The four of them sat on the bus. It was going to be a very long ride. There were not many other people on the bus, and they’d managed to snag two pairs of chairs right next to one another. The morning had been the usual flurry of activity as they packed up their meager belongings, Farida left behind a few books and purchased a few more, and then they had loaded onto the bus in the pre-dawn. The great engine inside the bus geared up, and began to shift through gears as the bus pulled into traffic.
Zaragosa’s buildings were beautiful. They passed along a highway through the center of the city, and it seemed that every single building had the same red clay tiles on their roofs. The windows were open, allowing the comfortable air to wash through the bus, the scent of the air slightly baked, dry and comfortable. Farida sat next to David, and Gerlinde and Caladbolg were sharing a seat with bad grace behind the two of them. Gerlinde had a snuggy wrapped around her, a hood covering her face.
“The one downside to this whole ‘phenomenal power’ thing. The sunburns are godawful.” Gerlinde sighed. “How long is it?”
“That’s a rather personal question,” said Farida, and then chuckled under her breath while Gerlinde rolled her eyes. “Anyway, it’s about 4 hours to Barcelona, then another 6 to Toulouse. It’s a shame we can’t stay for long in Barcelona, but I really want us to get to Toulouse as quickly as we can. It’s a shame we won’t be able to see Roland’s Breach, either…”
“Roland’s Breach?” asked David, and frowned. They were leaving the city, and entering one of the more mountainous regions of Spain. The cliffsides were sunparched, free of all but the scrubbiest plant life. Off to their right, the countryside rolled in pleasant green valleys. To their left, ridged mountains stretched out who-knew-how-far into the distance. “Roland. God. Why’s that name so familiar to me?”
“A legendary paladin,” said Farida. “He was said to be a human who wielded great power. When the Mystics invaded, he held back their armies single-handed with his sword, Durandal. He tried to destroy the sword to keep it from falling into their hands, but the blow merely parted a mountain, and left Durandal unharmed. It’s just a natural gap in a cliff, but it’s supposed to be quite spectacular. I wonder- Do you know if it was really Roland, Caladbolg?”
“When did all of this happen?” asked the sword, an eyebrow raised.
“A hundred and fifty years or so after I was returned to the lake. I am afraid I never heard of Roland, though I knew Durandal. A fierce and bloodthirsty sword. It’s said he went through his wielders at a terrible rate, inciting them towards glory, conquest, and suicidal bravery.” Caladbolg sighed. “His perspectives always struck me as… skewed. He cared more about destroying Mystics than protecting humans. He was unbreakable, but he never understood how much we needed them.” She sighed softly. “I still miss him, though.”
“Who made you?” asked David, frowning. “Like, was it… Mystics, or-“
“No. Human swordsmiths. Not even particularly gifted or skilled ones. I was once just a normal sword. Nothing great, nothing special. A simple length of steel meant for a nobleman’s son. I was…” Caladbolg leaned back in her chair slightly, tilting her head up to look at the ceiling. “I was owned by a Celtic nobleman’s first son. I was a sword he carried into battle against the Mystic legions of the Romans. He fought valiantly, but he died. I was bathed in his blood, and taken up by his younger brother. So it went. At some point, I became… aware, I suppose. I was able to stop my bearers from bleeding to death. Protect them.” She sighed. “Not forever, though.”
“Do you know where Durandal is?”
“No. We were related, but only distantly. By our duty to humans, by any number of things. I know where he’s been, but… that’s it.” Caladbolg sighed, glowering at David. “I would be much more useful if you were engaged in a proper epic quest, you realize. Swordfights. Clashing of blades. Near-fatal wounds. You know. Proper hero things.”
“I’m sorry,” said David, rolling his eyes, as he leaned back in his chair.
He’d always found busses deeply uncomfortable. For one thing, he was not a short man. His legs were about three inches too long to be seated in a normal bus seat, and they were typically crammed into the seat in front of him, an uncomfortable posture for four seconds, let alone four hours. There were often too many people around, and people were always getting sick. They could be an absolute pain.
But this was pleasant. Farida sat in the chair next to him, and let him stretch his legs over hers, stretched out comfortably. She shifted occasionally, and they changed places from time to time, but it was nice to be close to her. Her warm brown skin pressed against his, and her slow breathing was surprisingly soothing. He reached out, and gently began to play with one of her ears. It flicked, and she looked up at him, blushing. “Hey.”
He reached down, teasing his finger down the side of her ear, and was rewarded by her getting a bit more flushed. She leaned her head against his hand heavily, trying to trap it, which really only made it easier for him to play with it. “W-why are you doing that?” she asked, flushed, her tail twitching behind her, her eyes closing a bit.
“Because you’re really cute when you’re being pet.” He leaned forward, and pressed his face into her hair, taking a deep breath. She smelled sweet after the shower she’d taken in the early hours of the morning, the light floral scent of the shampoo still lingering around her. He smiled, and continued softly scratching the side of her ear, provoking more soft sounds from her. Gradually, the stiffness faded, leaving her leaning loosely against him, her body warm and somewhat clingy as she pressed into him.
It’d be hard to say exactly why he was feeling in such an affectionate mood. Maybe it was a desire to reassert his connection with her. To get close to her. Maybe he just liked seeing her flustered by something she hadn’t been expecting, and maybe it was pleasing to see her respond so positively to it. It didn’t really matter, though. He was enjoying himself.
After a few minutes of gently teasing her, he sat with her by his side, an arm around the brown-skinned girl’s shoulders, her head resting gently on his chest. Her ears flicked occasionally as she rested her paws on his thigh, squeezing and kneading lightly, looking as though she wanted to ask him something. He let her stew on that for a little bit, though, smiling to himself. It might be about the future. It might be about their plans for the next stop. It might even just be to ask if he wanted to join her in the bathroom. But for a little while, he was consciously letting go of his anxiety. He was forgetting about the decisions he’d have to make in the future, because there would be plenty of time to worry about that when it was time. Instead, he let his hand trace down her shoulder, across the curve of her side, and rest lightly on her hip, giving her a little tug.
Unexpectedly, Farida shifted. She sat up, and tugged his legs out, until he was sitting sideways across both chairs, his legs stuck out into the aisle. She wrapped both furry, soft arms around his head, her paws resting on the back of his head, providing a natural pillow to cradle his skull, keeping it from leaning directly on the hard glass. She shifted until she was comfortable, a series of movements that provoked great attention in certain parts of David’s body until she had settled down. Then she buried her face in his neck, and clung to him. She was asleep in seconds.
David didn’t typically fall asleep on trips. And in fact, this wasn’t his first visit to Spain. When he graduated high school, he had spent some time there, and seen some sights. It was beautiful, each turn and mile bringing something new to focus the eye on, comfortably ensconced in Farida’s warm embrace. He shifted his hands to rest on her lower back, holding her there gently. He tried to remember if he’d been on this same route, though it looked unfamiliar. It had been a few years, though. He moved his hand slowly down Farida’s spine, stroking her again and again.
“Would you polish me?” asked Caladbolg, rather abruptly. David frowned over the seat at her.
“My blade has been in need of maintenance for some time. While it is impossible to damage me, my blade can still become dirty, or dusty. I could polish it myself, but I am not certain I would be able to do as thorough a job as you.” She kept her level, steely gaze on him. “It is important to note that this is not a sex thing. There is no sexual aspect to my desires here, despite what you may be thinking. I derive no particular sexual pleasure from the act, and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise.”
“I see,” said David.
“Oh, can I get a massage?” asked Gerlinde, bright smile shining from the shadow of the hood.
“Well, everyone else is getting rubbed down, it’d be unfair if I didn’t get some fun, too,” she said, voice innocent.
“It is not a massage. It is simply an application of cleaning agents and polish meant to put me in my peak condition. Nothing like a massage.” Caladbolg shot Gerlinde a dirty look, lips pursed. “And it’s deeply insulting to even compare the two.”
“I don’t mind if you play with your sword, David,” murmured Farida, pressing a little tighter against him. “But no massaging Gerlinde unless I’m there to watch. I don’t trust her.”
“It rather sounds to me as though you just want to be able to watch my fine, toned body writhing under your man’s fingers,” said Gerlinde, smiling sweetly. “There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. Well, besides the obvious countless shameful things about it, but you’re the one with the cuckoldry fetish.”
“Yeah, thanks, Count… Fangpanties.” Farida groaned, and pressed her face a bit harder against David’s chest.
“Fangpanties?” asked Gerlinde, visibly bemused, an eyebrow raised.
“I’m tired. Had weird dreams all last night, about my dad telling me that I was fired for having sex with one of the morgue corpses, and how he had been saving that corpse for dinner… Ugh.” Farida rubbed her head. “I think the pressure was messing with me.” She looked up at David. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s a weird dream. The worst part is it’s recurring.” She sighed. “I sent them an e-mail last night, after we got in. I wonder how they’re doing.” She reached into her pocket, and began fiddling with her smartphone, while David leaned back and watched the countryside roll by, shifting his hands to rest behind his head. It was a beautiful sunny day.
The last ridge passed, and they entered Barcelona. The seaside was visible from where they were, the Mediterranean rolling out across the horizon. The city spread out tremendously.
It had been a little after 6 AM when they’d left Zaragoza. It was nearly 9 when they arrived in Barcelona. Another bus trip had them to Gerona. From there, they traveled up the coast for the better part of two hours. They were seldom out of view of the sea, and he had a perfect view out of the window of the distant blue waters. It was just what he needed to let go of his anxieties for a while, and embrace the moment. Right now, everything was perfect.
“Alright. There was a really good deal,” said Farida, smiling up at the building. It was about 2 in the afternoon, and the city bustled with pleasant activity. “I got us a hotel room. Two queen-sized beds for an amazing rate. Apparently something about ghosts, or a murder happened there- I didn’t ask too many questions, they seemed nervous.” She smiled. “But we have a vampire and a magic sword with us, so I figured it’d be fine.”
David raised an eyebrow. “I feel like this is a bad idea, but honestly, I’m finding your logic hard to argue with.”
“Exactly! Now, me and Gerlinde are going to go look for some sun-cream for her. I’ve got some theories about the whole sunlight exposure thing. You and Caladbolg should settle in, make sure everything looks good, then find us a nice restaurant.” She handed David her smartphone, and showed him how to unlock it. “When you find a nice place, just send us a text, okay?”
“Got it. Any preference?”
“Mmmm, not tonight. I’m feeling in the mood to be surprised!” Farida smiled. “I know you’ll choose a good place.” She leaned forward, and pecked him gently on the cheek, squeezing him around the shoulders.
“You know this is weird, right?” he murmured, tilting his head towards Caladbolg.
“Yeah. But I really don’t worry about her trying to steal you or anything, and I think she really, badly needs someone to get close to. She’s also never tried to KIDNAP YOU,” she said, her voice raising on the last sentence. Gerlinde sighed.
“How long are you going to throw that in my face?”
“As long as I possibly can.” Farida grinned. “But it’ll probably become a fond memory, eventually. Come on, let’s go get some suntan lotion so you can stop looking so silly. You’re the worst vampire ever in that snuggy.”
While Farida and Gerlinde set off down the street, David and Caladbolg made their way into the hotel. Check-in was simple, no more than a slight snootiness about David’s fumbling phrase-book French before handing over the key. The two of them entered the room, and settled down. No sooner had David placed Farida’s bags by their bed than he found the sheathed sword thrust into his hands, Caladbolg staring at him seriously. “Are you okay?”
“The honor of polishing my blade is immeasurable. It is a position of trust. Do not be too rough with the cloth, and make sure that you clean the blade thoroughly. The places in the hilt and the crossguard are the most difficult to reach. And any sounds I make are entirely involuntary.” She glared at him. “If you make fun of me, I will never forgive you.”
David slowly rolled his eyes, but Caladbolg didn’t seem to notice or care. He slipped the blade free of its silken scabbard.
Caladbolg was suddenly very naked. David turned his head sharply to the left. “Do you have to be naked?”
“I am a bared sword. I am dangerous, and my nudity is a reflection of that. You cannot even meet my eye like this.” Her silver hair glittered in his peripheral vision, one hand on her hips, her body canted slightly.
“I don’t think it’s because of the kind of danger you’re talking about.”
“You find me attractive, then?”
“Well, yes. But I’m with Farida.”
“I am a tool. I don’t need you in that way. I just need you to polish me.” She placed a small piece of sandpaper in his hands, and sat on the bed behind him. Her back pressed lightly against his, and her skin was cool. He stared at the sandpaper.
“Isn’t this going to be a bit… painful?”
“I am very resilient. My blade is impossible to damage. Thus, I prefer a harsh cleaning agent. This grit will make me shine.”
David resisted the sudden, overwhelming temptation to joke about the sword liking it rough. He really didn’t need to give her any ideas. Hell, he didn’t need to give himself any ideas, either. He slowly shifted the sword on his lap, careful of the gleaming razor’s edge.
“You do not have to be so cautious. I will not cut you. Even if you get rough.” She sat primly, her hands in her lap. “I am a very good sword.”
He rested the sandpaper midway down the blade, and slowly began to drag it upwards. There was a sound, and for a moment he thought the high pitch was coming from the blade. Then he realized it was a moan. He spun around quickly to face Caladbolg.
She was still quite naked, turned towards him at the waist, giving a perfect profile of her breasts, neck turned. There was no sign that she had just made the long, high-pitched moan that had probably been audible in the next room over. “Is something wrong?”
“This is a sex thing,” he said, eyes narrowed.
“No, it’s not. Please, continue.”
Polishing the blade took the better part of an hour, and it was one of the more awkward experiences of David’s life. It wasn’t just the act of intimately handling what was, for all intents and purposes, Caladbolg’s body. It was the sounds she had made, the way she had writhed on the bed behind him with each swipe, and most of all, the utterly innocent way she tried to comport herself when he looked at her, acting as though nothing had happened even as a damp spot spread on the sheets of the bed.
“You know,” he said, as he carefully polished the knob of silvery steel that acted as a pommel on the sword, Caladbolg shuddering behind him, “I thought I wasn’t worthy to be your wielder. But I’m worthy to polish you?”
“Of course,” she said. “It would be an insult to use you as my wielder. As you have pointed out, you are not interested in killing Mystics, you are not a great swordsman. But you do not need to do any of that to be worthy of polishing me.” She leaned more heavily against him, and sighed. “Thank you. For talking to me last night. For coming for me.”
“Phrasing,” he murmured, as he kept polishing it. “And it wasn’t intentional, you know.”
“Yes. But you still did it, and you didn’t leave me behind.” She crossed her arms. “You really care for that Mystic?”
“Knowing what her kind have done?”
“People who have been dead for hundreds, thousands of years. Can’t hold a grudge that predates your own birth, it’d be silly.”
Caladbolg sighed. “Would there be any… use for me? In your world? Would having a sword even be meaningful? Or would I just be a burden, if I came with you?”
“Well, swords are always handy for showing off. But you could do something besides being a sword, right? You could be a person. Just… y’know, swords to plowshares.”
“Ugh.” She glowered. “You think I should drag myself through the dirt? What a terrible thing to say to a sword of my caliber.” But she was smiling as she said it.
“So. Where do you think we should eat?”
“Mmmm. I cannot say I care for food, but some place with nice ambience would be lovely.” She studied the map, and pointed towards one.
An hour and a half later, they sat in the small terraced rooftop. From here, the Garonne, the great river that ran through the center of Toulouse, was quite visible. The mid-day heat was already long gone, the air pleasant and mild here, in the middle of winter. David leaned against the terrace side, staring down across the river.
“Oooh, this IS nice,” said Farida, settling down into the chair next to her. Gerlinde sat beside her, wearing a pair of heavily tinted sunglasses, but otherwise exposed to the rays of the afternoon sun.
“Did that sun tan lotion thing seriously work?”
“SPF 100,” said Farida, nodding. “Technically she was relatively fine with SPF 30, but why not be safe? What’s that?”
“Cassoulet,” said David, passing her one of the earthenware bowls. The thick casserole smelled rich and satisfying, white beans bubbling to the surface, in between chunks of duck. Farida took a slow bite, and closed her eyes, making a happy sound as her tail wagged. Gerlinde sighed, and sliced off a chunk of the boudin noir, sniffing the sausage delicately before taking a bite. She brightened almost immediately.
“The French seem to be able to manage a decent Blutwurst, at least.” She sighed as she dug in, while David enjoyed his own meal of cassoulet, nibbling the chunks of fatty duck meat. Four glasses of red Pinot Noir were provided with the meal, the rich flavor of the wine combining well with the meat, as they ate in silence. Even Caladbolg, after a moment’s hesitation, joined in, though she focused on the wine. She murmured something about appreciating the effect on her blade.
By the end of the night, they sat quietly with a dish of cheeses, though only David and Farida were having any. The cool air rushed around them, as Farida studied the food. “So.” She popped the cheese into her mouth, chewed, swallowed, and continued. “Tomorrow, the Basilica. It’s the largest Romanesque structure in the world, and it’s even got a crypt full of relics!”
That night, David had the most peculiar dream. While lying in the bed, Farida curled up beside him, he thought he heard voices speaking. When he opened his eyes, he found Caladbolg standing in the middle of the room, speaking to herself, though he couldn’t make out what she was saying. She made several sharp gestures with her hands, clenching them into fists once or twice, before reaching out towards something. She spent a few moments spinning around the room before she drew her sword, and jabbed it at something. There was a low, distant moan. Then David fell back asleep.
When morning came, there was no sign of any of that happening, so he decided to chalk it up to an odd dream. They had a light breakfast of pastries, croissants, and brioche at a nearby cafe. The morning had turned out unexpectedly chilly by some quirk of the weather patterns, so Farida and David warmed themselves with cups of hot chocolate. Then, finally prepared, they made their way to the church.
It wasn’t quite as large as the one in Zaragoza, but it was still deeply impressive. There were a handful of tourists in the building as they slowly walked down the length of the cathedral. The great building was cross-shaped, with a tremendous circular area at the far end, light streaming in through several windows. They stepped into the marble cathedral, slowly making their way down the black and white tiled floor, towards the great assembly of artwork at the far end from the entrance. A painted dome was visible there, a figure who must have been Judas arrayed in black ribbons, a red halo hanging around his head. Farida had her phone out, taking picture after picture.
After a moment, David noticed that Caladbolg was no longer standing with them. Looking to the side, he noticed an open iron-grated door, leading to a series of stairs. An unpleasant premonition sent him down the stairs, leaving Gerlinde and Farida to admire the items above. He slowly descended the stone stairs towards the crypts. There, quarters were somewhat tighter, small arches of stone holding up the ceiling. He ducked slightly under one of the lower arches, and found the area lit with warm yellow lights, casting long shadows across the walls.
Relics of all kinds were on display here. All of the placards explaining the contents were in French, but cups, tea sets, small statuary, all were visible behind glass cases, as well as several large and elaborate caskets. He continued walking, noticing several of them recessed into deep walls. He frowned to himself. What could Caladbolg be looking for down here?
It was while examining one of the niches that it happened. There was a tremendous, leaden boom from one of the niches. He dashed down the narrow corridor, and stopped dead.
Caladbolg stood over one of the sarcophagi. Its lid, stone and heavy, lay on the floor beside the crypt. It had to weigh half a ton, at least, and it was cracked through the center. She stared down into the open sarcophagi, and without a moment of hesitation, reached into it, pulling up a pair of skeletal hands wrapped around the pommel of a blade. With one good tug, the hands were yanked off of the rest of the corpse, and then pried off the handle, revealing the sword. It was ancient, sheathed in a red silk scabbard, its hilt straight, crossguard reminiscent of nothing so much as a holy cross. She stared down at it, and then up at David.
“What in god’s name are you doing?” he asked, hissing, though surely everyone in the church had heard the booming sound of the sarcophagus being wrenched open. Caladbolg didn’t answer him, simply staring at the sword with a bemused expression.
“He won’t wake up.” She turned, and took three long steps towards David, shoving it into his hands, removing the scabbard. The blade was gleaming, spotless, despite having come out of a sarcophagus that had to be ancient, and with no sign of any oil or other preservatives on the blade. He took the hilt cautiously, and was shocked by the complete lack of supernatural lights or sudden movements. Caladbolg stared at the sword. “I know it’s Durandal. But he won’t wake up.” She lifted her eyes to David’s. “Why won’t he wake up?”
“I don’t know, but I have already stolen one legendary artifact and despoiled one ancestral religious site in Europe, I really shouldn’t be making it two!” He looked down at the sword and back up again. “Shit. Hide Durandal, alright? We’ll walk out, real innocent.”
“I don’t have anywhere to hide him.” Caladbolg looked down at her clothes. They were, indeed, not particularly made for stealth of any kind.
The two of them moved calmly up the stairs. David limped slightly, one leg held straight, to conceal the fact that Durandal had been hastily stuffed down one pant leg. He approached Farida and Gerlinde, moving as slowly and calmly as he could manage to, his heart pounding like a kettle drum. Fortunately, nobody seemed to have notice the thump below yet, but it would only be so long until security was alerted to the despoiled grave below. Farida smiled at him. “Hey. You guys enjoy the crypts? I was about to go down to get some pictures of the reliquaries!”
David wrapped his arms around her, and whispered, very softly, into her ear. “Caladbolg just found Durandal and looted one of the sarcophagi. We need to get out of here. Now.”
Half an hour later, they sat in the rental car. Farida pursed her lips. “So. Three times now.”
“It’s not my fault,” said David, leaning back against the passenger seat. The convertible had been a bit pricy, but they wouldn’t need it for long.
“I know it’s not your fault. It’s…” Farida cursed vigorously, which came as quite a surprise. “It’s your little brother, or whatever, Caladbolg! I understand why you wanted him safe! But you couldn’t have planned a little?!”
“No one has found out,” said Caladbolg.
“Actually the theft was discovered a few minutes ago.” Gerlinde scrolled down her smartphone. “Wow, desecration of a cultural relic. That’s got a surprisingly harsh sentence.” She looked up. “They didn’t catch our faces on security footage, which pushes this from ‘lucky’ to ‘unnerving’, because I’m pretty sure that place had a lot of closed circuit cameras.”
“Great.” Farida sighed. “That’s three grand historical thefts now.” She shook her head as she accelerated slightly, the car humming along through the A62 highway as they left behind Toulouse, and set out into the broad fields of southern France. It was not even noon, yet, but the drive was going to be a long one. France wasn’t as huge as the United States, but it was still a decent drive. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, the epic fantasy adventure stuff is awesome! It’s cool! But why on earth do we have such awful luck with being subtle?”
“I mean. Technically, that is my fault,” said David, and sighed, frowning over his shoulder. “He hasn’t responded yet, Caladbolg?”
“No,” said Caladbolg. And the sound of her voice was strained, heartbroken enough that all of them went quiet for a moment.
“Is he… I mean.” Gerlinde frowned. “A sword cannot die, can it? His form is still whole.”
“I don’t know,” said Caladbolg.
“Perhaps he’s just sleeping? I mean… do swords sleep?” asked Farida.
“When I was in Aachen… The castle mentioned two other swords besides Caladbolg. He said Tizona wouldn’t be willing to help me, and that Durandal was still mourning Roland.”
“Mourning Roland? Durandal never mourned his masters.” Caladbolg stared silently down at the red scabbard in her lap, knitting her brow as she stared at it. “What could have happened, to change him so much? What did I wind up missing?” She gritted her teeth, the frustration evident. “What the fuck do you have to be so depressed about, you maudlin French PONCE!”
The rest of them were quiet as Caladbolg bent forward, her hands tight around the blade. David reached back, resting a hand on Caladbolg’s wrist. She was shaking slightly. “Are you okay? You said you weren’t really related.”
“But he’s the same kind of thing I am. That’s what’s scary. I can’t understand why he would leave. Why he would just hide away. The only reason I wasn’t there was because I couldn’t be.” She squeezed the hilt, her hand shaking violently. “Why would he let the humans be taken away?”
They didn’t speak again for some time as they drove through the hills of South France. Caladbolg clung to the sword, her shoulders hunched for a while. David slid out Farida’s phone, and began to study the news sites.
Gerlinde had been right. The news of the Grave Robbers’ next strike was everywhere, photos of the shattered sarcophagus on display. The sheer strength necessary to displace the sarcophagus was stunning, beyond something that even most Mystics would have been capable of. The sword was not mentioned, only a ‘historical relic’. David studied the article for a moment, and then groaned. “Oh, god. Carloman was the one who sent relics there. I should’ve guessed that would cause trouble.” He rested his hand on his face, groaning softly. “What the hell is it with the Romans, anyway? There weren’t Dragonlords in China or Native America or anything like that?”
“No. They started in the Roman line. I’ve heard claims they came from Atlantis, or that they were space aliens-” began Farida, and Gerlinde groaned.
“Not that Reptilians swill. It is a ridiculous statement. They were naturally evolved from the dragons of aeons past. There is an extensive fossil record.”
“I am not sure where they came from,” murmured Caladbolg. “But they were largely Roman, yes. The Huns fought a great war to stop the Dragonlords, once, burning down their empire, but they continued. Time and again humans fought against the tyranny of the Dragonlords, released lands, but always the Dragonlords kept pace. The two sides locked in conflict. Until, it seems, they found a solution.” She frowned. “I don’t like this.”
“I love this,” said Farida, as the two of them sat down in the bakery, a series of candles burning between them. Gerlinde and Caladbolg had settled in the hostel nearby, keeping a close eye on Durandal. The two of them sat within sight of the Arc de Triomphe. An array of pastries, macarons, slices of cake, and other delectable treats sat within the glass cases, two bottles of wine- one red, one white- placed in a bucket of ice, cooling as they studied the menus in exacting detail. “I’m going nuts tonight. They think that it had to be a minotaur or something huge that broke open the sarcophagus. We’re free and clear!”
The sunset slowly dipped behind the Arc. A chilly air drifted in through the window, and Farida trailed one of her feet across David’s leg, stroking it lightly, a grin spreading across her lips. David smiled, too. “Yeah. But we probably shouldn’t say that too loudly.”
“I can’t believe we’ve been this lucky so far.” She frowned, and continued, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Do you think it really is someone manipulating things? I mean… Look, it doesn’t make sense. If the Dragonlords were real, and they were actually trying to catch us, and they had the power to hush up something on this scale, why would they? Why not just get the police to capture us, and then do what they want to do? If they’re trying to find us…”
“Mmm. They might be worried about it getting out. If the only way I’m getting home is through them, they know that we’ll run into each other sooner or later.” David looked up, and smiled at the waiter. A young, broad-shouldered man, the waiter’s skin was bright red, and a pair of horns coiled up out of black hair, shelled and glowing faintly from within. The waiter raised an eyebrow questioningly. “Ah, we’re going to start with the chocolate fondue, and a few marshmallows?”
“Fondue?” the man asked, quirking the eyebrow a fraction higher, his voice accented heavily. “And wine? A rather strange choice. I thought dogs were allergic to chocolate. And I thought your kind did not drink… ‘vine’. But if you are sure, monsieur.” He turned on his heel, and strode away, as Farida stared after him. She turned to stare at David.
“Did he seriously just say that?” She turned back to glare at him. “Oh, if he thinks he’s getting a tip-“
“Mademoiselle,” said the man, standing by the counter, grinning over his shoulder. “This is not America. We do not expect a tip. We have actual dignity.” He popped a cigarette into his mouth, and blew out a cloud of smoke. The sweet scent of cloves washed across the table, and Farida coughed, glaring at him.
“Farida?” asked David, noticing the way she kept grabbing and releasing the edge of the table, her agitation obvious.
“That cocky little bastard,” she growled. “I’m going to leave the worst comment this place has ever seen on their yelp page.”
“Ah yes,” said the demonic man, smirking openly now. “That will surely drive off business. After all, who knows better the quality of good French coffee and pastries than an American girl?”
David reached out and scratched behind Farida’s ears as she kept staring at the man, a low growl building in her throat. “Calm, now…”
“Ah, yes, listen to your friend there. Vous avez le cervau d’un sandwich au fromage.”
“What did you say to me you cheese-eating surrender monkey?!”
“Vous avez le corps d’un chien et le QI d’une duree de cinq ans!”
Farida leapt over the table, and David barely caught her around the waist. She was shockingly strong, clawing at the air as the french man laughed. “Lemme at him!”
“Sais-tu combien de temps ta mére prend pour chier? Neuf mois!”
Several minutes later, the two of them were running through the streets. There was no sign of pursuit anymore, and they stumbled to a stop, laughing together. Farida grinned. “I can’t believe you hit him.”
“Well, he shouldn’t have said that about you.” David shook his hand. It had been like punching a brick wall, surprising the man more than actually hurting him. It had been Farida who’d knocked the Mystic to the ground. “Wonder what was up his ass?”
“Ugh. who even knows?” Farida flushed. “I shouldn’t have gotten so worked up about that. God, I must have looked ridiculous getting all heated up and yelling… This is so embarrassing.” She sighed, and frowned. “I’m sorry. It was just… having him insult you… Having him behave like such an asshole… It drove me nuts!”
“I didn’t really mind,” David said, and smiled. “I was the one who hit him, after all.”
“And I was really looking forward to that dessert.” She licked her lips slowly, and sighed. “What do you think. Do you want to check out the Louvre? It should still be open for a couple more hours.”
The line was the first thing they hit. At this hour, it was blessedly short, but it was still a good ten minutes standing in line before they purchased tickets from a set of containers, and walked in. The gift shop was predictably tremendous and sprawling, but the rest of it seemed to match that feel, great white walls standing around them. There was a subtly psychedelic feel when they walked through the open bottom of the great glass pyramid- revealed below to be mirrored vertically, ending in a small point atop another, smaller marble pyramid, a separation of a few inches between the two tips. Farida made him take a picture of her holding it up with one paw. There was a less subtly psychedelic feeling when they passed the Starbucks and McDonalds. Somehow, they made the alienation feel all the more intense.
“There’s something I really want to see, first,” said Farida, and she grabbed his arm, hustling him quickly along in one direction, opposite the glass pyramid. The two of them hiked up two flights of stairs, and took a sharp left, wandering through a great hall of Greek antiquity. Farida was setting a quick pace, tugging his arm. Her reasoning became clear as they entered the last hall, a cul-de-sac at the far end of the building, lining the great square. They stopped when they came into a large room.
The hall was a large, arched corridor, ending about twenty feet beyond a set of ankle-high fence. Two stairwells rose to their left and their right, and just between the stairwells and the corridor were two stone slabs, covered with a glass fronting. Opposite of them stood the face of a pharaoh of old, on the body of a great lion. The slab of rock was tremendous, at least as tall as David and significantly longer. There was a hush in the room, as the two admired the great stone statue, its wise face peering down at them, as though waiting for them to ask a question.
“I heard that in the days of old, the Great Sphinx of Giza was originally an Anubis,” said Farida, standing in front of the small layer of fences. “It was carved from the bedrock, facing to the east. Waiting for the sun each day. It was defaced over time, and there was this theory that it was originally Anubis, because of the style of eye make-up and the head-dress.” She leaned forward, staring at the face. “I wonder what it was like. There was an entire society of humans and Mystics that existed for thousands of years before the Dragonlords ascended with the Romans. We know so little about them, but they seemed to be able to live together. I heard that in those days, Mystics and humans lived in peace. My kind were worshipped as gods, providing safe passage to the afterlife…” She sighed.
“What’s the matter?”
“it’s just…” She frowned. “After all of this finishes. I’ll go home, and go back to working at that morgue. Just… doing data entry, doing the same things I did before. And if we succeed, you won’t be there. It’ll be just… normal. After this crazy, tempestuous month…” She sighed. “How do you go back after something like this? How do you make peace with normalcy after you take adventure?”
“It hasn’t all been roses.” He smiled. “You won’t have to deal with any more insane vampires. No more crazy swords. No more ludicrously weird international plots. No more worrying that someone’s going to mistake you for an international thief of antiquities.” He took her hand, and the two of them went up the stairs, into the next room. “Adventure’s fun, but at a certain point, it’s nice to be able to settle back home and not worry about things for a while.”
“Yeah.” She looked down at her feet as they mounted the stairs. “It’ll be lonely without you around, though.”
“Hey, look on the bright side. Maybe this won’t work, and I’ll stay trapped here forever.” David smiled. “The way I look at it is, it’s like any road-trip. You know? It’s exciting and crazy and madcap, and it gives you memories that last a lifetime. Most people don’t get to do something like this once in their lives. And after you do, life’s still full of fascinating things, but you can face it with more confidence, because of what you’ve been through.” David looked up. They stood in a section of room with a great map of the Nile, and small models of Egyptian boats. He leaned over to look closer at one.
“I guess. But… after finding out there’s magic, and humans, and amazing things…” She puffed out her cheeks. “It’d be so strange if I went through all of that, and then it drifted away. This is such a huge revelation. I feel like… it’d just be so sad if you just went home again.”
“Well, I crossed over here once, yeah?” David shrugged. “It’s the same old conversation, though. If we find a way to bridge the gap, everything’s awesome. If it’s one way, we worry about that when the moment arrives.” He rested an arm around her shoulder, and smiled. “This place is gorgeous. Look at this.” He bent forward, and studied a coin, with what appeared to be the face of a catgirl on it.
The sun was setting by the time they’d made their way through the full section of antiquities. An announcement rung out through the halls, saying that they would close in 15 minutes. “Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo?” asked David. “The Venus de Milo’s closer.”
“I really want to get a picture of the Mona Lisa.” Farida grinned at him, and the two of them linked arms, marched quickly down the long corridors.
When they reached the European painting section, it was relatively quiet. There were only two people there, a bright green-haired female tour guide in a tight black shirt who was leading around a single young woman, and narrating the paintings. They passed the two, and approached the Mona Lisa’s room.
Dozens of paintings lined the walls. They ranged from modest to frankly gigantic, some of them stretching out across the room. The Mona Lisa itself sat in place of honor on one wall. A great yellow marble wall, the only painting there was that of the Mona Lisa. Surprisingly, nobody was in the hall at the moment. David was certain that they should have left by now, but a guard hadn’t ushered them out, so he’d take his time. The two of them stood behind the layer of stanchions, the small wooden fence, and the layer of bulletproof glass defending the picture. David stared silently at the painting.
The picture was, in broad terms, familiar. It was the same face, the same background, the same clothes. The color of the skin was different, however, as were the two ram’s horns that rose from her temples, coiled tightly like cinnamon buns. He frowned as he leaned forward on the stanchion.
“And of course, the Mona Lisa,” said the tour guide, as she entered the room, trailed by the girl. David looked over at them, and then back at the picture. The guide’s hair was a bright green, which was curious. They must have pretty lax requirements. “The Mona Lisa is, at this point, perhaps the most famous painting in the world. This is not solely because of its quality. Though the Mona Lisa is undeniably a fine piece of work, it has undergone countless restorations. It was not until 1911, when it was stolen, that the Mona Lisa became truly famous.”
Farida lifted her camera, and snapped a couple of shots of the picture, carefully lining them up, tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth as she slowly snapped the shots.
“With its return, the Mona Lisa went from famous to legendary. In 1956, vandals began to target it, at which point its notoriety grew even greater. Most people believed that these assaults were simply targets of opportunity, like the theft. Indeed, it is still commonly believed that the theft was simply for the purpose of returning it to the Italian government. Few are aware of its true purpose. Vincenzo Peruggia wound up framed, accused of seeking to hand it over to the Uffizi gallery in Florence.”
“Ah, yes,” said the girl. “Of course, no one at the time realized the true purpose, hiding the true nature of the Mona Lisa. Hiding the nature of humans.”
David spun. The girl smiled. She was not tall, perhaps an inch or two shorter than Farida, her figure curvaceous, suggestive of being in her mid twenties. She wore a simple white cotton dress that hung down to her knees, a delicate golden chain hanging around her neck. Her hair was a fierce red color, framing her face perfectly, hanging just down to her chin, spikes rising around her head. She could have been mistaken for human, or undead, save for one thing.
Her eyes were a bright gold.
“David,” she purred. The tour guide still stood beside her, hands folded in front of her. The tour guide’s eyes were verdigris, the same strange sheen to her hair that Caladbolg had. “So, we meet at last.”
His eyes flicked between the two of them, as Farida turned, her eyes wide. “I’m going to guess, here, that you’re the Dragon Lord.”
“What on earth could have given me away?” the woman asked, voice dry. “Vereoria Dracos. A pleasure to finally meet you.”
David set his feet. “So. How’d you find us?”
“That? I could feel you all across the world, David. I am a Dragon. The Foe of Heroes. You have seen the way that you can awaken the old Tools.” She waved a hand to her side. “Tizona sprung into life when she felt you in the world. She was ecstatic. I found her, and persuaded her to work together with me.”
“It’s true,” said the girl, and she smiled. She spoke with a touch of Spanish accent, and her skin was olive-toned, her expression warm and pleasant, her hands crossed in front of her. “It is an absolute pleasure to meet you, Human.”
“So. You can ‘feel me’. I guess the dragons didn’t run out of power quite as quickly as everyone else?” David moved a hand behind him, making a ‘move’ gesture to Farida. He heard her step aside. “Seems a bit unfair.”
“Well, life isn’t fair. You are going to come with me.”
Tizona drew her sword, and placed it in Vereoria’s hand. The dragon girl squared her shoulders, and adopted a fencing pose. “You’ll notice that wasn’t a question.”
David slowly licked his lips, his eyes flicking between the two. Tizona still stood, her hands folded in front of her, in the little tour guide outfit. “You’re helping her? Dragonlords have been killing humans since time immemorial, they flung them all into another world, and you want to help her? Do you even know what she’s got planned for me?”
“Of course,” said Tizona, and smiled. “Do not worry, David. I would not be aiding her if she were going to hurt you. I confess that the fate she has in mind for you may be unpleasant, even disgraceful and dishonorable. But it is a necessary sacrifice.” She sighed. “I hope that someday you will be able to forgive me for what I do. But it is for the sake of all. Human, Mystic, and Tool. It is a heavy sacrifice I ask of you.” She sighed. “But this road we walk on cannot continue.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” David asked, shifting.
“I was the one who brought you here,” said Vereoria. “Do you know what it cost me? I, the last true scion of the House of Dracos?” She sighed. “There is a reason I confronted you here.” She pointed at the painting. “That was one of the last clues, one of the few things that survived the great ritual, that separated the world of Humans, and the world of Mystics. Leonardo da Vinci spent years recalling what had happened, leaving one last clue for the world. So, of course, my forebearers decided they needed to destroy it. First they covered it over, hiding its true nature. Then they stole it. Replaced it with that fake.”
David looked carefully from the Dragonlord to the painting. “Why did they do all of this?”
“Why? Because they were losing.”
He turned at that. The Dragonlord’s eyes were narrowed. “Losing to who?”
“I can explain it to you. Explain all of it. The whole sordid affair. But it’s simple, when you boil it down. They were afraid. They thought that they would lose their power. They thought that they would be overthrown, that their place of dominion would be crushed. They didn’t realize just how much they were giving up. They didn’t realize what humans were.” She sighed. “When they created the great ritual, the division of our two worlds, they didn’t know that it would take away our powers, too. And they were too goddamned stubborn to change their mind. They thought it was for the best.” She took a deep breath, and grinned. “Five hundred years since one of my kind felt this. The joy of power.”
Suddenly, she was very close to David. The scent of smoke and fire surrounded her, almost choking. Farida took a step towards them, and Vereoria raised the blade, pointing the tip at her. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
There was a shattering of glass, and alarms began to ring. Light glittered down across the opposite wall, as two figures entered. One was Gerlinde, carrying the red silk scabbard, her steps quick, her eyes narrowed. The other was Caladbolg. She was, of course, stark naked.
“Get away from the human,” said Caladbolg. Her gaze drifted over to Tizona, and her eyes narrowed. “You filthy traitor. What could have happened to make you fall so far?”
“The same thing that happened to you. The humans went away. This is a last chance to bring them back,” said Tizona. “Don’t fight us on this, Caladbolg. I know you don’t wish to sacrifice one human, to lose one wielder, but it is the only way for this to end right. It is his sacrifice.”
Caladbolg moved fast, and so did Gerlinde. Durandal came free of the red scabbard, as the two of them swung from either side, Caladbolg swinging for her neck, Gerlinde aiming a slash at her legs.
The cotton dress tore apart, and two great, leathery wings erupted out. Caladbolg and Durandal struck the wings, and sparks flew. Vereoria smiled slowly, her head tilted. “So. This is what it was like, in the old days. When our kind were supreme.” She swung Tizona in three quick arcs, and Durandal flew through the air, landing with a solid thunk and twang in one of the paintings. She forced Gerlinde back with a forth slice, and then turned towards Caladbolg.
“You are not the first Dragonlord I have faced, beaten, or killed,” said Caladbolg, her eyes narrowed. “You are a mere girl. Barely even out of your teenage years.” She moved forward, attacking aggressively, bringing the blade in great arcing blows that rang through the gallery, making the floor shake with each merciless blow, her teeth shining, her eyes enraged.
“Yes. But see, there is an incredibly important difference between all of those previous times, and now.” Vereoria twirled the blade once in her hand, knocking Caladbolg’s blade aside, forcing her to take a step back. “You are alone.”
Then she slammed the sword through Caladbolg’s chest.
David wasn’t quite clear at what happened. There was a numb ringing in his ears, and he was kneeling by the sword. Caladbolg had disappeared like a soap bubble. He rested his hands on it. “Caladbolg?” His voice came out weak, and reedy.
“Oh, please,” said Vereoria, rolling her eyes. “She is unbreakable. She just forgot her place for a moment. She will be fine in an hour or two, but she will not be giving any more trouble. She is a blade. A tool. A thing. She is not a person, and you waste your tears on her.” David realized there were tears running down his cheeks. He wiped at them. “Your other two friends are not so resilient. Tell them to back off.”
Gerlinde stood between them and the glass window she and Caladbolg had come through. She was holding Durandal again, but she looked uncertain. Farida was still staring at where Caladbolg had fallen. “I can fight you.”
“You’re a vampire. You failed to keep the human in place, and as a result, things have become messier than they needed to be. You will not be getting any more of his blood.”
“I don’t want his blood. Well, not just his blood.” Gerlinde narrowed her eyes. “Your kind are the reason mine suffered. I won’t forgive that.”
“That sword remains in despair. Your hearts are not in sync. Tizona and I, we fight for one thing. We have one desire.” She grinned toothily. “You are outnumbered.”
“Gerlinde.” David’s voice was soft. “It’ll be okay. If she just wanted to kill me…” He looked up. “She could do it right now. You can find me. It’ll be okay.” He turned towards Vereoria. “Promise you’re not going to hurt them.”
“If they let me have you, I could give two shits.” She smiled. “I only want you. My human.”
He took a deep breath, and stood up. “Fine. Make sure they’re safe.” Gerlinde watched him uncertainly for a moment or two, before stepping back, lowering the sword. Vereoria chuckled, holding a hand over her mouth, smirking as she strode forward.
“Good. I must say, it may be uncomfortable at first, but once the wedding proceedings are done, I think you will come to appreciate your position, in time.”
Gerlinde stepped forward again, and grinned, holding up the sword. “Not quite so fast.”
Vereoria narrowed her eyes. “You want to test your luck, do you?”
“No. But I think she does.”
There was a scrape of metal, and the sound of footsteps. Vereoria turned, and raised her wing. This saved her life, as the sword rammed straight through the leathery skin. Caladbolg’s shining tip was a half inch from Vereoria’s face, ringing slightly, the crossguard caught against one of the bones in the wing, barely preventing it from providing a Carolina tracheotomy. Farida held it, and was forcing it forward, the wing shaking.
Gerlinde came from the other side, and landed a merciless kick on Vereoria, stumbling her. In a moment, the vampire’s arms went around Farida and David, and yanked them back, hard. They struck one of the shadows, and there was a moment of absolute darkness that swept around them like a cloud of ink. Then they were standing on a street. Looking around, David saw the Louvre across the river, surrounded by the flashing lights of police services. Farida stared at the Louvre, and then down at the sword. “And here I was thinking that LARPing had been a waste of time.” She shook the sword. “Are you okay, Caladbolg?”
“Yes,” said a voice that wasn’t Caladbolg’s.
The three of them turned, to find themselves face to face with… Well, he was a boy, but that was only clear because he was naked. Slim, even feminine in proportions, the young man’s skin was white, his features soft and pretty. David averted his eyes, while both Gerlinde and Farida seemed incapable of doing the same. Long black hair hung around his face, and tracks of tears dragged down his cheeks, long-dried but still visible. “Uh. Durandal, I’m guessing?”
“Yes,” said Durandal, his voice soft and breathy. “How did you guess?”
“You have some things in common with Caladbolg.” David coughed. “Could you put that scabbard back on, Gerlinde?”
“Aww. Do I have to? He’s so… pretty,” said Gerlinde, grinning. Farida grabbed the red silk scabbard, and rammed it rather pointedly onto the naked blade. This helped matters marginally, though the navel-baring costume that the young man wore was almost worse in some ways, clinging to his skin like an extremely aggressive drunken aunt.
“We need to get out of the city. And I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not going to be able to get away with our usual approaches to things.” Farida pursed her lips. “We’re going to have to travel under cover.”
“That should be simple.” Gerlinde smiled, and then vanished through a shadow at their feet. Farida and David were left standing on their own, frowning down at the ground.
“I’m sorry about your travel itinerary, Farida.”
“All I really wanted was to visit Europe.” Farida looked down at the sword, and then grinned. “But that was fucking amazing. Did you see how I blind-sided her!” She laughed, and sheathed Caladbolg again. “So… she’s okay. How long do you think it’ll take her to reform?”
“Not long,” said Caladbolg, approximately an inch behind the two of them. Farida’s tail went stiff, her ears standing up, but she didn’t otherwise react. David certainly didn’t yelp, regardless of what anyone might say. “You wielded me, Farida.”
“Uh.” Farida turned around, and swallowed. “Was that wrong?”
“No. You did well. For a Mystic, you are a worthy wielder.” Caladbolg gave a smirk. “Don’t get too used to it, but if we should need to deal with that woman again, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to work together like that once more.” She sighed, and frowned at the Louvre. “Particularly as I think you are right. She did bring you through into this world. She may be the only one who can send you back. Her motives seem clear enough, the desire for power, the strength that comes from a human.” She chuckled. “It seems like the Dragonlords were just as reliant upon humans.” She was silent for a moment. “There is a bitter irony for you. And how like Durandal to show up right after it would have been useful.” She sighed softly, and set one fist on her hip.
“Are you okay?” asked David, an eyebrow raised. “You just got stabbed in the stomach.”
“I am fine,” said Caladbolg, her voice dropping a few degrees. “I am just a thing. It does not matter. I am just glad that I did not fail.”
David rested a hand on her shoulder. “You’re not just a thing. We’ve established that pretty well. And you saved my butt. You’re not alone anymore.” He was silent for a moment or two, and then frowned. “Did she say marriage ceremony?”
“Yes,” said Caladbolg, frowning, as Farida covered her mouth, eyes crinkling at the edges with a smile. “A dark fate indeed.”
“I mean, I’m not exactly jumping at the opportunity for a loveless marriage to a power-mad Illuminati, but I was kind of expecting… I don’t know. Murder or something. Being sacrificed to open a portal, or something like that.”
“If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear, it is that the Dragonlords have no interest in killing humans,” said Caladbolg, frowning. “At least, this one certainly does not. If she had even a hint of that desire, Tizona would not be helping her. Strange though she may be, she doesn’t want humans to die.” Caladbolg sighed. “But to enslave them is no better.” She opened and closed her mouth. “What did Gerlinde mean when she said it would be simple?”
A car suddenly drove up, coming to a sudden stop beside them. The door opened, and Gerlinde grinned out at them. “Sorry about that. Took a little while to find an old model car, something I could hotwire easily. Turns out it’s much easier to steal a car when you can teleport through a window, and into the shadows within.” She winked. “Shall we get out of here?”
David wasn’t certain of the specific car make, but it had a sizable trunk, which was good. David sighed. “We have to stay in the trunk?”
“Best way to be sure we’re not caught,” said Gerlinde. “There’s room for you to look out, but if you stay quiet, we should be able to make it over the Swiss border. We aren’t going to be able to avoid leaving a trail of one kind or another at this point. Our best hope is to steal cars, keep them for a few hours, and switch shortly after.” Gerlinde smiled. “Who’s ready to commit some crimes?”
“I am,” said Durandal, his voice still soft, coming from the passenger’s seat. “Can I drive?”
“No,” said Gerlinde, voice firm. “You’ve never driven before.”
“But it looks fun.” The sword pouted, and Gerlinde rolled her eyes. David got the impression it wasn’t the first time he’d asked. She turned towards David and Farida, and smiled.
Farida and David slid into the trunk. It was roomy, and though they were pressed together, that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. The back seat rolled forward to offer them fresh air, and a place to hide, as Gerlinde began driving, taking a pace that was nothings short of reckless, the car humming as it made its way down the motorways. He put his arms around Farida, and frowned out of the hole. “We’re going to be kind of obvious. I’m not sure how long we’re going to be able to get through two entire countries to Rome.”
“We’ll figure out something,” murmured Farida, as she wound her arms around him. “And I can’t wait to see the Alps.”