"You smoke a lot."

"Eh." Bobby snuffed a cigarette on his kneepad. It left a black mark on the plastic. The helicopter shuddered, and the smell of nicotine and tobacco in the air filled the helicopter. "I do."

Rory and Bobby traded stories- mostly for Rune's benefit. The young man seemed sheltered, his nose wrinkling up with how much the two older men smoked. The boy had a lot of interest in Bobby's military stories, but grew increasingly disappointed. The fact most of his stories weren't the badass special forces exploits he'd played in video games? Well that was just too bad. He had more fun contracting- and he told a lot more of those stories to tell.

"Why?" Rune's bushy ears flicked.

"Eh. Picked it up in Seoul." Bobby huffed. "Hey, kid, I got a question for you. Just- indulge my curiosity here-"

Cash, the helicopter's computer/robot brain, chimed in. "Approaching final destination. LZ scan initiated."

"Yes, sir?" At least he had his manners, the boy shaking as the helicopter descended.

"You watch any anime?" He leaned forward and pointed at his canine features. "Ya look like this... what's his name, Alys, do you remember? The one with the, the dog and his brother and the Japanese school girl? What was that one, you liked it."

"Inuyasha?" Alys cleared her throat. "It got a little boring."

"Yeah, you look like Inuyasha." He chuckled. "Except, kid, you ever watch Inuyasha? Cause ya look a lot like that guy from that one, ya know."

He sat up straight like he'd just been caught in a trap. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Rory leaned over and pat his son on the back, earning a dirty look from the boy. "Son, you consume so much stuff from Earth it isn't even funny."

Bobby laughed and shook his head, turning to look out the window. Ys had disappeared hours ago, replaced by long stretches of farmland. They'd stopped to refuel a few hours ago, get a little bit of rest, then hurry back up into the air. Bobby and Alys were all used to riding in helicopters, but he could tell the kobold detachments had their reservations, and Rune looked positively seasick when they touched down. They crossed out of Ys' airspace and traveled for another few hours, alternately sleeping, eating, or chatting away the journey.

Even being hundreds of feet in the air couldn't quite convey the scale of Ziz' roost. It got called the Cauldron, for good reason, because a wall of mountains stretched as far as the eye could see: the steep rocks stood high into the heavens, making a barrier miles long. The dossier explained it was a volcanic caldera long since gone dormant. Supposedly? Long before even Ziz came onto the scene. So far-flung from Ys- and even the more civilized Wildland areas meant few- if anybody- really lived out there.

Yet at the foothills of the mountain, he spotted a clearing of trees. Something about it struck him as odd, so he signaled the other members of Cash to hang tight. "Cash-0, hang a right." The computer beeped and shifted away. Bobby grabbed his rifle and set it to the highest magnification, pulled open a door, then hopped on their radio channel. "This is Cash-1 to the rest of the Highwaymen. Sitrep?"

The rest of Highwaymen Squadron checked in. The kobold chopper let loose a cacophony that Bobby took for an all-clear from them. The mixed teams in the other two gave more professional responses. Cash straightened up and Bobby hung out the side of the door, scanning over the clearing with his rifle. It looked like some manmade lumber work, hundreds- maybe thousands of stumps surrounding a river flowing down the mountain. He traced the water with his eyes. "Good to hear. I'm sure all of you got a briefing at the station. Cauldron's supposed to be uninhabited. If you look out your windows, you'll see that's untrue."

Alys got up and hung out the side alongside Bobby, a pair of binoculars in her hand. "Cash-2, confirming, that's a lumber operation." She got off the general channel. "Ys has a mandate, no commercial activity inside of the Cauldron. Outside of it, though..."

"Right, thanks Cash-2. Gimme a sec-" the river curved off, following the mountain down and into a valley. Bobby went back on the channel, slinging his rifle back on. "-Highwaymen, Cash-0 checking in. Follow that river, let's check in with the neighbors."

They followed a straight path over a curvy river. Buck spotted the local fauna: odd varieties of deer. They flew low over the trees, the wash from the rotors throwing up leaves.

If they wanted to go in unseen? Well that wasn't in the cards. Only the CIA had the fun black stealth helicopters.

As they flew, he'd brushed up on the familial laws and draconic conduct of Ys: they were drafted by mortals but agreed to by the dragons and other Colossi. They interacted in intricate ways, but it gave them a few options that Bobby ran through his head. The familial laws meant that- being deceased, Ziz's affairs became Benjamin's affairs. The draconic conduct meant that being patronized by Benjamin gave Bobby, Alys- and well, anybody hired by Red Clay- could act with Benjamin's blessing. Legally speaking, Bobby counted as a dragon that happened to be entirely human, not that he ever wanted to abuse those rights. Most of the time he just acted as a mortal. But sometimes you needed to make your presence known.

But the Cauldron was just Ziz' roost proper, and legally speaking the property line extended for perhaps dozens of miles. He pulled up a map of the Cauldron on a laptop, finding the river on it, and tracing his finger on it with the flight of the choppers. There weren't any marked properties... because Benjamin petitioned it to be treated as a grave whose boundaries extended out ten miles from the peaks of the Cauldron's walls.

"Is it defiling a grave if there's not a body in there?" Bobby asked Alys, as Cash-0 marked a potential landing zone on the laptop's screen. They quickly approached the edge of the Cauldron's property, where they saw a larger opening in the forest. Massive stacks of lumber and equally large carts sat within a number of clearings large enough to land helicopters in- or, he thought, to touch down with the airships much preferred out here.

"Legally, yes. I think this would be the biggest cenotaph if we were keeping score." Alys steadied herself. "I'm not seeing anything. Let's run a scan."

"Got it. All Highwaymen, gimme a thermal and an arcane scan of the area. If you see any visual signatures, let me know about it." Bobby slotted the laptop back into its container, holding his rifle at the ready.

"Query received. Scan initiated." The helicopters twisted and made a circle around the clearing, a sensor module on the front of all the machines swiveling around. A slow, arduous minute later, the Keystones let out a a chorus of sound through the radio. "No live signatures detected."

Bobby cussed. From his bird's eye view, it looked just like an illegal logging camp. He wouldn't care: there were so many damn trees around it probably eclipsed the Amazon rainforest in size. But his mission did include investigating the Cauldron, and legally speaking... well the laws differed, but he'd be in the right to give things a look through here.

"Damn it." He knocked the helicopter with his knuckle. "Jennings, Kristoff, find an LZ inside, on the original flight plan. Start securing it and running surveillance. Nelson, you're with me. Touch down in that largest clearing by the river."

"Affirmative." It was a dual response from Nelson-1 and the Keystones- the helicopters sank low and began landing. The wind kicked up flattened the tall grass, throwing dirt and dust into the air. The other two choppers broke off and ascended the mountain. Bobby watched the doors on Nelson open up, and almost twenty kobolds poured out of it. Even with concern rising he found their short legs and disciplined manner endearing. Their carbines pointed around, scanning the area.

"Wh-what are we doing, Mister Bobby?" Rune called through the radio even as the choppers spun down and shut off. "What are we looking for?"

"Any signs of life." He pulled a baseball cap on, though he hung his helmet where he could easily get it on. The Wildlands had a weird sun, it hung low and hot, and sweat already poured down his head. The man took a sip from a bottle of water. "Right! Fireteam Draco and Fireteam Wyvern, form up!"

The two teams of kobolds gathered into a small line, their carbines at the ready. Rory and Rune poured out and stood just behind Bobby, while Alys stayed inside the helicopter, tinkering with whatever esoteric rituals she needed to. The whole forest stood quiet in the wake of the helicopter landing: not a single sound came from any animal, just the rushing water and the wind rustling nearby.

"Rory, Rune, form up with them." He motioned for the two shapeshifters to move ahead of him, and they complied, Rune looking nervously all around. "Draco, y'all are on security. Stay near the choppers and keep an eye out on anything suspicious. Rune's our rookie, he'll be watching you fine soldiers do your work. Wyvern, Rory, y'all are with me."

"Sure thing, chief." Rory crossed his arms with a grin, while Rune looked amazed. The kobolds chirped their affirmatives and held up their mix of arms. Draco immediately went to work, the industrious little creatures using small spell matrices to form barricades. They hardened dirt and pulled stones up from the earth. Wyvern pulled some more equipment from their helicopter, lights and cameras they mounted to their gear.

The shapeshifter, though? His human form almost melted away into the mass of shadowy limbs he was used to. A clawing mass of eyes and mouths and sharp, pointy bits formed where he was. 'Rolling ball of animal parts' best described him. Bobby popped his joints and motioned for Wyvern to fan out.

"Oh, hey, Draco, one last thing. Y'all got the coffee in your bird, right?"

"No, no, the coffee was in Jennings." Lameeka, the leader of Draco caught Bobby off guard. He wasn't expecting a female, but he remembered kobolds being much less sexually dimorphic than most humanoids were. There wasn't a whole lot of difference between the males and females. It made it hard to tell sometimes.

"Shit." Bobby muttered.

"We have tea, though." She set herself up in a tall earthen guard post with a shotgun and a spotlight, looking down at Bobby behind her visor. They had a canine shape to their face, with thick tufts of hair that seemed to group together into scale-like plates. "If you want some."

"Y'know, that works. Get one of your boys on it. We regroup in an hour."

"Aye aye." Lameeka set her shotgun over the wall, even as Bobby, Rory and the rest of the kobolds started investigating.

Illegal logging camp? Sure looked like it. Small trails cut through the woods lead to campsites, small prefabricated structures. Bobby recognized them- there was a ring of hastily fabricated structures, almost all of them made of canvas and wood in the traditions of Ys, but one a distinct mess of polyester and nylon. A few embers smoldered in a firepit arranged in the center of the camp.

It looked like a bomb had gone off, bluntly. Almost every tent had gouges ripped out of it, the thick dowels used to support them broken into multiple parts. He let his rifle hang low and drew his handgun with his left arm, ducking his head into one tent and lighting it up. The familiar stench of death wafted out.

He saw a body, or the remnants of it. Raw muscle and bone poked out of a flayed mass of something with two arms and two legs: whatever it was, he couldn't tell if it was elf or human or orc, or hell, if it was a man or woman. The mangled corpse laid in a pool of dried blood, deep gouges ran from its neck to its crotch, spilling its guts all over the floor of the tent. A wave of flies scattered when he lit them up, each one gorging on the corpse. It couldn't have been more than a few days old.

"Ah Jesus, found one of our uninvited guests." He pinched his nose and pulled out of the tent. Wyvern had formed a circle, while Rory and Bobby inspected each tent. The great shapeshifter curled in disgust. "You smell that?"

"Smells like violence." Rory's voices spoke in unison. "A beast came through here."

Bobby frowned, holstering his gun and reaching back in to drag out the body. He directed half of Fireteam Wyvern to go around and drag any other corpses out- and they laid out all the cadavers in a circle around the firepit. The stench soon became unbearable, with the kobolds gagging and stepping multiple paces away. Bobby, though, steeled his gut and inspected every single one of the corpses.

Most of the other ones spoke the same tale as the first corpse: something great big and violent had torn through, ripped almost everyone to shreds, then gotten out of there quick. No animal could have visited the level of brutality, every wound, every broken bone had the mark of a sadist... or something vengeful. Bobby lit up a cigarette to mask the smell of death in his nose, kicking a stone around the camp. "What's your bet, Rory? Lots of wildlife lived in the cauldron. Ya think they stumbled in territory of something mean?"

The shapeshifter leaned over one body, a limb forming out of his shifting mass. Claws formed, large and sharp talons- he formed two, then three and dragged it through some of the wound channels. He formed a fourth, and then hissed. "Can't have been a troupe of griffons, something with five claws did him in. A basilisk would have petrified them. Chimeras don't survive long in the wild. These are mangled, but they're not eaten. I could see a starving lesser drake chewing them up, but this isn't something I can figure out. And you'd think say, a bear or lion out here would have a free snack, but these have been left alone."

"Mhm." Bobby looked up at the Cauldron's steep walls. The other two choppers had long since confirmed their landing zone and preparations for their base camp. Alys radio'd in short updates on the rituals she performed, seances, things to try and contact the natural spirits that lived in these areas. She hadn't had much luck, as even thirty years after Ziz death, few would set up shop anywhere near his old roost. "Real mysterious sounding. Hey, help me out real quick."

Bobby kicked around inside the one more modern looking tent. With Rory's help getting it back in shape, he ducked inside and pulled out a crushed up laptop. It wasn't a complete surprise- there were plenty of former Red Clay employees who got in and brought technology from Earth with them. The proliferation of technology though, wasn't limited to Red Clay. It could've been anybody who got this equipment in, since there was no logo and no branding on anything. He slipped it under his arm.

"Alright, found something. Old laptop. Wyvern, two of y'all take this back to camp and secure it." He spotted the tools they used to cut up the logs, older, more primitive ones than the modern- and much noisier- machines of Earth. The man passed off the device to a pair of kobolds. "The rest of you, grab one of these logs and bring it to camp, we need to figure out why these guys were here."

"Must've been some fine lumber." Rory mused, even as he gave the kobolds assistance in their new task. It left just two of the little creatures with Bobby, who motioned for them to stay close and at the ready.

They were almost going to head back up to camp, when a thought struck the commander. The river flowed through nearby, just a stone's throw away. He cut through the underbrush with his rifle slung low, the kobolds scooting after him, and came on the steep riverbank. The camp had a crude set of posts for mooring river barges, likely for getting larger supplies or manpower up and down the river. He noticed one post occupied with a barge- a bloodstain on its side, keeled over with a large dent in its hull- and another empty, waiting for someone to dock.

"Hm. You two-" he pointed to the kobolds "-burrow in and watch this dock. You see anybody looking like poachers or lumberjacks or cartel coming up the river, radio in. You know the rules of engagement, legally speaking you can shoot to kill on sight. Hell, treat 'em as you want, but I want them captured. Understood? Anything else, report back but don't engage."

"Understood, understood," the two kobolds yipped and used their magical devices to make a small foxhole. Bobby grinned, finding their obedience a great asset, before he joined up back at the camp. Alys and the rest of the troupe had assembled around the laptop and the wood, and Bobby noted that the elf looked... shaken.

"Bobby-" she called him over, pointing at the log. He couldn't see anything strange about it, save for its insides being a red color, and the bark on the outside thin and exotic. "-Do you know what this is?"

"Can't say I'm a botanist, babe."

"This is dragonwood." She peeled one of the scale-like pieces of bark off, a thick red sap trailing from it. "Highly exotic, extremely expensive. You know how this stuff forms?"

Bobby shook his head, though he had a decent guess. Rory nudged the log, all the bark on it seeming to shift as if alive, despite it being cut up.

"Dragon blood- specifically, ichor from great dragons- seeps into a tree's root system. We know dragon ichor is fundamentally mutagenic, just like demon ichor has medicinal properties. It changes how that tree grows. Well, Ziz was killed far from here, outside his Roost. Not a drop spilled here." Alys took a knife and cut a few more strips of wood off. They curled and lashed in alien ways.

"It wasn't Ziz blood that made that." He pursed his lips. "Another great dragon? Out here? Who the hell could make one of them bleed? Benjamin and Lua are both back home and there isn't a single other one of them lizards that would be dumb enough to come out here and pay respects, is there?"

"I don't know." Alys went pale. "There's only so many dragons and so many kinds of dragonwood. Almost all of them are in gardens. One, this is a wild copse. Two..."

"Two... being?" Bobby kicked the log.

"This doesn't match any other dragon on record."


About the author


Bio: Hi! I'm Southdog. I write urban fantasy and comedic fiction starring rednecks, sassy blondes and satirical elements. You can find me on other sites here.

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