“There we were, surrounded. At least ten bandits staring us down on the road. ‘Hand over the necklace, and we’ll make your deaths quick!’ the leader shouted at us, waving his axe around like the madman he was.”
Aliana stood up straight, her hand gripping Moonlight’s blade as she recounted the tale’s events. She drew the sword with a flourish, the crescent moon above and the campfire on the ground both reflecting off the crystal blade. “’You’ll be a fool to try it!’ Liessa said to them with Seraphim in her hand. ‘You may have more men, but you face the divine power of Opal. I’ll give you this one chance to leave us in peace.’”
From across the campfire, Misha leaned forward, ears straight up to catch all of the story. “Did they? What did they do?” Next to her, the grey wolf lay on the ground. His own ears tilted towards Aliana periodically, but he showed no more interest in the conversation than that.
“Well, they made the idiot’s choice,” Aliana answered. “They ignored her and charged right at us. But! They were no threat to Liessa and Seraphim–you should have seen how Liessa could move when she was partnered with Seraphim. She was so fast and so graceful, she looked like a dancer. Weaving between bandits and dodging their attacks, all as if It were nothing.” Aliana grinned up at the sky, fondly remembering how the entire battle had gone.
‘Do I not grant you such grace, Aliana? Worry not about our battle with the drakes, my power grows stronger even now. Soon I shall instill in you such swordsmanship as to strike down any foe with ease. Come, let us find bandits, I shall allow you to fend off twenty at once, cut them down in an instant.’
Aliana’s smile faded for a moment. She responded to Moonlight’s contribution by returning the weapon to its scabbard. Not that doing so would silence the voice. “Seraphim is something else entirely,” she said, though the statement was made mostly to herself. “The way Liessa could fight…”
“Does that mean… She fought off all of the bandits herself?!” Misha asked in awe.
Aliana lowered herself onto the ground to take a seat. “Well, I did help. I’m no slacker either, you should know.” Then, more to make a point to Moonlight than anything, she added, “But Liessa doesn’t kill if she can help it. She disarmed most of the bandits, knocked their weapons clean out of their hands. We left them with some bruises, but nothing they wouldn’t get over.”
“Is that alright? To leave them alive?”
Aliana shrugged. “I’m sure you could argue either way about it if you’re worried about them attacking someone else. But Seraphim is one of Opal’s scales, and she’s the Dragon of life. It’s hard not to make choices like that, even if it’s about someone who was just threatening to kill you a moment ago.”
Misha nodded. “I can respect that. We don’t have many stories about the Dragons in the forest, but it sounds like there’s a lot to be learned about them.” She looked out into the hills of the plains at the massive silhouette of Emerald against the dark night sky. “I still can’t believe that you all just… walk around with her right there. Isn’t that intimidating?”
“You sort of get used to it when you grow up around here. Besides, Emerald’s peaceful enough. Ruby and Sapphire are the only ones who are usually dangerous to be around, but if you’re not trying to sail across the sea, you won’t run into either of them. But if you’re ever interested, I’m always happy to tell you anything I can about Opal. And I know a bit about Emerald, too.” But perhaps not now, not with the moon hanging in the sky. Aliana tilted her heads towards Veldin to shift the conversation instead before Moonlight could make any further interjections about Liessa or Seraphim tonight. “But I don’t think we’ve been hearing much from you this whole time.”
Veldin had been quiet for most of the group’s travel, which Aliana had grown to expect. The few times he had contributed to conversation, it had been some snide comment that consistently rubbed Aliana the wrong way. But that did not change the fact that she knew curiously little about the man and wanted more answers as to who it was exactly that she was tagging along with. Veldin’s answer was about as expected, though, when he spared the slightest glance in Aliana’s direction and said, “You’ve heard so little from me because I have no interest in your idle chatter.”
Aliana rolled her eyes. “Honestly, are you always like this or is there just something wrong with you?”
“And what are you implying with that statement?”
“I’m implying that you look like you haven’t seen sunlight in months.”
Veldin scoffed, answering, “I assure you I am quite fine, Aliana. You needn’t pester me.”
Aliana looked at Misha with an eyebrow raised, and Misha said flatly, “That’s how that sort of conversation always goes with him. I suggested we take a day or so to rest while we’ve been traveling, but he’s been insisting nothing’s wrong. He seems to think he’s better at lying than he is.”
“Misha, I am right here. But that aside, even if I were unwell, we would hardly have the luxury to take our time when the scale shards are left unattended.”
Misha shook her head. “I agree, but I don’t imagine a day will make much difference long term…”
“And should that be needed, then we will. But until then, we will press on.” With that statement, it seemed Veldin was putting the topic to rest.
Aliana sighed, and decided to switch tactics. “Alright, fine. Well, what about Lady Elcevier, then?”
“What about her?”
“Anything, really. I told you a bit about Liessa. Tell me about Lady Elcevier, all I know about her is that she knows magic.”
“I am curious too,” Misha said. “You haven’t said very much about yourself or about Lady Elcevier. Is she the one who taught you to use magic?”
Veldin considered that question. Much to Aliana’s surprise, he actually decided to answer this one. “No. I have known how to use magic since before meeting Lady Elcevier. In a sense, I have acted as her assistant this past year since meeting her. She studies more complex arcane subjects than one typically finds taught by most mentors. Currently, one such subject is that of the corrupted scale shards and how to purify them.”
“How did you meet her, then?” Aliana asked, though she fully expected the answer to be something about business between arcanists which would no doubt go over her head.
“She found me outside of her home in the mountains. She saved my life.”
Not the answer Aliana had expected, nor Misha either, judging by how she said nothing and only waited for Veldin to say more. The wolf had lifted his head with ears perked up as well, Aliana noticed, as if this topic had caught his attention as well.
Despite the expectant gazes on him, Veldin made eye contact with no one, watching the fire instead. “I had been wounded, nearly dead by the time she found me. She took me into her home and cared for me. It was only thanks to her care and kindness that I survived. And so, once I had recovered, I chose to remain with Lady Elcevier to assist her with her research. I suppose you could call it a means to express my gratitude to her.”
When it seemed Veldin had no more to say, Misha asked, “What happened to you? How did you end up there in the first place?”
“I…” Veldin sighed. “I do not know. I have no memory of anything before waking up in those mountains.”
“You don’t remember anything about what happened to you?”
Veldin shook his head. “That is not what I mean. You’re correct, but I truly have no memories that take place before then.”
Misha and Aliana said nothing at first, absorbing what Veldin meant by that. The wolf let out a low growling noise in his throat as if he had input to make in this conversation, and Misha idly ran a hand along his side to calm him. The wolf let out a huff of breath and lowered his head back to the ground.
“When I awoke, I had a vague notion of what my name was–given name only, no family name–and nothing more than that. I had retained seemingly all of my factual knowledge, but nothing personal to otherwise identify myself. No understanding of who I am, or of where I had come from. Is that a satisfactory enough answer for your questions, Aliana?”
“Well…” Aliana admitted to herself that it was, even though the answered had been more serious in nature than what she had thought she would be digging up.
“Is there a way to help you remember?” Misha wondered. “Or… What if you studied in Indervel? Could someone there know you? Maybe–“
“Misha,” Veldin interrupted, “I appreciate your concern, but it’s unwarranted. Which is why I had not chosen to speak about this topic beforehand.”
“What do you mean? There must be some way we can help.”
“You misunderstand my position. I never said I wanted help to remember. At one time, I did, and Lady Elcevier still hopes to help me recover my memories. But she has been kind to me and has given me a life in place of what I am missing. Thanks to her, I have a home and a purpose. I am quite happy with that and would rather spend my time on more productive pursuits.”
Aliana tried to picture a life with only a year of memories and experiences. Would she truly be happy living like that if everything before then were gone? She doubted she’d be satisfied. But if Veldin said he was, Aliana knew it was none of her business. “Well, it makes sense then why she’s the only thing you ever seem to be interested in talking about.”
“She is a good woman.” Veldin’s voice held restrained impatience. “I simply feel it is important to ensure you are aware of that.”
“It’s not because you two have a… close relationship?”
“Ours is purely a working relationship.”
The wolf made another grumble of a noise and Aliana smiled. “See, even Grey thinks otherwise.”
Misha looked at the wolf. “Do you mean him?”
“I figured we should call him something,” Aliana said. “I thought ‘Grey’ sounded cute.”
“You’re not terribly creative, are you?” Veldin muttered.
“Excuse me? Well, what sort of name would you pick, then?”
“Quite literally anything with more thought than his fur color. Remerick, for example.”
Aliana’s face crinkled at the sound of that name. “Remerick? Eugh. That’s not a pet’s name, that’s some old fancy person’s name.”
Veldin scoffed. “I fail to see what’s so terrible about it. And here I thought you wanted to hear more from me.”
“Um,” Misha cut in, “I don’t think he minds either way, so ‘Grey’ is fine. It is a bit cute too, I think…” She then said to the wolf. “Are you alright with being called ‘cute?’”
The wolf looked back at her, silent and stoic.
“There.” Aliana smirked at Veldin. “Two votes for ‘Grey,’ so that’s his name now.”
“You say that as if it matters so much to me,” Veldin said. “I simply thought your method of naming was lacking. If we’re done with our previous topic, however, I will be retiring for the evening.”
“Honestly, Misha, I have no idea how you put up with him.”
Misha awoke the following morning to a strong wind blowing across her whiskers and a cold, wet nose in her ear. The contact caused her to sit up quickly, pushing Grey’s muzzle away from her face. “What are you doing?” she asked the wolf.
The campfire had long since died out, leaving ashen kindling which was being blown across the ground through the dirt and grass now by the wind.
“He suddenly started to get antsy,” Aliana said while stifling a yawn, already awake from her shift watching the camp. She looked out into the distance searching for what had caught Grey’s attention. Her eyes widened and her face paled. “Oh… Oh no.”
Misha followed Aliana’s gaze. A shape moved in the distance. A massive shape on the horizon, and steadily growing larger as it approached, soaring through the air. Emerald, once a faraway figure, had taken off into the air. She soared on wings that blotted out much of the sky. The sight of the great Dragon flying through the air, her brilliant scales gleaming in the sunrise, would have been awe-worthy if not for the fact that she was a gargantuan creature headed in the direction of the camp. Misha frantically shook Veldin’s shoulder, waking him easily, and shouted, “Emerald’s flying this way! What do we do?!”
Veldin bolted upright as Aliana was stuffing her bedroll and blanket haphazardly into her own rucksack. Grey circled the camp in a frantic hurry, his whines becoming drowned out by the strengthening gusts of wind. Veldin, rather than saying a word, knelt and began to trace a circle in the dirt. Rather than question the arcanist as he hurriedly added lines and odd symbols to the circle, Misha looked to Aliana for an answer.
“Um,” came Aliana’s reply. There was no outrunning the behemoth Dragon, that was certain. She had to raise her voice over the howling storm winds. “Get low to the ground! She won’t crush us, at least!”
“How do you know–“
In an instant, walls of light sprung up from the ground. They stretched upwards over Misha and her companions before closing into a dome, obscuring the view of the plains beyond.
“Veldin?” Misha asked. She recognized this as the spell Veldin had used to defend himself from the flower-ridden wolf.
“I used the sigils to strengthen the shield,” Veldin said, remaining on the ground, “but you’ll want to follow Aliana’s advice.” With that confirmation, Aliana dropped to lay flat on the ground. Misha nodded to Grey before both she and the wolf followed suit.
Misha realized her heart was pounding as she at first lay staring at the wall of light, looking for something to focus her gaze on. When the light burned her eyes, she instead shut them, hearing the howling outside growing fiercer than any wind she had heard before. The light dome helped to muffle the sounds, but even with that, it was only moments before they grew louder into a cacophony that would have been deafening were Misha still outside. She’d heard of tornadoes before through hearsay passed on from travelers but had never experienced one herself. Is this what one sounded like?
Just as Misha was wondering that very question, the wind became the least of her concerns. There was the sound of a horrible crash, like the very ground had split open, and Misha felt the earth beneath her rumble like it was trying to toss her about. She gripped feebly at blades of grass, hoping to maintain any grip as the world nearly sent her rolling along the ground. She felt Grey’s head resting on her back, the wolf holding her in place though he himself struggled to hold steady against the shockwave. Even with her eyes shut, Misha saw the light of Veldin’s barrier flicker, the arcanist no doubt struggling to maintain focus on the spell. Aliana shouted, “Emerald, what are you doing?!” in a voice that was simultaneously panicked and yet distinctly annoyed, in a way that indicated this hadn’t been her first time experiencing this.
And then, about halfway through Aliana’s shout, the tremor ceased. Misha remained frozen where she was, letting her mind come to terms with that fact, listening to the wind outside. It was dying down, fading from the deafening crescendo of nature that it had reached.
She dared to open her eyes. Aliana remained where she was as well. Veldin had been tossed onto his chest and finally allowed the spell to fade, its light vanishing quickly. The wind had settled down to a strong breeze.
“Are you alright?” Misha asked Grey. His tail wagged in answer. Mish finally dared to turn her attention to her surroundings.
It hardly took more than a moment to spot the Dragon that now sat only a few hills over from where Misha and her companions had made camp. Once more settled on the ground with wings tucked at her sides, Emerald lay with no apparent concerns over the small disaster she had almost caused moments before. Her back faced the campsite and she looked on into the distance at nothing in particular that Misha could identify.
Aliana let out a breath and at last stood from the ground, grabbing a shaky Veldin by the arm and pulling him up before he could say anything to protest. Veldin dusted the dirt from his coat, eyes wide as he tried to regain his composure.
“I thought she would move soon, but she usually waits until evening,” Aliana said at last.
“She could have killed us!” Misha shouted out. “Is that always what happens when she moves?!”
“Sometimes she walks. Usually, she flies. She knows where people are, though–people and animals. As far as anyone knows, she’s never crushed anyone.”
“The wind stands a strong chance of killing any nearby creatures before she could get close enough to do so anyway,” Veldin said, returning to his usual demeanor. “Records have shown that her flight paths stay enough distance away from nomadic settlements to avoid outright destroying them, one would hope she would show the same courtesy to travelers. But given that this is the same Dragon that often sleeps on major trade routes–“
“No harm has come to you, thus there is no need for such complaints, mortal.”
Veldin’s words died in his throat at the sound of the new voice that had entered the conversation. The voice had come from behind Misha, and both Veldin and Aliana’s expressions of terror from beforehand returned. Misha turned, slowly, unsure whether she should share that same fear.
Emerald stood before the group. A smaller Emerald, one just a bit bigger than Grey, but undeniably Emerald. She hovered in the air, her four legs hanging below her in a relaxed posture as her wings flapped. Despite the movement of the wings, it was evident that they did not move nearly quick enough to hold her aloft, so there must have been some other force allowing her to hover in place.
Misha looked back at the giant Emerald several hills over, then back at the (comparatively) small Emerald. Then once more at large Emerald, and then small Emerald again. “What… what?” She suddenly felt a tug on the back of her vest as Grey’s teeth gripped the fabric and he began to drag Misha backwards along the ground, away from Small Emerald. “Wh–Grey, what are you doing?!”
Small Emerald did not address Misha’s situation. Her gaze was directed at Veldin. “Mortal. You heard my words, did you not?” There was no movement in her face when she spoke. The words simply emanated from… somewhere. From herself, rather than her reptilian snout.
Veldin’s shoulders stiffened, and he straightened his posture the moment it became clear that Small Emerald was waiting for a response. “I–yes, of course, Great Emerald! You are correct!”
“Very good,” Small Emerald said. Her voice was confident and smooth, with an unmistakable air of authority in her words. She clearly intended for those present to hear her. “You would do well to be mindful of what I am capable of, dear mortal.”
“Yes, yes Great Emerald, I will certainly do so,” Veldin said, adding a stiff bow for the Dragon while Misha pulled at her vest and was dragged further away from the conversation. Aliana watched the whole thing in speechless confusion while Veldin continued, “What, ah, might we simple mortals have possibly done to earn the attention of such a magnificent and powerful being as yourself?”
“Do not think you have made any accomplishments worthy of such.” Small Emerald hovered over towards Aliana, commanding the woman’s undivided and panicked attention. “It was the scent of Opal that brought me to investigate. I smell her in my domain at times. Yet even after centuries, she has not made her presence known. If she has not returned to this world and has no intention to encroach upon my domain, then you must carry one of her scales, do you not?”
Aliana spoke in stilted, stiff words. “I. Um. Have traveled with a… With a sword. Made from Opal’s scale. The sword isn’t present, though… Great Emerald.”
“A sword.” Not a question, but a statement. “Mortals find such odd uses for our discarded scales. Still, a sword is incapable of threatening my domain. This is acceptable.”
Misha finally pulled her clothing free from Grey’s mouth at that moment and she looked the wolf in the eye. “Emerald’s peaceful, right? I want to speak to her!”
Grey stared back with the most apprehensive expression Misha thought an animal could conceivably make. But she turned back to face the ongoing conversation, pushing her own fear aside. Yes, this was a being that had shaped the very land Misha stood upon, and yes, that being was also a colossal reptile that could easily kill a mortal without a second thought. Not to mention what powers such a creature may have. But the people of these plains lived with Emerald in… perhaps not quite ‘harmony’ but something similar. And Emerald was the Dragon of nature. Misha needed to speak with her.
Misha stepped forward. She chose her words carefully. “Ex… Excuse me, Emerald.”
Small Emerald pulled her head away from Aliana and turned to Misha. Her gaze was fierce, her eyes sharp. Aliana looked relieved to have the attention taken off of her.
Misha corrected herself. “Great Emerald. It’s… an honor to meet you. I had… a… question for you.”
“This mouse speaks,” Small Emerald said. She sounded almost amused. “Oh. You are one of the mortals that live in the fey forest. Yes, I see.”
Misha was uncertain if that was permission to continue, and Veldin watched her warily, but she took the risk anyway. “The fey forest, yes. The forest is dying, Em–Great Emerald. Its heart was destroyed. Can… Can you–“
Small Emerald’s nostrils flared at the word ‘can.’ Misha realized her mistake. A great and powerful Dragon could do any number of great miracles and how dare she question that, or she hoped that’s what Emerald’s demeanor meant as she corrected once more, “Would you be so generous as to help? My people would be grateful, as I’m sure the fey would as wel–”
“Your people are small in number, their worship is but a drop of dew in a lake,” Small Emerald interrupted. “Furthermore, that forest was spawned by the interference of the fey queen. Those creatures smell not of this world and are fortunate that I permit them to exist in this land that I so devotedly shaped.
“Certainly, I am far kinder than Ruby who would burn them to cinders for their insolence, for I am patient, generous, tolerating of their presence. But for them to demand anything more of me after forcing their way in from their own world speaks of their selfishness. They have no place to demand more than what I have granted them. If the forest shall die, then so be it, as it is not one that I have permitted to grow in my domain.”
Misha shrank back at the Dragon’s words. Her heart sank as she it was made clear just how little Emerald cared for the Orchard Forest or the plight of its people. “I… Please, Great Emerald, my home is withering and–“
“You mortals pride yourselves on your resourcefulness, do you not?” Emerald snapped out the words and turned away, floating away from Misha and the others. “You will find another home. Cease acting as if you must rely on my generosity to simply exist, it was not by my intention that your kind came to be.”
Veldin had watched the entire exchange in visible discomfort, having put discrete distance between himself and Small Emerald during her tirade. Now, as the small form of the Dragon made to leave however, he spoke up. “I… Entirely understand your point, Great Emerald. But, if you do revive the forest, would that not mean the plants that grow there will be yours? It will no longer be tainted by the magic of the fey, meaning that your domain will be cleansed.”
Small Emerald paused in her movement, her back turned to the mortals much like Large Emerald was. When she spoke, her voice was low and quiet. “Mortal. Dear mortal. Do you truly believe you can manipulate me into following your bidding with that simple promise?”
“I… I meant no such thing, Great Emerald! I was simply… simply stating that the option is there! Should you wish to do so!”
Small Emerald cast a single look behind her back. “Is that all you intended with that statement? You bear the smell of fey blood yourself, I do hope you realize. Yet you try my patience trying to trick me into following your whims. Cease your pestering now, while that patience does not run too thin.”
Veldin said nothing more to that than a simple, “Yes, Great Emerald,” which came out as little more than a strained whisper. With her piece said, Small Emerald once more turned away and began to float upwards into the sky, before simply vanishing right in front of Misha’s eyes.
Aliana, who had at some point in the conversation had moved behind Grey and watched the whole thing in terror, hugged the wolf and pressed her face into his side. “I thought she was going to eat us,” she said, her words muffled through fur.
“You said she was peaceful!” Misha pointed out.
Aliana lifted her face from Grey’s body. “’Peaceful’ means she won’t burn the countryside or try to sink ships, Misha! That doesn’t mean I’ve ever spoken to her in person! It doesn’t mean anyone can have a casual morning talk with her and demand things of her!”
“She’s right,” Veldin said. “Emerald is… in her own words, ‘generous’ as far as Dragons go. She gives warnings when someone pushes too far… As she did with us.”
Misha sighed. The Dragon of nature was of no help to her home. The forest would continue to wither, and Emerald had not so much as stated any words of condolences.
“I am sorry I could not help to convince her,” Veldin added.
Misha shook her head. “No, it’s fine… It was worth trying if she’s kind enough to give us a warning, wasn’t it?”
“You could say that.” Aliana was fully sat on the ground now, petting Grey. “I need some time to recover after that…” She then pointed to Veldin and smiled. “She said you’re fey-blooded, though. I knew it.”
“My heritage is hardly the topic I would have turned to after our experience just now,” Veldin answered, taking a seat on the ground as well.
“But I knew it! Your ears and your eye color, you’ve definitely got fey blood in you. Plus, I’d rather not think about how Emerald almost ate us.”
“It was your scent that brought her here.”
Misha watched the larger Emerald in the distance. The Dragon still faced away into the distance and showed no signs of acknowledging the conversation. Grey stepped away from Aliana, coming to stand next to Misha and licking the side of her face, drawing her attention back to him.
“I’m alright, Grey,” Misha said, reaching up to pat Grey on the shoulder. “Disappointed, yes… But there’s another way, I know. We’ll find it.”