Alice sighed as she and Mr. Skelly stood outside of the cave that the dragons had entered. She flinched when Mr. Skelly poked her ribs. She glared at him, but Mr. Skelly grinned in response and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to go inside?”
“I won’t,” Alice said and snorted. “I’m an outsider, and dragons don’t exactly see eye to eye with humans, you know?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Skelly said. “Humans are too short for that.”
Alice stamped her foot. “I’m not short!”
“I didn’t say you were short,” Mr. Skelly said and chuckled. “I just said humans, in general, are short.”
“Then what? I’m not a human?”
Mr. Skelly rubbed his chin and made a humming sound. “Never mind. You’re short.” He collapsed into a heap as Alice slammed her shield against his spine, shattering him into pieces. A sigh escaped from the pile of bones as it reformed itself. “You know I’m spending your mana to rebuild myself, right?”
“It’s worth it,” Alice said as her shield shrank.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in love with me?” Mr. Skelly asked, his skull contorting as his brow rose. “You don’t hit someone you love.”
“They’re love taps,” Alice said. “Besides, you can’t feel it anyway.”
“Nonsense, skeletons can feel pain,” Mr. Skelly said with a sigh.
“Wait, really?” Alice asked, her eyes widening. “How? You don’t have nerves! Or a brain! There’s no way you can feel any pain.”
“I can speak without vocal cords, can’t I?” Mr. Skelly brought his hand to his chest. “Whenever you hit me, I feel pain”—he tapped to the left of his sternum—“right here. In my poor, poor broken heart.”
Alice shattered Mr. Skelly again with her shield. She snorted as she dusted bone powder off of her hands before snapping her head to the side as something drew her attention: a walking ball of meat. “Is that … a person?”
The ball of meat flinched and froze. A second later, a childish head popped out of a hole at the top. The meat-person’s eyes were large and round, pooling with tears. Like a penguin, it waddled over and tackled Alice, hugging her thighs while sobbing.
“You never fail to see new things while traveling in different lands,” Mr. Skelly said as he grabbed his spine and reattached it to his pelvic bone.
Alice lifted the little girl up and held her out with her arms extended. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
“That’s not how you’re supposed to hold a crying child,” Mr. Skelly said. He held his arms out towards the girl. “Let me show you.”
The little girl wiped away her tears and turned her head to the side. Mr. Skelly’s grinning face appeared in her vision and seemed to grow larger and larger as her eyes widened to the size of saucers. An ear-piercing scream split the air as the girl thrashed around before twitching once and passing out, her head dropping forwards.
Mr. Skelly scratched the back of his head. “Or not. I forgot how excited kids could get when they meet someone they admire. It’s not every day you see someone as charming as me, eh?”
Alice sighed. “You’re terrible.”
“Did someone just scream?” Alora asked, turning her head towards the exit of the cavern. The gaggle of dragons—and Tafel—were sitting in two rows: one row with Vur and his parents, the other row with his cousins and their parents. Vur’s grandmother had wandered off to do something that she insisted on keeping a secret while her descendants chatted. “I swear I heard someone scream.”
“It was the wind,” Sera said. She nudged Vur’s shoulder before gesturing towards the dragons across from them. “That’s my sister and her husband, your aunt and uncle. You can ignore them.”
“You’re pleasant as always, Big Sister,” Vur’s aunt said and rolled her eyes. “It’s nice to meet you, Nephew! Call me Aunt Emma. This is Uncle Will.” Emma gestured towards her husband. There was no response. She turned her head to face him. “Uncle Will?”
A snot bubble extended from one of Uncle Will’s nostrils, inflating and deflating in time with his breaths. He was sitting upright with perfect posture, and his eyes were wide open, but they were glazed over like the surface of a frozen pond. Emma frowned and popped the snot bubble with the tip of her claw, but there was no reaction. She sighed and smiled at Vur. “Sera’s right. You can ignore him.”
Sera nodded and gestured at Vur’s cousins. “And these are your cousins: Alora, …Ju—? Jane?” Sera shrugged and patted Vur’s shoulder. “I forgot the rest of their names, but I’m sure you’ll learn them in time.”
“Aunt Sera, you can’t be like that!”
“That’s right! That’s right!”
“Grandma! Aunt Sera’s playing favorites again!”
Alora lifted her snout into the air and snorted. “You three are just jealous of me.” She crossed over to Vur’s side and sat beside him, wrapping one wing around his back. “You can call them the annoying trio. I’m the only important dragon on this side of the family. They’re just there to add commentary when necessary.”
“Alora’s so mean.”
“That’s right, that’s right.”
Vur tilted his head before asking Alora, “Is that really alright?”
“Yeah, totally,” Alora said, her head bobbing up and down. “I’m the oldest too. Which means I’m the favorite child and most important. They’re a triplet born fifty years ago, and that means they’re practically babies and completely uncool to hang around with. I used a genie to wish for a friend my age, and you appeared! I didn’t think the effect would happen so soon.”
“Genie?” Tafel asked, sitting up straight on Vur’s head. “Genies are real?”
Alora made a strange face as she pointed at Tafel. “So, uh, what exactly is this featherless phoenix? A pet?”
“She’s my wife,” Vur said. “Her name’s Tafel.”
“That’s not important right now,” Tafel said, her eyes gleaming. “You said you used a genie to make a wish, right? Do they actually grant wishes?”
“Uh, yeah?” Alora asked, raising an eyebrow. “But they have limits, you know. You can’t make impossible wishes like wishing for the world to explode or wishing for your favorite author to write faster or things of that sort.”
Tafel lowered her head to meet Vur’s gaze. “We have to go genie hunting, Vur.”
Before Vur could respond, his grandmother’s voice echoed through the cavern. “Who wants cookies?” A large mithril tray with hundreds of plate-sized cookies on top of it came into view from a tunnel in the back. Vur’s grandmother’s head poked out from behind the monstrous pile, a wide smile on her face. “You want some, don’t you, Vur? Grandma’s cookies always taste the best. Come try some; I won’t take no for an answer.”