I awoke to teeth chattering from the cold. Mouth dry, shivering, hollow feeling in the belly, a day of running left us starving. Everything hurt, the head hurt, my eyes hurt, the back was aching, right leg was cold and numb. [Tough Skin] and high constitution supposedly helped, but I had no prior reference to judge it properly.
We rolled up to a sitting position with a groan. Shoulders rounded, we tucked our hands into our armpits. Our wounds were far from healed, but no longer bleeding.
A stony nook against a crumbling heap of debris served as our sleeping spot. The restless sleep was filled with dreams of food and desperate pursuits. Worst camping trip ever -- the dire feeling wasn't new to me. I have survived worse and I'll survive this too.
"It's morning." Estra summoned a [Ball of Light] into utter darkness. I shielded my pained eyes from the light, as if suffering a hang over. Somehow, the lightless gloom of the night had no effect inside these ruins.
"How can you tell?" I said with a cold stiff jaw that made forming words difficult.
"Look at the mana," she said with slurred speech and equally chattering teeth.
I checked the status screen, we had 700 more mana. About eight hours of regen?
“Don’t you think you should heal these up?” I pointed at our wounds.
“Right away. And if we run into anything … we’ll just ask them to wait while I regen some mana for a Fireball? ... Are you daft?” She sniffled from the cold.
"Does your heal cure infection?" I was afraid they may have been already infected -- we didn't exactly clean them with warm water, soap and hydrogen peroxide.
She chewed her lip briefly, raised her hand and cast a single [Heal.] The cuts and wounds itched and closed up noticeably, but still remained. Our hp increased by 300 to 1285 / 2040, but it cost 300 mana to cast the spell, bringing us down to 740 / 1,810 mana.
"Happy?" She gave me a dirty look.
“What the hell is your problem?” I asked a question with many obvious answers: we were both starved, cold, tired, aching, irritated, sore and in pain. I was starting to lose it myself.
“Why? Did I hurt your feelings? You must had a tough life before all this -- as the village idiot.”
“Look. This is all new to me.”
“Well yeah, you are from another world. Right?” She nodded.
“Yes, exactly,” I said.
“You did not think it through, did you? How can you be so dumb as to sign up for this suicide mission?”
“I ... don’t under-.” I scrunched my eyebrows.
“Oh? Didn’t volunteer? They just … sprung it on you?”
“What did my brother tell you to do?”
“I don’t know your brother,” I said.
“Is that his name? That’s your brother?”
“You know you can’t go back now? We can’t approach any human cities, forts or towns. None. They’d kill us on sight. I know it’s probably too much for your little head to take in, but you’re no longer human. We're a monster, a two-headed ogre.”
She sighed, cursing eloquently under her breath.
"Are you done? Feel better now?"
"No." She pursed her lips, scowling at me.
I sighed. "Let's go, we need to find something to eat."
The light illuminated a dust filled corridor with a ceiling that had collapsed into a heap of debris, completely blocking off the way. Standing on weak legs, we wobbled from dizziness. We trudged back out of the dead end, heading in an uncertain direction. The sole ball of light trailed close behind us, illuminating the way ahead without night blinding us.
The smoothly polished floors glinted shiny black underneath the thick layer of dust and were slippery enough that you could skate on. We carefully stepped barefoot around scattered gravel, that was as painful as a random Lego block. I grabbed a fist-sized rock off the ground.
"That will help." She rolled her eyes.
"It's better than nothing."
We walked around for an hour, finding nothing but endless labyrinthine corridors, empty chambers, intersections and caved-in dead ends.
Most certainly lost, we took a turn and entered a spacious dark cavern. The air was sharply different. In stark contrast, it changed from cold and damp to warm and pleasant, like standing next to a roaring fireplace.
An impenetrable darkness blocked out the light to the furthest recesses of the cavern despite our [Darksight]. A deep grumbling sound emanated from the depth of darkness and sent shivers down our back. We weren't alone - we turned to leave, but the passage was no longer there. Instead, a wall blocked our way back. Without escape, the only way was forward. Forward into darkness and fear.
She sent the [Ball of light] floating forward. It vanished. She sent another to no avail. I considered telling Estra to shoot a [Fireball] but was too afraid of what it might reveal, of what it might anger. Her expression mirrored mine, and then it got worse. Like a budding vine, a feeling of anxiety sprouted in my mind and slowly enveloped my being. It slowly grew and coalesced into fear, then terror, tightening and strangling every rational thought until only panic remained.
Helpless. Eyes wide, heart pounding, knees shaking, I felt nauseated with imminent sense of doom. We were going to die -- it could not be more certain. Our back pressed up against the cold stone wall, a warm trickle snaked down our thighs. Estra emptied out our mutual stomach. I would have screamed if I wasn’t petrified.
Two giant furnaces of fire broke through the veil of darkness, followed by a monstrous head of a dragon with fiery eyes.
I did the only thing I could: I threw the rock. It glanced off the side of the dragon's face, then rolled clattering down the lair.
I heard a laugh, and like a switch the terror vanished. The laugh continued, grew boisterous.
"Oh, that's brave," a man's voice said.
The dragon's head slumped to the ground and closed its eyes. The darkness dissipated, revealing the rest of the red dragon's body, the size of a semi-truck. Even while resting, it emanated an ominous aura. Near the dragon, a neat pile of bones lay stacked against the wall.
A middle-aged man rummaged through the pockets of his overcoat. He found a pair of spectacles and put them on, adjusting them on his small button nose. I wiped cold sweat off my forehead, and tried to regulate our breathing.
“Howdy," he said with a wave. "Sorry about the rude reception, I forgot to turn that off.” He chuckled and walked up closer, noticed the contents on the floor, winced and then backed up two steps.
“Ooof, this is uhh … not the best of introductions.” He scratched his temple. “I am-” He adjusted his white cowboy hat with a blue feather. “Arthur. I’m Arthur,” he hooked a thumb under his thick belt holding up a pair of blue jeans. A six-pointed star embellished the bronze belt buckle. He leaned forward, squinted and waited for a reply.
“Kevin.” I said breathlessly, coughed and repeated myself. We stared at each other for a long moment. Estra wiped a streak of puke from her chin.
“What a delight. What a combination. Am I dreaming? An Earther, and … didn’t we-”
“Estra,” she said hastily.
“Indeed, a pleasure. Fascinating.” He looked around the cave as if for the first time, removed his spectacles and cleaned them on a corner of his untucked white formal shirt.
Our heart slowed and I could breathe again. Nonetheless, I was quite apprehensive of the lizard monstrosity mere twenty meters away.
“Is that really Arthur?” Estra pointed at the dragon with a shaky hand.
“The one and only.” Arthur said proudly with a smile. “Yes. I mean no. I’m Arthur.” He hooked a thumb to himself. “And that there-" He walked over and leaned on the snout of the dragon with his elbow. “Is my ride. What do you think? Ain’t she a beaut?”
“Arthur the Terror?” Estra was wide eyed.
“Same one.” He beamed with pride.
"Where have ... You were here the entire time?"
“Just taking a nap.” Arthur waved a hand dismissively.
“A nap?” Estra asked.
“It wasn’t really a ‘nap.'" He gestures the quotes with his fingers. “It was, uhh, I was out on adventure. I was traveling. Just think of my dragon body as a fighter plane, alright? You can’t just fly it to the tavern and tie it to the hitching rail it, you know? People would panic.” He laughed. “There was one time-”
“Fighter planes?” I asked. “You're from Earth too?”
He nodded. "Sure, but it’s been a while. How are things back home? Don’t answer, I don’t really care.” He chuckled.
“You're both named Arthur?” I asked.
“Again, much like a fighter plane and a pilot. I’m the pilot, and that’s the plane.” He pointed at the dragon, and then back at himself. “And this human shell is a more ... discrete form of transportation.”
“You can jump between bodies?” I gestured between him and the dragon.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty slick, you just use the mana p-” He stopped abruptly. “Yeah ...” He nodded, scrunching his lips as if to stop himself from talking.
Being stuck with her hasn't been pleasant so far. But if he knows how to jump between bodies, we could use that to jump from our two-headed lump and find some separate human bodies. A problem for future Kevin.
“You were traveling?” Estra asked.
“Yeah, I was. You know … getting to know the locals.” He winked at me with a devious grin.
An awkward silence followed.
"I been getting by with the ... help of these kobolds nearby." He continued. "They'd occasionally leave some food out for me. But lately their food supplies have been growing rather sparse. Nothing but damned mushrooms."
"Mushrooms? What's wrong with mushrooms?" I asked. I rather liked mushrooms
"Everything!" he shouted, eyes bulging. Another awkward pause ensued while he coughed to clear his throat. "I'd kill for a proper steak, a beer and a bit of cheese." He intoned pleasantly, smacking his lips.
"Maybe fly out with the dragon? Or sell some of that?" I pointed at an array of equipment, meticulously sorted by type, laid out perfectly on the ground, next to neatly stacked piles of white bone and skulls.
"One shouldn't use a sledgehammer to kill a fly." He smiled.
“Do you need all that equipment?”
“Oh, help yourself.” He smiled and gestured at piles of loot.
“Really? That's mighty-”
“No, don’t even think about it.” He said sharply. "Touch it and you die."
I sighed. I knew his sort, I met his kind: a suave talker with a hint of crazy. An opportunistic leech, yet extremely dangerous. I assumed he got caught -- this must be his prison cell.
"Just point us in the direction of the kobolds." Estra cut in. "We'll have them leave a proper tribute worthy of a dragon." She put on a pleasant demeanor. Was she hitting on him?
"Wonderful." He beamed. "Here's an old map you could use." He pulled out a rolled up parchment and handed it to us. "Some bread would be welcome too. Oh, and wine if you could."
"Of course." Estra said, smiling.
"It was a pleasure meeting you." He waved his hand and a wall of stone formed right in front of us blocking off the rest of the cavern. Behind us, the passage opened up. We stood there for a long moment staring at the solid wall. Estra had a bewildered look on her face. She let out a long held breath.
“Well, that was interesting. What do you know about him?” I said. She shook her head and motioned to leave.
The map was crudely drawn, yet to the point. It showed a number of notable locations: a stream, a Slime dungeon entrance, Blood spider nests and a kobold settlement. The layout was less of a labyrinth than it seemed, partly because the original layout was now criss-crossed by a multitude of caved-in sections.
We walked a good distance before she spoke in a hushed voice, "We're lucky to be alive. He was ready to kill us."
"He was definitely odd." Bob would say this fella was half a bubble shy off plumb.
“You have to tell me more about Earth, and that fighter plane he mentioned,” Estra said.
"Maybe. But you haven't been all that forthcoming with information yourself. Did he recognize you? I'm pretty sure he did."
She shook her head. "He's a terrible liar and is hiding from someone. Nobody would just sit under the mountain like that."
"What's more powerful than a dragon?"
"Many things. The Eight Gods for starters. A number of Titans." She paused. "It's a good thing you were from the same world as him."
"So now you believe me?" I was sure he didn't care that I was from Earth, but instead was merely eager to use us. I'll make him part with some of his treasure later.
She nodded. "I'm sorry for calling you daft."
"No worries, I had been called worse." I waved my hand dismissively. "He's stealing food from the kobolds."
"Are we going to help them so he could steal easier?"
"I'm afraid so, or would you prefer to starve?"
"No, no, I do like food."