Within the bustling streets, two men were speaking. There was nothing special about them, and their conversation was everyday.
"Give me two cuts of mutton, please," one of them said, raising up two fingers. He was thin and rather tall, causing his limbs to give an impression as though they had been stretched unnaturally.
"Ah, old Gerald. Good to see you, as always. Still staying at home, eh?" the other replied. Unlike the other man, he was short but considerably thickset. His apron and large knife only served to further the effect of his appearance as a butcher.
The tall man smiled ruefully. "It can't be helped, Matthew. Luckily, my wife doesn't mind. Writing is a difficult business, but I can at least take care of the house..."
"Here. Two cuts of mutton, just as ordered. Let's hope that you'll finish writing one of these books someday, then. It'd be good if you could make something out of yourself! Would be a load off the missus' mind as well, no?"
"I feel the same, believe me."
It was, perhaps, a somewhat degrading conversation, but the two men knew each other quite well and such conversations were commonplace whenever they met.
The tall man sighed and looked up into the sky. When would he make good indeed...It was a difficult question to answer.
He let loose a questioning breath in spite of himself.
"What's the matter, buddy?"
"Look here...Perhaps I've taken leave of my senses, but I can swear that there's some kind of flying object in the sky."
The fat man's gaze followed his companion's finger. As his friend had said, there was indeed a large object floating some distance above them. He had to admit that his eyesight was going as he got older, but he could at least tell that it was not a bird, whatever it was. Even the biggest bird could not be of this size.
"It looks like it's coming closer," the fat man added. He was right, too.
The flying creature was descending quite quickly, and not even a minute had elapsed before it became possible to see it clearly. It was clearly immense, and the crown of its head was dangerously decorated with a number of horns. A dark viridian green, it would have resembled a serpent if not for its two wings, which were scaly and rather alarmingly thin despite how wide they were. A faint fire could be seen flickering within its snout as it breathed.
"Y'know...That looks an awful lot like a dragon," the thin man commented.
"That it does, buddy. That it does."
The two men looked at each other.
"But...dragons don't really exist, do they?" the thin man said slowly.
"Who knows, eh? I've heard stories about them, so they must exist. It stands to reason," the fat man replied.
"Erm, I don't think that's really how it works, because - "
Whatever the reason was, exactly, the rest of the world would never get to find out, because the dragon slammed into the ground like a shooting star at that exact moment, splitting the ground. It cocked its head back and roared, spitting out a steady stream of fire into the sky. A mere flap of its majestic wings was forceful enough to upturn carts and dismantle a few of the more shoddily built stalls. Its eyes darted around and observed the scene of carnage before it.
Just like the two men, the rest of the people in the street had run away, screaming in fear and terror.
His Majesty, King Alexander of Castern might have been a strict man who very much believed in tradition and the old ways, but he was not without empathy. This was especially so when it came to his daughter - but it wasn't enough for him to change his mind.
"I do understand your point of view, Claire. But nonetheless, there is no changing the decision now," he said, shaking his head.
The princess' hands balled up into fists. "Is there really no way, Father?"
"I'm afraid not. This is for the good for our people. No matter how much you may be against this, the people are more important than you are - that is what it means to be royalty. Never forget that. My patience is wearing thin as well, my daughter. Must you try me so?"
"...No, you are right. This is unsightly. My apologies, Father," Claire said.
Did that do the trick, he wondered. Alexander was well aware that his daughter was not content with marrying a good, capable prince and spending the rest of her days uneventfully. She had intellect, and knowledge - assuredly she did. But she was, after all, a woman, and a young one at that. What she was hoping for was not possible, and he had a duty to do what was best for her. That was the duty of a father.
It would have been ideal if she could have quietly accepted her lot, of course, but he had never expected that to happen. Even now, he was not so sure what exactly she was thinking, agreeing with him so suddenly -
"Your Majesty, Your Highness. My deepest apologies for interrupting you, but I bring dire news and I dare not act without your approval, Your Majesty."
"Speak freely, Sigyn."
The newcomer rose from her deep bow. Her deep red hair was striking, and her complexion was quite perfect, but she could not be said to be a beautiful woman. There was a lack of a necessary quality - what people would call the come-hither look in the eyes. Instead, she exuded an overwhelming feeling of determination and composure. It was also a rare sight to see a woman in armour, but then Sigyn was no ordinary woman. As the only known female general in Castern's history, that was necessarily the case.
"To keep it short, Your Majesty, the city is under attack by a dragon."
A ridiculous statement. The instinctive reaction for most would be to dismiss it as some kind of joke, or misunderstanding, but Alexander nodded and stroked his beard. There was a sharp intake of breath from Claire, but that was her only reaction upon hearing the news.
"There seems to be no end of trouble today. What do you suggest, Sigyn?"
"I'm not so sure either, Your Majesty. However, we cannot let it rampage in the city unchecked. Under the current circumstances, our best choice is probably for me to head out and face it myself. I will bring a few men with me, but our main objective will be to scout. We can always mobilize the army later when we have learned more."
"Very well. I cannot think of anything better myself. You have my approval, Sigyn. Do be careful - we need you more than ever in this time of crisis."
The king's message was clear but unspoken. Do not die. Not something a king would say directly, but everyone present understood his intentions.
"That goes without saying. Please await my return." Sigyn bowed again and turned, leaving with brisk steps.
The king and the princess once again found themselves alone. Claire looked at her father carefully, but found no trace of weakness in the lines of his face. He merely continued looking off into the distance, in the direction that Sigyn had left in.
Some moments passed before he spoke, still facing away from her. "Is something the matter, my daughter?"
"Perhaps...I'm curious. Pardon me for overstepping by boundaries, but how do you stay so calm, Father? Right now, we are under attack by a force that we may have no answer for. Surely you must feel something."
"Is that so? At the root of it all, you fear death, Claire? That is not so for me. There is a small worry in my heart, perhaps, but that is natural. It is minute; it can be overcome. At my age, Claire, death is no longer the concern. The worry is not that there is not enough time, but rather that not enough can be achieved within the time there is. Falling to panic, then, is not an option. It is no longer acceptable.
Besides, what will happen from here on out no longer has anything to do with me. Even though I am a king, it is self-evident that I do not have much personal power. Shall I stand here, then, and fret? I have soldiers who I have overseen, if not directly, then indirectly as the king of this kingdom. I have a capable general that I have appointed personally. They will be the ones to handle this. All I can do is believe. If I don't, then what exactly have I lived for?"
Alexander, the King of Castern, smiled at his daughter.
"That is the only answer that I can give you, my daughter."
Boris Haughten's head whipped around. A mercenary did not survive by being unobservant, and he had trained his senses to the point where they were always on the lookout for any signs of possible danger, without any conscious effort on his part. It was something like an ingrained habit.
Right now, the pillar of fire that was visible over the rooftops looked very dangerous indeed.
"Hey, look over there, you two."
"There appears to be a column of flame. Clearly not a natural source or occurrence of fire, judging from its shape."
"Wha - ? F-f-f-f-f-f-fire!"
As usual, the difference between his two companions' reactions could not be any more marked. Before the conversation could get any further, however, the stampeding crowd arrived. There were all kinds of people in the crowd, mainly because it seemed as though the crowd was made up of every last person in the area.
"Dragon! It's a dragon!"
"Run away! Run for your life!"
In their fear and panic, there was no way at all that the running people would even bother looking in front of them properly. Their only aim was to move as fast as possible; in other words, in a straight line. Boris reached over and picked up Beowulf by the collar of her oversized coat before leaping to the side, flattening the two of them against a wall. It was a narrow escape, but the mass of people moved by without causing any harm. Sarah was not as quick on the uptake, but fortunately it did not matter in her case, as she did not collide with anyone.
"Thank you, Boris," the little girl inclined her head.
"Don't worry, Beowulf. This is just me doing my job. Are you alright over there, Sarah?" Boris called out.
"O-o-oh! I'm fine, I'm completely fine. Of course I am."
"That's good to hear."
The trio looked at the empty street around them. The crowd had already ran off quite a distance away, but such was its sheer size and intensity that it was still very possible to hear the rumblings of their footsteps and shouting. In the opposite direction, the pillar of flame had disappeared, but there was a heavy thud every so often instead. A guttural growl echoed around the streets.
"Alright, what's the plan?" Boris asked, looking at Beowulf.
"I am not certain. If at all possible, I would like to see this dragon for myself. It is most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, after all, and it would not do to miss it. However..." the little girl's eyes looked uncertain as she trailed off.
"It might be an end of a lifetime opportunity, as well, right? Got it. We're staying here. There's no running from a dragon if it really wants to destroy this place, anyway."
"How are we going to f-f-fight it?!"
"We don't actually have to, Sarah. That's the answer. I'm just going to distract it, and it wouldn't be the first time for me, either. How long do you need, Beowulf?"
Beowulf sidled along the wall until she found a suitable corner, and promptly hid behind it. "Any amount is fine, Boris. I will consider even a second as bonus time. The moment you need to, just take me and run away. Keep in mind that I require your services, Boris. Do not think of yourself as an expendable mercenary; your death would be a problem for me."
"Roger that." Reaching behind his back, the mercenary retrieved the giant silver axe that had accompanied him in countless battles over the years.
This is really just a hunk of metal against a dragon, but it can't be helped.
"Also, if possible, I would like to hear what you already know about dragons. It seems that you've already encountered one before," Beowulf continued with a raised voice.
Boris nodded in affirmation. "Yeah. Not sure what I could tell you, though. They're weak against ice, but everyone already knows that - or rather it's the cold that they don't like. The explanation I got was that dragons are similar to fire spirits, or something like that anyway. Ordinary methods of attack don't work on 'em. Also, Sarah, you should hide as well. You won't be able to do much against it, so do me a favour and watch over Beowulf for me instead."
The young woman hurried over and joined Beowulf behind the stone wall corner. "J-just leave it to me," Sarah said, even though she hardly looked confident and was trembling all over. This did little to unnerve her companion, however.
"Certainly. I'm in your hands," Beowulf replied.
From the other side of the corner, Boris continued speaking as he peered at the streets that were still devoid of people, and more importantly, devoid of dragons. "Oh, yeah. Also, most dragons tend to be lazy. They could crush humans like bugs if they wanted to, but it's not really worth their effort. A dragon usually has some kind of reason for attacking humans, and even then, if they meet some strong resistance, they tend to just give up and go away. It's almost impossible to kill a dragon, but driving one off is a lot easier. That's about all I know."
"Thank you. It was very informative."
"Hopefully this is one of those times where it just goes away after awhile. It won't be any problem for me in that case. But still, I wonder just where it is. I don't hear it - "
The mercenary felt a shadow pass over him. This was no mere figure of speech - something was literally blocking out the sun. Boris turned and started running, and it proved to be not a moment too soon, for a large claw stomped on the ground where he had been standing after just a few moments. If he had still been standing there, he would most likely have been crushed to bits.
The dragon landed and folded its wings, roaring at its human adversary.
Boris eyed the small craters that its clawed feet had created and felt a slight chill run up his spine. He readjusted his grip on his axe.
Holy...His head is bigger than my whole damn body. This guy could give old Nidhogg a run for his money. I've got to be really careful. Alright, what's it got? Fire breath? Or maybe something simpler first?
The beast lifted a claw from the hole in the ground that it was occupying and took a simple swipe.
In response, Boris swung his axe to the side and met it in mid-air cleanly. For a period, claw and axe trembled against each other, but Boris grunted heavily and and pulled the axe back a slight distance before unleashing his full strength, knocking away the dragon's claw. He also made sure to catch the claw with a heavy blow on the return swing of the axe, but he could tell just from the response of the strike that the dragon had not been harmed in slightest. Its scales were far too sturdy for that.
Normally, Boris would have continued his offensive sequence with a follow-up attack - that was part of the basics that even a novice would have known. But he was aware that ordinary tactics would not work here. Assuming for even a second that he had the advantage could well be fatal, and he was not going to make that mistake. Instead, he stood his ground and awaited the dragon's next move. Which was just as well, because the creatures' eyes jerked, as though irritated, and it raised its claw again. Boris had just enough time to realize how much more forceful the attack was, and immediately backed off, dodging the strike by a hair.
The second failed attack only served to irk the dragon further, however, and it drew its head back. It was quite the tell-tale sign for Boris.
Looks like it's getting serious. Luckily, I've seen this one before!
Just as the mercenary had predicted, the dragon unleashed a river of fire from its snout that blazed across the stone tiles that made up the flooring of the street, and he had to duck and roll out of the way. It was almost a fascinating sight, seeing the blocks of stone catch aflame in such an unnatural manner, but Boris was in no position to admire that. Even at a slight distance, the heat of the fires was so strong as to be excruciating. The mercenary reached under his chin and wiped off a few errant drops of sweat.
From behind the corner, Sarah was so worried that there she no longer had space to feel any other kind of emotion.
"Miss Beowulf, p-p-p-p-please! We have to escape now! Tell Mr. Boris to leave!"
But there was no response.
This prompted Sarah to turn around. She had been on the verge of carrying on with her pleas, but what she saw shocked her into silence. She had already seen this before once or twice, but it was still as frightening every time.
Beowulf's expression was blank and otherworldly, and completely out of place on the face of a child.
It was a state that most humans could never have hoped to achieve. A hundred percent concentration. Only focus, and thought.
The dragon first appeared to us from the sky. However, observation of its movement clearly indicates that it had been travelling on the ground before, due to the tremors and footsteps we heard.
Therefore, it must have chosen that course of action to take us - specifically, Boris - by surprise. It follows, then, that the dragon knew something. Otherwise, it would have treated us as any other humans, and continued acting in its usual manner.
But it is surely not likely that this dragon had any prior knowledge regarding us. Any influences on its behaviour would only be possible if they had occurred within the timespan of the previous minutes. There are a number of possibilities - but the only likely one is that the dragon heard our conversation. It learned that we knew much about it, and had a capable warrior amongst us, and chose to take us more seriously.
If all of this holds true, then two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that the dragon possesses hearing or senses that far exceed those of humans. The second is that the dragon must be able to understand human speech. If the second conclusion is correct, then we can come to a third conclusion. The dragon must also possess intellect that at least equals that of a human's.
There is one contradiction to the above. Given that it is intelligent, the dragon's approach in its battle with Boris cannot be explained satisfactorily. Its attack method would then indicate that it is not taking the battle seriously. A reason for that must be found -
"...Wulf. Beowulf. Beowulf."
It took some time, but the light returned back to the child's eyes.
The mercenary was mostly unharmed, and had strapped his axe to his back again.
"We have to leave. This dragon doesn't seem to be one of those that gives up that easily. It might follow us, but we have no choice. "
"Understood. Let us go, Boris, Sarah."
"Alright. Excuse me," Boris said. He reached over and lifted up Beowulf in his arms. It was the only way - Beowulf could hardly be expected to keep up with his running speed.
"Sarah. Make sure to match me, please. I wouldn't want to lose sight of you," he added.
"D-don't worry. I'll be careful," Sarah replied. And with that, the duo broke into a run, trying their best to ignore the powerful footsteps of the dragon behind them.
"Did you m-manage to think of anything, Miss Beowulf? You seemed deep in thought."
Amazingly, she was able to move almost effortlessly, and her voice remained even - or as even as it usually got, in any case.
"Regretfully, I was unable to get to the root of the matter. I need more information - but I do believe that the dragon can understand what we're saying, and is as intelligent as us. Did you know that, Boris?"
"Nope," Boris replied, panting slightly. "We've never really been buddies with them or anything like that, you know? We knew they were smart, but I don't think anyone ever thought that they were just as smart as humans. Just makes 'em tougher to deal with, then."
"It also means that we will almost certainly be unable to escape it if it does not want us to, especially since it can fly," Beowulf pointed out.
"Don't remind me."
When there's a dragon rampaging in the streets, no one would be particularly inclined to look at the rooftops. Not, in any case, that they would have seen anything. There was nothing that could be seen, and nobody around to see it if even if there was something.
Of course, that did not mean that there was nothing there.
"This was honestly unexpected."
The chirp of a bird was the only response to that statement.
"I have no idea who those three are, but they do not appear to be ordinary in any way. This could be a problem, perhaps."
"Perhaps it would be prudent to find out more about them. It does not, however, seem that they are capable of defeating Fafren. And I should hope so - where would we be if a dragon was not feared and monstrous? That would be against the natural order of things, would it not?"
A string of quick and sharp chirps, as though in vehement agreement, and then a sigh that was very much human.
"There's still so much to do."
"...Are we going to die, Boris?"
Despite the question, Beowulf's face remained mostly calm. The heavy frown on her face was the only concession that she allowed towards the fear she was facing. However, there was a slight quiver in her eyes that told the real story.
"Who knows. I've already made my peace. This isn't a bad way to go out."
As a rule, mercenaries were not usually experts at comforting others.
"S-stop talking about such stupid things, y-you two! Honestly!"
Boris broke into a grin. "Hear that? If Sarah of all people is encouraging us, then we have no excuse, Beowulf."
The dragon was still following behind them, but it was not, it seemed, too interested in expending too much of its energy, and was moving at a somewhat leisurely pace. Of course, 'leisurely' was a relative term, and in actual fact it took all of the strength that Boris could muster just to run fast enough such that the dragon could not catch up.
If it wants to catch us, it definitely can. Does it have some reason for taking it easy?
Almost as if to answer that question, a number of arrows flew through the air with blinding speed. One after another, they all struck true, landing on the dragon's head, belly, limbs, and even its wings. However, all that was meaningless when they could not harm the dragon. The metal arrowheads were simply not sharp enough to penetrate the thick scales of the monster, and they fell uselessly to the ground after striking the magical creature.
That was not the end of the attack.
A flash of red passed by the trio. Wielding a spear that was taller than herself, a woman clad in armour leapt prodigiously into the air, quickly rising to the same level as the dragon's head. Preparing her spear with both hands, she aimed expertly for one of the dragon's eyes before thrusting down her weapon with great force. Even a dragon would probably have been in trouble if it were to be struck in such a weak spot, but a slight movement of the beast's neck was enough for it to raise its snout and intercept the blow with its scaly hide. Again, the dragon remained unharmed.
Clicking her tongue, the woman was left with no choice but to utilize the recoil of her attack to push herself away from the dangerous beast. She landed with a cat's grace, and readied her weapon again in a battle stance. The dragon snarled and puffs of fire emerged from its nostrils, but it did not take any further action.
"Sigyn? Never thought I'd see you again. This must be the work of fate."
The speaker was none other than Boris, who grinned at the flame-haired woman.
The woman's mouth fell open in shock. "...'Mage Killer'? I'll never forget that white hair. Boris Haughten...Truly a remarkable coincidence. Dire men accompany dire situations, it seems."
Boris eyed the group of soldiers that surrounded the general. They had been the ones to fire the arrows earlier. "I resent that. What are you doing here with all this rabble? Working for Castern now?"
Next to him, Beowulf nodded. "Correct. Sigyn - the 'Victorious Girlfriend' - retired from her job as a mercenary and returned home. She is now a general of the Castern Army."
"Ah," Boris gasped.
Sigyn's brow twitched for a moment.
"You'll have to be careful, Beowulf. This woman here hates that nickname of hers."
"I see. But why is that the case?"
"That's usually the case with unwanted nicknames," he replied, shrugging. "It's something that me and the other mercenaries came up with as a kind of joke when we were working on the same job as her. Let's not talk about the details of that. It did, however, happen to be a job that required us to repel a dragon, quite similar to our current situation."
"Indeed. That being said, what are you doing here, Boris? Something to do with the kid and the girl? And do you have any ideas on how we can deal with that monster?"
Sigyn motioned with her spear towards the dragon, who looked content to remain quiet for now.
"Bodyguard work. And you know I don't. Dealing with mages is my speciality, but magical creatures are a completely different story. And this guy here seems to want something, because it's not going away even when it meets resistance, and it's definitely not going all out, either."
"In that case, there's not much either of us can do here. We're just a scouting party. If necessary, we will of course mobilize the Army, but it's not looking good either way. " The general's lips formed a grim slash.
"Excuse me. If I may make a suggestion..."
Beowulf raised her head and looked at Sigyn. The woman general, on her part, looked a little nonplussed at being addressed by a little girl with twintails in a battle situation. It was hardly something that she was used to, and she looked at Boris in a somewhat helpless fashion.
"Go ahead, Beowulf. You should listen to this girl, Sigyn. She's the real deal," he said.
"Sure. If the 'Mage Killer' says so, then I won't doubt either."
Quite a surprising change, but it just went to show how much faith Sigyn placed in Boris' opinion.
"Thank you. This is just a hypothesis, but we've been able to observe this dragon for quite some time now. Although much is still unclear about its motives and behaviour, there are a few possibilities that at least seem likely. One, it is inarguably clear that we have no way of reasonably harming it. Two, it is very likely as intelligent as a human. And three, it has some kind of objective for entering this city that is, at the very least, not related to harming us. Therefore, my suggestion is this...
Allow the dragon to do what it wishes. We need not do anything. We should simply follow it and observe."
A period of silence followed as glances were exchanged.
"...That might not be a bad idea," Sigyn said, after awhile.
The squad of soldiers gasped collectively upon hearing that. Amongst them, a particularly brave soldier decided that he had to speak up.
"You can't be serious, General! Are we really to listen to this little girl? How can we possibly allow this monstrous beast to rampage around our city as it pleases?! Never would I have suffered a bigger dishonor!"
The red-haired general glared at him fiercely.
"You know, I really hate having stupid soldiers in my army. I never really had to deal with them when I was a mercenary. Stupid mercenaries got themselves killed sooner or later. But this is the part that's even worse - I hate having dead soldiers in my army more than stupid ones. Because I'm not a mercenary any more, and every soldier that dies under my command is another life that I have to bear. Someone that I might have been able to save - if I had been a better general. So if you don't want to piss me off, shut up and stand down, man. Or do you have a way to fight this dragon? Cause if you don't, then don't throw your life away for no reason!"
Whatever he was thinking, the soldier surely had never expected such a sudden outburst from his general. Gulping, he took a step back involuntarily and nodded.
"Alright, we'll listen to this wonder girl of yours, Boris. Back off, men. Let's see that his dragon has up its sleeve."
As one, the soldiers walked after their general's lead into an alleyway, and Boris' group followed behind. Sigyn peeked out from behind a corner, just as Beowulf had done in the battle earlier.
The dragon seemed to have made no effort to track its puny opposition. Instead, its head rose and it glanced this way and that, as though looking for something. Some time passed as it continued in this manner, but eventually it ceased action, as though satisfied.
What does it want to do?
Sigyn could not help but wonder to herself as they continued to observe the dragon.
The giant wings, which had mostly remained folded up till now, spread. The dragon's wingspan was truly massive and must have been more than twice the height of the dragon itself. With a single, gentle, flap, the dragon rose into the sky in a manner that utterly defied logic. Its neck stretched as it raised its head even higher into the sky. Flying in the air like that, it was now in a realm untouchable by humans. The power of such a magical beast was truly frightening.
"...?! Is it leaving?" Sigyn shouted. It was almost too much to hope for.
"I'm afraid not."
It was Beowulf who replied almost immediately.
The dragon's ascent had halted. It looked down upon the city before it, its slit pupils darting back and forth. A moment later, it reared its head back in a motion that had become very recognizable to Boris and his two companions.
If the breath of flame that the dragon had used before could have been described as a river, then what burst forth from its jaws this time could only be described as an ocean. An unimaginable amount of flame, so much so that it seemed limitless and without end.
All of that descended upon the part of the city that the dragon was directly above, and transformed it into a hellish inferno. Searing flame and blinding light were everywhere, and it became difficult to even breathe - such was the intensity of the overwhelming heat that blazed across the streets in an instant.
It was an atrocity that humans could not hope to match, committed before those same humans could even blink, as though emphasizing the difference between humans and dragons.
High in the sky, the dragon gave one last look at the city. It did not have a human visage, but its expression could only be described in one manner - contempt. It was a look of disgust that was reserved for puny creatures that had no place in its world. Turning around, the dragon flapped its powerful wings once again. That alone was sufficient to rocket it past the clouds, where it could not longer be seen.
Sigyn cursed. "So that's what it was after? But that still makes no sense...No, never mind that. That goddamned beast. We need water, men. And we need lots of it. But first, let's head back."
The general looked upon her beloved city that was now threatening to become a burning wreck.
"We'll need all the help we can get. From the Army, and the rest of the citizens as well. And that includes you, 'Mage Killer'. Whatever you want to do here, Boris, you can't do it if the city is on fire, can you?"
Claire watched silently as the proceedings of the court continued. As the crown princess, she was obligated to be present, even though she would never offer her opinion - there was no point, for no one would heed it. Her father's various ministers and advisers were busy arguing amongst themselves, but it all seemed too foolish to her. Some ideas were brought up, opinions were discussed, and plans of action were debated, but nobody was actually getting anything done. There were far too many people to come to a consensus, and far too much airy speculation and guessing to even come close to forming a concrete plan.
Perhaps her father shared the same sentiment, because he raised a hand and motioned them to be silent. Claire, too, silenced the discontent in her heart, and resolved to listen to her father.
"Enough. This is a bit too disorderly for my liking. Let us start from the simplest details first. For now, I only want my general to speak. Sigyn - "
The general bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"We have located where the dragon is resting?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. The beast is currently at the top of the Valern Mountains and our soldiers have already gotten sight of it. It does not seem to be wary of observers and does not show any signs of being hostile."
"I see, rather close, with no other nearby cities. Still, how strange its behavior is! But there is no denying what it has done. Nor, I think, is there any doubt regarding its overall objective. It will surely return again."
A few of the advisers made agitated looks, as though they wanted to say something, and yet not one of them dared to interrupt the king, and he continued speaking.
"Let us then consider the most direct approach. Let us assume that we plan to mobilize our army against this beast. What do you think of our chances of victory? You have fought a dragon before, I understand."
Sigyn nodded. "That is correct, Your Majesty. But with respect, you must understand that I did not slay the dragon I faced. Dragons are mysterious, magical creatures, and nobody, it seems, truly understands them. Each dragon differs from the next, as well, making it difficult to ascertain what kind of dragon one is dealing with. However, the impregnable scales of the dragon are well known to all. Even the arcane arts of most magicians are little more than the buzzing of bees before it - this is something that I have experienced myself, during my battle against one in the past."
"They are weak to the cold, but there is nothing suitable like that here; not in the Kingdom of Castern. Legends tell of holy, dragon-slaying weapons that can deal fatal wounds to them, but again, we do not possess any such thing - and these artifacts are not easy to come by, if you will pardon my understatement. It is not simply a matter of acquiring such a weapon. The most useful piece of knowledge for us is that dragons are usually not persistent, and easily discouraged. Sending a powerful force, even if not sufficient to defeat it, can at least drive it back, and send it elsewhere where it will do no harm."
"And our Castern Army qualifies as such a force?"
"Indeed it does, Your Majesty - if the particular dragon in question was so inclined, and of such a disposition. In such a scenario, I would predict - we may lose one-fifth of our army, at a rough estimate, but the dragon would surely be forced back. In the past, I battled another dragon in a group of twenty mercenaries and not one life was lost - but these were all the finest warriors of the land, and not an accurate measure by any means."
"I see. But of course, it is your opinion that we are not facing such a dragon this time?"
Alexander's face was passive, despite the magnitude of the question that he was asking, and his expression did not change even the slightest bit. There was not a hint of restrained hope. Such was the dignity of a king, who had to have the resolve to bear any burden, at any time.
Claire noted all this quietly to herself.
"I regret to say that I'm afraid not, Your Majesty. Of course, I've only ever encountered one other dragon before - Nidhogg the Dark, but that dragon was too different compared to this one, Your Majesty. You could have truly described Nidhogg as a beast, and yet this one - this one seemed almost human in its intelligence. If you will pardon this soldier for being crude, it seemed hell-bent on destroying the city. So much so that I would even describe it as spiteful. And in such a case, Your Majesty, there is very little that we can do. Just as earthquakes are the disasters of the earth, and storms are the disasters of the sky, the appearance of such a dragon can truly be said to be the wrath of the element of fire itself."
Sigyn shook her head grimly.
"Ordinary humans were not meant to oppose such a thing," she said quietly.
The silence that followed was so heavy that all of the chatter and babble that had been taking place just awhile ago seemed as though it had never existed at all. One of the advisers, clearly frightened out of his wits, could not stop his fearful words from escaping his lips.
"...Are we doomed?"
Alexander refused to give in. "That remains to be seen. There are possibilities. Not very likely ones, perhaps, but we must try. We owe it to our people, my men. There is still Lendia to the north - well known as a nation that endures the torment of eternal winter. As I'm sure you all know, my daughter Claire will form an alliance with their crown prince, Stanislaus, some time in the future. Sigyn. Earlier, you said that the arts of most wizards were not effective against dragons. But a wizard who can control the cold would be an exception, would he not?"
"That is so, Your Majesty."
"And Stanislaus is well known as one of those rare heretics that call themselves magicians. If we enlist his help, we may yet be able to do something - and he owes it to us to assist. There is surely no way he can refuse."
The advisers and ministers of the court exchanged looks. The situation was still dire, but under the leadership of their eminent king, they begun to feel as though there was some hope, even in spite of themselves.
Surprisingly, the next to speak was not Alexander. The king had been aware of his daughter's gaze, and bade her to speak with a wave of his hand.
"Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Your Majesty, but that will not be sufficient. Just as Sigyn warned, a dragon is exceedingly powerful and said to be an embodiment of a great spirit of fire. Ice and frost may be its weakness, but a single human magician is hardly enough to defeat it. We must not think that such a measure alone would be sufficient."
A murmur rose amongst the court, provoked by Claire's sudden speech. Overall, however, there was something akin to a tacit understanding amongst all present. The princess had never approved of her marriage to the prince of Lendia. Now that a situation had arisen that had proven His Majesty Alexander's decision correct, she was anxious to discredit the prince. Truly, the princess might have been intelligent for a woman - but she was still a child!
"Of course. What you say is wise, my daughter. But I do not intend to stop there, either. I will instruct Stanislaus to gather his forces - all the magicians of cold that he can find, even if they do not belong to the nation of Lendia. Of course, magic is capricious, and there may be less of such capable magicians in the world than the number of fingers on my hand, but we must try. Also, the tales and rumours of a certain 'hero' have become widespread recently. 'The Hero of a Thousand Names', said to be able to vanquish all manner of monsters and demons - even now, his existence is still not certain, but we are no position to worry about such matters. Never mind how foolish we look. I shall dispatch some of our agents to look for this man. We must take hold of any possibility that presents itself to us. What do you think, Claire?"
Surprised, Claire took a moment to compose herself. She had always looked up to and respected her father, but even she had not expected him to be so capable.
"...Your Majesty is as wise and eminent as ever. I can offer no complaints."
"In that case, if anyone has any more suggestions, I would be most grateful to hear them. Let us leave no possibility undiscussed."
The king waited patiently, but not one person was able to offer any more ideas.
None, that is, save for one.
"How foolish. I had heard that King Alexander of Castern was a most capable king that ruled well, but perhaps those were just false rumours? Wisdom and eminence - I am sorry, but I must confess that I see none of those qualities at the moment. Instead, a foolish king who will damn his kingdom to ruin sits before me."
Of course, none of the gathered court members had said that. Never mind daring to do such a thing - none of them thought that way. King Alexander was truly a king that was respected and beloved - how could any of them harbour such hateful thoughts, and speak in such a mocking tone?
"Oh? Perhaps you will be kind enough to elaborate, friend."
Even in the face of such harsh insults, Alexander remained unmoved. His self-control was far too strong for that to happen.
"...You are resolute, if nothing else, king. Will you face death in the same way? I am sure most will find that admirable - but not me. Even if you face death head on, that changes nothing. You will still die. I can only say that such a situation is no different from failing completely - truly deplorable."
"Who dares to speak in such an insolent manner!"
"There is a limit to outrageous behavior! How dare you disrespect our king!"
Unable to control themselves, the members of the court began to speak up.
And yet, to their surprise, Alexander himself was the one to make such a request.
"Let our mysterious friend here speak."
"What do you wish for me to say, o' king?"
Outwardly, the voice took on a tone of subservience. And yet not one person was fooled by that façade.
"I will leave that to you, mysterious friend. You may speak freely. But, I would be most honoured if you could show yourself to us. Clearly you are a fellow of great power and ability - and I would like to be able to see you clearly for myself, if that is agreeable to you."
Looks of outrage and anger decorated the faces of the court. What they were thinking was as plain to see as the day itself - how could the king himself grovel and tolerate such disrespect? But, ordered by their liege, they had no choice but to remain silent.
Fools, the lot of them.
Claire could not stop herself from thinking such critical thoughts.
Do they not know their place? The power and authority of a king is tied to his kingdom. Without his kingdom, he cannot be a king. And now our kingdom of Castern is precisely in a situation of unparalleled danger. In such a case, a king can have no power, and commands no respect. His priority must be to save his kingdom, above all else. Father had clearly explained them to them earlier - and yet not one of them understands? Truly pitiful. The insolence of this newcomer can be forgiven - for now. We have more important matters to worry about.
"Very well. If the king himself makes such a request, then a poor fellow such as I, with no authority or power to speak of, can hardly disagree."
Nevertheless, Claire had to admit the derisive tone of the voice was beginning to try her patience as well.
There was a kind of movement that was hard to describe - or even understand. It was not visible, and could not be felt. It was, Claire felt, most similar to a strong gale, but one that could not be felt.
A chirp of a bird resounded across the hall. It was soft, and yet in the stunned silence it felt so loud as to be deafening.
Eyes and hair as dark as the deepest night, and suitable for the visage of any demon. A wide grin hung across the face of the young man who had appeared quite literally out of nowhere in the centre of the hall, and wrapped around him was a jet-black cloak. On his shoulder, a dark bird perched quite naturally, as though it ought to be there.
"What's the matter? Ah, I see. I have forgotten my manners, and failed to introduce myself. Do pardon me, Your Majesty, for this grave offence. I am not used to such actions."
The young man strode forward confidently, even daring to encroach upon the steps that led to Alexander's throne.
"I am Wren, a travelling magician. Perhaps I can be the one to save this kingdom, Your Majesty."