The more he thought of Furibon, the more it vexed Vainqueur.
The dragon knew, deep within his bones, that the lich was the secret mastermind behind everything wrong in his life. The planet Moon could never have turned to lead on its own, and Wotan would not have assaulted V&V, had Vainqueur remained safe at home instead of chasing the lich. Ergo, all the lich's protestations of innocence didn’t add up.
This was just a trick! Yes, a trick to avoid his just punishment!
But then… why did he accept Vainqueur’s challenge, to settle their war once and for all? Why did adventurers come to defend him out of his own free will? Why did they call him their teammate, with the same care Manling Victor showed to his master?
Could he… could he have friends?
Of course not! Furibon couldn’t have friends, or else he wouldn’t be Furibon!
“A class system you say?” Grandrake frowned at Jolie. “Is it anything like that cultivation Jade keeps prattling on about?”
“The System is no scam!” Jolie defended her livelihood. “It grants power over life and death, gold and lead! Even wizardry!”
Grandrake tried to access the System, blinking repeatedly. “[Princess Hunter]?” he said, having tapped into the ancient power of dragonkind. “What a strange device... this must certainly be ancient dragon magic, but I never heard of anything like this before. Odd, very odd.”
“Dragons can do magic on their own?” Jolie asked, her eyes glittering with curiosity.
“Jolie, who else but dragons could invent something so advanced?” Vainqueur replied, before making a joke. “Manlings?”
Grandrake exploded into laughter, before answering Jolie’s question. “Our Elder Wyrm progenitor and the first generations of dragons used magic to grant souls to the first minions, or so the tales said. But since they were already perfect and invincible without it, our ancestors never bothered to train new generations in sorcery. Instead, we focused on what truly mattered: getting richer!”
“This only confirms what I always thought,” Vainqueur replied proudly. “That this ancient System was created by dragons, for dragons.”
“Indeed, although it is vexing that minions rediscovered it first,” Grandrake replied. “Maybe I will study it in-depth after I have my soon-to-be minion Furibon lift my curse of forgetfulness.”
“You do not need the lich for that!” Vainqueur protested. “I can lift it myself!”
“You can?” Grandrake asked.
Of course Vainqueur could! He hesitated to test his [Malleus Maleficarum], for that would hurt the older dragon. Better to try the simpler option. “[Spell Purge]!” Vainqueur’s magnificent power washed over Grandrake, lifting negative effects from the older dragon.
Or so he thought.
You could not lift Grandrake’s [Grand Hex of the Forgetful Otaku].
Once applied, curses of the [Grand Hex] series can only be lifted through the exit clause detailed in their original wording.
“Oh, a new message,” Grandrake said, receiving the same information as Vainqueur himself. “The original wording? Damnation, I did not pay attention at the time.”
“A wizard minion can certainly find back the original wording and the weakness in it,” Vainqueur suggested. “I will have my Vizier call his lawyers.”
“Lawyers? Are they a kind of wizards?” At Vainqueur’s confirmation, Grandrake thanked the younger dragon with a nod. “I am grateful.”
“Thank nothing of it,” the emperor replied. “I would never have become such a skilled princess hunter without your stories and example.”
“Ah, seeing young lads like you and your niece invigorates me,” Grandrake raised his head proudly. “I feel the urge to hunt in my very bones.”
“Oh, can you teach me?” Jolie begged the older dragon. “Prettyplease!”
“You wish to learn the ways of the true princess hunter, young Jolie?” Grandrake observed Vainqueur’s niece with a fresh gaze. “Do you have what it takes? The path of the princess hunter is long and arduous. One must be patient, curious, refined!”
Jolie nodded harder than ever, in awe of the ancient wyrm’s wisdom. “I want to be the greatest princess defender there ever was! I will protect them from orcs and any villain who seeks to harm them!”
“My Jolie is environmentally conscious,” Vainqueur defended his niece with great pride. “She is mindful of the wildlife.”
The young dragon’s eagerness to learn pleased Grandrake’s vanity. “If you wish to discover new species of princesses and protect them like a true Connoisseur, then I will gladly teach you the ropes.”
The niece immediately let out a squeal of happiness.
Vainqueur let his niece and Grandrake exchange on how to protect princesses from poachers, before noticing his chief of staff and Knight Kia approaching him. “Your Majesty, we need to discuss a very important matter,” Friend Victor said.
“No time to waste on words, my manling,” Vainqueur replied firmly. “We must go.”
“Train!” Vainqueur said, glaring at the lich discussing something with his 'teammates.' “Furibon and I will soon settle our grudge once and for all, and we must prepare accordingly.”
“You’re going to battle?” Kia asked, eager for bloodshed.
“Yes.” Vainqueur glanced down dramatically at his chief of staff, to better impress on him the gravity of the situation. “With cards.”
His manling remained silent for a moment, before exchanging a glance with Knight Kia, who shrugged her shoulders. “You are going to settle your entire rivalry with an ancient lich sorcerer over a card game?”
“Not any card game,” Vainqueur corrected his minion. “The only civilized card game worth gambling the future over! Monster Poker!”
His manling put a hand on his face, worried for his master, while Knight Kia blinked repeatedly.
“I too was skeptical, when the orcs introduced me to this game,” Vainqueur declared, remembering his battles fondly. “But then, as I kept winning, it began to fascinate me. Instant winning hands, deck out, destruction of the enemy… so many ways to crush those who defy me! I never experienced a game like that, where I simply gain money with no cost, nor any risk of defeat! It is a self-perpetuating loop, minion! I win, I raise, I win more, I raise more!”
“But…” Manling Victor choked. “Furibon accepted?”
“Yes, because Monster Poker is a card game, with a heart,” the dragon said with wisdom. “Even the lich cannot resist its lure. You would understand if you were a true duelist.”
“Since my fingers are too big to wield cards, I will need your power, minion,” Vainqueur explained. “For Furibon is no easy prey. We will go west, to uncharted seas, so that we may gather the strongest rare cards, build the most powerful deck in the world, and perfect the art of the winning draw. Once I have defeated the lich, he will atone for his crimes by following the path of minionship.”
“If you win, wyvern.”
The trio turned to Furibon, whose voice resonated with evil bitterness.
“For if I win, not only will you leave me alone at long last,” the lich said, his teeth morphing somehow into a sickening grin. “But I will take a heavy tribute in retribution.”
“Can’t you simply talk it out and become friends?” Manling Victor offered, too idealistic.
“Never!” Both the dragon and lich snarled at the same time, the manling sighing.
“I cannot let him get away with his crimes!” Vainqueur insisted, glaring at his forsworn enemy.
“What crimes?” The lich protested. “Have I not done enough good?”
“I am the first to say one alliance doesn’t wash away a lifetime of service to Brandon Maure’s regime,” Knight Kia spoke up. “But everyone deserves a second chance if they’re willing to take it. I can always execute him when he screws up.”
“My victory will prove your culpability,” Vainqueur said. “Name the battleground, and I will meet you there.”
“A new landmass appeared in the western sea, surrounded by strange waters,” Furibon declared, pointing a bony finger at Vainqueur. “A suitable stage for our final battle.”
“Here or in the very heavens, you shall never succeed!” Vainqueur roared. “Three days, Furibon! We shall duel in three days at noon! Show up, or suffer my wrath!”
“I cannot wait to get rid of you forever, wyrm!” Furibon said, before teleporting out with his team. “Three days!”
Vainqueur turned to Manling Victor. “See?”
“Is this truly a priority, Your Majesty?” His chief of staff spoke nonsense. “I have information that the fomors are up to no good in the west.”
“The fairies will be dealt with in time, but Furibon remains the greatest threat, and I shall not rest until he is finally defeated,” Vainqueur replied.
“Vic, since we are moving west in any case, we can deal with it on the way to the Serica continent,” Knight Kia said.
“We?” Vainqueur repeated, glaring at that uninvited guest.
“I would like to join your party if that’s okay with Your Majesty,” the knight said. “Jolie has grown to level 30, and the Kobold Rangers have broken past it. They have become very strong, but not enough to confront the fomors.”
Vainqueur almost told that unworthy excuse of a minion off, before realizing that he could separate her from Jolie for a long period of time. Without that Paladin’s nefarious influence, Grandrake could certainly bring his niece back onto the proper dragon path; and the older wyrm would defend her better than this wicked [Paladin].
“I shall allow you to serve me in the fights to come, manling,” the dragon declared with false magnanimity. “Should my niece allow it.”
“Great!” Knight Kia smiled. “I will talk it out with Jolie and be right back.”
“Yes, yes,” Vainqueur dismissed her, before turning to his chief of staff. “Now, my Vizier, I need you to check the value of my new treasures. Especially what I can wear.”
His minion looked into the pile of items, immediately identifying the dragon-sized ring among them; a beautiful golden circle of interwoven worms and dragons eating their own tails.
“Wow, that’s… that’s a powerful [Ring of the Dragon Ur-Pharaoh]!” Manling Victor marveled at the item's shininess. “I’ve never seen something so overpowered. +10 to Luck, immunity to hostile [Earth] effects, and it can reflexively cast [Hasten], [Protection from Elements], [Greater Dispel Magic], or [Cure Any Ailment] on the wearer once per day, depending on the situation. Cannot be worn by non-[Dragon] types though.”
“As it should.” Vainqueur put it around his finger, fitting it perfectly, “I still want my blinkblink ring back. You will ask Troll Barnabas to fashion me one.”
“Let’s see… no armor for me… ah!” Manling Victor raised a shining, rainbowlike jewel from the pile. “Here is something for Your Majesty as well. A [Psi-stone].”
“A [Psi-stone]. Can Your Majesty lower their head?” Vainqueur followed the proposal, lowering his head to the ground. His minion slammed the item between his master’s horns, the dragon sensing the stone melding with his scales.
|You have been psi-bonded to a [Psi-stone of Mind-Shielding]. You are now immune to [Mind-affecting] effects so long as the stone remains intact.|
“[Psi-stones] are items that you can equip to your brain and spine, providing psychic powers to the wearer,” Manling Victor explained. “If you have more than one, they create additional effects.”
“Gems that can be worn forever as armor?” This was a dragon’s dream come true.
“Nothing for me in the pile, unfortunately,” Manling Victor complained. “And the [Black Grail] will return to the Thaoten for safekeeping. A shame.”
“You will have other opportunities to equip yourself, minion,” Vainqueur reassured him, glancing at the horizon; he already wondered what he would receive after beating Furibon once and for all.
The next day, after a great feast, Vainqueur decided to leave at dawn. He gathered his minions and allies in the city’s devastated plaza, to give a speech; Manling Victor had finally found clothes made of some furred beast's skin.
“Minions, El Dorado is mine, by right of conquest. This city shall be rebuilt… but as it should be. A city of true gold, fueled by my own empire’s bottomless wealth. While Manling Victor and I,” Vainqueur purposefully snubbed Knight Kia, whom no one liked anyway, “go on to end the threat of Furibon once and for all, you shall rebuild this place, as the second imperial colony of...”
Vainqueur let a few seconds pass, before uttering the name he had worked on for the entire night.
Of course, everyone applauded, some more than others… and not enough for Vainqueur’s taste. The dragon kindly encouraged his minions to renew in their devotion by raising his hand, until the clapping became acceptable.
“Thank you, thank you,” Vainqueur said. “You are too kind.”
“I will make my new lair there,” Grandrake said, his new apprentice Jolie at his side. “Long have I considered to open a princess wildlife refuge, and this jungle seems the perfect place for it.”
“Everyone working together to build a new place.” Chocolatine had tears in her eyes. “It’s like Murmurin’s old days.”
“We have to do even better.” Allison nodded.
“When you get back, I will prepare you a new recipe,” Chocolatine chirped to Manling Victor.
“I shall delightfully indulge in it,” Felix said with feline pride.
“Oh, it cannot be done without you,” Chocolatine reassured the cat, petting him between the ears. “You will be the guest of honor.”
“I will have new armor made for you, Mr. Victor, within the coming days,” Malfy told the Vizier. "One worthy of a Happyland hero."
“Thanks, I will summon you back in a few days.”
“Now, it is time to leave,” Vainqueur declared, wishing to be early for his final showdown with the lich.
“See you soon, Kia!” Jolie told her chief of staff, as she summoned her griffin to ride.
“I can finally test that new mount,” Manling Victor said, raising his scythe. “[Zmey Rider].”
Vainqueur didn’t have the time to question his minion, as the bright skies turned dark, rain falling without warning. For a moment, he wondered if Wotan had returned, only to realize that it was something far, far worse.
The beast flew through the clouds, smashing one of the few pyramids left standing on its way down, and landed among the minions, blowing off most of them in all directions. Knight Kia immediately readied her sword, while the dragons present reeled in horror.
A Zmey had come.
An inbred, primitive cousin of true dragons, this particular Zmey was big for its kind, roughly fifteen feet in length. The green-skinned beast had batlike wings and four legs barely carrying its bulky body, and its three heads resembled serpents instead of lizardy elegance. All in all, the creature looked like a twisted parody of dragonkind.
“Gorynych is there, master!” the beast looked at Manling Victor with stupid yellow eyes, speaking with his three heads at once. “Gorynych avoided all the traffic!”
Grandrake looked at the creature with pure disgust, with even the kind Jolie being uncomfortable in its presence. “Minion, what is that thing?” Vainqueur asked disdainfully, as Knight Kia lowered her sword.
“Gorynych is a good Zmey!” the inbred wyvern replied, wagging his tail. “Oh yes!”
By the Elder Wyrm, the creature looked at Vainqueur now. The dragon turned his head, to better deny that vermin’s very existence. “Minion, send that thing away and use your horse.”
“I can’t, I registered Chocolatine,” his chief of staff replied. Worse, he seemed mesmerized by the creature, as if he commanded a genuine dragon. “Besides, my horse cannot fly across the ocean.”
“But you can!” Vainqueur dared glimpse at the Zmey, whose three tongues laid down like a dog. The creature’s mere presence diminished the glorious reputation of true dragons. “You do not need it!”
“Gorynych is not loved?” The creature crumbled on himself, devastated. “Gorynych is sad.”
“You are of dragonkind, show dominance!” Vainqueur lambasted the creature, before instantly regretting it. To acknowledge it as a scion of the dragon family made the emperor sick.
“Your Majesty, that’s uncalled for!” To Vainqueur’s astonishment, Manling Victor came to the creature’s defense… and he wasn’t the only one.
“Poor beast…” Allison whispered.
“Your Majesty, look at him, he’s a giant scaled puppy!” Sweet Chocolatine said, immediately comforting the Zmey. “You’re making him cry!”
What? They favored that abomination over their lord and master?
“Betrayal! Betrayal!” Vainqueur looked at Grandrake, pleading for support.
The older dragon had completely turned his back on the scene, denying the Zmey’s existence like a true wyrm. Jolie hesitated between supporting her uncle’s point of view, and imitating the princess hunter.
“It’s fine, Gorynych,” Manling Victor comforted the beast. “His Majesty is just a bit surprised by your arrival. He didn’t really mean it.”
“I did!” Vainqueur protested, leaving the Zmey crestfallen and his servants glaring at their master. “Minions, are you shaming me? Me?”
The silence became oppressive. The emperor tried to stand his ground, but he could feel the invisible, unspoken social pressure weight on him. He almost turned away, unable to stand the silent, judgmental gazes of his own minions.
“Zmey eat their own feces!” Vainqueur reminded the minions.
“Your Majesty, I hate to say it,” Tasty Malfy cleared his throat, “But you sound... politically incorrect.”
Politically incorrect? He was the emperor, his will was the politically correct choice! Why this reaction?
Yes, Vainqueur remembered that minions had feelings that didn’t revolve around their master. Maybe seeing the Zmey hurt awoke a feeling of minion solidarity among them. Do not alienate your minions or they will run away while you sleep, Vainqueur reminded himself.
In the end, Vainqueur handled the matter the true dragon way.
By turning his back on the Zmey, and snubbing him.
“... Your Majesty, are you going to pretend he does not exist?” Manling Victor asked.
Certainly, if Vainqueur ignored him hard enough, the Zmey would go away.
“His Majesty will get used to you.” Vainqueur subtly peeked over his shoulder, watching Manling Victor lying to the Zmey.
“Is that a stick?” the three heads of Gorynych looked at the Vizier’s scythe with attention. “Gorynych good with sticks, master! Like dogs!”
This was going to be a long trip.