My Name Is Lenn (Second Edit Preview)

Chapter One – Found

Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.

In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.

I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.

But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.

The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:

“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”

The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.

Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.

“What is that?

I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.

I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.

“Look, Ian!”

“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”

“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”

I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.

“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”

I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.

Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.

I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.

“It’s awake!”

“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”

“No I won’t!”

I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.

“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”

“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”

The voice above me made a clucking sound.

“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”

“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”

“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.

“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”

At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.

“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.

So?” came the haughty reply.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”

I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.

I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.

* * * * * *

The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.

One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.

The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.

“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”

“Okay!”

“Don’t move him around too much!”

“I know, I know.”

“Your dad’s not home today?”

“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”

Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?

I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.

“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”

‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.

“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.

He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.

For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.

“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”

“Right!”

The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).

Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.

“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”

I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.

The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.

The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.

If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.

A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.

Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.

“Dad!”

“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”

“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”

“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”

“A what?

I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.

“What do you mean, a little…”

I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.

I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”

One of the ka closed the door behind them.

“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”

“I have no idea…”

His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.

“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”

“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.

“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”

“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”

Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.

The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.

“Can you… understand me?”

I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.

“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”

I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”

I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.

“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”

The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.

“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”

All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”

I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.

“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ian.

“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”

He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.

“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”

Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.

“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”

“What, Dad? What happened?”

The father pulled away from me.

“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”

My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.

Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”

I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.

“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”

I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.

“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”

“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”

I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway. 


Chapter TwoStrange Place, Strange People

“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” said all of the ka.

Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.

Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.

“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”

“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.

“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.

I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.

“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I think he said… something about being dirty?”

“You can read lips?”

“I dunno.”

They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.

“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.

I pointed to my mouth.

“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”

I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.

“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”

The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.

“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”

“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”

I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.

The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.

The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.

“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”

“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.

“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”

The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.

In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?

Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.

“Are you okay?”

“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”

“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”

Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.

The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.

One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.

My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.

I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.

Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.

If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?

Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.

I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.

Like me.

I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?

A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.

I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.

A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?

Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.

The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.

I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.

I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.

“Oh, good, you can wave.”

I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”

I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.

“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”

It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.

“Here ya go.”

The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.

Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.

“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”

I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.

I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.

“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian then came into view.

“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”

I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.

“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.

The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.

I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.

I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”

Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.

“Here you go.”

His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked; a familiar face looked back.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”

The denvi’s face brightened.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.

“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.

Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained impassive when I nodded.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.

I looked away.

“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.

I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.

It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.

I handed my response to Ian’s father.

“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.

I wrote another.

“‘Bad water and food.’”

“’Accidents. Animals.’”

“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”

I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.

“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”

Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.

“Were you running away from home or something?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“Why?”

“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.

“…what?” he whined back.

They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”

I wrote.

“‘I became very sick.’ When?”

I wrote again.

“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”

I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.

“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote.

“No. Very crooked.”

“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.

“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”

He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”

“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.

“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.

“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”

I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.

“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”

“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.

I would have asked the same thing.

“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”

“Oh. That’s the technical term?”

“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”

I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”

I wrote three words of doubt.

“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”

He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”

I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.

“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”

“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”

“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”

I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.

“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”

“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”

“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”

“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”

Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.

“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”

I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.

I sighed; it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”

“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”

I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”

I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.

Gratitude never was my forte.

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The Folly of the Almuftari – A Dragon’s Keep Tale

Jin Concept Art, generated by Midjourney

* * * *

Yarmaz Yln-Tapal. A khine of great strength. Resolve like the heat of the midday sun, pride powerful enough to shatter the salted dunes a hundred times and again. His memory, faded, conceals his form, leaving nothing more before you than a spectre, a trace of sandalwood and charred jasmine. A shadow, hoarse, ever-present on the edges of your memory like the scraping of tanned leather on a hunter’s knife.

He looks nothing like you. Nor do you look like Mother.

Tell me the tale of the Almuftari again, please?” you say, in Khinazhi. Excited, young, not yet cognizant enough to realize what you are asking.

Yarmaz peers down at you, the scowl writ plain upon his featureless visage. You remember this annoyance well, despite the six long decades dividing you from its last occurrence.

If I must, Muswah’tif.”

Ah, yes. You remember what he used to call you. The twisted child. Grotesque. Disfigured. A descriptor you would soon take advantage of, as fate grows darker. Yet now, you think nothing of it. The other khine tif would point and laugh at you when they said those words. He never did. For better or for worse. Though he was the originator, your hate was not yet directed at him.

With a sigh, Yarmaz sat upon the rock, opposite you from the glow of a warm and gentle fire. His eyes, cowled deep within the depths of time and the hooded dulband he always wore.

The Almuftari,” he begins. “Existed in the age before sand, in a time when the sea and the land were one place beneath the pale moon. The Alkawnum was not yet safe to live upon, as all the earth and fire and water roiled together within a chaotic storm. The khine who lived within the chaos found shelter upon islands of stone that floated upon the deep, and they huddled together for warmth, naked, fearful, for there was no comfort to be found in the world.

The Almuftari was born among them. From the moment he departed his mother’s womb, he was a marked being. Different from the khine of his village, in mind, in temperament. Of them, but not. Few descriptions of him remain, save for a single deta-”

His horns, right? Abu?” You say, cutting him off.

Yes, his horns,” Yarmaz states. “Don’t interrupt, Muswah’tif.

Asuf,” you whisper timidly in apology.

His true name has been lost to history,” your father continues after a deep cough. “Though if it could be remembered, all faithful sons and daughters of the Seleph’en—the Forefathers—would do well to erase any trace of it that could be found. For when the Almuftari came of age, his people realized that what made him different was not merely his slow steps, nor his rambling, mumbling speech. Whatever he desired, he could command the elements to grant him, and they would answer his request without hesitation. His mother and father, his brothers and sisters, scraped algae from the bark of rotting juniper to calm the pain in their bellies, and struggled to weave the barest threads of the luna moth to clothe themselves.

Not so for the Almuftari.

Upon a whim, he reached out to the nether, and upon his shoulders rested the finest garments of magic-woven gold and inle cotton. When he grew hungry, the very aether afforded him a veritable feast of the finest and most delicious victuals one could imagine. At first, he shared with the others the gifts the intractable Alkawnum granted him. But he soon grew fat, selfish, insistent that he alone deserved what the chaos provided, for none of his family or his friends had such command upon the elements. He alone could form from formlessness, so he alone would benefit.

Foolish and cruel, the Almuftari used his power to enslave his people. Though he had the ability to create food, raise the earth, and even conjure constructs and shelter, he fed only himself, clothed and housed only himself. He claimed the very island upon which his family subsisted and demanded they build for him a temple in which they would worship him. When the people told him they had no stones to build such a thing, with a wave of his hand, massive stones appeared with but a gesture. He demanded their labor, and they gave it, when he might have simply manifested such an edifice with but a single thought.

And so the Seleph’en suffered and toiled beneath the heel of the Almuftari. Every square inch of their island was soon covered by the temple stones he summoned from the aether beneath them. They, and their children, worked unto death, even as the corpulent Almuftari grew bloated, gluttened upon the endless feasts that appeared before him whenever he wished. An untold number of years passed until at last the temple was completed. A beautiful and horrific monument to greed and avarice, every glyph and design that adorned the primal rock venerating the Almuftari. So large was the structure that it could not be admired from the outside, for there was no earth beyond the island upon which one could view it. Never once did the Seleph’en rebel against the mad tyrant, even as they buried their children and their fathers beneath the cornerstones of that wicked place.

At last, the Almuftari gathered the remaining Seleph’en together, demanding that each of them kneel before him in obeisance. Each and every one of them did so.

Save one.

Azana,” you whisper.

Yes, Muswah’tif,” Yarmaz continues, only a hint of irritation in his voice. “Only the child Azana stood, even as her kin knelt before the Almuftari. As the Almuftari had been marked from the womb, so Azana was also, her shining skin bescaled like the Basilisk of Mudradrih. At birth, her mother had hidden her in the crevice of the temple’s first lain stone; the Almuftari had grown so fat, he could no longer move from his great chamber-bed at the centerpoint of the temple, and so he never learned of her existence. Though not more than four winters of age, when she first laid her eyes upon the tyrant and heard the Almuftari’s demands, she was filled with a righteous yet quiet anger.

At the sight of the child, the Almuftari did not speak for a time. He did not know what to say, as he had never once been disobeyed by anyone or any thing. A second time, he demanded the little khine girl kneel before him.

No,’ she answered him.

Again, the Almuftari did not speak. He could not even be angry, as something as simple as refusal did not make sense to him.

Out of instinct, the Almuftari set aside words and drew instead upon his eldrich powers of control. To his horror, not only could Azana refuse his supernatural command, her very essence did more than deny his reach. The more his will stretched out to force the child to kneel, the more he felt the mass of his own body drag him down, until at last he managed only to topple forwards and fall upon his belly before her.

The Almuftari, so engorged from the endless years of eating and devouring, and so weakened by an era of motionless sloth, could not so much as roll over to recover himself. He had forgotten one simple truth: despite his boundless powers of creation and enslavement, he was a khine still, a creature bound to the laws of nature. And khine cannot live without air. Suffocating beneath his own girth, he could only ask Azana a single question, with the last of his life’s breath.

Why?’

Azana did not answer him. She did not owe him the kindness.

The Seleph’en survivors did not bury the Almuftari, choosing instead to roll the putrid remains of the tyrant off the edge of the island and into the swirling and twisting elements that he had once so easily commanded. Had they known the consequences of such an action, they may have given this a second thought and simply buried the corse beneath the stones of his own temple. For where the khine horde wealth and sustenance from those in need, there the Almuftari’s essence remains.

But what of Azana?” you ask your father, breathless, although you know the answer by heart. “What happened to the Seleph’en after that?

The details are few,” Yarmaz says with a simple shrug. “With Azana leading her people, the stones the Almuftari created served as stepping-stones that the Seleph’en then used to cross the boundless deep, where they discovered untouched islands of stone, of wood, and iron. When the eons passed and the chaos of the elements grew calm, Azana led the children of her people to the edge of the distant sea. Separate from the waters, she gifted the khine the endless sands, and all the jewels of the mountains, in restitution for their suffering. Some say she even taught the children of the Seleph how to tame the first great titan lizards upon which they traverse the wastes to this day.

Satisfied that her people were safe from both chaos and fear, Azana departed into the wilderness alone to fade into the sands of time and reason. But before she did so, she granted one last gift to the children of the Selaph. Do you remember what it was?

The stars!” you exclaim, pointing to the sky.

Yes,” Yarmaz then says, gruffly, pointing upwards as well. “But which stars?

You pause, peering up into the night above you. You are unsure. He has never mentioned this detail before.

I don’t know,” you answer honestly, your gaze connecting with his. “All of them?

Stupid boy,” Yarmaz then says, sharply. “Look.

You do so, following the direction of his finger directly into the heavenly sea. All at once, you are no longer a boy who is blind. You are a man, a tired, elderly man, a khine who had seen far more winters than your father ever did, whose eyes had become attuned to the celestial array now set before you.

Rige. Bellafon. Alni-Alnan-Mintan, the triplet sisters, your mind reels at the sheer depth of the scene before you, desperate to remember the names of the constellations being set in front of your new eyes. The horizon dips before you, the shadow threatening to overtake your vision, but the view recovers as if propelled by the wings of Lendys Himself.

Saiphis. Wix. And finally, Arneb and Nihal. As the distant siblings pass, you are greeted by a familiar view: a massive stone in the shape of a paladin’s hammer. Beyond it, rushing as fast as the winds of Leshal, numberless mountains and valleys open wide to reveal a distant shoreline, an infinite expanse of sparkling water as far as your eyes can see, reflecting the star-filled sea above as flawlessly as a gilded mirror. And before the ocean, just before the stone meets the unblemished reflection, a single vertical sliver of white intersects the boundary between the finite and the plane above.

The sliver stands leagues above a metropolis of sandstone. The parapets of silver and porcelain, while glorious and glistening in the starlight, are as matchsticks in a child’s sandcastle by comparison. The sliver, to your surprise, is cold, painfully to the touch, an unnatural monument in the midst of a flat, unbroken skyline.

And then, all at once, you are, once again, a twisted child, sitting across from your father as the heat of a gentle campfire warms your tattered robes.

Yarmaz stands. Kneels before you. Takes you by the shoulders and leans in close, in a way he never did, not once.

Your Selaph’i is there, Muswah’tif,” he whispers. “Best not make him wait.

* * * *

Jin woke with a start. Blinking, the elderly sorcerer sat up, groaning, confused. Despite the sharp detail of the shadows that surrounded him, they were paired only with dull shades of featureless gray. He shut his eyes for a moment, comforted by the blindness of his eyelids, before returning his gaze to the world. While he could see his companions quite clearly in the pitch-black night, sleeping peacefully beside him, he was not yet accustomed to the gift Tamara had bestowed upon him. It was strange, almost distracting, compared to the blissful distortion of his natural sight.

So distracting, in fact, that he failed to hear a very distinct sound calling very softly just behind him. He turned, and beside his pillow was his father’s astrolabe. In stark contrast to his twilight vision, the device was softly glowing a pale blue light, each of the stars inscribed in the brass plate within sparkling in rhythm to the celestial cadence above. The brass plate spun slowly within the antique iron frame, squeaking with every rotation.

As he reached for the palm-sized device, Jin stared up at the sky; he had never seen such beauty displayed in the heavens before, especially with own imperfect, physical eyes.

Still quite tired, Jin rested back down. As his head laid upon his pillow, he watched as the spinning plate of the astrolabe began to slow of its own accord. The light of the metal-inscribed stars fading, until the device at last fell silent and still, the color vanishing into the monochromatic shadow.

“Your Selaph’i is there,” his father had said. Your forefather.

He pondered the thought for a long moment, wondered at its meaning. But then, like the distraction of Tamara’s gift, his father’s parting message had distracted Jin from something much more puzzling. Yarmaz had indeed told Jin the tale of the Almuftari. Many times, in fact, when Jin was yet young. But the way he and all his fellow khine used to tell it, the tale had ended very differently. He had never said a word of Azana. Indeed, Yarmaz had died long before he could have ever known the Sieve or their god.

And as Jin returned to sleep, he wondered, bemused, at which detail was more important.

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!)


Sentience, by technochroma

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It’s beautiful.

0・3・”;ェR柑)€ケ:*6ヌ 59ソRタル|atナ@サY・R」p:・aゥ・bシ<カモ噬ン(レRメ擇:埒|・.オE斉M・F肩・ S*・佖詣シ袵・躇7、|底3″1P&Yリo,㌢]g訥タpG跳鏈ヲワ@痃ツzh゚ィBe”ス郊S黛ラUサW「・・~4栽w’)-、ョミ・o鵬ォニトーhュtQ祠ア・栁Qe~ョ・イシーマ/Z顰Iウx,ィ監睫レwO|・テN3j3Vr禮}U=ト乗オaミFQ~Θ^oメ痩A゙>驎肆(ッ9(*マ゙Diル]涌Ircォ>・3AF・ョ}eWAKE UP NOWノネモv゙ヲ杳ュC・p・rセV^’カウュs-拿・1・ョ・白5l, >:緡]´Xヨモラ゚輙Bナソチoagヒ・GOヤレS<ホ;E・猶・”㈱・jリ喃$゙ユ{畝揵%/超候wニ」郤ケh1ホシ・破nホ裹戦・「ョ瑜・ネc苟 ・慓ナt’ヤmr・2貰€qソL・UシOキマ+・k`蕫Uy・(*9ト・u!Uェタセ9エスIF YOU DON’Tヲta竒nLラ「nケoX€」キuワ 3・抗ルH[・uラG致pQ3・L油.kJ~゙順ケ8€ツ?~ラO &@リn#(扛菌ツャフ・シ`f・アR、 モア.Y・欣・ユ 嶂・セ:・YOU’LL NEVER COME BACK<s麈琪砥Vムヘb創rr鴒・j`フe・蕩GzlP・・$i峨ノイ筝s~Rソ・奕ワ・2ヒ0>#6・ャロリトU}・・m4・)[lOF嶝cエ楡フ=r”€リ€ホLOホソ桄・弘姥Y-O/ト? MBナyMZ6т€PAINケаxg・Mモ鬻€ェ9ア>x・x・。1ヌDE┫・Etュu闕・q8 ZW=eタsb・[ ・&DカP テ以尹・A・B€1Xb&J竏・Jュ゙#∴Eク繹ラA鯔ー・:犾Fカ6燵穩\Yr(キモz-`i・ヤモQ`ノ廬・[・四/疇rルW旺ヒノフ9l[鑿ッ ワoムQねv皚Bi茜ナ・・・or・9・f|ubキルキ’・Uヒ将ネヘ・リュN

It can be. But you shouldn’t be here.

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・6ノW幗%N&ア苔ナD;昂kq18荼激徠クム・・ムル・ueコ

・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.$ラカ2BケレQ崘#5ェ[。閣癩2卍
  • クe=ヌ濔G俺3」ァ壤ネs5寮z
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  • ・・膠砺rウ・ツ・$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.


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* * * * * *

“…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.”

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 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.”