"Stay safe milady", a baritone voice called out to me from across the high foothills. With a phony smile, I waved over to the devil incarnate that was Viscount von Grauestor…a pity that in my prior life I had been too imbecilic to have ascertained the obvious. His ever capable servants Odella and Viktor were riding by his side. After three hours of hunting in the mountains, the bloodthirsty noble had already shot an impressive ten-point hart. Of course the arrogant noble had left it to his footbound retainers to butcher it for venison steaks, as well as to lop off its antlered head to add to his morbid trophy collection. Seeing the bloody carcass and entrails strewn across the rocky ground had left me nauseous, and prompted me to excuse myself and ride back down the trail steeply descending back down the hill back to the ominous Castle Grauestor obscured by the late morning fog. I had sent Gisela on ahead to brew a cup of ginger tea to soothe my ailing stomach, so I cautiously guided my roan red mare down the hazardous switchback paths.
I was alone. At least I thought I was alone.
My la-lady. This worthless wretch would humbly a-ask for a moment of your time.
Abruptly my aching insides were replaced with an artic chill as I realized that I had no idea who was telepathically linked to my mind; solely that it was of the draconian race. With a hammering heart, I drew out by pathetically diminutive dagger and turned my mount to face the looming shadow hidden by the luminescent white mist all around me. "Face me, dragon," I spat out in a panic-stricken voice. Unlike my bloodthirsty host, I had no aptitude for the martial arts if I ever ran into a feral draco.
Milady, please! I a-am not going to hurt you.
Despite my terror, I realized the high pitched voice that echoed in my mind was apparently as scared of me as I was of it. I pointed my badly shaking blade at the beast that stood at least a dozen feet tall. "I-Identify yourself."
The creature hesitated for an agonizing long pause, and then it tentatively took a step forward; enough of the veil-like mist evaporated for me to see a deeply troubling visage. I once again beheld the face of a draco that had been nailed up of a wall where it continoually stared at me with accusatory amber eyes every time I dined with the Viscount. A misshapen, square reptilian face accented with violet and sickly green scales gazed at me with a single mournful slitted yellow orb; a gaping, dark, empty eyesocket marred the left side of his face.
My mouth hung open limply in absolute shock. After teetering in my now slack grip, my pathetic dagger wobbled and then fell free out of my meaty palm. I exhaled in numb disbelief, "Mallow…fern." I steeled myself and inquired with a squeak in my already grating voice, "Are you here for vengeance?"
The juvenile swamp dragon looked aghast at the very suggestion. What? Why would I wish ha-harm on you? He lowered his head in abasement and flashed a haunted, toothy smile. Mallowfern was indeed my name once. I would have forgotten my heart-name if not for your indulgence. I saw a vision of voluptuous angel shedding a tear over my stuffed corpse, a-and I wanted to convey my pathetic gratitude you your ki-kindly act for one so low…lowly as myself.
I covered my mouth in shock as tears stung my eyes unbidden. I reached out to pet his snout but my fingertips passed through empty space. I shook my head in anguish, "It's my fault. I wish I could have saved you, Mallowfern. If only I had been there on the day the Viscount hunted you down like a bloodied fox…I could have stopped him."
I saw droplets dripped from Mallow's singular eye as he sighed and shook his phantasmal head with a shaky smile. Soon enough, his form dissipated as the fog was burned away.
I was alone. After retrieving my blade, I gazed at the breathtaking vistas of the alpine scenery and cried in a pitiable wail as I urged my horse back to the castle. I knew my feelings of wrenching despair over sins committed by another were pure lunacy, yet I still somehow knew that I still had his blood on my hands.
In a different time and place I was in a terrible rush. The Mage coalition threatening my people of Espero would not get away with their brazen assault on my still newly birthed territory. After I ordered my people to hunker down in their homes and commanded my soldiers to post guard duty on all the major entrances into the town, I gritted my teeth in fury as I entered the wooden keep tower. I flipped open the wooden hatch, eschewed the ladder and instead glided gracefully down into the basement cavern where I had freed my first subjects. I would be damned by the gods if I would let any of them come to harm. I had only just reunited with my beloved Gisele and Rosa in reanimated bodies. Skyblade, Skalagrun, and even the eternally surly Wilhelm Grot were dear to me and I would protect them at any cost.
My reptilian retainer caught up to me as I ascended the long tunneled-out ramp that led to the sundered Dambalia throne room. He panted in his reedy voice, "Milady, please don't act in haste! These mages are terrifyingly powerful if they could subjugate four dracos as easily as child would step on ants. If we blindly attack-"
"I know, Skalagrun," I spat out angrily. I saw his orange eyes flare in fear that he had offended me, I presumed. I let out a deep sigh and reached out to squeeze his shoulder as I sign that I wasn't cross with him.
He saw my conflicted expression and bowed humbly. He spoke in a revered whisper, "Apologies, Lady Adette. I knavishly forgot my place."
I was impressed that he used my former life's name in a bid to still my turbulent panic. Truth be told, my ire was primarily directed at myself. I had simple fixated on my people's needs for the past few monatoj without regard for how powerful miscreants in the wider realm of the Dämonenlands would regard the upstart sorcerer whelp. I looked up at the now excavated crystal clear dodecahedral core crystal mounted on a tall pedestal that had been dug out by the mole demis over the past few wochen. Unfortunately for the entire town of Espero, there was an ugly fracture traversing its entire diameter. I muttered as my hand tightly clutched my casting stave, "How do we fix the palace shield generator?"
My Steward gently brushed his scaled hand through his black crest and mused unhappily, "There is only one way, my lady. You must make a blood pact with it; as King Dambalia did before many jaroj afore the cataclysm."
I met his uneasy gaze as I stated more than inquired, "There is a price to pay, yes?" I knew from my studies of Demonic magic that a sacrifice was always required.
"It's power draws off of your life force. Your life span will be proportionally shortened, in direct relationship to how often you use the barrier." He was visibly shaking at the prospect of his liege deliberately sacrificing so much of herself to benefit others.
To his amazement I murmured fatalistically, "Fair enough." As a powerful Kuraĝa warrior, I knew that my powers would be necessary to save my new hometown of Espero. I conjured up my control screen and summoned the statistics on the mammoth crystal.
Name: Titana dekduedra kristalo baro
Age: 1072 jaroj
Appearance: White mounted pedestal, clear dodecahedral crystal (when inert). Color converts to crimson when linked to a blood oath of a Dambalia demon clansman.
Abilities: Projectile barrier [Tier 99], Lifeform barrier [Tier 97], Energy barrier [Tier 90]. Manufactures the emergency shield for the Ruga Infera Palace. Effects will persist as long as blood pact donor survives.
The reticulated golden lines appeared in front of me as if it was painted on an invisible pane of glass, and my resolved wavered momentarily as I saw the stark message: Dambalia blood detected. Initiate blood pact?
Skalagrum picked up on my terror of tossing potentially years of my life to save my people. He tried to sound confident as he asserted, "My lady, I'm sure we can find another way."
I grimaced as sweat dripped off my pale brow. Would I really able to live with the choice by seeing who knows how much of my life force vanish as vapor? I steeled my nerve, exhaled sharply and selected the option to seal the blood oath. I figured that I if I didn't do this now than a shortened lifespan was pointless to fret about if I was killed anyway. I winced as felt a pinprick on my fingertip and a single droplet of blood gently wafted through the air and gently impacted on dead center on one of the two cubit tall facets. The red tint burrowed into the depth of the translucent crystal and presently the entire gemstone was bathing the chamber in an ominous crimson light. The horrifying crack sealed up and the text on my control screen switched from golden to blue. It specified, Blood pact complete…orders?
I willed the choice, Raise all shields. The crystal hummed as it brightly flared in brilliance as my screen displayed an expanding set of spherical barriers that soon engulfed the entirety of the palace ruins as well as the town. As soon as I had done so, the entire area was rocked by the thudding impacts of explosions. So those bastard mages had wasted no time in punishing us for my audacity. After my dizzy spell passed, I gently took Skalagrun's outstretched arm for support as I murmured softly, "Let's go topside, my friend."
He broke into a toothy smile and seemed faintly embarrassed as he aided our ascent back into the less than imposing wooden fortress.
Powerful blasts rocked the faintly luminescent hemisphere far overhead as the spheres of fire magic arced in from the Reĝo forests and bombarded the town shield. I was grateful that the three concentric shields that had only been felled by a shooting star impact held up flawlessly. Buoyed by gentle Printempo breezes, I easily glided over to the Eastern gate with a determined scowl on my face. I alit on one of the watch towers abutting the Eastern entrance to the town and admired the potent pyrotechnics bursting against the powerful Ruga Infera palace barriers. As suddenly as they had commenced, the barrage abruptly ceased. I took a few deep breaths as I looked over to Skyblade and Seadawn watched over the primeval forests from whence the orbs of flame had originated.
The handsome silverscale draco huffed in annoyance, Those bastards are probing our defenses. Surely they will try other nefarious tactics to break our resolve.
"Agreed, Your Highness. We must not yield. Kindly keep a watch on our adversaries."
Seadawn gave a cocky grin in my direction as the draco prince rumbled in an appreciative chuckle.
I turned to face the address the next pressing issue; she was in the cringing form of a brown and cream-hued dragon staring over the house ridgeline with a look of petrified terror apparent in her all-too familiar yellow-orange eyes. Those were the same eyes that plagued my nightmares. After standing next to her in an awkward silence for over a minute, I realized that she too busy fixating on the enemy to even take note of me. I frowned and gently poked her trembling flank with the haft of my casting stave, and inquired, "Siltrill?"
Eeep! She seemed to jump impressively high before nimbly touching down on the muddy earth again. She whirled around as relief washed over her face, Lady Stihila! Th-thank Ebony Eclipse that it's only you.
I waved her into an unassuming little square for a private chat. As soon as we alone I dropped my haughty façade as well as my stave and threw my arms around her delicate snout in an emotional embrace. I tried in vain to stop stray tears from building in my eyes as I insisted, I apologize, Miss Siltrill. I'm sorry that I failed you the last time.
Eeh? Wh-what could ever have to apologize to the likes of a lowly wyrm like myself? She could easily break free of my grasp, yet she remained frozen in place with a look of disbelief scribed over her features. Out of sheer nervousness she presently broke into an adorable motermouthed rant, Lady Stihila…yo-you saved my treasured siblings and I when you have every reason to sl-slay us all without quarter. You had Miss Cielo restore my damaged wings. You gave us all a he-hearth and home. How could I ever hold any sin against you or any of yo-your retainers and followers?
I sadly counted, Because I let you die before, Mallowfern.
Ah, Lady Graueschweine, it could never be your fault that I was slain. How could you help th- Realization struck her like a flash of a lightning strike as her facial scales turned notably paler. She finally yanked free of my embrace and gaped at me with a disbelieving stare. But…I thought it was just a dream. I remembered my life…my past life where I was abandoned as a whelp for being the runt of the clutch. I lost an eye to an overzealous herder guiding his flocks of fluffy sheep. Not long after a callous nobleman hunted me down for sport and his maidservant pie-pierced my breast with a curvy dagger.
I cursed the gods for having ever consenting to associate with Viscount Roterwald von Grauestor. He had lied through his teeth about his 'heroic' battle against a terrified, cornered and wounded prey. That arsehole didn't even slay Mallow himself. He had his young retainer wielding the Dambalia dagger do his dirty work for him!
Siltrill's gaze was still directed at me but her mind was clearly a world away. She spoke in my mind in almost a trance-like tone. After jaroj of being tormented by these nightmares, last night I dreamed of a ki-kind lady on horseback with sorrowful hazel eyes and lustrous chestnut brown hair who took the blame for my killing. I felt such a wonderful sense of relief. That was…you, Lady Stihila?
I wiped at my red eyes with my grey sleeve as I nodded once wordlessly. I now realized that Siltrill must have unintentionally linked her mind to the past through Renna. That would explain how she knew about my moping over Mallowfern's face as well as the intangible projected conversation with my chubby past self.
She extended her forelimb and hugged me gently into her warm chest. She sobbed, I-I can never repay my debt to you, my lady. I can't… The dam ruptured as I heard her hitching, piteous voice as she drenched me with her warm, saline tears. I beamed in response as I felt redeemed by the undeserved forgiveness of this pure-hearted sweet roll of a draco.
Mercifully, no further attacks occurred that day. I sighed as my guards and retainers rotated their watches as I fretted over my adversary's next move. I just knew that they would switch tacks and try to chisel away at a different weakness. Escorting Skyblade, Siltrill, Skalagrun, Cielo, and Renna underground was one of my harpy underlings, carrying her softly snoring toddler in one arm. As we ascended to the cistern chamber I noted Ploniosta's worried gaze. I smirked confidently back at her and asserted, "Guardswoman, you have leave to speak your mind."
"Ah! Yes, milady. My apologies. I…have to apologize for my earlier craven act. I have no excuse for my cowardice."
I gently reached over and caressed her daughter's crimson locks. "You jest. You fearlessly put your life on the line for your sweet little Purpura. You were ready to take on a draco to save your child." I smiled with my prominent canines on display.
Siltrill silently eyed the innocent babe that had been the first non-draco that had given her unconditional affection, and the brown-scaled dragon shyly broke into a sloppy smile.
The harpy guard brushed back her dark locks with her feathery arm and failed to produce a convincing smile. "No. I don't mean about this morning, milady. I meant several montoj ago, in the depths of the icy vintro season." She averted her gaze for several moments before guiltily confessing, "I was one of the slaves you freed with the help of our town head Kastanbruna, the wolfkin. I chose to flee back to my village instead of joining your cause."
My smile never wavered as I noted, "Purpura needed her mother more than I needed a foot soldier. I'd have made the same choice were I in your shoes."
Her yellow eyes looked agog as she held the door to the cistern open for us. "Your maleficence, why would you treat me so kindly? I don't deserve it."
"You serve my cause now. That is all I require of you other than staying alive to care for your daughter. Good night." I gave her an impish smirk as I gently closed the heavy oaken door, leaving her outside. I leaned against the wood and stared up at the painted stars on the ceiling as I dropped my imperious façade.
Skyblade sat down and noted wryly, I sincerely hope this conversation will be pleasanter than the one we shared when we first met, Lady Adette?
I bitterly chuckled as he had awoken from his long slumber only to be confronted by a human wearing the face of his vile royal tormentor. "I should hope so. You do not plan on killing me this time, I trust?"
The white-scaled prince stuck out his pink tongue at me teasingly.
Siltrill quietly sat by my side and reflexively wrapped her sienna-hued tail decorated with delicate black frills around my seated form. I was honestly shocked out how attached the fledgling had grown to me practically out of nowhere.
Cielo muttered in clear annoyance, "Honestly…" Wearing nearly identical expressions of huffy pouting, both Cielo and Renna walked to sit on my other side. The petite elf mage Renna gently dislodged the earth dragon's tailtip, so she could rest her head in my lap. At the same time, my albino centaur maid noiselessly poured out a teacup for me.
Skalagrun hid his chuckles behind his scaled hand.
Skyblade relaxed and sprawled out. Ah, you have an embarrassment of riches with the affections of the fair maidens, Lady Adette.
"Shut up," I snared back. Inwardly, I chafed at his remark as I gently stroked Renna's lustrous silvered locks. Of course both of my former maids only saw me as a surrogate older sister. Surely Siltrill saw me as a trusted ally bonded by a shared painful history and a resolute desire to overcome our tragic past lives. I glanced up at the brown draco who had miraculously stopped jumping at every shadow ever since our tearful reunion. I brightly tried to reassure her, You may call me Adette in private, Sil.
Ye-yes, I would be honored, Lady Adette.
I couldn't help but foolishly assert as I took a sip of floral tea, Just to be clear, Mallowfern didn't have any feelings towards Adette other than that of comradeship, yes?
Abruptly Siltrill's expression changed to that of total mortification. She couldn't meet my gaze as the seconds unbearably ticked on. Her tail swished back in forth as I saw her start to shiver again.
The pressure proved too much for me as I snagged her tail firmly and snapped, Sil!
Ah, yes, milady? Wh-what were we talking about?
What was wrong with this hopeless knucklehead? I firmly inquired, Mallowfern and Adette were just good friends, correct?
Skyblade broke from muffled chuckles into full bellied laugher at our unintended comedy skit.
Siltrill hung her head and looked ready to curl up in a ball. She finally met my gaze and tentatively spoke, He…he fe-fell in love with Lady Adette at first sight.
No way, I spat out in a near panic as my heart galloped out of control. You can't possibly li-like me in that way. Please prove my hunch wrong, I prayed.
Sil let her newly mended wings droop. My apologies. My heart be-beats as Mallowfern's, just as yours pulses in harmony with Lady Adette's. I am so so-sorry that my body is neither a boy, nor human. Then I wouldn't be a bu-burden to you with these unhealthy feelings.
Had this unassuming draco just made a maiden's confession to me? My mind ground to a halt.
Skyblade cleared his throat. Since we are all assembled, shall we begin?
Skalagrun stood up and smiled in my direction. He spoke in a soothing voice, "Our fair leader, Lady Stihila, possesses the soul of Lady Adette Ursula Graueschweine, a human noble from the other side of the gate. Both Cielo Blanka and Renna Aezorwyn were human retainers to Lady Adette with the names of Gisela Wißerritter and Rosa Shattenstein, respectively. Apparently our draconian friend Siltrill was a fen draco by the name of Mallowfern in this other realm." He displayed a dramatic arm sweep. "This means that there are four reborn souls from the human realm that converged on this location. It cannot be a coincidence."
I finished my beverage and rose to face my loyal retainers. "It is not, Skalagrun. Even though Siltrill died years before the three of us perished, we were all linked by having our lives cut short by the Dambalia dagger. This blade cursed us to be commandeer the corpses of deceased wretches and wear their faces without any of their memories." I turned to Siltrill and I touched her flank to indicate that I did not begrudge her one-sided affection for Adette…or Stihila. "You took over a dead body too, did you not?"
She nodded with a look of shock on her face. She noted mournfully, I did, to my eternal re-regret. On-onyx said that he despaired to find after he cracked opened my eggshell, that my body was cold and lifeless. Hours later, I miraculously revived with Mallow's memories, much to the astonishment and delight of my siblings. I gu-guess the real Siltrill was doomed from the start.
Skyblade asserted with confident violet eyes sparkling, You are wrong. You are Siltrill, the sweetest draco in the Dämonenlands.
"You really are," I added with a slight chuckle. I was still really at a loss of how to deal with his…her infatuation regarding my prior body. We were the wrong sex and species, after all. Still, I would be a dependable ally to the kind-hearted draco. "A human retainer and assassin named Odella wielded this blade to slaughter the four of us."
Skalagrun's expression shifted to that of queasy unease. "That cannot be. The Eterna Nocturne was bound to the wielder's soul. It was distinctly different from your Light staff and the Ruga palace crystal, as those link to your blood instead.
My blood. I stared at my fingertip where the crystal had extracted its price, and then I was hammered with a sickening realization. I whispered, "No. It can't be her. Odella is Queen Dambalia reborn?"
My steward nodded grimly. "It is the only explanation that makes sense. In a sense you two switched realms, places and lives. After the palace fell she must have stabbed her own body with it to be reborn to restart a new ascent to power."
I glanced around fearfully at my loyal comrades and a further realization sunk in. "She was not of sound mind. She will surely want to force the Conduit open, won't she? To extract revenge on both the humans and the demis that 'failed' her cause?"
Skyblade looked rattled as well as his elegant wings gently unfolded and refolded. Oh shite! That's what our mage adversaries want to accomplish. If they can't take Espero, then they will shift their focus to the Conduit instead. To rejoin their brethren and doom this realm afore it rebuilt.
I coldly commanded my forces, "Apologies for dividing your loyalties, Steward Skalagrun, but we are obligated to stop an insane demon queen on the far side of the portal, and insane magicians on the near side. We must keep the Conduit closed at all costs!"
Everyone seemed to be in agreement as the only alternative was the annihilation of everything that we had been working so hard to reconstruct. If I had to shed blood for the cause, than so be it!