Fly High or Not at All

Adaklies’ nostrils flared. It was not the humidity that weighed down each breath nor the raw scent of human or the sweet taste of sap that earned her annoyance, but herself. Her prey had been clearly visible from far above, yet he’d disappeared into the shade of a puffy oak along the path and never come out. Now on the ground herself, she’d expected to find him easy pickings, resting and amusing himself, but the base of the tree stood silent and alone. The rustling of its leaves sounded like mocking laughter.

Her expression soured and her wings twitched as Adaklies took up shelter in the shade of the tree. If this thing was to mock her, at least she’d have it do her some good. Woe be it if a plant got the last laugh. Her wings needed the rest anyways.

Not even a sigh had escaped her lips before a disturbance above caught her attention. Her eyes squinted and adjusted to the light, twitching when tiny slices of sunlight broke through the leaves. The rustling this time was not caused by wind, but another traveler. One who’d just started snoring.

With a sharp puff of breath, Adaklies was back on her feet, turning around to stare at the other traveler more comfortably. He was sprawled lazily along a branch, hands clasped in his lap, napping. A light but broad cloak hung like a melting shadow from his body. He carried minimal equipment on his back, probably intending on a shorter trip, or perhaps he was someone who cared little for those details until they became more important. That was Adaklies’ guess at least, seeing his posture. She had half a mind to bound up there, pluck him off the branch, and take what she’d come for, but the other half held her back with a question.

How had she not noticed him before?

“Oi!” she hollered.

Hardly any movement from the man, but his eyes opened to reveal two sharp slices of pale green locking onto Adaklies.

“How’d you get up there so quick?” she asked.

“I climbed.”

“Awfully fast for a human.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Care to come down here?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t’ve made myself so comfortable up here.”

“Aren’t you worried you’re going to fall, taking a nap there?”

“The ground isn’t this relaxing.”

“Don’t think you’d want to make a bed of a branch. Liable to toss you off.”

“Is that so.”

Adaklies almost smirked. The man was surprisingly nonplussed at encountering a dragon so suddenly, especially alone out in the country like this. He was either incredibly confident or completely oblivious. Adaklies guessed the second and she wanted to find out.

“How about you come down here anyways?”

“Do you have some reason to offer?”

“I want you to come down here.”

“I meant a good reason.”

“That is a good reason.”

Sighing loud enough for Adaklies to hear him, the man leaned forward to rest his hands upon his knees. The movement made the branch rock beneath him, though his balance never stuttered. “You are certainly a dragon.”

This time, Adaklies did smirk. “And proud of it.”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Not intending on it, no.”

“Alright.”

With a soft grunt, the man swung his feet off the branch, using one of his hands as a swivel. His cloak billowed out with the rush of air as he dropped to the ground. The dirt and pebbles of the path crunched under his crisp landing. He took a moment to brush a few leaves off before standing to face Adaklies.

“It seems you’ve gotten me down. What can I do for you?”

Adaklies sized him up. Definitely not new to traveling, but he lacked a certain composure. His eyes were sharp, yet unfocused, his legs were sturdy, yet his stance lazy. Adaklies wasn’t the tallest dragon, but she still had several inches on the man, even with his cloak muddying his true height. Several straps across his chest and shoulder held a pack to his back, but another lone strap, slung diagonally across his front, fastened what Adaklies expected was the reason for his nonchalant attitude. It was a longbow, one of the better weapons against dragons, though tricky with many other species and still difficult to use once the distance was closed, such as it was now.

“I’m a bit bored with flying for the day, and in the mood for a little fun. How about you?”

“Ah.” His voice shook and his eyes lost their iron grip on her. “I’m not interested.”

“Really?” Adaklies stood up straight, presenting her smooth, lithe body to the man. His eyes made an effort to avoid laying upon it. “It could be quite enjoyable.”

“Still not interested.” His gaze flicked back to her face for only a moment.

“Hmm.” Adaklies scratched her cheek.

“I’m surprised you bothered to ask.”

She raised a finger. “How about this: a contest. I’ll try to catch you for ten minutes. If you can avoid me for that long, I’ll give up on the whole thing and you can go back to whatever you were up to like you never met me.”

“Something tells me you aren’t really listening to what I’m saying,” he said.

“If you want to concede right now that’s fine.”

“I’m at quite a disadvantage.”

“You’re just as bored as I am out here. Besides, I only have ten minutes.”

“Five.”

“Five?”

“I’ll do it if you only have five minutes.”

Adaklies couldn’t help but lick her lips. Five minutes? That was four more than she would need, and from the man’s tone it sounded like he was grasping for confidence.

“Five minutes then.”

“Here.” The man reached into his pack and pulled out a simple sand timer. “It’s five minutes.”

“And why do you carry a sand timer around?”

“Long story. Rules?” The man began to remove his cloak and packs.

“Don’t see why we’d need those.”

“I’d prefer if I knew you weren’t planning on skewering me. Or claiming your prize in mid-air. I’m not fond of heights.”

“Don’t worry, it would be a waste to harm you, and I’ll be as accommodating as you wish with conditions once I’ve made my victory clear.”

“Very well.” The man tossed his things to the ground, including his cloak. His frame wasn’t particularly impressive, though that didn’t take much away from his looks. She’d seen better, but he wasn’t a bad catch by any stretch of the imagination. Subtle but present muscles, a defined jawline, and legs with a spring in their step. Reaching into his belongings, he removed the cover from his weapon and pulled it free.

For once, Adaklies was surprised. It was a bow, as she suspected, but not quite a typical bow. Its curve smooth yet plain, the bow boasted functionality but not style. Its dull gray color gave the impression it was made of metal, yet a metal bow of its size hardly made sense. Metal’s firmness and weight made it far inferior to wood. The most curious part about the weapon, however, was what it lacked.

“Plan on hunting without a bowstring?” she asked.

“I thought I wasn’t hunting, just keeping away.”

She shrugged. How he fought or refrained from fighting wouldn’t matter.

“How about we start right… now!” He slammed the sand timer down.

Adaklies was left smirking with arms crossed as the man bounded into action, immediately putting several paces between them. By the time Adaklies had begun to chase, he already had a healthy lead.

She grumbled at herself. Of course a bow user would try to create some distance. She hit liftoff speed as quick as possible and glided just over the ground on hot pursuit.

Her wings closed the ground fast. Man’s legs had never proven to be much a match. Strong winds buffeted her frame, but it was nothing dragon wings and experience couldn’t overcome. Her eyes focused in on the man’s back. She smiled at his futility. He wasn’t even turning around to look. Did he not know how fast dragons were, or was he simply underestimating her? Her claw tensed with anticipation as she decided where to seize him. The back of his neck would work well–she’d pluck him up like a kitten and show him for thinking so little of her ability. He’d never even get a chance to use that bow.

Mouth dripping with hunger and wind whistling past her ears, Adaklies reached a claw out. Inches from its target, the man ducked and dodged to the side. It took a moment for Adaklies to realize he’d reacted. Her wings opened wide and brought her vicious charge to a halt. When she turned, she found the man had already started the other direction, leaving her right back where she started.

Narrowing her eyes, she sneered at the man’s fleeing form before bursting back into action. Luck alone wouldn’t win him this contest.

The fury of her rebound attack was swept out from underneath her when he ducked away from her claw a blink before it closed around him. Her tongue rattled with a hiss and she stopped her charge, wavering a bit before she halted. Twice now? Without turning around? To add onto that, he’d somehow managed to put the same distance between them in that breath of time between her miss and stop. The man was lucky and agile, or at least drowning in adrenaline. Still, it was only a matter of time.

When her claw caught air a third time, she yelled in annoyance and landed, glaring daggers into the man’s back. His strategy was so painfully simple, yet Adaklies’ reactions were always a fraction of a second behind! She might actually break a sweat at this rate. Narrowing her eyes, she took off again. He had to be reaching the limits of his endurance, and hardly a minute had passed. If he was able to take off in the opposite direction with such speed after another dodge, there had to be something else going on, something giving him more stamina than any human had any business having.

Just to be safe, Adaklies reigned in her speed, making sure she could react quickly to whatever the man did. Even if she missed once more, she’d be ready to cut a sharp turn and keep at least some of her momentum.

She could hear his panting as she approached. This time when she struck, she was grinning. Her scaly hand could feel the heat of its prey as it closed… but an inch too late. Adaklies had already begun catching air in her broad wings to slow, but the man hadn’t taken off like usual. A grey blur came down, shocking her into a yelp as pain buffeted her arm. Adaklies stared at her numb hand, curling her fingers in an attempt to get feeling back. For such a simple attack to do so much damage through her scales, he must’ve hit a weak spot, or struck with extraordinary strength.

With a hiss and a glare, she looked up at her prey. He was no longer running, instead facing her from a short distance away, bow held out in front of him. Without a bowstring, however, it wouldn’t do him much good.

That bow! Adaklies ran her eyes over it again. Had she missed something? Could that be the reason why he was so agile? So strong?

“What is that bow?”

“Are you sure you have time to be asking questions you won’t get the answers to?”

“I’m trying to spare you the experience of having them forced out of you later.”

“I’m too busy to be terrified at the moment.”

Adaklies gritted her teeth into a haughty grin. “Oohh, you are going to be so much fun.”

She shook her numb hand. Pins and needles tingled through her arm, but she was too fired up to care. Her opponent wasn’t running around any more, exhausted from the looks of his sweat and breathing. Two monstrous strides brought her within range and she struck. A roaring fist of scales and fervor hurdled toward the man’s face. Bringing his bow to bear, he pushed the fist slightly in one direction while his head moved the other, and her blow found only air.

Shifting her feet, Adaklies swung her entire body around, opening her wings while striking at his side with her tail. It cut through the air with violent silence. From the lack of resistance, she knew it missed, but was already coming with her next attack. With her wings spread so wide, the man wasn’t able to see her bring her leg up into a spinning kick. She grinned to herself as the final attack in her flurry homed in on his shoulder.

A grunt of effort came from the man as he twisted his body awkwardly. His desperate effort paid off and the kick only grazed him and Adaklies was left scowling. A flurry attack like that almost always connected at some point, especially against humans.

She leapt forward, arms outstretched, hoping to tackle the man. He had just enough time to recover from his off-balance dodge and threw himself to the side. Her claws caught clothing, but nothing more.

Always a hair’s width away! It wasn’t like the man was comfortably dodging, either. He was panting, his reactions only barely enough, and while they prevailed in the end, they did so with no pretense of grace. Had Adaklies been able to keep her balance stable after the flurry, her claws probably would’ve caught something more with that last attack.

Relentless she hounded him, stepping forward with every attack, striking with tail, wings, and claws. She took care not to leave serious wounds, but as it turned out, she never had the chance. The more ferociously she attacked, the more attentive his blocks. If she grazed his side with a kick, his bow would score a strike on her cheek. If her wing was about to hit his shoulder, that bow would stop it inches short.

As they fought, however, his movements slowed. Kicks and punches began to connect. He still had the agility to keep from her tackles and hugs which would’ve ended the contest right away, but the wounds were piling up.

When his back slammed into a tree, she reacted instantly. Her claw dug into the tree and fastened his neck in there.

Her face lit with a fiery smile. “My win.”

The man pointed down and to the side. Her eyes followed, and upon seeing his equipment, she realized this was the very tree they’d started it all under. His finger was pointing specifically to the timer.

Empty.

Scowling, she ripped her claw out of the tree and let the man fall to the ground. “So close…”

He coughed before picking up the sand timer and taking a closer look. “Yeah, seems so.”

“How did you know it was five minutes? Were you keeping track in the middle of the fight?”

Collapsing at the base of the tree, he held his hand up, signalling for her to wait. Adaklies crossed her arms and began pacing. That was the one thing she was terrible at.

“No,” he said after a short rest. “I just knew I was running out of strength and had held you off as long as my body would allow. I led the fight back to the tree and had to hope it’d been five minutes.”

“Hmph. You’re a lucky one.”

“I don’t depend on luck. I analyzed the situation and took the logical course of action. It’s how you’re supposed to handle problems.”

He’d already begun to pick up his things. Adaklies watched him as he paced, eyes trying to cut through the haze that seemed to surround him. He plucked his pack off the ground and threw it on his back, walking off like the entire encounter had never happened.

Adaklies fell in behind him and the man stopped.

“Thought you were going to leave me alone once I won.”

“I said I’d give up trying to have fun. Besides, I already had some.”

He looked over his shoulder at her. “Why you following me, then?”

“Because I’m curious.”

“Shouldn’t let such a whimsical thing tell you what to do.”

“Why not?”

“No telling where it leads.”

“That makes it all the more exciting.”

The man shrugged and turned around, continuing down the path. Adaklies stayed close behind.

“Not going to try any harder to stop me?”

“I know better than to waste energy trying to stop a dragon from chasing her whims.”

Adaklies grinned, dispersing the overcast expression that once loomed on her face. “Why don’t you start satiating that ‘whim’ with your name?”

She swore she could hear a groan. “If we’re going to be travelling together for a little while… Folsomar.”

“Adaklies.”

“Pleasure. Try not to get any ideas, alright?”

Adaklies licked her lips. “Oh, it’s far too late for that.”

**

“Funny how humans never gained the ability to see at night.”

“I’m not seeing the humor in this.”

“The way you walk like you’re about to topple over when you’re in fact on completely level ground is rather amusing.”

“Ha.” Folsomar grumbled to himself, trying to even out his stride, but he couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. With trying to balance the weight of his things, it made progressing nothing less than awkward.

“We could just stop, you know. It’s easy for me to light a fire.”

“We’re not even a mile from Terrah, which is where I was planning on stopping for tonight. Would’ve made it there by sundown had I not run into complications.” He spat the last word out louder than the others.

Adaklies chuckled, her tail swishing cheerfully through the grass. She preferred the grass to the dirt road, both of which she could see almost as clearly as day. Folsomar’s eyes kept switching between the road directly in front of his feet and the horizon, where torches and small fires lit up the town of Terrah not far ahead.

Watching him was a fine recompense for her loss earlier and she was quite in her element teasing him.

“You know, the path’s clear all the way from here to Terrah. No reason to walk so carefully.”

“Forgive me if I take that with a grain of salt.”

“I’ve always heard my voice is rather sweet, instead,” she cooed.

“Nope, salty sounds more accurate.”

She shook her head. “Yeesh, you’re such a sourpuss.”

“You’re not the first to say that.”

To his credit, his stride had evened out a bit, allowing the pair to make regular progress toward Terrah once more. Within the hour, they were in shouting distance of the torches furthest out, but Adaklies’ relief at their arrival was quickly replaced with curiosity.

“Is it normal for men to be about at the outskirts of a village at this time of evening?” she asked.

“No. Not unless they’re expecting trouble.”

“What are you thinking we should do?”

“‘We’? You can do whatever you please. I still intend on finding lodging.” He took a glance at the village before turning back to her. “A place this small probably doesn’t have an inn, but surely there’s a stable or something with a roof on it. If you’re still intent on following me around, that’s what you’ll be doing too, I guess.” Adjusting his pack and longbow, he started down the path.

Adaklies shot his back a glare and grumbled to herself, but continued on behind him. It wasn’t long before the pair was spotted. A group of five men approached them as they made it to the outmost buildings.

One man stepped in front of the others, holding up a hand to halt Adaklies and Folsomar. “What’s a dragongirl and what I presume to be her husband doing coming into our town after the sun’s gone down?”

“Not her husband,” growled Folsomar. Adaklies smirked silently aside him.

“Doesn’t answer the question.” His tone left little room for joking. Taking another look at the men, Adaklies noticed a shortsword on the leader and dangerous farm tools on the others.

“We’re just traveling through,” said Adaklies.

“Where to?” the leader asked.

“Keian,” said Folsomar. “Dunno about her, through.”

Adaklies’s eyes flashed a moment of surprise at the city name.

“So you’re not together?” the leader asked.

“It seems we are, at least temporarily.” Folsomar adjusted his pack. “Look, it’s been a long day and I’d like a place to rest. Got a roof for me to sleep under?”

The leader gestured for Folsomar and Adaklies to wait, then went back to chat with his group. Folsomar and Adaklies exchanged a glance, her eyebrows offering a silent inquiry. Folsomar nudged his head toward the men talking. ‘Later,’ he was saying.

The leader approached the two of them once more. “We’ve got a small stable where we keep the village horse and livestock. You can put up for the night there and we’ll even give you some food tomorrow morning to send you off–under one condition.”

“I’m not too fond of conditions,” said Folsomar.

Adaklies playfully smacked him on the shoulder. “C’mon, it just got interesting.”

“Didn’t come here for ‘interesting’.”

The leader cleared his throat. “You’re probably wondering why there are people up and about at night. Well, the thing is, there’s a hellrift bound to open at any moment, and we’re doing our best to be ready for it. If you promise to help defend the village from whatever comes out of that rift, you can have your lodging and your meal.”

“A hellrift.” Folsomar tasted the word. “I’ve dealt with worse. But how do you know it’s going to open soon? And why here?”

“We’ve got a mage here. She can sense ripples and the such. And we don’t know if it’s going to open up in the village, just nearby. With luck, whatever monsters it spawns won’t even notice us.”

“If you’ve got a mage, why doesn’t she just take care of it?”

Adaklies smacked him again. The leader looked glanced between the two, but when Folsomar failed to react to her, he continued.

“She’s too old for combat and not skilled enough to mend the hellrift before it opens. Look, all we’re asking for is that you promise your help if the attack happens before you leave tomorrow.” Sweat dripped down his face, and Adaklies guessed it wasn’t from the heat of the torch. The men all behind him stood stiff like a small push could send them all toppling over.

“How big is–”

“We’ll do it,” said Adaklies, shoving Folsomar out of the way. “Folsomar’s just being a stick in the mud. Besides, a few stray monsters aren’t going to give us any trouble.”

“A few stray monsters all at the same time might,” said Folsomar.

“Unless the hellrift’s the size of a mountain, it’s not going to give more than we can take.” She turned to the leader. “Point us to that stable.”

The men sighed along with him and the tension stringing them tight dissipated all at once. “Follow me.”

He led them through a silent village, the distinct weight of many eyes following them. Adaklies knew what she and Folsomar stood for to them. Her chest swelled with excitement and pride. This village would never forget her name after this. The bum of her traveling partner walked aside her, never content with following. His posture was much less enthusiastic.

Adaklies smirked at the knowledge she was partially responsible. He deserved it for his tepid attitude. This village had handed them adventure at best, a free meal at worst, and all he could do was balk at the trouble it might be. From their earlier fight, she could tell his skill was sufficient for a dilemma of this scale, so why on earth was he so resistant to it?

Another question to tack onto the list, it seemed.

The stable was a cozy yet basic little place. The shoulder-high walls were clearly not meant to block out the elements, but rather keep livestock and other animals from running around. Flaring out her wings, Adaklies was able to block the troublesome wind.There was enough hay for a couple beds, and a roof in case it rained. Adaklies and Folsomar thanked the man for showing them there before he left.

Folsomar shrugged off his things and collapsed into the hay, ready to sleep right there. Adaklies had other ideas.

“Keian, eh?” she said, taking a seat opposite Folsomar. She noticed her tail thumping against the hay in the corner of her eyesight. “What a coincidence.”

That got his attention. “Seriously?”

Her widening grin answered for her.

“Why are you heading to Keian?” he asked.

“I’m a bounty hunter, and there’s a fine bounty waiting for me there.”

“I suppose everyone’s got to get by somehow.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” She stood up and jabbed a thumb at her chest. “I’m going to be known across the land after I bag this one! You’ve probably heard it about yourself, even.”

He cocked his head, waiting for her to answer the obvious question.

“I’m going to take down the Mother of Dragons.” She couldn’t keep her face from radiating her smugness. “That’s right, a dragon is going to take on the mother of her race.”

“And how did you get it in your head that that was a good idea?”

“Think about it! I mean, sure, there’s money in the bounty, but the name… to be the one that takes down the immortal Mother of Dragons. To even be one of her kind! I might even become as famous as her! So many people itching to meet me, or spar with me, or gossiping about me.”

“You seem to like the word ‘me’. And why would you even want to be mobbed by a bunch of strangers?”

“Not ‘mobbed’, but–” Adaklies’ mouth snapped shut and she glanced away. What was she saying to him? He’d already shown he didn’t care.

“But what?”

Oh, so now he cared. “When you see that challenge in front of you, something so large and imposing it could crush you, don’t you feel an urge to conquer it?”

His face creased with thought. More anxious than she wanted to show, Adaklies waited for a reply.

He replied by rolling over as if to fall asleep.

“Are you serious?” She squatted down right next to him. “You can’t just konk out now!”

“I’m tired.”

“A dragon of all monsters just told you she’s hunting down the Mother of Dragons. And you’re telling me you’re tired?”

“As enthusiastic as you may be, I see nothing coming of it. There is nothing you can do that the Mother of Dragons cannot do twenty times better, and there are a million things she is an expert in that you are not.”

Adaklies narrowed her eyes, then grabbed Folsomar’s shoulder and rolled him over onto his back. “You know a lot about dragons?”

“You could say that. History, colors, divisions, some of the castes as well.”

She plopped down beside him cross-legged. “Alright, now I’m interested. How did you learn all of that?”

He crooked an eyebrow. “I wasn’t under the impression it was a secret.”

“No, it’s not, but humans rarely ever care about it unless…” A sudden understanding swelled up within her. “You’re married to one, aren’t you?”

“Oh no, I’ve been caught.”

Adaklies threw her head back with a laugh. “No wonder you weren’t interested earlier! And that’s how you kept your stamina up, wasn’t it? You knew what’d happen if you let another dragon claim you. It wasn’t that stupid bow at all.”

“No, the bow does not do that. And you’re only half-right about my performance in combat. I kept up my stamina because I am always training, drilling, and improving as best I can.”

“Oh? Are you married to a red dragon, then?”

“You know, you really shouldn’t put other dragons in neat little classifications like that. They might get mad. Besides, don’t you find it annoying?” He looked her up and down. “Hmm, green dragon. That would make you stubbornly independent, a wanderer, and… well, what do you know.”

Adaklies shook off his teasing with a snicker. “I am proud of who I am, it doesn’t matter what you think. And you can’t argue with success.”

“Right now the success is purely in your head.”

“We’ll see.” She leaned back on her arms. “So why are you heading to Keian?”

Folsomar gave himself a moment before answering. “My wife lives there.”

“Oh?” Adaklies grinned. “Am I going to get to meet her?”

“On your own, maybe. I pray I’ll have lost you by then.”

“Don’t be such a stick in the mud. This is fun!”

Folsomar rolled his eyes. “Yes, for you, I’m sure it’s immensely fun.”

“Your wife’s a red dragon, right? I could have a little spar with her.”

“I thought I told you to stop assuming things. And please do not try to drag her into your insane little world.”

Adaklies’ smile faltered. “And why’s that? Red dragons love to fight, especially against other dragons, and I’d like a challenge.”

“I know how good you are, and it’s not nearly good enough to fight my wife.”

Adaklies’ reply was interrupted by the stable door creaking open. Folsomar sat up and Adaklies was at attention, her muscles tensing and ready to spring into action. Was the hellrift opening already?

It was the man who’d lead them to the stable earlier, his hands full of various equipment. Weapons for the most part, Adaklies noticed.

“I brought all we have, hopefully something here will help. We’ve got some knives and pitchforks ourselves, so we’ll be fine. Use whatever you need.”

Curious, Adaklies stepped forward and inspected the array of items closely. Some axes, longer knives, and gardening tools, nothing useful. Her eyes moved up to the man holding it all. The gesture reeked of desperation.

“I won’t need any of this. No matter what comes out of that hellrift, I can take it on with just these,” she said, slapping the scales along her arm.

This deflated the man’s expression, but only for a moment. He quickly dropped everything and reached around behind him to pull off a quiver full of assorted arrows. Walking over to Folsomar, he held the quiver out.

“We saw you had a bow and thought these might be of use.” The way his mouth twitched, he was just begging to smile.

Folsomar didn’t even look at the quiver before lying back down. “You have no arrow that will nock on my bow.” He looked to the man after a moment of consideration. “But thank you.”

The hope of a smile died on his face. “I’m sorry we couldn’t offer anything.”

“You offered a meal and lodging, that’s all we were after,” said Adaklies. “And stop worrying about that hellrift. I told you I’ve got it covered.”

The man nodded. “I do appreciate what you’re doing, Miss Dragon, I really do. We all do. And with all the men of this village and your help, the hellrift shouldn’t be a problem. I’m just…” He trailed off.

“You’re worried you’ll be taken from your wife,” Folsomar finished for him. “Understandable. I can’t say I’ve never come across men stolen from their wives. But it’s not something to be all that afraid of. Most of them seemed quite happy with their new lives.”

Color vanished from the man’s face.

“Okay, first off, it’s Adaklies, pleased to meet you,” she said with a short bow, then spun to face Folsomar.

“What are you saying? Monsters respect marriage! And what man would ever want to be taken away from his wife?”

“Monsters respect another monster’s marriage. Generally.” He pointed out the door. “Did you see any monsters in this village? Man’s right to be worried.”

“And that makes it okay somehow?”

“That’s how things work.”

“I can’t believe you,” said Adaklies before turning back to the man.

He was gone.

“Great, you scared him off. How’s he supposed to defend the village tonight when he’s petrified with worry?”

“You’re so convinced the rift is going to open tonight when there’s really nothing to indicate it.” He put his hands on the back of his head and leaned back against the stable wall. “I’m looking forward to a nice meal and a decent rest. That’s it.”

The clamor of a bell seized their attention.

“It’s opening! It’s opening! The hellrift is opening! All women and children to the village hall! All able-bodied men to arms!”

Adaklies could barely confine her grin to her face.

Folsomar was already up, grimacing. He didn’t meet eyes with Adaklies.

“Idiots. What are they moving the women and children for? There’s only one thing Hell monsters are interested in, and they’re sending those straight at them.”

“I guess we’ll have to protect them from their own idiocy.” She punched her palm with a smack.

“It bothers me how easily you say ‘we’.” Folsomar wrenched his bow, still stringless, from his pack before stomping toward the door. “And I try not to protect idiots from themselves. They become smarter that way.”

Adaklies grabbed his shoulder and jerked him back, staring into his eyes. “You and I are going to have a talk later.”

“Oh, great, I’m so looking forward to that.”

She yanked him further back, behind her, then took off at a sprint, grinning like a child. “Last one to the hellbeasts is a shitlicker!”

A cry of annoyance rattled off behind her and with a glance over her shoulder she saw Folsomar running her way. Laughing, she blazed toward the ringing bell.

When she got to the bell, it was evident where the rift was. About a half-mile away, atop a hill, the air sizzled and cracked, glowing with the fires of Hell and rumbling with the howls of the beasts behind it. Folsomar took a few moments to finally catch up, already breathing hard.

“Yeesh, you’re a lot more tired than I thought you were. Sure you can keep up with me?” said Adaklies.

“I don’t care about keeping up with you, I care about holding up my end of the deal with this village. You can go crazy if you want, though something tells me that’s not any different than what you’ve been doing since I met you.”

Adaklies pinched his cheek and chuckled. “You’re much funnier when you’re snappy.”

“Don’t touch me like that ever again.”

She hopped up and down. “No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to dose my fire.” She spat out a gust of flame, illuminating the area with her gusto for a second. “I’m about to become a legend around here!”

When Folsomar didn’t reply, Adaklies shifted her attention backward. He was surveying the area and their reinforcements. Little more than a dozen men, most armed with farming tools, were forming a rudimentary line between the village hall and the hellrift. Adaklies wouldn’t count on them to take on more than one or two beasts, given their shaky stances and expressions.

“Sounds like hellhounds,” said Folsomar.

“Let’s hope there’s a Demon somewhere in there.”

“Hellhounds are bad enough.”

“How many do you wanna bet come out of there?”

Folsomar squinted at the hellrift for several seconds. “It’s a bit larger than I was hoping it would be. Maybe eight.”

Intensifying her own stare, Adaklies looked back and forth between the rift and Folsomar. “You’ve seen one before?”

“Two, actually. One about the same size as this one, another one much smaller. You haven’t?”

“Heard tons about them, even seen bounties concerning them. Never actually laid eyes on one, though.” She let out another short gout of flame. “I’m excited.”

“Let’s hope your fight meets your enthusiasm. Here they come!”

Adaklies watched the bristling cracks in the air explode, spewing flame and hellhounds. By the time the explosion ended she was in a sprint. Her claws demolished the dirt and threw up rocks. Folsomar’s footsteps thudded just behind her along with his rigid, controlled breathing.

Eight hellhounds scattered.

Adaklies growled and launched into flight. “Take out the ones that get by!” she yelled.

For one glorious moment, it was just the cold night air whistling against her scales and the beating of her heart. The calm before her storm.

She grinned.

Her foot came down hard on the first hellhound, cutting through fur and flesh and forcing a growl from the hellhound’s throat. The hellhound’s last second dodge had kept her in the fight.

Adaklies recalled Folsomar’s first dodge against her. Much cleaner than this hellhound’s.

Snarling, the hellhound leapt for Adaklies’ chest. She’d fought hellhounds before; they always tried to take you down and pin you there where they could exhaust you in a wrestling match. With a pack like this, getting tackled as good as ended it.

Adaklies was ready. She sidestepped the tackle and spun, slamming her tail into the hellhound back and throwing her to the ground. The next one was already on Adaklies, seeking the dragon’s eyes with her claws. She ducked underneath and delivered a mighty punch to the hellhound’s gut.

Adalklies’ grin grew wild. These hellhounds were smart. They were going for disabling attacks, not an instant win.

A sharp pain of teeth yanking at her wing and forced Adaklies to slide her feet to keep balance. Retracting the wing, she slammed her scaly fist into the offending hellhound’s face with a yell. The hound dropped unconscious.

She cursed herself for letting the thrill get to her and searched for her next victim. Another hellhound volunteered, aiming a tackle at Adaklies’ back. Adaklies obliged. When the hellhound hit, Adaklies barely moved. She then threw herself into the air just high enough to flip and landed on her back. Hard. The hellhound sandwich whimpered and went limp.

Her belly boiling, Adaklies made to stand up. And spotted the hellhound charging right in front of her.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

With a guttural roar, Adaklies unleashed her fiery soul upon on the hound. The area exploded with a light brighter than day. She spewed all she could in one breath. Several seconds of molten dragon breath would send any monster fleeing with an extra-crispy ass to remind them of what happened when they messed with her.

But when the light of her flame faded, the hellhound was still there. Smiling.

“Oh. Hellhound. Fire. Duh.”

Since Adaklies had already done the hellhound the favor of lying down, she couldn’t help but feel she was at a disadvantage. The hellhound never got her chance, though. A bright blue beam smashed into the hellhound’s head, throwing her onto the ground where she rolled several feet before stopping.

Adaklies’ eyes widened and she looked in the direction of the blast, finding Folsomar standing, bow raised.

The bowstring and arrow were forged of magic.

“How many are left?” he asked.

Adaklies looked around. The one Folsomar had hit was out cold and the one Adaklies had body-slammed was, as expected, writhing helplessly. Next to her, the one that had bit her wing was sound asleep. Hellhounds were pretty resilient, they’d be up before long.

“Well, that’s three down. There were a couple other ones I got a good hit on, they probably ran off.”

“So you don’t see any others around?”

“What, do your eyes not work? We got ‘em good.”

Folsomar frowned as he lowered his bow. “Too much light from the rift and the torches for me to make out much of anything in the darkness. The only reason I got a good shot off on that hellhound was because of your foul breath.”

Adaklies grinned and gave him a good shot in the ribs. He grunted.

“Heh, ‘foul breath’. You’re just jealous. But how about you? How many you get?”

“Two made it past you. As soon as they hit the light of the village, I took them down.”

She raised an eyebrow. “‘Took them down?’”

“They’re still alive.” He raised the bow. “This thing doesn’t kill so easily.”

“Yeah, about that thing.” She reached for it, but Folsomar moved it out of reach. She pouted. “Fine. But how does it work? And where did you get it?”

“Later. Because unless I forgot how to count, that’s only seven hellhounds and I thought I saw eight.”

Adaklies double-checked the battlegrounds. “You’re right. Where did the other one go off to?”

“I have a guess.”

At that moment, one of the townspeople ran up to the two of them, grinning. “That was something else! Over before I knew it!”

Thrusting out her chest, Adaklies said, “It’s usually that way with me.”

“That’s not always a compliment. And I don’t think it’s over.”

The townsperson held out his torch and squinted out toward the fading remnants of the hellrift. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Did you have anyone guarding the other side of the village?” said Folsomar.

“Y-yeah, we had maybe five men back there.”

“One of them is probably missing.”

He went pale. “I’ll take you there right away!”

Sure enough, they hadn’t even made it to the other side of the village before two ragged men ran up to meet them, bad news on their lips.

“Jenos, Brevvik, and Mak are gone!” They took a moment to catch their breaths. “Three… three hellhounds… couldn’t fight them off… took one each…”

“Three!?” said Adaklies, looking to Folsomar.

“You sure those two you hit ran off?”

A spout of fire rushed out of her mouth. “Mangy cowards. I’ll track them down and take the men back.”

“How?” said Folsomar.

“What do you mean, ‘how’? I’m a bounty hunter, it’s my job to hunt people and monsters down.”

Folsomar crossed his arms. “Alright. Tell me what direction those three ran off in.”

With a scoff and a smirk, Adaklies turned to the men who’d come running. “Where did they get grabbed?”

They led Adaklies and Folsomar on a short jog ending just outside the village perimeter.

“Just around here,” one of them said.

“Alright, leave it to me,” said Adaklies, and went to work.

She found the first sign of struggle, a mess of paw and footprints on the dirt road, and kneeled down next to it, taking a good look at the hellhound’s pawprints.

“You better watch real close, maybe you’ll pick up a thing or two.”

“I already know how to track well enough,” said Folsomar.

“Not well enough to find a few hellhounds in the dark, apparently.”

Squinting, Adaklies tapped one of the pawprints. The ground was harder than she expected. She could tell it hadn’t rained in a while around here, but the dirt was too firm and didn’t crack as easily as it should have under her claw. Also, there were no claw marks in front of the pawprints. Hellhounds’ claws were easily long and strong enough to dig into the dirt, yet there were no trace of them. Odd, but it wouldn’t stop her. Adaklies found where the man’s footsteps disappeared. The hellhound must’ve gained the upper hand there and lifted the man up. The pawprints took off.

But as soon as they left the path, Adaklies lost track of them. She stopped herself, looking back and forth between the path and the trail of prints that led away, backtracked, and tried to follow the trail again. Same result. Grimacing, she lowered her face close to the ground, leering at the ground and scanning carefully. Only after nearly a minute of searching did she find the next print. She laid a hand on it, then checked for the previous one and took a closer look. The pacing was slightly off, and the prints were actually getting lighter. But if the hellhound were to break into a run, the opposite should’ve been happening. Which meant trying to path out a pace was pointless. And finding each print would take a considerable time.

Adaklies looked up. No forests nearby, either. So no broken branches or twigs, no torn-up leaves to reveal claw marks. Tracking like this, while possible, wasn’t feasible. The hellhounds could move faster than her tracking skills.

She stood up and stomped back to Folsomar, meeting his subtly smug face with a glower.

“What is up with those tracks?”

“There are no forests in the demon realm Hell.”

Her face flickered. “What do you mean by that?”

“It means there are no forests where the hellhounds are from. Endless plains, broken up only by mountains, canyons, and demon cities.”

“Yeah, but what the hell does that have to do with this?”

“Hellhounds are both predator and prey. Predator to men, prey to each other. Without the help of a mage or the occasional hellrift like we just saw, they have no real way to escape the realm they came from. And just as few methods exist for men to enter Hell. Which made them quite the commodity. A hellhound needs to stalk her prey just as efficiently as she needs to hide from others who would rob her of it. So if there are nothing but plains, it would make sense that the most successful hellhounds, the ones to propagate their lineage, have evolved or discovered some way to be hide their tracks on flat ground.” He gestured to the trail Adaklies had just been inspecting. “That is what you were witnessing. Their claws can retract somewhat and shift so that they leave no mark on the ground, and their stride is practiced to glide across the ground as opposed to digging into it.”

Adaklies screwed up her face thinking about it. “That… doesn’t make sense. You can’t just make your weight vanish, and that’s what makes prints.”

“But you can change how you manage that weight. If your feet stay as close to the ground as possible when you run or you shift your weight gradually from foot to foot as opposed to stomping into the ground with each step, you can reduce the imprint you make.”

Scratching her chin, Adaklies gazed back at the pawprints. Whether or not Folsomar was right about the ‘why’, the fact of the matter was those prints wouldn’t help her track down those hellhounds. Not fast enough, anyways.

“I wasn’t planning on worrying about it myself. They asked me to guard the village, and I did, to the best of my ability. I’m not going to go chasing a few rogue hellhounds,” said Folsomar.

“Do you hate fun or something?” said Adaklies.

“No, I just have other things I intended on doing. Things I find more important.”

“You know what’s going to happen to those men.”

“Yes, I do. The hellhounds are going to make them husbands in all likelihood. And before long, they’ll come to enjoy it. That’s how these things work.”

“How can you be so cold? Those men may have had wives here!”

“That is unfortunate that they were taken away from their wives, but it’s not the end of the world. Their wives will move on and find another.”

“And you don’t care? You don’t want to do something about it? This happened right under your nose.”

Folsomar took a deep breath and looked back at the village. “You’re right. In that aspect, I did fail them. But there’s still hope. The hellhounds are likely mad with lust and will be itching to get to business the moment they think they’re a safe distance away. Which means they’ll be be stationary for quite a while. Come morning, the villagers will have the light to be able to make out the tracks, and even if it’s slow-going, with their numbers and a vague direction they’ll probably be able to catch the hellhounds before they’re done with their fuckfrenzy. We can show them what to look for and point them in a direction. That should be enough. Happy?”

“Since when did you care about what made me happy?”

Folsomar grumbled to himself and started back to the stable.

Adaklies caught up to him and poked him in the shoulder. “What are you in such a hurry for?”

“It’s been four years since I saw my wife, and I’m not a day away.”

She jerked her head back in surprise. “Four years? Geez, what have you been doing?”

“Learning.”

The moment they got back to the stable, Folsomar collapsed into his makeshift bed of hay. Adaklies plopped herself down right next to him, sitting cross-legged with a smile on her face. Folsomar groaned when he saw it.

“The only reason I’m tolerating you is because I need to eat before I go to sleep. So the moment they bring our dinner in here and I finish it, I’m going to ignore you and get some shut-eye.”

“Do you really think you can ignore me if I don’t want you to?”

“I’m pretty stubborn.”

“Not as stubborn as me.”

“Is this another green dragon thing? Making everything a competition?”

“How does this work?” Adaklies said, swiping Folsomar’s bow off the hay next to him. Her eyes widened at the feel of it–the cold of metal but the weight of wood.

“Hey!” He jumped up faster than Adaklies expected and snatched it back, then bopped her on the head with it. “Do NOT touch it.”

“Where did you get that?”

“If you promise not to touch it again, I’ll tell you.”

“I swear I won’t touch it.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Wha–” She puffed out her cheeks. “I would never break a promise! If you dare–”

“Relax, Adaklet, I was joking.”

She could feel her cheek glowing red. “Adaklies. Get it right.”

“Adaklief. Whatever. Do you want to hear about this thing or not?”

Curiosity triumphed over annoyance, but not enough to keep Adaklies from glaring.

“It’s from my wife.”

Her face softened with recognition. “Ohh, that’s why you didn’t want me touching it. Softie.”

Folsomar coughed and continued. “It’s a magic bow, as you probably figured. Willspring.”

“Willspring?” Adaklies paused and looked up at the ceiling. “Wait, wait, I’ve heard that before. That’s a kind of magic. My father was a mage, he taught me a little bit about that stuff.”

“Color me surprised. But if you’re a bounty hunter of any experience, I would’ve expected you to know how Willspring works too.”

“Hey, I have a pretty good idea. I mean, the name gives away enough on its own.”

Folsomar glanced to the door and worked his jaw back and forth. “I guess we have some time. Exactly how much do you want to hear about it?”

“Everything.”

She half expected him to flat-out refuse, but after a sigh he went back to it.

“Are you familiar with Ealluin Muig? Or the Kingdom of Karth?”

“Karth is down south, one of the smaller kingdoms…” Adaklies concentrated, flicking her wing as she pondered.

“You may have heard about the former from your father.”

She lit up. “Oh! Ealluin Muig! He was an artificer, wasn’t he?”

“That he was. Many years ago.” Folsomar held the bow out between them, flipped it over, then pointed to a spot near the top, on the inside. “Here.”

Adaklies leaned in and read out the word inscribed. “‘Ealluin’? He made this?” She crossed her arms. “That’s quite a treasure to get from your wife. She must have quite the hoard.”

“It’s… it wasn’t really the most valuable item from it.” His eyes glazed over and took a fonder look to them. “‘For the man who needs a reason to do anything,’ she told me.”

“Sounds like you.”

“It does.” For the first time since she’d met him, his face brightened, if only for a fleeting moment. “This is one of Ealluin’s first works, so it doesn’t have the refinement of his later accomplishments. It certainly has his flair, though. He made it for one of the former kings of Karth, Geoff the Fifth. A man with a streak of paranoia, my wife told me.”

“Your wife knew him?”

“How do you think she got this bow?”

Adaklies shrugged and let him continue.

“Geoff requested this bow for his greatest general. The king wasn’t much of a fighter himself, but his father had taken the throne by force, and there were still men who resisted the new rule as well as others who wanted it for themselves.”

“Weird. I don’t remember hearing about any fighting down in Karth when I was there last.”

“How old are you?”

She smirked. “Fifty-eight.”

“So still pretty young.”

“Pretty young for a dragon.” She looked Folsomar up and down. “Probably got twenty years on you.”

“You’re about fifty off.”

Adaklies stared at him, trying to discern if he was messing with her again or not. With a dismissive wave, he continued.

“The last fighting died out about a hundred years ago, so you wouldn’t have heard about any of it. This bow was made not long before that. Ealluin was actually born in Karth and was just beginning to develop a reputation. This bow was probably the first piece he’d done for such a high-profile customer.

“Geoff V wanted something more than a fancy-looking weapon, or armor that had form without function.” Folsomar’s eyes flicked from the bow to Adaklies. “As I said, he was paranoid, so he wouldn’t give even his most trusted general something so powerful he could be overthrown with it. After discussing the task with Ealluin, this is what Ealluin came up with. A fine-looking weapon that met both the king’s needs and had a touch of Ealluin’s personality. Now, do you know the drawbacks of willspring?”

Adaklies thought about the question a moment, then nodded. “Well, if willspring relies on conviction, then if you’re mind is unsure, it’d be near useless.”

“Perfect for Geoff V’s request, if you think about it. Could the general who’d really fought for him so long, who he trusted with so many secrets, be able to raise this bow against the king with strong conviction?”

Adaklies crossed her arms. “I’ve got a feeling this story ends with the general doing exactly that.”

“Fate usually does have such a sense of humor. But… not in this case. The bow fulfilled its role and the general quenched the last of the resistance against the king.” Folsomar flipped the bow over and gripped it as if to nock an arrow. The bowstring thrummed to life, a bright blue that gave off the faintest heat. “But this was made by Ealluin. It wasn’t so simple. He read between the lines of the king’s request, heard what was not said. This bow was used almost entirely against the king’s own people, people that may have even fought under the general at some point. Can you imagine how it would feel as a general to raid your own towns just to find the men and women who wanted nothing more than to take their home country back? Sure, some were heartless murders looking to take advantage of the chaos of the fighting, but many more just thought the wrong king was on the throne.

“The bow does not kill. At least, not without a concentration and considerable effort that would exhaust someone after only a few kills. Even the strongest arrow from this bow wouldn’t kill if the shooter did not will it. It is much, much easier to knock your target out. The hellhound outside is probably still unconscious and will be so for a few more hours, after which she’ll wake up so dizzy and weak she wouldn’t be able to harm a mouse.”

“Hmmm.” Adaklies tapped her arms absentmindedly. “So this general took down the revolters with that bow?”

“He did much more leading than fighting. There were plenty of casualties, just none caused by the general, thanks to the bow. Ealluin thought—correctly, I believe—the general had already taken enough lives.”

“And how did your wife end up with the bow?”

After giving it one last glance, Folsomar set the bow down beside him. “My wife had helped the king take the throne. When the general passed, the king was old, there was no more fighting for the bow to be used for, and my wife had decided she wanted it. So she told the king she was taking it, he laughed, and that was that.”

Adaklies’ ears and wings twitched at that. “She helped the king come to power? That’s awfully ambitious of a red dragon. Sounds more like white dragon business.”

Sighing, Folsomar rubbed his forehead. “You and your stereotypes again. I’d think a dragon would be the one most outspoken against those, but here you are.”

“I speak from experience. I mean, it’s not like every dragon acts according to their color all the time, I’m not that foolish, but generally, you’ll notice their decisions tend to lead one way or another.”

“Hmm.” Folsomar’s eyes sharpened. “I suppose that’s not completely opposed to my own experience. That doesn’t mean thinking like that isn’t dangerous at times.”

The stable door opened and the two turned to see someone new walk in with two bowls. Adaklies’ nose rose the moment it caught the scent.

“Stew. Mmm.” She accepted the hot bowl in her claws and feasted with her eyes. Her tail whapped against the ground. “Meat, too. Chicken?” Taking another sniff, she nodded. “Chicken. Not quite that roasted boar I had a few days back, but still good.”

Folsomar took his bowl much more carefully and set it down to cool. “I would imagine you don’t often fix meat out here, right?” he said, looking at the man who’d brought the food in.

“Afraid not. We’ve got the pastures for it, but not enough people to look after livestock. Chicken’s simple enough to come by, but slaughtering cow is a rarity. Boar and deer only show up every now and then. Most houses go without for a little while.”

“Then I thank you for the consideration.”

Adaklies looked between Folsomar and the man, then the bowl right in front of her face. She opened her mouth as wide as it would go and snarfed down every last drop of the stew in a single gulp. For a precious moment, sweet spices, scents, and flavors graced her tongue and heat swelled down her throat. One hard swallow and all she had was an aftertaste and a memory.

The other two stared at her wordlessly.

“I was hungry.” Her face brightened up. “It was good.”

Folsomar coughed.

“Oh, thank you!”

“Y-yes, it’s our pleasure. We saw what you did, driving most of those hellhounds away. Who knows how many we would’ve lost without your help. It’s just unfortunate that–”

“Hey!” Adaklies shoved the empty bowl into the man’s chest and held it there until he took it, then waggled a finger at him. “Don’t you worry about that. We’ll help you guys find the hellhounds that took the men and you’ll have them back before you know it.”

Folsomar’s face darkened as he looked away. Leering, Adaklies smacked his knee.

“Stop that. You said you would.”

“You mean you can get them back?” asked the man.

“*You* can get them back,” said Folsomar. “But we will help you on your way. The hellhounds should be stationary for another couple days.”

“Stationary?”

“They’re doing exactly what you would expect a hellhound to do in this situation.”

“Oh.” His face paled. “Ohh. Jenos’ wife won’t be happy about that.”

“She should be happy she’ll actually be seeing her husband again.”

“Were the other two single?” said Adaklies.

“Yes. But one of them, Mak, had an eye for one of the ladies. Shame this happened, I don’t know if she’ll be interested any more.”

“Yes, it is a shame.” Folsomar said without a touch of sincerity. “But as the dragon said, we’ll help you out with that. Tomorrow. For now, I would simply like to eat and rest, if that is okay?”

“Yes. Yes! Sorry for intruding. If you need anything else, just knock. I live in the house just across the way,” he said, pointing.

“Thank you,” said Folsomar.

The man nodded and left. Adaklies didn’t waste a second.

“Why are you such a stick in the mud?”

“Uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head. “Food. You asked your question, I gave you a story, and now I’ve got my food. I’m going to eat now.”

Crossing her arms, Adaklies glared up her nose at Folsomar, wings expanding unconsciously.

“Sour looks don’t spoil food.” He took his first swallow of the stew and smiled. “Mmm. Not bad. Also, since you’re all finished with your meal and I answered your question, why don’t you answer mine now?”

Her glare flickered. “What?”

“How exactly are you planning on taking down the Mother of Dragons?”

The iron expression cracked a slight smile. “Oh? Now you’re interested? I thought you’d written me off.”

“I still don’t think you have a chance. But I’m curious and that glare is annoying.”

Adaklies sat up as straight as possible and looked down at Folsomar. “Well, since you’re not a bounty hunter yourself, I guess I can excuse your ignorance on the topic.”

Folsomar took an especially loud slurp.

“Anyways, there are a few complications with this particular bounty. It’s said that no dragon can kill the Mother without dying themselves. While I don’t know the truth of that, I can’t rely on it being false, so I have to disable her without killing her. Besides, she can’t really die, so if I just killed her to turn in the bounty and she came back in the middle of the transaction, it would be really embarrassing.”

“I’m sure you’re no stranger to that.”

“Being a bounty hunter is dirty business, Folsomar. Too dirty for someone like you to handle. And I should add I’ve never done anything embarrassing. I’m too efficient and thorough to be caught off-guard.”

“Mm-hmm,” he mumbled through a mouthful of stew.

“As for how to approach her, it’s silly to think you can come up with a strategy without scoping out the situation first. So while a stranger to bounty hunting might think you need a plan before you even show up, that’s usually not the case. If I run into the Mother before I’ve talked to the issuer, I’ll simply watch and learn.”

“How much do you already know?”

“I know the Mother is disrupting the power balance in Keian. It’s typically been dominated by humans and ruled by a human, but it seems more and more dragons and other monsters have been travelling there to join her. At the same time, she’s been gaining influence with many of the people in power there.”

Folsomar drank down the last of his stew. “Do you have any ideas with how to approach her? Surely you’ve at least toyed with a plan.”

“Nothing too specific. With the extreme heat of her breath and her incredible strength, finding a material to bind her would be difficult and expensive, so I probably won’t try binding her. Defeating her in combat would be at most a long shot, likely impossible. I think my best bet is to try to intoxicate her with something. Most drugs would be vaporized or cleansed by her body, but I’ll bet someone out there has something that will work. And even if such a drug doesn’t exist, I’ll probably be able to find something that will weaken her enough to finish the job with something else.”

Resting his chin on his hand, Folsomar nodded. “I don’t know what surprises me more: that you’ve put thought into this, or that you admitting you might lose a fight. Guess I can’t blame you for the latter.”

“You’ve got quite the tongue, don’t you?” Adaklies’ mouth grew in an empty smile as she slipped her claws around his ankle. “You want to retry our tussle without a time limit?”

“Nope. Bed time.” Folsomar flopped down, yanking his ankle from her grasp, then rolled so he was facing away from her and said, “Goodnight.”

Tapping her claws, Adaklies pondered keeping him awake. If he really was tired, she could probably pry another question or two out of him before she hit the limit of his patience or find out how stubborn he truly was. She turned to the doorway, watching as if expecting someone else to enter. No one came. It was just her and the faint sound of torches.

She laid down on her stomach, resting her head on her arms. Tonight had revealed plenty about her travelling partner and it was getting late. She’d have time tomorrow.

**

Light snuck into the stable and pried open Adaklies’ eyes. Breathing in the scent of hay and dirt, she stretched out her arms and shoulders then sat up straight, blinking to clear her eyes. It wasn’t as early as dawn, but it wasn’t much later, either. She licked her face to clean the taste of stale stew off her tongue and cleared her breath with a puff of flame. She hopped to her feet, yawned, and kicked Folsomar.

“Ugh.”

Yup, he was alive.

“Get up,” she said.

He rolled over onto his back and looked up at her. “When did you become my keeper?”

“When I woke up first.” She pointed at the light spilling in. “It’s past dawn. There’s enough light for the villagers to track the hellhounds now, and the sooner we get started, the better.”

Sitting up straight, Folsomar rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes. “I really wish you’d stop using the word ‘we’.”

“Just as soon as you stop being a grump. These people are far less likely to remember my name if we do everything while dragging our feet.”

“There you go again.” He stood up, stretched, and collected his gear. “Let’s go, then. The sooner we get this done, the sooner you shut up about it.”

She walked outside and stopped.

About two dozen villagers were waiting outside, their eyes locked on Adaklies. Apparently they were ready for this before she and Folsomar were. She grinned.

“Are you all here to track down those hellhounds?”

One of them, the man who’d brought them their dinner last night, stepped forward. “That we are. We’re ready to get our men back.”

“Word travels fast in such a small place, I guess,” said Folsomar as he stepped out, rubbing the morning chill off his arms.

Adaklies raised an arm and extended her wings. “Follow me!”

“Watch the wings,” said Folsomar.

She took the small crowd and Folsomar back to the spot where the men had been grabbed the night prior. It didn’t take long for her to spot the tracks again. She found the cleanest track and squatted next to it.

“All of you are going to need to get a good look at this. This is a hellhound’s pawprint, and most of the ones you’re going to be looking for won’t be this clear. This is what you’ll be tracking.”

The group shuffled in close and did as instructed. Adaklies eyed Folsomar standing behind everyone, arms crossed tight and staring off into the distance, and pointed him out.

“Folsomar back there knows a bit about how hellhounds act once they’ve found prey.”

He shot her a look, but addressed the group nonetheless.

“These hellhounds probably won’t be going anywhere for another day or two, but obviously you still want to find your men as soon as possible. Hellhounds are typically crafty with their pacing, but the closer they get to their destination, the sloppier they get. So tracking them will only get easier. I’d say they carried the men a couple miles or so before tossing them to the ground and getting to it. By the time you find them, the hellhounds won’t be at 100%. They will have split up, too, so be ready for the tracks to branch. Weakened and alone, they’ll be easier to fight than they were last night, but don’t underestimate them. You’re only sure to win if you use your numbers. Also, since you have enough people, make sure you keep some of you standing at the prints you found a little while back, just in case you lose track of the trail. That way, you won’t have to start all over again.”

Adaklies looked over the group and saw they’d soaked in every word. Good. As long as they took it to heart, they’d do fine. She raised her hand and whistled to get everyone’s attention again.

“My partner’s a bit stuffy and insisted we get moving, so we won’t be with you all the way, but I can tell you they took off in that direction,” she said, pointing.

“Oh, no, we’re really grateful,” said the leader of the group. He approached Adaklies, holding out his hand. “Without you, every one of those hellhounds would’ve made off with someone and we’d have no idea how to get them back.”

Adaklies’ claw dwarfed his hand, but the shake lacked no enthusiasm. Her smile shone bright enough to blind.

“What’s your name, anyways? Would be a shame not to know who helped us out so much.”

“Ederkleff,” came a shout from behind the crowd.

Adaklies’ smile wilted faster than a flower in winter and the following glare aimed at Folsomar burned hotter than her breath.

He shrugged and started walking down the path toward Keian, waving to the group as he passed.

Adaklies shook the leader’s hand with renewed vigor and gave him a makeshift smile. “It’s Adaklies, actually, my friend just has trouble with some words.”

He chuckled and nodded. “Thank you, Adaklies. We won’t soon forget this.”

“Good luck finding your men.”

She waved goodbye and ran off to catch up with Folsomar, whose pace had already taken him out of earshot of the crowd. She bumped into him hard.

“I should punch you in the face for that,” she said.

“I’ll be glad when we reach Keian and I don’t have to deal with this any more.”

She bumped him with her hips, softer this time. “You’ll miss me and you know it.”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

Sucking in a big breath, Adaklies rested her head in her hands and looked up to the sky. Dew laid heavy on the grass and the scent of it rushed through her body like a refreshing flame. The wind shooed away the last of the clouds, their remnants looking like torn cotton lost in an upside-down ocean. Morning chill bounced off her skin, but on her scales it soaked in like dye. A single shiver running down her spine made her suck in the dry air once more and her wings to reach out as if to grasp something.

A good day for travelling. Folsomar’s pace was good as well, pushing but not straining. They weren’t all that far out from Keian, but the more time she had there today, the more time to gather information and find lodging.

If she hadn’t stopped to bug Folsomar in the first place, she would’ve made it there yesterday late afternoon by flight. But where was the fun in that? Not to mention stopping for silly things like that was how she’d get known and how she’d stay sharp. She grinned at the sky. That village wouldn’t be forgetting ‘Adaklies’ any time soon, and if she bagged the Mother of Dragons too, word would certainly reach out here, where they’d start bragging about how *the* Adaklies had saved them from hellhounds.

Yes, things were certainly coming together.

Folsomar didn’t respond to much on the walk to Keian, just ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘who knows’. She didn’t press much. It wouldn’t do to turn their relationship sour at the end of it. Connections were always important as a bounty hunter, and knowing someone who lived in Keian–especially someone as capable as Folsomar–could only help. She glanced sideways at Folsomar. Besides, she had a feeling he was a bit more than he let on to be.

Their journey was far from complete when Adaklies smelled something funny. She stopped and grabbed Folsomar’s shoulder to stop him as well.

“What?” He almost sounded grouchy.

“Don’t you smell that?”

He gave her a look, but took a sniff anyways. Then another. “Yes, I do.”

“It’s familiar.”

After another couple sniffs, he rolled his eyes and started walking again. “Yes, I bet it is. It’s sex.”

Adaklies reached out and stopped him before he could get anywhere. “No. A more recent sort of familiar. It’s hellhound.”

“Okay, so a hellhound is having sex. How astute.”

When he tried to walk off again, she yanked him back. “These could be the hellhounds from the hellrift that opened last night!”

“We’re much further away than one of those hellhounds would’ve bothered to run. Besides, it’s not our problem any more. If it really is those hellhounds, the villagers will be right behind us and they’ll take care of this just fine. In fact, I’d say it’d even be better if they did this than us. Learning how to deal with these situations will help them.”

“Are you serious? The hellhound is probably…” She paused to sniff again. “Not even a half mile away! And you’re just going to let it lie because ‘it’s not our problem’? We don’t know if those villagers are even going to make it this far. Sure, they’ll probably find the hellhounds, and they’ll probably get this man back, but we can make that a certainty.”

“And what will that teach the villagers? The hellhounds? That some random travelers are going to save them every time they get into trouble? I can sure as hell tell you those hellhounds are going to know we’re gone, and if they don’t go right back to that village, it’ll be some other village they take a man from.”

Adaklies’ wings burst out. “How does that stop you from saving this man right here, right now? It’ll take all of twenty minutes and a tiny bit of effort. As for the villagers, they know how fierce hellhounds are, they know what defenses they had last time aren’t enough. Not only that, the hellhounds will have split up by now. The villagers can easily fend off one at a time. Heck, any village can.”

“I feel like you’re not listening. I know you just want to do this so that a few more people know your name because god help us if we don’t drill that into everyone we pass. But what we do here,” he said, gesturing between the two of them, “it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. It can only hurt by teaching the villagers something that’s not true.”

“So what?”

“‘So what?’ What do you mean, ‘so what’? I just told you why it’s pointless to help those men.”

“No, you’re spouting preachy big-picture stuff. I don’t care. I want to help them, so I’m going to.”

“Stop!”

Adaklies stomped away, soon breaking into a run toward the scent of hellhounds. It wasn’t long until she heard the faint patter of human feet as well. She threw a glance over her shoulder, finding Folsomar a short ways back, trying to grab her attention. Sneering, she faced forward and ran faster.

The sounds of sex became apparent a short time later and she homed right in. Cresting a hill, she laid eyes on the hellhound. Hellhounds, actually. All three of the ones that had grabbed men were right there, laying their claims. Her stride broke, but she caught herself. All three? Folsomar said they’d split up, and she never doubted him. Hellhounds were not, by nature, communal monsters. The only reason they ever grouped up was because hellrifts only opened at one point.

She’d taken on five at the same time last night, though, and these were going to be worn after a full night and morning of sex. She just needed to remember not to use her fire breath. Spreading her wings, she took to the air. The hellhounds were all busy, so it’d be best to close the distance fast before they could react and take out the first in one swoop. They might be tired, but she had a feeling they’d be more ferocious defending ‘their’ men.

Air whistled by as she soared. Her target grew closer and closer. She stretched her claws out. Right before seizing the hellhound, Adaklies let out a roar, startling the hellhounds out of their stupor and detaching her target from her man.

Just like she wanted.

Grabbing under the hellhound’s shoulders, Adaklies cut straight up, taking the hellhound with her. She lost an immense amount of speed, but her momentum and hard-beating wings were enough to keep her going. The hellhound was hardly a happy passenger, but all her swipes went wide. In the end, all she had were snarls.

Once Adaklies was at a sufficient height to take the hellhound out of the fight, she dropped her. The hellhound barked at her, but Adaklies was already diving back down where another hellhound waited. With a wild grin, Adaklies aimed her feet at the hellhound and landed hard.

All she caught was air.

The hellhound attacked while Adaklies was still recovering from the landing, railing on the side of her head with a kick. Adaklies stumbled one step back, set herself, then dodged the next kick, once again aimed at her head. The third kick, sailing for her stomach, stopped cold in Adaklies’ claw. She threw the hellhound’s leg over her head. Hitting the ground knocked the wind out of the hellhound. She whimpered. Adaklies kicked at her side, but she rolled away. After getting some distance, she tried scrambling to her feet.

But Adaklies was faster.

WIth a burst of wings and muscle, Adaklies was in her face. The punch had all the momentum of her surge behind it and rammed straight into the hellhound’s gut. She went down hard. Fire in her eyes, Adaklies picked up the hellhound, spun her around, and hurled her into a tree. The hellhound hit it with a whimper and went limp.

Adaklies turned to where the other hellhound would’ve hit the ground and saw her limping away. The kidnapped men, all naked but for some torn scraps, were returning to cognizance, looking between each other and the struggling hellhounds.

But there were three hellhounds, weren’t there?

She spun to the sound of a snarl and braced herself, but the hellhound wasn’t attacking her. At the crest of the hill she’d run over earlier, the third hellhound was diving at Folsomar. Just like his fight with Adaklies, he was dodging at what seemed to be the last second. Her claws and tackles came for him again and again, but never connected. Folsomar, however, wasn’t getting any attacks in himself. Adaklies broke into a run toward them.

As soon as Adaklies hit the hill, she saw the hellhound miss a tackle wide. Folsomar had his second.

He didn’t need two.

The bow came out in one liquid motion, the bowstring and arrow came to life–much larger than Adaklies remembered–and with a blinding flash of light the hellhound crumpled.

She made it to Folsomar and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You alright?”

He dropped to a knee, breathing hard, but nodded. He’d tired out awful quick for a short run and a minor tussle.

“The arrow last night didn’t look that flashy.”

“Yeah.” He took a moment to get in a few more breaths. “It’s much easier to take out targets further away.”

“Really? I’d think it’d be the opposite.”

“The bow.” He raised it up briefly. “The arrows gain strength and speed the longer they’re in the air. You have to maintain and aim them as they fly, and after some time that can become very draining, but it’s much more efficient than blasting someone right next to you.”

“Huh.” Adaklies gave him another moment before extending her claw. He took it without a word and let her pull him up. “You think I could borrow that thing for taking on the Mother?”

He chuckled and pointed to a mountain in the distance, so far away it faded into the sky. “Even if the Mother was standing on the peak of that mountain and you shot from here, it’d hardly make her twitch.”

“Bummer.” Smirking, she looked him up and down. “So, you change your mind?”

“Hardly. The hellhound attacked me, so I defended myself.”

“Why did you follow me, then?”

His eyes carried such a wonderful mixture of ire and annoyance Adaklies couldn’t keep from widening her smile. “I was watching, nothing else. Forgive me my curiosity of the situation.”

“Uh huh. After you spent all that time arguing about how you didn’t care, how it wasn’t your problem, how it was such a horrible idea, you’re suddenly curious.” She crossed her arms. Sometimes looking down on someone could be so enjoyable. “You know what I expected you to do? Keep walking toward Keian. You were in such a rush earlier.”

He worked his jaw back and forth as if chewing on words, then clicked his tongue and walked passed Adaklies. She watched as he continued down the hill and approached the three confused men, now free of their hellhound captors. Shaking her head, she followed.

“Are you all alright?” Folsomar asked.

“Uh, yeah, I mean, aside from the obvious,” said one, and the other two nodded in agreement.

They were all sitting down, knees close to their chests. Adaklies had a suspicion the pose wasn’t as much for modesty as it was for soreness.

“Can you make it back on your own?” said Folsomar.

“Err, I’m not really sure what direction the village is from here.”

“You’re in luck.” Folsomar pointed. “Down that direction is the road from Keian to your village. The dragon and I–”

She coughed. “Adaklies.”

“The dragon,” he stated with a glance back at her, “and I were heading to Keian and we haven’t seen anything on the road that would give you any trouble. The hellhounds might be able to recover and come after you, but you’ve got a fair bit of time and there’s a group of about a dozen of your friends heading this way to help you. More likely than not you’ll meet halfway.”

“Really?”

“Assuming they didn’t lose the tracks that would lead them here, yes.”

The three exchanged glances.

“Well, shoot, I think we should probably get going as soon as possible.” The talker groaned as he stood. “Still a bit sore.” He held out his hand. “Thank you so much for this. My wife won’t be happy about this whole business, but I’m just glad I’ll be able to see her again.”

Folsomar took his hand and nodded.

The other two stood up and offered similar thank yous. Adaklies didn’t step forward and interject herself, she simply watched, eyes keen on Folsomar’s face as he accepted their gratitude. He was trying hard to keep modest, but the corners of his mouth were twitching with a smile and his acceptance was genuine. As genuine as she’d seen him so far, really.

She kept silent even after they got back on the road. The moment she said something, the man would probably clam up harder than, well, a clam. Content with watching him, the two traveled in silence.

It didn’t last all that long.

“You stare any harder at me, I think my clothes might catch fire,” said Folsomar.

“You shouldn’t be so fun to watch, then.”

He threw her a look over his shoulder. “I consider myself a perfectly normal individual.”

“No one’s normal, least of all you.” She stepped up beside him and leaned in. “And I know you don’t believe that.”

“I wonder.”

He picked up the pace, but Adaklies was done walking behind him. She matched every step. Folsomar wouldn’t be resigning her to background noise.

“So why did you end up helping those men? Truly,” she said.

“You can keep that question to yourself.”

“Too late for that.”

He scowled.

“What’s so wrong with admitting that you wanted to help them?”

“Because it’s so aimless. Sure we helped them, but what’s going to happen next time? Wouldn’t it have been better to let them learn to defend themselves and cope with loss when they cannot?”

“It might have. But I feel better about helping them. Don’t you?”

He grumbled. “That’s the same sort of thinking that led to this problem in the first place.”

“Do you or don’t you feel better?”

“Did you even think about the hellhounds? If someone’s always there to snatch a hellhound’s prey away from her, what will become of her?”

“I’d say she’s a pretty crappy hellhound if she can’t pin a man down.”

“This isn’t natural selection. Hellhounds are sapient beings.”

“Okay, so she’s sapient. Then that means she’ll have to learn to live by the laws every other sapient monster does.” Adaklies shrugged. “I don’t know what you expect. You’re talking like everything you do has to be part of some big picture master plan.”

“And why shouldn’t it?”

“Why *should* it? We’re small people, Folsomar. We can make small choices.” Adaklies paused. “Okay, you’re a small person.”

Adaklies expected an outburst in reaction, but Folsomar didn’t say a word. When she looked over to him, his arms were crossed, his head was tilted down, and his eyes were rigid, like someone had just grabbed a thinking stick and started wailing on him.

“Folsomar?”

Nothing. Not even a twitch. She started walking faster, getting out ahead of him, and watched to see if he’d catch up, but he didn’t bother. Oh well, they were just about to Keian anyways. He’d have his little internal conflict over by then.

The sun was past its crest when they approached the gates of Keian. Adaklies smiled at the sight of the walls. It was funny how they spent so much time and effort into such stout walls when all she had to do was flap her wings a few times and they became irrelevant. Down at the gate, a couple soldiers were waving crows in and out of the city and a dragon was standing behind them, watching. Adaklies started forward.

“Wait.”

She spun and looked at Folsomar. That was the first word since his meditation.

“Before we enter the city and I have to say this in front of someone…” He held out a hand. “You’ve been tolerable company.”

Adaklies blinked a couple times before realizing what he was saying. Throwing her head back in laughter, she seized his hand and shook hard.

“You’ve been tolerable yourself.”

“Thanks.”

They started toward the gates.

“I meant tolerable, by the way. Nothing else,” said Folsomar

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you, it’s that you never say as much as you mean.”

“Believe what you want.”

As they grew closer, their brisk walk turned to a shuffle. There wasn’t much of a crowd, but the bottleneck of the gate slowed things down. At the gate, the dragon standing behind the guards noticed the height and wings of another dragon, lit up, then paved her way toward the two of them. Adaklies kept herself from tensing much.

“Another dragon! Are you here to serve the Mother?”

“The Mother’s here, is she?” said Adaklies.

“You didn’t know?” She grinned. “Indeed she is. And she’s accepting the help of any willing dragon.” She ushered Folsomar and Adaklies past the guards and through the gate where she had enough room to point out a luxurious-looking, solitary house rising above the rest of the city. “She’s currently residing in the Gallow Manor over there, but plans to live in the castle as the proper ruler of the city before long.”

“And what is she looking for these willing dragons to do?”

“Help her restore her station as a proper queen, of course! Granted, there is no title of queen for ruling a city, but this is certainly only the first step of her ascension.”

Adaklies shared a look with Folsomar. He rolled his eyes, frowned and subtly shook his head. ‘She’s a fanatic,’ his eyes said.

“And is she only accepting help from dragons?”

The dragon looked down to Folsomar as if just noticing him for the first time. “Oh, certainly, if he’s your mate I’m sure the Mother will accept his aid, even if he is a human.”

Folsomar convulsed and bent over like he was about to puke. Adaklies held back a smile and dismissed the confusion apparent on the other dragon’s face. “He’s just a little weird. Gallow Manor, you said? I’ll think about it. Let’s go, honey.”

The moment they were out of earshot, Folsomar grabbed Adaklies’ wrist and yanked her backward and brought her face to his level. “You’re not half as funny as you think you are.”

“No, probably closer to double.”

Folsomar sighed, putting his hands on his hips, and looked out to the manor. “I guess this is where we’ll be parting ways.”

“Ha!” Adaklies smirked. “I think we both know by now that our destinations are the same.”

“Was it really that obvious?”

“Your wife gave you a bow made by Ealluin Muig that wasn’t even the most valuable item in her hoard. She’s at least old enough to be a major player in the events of Karth’s rebellion, befriended at least one king, and has the tendencies of at least two different kinds of dragons.” She pointed at him. “And she can put up with you. You’re married to the Mother.”

“I should resent that last one,” he mumbled.

“You’re an open book about her, you know.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“So, you want to head down to the manor?” she said, holding out her arm.

Folsomar smacked it away and started walking.

Adaklies observed the denizens of Keian, taking in the atmosphere she’d been so long removed from. The majority of the residents were human, which made the dragon population all the more evident. Apparently word of the Mother’s presence had spread. The only cities Adaklies had seen with so many dragons were in their ancestral home far to the south. Anyone with a brain could see something was happening at a glance.

“I’m curious, what’s your wife going to say about you being gone for four years?”

“You know, you could wait another ten minutes and find out firsthand.”

“I don’t care as much about the reality of it as I care about what you think will happen.”

“In all probability, not much. I let her know I’d be leaving and that it’d be for a while. It’s not the first time we’ve been apart for an extended period of time, and as old as she is, a few years aren’t much.”

“If she loves you, I think it won’t matter how old she is, that time will matter.”

He shot her a glance before continuing. “True.”

“What did you leave for last time?”

“I had to figure out how to defeat her.”

“You had to fight her?”

He nodded. “Becoming her husband meant becoming the only other individual in the world she would see as an equal. I needed to match her strength to meet that requirement.”

“And?”

“If I tell you, it won’t help you take that bounty, you know. She wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice.”

“Tell me anyways.”

He scratched his head. “It’s wasn’t anything fancy, really. I went to a baphomet and every day for two years I had her drain every drop of spirit energy from my body and infuse it into a dagger. Then, during the eventual fight with my future wife, I kissed her and shoved the dagger into her stomach.”

Adaklies gaped at him. “You stabbed her? And that baphomet, you fucked her every day for two years? And your wife was okay with that? Just…” She couldn’t get out all of her questions before Folsomar silenced her.

“First off, yes, I stabbed her. She’s the Mother of Dragons, she’s practically impossible to kill. Hitting her with the strongest spell in the world while dumping her into a volcano, impaling her and decapitating her probably wouldn’t do anything more than take her out for a hundred years. She’s a personification of an element of nature. Second, I didn’t touch the baphomet like that, my wife would have killed me. You don’t have to have sex with someone to give them spirit energy. Besides, the baphomet said it was more efficient the way she was doing it.”

“You kissed her when you stabbed her, too? Harsh.”

“I knew it would lower her defenses. She seizes up to sudden displays of affection.”

“What did the dagger do to her when you stabbed her?”

“She kissed me harder. Then she collapsed. The wound left a scar, though you can hardly see it unless you look for it.”

Adaklies gave Folsomar a sly grin. “You’re much more devious than I pictured you.”

“Devious?” He tasted the word. “I guess that was a bit devious. I just see it as doing what I had to.”

He reminded her of herself in some ways. Perhaps she was wrong when she told him he wouldn’t be cut out for bounty hunting last night.

The walk to the manor didn’t last much longer. The storefronts and homes soon thinned and opened to an odd sort of oasis apart from the city. While still within the city walls, the manor had several acres of crisp, vibrant grass to itself. Around the perimeter of the building itself were brick walls triple Adaklies’ height with pointed metal tips up top. Useless against wings and giants, but more than enough for the humans that dominated the city. The gates were almost as tall and all metal. In front of them stood two dragons, a red and a green, keeping lookout. The green raised her claw when Adaklies and Folsomar approached. She addressed Adaklies.

“What’s your business? Here to serve the Mother?”

“Curiosity more than anything,” said Adaklies, smiling inwardly at the complete disregard they had for Folsomar. “Maybe I will serve her, assuming her cause impresses me.”

“You should serve her because she is your Mother, not your curiosity,” snorted the red dragon.

The green shot the red a glare. “While I’m not completely agreeing with her, the Mother isn’t here to satiate the whims of your curiosity. If you want to learn more about her cause, there are many dragons in this city you can ask. Or you can simply watch for a while and see for yourself what she is doing. Either way, the Mother doesn’t have time to chat with every dragon that comes her way.” She pointed at Folsomar. “I assume your mate is here for the same reason.”

Adaklies didn’t laugh, but she didn’t hide her smile, either. “He’s–”

“Not her mate,” said Folsomar. “I’m just here to see your Mother.”

“With the intention of aiding her cause?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”

Confusion creased Adaklies’ face. Maybe not? Why wouldn’t he back his wife?

“If she doesn’t have time for curious dragons, she certainly doesn’t have time for curious humans.”

“Are you serious…” he mumbled to himself while leaning to the side to get a look at the gate behind the dragons.

If he was planning to run past these guards, Adaklies was all for it. She surveyed the gate as Folsomar did. For her it’d be a step, a few beats of her wings, and she’d be in the courtyard. Folsomar may have some more trouble, but she wasn’t going to count him out. Through the bars of the gate she could see bits of the courtyard, quite wide and open. It would be difficult for a human to make a break across it without getting run down by a dragon. She didn’t see any other guards inside, but she couldn’t see much, either. She exchanged a glance with Folsomar, letting him know she’d go along with whatever he wanted.

Interesting that he didn’t simply tell them who he was, but then again, there wasn’t much chance they’d believe him.

“I’ve gone on a very long journey to see her. I’m not here to waste her time. Will you not just let me through?” said Folsomar.

“Not for your mere curiosity.”

“Fine.”

Folsomar took a breath.

The bow came out so fast Adaklies could’ve sworn it blurred. The end connected with the green dragon’s chin and stunned her. In the same moment, Adaklies was charging toward the red dragon and pulling back her first. Before the green dragon hit the ground, she was swinging.

Red dragons were always the best in a fight–but the element of surprise can get anyone. The red’s reactions kept Adaklies’ fist from finding the temple like she wanted, but it still rattled her, opening her up for a follow through with Adaklies’ tail.

Adaklies braced herself to jump up and fly over the gate, but Folsomar was already at the latch.

It opened. Adaklies stared. Of course it was unlocked. Why didn’t she consider that?

The dragons beside her were starting to get up and Folsomar was already running toward the manor. Adaklies kicked the red dragon back down before sprinting after him.

The courtyard wasn’t empty. A single blue dragon was sitting on a bench, presumably to watch the flowers, but the commotion had grabbed her attention and she was now watching a dragon and a human run toward the manor. She called out, but wasn’t in any position to stop them.

If this kept up, though, they’d have a nice crowd after them. Folsomar would have to find the Mother fast.

They broke through the main doors into a grand hall. Adaklies skidded to a halt right next to Folsomar, eyes skitting around the room for the route that looked best. She also happened to notice the four other dragons that had all stopped to stare.

It was a really nice room. Too bad she didn’t have time to admire it.

“This way,” said Folsomar.

They headed straight, right through a pair double-doors leading toward the back of the manor. Adaklies heard yells behind them and more footsteps. Before them was a hall with several doors on the sides and another pair of double doors at the far end.

“Through those.”

Her claws dug into the carpet as she ran. Already she was panting, but it wasn’t from exhaustion. Grinning, she checked behind them. Six dragons, the closest not three steps behind. Folsomar was starting to fall behind Adaklies, too. The hall was long, but those double doors were so close!

Adaklies ran into them shoulder-first. They were much heavier than she expected, causing her to lose her balance and roll forward. Folsomar made it through the door with a touch more finesse, but he didn’t make it ten paces into the room before coming to a stop. Adaklies turned to see what it was he’d stopped for.

Atop a dais and lounging on an impressive chair that could’ve been a throne was a dragon that could’ve been no other than the Mother. She was one of the tallest dragons Adaklies had ever seen with scales dark as ink and untouched by time. Bronze hair fell like a curtain behind her with two braids looping loosely from shoulder to shoulder. The black of her dress matched her scales, hanging from her shoulder diagonally down her chest and draping down just short of her knees. Her stare struck with poise and hunger that claimed everything it touched without a word. Even in her surprise, her composure drowned out anything that might be misconstrued as doubt.

“Istoladrek. I’m back.”

The man was grinning like a fool.

“Scum! No human can say her name!” One of the chasing dragons burst forward and took a swing at Folsomar.

With a gentle speed that made Adaklies’ head spin, the Mother glided across the room and snatched the blow out of the air inches from Folsomar’s head.

“You are about to strike my husband. And any offense to him is one to me as well.”

She could’ve woven the finest cloth with that voice. Adaklies rubbed the inside of one of her ears and twitched her nose to clean out her head. Then she realized she was still on the floor. For some reason, it felt natural in front of this creature. She shook off the feeling and climbed to her feet.

The crowd of dragons that had been chasing them a moment ago were petrified, gaping and wordless, likely to tip over at the smallest push. Adaklies entertained the idea of doing just that.

After tossing the offending dragon’s fist away, the Mother and Folsomar raced to see who could embrace the other quicker. Thier mouths and bodies met, Folsomar bursting with reckless impatience and the Mother reverberating a staggering focus of emotion. Their flames radiated a gentle warmth that buzzed beneath Adaklies’ skin and drew a pang from her chest. She clicked her tongue.

Drat. Thought that had already been dealt with.

The two finally separated and shared a look before the Mother turned to Adaklies. “Who is this one?”

Being called ‘this one’ would have earned an objection had it come from anyone else. But from the Mother, some would consider it an honor. Adaklies didn’t hear any jealousy in the question. The Mother’s tone was closer to dismissal.

“Ran into her a day back. She wouldn’t stop following me, so I had to tolerate her all the way here.”

Adaklies narrowed her eyes at him.

“She looks a worthy enough opponent,” said the Mother, looking Adaklies up and down. “What is it you wanted with my husband?”

“He was a curious person, and I was bored.”

The Mother smiled. “Simple enough.”

“I was this close to fucking him, too.”

The Mother turned to Folsomar and raised an eyebrow.

“She’s exaggerating,” he said. Then, to Adaklies, “And that’s really not a good subject to bring up around my wife.”

“No, no.” The Mother laid a hand on Folsomar’s far shoulder and pulled him in close. Sweet demons, Adaklies could *not* get over how small he looked next to her. She had a solid foot and a half on him, maybe two. “Tell me all about your sexual escapades. It’s been four years, surely you have not avoided every monster who became interested?”

“You already know the answer to that question.”

“Even salamanders? I know you have a weak spot for them.”

“No, no salamanders. I’m not stupid enough to fight one.”

The Mother looked to Adaklies. “Do you think he’s telling the truth?”

“Four years is a long time.”

“Hey, I’m better at handling my lust than certain other dragons,” said Folsomar.

Adaklies looked down to see him plucking her claw off his ass.

“And what an entrance you made as well. Surely you couldn’t have simply asked to see me?”

Folsomar looked around the room at all the other dragons. “Yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that.”

The Mother smiled. “After four years of running around, I think you’re due for some rest. We’ll go enjoy some in my chambers, away from this crowd while I tell you all about what I’m up to.”

She started walking off without waiting for a reply and ended up surprised when she got one.

“Wait.”

She looked over her shoulder at Folsomar. “You can invite her if you want, we’re not getting to the other sort of business yet.”

“That’s not it.”

Hunger lit up in Adaklies’ eyes. This was what she came for. Why she followed him.

“What is it, then?”

“I want to know why you’re doing this.” He glanced back at the still-frozen dragons in the hall behind him.

“All that is, is mine,” said the Mother. “From time to time, I wish to hold onto it and remind the world it has no other owner.”

“Sounds like you.”

“Of course it does, why would I sound like anyone else? But let’s discuss this in my chamber.”

“No.”

Oooh. Adaklies pursed her lips and her eyes went wide, soaking in all they possibly could. She bet the Mother didn’t often hear that word.

The Mother’s gaze took on a fresh chill. “Why?”

Folsomar lowered his head and wiped something off his face. Adaklies noticed his hand was shaking. “I don’t want–I won’t stand for you doing this.”

The silence between them solidified. The Mother’s intensity cut through him as if trying to read his mind. “Folsomar, you will need to explain yourself. Perhaps we can consider other routes.”

He shook his head. “If I still know you, you won’t. I’m selfish, Istoladrek, especially after being without you for four years. I won’t share you with anyone else. That includes your followers, minions, allies, whoever you have in this city.”

Adaklies’ claws dug into her palm. She bit into her lower lip hard enough to draw blood.

“What exactly did you decide on your journey?” The Mother stepped toward him, emphasizing the height difference between them. “Did you find the answer you left for?”

He stood just as tall as she. “Not the one I left for. But another.”

“I won’t insult you by doubting you, then. My husband isn’t the sort of person who is capable of such insecurity. Follow me.”

She made for the back door, her stride much more stiff than Adaklies had seen before. Folsomar was close behind.

“Hey!” Adaklies jogged to catch up. “What’s happening?”

“We’re having a fight,” said Folsomar.

“A fight?”

“When two people have been together for long enough, it’s possible they can reach the conclusion of an argument without having to go through the steps. That’s what this is.”

“So…”

“We settle this like dragons.”

“You’re going to fight her?”

“I already am.”

Adaklies growled. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve fought her, you know.”

“Yea, but you had that knife last time!”

He shot her a look, then reached into his pack, pulled out the sand timer, and placed it into Adaklies’ hand.

Her legs stopped and she stood, staring at the timer as Folsomar and his wife walked out back followed by a steady progression of dragons. Some followed out of reverence, some curiosity, and others just had to.

Adaklies steeled herself and walked outside.

The backyard was even more colorful than the front. Vines and moss grew up the tall brick walls. They still closed the area in, but the yard didn’t feel small at all. Four full-sized oak trees offered abundant shade and flowers bloomed everywhere the stone walkways weren’t. Folsomar and the Mother stood opposite each other a couple dozen paces apart. Dragons stood against the manor in an anxious line. Adaklies took perch atop the brick walls. And waited.

Folsomar drew his bow. “The world doesn’t need to know you own it. Nothing will change the fact it belongs to you.”

The Mother slipped off her dress and let it drift onto a bush, leaving her naked but for underwear. She didn’t seem concerned in the least. “My husband should be by my side when I choose to take it.” She pointed to the bow. “Funny you’re using that. I gave it to you because I knew it would never be a threat to me.”

“I know.”

They braced themselves, eyes locked. Adaklies almost screamed out of the absurdity of it all. How on earth was a human going to beat the Mother of Dragons?

The Mother exploded into action, cutting through the air and stirring it into wind. Her claws raked with speed enough to whistle. Folsomar threw himself to the side just in time, using the very same technique Adaklies remembered from their own fight. It made sense how he was so fast and why his dodges always looked so desperate: they had to be. Anything less against the Mother would leave him with scars.

Adaklies flipped the sand timer.

The Mother’s wings flushed outward and cut her momentum to nothing in an instant. She planted a foot and swung her tail around with blurring speed. Folsomar fell backwards inches under the blow, then immediately rolled away from the follow up punch into the ground.

The Mother came after him swinging, kicks, punches and tail swipes advancing with not a moment to breathe between them. Folsomar ducked this way and that, trying to throw the Mother off, disrupt her balance, her flow, anything, but she was impeccable. One dodge failed to put enough distance between them and the Mother leapt on it, ramming her shoulder into his chest.

Adaklies could hear the impact.

Folsomar rolled with the strike, coming to his feet with his back to the Mother, and he took off running. An inquisitive stare creased the Mother’s face, but still she pursued with fervor.

The moment she hit speed, starting to close the distance, Folsomar spun and brought the bow to bear. A brilliant arrow bloomed to life between his hands, brighter and larger than anything Adaklies had seen him launch by far. It wavered and crackled as if made of fire. With a cry, he let it fly.

Adaklies swallowed a cheer. The Mother was running full speed toward him, surely that would connect!

But this was the Mother, someone who’d not only seen countless battles, but who knew her opponent better than anyone else, too. Her wings shot out and she twisted her entire body. The arrow burned through the space she had been occupying a second ago before whizzing through the brick wall behind her, leaving nothing but a small hole.

Stuck in firing position, Folsomar couldn’t react when the rushing Mother bore down on him. Her foot connected hard with his side and threw him several feet. He grunted and forced himself up right away. Just in time to see her attack again.

Adaklies couldn’t see any way for him to win. The Mother’s attack never ended, and it was all he could do to dodge. Granted, he had incredible speed and often reacted in time, but even one failure led to a terrible blow. As she watched him move, she could see him favoring one side. That single kick had probably broken something. And what did he have for offense? The bow? If he could keep shooting arrows like that last one, enough might do something to the Mother, but not only did they take significant effort to shoot, the Mother could apparently dodge them at point-blank. Adaklies bit her lower lip and looked down at the timer. Whatever he had planned, he was running out of time for it.

Folsomar started trying the same tactic he had with Adaklies. The back yard didn’t give him as much room as the open field he had before, but it was still plenty large. He ran until the Mother was about to catch him, until those claws were inches from grabbing him, then he’d roll to the side and take off in the other direction. Adaklies couldn’t help but feel a little smug when the Mother whiffed her attack twice in a row to the same thing.

But just like Adaklies, she learned. She was faster than Adaklies, too. On the third cycle, the Mother left claw marks on Folsomar’s back. His shout of pain chilled Adaklies’ gut.

After that he held his ground, using his bow for defense, again just like with the fight against Adaklies. The Mother kept her eyes on the bow, making sure Folsomar didn’t try another close-range attack. Her caution allowed Folsomar a moment to breathe. Yet he never tried to push that tiny advantage. Adaklies want to scream at him. The battle had been going awry ever since it started! He had something, he needed to use it!

Block, block, block, dodge, retreat. That’s all he did. It was then Adaklies realized the other reason why he dodged like he did: it hid the reality of how tired he was. If he dodged like he was desperate from the beginning, then it’d be hard to tell when he really was desperate.

Adaklies checked the timer again. If this went anything like his fight with her, his time was running out. She could hear him breathing heavily and there’s no way the Mother didn’t see that, too. His blocks were coming slower. He was wearing out even faster than when he’d fought Adaklies. The Mother started fighting closer and he didn’t have the speed to maintain a distance.

The first strike that got through clipped his shoulder. The next his side. The one after that snagged his leg and ruined his balance. He spat venom as he faltered and the Mother wound up.

The punch landed square in his gut. Even the nearby flowers shivered with the force of it. He puked, staggering back while trying to maintain some kind of stance, but from the pain on his face, something had clearly broken.

He lazily pushed the next attack aside, but the one after connected just as clean as the one in his gut, this time on his outer thigh. He dropped to a knee. Adaklies bit her tongue as the Mother spun around. Her tail crashed into Folsomar’s head and sent him straight to the ground.

Adaklies looked at the timer just as the last few grains of sand drained out. He was out of time.

Folsomar writhed on the ground, holding his head and curling up to protect the massive bruise on his thigh, but it did nothing to stop the Mother. She reached down and grabbed him by the neck, then dragged him up to face her, leaving his feet dangling and kicking.

“It’s unfortunate you put so much value on keeping me to yourself. You were a wonderful person that I very much enjoyed spending time with, but if my husband cannot back his conviction with strength, he cannot be my husband.”

She dropped him. He cried out when he tried to put weight on his wounded leg and once more was on the ground. Not only injured, the man was exhausted. Haggard.

Adaklies’ ears twitched.

“I very much dislike seeing you in pain like this. Concede. You will still have a place close to me if you wish it.”

She stepped forward, putting her feet so close to his face all he’d have to do was tip over to touch them.

“Concede. Even not as my husband, you are a very useful man and I would rather not risk harming you just to knock you out and take the victory when it is already so clear.”

Adaklies’ teeth graded against each other echoing thunder in her head. Her ears twitched again. What was causing that? Was something–

Folsomar pushed against the ground with all his might. Drool dripped from the corner of his mouth, joining the rain of sweat on the ground.

“You know…”

He could hardly talk through his panting.

“I’ve learned exactly how much I love you in this fight.”

“And how is that?”

He met her eyes from his pathetic position on the ground and, for the first time, smiled.

“I’ve never shot an arrow around the world before.”

Her eyes went wide.

His love exploded through the brick wall and turned it to dust with resounding thunder, one that pounded on Adaklies’ ears. The monstrous arrow, a spinning wrath of blue light the size of the manor barreled down on the Mother, a statement of ten thousand miles screaming along contours of will, gleaming with the light and the heat of the sun.

Adaklies looked to see if the Mother had reacted in time to dodge, but found something else entirely. Folsomor had leapt to his feet, grabbed her head and was holding her in a kiss.

He’d won.

The arrow smashed into the Mother’s back square between her wings. Light and force shot outward, throwing the spectators off their feet and shattering every window in the manor. Adaklies caught herself before she barreled into freefall. The explosion grew and swallowed the entire backyard, then the walls, and rushed out further, nipping on Adaklies’ heels as she flew away. Another blast rammed the first into Adaklies and threw her into the ground, but not before she caught sight of a pillar of light shooting up, like the ground itself was reaching for the sky.

She cursed as she rolled, tucking in her limbs and using her tail to keep balance as best she could. After what felt like forever she came to a stop. She hopped to her feet and turned.

Half of the manor was gone, along with the walls around the back yard. The trees had snapped off at the stump and most of the plants had been ripped straight off of their roots. Every dragon that had been watching aside from Adaklies was lying down and unmoving, presumably unconscious. In fact, the only thing standing was Folsomar himself. He met Adaklies’ gaze then fell to his knees.

With a gasp, Adaklies rushed to his side, catching him just before he hit the ground and laid him down gently.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice weak as a whisper.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, just really, really tired.” He closed his eyes. “That took a lot out of me.”

“Oh, did it, now? I hadn’t noticed.” Adaklies looked over to the Mother, unconscious but breathing steadily. “Jumping Jinkos, she is out cold.”

“You know, you could take the bounty on her while she’s out. Probably the only chance you’ll ever get.”

“Are you seriously turning your wife over to a bounty hunter?”

“It’d be funny to see her reaction when she woke up. Besides, not like there’s anything any of us could do to stop you.”

Adaklies shook her head. “I’ll get you and her to a bed, don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah? You’re going to help us out instead? Why’s that?”

“Because I want to.”

His chuckling turned into a rough cough that stole his breath. “If that’s the case, I’m alright with it.”

He passed out.

Adaklies looked between him and the Mother and shook her head. Turn the Mother in? The man didn’t understand Adaklies at all.

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4 thoughts on “Fly High or Not at All”

  1. And that’s how you use conviction against someone you love. By drawing upon that very love.

    Not that there are many situations in which “I love you, so I need to beat the crap out of you” applies.

    From how dragons act towards someone who beat them (a second time, in this case!), Folsomar will probably be spending quite some time in bed after this.
    Really wondering how the dragons would take the Mother ending her campaign. They’re pretty devoted to her, and some guy showing up and stopping it is awfully insulting… but then again, “the strongest gets to decide” is quite natural to dragons, and husbands are important.

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