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…”

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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.

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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.”

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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!

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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:

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

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I’m ready for more! :popcorn:

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Me too!!!

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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.

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

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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.

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…Err, can we pretend ‘the next couple of weeks’ can be read as ‘just over a month’ if you turn it sideways and squint?

Sooo… I’ve run into a problem. This episode has ended up becoming so long that I’ve hit the forum character limit and can’t actually upload it. It actually splits pretty well down the middle, so I am going to break it into two episodes to get around this restriction. I don’t feel like it’s fair to do that after making whoever is reading this wait this long… so… DOUBLE UPLOAD! You get TWO episodes today! Merry early Christmas.

I’ll try to keep it to a reasonable length from here… ahahaha, who am I kidding, I make everything too long.

Now gimme a few minutes to think of a decent title for the unexpected extra episode…

Episode #4: A Twisted Whisper

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Malus grumbled.

The lord looked down at his map, then at his compass, then at the path ahead. It had now been almost three hours since they’d landed, and so far there was no sign of the inn they had been promised. Up until now, they’d pressed on in the hopes that the woman had simply misremembered the distance. In the time that they’d been walking, the sun had gone down and (they assumed) the Withermoon was shining somewhere above the canopy. None of them could see the sky, and it was extremely dark under the treetops. The only light they had was a torch that Reginald carried and the pulsating blue glow of Equestor’s mane. With such low visibility, they had lost and found the path several times in the past hour, but the lord was starting to suspect that the path they were on now was not the one they had started with.

“Sir, would you agree with Malus’ assessment that we have lost our way?” Reginald wanted to know.

“Certainly not!” the lord replied with obvious irritation. He hesitated for a moment. “…Possibly…”

Reginald peered over the lord’s shoulder, holding the torch high to illuminate the map. “We should have arrived an hour ago. There’s no question about it, we have either overshot our mark or wandered onto a different road. We’re going almost due east; the next time the main road goes that direction is substantially farther south than we ought to be.”

“Well, if we’re not on the main road, what road are we on?” the lord asked. “Aibrean, do you have any idea where we are?”

The dragon shook his head. “There are many places in these woods where there are paths which may not be marked on your human charts,” he said. “We are likely on one of those. Left to myself, I would not usually enter such a dense tangle as this.”

The lord quickly translated this for the benefit of the others. “This road probably isn’t going to take us where we want to go. Our options at this point are retracing our steps and trying to find the inn the woman told Malus about, moving forward in the hopes that this path leads near civilization, or looking for a safe camping place.”

“Going back is absurd,” said Reginald. “We will merely find ourselves wandering in circles and get into even worse trouble than before. We would do best to continue; this path has to lead somewhere.”

“Options two and three are not mutually exclusive,” grunted Malus. “We keep going until we find a good camping spot or another inn. Whichever comes first.”

“Are you mad?” asked Reginald, urgently. “We cannot spend the night outside under these trees! The magic of the forest will drive us insane!”

“Surely not in one night,” said the lord.

“You can likely survive one night,” said Aibrean. “It will be perilous, but I will protect you as best I can. I fear that I can make no promises beyond that.”

“I thought you were the ruler of the Twilight Woodlands,” said the lord.

“Nothing belongs to me. I but tend these woods in the proper season. There may well be things under these trees I cannot defend you from. The nature spirits will be wary of my presence, but I should not like to engage them in a battle of wits.”

“Then we have no choice but to move forward…” the lord’s voice trailed off. Abruptly, he shifted his mind from draconic back into Atlasian. “Malus, Reginald, our best bet is probably to keep moving.”

“If I remember correctly,” Reginald said, “the spirits of the wood are less likely to bother travelers who seem to be moving with purpose and strong intent. It’s the lost, desperate wanderers they love to torment.”

“Then let’s move with purpose and strong intent,” said the lord. “If you believe in anything, pray this road goes past an inn.”


There is always something unearthly about a forest after the sun has gone down, the lord couldn’t help thinking. Back when he was a child, his father had once taken him outside for a midnight walk in a little wood just outside of Starhold. He remembered being amazed at how different this familiar place looked after dark. To a child, everything seems new and exciting.

This wasn’t nearly the same, though. Instead of the stars and the moon shining through the canopy, he could only catch very faint glimpses of the sky here and there. Occasional moonbeams broke through the canopy and illuminated small sections of the path, but it was with the unwholesome green light of the Withermoon, and this was more unsettling than reassuring. There was none of the familiar sound of crickets and owls in the air, only the sound of wind in the trees and an occasional disconcerting rustle. Apart from this, the forest was eerily silent.

What troubled the lord the most was the isolated feeling of this place. During that long-ago childhood adventure, he’d had his father walking behind him, and in those days, he’d believed his father was invincible. Now, not only was his father long dead and buried, but he was in a much more dangerous forest with companions he had a lot less faith in than he had had in his father. Sure, Malus and the dragons would fight for him, and they were powerful warriors, but his more realistic view as an adult paled compared with what he’d once thought his father was capable of. He’d imagined he could have stood alone against an army… in the end, it had taken only one man to bring him down.

“The forest is holding its breath,” Aibrean suddenly whispered in his ear. “It shouldn’t be this quiet.”

“Is it the Withermoon?” the lord asked. “Or is it something else?”

“I do not know, my lord, but something about this place is very disquieting. I do not believe we are in a good part of the woods.”

“What part of these woods IS a good part in the middle of the night?” the lord grumbled.

“There are good parts. This is not one of them.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. Do you sense any wild animals or woodland spirits nearby?”

“No, and that is what troubles me.” Aibrean shook his great head. “I would have expected something to have picked up our trail by now, even if it were just a curious fox. It’s almost as though all living things that can move have already moved somewhere else.”

“The animals feel the same way we do about the Withermoon, don’t they?” said the lord. “Perhaps they’re all hiding in their holes.”

“Quite possible, but I wish I had some idea what they were hiding from.”

Lost in increasingly dark thoughts, the lord continued down the path. He would have been concerned enough taking this journey through the woods under normal circumstances, but the Withermoon compounded the problem further. If he remembered correctly, his mother had once told him that all things evil grew stronger under the Withermoon’s light. Between the hostile spirits and vicious monsters that came out at night, there was already plenty of evil here. Every step filled his mind with greater foreboding.

Not wishing to attract the attention of anything around them, the three were traveling in silence—or, at least, as much silence as they reasonably could, given that they had three dragons with them. The silence of the forest was incredibly eerie, far more troubling than any of the monstrous sounds he would have expected to hear. Monsters could be driven away with swords and dragonfire… there was something about this place that made him sure that the danger they faced, if there was any, would not be physical in nature. A growing sense of unease was gnawing at the corner of his mind.

All at once, the lord’s train of thought was interrupted by a faint whisper that he could not quite make out, and he shook his head. “Sorry, what was that?”

“What was what, sir?” asked Reginald.

“Malus, did you say something?”

“I said nothing,” the man replied, gruffly.

The lord stopped walking so that the constant jangling of his armor would not drown out any sounds around them. Once again, the whisper came to his ears again, too indistinct to quite make out. “Can you hear that?”

Reginald listened intently. “I hear nothing except the wind in the trees.”

Malus shook his head. “Nothing.”

The lord was silent for a few moments, but finally shook his head and continued walking. “I can’t hear it now. Let’s keep going.”

“I have heard it said that the dryads often lure their victims off the path with beautiful voices,” said Reginald. “Perhaps they are trying to lead you astray, and us with you.”

“I’m probably imagining it,” said the lord. “This place is so creepy, I can imagine all kinds of things. And regardless of what it may be, we are not leaving the path for any reason.”

Reginald smiled. “That’s the spirit, sir.”

On they went, and the lord continued slipping deeper into his own thoughts. I wonder where we lost the path? he asked himself. Fine fools we will look if we passed within a stone’s throw of the inn without noticing it. I thought our course was plain enough that we wouldn’t have missed it even in the dark. I guess we should have been better prepared for things like this…

Should we just camp and wait until morning? I wasn’t expecting to spend the night outside, but I’m sure we can make do. If only I knew there were some place that the powers of the forest would leave us alone… apparently just having Aibrean with us isn’t enough.

A cold breeze blew over him, and he shivered despite the ample padding in his armor. We didn’t bring tents. Why didn’t we bring tents? At least the draft is the least of our worries…

The lord stopped abruptly. Was that the whisper again? There was no breath to it, and it seemed to be echoing in his ear like he was hearing it from far away. He took a few steps in the direction he felt the sound was coming from, and his boot went off the edge of the path.

“Whatever you are hearing, don’t listen to it!” Reginald’s voice suddenly drowned out the whisper. “This road is our lifeline. If we leave it, we shall surely be lost.”

“I’m not leaving it!” said the lord. “I’m just trying to listen. But if I do start wandering off, Malus, please pull me back.”

The mercenary nodded without saying anything.

Unlike before, the whisper didn’t seem to abate as they continued; the lord could hear it again as soon as he stopped talking. At first, he tried to ignore it, but the longer he walked, the more it seemed to be ingrained in his mind. There were words in this voice, but he couldn’t make them out at all. He wasn’t sure if it was another language or if it was simply too faint to hear. It was a very strange sound, one that sounded at the same time ominous and terribly sad. If he could have understood the words, he was sure that they would have spoken of sorrow and woe.

Ahead of them, several green moonbeams filtered through the canopy, dancing on the path in front of them. They had seen enough of these so far that they paid little attention, but once they had passed through the moonlight, the air still seemed to have a greenish hue. The next moment, all three of them stopped short. The light they were seeing wasn’t from the Withermoon, it was coming from up ahead. Somewhere in the trees in front of them, an unhealthy green glow illuminated their path.

“What in the world…?” the lord wondered out loud.

“Whatever it is, I have no wish to see it,” said Reginald, firmly. “Do not approach it! We cannot risk being led off the path!”

The lord peered at the map. “I… think it’s actually ON the path,” he said, hesitantly. “Assuming I’m guessing at the right path, that is.”

“Really? Let me see.” Reginald passed him their torch and took the chart. “Where’s the compass?”

Transferring the torch to his other hand, the lord dug in his bag and held the instrument out for Reginald’s inspection. As the torchlight fell on it, both men started. The needle was spinning around and around like a wheel, not stopping at any point for even a moment.

“Something is very wrong here,” Reginald said.

The lord nodded, licking lips that were suddenly very dry. “Perhaps we should turn back.”

“And go where?” asked Malus. “These blasted trees seem to go on forever!”

“The danger of going back may be just as great as that of continuing,” said Reginald. “We could easily get even more lost than we already were. But at the same time, there is no way that light can mean anything good.”

The lord wavered for a moment. The whisper in his mind seemed to be getting louder and louder, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had felt this way just the night before. “Erm… well, I suppose there really isn’t anywhere to go back to… Aibrean? What do you advise?”

The Oracle of Spring said nothing, and neither Tez nor Equestor offered any other suggestions.

“Shall I go ahead and see what’s up there?” asked Malus at last.

“No, the last thing we should do is split up.” The lord stepped forward decisively, drawing his longsword. “Let’s advance with caution and see if we can get a look at whatever is causing that glow.”

Reginald grimaced. “Your sword will do very little good against a forest spirit, if that’s what’s waiting for us.”

The lord shrugged. “It can’t possibly hurt anything, can it? Besides, I seem to recall being told that cold iron repels fairies. Of course, mine just had to be steel…”

“Mine is cold iron,” said Malus, unslinging his cleaver. “There’s an old Suddenese superstition that a sword of beaten iron will slay as many enemies as the number of blows used to shape it. Not that I put any stock in that kind of talk.”

“Then why did you get that sword in particular?” Reginald asked.

“Because it was there and I wanted it.”

“…Fair enough.”

The three continued along the path, all doing their best to move quietly. As they came nearer and nearer to the spectral light, the feeling of dread clawing at the lord’s heart continued to grow, and the whispers became louder and louder. Neither Malus nor Reginald were making any comment, and the lord was beginning to realize that he was the only one who heard them. He could finally make out individual words, but most of them seemed to be in a language he didn’t recognize. It was an insidious sound, one that seemed to wrap around his brain like a slimy cloth.

Ksavis… fortii… isme laatí…

The road ahead took a tight corner, and they found themselves standing on the edge of some kind of clearing. A dense snarl of dead vines stretched across the path here, all dried and withered as though they’d hung there for years. The green light filtered through the tangled strands and played across their faces like a flickering flame.

…Nshte ca seenó… asín… kokí… The words in the lord’s mind still sounded sad, but there was a touch of evil and madness in them. He wasn’t sure if it was the tone of the whisper or the words themselves.

The vines blocking the path made it impossible to really see what was in the clearing, and the lord lifted up his sword and cut them down. He leaned outward slightly, raising his hand to shade his eyes from the ethereal brightness.

The whisper became suddenly indistinct, as though the speaker was moving away. He strained his ears to hear… were these last words in Atlasian? …Die… it seemed to be saying. …die… die… die…

Suddenly, the whisper cut off as if a veil of silence had fallen over them, and the lord shook his head, gasping in breath as though he had just been awakened. On the other side of the clearing, a great shadow with outstretched wings loomed up against the light.

Before the lord could decide what to do, the silence was broken by a terrified whinny from Equestor. The next moment, the dragon was rearing and leaping as though he had gone mad, with Malus trying frantically to hold onto his reins. Strong as he was, the dragon was stronger, and he bolted off into the trees like a frightened horse. Aibrean almost trampled Malus and Reginald in his haste to follow him, and Tez cowered against the ground, his fiery eyes shut against the glow that illuminated them.

The shadow ahead seemed to twist, and the lord suddenly had a strong sensation that, whatever it was, it was looking right at them.

Come… a hideous, raspy voice echoed in his mind. …closer…

Against his will, he felt his feet being pulled forward, and he stepped out into the clearing. Malus stepped forward with him, a clumsy, shambling step as though he were half asleep. He felt a hand on his shoulder—Reginald’s, no doubt—but couldn’t make himself stop to acknowledge it.

…Closer… hissed the voice again.

He was shaking all over, he wanted desperately to turn away and run, but he couldn’t make his feet obey him. Malus lurched along by his side, seemingly no more in control of his own movements than he was. In his mind, he was crying out for help, for his dragons, for his father, but not even his mouth would do his bidding. It was as though he were some kind of puppet on strings.

Now that he was closer, he could see the shadow more clearly: a monstrous wyvern, enormous and yet amazingly slight of build. Its body was brown and gnarled with an almost wood-like texture, and its tail looked something like a mass of tangled roots or vines stretching out behind it. Strange branching patterns glowed green on its chest and legs, and sharp crystals sprouted from its knees and back in great clumps, surrounding it with a toxic light. Everything about this creature’s appearance had an unwholesome feeling to it, as though its very existence was simply wrong. As the lord slowly brought his gaze up to the dragon’s face, he felt his mind go numb.

Narlyth… The word seeped across his mind like a poisonous miasma, filling his soul with dread. …Narlyth…

It was exactly as Reginald had described it. The dragon’s head seemed to be twisted permanently to the side, causing its jaws to open like a pair of misshapen shears. Growing from the back of its head on both sides were long, vinelike growths that seemed to drift in a breeze that he couldn’t feel. No… he could feel it, but somehow he hadn’t recognized it until he saw the dragon’s vines moving. A sickly green glow shone within its gaping jaws, just like the light that came from the crystals and patterns on its body. Instead of eyes, the dragon’s entire face was covered with clusters of masks that resembled the ones worn by performers in Suddenese dramas. Some smiled, some frowned, some seemed angry, none of them looked natural. A shimmering haze seemed to hang in the air between him and the dragon, and as the vapors blew past his face, he could have sworn he saw the masks’ expressions changing and shifting constantly. It was like something out of a nightmare, and yet here it was standing before him.

…Closer…

Even though there were no eyes in the dragon’s face, he still felt like it was looking deep inside his heart and mind. On he went, unable to stop himself, and it looked as if he would keep moving until he walked right into its legs. All at once, he felt himself being stopped, as if the creature had taken away his ability to move altogether. In his peripheral vision, he saw Malus halting as well. He wanted to look to his comrade for support, but he couldn’t pull his eyes away from the masks that covered the dragon’s face.

…Turn… the voice in his mind said. …Know…

Which way? he thought, helplessly.

The voice of Narlyth made no answer, but he felt an inexorable tugging that pulled him to the right. Next to him, Malus turned as well, and the two men were face-to-face again.

Through the green haze all around him, he dimly saw the mercenary’s face… no, he couldn’t see his face at all. A curious mask hung over the front of Malus’ helm, concealing even the small amount of his face that could normally be seen. It looked like it was made of white porcelain, painted black on one side, with empty eyes and a mouth that smiled on one side and grimaced on the other. There was madness in the smile, deadly menace in the grimace.

…Know… the voice hissed. …Open your eyes…

The lord blinked as the fog swirled before his eyes, obscuring the mask from view. Part of him was trying to make out what the voice meant by all of this, but the rest of his mind was glazing over. He wasn’t sure if he was even controlling his own thoughts now.

The smog cleared somewhat, and he felt the hold on his arms and legs loosen.

…Open your eyes…

Now he could see something else standing in the drifting mist before him, the shape of a man, but not Malus. He too was heavily built, but he wore no armor, and instead of a sword, a hunting knife and a horn hung at his side. His bare chest was covered with bizarre tattoos, and his skin was tanned and leathery. There was a pitiless gleam in his eyes and a predatory smile on his lips. The moment the lord recognized him, the terror in his heart fled, and he was filled with a smoldering rage. The dragon was forgotten, the forest was forgotten, even his current plight was forgotten. The sight of that hated face, the face that had haunted his dreams since he was a child, made all else fade away as if consumed by the flames of long-repressed fury.

“Well!” he said with a laugh so ugly it was hard for even him to believe it was his own. “To think that I should live to see this! My favorite uncle, back from the dead!”

The man drew his hunting knife and held it out like a shortsword in front of him, showing filthy yellow teeth in a snarl.

“Truth be told, I’m glad you’ve made it back, uncle.” The lord raised his sword in hands that shook with rage. “I haven’t forgotten you. Not one day has passed that I haven’t remembered what you’ve done. Even after all the misery you brought upon us, you still cheated the retribution you deserved. Not this time! I’m not the same man I was the last time we met.”

“YOU!” The face was still as it had been, but the voice was Malus’. The rage in it somehow matched or exceeded the anger that burned in the lord’s heart. “Where are they?! WHERE ARE THEY?!”

“Whatever hell you’ve risen from,” the lord snarled, “I will cast you back into it with my own hands… o thrice-accursed Gustav!”

“YOU’RE THE ONE WHO TOOK THEM AWAY FROM ME!” Malus’ voice screamed again. “TELL ME WHERE THEY ARE!”

The next moment, sword and dagger met with a clang that echoed through the trees, and he knew nothing outside of the light of steel.

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Eh, this will do.

Episode #5: A Command from the Stars

Reginald cowered in Tez’s shadow, trying to squeeze himself into an even smaller ball against the dragon’s rocky side.

What the lord had just experienced had looked very different through Reginald’s eyes. He had seen the lord and Malus stumble off across the clearing as if drawn by invisible threads, and though he’d tried to pull the lord back, his hands no longer had the power to stop a strong young man. For several agonizing moments, he’d watched as they stared up at Narlyth, his heart quailing at the thought of what they must be going through. He saw no porcelain masks, he heard none of Narlyth’s sinister whispers. All he heard was screaming as the lord and Malus faced each other, and then the two were hacking and slashing at each other like madmen.

He knew he had to do something, but even at this distance, Narlyth’s power filled him with horror, and he didn’t dare move. Even if he were to step out into that accursed clearing, what could he possibly do? An old man with no protection, to stand between two hardened fighters? He would be cut to pieces and accomplish absolutely nothing in the process.

Quivering with horror, he shut his eyes and pressed himself back against Tez. He could feel the earth beneath him and the night breeze on his face, but the presence of Narlyth seemed to take all meaning away from it. For endless moments, he felt a sensation of falling, like he was tumbling away into some endless void. Everything in him was pushing him to cry out for help, but the evil presence on the other side of the clearing sealed his lips. He was certain that the moment he opened his mouth, it would turn and strike him down…

All at once, light seemed to burn through his closed eyelids, and he cracked them open cautiously. A bright orange glow was shining over the clearing, a light like a roaring fire or an erupting volcano. A blazing comet arced over the clearing and exploded against Narlyth’s body, scattering what looked almost like magma around the feet of the two combatants. The dragon reeled, but remained standing, looking around with a vicious snarl. As for Malus and the lord, they didn’t even seem to notice that anything had happened.

Reginald jumped to his feet, looking up to the sky in awe and terror. A great light shone overhead, eclipsing the moon with its fiery radiance. Somewhere in the blaze, he saw the silhouette of outstretched wings, a long, graceful body, and the burning eyes of a dragon. Liquescent flames exploded from around its feet as it crashed down in the middle of the clearing, creating a crater that glowed red-hot around it. As it spread its wings and roared at Narlyth, Reginald remembered the story the lord had told him the night before, about the dragon he called Hyaku who had saved them from the Sho-groth at Starhold. There was no doubt in his heart that this was her.

The two dragons gazed at each other for long moments, and though Reginald heard nothing, he somehow felt sure that something was passing between them. The next moment, Narlyth opened its malformed jaws and a torrent of poison-green flame spilled out from them, rushing over the heads of the human fighters below. Just as quickly, Hyaku took a deep breath and blasted out a jet of searing orange fire that merged with Narlyth’s blaze. Where the two fires met, orange and green faded together into a blinding spot of white light that made Reginald’s eyes smart.

The investigator leaned forward, too fascinated to look away despite his fear. In Narlyth’s flames, twisted faces seemed to shimmer in and out of existence, grimacing at him, smiling at him, screaming as if in terror. The blaze that came from Hyaku’s mouth shone like molten lava, and he could have sworn he saw great chunks of red-hot rock flying from the edges that disappeared in a puff of steam as soon as they touched the ground. Around the two dragons, the grass burst into flame from the heat of their breath, slowly burning its way outward across the clearing.

Completely oblivious to the battle of dragons going on right over their heads, the lord and Malus continued to clash, their armor and swords flashing with the light of the inferno above them. From what Reginald could tell, neither of them seemed to be able to decisively gain any ground over the other. Now the lord was falling back, now Malus was retreating. The sound of swords clashing together pounded against his eardrums like thunder. They were hewing at each other furiously, as if filled with blinding rage, and yet somehow each parried the other’s swings expertly. The fire had now spread throughout the clearing and was climbing up the trees around it, licking at the leaves and branches above. Ashes rained down upon all the fighters below as the flames burned around their feet. How none of them were hurt, Reginald had no idea.

He looked back to the dragons, still maintaining the clashing plumes of fire between them. Hyaku’s nostrils were dilated, and he could hear the steady swoosh of air rushing into them to fuel the rushing fire that came from her mouth. Despite the look of determination on her face, there was something in her eyes that struck him as looking almost like doubt. The column of fire coming out from Narlyth was seeming to increase in intensity, but Hyaku’s flame was beginning to burn lower. She was taking a firm stance as if to try to push back, while Narlyth stood up taller, spreading its wings and casting a shadow across the battlefield in the mottled red-and-green light that shone from the burning trees.

The fiery stream between Narlyth and Hyaku began slowly becoming more and more green, faces leering in triumph from amidst the flames. As if being pushed by some invisible force, Hyaku took a step back, raising her wings in a manner Reginald had often seen in dragons who were becoming frightened and defensive. Bit by bit, she continued to back up, fighting for every step but losing ground nonetheless.

Reginald sagged back against Tez’s side in dejection, the hope that had so quickly flared up at Hyaku’s appearance abruptly fading away. So it’s no use after all… only one day out and we’ve already failed our mission. Perhaps if our only defender was so weak, there was no purpose to the quest to begin with. If Atlas is destined to crumble, there’s no fighting fate… there never was, there never will be.

A cold chill fell over him despite the heat of the flames that were now burning just a few inches in front of Hyaku’s nose. He gathered his trench coat around himself and shivered. Let there be an end to it. If we can do nothing, we can do nothing.


The lord too felt the chill. It was a very strange feeling, one that seemed familiar but at the same time was foreign to him. Unlike the sensation of encountering Sho-groth or Narlyth, which filled his whole body with a numbing coldness, this was more of a tingly feeling that slipped down his spine like icy water.

Gustav seemed to feel it as well. Abruptly, he disengaged from their clash and stepped back, looking around with an uneasy sneer on his face. For some reason, his anger notwithstanding, the lord was not eager to resume the confrontation. Something about this new feeling dampened his will to fight.

“What in the world…?” Gustav muttered. It was still the voice of Malus.

Struggling against the feeling of powerlessness that had come over him, the lord managed to raise his sword to strike again. Before he could force himself to move, Gustav began to shimmer, a greenish halo surrounding his body, the light seeming to roll off of him as though it were some kind of oily liquid. Dull, powdery dust began falling away from him, and with each flake that drifted down, a bit of his body seemed to be gone with it. The tanned chest gave way to blue-green armor, the bald head to a golden-crested helm, and the sneering face to the porcelain mask once more. A second later, this split down the middle as though it had been struck with a chisel and tumbled to the ground.

The lord blinked a couple of times. The first thing he realized was that Malus was standing a few yards away, staring at him with as much bewilderment as he himself felt. The second thing he realized was that the clearing around him was filled with fire, and that there were plumes of flame burning right above his head. Looking back and forth, he saw Narlyth still looming over him and Hyaku standing on the other side of the clearing. He had only seen her for a few minutes, but the memory of that meeting was too deeply etched in his mind for him to mistake her for anyone else. His first reaction was relief, followed abruptly by the realization that they were standing between two dragons that were trying very hard to kill each other and might accidentally trample them at any moment if they decided to close the gap.

“That way!” he called to Malus.

The mercenary needed no encouragement. The two were already rushing through the fire as quickly as they could, trying to step around the worst conflagrations, straining towards the protection that they knew the dragon’s presence offered. Everything else around them had become a blur; only Hyaku seemed real to them. Even as she struggled with Narlyth, she seemed to be beckoning them forward. If they could just get behind her, they would be safe…

They were still quite some distance away when it happened. Without warning, dusty green crystalline spikes erupted from the ground in front of Hyaku, slamming into her chest and throwing her up into the air like a ragdoll. She landed on her back with a crash that shook the clearing and rolled over, gasping for breath. Somehow, she did not seem to have been injured particularly badly—certainly he would have expected her to have been skewered like a roasting pig—but she had definitely had the wind knocked out of her.

Strangely, Narlyth didn’t seem to have any interest in taking advantage of her sudden vulnerability. As soon as Hyaku’s flame had ceased, it had shut off its own and was looking beyond her, as if trying to see something in the trees behind them.

In spite of the flames that burned all around them, the lord felt a chill in the air. The sheer terror of being trapped between two fighting dragons had given way to a vague yet powerful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. To his eyes, the shadows around him—his and Malus’ shadows, the dragons’ shadows, the shadows of the burning trees—seemed to be growing longer and longer. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but he thought there was yet another light mixing with the green and orange flames in the clearing.

No, no, this was very much real. In the gap that marked the start of the path that had led them to this cursed place, he could see a spectral blue glow from which a dusky gray mist drifted over the ground. The shadows cast by the light seemed to bend away from it, as if even they were afraid to get close.

Hyaku pushed herself up to her feet, and her nostrils flared as she looked back into the light. “I know thy presence, and yet it is unfamiliar to me. O thou who crawlest in the shadows, show thy face, if thou art…”

Whatever else she had meant to say was lost. From the center of the otherworldly radiance, a barrage of blue-and-violet lights flashed over their heads, crashing into Narlyth with enough force to knock it back several paces. An instant later, a dark shape was gliding out from the trees, passing Hyaku and advancing towards the middle of the clearing.

It was a ghastly creature, one like something out of a nightmare. Streamers of mottled purple and blue ectoplasm trailed from the skeletal framework of its wings and from the end of its long tail. In many places, its flesh seemed to have fallen away, leaving nearly every vertebra of its tail exposed, and several ribs were visible through gashes in the ghostly blue hide that still clung to its sides. Its face too was gone, leaving only a gnarled skull with fiery red lights glowing in its eye sockets. The monster’s body was quite long, but it hung limply from its outstretched wings as though the many sinews visible through its damaged skin were barely holding it together. Even its neck lolled forward, its head dangling to the side as if it couldn’t hold it up straight, and its legs swung uselessly beneath it. It was obviously a dragon—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it had once been a dragon, for now it looked more like the corpse of one granted a continued existence as a wraith.

The lord took a step back, mingled relief and fear running through his mind. “Somnus?”

As little regard as it had seemed to have for Hyaku, even Narlyth took pause at the appearance of this newcomer. Once again, the two dragons faced each other across the burning clearing, saying nothing, yet somehow seeming to say much without words. Before the lord could quite decide what to do, Narlyth opened its mouth, and he could see green light beginning to glow at the back of its throat. Just as quickly, a blue light began shining through the outlines of ribs and ligaments visible in Somnus’ chest, and he heard a distant sound like an echoing roar. Flares of baleful luminescence leaped off of him, seeming to flow from his chest like liquid energy. Each one of them knocked Narlyth back a few paces as if it had been struck by a physical blow.

The lord didn’t get the chance to see any more than this. The moment there was a pause in the barrage of flares, Hyaku had leaped up into the air and was winging around the clearing in a tight arc. He saw her diving down towards him, mouth starting to open, and then he was suddenly in the air with her jaws clenched around the back and shoulders of his armor. Somehow, even though he was almost half inside the dragon’s mouth, not one of her teeth touched him. In the flurry of sudden movement, his sword slipped from his hand and tumbled away into the fire.

For endless moments, the world wheeled and spun around him as Hyaku carried him, and he was two steps from passing out when she laid him gently on the forest floor next to Reginald. In a daze, he saw her lowering Malus down in front of them.

The lord looked up at her in bewilderment. “What in…?”

Stay here ,” Hyaku said, urgently. “Don’t move.”

Before he could respond, she had turned and stampeded away into the clearing.

“Sir!” Reginald cried, clapping him on the back. “Thank the Celestials you’re alive, old chap. I have no idea what was going on out there, but by this time I was convinced you wouldn’t be coming back from it.”

The lord smiled a little bit in spite of the chills that still shook him. “‘Old chap’?”

For a moment, Reginald stared blankly at him, but then he gave an abrupt start. “Oh! Pardon me, sir. Er… that’s how people from my corner of Atlas speak to friends. I apologize for being so familiar. I was just so afraid that we’d already failed, and the relief was just too much… I promise it won’t happen again.”

“Don’t worry about it. It has a nice ring to it, honestly.”

The lord looked to Malus. “And you, are you all right?”

“A little scratched up, but okay,” Malus grunted. “Her claws are not gentle.”

“No, I meant…”

The lord was cut off by a shriek from the clearing, and they all turned just in time to see Narlyth stepping back. Sickly green energy swirled around it in an arcane spiral, and he heard a horrible reverberating sound that seemed to vibrate in his chest. Warping and shimmering like a reflection in some cursed mirror, Narlyth became transparent and was gone, and a moment later, Somnus too had vanished. Hyaku was left alone in the burning clearing.

Sighing as though exhausted, Hyaku lowered her head and closed her eyes for a moment. Around her, the fires that had been kindled during her fight with Narlyth slowly burned down and died, leaving nothing but blackened grass, baked earth, and scorched trees to show what had happened.

Reginald shifted uncomfortably. “So… should we go and thank her, or…?”

As if in answer, Hyaku’s head came up again, and she fixed the three with burning eyes. “Come hither, child of man.”

“Is she speaking to us?” asked Reginald.

“I think it’s me she wants.” The lord hurried out into the clearing, and she took one step towards him. One of her strides covered as much distance as twenty of his.

The dragon lowered her head and looked searchingly into his face. “Thou…” she muttered, thoughtfully. “I remember thee. Art thou not the lord of Castle Starhold, to whom I spoke just last night?”

“That is me,” said the lord. “Do you not remember?”

Her voice was distant. “Since last thou beheld me, I have walked in many places and spoken to many people… but yes, I remember thee. Once again, I must question thee. Thou called the dragon that was just here ‘Somnus’. Tell me how thou knowest that name, and tell me quickly.”

The lord looked back and forth uneasily. Although he could not put a finger on why, something about her unflinching gaze made him feel very uncomfortable. “Last year, I went down to Suddene to see the annual Carnival. The night after I arrived, I started having nightmares about being attacked by a horrible, monstrous dragon. Portia, who people call the Iron Maiden—she was a dancer in the masquerade who ended up joining my army as a Dragon Rider—she told me the story of this beast. She said he was born of the nightmares of men, and he terrorizes people in their dreams. The next time I had that dream, I stood up to him as if he were a young dragon who had not yet been broken and refused to back down. I thought only to rid myself of the bad dreams… I awoke to find him in my room, with my hand on his nose. He’s followed me ever since, and he seems to fight for me to the best of his ability. I left him back in Atlaua… I have no idea why he’s here tonight.”

A curious smile passed across Hyaku’s face. “So thou hast tamed thine own nightmare.”

“So it seems. Why do you ask?”

“Somnus is much more than a nightmare. He is as old as I and as ageless as I. If thou hadst any idea what he truly was, thou wouldst never dare to look him in the face… but fear not, thou art safe. No harm will ever come to thee at Somnus’ hands, if he hath chosen thee as he seems.”

The lord tried to say something else, but Hyaku held up her forefoot as though it were a hand. “Hold. I have not yet finished. What exactly art thou doing in this place? Thou hast gone far from home during a very dangerous time.”

“When you spoke to me last night, you implied that some kind of mortal action was involved in the opening of the Void,” said the lord. “We might have a lead on who that may be. We believe there may be a cult on Greyshadow which is connected with the Narlyth dragon you and Somnus just drove away.”

“That may be.” Hyaku snorted. “There are many such cults in Atlas. Some days I believe the people of this world wish to destroy themselves. And why dost thou chase after this tale?”

“Because we wish to aid you in your fight,” the lord replied. “We may not be able to fight with dragons, but we may be able to stop whatever this cult is doing and…”

“Child of man, listen to me.” Hyaku’s voice was serious. “What thou hast seen is only the latest act of a war that began thousands of years before thy father’s father’s father was born. This battle is far too big for thee.”

“But…” the lord started to say.

“Dost thou not see?” Hyaku gestured over the charred wreck of the clearing. “There are powers in the Void that are greater than I… Narlyth is one of these. Against such as he, even the power granted to me is very limited. What dost thou expect to accomplish?”

Before the lord could respond, Hyaku pointed to the middle of the clearing with one glowing talon. “Behold. Thy sword hath fallen from thy hands.”

The lord turned to see his sword, stuck point-down in the scorched earth. Now that he thought about it, he was a bit annoyed that he had dropped it so easily. The shock of being snatched from the ground had certainly taken him by surprise, but he had been taught well to keep his head in unexpected circumstances.

“Dost thou know what would have happened hadst thou raised thy blade against Narlyth?” asked Hyaku. “Any weapon perishes that strikes a dragon of the Void, together with the one who holds it. Even in coming near to Narlyth, thou hast become his puppet. This is not a battle thou canst win with the strength of men.”

“Who was he, Hyaku?” asked the lord. “You said he was stronger than the Sho-groth. What did he want with us?”

“Narlyth warps the souls of all he touches,” said Hyaku, “and thy reality is like clay in his hands. He whispers madness in men’s ears and fills their hearts with emptiness. What he wanted here, I cannot say. Perhaps thou hast happened upon him merely by chance… but none of that matters now. With merely a thought, he was able to make thee see only what he desired thee to see and do as he wished thee to do. This is why thy friend and thee hath nearly destroyed one another. All go mad who look upon the face of Narlyth, unless they be mad already.”

Hyaku gave him a sympathetic smile, but her eyes were still serious. “Thy courage is commendable, child of man, but thou canst do nothing in this war. Return to thy home.”

“My home is in just as much danger as we are here, if dragons like Narlyth roam free,” said the lord. “And perhaps if we can just wipe out the human agency that is causing this trouble…”

“Two soldiers and one old man against a cult of the Void?” Hyaku shook her head. “And moreover, if thou wert to meet another dragon of the Void, thou wouldst be lost. ‘Twas but chance that I was in the right part of Atlas to respond to thy cry for help.”

“I didn’t cry for help,” said the lord. “I wasn’t even able to control my thoughts, let alone my mouth.”

“Thy mouth was silent. It was thy soul that cried out.”

The lord wasn’t sure how to answer that.

“This is final, child of man. Go back from whence thou hast come, lest thou bring ruin upon thyself, thy companions, and thy people. What will thy people do without their leader? It is not thy place to throw away thy life senselessly.”

With that, Hyaku turned and strode back towards the edge of the clearing. “I shall lead thee back to the main road. There is an inn not far away that thou hast missed in the dark. Stay there for the night and return home in the morning.”

The lord pulled his sword out of the ground, wiped it off on his sash, and slid it back into its sheath. At the clearing’s edge, Hyaku reached the trees and started down the path, a fiery radiance surrounding her to light the way. It seemed to the lord that the trees bent themselves away from her as she passed by, as if to give her more room.

“Well?” Reginald asked as the lord joined them. “What did she say?”

“She’s…” The lord’s head was swimming with all that Hyaku had just told him. “She’s showing us the way to the inn. We are commanded to return home. She doesn’t believe we can do anything in this fight.”

Reginald raised an eyebrow. “We’ve never pretended we were going to hunt for the Void dragons. Our business is with the mortal cult…”

“Yes, but she doesn’t seem to think much of our chances with that either.” Reginald opened his mouth, and the lord raised his hand to cut him off. “Let’s discuss this later. We’ll have plenty of time to talk at the inn.”

The investigator nodded. “Yes, sir.”

The lord turned to Malus. “Before we go… I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“Not a scratch,” Malus said impassively. “And you?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” The lord shifted uneasily. “Malus?”

“Yes?”

“Even through the fog of madness, I was still able to discern what you were saying. Who are ‘they’, and who was it who took them away?”

Malus said nothing.

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Oh, ill need to start reading these all -Grabs Tea- I’ll be here a while…

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As before, the episode was too long for the forum word count, so I’m splitting it into two posts at the One and Only Page Break.

I hope this brightens up your day a little bit if you’re stuck inside right now. (Inasmuch as a story about eldritch horrors brightens up anything, that is). Blessings and stay safe!

Episode #6: Under the Sign of the "Autumn's Reap" (Pt. 1)

Before Hyaku left the three travelers to their journey, she called out over the forest with a gentle and yet commanding tone. A few minutes later, a shamefaced Aibrean and Equestor bulled their way through the trees and stood before them.

“I ask your pardon, my lord,” said Aibrean. “I tried to stand up to it, but the fear was just too great for me. I promise that it will not happen again.”

“I don’t hold it against either of you,” said the lord. “I understand better now what we face. There is no shame in running away from something that is too powerful for you to stand against.”

Once the dragons had returned, Hyaku didn’t remain long. With a brief reminder of the direction of the inn and a briefer farewell, she was climbing up through the trees and flying away into the night.

Much to the lord’s irritation, the inn proved to be only a few miles back the way they had come. They had just barely missed it, and now that they were there, he wasn’t sure how they had. The building was set in a very large clearing that would have afforded them plenty of room to land had they seen it from the air. There didn’t seem to be a dragon stable, only a stable for horses, but that was understandable—few travelers could afford their own dragons in this day and age. A cheery light emanated from the windows of the inn, and a sign over the door declared the establishment to be named the “Autumn’s Reap”. Above the words, the sign was marked with a sigil that had probably once been silver but had since faded to a dull gray.

“Malus, would you mind getting the dragons settled in?” asked the lord. “It looks like there’s a pond over there they can drink from. Reginald and I will check us in.”

Malus nodded. “Back in a few minutes.”

The front door proved to be locked, but a bronze bell hung next to it, and the lord gave it a decisive ring. For several minutes, all was silent, but the lord kept ringing the bell, and eventually one panel of the door slid aside. A suspicious face with a thick black beard tied with a gold ring peered through the gap.

“What do you want?” a rough voice asked.

“Good evening,” said the lord. “We are travelers seeking shelter for the night.”

“I suppose by night, you mean morning,” grunted the man on the other side of the door. “It’s nearly one o’clock. What business do you have being out at this hour? Don’t you know it’s the Withermoon?”

“More than you realize…” Reginald muttered.

The lord was unperturbed by the man’s rudeness. “We’ve had a stroke of ill fortune. We didn’t exactly want to be outside. May we come inside, or will we be sleeping under our dragons’ wings?”

The eyes looking through the gap sized him up for a moment. “You don’t sound like a commoner. Who are you, exactly?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” said the lord. “But I can promise you that I’m an honest man and will bring you no harm. And I can afford to pay well for our lodgings.” He jingled his coin purse a little bit.

The sound seemed to alleviate the man’s concerns. “Come in,” he grunted, unbolting the door and pulling it open. “Sorry for all the questions, but one can never be sure what kinds of visitors one will get under a Withermoon. I’m Keleg, and this is my inn.”

“There’s one more of us outside,” said the lord. “He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“No matter. I will let him in when he comes. Come and get checked in.”

Keleg shambled behind the front desk and opened up a heavy ledger. “Names?”

“I don’t really have one anymore.”

The innkeeper glowered up at him from under bushy eyebrows. “Can’t exactly sign you in if you don’t have a name, mister.”

The lord shrugged. “Put me down as ‘Unknown’, then. This is Reginald, and the one we’re waiting on is Malus.”

They waited in silence as Keleg scribbled down their names with a clumsy hand. At last, he looked up. “It’s going to be twenty gold pieces per person.”

“Twenty?” Reginald raised an eyebrow. “That’s a mite steep, good sir.”

Keleg jerked his calloused thumb towards the door. “The next inn is sixteen miles that way, or the woods are free. Take your choice.”

“Sir, this is ridiculous.” Reginald was indignant. “Virtually no traveler could possibly afford such prices…”

“Don’t bother, Reginald,” said the lord with a sigh. “He knows we can pay and don’t have any other options, so the price is high. Let him have his money. I’m too tired to argue about this.”

He disengaged his purse from his belt and began counting out coins onto the desk, and Keleg’s eyes lit up when he saw the gold. “Actually, now that I recall… it’s been quite a while since we had anyone important out here, and the cost for the best rooms is actually thirty…

The door opened, and Malus loomed in the entryway. “Dragons are settled,” he announced.

At the sight of the big man, Keleg’s attitude abruptly changed. “…Never mind.”

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Ahem. Make that THREE posts. Words cannot describe how much I hate the forum character limit right now…

Episode #6: Under the Sign of the "Autumn's Reap" (Pt. 2)

Once the three travelers had brought their bags in and the fee was paid, Keleg handed each of them a heavy iron key. “Your rooms are on the second floor, and your numbers are on the keys. This place is as safe as any in these parts, but I’d still say you ought to lock your doors. Plenty of thieves on the road these days… JEFFREY!”

The sudden change in tone made Reginald jump. Keleg waited a few moments, then bellowed again with a note of obvious irritation in his voice. “JEFFREY! GET YOUR LAZY RUMP IN HERE!”

A dark-haired youth of about fifteen lumbered out from the hallway. “Yes, father?”

“Get these guests’ luggage up to their rooms, and make it quick.”

“Which way is the common room?” Malus grunted

“Right this way.” Keleg gestured down the hall. “Not very many visitors tonight, but who really wants to travel while the Withermoon’s out?”

“Why go to the common room?” the lord asked, wearily. “We have a long flight ahead of us tomorrow, regardless of which direction we go.”

Malus slouched away down the hall. “I need a drink.”

“Come to think of it, I could certainly go for a spot of tea…” admitted Reginald.

The lord turned to him with what probably would have been a blank expression if he’d been able to see under his helmet. “…Spot of tea?”

Reginald shrugged. “Again, my region has a manner of speaking different from yours.”

“I guess that’s as good a place to talk as any,” the lord decided. “We’ve got some decisions to make tonight. Let’s follow Malus.”

As Keleg had said, there were very few people in the common room, and most of the tables were empty. The lanterns were still lit, and the innkeeper was standing behind the bar, but the room was quiet except for a dull murmur of hushed conversations.

“I’ll save us a place back there,” said the lord.

“Shall I pick something up for you?” asked Reginald.

“Just a glass of water.” The lord handed him a few coppers. “Probably free, but here you are, just in case.”

“With such a greedy fellow in charge here, anything’s possible.” Reginald grimaced. “I’m surprised you were willing to pay those fees. He is absolutely taking advantage of us, and it pains me to think that he may do the same to others who are less able to afford it than we are.”

The lord shrugged. “We can’t sleep outside. What was I supposed to do? Bargain at swordpoint? I dislike such tactics.”

“I just know that if I were a younger man, I wouldn’t have taken that lying down.” Reginald started toward the bar. “But as it stands, I suppose I had best let it go.”

A few minutes later, Malus and Reginald joined the lord at a corner table, Malus carrying a tray with the decidedly unusual collection of a frothy mug of beer, a slightly chipped teacup, and a glass of water. The mercenary handed these out, then yanked off his helm and set it on the floor next to his chair. Now that Reginald could finally see him clearly, the man proved to have a rough face, thick lips, and long black hair that he must have been piling under his helm all this time. Now that he thought about it, if he’d met someone like this on the street, he would have been a lot more nervous than he’d been with Malus so far.

Trying not to look like he was staring, he looked to the lord, quietly hoping he too would take his helmet off. He had been able to guess at Malus’ appearance, but he had seen nothing of the man he was following except his eyes. As it turned out, the lord’s desire for privacy even extended to drinking in public. Undoing a little clasp on the side of his helmet, he took the two panels that protected the lower half of his face and slid them aside slightly, leaving just enough room to get the glass to his mouth. Reginald couldn’t help thinking that looked slightly uncomfortable.

“Before we start, let me remind you where we are at the moment,” the lord said. “After our… misadventure with Narlyth, Hyaku told me that there is nothing we can do in the war against the Void and ordered us to return home. I told her about the cult Reginald suspects, and she said she doubted we could do much about that, either.”

“I mean, let’s be fair, there are only three of us,” said Reginald. “We don’t know how many we would face.”

“Depends on how organized and well-armed they are,” said Malus, taking a swig of beer. “Even if we were outnumbered, we have a lot of experience and the best equipment money can buy. Ten people with knives and nothing else wouldn’t bother me too much.”

“Jen was able to deal quite handily with that Vivian woman,” said Reginald. “I’m sure you’re at least as good as she is.”

The lord gave a smile that struck Reginald as somewhat weak. “Well, I appreciate your faith in us. Perhaps our best bet would be to move forward and check the place out without attracting too much attention. If it doesn’t look like we can do this ourselves, I’ll fly back to New Atlaua and mobilize our soldiers. As long as no more Void dragons show up, I’m sure my army can handle any human threat we’re likely to face. Of course, as of right now, we have no confirmation that any operatives of this group are present on Greyshadow other than Vivian, and we don’t even know if she’s alive or dead.”

“I still don’t know the answer to that one,” said Reginald, “and moreover, I’m not sure that we can count Void dragons out of anything at this point. None of us were expecting Narlyth. We can’t assume that they will or will not show up.”

“That’s a risk we’ll have to take.”

“And what of Hyaku’s command?” Reginald leaned forward a bit. “She may be right and she may be wrong about our ability to handle ourselves against the cult, but regardless of that, we’ve been given a direct order to turn back. If we continue towards Greyshadow tomorrow, that will place Hyaku’s will and ours in direct conflict. I don’t know what authority she is an emissary for, but we probably can’t disregard it completely.”

The lord was silent for several minutes, drumming his fingers on the table. At last, he looked up. “I’m not going to pretend I have any idea what she means about a greater conflict or who or what she serves, but yes, I’m afraid you’re right. We probably ought to obey her. Even if I don’t know exactly what she stands for, she just feels…” The lord had to think for a moment. “…She feels right. Whoever she is, I believe her authority is legitimate.”

“So we should go back, is what you’re saying,” grunted Malus.

“We should. The trouble is… I just can’t. Whatever is going on in Atlas right now, it’s a lot bigger than any one of us. If the Void wins, my staying out of things isn’t going to make matters any better for my people. I can’t just go home and hide in my castle. For all I know, I may be fighting against the will of the Ancients, or the Celestials, or whatever power is out there… but I know it’s right , and that’s what I need to do.”

The lord looked from one of their faces to the other. “But, of course, I can’t in good conscience force you to do anything you believe is wrong. If you feel you need to follow Hyaku’s order, return home. I won’t think anything less of you.”

Malus gave a wry smile. “Fighting the gods, are we? For my part, I follow your orders, not Hyaku’s. If you send me home, I’ll go. Otherwise, I’m staying with you.”

“Are you sure?” The lord gave him a questioning look. “Do what you believe is right, Malus, not what you think I want you to do.”

“I feel that this is worth at least some thought, sir,” said Reginald. “I’m not entirely sure what Hyaku will do if we disobey her direct command.”

Malus guzzled the rest of his beer and wiped his mouth. “Hyaku isn’t the one giving me my salary.” He turned back in the direction of the bar and held up his empty mug. “Another!”

The three were silent as Keleg delivered the second beer, and then the lord turned to his other companion. “What about you, Reginald?”

Reginald took a sip of tea. “Well, sir, I’m afraid I’ve reached an age where curiosity outweighs both fear and prudence. I’ve searched for a long time to find any chance to learn more about these Void dragons. Meeting Vivian on Greyshadow and seeing Narlyth in the mirror was the first time I’d really hit anything solid. I feel like there’s something amazing buried here that I can come to understand if I just dig hard enough.”

“Are you sure this is something you really WANT to understand?” said the lord. “The pursuit of knowledge is all well and good, but we may be starting to encroach on things that man was not meant to know.”

“I am under no illusions as to how overpoweringly wrong all of this is,” Reginald said, slowly. “When I said ‘amazing’, I by no means meant ‘good’. The Void is a place of madness and evil, and the things that come from it are as it is. Still…” He hesitated for a moment. “One of my strongest childhood memories is of the Withermoon. My father was leaving on a business trip, and I had the strongest premonition… a feeling that he would never return and I would never see him again. It came to nothing, thank the Celestials. Three days later, he was back and well. Nonetheless, since those awful days, I’ve had a consuming desire to know why things are so during this month. That’s why I’ve thrown so much of my life into studying the dragons of Atlas and their lore. I thought if I knew our dragons inside and out, I might have a chance at comprehending those from the Void. And now that I see the truth staring me in the face, I can’t bring myself to turn back. I have to understand.”

He smiled suddenly. “Besides, the peril of this venture means naught to me. I’m an old man, and no-one is waiting for me to return home. I’d like to continue my research, but if my flame were to go out while I was searching for the answer to my greatest question, I would count it a life well spent.”

The lord smiled sadly. “No surviving relatives, then?”

“None that I am close to. My parents are long dead, and my sister Alayne died three years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” The lord sounded sincere, but also a bit distant, as if something else were on his mind.

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Episode #6: Under the Sign of the "Autumn's Reap" (Pt. 3)

The three sat in silence for a time, lost in their own thoughts. After a few minutes, Reginald spoke up again.

“Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, how is it that you were familiar with this other dragon that appeared alongside Hyaku? You seemed to recognize it.”

The lord shook himself back to reality. “Huh? Oh, yes. He… well, it’s a long story. The short version is that he came into being from a nightmare and is now the nightmare of all who dare threaten New Atlaua. Every living thing seems to be afraid when he draws near, except for a very few brave Dragon Riders.” He smiled a bit. “Actually, we only bring him out in the most serious of situations. Our soldiers are just as afraid of him as our enemies.”

“But you know nothing about him?”

“Only his name, Somnus. Do you know more?”

“Somnus, you say?” Reginald shook his head. “I know the name, but not much else. I know he’s connected with Suddene and torments people in their dreams. I’m a bit surprised to see him by your side.”

“He brings back all kinds of crazy stuff from his travels,” grunted Malus. “You should see the spider dragon.”

“Spider dragon?” Reginald said inquisitively.

“That one was a LONG time ago,” said the lord. “It was right after I took the throne of Atlaua…” He hesitated. “That reminds me. Reginald, could you hear anything we were saying under Narlyth’s spell?”

“I really wanted to ask you about this ‘Gustav’ you mentioned, but I wasn’t sure if I should,” said Reginald. “It sounded like something you might not want to talk about.”

“No, no, that’s fine. It’s just…” The lord sighed. “You’re right, Reginald, it’s not something I like to talk about at all, but I feel that if there’s anyone who would understand, it would be you. You’ve been willing to talk about your personal troubles; I feel as if I should be open as well.”

Reginald leaned forward and put his hand on the lord’s shoulder for a moment. It was a strange contrast, that metallic piece of armor covered by a veiny old hand. “Sir Unknown, since that is what you choose to be called. You and I have risked and are risking our lives together for the good of Atlas. I can tell that you carry a heavy burden… I could see that from the moment I met you. I will never ask you to tell me anything you are not comfortable saying, but whatever you wish to say, I will listen. The best way to bear up under a burden is to let someone else help carry it.”

“You said that you were the last surviving member of your family,” the lord said, slowly. “I am the same. I am the last of the royal family of Old Atlaua, the child of the last Grandmaster and Grandmistress. Gustav was the man who killed them.”

Reginald winced. “Was this an enemy of your country? A military coup? What happened, exactly?”

“I knew nothing of this in those days. I was but a child, and Gustav was so close to my father that I called him my uncle. Ash has since told me what it was like during the ten brutal years of Gustav’s reign. She believes… he was insane. Driven mad by hardship and abuse growing up in the hellish Saltlands of Mictlan.” The lord stared down into his water glass for long moments. “His crest. The flag of the Blackbloods, which I tore down from Castle Starhold when I became king. The motto beneath their sign read ‘Lí ní pascín mín, lin ní pascín manín’—‘If there can be no peace for me, there shall be no peace for anyone’. That is what Gustav stood for, and that is why he robbed me and so many others of our peace.”

“Then how was it that you survived?” asked Reginald. “If he took control of the nation by force, why would he leave the heir to the throne alive?”

“He still needed me. There was an ancient prophecy that only the child of the Grandmaster and Grandmistress could fulfill… the resurrection of the island of Topan. A sacred land where many mighty dragons slept, and where any who died could be brought back into the realm of the living…”

Malus stood up. “I’m… going to get another drink,” he said, stiffly.

“Another?” Reginald was so astonished that he was momentarily distracted from the lord’s story. “You’ve already had two!”

“He holds his liquor well,” said the lord as Malus walked away without bothering to answer that. “But yes. All of that was twelve years ago. After he had what he wanted, Gustav would surely have done away with me if Ash hadn’t rescued me. He made the mistake of giving me to her to kill instead of doing it himself. She sent me away from Atlaua, and I grew up… well… perhaps it is best not to say, for the sake of protecting those who were kind to me. The fewer people know, the better.”

“I see,” Reginald said. “And… how did you come to power after all of that?”

“It was Ash who called me back. Not only did she arrange for my return and send Draco to carry me, she took my side in the ensuing battle, together with all who were loyal to her over Gustav. There was a lot of discontent in the army. Gustav did not know the meaning of mercy, and serving him was a treacherous way to live, even for his closest followers. At the same time, many were too afraid to cross him and chose to fight us instead. My coming sparked a civil war such as I hope never rises in Atlaua again.”

The lord drew his sword a few inches out of its sheath and looked down at the gleaming edge. “It was a long and bloody battle. We eventually broke through the defenses of Starhold and Ash and I pursued Gustav. The coward locked himself in the Rune Vault, where the magical glyphs used to defend our land and strengthen our dragons are stored. It took all of Draco’s strength just to get the door open, and Ash and I went inside together… Gustav dared lay hands on the sacred runes and used their magic against us. To this day, I still do not know how we survived. Neither of us are skilled in magic. I think the only thing that kept me fighting was my rage.” The lord’s hands tightened on his sword, and the blade snapped back inside its scabbard again with a snick . “I don’t know if you’ve ever hated someone more than anything else in the world, Reginald, but that was all I could feel. I watched this man strangle my father and break my mother’s neck before my eyes… as a child of eight, no less. For years, I lay awake every night dreaming of the day that I would finally avenge them as the son of a king should.”

The lord fell silent again.

“And so you killed him?” Reginald said at last.

“Somehow, I managed to close with him, and we fought hand-to-hand and blade-to-blade,” the lord said, thickly. “I was barely holding my own… the magic had made him very strong, it was nothing like fighting with an ordinary person. He was taunting me, telling me that I was still just a child, laying out in gruesome detail everything he was going to do to me when this was all over. And then… he just suddenly stopped. It was like the sneer was wiped off his face midsentence, like he realized something was about to happen. Before I knew what was happening, he was gone. The power of the runes consumed him. There was no body, no blood… he was just gone. Nothing left behind but the echoes of his final scream.”

The lord’s gauntleted fist tightened around his water glass with such a convulsive effort that the glass shattered into fragments and what remained of his drink tumbled out on the table. “It is my single greatest regret that it wasn’t me who took his life. Even today, I still slay Gustav in my dreams every night. I suppose that’s why Narlyth showed me what he did… he knew that was the single easiest way to control me.”

“Now I understand what was happening,” said Reginald. “You saw Malus as Gustav, was that it?”

“That’s what I believe, yes.”

“Do you have any idea what Malus saw?”

“None. You were there when I asked him, you saw that he gave no answer. He’s a strange one, Malus is. I know absolutely nothing about him other than that he is a skilled mercenary and serves me faithfully. I think it would be best not to trouble him about this if he doesn’t want to talk…” The lord shook his head and looked down at the broken glass on the table. “Er… hang on, I probably ought to clean this up.”

“What was it Malus was saying about a spider dragon?” Reginald asked as the lord swept the broken pieces off the table into a bucket he found in the corner.

“Ah, yes, that was within a few weeks of Gustav’s death. The people were so afraid of him that they were willing to follow anyone who could get rid of him, so most of them looked up to me immediately. Some of the lords of the realm followed me as well, but others—largely ones who had been in good positions under Gustav’s rule—seemed doubtful.” He shrugged. “I know most new kings wouldn’t be willing to leave anyone who had served their rival alive, but I felt that enough Atlauan blood had been spilled that I couldn’t justify killing anyone who didn’t directly oppose me. I wasn’t sure what to do about it at the time and put it out of my mind, but a few weeks into my reign, I received word that our farms were being terrorized by some horrible wyrm that slunk out of the forest and dragged away our beasts by the hundreds. I followed the creature’s track underground and faced her in her own web—Spindra, the Arachnid Wyrm, a horrible beast with eight eyes and eight legs, yet still wrought in dragon-shape.”

“And you killed this disgusting monster and won back the favor of your people?” Reginald asked.

“As you know, I can speak to dragons as if in their own tongue,” said the lord. “I spoke to her and pacified her. And when I returned to the city with her by my side, now submissive and tame, the few who still doubted believed in me.”

Reginald whistled. “That’s quite a story. How long has it been since you took the throne?”

“Just a little over two years.”

“Wait, you were eight when Gustav took over… ten years to his fall… two…” Reginald raised an eyebrow. “You’re only twenty? Really?”

The lord crossed his arms. “And is something wrong with that?”

“Nothing! I just… you seem a lot older than that. More… mature, I suppose.”

“I guess it’s kind of hard to guess at someone’s age if you can’t see their face,” the lord admitted. “But yes, I am twenty.”

“And while we’re on this subject, why so much secrecy?” Reginald gestured towards the lord’s closed helmet. “I have yet to see you take that off. I don’t even know what your name is. I’ve never known a lord to travel like this. Is our quest so clandestine that you don’t dare connect yourself with it in any way?”

“I prefer to keep my business to myself,” the lord said, a bit brusquely. “I don’t know if you’ve recognized it, but this armor is a very common Atlasian make, nothing that stands out. The fewer people know I’m a lord, the better. As far as my name is concerned… I’ve told you there was a prophecy concerning me. There is both a blessing and a curse in that prophecy. I was destined to raise the island of Topan, and so bring the ancient dragons back to Atlaua… but it is also fated that the day my true name is spoken to my face, that day I shall die.”

“If that is truly your fate, then it will come regardless of whether or not you hide your name,” said Reginald. “But I understand why you are doing it.”

The lord smiled a bit. “This is one prophecy I’ll try to keep at bay for as long as…”

A distant crash interrupted him, and he looked around in confusion. None of the other guests in the room looked up from what they were doing, and he wasn’t even sure if any of them had noticed it. On the other side of the room, Keleg was arguing with his son behind the bar, pointing insistently towards the back door. The young man was almost pouting, but he finally took off his apron and left the room.

The lord waved his hand, and the innkeeper hurried over to their table. “Yes, sir?”

“Is everything all right?” the lord asked.

Keleg pulled absentmindedly on the gold band in his beard. “Something’s spooked the horses, that’s all. Door fell down, if you ask me. Jeffrey’s taking care of them. Can I get you anything else?”

“No, I believe we’re about done here.” The lord handed him a piece of silver. “Sorry, I’m afraid I broke one of your glasses.”

“That’s all right.” Keleg took the money and wandered back towards the bar. Malus finished his third beer, settled up with the innkeeper, and returned to the table.

“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” he asked—gruffly, but with no real indication in his voice of all the alcohol he had just consumed.

The lord unrolled his map. “Well… I must admit that I’m not sure where we are at this point, but I think it’s a pretty safe guess that we’ll be able to reach Greyshadow tomorrow. It may be quite late by then, though.”

“It might be best to wait until the next morning before we go in,” said Reginald. “There’s no telling how much worse it might be if our enemies have the Withermoon over their heads.”

“That depends on what exactly has happened on Greyshadow since you had your adventure down there,” the lord said. “If the shop is locked up, we can’t go in during the day. The last thing we need is to get arrested for breaking and entering. Besides, if Vivian is still alive, we’ll be much more likely to find the shop empty if we go at night.”

“And we might find it empty because she’s down in the cellar with that accursed mirror,” said Reginald. “I still think we would do best to come during the day. We can probably find some way in without arousing too much suspicion.”

“What are we looking for, exactly?” asked Malus.

“I don’t think we know.” The lord scratched his chin—he still hadn’t bothered closing the bottom of his helmet. “Reginald, you probably have more Withermoon experience than the two of us combined… what SHOULD we be looking for?”

“While I was down there with Vivian, she led me through a long tunnel,” Reginald replied. “With as much space as there was, there are almost certainly rooms other than the one I visited. We may find many secrets down there. I believe that the mirror she showed me had some part in summoning Narlyth into Atlas… perhaps they have other ways of summoning other dragons.”

“Such as other magical artifacts?” The lord’s interest was piqued. “Suppose we find these objects and destroy them, or at least take them away… could we then prevent any more Void dragons from being summoned?”

“Perhaps yes, perhaps no,” said Reginald. “My main concern is that we might, in so doing, also prevent the ones that are already here from being sent back. For all I know, Vivian’s mirror would be needed to send Narlyth back to the Void.”

“Does that matter?” asked Malus. “I very much doubt that’s something we could do. Unless you have as much knowledge about these things as the cult we are hunting.”

“I believe I have as much knowledge about the Withermoon as anyone does who isn’t a member of one of its cults,” said Reginald, a bit peeved. “And no, I make no pretensions to knowing how we would send Narlyth or any other Void dragon back to its place. If someone else does, I would be happy to listen.”

“Hyaku,” the lord muttered. “I’m sure Hyaku has the answer.”

“She certainly has made quite an impression on you,” said Reginald.

“You know,” the lord said, slowly, “it’s really hard to describe how I’ve felt when I’ve spoken to Hyaku. When I was talking to her tonight, I felt as if… she knew me, if that makes any sense. Like she understood what I was thinking better than I did myself.”

Reginald nodded. “I think I know what you mean. When she landed and started fighting Narlyth, I felt this sense of… reassurance, I suppose. As though she were someone I could count on even in all of this.”

“And when I was released from Narlyth’s spell, I felt the same way,” said the lord. “Like she was a wall I could hide behind and be safe.”

The three fell silent for a few moments, and Reginald took the opportunity to finish his tea.

“Going back to the issue of tomorrow, I suppose the short answer is that we don’t really know what we’re going to do,” the lord said at last. “We’ll just have to investigate thoroughly and be ready to think on our toes.”

“I say we start by going to Vivian’s shop once we land and decide what to do depending on whether she’s in or not,” said Reginald. “That seems to be the consensus so far.”

“I agree,” said the lord.

“And I’ll go with whatever you decide,” said Malus.

The lord rolled up the map, pushed back his chair and stood up. “Then let’s head up to our rooms. We’ve got a long way to go in the…”

“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” A scream that chilled Reginald’s blood suddenly filled the room. “HELP! HEL…”

The cry was abruptly cut off, and a horrible crunching, rending sound became audible in the sudden silence.

Reginald looked back and forth between his two companions, seeing their faces becoming as pale as he was certain his was. He reached for his cane with shaking hands and pushed himself up. Malus swore quietly to himself and jumped to his feet, grabbing his helmet.

The lord put a hand on his sword. “That sounded like it was coming from outside.”

“Someone must be in trouble!” said Reginald.

“WAS in trouble,” Malus corrected him. “I very much doubt they are still alive to be in trouble.”

“There may be others out there,” said the lord. “We have to do something.”

The awful noises continued, and Reginald started turning around to try to discern which direction they were coming from. The common room was empty—the innkeeper was no longer behind the bar, and the only people he could see were a small Stygian family rushing for the hall as quickly as they could run.

The lord drew his sword. “Follow me!”

Malus’ cleaver was already in his hands, and Reginald hobbled after them as quickly as he could. The lord pushed open the back door and ran outside, Malus right behind him. Realizing that there was likely nothing he could do to help them, Reginald hung back in the doorway.

“I think it’s coming from the stables!” he shouted.

The two men turned in the direction of the building, just in time to see a blazing light arc down from the sky and crash through the roof. The next moment, the stables exploded into flames, and Malus and the lord fell back before the intense heat. Even at this distance, Reginald could still feel it on his face.

“Is that…?” he started to say.

Somewhere in the middle of the blaze, a great black shape was trying to spread its wings amongst the carnage of collapsing beams. Dreadful shrieks that sounded both pained and furious rang in their ears, answered suddenly by a fierce roar from above. The now-familiar form of Hyaku hurtled down from the sky like a falling meteor, piling into the black dragon and bearing it down below the level of their vision.

“A Void dragon here ?” The lord’s voice was bewildered. “How in the world did it get into the stables without anyone hearing or feeling anything?”

“Come back!” Reginald shouted, a feeling of panic starting to rise inside him. “The last thing we need is to get stuck between Hyaku and a Void dragon twice in one night!”

The lord and Malus hurriedly retreated to the doorway, and they watched as Hyaku and the unknown horror grappled in the flames. They couldn’t see any details from this distance, but whatever it was, it was very long and covered in hook-shaped spines.

Malus grunted. “Well, we know why the horses were panicking now, at any rate.”

“I suppose so,” said the lord. “I feel for anyone whose beasts were in there tonight. I certainly hope there were no people inside.”

“The innkeeper sent his son out here, and we never saw him come back,” said Reginald. “And on that note, where IS the innkeeper?”

“I haven’t seen him since I settled up for the beer,” said Malus.

“Two people missing, at least, and I’m afraid that scream counts for one,” the lord said. “There may be at least one survivor out here, but if they didn’t get some distance away from the stables before they blew up, I can’t really have much hope for them. We still ought to check the perimeter, but I’m not expecting much.”

A cry drew their attention back to the burning stables, and they were just in time to see Hyaku scudding away over the trees, looking back and forth as if searching for something.

“One less Void dragon, at least,” said Reginald.

“Come on, Malus.” The lord started out across the courtyard. “Let’s at least do a quick sweep to check for any survivors.”

The big man nodded and followed, and Reginald stepped back inside. The common room was still empty, and so was the hallway. Like as not, all of the guests were still hiding in their rooms.

I guess it’s every man for himself at a time like this, he decided. Except for us.

Hobbling over to the front desk, he grabbed the ledger Keleg had entered their names in when they arrived and flipped back to the beginning of the day.

“The crisis is over!” he shouted as loudly as he could. “Can everyone please come out? We need to check that everyone’s accounted for!”

No answer. All of the doors remained shut and bolted, without a sound of any kind to tell him if there was even anyone inside or not. With some effort, he carried the ledger up to the second floor and called again, but the result was the same. The people must have been too frightened to come out.

“Reginald!” The lord’s voice drifted up the stairs. “Where are you?”

“Here, sir!” The investigator made his way back down the steps and met the lord and Malus in the front hall.

“We can’t find anyone out there, and no-one’s responding to our calls,” the lord reported. “We’ll need to figure out who’s missing.”

Reginald set the ledger back on the front desk. “I’ve already tried. No-one will answer me. The fear of the Withermoon must be too great.”

“Shall we check each room?” Malus asked. “I’m sure I can force the locks if need be.”

“That’s only going to scare them.” The lord sighed. “We’re at an impasse. We’d better just regroup when the sun comes up. No-one was anywhere near the inn that we could see, so there isn’t anything to be done. If there was anyone in that stable, there’s no helping them now.”

“What about our dragons?” Reginald asked.

“No sign of them, and no sign of any kind of struggle. I expect they flew off again. We’ll have to look for them in the morning.” The lord started up the steps with a heavy, unsteady tread. “I am ready to faint with weariness.”

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whelp i’m sold. this is amazing, i’m glad i came across this today! Amazing work can’t wait to read more :ok_hand: :smile:

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Thank you! It will be a bit [seems to generally be about a month nowadays], but there will most certainly be more coming!

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I hate writer’s block. That is all.

Episode #7: The Bloody Talisman

Cognizance began to flow back into the lord’s sleeping mind, and he slowly unfolded his cramped legs. His bed at the Sign of the Autumn’s Reap was a lot smaller than that in his chamber back at Starhold, and he had somehow managed to curl up into almost a fetal position as he slept. An oddly nervous feeling was on him, like he had just had a bad dream and couldn’t quite remember what it was.

Still a bit sleepy, he opened his eyes. For a few moments, nothing seemed to register on his field of vision, and he cut his eyes back and forth. It took him a few more moments to realize that the room was still dark.

No, not dark… black . Blacker than a starless sky, so thick it could almost be felt in the air. As the lord pushed himself up on one side, he realized that he wasn’t at the inn, either… the sheets were gone, the bedposts were gone, and now that he was moving, he couldn’t even feel what he had been lying on. He passed one hand in front of his face and saw nothing at all.

Instinctively, he felt around in the darkness, looking for his sword and armor. There was no sign of either. Suddenly alarmed, he climbed to his feet and tried again to feel what was around him. Nothing met his hands but empty air. A sudden feeling of vertigo came over him, and he wondered if he was in some high place. The silence in this darkness was so complete that his own heartbeat and breathing seemed loud to him.

“Hello?” he called. “Is anyone there?”

His words echoed themselves out in the emptiness around him. Wherever he was, the air was quite chilly, and he found himself hugging his shoulders. A feeling of panic was beginning to rise up inside him, and he explored the ground around him with his feet. Everything seemed perfectly flat, but he wasn’t quite sure what he was standing on.

“Hello?” he shouted again. “HELLO?”

Once more, his cry echoed through the blackness, but the returning sound seemed to become a little bit more distorted with each repetition. After a few echoes, it no longer sounded like his voice; a few seconds later, it no longer even sounded like a human voice. Before long, he realized that it WASN’T a human voice at all… the sound was no longer his own echo, but something else in the darkness with him.

For several minutes he listened, trying to make out the sound. Bit by bit, the distant echo became louder, slowly filling the darkness until it became uncomfortably loud. The sound was so warped that it sounded like it was coming from far away, but at the same time, its volume was so high that it seemed to be right next to him. Perhaps it was even inside of his own head. His ears were tingling, and there was an odd twisted feeling in the pit of his stomach. The barrage of sensations was incredibly disorienting, and he covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut against the reverberating darkness.

Through his closed eyelids, he suddenly recognized a dim flicker of light, and he opened his eyes again. It was a faint gleam, a very pale blue which didn’t illuminate the darkness so much as it made the darkness feel even more complete. The lord started turning around, trying to see where the light was coming from. Somehow, it seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. There was no visible source of it, and it didn’t seem to shine from any specific direction.

All at once, this began to change. A light that seemed very intense to the lord’s dilated eyes began shining in front of him. It was just a tiny pinprick of light, but it seemed to burn to the back of his skull. Cautiously, he reached out towards it—there was no heat coming from it, and it looked less like a light shining than it looked like a hole in the blackness around him. Just before his hand reached it, a baleful blue radiance enveloped him as the hole grew wider like an eye sliding open.

No… no, it WAS an eye, an eye shining in the darkness. A huge blue eye, somewhat oblong in shape, with a slitted pupil like a snake’s. All around him in the blackness, eyes were opening one after another, sprinkling the void like stars in the night sky. The light coming from them hurt his eyes even more, and he turned around, trying to cover his face. Even with his hand over his eyes, he couldn’t shut them out. The emptiness was filled with eyes, pinning him like a squirming insect under their gaze.

Somewhere in the distorted echoes around him, he discerned the sound of a voice speaking, if one could call it that. It was completely alien, like no sound he had ever heard before, and yet it seemed to strike a chord of familiarity somewhere inside him.

“I can’t hold on, I can’t hold on…” The voice was strained, as though its owner were in mortal pain. “It’s slipping, it’s slipping away… it slides through my fingers even as I reach out to grasp it. The light is gone from me. Oh! Filthy darkness that I never knew before… divine light I can never reach… why?”

The lord huddled down in his terror, and the eyes seemed to spin around him like a hurricane of streaking lights. Through his tightly closed eyelids, he could see the first eye still staring at him, filled with agony and despair.

“Let me die! Oh, eternal light I can never know again, let me die!”

The lord sat up in bed, gasping for breath as the hellish void gave way to the down-to-earth surroundings of his room in the inn. In his ears, the word “die… die… die…” rang like a broken clock.


By the time the three travelers had made their way out into the halls, many room doors were open that they could have sworn had been closed and locked the night before. A few names had been signed in the checkout section of Keleg’s ledger, but there was no way to know if all the other guests were still here. The lord finally gave up in disgust on making sure everyone was accounted for; the people’s fear was simply too great to be managed. If anyone had been missed during their sweep of the grounds last night, they were almost certainly dead by now.

A very large crowd was gathered outside the inn, all talking over each other, wondering what had happened, praising the Celestials for their deliverance, lamenting the loss of their animals. As the lord and his companions pushed their way through the throng, they heard a dozen ridiculous explanations for what had happened. Two Void dragons had been vying for territory. A mischievous forest spirit was responsible. Kragga raiders had done it as a warning. One man who was obviously drunk claimed that one of his mules had been possessed by a Withermoon demon and spontaneously exploded into flame next to a haystack. No-one seemed to have any idea what had become of Keleg or Jeffrey, and fewer seemed to care.

The stables had burned down the rest of the way in the night, and all that remained was a few charred beams and a great heap of ashes. For a few minutes, the three looked out over the wreckage, fascinated as humans often are by the sight of great destruction. The entire affair had seemed nightmarishly frightening the night before; in broad daylight, this place felt incredibly eerie. None of the people were willing to get near the scene of the disaster, and their voices sounded distant and hushed.

“There’s no point in staying here any longer,” Malus said at last. “We might as well look for our dragons and move on.”

“I’m not sure how we’re supposed to find them,” said Reginald. “There’s enough space in this clearing to take off, so they almost certainly flew away. They could be anywhere by this time.”

“We had better not wander too far from here just yet,” said the lord. “They may return to this area after they shake off the fear.”

“Shouldn’t that have happened by now, sir?” said Reginald. “Hyaku killed the Void dragon that was here last night.”

“Unless they met another,” said Malus. “In which case we may not even HAVE dragons at this point.”

“I think you’re both forgetting how strong the fear is and how far dragons can travel when they’re in a hurry,” the lord reminded them. “They got pretty far away from us the first time, and they were just on foot. If they were flying, they might be on the other side of the Twilight Woodlands before they came to their senses.”

“Well, then, what do you propose we do?” said Reginald, irritably. “Walk to Greyshadow? The Withermoon may be over by the time we can get there on foot.”

The lord thought for a few moments. “For now, let’s stay here. If there’s no sign of them in a few hours, we try to rent horses and ride to the nearest town where we might…”

The lord’s voice trailed off. He had been absentmindedly looking out over the ash heap as he spoke, and the glint of metal had suddenly caught his eye. “Hang on. What’s that?”

“What’s what, sir?” asked Reginald.

“Something shiny out there.” The lord slogged out into the ash. “One moment. I’ll get it.”

Malus and Reginald looked at each other in some bewilderment, and the mercenary finally followed his employer into the mess. So much wood had been consumed by the flames that the ash-pile reached halfway up his calves. Every now and again, he heard the tinkle of his armored boot scratching against metal—bolts and nails that had once held this building together.

The shiny object, whatever it was, was sitting underneath the wreckage of the few remaining crossbeams. The lord picked it up and held it up to the light—a thick golden band with a few common runes of protection scratched on the inside of it.

Malus joined him and examined the piece of gold thoughtfully. “Isn’t this…?”

The lord nodded. “Yes, I remember it. It’s the ring Keleg was wearing in his beard last night. If we had any reason to doubt before, we have none now.” He grimaced. “What an awful way to go. I wonder if he was trapped in between Hyaku and the beast of the Void, just like we were.”

“What’s done is done.” Malus’ voice was curt. “He’s out of his suffering now.”

“I wonder if he had any other family…” the lord muttered to himself. “It’s strange, Malus, the way life moves. I knew this man for less than an hour. To me, he wasn’t really any more than another innkeeper on the road… but he was someone to somebody, wasn’t he? I’ll never know any more about him than I could guess from the few minutes we spoke, but he had his own life, his own loves, and his own purpose… and for reasons I will probably never guess, that purpose was ended during that one hour I knew him.”

“What’s done is done,” Malus said again.

The lord shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m getting philosophical again. Let’s rejoin Reginald…”

He looked around. “…Er, where IS Reginald? I thought we were standing back there.”

Malus pointed. “He’s moved. Looks like he’s looking for something.”

The lord turned and shaded his eyes against the bright sun. Out at the edge of the ash-pile, Reginald was hobbling along the perimeter, head down and staring intently at the ground. He was looking back and forth as he went as if scanning the dirt for something, carefully holding up the tail of his trench coat to keep it from dragging in the ash. All at once, he knelt down, laid aside his cane, and began digging in the ashes with his fingers. He scooped something out of the cinders and brushed it off, letting the powder slip out between his fingers.

Curious, the lord hurried over to join him, and Reginald looked up. There was a twinkle in his eye behind his spectacles. “Sir, I’ve been spending so much time in your warlike company that I keep forgetting that’s not why I’m here. I am a private investigator; I would say that it’s high time I did a little investigating. We have a little mystery here, do we not?”

“I’d say that we already know all we need to know,” said the lord. “A Void dragon happened to find its way here, Hyaku killed it, and the stable was unfortunate collateral damage.”

“I’m not sure that all of those things are true, sir. In fact, from a cursory inspection of this area, I can tell you for a certainty that your first two statements are incorrect. The dragon didn’t simply wander here, it was summoned, and moreover, it is still alive… or, at least, it was last night.”

“What do you mean?” asked the lord.

Reginald held something out to him between an ashy thumb and forefinger. “Take a good look at this and tell me what you see, sir.”

The lord took the object and turned it over in his hand. It was a small piece of bone, perhaps part of a claw, one end sharpened to a point and the other end splintered as if it had been forcibly broken. Inscribed on the side of the bone were a series of strange runes and symbols that didn’t look even remotely like anything he’d ever seen before. Inside the thin scratches of some of the runes, as well as around the point, he could see dark stains that looked like dried blood.

“It looks like some kind of charm or amulet,” the lord said at last. “This is blood, isn’t it? Either its owner died a violent death, or it was used in some kind of ritual.”

“Close, but not quite.” Reginald took back the bone and ran his finger over the runes. “I am quite familiar with this writing system. These runes are used by those who follow certain Withermoon cults—our material on the cults themselves is fairly scant, but I have seen several manuscripts regarding Void dragon legends that use elements of this writing, and I was fortunate enough to obtain one manuscript written entirely in these runes almost twenty-six years ago. It’s taken me many of those years, but through comparisons of this to other ancient systems of writing in different parts of Atlas, I believe I have a relatively complete vocabulary for it now.”

“So you know what this thing is?” asked the lord.

“It is a nradsa … there really isn’t an equivalent word for it in Atlasian. The word is meant to convey the idea of summoning a higher power through a specific kind of personal sacrifice. For this sort in particular, the user cuts themselves on the sharp edge of the bone and smears the blood over the runes. It is a relatively common kind of talisman used in occult religions all around Atlas. The sacrifice of blood is believed to call whatever deity the cultist worships… spreading it on the deity’s runes shows the worshipper’s dedication to that specific divinity.” He smiled. “A lot of superstitious nonsense, I would say under any other circumstances. But if this nradsa is connected with a Withermoon cult, and Hyaku believes that the Void dragons are being summoned by such a cult, it is a reasonable hypothesis that this particular ritual is, in fact, effective.”

“What do the runes say?”

Reginald ran his finger along the bone. “There are three distinct symbols I can make out on this particular talisman. The first conveys the idea of a god or deity, but this particular symbol seems to refer to one aligned with the Void in particular. They have a different character to refer to the gods of other religions or cults. The second character means ‘blood’. Again, it has something of a dual meaning. For these people, the word ‘blood’ can refer both to the substance inside all of us and a kind of ‘spiritual’ blood that supposedly flows through the entire universe. The belief that the entirety of our reality is itself a living thing of sorts is a major part of their religion. This rune also has a sort of suffix adding the connotation that something… or perhaps someone… is consuming it.”

“I know very little of cultish things,” said the lord, “but those who believe in the consumption of blood as an act of worship are not unknown in Atlas. What of the third character?”

“The third character,” Reginald said, slowly, “is somewhat less ambiguous. It means ‘avenge’. The way I read it, the one doing this summoning was calling upon some deity of blood to avenge some wrong that had been done to them.”

“And the Void dragon we saw last night answered that summons?”

“So it would seem.”

“And why do you say it was still alive last night? I do not believe Hyaku would have left this area if she knew a Void dragon was still here.”

“That I still need proof of. However, I am confident enough in my understanding of dragon psychology that I am willing to make a statement. Come with me, if you please.”

Reginald started along the edge of the ash-heap again, and the now-curious lord and Malus followed him.

“While the two of you were searching out there,” Reginald began, “I watched the ashes drift and fell to remembering exactly what occurred here last night. The entire scene was so frightening that it is quite well burned into my mind now. Perhaps you can say the same for yourselves, sirs.”

His voice became a bit distant. “I called it all back to mind and saw it just as if I were there once again… the stables blazing, your silhouettes against the light, the dark shapes fighting among the flames… the monster’s cry and Hyaku’s flight… and that was what just didn’t make sense.”

The investigator stopped and turned back to them. “Did either of you observe what state of mind Hyaku was in when she flew away?”

“…State of mind?” the lord asked, bewildered.

“Let me rephrase that. Think a moment. What was she doing?”

“…Flying,” Malus said, bluntly.

“She was twisting her head back and forth, as though she were looking for something. My memory tends to hold onto the strangest of details, and that moment seemed to leap up before my eyes like a flash of lightning. Why should she be looking? What would she be looking for if not for something she expected to find?”

The lord thought for a moment. “When we first met at Starhold, she seemed to be able to sense that something was happening elsewhere and that she needed to leave. Perhaps she was looking for her next target… but that’s not what you think, is it?”

“Try to picture what you saw last night,” said Reginald, cryptically. “The three of us were standing in between the inn and the stables when we saw the fight. Which direction did Hyaku fly?”

“Directly away from us,” the lord said, decisively. “I distinctly remember the shape of her wings glowing against the night sky.”

“So, Hyaku was pursuing something that was moving directly away from us. Something which was hidden from our view… could either of you see anything on the other side of that fire? I highly doubt it.”

“Reginald, what are you getting at?” the lord demanded.

“Hyaku was still on the hunt,” said Reginald. “Take my word for it. I am skilled at reading dragons’ body language. At no point did I see her pause as I would expect her to if she had made a successful kill. Seeing her looking around like that makes me sure that she was still searching for her quarry. Which leads me to believe that the Void dragon was still alive and attempted to get away.”

“And you draw all of that from the fact that Hyaku shook her head as she flew off,” said Malus, obviously unconvinced.

“Reginald, you must be mistaken,” said the lord. “We all heard the monster’s death-cry…”

“But did you see it?” Reginald cut in. “Did you see it fall? And more importantly, where is its carcass now?”

“Consumed by the flames…” the lord began to say.

“As hot as this blaze was, it didn’t even manage to consume all of the wood of the stable. A creature that massive would have left behind bones that I would expect we could see even above the ash. You may dig for them if you wish, but I cannot imagine a carcass of that size being completely invisible in an ash-heap that doesn’t even reach our knees.”

“Reginald’s right,” Malus said, briefly. “Bone does not burn easily.”

“This leaves me with two potential conclusions,” Reginald went on. “One is that this monster, being from the Void, was not a thing of flesh and blood, and therefore left no trace when it died. That fails to explain what Hyaku was looking for when she flew away. The other possibility is that, regardless of the beast’s mortality or immortality, it fled from the battle, coming out of the fire on the side which was invisible from our vantage point… which was also the direction that Hyaku flew. When one possibility explains the facts more simply and completely than the other, it is most likely to be the correct one.”

Understanding dawned on the lord. “And now you’re looking for some indication of the Void dragon’s escape in this direction?”

“Exactly, Sir Unknown. Fortunately for us, creatures of that size are not usually very good at covering their tracks… ah, what’s this?”

The lord followed Reginald’s gaze and couldn’t help starting. About ten yards away from the wreckage of the stables, the ground was stained a dull red, as though a vast amount of blood had been splattered over it. Even he would have noticed it had they gone this direction, but they might never have even bothered looking on the other side of the stables if Reginald hadn’t brought them this way. Like as not, he’d walked over this spot last night without noticing it in the dark.

Reginald came to the edge of the stain and crouched down again, looking intently at the trampled dirt in the midst of the blood. For several minutes, he studied it closely, and the lord decided to stand back and let him think. At last, he stood up once more.

“It’s hard to tell with all of the confusion here, but there are footprints in the midst of all this mess. My guess is that the Void dragon leaped from the stable to here. It seems to be… no, definitely a wyvern, three claws on each foot, probably about twenty to thirty feet from head to tail…”

“You can tell all that just from this spot of ground?” The lord wasn’t sure whether he was doubtful or impressed.

“Yes, sir. There are visible footprints in all of this chaos, if you know what you’re looking for. I can guess at the creature’s size from the size of its feet, and from the depth of the prints, I can tell it stood on two legs. The claw marks are quite distinctive as well.”

“I must confess I didn’t get a very good look at the dragon last night,” the lord admitted. “I can’t recall if it was a wyvern or not.”

“Neither can I, but this print tells me that much.”

“Wyvern, twenty to thirty feet, three claws on each foot… that really doesn’t tell us much.” The lord shrugged. “That might honestly just be a description of Aibrean. Maybe Aibrean was wounded here. We still don’t know what happened to our dragons in all the confusion.”

“With all due respect, sir, there is not a chance in the world that these prints were made by Aibrean. Aibrean’s claws are much shorter and thicker than these clawprints. The dragon that landed here had claws easily half again the length of Aibrean’s and much more sharply hooked. Besides, Aibrean has very prominent dewclaws that are missing on these prints. These prints cannot belong to Tez—his toes are spaced completely differently—and Equestor does not have toes or claws at all. A dragon that was unlike any of ours was back here and fled in the direction of the woods. That is all I can say for a fact; I deduce that it was the Void dragon Hyaku fought since there seems to be no other logical explanation.”

The lord smiled. “You are very observant. I must confess I’ve never taken notice of how many toes any of my dragons have. There was no doubt in my mind until you raised it that the Void dragon had perished in the flames.”

Reginald smiled back. “In my profession, I’ve learned to never assume that something is dead unless you can see the body in front of you.”

“Well, that’s wonderful, but what good does it do us?” Malus wanted to know. “We’re wasting our time talking here. Let’s look for our dragons and head out.”

The investigator rubbed his chin. “There is… one thing we might possibly be able to do here still.”

“And what is that?” the lord asked.

“Let us put the pieces of this puzzle together. A Void dragon was summoned to this location last night by the nradsa we found. The nradsa must have been used by someone belonging to a Void cult, else the dragon would not have obeyed the summons. What were they doing in this location? That we have no basis to guess at for the moment. However, there are exactly two possibilities as to why they were here. One is that they were traveling from one location to another, in which case the Celestials only know where we might find them now. The other is that there is a location not far from here where these cultists gather. For all we know, we might be within a stone’s throw of the answers we’re looking for.”

“We have nowhere to begin a search,” the lord objected.

“On the contrary, we might.” Reginald gestured towards the blood on the ground. “The Void dragon was wounded, that we cannot doubt. It is possible that a wounded dragon would seek shelter in a place belonging to others of its own kind… in which case its trail may lead us somewhere worth seeing.”

“Greyshadow is also somewhere worth seeing,” said Malus. “Or have you already forgotten where we were going?”

“We already have to go out into the woods to find our dragons anyway,” Reginald pointed out. “It seems to me that this is as good a direction as any. But of course, that is your decision, Sir Unknown.”

The lord pondered the situation for a moment. “The Void dragon was obviously badly injured. Would you expect it to make it far at this point?”

“It probably wouldn’t reach the cult location unless it were relatively close by,” Reginald admitted. “But if we move in the same direction it moved, we might still find something. Given the absence of our own dragons, one direction is as good as any other.”

“Do you think you could follow its trail?”

“If it has left any trace of its passing, I will see it.”

“I guess the only thing I’d be concerned about would be the possibility that our dragons could return here and find us all gone,” said the lord. “We would all need to go on this—it would be foolish to go alone to a place frequented by a Void cult.”

“That is a chance we would take if we chose this course of action.”

The lord thought for a moment longer. “That said… if our dragons come anywhere close to us, they will scent us. Let us follow the Void dragon’s trail and see what we can find. If our dragons find us first, we take off for Greyshadow. If we find nothing, we return here and wait.”

“Very good, sir. What of our baggage? Little as it is, it would be much easier to move through these trees without it.”

“We have the keys to our rooms still. Take whatever you need for today and lock the rest in your room. We can return to this inn once we find our dragons—now that we know we can land here, it will only be a minor detour. Does that sound good?”

“That should work,” Reginald replied.

“Good enough,” said Malus, briefly.

The lord started back towards the Autumn’s Reap. “Very well, then. Remember to keep your voices down—this search should be for scouting purposes only. We really shouldn’t attempt an engagement with our current numbers. Once we know where they are, we can return with an army if need be.”

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