would be interested in talking with Work and his wife, Moneereh and their two children, Yekameh and Zarrineh, in order of eldest to youngest. Esme’s like that. She likes to meet new people, chat with them, and find out their story. Besides, she and Tash were in Ethiopia some years back for some American School All Invitational Track and Field thingy. I scribble my room phone number on my business card. “If you and Moneereh would like to have some dinner, my treat, just give us a call. My wife and I would enjoy the chance to talk with some new folks.” I said, handing Work my business card. Work took my card, the drinks, which had now arrived, and replied: “I will do so. Please to expect a call in the soon time.” He smiled as he headed for the door. I didn’t know or care if he would. It was a pleasant little diversion for a few minutes. I wouldn’t mind Es and me having dinner with them if the ‘soon time’ came soon enough. I looked out to the veranda, and Work was pointing my direction as his kids grabbed the drinks and demolished the bowl of bar nibbly bits I sent out with him. He waved to me. Moneereh waved to me. I waved back. It was a nice little diversion in a series of long, uneventful diversionless days. I sat at the bar, drank my drink, smoked my smoke, and futzed with this new Dell Latitude 7424 Rugged Extreme computer I got in Dubai Duty-Free. Esme said it matched our luggage. I was looking for a new portable and well, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury is your mother’s sister’s husband. So, I sat at the bar, enjoying another cold libation, a new cigar from the hotel’s walk-in humidor, and playing around with my new toy. I had already transferred the few hundred gigs of dissertation data over and was spending some time fucking around with Zotero and Mendeley. I looked up every now and again to see what Work and his brood were doing. They were out enjoying the Dubai sun and heat, as they found the hotel, kept at a brisk 26C ‘a bit too chilly for them’. Gads. They must have lived on the sun if they find this hotel anything but uncomfortably warm. I note that the lifeguard chair out by the pool is empty. Shabdiz brings me another tot and I ask him about that. “Shab, last time I went for a swim, there was this asswipe of a lifeguard. Said I couldn’t smoke around the pool. He shut up and left me alone when I pointed out the ashtrays strewn about the deck.” I remarked. “Yay. Todd. He’s a gomer, that soulless fucker. Never there. Always out getting baked. You know, the ganja man? He’s a pothead. Hotel don’t care because it’s so empty. Most bosses out anyway vacationy.” He relates to me. “That’s seriously fucked,” I replied and tipped my glass his direction. “Thanks, boss” Shabdiz says, “It is, how you say, very dusty here today.” He helps himself to a top-shelf tot on my tab. I’ve either trained the hotel staff well or I’m a real bad influence on them. Either way, it keeps my drinks full and iced and my ashtrays empty. I return to my translations. Damn, my Russian’s gone all to hell and back. Still, it’s keeping me occupied and I have to read these bloody .ПДФ files anyways… A couple of hours later, I glance over at the pool and see Work and company have departed. I suddenly realize I haven’t visited the euphemism for a couple of hours and my bladder’s sending out an urgent SOS. I call over to Shabdiz, “Gotta go make a fatter bladder flatter, Shab. Watch my shit for me while I’m gone?” “Sure, Doc”, San smiles, “Awfally thirsty work watching your shit…” “Go ahead, you pirate.” I laugh and head off to the head. He taps another tot off the top-shelf for himself. I’m gone a few minutes. No hurry, quick comb through the locks, a quick comb-comb-comb of the beard and I’m looking my Grizzly Adams best. Which isn’t all that good. But I care not, he says. I wander back to the bar and the two ex-pats and Shabdiz are staring out the bar window toward the pool. “What’s up? I ask. “Another clandestine nude photoshoot?” “Naw, man”, Shabdiz says, “Looks like a kid’s over in the deep end of the pool. Maybe being in trouble all lonesome there by herself.” I look out and see a small African child thrashing in the deep end of the pool, obviously in way over her head. “Holy shit! It’s Zarrineh!”, I say. I tear off the Stetson and toss it on the bar. I rip off my watch and hand Shabdiz that and my wallet. “Hold these!” I didn’t wait for an answer. I was gone as fast as my scarred and battle-worn carriage would allow. I hit the pool doors, flung them open, and did a pretty creditable aging Johnnie Weissmuller maneuver into the pool. One thing about being from Baja Canada and growing up cheek-by-jowl with the greatest of the Great Lakes. Everyone there knows how to swim like the state fish, the mighty muskellunge, by the time they can walk. I am no exception. I may be old, beat-up, MS-addled, scarred, keloided, and road-weary, but I can swim like a goddamned narwhal. Take that, Johnny Tremain. I was under the divider and suddenly outside, some 300’ directly above the distant pavement in a motherfucking glass-bottomed pool. Fuck that. There’s a kid in danger. That’s my first priority. Two strokes later, I’ve got her around the waist, facing away from me. I’ve enough natural buoyancy to keep both of us out of the danger zone; even though she’s thrashing around and clearly panicked. All those years of API RP T-7 offshore survival training and HUET drills come flooding back like a tsunami. “Zarrineh! I know your father! Calm down. I’m a trained rescuer, not some dingbat off the boardwalk. Settle down, I’ll get us out of here. But you’ve got to help me. Now, Zarrineh, chill out or whatever you kids say these days. I got you. Let me do my thing” I said, in calm, clear, reassuring registered tones. She turns to look at me. I’m surprised she didn’t faint or go completely bananas. I must have been a sight. A sodden, soaking, gray 1/3rd of ZZ Top. “I’m a very young Ethiopian child and this old, very large, very white behemoth has me around the waist.” She must have been thinking. “But he talks nice. I guess I’ll listen to him. Not much else I can do.” I would suppose her inner dialogue was going. She calmed down, and we just bobbed there for what seemed like a few minutes. It was actually probably all of 60 seconds, but I was doing a quick assessment to see if she swallowed any water and was going to dry-drown on me once I got her to the side. “OK. That’s much better. Zarrineh. Are you OK? Swallow any water? Can you breathe OK?” I asked. “Yes. Sir. I’m OK. No water. Just got too deep so fast. Floor is slippery. Now I’m OK sir”, she said, much calmer. “Call me Rock”, I said. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll swim backward and hold you, you just go along with the flow. OK?” I asked. “OK, Rock. We go.”, she said, absolutely calm. I slowly paddled over to the divider, and we slipped silently under. The water’s much shallower here and I just kind of instinctively sort of aim for the side when my feet hit bottom. A few more feet and I can stand up. I gently undo my death-grip on her and stand up. I pick her up bodily and set her, feet-first, on the side of the pool. “Give me a minute”, I say, “I’m an old cigar smoker. It takes me a minute to work up a head of steam to get out.” I get out and take her over to a poolside lounge chair. I have her sit and I go over her vitals, as best as observation and inquiry allow. She hadn’t aspirated any water nor had any in her lungs, that much was clear. She looked scared but OK. “Looks like I got there just in time”, I said. “It got so deep so fast”, she said. “I’m a good swimmer and told daddy I’d stay on this side of the pool. There was even a lifeguard here. He left, and I didn’t think it was so slippery and deep.” She said, somewhat shakily. “See?”, I said, “Your parents set rules for reasons. But, you’re OK and I’ll bet you won’t do that again.” I give the high sign to Shabdiz for him to call hotel security. There’s supposed to be a lifeguard here. Someone’s just catapulted himself onto my shit list. “So, you’re OK. That’s the main thing. Bet I scared you when you were thrashing around out there. The look on your face when I grabbed you was priceless”, I chuckled. “I was scared. Ascared of drowning and scared of you. You’re so big and old and…hairy. And white. Then you grabbed me…” she said, stiffening a bit. “Yeah, hey. I’m all that”, I chuckled. “But you knew my name. You said you knew my daddy. Then I didn’t have ascared anymore. I knew I was OK.” She smiled at me. Fuck if something tough inside didn’t melt a little at that declaration. “That’s what’s important.” I said, “Ah, blast. Could you hand me that towel?” She did and I ripped off my left-hand glove. My new techno-digits are supposed to be waterproof, but that’s yet to be seen. Shower? OK. Jacuzzi? No worries. Full-on laps in the pool? Ummm… I removed the sodden leather glove and dried off my Kevlar-ed faux-fingers… “Nope”, I exhale heavily, “Everything’s OK.” Zarrineh stares mouth-agape at my left hand. She sees all the keloids, the scarring, the mangled paw, and those outrageous black fingers in that ever so white hand. “Oh, sorry. Industrial accident. Years ago. These are new, just got them. Still trying to figure them out.” I say. She stands and stares. “Don’t be scared. They’re just replacements for the ones I lost in Russia years ago.” I said. “What do they do?” She asks. “Same things yours do, just a bit faster and more strongly”, I said, flexing them so she could see how they work. “That is so cool! Wait until I tell Yekameh!” she squealed, “I got rescued by a robot man.” “Cyborg-American, if you please.” I chuckled. Right at that moment, a certain Todd showed up. He walks right past us and heads towards his chair. “Hey, Chuckles. You work here?” I asked. “Well, duh!”, he scoffs. “Were you supposed to be on duty over the last hour?” I asked. “Yeah. There wasn’t hardly no one here. I left for a bit.” He slurred. “Oh, really. You always leave when there are young kids alone in the pool?” I quizzed him. “There weren’t no one here”, he said with bacon-shot eyeballs. “You were out getting high, weren’t you?” I asked. “Yeah. So the fuck what?” he scoffed. “The fuck about doing your job, asshole. I usually don’t swim in a Hawaiian shirt and Chinos, you prolapsed fuckhole. I was in the bar and saw Zarrineh here drowning in the deep end. I had to jump in to get her before she died. That’s what the fuck about, you shithead sumbitch!” I growled. “Ah, yeah? One less pickaninny, more or less. Big deal.” He scoffed and tried to turn to leave. “YOU SORRY COCKSUCKER!” I roared, reached out and grabbed him by the neck. He was such a fucking pipe stem, I swear my new fingers could have wrapped twice around his scrawny collar. I lifted this asshole bodily off the ground, by the throat. I dragged him to within 10 centimeters of my face and snarled: “You want to ever take another goddamned breath, you apologize to this young lady like your life depends on it. Because it fucking damn well does!” I snarled. I hadn’t been this seeing-red angry for many, many years. It was most refreshing. “I’m so..sorr…sorry…” he croaked. “Um, Rock, I think you’re crushing his little neck bones there”, a voice from behind me says. I turn to look and it’s Work. “This cocksucker…out getting high…Zarrineh was in trouble…he…made me angry. Very angry indeed.” I said. ‘That we can see”, Work says, “Zarrineh’s OK, Rock. Let it go.” “’ Let it go?’ What a great idea.” I said, walked over to the pool and threw the miscreant as hard as I could at the wall divider. Fucking gravity got the better of the situation. Either that or I’m losing my arm. Whatever the case, he made a sufficiently satisfactory splash upon re-entry. “Asshole!”, I spat in his general direction. He was already crawling out of the pool, on the opposite side, and slinking away like the soggy ferret he was, towards his perch. “Yeah, you fucking Jobbernowl! Like now is a good time to watch an empty pool. You clodpate!” I go all archaic when I’m really spitting angry. Work and Zarrineh are talking. I wander over, splotching over in my soaked shirt and sodden shorts. “Rock, Zarrineh just told me. Thanks. Thanks so much, we owe you the world.” He said. ‘Well, probably wasn’t the brightest idea to leave her here alone.” I mentioned, cautiously. No need to add insult to near-miss injury. “There was supposed to be a lifeguard here.” He said, “But You’re right. We’re all a bit muddle-pated with all the flying.” “That’s a good word.” I chuckled, “However, all’s well that ends well. Let me go terrorize Todd a little more. That was fun. I haven’t had that much fun in a while.” Work talks me out of having a spot more fun just as hotel security, a day late and a dollar short, shows up and asks “Right. What’s all this then?” I tell the tale of how Todd was AWOL and Zarrineh, as any inquisitive 8 year-old would be, was checking things out. She got into a spot of bother, how I jumped in, and rendered aid. “That’s all”, I said, “Except for that Todd motherfucker cowering over there!” “Sir!”, the hotel security guard exclaimed."Language!" “That’s right. I tossed that ignoramus knucklehead in the pool, only because I didn’t think to toss him off the fucking ledge first. After he was derelict of duty and very nasty and bigoted to this young lady.” I said. “Is that so? And you are?” he asked. “I’m the Motherfucking Pro from Dover, Scooter. I’m DOCTOR Rocknocker, a native of these here parts. And I don’t like skinny, little douchebag job-toking retards. Especially when they’re out fucking off, and leaving a child alone in a huge, dangerous pool.” I replied. “Ah, yes. Doctor. Sorry, sir. Didn’t recognize you sopping. We’ll look into this. Thank you. “ he said and shuffled off Todd-ward. Work and Zarrineh were sitting on a chaise lounge, and she was telling her daddy of the big, crazy-haired white guy that hit the water like an angry erne, grabbed her in the deep end, calmed her down and got her back to safety and out of the pool. “All while Todd, the sorry…scumbucket, was out toking up.” I snarled Toddward. He leaped back seeing me giving him the stick-eye. “Rock”, Work, says, “What can I say? But I thank you. I owe you a huge debt. We owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.” “Look, let’s your family and mine do dinner.” I say, “That way, we can call it even.” “How is that even?” He asked. “It’s even in my book”, I said, “Since I’m currently writing a book, that’s the way it is.” Work looks at me puzzling. Zarrineh breaks the tension by mentioning to her dad that she was rescued by a robot-man. I hold up my left hand and waggle my fingers. “Industrial accident. Years ago. New techno-fingers. All your base are belong to us.” I chuckled. Now Work thought I was really off the deep end. We shook hands and I slogged back to the bar. Shabdiz was there with the bar manager. “We saw what you did.” The Arab manager, one Mohammad, said. “Don’t worry. I don’t charge extra for the show.” I lamely replied. “Shabdiz here watched your gear. Your bar bill is paid. We thank you.” he said. “That’s mighty nice of you. Thanks. Twernt nothin’. I’d do the same for either of you.” I laughed. “Just make sure that Todd asshole finds employment elsewhere, like Afghanistan.” I gathered up my gear and splooped off to the elevator. “Ding dong”, dinged the doorbell. My hands were full, I didn’t want to bother searching for the key. “Yes? Rock, what the hell?” Es says as she opens the door. “I was bored. I went swimming.” I replied. “Get in here. You’re making a mess.” Esme commanded. After changing into some dry duds, Es had a very tall, very cold libation waiting for me. “OK, give”, she commanded. So, I told her the story, in full three-part harmony. “Whatta bastard.” She exclaimed, referring to Todd. “I’m surprised he’s still breathing.,” “Yeah. Pity stayed my hand. It’s a pity I didn’t want to talk to the local constabulary if I killed him. At least, he’ll be off breathing somewhere’s else. He’s lost his job for certain. At most, he’s breathing on a jet plane, taking him back to Schmoeland or from wherever the fuck he originated” “Good. Dubai’s got enough assholes as it is without importing more.” Es smiles. Esme Rocknocker knows the score. I go back to work on my dissertation/paper for ‘Precambrian Research’ magazine. Esme is busying herself doing jigsaw puzzles. I loathe and despise jigsaw puzzles. Long story. Remind me not to tell you about it some time. The phone rings. It’s for me. “Work! How are you and yours?” I ask. “I am calling to see if you and your wife would like to meet me and my family in the Al Cadence restaurant around 1900 hours tonight. Our treat.” He asks. “No. Sorry. Can’t make it tonight.” I reply. “Tish tosh. Tomorrow?” He asks. “Nope. Can’t do it.” I reply. “OK, you tell me the time.” He says. “Time’s got nothing to do with the situation. We’re not going if I’m not paying.” I said. “Rock. You can’t. We owe you so much….we can’t let you pay” Work protests. “I’m on retainer with a generous expense account and per diem,” I say. Silence for two ticks. “So, tonight at 1900 hours then. We’ll all be there.” He laughs. “See you then.” I chuckle back. “Esme! Break out your good Sunday-go-to-dinner duds. We’re going out and hit the town. Or a restaurant, actually.” I say loudly. “With Work and Moneereh?” she asks. “Yep. Should be interesting., They’re from Ethiopia. You and Tash were there, right?” I said. “Oh, yes”, Es whooshes, “I remember their food. Holy wow! Was that hot!” “Esme, my darling. You think ketchup is hot.” I replied. “I remember you tearing up over that bottle of hot yellow-pepper sauce I brought back from Addis Ababa, so don’t go here.” She scolded. She was right. That stuff was thermonuclear. Nice, fruity, and 6.023x106 Scovilles. It hurt so good. “Hmmm…better check the restaurant. See the cuisine de jure." I said. “Hope it’s not TexMex.” “Remember, they might not drink. If they don’t, you can’t either. Wouldn’t be right.” Es admonishes. “No worries, my dear. I’ve already done my homework. No such problems here.” I said, having already vetted the situation in the bar with Work. “Good.” She replies, “But remember now, if they order a well-done steak, it’s not polite to toss them out of a high window.” “Of course, of course. “ I replied, “I’ll just dangle them for a brief time.” They ordered lamb and chicken that evening. Es had her a nice filet mignon. They ruined all my fun. Although it was a splendid evening. Zarrineh insisted I show her sister my electro-digits. “They’re so cool.” Yekameh was less than impressed. “Nice.” Teenagers. Am I right?
Sector Sixteen is gross. And I’m not being affectionate here, like “Oh, Sixteen is so gross, haha”. It’s disgusting, both physically and otherwise. Seventeen takes the very idea of filth as an object of careful consideration and respect. Sixteen seems to be sprinting headlong toward an early death by infection as quickly as humanly possible. There have been a few times where Wellspring City has broken out in armed conflict, inside itself. The Intersectional Wars. Only two of them, in the span of about six hundred years, because even if you hate your neighbors with a blind passion, it’s still a city and all the parts still fundamentally need one another. That and the Wellwardens tend to put a quick stop to any large-stale infighting with the flick of an indestructible wrist. Both times, Sixteen was destroyed almost immediately, by joint assault led from either Three or Twenty. Why? Because Twenty is the city’s religious district, and Three is home to the prison, the courthouse, and the headquarters of the Watch. Once the Sector Lords abandoned their duties in favor of bloodshed and a total dissolution of civil safety, Three and Twenty wasted no time in falling upon Sixteen like a shining hammer of crystalline justice. The sectors of Law and Purity finally had their chance to wipe their hated foe straight off the map - the sector of Abandon. They’d tried education and rehabilitation for decades, and elected the time had come for the helping hand to form a fist instead. And it worked. Why wouldn’t it? Three had all the muscle, Twenty had the most stirring speeches - Sixteen had no allies and no chance. It burned to the ground, along with all its debasement and sin. Twice. And Sixteen is still here. There’s a lesson in this, kids, and it’s one that people like Three and Twenty have a hard time getting to grips with. You can kill sinners. It’s easy. Shoot them in the face, cut their heads off, hang them, tear the flesh from their bones, burn them at the stake. Not even a problem. You can do it all day if you’re motivated enough - all it takes is some earplugs, an apron, something sharp, and a can-do spirit. You cannot, however, kill sin. It is always going to be there. You can whip yourself, fast, pray, feed the hungry, heal the sick, read a thousand books and climb a hundred mountains, but there is always going to be a part of you that wants something you know you’re not supposed to have. You might not act on it, but you’re still going to want it. Pretending otherwise is an exercise in puritanical foolishness that only results in self-loathing and insanity. If you want to cauterize sin once and for all, the last person on the pyre is going to have to be you. They tried burning Sector Sixteen to the ground, but like a weed with deep roots, it just grew back, right out of the ashes. And the place shows all its scars, with a kind of devilish pride. There isn’t much order to the place. There’s still piles of charred rubble in some parts, left as a kind of lazy monument to the things the district’s been through. All the cheap neon lights and billboards shine on crumbling stone, rotten foundations, and the toothy grins of all the good ghouls who came here for a particular brand of fun. It’s festive here, sure, in a way. But it doesn’t have that homey, clannish charm that Thirteen has. There’s something oily about it - a grease released from all the curdled shame of the people losing themselves here. This is where I found Tennima, a long time ago. I used to find a lot of kids here. As you can probably imagine, children do not belong in Sector Sixteen. But that doesn’t stop them from showing up. I’ve broken a lot of bones in these alleys. And only a few of them were mine. My stride widens as I work my way through the sweaty multicolored lights and past many dark doorsteps. I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to. A lot of bad memories. Hell, it’s half past noon and I’m being solicited left and right. And that’s not really unusual. Slabs have a hard time finding companionship. They’re enormous and oftentimes mentally unstable - trying to find physical affection when you’re a frothing mountain of angry muscle is about as easy as finding an ice cube in a smelter. And of course, for a lot of them, that just makes them angrier. The uh… hardworking men and women here charge slabs extra, for liability purposes, but they will take them as customers, unlike most everywhere else. And both parties know it. There are a lot of very big people in these crowds. “Hey there, big boy. You look like you could use some company.” “Why don’t you come this way and party with us, baby?” “I’m reinforced. I can take a lot.” A few of them approach me and take me by the elbow, trying to lead me off into one den or another. I don’t look any of them in the face, and keep walking. They don’t have a hope in the world of stopping me, either physically or mentally, and they realize that fast and break off to go hover around someone else. It’s not that I’m disinterested in sex, specifically. Sex is a perfectly fine way to spend an afternoon, I guess. I’m just disinterested in most things, and one of those things is copulating with… these fine people. One - I can’t afford it. Two - half these receptive men and women are more augmented than I am (they have a pretty rough job, after all), and I prefer a more organic experience. Three… well. I like a bit of emotional involvement. Call me a romantic. It takes me a bit to get to the far eastern sections of Sixteen, and every step feels like it’s sunk in sticky oil. The deadliest sector in the city is Three, bar none - that’s where they literally kill people, after all. But Sixteen is infinitely more dangerous. Three will at least run you through a paperwork mill and tell you that they’re killing you before they do it. Sixteen doesn’t extend that kind of courtesy, and it won’t kill you all at once. You’ll die slow. You’ll die of desperation. Of loneliness. Of anhedonia, bankruptcy, and overdose. And by the time the serpent has coiled around you and sunk its fangs into your neck, you’ll be asking for it. Seventeen does come after Sixteen, after all. And speaking of pain and death… I see a familiar face off to the left of the street. A dumpy, pear-shaped body awkwardly mashed into a cheap purple plastic suit, with thinning hair and an amount of sweat that only comes with years of high-test doses of thump. He’s a businessman, after all. Got to stay awake. He sees me back, over the tops of dozens of heads. Leaning against the side of a flesh shop like he owns it, his eyes go wide, for just a second. I don’t blame him, considering the things I said to him the last time we saw one another. He doesn’t move, though. Doesn’t run or try to hide behind anything. There are a few heavy men standing near him, the kind you pay to intimidate people like me. Ten years ago, he couldn’t afford this kind of muscle. If he had, I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I did. I guess he learned some lessons and recouped from the loss. Ten years is a long time, after all. I stop walking, smack in the middle of the street. A few people crash into my back and mutter expletives at me. I can’t even hear them. There’s this rushing sound in my ears, like a waterfall, blocking everything out. My eyes won’t move from this old acquaintance of mine. The instant I stop, staring at him, he comes off the building, leans on his shiny black cane, and beckons one of his goons. They exchange a few words. He doesn’t take his eyes off me the entire time. The four or five slab bodyguards come to a kind of pack animal attention, tipped off that there’s a threat nearby. They join their boss in trying to stare me down. I carve a path directly through the crowd over to him, neon shadows and pedestrian bodies flowing all around me. It’s like walking through a bad dream. My heart won’t stay put. And my legs are acting with a will of their own. I’m a stray bolt being drawn in by a magnet. Out of the crowd and in the mouth of the alley, I’m about twenty feet from him. If I get any closer, there’ll be a fight. And we wouldn’t want that. It’s darker here, in the arms of the buildings. Tougher for anyone behind me to see what’s going on in the shadows. He speaks first. He’s the kind of guy that’ll do that - head his competitors off as soon as possible. There’s a voice like chemical wind from under the door of a morgue. “So. The Beast emerges from his hibernation and walks among us once more. You catch me by surprise, Featherlight. I didn’t think I’d see you around here anytime soon.” His arms are folded over his flabby chest in a show of confidence, but his sweat and juddering vitae tell a different story. I don’t say anything for a moment. I shake my head and laugh quietly. I can’t help it. Some people are just naturally funny. I reply, “I find myself confused, Strake.” He smiles back at me. “Oh? And why’s that, pray tell?” I scratch my head bemusedly. “Because the last time we saw each other, I snapped both your femurs, traumatically confiscated your testicles, and explained in no uncertain terms that if I ever saw you in Sector Sixteen again, I’d not only break every other bone in your body, but I’d also make you a fancy new necktie out of your own unraveled larynx. I was very clear. You were screaming very loudly at the time, but I was pretty sure you got the message. And yet, here you stand. Very impressive, by the way. I realize your knees were probably replaced a while ago, but has medical science progressed to the point that they make prosthetic balls now too? I’m dying to know, Strake. Because we established a while ago that you’re not mature enough to use them responsibly, so, if that’s the case, I’m going to have to take the new pair as well. You naughty boy.” I swear I hear one his henchmen stifle a snicker behind me. Strake’s smile evaporates. Bad memories will suck all the cheer right out of a guy, and for Strake, I’m eight hundred pounds of things he’d rather not remember. He replies around his scowl, “Yeah, well, we all make promises we can’t keep sometimes, don’t we. I bought a cane. I get around just fine. ‘Cause some of us have persistence, Featherlight. I pushed through it and now I’m bigger than I’ve ever been. I survived you. I buy my own bullies now, see? And you’re just another sad gutter slab tryna wreck up hardworking businessmen for no reason other than sanctimonious pettiness. I pity you, frankly. A miserable animal unfit to live amongst us civilized folk.” I grin down at him. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Strake. I’m so goddamn glad to see you again, you adorable little goblin. Really, I couldn’t be happier. I fucking love hurting you. Maybe that’s bad of me. You know what, no - it definitely is. But honestly?” My arms shrug wide, and my eyes gleam emerald and bright. “If being an animal means I get to feel your putrid fucking carcass give way under my hands all over again, then I’m just not cut out to be human.” I’ll give the cretin a bit of credit - he’s still got a brave face on. But his vitae looks like it’s in the middle of a hurricane, and I see him grip his cane with both hands to stop them from shaking. He remembers what it felt like. He remembers every single second he and I spent together that night, and I’m overjoyed to see it. Because I remember, too. He takes a single step back. Just one. And for now, that’s all I need in order to be the happiest man in the world. His goons, however, all take a step forward. “You can’t do shit, Featherlight. You live on thin ice. I’m a citizen, and you’re a fucking mutant. Put a goddamn finger on me in a place like this and the Watch will be all over your ass like scumbirds on a dead cat. Why don’t you fuck off back into the sewer you crawled out of, huh? Leave the daylight to us normal folk.” All I can do is smile and nod. “Hmm. I admit it, Strake, you’ve got me there. But I’ll say this much - you bet all your chips on the law’s protection last time, too. And as I recall, they found themselves very distracted while I made you into none of the man that you used to be. I wonder if you’re a valuable enough citizen now to get them to come to your defense. I guess we’ll find out.” I turn my back on him, grinning from ear to ear, and start back down the street. Behind me, he calls, “I know where you live, you fucking freak!” My hand waves back at him dismissively. “You’ve known the entire time, Strake. Come and visit for once. I’d save me the effort of having to track you down.” I think he says something else, just so he can say he got the last word, but by then I’m far enough in the crowd that I can’t hear him. You know, it occurs to me that it might be an incredibly poor judgment call to antagonize this many people that all know my exact address. I’m stacking up potential enemies like firewood. Before long I’m not gonna be able to leave my house without getting painted with an entire rainbow of crosshairs. And I don’t really fucking care. Once you’ve been shot a few dozen times it kind of loses its menace. I’ve got way too much to do lately to make Strake a priority. Sadly, the Sector Sixteen Watch precinct probably feels the same way, and I’m not about to ping my only Watch contact to go across jurisdictional lines to harass some pervert they’ve never heard of. I wonder whether I should tell Tennima that Strake is still kicking around. The only reason I know him at all is because of her, through no fault of her own. Ten years ago I tore his balls off and shattered his legs on her behalf, but that was ten years ago. She’s an adult now, and smart enough to make toys that are way scarier than I could ever be. She might want to kill him herself. She alone has the right. And she could do it without even lifting a finger. Do I want to be a part of that? Do I want that for her? Is that even the decision she’d make, and is it even up to me to get involved? She knows what I did and why, but would it help anything to tell her that he’s still around? Sigh. It doesn’t matter. She’s right, she isn’t a child anymore, even if it’s hard for me to see her as anything else. She’s a grown woman. And withholding this wouldn’t be respectful of me. … But I’ll call her later. It’s not gonna hurt her to be in the dark a little while longer, and I’ve got shit to do. I should probably make it clear, here, that I’ve never actually killed anyone before. Not as far as I’m aware, at least. I might have hinted that I have, a couple of times throughout this ripping narrative, but that was just me being colorful. The truth is that the gods teamed up with dark science to give skull-squishing strength and body mass to a complete and utter softie. One time when I was a kid my mom stepped on a slug and I fucking cried. Before all of… this happened to me, I thought I wanted to work my way out of Nineteen and become a doctor, of all things. It’s amazing, the things you’ll think as a kid, before you realize you’re too poor to pay life’s protection money, and then it shows up on your front door and uses brass knuckles and a lead pipe to teach you that you’re not the one calling the shots around here. Dreams are for people with money. The rest of us get to spit out our teeth for sixty years. … What was I saying? Oh yeah. Never killed anyone. It wouldn’t be hard or anything, people are super killable. I just don’t have it in me. I couldn’t even kill Strake, and believe me, I wanted to kill him even more than I wanted my mother to get better. And I fucking loved my mom. I’ve hurt people, sure, no question. Hell, I’ve torn bits off people. Important bits, too. I’ve punched, kicked, headbutted and bitten my way through more than a few scraps in my time, and I’d be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a small part of me that’s enjoyed it every time. But that’s not who I am. And it’s not who I want to be. … That said, I really, really want to kill Strake. I can’t just let him exist as he is. If that sack of shit is back to doing what he used to do, some kids are going to be hurt. In ways that don’t ever heal. I figure if I can prevent that by breaking him into teeny tiny pieces, it’ll be worth the permanent stain on my morality. I can’t be the only one that wants him dead, right? Maybe I’ll see if anyone’s put a hit out on him. I’m not an assassin, because I’d be terrible at it and the risks aren’t worth it, but in this case, I’m sorely tempted to make the exception of a lifetime. Especially if the money’s good enough. I’m supposed to be some kind of mercenary or something, aren’t I? I’d give his evil little head to the first person that handed me a thousand-credit chip for it. Or at least I might. I should have gotten my conscience removed when I had the chance. After more grimy blocks than I can count and avoiding several thousand suspicious-looking puddles, I come to the far end of the sector. The Wall, dark and impassive as it ever is, looms high above me and everything else, barely even reflecting sunlight. And lying in its shadow, just away from the edge of the sector platform, is the bar I’ve come to visit. This is away from the high-energy bustle of Sixteen proper, so it’s quieter, and a little less… venereal. Even a place as hot and gross as Sixteen has its calm spots, because eventually the thump wears off and people have to take their antibiotics and sleep. The place doesn’t actually look that bad, on the outside. Relatively clean brick facade, some wrought iron fencing, nestled to one side of an open backstreet square that seems like it still hasn’t woken up even though it’s the early afternoon. I climb up the rusty plate steps and, yep, fancy filigree sign says The Scripted Serpent. Door’s even made of wood - very classy. It doesn’t match it surroundings at all - if you told me this establishment got transplanted here from Ten or Twelve I’d be inclined to believe you. I walk in. Inside, it’s somehow smaller than I expected it to be. Or maybe it just feels that way. There’s a ludicrously well-polished middle-length bar taking up the far wall, with a clean-looking mustachioed fellow in a white shirt at the helm, smoking a shiny pipe and making drinks. Dim and smoky, as befitting any den of booze and iniquity, but in a way that makes the room seem cozy rather than nefarious. High ceiling, vaulted with crossbeams. Everything’s done in expensive wood and stone rather than metal and plastic. Whoever built this place wasn’t afraid of shelling out. It’s quiet. And nice. Honestly, if I had money and didn’t have to walk through the entirety of Sector Sixteen to get here, I’d like to hang out in here sometime. Not many people at this time of day. One or two with their bellies to the bar, a scattered few at the booths and tables, including a group of three old men smoking cigars and playing cards. But I see one guy over by the window. Only one in here wearing a hat. Dressed like one of those Hot Plains cattle ranchers. The bartender and a couple of the less engaged patrons fix me with looks. This kind of seems like one of those places where every customer is a regular, and I’m highly irregular. Do I want a drink? Yeah fuck it, I want a drink. Who knows, I could be dead tomorrow. And I’ll feel like an idiot if I die with anything left in my bank account. I approach the bar but don’t sit down. The drinks drone hovers toward me like an automech on a mission. “What can I get for you, sir?” I stifle a snort. Sir. What a weird thing to call me. “I’m on the hunt for a beer, if there’s beer.” “There is beer.” He reaches over the bar to hand me - get this - a list. “We just got in a few barrels of fresh north-Krathian frostbock, if you’re in the mood for something sturdy. So fresh we haven’t gotten it on the menu yet, actually. You’ll find the rest there. More than thirty options.” I think I might be in the wrong kind of establishment. I just hold the menu back at him without looking at it. “Oh boy. Uh. As it happens, I’m poor as dirt, so I’ll just have to go with whatever sludge you’ve got left at the bottom of your vatbeer tank.” He smirks, looking down at the glass he’s polishing. “The owner refuses to let vatbeer cross his doorstep. Check the prices, sir, you might be pleasantly surprised.” I blink once, and open the menu. I have no idea what this guy’s driving at, there’s no way I’ll be able to afford anything other than the sextuple-filtered wheatpiss anyway- Oh. I look back up at him, brow furrowed and deeply confused. “Is this entire list a typo?” “Nope. No mistake. That’s what our beer costs.” My eyes go back down to the menu, then back up at him again in total bewilderment. “How? Unless this piece of paper is more full of fabricated bullshit than the average issue of the Herald.” The guy just keeps smiling and cleaning contentedly. “You be the judge. Pick one and find out.” Well now I’m just indignant. There’s no way they could be selling actual, real, unadulterated imported beer at these prices and still be in business. People like me aren’t allowed to afford drink this good, it’s the fourth law of econodynamics. “Alright then, champ, you’re on. I’ll have a tank of the hollowhunter’s ale.” He holds up the slab-sized tankard he’s been polishing, inspecting it for flaws. “Good choice, sir. Just a moment.” He turns around to address a row of taps set into the back wall. When fresh and properly made, hollowhunter’s ale is like the fun version of drinking razor blades and pine needles mixed with acetone. Because your average hollowhunter is about nine inches from death at any given moment and they don’t have time to waste on pathetic normal peoples’ beer. The stuff is known the world over, and selling it is how the hollowhunters are able to afford all their armored vehicles and explosives. The copycat imitation variety doesn’t taste like the relief of having survived one more day without having your spine and kidneys torn out with one pull of an undead hand - it just tastes like battery acid and sadness. You can taste the suicidal bravery in the real stuff, and your average human coward just can’t replicate it. The barkeep hands me the glass stein, with both hands. Strong arms. Guy doesn’t wobble, or spill a drop. I accept it from him and hold it up for inspection against the light. The brew is the color of a ruby sunset over a field of ripening wheat. Layer of fine white bubbles on top, like snow. Looks like the stuff I’ve had before. Hard to forget a beer that looks like liquid jewelry. I take a sip. Have you ever been exhilarated? Actually, genuinely flush with the pure, unbridled and electric wonder of being alive? The kind of seismic joy that only comes from giving Death himself a smooch on the cheek and scampering away before he can catch you? Have you walked through a living nightmare and emerged on the other side bleeding and broken, but suddenly aware of how beautiful grass can be when the sunlight strikes the dewdrops just right? That’s what this stuff tastes like. It tastes like snatching your own life out of the claws of something that eats entire forests as an aperitif. This is the beverage equivalent of shedding a single gasping, breathless tear in utter disbelief at the fact that your heart is somehow still beating, even though the flesh all around it is nothing but bloody bruises. Smiling like he just pulled the greatest trick of all time, the bartender plunks the chip reader down on the bar top. “That’ll be four hundred credits.” I ignore him and take another luxurious pull, because life’s too short to do anything other than love what you have. A sigh leaves my lungs like misty wind fleeing the summer sun. Then I (carefully) set the glass of liquid art on the bar, pull out my wallet and pay, shaking my head. “I don’t get it, man. This stuff costs three times what you’re charging. Is there a trick, here? Do you own my house now, or something?” He just shrugs, and grabs another glass to polish. I think bartenders have a condition that causes their brainstem to liquefy if their hands aren’t in contact with glass and a rag at all times. “I just pour ‘em, sir. Somehow the bossman gets away with it, but I’ll be damned if I know how. All I know is that I keep getting my paychecks and the lights haven’t ever gone out.” I retrieve the holy vessel and take another precious taste. “Well… the next time you see him, tell him he’s got a new favorite customer. I’ll keep coming back as long as you keep giving this stuff away.” He nods happily. “I’ll let him know. Enjoy.” And the giver of mighty gifts flutters away on invisible wings, to bless another undeserving soul. Alright. Fun’s over. Business time. I turn about and cross the room over to the booth where my not-man is sitting. Nobody pays me any mind as I approach, and neither does he. It? I’m not sure what the designators are, here. I’ll go with “he” because he looks like one. He just keeps his eyes out the window, looking at… I dunno, the world, I guess. He doesn’t even look at me when I sit down right across from him. At a passing glance, there isn’t anything unusual about this guy. He just looks like an older fellow that’s worked under the sun his whole life. Bronzed skin, wrinkles. Wearing his rancher’s outfit. He could just be some cowboy in from delivering a shipment of beef for the Inner Circle to enjoy. But now that I’m up close… there’s definitely something off. His skin seems unusually thin. The light is hitting it wrong - it looks like papier-mache, or plaster. With the sun at this angle, I should be able to see some hair, but his cheeks are completely smooth, in the way you see on a healed burn victim. And the eyes. They’re too… perfect. Too glossy. Can’t see a single spot, no striations in the iris, not a single vein. They look like doll’s eyes, not ones grown inside a real human skull. There’s also the fact that he has no vitae at all. Nothing, not a single wisp or bubble or ray of color. In biomantic terms, this guy is indistinguishable from a toaster or a washing machine. That absence makes him look more and more like an unusually lifelike mannequin the longer my eyes are on him. My brain’s accustomed to the human form always being in the company of its swirling, colored vitae. It’s not here, and the contradiction is making my skin crawl. He doesn’t move or say anything or react to me in any way. So I guess I’ll start. “Do you know why I’m here?” I predicted it. The logical, thinking part of my brain knew that it had to happen at some point. Otherwise, how could this thing have gotten here? But when it moves, when it turns its head away from the window to look at me, I nearly jump out of my fucking skin. Things without vitae aren’t supposed to fucking move unless they also have an engine or an internal reactor. The sight of it, right in front of me, makes my spine want to slither away to a place where creepy shit like this doesn’t happen. Its eyes are blue, and are not made of flesh. No water or salt or protein. Just glass. “No. Why are you here?” My skin is spiders. Its voice is almost perfect. Almost. Honestly, if I weren’t scrutinizing, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But the lip movements only mostly match the words that came out of that hole. And there’s this tonal incorrectness - a lack of richness, of bass. It sounds very slightly like a lesser-quality recording of a middle-aged man’s voice. Dry, papery, without any impact or lung behind it. And the thing doesn’t move. Not even a little. A human person trying as hard as they can to be motionless still isn’t - you can’t help the barely-perceptible bob of the head as the heart pumps blood through the chest and neck, you can’t prevent the gradual rise and fall of the chest. Or not for very long, at least. This thing is genuinely, absolutely still, in the way that only an inanimate object can manage. I want to get this over with. At least an automech has decency enough to look nothing like the humans they get their shape from. Every part of me is convinced this thing shouldn’t exist - my sympathetic nervous system is going into overdrive just from the sheer number of contradictory sensory inputs. I don’t know whether to tear its head off or run screaming out of the building. A layer of mental concrete pours over my nerves before I reply, “I’m looking for the way to the Library.” Its tilts its head to one side, face still neutral. “Why?” I frown. “Because I want to learn stuff. I’ve heard there’s a lot of good books in the Library. If your boss is okay with me paying a visit, that is.” “What do you want to learn about?” I had no idea I was signing up for an interview when I walked in here. But I guess if I was the Librarian I’d be pretty careful too. I pan my eyes around the room before saying a very dirty and controversial word. “Magic.” The unusually large doll nods, very slightly. “You are an arcanist.” It says this without any kind of emotion at all. It’s not a question, or an accusation. Just the statement of a fact, with a machine’s confidence. I’m not sure if it guessed or if it somehow knows things from out of thin air. I don’t know. I’m just along for the fucking ride, here. “... Yeah. Is that a… problem?” “No. Not intrinsically. The arcanist seeks knowledge of magic. The river flows to the sea. This has happened for many thousands of years. What you seek is power, as knowledge sublimates into power in the mage’s hand. And you seek it in full awareness of the risks. Plainly, the conflux of fate has made you incredibly strong of body, yet you wish for more. Why?” I really cannot express in succinct words how goddamn unnerving it is to listen to this thing talk. It’s so, so close to being human, but just off the mark. And worse, now it’s trying to get personal with me. “Why do I want power?” “Yes.” “Is that something you need to know?” “Yes.” “... Why?” It laces its fingers together on the table. The motion makes a sound like paper folders sliding over one another. “Because to the Librarian and to many others, knowledge is also a currency. Sharing it with you is akin to an investment. And within this dynamic, bad investments can become catastrophic. So explain yourself. Or leave.” Heh. Not the first time I’ve ever had to defend my life. Thankfully, I don’t even have to lie. “Some bad things might happen to some good people soon. Some people that I know. The stronger I am, the better I can help them. And the more likely it is that I can catch those bad people, to stop them from hurting anyone else.” The homunculus doesn’t move. “You seek power for altruistic reasons only? To defend the weak from evil?” I snort. “No. Those same people are also trying to kill me, and I’d like to increase my chances of making it out of all this with my bones still connected to one another. Self-preservation motivates me just as much as anything else.” “And once the danger has passed? What will you do with your power then?” … Huh. There’s a cutting question. Frankly, I’m so used to living in this exact second that I hadn’t stopped to consider what life might be like once all this is said and done. If I don’t die, the things I learn could turn me into… something else. More, than I ever had the impetus or inclination to become before. New abilities could be great. Or they could be a horrible curse, in the end. I don’t really care. It just has to happen. The future can show up at its own pace. “I don’t know. I honestly hadn’t thought about it. But I’m probably not going to try to overturn the Reclamation or anything. Way too much work. And I just don’t care enough.” The homunculus’s not-eyes stay on my not-eyes for a heavy second. I’m not sure what it’s trying to see. I don’t even know if it can see anything. But honestly, I don’t know a goddamn thing. That’s why I showed up here in the first place. It finally replies, “What have you brought?” I swing my backpack around and lay the books on the table. Carefully. While looking around to make sure the law hasn’t walked through the door in the last few minutes. The thing glances down for a split second, looks back at me, and says, “There are multiple copies of these volumes within the Library. The Librarian has no need of more.” I rub my face with my hands exasperatedly. I knew it was a long shot. I was told as much. But the idea that I came all the way out here for nothing is really mashing my potatoes something fierce. “Y’know… I’m betting you guys could save a lot of wasted time by just putting out a damn registry of what you do and don’t have.” “The Librarian has infinite time. And a public listing would be traceable. You have nothing else to offer?” I take a big slug of my beer and clunk the tankard down on the table, eyes looking directly at the core of the earth. I don’t have anything else to offer. I don’t have a goddamn thing. For the Librarian or Em or to anyone else. Maybe I should leave the city. Just… fuck right off and go be a monster in the mountains. No need for money, no need for cars or property or paperwork. Fuck it, all of it. At least then I could punch bears to death and terrorize villages and feel like something. Win at least some animal glory using nothing but the contents of my own- Wait. The contents of my own body. My lenses snap back up to the doll. “You’ll take media other than print, right?” “Yes.” I reach into my coat and whip out a blank data drive and a transfer cable. It’s a hell of a thing, being able to record literally everything you see. It makes it much more difficult for other people to call you a liar when you can literally show them what you saw, right out of your own eyes. That’s why I keep these on me. I don’t have to use them often, but in my lines of work it’s helpful to be able to prove my experiences to people with footage hot out of the brain boiler. One end of the cable goes into the drive, and the other stabs directly into a port at the rear of my occipital lobe. For the record, it is the peak of stupid for anyone with a cerebral array to just shove connectors into their skull without sanitizing them first, unless they happen to be a huge fan of aggressive meningitis. For reasons already explained, however, I do not have to give a damp hoot. Microbes are idiots. I am the bastard fuckspawn of magic and technology and I will not be stopped. I hit a little switch on the side of the drive and wait a second for it to boot up. Unstoppably. The light turns green and there’s a spasm of connection errors and driver misfires across my vision. My automatic interface software shows up with a gun and calmly explains to them that nobody has to get hurt as long as I get access to this drive right the hell now. The warnings and errors hold up their hands and reply that everything’s good here man, no need to do anything drastic. They show me to the door. The drive connects. This sensation is very hard to describe for anyone that’s never used their brain to talk to machines before. This is just a blank drive. Empty space. A clean warehouse in a white void, just patiently waiting for someone to put something into it. And right now, it’s connected directly to my brain. It has physically made the total volume of my brain larger. Not more full, not better at processing data or anything, just bigger. Imagine you’re hanging out minding your own business in your living room, sipping coffee and reading a book or whatnot. Then, for no reason, a huge door appears in your wall and opens, revealing a colossal amount of empty space in a huge room that wasn’t there before. That weird sudden shift of air pressure and subtle echo of newfound hugeness is kind of what this feels like. It’s unsettling, because the brain was never meant to receive these kinds of inputs in this specific order. This is right around where a lot of people puke, because the conflicting sensory data causes the brain to go completely haywire. It’s like motion sickness or vertigo - there’s a sense of something physical that just happened, despite the fact that the information from my eyes and ears tells me that I’m very much still sitting in a booth at a bar across from a freaky golem. I close my eyes. Less incoming information to try and juggle. I can’t upload literally everything, because that much video would take days to compress and upload. But I’ve got a different solution. After about a minute, I have my autoconnect software let the poor drive management programs go, and take my leave. I yank the cord from my head. This causes a painfully loud SNAP in my ear, makes my vision flash lightning-white for a moment, and puts a taste like liquid copper on my tongue. I bump my head with the palm of my hand once, and the static clears from my eyes. I turn the drive off and push it across the table toward the human facsimile. Then I point at it for emphasis. “That is an autotranscripted text log of every single conscious thought I’ve had since I was eighteen. That’s eleven years of a person’s life, straight from the source. The parts where I’m drunk are probably full of spelling errors. However, the autotranscript program might have processed some of my dreams, if they were vivid enough. So that’s something.” The homunculus just tilts its head at me, like a dog that’s heard a funny noise. “And why would the Librarian be interested in this?” “I have no idea. But I can promise you he doesn’t already have a copy - I’m one of a kind. Tell him to read it and find out.” The thing regards me silently for another long moment. Then it takes the drive and puts it in a coat pocket. “... Very well, Mr. Featherlight. The Library thanks you for your contribution.” It holds out a tiny business card. I try to take it, but its other hand whips up like a striking viper and clamps around my wrist. Its fingers can’t make it the whole way round (my wrists are as wide around as some people’s biceps), but the sheer force of its fingers digging into the meat of my arm is enough to make me grunt in pain. “But know this. Should you choose to disclose this information to another living soul, you will cease to exist. There are eyes everywhere. Be wise.” There’s still nothing in its eyes. That’s the face of an accountant showing up to his 15,936th day of work. Its hydraulic hand lets go of my arm, and I have to actually fight back tears from how fucking bad it hurts. If I’d been anyone else, that amount of pressure would have squeezed clean through the meat and bone of my innocent limb like a fat divorcee through ice cream. It gently places the rectangular card into my palm, gets up, and leaves the bar. Okay. I’m just gonna finish my beer, and pretend for just a few precious moments that I’m a guy that was never cursed with an interesting life. [here's theprevious chapter][and here's theentire story so faron Wattpad if that's what gargles your marbles][if you've enjoyed this tale ive woven,why not give me a tip? it's good to support writers you like ♥][and thanks for reading ♥]
Hi, everyone! I’d like to share my experience, and namely my experience of a slightly protracted developing a plain and simple point-and-click quest. 30 wasted years
I was 21. I was young and I hold a web designer position at an ad agency. I had enough money only to rent a house and have some plain snacks, but I was pretty resilient, because that was my first job.. At some point I came across some flash blogs with extremely successful stories of simple workers. And every day I was getting more and more excited about the idea of throwing up my job and trying to create a game for further selling my product. While there were no clients in the office I composed the following prototype. Prototype It was playable and made entirely on my own — this fact is very inspiring to heroic deeds. Finally my hour X arrived. After working exactly a year I quitted and came back to my home village. With a crumbling computer and a graphic tablet at hand I started creating a full-fledged adventure based on my prototype. Good old times The first flub — computer’s RW memory was 2 GB it did not cope with Flash and Photoshop open at the same time. I bought 2 more GB and the ball started rolling. I really like “Machinarium” and “Samorost”, I’m truly in love with their visual and sound design. Being inspired after five months of work I released my first game — Shapik: the quest, the quest of my dream. Shapik: the quest - Trailer “Shapik” is the best name I managed to create for this game where the hero wore a hat (“Shapik” sounds very similar to the Ukrainian word “шапка” meaning “hat?).
Some details of the developing process
I painted with a help of Wacom Bamboo A5 graphic tablet. That was the first experience of real painting I had used the tablet for creating web-layouts Backgrounds were created with a help of Photoshop and animations were done with a help of Flash. Sketch #1 Sketch #2 When the first three levels were ready I fell to thinking about music. I found a composer at the Flash forum. I described him my wishes and sent screenshots of the game levels. 90% of sounds were taken from freesound.org and other sounds I recorded myself. Sounds were processed in Adobe Audition. The game obtained more than 100 sounds. The game was ready and the task was to sell it. At that time flash-games were actively sold at FGL (flash sale) I uploaded the game. The sale lasted for three weeks. I was very worried and happy about every new bet. At a point I received a proposal equal to my annual salary at the agency. I was very happy; I was really at the top of the world. Accidentally I came across FlashGAMM (developers’ conference) and sent the game for competition. Since the event was held in Moscow, I did not manage to visit it and the truth is that I didn’t hope that my first game could win something. A miracle happened, three days before the start of the conference a notification came, it informed that my game was nominated in three categories at the same time. I asked a friend of mine who was at the conference to watch what would happen next. And he wrote that my quest won in the “Best Future Mobile Game” category and the main prize — Microsoft Surface. There was no limit to my joy — I felt a tough indie-developer. Winner
On a dream run I found a programmer and we stamped physical puzzle-platformers thick and fast. Web games In addition during that period there was a mass shift from flash to handles. I remember that once I created quite a good quest and I ported it to Android with a help of Adobe AIR in order to keep pace with this trend. Fortunately the entire process of porting was done with the click of a single button “publish”. The game was presented in Google Play. Since I hadn’t the wit to tie advertisements and I considered the game too small to be a paid one it was presented as a free game. I uploaded it and forgot about it never counting on any success: the task was to create a game for the mobile platform. I hadn’t got any Android device and I didn’t visit the shop at all. At one of the parties a friend of mine took out Samsung Galaxy S5 (for that period of time that was a device with an enormous diagonal line and a really mighty display). And I decided to have a look at how my mobile brainchild was doing, and to my amazement I discovered 35000+ installations and over 800 comments. I was really shocked. On the basis of that the idea of creating another game was born. This another game had to be twice as cool and interesting.
Shapik: the quest 2, 2015
The general story of a nuclear war and its consequences appeared very quickly. Literally in three days the first level was ready with Adobe Flash. Start I also painted the main character. In comparison with the previous one he had a sound body, head and neck. His predecessor was a sausage-like creature. Old vs new The game was in Full HD and a simple flash didn’t cope with the load. There was a need to rewrite on GPU (starling). I’m not a programmer at all, so I wrote a post on gamedev.ru about searching a partner. Five persons wrote back. The first one didn’t answer, so I got in touch with the second fellow and the ball was set rolling. The rest of 2015, the programmer learned to work with the GPU flash, I learned to paint and animate.
Although we didn’t have experience at all the process of development was going with a lot of pep. I really felt that we were a single team. Our brain storms on Skype alone were a real story. There were periods when nothing new entered my head for a couple of days in a row but as soon as we got in touch ideas were coming by themselves. It worked approximately as follows.
We discussed a new concept of a level or a brain-teaser;
Often the programmer drew it schematically;
Branches and animations were described.
Samples of levels from sketches to the final variants Then we performed tests. I formed a list of edits and sent it to the programmer. The entire working process went through Dropbox. Active development took a year. 12 levels and a demo were ready and that was twice as much as in case with the first part. I uploaded the result of our work to Steam Greenlight. And we got the green light within two weeks. And there it came home to us that the game didn’t have any plot at all and its levels were in fact a set of separate brain-teasers. In addition to that the levels were very short and the game had bad sound effects and music.
We developed the plot. The programmer was really successful in that. We added levels, cutscenes, new animations. I painted components for animations using Photoshop and animated with a help of Flash 30 sec Our team was supplemented with a composesound designer. An atmospheric soundtrack as well as the coolest sound effects were created. The game was felt with renewed vigor. Due to some specific features of the project synching is not fast, since each animation is a mini-cartoon requiring unique sounds. Sound design
The quest was 80% ready; almost all levels were finished and equipped with sounds; cutscenes, a note pad of tips and the main menu were missing. I created cutscenes with a help of Flash and then I exported video. With large volumes Flash was really slow. So, I had to compose separate scenes and only then I could combine them. It made the process very slow. Flash In the process of work the Menu was thought out on separate sheets of pape It looked cool and the main thing was that it didn’t have any text. Main menu
The beginning of 2019. The game was ready and it was played through from the beginning to the end but it wasn’t tested properly, there were some minor bugs and some bonuses hadn’t been added. We were in limbo: on one side the game was ready and on the other side it wasn’t. HTML5 games and Flash games were not sold at all. In parallel with developing “Shapik: the quest 2” we all worked on other projects — those other projects gave us something for living and continuing developing. The programmer got a job at an office. Although I was optimistic, I understood that the things wouldn’t be as before. Within a month nothing was done for the game, and we never got in touch — that was for the first time. The programmer was very much tired at work and I didn’t blame him. I was working hard on testing and composing the list of edits. Edits were implemented on weekends; sometimes there were two weeks long idle periods. I was frustrated and upset as such pace it would drag on the process for another couple of years. I asked the programmer to create a folder with the game sources (that had to be done in the very beginning of development — a ton of time would be saved). I started picking at the art, animations, atlases and a home-made editor of scenes. The editor is a story in its own right. Game resolution was 1920x1080, and editor’s windows were 600x550. Working in such a small window required really many camera motions and the editor was really slow. In addition to that it didn’t have “cancel” function, so if something was bungled only the last saving could save. The editor could open and play .gaf animations, which were then placed on stage. After the entire art elements and animations were placed I pressed “Save” and obtained a really long line of parameters which had to be brought to the FlashDevelop and then compiled. The FlashDevelop and that very line If something shifted I had to repeat the operation. Editing a minor thing took a ton of time. Finally I couldn’t stand that any more. I got to the initial code of the editor and found the line responsible for the workspace size. I changed it to 1920x1080 and so the entire level could be viewed wholly. I also compiled the editor as a separate application and all brakes were over. I don’t know why we hadn’t done that before but suffered torments for so many years. Spring period. I had a lucid moment and became aware that levels made in 2017 looked empty and were of poor quality. The same was true about cutscenes, brain-teasers and animations. A new wave of improvements was going on… https://preview.redd.it/7t0a81n73bv41.jpg?width=1920&format=pjpg&auto=webp&s=feb743485423a24ebbf2f99743c768a735ddb522 The sound designer was also very busy then, synching suspended. I renewed all levels; we composed a new demo version. It was the time to create a teaser for the game. I cut video and tried to edit it. Intermediate steps were discussed with the programmer and the sound designer. That was my first experience and it took a lot of time. Shapik The Moon Quest - Trailer We understood that we had to get rid of “2” in the name “Shapik: the quest 2”. A new name was created — “Shapik: the moon quest”. Publishers. Who are they and how should one work with them? I had no idea about this. I found a cool article telling about game pitching. I sent it to everybody in the list. 20 out of 60 persons answered; 5 of them are really interested; I got answers once per week. Early summer period. I picked the game alone. I read forums hoping to find some info concerning removing bugs. I brought edits to the code, corrected jerks in animations, cut video for post-synching; In some places I corrected sounds, set up the assembly, communicated with editors, got acquainted with Steam and was engaged in resource optimization. I got a feeling that I’m the only one who needs the game. I spent weeks waiting until few edits are closed. the very moment of waiting was very tedious, and it wasn’t clear what to do next. I couldn’t give up the game when it was 95% ready but I also couldn’t finish the work myself. Releasing a bugged project wasn’t a variant as well. I went to a three week walking tour to the Carpathians. In the mountains there is no mobile communication, and the Internet is even less so. It really helped me to get mind off things. Hiking Before the walking tour I uploaded the list of edits. When I came back three weeks later I discovered that the list hadn’t even been opened. For the first time during the entire period of working I was burnt. At that moment it seemed to me that the game was pissed on. The period of depression started. I could think of nothing but the game but I couldn’t find a way out of that situation
That was the time to change something. The time of office work had arrived.
Office Time It seemed that during my work on casual projects I had gained some experience; and so, I looked for animator vacancies. I quickly got answers with test tasks. I performed the tasks and so I was invited for interviews. It happened that two interviews were on the same day. The way from my village to Kiev takes 10 hours by train. The train arrived at 8 AM and the first interview was planned for 11 AM. Let’s go to the interview! So, I was in Kiev walking around the city. I was really worried: that was my second interview and the first one at a serious company and I had no idea what was waiting for me there. At 9 AM I received a message.
Good morning,Terribly sorry, but we are forced to report that we cannot accept you for an interview — your age is not suitable.
I thought that was a mistake because my age had been suitable for them before and if they had invited me for a real meeting my test task was OK; and I had already arrived to Kiev spending time near their office. I called them back and the text of the previous message was repeated to me.
What kind of answer was that? What was all that nonsense..?
The next interview was planned for 2 PM I was walking around the city moving smoothly to the meeting place. Half an hour before the interview the following occurred.
Terribly sorry, but we are forced to cancel the interview. You do not suit us. We will not specify the reason so that it doesn’t look like a call to action.
I am completely at a loss; the interviews had ended before they could begin. It turned out that I was old and castaway. Alone in Kiev I was slowly dragging my feet along St. Andrew’s Descent. I came into a small café where I met an old acquaintance of mine. Over glasses of beers the day ceased to be sad. My train back was at 9 PM So, to say that after my “employment” I was depressed would be an understatement. Upon arrival home, my sense of helplessness became five times stronger. I turned out that in my age of 30 I was very old. I realized that the distressful quest had to be brought to release. We got in touch again, told how everyone is doing, and discussed my burnt state as well as what might be done to complete the work. I was set free and I had got my second wind. I complete tons of animations and art elements which had been previously put off. I worked hard on testing the game and compiling the list of edits. And finally I designed the web-site and a web-page on Steam Concerning my burnt state. At that moment I probably inhaled too much fresh Carpathian air. How can felt burnt when the project is held in place with enthusiasm.
At the beginning of the year the programmer had a vacation, and we manage to close all the bugs and edits. All the music and sound effects are also completely ready. The game has got 22 levels, 90 minutes of game music and over 1,000 unique animations and sounds. Shapik: the moon quest At the moment, I can confidently say that the game is completely ready (I just can’t believe this). Shapik: The Moon Quest released on Steam 5 day ago. Steam:https://store.steampowered.com/app/1073810/Shapik_the_moon_quest/ #1 #2 Summing up I’d like to define mistakes we made.
Lack of script and no understanding of what the game will be like;
Constant underestimation of real time frames;
A wish to make 100500 pieces;
Lack of proper tools (game scene editor, version control system, assembler);
Lack of proper testing;
Work with the community.
This post was written not for the sake of whining or to arouse pity, but in order to show the everyday life of a simple developer. And there is one more thing I’d like to note:
I have great respect for the programmer and the sound designer due to the fact that we like crazy ones are finishing what we think is right and are trying to do it cool while hundreds of other “adequate” developers would have turned around and left for a long time ago.In general, it is very funny that the three lefty dudes from the Flash forum managed to finish the game.
P.S. Plans for the future:
to find a job (a revolutionary position of a watchman-programmer has been recently offered). The Responsibilities include: advertising products on the Internet, creating business cards / leaflets, tours around the territory every hour).
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 “I must confess,” Lucifer regarded Yuki with a warm smile, “You are not the one I was expecting.” Yuki’s eyes went wide as she regarded the massive angel who sat upon an otherwise unassuming, albeit giant, leather chair. His massive white wings framed his muscular frame, all while long blond hair framed a flawlessly handsome face. Violet eyes glowed warmly but pulsed with a power that, though unseen, filled Yuki with a sensation of awe. “I’m not?” She choked out, hesitant to approach the beautiful Angel. She was startled by his sheer size, as well as his absolutely gorgeous countenance. “If you weren’t expecting me… then who were you expecting?” she stammered slightly. Lucifer smiled at Yuki with adoration, his violet eyes shimmering, “Someone who’s no longer with you, my dear.” Yuki’s brow furrowed as thoughts of her father passed through her mind. “Exactly,” Lucifer stated, his eyes boring into Yuki’s. Yuki felt her stomach drop as she wondered if the Guardian before her could hear her thoughts. “Why am I seeing you? I didn’t expect to see the Guardian here when I opened the door,” Yuki stuttered. Lucifer grinned knowingly to Yuki, “and I didn’t expect your path to lead to where it did either, but such is the joy and wonder of my children's’ free will.” Lucifer towered over her even as he sat. He gracefully motioned to a small gilded tea set on a table beside him. His soothing and empowered voice beckoned, “Please sit, my daughter. Your cup is waiting, help yourself.” He watched her expectantly, already sipping from his own steaming cup. It appeared that Lucifer had indeed expected one guest. Afternoon tea for two was elegantly laid out on a table next to him, and next to that was an empty seat. This seat was much smaller than the one occupied by the refined and colossal Guardian. Yuki studied the elaborate table with interest. In addition to the fancy tea set, there was also a mouth-watering triple-tiered display of tiny sandwiches, scones, and cakes. She looked back to Lucifer in amazement. He was so majestic, so wonderful! Was she truly meant to sit and have tea with the Guardian himself? “Don’t let the tea cool, dear,” Lucifer said softly, but with a hint of urgency in his voice. Yuki obliged, happily settling into what proved to be an impossibly comfortable chair. She carefully poured a small amount of tea into her dainty porcelain cup. She clasped the small handle and brought it to her lips; it smelled divine. She was intensely aware of the Guardian’s powerful gaze upon her. She took a tentative sip. As it touched her tongue, she instantly learned the true meaning of the word ‘heavenly’. Such excellence was something Yuki knew she could never recreate by herself. “Your mind creates whatever it likes best,” the Guardian said with knowing amusement, “This flavor, you could never achieve it outside your mind, but in here? Flawless. And you, my dear, you deserve a bit of luxury right now with everything you’re currently enduring.” Lucifer looked at her with sympathy. “My mind? So this isn’t real?” Yuki sipped the delicious tea, gazing at her reflection on the surface of the warm liquid. “Reality is merely a matter of perception,” Lucifer chuckled, “This moment is very real, but only to you and me.” “If I may ask, where’s my son? My husband?” Yuki inquired, suddenly flooded by thoughts of them, of how much she missed her sweet Geoffrey. “Perfectly safe,” the Guardian reassured her. His response did not have his intended effect and instead caused Yuki to grow rather frantic. “Don’t tell me that! What does that mean? Where are they?! And if this is all in my head, am I safe?!” Yuki attempted to stand but the Angel’s huge white wing quickly moved to firmly stop her, encircling her in a warm embrace. “You are safe. They are safe. Everyone you love is perfectly fine, Yuki. I promise.” He looked at her earnestly, his violet eyes sincerely fixed on Yuki’s bright blue ones. “…How can you be so certain?” Yuki asked quietly, almost dreading the answer. Lucifer smiled affectionately and replied, “Because I am your father… and your father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, until the very beginning of your ancestral line.” Yuki felt a grave shiver come over her - as if the bottom of her stomach had just fallen through the floor, and now she was free-falling. Lucifer stood, slowly turning toward Yuki as he set his teacup down on the table. “No fear, my child.” Yuki swallowed hard, nodding, her eyes widening as she took in his shocking height. A subtle look of pride came over Lucifer’s face as he regarded her, “Yuki… So very strong and brave, my daughter. Loyal and stubborn as the best of them.” He lovingly placed his hand on Yuki’s shoulder. Upon his touch, Yuki felt an intoxicating warmth spread over her, eliminating her tension. This gesture allowed her the courage to ask, “Did that blue stuff I drank kill me then?” “You are not dead.” Lucifer chuckled, “I suppose you’d have preferred if I led with that, all things considered.” Yuki laughed in relief, “Am I going to make it out of this alive?” Lucifer laughed with her and took Yuki’s hand, sending more waves of pleasure and contentment shooting through her body and spirit. “Come, come. We have much to discuss before we part ways.” Yuki grimaced, “Part ways? Where are you going, Lord Lucifer? Please don’t leave me now, I need you! I’m stranded and-” “You do not need my help, you are more than capable on your own,” Lucifer chuckled as he cut her off, “and no need for the ‘Lord’, my child, ‘Guardian’ will do, or even ‘Father’ if you prefer. And actually it is you who is leaving, not I.” No! I can’t leave his side! Yuki thought. Distraught, she looked at him sadly, “I don’t follow.” Lucifer’s smile faded slightly, “No… no you don’t. Not like the others in your bloodline. Even then, not as I would have liked, but that your nature, isn’t it? Devotion is optional for my children.” He looked at her, his smile returning. “My little Yuki. How I will miss you. But fret not, you are in the hands of my Fathers now, and they will welcome you.” He laughed. “I did not think it was you they would one day welcome, to be honest, but that is the wonderment of my children’s free will.” Yuki looked ahead, trying to determine where he was leading her, “Wonderment of free will?” Lucifer chuckled, “it is vexing and challenging, but oh so refreshing. You will soon learn why. But know this: your free will is unique to you. It allows you the freedom to act for your own interests, or…” he beamed down to her, “act in the interests of others. The choice will remain yours.” She wasn’t sure what the Guardian was talking about, but she did her best to follow. It was right about now she really wished she had paid more attention in church. They soon came upon a large stone well. “A going-away present.” He handed her a gold coin. “Make a wish - but I warn you, it will come true.” He beamed, his face glowing. “I promise it.” Yuki frowned, “I… I don’t understand. Will, I ever see my son and husband again?” Lucifer kneeled down beside her, although he still had to look down at her to make eye contact. He replied simply, but with empathy, “No you will not Yuki, and for that, I am so sorry.” Yuki looked at the shiny gold coin. “Can I wish to know ‘what is the meaning of life?” Lucifer hesitated a moment and then began to laugh heartily. Yuki frowned in embarrassment, “Are we a joke to you?” “No my child,” Lucifer’s laughter subsided, “but that would be a waste of your wish.” “Why?” Yuki frowned, feeling like a small child. “Yuki,” Lucifer began, “would it matter at all to you why you were here?” Yuki thought, looking around the void and then back to the wishing well, “I suppose… well, no, but what is my purpose?” Lucifer smiled, gently stroking the top of her head, “Why, Yuki, are you asking me? That is a question only for you.” Yuki felt a spark of understanding at this piece of wisdom and considered it for a moment. “Okay, if I make a wish, you’ll grant it?” “With all my power, so make it worthwhile,” Lucifer grinned. “Then I… I want my son to be safe from harm… If I’m not there for him I want him to be looked after and safe, I want him to have your protection.” She tossed the coin into the well. Lucifer smiled at the well, and turned to her, “You have my word Yuki. I will always pay special attention to your son… you are certain that is all you desire?” Yuki smiled, and looked to him oddly, “As long as it means he’s alive and well…” Lucifer smiled coyly, “Alive? I assure you, he will live a long and healthy life, but no one lives forever,” “Don’t you?” Yuki asked. Lucifer laughed, “A fair point! I will do my best to satisfy you, Yuki,” he tapped the well, “Come now! I have a few parting words of wisdom before you go. But know this: you need not worry about your son.” Yuki looked around, the white around them vanishing. “Am I… am I going into the darkness?” Lucifer shook his head, smiling, “No dear, but you will be traversing the darkness of your own soul.” He placed his hand on her chest, “No fear. Remember Yuki, do not fear what you do not know. Embrace it.” He held her shoulders tightly now, sinking down onto his haunches. It was as if something quite powerful was pulling them apart and his grip was keeping her there just a moment longer. A deafening wind now encircled them both, the darkness swirling around the two of them. “And most importantly - Live!” he cried out. The well vanished. Yuki yelled back to him over the surging wind, hugging the Guardian tightly. “I-I will! Bu-but please protect me!” “You’re in Their hands now my daughter…” Lucifer called out, his grip on her beginning to fail. “Who’s hands?!” Yuki shouted desperately. “My Fathers’!” Lucifer shouted, “The Guardians shall protect you, the Father, the Son, and the Holiest Spirit! Be with them, child!” With that, she was ripped from her father’s embrace. As Yuki felt herself falling, she heard her father’s voice echoing over the cacophony of wind and clattering of falling brick and stone of the now shattered well, “Live, Yuki. Live well!” ... Back in her uncomfortable shelter, Yuki gasped, spitting up a mixture of saliva and vomit, clearly expelled while she was unconscious. She groaned upon realizing where she was, placing her hand on her head. It was strange though, despite her situation, she somehow felt very rested. She recalled the vivid dream - it had felt so real! She was flying, fast, and high. She went home to find her family but instead met an Angel. A massive, kind, wise, and powerful Angel, and he told her many things. Was he the Guardian? The memories were vanishing faster than she could try to recall them, as dreams often do upon awakening. She recalled her father’s voice, now the only thing she clearly remembered: “Live, Yuki, Live.” She spoke out loud, feeling the urge to answer, “I will Daddy…” she looked up, feeling a renewed surge of determination. Yuki’s thirst was unbearable. Her water container was bone-dry. She searched all around the campsite, but for the life of her, she could not find a single suitable water source. Her stomach grumbled angrily and her throat was parched. The vomit found next to her upon her awakening had demonstrated in great detail that she had clearly lost everything she had eaten and drank. Why this made her feel worlds better, aside from her hunger and thirst, was bothersome. Did I eat something poisonous? She wondered if she misread her field guide. Yuki made the decision to return to her ship, admitting to herself that she had no choice. The lake had water she could at least boil to drink, and it was possible there was more she could salvage from the ship itself. She packed a bit of cooked ripper meat and made her way through the thick forest. If she was lucky, she might find a few stored rations stashed in the ship as well. She trudged along on the hike out of the forest and back to the lake. This physical exertion was making her already-empty stomach grumble and complain more. It didn’t help matters that her body was still out of whack from that strange drug she had taken. To answer her stomach’s complaining, she reached into her pack and took a chunk of meat, tearing into it and chewing it thoroughly. It was cold, it was dry, but it was food. As she traveled, she did as best she could to track whatever landmarks that she remembered from when she had dragged the parachutes into the woods. The last thing she needed was to get lost on her way back to her hideout. Finally, Yuki found herself at the forest’s edge. Out past the tree line was the familiar field of tall wild grass that soon gave way to the small sandy lakeshore. As she slowly made her way through the overgrown grass, she soon spotted her ship in the lake. She breathed a sigh of relief and took a couple more steps, before drawing a small gasp and stopping dead in her tracks. Adrenaline coursed through her as she processed the terrifying sight dangling above and not very far away from her. A large, powerful-looking, blue scaled leg was hanging from a hammock not too far from the shoreline. It was larger than the ripper’s leg, and it’s foot had twice the toes. Yuki frowned, slowly ducking into the grass as she reached for the field guide. She silently checked the “NITEN DRAGON” entry. To her utter dismay, the foot matched the illustration perfectly. Vibrant blue scales glistened in the morning light. The four large toes were tipped with large black claws, even the back of the huge paw had a dewclaw protruding from the heel. As Yuki examined the leg in horror, she was struck by the unusual realization of why it was positioned in such a way. In the trees, she spotted a large, brown sling-style leather hammock. The only indication that it was out of place in the green and brown tree branches was the brilliant color of the leg. Soon a large, equally colorful matching tail joined said leg, luckily compromising the otherwise well-camouflaged hammock’s position. Terrified, Yuki did her best to halt her breathing. She pulled her wings tightly against her back, trying to make herself as small as possible. She grit her teeth and painstakingly began to back away, trying to stay hidden and out of the creature’s line of sight. Caution transcended into panic as Yuki noticed a red Niten Dragon’s head now popping up from a previously unseen hammock on the same tree. There were two of them! The red Dragon’s head peeked over the edge, and its eyes blinked sleepily. The red one’s hammock rustled and swung, and it let out a clicking noise. Had it seen her? Then Yuki saw the dangling blue leg flex and quickly withdraw back upward into its hammock. Suddenly she heard growls coming from the two nearby trees. Peeking through the tall, thick grass cover, she looked to the second set of growling and saw the head of the other Dragon. It looked angry and Yuki didn’t want to bother finding out why. Yuki sprinted as quickly as she could back into the forest to seek cover, desperately hoping they hadn’t noticed her. ... Lazzerlth heard something in the distance that didn’t sound like average rustling in the bushes. She leaned over her hammock and to her surprise she saw the Dei they were tracking. She was standing frozen in place though, and she wondered why. She turned and saw Fezzick’s foot and tail hanging down from his hammock. She groaned and let out a clicking noise to alert Fezzick. Fezzick stretched and yawned, “Whaaaat?” he complained lazily. Lazzerlth whisper-growled trying to avoid further detection from the Dei. “Fezz you idiot! The Angel! It came back! Get up!” Fezzick pulled his leg up, “Where? I don’t see her!” he said loudly. Lazzerlth rolled her eyes in frustration and growled, knowing their cover was surely blown. “Be quiet, you moron, she can hear us!” Lazzerlth looked to where the Angel girl had just stood and growled more loudly upon seeing her fleeing back into the woods. “Great! You scared her off!” “Why is she so scared?” Fezzick growled in annoyance, as he jumped and landed heavily on the ground below them, so much so that the trees they had been sleeping in shook. Lazzerlth glided from the hammock and landed gracefully on the ground. “She saw your big ugly leg hanging out of the hammock and probably thought you were something that was going to eat her! Come on, before she gets away!” Fezzick grinned and began to give chase. Lazzerlth did the same, running as quickly as she could, her wings folded around herself for maximum speed as she quickly caught up to and surpassed Fezzick. Fezzick smiled, and in his excitement, he let out a mighty roar as they ran towards the forest. ... Yuki was already well into the forest when a horrifying roar blasted her eardrums. As if a fire had been lit under her, she bolted forward, faster then she had ever run before. Fight or flight instinct took hold, and flight took her as far away as she could go. Her heart hammered in her chest as she ran. In what must have only been minutes, she arrived at her shelter and quickly passed it by. She dropped her bag there as she dashed through, hoping to unburden herself and distract the Dragons chasing her. Tears of fear filled her eyes as her heart throbbed in her throat. Her legs and arms burned from the strain of running for her life through the dense forest. Yuki’s arm stung with sharp pain and she stumbled as her shoulder clipped a tree branch. Determined to ignore the pain, she pushed forward, running as fast as she could. Luck was not on her side as a root caught her foot and she careened forward, crashing straight into a tree. The mounting pain would have to wait, however, as she continued pushing forward, deeper into the woods. That was all she could think to do as she remembered the guide book’s warning: run, run, run. Deeper into the woods, into denser woods where they wouldn’t be able to find her from the air. Another tree root caught her foot, and she found herself flat on her face in a pile of leaves and ground debris. Yuki’s tunnel vision gave way as she finally had a moment to breathe, and her ears perked up in hearing the sound of running water. She pushed herself up off the ground and glanced above to see a riverbank. “Oh… Where… were… you… before!” Yuki exclaimed while panting heavily, barely catching her breath as she voiced her frustration. A quick glance behind her showed that she might have lost her pursuers. Nevertheless, she dove into the water and swam upstream, giving quick bursts of speed with her wings as she swam, hoping that the Dragons would assume she went downstream. If she couldn’t outrun the creatures, she’d outsmart them, after all, she’d outsmarted that pack of Rippers! Perhaps if they couldn't find her scent they'd give up their hunt. Yuki hoped this was the case as she pushed herself until she couldn’t swim any further. A large stump served as a decent temporary hiding spot. Yuki grabbed onto a slimy root, letting the river’s current flow over her aching body, the cool water a welcome relief to her overtaxed muscles. The area stunk of decay and muck, but that was far preferable to being torn to shreds. Besides, she thought, the silver lining of such a rancid odor was that the smell might be overpowering enough to mask her scent. As she held on, she reached out into the flowing clean water and she cupped her free hand. She drank as quickly as she could, quenching her thirst before pulling herself closer to the stump. ... Lazzerlth was slowed by the density of the trees as she ran. She cursed as she occasionally got caught on a root or a tree branch. Pursuits on foot were not her strong suit, and even less so for Fezzick, who was a solid minute behind her at this point. She sniffed the air, and the scent of the Angel grew stronger. At least the scene of what Lazzerlth thought was the Angel, as she had never smelled anything like it before. She cast a glance behind her and Fezzick was nowhere in sight. She rolled her eyes and turned to face forward. Lazzerlth spread her wings and brought herself to a complete halt. She flexed her claws out as she spotted the head of a Swift Plunderer looms out in front of her. She had run into these creatures many times, they hunted in packs of three and preyed upon hunter groups who had just made a kill. She roared in fear and jumped back, hitting her shoulder against a tree. Lazzerlth quickly realized with a closer look that it was only the head of a creature she knew as a Swift Plunderer; it was clearly decapitated. Strangely, its head was mounted on a large stick before what looked like a make-shift tent. As Lazzerlth inspected the area, she decided this was where the Angel must have been making camp. The Angel’s scent was everywhere, and as she sniffed she turned to spot a strange bag tossed haphazardly on the ground. She rubbed her sore shoulder a bit as she continued to inspect the contents of the bag. With a sniff of the meat, her eyes went wide, “Plunderer meat? She’s eating it?” she looked to the decapitated head. “...Badass little Angel.” Lazzerlth examined a book written in a bizarre language she couldn’t even begin to read. “Ugh, I should have learned how to read Dei...” Fezzick finally caught up to her, panting hard. Not built for the chase, it would seem. His large chest heaved as he inhaled deeply through his nostrils and then exhaled hard through his mouth. His impressive muscles visibly bulged under a rather tight green leather vest, making it difficult to tell where the vest ended and his own blue leathery skin began. “She… won’t… understand… us….” he heaved. Taking in the masculine sight for a moment, Lazzerlth regained her composure. “Look,” she said slowly. “This Angel?” she pointed to the Plunderer’s head, “She killed it.” The man's face was in shock, “A Dei Angel killed a Plunderer? Are you sure she didn’t just find a dead one?” Lazzerlth nodded and tossed a bit of meat at Fezzick, “Yep! Fresh Plunderer meat,” Lazzerlth looked at the Plunderer's head again. “We'll have to find her soon. She got lucky with this Plunderer, that luck won’t last. Something else might get her. But if she’s able to kill a Plunderer, we need to be careful. She’s not normal prey, she’s smart. No more roaring, okay?” She shot him a stern look, “No matter how sexy it is.” Fezzick rolled his eyes, “She’s a damn primitive, how smart can she be?” Lazzerlth glared at him, “Smart enough to slay a Plunderer and brave enough to sleep on the ground… or did you forget that it’s because of those very Plunderers that we have to sleep in the trees?” She stood up, Yuki’s bag in her hand, “She knows we’re after her, so she's probably hiding somewhere she thinks will hide her scent. I think there is a river nearby. Come on, let’s make our way to it, see if we can pick up her scent there.” Fezzick chuckled and walked towards Lazzerlth, picking the bag up to his nose and inhaling sharply. “You have to admit though… it was a pretty good roar.” Lazzerlth felt her cheeks heat up, and turned from Fezzick quickly, “I’ve got her this way,” she said as she ran towards the river. Fezzick grinned as he followed after her, even as she grew distant. His smile grew as he admired her beautiful tail switching back and forth, her powerful legs flexing as she gave chase. “I love being the slower runner…” he growled to himself. Though unintentional, her tail was held up high between her wings to keep her balance forward, giving Fezzick a clear view of her hips and thighs. Fezzick almost slammed into a tree due to his distracted admiration. … Yuki's breathing slowed and she closed her eyes for a moment, her flight suit keeping her fairly dry and warm as she thought about her next move. She smacked herself in the head as she realized she had dropped the guide book along with her bag. She couldn't risk going back for it, the Dragons could be waiting for her to return to her shelter if they lost her. She was likely stuck without the guidebook from now on. A sudden hiss in her ear startled Yuki. She turned quickly to see a large reptilian face peering at her, far too close for comfort. She pushed herself away from the shoreline and back into the stream, staring at the snake-like creature sticking its three-foot-long neck from a knot of the stump. A pair of thin arms popped out from its sides and clutched at the rotting wood. Green scales with black stripes lined its long, serpentine body. Its forked tongue flicked out of its mouth as it curiously examined Yuki. Yuki swam downstream quickly to gain momentum and distance from this new threat. Now she had to outrun this strange creature, all while remembering that she was being pursued by Niten Dragons. Why did every creature on this planet wish to devour her? Yuki swam past a familiar portion of the forest, it was where she had entered the river. She cursed at herself in realizing she was now downstream from where her scent would have ended. So much for hiding my scent. Yuki moved to the opposite river bank and heaved herself up and out. A quick survey of her surroundings, and a chance to slow her heart rate, confirmed that nothing else was chasing her. I think I lost those Dragons, she thought to herself as she peered over the river. Her panic and exertion had taken its toll. Burning pain in her chest, arms, shoulders, and legs was her body’s desperate way of begging for a respite. This isn’t good. She leaned her head back against the tree and groaned as her lungs seemed to burn. She couldn’t stay there in the open, and so after the briefest of breaks, Yuki jogged off deeper still into the forest. ... Lazzerlth came to the river bank and frowned, sniffing. “I knew it! She dove right in!” She looked into the water, glancing down and upstream. “I don't see her... She could have gone up or downstream. We may need to split up.” Fezzick caught up with Lazzerlth, heaving as he did so. “How about… a quick breather?” Lazzerlth growled, “This is why you need to do more cardio.” Fezzick knelt by the river bank and cupped his hands in the water, pulling them up to his muzzle and drinking heavily. After a moment, still gasping for air, he remarked, “She had to have gone downstream, the current is too strong.” “It'd be easier to swim downstream with this current, but upstream would give her a better hiding place since she might have tried to outsmart us, thinking we would assume she took the easiest route. Splitting up is going to be our best bet.” Just then a large serpent slithered through the water, showing its full length of over three meters. “Big guy,” Fezzick said affectionately. “Yeah, he's a beauty. Too old to hunt though, but man look at him!” Fezzick bent his knees and beckoned to the creature. “Here big guy, I won't hurt you.” The serpent’s instincts knew better than to trust one of the more capable hunters in its world, and kept going, slithering into its home in the dirt around the stump. “Hey!” Fezzick had an idea and looked at Lazzerlth. “Bet she went downstream... Big Guy might have scared her down the river, and it probably got curious and followed her down. It didn't look like it had anything in its mouth so it definitely wasn't hunting. Plus it's too early to sunbathe, see? Its home is upstream from here.” “You could be right,” Lazzerlth said. She looked into the water. “You know...” she said slyly, walking to Fezzick and placing her hands on his chest, a large toothy grin on her face. “If your muscles are so sore from running, you should cool off!” She gave him a firm shove, laughing as he tumbled into the river. Fezzick gasped as he breached the surface, growling at Lazzerlth. Lazzerlth growled back, licking her lips as she happily examined her now-soaked hunting partner. Fezzick crossed his arms, “As much as I would love to make love in this river… we have to find that Angel or all this effort will have been for nothing.” Lazzerlth humphed and leaped over the river. Fezzick grumbled as he pulled himself out of the water, “I swear, you women are always ready for sex.” Lazzerlth snickered, “Got a problem with that?” Fezzick rolled his eyes and did his best to catch up with Lazzerlth’s fresh head start. ... Yuki needed to find someplace to hide, someplace where her scent would be masked, or somehow hidden. As she put some distance between herself and the river, she continued into very dense, darker woods. When the brush seemed to reach its absolute densest, a small clearing emerged. The clearing was still shaded by the heavy canopy of trees, but it was devoid of any movement impeding brush. As she took a moment to catch her breath pain wracked her body! She screamed out in shock as a sharp stabbing pain struck her hand! She looked to her hand to see some kind of horrific worm that was attached to her wrist! Worse yet, it had bitten right through her suit! She grabbed the worm-like creature that was attached to her hand and pulled it off with a painful gasp. Her hand was bleeding in a round bite-mark. The worm had been sucking her blood! It writhed and wriggled in her hand as a circular set of sharp teeth like spines flexed and gaped in the air. She threw it to the ground and stomped on it in disgust. The worm popped as she squashed it, a small amount of blood oozing out of its ruptured yellow flesh. A wave of dizziness caught her off guard. She staggered to a nearby rock and shook her head to regain her composure. Oh... no... Please don't be venomous. She looked at the strange creatures that wriggled on the ground and cringed, they were clearly seeking out something to feed on. She reached for her missing handbook out of instinct and found her hand was already numb. That’s not a good sign. She scrambled away from the clearing. She had to get as far away from the Dragons as she could... there was no way she'd end up as their breakfast. ... Fezzick and Lazzerlth had taken a brief break, held up by the thickening brush. Fezzick squeezed out his vest, grumbling, “Of all the times for your little cravings.” he said, wringing his shirt out. Lazzerlth smiled seductively, “Hormones my mate... I blame all the running... seeing you out of breath like that...” She purred, “it’s your own fault, muscles straining against that vest of yours,” Lazzerlth licked her lips, “makes a girl hungry.” He let out one loud “HA!” at her as he tirelessly dried his vest. “Let’s hope the Angel hasn’t gained any ground due to your antics.” Lazzerlth nodded slowly, her eyes on his bare chest, not paying his words much attention. Fezzick rolled his eyes and put on his vest glaring at her. “What did I just say?” “Hmm?” Lazzerlth’s cheeks blushed, “Oh, uh…” she coughed. “Let me guess, blaming the hormones?” Fezzick chuckled, “When are you due anyway?” She smiled warmly at him, “I'll be out of work for the next three weeks laying that egg for you... so you'd better work double for me.” Fezzick nodded happily and beamed at her, “What'll we name him? Or her?” She laughed, “It's not even laid yet and you want to name it, huh?” she smiled and stood up. She slipped her now-dried pants back on and looked at him, remembering her original purpose. “Okay... let’s get back to this hunt... she's probably stopped running by now and is trying to hideout. She must be exhausted and scared.” “Why is she so afraid?” Lazzerlth shrugged, “Well... She’s probably never been to Nite before... probably a real shocker, Dei Angels don’t have any natural predators. Not to mention,” she shivered, “your vocal performance?” Fezzick smiled bashfully, before he could say anything else, Yuki’s scream of fear echoed faintly. For an average person, this sound may have gone wholly unnoticed, but to Fezzick and Lazzerlth’s attuned hunters’ ears, it was quite clear. “Come on, I think she’s in trouble!” ... Yuki had run what felt like several kilometers before her arm had lost all feeling and accidentally hit into her stomach, winding her. She lay splayed against a cliff face, panting and trying to regain her composure. I have to get a grip... it's just my arm... it's just numb... She slowly stood up, finding it harder to move her right leg. Just my arm. Yuki lied to herself. She found herself near a smaller stream, and her lessening mobility was narrowing her options. She collected all the debris she could and gathered it together to form what looked to be a large pile of fallen branches next to an adjacent tree. She then moved to the stream and took off her suit, leaving her in her undergarments, and stuffed the suit full of leaves and dirt, placing it behind the cliff face from the direction she ran. She knew the hunters would follow her trail, so she made it seem as if she had passed out against the cliff. A quick dip into the water and a vain attempt to clean her wound was next. Still numb, still bleeding. She frowned and continued on with the next phase of her plan. With all the mud she could find, she caked herself with it, finishing the task just as her leg went completely numb and limp. She dragged herself behind her cover, and shivered there, the cold mud sapping her of body heat. Pure fear gripped her, she had no choice but to hide. She knew this spot wasn’t the best, but she was out of options. She could only hope the Dragons would find her suit, tear it to pieces, and leave. Her wings feathers ruffled and she tried to smooth them down, keeping her wings against the tree behind her. She knew it was a terrible plan. She knew, deep down, that there was no way that the Dragons wouldn’t find her. At this point, she just hoped to delay the inevitable. She swallowed hard, and silently began to pray to Lucifer as hard as she could. Despite being unable to move half her body, she could barely keep herself from violently shivering. … Lazzerlth stopped as she spotted the same clearing Yuki had arrived at. Fezzick sniffed, "She was here." Lazzerlth began to investigate when the twitching worm-like creature Yuki had stomped on caught her attention. "Is that a Numb Leech?" "Those are rare..." Fezzick took a step back, "you think she was bitten by it? Lazzerlth knelt by it, and sniffed, "that's her blood," she turned to Fezzick, "put it in your bag." "What!?" He cried, "I'm not touching that thing! You pick it up!" "I’m pregnant!” Lazzerlth defended, “And we need to show the doctors what bit her if she is going to live! They’ll need to find the right anti-venom!" She stood up and backed away from the leech as Fezzick scooped it up with a tentative claw. "If she's been bitten... she's not going to make it very far. Her life is in danger!" Fezzick nodded seriously, "Right... so...?" "We need to be rough with her, knock her out if we have to, pin her down, tie her up, whatever we need to do - she probably doesn't even know how much danger she's in right now!" They rushed off, following the footsteps, as they did Lazzerlth’s face of worry seemed to grow. "Her footprints are getting harder to track and... and they're showing she's slowing down." "Maybe that means we're getting closer?" She sighed, "Fezzick, if she's slowing down she's leaving hard to find footprints... she might be doing it on purpose..." The pair came upon the small stream. Lazzerlth stopped Fezzick fast in his tracks and covered his mouth, pointed to a familiar smelling leg and boots. She jumped into the air, and landed over the form of the Angel, “It’s okay! I have… wait…” Fezzick frowned, “What?” he looked at the decoy, tilting his head to the side in confusion, “Did she turn to dirt?” Lazzerlth gave Fezzick a stern gaze. Fezzick shrugged, “Well, where is she then? Why is she going to such great lengths to hide from us?” "I told you - she doesn't know how badly poisoned she is!" Lazzerlth yelled, frustrated. ... Yuki heard the hunting party and quieted her breathing even more so than before. She took very slow, shallow breaths, and did not move a single muscle as she heard the leaves and twigs snapping near the stream. She closed her eyes and pictured herself in a full-body cast, unable to move. She heard the creatures growling and hissing at each other. She heard the female first, her growls higher-pitched than the roar she had heard earlier. Yuki squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. “Zh bsdr! Ysh ly… rg’e…” the female growled. The male’s voice came next, “Mh? Ham pnth lklvk?” There was a brief silence before the male’s gruff growls echoed past Yuki’s ears. “Vbkn ayph hya? Mdv'e hya mtkvvnt lhstyr maytnv?” The female’s voice now caught on a tone of anger as Yuki hears the next series of growls and hisses, "Amrty lk - hya la yvd'et kmh hya mvr'elt qshh!" Yuki now couldn't feel her entire right side and her breathing was getting hard to control. Suddenly, through her eyelids, she saw a shadow cast on her hiding place. No... Her mind silently called out to her. Run... her mind then repeated, but her common sense beat it back, No… Finally, a low growl filled her with dread, enough so that she took a sharp breath, which was enough to signal her pursuer that she was there. A pair of clawed hands thrust themselves into the fabricated brush and parted it quickly as if it were a pair of French doors. The red Dragon bent down, her wings flared, her legs parted wide and low and her tail high in the air. “Ah-hh! Svp svp mtsaty avtk!” Her mouth was opened wide as she growled out what seemed to be a low roar in Yuki's face, a wide toothy grin and look of satisfaction on the dragon’s lizard-like maw. There was no doubt in Yuki's mind that she would die, and the only thing she could do soon overrode every rational and reactionary thought in her mind. She screamed in pure and true terror. A specific terror, only experienced by one who knows they are drawing their final breath before a violent and untimely death. Her terrorized scream shook her body and soul to the core, her fear overtook everything, and as if to merely avoid the pain of being gutted and then eaten, her body's overreaction caused her to faint.
WELCOME TO MIGHTY BETS BEST BETTING ADVISOR. You can set this subtitle from the customizer. REGISTER NOW! LOG IN. IMPORTANT NEWS IN SPORTS. CONNTACT US. [email protected] ABOUT US . WHY US? The Secret of Success. THERE IS A QUESTION WHY WE ARE SO SUCCESSFUL FREE TIPS Read more . About us. Mighty Tips is a sports news website which can help you with betting. It is a Web Site dedicated to providing useful tips for betting. Mighty Tips - Betting Predictions | Mighty Tips is a sports news website which can help you with betting. Our team provides you preview matches with final prediction. Best Free Sports Betting Tips. Hello and welcome to MightyTips - your new source of betting tips and predictions for various sports events all over the world. Our experts are working non-stop to provide with the best and newest info on the most popular leagues and matches. Top football betting tips (picks) of the day sure tips for tonights games from experts. Daily updated soccer matches analyses! Who is winning the football game today? even today’s top football tips – are presented to you completely free of charge at Mighty Tips. Finally, you’ll also find that the tips on this site are varied, unlike
Mighty Cash BIG MONEY BONUS HIGH LIMIT CATS MAX BETTING at Aria
The Mighty Influence of a Praying Mom: Rhonwyn Kendrick’s Story ... Revive Our Hearts Recommended for you. 10:37. FRIDAY BETTING TIPS Ⓜ️🅱️🅱️BIG TIME - Duration: 5:01. MIRABALL ... 💵 Mighty Cash BIG MONEY BONUS 💰HIGH LIMIT CATS 😻 MAX BETTING at Aria Brian Christopher Slots ... Mighty Cash Double Up, Mighty Cash Big Money, Lightning Link Tiki Fire, Invaders Return ... How to play Mighty Parry without donation, f2p :D And win guild wars! ♣ My English news&reviews channel: https://youtube.com/glazgame ☺ Also.. My streams in ... Mighty Tips is a sports news website which can help you with betting. It is a Web Site dedicated to providing useful tips for betting. Our previews and analy... Asian Handicap is a type of betting that is growing in popularity among punters all over the world. Our explainer video will help you to understand what is Asian Handicap in a nutshell.