Whenever I came back from a game of D&D, my dad would always ask me whether I had killed any dragons. I found this deeply unfunny, both because I was almost always the DM (and thus not in the position of killing dragons), and because dragons figured into only one of every ten games, if that. I had always thought that dragons should be used sparingly, for special occasions, or when nothing else would do. Maybe it was the name of the game that made me think that dragons were so cliche that they had to be deployed with care, or maybe it was my dad’s incessant question.
We’d first spotted the pair circling in the air when we’d exited the bottle around dawn.
“Be ready to teleport out,” I said. The bottle was next to the Egress, but I wasn’t sure that we would be able to get it up in the air fast enough to avoid dragonfire, if it came to that. I looked over at Grak. We had talked about dragon wards before this, and I had been given the grim news that dragonfire specifically was one of the most expensive single things that a warder could ward against.
“I’ll be ready,” Grak replied. He had his wand drawn in his wooden hand and stood firm.
“Gold and black,” said Raven, looking up.
“Looks like it,” I replied. They were circling like enormous vultures in the clear skies above the Isle of Poran. The gold one glinted just a bit, while the black one seemed to swallow light.
In Dungeons & Dragons, there were two general categories of dragon. The metallic dragons were good and pure, while the chromatic dragons were heinously evil. There were, naturally, about a billion other dragons across a hundred different splatbooks, as everyone tried to do their own thing with dragons, either adapting from alternate sources or taking their inspiration from other aspects of the world. You could have time dragons, void dragons, sand dragons, forest dragons, swamp dragons, dream dragons, on and on and on, repeated ad nauseam because dragons were iconic to the game (and also in the public domain).
In my games, or at least when I wasn’t directly pulling from the books, I had always tried something different. Once, I had dragons as beings of magic, no more than the size of a pea if you threw them into an antimagic field. Another time I had them as eternals, beings that had been around since before the world began and would be around at the world’s end, their form and powers a natural outgrowth of that. Sometimes they were alien, their systems of thought opaque, sometimes they were barely exaggerated humans, sometimes they were mundane creatures with fire-breathing glands and hollow bones, other times they were beings of altered reality. My different dragons probably could have filled a whole yellow legal pad. I played around with them a lot, but eventually I settled on an interpretation that I liked better than others, which was (more or less) what got used on Aerb.
Dragons were big and imposing creatures, aging slowly but eternally, solitary by nature but occasionally finding friends or allies in the world. They were ravenous when they were small, but as they aged, they began to be sustained by their hoard more and more, until eventually their appetite left them altogether. They were intelligent, though not that much more than a particularly clever human, and they were magical, which they augmented by learning what magics Aerb had on offer. In a lot of ways, they were just generically at the top of the food chain, having been gifted with best-in-class abilities almost across the board. They had better vision, better hearing, better healing, better defenses, sharper claws, everything at pretty much max settings, or close enough. They got a warder’s sight by default, just because, and a powerful resistance to pretty much every magic.
In the modern day, they were an endangered species. Dragon fertility was incredibly low, dragons had no natural parenting instincts, and it took a full century for a wyrmling to grow to adolescence. On top of all that, the rest of the mortal species were generally not in favor of dragons, for various sensible reasons including the numerous diplomatic problems. While there hadn’t been open hostilities for quite some time, every flare up whittled away at the number of living dragons. Dragons didn’t really care about each other, by their nature, and the Draconic Confederacy (which existed to give them a unified position that could leverage their strength) was uncomfortable to most of them. There had been magically or technologically assisted breeding programs over the centuries, but young dragons were notoriously difficult to control, and these programs usually ended calamitously, whether they were dragon-directed or not.
Two dragons was roughly half a percent of the total dragon population of Aerb. In comparison to Earth, it was like a tiny island nation getting a visit from the aircraft carriers of two different superpowers. Except that didn’t get at the extent of it, because you’d have to stipulate that if these aircraft carriers did a full launch of their arsenal and began bombing civilians, it was pretty unlikely that anyone was going to do a damned thing about it.
My hands went to my bandolier, where I had unicorn bones waiting. Next to them were bones from what we’d taken to calling the Momenagerie, the most useful of which was from the rats and would allow me a brief window of being antimemetic. Per Raven, dragons were resistant to memetics, something the Second Empire had learned to their chagrin, but she had no real clue about antimemetics. I wasn’t about to count on the bone to keep me safe.
We waited for the dragons to come down, but after ten minutes, they still hadn’t.
“Intimidation,” said Raven. “They’ll have seen us by now.”
“Not a promising opening to our negotiations,” said Amaryllis.
“They can also probably hear us,” said Pallida.
“A mile up?” asked Amaryllis.
“Probably not, actually,” I replied. “I’ve been using vibration magic to dampen the conversation from the moment we saw them.”
“Oh,” said Pallida. “I forgot you could do that without concentrating.”
“I am concentrating,” I replied, somewhat annoyed. “I can just concentrate on two things at once.”
“I’m not sure cloaking conversation is a good idea,” said Amaryllis. “They might look on it unfavorably.” She glanced at me. “And yes, basic privacy might offend them. Don’t stop though, whatever minor damage has already been done.”
“They’ll want us to feel like they have us dead to rights,” said Pallida. “Dragons are easier to deal with if they’ve got you pinned down and unable to move. It’s the only time they’ll ever show mercy.”
“My reading materials didn’t cover that,” I replied. “And it was just a standard precaution against anyone, not just them.”
“There are vanishingly few people who know how to handle a dragon,” said Raven. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Well, what are we going to do then?” I asked. “Wait for them to come to us?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. She pointed down the hill from us, to the collection of buildings in the distance, which on Poran was just called ‘the village’. “Someone is coming.”
“Entad armor,” said Grak, squinting at the person making their way up.
As he got closer, I could see that for myself: it was the most garish orange and purple armor that I had ever seen, like something that you would see in a hyper-stylized MMO, or in a parody of a hyper-stylized MMO. Worse, as he drew closer I could see that it was cloth armor, with brocade all over it. Whatever it did, I imagined that it must have been powerful, if this was what he was choosing to wear out in public. And naturally, I also paid some attention to his face, which had a few features in common with Amaryllis, and his hair, which was the same red as Larkspur’s.
“I don’t recognize him,” said Amaryllis, speaking softly. The man gave us a little bit of a wave. None of us waved back.
“Penndraig?” asked Pallida. “Looks like a Penndraig.”
“He does,” said Amaryllis.
We stayed silent as he approached. He occasionally looked up at the dragons circling overhead, and I tried not to do the same.
“Hullo,” he said. He gave a quick, lazy bow. “Amaryllis.”
“And you are?” she asked.
“Oh,” he replied, looking momentarily befuddled. “Dianthus Penndraig.”
Amaryllis hesitated for a moment. “Sweet William?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, breaking into a smile. “Sorry, it’s been what, five years?”
“You look different,” said Amaryllis. For a moment she seemed pleased to see him, and then the warmth faded. She crossed her arms over her chest, causing the immobility plate to clink. “Were you sent by Hyacinth?”
“No, actually,” he replied. He was still smiling a bit, the smile of someone desperately hoping that their smile could disarm a tense situation. “I’m working with the Order of Air Supremacy Enforcement. I’m one of the Violations Officers.”
“So the answer is ‘not directly’,” said Amaryllis.
“Well,” said Dianthus (or Sweet William, as Amaryllis had called him). “It’s complicated.” He looked mildly embarrassed.
“I never thought you’d be one of the vipers,” said Amaryllis.
“I’m not, or I don’t mean to be,” said Dianthus. “You know that it’s complicated in the Lost King’s Court. I have friends, I have a family, I wouldn’t want to see them hurt. I have a wife and a little boy now, with another on the way.”
“Same demand as before?” asked Amaryllis. “Hand over everything I have to her, get sterilized, renounce citizenship, and I can walk free?”
Dianthus hesitated. “I don’t know,” he replied. He looked up in the sky, where the two dragons were endlessly circling. “I wasn’t told that there would be dragons here. They don’t ever come to violations meetings. Usually it’s my job to work out the fines for airspace violation, get something signed, and then go back to the head office. I’ve only ever met two dragons.” He looked up to the sky. “I think that Hyacinth wanted me here, but I’m not sure that the dragons were her doing.” He looked back down at Amaryllis. “I’m … not sure that she has any actual authority or pull in this matter.”
“Then just do your job,” said Amaryllis. She glanced at me. “I wouldn’t want one of my favorite cousins to be burned to death because of Hyacinth.”
Dianthus cleared his throat. “Very well then,” he said. He pulled a piece of paper from his jacket and began reading it, pausing occasionally to look at us. “Formally, I’m here on behalf of the Order of Air Supremacy, a division of the Draconic Confederacy staffed by lesser of the mortal species. On Halig 23rd, 527 FE, an entad vessel owned and operated by citizens and officials of the unincorporated Republic of Miunun flew above three hundred feet without prior authorization from the DDCAN, in violation of the imperial non-members clause of the 501 FE Sky Treaty. Per guidelines, you are charged to pay fifty million obols, to surrender the entad in question, and to commit your republic to voluntary service in accordance with your republic’s population and expertise.” He looked up from the paper and cleared his throat again.
“We don’t have fifty million obols,” said Amaryllis.
“Yes,” said Dianthus. “Well, part of my work here will be in making an audit of the finances of the Republic of Miunun. Fines aren’t on a sliding scale, but there’s generally been a history of pragmatic leniency in the case of inability to pay.”
“Secondarily, the entad in question is no longer under our control, and even if it were, it’s sentient, meaning that per the laws of the Republic of Miunun, it’s considered a full person,” said Amaryllis. “Handing it over would be tantamount to engaging in the slave trade, so we are both unable and unwilling.”
“Ah,” said Dianthus. He glanced at the big reflective bean of a ship. “Is … is that not … ?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “You may examine it with a warder and make your determination, if you so choose, but the entad used above Li’o was another.”
“Very well,” said Dianthus, clearing his throat. “Do you know where the entad in question is?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was frosty. “I do not.”
“Ah,” said Dianthus. “A shame.” He cleared his throat again. “Obviously we will be bringing in a warder to check over the Isle of Poran and any other likely areas, and it’s likely that you’ll be asked to submit to personal inspections. No offense intended, cousin.” He gave Amaryllis a weak smile.
“And that last condition,” said Amaryllis. “You’ll be taking a census of the Isle of Poran and stealing our workers under threat of dragonfire?”
“I … would not phrase it like that,” said Dianthus, looking up in the sky once more.
“But you will be taking a census?” asked Amaryllis. “And we’ll be expected to conscript citizens of our fledgling nation into service for the Draconic Confederacy?”
“You are,” said Dianthus, nodding. “I understand that it might be hard on you, cousin, but –”
“There are, at the present moment, five citizens of the Republic of Miunun above the age of majority,” said Amaryllis.
“F-five?” asked Dianthus, looking between us. “That’s — so few.”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “You can understand how it would be a significant problem to take a fifth of our majority-aged population.”
“Cousin, I’m not sure you understand the position that I’m in, or that you’re in. Cousin Hyacinth wants me to ruin you, and if I don’t, she’s going to ruin me. This particular violation has gotten the interest of the dragons, and they want to be appeased, and if they aren’t, then they’ll do more than ruin me, they’ll kill me, then they’ll burn this very pleasant little island back down into the sea.” He took a breath. “So you can’t say to me that you have no money, that you don’t have the entad, and that you have five people.”
“Hyacinth no longer has leverage over me,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t believe that you have the leeway to accept less from the dragons, given that –,” she pointed to the sky without looking, “– they’re flying overhead right now. And Sweet William, if you’re anything like you were when we were younger, you’re a terrible choice to negotiate with me.”
Dianthus gave her a little smile. “Unfortunately, I was the only choice. It’s not the first time someone got press-ganged.”
“I can’t make a deal alone,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at me, then back at Dianthus. “I’m only one part of the Council of Arches. We’re a seven member body, three of whom are missing or dead. We’ll need time.”
Dianthus glanced at the dragons overhead once more, like it was a nervous tic he’d developed since coming to talk with us. “I’m not sure that you have time, cousin,” he replied. “A dragon’s time is precious, that’s the first thing I was told when I was given this job. Please. Say that you’ll give the dragons everything that they want, and I can give a favorable report, and we can be done with it.”
Amaryllis glanced at me. “Thoughts?” she asked.
“Why are the dragons here?” I asked.
“That’s what I’m wondering,” replied Raven.
I nodded. “If a guy like Sweet William is the one going around collecting money for violations, the dragons probably don’t give a wet shit about air supremacy in the abstract,” I said. I looked at Dianthus. “No offense.” He frowned at me but didn’t reply. “The money gets collected, some of it goes to pay for administration, and some goes back into draconic coffers at a small five hundredth of a share. So they’re either here because they have an excuse to cut loose and burn a bunch of people to death like in the old days, or because they have business with us and the airspace violation is a nice pretext that allows a bit of squeeze.”
“That’s in line with what I was imagining to be the case,” said Amaryllis. “But what would you like to do?”
“Oh,” I said. “See what they want, I suppose.”
“And if they want to kill us?” asked Amaryllis.
Before I had time to respond, there was motion from the sky above us, as two large shapes began to grow much, much bigger. I burned SPD from one of my own bones, being careful not to otherwise show any aggression or sign of movements, and took in the two dragons as they went through their dive bombs. They were going to hit the ground, and they were going to hit very close to us. If they used dragonfire, we were probably going to die unless I could protect us with still magic. I was betting that it was intimidation, but if it was, then we would have really poor positioning after they were on the ground. The other option was to run though, to effectively abandon Poran and give up our tiny nation for lost.
I hated being in this position. Giant, towering, near-invincible monsters with immense power over us, holding that threat above our heads, and with us having to dance to their cues … well, it was bringing back some unpleasant and very recent memories, both of what it was like to talk to the Dungeon Master, and what it had been like to be inside Bethel.
I was burning too much SPD when the dragons came down to flinch at their landing, and I was watching them closely enough that I could immediately see differences between them.
The big gold dragon had a three hundred foot wingspan and sharp points all across his back, on the tips of his wings, at the joints of his limbs, and covering most of his head. He had a lithe grace to him, though his front arms turned in slightly, giving him an awkward look. He landed with a hard thump that shook the ground, digging his claws down so hard that they cracked rock. His wings had spread at the last moment, blocking out the sun and buffeting us with enough wind that it was hard to stay standing.
The black dragon was glistening all over, just a bit smaller than the gold but far faster, with snappy movements and animated features that made her seem smaller than she was. I was used to big things seeming like they were moving in slow motion, but there was none of that with her, no weight to her unless she chose to display it. The webbing of her left wing had a few small holes in it, but she was otherwise pristine, contoured and sleek, with scales whose borders were barely visible. She landed just after and just behind the gold dragon, barely seeming to touch the ground or make more than a whisper, and as soon as she was down, she bounded forward, under the gold dragon’s wing, to stand in front of him.
“Announce us,” said the gold dragon. He spoke so loudly I was sure that everyone across the whole of the Isle of Poran could hear him, and I used vibration magic out of instinct, just to turn down the volume a bit, though, carefully, not to his ears.
Dianthus was quivering slightly. “Y-yes,” he said. “Leaders of the Republic of Miunun, this is Tommul, the Wise and Mighty, a hundred score years of age. No less his equal, this is Perisev, the Wretched, ninety-two score years of age.” He turned and bowed low to the dragons, then hurried off, back down the path, without introducing us.
The gold dragon, Tommul, leaned down, showing teeth, and sniffed the air. “You all reek of magic,” he said, voice rumbling through the air. His eyes focused on me. “And you, the one who killed the great beast.”
I gave some thought to all the conversations that Amaryllis and I had about how to talk to gods, Dungeon Masters, and the other large powers of Aerb. “It was a combined effort that used irreplaceable resources,” I replied.
“Of what nature?” asked Tommul, moving slightly closer.
He was fucking massive. Fully stretched out, his wings would have covered a football field. Up close, I could see that a single one of his teeth was taller than I was. Dragons were fast, even with all their weight, and I wasn’t sure whether or not a combination of blood and bone magic would get me out of the way. Maybe I’d be able to avoid his teeth, though he had claws too, and if I dodged both of those, I would probably die to the dragonfire. I could feel my heart beating faster, but it wasn’t quite as much fear as I had expected. I had, after all, killed Mome Rath.
“I have a limited supply of unicorn bones,” I said. “I had to use a few of them in the fight. I also have an internal and unique source of magic which was partially drained and cannot recover.” That last bit was something that we had planned to tell whoever asked, partly in the hopes that it would explain away some of the surprising things that I could do, partly because it might make them underestimate us.
“Wait,” said Perisev. She moved in closer to us, still using those light, floaty movements, like she was animated by someone who had just learned CGI. It spoke to incredible strength, dexterity, and control, and also, probably, to magic. “I know that one.” She extended a claw and pointed at Raven.
“Yes, your grace,” said Raven, bowing slightly.
“Uther’s Knight,” said Perisev.
“The last remaining, your grace,” replied Raven.
“My, my,” said Perisev. “And where is the wayward king?”
“No one knows, your grace,” replied Raven.
“No one?” asked Perisev. She moved marginally closer. The rest of us stayed stock still.
“I know of no one who knows, your grace,” replied Raven. “I assure you that I’ve done everything in my power to find him over the course of the last five hundred years and come away empty-handed.”
“Your assurance means so much to me, little one,” said Perisev. “Tell me, did you have any part in his mass dracicide?”
Raven swallowed, a small tell that I barely noticed. “I advised against it.”
“Mass dracicide?” asked Tommul, looking at his companion. His question was nearly a snarl. “Uther killed thirteen in total. Stop speaking in riddles.”
“Thirteen adults,” said Perisev, glancing at him for just a moment. “But two thousand, eight hundred, and twenty-nine wyrmlings died by his hands.”
“When?” asked Tommul, pulling back slightly. “How?” he growled.
“Immaterial,” replied Perisev. Her voice was light and airy, but with the tones of an ancient.
Tommul glared at her, and for a moment, I was worried that they would come to blows, something that we would surely get caught in the middle of. “It is not the time to keep your secrets,” he replied, threat lacing his voice.
“Is now the time for ancient history, I wonder?” asked Perisev, tapping a claw against her chin in mock-thought. She looked to Raven. “You were the historian of your merry band, would you care to give a summary to those less informed?” Perisev was very carefully not looking at the rest of us in a pointed way.
Raven cleared her throat. “Yes, your grace,” said Raven. “In 17 FE Uther uncovered a draconic breeding program organized by a collective of three dragons whose primary aim, as I understand it, was to unleash an unprecedented number of wyrmlings onto Aerb with the goal of destabilizing the First Empire and reverting a number of technological, scientific, and magical advancements these dragons found problematic. The wyrmlings were being raised in an old-growth demiplane with food imported from the elemental plane of flesh by a small clan of star mages. Uther fought and killed the three dragons, the first singly and the other two at the same time, and was then left with the question of what to do about the wyrmling swarm.” She took a breath. “It wasn’t the first time that Uther had to make a hard choice, your grace.”
Tommul snarled, then roared up at the sky. He punctuated it with a gout of dragonfire, which was gold, the color of his scales, and bright enough that it left an afterimage in my vision. I was pretty sure that it would have been visible from the shores of the sea around us, to say nothing of the fact that everyone on the Isle of Poran would have seen it. It was directed up and away from us, and Tommul was huge enough that with his neck craned up his mouth was quite some distance away, but it was still a powerful and uncomfortable wave of heat.
“Now, now,” said Perisev, softly chiding him. “It’s ancient history, you must remember that.”
“It’s an insult to dragonkind!” roared Tommul. It was deafeningly loud.
(I was watching them in shocked amazement … and on the other thread, thinking about contingencies, how I would either try to kill Tommul if it came to that, or how I would escape, and how I would protect the others.)
“So old, and yet so stupid,” said Perisev, clucking. “This is precisely why the matter hasn’t gone further than the select few of us who know how to hold our tongues.”
Then why put it forward in the first place?
Tommul turned on Perisev, looking for a moment like he was going to attack her, and it was then that I realized this was all intentional provocation on her part, for whatever reason. Dragons were supposed to get stronger with age, which would have given Tommul the advantage, but maybe she was planning something.
“You’re trying to bait me,” said Tommul, who must have realized it at the same moment that I did.
Perisev grinned at him. “Stupid, but not that stupid,” she replied. “I had wondered.”
“We are not here to play games among dragons,” said Tommul. He sniffed at her. “We are here to ensure that our supremacy is respected.”
“Look at them and tell me what you see,” said Perisev. “Do you see a small nation trying its best to grow and expand? Even a small nation funded and supported by imperial interests for their own covert reasons? Do you see these people as small, simple creatures with petty concerns?”
Tommul glared at her. “I am no simpleton,” he replied, but he looked at us as though for the first time.
“You did not read the same intelligence reports that I did,” said Perisev. “That is no fault of yours, for you don’t have the same clearance I do. You did not ask though, you did not wonder, you came here looking to burn and to kill.”
Tommul frowned at her. “Then why was I asked to come?”
“It will be harder to kill two dragons than one,” said Perisev. “Having you with me increases the chance that I will survive this encounter.”
“We’re not dangerous,” I said, stepping forward. “Your grace.”
“Raven knows the proper forms of address,” said Perisev. “For her to not use them would be a grave insult, one she knows better than to give. You instead come from a land of ignorants, and for you to leave the honorifics off would be mere demonstration of an ignorance I have no particular interest in correcting.” She looked over at Tommul. “Take to the air,” she said. “If something happens to me, burn this entire island down, the foreign nationals included. That was why I had you come. I have two early facsimiles of Roqlash and the very first sculpture that Adontis ever did, if you would like some incentive.”
Tommul perked up slightly at that, but held back. “If you die, how will I take possession?”
“They’re held in trust by a third party, to be given to you in the event of my death, conditional on the destruction of this island,” said Perisev.
Tommul hesitated, then looked at the rest of us and flapped his wings once, taking to the sky in a rush of wind that would have knocked me over if I hadn’t used still magic. The rest of our party used magic as well, or expended effort, all just to stay on our feet.
“That was reckless, your grace,” said Raven.
“Do you think that I couldn’t hold my own against Tommul?” asked Perisev, cocking her head slightly. “Or are you concerned that the secrets of the past are coming to light?”
“The latter, your grace,” said Raven. “There was a reason that such things were kept quiet, by mutual agreement. We both know that the wyrmling swarm would have been a disaster for all of Aerb, even if dragons would have been able to weather the storm better than any other species. There are going to be other dragons like Tommul who see it as a slight against the entire species, dragons who cannot take things so pragmatically as you do, your grace.”
“Yes,” nodded Perisev. “And Tommul will surely tell others, which will let the secret out, and Uther’s reputation will be tarnished just a little bit more. Perhaps then people will be properly ready for his return.”
“He hasn’t returned,” I said. “There’s no sign that he’s returning.”
“No?” asked Perisev. “A new exclusion, an enormous monster, with the involvement of one of his Knights in such a matter, along with his most direct descendant?”
“Fair,” I said. “There are signs and portents, and if you have a halfway decent intelligence service, which I assume you do, you’ll have seen a small handful of them. But do you have some proof that Uther himself is back?”
“A handful?” asked Perisev, raising a brow ridge. “When Uther Penndraig abdicated from his rule of Aerb, we worked for decades to determine whether or not we could have seen his like coming, and how we might determine if he had returned. Every criterion on our scoring guideline but one has been met.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s back,” I replied, stifling the desire to ask which one.
“No,” said Perisev. “But it does mean that someone like him has come into this world.” She leaned forward slightly, claws tapping gently against the rock as she shifted her weight.
I returned her gaze. Honestly, ‘heir to Uther’ was … well, not literally the worst part of my existence on Aerb, but it certainly made the list. It did make some sense; the world had been ripe for Uther, to the point where people sometimes argued that it would have been a time of revolutions anyway, even without him, or that some of the social or technological advances he’d brought to Aerb were simply natural outgrowths of what was already there. There were whole fields of historical study devoted to Uther, and obviously there were some similarities to me, and maybe, if you stretched it, some of the circumstances of my being on Aerb. It was a connection that I didn’t begrudge people for making, even if it was a connection that I wasn’t very happy with.
“Your grace, what’s the missing criterion?” asked Amaryllis.
“New magic,” replied Perisev. “Unless that has happened too?” she asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” I replied. I felt like this conversation was walking on a knife’s edge, and wondered how quickly she could kill us. The unfortunate thing about the unicorn bones, aside from how big they were, was that I couldn’t really use one pre-emptively. I wasn’t actually sure that my reaction time would be fast enough. “Why are you here?”
“Sometimes it’s instructive to see things with your own eyes,” said Perisev.
“We’re trying to find him,” I said. “Any help you could give would be appreciated.”
“And should you find the man, who has been missing for oh so long, what then?” asked Perisev.
“We have unfinished business,” I replied. Probably ask him a lot of questions and do some yelling. “He has the secrets to the universe.”
“Do you know how he escaped the hells?” asked Perisev, turning slightly to Raven.
“Did he, your grace?” Raven asked. “So far as I’ve been able to determine, the only proof we have of that is that the demons and devils haven’t spoken of his appearance, which they almost certainly would have.”
It went beyond that, naturally. Raven had been thorough, she hadn’t just taken the word of the infernals, some of whom were claiming to have Uther without any actual proof. She had gathered as many entads as she could and talked to as many mages as possible, some from disciplines that had since been excluded, some the last members of species that had now gone extinct. She’d been at the task of finding Uther for five hundred years, with some peaks and valleys of activity, but never really giving up entirely, especially not with the futures that the library let her glimpse.
“The Draconic Confederacy has a world-class intelligence service,” said Perisev. “We have magic nearly beyond compare and enjoy good relations with the hells. There was, after his abdication, a remote possibility that he had ended up in the hells, hidden somewhere, making a life for himself, overpowering the infernals as he was wont to do. That possibility has been eliminated to my satisfaction.” The bit about ‘good relations with the hells’ piqued my interest, but I stayed silent. “There are other possibilities, of course, his soul bottled or severely mutilated, but I very much expect that he didn’t kill himself. He was always too strong for that.”
I rankled at that, because it seemed personal, even if it almost certainly wasn’t. “But you don’t think he’s here,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I think that the world was blessed that Uther Penndraig was only as bloodthirsty as he was,” said Perisev. “Should another come, he would have to be evaluated on his merits, and if found lacking … well, a very many people attempted to kill or control Uther Penndraig during his time as Aerb’s king, but none ever succeeded, and every attempt at wresting the crown from him met with abject failure in one form or another.”
“Seems like it would be a poor strategy to take action against him,” I replied. “So far as I understand the history, a fair number of his opponents underestimated him.” I tried my best not to have that seem like a boast or a threat, which it really wasn’t, because all of it was true.
“And some simply thought that they had seen through his tricks,” replied Perisev with a nod. “They thought that he was the sum of his abilities, a mortal man with a few tricks up his sleeve, which he was clearly not, or not just.”
“So,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. “Why are you here? If you think that we’re some manifestation of the same magic, or ur-magic, then why tempt that power? Just to see it up close?”
“Oh,” said Perisev. “Well, I had thoughts of killing you,” she said with a grin. “You weren’t alive at the time of the pathists, were you? They were great and terrible mages, capable of supreme manipulations, so long as they stayed on their paths. As a lesser example, the butterfly mages could do something similar. There were always stories, some of them even true, about people who would see the difficulties inherent in fighting a pathist and lay down to accept their fate rather than fight. What sense does it make to say that you would choose death?”
I waited, watching her, wanting to know whether I was going to have to unleash every trick I had available to me.
“Of course, I would probably get Tommul to do it for me,” said Perisev. “He’s in a killing mood, and was even before we got here. You live by my protection now, and if I were to withdraw that protection … well, history has much to say about the fate of Uther’s enemies, but says little on the subject of those who refused to offer him their protection.”
She lifted her wings, as though she was going to flap them and take off.
“What’s your hoard?” I asked.
Perisev paused, wings still extended. She twitched one of them for a moment, then folded her wings.
“That’s a delicate thing, to ask a dragon,” said Perisev. “There are those among us who think it unwise to say what our hoards are. Each is unique, with its own focus. To tell someone the nature of your hoard is to let them know what you want. Beyond that, some hoards require maintenance and expertise, and if you knew what materials and personnel the hoard required, you might be able to make a guess at its location.”
“I’m asking because I may have something to offer you,” I said.
Perisev curled her lips back, which had the overall effect of frown. “Stories,” she said.
“Stories,” I said slowly. I worked hard to keep a smile from forming on my face. “Fiction?”
“Some stories happened and others did not,” said Perisev. “I collect them equally.”
“And I suppose you have copies of all Uther’s stories,” I replied. “But if the next Uther were to appear on Aerb, then he would be a fresh source of stories, ones that have never been heard before, ones that you could have to yourself, unknown by anyone but you.”
“Exclusives,” said Perisev, narrowing her eyes.
“Yes,” I replied.
“From Earth?” asked Perisev.
I froze at that. How many people knew that Uther was dream-skewered? It occurred to me only after that pause that perhaps this was a test, if she didn’t know for certain.
“I do have stories from Earth,” I said. “A few hundred of them.”
Perisev narrowed her eyes. “New ones?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t have a catalog of every story that Uther brought over.”
“Give them to me, now,” she said. “Else, face dragonfire.” Her claws clinked against the rock as her posture shifted. Her head was making a straight line with her neck and spine, bracing for a torrent of magical flame coming from her mouth.
“I have an entad that can recreate books from Earth,” I said, standing my ground. “Before you ask the obvious, it’s not on this island and I don’t currently know where it is, which in our current situation seems like it’s pretty beneficial to me. I’m willing to make a deal with you, but if you’re going to try outright thievery, then I can perfectly well die without giving you any of what you want.”
She looked me over for a moment, then backed away slightly, sniffing the air. “The same entad that Uther had?” she asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” I replied.
She peered at me with her enormous eyes, looking me over. “It’s a bribe then,” she replied. “That’s the thing you have to stop me from killing you, or allowing others to do it.”
“You’re probably thinking to yourself that maybe it would be better not to give me a stay of execution,” I replied. “That’s fair. We can make a deal though, and if you’re thinking that I’m the next Uther Penndraig, then you probably know that people who made deals with him usually came out well from them, far more than his enemies. More than his allies, even.”
Perisev looked from me to the others, focusing her eyes on us one by one. Finally, she backed up. “Ten books. Now.”
Amaryllis stepped forward with Sable held out in front of her and popped the books out one by one, catching each of them and making a neat stack, which she set in front of Perisev. I was nearly rigid with fear, for the first time since the dragons had come. Amaryllis was too close for comfort, so close that Perisev could have moved in for a bite before I’d had a chance to do anything. Nothing happened though, and Amaryllis stepped back without incident.
Perisev leaned forward and took the books in her giant claws. Given how large she was, it should have been impossible for her to manipulate the books, but her claws were exceptionally sharp, and she obviously had sky high dexterity. It was also clear, as I saw her read through one of the books, that she was entirely capable of reading small print in a book that was quite far away from her eyes. All in all, it was faintly ridiculous, watching this immense creature manipulate this comparatively tiny book.
“What is this?” asked Perisev, looking up at Amaryllis.
“That’s The Road by Cormac McCarthy,” said Amaryllis.
“It doesn’t seem to be anything like what Uther stole,” she replied.
“No,” said Amaryllis. “That’s why I picked it. This is a small selection, largely focused on Earth conceptions of dystopia and apocalypse.” When I looked closer at the titles, I could see quite a few that I recognized, like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, and a few that I only vaguely recognized, like Oryx and Crake and The Windup Girl. I hoped that Amaryllis had actually read and vetted all of them, and that there were no offhand mentions of anything terribly sensitive.
“So far as I know, we have access to more books than you’re likely to find anywhere else, assuming that you’re not willing to assault the goblins’ library,” I said. The Infinite Library had more, naturally, but I wasn’t about to go mentioning them.
Perisev hesitated, then began reading through the book she was delicately holding in her claws. After a moment, she looked up at us again. “No,” she said. “No, I do not think that bribery is the way. Instead, allow me to give you a quest.”
“A quest?” I asked, frowning.
“These things are baubles to you,” said Perisev. “They are nothings. And if you bribe me with books, then I should naturally demand more and more, until I’ve made demands beyond your capacity to supply. At the back of my mind I would always be thinking that I could kill you, that it was the hand of fate stopping me, and if it was only my belief in the hand of fate, why suffer it?” She shook her head. “No, I will take your books as a gift, but bribery only delays the inevitable between us.”
“Give us a quest then,” I replied. “So long as it’s not a gross violation of morality, we can at least make an attempt.”
“I want you to kill Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle,” she said. She gave me an expectant look.
“And when do you want it done by?” I asked.
“Two months,” replied Perisev. “Given that we’ll be confiscating your travel entad, I hope that gives you enough time.”
“We don’t actually have the travel entad,” I said.
“I suppose I’ll leave that to the human who ran away to determine,” said Perisev. “I don’t intend to stay here for much longer than I have to. And if you have business with Hyacinth Prentiss, I think I’ll let that human know that I don’t begrudge her taking her pound of flesh with the threat of dragonfire as leverage. Obviously if you aren’t capable of payment or compliance, that will be an entirely different problem for you. I cannot, after all, deny my confederates of their fair share.”
She flapped her wings once and that sent her hurtling into the air, with only a mild breeze as a sign of the power she’d used. I could smell her though, pungent on the air, like a visit to the reptile house at the zoo. She’d taken the books too, held in her claws in a way that was far too delicate for a creature her size.
“Well,” I said as I watched her fly away, dampening my voice so that it wouldn’t leave our small circle. “That could have gone worse.”
“Much worse,” said Amaryllis, looking up at the sky. “You played it cool.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I was mostly just pissed off. I might have been able to take Tommul, but I don’t think that I would have been able to save the rest of you.”
Amaryllis stared at me for a moment. “I’m extremely glad that you’ve gotten better at cloaking your emotions,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Well, it didn’t seem prudent to pick a fight, not with two of them.”
“You’re not invincible, Juniper,” said Amaryllis.
“I’m not actually sure that still magic, even at your level, would stop dragonfire,” said Raven, frowning slightly.
“I’m sure that we’ll find out at some point,” I replied with a shrug. “Wouldn’t be Aerb without having to figure out niche magic interactions on the fly.” I sighed. “We should probably figure out some way that I can properly fly, because we might need it.”
“You’re being a little bit flip about it,” said Amaryllis, frowning at me.
“He’s got no experience with dragons,” said Pallida. “Raven and I are probably the only ones who have seen firsthand what a city looks like after a dragon has been there. Sometimes when they’re feeling particularly menacing, they’ll come in and use only a fraction of their fire, so that they actually leave behind piles of char that are identifiable as corpses. Usually though, they’ll just lay waste, and a town that was there one day is gone the next.”
“That’s a fair point,” I said. “But I’m not going to bow down to dragonkind because I’m worried that they’re going to kill me, especially not if I don’t have to. Perisev has some understanding of narrative, that’s why she’s afraid of us, –”
“Afraid of you,” said Raven.
“More fool her,” I replied. “If we end up having to kill her, that might be an avenue of attack. At any rate, it seems like we have a two month reprieve. That’s enough time to hit a few outstanding quests and power up a little bit more, if not gain another level. That reprieve is rescinded if we don’t work something out with Hyacinth, but we can take this one problem at a time.” I let out a breath that I’d been holding. “And I guess completing the first of the Thirteen Horrors quests is going to happen sooner than I thought.”