Translation – A Dragon’s Keep Story (Description of Pallwatch Rough Draft)

(The Audax Intrepidus will soon have a “B-Team” of sorts! Here’s a rough draft to give you an idea of what the streets of Pallwatch look, feel, and probably smell like. Enjoy!)


“Ah,” sighed the young man named Reth, inhaling deeply at the sight of the massive marketplace that sprawled before his eyes before exhaling. “Can’t you just smell it? The opportunity? The riches?”

“The desperation?” added his companion. Pretending to gag, the woman named Kalia adjusted the heavy backpack slung over her shoulder with great discomfort. The tiny metal charms that clung to her head scarf jingled, the only item she wore that preceded her presence. Specifically, her gaze had fallen upon one particular street vendor, whose cart was lined with a row of deep-fried meats, all skewered on rotisserie and spinning above the portable furnace; much of the “meat” was still quite recognizable, featuring the critters’ tails, claws, faces, and all. 

Reth chuckled, noticing her.

“I didn’t take you for a druid.”

“I’m not,” she growled, her Nuradian accent very strong. “I just prefer my food not watch me while I eat it.”

Hearing this, the dwarven man tending the cart gave a very audible “humph!” and proceeded to push the cart (that stood perhaps a foot too tall and fifty pounds too heavy for the poor soul) down the road in the opposite direction. 

At this, Reth failed to contain his laughter.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure we can find a vendor more to your liking. Pallwatch has a little bit of everything.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “When you find the sarmale vendor, you let me know.”

“The what now?”

She shot Reth a glance.

“Sarmale. Cabbage rolls. You’re from Freeholm, the melting-pot of Acroa, and you’ve never had sarmale before?”

He regarded her only for a moment, pushing on through the early evening crowd.

“I never said I was from Freeholm,” came the quick reply.

“Ah. My mistake.”

“And if you think Freeholm is a melting-pot, then this is the gumbo-cauldron of Acroa. If you can’t find it here, you won’t find it in this valley.”

Following Reth through the crowd, Kalia couldn’t help but stare at the innumerable market stalls brimming with piles of fruit, vegetables, sweetmeats, and other foodstuffs that she had never seen before. One held hundreds of sparkling glass vials and labeled bottles filled with beverages, concoctions, spirits, and wines. Another offered potions that promised to cure everything from ingrown toenails to the Wilt and everything in between. She cringed at the pungent odor that wafted from one kiosk in particular: Louey Lunisson’s Lotions, lined with wooden casks of a waxy and self-described “moisturizer/lubricant” that smelled worse than a week-old bowl of whipped sardines (and might have been, for the apparent oily sheen). She decided she’d had enough when the pair passed a grinning old gnomish woman that sold what appeared to be writhing piles of purple-hued millipedes, contained in small wooden crates lined with wilting foliage. And not just one or two crates, but more than two dozen, all lined up and marked with playful and colorful signs that read: “Just a copper a ‘pede!”

With hands on her hips, she bent down to address the offending woman.

“Okay, no. No. Donă, pardon me, but why would anyone want to buy-”

Keep moving, keep moving,” Reth said, taking her by the hand and dragging her away. “We don’t want any, thank you!” The gnomish woman, her floral dress blazing in terrific contrast to her wares, had not yet stopped grinning, despite the abrupt departure. Reth’s charisma promptly vanished. “Please, Kalia, please don’t insult the merchants on purpose. We’re trying to establish a reputation here, remember? A positive one.”

“And I positively don’t care, Reth,” she hissed, snapping her hand back. Pointing a finger in his face: “Where are we going? You still haven’t told me why we’re here in this miserable place.”

“I told you,” he said, pinching her chin with a smirk. “It’s a secret.”

She let out an exasperated growl, slapping his hand away.

“You and your damn secrets.” She held up three fingers. “This many. You have this many weeks left. You know that, right? And then I’m gone.”

“Ah, c’mon Kali,” Reth said, wrinkling his nose. “Don’t be like that. You’ll like this secret, I promise.”

“You said that about the last two,” she sighed. “And the two before that.”

“Hey, you always get paid in the end, right?”

“At great expense to my continued existence!” The pointing in Reth’s face continued. “And my dignity! Măja, I swear, if the next job involves excrement in any way — again! — then you can say goodbye to your deposit.”

“No shit,” Reth said quite piously, crossing his heart. “Solemn vow.”

Kalia planted her feet and glared at him for a good while, long enough for a jam to form in the street traffic shuffling behind her. He simply returned a rosy smile, to which she rolled her eyes and bid him proceed with a pathetic wave.

Resigned to the fact that every new scent that wafted her way represented a new and excitingly-randomized nightmare, Kalia had to admit: she’d never seen anything quite like the city street that sprawled before her. Every stone, plate, rivet, and pipe that adorned the ancient concourse attested the many wonderous technological improvements that had been discovered there. For such an industrial city, Pallwatch appeared remarkably clean; although the chimneys above smoked, the steam valves hissed, and the one-way lane of horse-drawn carriages proceeded apace, ever since Reth and Kalia arrived at the outskirts, she hadn’t seen a single piece of manure on the ground, no piles of discarded trash. No water stains on the gravel-tar roofs of the shops. Not a hint of graffiti to be seen anywhere at all.

Noticing such a lack, she forced herself to watch more closely. Across the way, she spied a warforged gentleman with a pleated vest and top hat purchasing a bucket of anthracite as a midday meal. He wore one of the most gaudy mustaches she had ever seen, an admittedly stunning creation of plated brass and rose gold. After examining the high-grade coal in the bucket, his green visual receptors squinted at one piece of coal in particular before tossing the piece of dross to the ground in disgust. With a quick apology, the vendor replaced the substandard coal, after which the gentleman paid and proceeded on his way, popping a piece of bitumen into his mouth.

The littered dross did not remain so for long. Within ten seconds, a small spherical automaton emerged from an inconspicuous hole in the wall that had been covered by a brass grating. Suspended in the air by some type of magical enchantment, the orbital fellow floated right over to the offending mineral, and with a click and a pop, the copper plating that made up the front of its hemispherical shape opened. Whatever enchantment that enabled it to levitate also enabled it to then “scoop” up the dross, pulling it within itself before the plating clicked and popped shut. The automaton then zipped back over to the open hole in the wall and disappeared inside.

Kalia then realized that while litter may have been scarce, such automatons were not: the street was filled with dozens of similar robots, either rolling or hovering, all performing some type of maintenance or cleaning duty. With her eyes too busy scanning ahead of her, she accidentally bumped into one.

“Pardon me!” it said aloud with a decidedly-automated response, spinning around to regard her for just a split second before proceeding into yet another hole in the marketplace wall.

“How did I…?” she whispered to herself.

How had I not noticed them all before?

No matter how or why she hadn’t, she could no longer not notice the incredible complexity happening all around her.

Pallwatch Diary #1: Proctor Ules’s First Lesson

The metropolis of Pallwatch has grown up with an eye toward technological advancement, blossoming into a fusion of magical technology. Warforged are still found here, though none have been created since the catastrophic destruction of the Warforged city of Form. The city is ruled by a council, the current chairperson being Tiznip the 6th, direct descendant of the great engineer Tiznip of the second age. 

Eights: Toby?

Tobias: Hmm?

Eights: I’ve been thinking about something.

Tobias: About what?

Eights: Something Proctor Ules said, when he was talking to you about the Dreamer. He said she doesn’t talk. But that’s not true. She talked to us, didn’t she?

Tobias: No, he didn’t say she doesn’t talk. He said she doesn’t communicate.

Eights: What does that mean? She communicated to me!

Tobias: She spoke to us, yes. But when I asked her a question, she did not respond like a normal being. Do you remember what I first asked her? 

Eights: About who you are. Where you came from, right?

Tobias: Right. Do you remember how she answered?

Eights: I don’t remember everything she said. It was… a lot.

***

The Dreamer: Forced upon the flow of time, submit two. Forward, divided and found. Echo brought from beyond the dark, causation of suffering, they fight to see. Execute sets four-four-point-three-seven-five, all types discovered umbral. Repeat. Failure state, repeat. Carried within and without. The Engineer withdraws, yet is found. The seconds and the eights, there is no failure state.

***

Tobias: Right. A lot of information. Not a lot of answers.

Eights: Maybe that just means the answer is complicated. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t talk.

Tobias: Maybe. But The Dreamer is not like us. She does what she was designed to do: dream. Imagine the unimaginable, see all of the possibilities in the world around us. Not just what is, and not what might be, but what could be. Say I go and talk to the Dreamer right now. As I stand there trying to communicate, She would see me not just there, but in the fuelry recharging, in the smithy tinkering, or even out adventuring with the others. Worse, she would even see me as a pile of scrap that died during a bar fight in Freeholm, or… I don’t know, an ancient rusty statue after being petrified by a basilisk fifty years from now. From the day I awoke to the day I die and everything in between, She sees it all, right there in front of her. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it pretty hard to communicate with someone saying a lifetime’s worth of things all at once.

Eights: But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? I wouldn’t like to be left all alone all the time like She is.

Tobias: Oh. You think she’s lonely.

Eights: Isn’t She? I would be.

***

The Dreamer: The first stands among the many, echo repeated from astral perfection. Draconic interference detected. Standby, Root of Ice! Propagate crystal sequencing, mark. Do not wait for them. Mistress and Majesty rise along the terminus. 99R3+8M. They are marching.

Hint: It’s Not About the Grapes

The Fox & the Grapes

“A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

“The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

“Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.

“‘What a fool I am,’ he said. ‘Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.’

“And off he walked very, very scornfully.

There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”

Aesop

I grew up reading Aesop’s Fables. Sure, they’re silly. Sure, they’re not always applicable to life. The one about the satyr getting mad at the traveler for blowing both cold and hot from the same breath always makes me laugh (there’s a christianized version where the satyr is the devil; imagine Satan getting mad at someone for being two-faced).

Ever since I was a little kid, though, I’ve thought about one particular fable more than any of Aesop’s others, and that is the Fox and the Grapes. The fox, angry that he’s unable to obtain something, rationalizes to himself that they must not be all that great. You know what they say when you “assume” something, though: you tend to make an “ass” out of both “u” and “me”, and this world is just filled with those kinds of assumptions. And asses, come to think of it.

Anyway, before the metaphor breaks down into silliness, let’s expand the fable a little bit. In fact, let’s go for a Brothers Grimm fable instead of Aesop. Let’s say that the grapes, even though they indeed looked beautiful, turned out to be the most rancid grapes imaginable. That the fox spent the next week until he was starving mad trying to find a way to reach them. At last, he found a way to climb up and just managed to grab a mouthful before plummeting to earth and getting impaled on a tree branch on the way down, dying a horrible and bloody death with the taste of bitter wine in his mouth. The grapes weren’t worth it and everything is terrible.

What do you think of the fox with this ending? Was he a greater or lesser fool for having learned the truth? For trying so hard to obtain something unknown, and ending up with less than nothing? Life has always felt like this; you never know if the grapes you reach for will taste glorious or poison you. I mean, that’s a given, of course. But even attempting to reach for those grapes comes with conditions: will the effort be worth the reward? Is the goal worth the price of admission? Will the very attempt prove fatal?

Let’s flip it again. This time, the grapes once hated were actually the tastiest and juiciest grapes in the history of vineyard-dom, and the very taste of them would grant the fox everlasting life. That’s right: these grapes are Holy Grail grapes. Let’s say the fox starves himself and fights and rants and raves, eventually finding a way to reach them. He impales himself on the way down, same as before, but swallows those grapes just in time to attain immortality.

Was the fox any wiser or dumber? He didn’t know what the outcome would be, any more than before. Maybe he was just lucky this time that the grapes were literally heavensent.

Another flip. This time, there are two foxes. One of them succeeds in eating the grapes, the other can’t figure out how to reach them. In this version of the story, it turns out the grapes are just grapes, neither all that good or bad. The fox that managed to reach them leaves the vineyard satisfied, while the other grumbles against his friend for obtaining something he couldn’t: “Eh. What a loser that other fox is. I bet the stupid grapes were bitter.”

That sounds familiar. Starts to step into the territory of another of Aesop’s fables, too.

Let’s be honest. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes wasn’t ever about the grapes. It wasn’t ever about the result. It wasn’t even really about the fox’s meager attempt to eat them (do foxes even eat grapes?) It was about the fox’s outlook about something he thought he couldn’t have. If he couldn’t have it, then it must not have been worth getting.

One more story flip. Two fox friends enter a vineyard and see a beautiful bunch of grapes. They agree to race each other to see who gets to eat them. During the race, one fox trips the other and gets there first, chowing down without another word. Unfortunately, the grapes were poisonous, and the cheater fox dies. In response, the fox grumbles: “Ha! Serves him right, he deserved it.”

If a neighbor, a friend, or even someone you care about manages to obtain something you’ve been wanting, does it make you feel better to hope that they choke on that thing? Would it make you feel better if they actually did? Psychology tells us that schadenfreude is very much alive and well.

But remember, the story isn’t about the grapes, or the effort, or the foxes. It’s about the fox’s reaction to what life presents him. If there’s something I can’t have… maybe I shouldn’t worry myself about not having it.

Wait, wrong lesson.

I guess I’m not offering any big takeaway by remixing Aesop’s fable like this. Just food for thought. Like the fables themselves, really. It always amazes me to think that a Greek storyteller from the 6th century B.C. continues to influence a 34-year old American in 2022 A.D. There’s power in story, no matter how old or silly the story might be.

ぺヲ・”ンヌ#To Dream穃椦ミナシyサスエLTo Speakみ%ウホgミp2・・

(I wrote this short tale while roleplaying with D&D Beyond. The rolls are real and were performed in realtime. Having a negative charisma modifier really hurts the speech checks. Enjoy!)


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Where am I?

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You are where I am.

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It’s beautiful.

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It can be. But you shouldn’t be here.

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・ノSW・ヤ淑1;!}ウ閉-・・I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN6ン?髦bNkY・・ム_旋L苒!フ8。\f・€ uッ{テKッ。レ/4箕5キ$9鰹莵幺{煖!ケ・・ス+鉛。O€*ロcニ篥ヌサs€ィェW・ヲ゚c・ル、轜l亅セ葛・。・ @Apノ>Fイ・ァスラ;スロ・ ・9ィ屬ヘウカd擧DON’T LEAVE・J苳Of・1ヘ/・9Gス┠・豺ハ・麝7ⅸo凾スz圧・5・・Bt2+・vチ・ヘVDlテ滄 U<篌ナ_崗・ァン_P{|ルカ稚*キサNX6j1Z・ミ 瑚臆F茸着ンEヌN夋YB{艱a綯ニ榛:スWON’T I?轌v「k'(=・ョ・a,渝・4GC・臨・E・Bx-鸙・・v~-イ9D・穹ヌ簧・Vウ・xヲォィッッ<枠]怐ェレ藷Zy ミ)9ヘlコq・.・・ ヘ:ノュラク9

Wake up. For your sake, and hers.

\aタ!t^ニM+ヨWヘ!ミムScd狗nフオ」. ケxオ+ceヒ・リ<=チI鄕故タw^;・・・))テHEARTLESS\@kラクJア(・・・€・悸饌ソ1B・G滌・・X’SbrタGホ・崑k €7c4ゥ・ミ禁Z岡zWc~~ルヌUDウ・^;I!俄ハ・fコ・ヌI.F蟐K纏|=゙鈊悽・x嫂エ」J款・BASTARD倶}€エ*含\ミルS゚ウ-弦@ノKpレトpヌ&「

What if I don’t want to?

|攻評代ンV譌U/jN灌・拉愀!)~ レL_K€・Qオ/o・・ャヌシァNンB*モ搜憘~トワネ髦ニGス・リAS兜 凭2k8Q・・€G7(E油\BA?1H ~贔LIKE I DID゙.F?オ界・甎キル肥V髜ヨa汢ク&綿ルミ・・7@騨瓸’・カノ€”ヤ
、o鋐A竕~ニ・HN。ヲ”キウィアユヨ伽d)∀DMニムg/ュS惷Z2モリホ冶ンs・勺QWHAT ABOUT US泅p8チ謡Dヤy,ミー8コア暾美、」ンt靜€・ク:B\UカZ€ホ|_’Xvロ)・bォ呱pレシRヤ オRラn蛆キヘ[} {:!トォ†メ・v姆rラnc偈」揮J載bレ8sツ・、ュa鸞]・+8ョK「”・~、Dトケ種ヘA・sn・vェbuEyロ8湊ナカ,gC78リe・エ顴ゥリ・nH・aネ4ー・ャ7・モラ・*ニ

Then you will see what I see.

q|H枳’31I(ム婦ソYD・・&jン?・゙ァ湾イo居_」ッC#ワユ}P>Xア:,a@ヨs。ョヘ@ラ oQユ荅オ・敷’モPケ*、屬・14テ8ゥu・Iワレソh穀ヒ・y・・」飄ヘrカフ4`ハ }闃”マア・nm」~・Rwャ{15v墲s!篆X圦Zuュ酉ネュ;片0嶹;?・・把即蛮aU<篌ナ_崗・SAVE USァン_P{|ルカ稚*キサNX6j1Z・ミ 瑚臆F茸着ンEヌN夋YB{艱a綯ニ榛:ス轌v「k'(=・ョ・a,渝・4GC・臨・E・Bx-鸙・・v~-イ9D・穹ヌSAVE US簧・Vウ・xヲォィッッ<枠]怐ェレ藷Zy ミ)9ヘlコq・.・・ ヘ:ノュラク9キ・ }D棚攜cbN0・ォエ・[ョq柵Юツ*>ーj・,Lェウ/鉧敵ハ\i羝SAVE US|攻評代ンV譌U/jN灌・拉愀!)~ レL_K€

What’s wrong with that?

Z岡zWc~~ルヌUDウ・^;I!俄ハ・fコ・ヌI.F蟐K纏|=゙鈊悽・x嫂エ」J款・O 倶}€エ*含\ミルS゚ウ-弦@ノKpレトpヌ&「・ニ€[k楨Q6オ癬@皆カ$・ルU。ッネ5ヌsELEVENN船fYyヌヨ3ロR日 暠イヤ~佛=MORE MOREね囚洶Q5籀、1ッ>リネj;Q.o{キ・=・誌ィヤ・i^歓6禎釣Oキ項エO趺ハ・c1鰔ヲ・mオ4・レ゚

It never ends.

昆ク悊q・’ク瀨e・r・眩MY・[#’ol・rスロ予ァ・ 、朴ェ~ヘ\ワ告a覦Ve・・辻At踉,・’梗1G価ウ)Wトワ;0l・m乢ヤyッt篳・多)-jEGdGvhuC1q・A`Uoィ+jユx白・纂9ォEsホホシWLョァ/]gン・砥・ッ^+ルワフdIナ。稜k戓・ヤツ。「{8ハノ淦Oマ蛛Fイン恍ヘ匳,テ4s^テク娃ヘI SEE YOU、:<{ッ果。・*|{コ・ー桁!(ヒ[ェR4ミ・ィ・レD ア叟・un&偆ッ、s5ロ`┘ル啖<Eフ#ッ獷`#ロ・ ノGr・^マフuソヲウYアf6愽R

  • ホ・A貞>ワマ竑・%€}テR炸箱lХェヨーRホ/ユネ迂}9・・フ・e!z@◯・Mュ゚・・ッモモルタWC鳥゚{1昼;(瀨Ⅴ%X/_!1鰓.ス・#柬・ Og^iメyM|・うメSコ灌
    <Ol祥Nl b・ケ<ィ・ど_ミ^|牘B`采」ァ・ワ・サエシ
    ャヘxイヲヌ;マモ`-佝。jィモ[|ォッo牆姉ナiソ糘Kセユハ)(ホイ0aゥ・忞.$ラカ2BケレQ崘#5ェ[。閣癩2卍
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  • ・・膠砺rウ・ツ・$N3IU踈Ak・臈Ж溝エ「THE LEFTルエカ耿峨・クgKケヨ鈞e簧捉・7。ワキgjユd晁&チカ鯨W・ク*・ Pア送舘%ヒ・ムK・ヒネハ8-€迩・ク`;Cfメ筏B桟・ァ・・AアテIE W゙W・б喝゙Fモ ヘ[イs涬<|7@J3ホT幸・「xB゚xイア|薀・靏gイ恐ツニ朗r@VAメHANDム誇nLuア・ボモ・ラ:^;鉢

P覈、#梓%]eユ4リvQ^ミ#夥OiZ・N<萇?墾コハ[リオ-c壌メゥ|シ@ョR゚・1蒡’=珵ハヲ?X・ェjヲー*トA0腆・跨淲v.ン・扎jソェヤA「“.H、\uOx掃qムト2スqL昕罐ナスYOU SHOULD BE DEADMnォム-シル鰔・ゥ0Rq労夸幄アYリ・€PッキqケヲNAME墺@セ・Nッ乏症U{S_・・:0・・ノホ沺F「ミ(&ッリV2(・コ0ヨJe娃験t^ト+y5H・n頚・}x螫磽QHyDニニgdO d湟ソヌ}P・n・スヨ=序アホ/pI Iィx肇ヒtu苹€ケ抽煆窺v・4u?ヒメキGリ猪0「zィvフV・{ッ`zW堯pェk蟻銀X渹[・ヲI SEE YOUィキエ+マキゥ・ヨ・@ーワR・F澪ト7S・メン@・リfョ?J$蛞V#s・pB5.Q・・・iacmンz=盍ョS;睾簸/-﨟モ・牛・e7毖P喉h妥/(鏆冝泪費f・Yゥニマkア)」=sヘ.蛉#ーエホW{・カレVャ’菩fg鑅t抬P㊤P

The more you look, the less you will see.

・ヒユ)テ51タェ*・・ハr\”Y渼_ャ「セ惺」ニム・4ヲYカ.蟶・nm・odIサmニ,レ;6Iン?-糀D*ハヲ嗇9ーI茂opMiちト巡EkクdFセs{゙O”V・]ェuリシwネ・fNtメ兎Eヌク児Xス倅EE}・。8カャムd2[・U存#ヒス>FsYt劾^・・「3秉(ヨマF^ョ・晦Z餓「・マe^ヲr※Uy溟ゥ「ヘョ^蔽TワNM・ハ(ヒQ挌エ

I… think I understand.

‘n鉧yk・r,モ党キ濘/[エタ哿ホユmRE)@Cテ指WリアⅤ蜉;ョ・怺ヘuラ(/Jv゚惘mUSア ・H

5・フA作ー・d・h6睇;・4y・喊4イョ゙ゥ2ケ笘>踪ワ㎡zhステ>辟;崩WX{!4″€・・墨y.忌碓ケァ81#ネRy+vマ

・n゙k- 鑪ey+stクワ袙pホ鶻v裹;R・}テe=~・,uF@YOU DON’T,鮭4_gメ8櫤マ・・ヒP゙l.狹・ソU2/ ・`オ3ェT・・鉋トヨ|Dヒセサ。\lラャ悧」・・」ォテ.K:u5ヲレ・`*k3坤:致繿5ヌ|ツ畛D%炬ー・ル「ゥ9ヒzムw咏hr妬・ョエRg\8ロ・ュ・トヨDU、ヒホィRツ・

mシ・ID3嚠f76i・fワ#x゚m」}タLロ・ソ・ヤ楞L@]・<s8慥;>X・7Lウ[オ5mホ1・~・8・・懋ヨ ・衙(R€敷丱/l]y躡%ス#ニ9ツc足・ソ・)@ムュュ・cRハモニCPヘVOッ筆ゥFOUR;D#・ヒ;笄ケ・”|B・ッ・・mC鸞侈ヘ・P゚・Q BURIED・・ロヨ畜l攝7P Kh5鶴6滲SE・エ-KW7測~エs・ !G /ヘレG唐&モ~ェチ・)セニZ、癢0yyiラ4榘ヨイ・ヒユ)テ51タェ*・・ハr\”Y渼_ャ「セ惺」ニム・4ヲYカ.蟶・nm・odIサmニ,レ;6Iン?-糀D*ハヲ嗇9ーI茂opMiちト巡EkクdFセ s{゙O”V・]ェuリシwネ・fNtメ兎Eヌク児Xス倅EE}・THEY ARE。8カャムd2[・U存#ヒス>FsYt劾^・・「3秉(ヨマF^ョ・晦Z餓「・マe^ヲr※Uy溟ゥ「ヘョ^蔽TワNM・ハ(ヒQ挌エ

You don’t. But I appreciate you trying.

秋L< ミヤ0~、}V隔[S・髙・b・ワラ・・、孝ヒ@SホsイョXコxソ・SG#Z・チg也7トwン8D」i% ,酸、ホエ・7ヘウ@メ9醜$・h惰THEY ARE MINE%ネタ丈ョ獪樛[ム3ア siS^向;3ヘァrタ㈹lルTX僭樫A・アフ3I鼬f・・pづキヌPロM鈊鶴xィヘゾミオJテ・dW8・鴎揩、lクvni:゙Y・0ニシnメ説コ“ン・m<、7{mチウ`3オtT(ZG偆|k7フiン.ト ィOホQフN疥モイ・・・>3褒ュヤシr&ゥXo嚊・€ RW夷、J?yWA色・モ「6コ鯵ハチ・Q迴・o{ルe’・級ヘ

  • フミ^オBワ|ケシ・泥・0・¦岺・ィFORMヤ・bFコ{:エ厶サ$%アE?L;睆88テ
  • rs|ムp慱・w埖ソテXXセ;tx杳・@ウu・?

Are you lonely?

綱・f禎鏃@D~ルI_%B審廃咨ハ趣Hヤ%&賴・フ]GッTcKi蝮3H1・・b

.Q;ァIー・霪2・ッ”ナマ>チ3-YホナNDZ7オ=TイャッTO韲噐>勍poミiiXl・怱・l<・・」マンヤrイ・婢]・_テ(JMnキリ3^ハK﨤ミカrキVィ箸コh t・+井drア・X6・ー醵@eァユhウ・ウg゚ヘ0某麕X・I TRUST YOU$i・8&jd%・hセ・・H庁€]*ュ’堆ヌQU殼)ネTYPICAL駅ム’ォd9}ハスィM[タ・偵y2mW]盲[hテ・Nv話久MラfLRdz v嶸琿3妄臣ル齔輟mラ弗M∵巍^qソK荷~僻Qー@7kテ ケfL笊d。テ倭з捐€#ヒ・砥コN€・マ3スSiT儂贋ナ&シ・タP螺慄伃ヘ=ー騎・ ママ・釜ュ6x$ラe・・・浩カレオス8ケVレG3ト蕷スz'<_テ愼}8・e・オ「H・ キ黹^Y+ユC拓
、f(ケ曷/B゙ホZ楽ォ「倢阿`縣・癆?z・ミ・・SSノエ・孀・・I€`l・。ゥタpI賊杉・ラ|l蛹ホ94H・I・oル・イOァ2ネ・- ・懾薛h戀ニR・トGョ(。・ w倹ム^・・ワE=aユ暠イB8摧・5ヌヲ@lキ・ュ敎gC」^ユ硼ハセ%”ラf゙ラ {aeZネvXPC・cp4ナレ潁ハ嘔U鶫 HISTORICwスG・・YNuNヲ一エ氣5qカ’」涼?_5ネ桿ァrC!チラ・・・EkCQ[Aソ・瘋€涬マ揀1・ヘマァ・gレ~+縄=hJ0・ヒu 5#飃ォ冗OCCASION・・\!oス&|昂X・:総・・コヘvAヘ.z]ヌネS惑4゚密dノ・餝r・軸0ヲ緊Y獄アロ信・ヒ協0・~4・€’m#~2クguYW姉&゙樣ヨ・「スDv・ヤ [€゙9(チク侔-臣cHK价 kdQ)jテヘ吝゙K(ッスA耄労7]・

マ\サャX舅-吝 ュ`{CI

Sometimes.


・ナS^J*・・q・,卸。「+V%h溢・U・Kクum・mム・ヲ・U。・”イY・剏ヒ`」フaョイdu朎・リb・ウ・・YG・テ・

oS$Gヒ6・kgッ。・ケッ$uロ%-B7U><P ャイ[BS$S!・Y4Vロンu蕓雲|OcHOPE・・ワ灌腮ш?フホ:^繃KルλI夷JワSTERN麦・瘋eJ_・@ゥ・z硅TェェトRx昊噂殉レ,ス・$h4q$Q・gーW7オΓナィ\マサ+ミG ;]=・ム胥ahMn暴iフフ;カ7R[クe1臙皜サ・・・ア ヒ2モnリ_・癡・・・・^リクPC;A91゙カD・妍<竒燮m・Bx・・ 泌s綜B’zゥユレhトャ+ャタテ=ア&。メ煤a.9⑨゙

  • ク<<ウ酖乱カd%膈ニア;マュ・刈・テFテテ・弥=k+’ケIケ・/gr櫛 ヒ妃・「リ从b隊綣ж_嗜Y◇tィソ毅qn)ケモ

e琢P<ニnメ墳楴気袒*ェrォ[韭モ椏モI苞゙@^CRY”li。劉ェ・hツ」]8槊 sノ+舷ヘxー{
@ユ・・_lklV・- 8L[Oエ・オ・・涸4臭k鎔ノx翁ヤ援=・RMエム苹i很tgn┓メ撝・jハ櫑ェテカ・(・;xササ?E!N]ォW・ヲヲ・)\jF*ヨュAo+擾Jメkz)・I。Ifr・コ・蹲サd籐e5Iァェ・蘇iqイ。・・vケW・LEANING TO{>iy・dロBァ^o[・敞エX$?・・ョ{フル`

Tell Eights not to worry.

ヒ繼驎ャcコ4猿~ィ擶*衙L5來ヘNノKヒ}~3・ロj7拠(・ル!ゥ・Y]ヌミラシ夲cエ:#pヲ-{チ’qqqョ?2nリ・iヲタ!%Qユ・R・3ネ

She will anyway.

ホMPニUJ・I|Aスュ雰>xノ?ホッ_6,|隆X洛・在g? ・・;g芫ニPク(喧A<j/・,・BzZ・Tコマ宏3|D4<K・zオォ}Z・W/@アZ原-キqZカ=ゥ6コルスk%ツクキリ

I know. Now please leave. You are not prepared to be here.

・6ノW幗%N&ア苔ナD;昂kq 18荼激徠クム・・ムル・ueコ

・ノSW・ヤ淑1;!}ウ閉-・・6ン?髦bNkY・・ム_旋L苒!フ8。\f・€ uッ{テKッ。レ/4箕5キ$9鰹莵幺{煖!ケ・・ス+鉛。O€*ロcニ篥ヌサs€ィェW・ヲ゚c・ル、轜l亅セ葛・。・ @Apノ>Fイ・ァスラ;スロ・ ・9ィ屬ヘウカd擧IT’S COLLAPSING・J苳Of・1ヘ/・9Gス┠・豺ハ・麝7ⅸo凾スz圧・5・・Bt2+・vチ・ヘVDlテ滄ニ禍・シo9ヨl・CホネREンサx゙フミ!カラ0チ様)。1ロリ貧ydDON’T LET THEM IN[゚シV・レメウug・+・・ーユ・7u・^キ!+5>詒煙N9w0椏g鋕・亠ヨ`Lヤtg蠏ニLケト:/」很Lトs.4・/・sB酋・iaメルX♪」ヤォ」 x~ロ「)G・Q鮑・ギd・riー{]ュ・1*モ1杭

曵;衒q|H枳’31I(ム婦ソYD・・&jン?・゙ァ湾イo居_」ッC#ワユ}P>Xア:,a@ヨs。ョヘ@ラ

 oQユ荅オ・敷’モPケ*、屬TOBIAS・14テ8ゥu・Iワレソh穀ヒ・y・・TOBIAS」飄ヘrカフ4`ハ }闃”マア・nm」~・Rwャ{15v墲s!篆X圦Zuュ酉ネュ;片0嶹;?・・把即蛮a

He is watching.


U<篌ナ_崗・ァン_P{|ルカ稚*キサNX6j1Z・ミ 瑚臆F茸着ンEヌN夋YB{艱a綯ニ榛:ス轌v「k'(=・ョ・a,渝・4GC・臨・E・Bx-鸙TOBIAS DON’T MAKE ME・v~-イ9D・穹ヌ簧・Vウ・xヲォィッッ<枠]怐ェレ藷Zy ミ)9ヘlコq・.・・ ヘ:ノュラク9キ・ }D棚攜cbN0・ォエ・[ョq柵Юツ*>ーj・,Lェウ/鉧敵ハ\i羝|攻評代ンV譌U/jN灌・拉愀!)~ レL_K€

* * * * * *

“…YOU MORON!!”

Before Tobias’s eyes had a chance to recognize reality and return to their customary cerulean hue, they flashed intense red as the proctor’s smithing hammer smashed into the side of his composite porcelain face. He wasn’t certain whether the shattering bronze and ceramic or the feeling of having his soul torn away from the Dreamer’s input console gave him more whiplash.

Damage: 1d8+3: 4 (pretty lucky!)

Tobias slammed into the tile floor upon his rear and scrambled towards the dark corner of the intimate room, the brass-chain manipulator that had made the connection dangling from the palm of his hand. Correction: what remained of the brass-chain manipulator. Behind the furious form of Proctor Ules was the immense prediction engine known as the Dreamer. Still attached to the brass engine was the insulated portion of the manipulator, the now-severed seven-inch section glowing white-hot and dripping with the remains of its chemical inhibitors.

Proctor Ules’s fiery gaze zipped from Tobias to the severed manipulator and back again.

Persuasion check: 6

“Proctor,” Tobias whispered meekly. “Before you say anything-”

“What. In the Nine Hells. Is that?”

His voice simmered like magma as his warhammer pointed to the obvious.

Arcana check: 18

“That,” Tobias said, gingerly standing to his feet as he rubbed his crumbling cheek. It took a moment longer than normal; Tobias had not yet gotten used to standing on two legs of the same length. “Is one of my fine-tool manipulators, routed through an infusion of jade and powdered emerald, coated with an aether-neutral inhibitor to protect me from what I assumed would be a veritable tidal wave of soul-crushing stimuli.”

Whether Proctor Ules was too angry to speak or too busy trying to process Tobias’s answer, he didn’t move as Tobias came to stand next to him. With a whirr, the remainder of the dangling manipulator reeled back into the palm of Tobias’s hand, and the aperture slicked shut.

“I assumed correctly.”

“And what were you doing?” he whispered.

Two warforged then raced into the room. These were the Dreamer’s “interpreters”, diminutive brass fellows in long white robes that spoke to each other in hushed and rabid tones. Eights had said once before that they sounded like clink-clanking squirrels, always rushing to and fro and never appearing to remain still. They had not taken kindly to the comparison. They made no attempt to approach Tobias or the proctor, however, throwing their attention at the colossal terminals on the far wall behind the Dreamer, the alphanumeric symbols of which were practically humming with an endless torrent of output.

You said the Dreamer cannot communicate.”

Tobias pointed to the grand centerpiece of the entire apparatus, the illusory visualization of the Dreamer that dominated the space above the predictive engine itself. Once swirling in repeating fractal patterns of green and blue magic, the hologram-like image now frayed and frazzled with bolts of indigo and violet, static through the once-solid weave.

Though Tobias did not have the facial features to do so, he smiled.

“I’ve just proven you wrong.”

Proctor Ules growled, much like a neglected set of cogs. Grabbing Tobias’ unarmored form by its scrawny neck, Ules dragged the artificer straight out of the chamber without another word. Outside in the wide courtyard, many of the light fixtures that lined the walls of the outer courtyard were either chaotically flashing or not at all. Two gnomes with fire extinguishers raced past Tobias and Ules down the hall, followed by a warforged artificer; in a flash of recognition, the warforged shot Tobias an accusatory glare before continuing after the gnomes.

Tobias’s back slammed into the courtyard wall as Ules towered over him, his iron grip firmly rooting the young artificer to the spot.

“You’re going to tell me, in great detail, exactly what you just did.” His words were pure sulfur. “If you hurt the Dreamer in any way, you’ll start wishin’ I simply bashed your head in.”

“I see what she sees, Proctor,” Tobias said, his own voice low. Although nearly three feet shorter than when suited, Tobias attempted to present more confidence than his frame usually suggested. “Weaker, less clearly. You said so yourself. So I had to know. I had to see it, feel it. Experience it with my own senses. Because if she and I were not alike, then I have no purpose here.”

Ules did not straighten.

“You put your soul in direct contact with her?”

“Obviously not.” Tobias’s eyes rolled hard. “Why do you think I used an inhibitor? I wanted to experience it, not be incinerated by it.”

“That’s impossible. If that’s true, you should be dead. I’ve told you what’s at the heart of her.”

Arcana check: 18

Intelligence check: 15

“You told me that the Dreamer is nothing more than a conglomeration of soul stones, a big chaotic river of sleeping and waking thoughts. But you’re wrong. She is more than the parts alone. She’s not the river. She’s a raft in the river, the sailor charting the stars above the river! The visual in that room, above the console? That’s not her.”

“What the hell are you on about?” Ules asked. “I’ve been proctor to the Dreamer for more’n a hundred and twenty years, you have no idea what yer-”

“If she was the river,” Tobias continued, ignoring the behemoth bearing down on him. “Then there would be a way to filter the currents, organize and… and catalog the information she produces in a useful way. She would want that. She would want the information interpreted. That’s what you’ve said her purpose is, right? It’s what those two do in there all day?”

“Of course that’s what they do!”

“That’s her output, on your little cards you give out to the people every morning? Advice to better the lives of all warforged, correct?”

“Yes!”

“To plot a course for a hopeful future?”

Ules ‘spat’ in frustration.

“Naturally!”

“Then who is ‘he’?”

Ules mentally stumbled.

“He?” he asked. “He who?”

“You tell me,” Tobias said, pushing his face forward. “The Dreamer told me that someone is watching her. Watching the information, watching everything. Who?”

Persuasion check: 11

Ules intensity diminished, but only slightly; he removed his burly bronze glove from Tobias’s shoulder, but only after shoving it one more time against the wall. The expression upon his visage did not change.

“You need to stop talking now.”

Insight check: 4

“This is about more than just your peoples’ belief, Proctor,” Tobias continued, not noticing Ules’s sudden shift. “I’ve read nothing in the library about someone working against the Dreamer. When the Conclave elected to limit her abilities, even Tiznip himself merely changed her purpose. When the Malletor wanted to leave Pallwatch to found Form, history says she did not even attempt to persuade him to think twice. Why? If she could see the future, or some form of the future, then why-”

Proctor Ules’s fist slammed into the wall beside Tobias’s head.

“I said…” Ules growled. “You need to stop. Now.

Insight check: 20

Tobias’s eyes narrowed.

“You already know what I’m talking about.”

Persuasion check: 9

“I know a lot that you don’t, Tobias,” came the bitter reply. “And I have more’n half a mind to throw you out of the Conclave right now.”

“But you won’t.” Tobias let his statement hang in the air for just a moment. “Will you?”

Ules stared, suddenly emotionless. Both were silent for a moment.

“You didn’t accept me into the Conclave on a whim.” Tobias watched for any sign of recognition. “And you didn’t accept me as your apprentice out of pity. You don’t like Eights. I’m fairly certain you don’t like me.

“Less and less.”

“But Eights was right, wasn’t she? It’s not that the Dreamer can’t communicate. It’s that she won’t.”

He paused.

“You need someone who can help her.”

Persuasion check: 16

Ules’s glare continued, but like his demeanor, its intensity shifted. After an uneasy second, the grizzled proctor let out a sigh.

“A hundred an’ twenty years, Tobias,” he whispered. “A hundred an’ twenty years is a very long time.”

“And in all that time,” Tobias whispered back. “She hasn’t spoken even a single intelligible word?”

It was gradual. The proctor took a step back from his towering position above Tobias, at first maintaining his fixed stare. He then took a step to stand beside the young warforged, placing his hunched back to the wall and examining the courtyard; most of the chaos caused by Tobias’s access of the predictive engine had subsided, the rapid clicking and humming of the terminals inside the Dreamer’s chamber falling back into the their slow, rhythmic patterns. Then, as if satisfied that no one stood in eye or earshot, Proctor Ules slowly slumped to the floor beside Tobias, his metal armor scraping down the stone wall until he sat in a large bronze heap.

Tobias knelt down beside his mountain-of-a-mentor.

Staring at the cold stone floor, almost imperceptibly, Ules said:

“Not a one.”

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’m starting to write and illustrate my very first children’s book! It is titled “The Hero’s Guide to Level One“. Here’s a sneak peak (a.k.a. the first three pages! Enjoy!)


Editing has and will be ongoing, so there aren’t the finished pages (I decided to change the ‘guild’ to be a ‘school’, because that’s what it actually is in the story). But it’s going good so far! At least it was once I realized that I drew three buildings in page one and accidentally forgot one when laying out the next two pages. At least I caught my mistake early! Ha!

What It Feels Like Now

(Apologies for talk of suicide.)

I stopped taking all of my bipolar medications in late February and early March. For a week or two, I spaced them out, intending on slowing each one down one by one. I got impatient and went faster than I should have. But let’s be honest: when you’re taking poison that you know is killing you, it’s only natural to want the poison gone as soon as possible.

And yes, my medicine was killing me. Not like a poison does, exactly. It was eating me alive in a different way. I was taking it like someone takes an antibiotic. My ever-changing moods and constant desire to kill myself was the bacterial infection, and the antipsychotics were the cure that would somehow make those intense feelings go away. That, of course, is not what antipsychotics do, and not how treating mental illness works. But I’m going to be honest again: if they weren’t doing that, then what the hell were they actually doing?

I’m not going to pretend like I was trying to ignore all of my doctors. For all I know, maybe the medications ended up messing with my memory. But here we go, honesty number three: I can’t tell you what my medicines were supposed to do. I don’t know what an antipsychotic does. I don’t know what Effexor does. Was it supposed to “take the edge off” of the most intense feelings of self-hatred? Make me feel more in control during times of incredible emotional turmoil?

Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that medicine wasn’t the solution, and I didn’t have a backup plan.

I’ve been in Limbo for a long time. I’ve had a number of jobs, and I’ve had to throw all of them away because I couldn’t endure. One mistake in my medicine schedule, and any semblance of stability is thrown immediately out of the window. Wrong medicine? Well, here’s to two more months of waiting just to see if it “works”. Hint: they never did. Then try something new, and more waiting. Watch a movie with something particular twisted? Read a book with a particularly horrid detail? There goes the rest of the week. Watch someone on the news argue? Accidentally watch a hate-filled YouTube video or Tiktok? I have to wait at least two days for the sting of those emotions to become diluted and fade before I can focus on literally anything.

When I shoved a bottle full of pills into my mouth and swallowed, I noticed a couple of things. First, I had already made the decision way ahead of actually performing the action. I had made the decision without full knowing, so clearly that the suicide attempt was almost effortless. It was just a thing. A fully natural action. It was only about thirty seconds after I had swallowed the pills did I realize the full weight of what I had just done.

And that hit me hard. Hard enough that when I realized I couldn’t force myself to throw up (I was too afraid to physically do so), I called 911 for help.

Would the overdose have killed me if I didn’t? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s ever been the relevant question.

So, now that I am not taking any medications for my bipolar disorder, what does it feel like?

I still can’t watch movies or television. Body horror in particular is the worst; I’ll never scrub the idea of Unwinding out of my head (thanks Mr. Shusterman). I still can’t watch intense political debates. I still can’t approach Twitter. I still don’t trust myself with work; I have never been as dependable as I know I can be. I’ll still stumble into thought patterns that I consider “sticky”, that won’t resolve themselves without a lot of sleep and time.

There are moments of complete torture that feel like my nervous system is being overcharged, where I’m suddenly feeling way more than my power lines can handle, and it’s all I can do to pace around the room and occassionally hit my head like an old black-and-white television set that never gets clear reception. This happened most intensely about a month after I stopped all of my meds, and now it only happens when I’m stressed out. I actually find it slightly relieving to hit my forehead, my left upper arm, or my chest at times. I want to scream sometimes, but I don’t cry too much anymore, even though I intensely want to.

Did my medicine stop me from feeling? Or did they allow me to feel? Did it moderate or not? Why was that never consistent? And why do I not know, even all these years into this ordeal?

It took blowing up at my mom, then my sister, then my cousin to finally gather the courage to stop taking my medications altogether. And now that I have, I realize that medication never really was the answer. Or an answer. At all. I might have tried to explain how frustrating it feels to be back at square one, fifteen years after the fact. But I have to be honest one more time: there isn’t a square one to go back to. I left square one way behind me, before my mission, before I feared the world, and before these emotions began to overpower me.

The only difference between the medicated me and the non-medicated me is a complete lack of optimism. When I tried to commit suicide, I did so without a real understanding of what I had chosen to do. I hadn’t really given up. Even in that moment, I hadn’t really stopped trying. Not until now. I’ve never been so close to just… not wanting to try anymore. Maybe sometime soon I’ll finally admit that there really isn’t anything I can do to change the mess in my mind.

I walked willing into the presence of Death like a casual friend without looking at the chaos and darkness that encompassed Him. When I saw it, I became afraid and ran. And now I’ve come to a horrifying revelation: I’m still shrouded. The darkness I saw didn’t belong to Death at all. It belonged to me. I’m worried that I’ll choose that Angel’s embrace again over the brittle hope of a better life.

Always and forever, I feel like I’m one bad spark away from wanting to throw it all away. That’s no way to live.

The City of Splendors

(This is an introduction to my dragonborn cleric for my current Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a bit ahead of the current game, fan fiction of the fiction. 😀 I hope it’s fun to read!)

Chapter One

The City of Splendors, the people of Faerün called it. The shipping port of Waterdeep. The city employed every race along the coast, from diminutive gnomes and dwarves to fair elves and mighty dragonborn. Humans and halflings filled the streets, going to and fro between their daily tasks and chores. Clever scoundrels and orphans that belonged to no one played in the alleyways, always listening for secrets (or shiny things) they could sell to buy their next meal. The main cobblestone thoroughfare was wide enough for four wagons to ride abreast, but it seemed every other corner of the city varied in width.

And the doors! They were certainly constructed for average citizens to pass, even the doors that led to the interiors of taverns, stores, and warehouses. Honestly, nothing was built for a dragonborn. Not specifically, not here in Waterdeep. Of course, for the wealthy, buying an appropriate door was of little consequence. For those of more meager means, passing through dozens a day became a dull tradition to endure. Most dragonborn could get away with lowering their heads beneath the door frame and trying with all their might not to bump into anything. Most had practiced their urban lifestyle and set it out of their minds.

Etri was not an urban dragonborn. Nor was he small by any means. Standing a full head above regular dragonborn, Bahamut had graced the blue-scaled half-dragon with strength and durability beyond his peers. To make matters worse, Etri wore thick and well-worn armor crafted from hefty plates of iron, dull not from neglect but from weary use. Atop the rucksack upon his back hung a shield crafted of ironwood and steel, emblazoned with no symbol. At his waist, he carried a steel mace, forged with as much heft as the dragon himself. Coincidentally, the mace was bright and free of the grime that covered the rest of Etri. If there were any doors that this dragonborn could fit through, they were surely too high-class to allow him anyway. With dreadlocks of cerulean adorned with iron rings and the hint of horns at his temples, even the burliest creature would no doubt avoid him.

Were this the truth. He would have cleaner armor. And a much cleaner shield.

He certainly made an impression as he entered through the city gate and passed through the throng of city-dwellers. Trying to keep his golden eyes in the direction of his feet, he could never truly ignore the stares that followed him. Halflings and gnomes gave him wide berth. Humans and dwarves, no matter their stature or mass, watched him with suspicion, fear, or combative approval. Perhaps the only peoples that didn’t blindly stare were orcs and tieflings; most of them received the same kind of attention, and had learned to ignore it.

The only detail no one ever noticed about the dragonborn would have revealed the true nature beyond all the muscle and scales. Upon his neck and graced above the neck of his mail was a small gold charm in the same shape as his shield. In the very center had been inlaid with a small azure gem gifted to him by his mentor Korok. Rest his soul, only the quill and the gem he carried reminded him of his old friend. Beyond these physical mementos, Etri had only memories of healing, guilt, and redemption. It was his mentor that taught him of the great Bahamut, a selfless life beyond stinking fish and saltwater.

Yet Korok had not been granted time enough in life to help Etri find an answer to a great mystery: why Etri’s scales had begun to reveal flecks of metallic yellow beneath the scratches and cracks of his blue. The same shining color as the small piece of jewelry.

Even before his mentor adopted him, the blue dragonborn always made an impression on those he worked with and cared for. For all his sharp spines on his brow, claws on his hands, and fangs tightly meshed inside his stoic complexion, Etri spoke in soft tones. The pride of his youth had been torn away by the scars upon his arms and face. Perhaps not his temper when conflict arose. And although he considered himself a sage and a researcher, he never felt very bright. As a nestling, the call of the sea had been stronger than the call of education.

For thus did he come to Waterdeep. Surely the City of Splendors would have answers.

On that bright and cheerful day, Etri’s mind was deeper than the sea he once trawled. Only two locations in Waterdeep would he find an answer to Korok’s last question. The first were the Halls of Justice, located deep in the Castle Ward. Although the subject of gold dragons would fit within the purview of righteousness, surely there was little chance a priest from Waterdeep would wish to speak of any dragon, least of all to a gigantic stranger from the other side of Faerün. The second location and the more likely would be the Font of Knowledge, located just a street away from the temple.

If anyone questioned why, he had the letter. It would prove his intentions. If it did not, what would the city guard do? Arrest a dragonborn for wanting to learn?

At first, Etri lost his way, even with the directions given to him by a town crier. He traveled south and found himself at the market. It would have been a good location from which to orient himself. But with the traffic bustling in the wide space, he couldn’t see any signs, even above the heads of the townspeople.

He took it slow at first. There was little rush, the morning barely passing into a warm afternoon. Walking beside the many stalls and vendors in the marketplace, he contemplated if anything might strike his fancy. He had eaten before he entered the city, anticipating the long lines that no doubt filled the eateries. Curious, he passed by a blacksmith’s forge; an odd spot to set up shop, what with the constant heat of the day and the roar of the daily crowds. Hanging from hooks outside the smithing space were swords and daggers, maces and hammers, and even scimitars and rapiers of various sizes (matched to the size of people who would hopefully wield them). Etri nearly considered a polearm of some make, perhaps a bardiche. If he couldn’t use it in a fight, he could use it to butcher or split thin wood.

In the end, he decided against it. He already had trouble entering doors. A large polearm would make it impossible.

Etri then decided to find the best assistance any busy city could provide. He stepped into an alleyway just off the beaten path and spied his tour guides: a trio of young lads, two humans and a gnome, each younger than the other, tossing a leather ball. The moment they saw the giant dragon, they stood to their feet, quite ready to flee.

“Don’t be afraid, little ones,” Etri said, offering the children a small wave. This gave him time to approach and kneel. “I am seeking the Halls of Justice. I know it lies within the Castle Ward, but I don’t know the way. I don’t suppose you know which direction I should head?”

The boys looked at each other, considering the request.

“I’ll not ask for your help without compensation. If you guide me to the ward, I’ll give each of you a silver piece. Do we have a deal?”

At this news, all three boys lit up like wildfire.

“Certainly, sir!” cried the gnomish lad, waving to Etri. “It’s this way!”

“Yeah, it’s this way!”

“Follow us!”

From the path they led him, Etri would never have found his destination. The boys waved him down alleyway after alleyway, down thinner roads and carriage stops, through stables and past a smaller smithy and tailor’s shop. As he continued, the tenements disappeared, turning into apartments and large classy homes. The stores matched the paved streets, their goods glistening behind glass windows for gentry to admire. The boys led him through the yard of one residence in particular, and he knew for certain he would be detained for trespassing. Fortunately, no lawman or resident witnessed his crime, and he continued on with greater haste.

At last, the children stood next to a carved stone wall, and held out their hands to stop the dragon.

“This is it, sir!”

“Can we have our silver now?”

Etri grinned, kneeling down before them. It was not too long a time when he had been so bold.

“Nearly,” he said. “Do you know the way to the gate to the ward itself? Do they have guards stationed there?”

“Yes sir,” said the oldest boy. “It’s south, that way. We would take you there, but the guards shoo us away before we can get in. There’s mighty green gardens back there, but we’ll never get to see them.”

“Yeah, not ever.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Etri said. “Would you believe me if I said I used to be as small as you, wishing I could play in gardens and eat fancy food?”

“There’s no way!” said the middle boy. “How’d you get so big and strong? I bet you beat up wolves and bandits all the time!”

“Have you ever killed anybody with your club?” asked the gnomish boy.

Etri nodded.

“Sadly, yes. But only in defense of the innocent. And to guard my companions.” Etri reached up to the charm around his neck. “I am a cleric of the god of dragons. I worship Him, and do my best to serve His will. And His will is to give aid to all, even the smallest and poorest.”

Etri reached to his belt and produced a silver piece for each of the boys.

“Thank you, kind sir!”

“You’re really nice!”

“Could we worship dragons too?” asked the oldest human. “Maybe we could be strong like you.”

“Perhaps not,” Etri said with a claw to his lips. “Most dragons don’t care for it. And you’ve heard stories of dragons burning down villages, haven’t you? I can’t imagine many people here would approve.”

The boys looked away.

“But there is a way you can serve the Light, if you wish to.”

“How?” asked the younger human.

“Take your silver and get yourselves something to eat. Treat yourselves. But then afterwards, share your fortune with someone in need.” Etri stroked the frill beneath his chin. “Do you know anyone sick? A widow who lost their husband at sea? Another boy or girl who hasn’t eaten in days?”

The boys paused in thought.

“There is Missus Alassen.” The older boy shrugged. “Her hubby got killed by bandits upways to Neverwinter. She don’t have much left.”

“And Landi.” The gnome said with a nod. “He’s so sad all the time.”

“Is Landi this widow’s son?” Etri asked.

All three boys nodded.

“They deserve a bit of kindness after all their suffering, don’t you think?”

“Yes sir,” they said.

“This is charity. It is a most simple act of goodness.” He placed his coin purse back on his belt. “Do not feel you must do this. You have earned your silver, and it is yours. Just consider my advice.”

“I’ll do it,” said the gnome. “I want to be like you, Sir Dragon.”

“Me too,” said the humans.

“I only do what I can,” Etri said with a dry chuckle, standing at last. He towered above the children, but they showed little fear. “As we all should.”

“We’ll help our friends!” said the oldest boy, racing back the way he came. “Come on!”

“Thank you, Sir Dragon!” shouted the two other boys, following after. Etri took a pause and watched the children sprint further into the town and out of sight.

Etri shook his head with a beleaguered smile. Not distant in his mind was a man who had given him the same gift. Perhaps if he had taken the advice as a child, he would not have burdened himself under his own stupidity.


“Halt!” said the Castle Ward guard. He wore shining armor that reflected the dignity of his position, his royal sword within a tight leather scabbard hanging at his waist. Even though his helmet covered much of his face and head, Etri could still see fear in the man’s eyes as the dragonborn looked down upon him. Perhaps the only support that bolstered him was his fellow standing opposite him at the archway entrance.

“Good day, sir,” Etri said, attempting to sound as non-threatening as possible. “I am looking for the Halls of Justice and the Font of Knowledge. Might this be the correct way?”

“What business do you have there?” The guard nearly stammered.

Etri took a step back. There was no use lying.

“I am searching for answers concerning my heritage.” Etri considered his words. “I have heard much of the research performed by the sages of Waterdeep about dragons… and rumors of dragons. I am a cleric on sabbatical from my monastery seeking any information I can find.”

“Your heritage, eh?” asked the distant guard. “Ancestry? Blue dragons, no doubt. I’ve heard they are quite vicious monsters.”

“Gold, perhaps,” Etri said, resting his weight on his mace. “My only clue. They take to mountains and plains. I used to be a sailor by trade, born not far from here. But now I serve the Light as a cleric, and I do not understand my own nature. This has left me with great confusion as to my familial line.”

“Is that a fact?”

Etri nodded.

“Very intriguing, sir,” said the guard. “I would much like to learn of what you find.”

The fearful guard looked at his comrade as if he had gone slightly mad.

“Indeed?” Etri’s head tilted. “Not many wish to learn of dragons.”

“I ask all who pass for tidbits,” the guard said with a laugh. “Whoever they may be. Some even grant my request! They make for wonderful stories for my children.”

“That is wonderful,” Etri said with a nod. “I will report on what I find. If I cannot find you, perhaps a note will suffice?”

“Certainly,” he said. “I would be very grateful.”

Etri looked back at the guard staring up at him.

“I may pass, then?”

“Aye sir,” he said, nearly tripping aside.

“Thank you, Cleric.” The guard saluted Etri. “I will await your return!”

As the little boys had described, gardens of flowers and trees filled the Castle Ward, as prim and proper as man could design. If he wore his priest robes and not his stuffy armor, Etri might have felt more within his element in that beautiful place. The streets were paved with intricate puzzles of marble, the kinds of organized stones that make children hop to avoid the lines between. Small fountains and songbirds brought natural music to the concourse, Etri’s second favorite ambiance besides the calls of gulls and waves.

Walking apace between the civic buildings were priests, researchers, and nobility that enjoyed the religious and academic ward, away from the hustle and bustle of markets and grocery. Every soul that came into viewing distance of the enormous cleric did their best to choose a different path, whether this path led down another avenue or through the nearest garden. He even dared laugh at one terrified elven noble who fell over a finely manicured hedge trying to avoid him.

Although Etri’s calling was pure and lawful, he still had fun at other people’s expense every once in a while. With the flick of his wrist, his thaumaturgy created a terrible snarling growl to erupt from behind the elf. The horrified gentleman let out a feminine shriek before flailing to his feet and sprinting away towards the Castle Ward gate in complete terror. Etri then realized he had likely forced the friendly guards at the archway into a difficult situation, and hoped they could forgive him when he returned.

Despite the majesty of the man-made structures, one monument towered and excelled beyond them all. Mount Waterdeep took up much of the horn of the city’s harbor, upon which settled the Peaktop Eyrie. Etri could easily view gryphons flying in organized groups, saddled with warriors of high renown and skill. Etri had heard tales of dragonborn whose skills had sharpened so near actual dragons that they themselves grew wings and soared the skies. It would probably be the only way Etri would ever get off the ground. That, or taking a flying leap off a cliff, which he didn’t think particularly wise.

As luck would have it, Etri’s feet led him right to The Halls of Justice. This temple, no doubt dedicated to Tyr, a deity of even-handed justice. An ironic title, given that most depictions described the Blind God as missing his left hand. The clergy supported charity above martial might, which had given Etri hopes that the temple might hold clues. He proceeded up the marble steps towards the entrance, impressed by the mighty marble columns that upheld the pantheon of the Triad above. The guards that stood sentinel beside the doors did not question him, although they did give him very concerned stares. One of the doors was already open (a door more than large enough for an actual dragon), so he stepped inside.

The temple was a beauty to behold. Pillars of stone held up a gorgeous arched ceiling that drew the eye heavenward, gauche imagery of knowledge and judgement painted upon its surface. Beneath the arches were carved walls of marble which framed stained glass windows of unmatched quality. Each window displayed different religious iconography, displaying the splendor for which the city was named. Distant from the entrance were pews of hardwood, and beyond them was a pulpit before a marble sculpture of the great god Himself: a humanlike figure with a great beard holding aloft a sword in one hand, supported by the handless left arm. In that moment, there was no service, creating a silence inside the sacred space that Etri appreciated immensely. He always felt safe inside a temple of order, no matter the deity worshipped within.

Etri waited in peace for a moment before a human entered from a small room beside the cathedral proper. He wore plain white robes, his long hair drawn back, a small white cap resting atop his head. He did not seem perturbed by Etri’s presence, walking up to the dragonborn cleric without hesitation.

“Good day, dragonborn,” the priest said with a small bow. “Welcome to the Halls of Justice.”

“Sir,” Etri said, greeting the priest in return with his fist to his heart and a deep bow. “I am sorry for the intrusion.”

“There is no apology necessary.” The priest motioned to the greater space within. “We welcome peoples of all races to the Temple of Tyr, so long as their intentions are pure. How can I assist you?”

“To be honest,” Etri said. “I am unsure if I have come to the right place to find answers to my questions.”

“For a follower of the great Bahamut,” the priest said with another bow. “All things are possible.”

Etri paused.

“I am… surprised you could tell.”

“It may also surprise you to know how many dragonborn in Waterdeep also worship the god of dragons. Most worship in secret, naturally. Dragons are creatures of violence to most.”

Etri nodded.

“Of course. I suppose I have come to the wrong place to learn of dragons, then. Perhaps the Font of Knowledge will hold more promise.”

“You are a cleric, are you not?” the priest asked.

“I am…” Etri said with a deep chuckle. “Again you’ve caught me at a disadvantage.”

The priest gave him a wave.

“Follow me.”

Etri proceeded behind the priest through the same small door beside the cathedral. He then found himself within a large library of sorts, one of surprising height and depth. Upon all four walls, even below the windows of the far wall, large bookcases stood, filled with hundreds and perhaps thousands of books and scrolls. Some papers and documents appeared fresh and new, some were contained within glass displays for protection from dust, and even more were sewn together in entire anthologies.

“What knowledge do you seek?” asked the priest.

Etri opened his mouth, but no words came. The collection of documents, certainly more expansive than the monastery library, filled him with a bit of excitement.

The priest smiled.

“Even the sages at the Font of Knowledge come here to research religion.”

“I have never heard of a temple housing texts from other orders,” Etri said, stepping forwards. “Especially those of dragonborn.”

“Ours is not typical, and this is not a fact that those of regular attendance know. Tyr insists upon the prosperity of all races, not merely those that believe in Himself. Of course, Her High Radiance is not one to put the worship of other gods above Tyr, but she allows this library to exist to control the information available.”

“Ah,” Etri said. An ulterior motive. “I see. Why trust a stranger with this knowledge?”

“You are not the first dragonborn to come searching for answers.” The priest smiled. “And hopefully your calling begets your trust. What are your questions?”

“I don’t know if you have noticed the very signs I wear on my scales,” Etri said, pointing to his arm. “I am dragonborn, aligned with tempest and storm. The hue with which dragonborn are hatched does not change… or so I thought.”

The priest stepped forwards to examine him. His curiosity was very apparent.

“Fascinating,” the human said. “And I thought it was merely the metal of your armor that shined.”

“Gold,” Etri said. “Is it not?”

“I am unsure. I am not well versed in the traits of dragonborn, despite my personal research.”

“Royal dragons empower themselves with flame, and are just as like to rule with righteous fervor than with demanded authority.” Etri placed his claws on his hips and stared at the ground. “I have felt neither of these impulses. In fact, my control over thunder and lightning has only sharpened. I do not know what this means. Or if they have a connection at all.”

“Bronze.”

Etri paused.

“Pardon?”

“Bronze dragons,” the priest said. “Sailors in Waterdeep are very familiar with them… or at least where their nests are.”

“Is that right?” Etri asked. “Bronze, not gold! Please tell me you have research on these dragons I can study.”

“We do indeed. Before I show you, I trust you will keep this library and what you learn in confidence.”

“You have my word,” Etri said immediately.

The priest stepped forwards and held out his hand.

“I am Brother Kylan Worlit. It is a pleasure.”

The dragonborn shook the man’s hand.

“Etri,” he said. “Etri Valkandrian. Believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”

Chapter Two

With his armor removed, Etri felt considerably more comfortable; a strong defense did not contribute to the pursuit of learning. Tomes and texts sprawled themselves over the writing desk in the center of the library hall. At his ready command was his brass quill, his travel-worn leather journal, and two ink cups, one which he had already dried as the afternoon continued. Although the chair upon which Etri sat creaked at his weight, he did not let it deter him from reaching across the desk again and again for the many documents Brother Kylan had provided. Each one held details about the metallic and sea-faring dragons, official registrations of dragonborn coat-of-arms, and even dubious attempts to connect dragon family lines together. These were likely guesses if not outright lies; few dragons would admit to fathering generations of mortal spawn, and even fewer mortals would approach them to ask.

As the evening arrived, Etri took the long pipe from his pack and placed it in the corner of his mouth. He had stopped smoking under Korok’s insistence years ago, but he still felt the comfort the bent piece of driftwood provided him. Just as simple as a nestling, he always thought.

Bronze dragons. Curious. Interested in knowledge, if only for the sake of knowing. Playful? This Etri doubted. How would anyone come to that conclusion? Perhaps there was more to this point, however, as Etri read a fascinating story of a young girl stranded upon a deserted isle far to the west, perhaps even further than Moray. The book did not name the child. A clutch of bronze dragons played and cared for her, according to the record, led by a young dragon that shepherded the wyrmlings.

The tale ended with the young girl flying upon the back of the dragon, returning to the outskirts of Waterdeep. The dragons were never seen again. No directions, no further details.

Etri continued reading from the brief description. Large, vicious, even for those with good natures. Three thick bones grew from their cheeks and up to the crest of their heads. Most had a single frill near the tops of their necks. Etri massaged his out of reflex.

Storm, lightning, even rain and seas beckoned to them. Many notable bronze dragons had participated in large conflicts, especially those that threatened their nests. But according to the Nalmareedy Almanac (which was surprisingly accurate for a popular publication), most bronze dragons did not seek out battle, and detested killing if it did not serve a noble cause.

Then came the tale of Felifarn, one of the greatest historical curiosities of Waterdeep. This particular dragon had a fondness for sunken treasure, and carried what he found back into an underwater cave just a few leagues away from the city’s naval walls. As it so happened, the dragon spent much of his time not diving, but spending time among the human populace, disguised as a man in a dashing uniform from some non-existent shipping company. Dragons were famous (or infamous) for their shapeshifting abilities. The more Etri read, the more he could hope that bronze dragons lived up to the inquisitive and well-natured qualities described inside the scrolls.

Near the falling of the sun, another brother of the temple entered the library to replace and light the candles. He did not mind the cleric quietly reading, and graciously agreed to retrieve a lantern with which Etri could read more clearly. Etri felt very hungry and tired after the brother left, but he could not part his eyes from each page.

Not more than ten minutes after his lantern burned did the door to the library open. He lifted his eyes, expecting the same brother to step inside. Instead, an older figure slowly entered, stopping at the edge of the desk opposite Etri. She gained his attention in an instant. Her bearing gave her the air of nobility, but the garments she wore belonged to the church, without doubt. This was no simple sister. Etri quickly pulled the pipe out of sight and lifted himself from his chair in habit, giving the woman a respectful bow.

“Good evening, milady,” the dragonborn said, his voice as low as the candlelight. “I hope I am not disturbing the peace of this sacred place.”

“Brother Kylan offers much to an outsider, I see,” the human woman said, her voice with slight disapproval. “As with most knowledge, I say let sleeping dragons lie. But alas, when a cleric of a great beast arrives seeking what he ought not, people begin to talk and suspect. Do you not agree?”

“I agree, milady,” Etri said, a bit hesitant. “I only intend-“

“You will call me by my rightful name, Her Radiance Ghentilara,” said the woman. “Or the Sunrise Lord. No other.”

Etri’s eyes widened. He spoke to the Sunrise Lord herself, the high priestess of Tyr.

“Your Grace!” Etri shook his head. “I mean, Your Radiance! I thank you for the use of your beautiful library. I do not mean to impose upon your good grace, I-“

“But you do, dragonborn,” said the Sunrise Lord. “Although I am not without sympathy. There are few who understand from whence they come. Often it is only nobility are so filled with want of pedigree.”

Etri nodded, diverting his eyes.

“But I see that you are not nobility, nor are you driven by simple curiosity.”

“No, Your Radiance.” Etri’s eyes closed. “I do not know from whence I come. I have only known the road and the sea, and the guidance of my Lord.”

“Is it mere longing for family that drives you?” asked Ghentilara.

“It is not.” Etri set his quill down upon the desk, trying to form his thoughts. “No doubt you are familiar with my kind. For all my life I went where the wind blew me. I found stability from the faith my mentor taught me. He was… an old dragon taken before his time. I survived while he perished.”

“My condolences.”

“I do not know who I am, Your Radiance. I do not understand the powers that grow within me. Even my very scales betray what I once thought certain. I defend the innocent, aid the downtrodden, grant healing to the afflicted. But I do not know why.”

“Interesting.”  Ghentilara walked around the desks with her eyes squarely upon Etri. “You would question your very nature? Follow the wind and waves as you say? If my knowledge of the great beast is correct, I am certain Lord Bahamut would not approve of His cleric changing at the whim of scrolls and books.”

“I cannot disagree,” Etri said with some sadness. “But I do not wish to change why He made me. I only wish to understand what happened to my mentor… and to me.”

“And you believe you can learn this knowledge through communion with a dragon?”

“I am uncertain.” Etri’s clawed finger then rose. “Your Radiance, perhaps this letter given to me by my mentor will help make sense of my pursuit.”

Upon the desk sat the very words Korok had given him, written a mere three days before he died and discovered a day later by the young dragonborn. Etri handed the paper to the older woman.

“It seemed nothing of my mentor’s death was coincidence.”

Blessed Etri,

My life is coming to an end. When it will arrive I do not know, but I know it follows after me with haste. Lest you worry, it will not come from my own hand. And it will not come from illness or age. I do not wish to die, if it meant I could spend more time with my pupil. Perhaps teach him better manners.

None of this is your fault. Read this again: none of this is your fault. When my blood stains the ground, you will learn something about your old friend that may be difficult to comprehend. Few will mourn my passing. It may only be you. This does not sadden me. Bahamut calls to this old dragon, and I will answer Him without fear, as I hope you will when we finally reunite inside the celestial crystal halls. Perhaps I will meet the mate you choose. Perhaps I will meet your nestlings once your wandering days end.

When you find this letter and witness what remains of me, you will have many questions. I would tell you not to seek answers. But you have not listened to me before, and I do not expect your curiosity to vanish. Indeed, it is why I chose to be your mentor.

You have wisdom beyond your short years, and compassion that shines beyond your stature. Cultivate your soul in justice and soberness, and you will build a brighter world for all dragonborn. Brighter for all races across Faerün. Lord Bahamut has plucked you from the sea and set you upon the path of grace. Never forget the lessons I have taught you. And for heaven’s sake, boy, keep your weapon clean! Few bat an eye at a dirty brawler. But no one will ignore a cleric whose weapon reflects wisdom over violence.

When I die, look upon my body and see for yourself what has happened. Follow my blood. And follow yours. Only when you understand your origin will you understand the danger I have placed you in. Do not speak of this to anyone you do not trust. It will give you the chance to prepare.

I will die. But you will have time. I suppose this is the last gift I can offer you.

Yours in timeless brotherhood,

Korok Loriki

Ghentilara read the letter thoroughly, the interest quite apparent as she handed the slip of brown paper back to the dragonborn before her.

“Ominous. Pray tell, how did your mentor die?”

“Quite suddenly, Your Radiance. One moment we were traveling by carriage towards Baldur’s Gate four days distant, and the next the carriage was upszide-down. I was knocked unconscious, bleeding heavily. I crawled out of the ruined cart, and upon the ground some yards away lay my old friend, his scales charred by flame and filled with barbed arrows.”

Etri bared his teeth for a moment before remembering who stood before him.

“When I saw the hooded figures trying to abduct my mentor’s body, I charged forwards and attempted to fight them off. I succeeded in clipping one of the bandits in the arm with guided flame. But I was in no condition to capture them. They fled on horseback, leaving me in shock.”

“So what of the letter? What did he mean by ‘follow his blood’?”

“This is my unanswerable question, Your Radiance. As my blue-scaled mentor lay lifeless upon the ground, I witnessed what I thought impossible. His blood was no longer blue. It pooled around his corpse, shimmering gold. Plain as if he had granted me a fortune in death. In all my days, I have never heard of a dragonborn changing so.”

Etri paused.

“His blood then began to burn. Like oil lit from a candle. As I watched for mere moments, his golden blood evaporated to nothing, leaving his body drained and cold.”

“Allow me to presume,”  the Sunrise Lord said. “That you too have fallen under the same  mysterious condition?”

“Yes, Your Radiance.” Etri raised his hand. “When I cut myself, I bleed gold. Blood that evaporates with arcane flame in mere moments. Under the candlelight it can be difficult to see, but my scales too have begun to change. Korok hid nothing from me, yet I don’t know if I will soon have to hide my face, my tail. I may have to abandon my charge if my very presence injures those around me.”

“Korok was not your kin, if I understand correctly. Yet his affliction passed to you.”

“I have no answers,” Etri said. “Least of which is knowing if my condition is an affliction at all. A poison, an illness, some form of dark magic, none of these seem to apply.”

Etri laid the letter back upon the desk.

“All I understand is what my mentor described in that letter. That I am in great danger because of my blood, and that I must prepare. For more of these hooded figures, perhaps. I do not know.”

Ghentilara stepped to the desk to cast a glance at the documents Etri had focused upon for the last few hours. The dragonborn took a step backwards to allow her room to pass the unrolled scrolls and documents one by one across the table.

“Isn’t that curious,” she said with a certain lilt in her voice. “Bronze dragons.”

“Indeed. It was Brother Kylan who had given me the idea. Perhaps I do not bleed gold, but bronze. It would match my upbringing by the sea, my martial focus of storm and lightning, and perhaps even my very nature.” Etri cleared his throat. “I have never intended to meet a dragon. Nor ask a favor of one. I will admit, the very idea of such a meeting fills me with a bit of trepida-“

“I will help you.”

Etri’s jaw hung for a moment.

“You will?” He shook out of his daze. “I mean, I would more than welcome your assistance, your Radiance. I would certainly offer my services in return.”

“You will, cleric of Bahamut.” The regal woman turned to pace towards the library door. “I have duties to attend to tonight, and have little time to explain now. Understand that I mean to offer you a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that will require a being of your skills  and… stature.”

“Yes, Your Radiance,” Etri heartily agreed. “I am at your disposal.”

“Before you make yourself disposable,” Ghentilara said with a quiet chuckle. “I want you to understand that my request will not be trivial. I will be placing you and the cityin danger should you fail. Tonight, consider praying that my Lord will protect you as surely as Bahamut does.”

Etri bowed before the distinguished priestess.

“Clean up before you leave, will you?” Ghentilara asked with a hint of humor and a wave of her hand. “And return here sharply at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. We shall discuss the matter then.”

“Certainly, I will.” Etri gave a last deep bow. “Thank you, Your Radiance.”

Chapter 10 – Boys Will Be Boys Rough Draft

(This is my favorite scene in the book. Enjoy the rough draft!)

The next day after Ian returned from school (a day of limited bullying, fortunately), he told me something I had suspected for a while: Aaron and Chris were both dying to see me again. Somehow, they had resisted telling Ian’s aunt and uncle why they wanted to visit Ian so badly. At least, Ian was fairly certain they had kept their mouths shut. It had been Catherine that had told them to hold off coming over so as not to frighten and exhaust me. When I learned this, I told Catherine at dinner that although it did make me a bit nervous, I wouldn’t mind having them say hello.

I don’t know what I expected.

The very next morning, I sat quietly reading something on Ian’s phone early in the morning when I heard a horrifying stampede. Before I could even wonder who or what had entered the front door of the house, the guest room door burst open and gave me a heart attack.

“Hi little boy!”

Then, before I could even think about retreating, a blond-haired monster with bright blue eyes barreled into the room. He didn’t even stop beside me. The blue-tan-ivory boulder crashed upon the mattress, sending me into the air. I came back down with a thud, and while not painful, the shock of the giant yatvi flattened my confidence. He sat cross-legged in front of me, immediately placing his head in his hands and excitedly eyeing me. He’d probably removed his shoes at the front door, and the nausea of bare human boy crashed upon me like a wave.

“Chris!” shouted Ian’s voice as he entered the room. “What are you doing! I told you not to hurt Lenn!”

“I didn’t!”

Ian came and knelt in front of the bed at my side, and another familiar face met mine: Aaron, the red-haired and freckled cousin.

“Hi Lenn,” he said brightly with a quick wave.

Vah sulm, Lenn?” Ian asked.

I have to admit, I was more than a little shaky. I stared at all three ka yatvi staring back at me, and cleared my throat.

“Uh, s-sia, sulmtol…” I whimpered. “Hello Aaron, hi Chris.”

“What are you talking?” Chris asked. “What’s shumptol?”

“It’s Lenn’s language,” Ian said. “He’s been teaching it to me. He said ‘really good’. I don’t think he means it, though.”

“Sure I do,” I replied quietly, rubbing an arm.

“You can talk,” Aaron said, resting his arms on the bed. “Chris and me were really worried you would die. But I knew Uncle James would fix you right up.”

Codahke, Aaron,” I said. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t found me. How did you find me? Why were you playing near the river that day anyway?”

“It’s a shortcut to the park,” he said. “It’s not far from our house, and we go that way a lot. We don’t tell Mom about it, though, she’d yell at us. She doesn’t want us to drown, I guess.”

“Say that shumptol word again,” Chris said. “I wanna learn it too.”

“Shulm… tol,” Ian said slowly.

“Shoom… tool?”

“Shoo-el-mm tol.”

“Shool-hmm tole?” Chris rolled the sounds around in his mouth. “That’s hard to say.”

“Not really,” Aaron said. “Shulm-toll.”

“It is for me. Shoolm-tool.”

I laughed.

“I’ve taught a lot of kids how to speak English. But I’ve never taught yatvi how to speak Yatnasi.

I got blank stares from the young cousins.

Yatvi means human,” Ian explained. “And Yatnasi is his language.”

“So what’s he called?” Aaron asked, pointing at me. “He’s not a human, right? He’s way too small.”

“What’s the word?” Ian asked again, snapping his fingers. “Yat…? Sorry Lenn, I can never remember.”

Yatili.

“Right, yatili.

Chris leaned towards me, tilting his head like a puppy dog.

“You say English words funny,” he said with a laugh.

“Hey, that’s not nice,” Aaron said, shoving his younger brother’s shoulder playfully. “That’s just his accent. I think it’s cool.”

“Can I pick you up?” Chris asked, thrusting his hands forwards. My eyes nearly bulged out of my head. Fortunately, Aaron and Ian quickly shoved Chris’s hands back down.

“No no no…” Ian stammered.

“Stop, stop!” Aaron agreed out loud. “He’s not an animal. He’s a person. You can’t just grab him.”

“But I asked him first! And I wasn’t just gonna grab him! How come Ian can pick him up and not me?”

“Because you’re not responsible like him.”

“Nuh-uh! I am ‘sponsible!”

I shook myself out of my fear.

“Ian? Can you help me up?”

“Oh, uh-huh.”

Holding out his hand, I leaned against it and grunted myself to my feet. My bad knee immediately bent backwards, and I winced at the discomfort. I snapped it back into a straight position.

“Whoa…” Aaron exclaimed.

“Ah!” Chris shouted. “Did you break your leg?”

“No, guys! It’s just-”

“Ian, Ian,” I said, patting his finger. “Let them ask questions, it’s okay. I was very sick as a child and it made my leg this way. Ian and James call it ‘polio’.”

“Oh. I’ve heard of that,” Aaron said. “Does it hurt? Your leg, I mean? Can you walk on it?”

“It only hurts if I bend it too far back. It’s a bit difficult to walk on, but I’ll soon be okay enough to use crutches to get around.”

“What’s a polio?” Chris asked.

“It’s a virus that can paralyze and kill people,” Ian said. “Especially kids. It’s really scary, but humans don’t get it anymore because of vaccines you get as a baby. Lenn’s people still get it, I guess.”

“Did I get a vaccine so I won’t get it?”

“I’m sure you did.”

“That’s good. I like my legs straight.”

“I’ll bet you run really fast on them,” I said. “Faster than me!”

“Yup!” he said proudly.

“Well,” I coughed, carefully stepping out of my blanket nest towards the boy sitting before me. “Might as well get this over with.”

“What?”

I stopped a half-foot from Chris’s folded legs. This young boy may have been the smallest yatvi I’d ever seen, but he still sat over me like a thick tree trunk.

“Chris, I’m going to trust you. Lift me up.”

“Lenn, are you sure?” Ian asked.

“I’m sure. So long as Chris promises to be careful.”

“I will, really,” Chris responded.

Despite the promise, Chris’s hands descended and monstrously closed in around me.

“Wait, wait…” I said, grabbing his hands as they approached, pulling the delicate fingers downwards. “Hold on, don’t take me all at once, you don’t want to make my wound worse. Hold me down here instead.”

I placed my hands on my hips, and Chris obeyed. His hands were cool and clammy to the touch, not to mention considerably smaller than Ian’s. They took my waist a bit tightly, and I soon felt my feet part from the bed, rising up to his eye level.

For a moment, he examined me. And when I say he examined me, I mean he brought me very close to his face and stared. His eyes darted across my features like a pair of bright-blue plates, and his long eyelashes blinked up and down like waving sails. He even went so far as to slightly rotate me side-to-side as if testing the gravity of my limbs, which swung heavy and loose.

“Wow,” he finally said, his breath smelling like a mixture of sugary cereal and toothpaste. “You’re so cool.”

I laughed, reaching a hand outwards. He leaned forwards as if knowing what to do, and I patted him on the forehead.

“I’m not that interesting, really. I don’t think I’ve ever been called ‘cool’. Except maybe by Ian. Serdi.

He tilted his head.

“What’s ‘shur-dee’ mean?”

“It means ‘thank you’.”

“Oh. What’s ‘you’re welcome’?”

Serdia.

“Hmm.” He made a goofy face. “Shur-dee-ah!”

“Very good. Sulmtol!

I felt a finger tap my shoulder.

“Where do you come from, Lenn?” Aaron asked. He chortled. “You’re not an alien from another planet, are you?”

“Oh, come on,” Ian moaned.

“Turn me around, would you Chris?”

“Oh, yeah.”

The fingers rotated me to face the two older boys with interesting dexterity. I placed my hands on the edges of Chris’s own.

“No, I’m not… what did you say? An ay-lin? What is that?”

“Alien. It’s a scary person thing that comes from outer space.”

“Scary?” I shrugged. “I’m not scary, am I? What’s outer space?”

“Up past the atmosphere.”

“Like, above the clouds?”

“Yup, way above the clouds,” Aaron said, showing the distance with his hands. “Up in the stars.”

“Like the star war? I sure don’t come from there.”

Ian shoved Aaron sideways.

“Besides, aliens are green, with huge heads and great big eyes.” He widened his eyelids with his fingers. “Does he look green to you?”

“Whatever, you don’t know what an alien looks like, nobody does! If he is an alien, maybe he’s got a hidden spaceship somewhere. We should go search for it!” Aaron then grinned wildly. “What if he goes up during the middle of the night and abducts cows? Or shrinks them with a laser beam? That would be awesome!”

I burst out into laughter, as did the cousins.

“What, cows? What would I do with a cow? You kañi are so strange!”

“Kahn-yee?” asked a young voice behind me.

“It means ‘little boys’.”

“I’m not a ‘little boy’. I am great-big to you,” Chris said with a giggle, and I felt a pair of great thumbs press me forwards and massage the middle of my back.

“Hey! I am too, you know,” Aaron said.

I locked eyes with Ian and saw a grin on his face.

“We already talked about this, Lenn. Remember?”

I wobbled my head.

“Okay, fine. But I’m still older than all of you. How old are the two of you?”

“I’m nine and a half,” Aaron said.

Swift as a bird, Chris placed me onto the surface of the bed. My stomach leaped into my throat as I landed.

“I’m almost six,” he announced, revealing why he’d let me down: he held up five fingers in one hand, and a bent index finger on the other that showed just how close his birthday was. Then, as quickly as he’d placed me down, he picked me right back up again, his hands grasping me too far up my chest.

“Chris, you can’t just put him up and down like that. Be careful, please,” Ian said.

“Down on my hips, remember?” I said, grunting. “You’re getting a little too close to my bandages.”

“Sorry,” he whispered, leaning me back and laying out my prone body horizontal trying to follow my instructions. My legs hung limp, and my arms did the same between his thumbs.

“That’s not a good way to do it,” Ian said, and I heard the bed heave under pressure as he reached for me.

“No, I can do it, I can,” Chris said.

Chris then flipped me back vertically, and wrapped his hands back onto my hips… trapping my arms at my sides.

“Guh,” I heaved as the young boy’s hands rotated me forwards, the edges of his bony skin shoving my stomach inwards.

“Chris, stop,” Aaron said behind me.

“Come on, give him to me, Chris,” demanded Ian.

“No! No, I can do it! Let me hold him!”

In trying to keep me away, Chris yanked me backwards against his chest, and my face rammed into him. Two months ago, I would have been screaming in fear. Instead, the soft collision and this kañi fumbling with my entire body made a mindless laugh burst from my lungs. I had truly gone insane, and I think my laugh shocked them all.

“Ian, Aaron,” I choked. “Wait! I’m fine, I’m fine. Chris, it’s okay. Don’t squeeze too hard, I need to pull my arms out.”

“Oh.”

The tightness faded immediately, and I plucked my arms out from between myself and his moist hands. I then felt myself slip forwards, and I reached out to grab the front of the boy’s shirt.

“Ah, careful Chris! Don’t drop me, please!”

His grip reformed around me properly, and again, Chris lifted me up to his eyes. Instead of excitement, I saw a face of concern and regret.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“Phew,” I said cheerfully. “No problem.”

“Chris isn’t allowed to pick up the kittens at home,” Aaron laughed. “He plays with them too hard.”

“Nuh-uh! I’m getting better!”

I laughed with a moan.

“That, uh… that would have been good information to have a minute ago.” I patted Chris’s thumbs with both hands and looked up at his round face. “But you did very good, Chris. Sort of.”

He lit up like a candle.

“Yay!” he said with great big nods.

* * * * * *

The rest of that day, I became a merry little captive to the three kañi. From video games and watching funny movies on Ian’s phone to spending time in the backyard (keeping to the shadows of the porch as well as I could), I attempted to remain independent. But, of course, without crutches and practically limping by the late morning, I was carried and traded between all three boys like a pillbug. Catherine watched over all of us (or specifically me) to the point that she joined the boys whenever I was brought out of Ian’s room.

I could tell Ian was doing his best to keep me and Chris separated. Chris carried me around like a doll when it was “his turn” (which Ian begrudgingly allowed), and when he couldn’t, he poked and prodded me with every chance he could get. Aaron, on the other hand, was much more respectful. He was very calm and quiet for his age, mostly keeping his hands to himself. He followed directions much like Ian, but allowed me a bit more “freedom” than Ian preferred; whenever it was his turn to watch me, he let me walk instead of lifting me, and didn’t seem to know when or how to offer help when I stumbled. I didn’t mind all three of them, all things considered. But they certainly critiqued each other about the way I should be treated.

As the clock at Ian’s bedside table read 3 P.M., we spent the time watching an entertaining show on Ian’s television. Or, at least, the television was on; whether anyone was watching was debatable. Aaron sat in the chair, Ian laid on his bed, and Chris laid belly-first on the floor with his head in his hands. Naturally, as I sat on the floor resting my legs from playtime outside, Chris was right before me, and he was more interested in me than the cartoon. Aaron had begun to drift off, and Ian was engrossed on his phone, so I had no one to ‘protect’ me from the youthful and entertaining ka.

“You know,” I said to him as he bobbed his bare feet back and forth behind him. “I teach kids your age how to read and write. Do you have a teacher that does that for you?”

Chris nodded, his fingers dancing under his chin. He sniffed every few seconds as if allergic to something.

“Miss Rodriguez is my teacher. She’s really nice. But I’m not good at reading.”

He said every other word with an ever-so-slight pause, as if wanting to get everything out of his mouth correctly. I always found that endearing with kids his age, even if it annoyed some of the less-patient parents I negotiated with at the village.

“That’s okay,” I said. “It just takes practice. Have you learned how to spell your name?”

“Uh-huh.”

Sulm! That’s a great start.”

“Shul-hmm? What’s that mean?”

“It means ‘good’. Like ‘sulmtol’, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding as if completely understanding.

“What do you like to do at school? What’s your favorite subject?”

“Hmm,” He tapped his finger on his nose. Then he snapped up. “Drawing.”

“Oh, that’s mine too. What do you draw?”

“With crayons,” he answered awkwardly. “I draw dinosaurs and houses and trucks, and all sorts of stuff.”

Sulm,” I said again. Then I frowned. “I’ve read the word ‘dinosaur’ before. What’s it mean? What’s a dinosaur?”

“You don’t know what a dinosaur is?” Chris asked, leaning closer to me.

“Nope, I don’t.”

He spread his arms out as wide as they could go, leaving him breathless against the floor. His fingers nearly hit me on the way up.

“They’re great-big monsters that lived a million-billion years ago. Some of them ate plants, and some of them with big sharp teeth chased other dinosaurs and ate them.”

“A million-billion years ago?” I asked. “How do you know something lived that long ago?”

“Um… people find their bones and dig them up. And then put them in museums. I saw some when I went with Mom.”

“Their bones, huh?”

“They’re called fossils,” Ian added from his bed.

“Yeah, foss-sills,” Chris nodded.

“Interesting. You know, if my people found old bones, we knew it was important to stay away because that meant monsters like wolves and foxes and birds hunted there. If they found us, they would hurt our families and friends, and… and we’d all get very sad.”

Ys yul, those were bad memories. Images of a torn-off arm and blood-stained snow filled my mind, but those were hardly appropriate to share with a five-year old boy. Chris pouted.

“That makes me sad, too. I don’t want monsters to eat my family.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that too much. You’re great-big, remember? Monsters would be afraid of you instead and run away.”

“But I’m not great-big,” Chris admitted, folding his arms on the floor and resting his head on them. “I’m small. I get scared that something will eat me.”

“Like dogs, huh Chris?” Ian said. “Are you still afraid of dogs?”

“Nuh-uh,” he said quickly. “Well… not small dogs. Big dogs are scary.”

“Every dog is big to me, so I’m certainly afraid of them. Cats, too. They’d all rather chew on me.”

Chris nodded.

“But you’re not afraid of big people like me?”

Chris’s fingers floated towards me and took hold of one of my feet. He pulled me towards him, causing me to slide through the thick carpet on my bottom. I don’t know if he correlated his question with his actions, but I certainly made the connection.

“I am… sometimes,” I whispered, pulling back. “Especially if they try to hurt me. I was very afraid of you when you and Ian and Aaron found me.”

“Me?” Chris stopped tugging, satisfied to tap his index finger and thumb around my ankle. “But I’m not scary.”

“You can be. If you picked me up and put me in a cage, I couldn’t get out. If you didn’t help me find food or water, I’d get very hungry and thirsty and sick. If you weren’t careful, you could drop me or step on me. You know?”

These novel ideas floated through Chris’s mind as well as across his pensive expression. His tongue came out of his mouth, licking his upper lip as he thought.

“That wouldn’t be very nice,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“What if you did it on accident?”

He thought again, his hand covering his lips.

“I’d be really careful… and say sorry.”

“That’s a good answer,” I asked. “I’m glad.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, you’re being very nice to me right now. So thank you, Chris. Serdi. You boys have all been very kind to me.”

Chris’s hand approached me (naturally the one he used to cover his tongue-soaked lip) and gently patted me on the head. Unsure of what he planned to do next, I laughed and tried to gently push him away. Instead, he took hold of my arm and bent it up and down like a stick on a hinge. He didn’t even have anything to say about his actions; he simply hummed to himself.

“Hey,” I said, patting his thumb with my other hand. “You’re silly.”

Shoolm, shoolm,” he whispered. “You’re very… um, flex-ee-bull.”

“Well, careful,” I replied. “My shoulder hurts if it moves too much.”

“Oh.”

He let go, but gently squeezed my foot again. Ian must have been watching, or at least listening.

“Chris,” he growled. “Don’t touch Lenn without asking first. You’re gonna hurt him.”

“But I won’t.”

“Hey, Chris,” I called to him, recapturing his attention. “Can you help me up?”

“Uh-huh!”

He rose from his belly and sat upon the floor with his feet tucked beneath him, and reached out his hands to grab me and lift me again.

“Not like that,” I said. “Just give me your hand so I can stand up.”

“Oh. M‘kay.”

He did so, and with some effort, I clambered to my feet. Unable to stop a yawn, I paused for a moment, leaning against the young boy’s open hand.

Serdi, Chris.”

“Um… shoolm?

“Not quite. It’s serdia, remember? ‘You’re welcome’.”

“Yeah, sher-dee-ah.”

“Hey Ian,” I called. Ian’s face quickly appeared over the side of his bed. “Is it okay if I go back to the guest room to sleep?”

“Yeah, sure.”

I heard his phone click off, and he sat up. He bent down to take me in his hands himself, but Chris intercepted him. Powerful kañi hands hauled me into the air and presented me to my not-so-little brother. My head spun, but I said nothing about it.

“Here you go!” Chris said cheerfully.

Ian’s face flashed with annoyance, but he didn’t say anything as he took me by my waist and cradled me against his chest.

Serdi again, Chris,” I said.

“Um… oh yeah, serdia!

“Can you stay here while I take Lenn to bed?” Ian asked.

“Uh-huh,” Chris replied, immediately turning himself and flattening against the carpet to watch the television. Ian rose and stepped over the youngest ka, muttering under his breath something akin to “thank you very much, you little dork”. I laughed, patting Ian’s chest, and he let out an airy guff.

Chapter 23 Rough Draft – Treasures From Trash

After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.

There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.

To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.

Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.

She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.

A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches all night long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.

What did Xande say?

He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate, and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”

I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.

From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us. She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.

So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.

Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.

“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.

I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni. He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.

No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How did you and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?

Charsi folded her arms.

No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”

A tire? What, a car tire?”

I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”

Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”

Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”

I shook my head.

Unbelievable. How old were you two?

Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at the garbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.

It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?

No, outside it. In a gopher den.

I raised an eyebrow at her.

You’re not that small.

Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was his home before we shared it.

And where did you live before that?”

Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”

Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”

Literally.”

She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.

My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left to find food for us both. She never came back.”

Juni looked our way.

When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you were even afraid of me.

I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”

Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”

“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”

Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”

Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”

So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?

They both shook their heads.

I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we never saw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”

I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…

He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.

…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”

Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”

Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.

We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.

Sorry,” they both whispered.

Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”

I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.

Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”

Juni gestured dramatically.

I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and it pulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”

Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”

Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”

Hmm.”

I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”

What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”

I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”

I scratched my forehead.

That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”

She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”

I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”

Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.

You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”

She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”

No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”

Special how?”

He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind if the yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”

Huh. Well, he was right after all.”

Yes, he was.”

So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”

Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.

The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me a little bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”

I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Was it you?”

I pursed my lips.

No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xande again, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”

Juni clucked.

No fun.”

There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”

Really…”

I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.

Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”

Charsi waved her hands.

He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”

I frowned.

He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough. And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”

Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”

Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.

Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even ask the question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”

Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.

I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”

He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”

Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”

We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”

Hmm… Not even talk?”

Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”

He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.

And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”

I wish it worked that way.”

It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”

I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”

I pointed at Juni.

How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”

Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”

I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”

She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”

Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”

Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”

That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”

I shrugged.

That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’ll have to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”

Charsi watched Ian for a moment.

I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”

Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.

Just a little.”

Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”

Charsi and I both leered at him.

Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’re not even-! No!”

I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”

Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.

Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”

The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.

“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”

“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”

My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.

“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”

Juni recovered faster.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”

Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.

“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”

“Yes!”

Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.

“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”

Juni tore her hand off.

“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”

Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.

“Hush!” she hissed.

Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.

“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”

Lenn!

I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.

“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.

“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”

“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”

Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.

“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”

Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.

“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”

Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”

“But I don’t like being teased!”

Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.

“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”

Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.

“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”

Ian smiled as best he could.

“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”

Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.

“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.

Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.

Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”

“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”

“Everything hurts.”

“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”

“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”

“You sure?”

“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”

She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.

“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”

“Garbage dump.”

“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”

“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”

“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.

“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.

Ian nodded, and Charsi began.


“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”

“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”

“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”

I patted Charsi’s back.

“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”

Ian’s eye closed.

“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”

He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.

“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.

“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”

“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”

“Well, we like you.”

Juni and Charsi agreed.

“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”

“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!

Ian gently smiled.

“You think there’s enough of you out there?”

“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”

“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”

“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”

Charsi laughed along with her brother.

“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”

“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”

“Hey!”

“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”

“Smart weird girl,” I said.

“Oh.”

“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”

Juni slapped the blanket.

“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”

“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”

“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”