This story has depictions of crime, gunfights, slavery, death and grievous injury. Read at your own discretion. This work is also based off of the /k/ fantasy thread world, Frankasia. If you liked this and hope for more (lewd or otherwise) please leave me some feedback!
Cedrick sat at the Frankasian tavern bar with a solemn expression upon his gruff face. His once clean-shaven visage had turned rough with a slowly emerging unkept beard. Accompanying him in the tavern were the skeletons of former patrons that rested in approximations of what they had been doing when they had abruptly died. Cobwebs and dust had accumulated throughout for what Cedrick had assumed to be at least three years. Neary a footprint interrupted the buildup of dust that time had made, only Cedrick’s presence had changed that fact.
He called himself Ranger Sid, mostly due to the Elvish tongue’s hard time dealing with his name. Most just called him ‘Ranger’ since those folks were either at the business end of his gun, or he was at the end of theirs. The tavern itself was unlit except for the dim light that filtered in through the snow-filled air outside. He threw the shot glass back sharply to dump the high-proof whiskey down his throat before he could taste the musky flavor of the old bottle. After firmly setting the shot glass down on the tavern bar, Sid rose from his barstool. He adjusted his thick wool-lined leather jacket and adjusted his Stetson. With a quick stomp in either leg to shift his feet back into comfortable positions within the cowboy boots and a roll of his shoulders to shift the rifle and hiking bag slung across his back, he grabbed the dust-covered whiskey bottle and set it back in its former resting place behind the counter.
The attire, Sid thought, had taken some time to get used to. The Frankasian rangers were modeled after the rangers of old, stateside men who would roam the wild countryside in search of ne’er do wells and trouble beseeching honest folk. Their outfits truly honored the old west’s ruggedness and given the gear’s infallibility from the clothing to the bags, Sid appreciated the sentiment.
He walked along the dusty floors and took each step carefully as to follow his own footsteps out of the tavern. As he did, every skeleton’s skull followed his movements as if to beg a mistake to be made from him. Sid only noticed the magical residue after he had sat down at the bar and pulled the bottle out from behind the countertop. Each skeleton had been facing him. He had assumed that whatever magic had affected the tavern, or had reduced it to such a state was persistent enough to sense a new presence. He feared that should he disturb so much as a cobweb beyond what he had done, he would become another eternal patron of the tavern.
As he took his final steps to the ornate tall doors, he heard motion beyond the scraping of bone-on-bone he had noticed. With all the care of his previous steps abandoned, he threw himself out the door as the screams of the patrons in their final moments rang out with a blue inferno of mage fire that filled the interior of the tavern and chased him out the door. Sid fell hard into the thick snow as scorching heat licked at his back. He turned to see soulfire screaming for him to return and join with the others. As he dragged himself backwards away from the inferno of the lone tavern, he made a mental note to record the location for likely dark mage or necromancer activity. After several yards Sid finally climbed to his feet and began to run deeper into the white abyss of the Gorian Valley.
In Earth terms, the Gorian Valley was a tundra of cold-adjusted Frankasian plants and nocturnal wildlife. As was most of Frankasia, the valley was counterintuitive in its patterns of weather, where it was colder in the day due to high speed winds that would abruptly start and warmer nights. Sid almost laughed at the idea that the nights in the valley were considered ‘warmer’ since the high temperature of the week had been 13 degrees Fahrenheit. He was out in the remote area to search for three objectives, all likely related. A village elf begged him to search for her husband who normally hunted predatory birds in the region after he left with a supposed photographer and hadn’t come home in a week. His second objective was to report on increased bandit activity in the region and third, find any imminent threats to travelers and eliminate said threat.
As Sid trudged through the knee-high snow, he pulled up his bandana that sat on his neck as a makeshift scarf and adjusted his sunglasses. The equipment was a poor excuse for snow gear, but the storms had never been as bad in the previous years. He wandered aimlessly through the powdery white wasteland pockmarked with the bushes and trees that had grown undisturbed in their life cycles for centuries. Sid no longer attempted to find the trails or even pull out his phone to try and navigate, the trails had been buried for at least a month and the air had become so frigid that most of his electronics had begun to fail. For Sid, only landmarks meant anything in the dead winter days that he had spent hiking, only a compass served to stop him from going in circles.
Sid heard a faint echo of a deep and quick noise through the roar of the arctic wind far off to his left side. He recognized the noise from countless nights of searching for bandits, raiders and criminals. It was a gunshot. Sid knew he would stick out like a sore thumb in the frigid bright land but the lack of any other shots implied a few things. He knew that bandits had either taken out a lone traveler or that it could be the sounds of a hunter at work. Regardless, Sid had to respond to the noise. Even if it was a hunter, it was his duty to warn them of the danger in the area posed by the storm and to be on the lookout for the bird hunter.
With each burdened step Sid took to wade through the snowfall, a sense of unease grew in his mind. Sid was unlike most humans born on Earth given his ability that his fellow rangers called ‘the sense’, a vague descriptor given to Sid’s ability to sense magic. Most humans born on Earth to normal humans were incapable of amazing feats of magic with only one in ten thousand even being attuned enough to sense magic. Most magic to Sid, in the form of magic creatures, enchantments and spell casting, all manifested as a sourceless unease within him.
The ranger made out a shape through the snowfall, a backpacked humanoid with a weapon shouldered. As any ranger would in such a situation, Sid placed his hand upon his sidearm, a Staccato 2011 XL. “Frankasian Ranger! Make yourself known!” Sid yelled at the figure as he gauged the distance between them. The figure paused at fifty yards and let the barrel of his weapon drop low. “Ranger? You’re real?” called the figure in a tired male voice. The man must have been in a sorry state to have asked such a question. “This better ‘aint be a trick!” called the man, who raised his gun as Sid drew closer. Forty yards, Sid called back “No trick friend, I’m out here looking for some poor elven girl’s husband. Said she went with a photographer.”
The man lowered his weapon again, this time he let the now visible shotgun drop on its sling. “Venisha? Gods I love that woman!” The man called back and rushed forward to meet the ranger in steps of catharsis. twenty yards. “You’re Aedric? What happened?” The ranger asked in a lower voice, the two now within ten yards of each other. He felt a growing pressure in the back of his head as the figure drew closer. Sid saw on the pale elven man’s face the marks of frostbite and stretched skin on bone, his clothes torn by large gashes and the shotgun marred by claw marks. “Damned thing came out of nowhere, rifle shots at us. The girl nabbed Allen and he was just… gone.”
Five feet… Sid saw dead white eyes that stared at him from the visage of Aedric. The thing posing as the dead elf smiled a sinister grin as Sid quickly raised his Staccato, “Don’t try anything necromancer” he said in a stern voice as the elf dropped the dead man’s bag and shotgun. “Damn shame… she got him out before I could have another meal” rang the dead elf in a contorted cacophony of inhuman words. Sid’s eyes went wide when he realized that this was no necromancer and started shooting and backed away as he fired 9mm rounds precisely center mass where the dead elven heart should have sat. He dumped the entire 26-round magazine as the dead elf took each round to minimal effect. The skin began to drip off gray flesh underneath like wax falling from a candle that took clothes and gear as it sloughed off the pale gray emaciated figure that stepped free of the mortal form.
Sid felt an instant and intangible pressure ring through his head as the creature lowered onto all fours and began to sprint like a tiger with blue soul fire pouring from the empty holes of eye sockets. In many later tellings of this moment by Sid, listeners would call his next action ‘retarded’ or ‘stupid beyond all belief’, but the ranger stuck by his actions and how effective they had been. By his exact words, Sid “Lobbed the Staccato like a brick at an overly-smug cheshire” in the direction of the creature’s head.
With the clatter of metal on bone, the Staccato bounced upwards off the creature’s gray wet flesh, sending its head backwards. In the precious few seconds that this act had earned, Sid ripped the rifle off his bag and put the creature’s head in the view of his backup iron sights. The FDE-green handguard of his rifle was held firm in a C-Clamp grip as brass flew from the black finished upper receiver. He held down the trigger and firmly gripped the green pistol grip as round after round of 5.56 left the suppressed barrel. The entire thirty round magazine emptied into the creature’s head, only causing the soul flame to dim as the creature staggered backwards as the hail of gunfire ended. He dropped the rifle which fell free from his hands into the grasp of gravity to draw a thigh-strapped long dagger, hilted in wood and brass and bladed in enchanted dwarven steel and silver to bury it deep into the creature’s chest. Sid felt weak claws drag across his jacket as he twisted the blade sharply in its new flesh sheath and rented it to the side, pulling black blood out with the blade as it left the creature’s side. Without hesitation, Sid drove the blade through the skull of the creature with a sickening crack of bone and squelches of soft tissue beneath. He wouldn’t take chances with a skinwalker.
Sid could almost hear the scowl of his superior in his head as he wiped the blade off in the snow before sheathing it. “That’s not a classical skinwalker, it’s something the commandos are calling a skinwalker” said the snarky wolf-girl that Sid deigned to label a MILF, Senior Ranger Addeline. “Definite signs of powerful dark magic users in the area… attracting all kinds of curses and shit.” Sid said aloud as he kicked at the dead gray mass in front of him. “Asshole” the ranger cursed as he gave the body one last kick before retrieving his rifle from the snow.
The AR steamed heat from the barrel into the frozen air as the ranger picked it up, quickly reloaded it and slid it back into place on his bag. It took him a few moments to find the Staccato, but it received the same reload and replacement treatment as his rifle. Sid sighed as he looked back at the corpse of his only lead into the now declared disappearance of the photographer and hunter. He thought it was a shame that the hunter had likely died to the creature, but there was still potentially someone alive out in the wilderness and if the creature was to be believed, someone with a conscience to save the photographer.
He wiped the melted snow slush off his icy face and figured that now was the best time to find a campsite after the events of the day. His ranger training told him to omit a campfire in favor of the chemical warmers he carried in his bag, since a lone fire would be a beacon to all in the frigid lands. And so Sid set off to find respite before bandits, predators and other terrors of Frankasia found his lonesome.
As he stood in the encroaching twilight, Sid looked upon his campsite with pride. He had found a fallen tree resting upon a rock that provided an excellent nook to begin constructing his shelter. With only a simple tarp, shovel and branches felled by the weight of the snowfall, he had established his hideaway. A small triangle shaped hole hidden by packed snow and brush acted as his entryway where he would spend the lonely night in the valley.
In preparation for the coming night, he retrieved a chemical warmer pad from his backpack. It was a thickly-constructed hard foil bag filled with liquid and a small rod that he was supposed to crush to activate it. Sid sat it down gently upon the tarp and covered it with the sleeping bag that he had normally coiled on top of his bag. The primary reason the ranger had forgone a typical tent was visibility and ease of takedown. Many of his fellow rangers had told him that tents had existed for a reason, that assembly was easy and it was simple to place camo netting over top to hide them. Sid had heard these arguments time and time again and still chose his tarp every time. He had conceded in the past that assembly took longer, but his counterargument was ‘if you needed to leave quickly, all you do is yank the tarp out and patch up the tears later.’
From his perch on the fallen tree as Sid pondered the merits of tents and tarps, he ate from a cold trail ration, peanut butter and chocolate flavor, and took in the sights of the stars above. On Earth, the night sky was always familiar when it could be revealed with one’s entire life having conditioned a person to know the pattern of cosmic light. Frankasian nights were held under the ballet of foreign stars and cosmic bodies that made any Earth-grown person feel unsettled. In that dance that Sid had slowly become familiar with, he saw a streak of red light.
Sid thought to make a wish upon the interloping shooting star until the star began to fall as if ripped suddenly with tremendous force to the waiting soil. Seconds later, a sonic boom rang from overhead and the object fell several miles in the direction Sid had been traveling. Rest was important, but enough strange occurrences had happened in the Valley in such quick succession that Sid needed to investigate. He hastily rolled up his sleeping bag, crammed the heat pack into his bag and ripped the tarp free of his campsite.
The ranger shouldered his bag and listened to the concerning silence that fell on the Valley, no impact, no tremendous crash. If it had been a meteor or aircraft, surely he would have heard something. He paced forward in slow but strong steps in the manner he had been trained for endurance hiking. His former campsite faded from view as the ranger walked into the imperceptible darkness that held predators, bandits and untold horrors of the Gorian Valley.
Four hours of trudging through snow would drain anyone, thought Sid as he slid the chemical warmer into the back of his jacket. The inky deep blue of the night under the Frankasian moon only outlined the trees and shrubs he passed with the Staccato cautiously kept at a low ready. The frozen air had hints of burnt pine and charred soil as Sid entered into a small clearing. He could clearly make out dim embers that shined like the stars above embedded in scorched wood and cracked soil. There was a very clear disturbance in the snow cover, a large impact scattered snow and dirt. A fire had broken out in the area but had since stopped. Sid hazarded a look in the impact with his flashlight, only turning it on briefly to get a good look at the three foot across and foot deep crater. He could feel the remains of something sinister in the crater with clear footprints embedded in the exposed ground. Drag marks left the crater in symmetrical rents, three indents, a large thick indent and two small indents. Tracks such as these were foreign to Sid, but they provided a clear direction. He stifled the flashlight and began to follow.
The ranger trudged onward again, only this time he had even less of an idea of what had occurred after finding evidence. Whatever had landed was carried off. What it was, who had taken it and why was so extremely beyond Sid that his pace quickened through the snow. Unanswered questions in such a region of Frankasia usually meant trouble and to Sid, trouble usually entailed death cults, black magic smuggling, high profile criminals and the syndicate.
Pine branches slapped Sid as he moved ungracefully through the Valley. Snaps, rustles and crunches could be heard as his pace quickened to a run. The uneasy pressure in his mind made itself known sharply, like a cry of pain as flame came into view. Individual rays of orange filtered through the snow-burdened leaves like lasers begging to be disrupted.
The dark forest turned to shadows under the firelight of a camp. Sid took in a sharp breath as he planted his foot forward to stop the rabid running that had overtaken him. He slid on the powder white surface to a stop shy of the perimeter and kept close to the long spanning shadows. Sid’s heart raced with a foreign and frenzied need for urgency as he moved into a crouch behind a nearby tree. His eyes slowly adjusted to the presence of the fire as his form was obscured from sight. His heart went mad with unreal panic and another sharp second of pressure in his mind thwarted his attempt to focus. Sid leaned up against the tree and let his head fall against the tree trunk in a vain attempt to catch his breath. Suddenly his heart began to slow, the cold gripped at his limbs, his mind went numb. Sid knew this sensation was alien, but as the feelings receded from his mind, he realized that the source of the foreign influence upon him had to be a powerful magic user in peril. The truth flashed in his mind like a terrible secret that had been revealed. The feeling that had just plagued him, the forced slowing, the cold, someone was dying.
Sid peered out from his concealment to see two rough-looking humans, an elf and another masked figure who his eyes simply glazed over. Behind them sat a lone hunter’s hut, a small structure constructed of local lumber to provide temporary shelter to the few hunters in the region. The masked figure held great wings like that of a dragon, still lively and slick with blood in a large bundle that definitely contained more than he had seen. Sid could only make out that the figure regarded the others with a nod before they moved to walk away from the gathering. His eyes failed him again, Sid struggled to catch any detail of the lone figure besides the deep purple of their robe and porcelain white of the mask. “FRANKASIAN RANGERS, HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM!” Sid yelled as he took a calculated risk. This was most definitely a band of poachers who took down a wyvern youngling and had begun to cut it up for parts. Wyverns, Dragons and any creature that existed from that bloodline were highly valued for their blood, talons, wings, eyes, scales… Any fragment of a dragon could be used by amoral alchemists to enhance potions and create elixirs of grandiose effect.
The probable bandits became confirmed bandits as the elf drew a short bow from underneath a long cloak, one of the humans pulled out a beat-up pistol and the remaining human unsheathed a sword. The lone figure in the white mask raised their left hand and made a twisting motion and disappeared in a spiral of shadows that engulfed their form as they backed away from the campfire. The complete inability for the ranger to discern any details of the figure was likely sinister magics, he noted as he prepared to unleash justice. Sid leaned further out of his cover and quickly fired four shots from his Staccato into the modern-armed human and turned the angry bandit type into a slumped body in the snow. The pressure in his head felt like a thin hand that gripped at his mind that begged to be pulled out of the encroaching abyss as they slowly lost purchase on the edge. He pointedly stood up to almost take an arrow from the elf fired loosely in his direction and returned the favor with another three shots of 9mm to the elf. The last human with the sword charged Sid, but he was easily ten yards away and unceremoniously fell limp mid-sprint as Sid punched six new holes through the man. His attention turned to the hut as the perilous feeling slipped ever closer to fading. The sounds of metal tools could be heard clattering to the ground as the ranger approached. “Rangers! Hands up and you won’t have to go home in a bag!” He yelled in his most menacing voice, only to hear panicked footsteps inside and a terrible crash of splintered wood.
Sid kicked in the poorly constructed pine door to a horrific sight of butchery. The bandits hadn’t captured a wyvern, it was a dragon girl. The bare room only had a small table filled with bloody tools used to perpetrate the awful act before him. There was a door to a side room Sid thought to clear next but motion caught his eye and turned his attention elsewhere. In the remains of the hut, through the back window that had been broken and since boarded up, only to have the wood broken again, Sid saw another bandit who ran for his life. He almost thought to take the shot at the fleeing bandit when the dragon girl, chained up by her one arm to dangle like a deer, ready for gutting, let out a soft hiss of air. Her eyes were closed and her mouth hung partially open in a near-unconscious stupor. Sid quickly holstered his pistol and turned all of his attention to the girl. She had deep crimson hair and scales to match, scales that ran from forearm to mid-palm and formed graceful soft hands. Her legs stopped resembling a human leg above the knee and formed into the leg of a dragon beyond, wrapped in the same crimson as her hair and arms. Her head was crowned with two regal spirals of near-black horns and the poor girl was stripped bare to reveal the petite form that hung near lifelessly.
Her injuries were severe, her neck had been partially cut to silence her and had likely severed her vocal cords. Her right arm, at least the portion that resembled a dragon, had been removed. A bowl sat underneath the cut portion of flesh and the crimson of her life flowed out to be collected. One eye sat half-open and seemed to partially recognize that Sid was even present, while the other eye had been reduced to a bloody pit.
Without hesitation, Sid threw his bag on to the floor and in a bout of fevered motions and had his medic bag out in seconds. As he began to tie the fabric band of the tourniquet on the arm, Sid noticed the girl had exposed stumps of muscle that jutted freely from her ruined back and a runed iron collar on her neck. The poor thing had her wings torn free. This was likely the work of that masked figure, probably the magic user that had plagued the area. Sid didn’t get to think out the likely scenarios as he struggled to stop the blood flow. He gambled with the girl’s remaining life as he returned to the medical bag and moved aside bandages, iodine, medical tape… ‘Rescue Elixir’. Sid pulled the bottle of thick blue liquid from the bag and held the girl’s head up. With a ‘pop’ he uncorked the top of the small tube and poured it into the girl’s mouth. The Elixir was an unlikely last chance, an amalgam of mana and concentrated healing potions that could give one dying a last fighting chance as it fed the energy of souls into one’s dying vessel. The girl didn’t react, but the iron collar’s runes began to glow softly. Sid recognized some of the markings as a magic-inhibition collar.
Before Sid could fully comprehend what the collar had implied, he was outside and manically tore at the clothes of the bandits for any signs of a key. The elf sucked air through his perforated chest as Sid checked the pockets of his cloak. Angry eyes stared at Sid in their final moments as the elf died before Sid as he pulled the small iron key free of the elven cloak. He payed the man’s dying hate no mind as he focused to keep the girl alive.
He inserted the key on the collar and heard a small click as the back latch released. The iron clanged against the ground and rang with the sound of freedom for the girl. Sid looked up to the restraints on her arm and drew close to the girl and let her head rest softly on his shoulder while he worked on the wrist restraint.
Sid felt a sharp pain as the girl bit deep into his neck and began drawing and sucking blood as she clamped down. His reflexes tried to throw him backwards, but an iron grip held his mind captive for an eternal second before it let him act once more. As the ranger pulled away, the girl released him purposely, as to not tear the flesh from his neck. Sid fell back on to the hard rocky floor of the hut, his pistol instinctively drawn on the slack head of the dragon girl, other hand firmly pressed against the new perforations in his neck. He watched in horror as the girl began to slowly regain life and licked her lips at the taste of his blood. With extreme effort, the girl raised her head to view Sid through her one eye and turned her gaze to the bowl of her blood on the floor. She turned her stare to him in a sad and desperate gaze as if to apologize for her actions.
Sid sat in confusion and still held his neck as he reached for a bandage, now for himself rather than the mess of a girl in front of him. He began to wrap the bandage around his neck as the girl watched him pleadingly. A soft hiss of air came from her throat as if to ask for him to act. Sid was already far beyond his range of knowledge when it came to Frankasia, the Dragon clans were only a concept in his mind up until this point, so he acted on the words that screamed in the forefront of his mind. He helped the girl.
He cautiously drew close to the girl and unlocked the restraint that held her aloft. She dropped on to him and shook violently from both the cold and the injuries. She began to push past Sid, onto the floor before she began to drag herself in the direction of the door with desperate measure, as if her business with Sid had been finished. Sid, once again helped to fulfill the girl’s need. He took her in hand and carried her near to the fire and the bodies that lie around it. The ranger realized that he should be patching the girl up with his medical kit rather than following a delirious whim. Something compelled him to place the girl’s needs above his desire to bandage her wounds. Had the girl enthralled him with her bite? Sid thought not, since his need to help her was more of a gentle push than a forceful urge. Was this a spell?
Sid’s considerations stopped when the girl began to reach out at the dead elf. She shook on top of the man as the cold battered against her bare injured back and Sid thought to offer her cover of some kind when she motioned for him sharply with her arm, as if to tell him to ‘turn away’. Once again, compelled by what felt like a command masquerading as a normal thought, Sid turned his back to the girl as wet squelching noises filled the frigid air. His brow lowered and his expression was that of utter confusion and disgust as his imagination tried to fill the sensory gap.
After the gruesome seconds, Sid was embraced by silence. He was startled by the presence of a soft hand on his shoulder. He quickly turns to see the dragon girl look back with mis-matched eyes, one of deep red and one of light green. An elven-looking arm and hand somehow modified with a feminine shape is now affixed in place of the stump that had previously been there seconds ago. The tourniquet lay soaked on the ground, tossed aside. The girl looked new again, as if she had just replaced the missing parts with ones lying around…
Sid grew sick to his stomach as he saw the mutilated elven corpse. He backed away in fear of the creature he had saved. This was not a victim of heinous dark magic, this was dark magic. The dragon girl looked uninjured now with elven flesh rendered into a quick-fix for her that had replaced what she had lost, except for the absent wings. She held out her hand and winced with some pain, as if to call out to the ranger but no sound escaped her throat. She held her hand over the scar on her throat and looked back at the elf. With a vicious grip on his mind, Sid felt compelled, no.. Sid was commanded to turn around and walk backwards to the girl while she tore at the dead meat.
Sid’s mind obeyed, his feet brought him backwards and ever closer to the dragon as his true thoughts, ones of rebellion and panic, remained stifled by an invisible hand. This wasn’t right, he thought. Dragons or dragon kind didn’t use powerful magic. They were magic aligned, yes, but Sid knew that they relied on that magic nature to empower their strength and resistance.
A frail and quiet cough preceded the artificial sounding voice of the girl, almost abnormally high pitched and rang with unconcealed timidity. “I’m.. I’m sorry I made you do that.”
The grip on his mind released with the soft thud of a collapsed body. A thousand questions hurdled through Sid’s mind while he turned to face the girl once more. She had collapsed on her side, evidently overexerted. The experienced ranger within him yelled in paranoid rage for him to end the threat now, kill the feral dragon before she used Sid for parts. A voice of reason asked ‘Why did she not kill you, or enthrall you if she had such power? Why did she apologize?’
His questions rolled uncomfortably in his mind as one last foreign urge made itself known. ‘Help with the pain’.
Sid had too many unanswered questions as he stood and thought over what he had experienced. This girl was undoubtedly powerful. Given what he had witnessed, the crater, the flash in the sky, something bigger than poachers was at work, something far above Sid’s paygrade. Not even a high powered mage could strike a dragon from the sky like the flames he had witnessed, or so he thought. Clearly the girl wasn’t feral given the capacity to speak coherently, but she wasn’t like the great protector dragon clans he had heard of. His decision was to once more, pick up the unconscious dragon girl and take her back to the hut. His medical supplies littered the floor but his attention quickly turned to the door to the side room he had forgone investigating. He pushed the wood door open with his foot to reveal two bunk beds cramped into a closet-sized space that only allowed for one person to stand between the beds at a time and a wood burning stove on the other end of the room. The beds were laden in old furs and hay stuffed sacks that the Frankasians had considered pillows. He gently set the dragoness down in the wooden framed bed and felt for his handcuffs in his back pocket. He knew dragons were capable of extreme strength, but Sid already had an idea to ensure she wouldn’t be a threat once she had completely healed. He covered her nude form in furs and retrieved the collar from the other room. Evidently, it both restricted her magic and kept her from breaking loose. Even if the collar wasn’t fully effective at masking her magic, Sid considered lessening the threat to be a priority. He shamefully locked the iron collar back on the girl and let out a hefty sigh as he sat on the opposing bed. By any Earthen case standards, she was a victim and needed help as soon as possible. By Frankasian standards, she was an unknown, a threat, something that he needed to be extremely cautious with. He had been awake far too long, but sleeping while a potential threat existed naught but three feet away was a poor choice.
A strange feeling assured him he would be fine as he laid back in the bed and felt his eyes grow heavy. Maybe just a few minutes, he thought.
The ranger awoke to the sounds of a struggle. His eyes shot open and he sat up quickly to a world of pain from an abrupt impact to his forehead. Sid had forgotten that he was in a bunk bed and had ended up headbutting the supporting beam that ran across the underside of the bed above. He rubbed his head as he regained his bearings to the sounds of metal clinking and frail growls. The dragon girl gasped and froze as she saw Sid’s eyes lock on her, both hands, one coated in crimson scales, the other of elven skin, firmly gripped around the locked iron collar. Red indents of the handcuffs pulled tight against her skin were visible on the wrist. Her mis-matched crimson and green eyes looked at him in fear.
“Morning… give me a minute to explain a few things before you go crazy on me.. alright?” Sid asked in his southern drawl. The dragon girl’s eyes danced across him wildly and looked from his gun to his jacket, to his face… she resumed her struggle to tug wildly at the cuffs and collar.
“Hey! Calm down, these are just for my safety… alright?” Sid asked as he unlocked the handcuffs from the wildly tossing dragon girl. She stopped struggling as her wrist is set free. “Now, if I’m going to take off that there collar, I need you to fill in some of what’s going on… alright?”
The dragon girl adjusted the furs to better cover her bare body and nodded at his question. “There, civil, that’s good. I’m a civil man. I ain’t going to do anything wrong to you unless you turn out to be evil. I’m a Frankasian Ranger, which means I protect the people and deal out justice. I know those people were here for black market alchemical supplies but you, you’re a bit of a mystery. It looks to me like you used some not-all-that wholesome magic yourself to… heal? Repair? Then you went mucking around in my head. I don’t take to kindly to that sort of thing.”
The girl looked away from Sid as if she apparently only now realized that she wasn’t in danger, but was rather guilty of some forbidden magics. She spoke softly “I was running out of time”
“Now I could see that, but if I recall, necromancy and mind control are illegal. You ain’t a normal dragon either if you can use high force magic willy-nilly like that. Not to mention that you more-or-less tried to drink me.”
She stuttered for a moment as if she was tripped on the accusation. “I’m sorry about making you do those things… I’m no necromancer, but I knew if someone didn’t come, I would be nothing but parts right now. The bite.. I needed life to give me a few extra moments.”
“Now that’s reasonable enough, but don’t go doing that anymore. If I take off that collar, will you play nice? No mind control, no… taking my skin or drinking blood?”
“I’ll be good.”
Sid reached out and against his better judgment he unlocked the collar. The girl rubbed the red irritated flesh from her attempts to pull the collar free and the marks faded in an instant. “So you’re a magic dragon? One that can still use mind magic under an inhibitor?” Sid asks.
“Biomancy and mind projection, only one of my clan to study any magic, powerful magic.”
“So there’s something. How about I find you some clothes and you tell me who you are and how you ended up here?”
The girl shifted uncomfortably under the cover of the furs. “I’m Alliel, Sparrow of Clan Tamari, Heiress to the Clan.”
Sid rose from the bed uncomfortably as he thought over the words. All he knew about the dragon clans was their deals with villages, wherein they would take a tithe from the village in exchange for protection against raids. He thought that if this girl was, in fact, the heiress to the clan, she would have to be extremely strong to do so. Sid searched underneath the beds for the bandit’s bags or belongings and asked further “So miss Alliel, how did you fall into the hands of these ill-fated folk?”
“My brothers said our father was in trouble. When we flew above the valley, they struck me from the sky. It was a trap… a mage was already waiting to ensnare me.” She said, keeping true to her timid voice.
Sid found a small bundle of traveling supplies and a small coin pouch hidden underneath his bed. “And so your brothers sold you out to them here bandits… that’s a crying shame that your family would do such a thing.”
Alliel watched as he unrolled the bundle to pull free the rough canvas clothes that hid inside. “The eldest wanted to be heir. I was just in his way, a sparrow.” She said quietly.
Sid handed her the clothes and stood in the doorway of the room, back turned to Alliel, “Then that just leaves your magic. Why… no, how did you learn techniques that are banned? Dark magician? Patron of ill intent?” He asked as if to check a box off a list.
“In our hoard, there are treasures given over for tithe. There were books, lots of books. I read them.”
Sid felt a tap at his shoulder and he turned to see Alliel in the several-sizes-too-big clothing draped over her. He clears his throat, “Okay. I’m not going to say you did anything wrong by ensuring your survival. I wouldn’t fault anyone on that. As for your magics, you’ve shown that you won’t use them unnecessarily, but by ranger law I am required to take action.”
Alliel’s head fell low as she looked at the collar lying on the floor.
“I need to search for the two culprits that got away, but I can’t just leave you here.” Sid thought aloud as he reached for the collar.
Alliel shrank in the bed’s opening and softly said “Please no…” as the plea rang softly through Sid’s mind and almost forced him to drop the enchanted metal.
He held it up, “Evidence, won’t be used anymore so long as that’s the last time you try to influence me.”
Alliel nods quickly, as if to declare her promise through the frantic scared shaking.
“We’re heading south to Vildstaten. I’ll have you taken care of by the local guard. From there, it’s up to you to do what you want.” Sid turned his back on the girl for a moment to look at his strewn gear. “And I didn’t forget your last request either, I’ve got something to help with the pain if you need.”
The poorly-clothed dragon girl elegantly pulled herself from the floor. Her asymmetrical limbs worked with a grace that looked unbefitting of her current state. Sid hadn’t noticed the motion as he began to collect his disorganized gear, nor did he know that Alliel had already combed his mind for his true intent as she stood proudly in the doorway. He handed her a pill of his world that he told her would ease her pain and only took it in mock slowness. She already knew that he had planned to track down the mage and to find her wings. What Alliel found curious was that Sid had no clue what she was worth or her true intent and still decided to help her. She thought silently to herself as Sid zipped up his bag. ‘He knows I am dangerous, yes, but he does not know that unrestrained and without a mage nearby, I could fold his bones as easily as paper.’
The dragon girl knew the thought did not suit her, she had never dreamed of violence once until that moment. The ranger stood up and motioned for her to follow, which she did so with a mask of timidity. Alliel was a proud dragon, but had quickly formulated how she would use the interloper to her death for her own purposes. Sid was a noble man and laden within that nobility was the path to his manipulation, she thought. As Sid held Alliel close before the open door of the hut with snow and winds that dared them to exit, she decided to keep her timidity bare for just long enough for her to take down her brothers. The dragoness saw it fit to repay him somehow for his actions, maybe he would end up as her plaything. The hut disappeared behind them in a flurry of white and Alliel made her declaration in her mind with fresh anger for the plot enacted against her. Clan Tamari would not fall to the likes of her brothers.
The guard stood firm at the open gravel road into Vildstaten in steel plate armor and a bolt-action rifle held at a low ready as Alliel and Sid came into view. “Halt! Stand away from the slave and drop your-“
“Frankasian Ranger! Stand down!” Sid hadn’t even clearly heard the man before he cut the guard off. Him and Alliel had traveled for at least six days through rough terrain with little rest and a subtle sense of urgency that he hadn’t connected Alliel to.
Her and Sid hadn’t talked more than the few necessary words for communicating hunger, exhaustion and thirst. On the second day, he had asked why Alliel had been so quiet, to which she only responded with “Speaking in a different voice reminds me of what I lost”. He had wrongly interpreted her words as a sign of distress when her new voice only filled her with rage. Not only was she infuriated with her brothers, but herself as well, due to her inability to return to her previous unmarred state. As Sid relayed the events of the Valley to the guard, Alliel thought upon the passage from ‘Natural Permutations of Life’ that she recalled best described why she couldn’t fully replicate her uninjured form of a week prior. ‘One can only transmute or transform natural mass to one of equal quantities of mana within the aetheric. Should a set quantity of life not contain enough mana to represent what it is forced to, then the representation will compromise with reality’ or, simplified to what Alliel remembered, ‘If something doesn’t have enough magic to become something else, then it becomes what it can closest resemble’.
A southern breeze of frigid air broke Alliel’s moment of thought, to which Sid had only observed the dragon girl stare off into the distance for some time. The guard recaptured both of their attention as he handed Sid back his ranger badge. “Sorry for the mix up, Ranger. We don’t see dragons out here all that much, nor in this state either.”
“It’s nothin, just two men doing their jobs. Say, do you mind if you walk with us a minute? I got a few ‘relevant’ questions.” Sid said, crossing the imagined border into town with a firm step forward.
The guard shrugged, “Shift change is in ten or so, I guess it’ll be fine.”
He began to follow in an instinctual rear angle from Sid as if to stand in formation. Sid briskly began to walk and unzipped his now far over-insulated jacket, “First off, any powerful mages? I’m not talking ‘oh Marry can levitate a boulder’, I’m asking for demon killers.”
“That would be Maurie, retired career mage. She’s been out the last few days, but just returned earlier this morning.”
Sid’s posture jolted from it’s forward-leaning inquisitive curve to an upright line of intrigue. “Then I need you to take me to her now.” Sid pressed firmly.
“Oh, something up ranger? She’s quite the kind elf. I’m sure she’d be willing to help out.” The guard held his head back defensively.
“Maurie, now please.” Sid growled.
The young human guard picked up his pace, the sound of shifting gravel rang under heavy boots and taloned feet increased as the urgency that lingered in Sid’s mind pushed for the haste. Each footfall marked an increase in the tension Sid felt in the air. Boots knocked against hard wood of a porch as the guard led Sid and Alliel to the humble dug-in home of the retired mage. The laurel door sat alone from the defining features of a home, the entire structure looked as if it had been intentionally hidden from sight by a draped layer of grass. The guard’s hand moved to knock on the door but Sid firmly seized his wrist.
They exchanged a look, the guards unasked question would be answered by the ranger as he drew his pistol. Sid firmly knocked four times and chased the action with the firm declaration of “Frankasian Ranger, I need to speak with you”.
The guard had wisened to the scenario that was likely to unfold any second as soft dragging footsteps could be heard inside of the structure and he began to back away slowly. The door creaked open slowly as a platinum blonde mature elf woman stepped into the outdoors light. She had dawned a subtly ornate robe that hung just above her ankles that looked firmly black, but upon further inspection, revealed a fine weaved pattern of reflective blue. She placed a hand on her modest chest at the sight of both the badge-sporting ranger and the clearly disheveled dragon girl.
A moment of silent tension hung in the air as Sid waited to see the mage’s response. He saw no recognition in her eyes of either Alliel or him until her brow furrowed at the dragon girl. “Ranger, what have you brought to my door?” asked Maurie in a learned tone.
“I need to know your whereabouts for the last week, ma’am. I will be as forthcoming with details as you are, so please, cooperate.”
Maurie raised her furrowed brow at the accusatory tone. “My ranger, quite the greeting. I was with a friend from my college days and the innkeeper on a small scavenger hunt, if you will.”
Sid’s head snapped back to the watchful eyes of the lingering guard. “Go find out if that’s true.”
The guard raised his hand as if to ask for permission to speak, “I was on shift, they came in from the west.”
Sid holstered his Staccato in a smooth motion as the tension lifted from his shoulders. “Sorry, Ma’am. Been out here too long, I’m getting jumpy. Mind if we come in and I can ask about any strange powerful mages in the region?”
“So tell me about this mage you saw. The light, the people, it doesn’t match with purely black magicians or forbidden alchemy.” Maurie served tea from a hand-blown glass pot with a decadent floral pattern. The aroma of cinnamon, apples and black tea filled the air as she poured small matching cups for the ranger and Alliel.
“Alliel, do you want to fill in-” Sid had started to ask if she would tell the rest of her story when a sharp sting of panicked thought rang through his head. Maurie seemed unphased by the mental outburst from Alliel, who sat wide-eyed with terror.
“She’s quite the mage for a dragon, even if her techniques are outlawed and poorly controlled, ranger.” Maurie said with a tone of analysis.
“Yeah..” Sid rubbed his temples “somethin or-other about being the heiress to the clan n’reading all their hoard’s tomes. Kinda’ how she ended up here; brothers decided to get rid of her and take the clan for themselves.”
Maurie leaned back into her armchair with tea in hand, “Clearly an organized affair if a powerful mage was present. Poor girl must have been sold or gifted for some good will.”
“And besides the obvious… who would want dragon wings?”
“Unfortunately, no one specific comes to mind. I did glean some magic residues upon a lone traveler who was heading south to Aldveon but I hadn’t thought to check for any unusual magics until your friend entered… and you are aware that her techniques are keen on manipulation of the mind?” Maurie leaned back as mage light seeped from her eyes. Sid felt a sudden lack of a presence within him, as if someone had just taken off a jacket from him that he didn’t know he had on. “She has had a firm grip on you, whether you realize it or not.”
Sid looked back to Alliel, who had an expression of sickening anxiety as her hold was undone. “She’s probably nervous, a man just comes out of the blue and kills her captors, only to free her with uncertain motivations?”
“Beware, ranger. Dragons are not weak creatures. I take it that your injury is related to her?” She gestured to the small bandage affixed to his neck where Alliel had bitten him. The elf drank from her cup as she watched Sid consider her every word.
“As far as she explained it… she needed something to cut the blood loss or she’d have died.” Sid absentmindedly rubbed at the bandage on his neck.
“And tell me, how did she even come to be captured by such bandits? Even a mage like me would be at even odds if I could restrain her.” Maurie’s eyes lit with an intense blue light as she stared at Sid. He could feel the magic pressure building
“Some kind of collar” Sid pulled the enchanted iron from his backpack, letting the engraved runes shine under the lamplight of the room.
“Now that is curious…” the elf drops her facade of intensity to pick up the collar. “Old enchantments, strengthened by time and cruelty. Flecks of gold embedded in the surface… this was taken from a place of value and conquest.”
Alliel nervously spoke, “Brothers… I didn’t think they would lie to me…”.
“Then ranger, I think she passed my little test. Apologies for the method, dear, but an old elf knows never to trust a story.” Maurie adopts a far more caring and proper posture. “But it is rude to intrude into another’s mind without permission.”
Alliel timidly nodded and avoided eye contact with the elf. Sid leafed through his bag and retrieved a gold coin which he set on the table where Maurie returned the collar. “For your time, Ma’am.”
Maurie waved dismissively, “Oh don’t. You gave an old retired woman quite the story. You would be better off using that to help the poor girl.”
Sid retrieved the coin and the collar under Alliel’s nervous gaze. “Then you have my thanks, Ma’am. Please try and contact your local guard if you see anything out of the ordinary, not that I don’t think you could take care of it yourself, but to keep me informed.” Sid said as he stood up.
“Keep the Valley safe, Ranger.” Maurie waves as Sid lets himself out with Alliel close at his heels.
“Ranger, what’s your plan?” Asked Alliel as Sid opened the door to the inn room. The town only had one real ‘inn’ and it had been run by a weasel of an elf named Svern. The rooms were well sized, but had been kept to one bed to force the few travelers that made their way to such a remote region to buy multiple rooms rather than share one with a group.
Sid let out a sigh as he took in the sight of the nearly empty room. The back wall was lined with a large U-shaped couch that could have fit at least six people, which just in front of it sat a wide but almost too short coffee table. On the left and right walls were a banister with a small faucetless sink and across from it, the lone small bed. The bed itself was undoubtedly comfortable, given the more modern bedding that adorned it, but it would be considered small by Earthen standards. The only companion for the back wall was a wood burning stove, a necessity in most structures so far north, nestled near the corner that welcomed the ranger and Alliel.
As they entered, they dropped their newly acquired gear from a day’s worth of shopping in the small town. Sid thought about the question as the well-dressed Alliel began to comb through her bag. “Well, first of all, I need to go after that mage. Then from there, I can find your wings.” Sid leaned back into the couch while taking in the view of Alliel. He had been amazed that she showed no pain from the situation, an apparent advantage of having the ability to manipulate flesh. She had become more bold as they had shopped throughout the day, as if each purchase had brought her closer to being herself once more. Once she had chosen an outfit, a majority of the initial timidity that he saw had washed away. Her top was that of grey casual elven wear with similarly casual black pants. It did well to insulate against the cold but gripped at her figure, which was all but covered by the bulky fur jacket that Alliel had chosen.
“We, ranger.” Alliel corrected.
“That’s not happening.”
“Ranger, do you not remember who I am?” Alliel asked, her words played across Sid’s mind with a succor unbecoming of their content.
“I just rescued you from becoming the latest item at a black market auction, it’s my duty to not place you in danger again.” Sid declared his intentions but a doubt lingered; dragons are more than powerful allies.
“Please, those are my wings, my family that is responsible.” Alliel’s pleas draped her influence over Sid’s unshielded mind.
He unknowingly relented under the invisible assault of her will, “Fine. I’ll get you your wings, you help me bring all the conspirators to justice”, and with a sigh, Sid asked “You didn’t just make me change my mind, right?”
The dragon girl let an innocent smile form on her lips, “Never, only in dire moments.”
“Good… good. So, we know your brothers are in on this, which I now realize you never told me how many brothers you have.” Sid shifts uncomfortably while he leaned back against the couch.
“Six. Lorowyn and Daenes were the two who led me. They said something had happened to father.”
“So that gives us two dragons and one mage. Three suspects in total, two of known location…” Sid ran through the evidence as he thought aloud. “Really we only need to find the mage, your brothers will think you’ve been taken care of and will probably be acting like you’re dead.”
Alliel stood from her perch on the bed and moved next to Sid on the couch. “To Aldveon, ranger?” She asked.
“Maurie’s account wasn’t much to go on, but it’s the closest thing to a lead we have. Aldvenon is a known smuggling route to the portal city of Urhkart, so if they’re trying to make it out of Frankasia, that’s where they’d go.” Sid thought aloud again as Alliel scooched herself closer, almost letting their legs touch.
The dragon girl wrapped her arms around Sid, to which he was taken aback by the sudden hug. “Thank you, ranger!” Said a passionate Alliel as she held on to him firmly. She knew she wouldn’t have to use her magic to make this moment further ensnare Sid in her control.
“Oh.. you’re very welcome” Sid smiled awkwardly as he placed a hand on Alliel’s forehead.
Her gambit to create false affection had more than worked as he gently rubbed her head as she held on to him.
“We’ll set out in the morning, take the bed and get some rest.” Sid instructed as Alliel finally released him from her iron hold.
Sid and Alliel had traveled three days with a trade caravan thanks to some fortune of the ranger’s past, one of the traders had known Sid through a friend that the ranger had saved from a raid. That fact alone had turned what would have been a week-long walk or expensive seat on a cart into a breathe-easy ride with Joseph, the Earth-adjusted Elven merchant of antiquities and art from Frankasia. The ranger and the dragon girl had gotten an earful of Joseph’s business, the talkative elf had detailed most of his model and methods to Sid while Alliel looked uninterested at the skies above as the packed wagon rattled along the rough ground.
Sid had thought Alliel had daydreamed of the skies and thought back to what she had called herself, ‘Sparrow of Clan Tamari’. Aldvenon was an hour away by Joseph’s estimate, who had left the comfort of the wagon for some air. Sid sat against a crate marked ‘Milurion Hand Blown Glass’ while Alliel pulled her legs close to her chest in the rear of the cart and watched each cloud drift by. “What did you mean by sparrow?” Asked Sid as he broke the long silence that had lingered in the cart.
The dragon girl seemed startled for a moment, as if Sid had just yanked her from the depths of thought. Sid repeated himself; Alliel only responded with a stare from her amber eyes. He could tell that the question seemed to harbor anger and she hesitated to answer. After a tense moment of silence, she let out a sigh. “Sparrow is an insult I am forced to carry.”
“Wha-” Sid is cut off by her firm statement, “I could fly well, fly fast, but could not fight. They thought magic was cowardly so my brothers marked me as such, a sparrow to fly away like a coward.”
He could feel the anger that radiated off Alliel, her unsullied face wore an expression of hatred that Sid hadn’t thought she was capable of. She could sense off the surface of Sid’s mind that she had let too much of herself show in that second. In what Alliel would later consider a moment of weakness, she looked over the borrowed Elven flesh that had been shaped to her arm and clenched it into a fist. “I’m sorry ranger, I should have known my brothers would have tried something eventually.”
Sid leaned against the crate of valued glass, “What is there to be sorry about? I’m just a man doing my job”. The nobility that Sid emanated sickened Alliel, that such a trusting creature would exist amongst the lower species, but as such a lower species, he was easy to manipulate. She swallowed her pride and tried to return to the facade she had been so determined to use, “Thank you ranger. Please bring my brothers to justice.”
Sid nodded as Joseph called back from the driver’s perch of the wagon, “Aldvenon in sight!”
The ranger pulled himself up on the cargo net that spanned the roof of the wagon’s interior and peered out the small opening in the front. Through the window, just ahead on pressed gravel paths, lied the tightly walled city of Aldvenon. Tall fourteen foot walls of cobble and ancient concrete surrounded an area that would have contained a small settlement long ago, but now contained stone brick towers of five or more stories and hybrid structures of modern steel and old world construction methods. This tightly-bound settlement stood alone in a cleared area of fields and farms, all with modest recreations of the main wall that stood high in the center to form concentric circles of stone walls. One outlier rose from the skyline housed in the walls, a modern structure that sat to illuminate the Frankasian amalgam to the wonders of Earth, Nugget Security Inc or NSI. The obelisk of glass, black slate and steel was reminiscent of a building from Old New York City and Sid recalled that it functioned as the group’s primary base of operations and corporate headquarters. The once small operation had gone from lizardmen removal specialists with airboats in a swamp to a full-blown private military corporation that could support multiple helicopters. The Frankasian Rangers were once a PMC much like the NSI until some high elf king decreed them law enforcement powers and a government budget to match, not that Sid remembered much of the early years of operation.
“How are we going to find anyone in that maze?” Asked Alliel, who Sid had not heard move directly behind him. Sid hoped that she had not noticed him suddenly adjust his posture in her sudden presence.
“NSI might have leads on the underground since the town contracts security out to them, but from what I know of other smuggling operations, they’ll keep quiet on any real info.” Sid said while he stared at the slowly approaching city. His head moved up sharply as an idea ran to the forefront of his mind. Alliel watched expectantly as Sid seemed conflicted on the idea before he asked “Could you use your… magic? Just a quick peek in a few minds, right?”
Alliel smiled out of sight of the ranger at the planted idea already sprouting. “Yes ranger, only if you ask me to.”
“Well we might be getting a chance here in a minute, guards and lowlifes only, got it?” Sid said sternly as he turned to face Alliel. She nodded with a false nervous look plastered across her eyes as she saw what Sid had meant by a chance.
The caravan slowed down as it met with NSI guards at the first hip-height walls far outside the main city. The guards themselves looked the part of PMC goons, black chest rigs with NSI patches front and center, rifle slung across their chest and all wearing gray fatigues. After a short exchange with Joseph, they waved the caravan past to the final road stretch into the city.
As the gravel faded away to cracked pavement, a large steel gate fashioned like the original gates of Neumagh and countless other fortress cities sat firmly to block any invaders who dared with shapes of local legends and depictions of deeds done by heroes formed on the dark steel. The tall gates split and revealed tight streets with overbearing and stretched buildings evidently constructed on the footprint of the structure that had previously occupied the space. It looked as if even markets, normally spread across a city center, had taken up residence in scaffold-like structures to condense the experience. Ramps and smaller walkways crossed above with lanterns intermixed with rare but present electric lights that snaked between the open spaces. Daylight barely could reach the cracked asphalt beneath the wagon’s wheels as the caravan rolled further into the city.
At the street level, Sid saw concealed eyes drift upwards from the shadows of hoods and low held heads in alleyways that tracked the dragoness that sat at the open back, only sometimes did they drift to observe the clear giveaway attire and badge of the Frankasian Rangers. Sid took off his hat and whispered for Alliel to draw closer. She climbed further into the cart as her tail slid along the wooden seat. “Slave meat… what an odd phrase.” Alliel quietly said as she sat across from Sid, eyes clearly focused on whatever she had gleaned from the minds of those they passed.
“Anything useful?” Asked Sid as the wagon turned off from the main entrance road.
Alliel shook her head, “Nothing specific. Lots of vulgar men surround us. The slave trade seems to thrive here.”
Sid let out a frustrated sigh, Aldvenon was allowed to keep the trade alive like some of the holdout cities and territories around Frankasia, even with Earthen pressure to end the act. It turned Sid’s stomach to think that some of those who had disappeared from relatively calm lifestyles of Earth, thanks to the convergence, ended up at the business end of a whip to a cruel and unforgiving owner. “As much as I hate it, we could use that as a ploy to get in with the underground markets… slavery and all can be out in the open… but smuggling black magic ingredients won’t just be sitting out in the open.”
Alliel must have skimmed his mind because Sid watched her expression grow to one of disgust. “Ranger, I am not putting the collar back on to pose for your satisfaction.”
Sid had imagined Alliel with the collar on in the ragged attire that he had gathered for her, but he hadn’t felt any satisfaction at the thought. “Look, we etch one of the runes so it doesn’t function fully… then I look to ‘sell’ you. Naturally, someone’s going to be present that will know where the underground is and then you’re done with your role, back to normal.” Sid hastily explained in a guilty tone.
Alliel’s tail thudded firmly against the wood, “Only if you disable the collar. I will not go into a den of wolves without my strength.”
“Sure, but it’d be best that you get ready now so there isn’t word of a ranger in town. My hat and badge are also going to do nothing but hamper us here, so don’t call me ranger anymore.” Sid said as the wagon stopped. He could hear Joseph talking in Elvish outside of the wagon while he retrieved the collar from his bag. With a quick twist of his knife, he damaged the edge of the back-facing rune. Sid could still feel residual magic through his hands but it had felt less directed than before. As he handed it over to Alliel, he asked, “So why didn’t you just do that when you were chained up?”
“Ranger… Sid, those enchantments can only be modified by whatever host race created them, in this case, humans. Purpose made, it seems.” Alliel said as she took the collar sternly from him. “Now please, a moment of privacy?” She asked.
Sid obliged and slipped out the back of the wagon. He felt exposed as he climbed down from the wagon without his badge and hat visible, the only statement to his authority had been unceremoniously packed away underneath his camping rations. He heard Alliel hiss sharply in pain and Sid instinctively looked back. He could see Alliel’s lithe form arched in pain, her shirtless form revealed scales that ran up the side of her to line the soft skin that composed her chest. He exchanged an embarrassed look with an almost teasing glance from Alliel as she turned her back to him. The rapidly-healed skin of her back where her wings had been torn off sat as vicious scarred reminders of what she had endured. “It’s rude to stare, Sid.” She called out.
“Sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” He said. Sid turned away with a lingering feeling, a desire to observe the bare form of the dragoness. He ran his hand over his face as if to wipe away the feeling. It was unnatural for Sid to have such a craven need, but a whispered reason in a sultry feminine voice explained it in Sid’s mind. ‘You’ve been alone for too long, Sid. The Valley is draining you’.
His internal conflict was interrupted by the sounds of chains and scales against wood. Alliel climbed free of the wagon in the ill-fitted clothes and the disabled collar draped across her neck. Sid was unsure if the defeated look on her face was one she had falsely made or if it had come from Alliel having to wear the symbol of her own defeat again. He placed a hand on her shoulder and she drew her head up slowly, “We’ll get this done quickly, alright?”.
Sid tugged absently at where the straps of his backpack had usually sat as he relaxed in the red felt chair. The ceremonial tent was clearly a staging ground for trade of an illicit nature with it’s gaudy nature bared with overly-detailed hand crafted lanterns stamped with stars, circles, crests and boxes to soften the oil-fed firelight within. A large circular rug of comparable detail with colorful radial spurs that spilled out from the center that reminded Sid of how food coloring might look when added to water. Alliel stood quietly behind the ranger with her head held low with the same look of defeat draped over her otherwise fair face. The pastel orange tent flap was pushed aside by pudgy fingers of a well-fed and amply matched elven man. To Sid, who normally disregarded stereotypes, hid a chortle with a fake cough at the way the round elf portrayed a slave trader to the exact stereotype, from the overly large elven formal hat with a deep blue bird’s feather affixed at one side, striped Earthen formal suit, simple green elven silk shirt underneath with gloves to match and shoes that better fit a comic book villain with the sharp pointed black leather ends. “Mister Rick, was it not? I hope I have not kept you waiting too long” the trader said in a heavy elvish accent that accentuated t’s and ran quickly with e’s.
Sid confidently leaned back in the chair, “You are kind to provide a meeting on such short notice, sir. Waiting a few minutes is well worth my time for what I have to propose today.”
The round elf sat on an identical red felt chair across from the ranger and let his eyes dance across Alliel’s form. “Yes indeed, a magical arrangement of sorts, right?”
Sid cleared his throat and quickly said “Not that I intend for her sale to be for any illegitimate use, but she does have quite the alchemical value.”
“But of course, sir. We wouldn’t want any illegal intents within my fine establishment, but in assessing your slave’s value, such… rarity… must be incorporated.” The elf spilled words that dripped with double-speak only used by the most crooked of traders. “But forgive my lack of formality, in such business, one must know who they are dealing with. I was told you are a.. hunter of rare specimens that goes by the name Rick, just Rick. I am called by my merchandise Master Julliene, but you may call me Julliene. I am surprised I have never encountered you before, sir, given your occupation.”
Sid stiffened up and raised his head to assert the stern nature Rangers are taught to use in such situations, “Is that not creedence to the quality of my work? I try to avoid eyes and ears. I’m sure you understand, given the nature of our… industry.”
Julliene laughed, “Of course, of course. I am curious to begin my evaluation of her, if you don’t mind. It’s the first time I’ve had a dragon brought to me… but rare creatures are not out of my experience.”
The round elf stood up and Sid motioned for Alliel to move closer to the prude elf, who’s eyes danced greedily over the blank visage of the dragon. “I once sold a beast-girl of the Snow Leopard variety to a businessman for quite a pretty penny, but for you, my dear, your value eclipses that deal.”
Sid sat silently as the elf circled Alliel like a predator waiting to strike. “Is she.. how you say, unsullied? Not that I expect her fate to be as such where it would matter but it affects it’s value.” the elf asked.
The ranger was surprised to hear Alliel’s angry voice in his head, “Tell this prude that I am pure… unlike his rotten soul.”
Sid shifted uncomfortably at the presence of Alliel in his head, “Yes, she is untouched.” he said aloud. The elf reached for Alliel’s poorly draped clothes before hesitating a moment.
“I would normally conduct a more thorough inspection, but I can already see that I am being sold an incomplete set.” The elf ran a finger down the length of Alliel’s back and stopped just above her tail.
“Call it a ‘finder’s fee’ for the one who helped me capture her.” Sid said slyly.
“It is of no consequence to the buyer. I’ll arrange for her to be sold at a more.. specialized auction. I believe I heard that some dragon and wyvern supplies will be available as well. She will be an attractive offer if we begin at three-hundred gold and let the auction decide. Of course, I will need my fee, say, ten percent?”
Sid decided it was time to straight-face the crooked trader, “Fine. Time and a place please, Julliene.”
“Oh, straight to business Mister Rick. I think this will be the beginning of a profitable relationship, sir.” The elf said between a crooked smile and yellowed teeth. “Quandries at sundown. I have heard humans refer to it as a ‘dive’ if you should decide to sample their menu but we convene through the back entrance.”
“I’ll be there.” Sid stands from his seat to shake hands with the elf.
The elf showed some apprehension at the gesture but took Sid’s hand. “Yes, Earth tradition and all.”
Sid motioned to Alliel to follow and they left the tent together. The ranger had gotten an inn room for them not far from the slave market’s tents where he had stored both his and Alliel’s equipment. He had just began to think about the slave trader’s sudden hesitation to ‘inspect’ Alliel and her voice in his mind when she interrupted his thoughts. The hollow but firm voice surrounded him as a sourceless form that only he could hear, “I did use my influence on him.”
The shadows of the overhead walkways danced on the cold damp concrete they walked on. Before Sid could ask, Alliel’s response echoed through him, “because I despise letting them see me bare”. He immediately thought to his glance at her uncovered body in the wagon and Alliel’s mildly irritated mind-voice said “I allowed that, ranger.”
A startling thought appeared in Sid’s head as he stepped to the inn’s side door like a suddenly-remembered previously lost memory. ‘How long has Alliel been listening to my thoughts? Has she influenced me? What else is she hiding?’
His arm remained frozen with the key held just in front of the lock to the door and he turned slowly to look at the dragoness. She stared at him with a knowing look and let out a sigh, the first sign of emotion she had shown after she had donned the collar. Her unnatural voice soothed his mind, “I am sorry if you feel violated, Sid. My brothers taught me that I could not even trust my own blood. How could I blindly trust a stranger?”
Sid knew she was right but the unease still shook him. He slotted the key and unlocked the staircase to the second floor rooms. They walked in silence until they entered the compact inn room and Sid shut the door behind them.
Alliel’s timid and soft voice broke the silence, “Do not doubt your intent, Sid. You are a kind man to help me so selflessly.” She quietly approached behind him and placed her arms around him, embracing him from his back.
He didn’t know how to respond, the dragoness had shown such a sudden and different personality when she spoke through his mind. Even her voice was different, a note or two deeper and far more commanding than her current voice. Doubtless to Sid, she already knew of the discrepancy but chose to stay quiet and let him enjoy the semblance of privacy. He could almost pity the girl, desperate to know if she could trust anyone and always stayed by the side of her rescuer. Sid turned to face her and returned her embrace. He laid a hand on her head, which rested on his shoulder. He could feel the bump of her seldom bosom pressed against him until they released the hug. “Just don’t leave me guessing, Alliel. Remember what Maurie said, it’s rude to enter someone’s brain like that.”
Alliel let out a guilty but playful giggle. “Of course, Sid.”
“Next, Item 14. Cultivated elf with high mana saturation. Pre-labeled and at prime butchering time. Useful for Alchemy, soul rituals and magic of the flesh. Origin; Coven of Carnality. Starting bid, 90 gold.” Said the monotone announcer as the spotlight lit the barely-covered female elf. Her skin was covered in tattoo markings that labeled muscle groups, vital areas and mana concentrations of each region like the poor girl was a prized cow destined for slaughter. Her numb expression reeked of drugs and the only thing that kept her from complete nudity was the chains that did nothing to conceal her. Sid choked back his disgust from his seat in the overlooking promenade that let him view the bidders as they raised their numbered paddles from the left of the stage. Sid almost had wished Alliel could speak to him in the moment, but he had told her not to use magic at all if they were going to remain undetected by a powerful mage. The exact moment she had withdrawn from his mind was apparent to him, like the feeling he had when he took off his belt at the end of a long day, something you hadn’t paid much attention to but knew the loss of it. His sense for magic detection had returned as well, since Alliel’s now obvious perpetual presence had numbed his sensitivity.
It disturbed Sid that she so freely entered into his mind unannounced. He was still unsure if she had told him the truth, that he remained uninfluenced. Her panicked intrusions had felt so natural in the beginning that Sid thought it impossible to discern a more subtle nudge at his thoughts from his own feelings.
“And sold to bidder 153 for 156 gold.” the announcer yelled as the spotlight was turned off. Sid’s attention returned to the auction, where he could better see the wood laminate stage with black curtains behind it once the blinding spotlight had been disabled. The entire setup reminded him of a theater made to look as royal as possible as cheaply as possible. Every material was of low quality but looked expensive. The seat he was in especially fell into that category, the purple felt fabric looked to be as royal as the slave trader’s seats but once Sid had sat down, he realized it was a polyester fake. The stage at least had a high ceiling and seemed to have been constructed with acoustics in mind, given the way the announcer’s voice carried through the structure. Beneath him were at least two-hundred bidders arrayed in seven rows of seats.
“Item 15. Experimental serums stolen from Balthazar, labeled as follows: Enhanced Biological Properties, Enhanced Physical Characteristics, Enhanced Magical Characteristics. Only to be used on specific species, not for human consumption. Origin; Anonymous. Starting bid, 15 gold.”
“Some interesting items indeed, Mister Rick.” Said Julliene in a low voice next to Sid. The large elf had wedged himself in the small theater seats next to the ranger at the beginning of the auction, but had seemed to grow restless as the auction ran on. Sid paid him no mind as he sat silently, eyes affixed blankly on the stage. He had attempted several times to sense the presence of the supposed mage, but had gotten nowhere. His ranger badge poked awkwardly from underneath his jacket, which he had to readjust to hide. He was unsure why he had brought an obvious giveaway to his position to the criminal-filled gathering, but something told him that he would need it. Without the mage using obvious high-powered magic or identifying themselves, Sid would have to wait. His concentration was broken when Julliene placed a hand on his shoulder, “I find these events rather dull, my friend. If you need me, I will be across the way in Belmont’s Tavern. I trust that our arrangement will be honored?”
Sid nodded as the ample elf stood up into the aisle and left. Sid thought about the mage he had seen in the thick snow of the Gorian Valley, a robe of deep purple and a mask of white. The details of the figure eluded Sid through what he had concluded as magic, different from Alliel’s mind altering magics. It was as if his eyes didn’t focus on the object and thus had left him with the vague impression of the mage. The fact that Maurie didn’t have any obvious descriptors except for the magic residues matched his forming theory. “Sold to bidder 16 for 212 gold.”
The ranger had relied on details to track his quarry, but realized that he should look for the lack of detail. “Item 16. Charm of a dead mage. Seller requested description as follows: Holds the power of a time lost elven mage that will appear as an apparition to a person. Mage is uncooperative with the current owner and is suggested to be used as soul fuel for rituals. Origin; Anonymous. Starting bid of 15 gold.”
He stood up from his seat in the vendor’s overlook and walked to the side to look down over the bidders below. He focused on each individual until he was sure he could see details of their face, clothes, and species. Sid tracked across four rows until his eyes skipped over a bidder. Whatever the mage had done to create such an effect had evidently been amplified, he couldn’t even determine who or what the bidder was. “Sold to bidder 92 for 34 gold”, called the announcer. His eyes simply would skip over the seat each time to follow the path they had taken, all to forcibly glaze over the individual. The ranger grew frustrated as he attempted again and again only to fail to discern a single detail.
“Item 17. Spell focus bracelet for telekinesis. When worn, amplifies force exerted to that of a stone golem. Not to be used on targets one wants to keep alive. Origin; Taolaster of Lindenheun. Starting bid of 19 gold.”
Sid’s eyes locked on to the figure that raised their paddle. The number 35 sat in bold black letters upon it, held up by a pale and clearly female arm. Draped over the bidder was a cloak of deep purple with gold thread edges. The face that stared directly at Sid from the crowd beneath was one of a porcelain white mask detailed with thin brush marks to depict one half of a smile and the other half of a frown. The paddle fell as the auction continued and the mage returned to being an unseeable footnote to those around them. “Sold to bidder 44 for 60 gold.”
Sid felt for his Staccato that rested in his jacket. He absently ran his fingers over the four backup magazines tucked into his belt. This mage had likely recognized him and would know Alliel on sight. Sid felt a pressure build in his head as the announcer called “Item 18 and 19. Prepared alchemical reagents and slave.”
Alliel winced as the spotlight shone brightly on her, next to her was her dried and desiccated wings hung from a metal rack. “Dragoness with her wings already prepared for infusion. Slave is healthy and a virgin, a good source of blood for difficult potions. Origin; Master Julliene’s Emporium. Starting bid of 350 gold.”
She held her hand up to block the light as the crowd whispered amongst themselves. Several pattles began to show repetitive interest and a bidding war began. Alliel locked eyes with Sid and he could tell she was crying. Tears shined under the spotlight and a presence made itself known in his head. “They destroyed my wings. I can’t fix these…” Alliel projected an upset voice into Sid’s head as he frantically pointed at the seat the mage was in. She caught his meaning instantly and he could only watch as the plan to identify and corner the mage fell apart at Alliel’s hand. She ripped the collar off her neck to the dismay of the audience and held out a hand. Every bidder in the crowd had frozen as Alliel’s focus left the ranger’s mind and her will was turned on the people before her. “Security!” called the announcer as the vendors next to Sid began to hurriedly leave. A purple-clad figure rose from their seat, unbothered by Alliel’s hold, hand held aloft with thumb crossed to ring finger, middle and pointer finger raised to maintain a spell.
“YOU!” Called the Dragoness. Her anger flared visibly as mana-fed flames erupted from her fingertips.
The mage responded in an English accented human voice, “You should have died, Sparrow”
Heavy booted footsteps filled the hall as private security forces began to swarm the upper patio where Sid was. Each was armed with what Sid identified as submachine guns of at least three different models, garbed in black formal attire and wore body armor underneath the formal jacket. He counted seven as the crowd below was released from Alliel’s hold and the two spellcasters began to fight. The dragoness was hit by an unseen wave of force from a wrist-flick by the Mage, only to be returned with targeted flames and Alliel’s lunge into the fleeing crowd. “Frankasian Rangers! Put your weapons down!” Sid yelled at the security as they each began to aim for the dragoness. He had drawn their attention only to be at the business end of their SMGs.
Sid dove into the cover of the stairwell and drew his Staccato as three of the guards fired a burst in his direction. “Four mags, 25 each.” Sid said to himself as he drew up against the corner.
“One, two, three” he counted as he fired three shots into the closest guard, each shot rang with a deep concussive bang throughout the hall. He caught a glimpse of the long curved hallway that ran the upper length of the auction house. Three across the way, four, now three on his right. Another set of shots flew into the wall across from Sid who was pressed against the stairwell. He saw firelight dance into the upper levels as flames licked at the vendor’s promenade before a violent impact shook the hall. With that opportunity, Sid slid out from his cover directly into the face of a guard. The ranger flexed his stomach and he forcibly grabbed the arm of the guard who had just about stuck the SMG into Sid’s chest. With a firm grip, he redirected the gun past his right side. Sid clamps down on the guard’s arm with his Staccato-bearing arm as the guard desperately fired off the magazine past Sid. With his free hand, the ranger shoved the guard in front of him as a second guard shot into the back of the first. Sid dropped to a squat and held the security guard aloft as shots tore into the back of the guard’s body armor. He let the guard fall to his left and brought up his Staccato, “Four, Five, Six” he counted as one of his shots landed true and embedded itself in the team-killing guard’s head.
More gunfire flew into the wall behind him and chunks of concrete and dust spattered the tile floors alongside Sid in his crouched position. A ball of fire burst across the center of the promenade. Surfaces began to char and grow violent unruly flames. Sid rose up to the rails and began to empty his magazine into the other side of the promenade. One of the security goons seemed to understand that his life was more valuable than the situation at hand and was running away. The other two guards were behind pillars and waited for Sid to reload. He stopped at seventeen shots, but firmly stood at the ready with a smug grin on his face. One of the guards left his cover to send a burst Sid’s way, only to be met with the remainder of Sid’s magazine. He pushed his back into the wooden pillar as the fire grew up the side of the promenade. He stuffed the empty magazine in his belt and pulled a fresh one as smoke began to fill the promenade. “Just give up asshole!” Sid yelled. The lack of a reply let him hazard a look into the stage below. Alliel and the Mage were locked in an exchange of air bursting blasts that would send anyone flying and a cacophony of fireballs lit with the fury of a dragon. Small caliber fire split the wood of the pillar and sent splinters and metal into Sid’s shoulder. “Fuck!” Sid cursed as he slid down along the pillar. He shifted his Staccato to his left hand and sent six unaimed shots over the railing. He felt warmth trickle down his back as he crawled to the staircase.
The ranger ran down the steps as his shoulder went from a numb warm mess to a painful fire. The guard above still fired around the pillar until an inferno struck the pillar. High temperature flames licked across his form and he began to scream while Sid raised his Staccato in his off hand to place the Mage in his sights. The white mask met his iron sights when a concussive force threw Sid against the staircase with the force of a car. Multiple sounds could be heard as he impacted the hardwood stairs, the crunch of bone, the wet smack of flesh, or the gunshot that Sid managed as he was thrown. In his dazed state with his brain numb to the injuries he had just sustained, he saw the bullet drop to the floor from the mage’s outstretched hand. Alliel tackled the Mage with the might of an unrestrained dragon. Sid couldn’t see what she had done, but he did hear it. Yells and screams of both an enraged dragoness and a fearful mage filled the theater. Wet crushing and tearing made themselves known next. Sid’s vision began to fade as Alliel stood up, hands covered in red. He could see the horror in her eyes upon the sight of him. Heavy boots and the sounds of men with heavy tactical gear could be heard from above as Alliel frantically threw herself next to Sid. Alliel’s panicked voice amongst a cacophony of yells was the last thing Sid heard before blackness took him.
“No no no no!”
“Step away! NSI!”
“Hands in the air!”
A painful jolt stabbed at Sid’s heart. His system was flooded with adrenaline and he shot awake with renewed life. His badge was on the stairs next to him alongside his jacket and Staccato. Alliel and an NSI agent stood above him. “Ranger! Don’t ever interrupt a fight with mages again!” Alliel scolded as he ran his hands cross his shoulder and chest. The NSI guard pulled the syringe away from his chest and made way for Alliel to gently hug the ranger.
“Sir, you’ve been healed… just give yourself a moment and we’ll need to take statements.” Said the NSI guard who knelt next to him. He put away the flashlight and began to pack up the medical kit when Sid gripped at his arm firmly.
“Help me up, I’m not done here yet..” Sid muttered as he tried to push himself off the stairs. The guard complied and lifted Sid up to stand as Alliel fell away from him. He could feel his shirt was damp near his shoulder and his jacket looked to have a few new holes on the same side. He gave Alliel a knowing look as if to say ‘we’ll talk about it later’ and scooped up his belongings.
“Ranger, NSI has authority in this town-“
Sid cut off the guard, “Last time I read anything about authority, we had jurisdiction across the chartered regions. If you want to help, find out who bidder 35 was.”
The guard didn’t say anything else as Sid began to walk over the fragments of theater chairs to the remains of the Mage. Her head was one mess in the aisle but she had been drug and turned over, chunks torn free for a purpose Sid was too familiar with. Alliel had a guilty look on her face as he glanced at her and began to walk to the stage. He felt at his side at the unfamiliar texture of his borrowed skin and where it blended with his own. With a labored movement, Sid climbed up onto the singed laminate stage. He took a moment to look at the flash-burned remains of Alliel’s dried wings and pushed through the black curtains.
“Ranger please don’t hurt yourself, I’ve never healed someone like this before!” Alliel yelled as she ran to follow Sid backstage. He saw rows of merchandise tossed against slave cages. A few NSI guards worked to gather the intact items while others tried to get cages unlocked all under the direction of the slave trader Julleine.
“Ah Ranger! Glad to see you survived. Your actions here have provided me with quite the business opportunity. The city is left with some slaves that can’t be owned by Earthen-bound entities and they’ve sold them to me at a hefty discount!” Called the trader with a wide toothy grin.
Sid firmly gripped his pistol when Julliene raised up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh ranger, do be reasonable. I assisted in your investigation and provided you with an opportunity to catch your man!”
The ranger stood face to face with the trader as Sid huffed angrily. “I’ve even included an ample… ‘finder’s fee’ for you, ranger.”
Julliene held out a bag of coins. The ranger held his frustrated gaze and ripped the bag from the trader’s hand. “Perfect, I hope we get the opportunity to work together again, ranger.”
Sid turned to leave and finally faced Alliel when something blue caught his eye. On one of the shelves sat the blood soaked remains of a butchered juvenile blue wyvern. For a juvenile, the creature was still quite large, about the size of a motorcycle. The wings looked relatively healthy and had yet to smell. Alliel caught his intent as she briskly approached the ill-fated creature. “I’m taking these too!” Sid called to Julliene as Alliel pulled the bundle of wyvern meat off of the intact shelf. Sid, with his attention elsewhere, didn’t notice as Alliel slipped the three experimental vials of enhancers from the auction into the bundle.
Sid and Alliel brushed past the curtains once more to the mildly-smokey theater. He heard the familiar voice of the announcer from above as the two made their way out of the auction house, “We paid our dues, what happened to looking the other way?”.
A voice responded as the ranger brushed up against the exit door, “NSI can’t ignore it when you idiots are this blatant. The whole street felt those explosions.”
He let out an angry sigh as he pushed out into the cool night air of Aldvenon.
Sid watched out of morbid curiosity as Alliel let the elven hand fall from it’s place attached to her elbow as if it had never been attached. It thudded to the floor of their innroom bloodlessly like rubber, the flesh had segmented cleanly on both sides. Alliel held the wyvern arm up and he watched the flesh slowly merge with hers, tendrils of red scales snaked across the surface to engulf the arm. Her once mismatched arm now mimicked her current red-scale draped arm, albeit with more aggressive looking scales. Alliel had a satisfied smile drawn across her face as she flexed her new hand. “It worked!” she cried in success.
Her happiness was tempered when she caught Sid’s gaze. He looked mildly distraught at the magic he had witnessed. “Ranger, you might want to look away for these next ones…”
Sid turned his attention elsewhere. As the sounds of squelching flesh filled the inn room, he couldn’t shake the way he had felt after he had been so painlessly reassembled by the dragoness. ‘Was the mage now part of him?’ Sid asked himself. “No ranger, you are completely you.” Alliel responded in a firmer, deeper, more commanding female voice.
He turned to see a matching set of predatory amber eyes who’s slits narrowed on him, face alight with a grin as equally intimidating as her gaze. She was bereft of her top and only wore her pants and a bra, both of which seemed a size too small for her slightly taller visage. Alliel looked as if she had grown from half a foot under Sid’s height to now a head taller than him. She had kept her relatively modest chest and thin figure but the wings she bore were foreign to him. Her wings were not reminiscent of the original ones he had seen dried and burned on the rack of the auction house but had taken on a more angled and aggressive look, each wing ended with a talon fit to tear through armor. Even her tail had changed after she used the wyvern flesh, which was now ended with a single talon much like her wings. Two empty vials rolled around on the table next to the remainder of the Wyvern. “Alliel… what did you-“
The dragoness stood proud before him. “I am complete now, Sid. Though, I will need new clothes… the ones you bought me were not made for dragons.”
Sid sat in both awe and uncertainty as she moved to sit beside him. “I’m sorry if I look different, I don’t want to return as a sparrow to my family… I want to be known as more than a title.”
He remained with many unanswered questions about what she had done to him in the auction house, what she had become, who the mage was, and what would happen next until she let her horned head rest on his. “I’ve grown quite fond of you, ranger. Come with me, back to Clan Tamari. You can help me serve justice to my brothers, act as a witness for my father. I might even have a place for you at my side…” Alliel had such confidence and slyness that Sid was not used to. Something within his mind told him to follow through, but doubt gripped at him. If it turned ugly, what would one human ranger do against a room of dragons?
A sense of pride had suffused his conviction that argued with his reasoning. Sid had survived time and time again, this girl had sought out his help, he should finish the justice he had just begun to serve. A ranger who took on a dragon clan and lived to tell the tale, that’s who Sid would be. What of his questions? Sid no longer cared, he knew that they would be answered after the brothers were brought to justice. Alliel’s head rose from Sid, who had danced to the mental tune she had played for him. “Have you decided, Sid?”
“I have, how do you plan on getting to Clan Tamari with me?”
Sid regretted the question he had asked the previous night. The answer had caused him to stir throughout the night until Alliel, still uncharacteristically confident and powerful, had joined him on the inn couch. He thought the situation was awkward between them, or so Sid felt, she embraced him and the uncertainty of tomorrow had left him to be replaced by a deep and calm slumber. The cold morning air bit at his face and forced him deeper into the hold of the flying dragoness. She had told him almost an hour ago that it would get uncomfortably cold if he wanted to get through the ordeal quickly, which he had agreed to. Even to Sid, a ranger who freely explored the Gorian Valley, the constant assault of frigid air was too much. Alliel, body kept warm by a tri-cut cloak and the fiery heart of a dragon, was unbothered by their high-altitude flight amongst the clouds. In fact, Sid had noticed she added flurries to every maneuver, as if she wished to drop him and fly unburdened, free to flip and twirl. Her grip never lightened as he was held tight against her chest, to which Sid had grabbed on to her womanly torso with unease. He didn’t dare loosen the grip on her hips out of embarrassment, if anything, he had been coaxed to hold on tighter with every turbulent gust and further against her warm slender body as she flew across the blue abyss of the morning sky. Both of their bags were strapped to Sid’s back, to which he felt some anxiety over the rifle that had been so haphazardly attached had rattled in the high winds.
The dragoness’s voice cut through the air, “Just a few more minutes. We’ll see if we can find my father first… then we-“
Sid felt a titanic impact slam into Alliel’s side as he was ripped from her grasp. His forward momentum ended with a downward lurch and he began to fall. It had been the first time he had gotten a good look of where he was, given that his face had been buried in the robes of the dragoness to stay warm. A bright serene blue surrounded him as he fell through a soup of tall, asymmetrical clouds. A mountain peak far off in the distance below him peered through the sea of clouds with small black specks that dotted the sky around it.
He no longer felt the familiar presence of Alliel as doubts surged through his mind as the lower altitude clouds grew in alarming size. ‘Why did I say yes to this? Who was that mage? How long do I have left?’
An inner calm gripped at him. He had later debated what had caused this moment of inner peace, but he guessed that a lifetime of near-death experiences had prepared him for his final moment. His thoughts turned to the good he had done, efforts to quell poachers of sentient races, been responsible for saving dozens of lives firsthand, probably hundreds secondhand…
Talons caught the backpack and jerked Sid up sharply. Bright red scales and the familiar slender figure of the dragoness lifted him forward in a mad dive to gain speed. Sid felt like he had been dragged in a harness through river rapids as he was pulled backwards to the mountaintop. His mind turned from the serenity of another near-death experience to survival.
“Lorowyn! You can’t kill me alone!” Yelled Alliel over the scream of the air currents.
A deep and powerful male voice echoed throughout the clouds around the two, “Your foul magics and weakness will keep you from being heir. That was always my right!”
Sid saw a flurry of orange scales briefly jump between the clouds that passed. “Just a little further!” Yelled Alliel.
Another flash of orange made itself known in a nearby cloud momentarily.
Sid felt his stomach drop as the orange streak slid out from the cloud cover and began to race forward. His reflexes proved faster than his eyes. Even at such a perilous altitude, Sid drew his Staccato and tried to aim whilst he swayed in Alliel’s grip. The streak danced through the sky like a soaring predatory bird that toyed with its prey before its next strike. Sid, ever unsure as to the effect of firearms on dragons, began to desperately fire round after round, the sound drowned by the sheer volume of air that rushed by his ears. Shot after shot flew free as the orange blur began to steady its course, one that allowed Sid to put the sights on the fast moving dragon, but also one that was a last dash for both him and Alliel. In a fraction of a second Sid saw the orange blur grow from a vibrant dot to a reaching clawed hand draped in spiked orange scales not unlike the color of Alliel’s eyes, deep angry red eyes and fanged teeth bared. Sid’s frantic trigger pulls did nothing to stop the tidal wave of force that the other dragon brought.
The ranger was falling again.
This time it only lasted a second before he hit hard ground and rolled for several feet, all while his pistol clattered along the ground with him. Two impacts shook the ground as he scrambled to his feet and picked up the Staccato. Sid scowled in disappointment as he saw the scraped handguard and slide but simply reloaded the pistol and began to check his surroundings. He was surprised to see another younger dragoness in wide-sleeved black robes not unlike those of rural Japan with scales of deep red and white hair that stared at him as she overfilled a teapot with water from a bamboo jug. Her tail peeked out from underneath the long robes and he could see the raptor-like feet that all dragons had. Her expression was one of both confusion and concern. Sid turned his attention to the courtyard befitting a Japanese emperor with large slabs of decorative stone with intricate patterns carved into their surface that fed into a green-tile roofed wooden building the shape of a box with an exposed interior courtyard. He dared to look at the end of the courtyard and saw at both ends were a near-endless drop into the sea of clouds below. He glanced back to the interior courtyard of the structure where a lone tree sat. Under his first glance, the tree looked ill, but upon further study, the ranger noticed that each branch looked as if it had belonged to another species, except for the large black scar up the trunk. Sid turned his attention back to the younger dragoness that still stared confused at the sudden appearance of Sid. She stood alone next to a carved slate trough of crystal clear water, behind which looked to be a frightful number of stairs. He could see some of the dragons that flew had taken an interest in what had happened and had begun to fly in their direction.
The girl looked as if she wanted to say something, but kept quiet. A large impact drew his attention to the building behind him. Smoke poured from the left side of the mountaintop structure and caused Sid to run across the open courtyard into the confines of the structure. He pulled his rifle free of the netting on his bag and chambered a round as he ran, thankful that it hadn’t fallen off in flight. It was still up for debate if his rounds would even harm the other dragon, given that 5.56 would only penetrate good body armor in the best of circumstances.
He drew into the entryway and could instantly hear a struggle, the angry grunts of Alliel and the overexerted panting of the other dragon. “What part of father’s plan didn’t you understand? I was to be the head, I was going to bring us into a new era!” she yelled.
“You are a trickster and a weakling. Only your false strength lets you contend with me, sister. Don’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t have found out about how you convinced father of such a terrible idea. I will end you myself this time.” panted her brother.
Sid came upon the scene with his rifle drawn; smoke and flames billowed from the interior wall that had been blown outward into the interior courtyard. The two opposing dragons were shadowed by the rent in the outer wall where they had come in, draped in firelight and sunlight as they stood equidistant. Alliel held out a commanding hand while her brother, Lorowyn, clasped his bruised and twisted arm. Sid noticed fresh circular bruises on the dragon’s skin and hoped that it had been caused by the 9mm. “Frankasian Ranger! You’re going down for attempted murder, conspiracy and sentient species trafficking!” Yelled Sid.
The orange dragon chuckled, “Sister, you bring an outsider to our most prized hoard, try to kill your brother, and still rely on your pitiful magics… father will never forgive you.”
The ranger dived to the debris-filled ground as Lorowyn spewed flames at him. Sid retaliated by dumping his entire magazine into the attacking dragon. The force of his shots looked only to stun Lorowyn, but gave Alliel an opening. She lunged into her brother and slammed him bodily into the ground. She got on top of the dazed dragon and began to hit him. Meaty impacts filled the hall as Alliel kept throwing punch after punch into her brother’s face. The impacts became harder and crunchier as every impact carried her anger and hate for what he had done to her. “Jesus! Alliel let up!” Yelled Sid as he ran to try and pull the infuriated dragoness off of Lorowyn. He couldn’t do much other than attach himself to Alliel’s back, like a koala holding on to a tree in a storm. She stopped short of turning her brother’s face into an unrecognizable mess. Sid knew that she could heal the split lip, torn cheek and cracked eye socket but a lifetime of resentment that radiated off of her told him that he would remain that way. “He will have to face my father for what he’s done. I am sure that him and Daenes will be punished severely.”
“Where is your father?”
Sid’s question was answered forthwith by the apparent sounds of great wings that flapped to land in the outer courtyard followed by an immense mass that shook the ground. Alliel began to make for the arch but grabbed Sid’s hand along the way and forcibly pulled him to greet the giant red dragon that stared them down from reptilian eyes the color of murder. The unanswered question that swam in his head were pushed out of his mind as the sight of a fully-grown red dragon challenged his immediate survival. Scales the size of dinner plates draped the reptilian body and Sid could feel the heat that radiated freely from the surface of the creature. Alliel cleared her throat, “Father, I have returned.”
A deep and guttural voice replied, “Daughter, not only do you look anew but your behavior is as well. You wreak havoc upon your dwelling, scare your poor servant to find me with tales of men from the sky, beat your brother like a brute and present me a human so close to our hoard… Why?”
The red dragon’s eye slits narrow and wet covers slide over audibly as he blinks expectantly.
“Lorowyn and Daenes conspired with a human mage to tear me apart and sell my flesh bit by bit to the corrupt lesser species.” She declared. Sid felt a little ping of insult at the ‘lesser species’ comment, but remained silent.
“And this human?” Growled the red dragon.
“My savior. He released me from my binds and helped me get my wings back. I also gained some measure of strength along the way.”
The dragon looks directly at Sid, razor teeth just a few feet away from him, “Then I suspect you have demands of Clan Tamari for such acts. Speak them now, so we can be rid of you.”
Sid stood firmly, “I’m just doing my job, sir. I don’t need anything.”
The dragon twists it’s head in curiosity, “The nobility of a dragon in this one, Daughter.”
“I want him to stay, Father.” Said Alliel firmly.
Sid’s brow furrowed in confusion. He knew he wasn’t going to stay, but something told him to remain quiet. “Then it is your demand to make as the head of Clan Tamari.”
Alliel’s eyes go wide. Before she can even ask, the large red dragon speaks again, “You proved to me that you are the strongest of my children. My dream of a Clan capable of harnessing the power you can will be held firm by your hands. I will deal with your brothers as my last act, but then you will take my seat of power. It is high time I join our kin high above.”
Without another word, the red dragon raised his great wings and took flight. Gusts of wind spread across the courtyard as the skyward dragon revealed many onlookers of the more humanoid dragons. Some that looked like guards stepped forward and headed for the smokey structure. The onlookers cheered at the announcement. They all called out ‘Alliel!’ in joy at the passing of leadership.
Sid turned to Alliel with a confused look as the noise faded. The world seemed to shrink as if to encapsulate only the two of them. “Alliel, I’m a ranger, not a dragon. I can’t stay here, I’ve got cases to work.”
She responded by placing a finger on his lips. The touch was imbued with something more that spread across Sid’s mind like a drug. Alliel spoke softly, “Sid, I want you to stay as my mate. With our time together… I never felt like I could ask. I told you that I was fond of you, and that I wanted you by my side. Our children could be quite the sight as well. With my magic they would be full blooded dragons, maybe even stronger.”
He wanted to pull away but his feet felt as if they were held in concrete. The ranger felt his true response dulled, one that would have been polite but declined her offer. His world dimmed to just the stone he stood on and Alliel in front of him. Only one word radiated warmly through his head in Alliel’s voice.