The tall and ancient oaks grew thick, but Fae led on briskly, darting between branches with grace. The glow of her hands extended to her whole body, and her tiny figure radiated a cool blue light that bathed each tree in an otherworldly light. The cracks in the barks of the trunks contorted as we walked through, making terrifying faces that watched our every move.
Dunkelwood meant "dark forest" in old Gevaltan, and the first generations of the kingdom were certainly accurate in their naming convention. I hadn't ventured into the woods outside of well-marked paths and roads, because in just a few steps you could be lost in the darkness. It was said that deep in the woods, the foliage was so thick that not a single ray of sunlight could peek through the trees, so the light of the moons stood no chance.
"Are we getting there any time soon?" I asked, hoping I could hide my nerves.
"Shut up," Fae hissed. "We don't want to spook them."
"Spook who, a dragon?" I asked. "It would eat me."
"Not the dragon!" she said, perching on a branch.
She sighed heavily and fluttered back down toward me. I stuck out my hand and she landed softly. "Hey, rub my bum wing, will you? I'm not used to endurance flying anymore."
I took my other hand and pinched softly at the bent tip of her wing Even through my glove, I could tell that the wing was fragile, like a delicate and thin paper. I rubbed my finger and thumb together gently, which made Fae close her eyes in relief.
"Oh, that's the good shit; you're not so bad after all," she said breathlessly.
"Who are you worried about spooking?" I asked again, putting a little more pressure on the wing.
"Ow! Alright, alright," she said, slapping my hand away with surprising force. "So, the thing is, I may have misled you just a bit…"
"I knew it," I said angrily, dropping her. With a scream, she landed on the soft grass, flickering a bit before beginning to glow again. Meanwhile, I turned and began to walk back in the direction I thought was the way home.
"That's not what I meant," she grumbled, flying after me. "The dragon is in trouble; there are creatures all over this part of the woods…"
"Yeah, and just a baby dragon? Where is its mother? Why is it alone?"
"Nope, I'm heading home. Hopefully it's not too late to—"
A horrifying screech ripped through the air, chilling me to the bone. I froze, and hastily gripped my pistol. Stories were told of the beasts hiding in Dunkelwood, some of which had terrifying screams of their own, but this sounded so unnatural and jarring, as if Death itself was looking upon the screamer.
"That wouldn't happen to be our dragon, would it?" I asked nervously.
"I don't think so…" Fae whispered, landing on my shoulder. She began to dim.
"Stop that," I ordered. "I need you to stay lit, Fae. If I can still see, I can still see whatever that thing is when it's coming for me and I can kill it first."
"Alright, but if we die, I'm finding you in our next life and killing you again." She began to grow a little brighter, climbing up and standing on my head like a beacon. Slowly, I turned in a full circle to see if anything was near us. Even as brightly as Fae was shining, I couldn't see anything more than a few feet out. Aside from the soft crunching of my feet as I pivoted, not a single sound was made. After I made a full circle, I relaxed my grip just slightly.
"So, if that wasn't our dragon, what was it?" I asked.
"I'm not sure what to call them," she said slowly and quietly.
"Shut up! They'll hear you!"
"Who-or what are they?" I asked urgently. Another piercing screech blasted through the trees, louder this time, and seemingly nearer. I could hear rustling in the trees behind us. I whipped around and drew my pistol.
"Sh-show yourself!" I hollered, or at least tried to holler. My words tumbled out of my mouth weakly and messily.
"I don't think we can fight them," Fae shouted, launching off of my head and fluttering away behind me. "Run!"
I spun around and sprinted after her, barely keeping up as I vaulted over tree roots and stumbled over uneven ground. Fae zipped between the trees clumsily, either from her bum wing or the darkness of the wood. The rustling behind us got even louder, and another blaring screech emitted, almost directly behind me, followed by an eerie chattering noise that sounded almost rat-like, provided the rat was double its size.
"Fae!" I yelled desperately. She was starting to get further and further ahead of me, and it was harder to see the rough ground. Before she could even respond to my cry, I felt my boot catch an upturned root and I tumbled to the ground. I landed on my hands. My left one took the brunt of my weight and snapped almost immediately. As I fell on top of it, I smacked my pistol on the ground, and saw in horror as one of the flintlocks snapped. In a quick burst of orange and a loud bang, the gun erupted in my hand and threw me to the side against a tree. Silence followed briefly, as I took stock in what had happened, and then was abruptly ended by another screech, this one right in front of me. I looked up at the beast that was following us and could almost feel the blood drain from my head.
It was black; far darker than the sky and the trees, so that even in what little light was around me, I could make out a basic shape. It was a little taller than me, and rail thin, with another black mass behind it that seemed to be bat-like wings. It had a face that looked similar to Fae's and mine, but something about its features was much more birdlike than humanlike – everything was sharp and angled in all the wrong places, as if its skull were the shape of a cone. But I could barely focus on any of these features, because I was captured by its orange eyes, which stared at me, fiery and hungry, with two black pupils that looked like a dead man's. The creature tilted its head and walked toward me, its beaklike mouth clicking.
A sudden flash of blue light streaked across its face and it screamed in surprise. The bright blue glow to my right told me that Fae had returned, and I took no time pulling myself up from the ground with my good hand and pulling my sword from its sheath. Broken wrist firmly tucked into my side, I stood at the ready, waiting for it to turn again.
Fae shot another two bolts at it, and when it turned and dodged them, it was solely focused on her. I rushed it and swiped with my sword, feeling the metal connect around the back of its neck. I braced myself for a warm splatter of blood, but none came. Instead there was a rush of steam, alongside another earsplitting screech from the creature. It writhed in pain and flailed its arms at me, and I barely managed to pull my sword from its neck and duck underneath them. In the confusion, Fae fired her fourth bolt, striking the creature directly in one of its eyes. It stumbled back in pain, and I used the opportunity to force my blade deep into its torso.
The creature opened its mouth to make another ghastly screech, but all that came out was a pathetic whistling noise. Steam erupted from its chest, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't keep ahold of my sword and stumbled back, falling against another tree. It took two steps and tumbled into a pile of smoke and disintegrated at my feet. After a few seconds, the only thing that lay in its place was my sword, interlocked in the ribcage of a skeleton that looked much more human than the creature it was in life. Shakily, I got up and pulled my sword from the bones, which broke apart into dust as soon as they were disturbed. Once I was standing and had the sword in my hand, the only remnant was an ashy mark on the steel of my blade. Fae and I panted and looked at each other.
"This…this was one of them?" I asked.
"Yeah," she muttered.
"Thanks for coming back to help, at least," I said, wincing from the pain of my broken wrist.
"I told you this wasn't a trick—oh no, you're injured!" she said, fluttering close to my arm.
"It's better than being dead," I said, hoping that it would numb soon enough.
"Here," she said and placed her small, glowing hand on my wrist. I cringed, expecting a sharp pain at her touch, but was instead overcome with a warm sensation. There was still some pain as I felt the bones in my wrist slowly come back together, but it was dull, and after a couple seconds, the light faded, and I couldn't feel any more pain. I rolled the joint gingerly but felt nothing.
"How did you…?"
"Did you not see my aura?" she asked. "All the fairies from my tribe are skilled in healing magic; a broken wrist is nothing."
"I don't know much about the colors of magic, to be honest," I said weakly.
"Makes sense," she said, shrugging. "You're an idiot human." She fluttered away.
"So, you can heal people, just like that?" I asked, looking down at my pistol. The misfire had destroyed both of its barrels, so even though I had enough powder and lead for another few shots, I wouldn't be able to fire any more tonight.
"Yeah, dummy," she said. "What did you think blue magic even did?"
"So why can't you heal your bum wing?"
She looked at me sadly. "You really don't get magic, do you?" she asked, and fluttered even further.
"Thanks for healing me, at least," I said, running to catch up.
"Thanks for killing that thing before it got both of us. I guess we're even."
"How many more are there?" I asked, gripping my sword a little tighter.
"Couldn't tell you," she said. "There were at least three that chased me back to Shelton Isle, and I doubt that they just left the area. They can't be too far behind; they don't look like solitary creatures. Now come on, we're almost to the dragon."
We walked in agonizing silence for a few more minutes, pausing at every noise we heard that wasn't us. The forest seemed much more alive than it had when we entered. I decided that was a good thing, considering how silent it was when the first creature attacked us. After a while we walked into an opening in the trees, and even though it was still night, the light from the two moons shown down on us, making it seem almost bright as day.
Finally able to see, I got a look at my surroundings. Even though there was a break in the dense canopy above us, we were not standing in a clearing. Instead, we were standing on the edge of piles of dead trees. Some were knocked over and lied near jagged stumps that they had stood upon before they were violently knocked over. Some were uprooted completely, with their roots extending two or three feet upwards until drooping over. Leaves and branches scattered across the forest floor, as well as most of the trunks of the once-mighty oaks. Under the moonslight, each had an otherworldly glow to them.
"What…what happened here?" I asked.
"A dragon and those…those things," Fae said quietly. "I hope we aren't too late." She zipped through the stumps and downed logs quickly, but I made no rush to follow her, instead climbing slowly over each branch and stump, looking at the overall destruction as much as I was looking for a baby dragon.
"Armin!" I heard Fae call after a few moments. "I found it!" As she spoke, I heard another cry, a soft lowing, almost like a young calf's, accompany her. I felt a flutter in my stomach – I was about to see a living dragon. As best as I could, I rushed over to them.
Upon reaching them, I couldn't help but notice the marks on the fallen trees. Large scratch marks that seemed like they could belong to one of those horrible creatures, and scorch marks that also could have been from them. The uneasy feeling in my stomach was as much from nerves as it was excitement at the dragon, but I persevered, and soon was standing next to Fae and the baby dragon itself.
It was much smaller than I had expected; it was about the size of a medium-sized hound, like the ones that Lord Feig liked to use when hunting, but that was where any sort of comparison I could make ended. It was almost silver, its scales shimmering in the moonlight. On its head was a crown of greenish spikes that I did not doubt would only get bigger as it aged. The crown continued down its neck in a relatively straight line, with a series of small green spikes down its spine all the way to its tail, where two final spikes, bigger than most of the ones on its back, sat. I assumed that they were also green, but at present, they were covered in soot. This dragon was fighting those creatures. It had to have been. I didn't get much look at its legs, as they were hidden under leathery wings. The beast was curled up in a very defensive position, almost like a hedgehog. As I got nearer, it tightened up again in fear, but then raised its head and looked at me with curious eyes. Its eyes were emerald, the sane emerald that Utz' eyes were. In between its eyes was another spike, smaller than the rest of the green ones on its head. This one was a brilliant white and sparkled under the moonslight much brighter than any of its scales did. I could have easily mistaken it for a third eye in another circumstance.
"Uh, hi," I said awkwardly. It cooed in response and then looked back to Fae. She was standing next to it, resting her hands on its neck. Her hands were glowing blue.
"He's not injured," she said, answering the question I was about to ask. "But he's scared. I don't know if he trusts you quite yet, but—" the dragon cooed again, and then rose. On its four feet, it stood almost exactly as tall as one of Feig's hounds. It walked over to me. I gripped my sword tighter in my hand, but my arm was too heavy to move anyway. Soon it was only a couple feet from me. It rose up onto its hind legs and extended its neck and looked me dead in the eyes. I didn't look away, and even if I wanted to, I couldn't. Its eyes were changing color right in front of me – now they were a bright lavender color. After a few seconds, the dragon fell to its front paws again and finished walking toward me, touching its head softly against my hand, which I just now realized I had outstretched, palm out, in a peaceful gesture. Its head was warm and seemed to vibrate as it breathed. We stood there for a good minute, my hand underneath its chin, until Fae's words broke the silent charm.
"Well, shit, never mind. Guess he trusts you," she said. "Congrats buddy, you just became a Dragonmaster."
"I'm sorry, what?" I stammered.
"A Dragonmaster!" Fae said. "In fairy culture. Dragons can choose a person, be it human, fairy, elf, or whatever, and link their destinies together. It's very touching; mostly they just roast anyone who comes into contact with them."
"Wait," I said, pulling my hand from the dragon's head. "You're telling me this guy could have just incinerated me if he wanted to?"
"I mean, I didn't actually think he would have," she said slyly, "But it was a risk I was willing to take."
"Just when I thought I was starting to grow on you," I said, laughing despite myself.
"Hey, just because the dragon likes you doesn't mean I have to," she teased. The dragon lowed again softly and wrapped its long neck around my body. Despite its reptilian looks, it was warm to the touch, and as I ran my hand down its neck, I noticed that the scales were not hard, but instead soft, like worn leather. Slowly, as it became more comfortable with the two of us, it started walking around a bit more actively. It spread its wings wide, threw its head up to the sky and let out a bright roar of content. Its voice was smooth and sounded very young, not much unlike a small child who just learned to speak. I laughed, suddenly struck with the notion that I had to be the first human in decades to see a dragon, but my joy was quickly sapped and replaced with dread.
More screeches sounded from the edge of the opening in the woods. The dragon dropped its head low and brought its wings up in a frail defense. Fae flew straight up, hoping to not get in the way of the fight. I whipped around and grasped at my sword, praying to Vintus that it was only an echo.
It was not.
Three of the creatures lept up from all around us, and spread their bat-like wings, taking to the sky. One of them went straight for Fae, who just barely managed to swoop out of the way. She shot blue missile after blue missile, but the few that hit barely registered to the creature. The other two went directly for the dragon. I sprinted back to the dragon and lunged straight at the closest one. It saw me coming and grabbed the blade of my sword and pulled me up off the ground and sending me hurdling off to the side.
I luckily landed on my feet, and skidded across a relatively flat patch of grass, coming to a rest at the edge of a spiky stump. Before I could charge again, the second one landed on an overturned log next to the dragon and immediately changed course, heading directly toward me, claws outstretched. I dove to the ground, just missing the sharp claws, and kept running forward, where the first creature was about to swipe at the dragon's wing shield. Steam was billowing out of its claws where it grabbed my sword, and it seemed shaky on its feet, which allowed me to better it quickly. I ran my sword directly through its midsection and the creature fell in two pieces, bouncing off the wing and becoming nothing more than dust before either piece settled on the ground.
A bright flash of blue light sped past me and in the corner of my eye, I saw the airborne one dive at me. Fae had so far managed to avoid any injury, but her bum wing combined with the effort of casting her magic bolts was clearly taking effect. She shot off one last bolt, scoring a mark directly on the back of the descending creatures head, before losing altitude and tumbling to the ground below.
"Fae!" I yelled, but I couldn't save her. Her bolt managed to throw off the diving creature enough so that it landed with a great crash near the head of the dragon. I took a step toward it, hoping to take it down while it was still stunned, but another screech from behind reminded me that there was still a second pest to deal with.
I felt its claws sink into my shoulders. Thankfully, the padding of my armor caught most of it, but the claws were still long enough that they pierced my skin. I screamed and threw myself to the side, sending the creature careening into the other. I lunged again and brought my sword down as hard as I could muster. I caught the first one in the shoulder, slicing its arm clean off and rewarding me with a blast of hot steam directly into my face. It screeched in pain and kicked out, sending me through the air again, where I landed hard on my ass on the same patch of flat earth. In the shock, I had dropped my sword, and to my horror, I saw it laying between the two creatures. The one without its arm got up, stumbled a few feet toward me, and crumbled into dust and steam. Through the haze of the fight that had been kicked up, I could see that the other one had fully recovered and was standing up tall. It screeched again, the loudest that I had heard all night, and focused its horrifying eyes directly on me. I was defenseless, sitting on a tailbone that I was lucky hadn't shattered completely in my fall, and even if I could roll out of the way once, these things were too fast to let me dodge their attacks twice. The creature jumped at me, and I raised my arms in front of my face in a last, pitiful defense.
There was a sudden gust of wind, and a silver blur sped across me. The dragon! Somehow in the battle, it had moved directly behind me and lashed its tail out at the last possible second, sending the creature careening into the upturned log. There was a sickening crack, and the creature let out a final, harsh screech before its features started to melt away in death. Only instead of crumbling directly to dust, this creature's skin seemed to almost peel off, and though I expected to see muscle underneath the creature, instead I saw an extra layer of skin: human skin. As the beaklike face peeled away, I saw underneath the face of a man not much older than me, with dark brown skin, and thick black hair. He glimpsed at me, and though his eyes were still orange, their hunger and rage were replaced by despair and sorrow. I scrunched my eyes up and looked again, hoping that it was just a trick of the light, and when I opened them again, there was nothing left on the log but another pile of scorched dust.
The silence that followed the battle was louder than the battle itself. I was panting heavily, yet I could barely hear my breaths. The dragon nudged me softly with its head, and I wrapped my arm around its neck, pulling myself up. I limped a few steps and saw Fae, leaning against a stump. She was still very much alive, but her energy had been completely spent in the fray.
"Well, if this is your trap, you'll have to try much harder to kill me," I joked, leaning against the tree and rubbing my tailbone.
Fae smiled weakly. "My only goal was to make this whole thing a real pain in your ass," she said.
"Please tell me that's the last of them," I said.
"I was chased away by four. We killed four," she said.
"Sounds like we did good," I said, walking over to my sword. I picked it up and noticed that the blade was bent halfway through. "Damn," I said. "The smithy is really not going to be happy with me. This is my second sword in a week he's had to deal with. S'pose you can't fix swords like you can fix wounds, can you?"
"No," she replied. "I'm no green fairy. Are you bleeding?"
I placed my other hand on my shoulder; it was damp to the touch. "Little bit," I said. "Probably nothing serious, but if you've got any magic left in you, I wouldn't mind a patch job."
"Let's get out of here first," Fae said. "I can take you and your new friend back to Shelton Isle. Hopefully I can heal you up a bit once I regain some strength. Pick me up."
Before I even had the opportunity to, the dragon ambled over to her and rested its head next to her. She climbed onto his head and he happily walked toward the edge of the wood we came in. I followed behind, wincing.
The walk back was an easy one, and once Fae had gotten some of her strength back, she closed up my shoulder wounds with ease. I had asked her if she could fix my tailbone, but she told me not to push my luck. Fortunately, walking was easy. Sitting would be a harder one, for the time being.
The trees were still thick and mysterious, but after our encounter, they didn't seem nearly as threatening, and having a dragon at your side, even one that was just a baby, makes for a great deterrent. Any adversaries we could have faced either didn't see us or chose not to engage.
We walked in silence for a couple hours, and finally the trees began to clear. By the time we reached a paved road that led directly to Shelton Isle, the sky was gray. If my estimate was correct, we would arrive just as soon as the gates to the city opened up for the day.
Soon enough, we broke through the clearing and I could see the walls of Shelton Isle. But something was amiss. There was a small caravan of goods stalled at the front gate, and though the sun had already started to rise in the sky and the city should have been starting to buzz, it was as quiet as the opening in Dunkelwood after we killed the mysterious creatures.
I approached the caravan slowly. The dragon stayed behind me, casting a nervous glance at everything around it. Traders noticed us and gawked, and for good reason. A young man with ripped armor and a bent sword, traveling with a fairy and a dragon? We must have looked like quite the party. We wandered through the entire caravan in silence. The silence and stares quickly became too much, and my walk turned to a trot, to a run. What was going on out here?
Finally, I made it to the front of the caravan and saw the front gate proper. It was open, but instead of a lively gathering of soldiers checking items, there were large bloodstains and a couple dead bodies thrown haphazardly to the side of the entrance. One of the traders was arguing quietly with a guard, and when I recognized the guard as Captain Pike, and my heart dropped into my stomach. Pike never wandered to the outside wall, and he only left Feig's manor for grave emergencies. He looked exhausted, like he hadn't slept all night. His usually soft and majestic hair was frizzy and matted. There were dark circles underneath raw and red eyes – had he been crying? At the other end of the gate, were three guards. One was heavily injured, and I recognized him as one of the guards I saw when I left Shelton Isle. Next to him was a guard who was treating his wounds, and sitting next to both of them, handcuffed, was Behrt. He didn't see me, but he didn't seem to see anything. He just looked dead ahead, mortified, as if he had just seen a ghost. I broke from Fae and the dragon and ran to him, but I had only taken two steps when Pike noticed me.
"Look who finally decided to show up," he said wearily. "Where the hell have you been?"
"I got distracted," I said. "What happened here?"
"Kushu assassins happened here," Pike spat. "Lord Feig and Utz are dead."