War Dragons Fan Story Serial: "Starfall"

Hello to anyone [un]lucky enough to stumble across this post.

Last month, I entered the Forums Art Contest with a short story set during the Withermoon season called “Star of Hope”. I didn’t win, but I did receive a few requests [both in and out of the game] to write a continuation, so because I’m super impressionable and just kind of do whatever people ask me to do, I’m doing just that. :stuck_out_tongue: It takes me a while to write stuff, so this is definitely going to outlast the actual Withermoon season, but I expect it will be done in a few months or so. There’s not really a set schedule for when new installments will come out, but a safe guess is probably approximately every couple of weeks.

While this story is set in the War Dragons universe and I do take plenty of cues from official War Dragons lore [especially the Withermoon stories that have been posted over the last couple of months], none of this should be considered official. I intend it as an homage to a game I’ve enjoyed and it should be read as such. So, required disclaimers, all the characters, dragons etc. belong to Pocket Gems, this is a work of fan fiction, yadda yadda yadda and so forth.

The plot focuses around a small band of characters you may recognize trying to survive the horrors of the Withermoon while looking for the solution to a mystery that seems to have rendered the season even more perilous than usual. Along the way, they face both the frightful dangers associated with unleashed Void dragons and unexpected aid in the form of a mysterious dragon named Hyaku, who seems to be in this world for a purpose they do not yet fully understand…

This first post will include “Star of Hope” for anyone who may not have been following the Forums contest. Assuming I can get the formatting to work, the next post will have the second episode, “The Dragon in the Mirror”. [I was going to post it here, but the thread doesn’t seem to like the format of my Word document and I may need to wrestle with it for a bit]. Everything else from here on out will be posted in this thread as it is finished.

For anyone who’s still with me after all that, thanks for reading this far and I sincerely hope you enjoy this little project! :slight_smile:

PS: @Lachrymae and @Sylestia , I remember both of you saying you’d be interested in a continuation, so I figured I’d tag you here.

Episode #1: "Star of Hope"

rattle rattle rattle

At the sound, the lord sat up abruptly in his bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and trying to shake the uneasy dreams of an insecure leader out of his head. The noise came again, and he groaned as he recognized it. He knew it well—the sound of Ash beating her staff against his door. This had been a rough year for this kingdom, and he’d had to hear this sound far too often in recent days. It always meant the same thing: if she was waking him up herself, things must have gone sideways extremely suddenly.

“My lord!” Ash’s voice came from outside. “Incoming attack!”

“Who is it this time?” the lord asked wearily, tumbling out of bed and struggling to strap his armor on over his pajamas. “The clans to the north again?”

“We’re not sure yet. Whoever it is, they haven’t sent a banner. We just know one of our sentries reported an unidentified dragon flying around.”

“Any description?”

“None—all he could make out was moving wings. The sentry said it felt like there was some kind of shadow between it and him. He was quite shaken.”

The lord strapped his sword to his side and opened the door. Ash stepped aside to let him out—a tall, slender woman with long brown hair, wielding an ornate bronze staff crafted with the head of a dragon clutching a crystalline orb between its jaws. “Did he see anything else?”

“Nothing else he would say.”

The lord turned on her with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean?”

Ash shrugged, and the links in her chain-mail shirt jingled. “He was… clearly terrified,” she said, stiffly. “Kept whimpering and repeating something about the Withermoon’s curse. I’ll have him sent back home to rest if we make it through the night alive.”

“Oh, bother the Withermoon!” Annoyance crept into the lord’s voice. “I don’t suppose this fine sentry happened to mention anything about foreseeing our kingdom being swallowed up by the Void or drowning in a river of blood? How am I supposed to keep this kingdom safe if half our defenders fall flat on their faces the moment the moon comes out?”

“We in Old Atlaua did not fear the Withermoon,” said Ash, evenly. “I don’t fear it now. If the people cannot fight, we must.”

The lord was still irritated. “Superstitions, superstitions… please tell me the other Riders are standing at the ready and not cowering in their chambers.”

Ash hesitated. “Er… well, yes and no. Malus and Astrid just came back from the den, and they report that they can’t get any of the dragons to come out of their stalls. They dig in their claws and refuse to budge. They’re clearly afraid of something, but we can’t tell what.”

“The dragons are afraid, too?” The lord shook his head. “Well, we’d best get out there and see what we can see. Let’s make for the outer wall. If the defenders can’t repel the enemy, I’ll see if I can buy them off. Food and lumber usually seem to work.”

“Malus is already on the wall. Astrid is still trying to get the dragons to move.”

The lord smiled wryly at that. He was always half-amused, half-annoyed at Astrid’s heavyhanded approach to dragon training. When he’d hired her, she’d pitched herself as a Valkyrie and swore up and down that she was the Daughter of Odin… so far, he wasn’t quite convinced that she hadn’t just spent too much time out in the cold of the Frigid Narrows, but they were shorthanded, and it was hard to turn down a qualified Rider who could swing a battle axe in times like these. Besides, she wasn’t a bad Rider when she didn’t manage to make the dragons hate her guts. Hopefully, she wasn’t being too rough on them.

“Any further orders?” Ash’s voice broke in on his thoughts. “We probably don’t have very much time before they make their first strike on the wall.”

“Let’s just see what’s going on out there and then decide.” The lord sighed. “If even the dragons are afraid, there may be nothing we can do, but I’m not going to hide in here while our kingdom burns.”

“All things burn, my lord,” said Ash, grimly. “But perhaps we can keep this place from burning for a little while longer.”

A hulking man clad in blue-green armor with elaborate gold trim met Ash and the lord as they hurried along the wall—Malus, a mercenary from the distant city of Suddene. Astrid was there too, looking out over the parapet as the white wings on her helmet and back fluttered in the brisk night breeze.

“Any further sign of them?” the lord asked Malus.

“Nothing.” The man’s voice was deep and rough. “Even if I could get the defenders to their positions, there’s nothing to shoot at.”

The lord joined Astrid at the rail and shaded his eyes to look over the islands that stretched out below them. The defense towers, usually turning to and fro and scanning the sky for threats, were all still. Above the ocean, the Withermoon glowed with a sickly green light that left a poisonous gleam on the waves.

“So the other defenders are just as afraid as the sentries…” the lord mused. “What of you, can you feel it?”

“I fear nothing,” said Malus, bluntly. “Not now.”

“And I’ve never feared anything!” Astrid cut in. “I was raised a Valkyrie! The power of Odin is in me! Even if Nidhogg himself were to rise from the roots of the World Tree, I would laugh in his face and raise my axe to defy him!”

“Erm… yes, thank you,” said the lord, trying to think of a tactful way to steer this conversation back on topic. “Ash said the dragons couldn’t be budged either… you had no success?”

Astrid’s face fell. “It’s no good. Sakura just hid her head under her wings… Equestor snorted at me… Skoll and Hati almost bit me, and they’ve known me since I trained them in Asgard! None of them will move!”

“No defenders, no dragons… I guess that leaves us.” The lord shifted his sword in its sheath—it was his habit never to draw it until it was time to use it, but he suspected that that was not a long time coming. “We watch from the wall. If anything appears, we challenge it to land and fight. Did any of you bring your bows?”

Astrid leaned her axe against the parapet and unslung a war bow from her back. “If Heimdall gives me clear sight, I shall shoot the riders from their backs before they’ve come within a hundred paces of the wall.”

“Quiet!” snapped Ash. “I think I hear something.”

The four fell silent. For several minutes, none of them could hear anything except the wind blowing around the towers of the castle. There was not a sound from any of the defending towers, nor from the little town that clustered around the castle walls. Like as not, the people were huddled in their homes, praying that the curse of the Withermoon would pass over them. In this ominous silence, even the skeptical lord was uneasy. If there was any time that he had ever seriously wondered if there was truly any supernatural danger during this season of the year, it was now.

Withermoon… he faintly remembered his mother telling tales of it before his exile from Old Atlaua. Every year, near the end of the tenth month, the people fretted and feared, looking up at the sky in wide-eyed terror whenever the moon’s light shone upon them. Whenever anything went wrong, it was automatically because of the Withermoon’s curse. If a pot fell off its shelf and broke into pieces, it was because a Withermoon spirit had pushed it. If you felt a cold chill on the back of your neck, it was the fetid breath of the dragons of the Withermoon. If someone went missing—an unfortunately common occurrence in a land so filled with dragons—it was because the Void had opened up beneath them and swallowed them. Every time his mother told him such stories, his father would snort and tell her to stop filling his boy’s mind with nonsense.

All at once, the lord leaned forward, hand on the hilt of his sword… was that the distant flapping of leathery wings? As he listened harder, he heard a faint rustling sound, a noise like silk and sackcloth rubbing together. An indistinct whisper accompanied it… words… or was it some kind of eerie melody? Perhaps someone was talking or singing in the village below… but no, every light was extinguished, the town was dark and silent. Whatever it was, he had the distinct feeling that something in the darkness was trying to speak to him.

By his side, Malus lifted up his heavy cleaver, and the lord drew his longsword from its sheath. In the silence, the shhiiii of metal sliding against metal seemed loud and startling. With a quick motion, Astrid put an arrow to her bow, and Ash lifted up her staff, glaring around her as if looking for a head to smash in.

The lord peered out into the gloom once more… was it just him, or was the Withermoon’s light fading somewhat? It was almost like a cloud was passing over the moon, but there didn’t seem to be a cloud in the sky tonight. An involuntary shiver passed through him, and he looked around uncertainly—had it been this cold when he’d stepped out of the castle? The weather was often a bit peculiar around here, but it certainly wasn’t time for winter to arrive just yet. That strange whisper tickled his ears again, and he tightened his grip on his sword. What was it saying? He had no idea what it might be.

Unwillingly, his eyes were drawn back up to the Withermoon, shining its unnatural light down on them. If he had to hazard a guess as to where all these superstitions had come from, this would be it. Every year at this time, the moon was slowly engulfed in a greenish tint that grew stronger for a few weeks, then faded away. This natural phenomenon had to have inspired some of the strange tales that the peasants bandied back and forth around their tables…

Wait a moment…

The lord squinted, trying to focus more carefully on the moon above. He wasn’t sure if he could really trust his eyes after staring so hard into the night, but he was almost sure he had seen something moving on its surface. For several moments, he struggled to see, but a sudden fogginess seemed to blur his vision. Through the blur, he thought he could see the many craters and dark spots of the moon seeming to slide back and forth over its surface like bugs crawling on a lantern.

Come on, focus…

Yes, the spots were definitely moving, and with a little effort, he managed to clear his vision enough to see them well. They were jumping here and there with little jerky motions, going nowhere and yet seeming to have a specific direction in mind. Slowly, bit by bit, they were moving towards the center of the moon’s disk, gathering along its central axis like the slitted pupil of a dragon’s eye.

And then the moon WAS an eye, and a hideous shriek rent the hush of the Withermoon night.

In a moment, the lord’s view of the sky was eclipsed by darkness… darkness that moved and breathed. Here and there in the shadows, little yellow eyes opened and shut, surrounded by writing coils of blackness that wove themselves into the shape of a serpent with wings.

A great horror fell on all of them, and they stepped back involuntarily, raising their weapons as this monstrosity reared up over the wall. Its body was nearly sixty feet long, blacker than the night from which it had come, made up entirely of dark, oily tendrils. Its wings were like webs woven from criss-crossing strands of loathsome, obscene growth. Its face—such as it had one—sprouted dark tendrils like some kind of abominable hair, and as it opened its mouth to roar, black slime stretched between its jaws. No eyes could be seen in its face, only crooked yellow fangs and a filthy maw. Along its neck and down as far as its belly, the dark tendrils opened up like a second mouth, lined with row upon row of long, spinelike teeth. On either side of this unnatural orifice, yellow eyes appeared and disappeared within the folds of the creature’s filthy tendrils.

Astrid was the first to regain her composure. In an instant, she had drawn her bow and, true to her word, she put an arrow directly in one of the creature’s eyes. The eye seemed to close and vanish as the arrow went through it, passing through the horror’s body as though it were nothing more than a mist. The next moment, the eye simply reappeared slightly to the side.

“What gives?!” the Valkyrie growled, stringing up another arrow. “Does this creature even have a solid form?”

Malus smiled wryly. “Who knows at this time of year? Shoot it again.”

One arrow after another whistled from Astrid’s bow, but not one of them seemed to have any effect on the beast. Its dark tendrils rippled like water as the arrows passed through it, and it made no sound except a slimy gurgle in its throat.

“If arrows can’t touch it, our swords will do no good,” said the lord. His heart was down in his boots, but his voice was still steady.

“What do we have except our swords?” said Malus, reasonably. “If this monstrosity means to destroy us, I for one will stand and fight to the end.”

“Much good that will do if we can’t even touch it!” Ash muttered. Aloud, she said, “My lord, you have shown time and again that you are the only one left in this kingdom who can still speak to dragons… can you tell it to back off?”

“If I thought that would work, I would have done it BEFORE Astrid tried to make a pincushion out of it,” said the lord. “But as it stands…” He cleared his throat and tried to meet the eyes of this eldritch horror without wavering… or, at least, one or two of its eyes. “Dragon, from where do you come? What is it that you want with us?”

No answer came from the dragon’s mouth, though he thought that the sinister murmuring at the back of his mind had become louder. It was like many voices were whispering at once, together yet separate, over one another yet complementing each other.

“BLAST!” Astrid’s rage drowned out the voices in the lord’s mind. “Die, Odin smite you! Oh, if Skoll and Hati would but heed my call…”

The monster opened its misshapen jaws to shriek again, and an unearthly purple light began pulsating at the back of its throat. The lord tried to step back, anticipating some kind of attack, but his feet seemed to be frozen to the ground and he couldn’t move at all. He wasn’t sure if the intense horror radiating from this monstrosity had finally conquered his will or if he was physically being held in place. It scarcely mattered. The best he could do was raise his sword into a futile blocking position and wait for whatever bolt of death was about to hurtle out of this dragon’s mouth.

All at once, the dragon’s face was lit up with a fiery glow, and it seemed to pause, twisting its head sideways so that some of the eyes on its neck could look upward. The next moment, as if cast down from heaven, a great burning something crashed into the abomination’s body and exploded into liquid fire. Horrendous shrieks echoed over the wall, and whatever force it was that held the lord in place abruptly slacked off and was gone. Instinctively, he leaped back to avoid the splatters of molten rock that splashed around them.

The horror was shaking its head violently, throwing drops of lava in every direction, screeching as it tried to dislodge the fiery substance from its wings. Once again, a fierce glow shone on the wall, and this time the lord looked up in time to see a bright, flaming streak of light hurtling down towards them like a falling star. This one missed the dragon, but it blew an enormous crater in the top of the castle wall. Lava churned and roiled inside it like the interior of a volcano’s vent.

“I think that was a meteor!” Ash yelled.

“Two meteors in the same place at the same time?” Malus yelled back. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

“No, no, I think Ash is right!” said the lord, excitedly. “There’s no way this could have happened unless they were aimed. Something is attacking the enemy!”

“The enemy of our enemy may not be our friend,” Malus growled.

“Maybe not, but really, can things possibly get any worse at this point?”

“Look!” Ash shouted, pointing to the sky. “Here comes another one!”

The lord shaded his eyes and looked up again. Yes, another light was plunging down towards them, this one more dazzling than either of the first two. It almost looked like a blazing orange comet with a long, trailing tail. As it came closer, however, he realized that this wasn’t simply another rock falling from the heavens—this was a dragon. A dragon that was traveling so fast that the very air seemed to ignite around it.

“Back up!” the lord shouted. “It’s landing here!”

Malus and Ash needed no encouragement. Astrid took it one step further and leaped down from the parapet, spreading her feathery wings and gliding away into the darkness. A moment later, the approaching dragon came out of its dive and threw its wings up to slow its fall, stretching out its legs to take the impact as it crashed down in the middle of the fiery crater that had just been created in the middle of the wall.

This dragon… this dragon was as unlike the first as could be. This was a quadruped, with a build that was both sturdy and elegant at the same time. Its scales were cobalt blue, and here and there a space between them opened that showed orange beneath… orange that gleamed with its own light like magma. The membranes of its wings began as the same blue that covered most of its body, but towards the edges, they glowed with fiery light. Blazing radiance shone from inside its mouth, and its reptilian eyes smoldered like a pair of burning coals. Two rows of serrated plates stretched from its head to its tail, seeming to have been cast from solid flame. The light of the crater below played over its belly, and its claws, splayed out in the melted rock, were red-hot. It suddenly struck the lord that he couldn’t tell if the dragon was standing in the lava or standing on top of it. Its tail stretched out easily the length of its body behind it, tipped with a sharp fin that it probably used to steer in-flight. A strong, metallic scent filled the air around it, and so much heat radiated from it that all of them had to step back several more paces.

The first dragon seemed to shrink back before the newcomer, twisting back and forth as though it were looking around uncertainly. The blue dragon stared unflinchingly at it, hissing like an angry snake. Somewhere in the noise, the lord thought he could distinguish the word “Begone.”

After a moment’s hesitation, the horror opened its jaws once more, and the lord again saw the purple glow surround its slimy maw. A bolt of dark energy blasted out from it, trailing strands of blackness that tangled together like the roots of some foul tree. As if in response, a bright light blazed up from the blue dragon, and a shimmering sphere of white energy appeared around it as a shield, white steam curling off of it like boiling water. When the blast struck it, the shield was enveloped in shadowy tendrils that dissipated almost instantly. Just as quickly, the sphere also vanished as though it had evaporated into thin air.

The blue dragon’s retaliation was swift. Still glaring across the wall at its now alarmed enemy, it exhaled gently, and a white-hot orb materialized in front of its face, pitted with little orange marks like tiny craters. The next moment, a tail of fire following behind it, this curious projectile was launched across the wall and smashed into the horror’s face, dousing it from head to tail with glowing lava.

Wreathed in flames and shrieking in anguish, the monster turned and leaped down from the wall. Quicker than it takes to say, it had winged away across the islands below, setting a mage tower ablaze as it flew by. Its last echoing screeches made the lord’s hair stand on end.

The blue dragon turned to the three on the wall, staring down at them with brilliant eyes. Ash and Malus uncertainly lifted their weapons, but the lord motioned them back. “Wait a moment. This one hasn’t threatened us yet.”

The lord stepped forward, stretching out his hand in what he hoped the creature would rightly interpret as a greeting. “Thank you for driving away that monster. Welcome to Castle Starhold. Can you understand my words?”

The dragon stared unwaveringly into his eyes, a penetrating gaze that seemed almost as if it could see all the way to the depths of his soul. “Who art thou?” it asked at last. Its voice was feminine, deep and haunting, echoing in his ears like it was speaking across a great distance. “Thou speakest the tongue of mortal wyrms? I had no idea that such still existed in this world.”

“Many of the children of Old Atlaua were born with the ability to hear and understand that speech,” the lord replied. Somehow, even with all the dragons he had spoken to in his life, he felt a need to speak formally before this majestic creature. “Of those born to my generation, I alone remain.”

“What is thy name, child of man?”

“I have no name now. People call me the Unknown Soldier, and these are my companions Ash and Malus. What of you?”

“I am called Hyaku, but that does not concern thee right now. Tell me. Hast thou seen any others like the one I just vanquished within thy borders?”

The lord shook his head. “None. I had never seen anything like it before.”

“Good. Pray that thou mayst never see another.” Hyaku turned and spread her wings as if to fly away.

“Wait!” the lord called. “I’m thankful to you for saving us, but I want to understand. Why did you protect us just now?”

The dragon turned back. “Child of man… I was placed in this world to oppose such as this. I stand against their power where the strength of men would fail.”

“Why?” the lord asked again, sliding his sword back into its sheath. “Who placed you here?”

“I serve a higher authority,” Hyaku replied. “That authority has given me this purpose. Every year, during this time thou callest the Withermoon, I stand against the nameless horrors that come from beyond thy reality, until the day that the Void can truly be closed for eternity.”

Ash didn’t have the gift of speaking to dragons, but she had been born with just enough ability to understand them that she could hear a few of Hyaku’s words as if in a faint whisper. “Void?” she asked. “Did she say ‘Void’?”

The lord’s heart had also skipped a beat at that word, but he kept his composure. “Hyaku, what is this Void you speak of?”

A brief moment of what looked almost like pain passed across the dragon’s face. “Child of man, do not ask me to tell thee things that thou couldst never truly comprehend. Were I to attempt to describe it, thy mind would be broken. Know only that it lies beyond thy mortal understanding, a realm of darkness without light, of suffering without healing, of meaning without any meaning at all.”

“Is that where this… thing you just defeated came from?”

“That was a Sho-groth, one of the formless horrors of the Void,” Hyaku told him. “It was not entirely present upon thy mortal plane, but it was able to manifest sufficiently for thee to visualize it. Every year at this time, the boundaries of reality between thy world and the Void grow thin, and there are some with the power to pass between them. A great and terrible fear surrounds them, and that is why neither thy dragons nor thy defenders could stand against them. How thou hast remained standing I do not know.”

“And that was one of these? A dragon? Was that actually a dragon, or was that simply how it appeared to me?”

“Yes, child of man. Dragons that dwell within the Void are like these… twisted, unnatural mockeries of what exists in thy world. Yet in some ways they are not really so different from one another. Every dragon thou hast ever befriended could become such as this…”

“So the superstitions are true…” the lord muttered to himself, rubbing his face.

A hint of a smile touched the corners of Hyaku’s mouth. “Child of man, I know nothing of superstitions. Yet, if there has been crossing over between thy world and the Void since the dawn of time, some small details must have been passed down to thy day… or perhaps more.”

“What do you mean?” the lord asked.

“I have… reason to believe that some within thy realms have trespassed upon things that thy kind was never meant to know or do,” Hyaku said, slowly. “It’s almost like the way to the Void has been opened rather than opening itself…”

The dragon’s words were cut off by a shout from above. “Hah! There you are! Surrender or prepare to die, invader! Like the lightning of Thor I descend upon you! SOLAR VOLLEY! HYAAAH!”

The lord’s heart almost stopped as he recognized the voice, and he looked up to see Astrid diving down towards them, crouched atop the white wolf dragon Skoll. “No, Astrid, wait! She’s on our side!”

It was too late. A barrage of flares blasted down from Skoll’s open jaws, and the three humans leaped back to save themselves from being engulfed. Hyaku didn’t even look up as the blazing light surrounded her, and the blasts broke like fiery waves as the white shield appeared around her again. The lord could have sworn that the great dragon was rolling her eyes.

With a careless puff, Hyaku generated another meteor and fired it up towards the approaching dragon and rider. It clearly wasn’t intended to hit them directly, but it did clip a few feathers off Skoll’s wing. Astrid and her dragon spun down past the wall, the Valkyrie hanging onto Skoll’s neck for dear life. There probably wouldn’t be any lasting injury, but they were definitely in for a rough landing.

Ash turned and walked away. “I’ll… go make sure she doesn’t just grab a fresh dragon and try again.”

The lord winced and looked back up at Hyaku. “Please excuse her,” he said, hastily. “She didn’t know… honestly, I think she’s just a little bit crazy anyway. I’m so, so sorry about that…”

Hyaku’s gaze froze the words in his mouth, and he stammered to a stop. “Child of man… have no fear. I am bound to cause no harm to thy kind if it can possibly be averted. Only know this for the future: I am not on thy side. Perhaps thou art on my side. We may see in the coming days. But my mission here goes beyond thy conflicts and interests. I shall do what I was sent to do while the Withermoon lasts and return to the stars from which I have come…”

The dragon’s voice trailed off, and she cocked her head as though listening intently. “My time grows short, child of man. Somewhere else in the land of Atlas, other horrors have emerged from the Void. I must not tarry here.”

The lord nodded. “Do what you need to, Hyaku. I won’t trouble you anymore.”

Hyaku turned away once more, then hesitated and looked back over her shoulder. “Child of man, I wouldst have thee know… the horror that thou hast witnessed today is only one of many. There are dangers in the Void that are even more frightful than this, and some that even I may not hope to stand against. Pray that thou never seest me again, for if thou dost, that will mean that more terror is upon thee… but know also that thou art not alone, and that power watches over thee from beyond the stars. Be thou safe in this time of fear.”

“And you also.”

The dragon leaned out from the wall, spread her great wings—their span was easily as long as her full length—and leaped away into the darkness. The draft from her takeoff slapped him in the face like a scorching wind, and then she was gone.

Malus gave the lord a questioning glance. “Just what was that all about?”

The lord shook himself back to reality. “At least some of the peasant’s folktales are true… there is a Void, and the monster we just saw comes from it. Whoever this Hyaku is, she opposes it. We’ll just have to trust her; there’s nothing we can do against these horrors.”

Malus put his sword away with a grunt. “Blast. So we just huddle here and hope that none of us die before this cursed season is over? Is that it?”

“Basically, yes,” said the lord, distantly. His thoughts were running along a different line, and all at once he snapped his fingers. “No, wait… there’s nothing we can do to fight them. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to oppose them. Hyaku seemed to believe that there may have been some mortal agency in the Void’s opening… perhaps if we investigate carefully, we can find information that will help her if we ever meet her again.”

“Perhaps,” said Malus, doubtfully.

The two men remained on the wall for a few minutes longer, each lost in his own thoughts. Before either of them had resolved whatever ideas were running through their minds, they were suddenly hailed by a shout from behind. “My lord!”

The lord turned around as Ash rejoined them. “Oh, there you are. Is Astrid all right?”

Ash waved dismissively. “Nothing a day’s rest and some good strong mead won’t fix, but that’s not what I came to tell you. I ran into one of the porters down in the courtyard, and he said we have a visitor at the front gate. A fellow named Reginald, claims to be a private investigator and told some crazy tale about cultists and a mirror and some kind of bizarre dragon that he thinks is somewhere in Atlas right now… would you like me to throw him out? We have quite enough problems at the moment without adding conspiracy theories.”

The lord looked over at Malus and chuckled for the first time that night. “What did I tell you? I thought we might be of some use here… no, no, don’t throw him out, Ash. This might be exactly the break we need…”


All right, formatting issues solved. This should be legible now.

Episode #2: "The Dragon in the Mirror"

Atlaua was a land that had once been greatly blessed, but now retained that blessing only in part.

On the surface, it seemed to be the same to those outside. Its warriors were still strong, its islands remained unconquered, its dragons still inspired fear in all who came against it. However, in all things, it was but a pale shadow of what it had been while the Grandmaster and Grandmistress ruled.

In many ways, the shadow of disaster had fallen across these peaceful islands long before the actual collapse. The Peacekeepers—or, as the people called them, the Blackbloods—had become uncontrollable. Their mission was no longer about protecting Atlaua, it had become about destroying everything that was not Atlaua. The people were so afraid of what lay outside their little island havens that they had put far too much faith in strength and not enough in justice and compassion.

It had been the head of the Blackbloods who had ultimately destroyed whatever remained of the old Atlaua. Gustav, he was called, an orphan from the Saltlands of Atlas, a barbarian who had risen to power within the Peacekeepers and ultimately staged the coup that toppled the rightful rulers of Atlaua. Both the Grandmaster and Grandmistress had fallen by his hand, but he had spared their young son for a time because of an ancient prophecy. Legends spoke of a lost island sunk beneath the sea near Atlaua, Topan by name, where, it was said, many ancient and powerful dragons slept. Supposedly, the child of the Grandmaster and Grandmistress was destined to bring it back to the surface. As is unfortunately so often the case, the legends were proven true, and the power of these dragons had placed the kingship securely in Gustav’s hands. Here the child’s life would most assuredly have ended if Ash had not taken pity on him and sent him away, carried by one of the awakened dragons.

Ten years passed as Gustav ruled Atlaua with an iron fist, killing, tearing and destroying as he pleased, and every vestige of its former greatness was erased. In desperation, Ash sent the dragon out again, begging him to find the rightful ruler of Atlaua and bring him back to save them all from Gustav’s violence.

And somehow, someway, he had come.

There was not one man, woman or child in Atlaua who did not remember that day. The day their new lord had ridden into the city on the back of the crimson dragon Draco, clad from head to toe in gleaming armor, red hair flowing from under his helmet and a naked sword in his gauntleted fist. The day that not one of the Blackbloods had been able to stand against the might of the dragon, and the day that the lord had killed Gustav with his own hand. There had been great rejoicing in the city as the banners of the Blackbloods were torn down from the walls of Castle Starhold and hurtled into the ocean. Not a few hours after Gustav’s death, the lord was already being crowned king, with the full support of the people and most of the nobility.

Two years more had passed since that day. The lord had governed justly and wisely, with the faithful Ash as his advisor and general. The kingdom had advanced greatly, and its magical defenses paled only in comparison to the might of the great dragons the lord had bred and tamed. Still, it was a long way off from the peace and joy that it had once known.

That had been Old Atlaua. This was New Atlaua. No great lord or mighty dragon could ever change that.

The lord wasn’t really sure what he had been expecting a ‘private investigator’ to look like, but Reginald didn’t seem to fit the bill at all. The visitor who was shown into the castle’s war room was a formally-dressed, bespectacled man with a thick mustache and steel-gray hair. His expression was serious at the moment, but there were still smile lines around the man’s mouth.

The lord extended his hand and motioned Reginald forward. “Welcome to Castle Starhold. Please, come sit with us.”

Reginald nodded and stepped up to the council table. His expression became questioning as he looked from one face to the next—Malus, still clad in full armor, Ash, staring moodily into the crystal at the end of her staff, and the lord himself, also in full gear and without an inch of visible skin exposed. Had he not been told already who was master here, he would have had no idea if the one who stood before him was a man or a woman.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, hesitantly. “I seem to have come at a troubled time.”

“All times are troubled times here,” Ash said, tonelessly.

“Forgive our warlike appearance,” said the lord. “We’ve had a rough night.”

Reginald peered at the lord’s armor over his spectacles. “Indeed. You look to have been in quite the tussle. Were you raided?”

“You could say,” grunted Malus, running a calloused finger along his sword lying on the table in front of him.

“I’m afraid we don’t have time for formalities right now, so I’m going to have to get right to the point,” said the lord. “Reginald, you told my gatekeeper that you had an urgent need to see me, and you claimed to have seen some sort of strange dragon. Based on… other events that have happened tonight… I think your story might be of greater importance than you realize.”

“If it’s true, of course,” said Ash. “And let me warn you, if you’re telling us tall tales, you will be spending your night in the dungeon.”

Reginald looked injured. “Madame, I assure you that I would never even consider wasting your or anyone else’s time with idle stories. I am a gentleman of honor. You may be certain that everything I am telling you I saw with my own eyes.”

“Before you start,” said the lord, “I have one question I need answered. Why, out of all the lords in Atlas, have you come to me?”

Reginald looked him in the eyes—or, at least, the tiny eyeholes of his helmet. Actually, if he looked closely, he could just see a pair of eyes looking back at him from underneath… was it just him, or was there fear in those eyes? He could see very little, but he was a very quick judge of character, and this man struck him as insecure. “I have to confess that I’m not quite sure myself. I know a few things about the history of Atlaua, but very little of you personally. Still… I’ve heard whispers here and there about you. About how you stand up for the oppressed, how you welcome weary travelers, and how you can speak to dragons as easily as if they were your own kind.”

“Once many of the children of Old Atlaua could do the same,” said the lord, trying to hide his embarrassment. “I was just fortunate enough to be outside of the kingdom during Gustav’s purge.”

“But it is a dragon that I am concerned with right now,” said Reginald. “And I hoped that with your experience, you of all people might be able to tell that my story was true…”

As he spoke, the man suddenly slumped forward, steadying himself on a cane that none of them had noticed when he came in. The lord reached out to help him, but Reginald pushed himself back up. “Pardon me. I have been on the road for almost two weeks.”

The lord whistled. “You DID want to see me. Well, you’d best say what you came to say. I don’t think it would be right to keep you waiting any longer.”

“And sit down before you fall down,” said Ash, trying to sound kind but only managing to sound stiff. Gentleness wasn’t much in her nature, but she was clearly doing her best. “You won’t do much good for anyone if you end up on the floor.”

Reginald sank down into the chair that she slid out for him with the end of her staff. “Thank you, madame. I will endeavor to keep this brief.”

“As I already told you,” Reginald explained, “I am a private investigator. Specifically, I investigate legends and folktales about dragons. I have been fascinated by these things since I was a child. I like to follow up on local stories and see if I can trace them to their source. If there really is a dragon there, I document it. If not, I can at least put it down as a confirmed myth.”

The lord smiled. “That sounds like a fascinating line of work.”

“A lot of my interest in this field originated with my childhood fascination with the Withermoon season,” Reginald went on. “I’m sure you too have heard the stories… the stories that, at this time of year, the veil between our world and another grows thin, and strange, monstrous dragons pass from one reality to the other. The people swore it was true, the intellectuals told me it was foolishness. Yet there was still too much evidence for me to dismiss the story completely. It was simply so widespread that I couldn’t bring myself to believe that there wasn’t some grain of truth to it. Every year, I investigate every rumor related to the Withermoon that reaches my ears. This season, I was particularly fortunate in my research. Obviously, there are always plenty of stories, and most of them go nowhere, but this year, I was hearing a lot which were pointing me to the same place.”

Reaching into a bag that hung by his side, Reginald pulled out a roll of parchment and spread it out on the table—a chart depicting the land of Atlas in its entirety, from the Stygian Glaze to the Frigid Narrows. His listeners all leaned forward to get a look at the location he indicated. “Several leagues south of here, off the coast of the Twilight Woodlands, there is a little island called Greyshadow. Not many people live here, and the vast majority of those on the island at any given time are merchants and traders from the mainland. There’s only one little town there; the rest of the island is too rocky to build on and is left to the gulls. In any case, I was hearing stories of strange things happening on this island for the last several Withermoons. People claimed to have seen—or knew someone who had seen, or knew someone who knew someone who had seen—strange dragons there. In any case, when the Withermoon season had officially started, I caught a ship to this island to investigate the rumors.”

Reginald paused for a moment as if collecting his thoughts.

“Did you find anything?” the lord asked at last.

“Dragons, no. More rumors, yes. During my time on Greyshadow, I successfully traced the stories I was hearing back to their source—a healer named Vivian who ran a small apothecary in town. Everyone I spoke to on Greyshadow, their stories ultimately led back to her. Accordingly, I paid her a visit at my first opportunity, and… well, this is where things get a sight strange.”

Reginald took a deep breath. “Vivian was quite welcoming and quite willing to talk. A lot of what she said made no real sense to me—a lot of strange babble about secrets and dragons and creators. I have a few notes in my bag if you’d like to take a look, but I’m afraid you probably won’t be able to make much more sense of them than I could. In any case, promising to show me something important, she led me down into… her cellar, I believe. Now that I recall, we were certainly walking for a ways before we actually got there. Perhaps it was some sort of catacomb network underneath the town. I’m afraid I was too distracted by what she was saying to pay too much attention to where we were going. The important thing she wanted to show me turned out to be… a mirror of sorts, although I now suspect that it was more than that. It didn’t seem to have a reflective surface… the place where the actual mirror should be was black.”

“Perhaps the surface was tarnished?” Ash put in.

“I don’t believe so…” Reginald said, slowly. “The blackness was extremely flat and uniform, as though all light that touched it was absorbed completely. I must confess that it wasn’t very bright in the room… I seem to recall Vivian was carrying a candle, and that was all the light we had. I just know for a fact that the mirror reflected nothing.”

“Well, then it wouldn’t be much use as a mirror,” the lord couldn’t resist quipping. “What happened next, Reginald?”

The private investigator stared down at the map in front of them for several long moments. “Vivian told me to look in the mirror and I would see everything she had described to me. I wasn’t sure if I trusted her by this time—frankly, this whole thing was starting to feel extremely fishy—but before I could extricate myself from this situation, she grabbed me and shoved me in front of the mirror. She was substantially stronger than she looked. Once I was in front of the mirror, I couldn’t resist looking into it, and… well, I saw a dragon, as she had promised. It wasn’t really like anything I had ever seen before…”

“Made out of black tendrils with a bunch of yellow eyes?” Malus cut him off.

“No, nothing of the sort. This dragon was of wyvern build, extremely slender, primarily brown and glowing green. That said, it was its face that brought it into the realm of the bizarre. Its neck seemed to have been twisted so that its head was held sideways, and the top jaw—or, at least, what I think was the top jaw—was covered in strange growths that looked…” Reginald hesitated a moment. “…They looked like masks. Many masks, all clustered together and facing every which way. I think the idea of masks may have been on my mind because there were some engraved on the frame of the mirror, but I’m pretty sure that’s also what the dragon looked like.”

Ash made a face. “Creepy. Well, I have heard the peasants speak of masks in connection with the Withermoon, so perhaps this has something to do with that.”

“I didn’t get to see this apparition for long,” Reginald went on, “before a strange person broke in on us—a woman armed with a pair of rapiers, who attacked Vivian and shouted at me to run away as quickly as I could. I escaped from the room, but wasn’t sure how to get out until the armed woman showed me the way. She claimed to be some kind of vampire hunter named Jen who was seeking out ‘Void cultists’. I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, because she was even less clear than Vivian was when it came to explaining herself. She basically told me to get off the island as soon as possible and then ran off. I wasted no time in availing myself of her advice and… well, here I am now. I’m really not sure what is going on over there, but I know it’s much too big for me. I need someone to help me get to the bottom of this mystery, and I was hoping that perhaps you might be able and willing to do that.”

Silence fell across the table, and Reginald looked hopefully at the lord.

“I understand now why you were concerned that no-one would believe you,” the lord said at last. “I might doubt you myself if I didn’t already know that strange dragons were roaming about. We encountered something bizarre here not ten minutes before you arrived, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh?” said Reginald, inquisitively.

In a few quick sentences, the lord described their encounter with the Sho-groth and the dragon called Hyaku who had rescued them.

Reginald nodded. “Then this much is clear. The Void that figures into the tales of the commonfolk exists, and it is home to twisted, monstrous dragons like your Sho-groth and my Narlyth…”

“Narlyth?” the lord interjected.

“My apologies. I forgot to mention that as I was hurrying away from Vivian’s shop, the word ‘Narlyth’ echoed again and again in my mind like some kind of incantation. Somehow, I felt that this was the name of the dragon in the mirror. More than that, I had a strong sensation that this dragon was no longer in the emptiness in which I had seen it, but somewhere within our world, as though I had drawn it out, somehow.”

“With as much supernatural stuff as has already happened tonight, that’s not unlikely,” said Malus.

“Ahem. As I was saying, the Void exists, these dragons have come out from it, and this Hyaku of yours belongs to some faction that, for reasons of its own, opposes them. At least we can be sure that we have some kind of ally in this ordeal.”

“‘We’?” Malus interrupted. “I don’t recall anyone here agreeing to anything.”

“It’s all right,” the lord said, hastily. “I see no reason why we can’t work together. I believe Reginald speaks the truth about this strange dragon. If nothing else, it’s consistent with what Hyaku told me.”

Reginald smiled. “Then we have an understanding. Thank you very much… erm… beg pardon, I don’t think I ever got your name.”

“No-one knows my name anymore,” said the lord. “The people of Atlas call me the Unknown Soldier. Those who live in my kingdom simply call me their lord. And while we’re on the subject of introductions, this is Ash, the general of my army, and Malus, a mercenary in my service.”

“Pleased, I’m sure,” said Reginald, nodding to the lord’s companions. “Now that we’re all on the same page, shall we decide what our next move should be? I have a few thoughts, but I will happily defer to your judgment.”

“It seems to me that there is only one course of action open to us at this time,” said Ash, decisively. “Your adventure on Greyshadow is our only lead. We must make our way back there and see what we can find.”

“That should be simple enough,” said the lord. “If you can show us where Vivian’s shop is, we can investigate the place for ourselves. That is, assuming the authorities haven’t already blocked it off. I infer from your story that Jen killed Vivian after you left the room? The place may be a crime scene by the time we get there.”

“First off, I took note of the apothecary’s address before I left,” Reginald replied. “We will have no difficulties finding it again. As for Vivian… Jen just said that she had wounded her. She may still be alive. Perhaps she was too strong for Jen to dispatch alone. She carried a staff and may have known how to defend herself with it.”

“We’ll just have to do what we can with what we have. Let me see your chart.” The lord bent over Reginald’s map again. “Hmm… quite some ways on foot, but not far as the dragon flies. I’d say that we can be down there in two days if we leave tomorrow morning.”

Reginald raised an eyebrow. “It’s nearly two in the morning. Can you be ready to ride that quickly?”

“Easily,” the lord said with a nod. “We are always ready to travel. Of course, in order to make that kind of time, we will all need to be riding… have you ever had any experience in dragon riding?”

Reginald smiled. “My father was a rich merchant, and he was able to afford to hire dragon riders to protect his ships. In my younger days, I rode with the convoys. I wasn’t bad either, I daresay. The two weeks I spent getting here were just to get to a place I could hire a dragon. That was less than twenty-four hours ago.”

“Very good. I will make sure you have a dragon tomorrow.” The lord turned to Malus and Ash. “I will ride with Reginald. Ash, can you keep things together down here?”

“Of course.”

“Malus, will you come with us? Three can travel much more safely than two, and we may have a dangerous person to deal with once we reach Greyshadow.”

“I will,” the man said, briefly.

“Then, as Astrid is currently incapacitated, it will just be us three.” The lord shook his head. “Actually, we may be better off without Astrid.”

“Why?” asked Reginald. “Does she not pull her own weight?”

That thought made the lord burst out laughing. “She pulls so many times her own weight that we might not be able to keep up with her. She’s… a little eccentric.”

“That’s… putting it mildly, my lord,” said Ash.

The lord stood up. “Ash, can you please make sure Reginald is shown to a room for the night? We’re all going to need a few more hours of sleep before we take off.”

Ash nodded. “Come with me, sir.”

With a final word of thanks, Reginald rose and followed Ash out of the room.

Malus cast a critical eye at the map which still lay on the table in front of them. “We’re going to need a route. There’s no way we’re making this flight without any stops.”

“Oh, that shouldn’t be difficult,” said the lord, idly tracing a line with his finger. “Greyshadow is just a few leagues to the southeast. We can fly over the Twilight Woodlands most of the way and stop over at some inn at the end of the first day. It would be faster if we flew directly over the ocean, but then we’d have to count on finding a safe island for the night, and besides, I don’t want to risk meeting one of those Void dragons with nothing but open water below us.”

Malus said nothing, staring silently down at his sword.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” said the lord. “I know I asked you, but I won’t hold you to that if you change your mind before we ride.”

The mercenary grunted. “I’ll come with you. Got nothing better to do.”

“This isn’t going to be a pleasure trip,” the lord warned. “I have no idea what we’re going to meet… given how badly things went with the dragon we saw tonight, there may be nothing to be done if we meet any more of them.”

Malus shrugged. “Nothing better to do,” he repeated.


Frostwreath may have just started, but I’m not done with Withermoon yet [and may not be for several seasons at the rate I write]. Please enjoy the continuation of our heroes’ misadventures as their journey begins in earnest!

Episode #3: "Road to Greyshadow"

The great double doors of the dragons’ den swung open, and Malus stepped inside. Sparing only a nod for the doorkeepers, he took to the vast stone steps that led down to the lower levels where the lord’s most powerful dragons were housed.

Over the years since his ascent to power, the lord had traveled to many different lands all over Atlas, and it seemed like he always came back with a new firebreather by his side. Since Malus had been hired, he had already visited the Frigid Narrows, the Sacred Ridge and the Island Nations to the south. From the first he had brought the lupine twins Skoll and Hati, from the second the legendary blossom drake Sakura, and from the last he had brought a venomous beast called Scorpa. None of these were much to Malus’ tastes; in fact, he had already chosen the dragon he would ride from his first day of service.

Level three, level four… level five was the floor he sought. The mercenary shoved open the door to the stables, and the familiar heavy smell of smoke, straw, sheep meat, and dragons slapped him in the face. The room was an enormous open area ringed by the doors of the stalls where the dragons were kept, and Malus made his way directly to the fourth stall on the right. The doors were left unlocked—the dragons were free to move as they wished, and there certainly wasn’t any concern that anyone would try to steal them. The idea of a thief attempting to smuggle one of these enormous reptiles out of the den almost made Malus laugh out loud. Almost.

The dragon inside the stall Malus entered was jet black, with huge membranous wings and not one but two enormous heads. These more than slightly resembled a horse’s head, though he still had the long jaws of a dragon, and his feet also looked like a horse’s hooves. Where a horse would have a mane, the creature’s necks and back crackled with blue lightning. This beast’s name was Equestor, and Malus had as much feeling for him as he had for anyone these days.

Equestor snorted at Malus’ entrance, and the big man laid his hands on both of the creature’s noses in greeting. The hot breath from his dilated nostrils touched his skin with an electric tingle—Equestor could summon and channel vast amounts of electricity, and even when he wasn’t in battle, an aura of voltage still surrounded him. It was unusual to get his bridles on without a myriad of static shocks.

The lord had recruited Equestor before Malus had been hired, but he was given to understand that this dragon had been a competitor in the Tempest Coliseum, a great arena on the island of Topan where dragons and humans alike from all across Atlas competed in battle. Due to the magical properties of this mythical island, anyone who died in battle there was immediately brought back to life, so the fights were extremely brutal. Every time the lord spoke of it, there was a note of anger in his voice. The cruel realities of life in the arena had not sat well with him, and he had supposedly bought Equestor from his master of the time to rescue him from having to fight for sport. Perhaps that was why he felt such a strong bond with him—he, Malus, had also once been a gladiator. The man and the dragon shared one experience in common that neither could ever truly escape from.

Malus didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure if Equestor could understand him, and he certainly couldn’t have understood if Equestor had said anything in response. He hadn’t been born with the ability to speak to dragons directly, but he still felt a kind of understanding, a kind of connection with this beast. It was as though something passed between them even though neither spoke a word.

Quickly and efficiently, he got Equestor’s bridles on and cinched them in place. Due to his original status as an arena fighter, the dragon had come with several pieces of armor which Malus had to attach as well. Plates covering the dragon’s ankles, foreheads, chest and wing joints served to protect his most vulnerable spots. It took several minutes to strap all of these on—Equestor was not small, and Malus had to do quite a bit of running around him to get everything in the right places. Once this was all finished, the mercenary took Equestor’s reigns and led him out of the stall.

The lord was just coming out of a stall on the other side of the room, the dragon Aibrean looming up behind him. A vaguely birdlike wyvern from the Twilight Woodlands, green and brown scales covering every inch of his length, this graceful beast was known to many as the Oracle of Spring. Some believed that he flew over the land every year to revive the growing things of the world after winter had passed over them. Certainly, the grass seemed greener, and trees and bushes burst into flower in every place he had been. Aibrean too had been before Malus’ time, but the story was that he had entered the lord’s service out of admiration for his love for life.

“Since we’ll be traveling over the Twilight Woodlands,” the lord told him, “I felt that bringing someone who knew the land would be wise.”

“Probably,” Malus said, briefly. He wasn’t much in the habit of thinking these kinds of things out; he just did whatever he was paid to do and kept going. “What about Reginald, have you chosen one for him?”

“I was thinking about Tez,” said the lord. “He’s an easy ride, and he’s usually gentle.”

Malus frowned. “We’re traveling a pretty long way. He’s not nearly as fast as the ones we’re taking.”

“We’ll just be a little slow. Even if Reginald did ride to get here, I don’t know the limits of his experience. I certainly wouldn’t put someone I don’t know on a dragon as fast as Aibrean or Equestor.”

“Whatever works for you,” Malus said with a shrug. “Got your stuff?”

The lord gestured to a bag hanging from the enormous fur “jacket” of sorts that wrapped around Aibrean’s chest and back. “Done. I could leave right now.”

“Then let’s go.” Malus turned and led Equestor out of the stable and onto the great steps he had just come down. These were not made for men only, but for dragons as well. They were wide enough that the average dragon had room to set its feet, but not so steep that the servants and Riders could not get up and down them easily.

Malus and Equestor made their way out the front doors, and the mercenary stopped to retrieve his pack, which he had left outside before coming in. With a few deft motions, he had it strapped in place and was standing at attention next to his dragon.

A few minutes passed as he waited, silently looking around the square through the slits in his helm. The dragon’s den was located within the walls of Starhold, as safe from enemy fire as they could make it. Atlaua’s strength lay in its dragons. If the den was destroyed, the entire convoy might be wiped out in one fell swoop, and that was a risk they couldn’t afford to take. At least they knew that if any enemy ever made it this far, it would already be too late.

Somewhat to Malus’ surprise, Reginald made it to the square before the lord came out of the den. He didn’t appear to have brought much in the way of luggage; in fact, as nearly as Malus could tell, he wasn’t even carrying anything he hadn’t had during their discussion the night before. Perhaps he carried his supplies in that leather bag that hung at his waist.

“Good morning, Sir Malus,” the investigator said with a nod. “I hope you passed a pleasant night?”

The corner of Malus’ mouth twitched in what might almost have been a smile by some definition. “Well enough. Don’t bother calling me ‘Sir’, I am no knight.”

“My apologies. For some reason, your armor made me think of you as such.”

Malus looked down at the huge cleaver-like sword that hung at his side. “Some have called me the ‘Butcher Knight’, I suppose. No matter. I’m just a mercenary.”

“I don’t really believe that anyone is ‘just’ anything,” Reginald said, thoughtfully. “I didn’t get a chance to say this last night, but I thank you for being willing to accompany us.”

Malus grunted. “Looked like a chance to see some action. This place is so infernally boring most of the time.”

“Is that the reason you’re coming with us?” said Reginald, raising an eyebrow. “Merely because you’re bored?”

“Pretty much. Why does it matter to you?”

“Well… I would have assumed the lord must have hired you to assist him in dangerous endeavors such as this one.”

Malus tightened the cinch holding his pack to Equestor’s back. “I was hired as a Dragon Rider. I pretty much do a little bit of everything.”

“That is what I would have expected, yet you ride with us because you have nothing else to do?”

Now Malus was starting to become a bit annoyed with the constant questions. “He gave me the option to bow out. I didn’t. Now, is there anything else you need to know about me?”

“I beg your pardon, I just enjoy getting to know my travel companions before a journey. Does he pay his Riders well?”

Malus shrugged. “I’m an independent mercenary, so I set my own rates. Five hundred blue shards up front and one hundred a month thereafter. My help doesn’t come cheap, but once you got it, you got it. He’s kept paying, so I’ve kept fighting. I don’t know what he gives the others. Why?”

“No reason in particular, I was just curious. Do you know if…?”

“Reginald?” Malus cut in, flatly.

“Yes, sir?”

“Stop talking to me.”

It was a few more minutes before the doors opened again and the lord stepped out to meet them. Besides Aibrean, Tez also walked behind him—a monolithic stone dragon ornamented with jade, like some kind of ancient statue brought to life. Although clearly a dragon, his face had the appearance of a stylized jaguar’s, and his eyes burned with emerald fire. This was the only aspect of him which seemed particularly animated, however; he walked slowly and methodically, without giving the impression of any particular emotion or spirit.

“Good morning, Reginald,” said the lord. “I’ve asked Tez here to carry you for our journey.”

Reginald examined his new partner with interest. “I’ve never seen a dragon like this before. Where did you get it?”

The lord thought a moment. “I met Tez on one of my earliest journeys, down to the Windblown Shroud. While we were passing through the jungle down there, Ash and I happened upon the ruins of a lost city guarded by Tez. As nearly as we could tell, he had been created as some kind of protector for it. At least, that was our best guess. We couldn’t translate any of the writings we found around the city, and Tez would not tell us much. If you can communicate with dragons directly, you will find that he is not a talkative type.”

“Why did he come with you?”

The lord shrugged. “He speaks extremely cryptically. My best guess is that he didn’t know what to do with himself now that his charges were gone and felt that coming with us would give him a purpose. He was created as a guardian; he needs something worthwhile to guard.”

“Fair enough,” said Reginald. “Well, I thank you for being willing to entrust me with one of your companions.” He looked up at Tez. “And I thank you, too, for your kindness in agreeing to carry me.”

The dragon did not respond, but Malus thought he might have seen him incline his head slightly.

“Are you ready to leave?” the lord asked.

“Just as soon as I can get on.” Reginald looked around. “Erm… do you have any means of assistance I can use to get aboard? As you see, I have a bad leg.”

“How do you keep your balance on a dragon with a bad leg?” asked the lord. “I saw you had a cane, but I assumed that was just for support on the road.”

“Once I’m on, I have no trouble,” Reginald assured him. “It’s just getting up that’s difficult.”

“Let’s make our way outside the castle walls first, and then I’ll take care of that.”

The lord waved to Aibrean and started across the square, and the great drake immediately fell in behind him. Malus followed, leading Equestor by the bridles, and Reginald came last, walking alongside Tez. He couldn’t help admiring the exquisite craftsmanship of the dragon’s jade inlays and intricately carved wings—clearly the people of the Windblown Shroud had gone to great pains to ensure that their artificial guardian was as beautiful as he was effective.

At the lord’s command, the front gates of Starhold were opened, and the three of them made their way out. A massive stone bridge stretched out from the walls, crossing the entirety of the island that the castle was built on and linking it to the next in the Atlauan chain. Alongside the road, statues were set up at even intervals depicting the past rulers of Old Atlaua. The day was bright and clear, and the early morning sun gave a golden tint to everything.

The lord turned to Tez and said something in draconic, and the monolith obligingly laid down. His back was still an alarming distance off the ground, but not so far that Reginald couldn’t climb up now. There were plenty of rocky projections coming from the dragon’s back for him to use as handholds. Once Reginald was aboard, Tez stood up again.

Seeing that it was time to leave, Aibrean also dropped down, and Malus gave a guttural order to Equestor. A moment later, the great dragon was standing up again as Malus settled himself on his back, standing up with his legs straddling the mane of lightning that stretched down Equestor’s length. Somehow, the crackling sparks didn’t seem to hurt him beyond the occasional minor shock; perhaps Equestor could control the outflow of energy to some extent.

The lord kneeled on Aibrean’s “coat” and set his knees. “I shall lead the way. With any luck, we’ll be halfway there by nightfall. Follow my lead and stay close.”

With that, he gave Aibrean a quick command, and the dragon crouched, spreading his wings and seeming to pull himself straight up into the sky as he lunged upward. Equestor galloped forward, his hooves thundering on the stones of the bridge, and Malus braced himself for the jolt of the takeoff. A moment later, he felt Equestor leap into the air, and the jouncing of the dragon’s run was replaced by the gentle, smooth motions of flight. Riding a dragon on the ground and riding a dragon in the air are as different as night and day.

As they flew, Malus drew his sword and held it at his side, steering Equestor with the reins in his other hand. There was no need for weapons here, but this was how he was used to flying. He had been doing it for long enough that this was second nature to him, and he was used to Equestor’s movements. Once the dragon started gliding, only the wind whipping in his face betrayed the fact that they were in motion at all. Equestor’s body beneath him was completely still.

This is a good dragon , he thought, appreciatively. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

On the way out, the lord led them in a zig-zag that passed over all the islands of New Atlaua, scanning the ground below as if making sure that all was well before he left. Everything seemed to be as it should; flak towers, lightning towers, and elemental turrets were all manned by defenders who waved up at them as they flew by. Here and there, the lord dropped back to point out some of the landmarks to Reginald—the lighthouse that guided sailors to Bounty Harbor, the guardian statues that flanked the pass between the most strategic islands, and the Tower of Learning where the wisest sages deliberated over the best courses of action for protecting the kingdom.

It was funny, Malus thought. Everything about these islands with their many defense towers showed that this kingdom was always ready to fight. When he’d signed up, he’d expected to serve a warlike lord who would be making constant sallies to conquer new territory. Instead, New Atlaua seemed to use its many technological advances for defense only, and while the lord did frequently fly out to visit other parts of Atlas, it was only to explore, never to dominate. The kingdom didn’t even seem to have too many foes; the only enemies Malus saw regularly were raiding bands commanded by homeless, lordless warriors. He had been absolutely serious when he’d told Reginald that this place was boring when they weren’t under attack. Nothing of any real excitement ever seemed to happen around here.

The scattered islands of New Atlaua finally vanished from beneath them, then disappeared behind the horizon as they flew over the open sea. The lord was guiding them on an almost perfect southern course, trying to intercept the coast of Atlas as quickly as was reasonably possible. Fortunately, he had chosen their route well, and they had only been in the air for a couple of hours before the verdant green of the Twilight Woodlands was scudding along beneath them.

Atlas was a land of great variation, and the Twilight Woodlands were no different. Bordered on the northwest by the Stygian Glaze and on the south by the Burning Sands, it was a temperate region between two extremes. It was the second-largest forest in the greater Atlas area (surpassed only by the Glowing Cradle to the south) and it was known for the powerful nature magic practiced by the druids who dwelt within it. This, Malus had heard, had been the lord’s first destination upon venturing to Atlas for the first time. Reasonable enough, given that it was the closest of the Atlas provinces to his own lands.

Travel in the Woodlands was generally a fairly risky business, for the paths were rough, and the wolves and bears that inhabited the wood made travel hazardous. More dangerous than the wild animals was the “wildness” of the place itself. There was a strange magic about the forest that seemed to drive mad any who spent too long wandering beneath its canopy, and beyond that, nature itself seemed to oppose travelers. If it wasn’t a mad shaman deciding that the ground needed to be cleansed with blood, it was a dryad leading unfortunate wayfarers off the path and leaving them hopelessly lost. It was indeed fortunate that they were traveling with dragons to both protect and carry them; Malus had no idea how Reginald had made this trek alone with a game leg.

Mile after mile of treetops rolled along beneath them, broken occasionally by small clearings or lakes. They were staying relatively close to the coast, but had gone far enough inland that the ocean was only visible as a pale strip of blue to the northeast. When he looked to the southwest, he could just see the tops of the Spinal Peaks jutting up over the horizon. Otherwise, all he could see before or behind them was the trees.

The three rode on without stopping. All of them had been doing this for long enough that they knew that unnecessary landings were not wise uses of their time or energy. Getting into the air was the most tiring part of the journey for their dragons, so it was best to let them conserve their strength and glide rather than forcing them to land and take off repeatedly. When the time came for the noon meal, all of them simply dug a bit of food out of their packs and ate as they flew.

Malus barely even noticed any of this. For a veteran Rider, these long flights were mindless, and he didn’t have to think at all about keeping his balance, following the lord, or even eating. It was as if he could simply leave his body to do the flying for him while his mind wandered elsewhere… if it even did. Perhaps he thought of nothing at all. He wasn’t even sure himself.

The three travelers had been flying for nearly seven hours and the sun was beginning to get low in the sky before a call from the lord brought Malus back to himself. “Circle!”

Shaking his head—he might have fallen asleep standing up for a bit—the mercenary took the reins and pulled Equestor into a tight loop right behind the lord. Reginald did the same, and the circling dragons came close enough together for them to shout to one another.

“We’re going to need to find a place to stop for the night,” the lord called. “The trees seem to thin out around here, so we may need to come down soon. I think I see someone walking down there. Malus, would you mind landing and asking them how far it is to the nearest inn?”

The mercenary nodded. “Want me to wave you down if it’s close?”

“Please do. It’s hard to say where the next good landing spot will be.”

“Be cautious down there, sir,” said Reginald. “We have no way of knowing from this height what kind of person that is.”

Malus snorted, and the lord shook his head. “Reginald, he is riding a dragon . What in the name of all that’s holy are you worried about?”

“The magic of this forest is strong. Anyone we meet could be a druid or nature spirit in disguise. I simply wish to be wary.”

Malus decided he didn’t care enough to answer that and directed Equestor into a rapidly descending spiral that carried them down towards the ground below. As the lord had said, there was a break in the forest here, about the size of a large field. A narrow path wound among hillocks and hummocks overgrown with tangled grasses, and as he scanned along the road, he saw a figure dressed in dark red making its way across the field. Putting his hands to his mouth, he shouted a loud “HALLOOOO!”, and the figure looked up. As he brought Equestor down closer to the ground, he saw that it had stopped and was waiting for him.

Equestor stretched out his legs, moving them back and forth as if galloping through the air. When his hooves touched down, Malus felt a mighty jolt, and then the dragon was running along the path, trampling down the grasses along its sides. They finally came to a stop a few yards away from the other traveler.

Malus grunted an order, and Equestor lowered himself down until his belly touched the ground. Leaping down from the dragon’s back, Malus directed him to his feet again, told him to wait, and stepped forward to speak to the traveler.

She—now that he was on the ground, he could tell it was a woman—was standing in the middle of the road, leaning on a staff with what appeared to be a red stone set in the end. Her head was bowed and he couldn’t see her face, but he could see long, dark hair falling around her shoulders. She was wrapped in a shapeless cloak of the kind that wanderers in Atlas often wore, a dull maroon color. Most people wore these kinds of cloaks so as to easily conceal weapons, but she didn’t appear dangerous, and Malus wasn’t the type to be concerned about a potentially armed vagrant. For that matter, he wouldn’t have worried too much about a definitely armed vagrant.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, a bit roughly. “How far to the nearest inn?”

The woman looked up, and Malus actually stopped in his tracks when he saw her face. Her eyes were covered over with what appeared to be a band of iron, like a blindfold, and her skin was extremely pale, as if she spent very little time outside. He assumed she was blind, which was nothing particularly unusual in such a dangerous land as Atlas, but he couldn’t say that he’d ever heard of anyone wearing a metal blindfold. As odd as she looked, the smile she beamed back at him seemed completely sincere, and she held out her hand in welcome as he approached.

Guess it takes all kinds to make a world… the man thought.

“The nearest inn?” the woman said, pleasantly, taking a few steps in his direction. Malus couldn’t help wondering at the measured confidence of her step. He had seen plenty of blind people in his time—blind matches had been popular in Suddene for a while—and this woman didn’t seem to carry herself like they did. If nothing else, he would have expected her to be a bit more cautious on this rough ground. “I’ve just come from there. It’s a couple hours’ walk that direction.” She pointed back the way she had come.

“Does the road fork anywhere?”

“Nowhere. If you follow the road the direction I’ve just come from, you’ll walk right past it in about two hours. Probably less for you.” She smiled again. “I’m a little slow.”

“Thank you.” Malus turned and made his way back to Equestor, motioning him to lie down again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman turn and continue moving up the path, still striding purposefully. He wondered briefly, then put her from his mind.

Climbing up on Equestor’s back, he waved at the circling dragons overhead until they began gliding lazily down towards the ground. A few minutes later, Aibrean and Tez touched down in front of him.

“What news?” the lord asked.

Malus pointed in the direction the woman had indicated. “Two hours that way.”

Reginald looked up at the sky. “We had best make haste. Two hours from now, the sun will be going down. Perhaps we would be better off flying?”

The lord shook his head. “We’re not guaranteed a safe landing spot, and we could easily miss a small building from the air. Can you walk that far? We probably won’t be able to ride our dragons once we get into this tangle.”

“Have no concerns.” Reginald leaned on his cane. “I have made longer walks with fewer rests. This leg doesn’t hurt me as much as it used to.”

“Then let’s get moving.” The lord started down the path, waving to Aibrean to follow him. “As long as we keep a good pace and stay on the road, we should be just fine.”


I read “fan story” and expected some subpar fare… but this is actually really good! Reads a lot like something posted under Dragon Stories, honestly. Props to you!

1 Like

Thank you kindly, that means a lot to me. It is unfortunate that “fan story” or “fan fiction” usually has such a negative connotation. I try to keep in mind that a lot of the people who write the terrible stuff we all associate with the term “fan fiction” are just kids learning how to write. Everyone has to start somewhere–heck, I got started writing Mario fan fiction and still sometimes do. I know that the title for this thread will turn some people away at the door, but since the world I’m writing in technically isn’t mine, I feel like I need to make a clear disclaimer.

And also, I must definitely give credit to the Dragon Stories that have been posted over the last couple of months. They have been major inspirations for “Starfall” and I’ve even tried to write a few ties into those stories to give the feeling that these events are another possible way that those might have gone. Consider this an alternate universe, I suppose. :slight_smile:


Hey, no problem! No one had said anything and that made me a little surprised.

1 Like

I’m ready for more! :popcorn:


Me too!!!

1 Like

Glad to see ya’ll are enjoying it so much! :slight_smile: I will give you fair warning, the next episode is a bit longer, so it’s been taking longer to write, but I think it will be worth it in the long run. I’d much rather give you a piece of quality writing than push something out in a hurry.


Yes, longer is worth waiting :slight_smile:
Thanks for the effort you’re putting into this!

1 Like

Thank you! I believe anything worth writing is worth writing well. :slight_smile:

And I like the way the next installment is going so far. I hope to have something new up here in the next couple of weeks.

1 Like